Over a dozen short notices of recent jazz recordings, ranging from the traditional to the adventurous, that I find musically stimulating.
By Michael Ullman
A few decades ago, jazz musicians and critics alike were arguing about what jazz was and, more bitterly, attempting to dictate what it had to be. Those dismayed by sometimes heated conversation fretted about the “jazz police.” Nowadays, these controversies seem downright quaint, given that jazz musicians are finding their inspirations in more diverse places than ever, and performing with increasingly eclectic instrumentation.
Of course, today’s musicians pay tribute to their predecessors: among recent recordings, In Movement, Jack DeJohnette’s recent album, honors John Coltrane and Miles Davis. On Basically Baker, the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra performs the big band music of David Baker, and Ken Schaphorst on How to Say Goodbye remembers his mentors Herb Pomeroy and Bob Brookmeyer.
Musicians are reaching out to other genres as well: Robert Glasper includes hip hop in ArtScience; another well-known player, Kenny Garrett, promulgates a potpourri of dance music. Alto player Richie Cole is inspired by love songs. There are unconventional points of artistic departure: trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith is smitten with the national parks, flutist Anna Weber is inspired, obscurely, by the internet; pianist Tigran Hamasyan draws on the compositions of late 19th century Armenian composers.
Diversity has proved to be an exhilarating asset, along with breadth of experience shown by today’s musicians. For example, here is how Hamasyan describes his trio in Mockroot: “For me it’s more like an electro-acoustic Armenian rock trio than a regular jazz trio … Sometimes we sound like a heavy metal band, or a dubstep DJ, or like some late 19th century Armenian composers like Nikoghayos Tigranyan and Komitas, with newer harmonic and rhythmic approaches.”
Jane Ira Bloom, Early Americans (Outline)
The oft-honored soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom — she even has an asteroid named after her — said that what really interests her is the way “sound changes when it moves.” She’s written for dancers, including the Pilobolus Dance Company, for film, performed her impressions of Jackson Pollock paintings , and penned music inspired by Emily Dickinson poems. Bostonians might remember her duet performances with Fred Hersch years ago.
Early Americans, though, is her first trio recording (it features bassist Mark Helias and drummer Bobby Previte). I am not sure which early Americans she is celebrating on this album, but I am pretty sure blues singer Big Bill Broonzy is the subject of the lively “Big Bill.” Bloom’s meaty tone is ravishing and these intense performances are beautifully recorded. On “Nearly,” dedicated to the late Kenny Wheeler, who appeared on her The Nearness and Art and Aviation, Bloom plays solo over the whispers of electronic sounds. The versatile skills of of her rhythm section, both celebrated musicians, are up to Bloom’s high standards: nothing flags when the leader drops out. The disc ends with a memorable solo version of Bernstein’s “Somewhere.” Arts Fuse commentary
Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra, Basically Baker, Volume Two: The Big Band Music of David Baker (Patois)
Originally a trombonist, the late Dave Baker (whom many of us first heard on George Russell small band recordings) was forced to give up his first instrument after a car accident. He switched to playing cello and, more importantly, to writing and to education. He took over the jazz education department at Indiana University and made it into a powerhouse while widening his influence through a series of books on improvisation and arranging. “I can’t think of anything much more honorable than teaching young people to be decent, to be successful,” he proclaimed.
Two of his now professional students, Brent Wallarab and Mark Buselli, have put together their second collection of Dave Baker’s compositions and arrangements. The album opens with a twitteringly complex reed passage that’s soon dominated by a bluesy brass fanfare on the tune “Harlem Pipes.” “Walt’s Barbershop” is a cheery calypso that makes me wonder where Walt came from, whereas “Honesty” begins with a brass choir that could have been composed by Purcell … which yields to a blues. “Kirsten’s First Song” is a gently appealing ballad — the arrangement is marked by shifting, usually muted, colors. Is it a surprise that Baker likes the sound of low brass?
Richie Cole Plays Ballads and Love Songs (Richie Cole Presents)
Richie Cole is a veteran alto saxophonist who probably most noteworthy for his group Alto Madness, which featured a quartet of horns. At the age of 20 he played with Buddy Rich’s big band and many may remember his tours with bebop singer Eddie Jefferson. Born in 1949, Cole hadn’t recorded a ballads album until this one, which features guitarist Eric Susoeff, bassist Mark Perna, and drummer Vince Taglieri. In his ballad performances, Cole makes use of a big tone and a broad vibrato — somehow the result is cheerily extroverted no matter the tempo. The melodies are taken head-on; some of which, such as “The Internationale,” are unusual and unhackneyed choices.
