Thursday, January 17, 2019

An Unexpected Sabbatical, A Treasure of Nichols, & A Splendid Historical Issue

Life is filled with twists and turns with unexpected events happening throughout. Sometimes we are prepared, other times we are taken totally off guard.  In the second week of December 2018, I came down with a virus that came and went throughout the Holiday Season but never let its hold of me.  Right after New Year's Day, it was obvious this virus was much more serious and, after a series of tests that told me was I did not have (other than I was anemic) I was admitted to the hospital and spent a week getting poked, prodded, MRI'd, more blood was taken and it was discovered that I had an infection in my blood and it was attacking me in numerous ways. Thanks to several hard-working physicians associated with Middlesex Hospital here in Middletown, CT, the infection is being handled by a six-week daily treatment of antibiotics.  My great thanks go to the wonderful nurses and PCTs who helped me through the darkest hours and the long, ugly, hours of worry.  It's good to be home, great to be digging back into music, and exposing some fine new music for the readers.  Thanks  for your patience!

In the midst of the illness, I received a note from drummer-arranger Lucas Gillan who, judging by the name of my blog, thought I might have more than a passing interest in the music of pianist and composer Herbie Nichols.  Gillan, based in Chicago, IL, leads a quartet known as Many Blessings and, on the 100th anniversary of Mr. Nichols's birth (1/03/19), released "Chit-Chatting With Herbie: Lucas Gillan's Many Blessings Plays Herbie Nichols Trio" (JeruJazz). It's a track-by-track rearrangement of Mr. Nichols's 1956 Blue Note album that featured bassists Al McKibbon or Teddy Kotick pus drummer Max Roach.  Gillan arranged the music for his quartet that is composed of Quentin Coaxum (trumpet), Jim Schram (tenor saxophone), and Daniel Thatcher (bass). This is not the first time that an ensemble with reeds and brass have approached Mr. Nichols's music (The New York Jazz Composers Collective created an offshoot called The Herbie Nichols Project in the mid-1990s and released three albums - the band included pianist Frank Kimbrough) but the first I can recall without a pianist.

If you are a Herbie Nichols fan (and he's become a cult figure in the last four decades well after his passing in 1963), then you will love "Chit-Chatting...". The sax and trumpet share the melodies while the rhythm section create a delightful cushion while prodding, poking, and supporting the front line.  Coaxum's trumpet is especially lively throughout while Schram's has a bluesier side. They complement each other well throughout.  Just listen to the opening "The Gig" - Gillan sets the dancing beat and gets a boost from the bass and then the trumpet and sax glide through the melody. There's a hard-bop feel akin to Clifford Brown and you can hear the joy in the musicians the way you could when Brown played.  There's a handsome reading of "The Lady Sings the Blues", a melody that Mr. Nichols wrote for Billie Holiday. One can't miss the blues feel and the sense of melancholy but there are also moments of joy.  The subtle humor and thick beat of "The Spinning Song" moves forward in a sly manner (Gillan's drums are so melodic on the theme) while "Hangover Triangle" stumbles forward on thick bowed bass lines and sharp drumming while the trumpet and saxophone deliver the theme in less than 75 seconds.

The album closes with George Gershwin's "Mine" (from the musical "Of Thee I Sing"). Gershwin was Herbie Nichols's favorite composer and here the quartet sing out the melody line supported by the powerful drums and solid bass lines.  "Chit-Chatting With Herbie" is a splendid tribute, one that goes beyond mere copying the original arrangements and being faithful to the sound.  The music sounds fresh, contemporary, and joyous!  Kudos to Lucas Gillan's Many Blessings as their performances and music will raise your spirits on the dark nights of winter and year-round.

For more information, go to

Here's the opening track:

I actually wrote this review early in December but never got to publish it.  So, I'm playing "catch-up."

Over the past several decades, pianist and composer Fred Hersch has recorded and released numerous live albums with his various ensembles as well as a solo.  His latest Palmetto Records release "Fred Hersch Trio '97: @ The Village Vanguard" was recorded in July 1997 during the first time the pianist had a week as a headliner at the famed New York City club.  While he had no intention of releasing the tapes, Hersch was quite pleased as he listened to the three sets recorded on the Friday night gig.  He had been working with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey since 1991, recording several albums for Chesky Records.  Like every trio that the pianist has worked over this career, this one is an interactive ensemble, each player an integral part of the proceedings.

Photo: Vincent Soyez
The eight-song program is a collection of five standards and three originals (two by Hersch, one by Gress). If you listen to a lot of his recordings, what's surprising is that there are no Thelonious Monk songs, usually a staple of his sets. Nevertheless, there's plenty of splendid playing throughout the 58+ minutes. It's always fun to hear the trio build up a head of steam and push each other forward.  The opening three "standards", "Easy To Love", "My Funny Valentine", and "Three Little Words", are so filled with fire that the listener can barely sit still.  Hersch stretches out during his solo yet leaves room for his partners to "strut their stuff".  Even the next track, Hersch's "Evanessense", has an urgency that fills the players with great energy (note the brilliant, melodic, bass work of Gress).

There's is really only one ballad on the album and that's Gress's lovely "Andrew John."  It's hard not to be impressed by the musicianship that makes this piece stand out, from the lyrical piano solo that opens the tune to Gress's fundamental bass lines to Rainey's brilliant work on the cymbals. Yet, there's also the slinky, funky, "Swamp Thang", a Hersch original that glides in on deep bass notes, stop-start drums, and a piano line that slithers around the rhythm section. The pianist helps to ratchet up the intensity with a splendid solo that blends blues, jazz, and a touch of gospel, sounding not unlike Allen Toussaint.

