Sunday, September 24, 2023

Chicago: Large Ensemble Dreams


Over the past two decades, bassist and composer Clark Sommers seems to have become ubiquitous. He's worked or still works with Kurt Elling, Typical Sister, Chicago Yestet, guitarist Jeff Parker, pianist Darrell Grant, and saxophonist Chris Madsen (among many others). There are really good reasons for his continued employment; not only is he a truly "foundational" bassist but also very melodic.  His composing "chops" are formidable as he has displayed on his two "solo" albums plus his work in the cooperative Ba(SH) Trio (with saxophonist Geof Bradfield and drummer Dana Hall) and with guitarist John McLean in their Quartet.  Like most musicians, the pandemic took him off the road for an extended period of time which gave him the opportunity to work on his composing and arranging skills in the wake of his attending at Master's Program at DePaul University. While there, he attended a Workshop led by the afore-mentioned Dana Hall. That workshop included writing and arranging for a 12-piece band and Sommers created several pieces for that group.

In his time away from touring, Sommers composed numerous pieces for his own 12-member ensemble that would include many of the people the bassist has worked with since moving to Chicago from the West Coast. Scroll down and look at the list of musicians; they are among the "cream of the crop" of the Windy City and the Midwest.  The results of Sommers' work can be heard on "Feast Ephemera" (Phrenology Music/self-released).  Nine songs, 71 minutes of music and not a dull moment to be heard.  Take your time to get into the program. You may notice how delightful the arrangements are or the smart original works that Sommers brought to the sessions. Perhaps it's the impressive solos that stand out for you or the fact that the leader does not take a solo.  On pieces such as "The Rider" and "Pedals", the textures of the horns and reeds as they swirl around the rhythm section as well as the soloists that surprise on first listen.  Also, notice how the section writing makes room for the solos.

Photo: Scott Hesse
Perhaps the most impressive aspect (to my ears) of this program is how the music does not really sound like any other modern large ensemble. The music swings a bit more than that of Maria Schneider and it is not as "spiky" and angular as the music of Darcy James Argue.  Like those two composers (and others like Duke Ellington, Bob Brookmeyer, Miho Hazama, and Jim McNeely), Sommers writes for these friends and musicians, knowing their strengths, their willingness to explore their roles within the music, and to stretch. Listen to "Cave Dweller" below; you'll hear the various voices, including piano, clarinet, flute, and saxophone introduce the opening melody before moving into the theme. Notice the powerful drumming and direction setting of Hall, the powerful bass notes (in step with and counterpoint to the piano accompaniment), all in service of the music.

Dig in to "Feast Ephemera", bask in the brightness of melodies and solos, drink in the sweetness of each performance.  As he showed listeners on 2022's "Intertwine" (Outside In Music) and 2017's "By A Thread" (Phrenology Music), Clark Sommers is an excellent composer, more interested in the arc of the musical stories he and the musicians are telling than in showing how technically fine a player he is.  Sit down and listen, listen deeply!

For more information, go to To hear more and to purchase the album, go to

Explore the "Feast" with "The Cave Dweller":


Clark Sommers-compositions/arrangements & bass, 
Dana Hall-drums, 
Nick Mazzarella-alto saxophone, 
Geof Bradfield-bass clarinet, soprano & tenor saxophones, 
Chris Madsen-tenor saxophone, 
John Wojciechowski-C & alto flutes and alto saxophone,
Tito Carrillo, Russ Johnson-trumpet, 
Joel Adams, Andy Baker-trombone,
Stu Mindeman-piano/keyboards, 
Scott Hesse-guitar 

Friday, September 8, 2023

Tribute and Tributaries

In May of 2021, tenor saxophonist and composer James Brandon Lewis released "Jesup Wagon" on Tao Forms (AUM Fidelity). The music on the album told the inspirational story of George Washington Carver (1864-1943), agricultural scientist, inventor, and community organizer (the Southern farming communities). The recording introduced the world to the Red Lily Quintet. Composed of Lewis, Kirk Knuffke (cornet), Chris Hoffman (cello), William Parker (bass), and Chad Taylor (drums, percussion), the ensemble contains multitudes, playing with creativity, invention fire, and wit. The album made a slew of "Best of" lists later that year and deservedly so.

Lewis and the RLQ is back, this time album inspired by the saxophonist's grandmother.  "For Mahalia, With Love" (Tao Forms) is a nine-song program of spirituals made famous by Ms. Jackson (1911-1972) during the four+ decades she toured the United States and the world.  Many people point to the influence of Gospel music on the blues and "soul" music but certainly Black spirituals have influenced a multitude of artists from Louis Armstrong to Duke Ellington to John Coltrane to Archie Shepp to the wonderful albums of Hank Jones and Charlie Haden (there are plenty more).  Lewis and company lean more to the Coltrane type of "testifying" but unlike the 1965 classic "A Love Supreme", there is only one original work on "For Mahalia"–the program opens with "Sparrow", which includes the melody "His Eye Is On The Sparrow" (composed in 1905 by Charles H. Gabriel and Civilla D. Martin) and the leader's "Even the Sparrow".  

