Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – April 2017

On March 27, a little less than a week after last month’s Ugly Beauty was published, alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe died. This wasn’t a surprise — he’d been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for years – but it was a blow to the questing spirit of modern jazz. Blythe was born in Los Angeles, and made his recorded debut on an album by West Coast pianist and composer Horace Tapscott, but he really made his name in New York in the late ’70s. His first two albums, The Grip and Metamorphosis, were two halves of a single concert, released on India Navigation; he then signed with Columbia, for whom he made nine albums between 1978 and 1987. The first four were recently remastered and made available as a two-CD set, and that’s about as perfect a starting point as anyone could hope to find.

Blythe’s music combined old and new quite explicitly — his Columbia debut was called In The Tradition, and the compositions included Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz,” two associated with Duke Ellington (“In A Sentimental Mood” and “Caravan”), and John Coltrane’s “Naima,” plus two originals. But it was the follow-up, Lenox Avenue Breakdown, that really saw him carving out his own space.

The front line was Blythe on alto, James Newton on flute, and Bob Stewart on tuba, joined by James “Blood” Ulmer on guitar, Cecil McBee on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Guillermo Franco on percussion. It clatters and howls, grooves and pumps, and swirls around you like true urban jungle music, dense and indescribable in the best way. Blythe was someone who genuinely tried to bridge worlds with his thick, vibrato-heavy horn, and on this album in particular, he created something totally unique and thrilling.

Stream Lenox Avenue Breakdown on Spotify:

Some may say that something else has died with the announcement that the Bad Plus have undergone a major membership change. When you’re a trio, any membership change is major, but pianist Ethan Iverson’s departure can seem seismic from the outside. The group will continue in its present form for the rest of the year, with Orrin Evans, a player I’ve admired for quite a few years, taking over the piano chair in 2018. Nate Chinen’s article for WBGO that described the shift and included everyone’s perspective was fascinating. It seems clear that Iverson’s jazz blogging and work with legendary musicians (he regularly records and performs with drummers Albert “Tootie” Heath and Billy Hart, and made an album with Ron Carter on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums last year) had begun to weigh on his bandmates: They felt that his opinions were being treated as the opinions of the band as a whole, and that they were starting to take a back seat to his burgeoning solo career. (Note that the other two also have other projects; King leads the Dave King Trucking Company, and Anderson has four albums to his name and was a member of saxophonist Bill McHenry’s excellent quartet with guitarist Ben Monder and drummer Paul Motian — check out Ghosts Of The Sun.)

It will be really interesting to see how Orrin Evans changes the group’s music. To put it rudely, there’s always been something white and nerdy about TBP, starting with their taste in tunes (they made their name with a version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” after all) and extending to their jackhammering version of swing — Dave King is a powerhouse drummer, but he’s not the most subtle dude to ever get behind a kit. And while there’s a lot of original music on their albums, their reliance on pop and rock covers has led to them being perceived by a lot of folks, whether fairly or not, as a “safe” entry point into jazz. They tour a lot, and have released several major label albums (first on Columbia, and now on Sony’s revived jazz imprint OKeh). Evans, meanwhile, has already been part of a trio with a strong collective identity: Tarbaby, with Eric Revis on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums. Their four albums (2010’s The End Of Fear and 2013’s The Ballad Of Sam Langford are the best) are aggressively political, deeply black, and utterly lacking in self-deprecating humor, pop-friendliness, or ironic distance. Indeed, while he’s more conventionally melodic and swinging than either man, Evans’ entire catalog has a seriousness of purpose equal to that of Matthew Shipp, if not Cecil Taylor. It’s going to be very interesting to see how he changes the Bad Plus, and how (if?) they change him.

Oh, hey — Record Store Day is here again! This is traditionally a rock- and pop-centric occasion, but over the past few years, jazz titles have started to filter into the mix. Here are three that are worth your time to seek out.

Janus is a compilation of rare tracks by Sun Ra, recorded between 1963 and 1970. Since the lineup of the Arkestra was in constant flux — with a few people remaining for years at a time — and Ra was an extremely multifaceted composer and performer, these five pieces are very different from each other. He’s one of those artists for whom it’s easy to pick a favorite era — my choice would be the late ’60s and early ’70s, when he was big into chanting female vocalists, waves of percussion, and really out there synthesizer solos. But he did lots of other stuff, too: big band charts, doo-wop singles (seriously), almost mainstream-sounding hard bop, and weird/exotic lounge music were just a few of the paths he traveled during his time on Earth.

Stream “Island In The Sun” below:

In July 1967, tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon — backed by pianist Kenny Drew, bassist Neils-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums — taped two nights of club gigs at the Montmartre jazz club in Copenhagen (the same place Cecil Taylor recorded the legendary album Nefertit, The Beautiful One Has Come five years earlier). Walk The Blues gathers three lengthy tracks from the second night of recording. Gordon had a big sound, and since he arrived early, coming out of the Los Angeles bebop scene, he served as a major influence on both John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. From the 1950s to the end of his career, he always stuck to the classic, bluesy hard bop sound that made his name — he never made a fusion album, didn’t work with singers, and just played to his strengths, which makes his catalog extremely consistent and the kind of thing you can dive deep into. Aside from his 1960s Blue Note albums like Go and A Swingin’ Affair (recorded two days apart), I particularly recommend his Columbia albums from the late ’70s, Homecoming: Live At The Village Vanguard, Sophisticated Giant, and Gotham City, when he was joined by powerhouse trumpeter Woody Shaw.

Stream “Blues Walk” below:

An amazing archival discovery is also out on vinyl for Record Store Day; the CD version will be released in May. In 1959, French director Roger Vadim hired Thelonious Monk to record a soundtrack to his movie Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The pianist didn’t write any new tunes, he just laid down versions of his current live repertoire. But the versions preserved on Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 are both unique in his discography and fucking phenomenal. Monk is joined by two saxophonists — his regular partner Charlie Rouse, and Barney Wilen — plus bassist Sam Jones and drummer Art Taylor. (This band, with Thad Jones on cornet in place of Wilen, can be heard on 5 By Monk By 5, also recorded in 1959.) Taylor’s incredible swing, plus the presence of an extra saxophone, gives this music propulsion and whomp. There are also some solo pieces, though, including a blues, “Six In One,” that was apparently composed on the spot. This is no mere cash grab or vault-scraping; it’s an absolutely essential find. Don’t miss it.

Stream “Rhythm-A-Ning” below:

Reissue Of The Month: Anthony Braxton – Quintet (Basel) 1977 (Hat Hut)

It can be hard to choose an entry point into saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton’s music. His discography is literally hundreds of albums deep, and his work is often seen as forbiddingly abstract and intellectual, at the expense of listener pleasure. But this live set, originally released in 2000 and now reissued, might be an ideal starting point. The band is great: Braxton on alto and sopranino saxophones and clarinet; George Lewis on trombone; Muhal Richard Abrams on piano; Mark Helias on bass; and Charles “Bobo” Shaw on drums. Over the course of 74 minutes, they stomp, clatter, and shout through four tracks, maintaining an extraordinary level of energy at all times. During Braxton’s extended solo on the opening “Composition 69 J,” you can hear him gasping for breath as he unspools long, sputtering streams of notes. The interplay between the two horns is joyful and fun, as Lewis’ smears and honks seem to be commenting on Braxton’s squiggles and squawks; and behind them, Abrams, Helias and Shaw create a thundering, propulsive wave of sound.

Stream “Composition 69 J” below:

Now it’s time for this month’s best new releases.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band – So It Is (Legacy Recordings)

This is absolutely my favorite new release of the month, which surprises the fuck out of me. New Orleans is the only American city more worshipful of its own mythological version of itself than New York, and New Orleans jazz, frankly, doesn’t deserve the reverence it’s granted most of the time. But this album is a blaring, stomping exception. Preservation Hall Jazz Band is an umbrella name under which literally dozens of musicians have gathered to honor New Orleans jazz tradition since the mid ’60s. The PHJB allows young and old musicians — one of their current members, Charlie Gabriel, is 84, while several others are in their twenties — to work with and learn from each other, digging deep into a sound that’s the root of modern jazz but never letting it calcify into just a museum piece. This album, recorded in the wake of a 2015 PHJB trip to Cuba and produced by Dave Sitek of TV On The Radio, is a short (34 minutes) but ferociously powerful collection of — there’s no better phrase — fucking jams. There’s as much tuba as upright bass (both played by Ben Jaffe), and the front line of Branden Lewis on trumpet, Charlie Gabriel and Clint Maedgen on saxophones, and Ronell Johnson on trombone blares hard enough to blow your glasses off your face. But the rhythms are what really get this album going; drummer Walter Harris and keyboardist Kyle Roussel set up churning grooves that are equal parts jazz, Latin music, funk, and Afrobeat. Now that the warm weather’s arrived, it’s the perfect time to play this one loud.

Stream “Santiago” below:

Trombone Shorty – Parking Lot Symphony (Blue Note)

Another New Orleans artist, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, makes his Blue Note debut with this album, his fourth overall. He’s an entertainer, whose music blends jazz, funk, R&B and whatever else will get the crowd jumping and shouting. In addition to trombone, he plays trumpet, electric piano, and Fender Rhodes, depending on the track; the core band also includes saxophonists Dan Oestreicher and BK Jackson, Chris Seefried on glockenspiel and mellotron, Pete Murano on electric guitar, Tony Hall on bass, and Joey Peebles on drums, plus backup singers and, on a cover of the Meters’ “It Ain’t No Use,” that group’s Leo Nocentelli on acoustic guitar. It’s a party album that rocks more than it swings, but play it loud enough and questions of genre will fly away on the breeze from Andrews’ horn.

Stream “Dirty Water” below:

Linda May Han Oh – Walk Against Wind (Biophilia)

Biophilia is a new label run by pianist Fabian Almazan. Their releases are digital-only (no actual LPs or CDs); the only physical artifact you get is an elaborate piece of art containing liner notes, photos, and the like. One of their first releases is this album by bassist Oh, her fourth as a leader. The music is performed by tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel, guitarist Matthew Stevens, Oh, and drummer Justin Brown; Almazan guests on three tracks, and Minji Park plays traditional Korean percussion instruments – janggu and kkwaenggwari – on “Mantis.” You might expect tunes composed and led by a bassist to be bottom-heavy and propulsive, but they’re not. Although her tone is huge, and the music gets loud at times, it frequently floats like a kite, dipping and diving. Oh sings wordlessly on several tracks as well, giving it an additional lightness. Wendel’s saxophone lines are mellow and focused, and Stevens’ guitar has bite even on the slowly unfolding ballads.

Stream “Mantis” below:

Anne Mette Iversen Quartet +1 – Round Trip (Brooklyn Jazz Underground)

Bassist and composer Anne Mette Iversen has just released two new albums. This one features tenor saxophonist John Ellis, trombonist Peter Dahlgren, pianist Danny Grissett and drummer Otis Brown III. Her last release, 2014’s So Many Roads, featured the same personnel, augmented by a string quartet. The music swings hard, recalling the forceful but melodic arrangements of the Dave Holland Quintet. “Segue” is a romping showcase for Brown, who’s chopping up the beat like he’s got six arms. When they slow down on the ballad “Wiinstedt’s View,” they attain an almost Duke Ellington-esque sophistication. Dahlgren’s trombone is key to the sound. His long, mournful tones give the slow tracks gravitas and the fast ones grace. Once you’re finished listening to Round Trip, go back for So Many Roads, which was a single epic composition divided into six movements that never felt anything but natural.

Watch the EPK for the album below:

Amanda Monaco – Glitter (Posi-Tone)

Guitarist Amanda Monaco is joined by some terrific players on her Posi-Tone debut. She shares the front line with baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian, while organist Gary Versace and drummer Matt Wilson back them up. Sevian achieves extraordinary speed on the baritone, allowing for a much greater fluidity than you might expect from such a big, farty horn. I’m always impressed when someone can wrestle an instrument like a baritone or a tuba into submission and make it into a real melodic voice, and she does so here. Versace is an excellent organist, not as wild as Brian Charette (who’s forever threatening to go all prog-rock in the middle of a jazz session) but never as hockey-rink dull as too many other players. And Wilson is simultaneously capable of dead-on swing and a lighthearted, dancing feel. Since this is a Posi-Tone release, you know you’re gonna get melody, groove, and swing. Most of the tunes are originals, with the notable exception of “Theme For Ernie,” a ballad on John Coltrane’s 1958 album Soultrane.

Stream “Dry Clean Only” below:

Bobby Watson – Made In America (Smoke Sessions)

The Smoke Sessions label has been doing great work the last few years, giving veterans and up-and-comers alike the chance to make excellent, mainstream/classic-sounding jazz albums. Saxophonist Bobby Watson makes his debut for them with this loose concept album. The band is terrific: pianist Stephen Scott has been around since the ’90s, backing Sonny Rollins among others, but hasn’t recorded much; bassist Curtis Lundy maintains a booming bottom end; and drummer Lewis Nash is a bop-schooled killer, capable of great subtlety and forceful swing. Each track is a tribute to a figure from black history, some less famous than others. For example, “The Aviator,” which opens the album, honors Wendell Pruitt, a pioneering military pilot (he was one of the Tuskegee Airmen) who died during a training exercise in 1945. “The Entrepreneur” is a nod to Madam C.J. Walker, who became the first female self-made millionaire, black or white, with a line of cosmetics for black women. “The Computer Scientist” is named for Dr. Mark Dean, who holds three (of nine) original patents for the first IBM personal computer. Other tracks are dedicated to Sammy Davis Jr. and Butterfly McQueen, and the track we’re streaming, “The Guitarist,” is a tribute to Grant Green, one of the most popular jazz guitarists ever. Watson has a keening, fluttering sound on the alto — his phrases ripple and seem to wash away on the breeze, but there’s plenty of power there, too.

Stream “The Guitarist” below:

Billy Childs – Rebirth (Mack Avenue)

Pianist Billy Childs is another veteran. He’s been around for decades; he’s known for backing furious hard bop players like trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and trombonist J.J. Johnson, but he was also signed to the New Age label Windham Hill for a few years. This is his first hardcore jazz record in quite a while, and it burns: the core band includes alto and soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson, bassist Hans Glawischnig, and drummer Eric Harland. Two singers pop up: Claudia Acuña swoops and darts wordlessly on the title track, while Alicia Olatuja whispers her way through the ballad “Stay.” Trombonist Ido Meshulam also guests on “Rebirth.” But it’s the pieces where the core band digs deep and just cooks that are the heart of the record. Childs’ playing is simultaneously a powerful anchor and an introspective lead voice; Harland is an absolutely slamming drummer who sounds like he’s on the brink of an explosion even during the softest ballads; and Wilson has the calm, assured style of a master. This is high-level jazz of the “they don’t make ’em like they used to” school.

Stream “Rebirth” below:

Kevin Eubanks – East West Time Line (Mack Avenue)

For fifteen years, guitarist Kevin Eubanks was one of the highest-profile jazz musicians in America — he was the leader of the Tonight Show band under Jay Leno from 1995 to 2010. But he’s been recording and performing since 1980, when he joined Art Blakey’s band alongside Wynton and Branford Marsalis and his own trombonist brother Robin. On this album, he’s assembled an “East Coast” band (trumpeter Nicholas Payton, pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts) and a “West Coast” band (saxophonist Bill Pierce, bassist Rene Camacho, drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith and percussionist Mino Cinelu). The album’s first half is rooted in hard bop, with some delicate ballad playing while the second half is more funk- and fusion-oriented, with a strong Latin edge, particularly on “Cubano Chant” and a version of “Captain Señor Mouse,” by Chick Corea’s 1970s band Return To Forever.

Stream “Time Line” below:

Daniel Chia – In The Moment (Soundgrove)

The last time I paid any real attention to smooth jazz, I was working in a convenience store that played the radio station CD 101.9 all day and night. But saxophonist Daniel Chia is making interesting enough music to transcend the category and be worth a listener’s time. With stuff like this, the focus is on groove and melody, and the arrangements have a lushness that inspires more head-nodding than finger-snapping. Chia’s soft but assertive playing, and that of his bandmates, put me in mind of Grover Washington Jr.’s and Stanley Turrentine’s early ’70s albums for the CTI and Kudu labels, like Sugar, Mister Magic, and Don’t Mess With Mister T. There’s also a hint of Steely Dan in the sophisticated veneer producer Paul Brown lays over all the tunes, especially the ballads.