I do not need convince Fred Hersch fans of how enjoyable "@ The Village Vanguard" is or how good his Trio '97 was. From start to finish, this album is a blast, sounding fresh as it did when recorded 21 years ago.  2018 has seen the reissue of Hersch's 1989 "Heartsongs" (Sunnyside Records) as well as his latest Trio's "Live In Europe" (Palmetto Records) - all three are worth your attention!

For more information, go to

Here's a taste from Trio '97:

May I recommend the excellent interview with Fred Hersch conducted by multi-instrumentalist and producer Leo Sidran for his "Third Story Podcast." I have always wanted to interview the pianist but I doubt I could do justice to his story, music, and life the way Sidran does. It's worth your time. Go to and give a listen.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

NPR Jazz Poll 2018

The 2018 NPR Jazz Critics Poll has been published - read it here - and, as usual, my list is both quite different and in sync with my fellow critics/reviewers.  In a year that has so many exemplary large ensemble recordings, only one is in the Critics Poll and that's Henry Threadgill's 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg: "Dirt...And More Dirt" but precious others make the Top 50.  I may be one of the only writers who did not vote for the Wayne Shorter 3 CD ""Emanon", not because it was not worth the money I paid but because there could have so much more music. The "classical" CD is brilliant as are the live ones but they're so short.  Mr. Shorter's Quartet - Danilo Perez (piano), John Patitucci (bass) and Brian Blade (drums) - is one of the brilliant improvising units of this or any century/ galaxy but Blue Note could only find two sets to release.  Am I being chintzy? Probably.  I will admit to playing the CDs over and over, enjoying every minute, and actually wanting more.  It's like the John Coltrane's "Both Directions at Once", a group of unreleased tapes from 1963, that displays a working unit at the height of its powers, it's leader searching different routes while his group play with fire, intelligence, and abandon.  I'm not a complete-ist, I do not need to hear every note a great artists plays but sometimes it's fun to hear musicians being human, being friends, collaborators, and adventurers.

Here's the list I submitted. Once again, I'm grateful to Francis Davis for again inviting me to participate and for all the hard work he and Tom Hull do to put all the entries together.  My list is below (without commentary). If you saw the list I put together in December, you'll know there were 50 contenders for these 10 spots.

Here you go:

Top 10 Albums 2018
Step Tempest (

Felipe Salles Interconnections Ensemble - "The Lullaby Project (and Other Works for Large Ensemble)– (Tapestry Records)

Rudy Royston – “Flatbed Buggy”– (Greenleaf Music)

Jim McNeely & The Frankfurt Radio (HR) Big Band – “Barefoot Dances and Other Visions”(Planet Arts)

Kate McGarry, Keith Ganz, & Gary Versace – “The Subject Tonight is Love”(Binxtown Records)

Dafnis Prieto Big Band – “Back To The Sunset”(Dafnison Music)

Henry Conerway III.  "With Pride For Dignity" (self-released)

Cecile McLorin Salvant – “The Window”(Mack Avenue)

Ambrose Akinmusire – “Origami Harvest” – (Blue Note Records)

Benjamin Boone/Philip Levine – “The Poetry of Jazz” – (Origin Records)

 Miles Okazaki – “Work: The Complete Works of Thelonious Monk” – (self-released/Bandcamp)

Reissues and Historical
John Coltrane – “Both Directions At Once – The Lost Album” (Impulse)

Wes Montgomery - "Wes Montgomery In Paris: The Definitive ORTF Recording” (Resonance Records)

Fred Hersch Trio - “Heartsongs” (Sunnyside Records)

Best Vocal Album
Kate McGarry, Keith Ganz, & Gary Versace – “The Subject Tonight is Love”(Binxtown Records)

Best Debut
Henry Conerway III.  "With Pride for Dignity" (self-released)

Best Latin Jazz Album
Felipe Salles Interconnections Ensemble - "The Lullaby Project (and Other Works for Large Ensemble)" – (Tapestry Records)

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Blessings & a Joyful Noise for the New Year

No matter how you look at 2018, it was a year of extremes. Strange weather, devastating fires, tsunamis, hurricanes, droughts, and that's without mentioning the extreme political polarization in the US and many other countries.  Musicians, through their music, recognize these extremes, they reflect on how their audiences are weathering, their music can provoke, can soothe, can issue a call-to-action, can ignore it all and just dance.  All is not lost - extremely messed up - and more people are beginning to respond with positive action. Can it negate the rise of authoritarianism?  Can it quell the cult of personality that grows stronger each year?  We don't seem to elect leaders but cardboard cutouts beholden to the highest bidders (and that's true for both major parties in the US) - many only seem to speak their minds when they are ready to retire.

Does it all come down to the mighty dollar?  The cynic says "of course" and the optimist knows it does but prays for change.  Nothing new under the sun yet that sun shines every day meaning there's always the opportunity for change. One has to be brave these days just to get out of bed but if you just pull the covers over your head, the ones in power take that as a vote of confidence. No one says this world is supposed to make sense.

Anyway, music and family remain my balm in bad times. Always has, Expect they always will. Have a great New Year, let your voice be heard (whether you are pro or con), and keep your communities going!


