Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – July 2017

Michael Crommett

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – July 2017

Michael Crommett

Joe Fields died earlier this month, on 7/12. He was 88. You’ve probably never heard of him; I hadn’t until the news of his death circulated, but he was a very important figure in jazz for decades. He wasn’t a musician — he was a label guy. He started in the record business in the late 1950s, working for several labels including Verve and Prestige. Eventually, he moved to Buddah Records where he started a short-lived jazz label called Cobblestone that put out albums by Grant Green, Jimmy Heath, Cedar Walton and Hank Mobley, Pat Martino, and Sonny Stitt, among many others. In 1973, he bought Cobblestone from Buddah and renamed it Muse.

Muse was a great label, existing through what pianist Ethan Iverson calls “the wilderness jazz years — say 1969 to 1985″ and beyond. They put out a lot of straightahead albums by traditional, hard bop-rooted players like Heath, Stitt, and Walton, but they also released fusion-oriented efforts by saxophonist Carlos Garnett and bassist Buster Williams, forward-looking music by trumpeter Woody Shaw, and some serious avant-garde work by the Creative Construction Company (a group featuring Anthony Braxton on reeds, Wadada Leo Smith on trumpet, Leroy Jenkins on violin, Muhal Richard Abrams on piano and cello, Richard Davis on bass, and Steve McCall on drums). They kept the lights on all the way up to 1996, when Fields and his son Barney founded two new labels, HighNote and Savant.

Both HighNote and Savant, like Muse before them, are focused on what I guess I’d call “jazz for jazz fans” — primarily acoustic, lots of blues, hard bop, and standards, and lots of veteran performers with little or no chance of (or interest in) breaking through to the broader pop cultural landscape. That said, their catalog is full of treasures, including work by artists who are absolutely aware they’re living and working in the 21st century. Two of my favorite artists — trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and saxophonist JD Allen — are signed to HighNote and Savant, respectively, and their music is as present-day as anything out there.

Unfortunately, HighNote and Savant are digital holdouts. Their albums stream on Amazon Prime, but not on Apple Music or Spotify (I haven’t checked Tidal). Maybe that will change going forward, especially now that it looks like Soundcloud — where they’ve parked a track or two from each new release — is going down. In the meantime, though, consider picking up some of their many, many releases on CD.

Another streaming holdout (except for their recent triple live CD) is the progressive rock band King Crimson. Why am I talking about them in a jazz column? Because I saw them perform in Red Bank, NJ earlier this month during the first of two shows closing out one leg of their tour (they’ll be back in October and November), and there were surprisingly large elements of jazz in both their presentation and their music.

King Crimson, as presently constituted, is an eight-member band with three drummers, two guitarists, a bassist, a keyboardist, and a saxophonist. The majority of the music they performed came from their early ’70s albums In The Wake Of Poseidon, Lizard, Islands, Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, and Red. Saxophonist Mel Collins, who appeared on almost all those records, was a dominant force at the concert, soloing on virtually every number and serving as an additional rhythm instrument via baritone sax. The drummers all worked together, with one (usually Pat Mastelotto) handling the primary rhythm while the other two added accents. Sometimes, the drummer at center stage, Jeremy Stacey, switched to piano for slower numbers. But what surprised me was how much the rhythm section (including bassist Tony Levin, who sometimes played upright) swung, building supple polyrhythms that never stuck to a simple 4/4 whomp. And there was improvisation, but never in an aimless “jamming” way; these guys were listening to each other and keeping everything anchored to some truly complex compositions. The visual presentation reminded me more of a jazz gig than a rock show, too: at least six of the eight players were wearing ties, and both Levin and guitarist/bandleader Robert Fripp wore vests, too. Everyone had a spot on the stage, and they stayed put as though they were members of a big band.

It reminded me that in the early ’70s, the line between the chopsiest jazz fusion (Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return To Forever, and to a slightly lesser degree Weather Report) and prog rock (King Crimson, Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Van der Graaf Generator) was a lot blurrier than critics were letting on. In fact, if you want to check out some genuinely uncategorizable music, listen to bassist Stanley Clarke’s first two solo albums, Stanley Clarke and Journey To Love, especially “Concerto for Jazz/Rock Orchestra.”

