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.
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.
If you go to firehouse12records.com/album/12-from-25, 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).
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.
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 me.....no, really, I've written that before).
The Norrbotten Big Band, based in Luleå, 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.
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)
Arvid Ingberg (also euphonium)
Urban Widborg (only for the 11/12/16 concert)
Bjorn Hangsel - bass trombone, flute
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 inKöln (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. Duringhistenure 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.
Even before one hears the music, there's the fascinating cover of "The Terror End of Beauty" (Sunnyside Records). It's looks like the negative image of a black hole, the phenomenon that occurs throughout the known (and unknown) universes. Then, listen to the music on this recording, the fifth from Harriet Tubman, the trio of Melvin Gibbs (electric bass), J.T. Lewis (drums), and Brandon Ross (guitars). It's a fascinating blend of funk, hard rock, r'n'b, noise, dance music, electronics, the songs hard-edged melodies propelled by the thundering bass and drums that shakes the speakers. Seven of the 10 tracks are credited to the trio plus producer/engineer/sonic shaper Scotty Harding, who takes the often-raucous material and helps to clarify and even muddy the sonic waters.
Listen to "The Green Book Blues", the tune named for "The Negro Motorist's Green Book", a compilation of articles published annually (and then sporadically) in one volume that helped to guide African Americans on vacation trips initially in 1936 for New York State travelers and, one year later, for journeys throughout the United States. This modern blues tune builds off the rock-hard drums and fundamental bass lines, how Ross's processed guitars rails, rants and roars.
The album opens with the rhythmically charged "Farther Unknown" - one of two songs penned by bassist Gibbs, the piece dances in on delightful and hypnotic drums while Ross rises over the band with searing sounds. Still, the tune quiets down for a gentle guitar melody over the composer's chordal bass lines. Gibbs also contributed the title track. Opening as a soulful ballad, the music slowly builds upon the bass and quiet drums for the first few minutes until the intensity levels rises; then, in a manner reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix, the thrumming bass, the rampaging drums, and the soaring guitar lines that roar even as they convey the melody, the music careers forward only to suddenly return to the opening melody before the sustained guitar chords fade away.
The album's one song from outside the band is a powerful reading of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." The various guitar lines and fuzz bass intro leads to a plaintive reading of the melody, originally recorded as an acoustic ballad. Ross's elongated notes slowly move forward until Lewis's drums (seemingly at the bottom of the sound spectrum) fade in and out threatening to upset the proceedings but never take over.
"The Terror End of Beauty" is Harriet Tubman's third album since signing with Sunnyside Records. If you listen back to the band's 1998 debut recording "I Am A Man", you can hear that band's vision was fully firmed at that time. Two decades later, that vision has been been expanded while its focus has sharpened. Like the indispensable "...Green Book", Harriet Tubman (The Band) visualizes the pitfalls and dangers of the road ahead without offering panaceas but by being honest, open, and "in your face", all the while the music is in your ears and mind.
One gander at the cover of "The Stylings of Champian", the new self-released double-disc set from pianist/vocalist Champian Fulton, and it's summer again. One listen to this breezy album, decked out with standards and jazz favorites, and you'll be bopping your head. tapping your feet, wishing you were on the beach. She's in the company of her "New York Band" - the rhythm section consists of bassist Hide Tanaka and drummer Fukushi Tainaka with her father Stephen Fulton bringing the dusky sounds of his flugelhorn to many, but not all, of the tracks. Listen to how Dad swings on "I Only Have Eyes For You" and it's easy to hear Ms. Fulton learned how to swing. Thanks to her father, her first paying gig was the 75th Birthday celebration for his friend Clark Terry - she was 10 years old at the time.
Not only can Ms. Fulton play piano but she has a delightful, distinctive, voice. Listen to the vocal-bass duet on "Body and Soul" - she moves through the lyrics like a saxophonist, embellishing the melody like a saxophonist. The interaction of that voice and the rich tones that Tanaka creates plus the fact that the song is a compact 3:14 and it's a true winner. Throughout, the musicians create an intimate feeling on every song. Even when there's swinging with a purpose, the focus is on playing together and making older songs sound fresh and ones that the listener may not remember or even know (such as "Martha's Prize" from the pen of Cedar Walton) fascinating adventures.
One can hear echoes of Fred Astaire on Irving Berlin's "It's a Lovely Day" - the great dancer was also a delightful interpreter of popular songs. Father Fulton's flugelhorn dances along gracefully leading to a sly and sweet romp by his daughter. Her vocal on "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" (from the team of Rodgers and Hart) is supported by the dancing drums and highly melodic bass. When Ms. Fulton moves into her solo, the three musicians move as one. Her reading of "Lonesome and Sorry" (first recorded in 1926 by Jean Goldkette's Orchestra as well as Ruth Etting) leans a bit closer to the 1962 version by Nat "King" Cole yet still has a playful "swing" to it.
