Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – August 2017

One of the first lessons I learned when I was first getting into jazz, back at the dawn of time, was Follow The Sidemen. If you hear a record that kicks your ass, write down the players’ names and start looking for them. If Rudy Royston or Tyshawn Sorey or Johnathan Blake is on drums, buy that album. If Eric Revis or Gregg August or Stephan Crump is on bass, buy that album. If Aaron Parks or Orrin Evans or John Escreet is on piano, buy that album. There are literally dozens of other players I could have listed, too, but you get the idea.

About 10 days ago, I went to the Jazz Standard to see Voyager, a group led by drummer Eric Harland, with Walter Smith III on tenor sax, Taylor Eigsti on piano, and Harish Raghavan on bass. I knew Harland’s work from albums by Smith; trumpeter Alex Sipiagin; saxophonists Ravi Coltrane, Charles Lloyd, Chris Potter, and Bob Reynolds; bassist Dave Holland; and more. I know Smith from his own albums, and from his work with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. Raghavan is also a member of Akinmusire’s band, and Eigsti has made some excellent albums under his own name. But I’d never heard all four of them play together.

I’ll be honest—the set didn’t start off that great. It seemed to take them about 15 minutes to start working together. A lot of that time, Smith was soloing, seemingly unaffected by what Raghavan and Harland were throwing at each other behind him, and Eigsti was barely jumping in at all, only splashing a note or two here and there like a kid tossing small rocks into a pond. Eventually, though, they arrived at a common purpose (and they played for an hour straight, with no breaks or tune announcements, though they were referring to sheet music) and by the end, they’d brought the whole thing home.

Harland has been backing saxophonist Charles Lloyd since 2005; in the last decade, he’s been part of the saxophonist’s quartet with pianist Jason Moran and bassist Reuben Rogers. They recently put out a live album, Passin’ Thru, on Blue Note, that includes reworkings of two old Lloyd tunes, “Passin’ Thru” and “Dream Weaver.” It’s a great record. Lloyd has been a little sleepy in the past, but he’s blowing hard on this album, and the band — particularly Harland — keeps the energy level high, getting almost into a free jazz zone at times. It’s just one of a string of really strong Blue Note releases in the last couple of years, including Ambrose Akinmusire’s double live disc A Rift In Decorum (which features Harish Raghavan on bass), Trombone Shorty’s Parking Lot Symphony, Logan Richardson’s Shift, Marcus Strickland’s Nihil Novi, Louis Hayes’ Serenade For Horace…and former Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen’s The Source, which will be out September 8. I’ll be talking about that one in next month’s column for sure.

On August 9, the third anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown by the Ferguson, MO police, and the same day I went to see Eric Harland’s band, trumpeter Keyon Harrold—who’s also from Ferguson—released a video for “MB Lament,” a tribute track which features guitarist Nir Felder, pianist Shedrick Mitchell, bassist Burniss “Boom” Travis, and drummer Mark Colenburg, accompanied by a 10-piece string section. The track, which will also be on Harrold’s next album, is part of a campaign to support Strength and Honor (SAH), a tutoring and mentoring program in Ferguson started by his brother, Albert Harrold.

Watch “MB Lament”:

And now, let’s talk about the best new jazz albums of the month!

Archival Find Of The Month: Enrico Rava, Katcharpari (MPS)

Trumpeter Enrico Rava is probably Italy’s best-known jazz musician. He’s played on albums by Steve Lacy, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, the Globe Unity Orchestra, the ICP Orchestra, and many more, and has recorded somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 discs as a leader. This, his second album, was originally released on the MPS label in 1973, and features guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Bruce Johnson (who’d later play with Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, one of the most ferocious jazz-funk bands of the ’80s), and drummer Chip “Superfly” White. Musically, it falls somewhere between Freddie Hubbard’s CTI albums like Straight Life and Red Clay, and Santana’s early ’70s work; Abercrombie’s guitar is heavily effected and searing. Rava’s trumpet lines are rich and full, with some really strong melody lines at times—the title track has an almost Chuck Mangione-level hook. “Fluid Connection” and “Trial No. 5,” meanwhile, are slabs of hard-driving groove with powerful horn solos on top, strongly reminiscent of Miles Davis’s A Tribute to Jack Johnson. This is a ripper of an album that deserves to be rediscovered, and the remastering on this reissue brings it to screaming life.

