Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – February 2017

February is Black History Month, so let’s talk about blackness in jazz. That’ll be fun, right?

The Grammy Awards were held at the beginning of the month, and their jazz categories are about as unrepresentative of the real state of the music as it’s possible for anything to be, but let’s start there anyway. There are four jazz categories, and one that’s sort of jazz-adjacent in my opinion, so we’ll cover that one too.

Across all five categories — Best Improvised Jazz Solo, Best Jazz Vocal Album, Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, and Best Latin Jazz Album — only five out of 25 nominees were black. Saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, son of John, was nominated for a solo on an original composition, and lost to guitarist John Scofield, an old white man performing a Hank Williams song. Gregory Porter and his hat won for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Pianist Kenny Barron was nominated for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, the key category, as was saxophonist Joshua Redman (in a duo with pianist Brad Mehldau); they both lost to, yep, John Scofield. There were no black bandleaders nominated for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. Trombonist Wayne Wallace co-led one of the Best Latin Jazz Album nominees, but did not win.

I’m not going to argue that any of the jazz Grammy nominees were undeserving (well, except teenage pianist Joey Alexander — I hate that kid, I hate that he gets the amount of press he gets, and I wish he and his enablers would collectively fuck off). I am going to say that it’s a shame that albums like JD Allen’s Americana, DE3’s Live At Maxwell’s, Jeremy Pelt’s #jiveculture, Logan Richardson’s Shift, and Marcus Strickland’s Nihil Novi (to name just a few) were not nominated. But the Grammys only point to a larger phenomenon in jazz at the moment, which is that it’s an increasingly non-black music, at least in terms of who’s putting out albums.

The majority of jazz albums I have been sent, in the last few months at least, and probably for the last few years, have been by white artists. Europeans, Brooklynites, Canadians…the music is frequently great, but for anyone who grew up listening to jazz recorded between the 1940s and the 1990s, it’s a goddamn weird feeling. When I was first diving into this music, the white players whose work I liked — Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Charlie Haden, Dave Holland, and others — stuck out as notable exceptions. They were guys finding their way into a predominantly, and fundamentally, African-American discourse. And they were surrounded by black musicians, even within their own groups. Now, it can seem like the reverse is true. I get a ton of records by all-white bands, or albums with only one black band member. And sometimes those will be a couple of young guys collaborating with an old master, which is great: a tradition’s being kept alive in a spirit of honor and respect. It seems (because this is purely anecdotal, based on the records landing in my inbox and my PO box) much less common lately for a group of white musicians to have a black peer in the band with them.

Don’t get me wrong. White musicians are making great jazz. And there are still excellent black players around. In next month’s column, I’ll be talking about trumpeter Christian Scott, who’s creating some of the most innovative music around right now (and whose custom horn is just baffling-looking), as well as pianist Christian Sands, and other musicians not named Christian, too. This is just something that I felt deserved a little bit of discussion.

It’s about more than who’s making the music, of course — it’s also about who’s listening to it. I read a book this month that spun my head around, that made me think about jazz history in an entirely different way, and that sent me on a deep Spotify dive (and CD-buying spree) that hasn’t ended yet. Bob Porter is a legend in the jazz business: He’s produced close to 200 albums, written liner notes for hundreds more, served as a reissue producer for the Savoy and Atlantic labels, and been a DJ on Newark, NJ jazz station WBGO for close to 40 years. At the end of 2016, he published Soul Jazz: Jazz In The Black Community, 1945-1975, and it’s an absolute revelation.

The history of jazz from the 1940s to the present, as carved in stone by critics and historians, tends to focus on a small number of players: Louis Armstrong, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker. These are all people who moved the music forward either by being the best to ever pick up their instrument, or making other types of creative breakthroughs. But this narrative of relentless innovation and furrowed-brow artistic questing has done a lot to shape jazz’s image as art music, rather than entertainment. What Porter does in Soul Jazz is focus on the players who were selling records and drawing crowds, rocking the house and getting people dancing.

