Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Continuing the Deep Dive Into the Treasure Trove

Pianist and composer Roberto Magris (born 1959, Trieste, Italy) is truly a citizen of the world. With a long career playing jazz in venues large and small, in big cities and faraway villages, he's become an emissary, an ambassador if you will, for the power of music, the joy of interplay, and for playing this music with and for all generations.  His recordings have paired with drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath, saxophonist Herb Geller, bassist Dr. Art Davis, multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan, drummer Idris Muhammad, and a slew of others.  These albums have both explored the "tradition" as well as creating new pathways of enjoyment.

His latest album, "World Gardens" (JMood Records), finds the pianist in the studio with bass Dominique Sanders, drummer Brian Steven, and percussionist Pablo Sanhueza.  Sharp-eyed readers and listeners will notice a resemblance to the mere recent sounds and ensembles of Ahmad Jamal but the most telling comparison is how music joy both leaders imbue their respective music with.  The new album blends standards, originals, individual pieces from drummer Andrew Cyrille and pop megastar Michael Jackson, and several folk songs into a 75+ minute program that will have you tapping your feet and smiling broadly.  That's not to say the quartet doesn't slow the pace every once a while (the leader's "Another More Blues", Jimmy Dorsey's "I'm Glad There is You" with its slow swing feel, and the lovely Slovenan folk tune "Vse Najilepse Rozice/All the Most Beautiful Flowers" played as a piano solo) but the mood throughout is upbeat and positive.

Right out of the gate, the musicians hit their stride on the late Jackson's mega-hit "Never Can Say Goodbye" - what the leader does well is emphasize both the handsome melody and the rhythms inherent in the song's construction.  The rhythms percolate but never overheat while Magris dances with glee throughout his solo. The quartet takes its time entering the special musical world of "Blue Bamboo" (a Chinese folk song from Yunnan Province) and not how each voice is important to the song, from the elegant percussion to the bass rhythms and counterpoint, plus the powerful piano solo.  Hard to not to be seduced by the powerful rhythmic drive of Magris' "Song For an African Child." With a subtle nod to the rhythms and South African melodies of Abdullah Ibrahim, the piece bounces along with infectious melody lines and playful interactions.

In the midst of the deep chill that comes and goes in the Northeastern states of the US, "World Gardens" will have you dreaming of spring and summer.  Roberto Magris and his delightful band reminds us that dark times and moods can often be alleviated by music that asks nothing more of you than to sit back, relax, and dig the sounds! A special attraction at the close of the album is the "Audio Notebook" of Executive Producer Paul Collins - it's his own review!

For more information, go to www.jmoodrecords.com.

Here's a taste:

Although you might mistake the three men in the photo on the left as cast members of "Law & Order" (pick a version), it's actually (from left to right) Ernesto Cervini (drums, percussion, reeds), Daniel Fortin (bass), and Chris Donnelly (piano, synth, Fender Rhodes, spoons) - collectively, they are known as Myriad3. In Fall of 2018, the trio released its fourth album "Vera" (Alma Records) and the music continues the ensemble's adventures in sound. Earlier albums leaned towards the modern trio sounds of The Bad Plus but this recording is certainly the trio's most inventive and personal document.

Pay attention to the opening three tracks.  Each song tells a story. Donnelly's "Pluie Lyonnaise" is a ballad that has a long introduction with the pianist sticking to chords and the rhythm section creating a solid foundation.  The trio does not rush, takes it time to set the mood before Donnelly takes a classically inspired jaunt. The bass and drums return playing the original tempo and the pianist dances above them.  "Tamboa" starts out with hand percussion then the piano picks up on the rhythm. Soon, Cervini is pushing the tempo on drums. Then, there's a bass solo that leads to a slower-paced piano solo.  Obviously, there's a lot going on here and it strikes this listener that the trio push and prod each other so that the music is not stale. The third track, "Ward Lock", builds off the simple figures created by the bass and piano. Cervini's splendid cymbal work surround the lovely child-like melody played by the piano before the trio moves into the solo section Pay attention to how the musicians are listening to each other, they are all creating the story together.

I could continue, telling you how lovely the following track, "Diamond", but you should discover this for yourself. If you like piano and willing to move away from the styles of Bill Evans, Fred Hersch, Oscar Peterson, Brad Mehldau and so many others, you will hear music on "Vera" that will renew your faith in creative music.  Myriad3 writes its own material (one exception here is Igor Stravinsky's delightful "Piano-Rag-Music"), they usually play the songs on the road before heading into the studio, and one can tell these pieces are not thrown together for the sake of the recording.  Sit with this music, let it flow over you but pay attention - the band does not take short cuts, they don't fill space for the sake of an album, and each piece has its own story.  Took a while for me to discover the beauty and joy in this music. I needed to slow down, take a breath, throw away expectations, and just listen.  "Vera" is delightful from start to finish - just give the music a chance.

For more information, go to www.myriad3.com.

