Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – March 2017

If you don’t follow Jazz Twitter, you probably missed the biggest (well, loudest, anyway) jazz story of the month. About three weeks ago, pianist Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus published an interview with fellow pianist Robert Glasper on his blog. (Full disclosure: I’ve never spent serious time with either man’s music, though Iverson and I follow each other on Twitter, and I saw him play with saxophonist Houston Person at the Village Vanguard last year.)

Iverson is a smart dude whose primary interests are mainstream/traditional jazz, classical music, and crime fiction, and he generally writes extremely well about all three. And this was an interesting, freewheeling conversation that covered a lot of territory, including changes in jazz over time, the economics of the artistic life, salutes to individual pianists each of them admired, backstage gossip, and more. But it blew up because of a few comments Glasper made, while making a point about the jazz audience.

First, he said, “I’ve had people tell me about your [Iverson’s] music. Like women you would think never listen to jazz: Young, fine, Euro chicks ask me, ‘I heard this band, the Bad Plus, do you know them?’…it’s awesome, something is there in your music that gives them entrance to jazz, otherwise they’d never cross paths with it.”

Then, while talking about the pleasure of playing a groove rather than soloing, Glasper said, “And I’ve seen what that does to the audience, playing that groove. I love making the audience feel that way. Getting back to women: women love that. They don’t love a whole lot of soloing. When you hit that one groove and stay there, it’s like musical clitoris. You’re there, you stay on that groove, and the women’s eyes close and they start to sway, going into a trance.”

Since it’s 2017, I bet you can imagine how that “musical clitoris” line went over. The bit about how women “don’t love a whole lot of soloing” was seen as almost as offensive, with the mention of “young, fine, Euro chicks” coming in a distant third. For a week or so, Glasper was blasted as a misogynist, and Iverson as his enabler/cheering section. Iverson offered multiple overlapping defenses of the interview, his own feminist bona fides, etc., etc., at one point blaming the whole eruption on liberals’ desire to eat their own in order to score wokeness points and literally using the phrase “this is why Trump won.” Eventually, he came out the other side, and posted an extended (and very well written) appreciation of Mary Lou Williams, a phenomenal pianist who doesn’t get nearly enough recognition from the broader jazz public.

Here’s the disappointing part (in the missed-opportunity sense). Immediately after talking about “musical clitoris” and women not liking extended solos, Glasper made a related point in a much smarter way. He said, “Or to be less sexual, sometimes I say I’m providing a house and you can provide the furniture. It’s a soundtrack, there’s space, and the audience put their own thoughts to it. Sometimes jazz musicians, we fill up all the fucking space, so people can’t lose themselves in it.” That’s a smart point, and one worth unpacking. A lot of artists have grappled with it over the decades, notably Herbie Hancock, who Glasper and Iverson talk about a lot in the interview.

At a certain point, you can play so much that the audience becomes alienated. Someone like Cecil Taylor, for example, can do things with/to a piano that will leave you breathless — but if you’re not ready for it (as I wasn’t, the first time I saw him play), an hour of his music can be overwhelming, too. He’s not gonna meet you halfway, and your brain might shut down trying to process it all. Or, imagine it’s 1965. You own John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things — five years old at that point, but still, a beautiful album. You go see him live, and he’s got a second saxophonist, Pharoah Sanders, in the band, and they play a single 45-minute piece that sounds like they’re trying to explode their instruments with pure lung-force. And when they’re all done, someone tells you that was a version of “My Favorite Things.” Are you going to walk away from that experience happy or satisfied? Very possibly not.

But this avenue of discussion got washed away by Glasper’s ideas about female audience members. Those ideas are presumably rooted in his observations of his own crowds, which are sizable but hardly representative of jazz as a whole. Glasper divides his time between straight-ahead piano trio work and the Robert Glasper Experiment, which makes slick, hip-hop- and R&B-aligned jazz-funk, including collaborations with rappers and singers. That’s where he makes most of his money, I’d bet, and it’s probably what most people know him for, too. And yeah, the audience (male and female) that turns up for a Robert Glasper Experiment show probably isn’t looking for extended solos the way that Matthew Shipp’s, or even the Bad Plus’, audience is. Glasper was extrapolating from his experience of playing for an R&B audience, which goes back to the difference between “soul jazz” and the kind of jazz that gets critical raves, that I touched on in February’s column. It’s a valid thought, clumsily expressed.