Jack DeJohnette, In Movement (ECM)
Performing with Ravi Coltrane and Matthew Garrison, sons of half the members of the famous John Coltrane Quartet, Jack DeJohnette leads what could almost be called a family affair. The trio kicks off with an intimidating re-make of Coltrane’s somber ballad “Alabama.” Coltrane paid tribute to the children murdered in a racial bombing. Ravi’s solo, which follows a quicksilver introduction by DeJohnette on cymbals, is more suggestive then the forthright original. On the gentle, elusive Bill Evans composition “Blue in Green,” DeJohnette plays piano in a moving duet with Coltrane, whereas the energetic “Rashied” supplies a ripping, insistent tribute to drummer Rashied Ali.
Kenny Garrett Do Your Dance! (Mack Avenue)
Alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett has been recording since the early ’80s. He played with Mel Lewis’ big band and with Art Blakey before recording repeatedly in the late ’80s with Miles Davis. He’s made tribute albums to Miles (Sketches of MD) and to Coltrane (Pursuance). His new disc demands that we should get to our feet and start dancing; it includes a sweetly rocking waltz called “3 Sisters” and an extended rap, “Wheatgrass Shot (Straight to the Head).” There’s “Bossa” and “Calypso Chant” and, closer to home, the hard-driving “Philly” and “Backyard Groove.” Garrett’s challenging notion of high stepping is inventive as well as rhythmically pleasing. Still, I’m not sure what kind of boogie I could do to the intense, Trane-ish alto improvisation on “Philly.”
Robert Glasper ArtScience (Blue Note)
In the works of pianist Robert Glasper, jazz is no more, and no less, than a mix-and-match of styles. He won a Grammy for his nervy mash-up in 2012’s Black Radio. Unfortunately, the styles don’t mesh but collide this time around; ArtScience includes raps, a lecture on injustice by an adorable-sounding child, and soulful vocals by the leader. During the first number on this new disc, Glasper proclaims: “The reality is that my people have given the world so many different styles of music So why should I confine ourselves to one?” So what we have here is a hip amalgam of current sounds, beginning with “This is Not Fear.” Unlike Black Radio, there are no special guest vocalists: Glasper and band do it all.
Tigran Hamasyan, Mockroot (Nonesuch)
Pianist Tigran Hamasyan, who specializes in jazz versions of Armenian folk tunes, explains that Mockroot is “underlined by something that’s very simple, melancholic, and romantic.” I definitely hear that melancholy and simplicity in his solo on “Lilac” and in the wordless vocal to “The Apple Orchard in Saghmosavanq,” though there’s less of that directness in the rhythmically complex, insistent tune “Entertain Me.” Hamasyan’s approach is jazzy and his melodies are resolutely Armenian — the results are unique and fresh. Hamasyan’s music can be melodramatic or, as in “Double-Faced,” quick and witty. He is bringing a brave new world of melodies and rhythms into jazz.
Darrell Katz, Jailhouse Doc With Holes in Her Socks (JCA)
This disc of music written by Boston’s Darrell Katz ends with a delightfully lazy blues for big band, brilliantly punctuated by vigorous solos from guest alto saxophonist Oliver Lake and vocalist Rebecca Shrimpton. The Jazz Composers Alliance big band, which Katz helped found, is featured on the album’s final piece.
Before that, Katz’s compositions, beginning with the eerie “Prayer,” are played by his group Oddsong, with four saxophones, marimba or vibes, and violin. Baritone sax Melanie Howell-Brooks frequently provides the bass line. The group often sounds like a saxophone quartet, though the conversations between violin and marimba are integral. “Jailhouse Doc” is amusing, a kind of stomp interrupted by free-style honking on saxophones. Many of the pieces are inspired by the poems of the late Paula Tatarunis. Some of the tunes have been recorded previously by the JCA, but they are reinvigorated here. A distinguished jazz composer, Katz marches to his own drummer: the beginning of “LLAP Libertango” sounds as if it is featuring a bagpipe.
Frank Kimbrough, Solstice (Pirouet)
Like Darrell Katz, pianist Frank Kimbrough has long been involved with a big band, in his case the New York-based Jazz Composers Collective. He has also been the pianist for the Maria Schneider Orchestra. On Solstice, however, he is with a trio: Jay Anderson on bass and Jeff Hirshfield on drums. I’ve admired Kimbrough’s playing before and in his case I was also drawn to his repertoire: he plays pieces by Schneider, by Carla Bley, drummer Paul Motian, Annette Peacock, and the dependably original, perpetually underrated Andrew Hill. In 1978 for Artists House, Hill recorded a twenty minute version of “From California With Love.” Kimbrough’s probing trio version is more satisfyingly economical. He plays a beautifully serene “Here Comes the Honey Man,” and finishes up with a gentle version of the Schneider masterpiece “Walking by Flashlight.” Kimbrough generates gorgeous earfuls of sound throughout while always remaining thoughtful.
Quinsin Nachoff, Flux (Mythology Records)
Born in Toronto, saxophonist Quinsin Nachoff has written for the Penderecki and Cecilia String Quartets while performing with jazz musicians such as Kenny Werner and Kenny Wheeler. He’s clearly not afraid of bending genres. His group on Flux includes a second saxophonist (the estimable David Binney), pianist Matt Mitchell, and drummer Kenny Wollesen. There is no bassist. The title of his piece “Complementary Opposites” is representative: the piece begins with an neo-boppish theme stated by piano and drums, which is then taken on by the two (alternating) saxes. At the center of the tune there’s a long duet between piano and drums. At times, the rhythm section sounds awkwardly peg-legged; it is as if Eric Dolphy were inspiring the saxophones and Anthony Braxton the rhythm section. “Tilted” begins with a series of phrases played so quickly they are hard to hear, but then the solos come out loud and clear over a raucous backbeat.
Renee Rosnes, Written in the Rocks (Smoke Sessions)
Pianist Rosnes’s top flight quintet on Written in the Rocks includes reed player Steve Wilson, vibist Steve Nelson, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Bill Stewart. Most of the album is dedicated to Rosnes’ “Galapagos Suite,” a series of pieces in which she appears (musically) to be considering the origins of life — or at least the genesis of our lives. The first movement is “The KT Boundary” — the era between the Cretaceous period and the Tertiary that marks the end of the dinosaurs. Rosnes seems pretty cheery about their demise. The gentle “So Simple a Beginning” follows, featuring a flute solo by Wilson. From “Here to a Star” is a sweetly swinging piece with a relaxed solo by the leader that gradually generates heat in its distinctively boppish way. Not all of this album works, but its writing and ambition are impressive.
Ken Schaphorst How to Say Goodbye (JCA)
In this big band album studded with new music stars, such as saxophonist Donny McCaslin and pianist Uri Caine, Ken Schaphorst offers as series of dedications and reminiscences, especially to his colleagues at the New England Conservatory, where he has been the head of jazz studies for almost two decades. “Take Back the Country” celebrates valve trombonist-composer Bob Brookmeyer, who in 2000 (I just learned) bought property in Canada in order to protest the election that year. The texture and flow of this piece aptly captures the easy-going folksiness of Brookmeyer’s work with another NEC teacher, Jimmy Giuffre. McCaslin is featured on the title cut. “Amnesia” is dedicated to Schaphorst’s grandmother, who was increasingly forgetful as she dealt with being an octogenarian. The composition begins placidly but then becomes tense and jagged in its middle section, a recognition of the bedevilments of aging.
Wadada Leo Smith, America’s National Parks (Cuneiform)
Wadada Leo Smith has received a lot of critical attention recently; his genial face adorns the cover of the latest issue of downbeat. It wasn’t always that way: I remember hearing him in the late ’60s with a sparse though aptly attentive audience at the University of Chicago. Even then, his straight-up trumpet sound exuded a confident expressiveness. He has always had a sense of humor. In this two-disc set, which contains a six-movement suite, Smith proclaims the late scholar Eileen Southern, author of The Music of Black Americans, to be a “literary” national park. The piece about her begins quietly: it is an elegy whose mood embraces a hushed expectancy.
The album begins with the movement “New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718. ” Smith’s solo floats over repeated bass and drum figures laid down by bassist John Lindberg and drummer Pheeroan akLaff. Later, pianist Anthony Davis, a major composer in his own right, solos grandly – though obliquely in terms of harmonics — with Ashley Walters’ cello in the background. The suite ends in “The Valley of Goodwill”; Smith has always been a positive, as well as a profound, spirit.
Anna Webber, Binary (Skirl Records)
Saxophonist and flutist Anna Webber performs here with what she calls her Simple Trio: Matt Mitchell on piano and John Hollenbeck on drums. Again, we don’t have a bassist. Half of the dozen pieces here have titles that are spin-offs on “Rectangles.” Despite the repetition, Webber isn’t schematic: along with the insistent “Rectangles 3a,” she offers us the amusing (and stagger-inducing) rhythm of “Disintegrate” and the somehow upbeat “Underwhelmed.” Webber has a lively mind; as a composer she plays with original, if eccentric, ideas. She says her compositions have been inspired by videos and by the internet. Somehow the infatuation with technology generates playful music.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.