As Porter explains it in his introduction:

While jazz writers have routinely dealt with musicians of all races, their work has generally reflected the point of view of an integrated community. In an ideal world, perhaps that is the way it should be. But that is not the way it was in the period covered by this book. The America of 1945 was a segregated country, and while the legal underpinnings of discrimination would fall during this time, the effects of those policies would linger. Black communities had their own heroes, and black fans of jazz had their own way of responding to the music. Those attitudes rarely reflected the values represented in the jazz press: most jazz writers of the fifties and sixties did not come to Harlem to hear music.

The book is absolutely best experienced with Spotify open, so you can call up a specific record that interests you as soon as it’s mentioned, because Porter keeps it moving. His writing is fairly dry, and long stretches consist of little but litanies of songs and performers, with minimal critical description. Some players and phenomena (the popularity of the Hammond B3 organ, for example) do get examined in more detail, but Porter has so much ground to cover that a lot of the book seems to be in fast-forward. He’s not telling a story as much as info-dumping.

But the info he’s dumping is invaluable, from a listener’s perspective. One guy (of many) I came away from Soul Jazz determined to know more about was alto saxophonist Hank Crawford. He spent several years in Ray Charles’ band, where he was a useful voice in the horn section, but where David “Fathead” Newman got most of the solos. Crawford made his real mark as an arranger. When you hear Charles songs from the late ’50s and early ’60s, the punchy, bluesy sound of that band is as much due to his charts as to Charles’ leadership. After going on his own in 1963, Crawford led a band that was a popular touring attraction. But he didn’t break out as a solo star until the early 1970s, when he signed with the CTI label. Albums like Wildflower, Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing, and We Got A Good Thing Going contained a mix of jazz standards, soul and pop tunes, and a few originals, with lush arrangements that included strings, vocalists, and large bands. They’re about as good as ’70s groove jazz gets; Crawford’s soloing is melodic and heartfelt, and the orchestrations, particularly on Wildflower, are emphatic and never gooey. Many of his albums are out of print on CD, but there’s a ton of Crawford on Spotify, including the bulk of his CTI catalog, which is the ideal starting point in my opinion.
Stream his version of Stevie Wonder’s “You’ve Got It Bad Girl”:

Now, on to (mostly) new music!

Pianist Craig Taborn is going to have a moment in the spotlight over the next couple of months. He’s got two albums coming out under his own name, and is prominently featured on another that’s guaranteed to inspire waves of critical love.

His third album for ECM, Daylight Ghosts, is a quartet session with three highly regarded collaborators: Chris Speed on saxophone, Chris Lightcap on bass, and Dave King (of the Bad Plus) on drums. Taborn’s piano style is forceful, but in a very different way than Cecil Taylor or Matthew Shipp; Taborn isn’t interested in demolishing the keyboard like Taylor, and he doesn’t burrow into the low end like Shipp. He tends to create small cells of melody and pick at them, working them over and over until they yield some kind of miniature cathartic explosion. Consequently, Lightcap and King seem to see it as their job to lock into a pattern behind him, rather than try to shift the music around much. This is furrowed-brow music, beautiful in an austere and focused way.

ECM doesn’t stream, but they’ve created an EPK for the album:

Taborn also has a new vinyl-only release out. Ljubljana is a live duo encounter with saxophonist Mats Gustafsson (the Thing, Fire! Orchestra), on Clean Feed. It’s composed of two side-long pieces that find the pianist working in a more Taylor-esque style, running at times quite frantically up and down the keyboard as the saxophonist does his usual, extremely forceful thing. He pops the valves, he screeches, he bellows from the very bottom of the horn’s range. Taborn, no matter how much he’s playing, always comes across unperturbed, though. The two of them rarely seem to lock in — they’re playing simultaneously, rather than together, but the results are still exciting.

Finally, Taborn takes a sideman’s role on guitarist Miles Okazaki’s Trickster, due out in March from Pi Recordings. Okazaki is a member of saxophonist Steve Coleman’s band Five Elements, as are bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman. Taborn is the odd man out. The music shuffles and stutters, and the guitar and piano play against each other more often than together. Okazaki’s an eruptive guitarist, but not a shredder; notes explode off the strings in bursts, but his phrases always retain an essential coherence. This allows Taborn to do more or less what he does on Daylight Ghosts, lingering in an introspective zone that’s closer to modern classical than jazz.