Of course, it’s not true across the board. Trumpeter Christian Scott (see below for a track premiere) comes out of New Orleans, and his experience of playing jazz is every bit as vernacular as the Houston-raised Glasper’s. His music, too, incorporates elements of rock, R&B, and hip-hop, but Scott is perfectly happy to take skyscraping, powerhouse solos on his custom horns (see the photo at the top of this column), and his audience loves that aspect of his work. And frankly, if I was going to pick someone who I thought would push jazz into the future, I’d put my money on Scott, not Glasper, even though the keyboardist is the one with a Grammy (Best R&B Album, for 2012’s Black Radio).

Speaking of crossing over to new audiences…You probably wouldn’t think of Chuck Berry, who died last week at 90, having much of a connection to jazz, but in fact his music evolved in part from jump blues, a blurry zone between jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. Berry freely admitted to lifting elements of his guitar style from Carl Hogan, of Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five. And in 1958, Berry performed at the Newport Jazz Festival, backed by a band of jazz all-stars that included Count Basie’s drummer, Jo Jones. One song, “Sweet Little Sixteen,” made it into the documentary Jazz On A Summer’s Day. Watch it below.

And now, new albums worth your time and money this month.

Matthew Stevens – Preverbal (Ropeadope, 3/24)

Guitarist Matthew Stevens is a longtime musical partner of trumpeter Christian Scott; he’s been on every one of Scott’s albums except his latest, and until recently was a linchpin of his live band as well. Preverbal is his second album as a leader. On it, he’s joined by bassist Vicente Archer, and Eric Doob on drums, keyboards, and sampling. The disc’s final track, “Our Reunion,” features a guest appearance from another longtime friend and cohort, bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding. Stevens’ style is pretty but loud, and very comfortable with effects pedals and electronics. The opening “Picture Window” is spacey power trio rock with dubby electric bass and a driving shuffle beat. “Sparkle And Fade” (which has nothing to do with the Everclear album of the same name) is built from a looping drum pattern and thick, fuzzy bassline that recall Radiohead when they’re awake. Even when he settles down a bit, on tracks like “Cocoon” and “Reservoir,” there’s always a little bite to his tone, and a sense that he could erupt at a moment’s notice.

Here’s an exclusive premiere of the video for “Picture Window,” directed by Alex Chaloff:

Christian Scott – Ruler Rebel (Ropeadope, 3/31)

As mentioned above, New Orleans-born trumpeter Christian Scott is making some of the most interesting music in the jazz world right now. He doesn’t call it jazz; his preferred term is “stretch music,” because it encompasses jazz, funk, New Orleans rhythms, electronic music, hip-hop and trap music, and more. His last album, Stretch Music, combined keyboard washes that recalled Miles Davis’ 1980s music with a lot of rhythm (two drummers, plus programmed beats) and some stinging electric guitar from Matthew Stevens. This follow-up, one of three full-length albums he’ll be putting out in 2017, is sparser, but also more lush at times, bringing in flute, harp, and strings at times. It sounds orchestrated rather than arranged in a jazz sense, and the sharp, snapping beats underneath it all give it impetus and tension. We’ve got an exclusive premiere of the title track below.

Stream “Ruler Rebel”:

Somi – Petite Afrique (OKeh, 3/31)

Vocalist Somi was born in Illinois to immigrants from Uganda and Rwanda. Petite Afrique is her sixth album, her second for Sony’s revived OKeh label. The music blends subtle, Sade-ish R&B with swing, harder funk, and West African pop, and the lyrics address issues of immigration, assimilation, and gentrification. “The Gentry,” a duet with Aloe Blacc, addresses the way African immigrants in Harlem are being pushed out by new, richer residents. “Alien,” meanwhile, flips Sting’s “Englishman In New York” in a witty and perceptive way. Somi’s voice is smooth and supple, gliding across the arrangements laid down by a very impressive band: Liberty Ellman on guitar, Toru Dodo on piano, Michael Olatuja on bass, and Nate Smith on drums, with occasional contributions from tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland, alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, and trumpeter Etienne Charles. A few tracks also feature strings. It’s a beautiful record that’ll give people who pay attention to lyrics (I’m not typically one of them) a lot to think about.