Anyway, that’s enough of that — let’s talk about the best new jazz albums of the month!

Archival Find of the Month: Don Ellis, Soaring (MPS)

Don Ellis was a trumpeter, drummer, bandleader, and composer whose work spanned an astonishing range and displayed a willingness, even eagerness, to experiment. When he first came to New York at the end of the 1950s, he played with Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy, and in the ’60s he crossed the border between jazz and classical frequently, working with Leonard Bernstein and Gunther Schuller. He formed his own big band in the mid ’60s; the album Electric Bath was a Grammy-nominee and won album of the year in 1968’s Down Beat readers’ poll. In 1971, he composed the score for The French Connection. Soaring, which has just been remastered and reissued on vinyl and CD, was recorded for the German label MPS in 1973, with a 21-piece band that included the usual big band elements (lots of horns), but also featured two drummers and a percussionist, two electric violin players and an electric cellist, and some seriously burning electric guitar. The music features high-powered solos (Ellis was a killer trumpet player), with arrangements that combine jazz, classical, funk, rock, and blues into something that sounds very much like what JG Thirlwell is doing now in his scores for The Venture Bros. and Archer. Also, it should be noted that the opening track on this album, “Whiplash,” is featured in the 2014 movie of the same name (about which jazz people tend to have strong feelings — I haven’t seen it myself).

Stream “Whiplash”:

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers Of Sound Orchestra, Not Two (New Amsterdam)

Amir ElSaffar is an Iraqi-American trumpeter and composer whose ensemble, Two Rivers, has released three previous albums that blend jazz and Middle Eastern music in fascinating, non-cliché ways. For this double disc, he expands that group to a 17-piece orchestra that includes Fabrizio Cassol on alto saxophone; Ole Mathisen on tenor and soprano saxophones; JD Parran on bass saxophone and clarinet; Mohammed Saleh on oboe and English horn; Miles Okazaki on guitar; George Ziadeh on oud and vocals; Dena ElSaffar on violin and jowza; Naseem AlAtrash on cello; Jason Adasiewicz on vibraphone; Craig Taborn on piano; Carlo DeRosa on bass; Nasheet Waits on drums; Rajna Swaminathan on mridangam; Tareq Abboushi on buzuq; Tim Moore on percussion, dumbek, and frame drum; and Zafer Tawil on percussion and oud. The musicians come from wildly varied backgrounds including classical, jazz, and traditional Middle Eastern music, and ElSaffar has composed in such a way that each individual player’s style and approach is taken into account and allowed to contribute to the broader whole. It’s similar to the way Duke Ellington didn’t just write a trumpet part or a saxophone part; he wrote a trumpet part for Bubber Miley or a saxophone part for Johnny Hodges. The piece as a whole blends melodies and rhythms from across the planet into a sprawling, two-hour-plus suite that never loses its grip on the listener. It’s a major, major work — look out for it on year-end lists.

Stream “Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son)”:

Terrace Martin Presents The Pollyseeds, Sounds Of Crenshaw Vol. 1 (Ropeadope Select)

Alto saxophonist and producer Terrace Martin has assembled a collection of associates — Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, Robert “Sput” Searight of Snarky Puppy, Rose Gold, Trevor Lawrence Jr., Craig Brockman, and others — and made an album that’s part smooth jazz, part G-funk, and part post-Neptunes R&B. It’s loaded with vocoder, oozing synth bass, programmed drums, and lots of vocal tracks — some sung, some rapped. “Mama D/Leimert Park,” though, is a slick instrumental on which Martin’s saxophone comes to the fore, atop a simple beat, some nearly hidden wordless background vocals, and goofy synths that could have come off the last Thundercat album. Not everything is that electrified, though; “Wake Up” is a duet for piano and soprano saxophone that could soundtrack the tragic dissolution of a romance in a Spike Lee movie. Sounds Of Crenshaw Vol. 1 is a multifaceted and compelling album that makes the wait for Vol. 2 too long already.