Stream “Kudzu”:

Larry Coryell – Coryell (Real Gone)

Guitarist Larry Coryell died on 2/19; he was 73, and had just finished a two-night stand at New York’s Iridium. He was a fantastic player who’d been around since the ’60s, and was a crucial figure at the dawn of jazz-rock fusion. His 1970 album, Spaces, featured John McLaughlin on guitar, Chick Corea on keyboards, Miroslav Vitous on bass, and Billy Cobham on drums, before the formation of Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return To Forever, or Weather Report. This album, from 1969, has never been on CD before. Some of it is cheesy, dated rock (“Sex,” “Beautiful Woman”), complete with amateurish vocals, but it’s all worth it for the nine-minute “The Jam With Albert,” which is a Hendrix-level explosion featuring amazing bassist Albert Stinson (who died shortly after the recording, which is why you’ve never heard of him) and drummer Bernard Purdie.

The album’s not streaming anywhere, but “The Jam With Albert” has been on several Coryell compilations in the past. Check it out below:

Harriet Tubman – Araminta (Sunnyside)

Guitarist Brandon Ross, bassist Melvin Gibbs, and drummer JT Lewis are Harriet Tubman. They’ve all been around forever: Ross has played with Henry Threadgill, Gibbs was in Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society (and the Rollins Band), and Lewis was part of Herbie Hancock’s Rockit Band in the mid ’80s. As Harriet Tubman, they blend blues, dub, funk, and art-metal into swirling storms that never quite explode. On this, their first studio album since their 1998 debut, they’re joined by trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, whose mournful, reverbed cries blend perfectly with the band’s moody shuffles and thunderous grooves.

Stream “The Spiral Path To The Throne”:

William Hooker – Aria: The Italy Project (self-released)

Drummer William Hooker is a human avalanche of a player who’s been around since the New York loft jazz scene of the early 1970s, and who’s collaborated with figures from across the musical spectrum. David S. Ware and David Murray were guests on his early albums, and in the 1990s he recorded and performed (separately) with Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth. His latest album is an ambitious project that features Welf Dorr, Richard Keene, and Louie Belogenis on reeds, Mark Hennen on piano, On Davis on guitar, and David Soldier (of the Soldier String Quartet) on violin and guitar. The music combines segments of wild, theatrical improvisation with compositions that draw upon Italian folk music (Hooker’s wife is Italian) but take it into unexpected and wholly new realms. In addition to drumming, Hooker declaims poetry. This isn’t jazz, exactly; it’s an entirely unique blend of art song, modern composition, and improvised awesomeness.

Stream “Impro II”:

Akua Dixon – Akua’s Dance (Akua’s Music)

Cellist Akua Dixon has led one of those incredible careers you never notice unless you’re looking closely. She’s recorded with Archie Shepp, Don Cherry, Woody Shaw, Max Roach, and many other jazz legends; she created the string arrangements for Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill; and at the beginning of her career, as part of the Apollo Theatre pit band, she backed Barry White and James Brown. On her latest album as a leader, she picks up a new instrument, the baritone violin, for six of its 10 tracks. On most of the album, she’s joined by guitarist Freddie Bryant and bassist Kenny Davis; on three pieces, though, Russell Malone is on guitar and Ron Carter on bass. Victor Lewis drums throughout. Dixon plays the violin like a cellist, emphasizing long, slow lines and never going for fast, showy solos. This gives the music a stateliness that risks turning it into chamber jazz, but Lewis’ drumming keeps it swinging.