Watch the video for “Cali Style” below:

Dayna Stephens – Gratitude (Contagious Music)

Saxophonist Dayna Stephens recently overcame Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis, a rare kidney disease that had kept him from touring or working as much as he would like. He calls this album a gift to the world and an acknowledgement of all he’s received from friends, family, and fellow musicians while battling the disease. It’s also the first release on his own label, after three on Criss Cross and two on Sunnyside. The band is great, and it’s the same lineup as his previous album, Peace: Brad Mehldau on piano, Julian Lage on guitar, Larry Grenadier on bass, and Eric Harland on drums. While Peace was primarily a collection of standards and themes from movies, Gratitude showcases compositions by Stephens’ peers, bandmates, and collaborators, plus one standard: Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan.” Stephens is a soulful player who rides rhythms like a deckhand on a boat, letting his lines uncoil like ropes behind him as he courses forward. He plays tenor, baritone, and EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument) here, and if you’ve never heard the EWI, it’s quite a thing. It doesn’t really resemble a saxophone or a synthesizer — it’s more of a combination of both, a weird whistling/zooming sound. But the baritone seems to be the horn on which his voice really comes out, as you’ll hear on the featured track.

Stream “Isfahan” below:

Joshua Abrams – Simultonality (Eremite)

Chicago-area bassist Joshua Abrams has made a string of albums for the Eremite label and this is the fourth. Abrams switches back and forth between the bass and the guimbri, a three-stringed African instrument that, when you crank the music up loud enough, sounds and feels like someone’s strumming your own guts. On this album, he also plays small harp and bells. The group includes Chicago legend Ari Brown on tenor saxophone on one track; Emmett Kelly on electric guitar; Ben Bove on chromatic electric autoharp, piano, and Wurlitzer organ; Lisa Alvarado on harmonium, Leslie organ, and percussion; and Michael Avery and Frank Rosaly on drums and percussion. The music has a lot of drone and shimmer to it. It doesn’t really go anywhere, but it makes you feel like that’s a dumb standard to hold music to; every track feels like you’re coming into the room in the middle of something that’s been going on all day and will probably last all night. But it’s not just faux-North African pastiche — it’s got a weird mountain music tinge to it, making it something unique and American as well.

Stream “Maroon Dune” below:

Matt Holman – the Tenth Muse (Panoramic)

This is a weird, arty, chamber jazz project that winds up displaying more guts than you might think it would. Matt Holman is a trumpeter, joined here by Sam Sadigursky on various instruments (soprano saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, and alto flute), Chris Dingman on vibraphone, and Bobby Avey on piano. No rhythm section. The compositions were inspired by fragments of poetry by Sappho, as translated by Anne Carson; the texts are included in the booklet, and sometimes they’re as short as two or three words, while others course down the page like rivers. The music has more in common with modern composition than jazz; Holman and Sadigursky play short unison lines, as Avey’s piano shadows them and Dingman’s vibes occasionally ding and shimmer in the background. Some pieces, like “Fragment 120,” “Fragment 67a,” “Fragment 34,” and “Fragment 18,” are solos recorded with a warm, but ultra-clean reverb that, again, reminds me of classical music. This is a spring Sunday morning kind of album, meditative and lighthearted at once.

Stream “Fragment 104b” below:

Rob Mazurek – Chants And Corners (Clean Feed)

Another month, another Rob Mazurek project. The Chicago/São Paulo cornet player, composer, and electronic musician has assembled a few of his favorite collaborators (drummer Mauricio Takara, keyboardist/electronics dude Guilherme Granado, pianist Philip Somervell, and Thomas Rohrer on reeds, electronics, and the rabeca, a large Brazilian fiddle). Takara and Granado are members of São Paulo Underground, while Rohrer was on an album credited to Black Cube SP. Somervell is a relative newcomer to the Mazurek sound universe, but he fits in very well, dropping clanging chords over Autechre-esque electronic outbursts on “Sun Flare Extensions And Other Dimensions.” Tracks like “Android Sun” have a kind of free-jazz-performed-in-a-haunted-spaceship vibe, with isolated piano notes and smeared trumpet lines echoing across a background of unsettling squeals and scrapes.

Stream “Android Sun” below: