Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – January 2017

Welcome to Stereogum’s monthly jazz column! Jazz has an amazing and exhaustively documented past; classic albums are constantly being reissued, and newly discovered live recordings are unearthed seemingly on a weekly basis. But there’s also a ton of fantastic music being made right now, by young and living musicians, and it deserves just as much of your attention. It’s just that it can be harder to get a grip on what’s going on right now, because while jazz is a global and multifaceted music, its online presence isn’t what it could be. For example, a lot of jazz labels are on Spotify, but relatively few are on Bandcamp — and ECM, which regularly puts out amazing and important music, doesn’t believe in streaming at all.

I plan to cover a pretty broad range of music in this space. I like traditional hard bop, raucous free blare, funky soul jazz, knotty improv, delicate chamber pieces, lush big bands and orchestras… you name it. The main thing I hope you’ll take away from this column is that jazz isn’t something you need a master’s degree to appreciate — it’s music, and the only requirement for understanding its appeal (or not, and that’s cool too) is ears. And I’ll be reading the comments, so if there’s a record you think I should hear, by all means let me know.

Oh, about the title: “Ugly Beauty” is a piece by Thelonious Monk, first recorded on his 1968 album, Underground. This year marks Monk’s centennial; he was born October 10, 1917, and Underground was the last album he recorded for Columbia. (He retired from performing in the mid ’70s, and died of a stroke in 1982.)

Now, on to the music…

Have you heard? Jazz has embraced social justice and political activism. The 13th annual Winter Jazzfest was held in New York at the beginning of this month, featuring over 600 musicians performing on 13 stages over the course of six nights. And beyond the excellence of the music, which as always featured a mix of veterans and new names alike, there was a broader message of political engagement. In between performances, there were a number of panel discussions addressing ways musicians and the public could approach environmental and other causes, while remaining true to their art.

This is nothing new, of course. Social and political messages have always found expression in jazz. “Strange Fruit,” perhaps Billie Holiday’s best-known song, is about lynching. Drummer Max Roach and his then-wife, singer Abbey Lincoln, released We Insist!: Freedom Now Suite in 1960 (on the Candid label, for which legendary critic Nat Hentoff, who died this month, served as director of A&R). John Coltrane’s “Alabama” was his response to the death of four young girls in a 1963 Birmingham church bombing. Two of Miles Davis’s greatest live albums, My Funny Valentine and “Four” & More, were recorded at a 1964 concert in support of voter registration in Mississippi and Louisiana. (Of course, in typical Miles fashion, he didn’t tell his bandmates he was donating their fee to the cause, too.) In the late 1960s and early 1970s, saxophonist Archie Shepp made albums like Poem For Malcolm, Attica Blues, and the even more straightforwardly titled Things Have Got To Change and The Cry Of My People.

Long after the upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s, jazz musicians, particularly those on the fringes and the avant-garde, kept political and social engagement central to their music. Arts For Art, the nonprofit organization that’s been putting on the Vision Festival in New York’s East Village for over 20 years, has always included lectures and panel discussions as part of the program, and in recent years, they’ve expanded their scope. On 1/2, they kicked off a three-week concert series, “Justice Is Compassion/Not A Police State,” that included music, poetry readings, and open meetings to discuss community issues, and winds down this weekend.

Of course, this year, politics seems both unavoidable and uniquely horrible; it’s like a rancid fog that coats the inside of your nose and mouth when you’re just trying to breathe. People are genuinely frightened of what the future holds, in a way they haven’t been in a long time, and the highly vocal minority who do support the incoming president don’t seem like the kind of people you can productively exchange ideas with. It’s a weird, demoralizing time, and I wouldn’t fault any musician who chose to pursue escapism, rather than engagement. But saxophonist Noah Preminger (pictured above) is going in.

Preminger’s new album, Meditations On Freedom, is out digitally today, and physically 2/3. Like his last two albums, 2015’s Pivot: Live At The 55 Bar and 2016’s Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground, it was recorded with trumpeter Jason Palmer, bassist Kim Cass, and drummer Ian Froman. Those two discs featured jazz takes on Delta blues tunes, stretching them into mournful but thrilling explorations. This one, on the other hand, is a politically engaged mix of Preminger originals with titles like “Broken Treaties,” “The 99 Percent,” and “Women’s March,” and covers of songs like Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” George Harrison’s “Give Me Love,” and Bob Dylan’s “Only A Pawn In Their Game.”