Stream “Akua’s Dance”:

David Gilmore – Transitions (Criss Cross)

This is guitarist David Gilmore’s fifth album as a leader, but his first for the Criss Cross label. He’s had a long career, playing with a number of high-profile figures including Christian McBride, Don Byron, Greg Osby, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Muhal Richard Abrams, among many others; he was also a member of Steve Coleman’s Five Elements throughout the 1990s. Here, he’s backed up by some excellent players, including tenor saxophonist Mark Shim, pianist Victor Gould (whose 2016 debut Clockwork is fantastic, and who’s also on trumpeter Jeremy Pelt’s new album Make Noise! — seek that one out), bassist Carlo DeRosa, and drummer E.J. Strickland. Harmonica player Grégoire Maret guests on a version of Toots Thielemans’s “Bluesette,” and vibraphonist Bill Ware joins in when the band essays Bobby Hutcherson’s “Farralone.” This is a multifaceted album that bounces from ferociously swinging bop (they burn through trumpeter Woody Shaw’s “Beyond All Limits”) to rhythmically intricate explorations, and ends with a thoroughly transformed version of Hermeto Pascoal’s “Nem Um Talvez,” a piece you won’t recognize at all if you’re only familiar with the near-ambient version on Miles Davis’s Live-Evil.

Stream “Beyond All Limits”:

David Weiss & Point Of Departure – Wake Up Call (Ropeadope)

Trumpeter David Weiss leads two fantastic bands devoted to honoring and updating jazz history: the Cookers, an all-star team of ’60s and ’70s veterans, and Point Of Departure, a group of youngsters who explore the territory where hard bop and early fusion meet. POD started out putting their own spin on tunes by Andrew Hill, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, and undersung Detroit keyboardist Kenny Cox — music from the mid to late ’60s that was adventurous but still hooky enough to lure in almost any listener. On this album, Weiss has revamped the lineup, making it a two-guitar group (Ben Eunson in particular is a shredder, with Travis Reuter providing support), and expanding the book to include pieces by Mahavishnu Orchestra and Grupo Um, a Brazilian fusion outfit. The music seems to shimmer in the air, as Weiss and saxophonist Myron Walden essay the melodies in thoughtful unison and bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Kush Abadey pound the rhythms home.

Stream “Sanctuary”:

Ken Fowser – Now Hear This! (Posi-Tone)

Tenor saxophonist Ken Fowser made four albums with vibraphonist Behn Gillece before stepping out on his own. This is his second release with a group that includes trumpeter Josh Bruneau, pianist Rick Germanson, bassist Paul Gill, and drummer Jason Tiemann. Like last year’s Standing Tall, it’s a blast of high-energy, classicist hard bop, straight from the 1950s or early 1960s, but without ever sounding retro. The songs swing and groove, offering a strong dose of the blues and foot-tapping, head-nodding rhythms at all times, and the two horns’ voices are extremely well-matched — Fowser blows hard, while Bruneau goes high with fleet, rippling lines. This is a modern equivalent to Peckin’ Time, a classic album co-billed to saxophonist Hank Mobley and trumpeter Lee Morgan, released on Blue Note in 1958. If you’re in the mood for high-energy jazz with an old-school feel, this will put a smile on your face.

Stream “Blast Off”:

Chicago/London Underground – A Night Walking Through Mirrors (Cuneiform)

Cornet player Rob Mazurek and drummer Chad Taylor have been working together for a couple of decades now, as the Chicago Underground Duo (and Trio and Quartet and Orchestra, depending on who joins them for a given record) and as part of some of Mazurek’s many other groups. On this disc, two British improvisers, pianist Alexander Hawkins and bassist John Edwards, join them for a one-off live session. The music is loud — Edwards attacks his bass like no one I’ve ever heard, and Mazurek feeds his cornet through an array of pedals, turning notes into smears and echoing sputters, as Hawkins and Taylor work in a free jazz mode, battering the keys and the skins without mercy. But it’s also thoughtful; everyone is listening to everyone else, and knows when to drop out and let an individual voice cut through and be heard. Hawkins’ solo closing out the 24-minute opening piece is almost classically beautiful.