Stream “Mama D/Leimert Park”:

Peter Bernstein, Signs LIVE! (Smoke Sessions)

In December 1994, guitarist Peter Bernstein assembled a band of rising stars for his second album, Signs Of Life. Of course, pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Gregory Hutchinson are all well-known now — Mehldau and McBride are two of the biggest names in mainstream jazz. So, reuniting the band 20 years later for a performance at Jazz at Lincoln Center, as documented here, was quite an achievement. Only two of the eleven pieces performed on the two-CD set actually come from Signs Of Life. They also play two Thelonious Monk compositions (“Pannonica” and “Crepuscule With Nellie”) and pieces from other Bernstein albums. The music swings hard and the solos are long: the opening “Blues For Bulgaria” runs 18 minutes and “Jive Coffee” is 19. Everyone, even Mehldau, cuts loose; it’s an uptempo, energetic set of music by four terrific players.

Stream “Jive Coffee”:

Burning Ghosts, Reclamation (Tzadik)

Burning Ghosts are an LA-based quartet (Daniel Rosenboom on trumpet, Jake Vossler on electric guitar, Richard Giddens on bass, Aaron McLendon on drums) who on the surface seem to be perfect candidates for John Zorn’s Tzadik label. Their compositions are basically post-bop, with some free jazz tendencies, but there’s a layer of punk/metal aggression drizzled on top that makes it seem just a little more revolutionary than it actually is. It never totally explodes: there’s always a solid structure in place. Rosenboom’s lines are fast and squiggly, while Vossler counters him with almost noise-rock riffs and big eruptions of straight-up noise. McLendon is the secret MVP, battering the drums and driving the machine forward like Mario Rubalcaba of Earthless. This is heavy at times, but always stays on the jazz side of the jazz/rock divide. Tzadik is another label that doesn’t stream, but we’ve got an exclusive track premiere below.

Stream “Revolution”:

George Colligan, More Powerful (Whirlwind Recordings)

Pianist George Colligan is a seriously hard-working dude, well known within hardcore jazz circles but totally unknown to the outside world. How hard-working? This is his twenty-eighth album as a leader, and he’s appeared on over 125 albums as a sideman, going back to 1992. A lot of this work is on labels with no US marketing or press profile like Criss Cross and SteepleChase, but now he’s on Whirlwind, a label that tries a little harder to make sure people know about its releases. And More Powerful deserves the attention. The band includes saxophonist Nicole Glover, bassist Linda Oh, and drummer Rudy Royston, the latter two of whom have been working together for a while already in trumpeter Dave Douglas’s quintet. Here, they’re swinging with pinpoint accuracy and real force, the perfect foundation for Colligan’s fast, boppish melodies and high-energy extrapolations. Most of the album is pretty straightforward, but on the kinda-sorta title track they get raucous, Glover in particular.

Stream “More Powerful Than You Could Possibly Imagine”:

Gerald Cannon, Combinations (Woodneck)

Bassist Gerald Cannon hasn’t released an album under his own name in 14 years; this is only his second. But he’s had such a far-reaching career as a sideman that he’s able to pull in a fistful of terrific players on various tracks here, including Gary Bartz, Sherman Irby, and Steve Slagle on saxophones; Jeremy Pelt and Duane Eubanks on trumpets; Kenny Barron and Rick Germanson on piano; Russell Malone on guitar; and Will Calhoun and Willie Jones III on drums. The title track features Eubanks and Bartz, supported by Germanson and Jones (both members of Cannon’s regular trio). Cannon is a good name for a bassist: it perfectly describes his sound, which is powerful, verging on explosive.

Stream “Combinations”:

Simona Premazzi, Outspoken (self-released)

Italian pianist Simona Premazzi has also recorded with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt (she can be heard on his album Tales, Musings And Other Reveries); he shows up as a guest on this, her fourth album as a leader. The core band consists of saxophonist Dayna Stephens, bassist Joe Martin, and drummer Nasheet Waits. Vocalist Sara Serpa appears on one track. Her music is spiky and modern, the melodies pretty but not quite inviting; she always seems to be pushing you away with one elbow as she plays. Don’t crowd me, her playing says. Andrew Hill is an obvious influence, and she pays tribute to him on “Up On A. Hill,” which features some serious inside-outside piano as well as a complicated horn line from Stephens.