The album closes with a quartet reading of "All the Things You Are", an energetic reading that opens with a high-powered flugelhorn solo as the rhythm sections dances underneath. Ms. Fulton with an understated romp before the bassist struts her stuff. The song also features drummer Tainaka trading fours with father and daughter before the song closes on a coda that suggests the opening.
"The Stylings of Champian" is a treat from start-to-finish, filled with strong songs and excellent musicianship. Champian Fulton is both a delightful pianist and an evocative, assured, singer, never just "going through the motions" to show off her "chops" but making each song her own. This, her 10th album, is well worth exploring and enjoying!
Way North is a quartet (three Canadians, one American) who organized in Brooklyn NY, in 2014. Composed of Rebecca Hennessy (trumpet), Petr Cancura (tenor saxophone, clarinet), Michael Herring (acoustic bass), and Richie Barshay (drums), they are each so busy as musicians, teachers, and festival organizers (Cancura is the Programming Director of the Ottawa International Jazz Festival) that they only get together sporadically to play. When they do, the music they create is a delightful amalgam of early jazz, gospel, and blues influences played with a sweetness and dedication that is truly "soul-deep". The member's choice of material, original songs to interpretations of early jazz classics, will remind some of the classic Chicago trio Air; especially because the two "classic tunes" are Jelly Roll Morton's "Buddy Bolden's Blues" and "King Porter's Stomp", both of which appeared on the 1979 album "Air Lore."
"Fearless and Kind" (self-released) is the band's second release and the connection to Air's (Henry Threadgill, Fred Hopkins, and Steve McCall) classic work cannot be denied. The lack of a chordal instrument (although, like Hopkins, Herring is a melodic bassist), the active yet sensitive drummer, and the desire to show jazz is an ever-changing river of sounds are what connects them. It's such a treat to hear tunes such as "You Know A Song" and how Hennessy wraps her brash trumpet sounds around the buttery, bluesy, tones of Cancura's tenor while Herring and Barshay dance beneath them. Dance is a major component of many of the songs. "Boll Weevil" opens the proceedings - with its "second-line" drums and bouncing bass, the songs jumps forward with powerful solos from both tenor sax and trumpet. I dare you to sit still. The muted trumpet introduces the title track, a ballad that moves ever-so-slowly. Listen to how Ms. Hennessy interacts with the bass and drums during her sweet solo. Then, the tenor sax rises up "testifyin'" as the rhythm section "drags" the beat.
The quartet is not stuck "in the tradition" but expands upon the various possibilities. The raucous and highly-charged "Airport to Knowhere" barrels forward on a head of percussive steam while "Birds for Free" has a sweet Caribbean feel in its rhythmic drive yet moves in numerous directions throughout the hardy tenor solo and high-powered trumpet spot. Kudos to Mr. Barshay - his "stop on a dime" reflexes give the piece such its playful feel (with a subtle nod to the classic Atlantic Records Ornette Coleman Quartet). The sweetness of the melody on the closing track,"The River's Flow", the intelligent interactions (such fine counterpoint throughout from Herring), and the splendid musicianship fills this observer with wonder. The four musicians try listen to each other. This music is not about "showing off" but about communal creativity. The little touches on the track - the saxophone and trumpet without the rhythm section for 30 seconds, Barshay's "dancing hands" that support the bass solo - is so joyous. I know consumers want music that fits their expectations but "Fearless and Kind" with its endless possibilities, really should opens one's ears to the delight of creative interactions. Yes, there's plenty of rhythmic fun, numerous strong solos, but Way North is a true band, a honest collaboration of like minds, whose spirit and musicianship brings this listener such bliss. For more information, go to waynorthband.com. Here's a cut to savor:
Over the past 13 years, bassist, composer, and record label owner Matt Ulery has proven himself to be one of the more adventurous souls in contemporary music. Sit through one of his albums and you'll hear elements of jazz, "prog-rock", art music, classical strains and much more.
That description hold true on his latest effort. "Sifting Stars" (Woolgathering Records) is his eighth album as a leader. The program is two distinctive suites played by two very different ensembles. The first four songs features the Sifting Stars Orchestra, a 16-piece unit (although all 16 do not play together on each track) along with vocalists Grazyna Auguscik or Katie Ernst on three of the tracks as well as four members of eighth blackbird, the wonderful Chicago-based chamber sextet.
Photo: Harvey Tillis
The opening two pieces have arrangements that feature an emphasis on the strings. Ms. Auguscik's voice is featured on "The Remanent of Everything" telling a story of loneliness and disconnection, all the while the strings flow in and around her with both the melody and arrangement being quite lovely. Ms. Ernst, bassist in the trio TwinTalk and a solo artist in her own right, takes the lead vocal on "Pictures in Grey", a fascinating song with lush film-noir string sweeps plus a section with a rhythmic pattern influenced by Steve Reich. The voice becomes part of the ensemble and one must literally "go with the flow' of words and melody.