Stream a section of “Boss Redux” (the full track runs 21:32):

Josh Green & The Cyborg Orchestra – Telepathy & Bop (self-released)

The name of saxophonist Josh Green’s band, the Cyborg Orchestra, might make you think it’s a laptop exercise, or maybe a room full of remotely operated instruments like the Orchestrion that Pat Metheny recorded and toured with a few years ago. But it’s not; they’re a big-ass band that includes trumpet, trombone, three reeds players, accordion, guitar, piano, bass, drums, and seven string players. He’s not really interested in blare, or Ellington-esque swing, though. Most of the time, he subdivides the ensemble so only a few voices are being heard, with others jumping in to add accents as necessary. Drummer Josh Bailey has a heavy, thumping style, and the unexpected instruments — Nathan Kochi’s accordion, Sungwon Kim’s stinging, very electric guitar — jump out like they would from one of John Zorn’s 1980s collage/jump-cut compositions. The strings stab and zing, rarely smoothing things out if they can make them even more twitchy and suspenseful instead. This is genuinely exciting large-ensemble music that orders off every page of the menu.

Stream “Boy & Dog In A Johnnypump”:

Mostly Other People Do The Killing – Loafer’s Hollow (Hot Cup)

Mostly Other People Do The Killing, led by bassist Moppa Elliott, have been confusing and amusing jazz fans since 2004. Early albums came wrapped in sleeves that affectionately parodied classic jazz discs by Art Blakey, Ornette Coleman, Roy Haynes, and Keith Jarrett, and in 2013 they caused much critical hand-wringing by recording Blue, a note-for-note cover of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue that even attempted to match the reverb and room sound of the original. But they’re far from mere pranksters; saxophonist Jon Irabagon, drummer Kevin Shea, and now-departed trumpeter Peter Evans are breathtaking talents capable of seamlessly combining hooky bop-derived melodies with wild, adventurous improvisation. (The live album The Coimbra Concert may be the band’s single best showcase to date; on it, they blend pieces into long medleys that really demonstrate their wit, creativity, and interaction.) In recent years, Elliott has developed an interest in New Orleans jazz and other pre-bebop sounds, and that’s the territory being explored on Loafer’s Hollow. The group expands to a septet, bringing in pianist Ron Stabinsky, trumpeter Steven Bernstein, banjo player Brandon Seabrook, and trombonist Dave Taylor, turning swing melodies into platforms for some truly free improvisation.

Stream “Hi-Nella”:

Nick Finzer – Hear & Now (Outside In)

Trombonist Nick Finzer’s third album is a reflection of his optimism in the face of political agitation; tunes have titles like “We The People,” “Race To The Bottom,” and “Love Wins.” The band includes saxophonist/bass clarinetist Lucas Pino, guitarist Alex Wintz, pianist Glenn Zaleski, bassist Dave Baron, and drummer Jimmy Macbride. It’s jumpy, hard-swinging music with forceful melodies. Finzer’s trombone technique is smooth, but the way he lines up with Pino for blaring unison lines on the album-opening “We The People” is enough to blow your hair back. Macbride’s drumming is forceful, with an off-kilter bounce that cuts the beat up into oddly shaped fragments without sacrificing drive. Wintz mostly sits quietly, until there’s a space for a stinging solo; he’s not hovering around chording all the time like a chump. The album closes with “Love Wins,” an atmospheric ballad that’s basically a piano-trombone duo, with everyone else filling in the landscape.

Stream “Love Wins”:

Noah Haidu – Infinite Distances (Cellar Live)

Pianist Noah Haidu recorded for the Posi-Tone label in 2011 and 2013; for this album, he’s moved to Cellar Live. The front line is great: Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, Jon Irabagon on tenor and soprano saxophones, Sharel Cassity on alto saxophone. He’s got two different rhythm sections, depending on the track. Bassist Peter Brendler and drummer Mark Ferber open the album, but eventually Ariel Alejandro de la Portilla and John Davis take over. Most of the record is taken up by the six-part title suite, but the other five compositions work along the same lines. Haidu’s clanging chords can make your fingertips hurt in sympathy; when he starts soloing, though, he exhibits a surprising lightness of touch. The differences between drummers are surprisingly stark. Ferber likes the cymbals, using the actual drums as punctuation more often than not; Davis, on the other hand, has a twitchy energy that makes every track he plays on take flight.

Stream “Momentum” (with de la Portilla on bass and Davis on drums):