Stream “Up on A. Hill”:

Ted Chubb, Gratified Never Satisfied (Unit)

Trumpeter Ted Chubb has recruited alto saxophonist Bruce Williams, guitarist Seth Johnson, piano and Fender Rhodes player Oscar Perez, bassist Tom DiCarlo, and drummer Jerome Jennings for his debut album. It’s a simmering, modern disc with memorable tunes, a welcome degree of abstraction on pieces like the nearly 11-minute “Space,” and some surprising touches. “East Of The Sun” begins with a plucked guitar figure backed by shimmering Rhodes; Chubb’s solo is simple and melodic, with an almost New Orleans flavor, reminiscent of Doc Cheatham. When Jennings sets up a shuffling beat behind Perez on his solo, it’s the kind of thing that’ll have you bouncing in your chair. And their transformation of Wayne Shorter’s “Adam’s Apple” is polished, without losing the original’s gutsy blues feel. Again, the rhythm section is a huge help in this regard; Jennings’ drums tick like a cooling engine, and Johnson, Perez and DiCarlo are locked in as the horns sing together. The guitarist’s solo has real bite.

Stream “Adam’s Apple”:

Brian Landrus Orchestra, Generations (Blueland)

Baritone saxophonist Brian Landrus has previously led small groups, but he’s always been ambitious; his 2013 album Mirage paired a quintet and a string quartet. This time, though, he’s gone all out and made an orchestral album with 25 musicians. It’s a lush and expansive disc that opens with the 22-minute, four-movement “Jeru Concerto,” named for his son who was given baritone sax legend Gerry Mulligan’s nickname. The multiple reeds and brass and the rhythm section (vibraphone, two bassists, and drums) are augmented by Brandee Younger on harp and a string section. This is not gentle or soporific music; “The Warrior” is driven by a pounding rhythm and the horns rise to intense crescendos, while “Arise” is driven by something close to a breakbeat.

Stream the full 22-minute “Jeru Concerto”:

The New Vision Sax Ensemble, Musical Journey Through Time (Zaki)

Saxophone quartets (groups where the saxophone is the only instrument) take a little getting used to, but their music can be fascinating. The typical instrumentation is two alto saxes, one tenor, and one baritone — kind of like a string quartet. The New Vision Sax Ensemble tweaks that slightly: Diron Holloway plays soprano and alto, as well as clarinet; James Lockhart is on alto; Jason Hainsworth is on tenor; and Melton R. Mustafa is on baritone. Their repertoire consists of show tunes and jazz standards, including “A Night in Tunisia,” “Round Midnight,” and “My Favorite Things,” but they also dip into gospel and even ragtime, performing a medley from Porgy and Bess, “Amazing Grace,” and a blend of pieces by Scott Joplin. The instrumentation may be modeled on a string quartet, but the way the horns blend together — the baritone providing a thick pulse as the other three carry the melody and an alto or a tenor steps forward for the occasional solo — is more like an a cappella doo-wop group. It’s a thoroughly compelling release that’s well worth your time.

Stream “Round Midnight”:

PRISM Quartet, Color Theory (XAS)

PRISM Quartet is also a four-saxophone ensemble, but they play avant-garde chamber music, not “jazz” per se. On this album, they’re joined by various guests, depending on the piece. Sō Percussion appears on “Blue Notes And Other Clashes”; on “Future Lilacs” and “Skiagrafies,” Partch (the ensemble dedicated to playing composer Harry Partch’s instruments, which he designed and which were tuned to a 42-note-to-the-octave system of his devising) provides the percussive counterpoint. Electric guitarist Derek Johnson is also on “Future Lilacs,” making some astonishingly ugly noises. This is abstract and somewhat ominous music, with an almost symphonic feel at times that’s amazing given that the lead instrumental voices, most of the time, are just four saxophones.

Stream “Future Lilacs”:

Oregon, Lantern (Cam Jazz)

Oregon have been around since 1970 and have released 29 albums, including this one. Two of their founding members, Ralph Towner and Paul McCandless, are still present; original drummer Colin Walcott died in 1984, and founding bassist Glen Moore left after 2012’s Family Tree. This is the first Oregon album with new bassist Paolino Dalla Porta. Percussionist Mark Walker has been with the group since 1997. The group’s music remains as unique as it’s always been: a blend of chamber jazz, folk (Towner’s acoustic guitar has the bite of early ’70s groups like Pentangle), New Age/ambient music, and surprisingly spiky/abstract improvisation. On “Dolomiti Dance,” the first track from Lantern, the lead instrument is McCandless’s oboe, an instrument that’s far from common in jazz, but he’s a master of it, and gets as much out of it as any soprano saxophone player might. Behind him, Towner’s acoustic guitar and Dalla Porta’s thick, resonant bass provide a sturdy, if lilting, foundation, and Walker’s percussion is all over the place, a mixture of hand drums and shakers. This is a very beautiful album, but it never settles for mere prettiness when it can challenge the listener’s expectations instead.

Stream “Dolomiti Dance”:

Roots Magic, Last Kind Word (Clean Feed)

Roots Magic are a fascinating Italian ensemble (Alberto Popolla on clarinet and bass clarinet; Errico de Fabritiis on alto and baritone sax; Gianfranco Tedeschi on bass; Fabrizio Spera on drums) who interpret tunes by Charley Patton, Geeshie Wiley, Blind Willie Johnson, and others, as well as compositions by Roscoe Mitchell, Julius Hemphill, Henry Threadgill, Marion Brown, and others. Their goal, obviously, is to draw a line between the deep Delta blues and free jazz. Others, notably Hemphill, David Murray, and Archie Shepp, have explored this territory before, but these guys have a unique intensity; the cry of their horns is fierce and hypnotic. At the same time, it’s not all wailing and crying: several tracks add strutting funk rhythms. This is their second album, and they’ve brought a few guests: Luca Venitucci adds subtle organ to three tracks, Luca Tilli plays cello on two others, and on the closing version of Threadgill’s “Bermuda Blues,” Antonio Castiello manipulates the sound in a dub style.

Stream their version of Julius Hemphill’s “Dogon A.D.”:

Barron Ryan, The Masters’ Apprentice (self-released)

A lot of jazz scholarship involves transcribing solos and learning them. It may seem counterintuitive to develop one’s own style by studying how, say, John Coltrane or Charlie Parker extrapolated a set of chord changes, but that’s been jazz tradition for decades. Barron Ryan takes that approach and runs with it on his new album, The Masters’ Apprentice. He’s primarily a classical pianist, so he’s used to performing off scores. For this disc, he transcribed, for example, Oscar Peterson’s version of “Makin’ Whoopee” to sheet music, and recorded it like a classical piece. He does the same for Erroll Garner’s “On The Sunny Side Of The Street,” Art Tatum’s “Tiger Rag,” and eight more. Describing jazz as “America’s classical music” is absurd, but applying a classical methodology to jazz can yield highly enjoyable results, as this album proves.

Watch a video of Ryan performing “Makin’ Whoopee”:

Kenny Shanker, The Witching Hour (Wise Cat)

Alto saxophonist Kenny Shanker put out two albums on Posi-Tone in 2011 and 2014, and has now returned on what I think is his own label. He’s joined by his longtime live band: pianist Mike Eckroth, guitarist Daisuke Abe, bassist Yoshi Waki, and drummer Brian Fishler, most of whom played on both of his previous releases. Shanker writes all the tunes, which are melodic and swinging, and sticks mostly to the alto’s midrange, rarely going for piercing, Ornette Coleman-style barbed notes. The band is subtle, but energetic; even on ballads like “Spin,” or “Saturday, 2 AM,” Fishler keeps things twitchy and ready-to-go. Sometimes, like on “Cat Island,” Eckroth will tiptoe right up to the edge of out-ness, but he always comes back. This is a solid release by a group of young players finding their voices together.

Stream “Cake Batter”:

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