Stream “Alien”:

Heads Of State – Four In One (Smoke Sessions, 3/17)

Heads of State started out as the Larry Willis All-Stars, led by their pianist, but with a lineup this powerful — the group also includes saxophonist Gary Bartz, bassist David Williams (replacing Buster Williams, who played on their first album, 2015’s Search For Peace), and drummer Al Foster — a collective name was the obvious move. The group’s repertoire includes a lot of classic tunes, including the title track by Thelonious Monk, Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance,” Wayne Shorter’s “Dance Cadaverous,” and more. But these guys have decades of experience transforming the familiar into something all their own, and they do so throughout this disc; melodies are recognizable, but the rhythmic and tempo choices they make are frequently unexpected. Bartz plays alto and soprano saxophone, and his jumpy, excitable style really suits bebop tunes like “Moose The Mooche” and “Sippin’ At Bells.” The version of “Freedom Jazz Dance” that closes the album rides a strutting funk groove from Foster (who played in Miles Davis’ 1973-75 funk-metal band, as well as his early ’80s comeback group), and the saxophone and piano lines bounce off and around each other in a way that’ll make any listener jump in their seat.

Stream “Freedom Jazz Dance”:

Hermon Mehari – Bleu (self-released, 3/17)

Trumpeter Hermon Mehari, who divides his time between Paris and Kansas City, has just released his debut album as a leader. Bleu features a bunch of great players: Logan Richardson on alto sax, Aaron Parks on piano and keyboards, Peter Schlamb on vibraphone, Rick Rosato on bass, and Ryan J. Lee on drums. A lot of the music has a sharp, electric zap. When they interpret the standard “Moment’s Notice,” it’s positively bizarre-sounding because of the electric keyboard Parks is playing, atop the skittering swing groove. The melody, which will likely be familiar to many listeners (it’s a tune hundreds of people have recorded over the decades), is transformed into something that sounds almost like a car alarm, and when Richardson’s solo begins, he’s flying at top speed, and when Parks returns, he’s switched to a sound fans of Chick Corea’s 1970s work with Return to Forever will likely respond to. It’s a weird kind of futuristic bebop, with a lot of the energy (throughout the album) coming from Lee’s drumming, which is like a combination of serious swing and frantic breakbeats. but When they downshift into acoustic balladry, though, it can be incredibly beautiful. This is an album from a man with a vision all his own, and the ability to bring in top-flight players to realize it.

Watch Mehari and Parks play “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face”:

Jeremy Danneman and Sophie Nzayisenga – Honey Wine (Ropeadope, 3/10)

Saxophonist and clarinet player Jeremy Danneman has made two previous albums for Ropeadope; this one is very different, though. On it, he’s joined by bassist William Parker, percussionist Tim Keiper, and Sophie Nzayisenga. She’s a Rwandan singer and master of the inanga, a 10-stringed zither-like instrument that’s the national instrument of her country, but is barely known in the West. The album is very much an equal partnership between the two of them; Nzayisenga wrote the opening piece, “Ibeseke,” which is dominated by the inanga and her singing. Danneman’s clarinet is almost klezmer-like, tootling along and occasionally inserting a countermelody. The title track is a collective improvisation, while other pieces are composed by Danneman, by adding Western scales to inanga patterns. The music is trancelike at times, with its impact slowly building over 10-12 minutes. Parker is the perfect bassist for this project, as he’s been playing African instruments like the doson n’goni for many years and locks in beautifully with Nzayisenga’s intricately repetitive patterns.

Stream “Ibeseke”:

Roxy Coss – Chasing The Unicorn (Posi-Tone, 3/17)

Saxophonist Roxy Coss has recorded with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and vocalists Gillian Margot and Jennifer Sullivan, among others. This is her follow-up to 2016’s Restless Idealism, and her third album overall as a leader. It features pianist Glenn Zaleski, guitarist Alex Wintz, bassist Rick Rosato, and drummer Jimmy Macbride. Her style is fast and verbose in the bebop mold (the group’s version of Joe Henderson’s “A Shade Of Jade” is performed at a twitchy gallop), but she’s able to slow down and dig her heels in when the mood calls for it. “Oh! Darling” is a patient, internally calm blues, and “Virgo,” on which she plays bass clarinet, is a delicate ballad. The opening title track sets the tone for the disc very well; it shimmers to life on a wash of cymbals and delicate soprano sax figures, and then settles into a swinging groove as Coss and…Coss…and Coss begin to harmonize. She’s multiply overdubbed, playing off herself with a fluid lyricism that also allows her to demonstrate her abilities on all of her instruments at once without going for Rahsaan Roland Kirk-style stunt work.