Stream “Fluid Connection”:

Vijay Iyer Sextet, Far From Over (ECM)

Pianist Vijay Iyer is officially one of those jazz musicians who can be described as “much more than a jazz musician” without that seeming condescending. He’s a Harvard professor and classical composer who also makes electronic music and collaborates with poets and spoken word artists. When he makes a jazz record, though, he doesn’t fuck around. This album features Graham Haynes on cornet, Steve Lehman on alto sax, Mark Shim on tenor sax, Stephan Crump on bass, and Tyshawn Sorey on drums, and it’s a fierce, pulsing collection of music, some of which he’s been working on for nearly a decade and some of which is brand new. In some ways, it reminds me of Andrew Hill’s Blue Note albums like Black Fire and Point Of Departure, particularly on a hard-charging tune like “Down To The Wire.” But there’s funk here, too; Iyer adds Fender Rhodes on the simply titled “Nope,” and the horns play a staccato melody as Sorey sets up a spacious yet strutting rhythm. And “Wake” is an atmospheric piece, verging on ambient music, with Haynes’ cornet filtered through effects and shimmering in the air.

Watch a full performance by the Sextet from June’s Ojai Music Festival, for which Iyer served as Music Director:

Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber, All You Zombies Dig The Luminosity! (Avantgroidd)

Vijay Iyer was an early member of Burnt Sugar, Greg Tate’s vehicle for conducted improvisation. Saxophonist Matana Roberts, guitarist Kirk Douglass (now of the Roots) and drummer Qasim Naqvi are among the other notables who’ve passed through its ranks over the years. Burnt Sugar’s music is sort of post-everything, treating 20th and 21st Century music as a river to be dipped into endlessly and as needed; they combine early ’70s Miles with Funkadelic, Earth, Wind & Fire, hip-hop and illbient, and modern/avant-garde classical and jazz, and they’ve played the Apollo Theater and the Vision Festival. Their latest album has more songs qua songs than some previous efforts, a lot of laptop/programmed rhythms, and most tracks feature vocals. “Ziploc Latex” is a witty lecture on the very cultural fluidity that’s their whole method and reason for being, including lines like “I graduated from Appropriation U/You kept it fresh, I made it cool.” But a song like “RU Insane? (The Mo’ Brutal Remix)” combines hard rock and skronking free jazz in a way that recalls Fishbone’s 1992 masterpiece, The Reality Of My Surroundings, if they’d let John Zorn join the jam.

Stream “RU Insane? (The Mo’ Brutal Remix)”:

Tyshawn Sorey, Verisimilitude (Pi)

Tyshawn Sorey’s 2016 double CD The Inner Spectrum Of Variables was a stunning epic. He combined a piano trio (Corey Smythe on keyboards, Chris Tordini on bass) with a string trio (Fung Chern Hwei on violin, Kyle Armbrust on viola, Rubin Kodheli on cello) to create a marathon, multi-movement work that veered from thunderous bombast to near-silent meditation. On this disc, Smythe and Tordini are back again, and the group is making music that owes as much to Morton Feldman as to the traditional jazz piano trio. They add subtle electronics to create atmospheric effects, and on pieces like “Obsidian” Sorey limits himself to soft tom rolls like distant thunder, and small percussive sounds like objects shifting in the next room. About 12 minutes into the 18-minute piece, he seems to suddenly erupt, but as with all his work, it’s precisely thought-out and expertly controlled. The album’s centerpiece is “Algid November,” a nearly 31-minute performance that travels through several movements (though they’re not delineated as such), occasionally swinging but just as often leaving Smythe twirling in the air, virtually alone. Sorey rarely gives interviews, which is probably a good thing, because his music has a tremendous amount to say.

Stream “Obsidian”:

Logan Strohsal Team, Book I Of Arthur (Sunnyside)

This album is a retelling of the story of King Arthur (Merlin, Excalibur, the Round Table, etc., etc.), complete with narration. It is also the first volume in a projected trilogy. And it is every bit as bonkers as that sounds, and more. But it’s also pretty awesome. Strohsal, an alto saxophonist, is joined by an able band of musical warriors (sorry, I had to), including trumpeter Aquiles Navarro, clarinetist Michael Sachs, tenor saxophonist Sam Decker, pianist Nick Sanders, bassist Henry Fraser, and drummer Connor Baker. Julia Easterlin provides a second narrative voice. The compositions are a fascinating blend of jazz and much older techniques, particularly 16th and 17th century polyphony. When the horns all harmonize together on “Igraine Gives The Infant Arthur To Ector,” it sounds like the work of Julius Hemphill, but the same piece also includes some seriously high-intensity playing from the rhythm section and a staggeringly heavy bowed bass solo. There’s free jazz energy here, especially on the earlier pieces, but as the story becomes more complex and Arthur’s kingdom starts to come together, the music becomes more tonal and melodic, as England is brought from chaos to tranquility. So this really is an album that needs to be heard from beginning to end as a single work. It’s crazy, but it’s also kinda great, and I am 100% on board for Books II and III.

