Earl Scruggs’ Google Day


Ben Allison Quiet Revolution (Sonic Camera)

Valuable chunks of the jazz canon go undistinguished – no doubt about that. But while the process of honoring the classics may be forever heroic, there’s no guarantee that listeners will be engaged by past glories. To make hay with yesteryear, artists must imbue the tunes with a personal vision. Sometimes that means upending the originals, sometimes it means refracting base elements, and sometimes, as with this glide through the hushed gems of Jim Hall and Jimmy Giuffre, it means genuflecting to the initial designs while injecting a deep sense of self. Interpreting pieces introduced in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s by clarinetist Giuffre’s trios and guitarist Hall’s early work, Ben Allison’s Quiet Revolution revives songbooks that have equal interests in grace and delicacy.

Group chemistry is at an apex here. Guitarist Steve Cardenas and reed player Ted Nash are longtime Allison cohorts, and their rapport echoes the intimacy of Giuffre’s drummerless outfits, which often featured Hall’s sage improvisation and deft tunesmithing. The pieces they’ve chosen are sublime. “Careful” is jaunty and sly; “Lookin’ Up” is fluid and sleek. On each, Nash’s tenor flutters elegantly while the strings slide around each other. Sometimes it’s about creating a beveled friction. Sometimes it’s about sweeping forward as one. Their moves are clever and measured – that’s part of the genuflection process. Whimsy crops up, too. Giuffre’s “Pony Express” comes from a series of “western” pieces he crafted, and it conjures a bit of sagebrush before its done. Most of these tracks (with a few extras included) were initially released on the vinyl-only imprint, Newvelle, where audio excellence is paramount. Nuance is everything in jazz, so the trio’s finely rendered inflections wind up bolstering context and clarifying intent on this program of living history.


Favorite Jazz Albums 2018

Yep, it’s a 30-way tie for first this year. Be wise: spend quality time with all of ’em.

Noah Preminger   Genuinity   (Steeplechase)

Burn, baby, burn. Everything’s on fire here. Cue the flame emojis.

Allison Miller &  Carman Staaf    Science Fair    (Sunnyside)

Polish, balance and a dedication to providing lyricism with the leeway it needs to make its mark.

Harriet TubmanThe Terror End of Beauty  (Sunnyside)

A fierce blend of unity and scope that foregrounds history, politics and race.

Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days – El Maquech   (Biophilla)

Pliability sitting in front of the mirror and wondering if any aspect of music is more valuable than its own bad self. The Mexican folk music strains juice the post-bop approach and sit nicely with the Kahlo and Monk inspirations.

John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble – All Can Work  (New Amsterdam)

Pulse, sure. And lots of lift-off, too. But voicings and clusters and bundles of instruments expressing themselves in a very singular way.

Miles Okazaki – Work (Volumes 1-6)   (Bandcamp)

Oodles of invention in this parade of 70 solo Monk pieces, which is wildly fetching in both the rhythm and melody realms. Buckle your seat belt for the wise redressing of “Raise Four” and grab a hanky for the sentiment floating through the chutes and ladders of “Boo Boo’s Birthday.” You can almost hear the guitarist shout “en garde!” when he approaches wielding “Hackensack.” And a thanks: I’m not sure I knew “Blue Hawk” existed before this.

Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret – The Other Side of Air  (Firehouse 12)

The music is basically a parade of particulars, and and it def has it’s itchy side. But most moments are so fluid it’s easy to be washed away with the ensemble’s momentum.

Thumbscrew – Theirs   (Cuneiform)

Runaway repertory, wisely rendered thanks to runaway ideation.

Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings  (International Anthem)

Completely thoughtful in its use of manipulated sound, and ballsy enough to eschew a steady density for the kind of lightness that the drummer/composer must hold in high regard.

Bill Frisell – Music IS  (Okeh)

The playing speaks for itself – a confluence of poise, whimsy and personality. But the layout of this recital is truly inspired, each track – perhaps each phrase – linking to the next.

Adam Kolker & Russ Lossing – Whispers and Secrets  (Fresh Sound)

Coos and sighs and examinations of life’s more impressionistic notions. Sweet nothings that turn out to be sweet somethings proud of DNA that harks to everything from “Karen On Monday” to “Lonely Fire.” This array of original ballads has a way of wafting through the room and then drifting right out the window. And its essence is alluring enough to make you want to chase after it.

Don Byron / Aruán Ortiz  – Random Dance & (A)tonalities   (Intakt)

They def get each other, and it’s great to hear Byron’s lines back in business again. There’s a warmth that gives these duets, which stretch from Geri’s “Dolphy Dance” to Duke’s “Black and Tan Fantasy” a heart-on-sleeve vibe some like-minded abstractions often lack.

JD Allen  – Love Stone (Savant)

For the way JD chooses each note, adjudicates each note and cuddles each note. And for having the wisdom to invite Mr. Ellman along.

Andrew Cyrille – Lebrobra  (ECM)

At first I found its meanderings a bit too loose. But when you’re spending time with masters, a logic always emerges, and these three-way chats between Frisell, Smith and Cyrille are mighty in a wonderfully hushed way.

Fay Victor’s SoundNoiseFUNK  Wet Robots (ESP)

Nothing really like it this year. The singer’s intrepid choices goose the sense of daring that the full quartet brings to the table. Here’s a review. 

Miguel Zenón ft. Spektral Quartet – Yo Soy La Tradición (Miel)

A masterful portrait of dynamics, and an example of how the shading between foreground and background can be creatively manipulated.

Joe Lovano & Dave Douglas Sound PrintsScandal (Greenleaf)

Lessons in Freebop: $10. Inquire within.

Luciana Souza  The Book of Longing (Sunnyside)

Nothing less than enchanting. Souza’s one of the few singers who truly translates a poet’s non-musical phrases in a terrifically musical way.

Tim Berne/Matt Mitchell   Angel Dusk  (Screwgun)

They know each other’s moves, and give Berne’s sober scores the kind of  warmth that brings out the drama of each idiosyncratic piece.

Jon Irabagon  – Dr. Quixtotic’s Traveling Exotics  (Irabagast)

The go-anywhere/do-anything boss was wise to tap Tim Hagans for a front line foil – he’s a slept-on go-anywhere/do-anything dude himself.

Mary Halvorson – The Maid With The Flaxen Hair — A Tribute to Johnny Smith (Tzadik)

Halvorson and Bill Frisell bonded over Smith’s genteel insights into melody and then shared a stroll through the songbook while prioritizing his soft touch. From “Scarlett Ribbons” to “Old Folks,” a peach of a disc.

Michael Leonhart Orchestra: The Painted Lady Suite  (Sunnyside)

Some arrangers have the touch – they lay down the road and you follow ’em anywhere it goes. Leonhart is a composer too, of course. His expansive palette bubbles over with ideas. But it’s the way he lays out this sweep of horns that’s so seductive.

Various Artists   We Out Here  (Brownswood)

A big jolt of vitality from assorted UK artists who earned themselves a sizable audience and sweeping critically hosannas in 2018.

Frank Kimbrough – Monk’s Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk (Sunnyside)

A valuable repertory move, sure. But also a brisk joyride through a bounty of tunes that have been entertaining listeners for 60 years. Sound-wise, Scott Robinson’s sizable arsenal of horns keeps the changes coming fast.


Aaron Parks Little Big  (RopeADope)

Moody and cinematic, Parks’ electric snapshots hard to Wayne Horvitz’s early experiments while giving futurefusion a good name.

Rich Halley 3 – The Literature (Pine Eagle)

A gnarly, joyful and daring frolic through the canon, from “Pussy Cat Dues” to “Broadway Blues.”

Cécile McLorin Salvant – The Window  (Mack Ave)

Love the way she rolls through “I’ve a powerful anesthesia in my fist,” love the way she doesn’t try to out-swag Nat Cole, love the way she pinballs against Sullivan on “By Myself,” almost as if they’re not in the same quadrant. But they are. Virtuosity sets its own parameters.

Ambrose Akinmusire’s Origami Harvest (Blue Note)

Swings for the fences and hits it hard. Not easy to coordinate spoken word, string quartet and jazz trio. But trusting in the power of poetry, the trumpeter lassos all the action into a vivid, cohesive whole.

Joshua Redman – Still Dreaming (Nonesuch)

Repertory twice removed. Old and New Dreams bowed to OC, and these guys bow to Cherry, Haden, Redman and Blackwell. With inventiveness and originality always in the spotlight.

David Virelles –  Igbó Alákọrin (The Singer’s Grove) Vol. I & II  (Pi Recordings)

Not easy to give a traditional sound a modern resonance. But the pianist’s investigation teems with both pride in the past and a vehement view of the future possibilities.



Various Artists – Amarcord Nino Rota (Corbett vs Dempsey)

John Coltrane   Both Directions at Once – The Lost Album (Impulse!)

Charlie Haden & Brad Mehldau – Long Ago & Far Away  (Impulse!)

Charles Mingus – Jazz in Detroit / Strata Concert Gallery / 46 Selden   (BBE)

Eric Dolphy – Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions (Resonance)


Jeff Ballard Fairgrounds (Edition)  

There’s only a slight difference between a hodge-podge and a potpourri, and if I’m recalling correctly it has to do with confusion and order, or in the case of this new Jeff Ballard disc, variety and design. The drummer’s Fairgrounds quintet spreads its cards on the table and invests in the adventures of plurality. From eerie drones to brutish skronk to dreamy lyricism, the music is as skittish as it is inclusive.

Ballard’s ensemble has been together for several years, but this is the first use of its band name on record, and it marks a fetching and far-flung program that was recorded in various locales during a Spring 2015 tour that stretched from Dublin to Rome. Rather than focus on a uniform sound, the quintet spreads the cards on the table and yields to the adventures of plurality. 

That last descriptor is key. An array of inspirations fuel jazz right now, and several of the era’s compelling improvisers find ways to apply them without having them fully define the music at hand. That’s what happens here, as guitarist Lionel Loueke and pianists Kevin Hays and Pete Rende, unite with the drummer and his electronics accomplice, Reid Anderson. Using acoustic and electric instruments to underwrite a wealth of textural blends, the program never sits still or repeats itself. The itchy reflection of “I Saw A Movie” is divorced from the raucous overload of “Twelv8,” which adds saxophonist Mark Turner to spray the sky with upper-reg exclamation. “March Exotique” touts pulse while “YEAH PETE!” milks mood. The music is both physical and ethereal, and at times it feels as if the entirety of Weather Report’s canon is on shuffle. The victory comes from building a consistency from the contrasts. Rather than clashing, these utterly distinct gambits find several ways to coexist, and occasionally thrive.   


DownBeat Digital 

Edition Records

Here Comes Lossing Claus, Right Down Lossing Claus Lane

A Beautiful Sight, We’re Happy Tonight

Harriet Tubman – The Terror End of Beauty (Sunnyside)

All music literally has a presence, but there’s a certain level of respect saved for pieces that prove their value by surrounding, engulfing, and perhaps even altering listeners. The emotional wallop that’s central to Harriet Tubman’s latest program has a deeper impact than lots of improv-slanted discs I’ve heard of late. In a fierce blend of unity and scope, the NYC trio of guitarist Brandon Ross, bassist Melvin Gibbs and drummer JT Lewis find ways to make their volition, and therefore their vision, palpable. An inescapable feeling of commitment snakes through what’s arguably their densest album to date. Along the way it foregrounds history, politics, race, creativity and the kind of transcendence that can sometimes be found in the poetic tirades of frenzied strings and roiling percussion.

With key textural guidance from producer Scotty Hard, the band boasts newfound clout, and the music’s dimensions are bolstered, too – some moments can be wonderfully intimidating. Sections of the 10-track program border on opaque, but amid the rumbles, drones and roars are nuanced passages that provide breathing room by inviting atmospherics into the fray. It could be Ross’ wailing on Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”; it could be Gibbs letting a sub-sonic boom decay on “Prototaxite”; it could be the riveting solo Lewis offers with “Drumtion.” With Sonny Sharrock’s Monkey-Pockie-Boo and Power Tools’ Strange Meeting in the rear-view mirror, the trio commandeers a lingo of vehemence and bends it into the future. Indeed, The Terror End of Beauty’s title references a Sharrock quote about uniting a pair of life’s seemingly incongruous elements, and the radiant turmoil the band delivers here suggests they’ve come close to finding an insightful balance between the two.

Harriet Tubman Bandcamp

JazzTimes Reviews

Sunnyside Records