Listen to this track - have fun:

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Her Story, His Music, Our History

Photo: Jon Grönsoos
Wadada Leo Smith (born 1941) first picked up the trumpet at the age of 12 and it seems as if he hasn't put it down since. His studies Took him from his local high school to the U.S Army to Chicago and to Wesleyan University in the mid-1970s.  But his adventures in modern creative music and the creation of his own musical language began in Chicago in 1967 when he met Anthony Braxton, violinist Leroy Jenkins,, and later drummer Steve McCall. Mr. Smith also became involved with the Association For the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) which gave him a forum for his music and willing participants in making sure the music was played and heard. Over the decades that followed, his working and his teaching has taken him from Chicago to New Haven, CT, to CalArts in Santa Clarita, CA, and back to New Haven. He has traveled the world, played music with many different people and in many different styles but he always sought to educate his audience (whether the subject be the music of Miles Davis or the history of Black Music, nature, politics, Rastafarianism, and more. He has played solo, in many duos, trios, quartets, and up to large orchestras. His trumpet is always calling is to attention, making audiences pay attentions, his crisp, clear, tones rising out of his ensembles making us pay attention.

His latest album (to be released February 15), "Rosa Parks: Pure Love", is his eighth recording for TUM Records to be released since 2011 and continues Mr. Smith's work about Civil Rights that began with his brilliant 2012 Cunieform recording "10 Freedom Summers."  That album's material stretched from Dred Scott to Medgar Evers to JFK and LBJ to the Little Rock Nine to September 11, 2001, to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and beyond.  There was also a piece titled "Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days."  That piece is here as well now with words,  performed by Min Xiao-Fen (voice and pipa) and the RedKoral (String) Quartet.  For this project, the music (which Mr. Smith calls an "oratorio") tells a specific story of how that victory over racism set the the stage for the growth of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and the emergence of Dr. King.

Photo: R.I. Sutherland-Cohen
Besides Ms. Xiao-Fen and the RedKoral Quartet (violinists Shalini Vijayan and Mona Tian, violist Andrew McIntosh, and cellist Ashley Walters)  musicians on the album include the BlueTrumpet Quartet (pictured left and featuring Hugh Ragin, Ted Daniel, Graham Haynes, and Mr. Smith, the vocal trio Diamond Voices (Ms. Fen, Carmina Escobar, and Karen Parks) drummer Pheroan akLaff, and electronic musician Hardedge. Mr. Smith also injects into several pieces short excerpts of solo works created by Mr. Braxton, Mr. Jenkins, Mr. McCall, and himself taken from recordings made between 1969-1977.  Mr. Smith wrote all the lyrics save for one piece "No Fear" that is a direct quote from Rosa Parks (1913-2005).

If you lived through this time of American history, this music and these words contain great power.  If you were born after the the 1960s, this recording and these words will begin to educate you about what was happening in the Southern part of the United States.   It is also important that Mr. Smith acknowledges how this project - in fact, all of his work -  has its roots in the friendships, the improvisations, the concerts, that he, Mr. Braxton, Mr. Jenkins, and Mr. McCall played in 1967 (in the US) and in 1969 (in Paris, France).  Still, there is so much to take in, the various sounds, the voices, the blend of group sounds, the importance of what Ms. Parks accomplished with her act of defiance, and how this music invites us in to experience the fears, the anger, the hopes, the dreams, the victories, and the ongoing battles that still plague the United States over 63 years after Rosa Parks refused to move from where she was sitting on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus.

Photo: R.I. Sutherland-Cohen
"Rosa Parks: Pure Love" is an album to listen to all the way through, not to be excerpted, chopped up, or played piece by piece.  There is a flow from beginning to end, a storyline writ by music and words that comes to an end all too soon. This album cannot paint enough pictures to help you experience those days, how the African American community pitched in to defeat the racist policies of a city determined to keep them second-class citizens. Yet, this album opens (for some, reopens) doors that one must enter to understand how we got to now, how the politics of 2019 is built upon the responses and reactions to the events of the 1950s (and before) and the misguided beliefs of certain members of society that have been ingrained since before this country became United.  The enemy of this music is fear and ignorance - is it possible to create dialogue with music? This music, like most powerful music, needs to be experienced in a live setting. Wadada Leo Smith continues to create powerful music, continues to remind us of our history and to pay attention to the beauty as well as the contradictions that surround us. He reminds to also pay attention to those beliefs and insecurities that make us who we are and can lead us down the road to ruin or redemption.

For more information, go to wadadaleosmith.com.

Here's just a short taste of this amazing music:

Monday, January 21, 2019

O, The Adventures You'll Hear & Share

Canadian born saxophonist Quinsin Nachoff has a new double album about to be released in February (2/08) and it's a stunning collection of pieces that run the gamut from free jazz to experimental interactions and beyond.  "Path of Totality" Whirlwind Recordings) features his group Flux, a quartet-quintet that has the tenor and soprano saxophonist in the company of David Binney (alto saxophone, C-Melody saxophone), Matt Mitchell (piano, Prophet 6, modular synth, Novachord, harpsichord, Estey pump harmonium), Kenny Wollesen (drums, Wollesonic percussion on cuts 1, 3, 4, and 6), and Nate Wood (drums on cuts 1, 2, 5, and 6) and, my goodness, do they create a sound! Of the six tracks, two are over 19 minutes long, one at 14, one at 13, one at 8:10, and one at 6:36. Each track is different, four have added musicians, and the overall effect is surprising as well as fascinating.

There is a part of me that wants to illuminate each track for you while, in reality, you just need to find this album, turn it up loud, and dive in.  The project was inspired by a total solar eclipse that took a path from the Northwestern part of the United States across the lower Midwest and into the Southern states. Nachoff, the composer, related the experience to his music, opening his compositions up to different tonalities and ideas that sprang from experiments with melodies, harmonies, and rhythms he had not worked with before.  It certainly helps that Flux is such a talented ensemble, that Mitchell can make any keyboard he touches sound unique.  The use of electronics is both subtle and powerful, the addition of a five-man reed and brass section on "March Macabre" creates a huge sound (plus there's also a tap dancer), and the brilliant interaction of Nachoff, Mitchell, Binney, Wollensen, and multi-percussionist Mark Duggan (marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, crotales, and Tibertan singing bowls) on "Toy Piano Meditation" creates a mini-Gamelan orchestra that obliterates then rearranges your sense of time.

The more I listen, the more I believe this sonic adventure is a form of alchemy, a magical science beyond explanation.  Both drummers capture your attention by how they not only color the surroundings  but push the music forward.  The sound of Binney and Nachoff together will make you listen as they blend their voices as well as stand out individually.  Mitchell shines every time he makes a recording, either on his own or in support of someone else's visions. He can disappear into the ensemble to fill the bottom layer of sound, he can stand out as a soloist, and he puts an indelible touch on every track

"Paths of Totality" contains so much music you'll need to listen numerous times before you begin to hear all that is going on.  Don't be shy as this music will challenge you from note one until the powerful final track, "Orbital Resonances", fades slowly away on the pounding percussion of both Wollenson and Wood.  What a treat - Quinsin Nachoff continues to mature as a composer, musician, and arranger and we are the lucky beneficiaries.

For more information and to watch a series of videos that goes with the music on the album, go to www.quinsin.com.

Here's the exciting title track:

For her third album as a leader, "Wander Wonder" (self-released),  alto saxophonist and composer Allison Au opens the program with a delicious curve ball. The sounds of producer Todd Pentney's Prophet Rev2 synthesizer washes over the Quartet not unlike the synthesized sounds that dominated several of Wayne Shorter's CBS albums in the mid-1980s ("Phantom Navigator" and "Atlantis" in particular).  The rest of the program uses the synth sparingly but the sense of experimentation heard at the top of the album, which one can hear on the other albums Ms. Au has made, is heard throughout.  With the splendid rhythm section of Jon Maharaj (acoustic and electric bass) and Fabio Ragnelli (drums), the music flows forward. Maharaj is a wonderfully melodic bassist whose counterpoint to Pentney's left hand shines on several of the tracks - that counterpoint can be heard during a number of the saxophone solos as well.

Take the time to roll with the music, to follow the dancing alto sax solos that, at times, remind this listener of a bird in flight. Listen to the dancing interactions of "Red Herring" as Ms. Au interacts with Ragnelli while the synth strings color the background.  Her alto sax flies easily to the higher registers on "Looking Up" as Maharaj and Ragnelli dance joyously beneath her.  Dig Marahaj's thick electric bass lines on "The Rest Is Up To You" and the funk passages the rhythm section falls into under the alto theme. During Ms. Au's delightful solo, the rhythm section kicks with glee (also, notice how Pentney rises out int his solo while Ragnelli gives him a martial beat to move in and around.

Really, what I like most about "Wander Wonder" is how this quartet interacts intuitively, how important melody is to each song, how the themes help set up the solos, and how the rhythm section does not play it safe at all.  Sit down, let the music wash over you. Close your eyes, listen to each musician. This is also an album to enter on your own without preconceptions; don't worry about influences or who everybody sounds like, just listen. Then, listen again.  This is not music for impatient people. Take your time. The thrills on this album are often sublime but they are there to savor.

The Allison Au Quartet has won numerous awards in its native Canada and deservedly so. "Wander Wonder" illustrates the band's strengths and how Ms. Au continues to mature as a composer. Check this out!

For more information, go to www.allisonau.com.

Here's the AAQ in the studio:

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.

Photo: lucasgillan.com
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 lucasgillan.com.

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 fredhersch.com.

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 www.third-story.com/listen/fredhersch 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 (steptempest.blogspot.com)

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 www.kirkknuffke.com.

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 www.gregward.us.

Here's an action-packed tune: