By Allen Michie
This is state-of-the art modern jazz, alternately hard swinging, contemplative, commercial, and abstract.
Artemis, Artemis (Blue Note Records)
What seems to me most remarkable about the jazz collective Artemis is not the fact that all the members are women. While you still can’t say that such groups are exactly common, “all-girl bands” are thankfully no longer considered the novelty they’ve been through much of jazz history. What’s most remarkable about Artemis is the generational diversity. It features master musicians born in the 1960s (pianist Renee Rosnes and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen), fully mature players hitting their prime born in the 1970s (bassist Noriko Ueda, drummer Allison Miller, clarinetist Anat Cohen), and two newcomers to the scene with tremendous potential born in the 1980s (vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant and tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana). This is the way jazz is nurtured and sustained. When it is women doing this for other women, so much the better. When it is an international band including members who are White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, straight, and gay, so much the better still for the future of jazz. And when it sounds this good, all the better for all of us.
This is state-of-the art modern jazz, alternately hard swinging, contemplative, commercial, and abstract. There are solo features, but more often the spotlight is on sophisticated small-group arranging, with particular attention to how Cohen’s distinctive reedy clarinet sounds in combinations with Jensen’s variously open or muted trumpet and Aldana’s dry tenor. The horn players and vocalist have the support of a dream rhythm section, and musical director Rosnes leads from the piano with style and authority.
I’ve been a fan of Rosnes dating from the ’80s. She has since become one of the giants on her instrument as an influential composer, arranger, leader, soloist, and teacher. “Big Top” is her contribution, and she arranged “If It’s Magic,” “Cry, Buttercup, Cry,” “The Sidewinder,” and co-arranged “Nocturno” with Cohen. While her piano playing is predictably excellent here, it’s her arrangements that make this record stand out in her long discography. “Big Top” is the album’s flag-waver, an energetic showpiece that weaves fragments of circus tunes into shifting melodies and grooves that suggest wobbly stilt-walkers taking wide steps in one/two time, tumbling and contorting gymnasts, and of course some swinging trapeze artists (via some swinging bass and drums). Aldana’s tenor sax sounds a bit languid in this lively context, but Rosnes dashes off one of her best solos.
Aldana composed “Frida,” which has a dreamy kind of “Maiden Voyage” feel from Herbie Hancock’s classic Blue Note album. It’s an offshoot of a six-piece tribute to Mexican painter Frida Kahlo that Aldana composed for Visions, her 2019 album. There’s an unexpected twist in the arrangement — one sour note between the trumpet and saxophone that never repeats, and it cracks open a door to some harmonic abstraction that Aldana explores in her relatively long solo. Her tone is dark and dry, something like you’d hear from Joe Lovano or Ernie Watts. While I’m not convinced that Aldana is distinctive enough just yet to place her in the top ranks of today’s tenor players, she is an excellent choice for this band, given the register of her sound and her controlled approach. She and Jensen are their own kind of classic dry toast & melted butter Blue Note pairing, along the lines of Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard.
Jensen recalls Hubbard at times, especially when she uses glissandos and trills in the upper register. She has that warm, rich, full trumpet sound in the tradition of Clifford Brown, Woody Shaw, and Hubbard. It’s a sound that compliments her lyrical approach. There’s nothing brassy or sharp-edged here; Jensen’s attitude is central to the band’s tonality and concept. For example, her arrangement of Lennon and McCartney’s “The Fool on the Hill” is in no hurry to get to the melody — we all know it anyway, so she creates an extended introduction to place it in an unfamiliar harmonic context. Cohen’s clarinet is deployed to create just a hint of the flutes on the original, an example of how good arrangers will write to the individuals in the band. The track also has some collective improvisation, no one performer forcing her way to the front, suggesting a shared wisdom gathered from that old fool.
Drummers are often outstanding composers (see Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette), and the album opens with Miller’s “Goddess of the Hunt.” Miller is a busy but never intrusive drummer: the album’s range of shifting tempos and grooves (and sometimes in the same track) invites the rhythm section to rise to the challenges. Bassist Ueda is mostly a traditional harmonic timekeeper (a flawless one) a bit far back in the mix. I would have liked to hear more from her than just her solo features on “Nocturno” and her own composition “Step Forward.” The latter is a bright waltz that brings out a playful lyricism in each of the soloists.
There’s something that sounds old fashioned enough about the clarinet to make it come off positively cutting edge now. Cohen’s tone is rich and woody, more like Artie Shaw’s than Benny Goodman’s, and her improvisational instincts are grounded in straight-ahead jazz. It would be easy to identify this band in a blindfold test, and that’s largely thanks to Cohen. The arrangers fold her in sparingly and effectively, which gives the group its contemporary sound. Cohen contributes the moody “Nocturno” and carries its melody, which doesn’t always go where you think it’s going to. She engages with bassist Ueda to pass lines and rhythmic phrases back and forth.
Vocalist Salvant may be the most familiar name here to many listeners because she has risen to the very top of the jazz vocal critics’ and listeners’ polls in recent years for all the right reasons. She is an exceptional talent, gifted with beautiful pitch and articulation, and she has a perfect yet seemingly casual sense of jazz phrasing appropriate to each song in her wide and ambitious repertoire. (See Arts Fuse review of Salvant’s The Window) Salvant appears here on only two tracks, and Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic” is the most striking. Salvant typically doesn’t go for the large sweeping strokes of someone like Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan — she focuses instead on how to make the details meaningful. For example, there’s one chorus where Wonder’s lyric rhymes “fails” with “shells”: “Like the day that never fails/Like on seashores there are shells.” It’s a potentially awkward moment for a singer, especially in a quiet acoustic arrangement. Salvant splits the difference between the vowel sounds. Without fuss or effort, it comes out as “shaels,” which ends up coming off as seamless and somehow charmingly southern.
The one track that didn’t quite work for me, but which I’m happily sure that others may like best, is Rosnes’ arrangement of Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder.” It’s a salute to the Blue Note tradition to close out the band’s debut album on the venerable jazz label. Jazz musicians need to make their covers distinctive, but Rosnes drains the song of much of its, well, Blue Notiness. The soulful, finger-popping hard bop of the original is slowed down and given a darker feel. Jensen’s trumpet naturally has some of Lee Morgan’s warmth and drive, but here it is played with a metallic harmon mute and behind the beat. The musicians trade fours (and then twos), another hat-tip to the Blue Note tradition. But the slow tempo keeps the exchanges from building up much steam. It’s an original approach, which is fine, but the concept is forced on a syncopated and upbeat melody that just doesn’t want to stay in a slower and darker mode.
This isn’t a jam band: the tracks are all relatively short, and most are ready for radio. The solos are focused, compact, and not a note is wasted. The cumulative effect is unusual for an all-star band like this — you won’t find a string of long, self-indulgent solos with a spirit of competitive one-upsmanship (the masculine approach?). Artemis was assembled to write as a group, arrange as a group, and play as a group. One of the pleasures of the album is listening for how the soloist rises up from an ensemble arrangement, how the next soloist will overlap with another to pick up a motif or a harmonic pattern, and how individual voices push forward and pull back through the course of a performance.
It must surely be a nightmare to reconcile the schedules of all these A-listers, especially if they want to hold on to Salvant, but I hope that Artemis will continue to record and tour when they can. Perhaps Rosnes can make Artemis a rotating collective as years go by, like Blue Note’s own Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. There is no shortage of talented women playing jazz today, and Rosnes is doing us all a tremendous service by expanding the reach of Blakey’s and Blue Note’s valuable legacy.
Allen Michie works in higher education administration in Austin, Texas, and he has a PhD in English Literature.