In the press release for the new album, Preminger says, “I hope the titles of the original tunes — and the encoded messages in the covers — can serve as a conversation starter for listeners and ultimately raise awareness of some subjects I care about, whether it’s women’s rights or climate change or the well-being of Native Americans. I realize that the key thing I can hope to do with music — particularly instrumental jazz, with no words — is to heighten emotions. That said, some of the most beautiful, meaningful creations in the history of jazz have been poetic statements of protest, like John Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’ or Sonny Rollins’ ‘Freedom Suite’ and so many more great examples. I would never put myself in that category, but I’m not alone among jazz musicians today who wonder why it is that we do this. Ultimately it’s important to care about something larger than yourself and that’s what I am trying to convey with this music.”

Here are five more great albums coming out this month:

Matthew Shipp Trio — Piano Song (Thirsty Ear)

Pianist Matthew Shipp is about to release his 17th and final album for the Thirsty Ear label. It’s his second with his current trio, featuring longtime collaborator Michael Bisio on bass and Newman Taylor Baker on drums. Like its predecessor, 2015’s The Conduct Of Jazz, it brings Shipp into direct communication with jazz tradition. Baker is one of the most swinging and groove-oriented drummers he’s ever played with, and tracks like “Cosmopolitan” and “Flying Carpet” showcase a melodic side that’s always been present in his music, but has rarely been the focus in the way it is here. An exclusive stream of “Flying Carpet” is below.

Art Hirahara — Central Line (Posi-Tone)

I first noticed Japanese-American pianist Art Hirahara backing Australian alto saxophonist Nick Hempton on his excellent albums The Business and Odd Man Out. This is Hirahara’s third release as a leader, and he’s joined by saxophonist Donny McCaslin (who played on David Bowie’s Blackstar), bassist Linda Oh, and drummer Rudy Royston. (More about him below.) The music, all written by the pianist, explores his heritage with a blend of swinging, uptempo hard bop, lush ballads, and some traditional Japanese melodies, including the album-closing “Yuyake Koyake,” a song played to let schoolchildren know the day is over. Stream “Central Line” below.

Henry Spencer — The Reasons Don’t Change (Whirlwind)

British trumpeter Henry Spencer makes his debut with this album, on which he’s accompanied by guitarist Nick Costley-White, keyboardist Matt Robinson, bassist Andrew Robb, and drummer David Ingamells. On some tracks, the Guastalla Quartet adds strings. Spencer’s trumpet playing is restrained, but powerful — he’s capable of skyscraping high notes, but deploys them sparingly, preferring to focus on anthemic melodies with a songlike quality. It would be just as easy to imagine these tunes being sung as played on a horn. Robinson, Robb, and Ingamells are a terrific rhythm section, the drummer in particular driving the music hard with beats of an almost rocklike power. Spencer’s got a strong voice as both a composer and a player, and this is a very promising debut. Stream “On The Bridge” below.

Chelsea McBride’s Socialist Night School — The Twilight Fall (Browntasaurus)

Chelsea McBride is a 24-year-old saxophonist and composer who leads a 19-piece big band. She’s studied with Darcy James Argue, whose Secret Society has been pushing large ensemble jazz into new creative realms the past few years. McBride’s music is more conventionally jazzy, but she displays a real talent for orchestration — the conversations between the horns (four trumpets, four trombones, five reeds), laid atop a guitar-piano-bass-drums rhythm section, are fantastic. At times, as on “Foot In Mouth,” they get into a lush but grooving place that makes me think of Earth, Wind & Fire. Stream it below.

Camilla George Quartet — Isang (Ubuntu Music)

Camilla George is a London-based alto saxophonist, born in Nigeria. Her quartet features pianist Sarah Tandy, bassist Daniel Casimir, and drummer Femi Koleoso. The band’s been together since 2014, but Isang is their debut album. They’re tradition-minded players who run through various old-school styles — there are modal numbers, a calypso (one of Sonny Rollins’ favorite forms), and plenty of blues — with energy and creativity, never seeming to coast or make the expected move. George’s tone on the alto is almost clarinet-like, avoiding the sharp edges heard in the work of Ornette Coleman or Jimmy Lyons, and Tandy’s piano work is forceful and never tinkly. Casimir and Koleoso bounce along behind them like they’re trying to keep a balloon in the air. Stream “Mami Wata” below.

There’s one archival release of note out this month, too, on a label that’s been doing a ton of this stuff over the past few years. Check out Larry Young’s In Paris: The ORTF Recordings, John Coltrane’s Offering: Live At Temple University, Charles Lloyd’s Manhattan Stories, and All My Yesterdays, by the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, to name just a few.