Stream “Chasing The Unicorn”:

Matt Mitchell– Førage (Screwgun, 3/31)

While tenor saxophonists inspire imitators, alto saxophonists can change the shape of jazz. Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman and John Zorn are the three big, obvious examples, but Tim Berne is another. His knotty, extended compositions, which blend jazz, funk, noise, and modern classical into a wild and unique sonic stew, have been massively influential on a whole school of mostly New York-based composers and improvisers. On this album, released on Berne’s Screwgun label, pianist Matt Mitchell interprets the saxophonist’s compositions solo. There are seven tracks, but each one combines multiple Berne pieces into something less like a medley and more like a congealing of related ideas into one emphatic statement. They’re winding, weird pieces that take long, difficult-to-track journeys but always arrive somewhere fascinating.

Stream “PÆNË”:

Whit Dickey/Mat Maneri/Matthew Shipp – Vessel In Orbit (AUM Fidelity, 3/24)

For a guy who’s retiring from the studio, Matthew Shipp has a lot of material out these days. Seven CDs of work with saxophonist Ivo Perelman were just simultaneously released, and this disc reunites him with drummer Whit Dickey and violinist Mat Maneri, both of whom he’s got a long history with. Dickey was the second drummer in saxophonist David S. Ware’s quartet, which also featured Shipp and bassist William Parker, and Maneri made several albums with the pianist in the late ’90s and early ’00s, before going his own way. This is Dickey’s album, though; he composed the themes, and while he may not initially seem to be leading the music (he can be a remarkably self-effacing drummer), his personality is all over it. The crashing low-end chords that give many of Shipp’s pieces their structure are present, but only rarely; he’s in an almost chamber music zone, giving Maneri’s violin plenty of space to unfurl barbed, almost Béla Bartók-like lines and phrases that cut themselves off unexpectedly, to keep the listener off-balance. Behind them, Dickey sets up spacious pulse rhythms that frequently focus on toms and cymbals, but sometimes jump into a more militaristic zone.

Stream “Spaceship 9″:

Harris Eisenstadt – Recent Developments (Songlines, 3/10)

Drummer Harris Eisenstadt leads the bands Canada Day and Golden State, among other projects; Recent Developments, as its name indicates, isn’t a band as much as a documentation of what he’s been up to lately, creatively speaking. The ensemble includes Anna Webber on flute, Sara Schoenbeck on bassoon, Nate Wooley on trumpet, Jeb Bishop on trombone, Dan Peck on tuba, Brandon Seabrook on banjo, Hank Roberts on bass, and Eivind Opsvik on bass. As some of those instruments (banjo, tuba) probably indicate, this music owes a fair amount to old-timey jazz; meanwhile, the presence of other instruments (flute, bassoon, cello) hints that it borrows from modern classical, too. In a way, the album — which is a single 41-minute piece broken into 14 sections with simple, declarative titles like “Prologue,” “Part 1,” “Interlude (Group 1),” etc., reminds me of guitarist Eric Hofbauer’s Prehistoric Jazz project. That group tackles 20th Century classical pieces by Messaien, Stravinsky, Charles Ives, and others using the language of jazz and improvisation; the way this ensemble shifts from fanfare-like group outbursts to soft-spoken individual moments and back is similar in feel, if not methodology. There are also moments that recall Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady, one of jazz’s great suites. Recent Developments shares a joyousness and vitality with that album — there’s nothing austere or over-intellectualized about this music, which is why it doesn’t require any labels. Listening alone will tell you all you need to know.