The six person brass section is more prominent on the next two tracks. Ms. Auguscik returns for "I'm So Shallow" that, after repeated listenings, sounds like a blend of a Paul McCartney melody with a Philip Glass arrangement. Yet, one grasps for comparisons; other listeners will hear other songs in this music. At times gentle, over times, the music becomes darker. The fourth song is all instrumental. "The Prairie Is a Rolling Ocean" is another melody with trombones, French horn, bassoon, and trumpets blending with flute to move the piece forward. There is a splendid pianist solo from Ulery's long-time musical partner Rob Clearfield with different horns and reeds rising out of the background to create a compelling counterpoint.
The album then shifts sonic gears. "Ida" is a six-part suite performed by Axiom Brass, a quintet also based in Chicago. Ulery was inspired to write the suite after viewing the Ivan Albright painting, "Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida" (see it here). Here, the composer creates a world for the character in the painting, what she may be thinking and feeling at the moment captured by the artist. Look and listen. Do you see and hear emotion? Are their feelings that are not easily defined by mere words but better by the sounds you hear? "Sifting Stars" is quite a recording. Not only does the music created by Matt Ulery, the Sifting Stars Orchestra, and Axiom Brass make you pay attention but it also transports one beyond the everyday, the mundane. This is an album for a cold morning as the sun rises or late in the evening when the house is quiet and the streets are still. Give this music time and you will be moved. For more information, go to www.mattulery.com. Here's one of the tracks:
Sifting Stars studio orchestra:
Matt Ulery – double bass and voice Rob Clearfield – piano Michael Caskey – percussion Grazyna Auguscik – voice Katie Ernst – voice Yvonne Lam – violins Jeff Yang – violins Aurelien Pederzoli – violas Nick Photinos – cellos Michael Maccaferri – clarinets Nathalie Joachim – flutes Ben Roidl-Ward – bassoons Andrew Nogal – oboes and english horns Liz Deitemyer – french horns James Davis – trumpets Chad McCullough – trumpets Steve Duncan – trombones Chris Shuttleworth – trombones
Dorival Puccini – trumpet Kris Hammond – trumpet Melanie Erena Kjellsen – french horn Mary Tyler – trombone Kevin Harrison – tuba
Photo: The Chicago Reader
Trumpeter and composer Russ Johnson has been one of the busier musicians for the past quarter century. A list of his associations on record and the bandstand includes artists such as Lee Konitz, Steve Swallow, pianist Kris Davis, bassist Matt Ulery, alto saxophonist Greg Ward, and a host of others. He was a member of the Other Quartet and has recorded seven albums as a leader or co-leader. It's easy to hear why. He possesses quite a powerful and expressive sound plus a facile mind.
His newest album, "Headlands" (Woolgathering Records) is his third since leaving New York City for the midwest. Since 2010, Johnson has been Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Wisconsin/Parkside. Located 65 miles north/northwest of Chicago, IL on the shores of Lake Michigan, the trumpeter is often in the Windy City for gigs. The program is a 12-song suite, through-composed with six songs, 4 short improvisations (one for each member of the ensemble), plus a theme at the beginning and a longer reprise at the close (notice how the bass line is similar to that of the "hook" of Sly Stone's "Thank You (Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin"). Joining Johnson is bassist Ulery, Rob Clearfield (keyboards), and Jon Deitmeyer (drums) - the album recalls the work of Miles Davis in 1969 just before "Bitches Brew", the music channeling mainstream jazz, rock elements, fiery passages, and impressive interplay.
Photo: The Chicago Reader
But Davis comparisons aside, this music moves in its own creative fashion. There are moments when the blend of the active drums with the bass serving often as counterpoint to the soloist, the atmospheric electric piano while the trumpet plays flowing melody lines stand out. The handsome "Fjord" and the darker "Kapoj" are pieces that open in a quieter fashion but both tunes pick up in intensity along the way, especially the latter cut. And there are times when the quartet breaks into hard-edged pieces that push against any soft edges, with roiling sounds from both Johnson and Clearfield plus powerhouse work from the bass and drums. Tunes such as "Serpent Kane", the roller-coaster-like "Mons Calpe", and "Wellenpeitschen" offer a much different feel. The last track mentioned starts quietly with an handsome trumpet intro before the the rhythm section kicks in and the music takes off. The title can be translated as "wave whip" - one hears that in the kicking drums and the rapid-fire melodic lines.
The liner notes state that the suite is "...intended to be listened to in its entirety." That makes great sense, although s few people have the patience to do that on record. You actually do not realize this is a "live" album until the applause comes in at the end. Russ Johnson has created music on "Headlands" that may remind you of the stormy months and events of the late 1960s, a time that many people have been equating to what's been happening in the United States for the past decade. "Headlands" is an album one can play play several times in a row and discover new elements each time. Give it a try.