The Three Sounds — Groovin’ Hard: Live at the Penthouse, 1964-68 (Resonance)

The Three Sounds, led by pianist Gene Harris, were a bluesy, swinging piano trio active from the mid ’50s to the early ’70s. They made nine albums for Blue Note between 1958 and 1962, and also served as the backing band for saxophonists Lou Donaldson and Stanley Turrentine at times. Their brand of hard bop/soul jazz was extremely popular with black audiences in the ’50s and ’60s, but often went ignored by critics. Groovin’ Hard is a collection of previously unreleased live recordings from the Penthouse, a Seattle nightclub. The CD comes with a thick, informative booklet telling the group’s story. An exclusive stream of “Blue Genes” is below.

The various “best jazz of 2016” lists and critics’ polls that came out last month celebrated a broad range of music, from intimate duos to adventurous big band explorations, but as with every genre, a lot of great records didn’t get the attention they deserved. Here are a few albums from last year that I think deserve to be sought out.

Seamus Blake & Chris Cheek — Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off (Criss Cross)

Many of New York’s best mainstream jazz players record for the Dutch label Criss Cross; unfortunately, the label does virtually no publicity, so you’ve got to keep an eye out for their releases, and they rarely make year-end lists. Saxophonists Chris Cheek and Seamus Blake have now made two albums as Reeds Ramble, backed by Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Matt Penman, and drummer Jochen Rueckert. The eight tunes include one by each hornman, alongside a bunch of standards (including the title track) and new pieces, like “La Canción Que Falta,” by pianist Guillermo Klein. Everything swings, the solos are melodic and bright, and this is both a worthy sequel to Reeds Ramble’s debut and a promise of more great music to come. Stream “La Canción Que Falta” below.

Carlos Falanga — Quasar (Fresh Sound New Talent)

This album came out right at the end of 2016, on Fresh Sound New Talent, another label with no US publicist. So it, too, basically disappeared into the void, which is a shame, because it’s got a lot to offer. Falanga is the drummer; the rest of the band is tenor saxophonist Cesar Joaniquet, guitarist Jordi Matas, pianist Marco Mezquida, keyboardist Jaume Llombart, and bassist Marko Lohikari. The songs are short, and have easy-to-remember melodies like rock instrumentals, with lots of guitar-sax unison playing. The keyboardists work around each other, with Mezquida soloing while Llombart adds atmosphere. Stream “The Duellist” below.

Rudy Royston Trio — Rise Of Orion (Greenleaf)

Rudy Royston is the drummer in the JD Allen Trio, who made my #1 album of 2016. He also records as a leader for trumpeter Dave Douglas’s Greenleaf label, though; this is his second album for them. It’s another trio date, with saxophonist Jon Irabagon of post-bop pranksters Mostly Other People Do The Killing and bassist Yasushi Nakamura. Royston swings hard, and his snare cracks like gunfire. Irabagon is a long-winded player who frequently reminds me of the late Joe Henderson at his most fiery; his solos here start intense and get almost free. Nakamura has a lot of work to do, keeping the music from exploding entirely, but he manages. Stream their version of Bill Withers’ “Make A Smile For Me” below.

Tom Tallitsch — Gratitude (Posi-Tone)

Rudy Royston shows up again on saxophonist Tom Tallitsch’s Gratitude, his fourth Posi-Tone album; they’re joined by pianist Jon Davis, bassist Peter Brendler, and on two tracks, organist Brian Charette. Tallitsch has a big tenor sound, and constructs his solos with pauses for thought and a respect for melody. He also likes to re-arrange classic rock tunes for jazz ensembles; on Gratitude, he turns Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman” into a melancholy ballad, and Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You” becomes an organ-driven gospel/soul-jazz rave-up. But his original compositions have a voice all their own, muscular and introspective at the same time. Stream the album opener, “Terrain,” below.

Christopher Zuar Orchestra — Musings (Sunnyside)

Trumpeter-turned-composer Christopher Zuar turned 29 the day this album was released. When you hear it, you’ll find that as infuriating as I did. He’s an amazingly talented writer, supported by a killer 19-piece band featuring five woodwinds, four trumpets, four trombones, guitar, keyboards, bass, and drums, with vocals and percussion added on a few tracks. He guides the ensemble through surging, atmospheric orchestrations that surround the listener with lush melodies, harmonies and countermelodies that recall Philly soul as much as, if not more than, Duke Ellington or Charles Mingus. Stream “Remembrance” below.