Smithsonian/Museum of African History
This music covers a wide swath of territory. From the fiery saxophone shouts on "Calvary" to the swinging final minutes of "Go Down Moses" to the hard-edged driving force of "Wade In The Water" to the joyous power of "Swing Low", this is music that celebrates Ms. Jackson's legacy and builds upon the lessons learned, the lives lost, and the freedoms gained (and now in jeopardy) over the last 400 years.  The music also builds off the messages in the music adapted from the teachings Blacks learned in their churches, the prayers of hope and freedom that flowed into and out of the music. Check out the sly grooves of "Elijah Rock", the splendid bass solo that opens the piece, the long rubato tenor/trumpet call-and-response, and the mid-song drop into tempo; if that does not makes you want to shout "Hallelujah" for its sweet blend of African, Swing, and Caribbean rhythms, I do not know what will

The Red Lily Quintet is an excellent ensemble and the music James Brandon Lewis creates and/or arranges for them gives each person room to move, to influence the direction, to add to the harmonies, to engage in the call-and-response, and more.  The saxophonist's interactions with Knuffke soar, shout praise, and dance on many of the pieces.  Parker and Taylor are...well....they are a rhythm section par excellence in that one creates the foundation and the other the flow plus the fire. There are times when Hoffman's cello gets covered but he's there, sometimes playing counterpoint to the melody, other times counterpoint to the bass lines.  

All told, "For Mahalia, With Love" is a great collection of songs for many and varied reasons, not the least of which is the the ensemble's powerful playing and the excellent settings created by James Brandon Lewis.  Do dip your feet into this mighty stream!

For more information, go to  To purchase the recording, go to  For a limited time, if you purchase the compact disk or vinyl versions of the album, you receive a second disk features Lewis leading the Lutoslawski Quartet in his chamber music piece "These Are Soulful Days", recorded live at its premiere performance in November 2021 at the Jazztopad Festival in Wroclaw, Poland.  

Revive your spirits with "Swing Low":

Photo: Brian Harkin/NYT
Tenor saxophonist Mark Turner has been collecting critical acclaim since he moved to New York City in the early 1990s.  One might say he has a "cool" tone" but you could also argue he's very much his own man.  In late 2019, Turner recorded "Return From the Stars" for ECM with a quartet featuring Jason Palmer (trumpet), long-time collaborator Joe Martin (acoustic bass), and the young, dynamic, drummer Jonathan Pinson.   That group was invited by photographer and label owner Jimmy Katz (Giant Step Arts) to take part in his label's new series. Titled "Modern Masters and New Horizons", the series is curated by Palmer and drummer Nasheet Waits and will include contributions from artists such as vibraphonist Chien Chien Lu, saxophonists Neta Ranaan and Ben Solomon, drummer Eric McPherson and others. 

The first release in the series "Live at The Village Vanguard" and features the Mark Turner Quartet, the same ensemble on the ECM album. Recorded over two nights in June of 2022, the 11-song, 2+ hours, program features material from the earlier studio recording, new pieces written specifically for this ensemble as well as older Turner originals.  What Katz the producer is get out of the artist's way and lets the band do what they do best–play.  Listen to "Return from the Stars" below to hear how tight the band is, how much they listen to each other, and how this music flows.  "Brother, Sister", first recorded in 2014 for ECM with a different quartet (save for Martin), opens with a long, poetic, powerful, solo tenor sax statement––the band comes in seemingly on tiptoes but pay attention to Pinson on the offbeat and Martin's swinging counterpoint.  Palmer gets a shorter unaccompanied solo before the the band reenters. Now the trumpet and sax play long tones while Martin solos.  Notice how the textures change as the music moves forward. 

The newest piece on the album, "Wasteland", is a fascinating ballad that also opens with an unaccompanied tenor sax solo––this time, one hears a plaintive cry, a sense of deep sorrow or, even, loss of hope that leads to a full group elegy. There are long bass notes, Pinson on his toms, a melody line for the sax and trumpet that starts in unison, moves away, and back but in counterpoint now.  When you listen to the song in total, you realize that not only is it an elegy but also serves as a vehicle for the drummer to create short solos in response to and seeming rejection of sorrow.

Photo: Jimmy & Dena Katz
"It's Not Alright With Me" is, at 18:36, the longest track on the album. The playfulness of the melody brings images of the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet. While the rhythms prances and struts, the band takes its time to move through the melody section.  Martin gets the first solo and it's a tour-de-force, quite melodic yet percussive, careering forward at breakneck speed. Turner's solo starts slowly but he rides the waves created by Pinson to create a masterful, hard-edged, dramatic solo.  

The oldest Turner song on the program, "Lennie Groove", is from the leader's second album, 1998's "In This World".  The piece has a nervous, almost jittery, melody line which does fall into a delightfully swinging "groove".  

"Live at The Village Vanguard" is yet another high water mark in Mark Turner's three decade career.  To me, the best to listen to this album is to sit back, put on headphones, pretend you're at one of the tables at the Vanguard, and let the music play.  There's so much music to listen to so take your time and let them play!

As of now, the best place to find out more about the album is to click on this link:  You can buy copies of the CD at Mark Turner's gigs and there will soon be a Bandcamp link to purchase digital copies. This page will be updated as soon as that happens

Here's the opening track, "Return From the Stars":