Just a glance at the track listing of the new Kirk Knuffke CD, "Witness" (SteepleChase), and you'll know you're in for quite an aural adventure. From spirituals to Strayhorn, Sun Ra to Guiseppe Verdi, Puccini to Henry Mancini, the program is delightfully. The cornettist shares top billing with operatic baritone Steven Herring while creating the music with Russ Lossing (piano) and Ben Goldberg (contralto clarinet, clarinet).

The album opens with the traditional "Witness", the clarion call of the cornet and the lows notes of the contralto clarinet leading Herring in. When Lossing enters, the music takes on deeper gospel hues. When Knuffke steps out to "testify", he's supported by Goldberg's low lines and Lossing's impressionist piano chords. The clarinet solo is emotionally rich leading to a far-ranging piano solo playing variations on the melody. When Herring returns, he responds to the higher energy level with a even more powerful vocal.

That's just the opening track.  Surprises along the way include a playful take on Sun Ra's "The Satellites Are Spinning" - the original version, from 1971, is basically voice and drums but here Herring opens by reciting the lyrics while the musicians "free-associate" around him. As the piece tumbles forward, Herring sings in a call-and-response with Knuffke while Lossing and Goldberg dance around them.  Following Sun Ra is Verdi's "Iago's Credo" (from "Otello"). Herring stays close to the handsome melody as the cornet, contralto clarinet and piano improvise around him. The musicians capture the emotion in the vocal, sometimes matching the energy while, other times, they step back to allow the voice to stand out.

There's a beautiful reading of the Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer song "Charade." Opening with voice and piano, the contralto clarinet and cornet enter on the second verse.  Pay attention to the beauty of the piano accompaniment and how Herring inhabits the lyrics.  Throughout the album, Knuffke is in sync with the voice, acting as counterpoint and responder.  Everyone step away for the stunning piano solo followed by an equally impressive (and quite bluesy) cornet spot. While Goldberg is mostly in the background, do pay attention to his "foundational" lines.

Knuffke sets poems by contemporary poet Kirby Congdon and the late Carl Sandburg to music.  Sandburg's work, "Subway" is a short blues chant that rides forward on the rhythmical lines of cornet and clarinet joined on the second verse by the piano.  The energy and interactions give the music such urgency that the song ends much too soon.

From beginning to end, "Witness" is a fascinating recording. There's so much music here, four voices working together to create a unified message.  Music crosses so many borders, so many walls, religions, politics, and much more. This mix of gospel, poetry, popular songs, opera, creative music and spirited improvisations is often stunning yet will make smile all the way through. Kirk Knuffke, Steven Herring, Ben Goldberg, and Russ Lossing made magic in the studio and we are the beneficiaries.

For more information, go to

Here's a taste of the Sun Ra piece:

Cover Art: Damon Locks
Although it's official release date is not until 1/11/19, it's been impossible keep the new album by alto saxophonist Greg Ward out of the CD player. The full title "Greg Ward Presents Rogue Parade: Stompin' Off From Greenwood" (Greenleaf Music) tells the listener much about this album.  One - this is a new group for Ward. Consisting of two electric guitars (Matt Gold and Dave Miller) plus the splendid rhythm section of Matt Ulery (bass, electric bass) and Quin Kirchner (drums), the music they make is notable for its irresistible forward motion and Ward's delightful melodic flow.  Two - this is the second album Ward has made since his return to Chicago and has all the earmarks of the newer music from the Windy City.  The blend of funk, r'n'b, hip hop rhythms, jazz, and exciting interactions may remind some of Tortoise and Ornate Coleman's Prime Times but there are traces of the world-music adventuresome attitude of Makaya McCraven as well.

Chicago Reader
Since I've been listening to this music without paying attention to song titles (all songs are by Ward save for Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust"), I would recommend you do the same.  On initial listenings, listen for how the rhythm section powers this music (Kirchner's blend of busy cymbals and active snare work is quite exciting while Ulery not only keeps the bottom solid but engages with Ward playing subtle counterpoint). Ward's alto tone can be so sweet (especially in the higher registers) but there's power in his melodic lines.  It takes a few times through to hear the guitarists - initially, it seems as both are there for the various colors they create but they also provide melodic introductions and the occasional solo. Their sound is not distorted yet the effects they use are often subtle and powerful.  Note the beginning of the album's final track (people who buy the download from Greenleaf get a bonus final track) - "Sundown" is driven by both guitars with Ward giving support.  The energy level continues to rise from the onset and is overwhelming by the close. There are several ballads. One is the generously melodic "Pitch Black", the softness of the alto and the rhythm guitar rising above the clatter of Kirchner's percussion and Ulery's solid bass lines.  Still, as the piece comes to a close, the intensity picks up still the band does not lose its melodic way.

Go back to the beginning, to the high-powered "Metropolis", and you'll really hear how all the elements of this music come together to make a unified statement.  How the melodies and counter-melodies, how the rhythms from the drums and guitars push the music, and how you can hum many of these melodies (even if you can't keep up at times).  Music often gives me hope for the future - "Stompin' Off From Greenwood" makes me smile, bounce my feet, challenges me to listen with fresh ears, opening up to the myriad possibilities in this music, making me wish I was in the audience as the band developed this program leading uptown the recording.

"Greg Ward Presents Rogue Parade" is the latest installment in the musician's maturity as a composer and bandleader. He's been busy since returning to Chicago, adding his saxophone to many different ensembles and recordings (including 2018's Benje Daneman's Searchparty "Light in the Darkness"). Greg Ward is making great strides and we are lucky to be part of the experience!

For more information, go to

Here's an action-packed tune:

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Catching Up In December (Pt 1)

The Fall semester gets away from me and I miss new releases that deserve to be reviewed. Through the Holidays, that oversight shall be partially remedied (writers have to sleep, too!)