Stream “Part 1″:

Joey DeFrancesco – Project Freedom (Mack Avenue, 3/10)

Organist Joey DeFrancesco has made a million albums, and honestly, I’ve never paid much attention to any of them. It’s hard to find something new to say on the Hammond B3; the organ jazz vocabulary was pretty much set in stone by 1965. Blues, soul, funk and groove — that’s what you’re expecting, and that’s what DeFrancesco’s always delivered. This time, though, he’s stretching himself just enough to make things interesting. It helps that he’s backed up by some very tight, forceful players. Tenor and soprano saxophonist Troy Roberts rips it up, guitarist Dan Wilson leaps out of the background to play some stinging leads, and drummer Jason Brown has a hard-hitting, taut style that builds to some ferocious eruptions. On “The Unifier,” DeFrancesco uses a wah-wah pedal to give the organ an eerie sound like a cross between a Moog synth and a theremin. But tracks like “One” are the real surprise, as the keyboardist doubles on trumpet, and does a surprisingly capable job. You can hear a very strong Miles Davis influence in both his muted sound and his phrasing, but he’s not just dicking around, and he doesn’t embarrass himself. He doesn’t play trumpet on the Miles tune they perform here, though, a version of “So Near, So Far” from 1963’s Seven Steps To Heaven. They turn it into a funky, churning piece that superimposes the yearning saxophone melody over a clattering beat. If you think organ jazz can’t surprise you, Project Freedom might change your mind. It surprised me.

Stream “So Near, So Far”:

Hideo Yamaki/Bill Laswell/Dave Douglas – The Drawing Center (MOD Technologies, 3/10)

Bill Laswell’s MOD Technologies label provides a digital-only home for many of his more out-there projects. He seems to particularly like releasing jazz/improv-oriented live performances through the imprint. He’s put out duos with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and drummer Milford Graves on MOD Technologies, and this trio document sits comfortably alongside those. Laswell’s worked with Japanese jazz, pop and rock drummer Hideo Yamaki many times over the decades, on one session or another. When Yamaki came to New York, the two set up a few live gigs; on this one, they’re accompanied by trumpeter Dave Douglas. The single 46-minute track, “The Science Of Imaginary Solutions,” pulses and throbs without ever really going anywhere — it’s one of those free-ish pieces that’s more about sustaining a mood than achieving catharsis. It’s mostly Yamaki’s show; he’s soloing-without-soloing the entire time, as Laswell emits spacy dub waves and Douglas travels along a straight but wavering line, sometimes muted, sometimes on open horn, sometimes playing through pedals, sometimes not. It would definitely have been immersive as hell live; how it works through headphones on the subway, or through living room speakers, is up to the individual listener.

Stream the first few minutes of “The Science Of Imaginary Solutions”:

Joe Fiedler – Like, Strange (Multiphonics Music, 3/17)

Trombonist Joe Fiedler has made four trio albums, as well as several records with his three-trombones-and-a-tuba ensemble Big Sackbut; he’s also an in-demand sideman who can play anything from trad to avant-garde (as a young man, he crashed a Cecil Taylor rehearsal and kept coming back until he was in the band). Like, Strange features bassist Rob Jost and drummer Michael Sarin from his trio, joined by saxophonist Jeff Lederer and guitarist Pete McCann. The compositions are hooky and melodic, and follow conventional forms, but still manage to get plenty weird. “Maple Avenue Tango” is, in fact, a jazz tango; Lederer and Fiedler trade lines back and forth atop the swaying, suspenseful rhythm, before McCann comes in with a low, twanging solo that recalls Marc Ribot’s playing on Tom Waits’ mid ’80s albums. Fiedler’s trombone technique gives plenty of room to multiphonics and weird squealing harmonies; he can make it sound like a theremin, or air escaping a balloon, but still swing at the same time. He’s a fantastic player, and this album expands his group’s sound while retaining its highly entertaining essence.

Stream “Maple Avenue Tango”:

Julian & Roman Wasserfuhr – Landed In Brooklyn (ACT, 3/24)

German brothers Julian and Roman Wasserfuhr (a trumpeter and a pianist, respectively) have made several albums for the ACT label. For this new one, they came to New York and recruited three excellent local players — saxophonist Donny McCaslin, bassist Tim Lefebvre, and drummer Nate Wood. Julian Wasserfuhr has a smooth, warm trumpet sound, and McCaslin’s dry, thoughtful lines match up with him fairly well. Lefebvre and Wood set up a strutting, swinging groove on most of the tracks, leaving Roman Wasserfuhr to contribute here and there, but he never really gets the chance to dominate the rhythm section the way a pianist typically would in a hard bop-style quintet like this. He’s good, but it feels like he’s there to back up his brother, and keep the New Yorkers from running away with the show altogether (which comes close to happening anyway).

Watch the album trailer: