Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Rest Of The Best Of....

"Ten Freedom Summers" (Cuneiform Records), the 4-CD masterwork by composer/ arranger/trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, is a sprawling, introspective, abstract on the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the 1950s and 60s.  Scored for both Smith's Golden Quartet/Quintet and the 9-member Southwest Chamber Music ensemble, the music pays tribute to, remembers and reminds us of both the everyday heroes and famous people who made the attempt to bring equality to African-Americans a century after the Emancipation Proclamation.  Along the way, Smith pays tribute to September 11, 2001, to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., to Dr. King, Rosa Parks and much more.  There are no lyrics or poems only the titles to jog our memories or teach us a period History books often gloss over.  The music has a fascinating pull and I imagine this powerful work is even more so heard live with the graphics behind and above the musicians

Solo saxophone recordings are not unique but few have the blend of intellect, melody and invention that permeates "The Art of the Soprano: Vol. 1" (self-released), the latest exploration of saxophonist Sam Newsome's chosen instrument.  By shuffling 3 suites ("The Ellington Medley", "A Love Supreme", and "Soprano de Africana") Newsome illuminates the similarities and differences in the music as well as exhibiting his mastery over the soprano saxophone.  Yet, this is no technical exercise (although his technique is mighty impressive) but a wonderful journey into imagination.  To find out more, go to

Alto saxophonist/composer Ted Nash pays tribute to both the comic book imagination of his youth and the amazing Ornette Coleman Quartet of 1958-1962 on "The Creep"(Plastic Sax Records). Powered by bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Ulysses Owens plus aided by his faithful, full-toned, trumpet sidekick Ron Horton, Nash's music is an absolute treat, his alto lines flying above the exciting rhythms.  This project has the feel of a summer vacation, throwing caution to the wind and just having a great time.  While you dig the music, you should go to and read his fun blog; one gets quite the view of a working musician dealingwith everyday life.

In the aftermath of the December 14, 2012, school tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, I could understand how hard it becomes to listen to music.  "Be Still" (Greenleaf Music) is Dave Douglas's assignment from and tribute to his mother - she asked that he create a program of music for her memorial service. Blending traditional American folk music with jazz is nothing new but rarely has the music had the clarity that this project displays from beginning to end. The rhythm section of Linda Oh (bass), Rudy Royston (drums) and Matt Mitchell (piano) gently yet solidly supports Douglas, saxophonist Jon Irabagon and the emotional vocal work of Aoife O'Donovan.  Peaceful, probing, and honest music that deserves many listenings, even when life is at its happiest, "Be Still" exhibits the power of continued creativity.

In a recent interview in Keyboard Magazine (which you can read in full by going to, the pianist talks about his approach to his Trio music; "I want danger. And this trio to me has the requisite amount of danger, and at the same time, the requisite amount of respect and depth, in equal parts." Fred Hersch, along with bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson, really does come "Alive At The Vanguard" (Palmetto Records) and this CD, recorded several years after the pianist's nearly-fatal illness, bustles with life and shines with quiet joy.  Melody swims alongside harmony, rhythms jump, dance and caress while solos are trenchant and heartfelt.   

Whether organizing and leading the Captain Black Big Band or fronting a piano trio, Orrin Evans creates music that is as engaging as it is challenging.  Evans is a musician whose musical vocabulary seems limitless.  "Flip The Script" (Posi-Tone Records) features the interactive trio of Evans, Ben Wolfe (bass) and Donald Edwards (drums) moving through a program where rhythm, harmony and melody move in and out in a manner that belies slickness; one can intuit how comfortable and free the musicians feel with each other and the material. Yes, there are countless piano trio recording to choose from  - many of them impressive (see paragraph above) - but Orrin Evans and company make the time spent listening well worth it.

"Suite of the East" (Anzic Records) may have been recorded 6 years ago but this music feels fresh, invigorating and contemporary.  Composer/bassist Omer Avital assembled this ensemble of Omer Klein (piano), Joel Frahm (tenor saxophone), Avishai Cohen (trumpet) and Daniel Freedman (drums) knowing the musicians could interpret his blend of Israeli, North African and African-American music so that the listener would concentrate on the creativity and the power (this music hits many incredible climaxes) within his ideas.  Plus, Avital is a very impressive bassist, such a melodic and rhythmic force, that one is easily swept up in this journey.

Yes, there will be one more column dedicated to 2012 that will be concerned with several other recordings (most of which I did not get to review) that resonated deeply over the year.  In the meantime, have a peaceful Holiday season, one in which the music you love can help soothe the wounds caused by the (often) uncaring world.

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