Photo: Jimmy Katz
Several days before I was aware of the existence of this album, I wondered what had become of Don Byron. His recordings of the 1990s and 2000s had been full of amazing sonic adventures, from klezmer to blues to gospel to r'n'b and elsewhere.  While his recording output has slowed down, Mr. Byron has been appearing in concert halls, in workshops on college campuses, and elsewhere in the US and Europe.  Pianist Aruán Ortiz reached out and the duo began a collaboration that has resulted in their first album together, "Random Dances and (A)Tonalities" (Intakt Records). The program is a collection of originals, several classical pieces, and one composition each from Duke Ellington and Geri Allen.

Notice in the picture above that Mr. Byron is holding a tenor saxophone.  He employs the instrument on three tracks; his delightful exploratory "Joe Btfspik", Ortiz's wide-ranging and classically inspired "Numbers", plus the playful take of the Ellington/ Bubber Miley classic "Black and Tan Fantasy".  That last piece, from 1927, has long been a staple of the jazz canon and the duo is faithful to the melody and the rhythm but certainly stretch out in the solo sections.  The humor is subtle but the swing is powerful, especially in Ortiz's left hand.  The clarity of the mix allows for both instruments to stand out without either musician dominating the piece.

Photo: Guenther Groeger
There is a smashing version of Ms. Allen's "Dolphy's Dance". Both musical lock in on the themes and then take a wild ride during the solo section that has each person's lines swirl around the other, occasionally coming together then veering away.  Mr. Byron's solo reading of J.S. Bach's "Violin Partita No, 1 in B-Minor, BWV1002, II. Double" is stunning, the melody unfolding graciously but not as fast as several of the violin versions I referenced. Yet, the clarinet tone gives the music fascinating and different shades. The piece segues quickly into Mr. Byron's "Delphian Nuptials" - the original melody seems like a variation of Bach's melody but moves quite differently especially when Ortiz's melodic and flowing piano lines enter.  The album closes with an improvisation titled "Impressions on a Golden Theme" - the wide-open sound allows the music to develop slowly while the musicians move around through mutually created melody.

"Random Dances and (A)tonalities" grabs your attention from the opening lilt of "Tete's Blues" to the quiet fade of "Impressions..."  This is music that Aruán Ortiz and Don Byron developed slowly before committing to the recording. It never feels pedantic or "safe" - these are two musicians who can and will play anything not to show off but to get inside the music and find the humanity within. Splendid!

Here's the Ellington/Miley piece:

Just the name of this band - Myra Melford's Snowy Egret - is evocative of a particular sound. The quintet's second album - "The Other Side of Air" (Firehouse 12 Records) - also alerts the listener that the music will go in unexpected directions. Over her career that now spans nearly three full decades, the pianist and composer has created ensembles of musicians who help her shape the music. Snowy Egret consists of Ron Miles (cornet), Liberty Ellman (guitars), Stomu Takeishi (acoustic bass guitar), and Tyshawn Sorey (drums), each person a master of his instrument and sound.  Ms. Melford, with her multi-faceted compositions, gives material that explores all the different music she has studied performed, and inhabited.

Photo: ABC/Australia
If you are a long-time listener to Ms. Melford's music, I need not tell you what to expect. What amazes this listener is her ability to continually mature, to making music that sounds like on one else's yet is part of the creative music continuum.  As a player, her piano swings, whispers, thunders, caresses, pounds, and dances.  Her music is often episodic, starting with melodic or rhythmic idea, moving on to others, rarely turning back. There is the serene beauty of "Chorale" alongside the herky-jerky dance of "Motion Stop Frame" (a piece that goes from quiet to powerfully loud within seconds).  There's the "free" explorations of "Living Music" (listen to how the drums and the piano interact coming out of Ron Miles' solo!) to the emotional melody and performances of "Turn and Coda", the piece that closes the album.

Myra Melford creates music that makes one think deeply As you surrender to the myriad sounds created on any of her albums, you often enter into a universe that is welcoming yet challenging. With Snowy Egret, she works alongside musicians of equal musical status, interpreters and creators of the highest order.  Recorded in the Firehouse 12 studios in New Haven CT by Nick Lloyd (who also mixed and mastered the album), "The Other Side of Air" crackles and sparkles while opening new pathways for us to follow.

For more information, go to

Here's the fascinating opening track:

If you go to, you'll also find "12 From 25", a recording that compiles performances from Ms. Melford's week of residency at The Stone in March of 2015.  Snowy Egret is there as well as her duos with Marty Ehrlich, Ben Goldberg, and Allison Miller, her original trio with bassist Lindsay Horner and drummer Reggie Nicholson plus several more. Clocking in at over 90 minutes, this is a fascinating overview of her career. It's well worth your attention.

While Holiday albums (for me) usually go in one ear and out the other, when  Duchess - Amy Cervini, Melissa Stylianou, and Hilary Gardner - sings, I always pay attention.  The trio's latest recorded effort, "Harmony for the Holidays" (Anzic Records), is the three ladies addition to a crowded field.  Their trademark harmonies are in place, Oded Lev-Ari's are, as usual, intelligent, and the six songs (it's an EP and only available digitally) steer away from religious themes and towards creating a warm glow and making one smile (as well as sing along).   The ladies are accompanied by their cracker-jack band - pianist Michael Cabe, guitarist Jesse Lewis, bassist Matt Aronoff, and drummer Charles Ruggero - and the results are fun all the way through.

Opening with "Christmas Island", a Lyle Moraine song made famous by the Andrew Sisters in 1946, the ladies move on to "Santa Baby" (ah yes, the tune made famous by Eartha Kitt) and then to "Silver Bells" (first recorded in 1950 by Bing Crosby and Carol Richards).  It's a real treat to hear the trio share the lead vocals and when they harmonize, especially on "....Bells", one feels calm. The mist contemporary song of the program, "A Christmas Compromise", was first recorded in 2011 by co-writer Inara George and is the story of the tug-of-war celebrating Christmas creates in a mixed marriage.  Back to the tried-and-true for Frank Loesser's bluesy "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" and the sweet blend of voices.  The "horn" section of Anat Cohen (clarinet), Nadje Noordhuis (trumpet), and Nick Finzer (trombone) join the band for the closing "Mele Kalikimaka", a delightful eggnog of Hawaiin and New Orleans influences first made famous by Bing Crosby and those Andrew Sisters in 1950.

This is an album to keep playing on repeat throughout the Holidays. Even grumpy old writers take heart from hearing Duchess blend its voices to bring good joy for all (and nary a hint of snark).

For more information, go to

Here's one of the gems:

Friday, December 14, 2018

These are a Lot of My Favorite Recordings of 2018

Like many critics/reviewers (I'm in the latter camp), I make a year-end list of my favorite recordings of the past 12 months.  Since I rarely, if ever, review an album I truly dislike (or even are lukewarm about), it's hard to keep that list at 10 or 20.  In June of this year, I remarked to a good friend that I could probably create a 2018 "Best of" list with all Big Band or large ensemble albums alone. Nonetheless, this year, I present you the entire list with spare comments. This list, unlike the one I created for the NPS Jazz Critics Poll (which was truly a Top 10 and will be published soon) is in no particular order.