Stream “Wherein The Beast Is Ever More And More”:

Mark Springer, Circa Rip Rig & Panic (Exit)

Rip Rig & Panic were a British group that blended funk, postpunk, Afrobeat, and skronky jazz in the early ’80s. Don Cherry and his daughter Neneh worked with them from time to time, but one of the core members of the band was Mark Springer, who frequently erupted into Cecil Taylor-esque assaults on the keyboard in the middle of their songs. This album gathers recordings Springer made in 1983, some of them featuring RR&P saxophonist Flash and bassist Sean Oliver. There’s also one track, “A Given Voice A Given Choice,” on which Nico sings. The majority, though, are solo piano pieces, which are pretty, but lack the crazed fervor of actual RR&P songs. (Since the group’s dissolution, Springer has written a lot of string quartets and other more traditionally structured music.) “I’ve Got To Two Hand It To You” sounds almost like Philip Glass’s solo piano work. By far the best piece here is “Threevolution,” a honking, clattering piano-bass-sax workout that creates a space between R&B-derived hard bop and free jazz explosiveness, even throwing some gospel handclaps and vocal exhortations into the mix.

Stream “Threevolution”:

Matt Wilson, Honey And Salt (Palmetto)

Drummer Matt Wilson is hard to pigeonhole. He runs several groups—the Matt Wilson Quartet, another four-piece called Arts and Crafts, and the Christmas Tree-O, a group that performs jazz versions of Christmas carols—and has played on over 250 albums as a sideman. His compositions are part hard bop, part avant-skronk, and part humorous juxtaposition and surprise. But there’s a core of Americana (not in the sense of “boring NPR country” but a kind of hard-to-describe but essential American-ness) to his music, too, which is expressed fully on his new album, which is a tribute to one of his biggest non-musical influences, the poet Carl Sandburg. The core ensemble features guitarist and singer Dawn Thomson, cornetist Ron Miles, and two longtime collaborators, saxophonist Jeff Lederer and bassist Martin Wind. Throughout the album, Sandburg’s poems are read or sung by guests, including Jack Black, Christian McBride, Carla Bley and others. The music jumps from New Orleans-style rave-ups to moody soundscapes reminiscent of mid ’80s Tom Waits albums. On “Fog,” Wilson plays a drum duet with a recording of Sandburg’s own voice. In some ways, this album reminds me of the tribute albums producer Hal Willner put together in the ’80s and early ’90s, where all-star teams of rock, jazz, and avant-garde musicians would record interpretations of pieces by Ennio Morricone, Kurt Weill, or Charles Mingus (if you can find a copy of Weird Nightmare: Meditations On Mingus, get it). It’s fantastic.

Stream “Fog”:

Morgan Guerin, The Saga II (Self-Released)

Morgan Guerin is a young (I’m gonna guess 21, tops) multi-instrumentalist and composer who plays almost everything on his albums himself. On The Saga II, the sequel to his 2016 debut, he plays alto sax, tenor sax, EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument), piano, Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer organ, Mellotron, other synths, bass, and drums. His compositions owe as much to rock as to jazz; “Gambit” has a slow, heavy beat and big guitar riffs—from Patrick Arthur—as reminiscent of ’80s AOR prog as ’70s fusion. (At this point I have to confess admiration for young musicians’ willingness to embrace sounds that were seen as desperately uncool only a few years ago; Christian Scott’s apparent love of Miles Davis’s 1980s sound is another example.) He’s a good producer of his own work, too; “Conundrum” features a dubby drum sound so reverb-soaked it’s practically underwater, and the vocals on “Hindsight,” “Lk02″ and “But I” are smoothly integrated without dragging the music too much toward commercial R&B.

Watch the video for “Lk02″:

Cyrus Chestnut, There’s A Sweet, Sweet Spirit (HighNote)

Pianist Cyrus Chestnut’s latest album features bassist Buster Williams and drummer Lenny White, just like last year’s Natural Essence, but this time they’re joined on several tracks by vibraphonist Steve Nelson. Chestnut has been described as an anachronism. His piano style is a blend of gospel and hard bop, with little or no acknowledgement of any evolutions in jazz past the 1950s. But he’s absolutely tremendous at what he does, without ever being self-consciously retro about it. So if you’re a fan of players like Ahmad Jamal, Sonny Clark, or Horace Silver (and bear in mind, Cecil Taylor loves Horace Silver), Cyrus Chestnut is about as direct a descendant of that classic jazz piano lineage as you’re gonna get. And here’s the thing: in his own way, he’s adventurous. After all, this is not the most conservative rhythm section he could have worked with. Buster Williams was in Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band, and Lenny White was in Chick Corea’s Return to Forever. These guys know how to groove, but they can blow the stage up if they want to. And they mix new tunes with some surprising choices, including two by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, the opening “The Littlest One of All” and “Little B’s Poem.” They also tackle “Nardis,” a Miles Davis composition that Bill Evans recorded many times; Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-a-Ning”; and the Stylistics’ “You Make Me Feel Brand New.”

Stream “You Make Me Feel Brand New”:

Behn Gillece, Walk Of Fire (Posi-Tone)

Vibraphonist Behn Gillece has gradually been building a really strong catalog. He co-led a group with saxophonist Ken Fowser for four albums, and now each man has stepped out on his own, with solid results. This is Gillece’s third disc as a leader, and he’s brought in a great band: trumpeter Bruce Harris and drummer Jason Tiemann both played on last year’s Dare To Be, and they’re joined by trombonist Michael Dease, saxophonist Walt Weiskopf, pianist Adam Birnbaum, and bassist Clovis Nicolas. The thing about the vibes is, it’s ultimately a very chilled-out, relaxing instrument; it’s basically impossible to go too far out with them, unless you’re just sort of hovering and interjecting occasional sudden accents (check out Bobby Hutcherson’s Dialogue for some excellent examples of this approach), so this album is a collection of simmering grooves that occasionally dip into full-on relaxation. I mean, you kinda know what you’re gonna get with a tune called “Fantasia Brasileira,” right? Still, there’s some high-powered blowing going on on the opening title track, and when Gillece steps on the reverb pedal on “Dauntless Journey,” it has a nice dreamy/mildly-psychedelic effect.

Stream “Walk Of Fire”:

Ben Allison, Layers Of The City (Sonic Camera)

Bassist Ben Allison’s been around for close to 30 years; Layers Of The City is his 13th album as a leader. The band includes Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, Steve Cardenas on guitar, Frank Kimbrough on piano, and Allan Mednard on drums. Allison switches back and forth between acoustic and electric, as needed. Mednard supplies a driving backbeat on the harder numbers, swinging softly on the ballads, and Cardenas’s guitar has plenty of sting. Kimbrough, too, is a versatile player who can go hard or relax into a lyrical groove, depending on the mood of the moment. Pelt’s playing has his usual rich, full tone, but he’s often sharing the melody lines with Cardenas, which gives the music an interesting, almost fusion-esque quality at times, as on the title track. The guitar solos, though, can get deep into the blues and even verge on full-out rock. Some of the titles, like “Layers Of The City” and “The Detective’s Wife,” suggest a noir-ish vibe, but this is a multifaceted and surprising album, high-energy even at slow tempos.

Watch the video for “Layers Of The City”:

Russell Malone, Time For The Dancers (HighNote)

Guitarist Russell Malone’s latest album features Rick Germanson on piano, Luke Sellick on bass, and Willie Jones III on drums. Like the Cyrus Chestnut album above (also on HighNote), it includes a version of Bobby Hutcherson’s “Little B’s Poem,” played more aggressively—especially by Jones—than the other group’s take. But there are some other surprises to be found, like a version of “Theme From Chico And The Man” (written by José Feliciano) and a really nice, bluesy piece called “The Ballad Of Hank Crawford,” a tribute to the alto saxophonist I wrote about in February’s column. The title piece begins with some classical-influenced piano from Germanson, before a slow, throbbing rhythm is established. Malone’s guitar shimmers, sounding almost like wind chimes as the melody issues forth. The album cover photo depicts him surrounded by young girls from a New Jersey dance studio, and this piece is exactly the kind of gentle but beautiful thing that would go with that image.

Stream “Time For The Dancers”:

Steve Sandberg Quartet, Alaya (ArtistShare)

Pianist Steve Sandberg is a busy guy, in a variety of musical realms: He’s worked with salsa legends like Rubén Blades and Celia Cruz, written music for Broadway shows, and composed and arranged music for Dora the Explorer. On this album, he leads violinist Zach Brock, bassist Michael O’Brien and drummer Mauricio Zottarelli through a set of eight original compositions that blend classical, jazz, African and Latin rhythms, prog, and fusion (Brock’s violin lines get shockingly Jean-Luc Ponty-ish at times). On “Iboga,” Sandberg pumps out some heart-pounding piano montunos over intricate drumming from Zottarelli, before the piece downshifts into a kind of mournful, jazzy zone atop which Brock goes apeshit. O’Brien’s bass is a deep, booming presence filling all available airspace between the violin and the piano. “Maurice,” for which the group has made a video, is a shimmery, romantic piece with a really strong melodic line and a softly swinging rhythm.

Watch the video for “Maurice”:

Miya Masaoka, Zeena Parkins, Myra Melford, MZM (Infrequent Seams)

This album is a collaboration between three women of legendary reputation in New York and global jazz and avant-garde circles. Among them, they’ve worked with Björk, Yoko Ono, Henry Threadgill, Nels Cline, Pauline Oliveros, Joseph Jarman, and many, many, many others (Melford is part of Trio M with drummer Matt Wilson, who’s discussed above), as well as making numerous albums as leaders. On this disc, Masaoka plays the 21-string koto, Parkins plays an electric harp and uses additional electronics, and Melford plays acoustic and prepared piano. All the music is improvised, but it has a thoughtful, unified feel. Melford’s piano, which has a heavy, almost blues or gospel sound with lots of low-end rumble, is the anchor, and Masaoka and Parkins alternately come charging at her or flit delicately through the room. The electric harp has a fascinating sound; it’s almost like a theremin or a steel guitar the way it zaps and zings, and on “Saturn” Parkins creates long feedback-like drones. Masaoka’s koto, meanwhile, is sometimes played in an almost traditional manner, but at other times she’s jangling the strings like Derek Bailey played the guitar. Taken all together, it’s extraordinary and quite beautiful music.

Stream “Saturn”:

Paul Jones, Clean (Outside In)

Tenor saxophonist Paul Jones’ Clean is a surprise. The core band is a standard jazz ensemble featuring alto saxophonist Alex LoRe, guitarist Matt Davis, pianist Glenn Zaleski, bassist Johannes Felscher and drummer Jimmy Macbride, and the music they make together is modern post-bop, with reasonably strong melodies and a light, dancing rhythm (Macbride is an under-recognized drummer). But on many tracks, the primary group is augmented by the SNAP Saxophone Quartet (Nicholas Biello on soprano, Andrew Gould on alto, Sam Dillon on tenor, Jay Rattman on baritone) as well as some chamber players—Mark Dover on clarinet, Ellen Hindson on oboe, Nanci Belmont on bassoon and Susan Mandel on cello—plus flautist Gina Izzo and pianist Erika Dohi. Those pieces take the music in more composed directions, but never get overly fussy, because Jones is drawing influences from minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, as well as hip-hop, so on “Alphabet Soup,” for example, there’s a steady, looping figure over which a soloist emits short, jabbing phrases, and strings come in periodically for a mournful countermelody.

Stream “Alphabet Soup”:

John Butcher/John Edwards/Mark Sanders, Last Dream Of The Morning (Relative Pitch)

Saxophonist John Butcher is a genuine explorer. He’s fascinated by the physical properties of sound, and his music frequently explores the room it’s being created in—he’ll bounce tones off walls, or change his approach based on what he hears as he’s playing. He also uses every aspect of the horn; scraping reed sounds or the pops of the saxophone’s valves are as important as “notes.” Sometimes he operates in a semi-conventional free jazz mode, but more often than not he’s in a zone of near-total abstraction, shifting from dinosaur-like roars to high-pitched squeals like the air seeping from a balloon, or chewing on a single short phrase until he’s wrung every possible permutation out of it. His two partners, bassist John Edwards and drummer Mark Sanders, are doing strong work, too; there’s never an attempt to set up a conventional rhythm, but the way they fit together, and support Butcher, turns the whole thing into a whirling storm of sound, and Edwards’ bass sound is absolutely huge.

Stream “Lucid”:

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