Top Albums 2018

Felipe Salles Interconnections Ensemble – “The Lullaby Project (and Other Works for Large Ensemble)” (Tapestry Records) - Such brilliant section writing as well as memorable melodies
Jim McNeely & The Frankfurt Radio (HR) Big Band – “Barefoot Dances and Other Visions” (Planet Arts) - Same as above but with the Ellingtonian legacy of "knowing" who you re writing for
Kate McGarry, Keith Ganz, & Gary Versace – “The Subject Tonight is Love” (Binxtown Records) - The joy of intimate collaboration and emotionally strong material makes this collection something to listen over and over
Dafnis Prieto Big Band – “Back To The Sunset” (Dafnison Music) - Power and precision, melodies fired by rhythms led by an amazing drummer
Ambrose Akinmusire – “Origami Harvest” (Blue Note Records) - Mr. Akinmusire is really in a class by himself, moving in multiple directions without diluting his vision
Rudy Royston – “Flatbed Buggy” (Greenleaf Music) - Mr. Royston, known for his fiery and exuberant drumming, is maturing into a fine composer blending a variety of influences with a splendid ensemble of musical colleagues 
Kind Folk – “Why Not” – (Fresh Sound New Talent) - The spirit of the late Kenny Wheeler is celebrated here by four young musicians who gelled long before entering the studio
Andrew Rathbun Large Ensemble – “Atwood Suites” (Origin Records) - Mr. Rathbun takes a number of chances never missing his mark to bring Margaret Atwood's writing to a listing audience
Miguel Zenon & The Spektral Quartet – “Yo Soy La Tradicion”  (Miel Music) - Mr. Zenon with a string quartet playing traditional religious music and ore from his native land of Puerto Rico is chock-full of brilliant writing and playing
Edward Simon (w/ Afinidad and Imani Winds) – “Sorrows and Triumphs” (Sunnyside Records) - A subtly beautiful recording which sounds better with each listen
Thumbscrew -Ours” + “Theirs” – (Cuneiform Records) - Amazing musicality and interplay between three masterful musicians who often think as one
Mary Halvorson - "Code Girl" (Firehouse 12 Records) - A new quintet that utilizes her Thumbscrew mates plus the expressive trumpet of Ambrose Akinmusire and amazing voice of Amirtha Kidambi. Prog-rock roots (I hear the influence of Robert Fripp in the opening guitar sounds) plus much more
Miles Okazaki – “Work: The Complete Works of Thelonious Monk”  (self-released/Bandcamp) - Wow!  So much thought and vision in this project, giving the listener an even better understanding how Thelonious Monk continues inspire generations of musicians and music
Frank Kimbrough - "Monk's Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk” (Sunnyside Records - See above - Mr. Kimbrough shares the spotlight with three colleagues including the amazing multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson
Noah Preminger – “Genuinity” – (CrissCross Records) - Moving back to Boston has energized young Mr. Preminger as both a composer and saxophonist. The addition of Dan Weiss has lit a fire under his quartet (which already boasts the great bassist Kim Cass and trumpeter supreme Jason Palmer)
Cecile McLorin Salvant – “The Window” (Mack Avenue) - What a voice! What an actress, a composer, an interpreter, and judos as well to the versatile Sullivan Fortner
Benjamin Boone/Philip Levine – “The Poetry of Jazz”  (Origin Records) - The late Philip Levine is one of my favorite poets yet it took me nine months to dig into this amazing blend of the poet's voice and the intelligent compositions and arrangements of Mr. Boone
Jeff Baker – “Phrases”  (Oa2 Records) - Another album that took its way to burrow under my skin and in my ears. Baker's emotional delivery and a great band featuring pianist Darrell Grant and drummer Brian Blade
Lorraine Feather – “Math Camp” (Relarion Records) - Ms. Feather is such a delightfully intelligent and humorous lyricist, not to forget she sings nicely as well. With science at its core, this album sparkles
Tessa Souter – “Pictures In Black and White” – (self-released) - Heartfelt, honest, adventurous, smartly arranged set of songs that allows the listener into Ms. Souter's complicated life story and her triumphs
Darrell Katz and the JCA Orchestra – “Rats Live On No Evil Star” (JCA Records) - Mr. Katz utilizes his orchestra to tell stories that range from political satire to treatises on friendship. A good number of these musicians have appeared on previous Katz/JCA recordings and he writes knowing their voices. Also, the voice of Katz's late wife, poet Paula Tatarunis, is heard in the impressive vocal work of Rebecca Shrimpton
Henry Conerway III.  "With Pride For Dignity" (self-released) – Best Debut Recording! Such joy, gospel, blues, and jazz with life experience makes for a splendid album.  
Carn Davidson 9 – “Murphy” (self-released) - I love how this ensemble blends all its voices int such a delightful stew - special shout-out to drummer Ernesto Cervini for his powerhouse yet subtle drumming
Ingrid Jensen & Steve Treseler - “Invisible Sounds: For Kenny Wheeler” (Whirlwind Recordings) - A fine quintet of musicians including the four members of saxophonist Steve Treseler's quartet plus trumpeter Ingrid Jensen pay tribute to the late Kenny Wheeler with an excellent selection of his songs
NYSQ – "Seven Steps to Heaven” (Whirlwind Recordings) - Nothing standard about this "standards" and the New York Standard Quintet - they make this material fresh and new.
Owen Broder – “Heritage: The American Roots Project” (ArtistShare) - Intelligent arrangements! Great musicianship!  Music that speaks of today by going back and examining material that mines the American spirit
Benje Danneman’s SearchParty – “Light In The Darkness”  (Self-released) - Heartfelt & thoughtful project played an amazing quintet of musicians
Anne Mette Iversen & the Norrbotten Big Band – “Everything In Between” (Prophone) -Brilliant section writing and arranging - this band loves to play!
Marshall Gilkes & the WDR Big Band – “Always Forward” (Alternate Sides Records/WDR - see comment just above
Judy Niemack & the Danish Radio Big Band – “New York Stories” (Sunnyside Records) - More great work from Jim McNeely plus great lyrics to T Monk tunes from Ms. Niemack
John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble – “All Can Work” (New Amsterdam) - Certainly one of the most intriguing group of arrangements
Joe Lovano & Dave Douglas: Sound Prints – Scandal” (Greenleaf Music) - Two masters and great young band plus such passionate material
Jon Irabagon Quartet (with Tim Hagans) – “Dr. Quixotic’s Traveling Exotics”  (Irabbagast Records) - Perhaps the most powerful performances on record this year
Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double Up – “Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus”  (Pi Recordings)
Henry Threadgill 14 or 15 Kestra: Egg – "Dirt….And More Dirt" (Pi Recordings) - Mr. Threadgill continues to grow, expanding his interests as well as his sonic palette.
Steve Coleman & Five Elements – “ Live at The Village Vanguard (The Embedded Sets)"  (Pi Recordings) - Intense music from start to finish, a great front line paired with an equally great rhythm section
Jonathan Finlayson – “3 Times Round” (Pi Recordings) - Mr. Finlayson continues to grow as a composer and performer
Walter Smith III – “Twio” (Whirlwind Recordings) - Music that is so filled with the joy of playing together
Michael Musilami Trio + 2 - "Life Anthem" (Playscape Recordings) - Guitarist and composer Musillami bounces back after a life-threatening brain tumor - the album features his long-time trio plus cornetist Kirk Knuffke and multi-reed player Jason Robinson. Like the composer/musician, the music is so filled with life!
Jamie Baum Septet + - “Bridges”  (Sunnyside Records) - Ms. Baum's music continues to expand as she challenges her musicians and the audiences
Andy Biskin - "16 Tons: Songs from the Alan Lomax Collection" (AnDorfin Music) - Modern American music has so many influences and Mr. Biskin on reeds with a four-trumpet choir manages to mash a whole bunch together!
Geoff Bradfield – “Yes, and...Music for Nine Improvisers”  (Delmark Records) - Mr. Bradfield is a true student of jazz eras, writers and soloists. His latest mines the various strains that have developed in Chicago
Art Hirahara – “Sunward Bound”  (Posi-Tone Records) - Great band, great pianist, great material!
Tom Tallitsch – "Self-titled" (Posi-Tone) - Another artist who continues to mature with every album
Adam O'Farrill - "El Maquech" (Biophilia Records) - Great young band led by a trumpeter who already has an identifiable sound

Reissues and Historical
John Coltrane – “Both Directions At Once – The Lost Album” (Impulse) - Coltrane was always in transition and this is a fascinating example of a band in its prime
Wes Montgomery - "Wes Montgomery In Paris: The Definitive ORTF Recording” (Resonance Records) - What a treat to hear Wes let loose!
Fred Hersch Trio - “Heartsongs” (Sunnyside Records) - His first trio record, a unspoken tribute to several of his major influences as well as a reminder that Mr. Hersch's trios have been collaborative from the beginning
Sonny Rollins – “Way Out West (Deluxe Edition)” (Craft Recordings) - A favorite since forever, a one-shot trio that made history. 

Beyond Category
Yo-Yo Ma – “Six Evolutions – Bach: Cello Suites” (Sony Music) - Third time is a charm for Yo-Yo Ma in his life-long quest to plumb the depths of these amazing dance pieces - one could argue that one and second times through the music are also pretty great.
Tyshawn Sorey - "Pillars" (Firehouse 12 Records) - 21st Century Creative music with subtle influences from around the world doesn't do justice to the sounds that Mr. Sorey (drums, trombone, dungchen - low Tibetan horn, percussion, conductor) and his seven collaborators create on this trio of 75-minute + pieces

Label of the Year

Hard to choose - let's congratulate Pi Recordings, Sunnyside Records (a perennial favorite), Greenleaf Music, Whirlwind Recordings, and Resonance Records for their continuing excellence!

Best News of the Year!

Jason Crane and The Jazz Session has returned - it's still a joy to listen to.  I am so jealous of his interviewing skills and his continuing good taste (and not just because he chose to interview, really, I've written that before).


Thursday, December 6, 2018

Big Bands with American Roots & European Musicians

The Norrbotten Big Band, based iLuleå, Sweden, has the distinction of being the northernmost large jazz ensemble in the world. The city of 75,000, over 450 miles away from from Stockholm, is located up in the northern corner of Sweden close to the Arctic Circle.  Thanks to the Gulf Stream winds, it has a milder climate than one might expect for a city that far north.  A busy port city, there's plenty to do all year long, especially rich with  arts and cultural offerings. The NBB has been in existence since the late 1980s but first made critics sit up and take notice when American trumpeter and composer Tim Hagans became artistic director in 1996. Currently, the 16-member ensemble's AD is saxophonist and composer Joakim Milder.

Photo: Antonio Porcar Cano
Bassist and composer Anne Mette Iversen moved to the United States from her native Denmark in 1998. During her 15 years living and working in the New York City area, she was one of the 10 co-founders of the Brooklyn Jazz Underground, helping to establish a cooperative where musicians and artists could present their work. The group founded BJU Records in 2008, a label that has released nearly 70 recordings including eight by Ms. Iversen and featuring several of her different ensembles. In 2012, she and her family moved to Berlin, Germany where she maintains a busy schedule, still working with her American Quartet + 1 (featuring saxophonist John Ellis, pianist Danny Grissett, drummer Otis Brown III, and trombonist Peter Dahlgren) plus her Ternion Quartet (with saxophonist Silke Eberhard, trombonist Geoffroy De Masure, and drummer Roland Schneider, all Berlin-based musicians).

In 2016, Ms. Iversen was invited to be the composer-in-residence for the Norrbotten Big Band's 2016-17 season.  In her various trips to Luleå, she experienced all four seasons. The different climatic conditions reminded her of the many places she has visited during her career and she began to create music that reflected her responses to those fascinating seasons.  The results can be heard on "Everything In Between" (Prophone Records). The 10-song, 98 minute program, is spread over two CDs. The music begins in Spring (two songs), moves to Summer (four songs), on to Fall (two songs), and concludes with Winter (two songs).  What stands out throughout the album is the fine musicianship - all but one member  of the NBB here is European; the lone exception is drummer E.J. Strickland.  He and trombonist Dahlgen are the only two who have worked or still work with Ms Iversen.  

The album, while very much a suite, was recorded live in three separate venues (one on11/12/2016 in Luleå and two in Denmark on 7/22-23/17).  One of the most delightful aspects of this music is that the songs cover so much territory. Yes, you hear traces of Duke Ellington/ Billy Strayhorn, Bob Brookmeyer, Kenny Wheeler, Thad Jones, and others but nothing overt (to my ears).  And, the music is so melodic. Listen throughout to hear how Ms. Iversen orchestrates each song, often using the brass or the reeds to state the thematic material, how often there are two or three instruments soloing over the ensemble.

Photo: Solving Hockings
From the opening notes of "The Big (Band) Bang I", the music glides, flows, jumps, and dances on the power of the rhythm section (pianist Adam Forkelid, bassist Petter Olofsson, and drummer Strickland).  There are certainly a number of strong solos on every track (the credits lists the personnel but not who solos on each song) but, again it's the section writing and execution that really make this music so impressive. The Ellingtonian opening of "A Lighthouse Blinks In The Northern Sky" uses a blend of muted trumpets and reeds over an African drum rhythm to paint a lovely and lively picture but Janne Thelin's unaccompanied contrabass clarinet spot moves the piece into a more contemplative direction. He's soon joined by the flutes and rhythm section for a quiet ballad section. A few moments later, after the muted trumpets have had a short interlude, the piece moves forward on a fine alto sax solo.Forkelid also has a lovely spotlight, his piano lines rippling over the sympathetic bass and drums; only at the end do the earlier voices (trumpets, reeds, and the drums rhythms) return for a short reprise.

If you enjoy adventurous large ensemble music, then "Everything In Between" should really grab your attention.  Like many suites it's best listened to all the way through but one can also jump in on any track and be pleased.  Anne Mette Iversen sets aside her bass for the conductor's baton to lead the Norrbotten Big Band through this delightful aural journey; there are moments throughout when one can sense the waves crashing or the countless stars in the cool, clear, night sky.

For more information, go to

Here's the opening track:

Anne Mette Iversen - composer and conductor

Hakan Brostrom - alto and soprano sax, alto flute (only for the 11/12/16 concert)
Johan Christoffersson - alto and soprano sax, alto flute
Janne Thelin - alto sax, Bb clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet
Mats Garberg - tenor sax, flute
Robert Nordmann - tenor sax, Bb clarinet, flute
Per Morberg - baritone saxophone, flute

Trumpets and flugelhorns:
Magnus Ekholm (only for the 11/12/16 concert)
Bo Strandberg
Frank Brohdahl
Dan Johansson
Jacek Onuszkiewicz

Peter Dahlgren
Arvid Ingberg (also euphonium)
Christine Carlsson
Urban Widborg (only for the 11/12/16 concert)
Bjorn Hangsel - bass trombone, flute

Rhythm section:
Adam Forkelid - piano
Petter Olofsson - acoustic bass
E.J. Strickland - drums

Trombonist and composer Marshall Gilkes came to love jazz and his instrument through his father who was a trombonist and conductor of the Air Force Band. The Gilkes family traveled the world going to Air Force bases and concert halls while the budding trombonist began to absorb all types of music. After studying at The Juilliard School in New York City, Gilkes settled there and played in dozens of ensembles as well as recording several small group albums between 2004-2012.  He's also a prominent member of the trombone section in the Maria Schneider Orchestra and tours with the Edmar Castañeda Trio. 

In 2019, he played with the WDR Big Band based in Köln (Cologne) Germany for a concert with vocalist Patty Austin. The following year, he came back to play in the band behind guitarist Mike Stern and was invited to be a full-time member.  During his tenure that lasted until 2013, Gilkes played numerous concerts throughout Europe.  He was invited back one month later to play a "farewell concert" of his original music and the resulting album, "Köln", was issued in 2015

"Always Forward" (Alternate Sides Records/WDR) reunites Gilkes with the WDR Big Band and was recorded over three days in early September 2017. As with the previous album, the program features mostly originals compositions and all arrangements by the trombonist (he also conducts the band) plus two standards.  In one instance, the 19-member ensemble dances its way through Cole Porter's "Easy To Love."  The melody is introduced by the brass sections (note how drummer Hans Dekker accentuates the melody). The song then is handed over to the reeds before alto saxophonist Johan Hörlen steps out for a delightful solo. The other is the oft-recorded "Portrait of Jennie", the title song of a 1948 movie that has been covered by Nat "King" Cole, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Wes Montgomery, and many, many others. Here it serves as a showcase for a classically inspired opening plus an impressive flugelhorn solo from Andy Haderer.  

I imagine just how much fun it must have been for Gilkes to stand in front of the band but even more fun to solo on four of the 10 tracks. The album opens with the powerful and playful  "Puddle Jumping"; Gilkes' solo is a tour-de-force, blending the sweeter sounds of the 'bone with long flowing lines and octave leaps, "blats" and deep low notes. He returns for the beautiful "Morning Smiles."  This piece, composed for his infant son, would not be out of place on a Maria Schneider album. The lovely flute-dominated opening and the handsome trombone melody lead the listener into a wonderland of sounds. The elegant use of reeds and brass in the background before the rhythm section enters is simply stunning while the solo will make you sit forward and follow the musician all the way through.

The centerpiece of the album is the three-part "Denali Suite."  Not surprisingly, the song is inspired by a trip Gilkes and his wife took to Alaska for a wedding followed by a vacation.  The composer states in the liner notes that the "melody in the middle section is one  came up with while on the trip.." On his return home, he fleshed out the melody and orchestration, adding the opening and closing sections.  "Part II", in particular, is a thoughtful ballad played mostly by the brass yet, when the rhythm section comes in, the flutes are utilized to introduce the piano solo.

Photo: All About Jazz
The Maria Schneider influence is loud and clear on the title song which is also the album closer. Again, Gilkes is the only soloist but he gives the different sections various parts of the melody.  On many of the songs, the brass takes the lead but here it is a subtle blend that moves the song forward. Gilkes begins his solo with only bassist John Goldsby offering support in the form of counterpoint. The drums and piano enter next then the reeds and the brass. All the while, the leader builds a dynamic, emotionally rich solo, one that dances even as it sings. The brass and reeds reintroduce the opening melody before the trombonist reenters for a quick recapitulation of his opening theme.  The song closes as the trombone fades yet the piece does not resolve; it is left "open to remind all of us to think and act "always forward!"

Marshall Gilkes has matured before our very ears. He has long proven to be a dynamic and thoughtful soloist. Yet, these two albums with the WDR Big Band has shown us that he is a splendid orchestrator, arranger, and composer. "Always Forward" may be his credo In this time of global indecision and a turn away from democratic principles, this music makes a great case for art informing people, teaching people, even while entertaining people.

For more information, go to

Enjoy this lovely ballad:


Marshall Gilkes composer, arranger, conductor, trombone

WDR Big Band Personnel 
Johan Hörlén-alto saxophone/flute/clarinet 
Karolina Strassmayer-alto saxophone/flute/clarinet 
Olivier Peters-tenor saxophone/clarinet 
Paul Heller-tenor saxophone/clarinet/bass clarinet 
Jens Neufang-baritone saxophone/bass clarinet 

Ludwig Nuss-trombone 
Shannon Barnett-trombone 
Andy Hunter-trombone 
Mattis Cederberg-bass trombone 

Andy Haderer-trumpet/flugelhorn 
Rob Bruynen-trumpet/flugelhorn 
Lorenzo Ludemann trumpet/flugelhorn 
Ruud Breuls- trumpet/flugelhorn 
John Marshall-trumpet/flugelhorn 

Simon Seidl-piano 
Paul Shigihara-guitar 
John Goldsby-bass 
Hans Dekker-drums