Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – October 2017

On Friday, October 6, the Art Ensemble Of Chicago played their first New York show since 2004. The last time they were in town, original bassist Malachi Favors had died only three months earlier, so the show was something of a memorial to him. Jaribu Shahid, who had worked with Art Ensemble founder Roscoe Mitchell going back to 1981, filled the bass chair. Trumpeter Lester Bowie, another founding member of the group, had died in 1999; Corey Wilkes, substantially younger than the other members of the band, replaced him. The two shows they played at the New York club Iridium were recorded for a 2006 double CD, Non-Cognitive Aspects Of The City. That was the last Art Ensemble album to be released.

Since then, the group had gone quiet. Saxophonist Joseph Jarman retired from music entirely, but Roscoe Mitchell and drummer Famoudou Don Moye stayed active, Mitchell in particular. Still, this show came as a surprise, especially once it was announced that Jarman would be appearing. Tickets sold out fast.

There were a lot of musicians and other avant-jazz figures of note in the audience. I was seated next to Vijay Iyer and his young daughter; there was a spot directly behind me reserved for Henry Threadgill, and while he didn’t make it, when I turned around at the end of the show, alto saxophonist Darius Jones was there. And while waiting around outside before the show, I met drummer Tyshawn Sorey, whose work I’ve been listening to for years but with whom I had never spoken before that night.

The performance itself was quite something. At their peak in the 1970s and 1980s, Art Ensemble shows were massive, theatrical extravaganzas — members wore costumes (Bowie a lab coat, Jarman, Favors and Moye robes and face paint) and chanted, and the stage was covered with a vast array of horns, percussion equipment, and “little instruments” which were used to create a constant, fluid clatter, a jungle of sound that suited their motto, “Great Black Music: Ancient To The Future.” This incarnation of the Ensemble, though, was often closer in spirit to Roscoe Mitchell’s solo work, which blurs the lines between avant-garde jazz and modern composition.

The lineup featured Mitchell on alto and sopranino saxophones, Hugh Ragin on trumpet, Tomeka Reid on cello, Jaribu Shahid and Junius Paul on basses, and Moye on drums. Ragin kicked things off with a gentle and quite beautiful trumpet solo, which Mitchell countered, playing the high-pitched sopranino sax like something was stuck and he couldn’t quite get the notes to come all the way out (this is actually extraordinarily difficult, of course, and hearing him do it was almost dizzying). Slowly, the rest of the group came in, playing together in a way that almost swung but still retained an avant-garde energy. And then, midway through the set, an old man in a baseball cap stood up and took a seat with the group. I hadn’t even recognized Joseph Jarman! He read for quite a while, as Moye moved to congas and the band dropped the intensity level just enough to provide a backdrop for his Buddhist-influenced verses, which returned again and again to themes, more like chanted incantations than poems. (Jarman used to deliver an invocation to begin each year’s Vision Festival; my first encounters with any members of the Art Ensemble came in 1998, when he opened the festival’s first night, and Roscoe Mitchell performed in a trio with vocalist Thomas Buckner and pianist Borah Bergman.)

Ultimately, the set rose to a crescendo that was like an old-school free jazz blowout, everyone all in at the same time, but it never had the wild abandon of a set by Frank Wright or Charles Gayle. Mitchell’s demeanor is professorial; he was wearing a really nice shirt and tie, and always maintained a posture that implied that everything was going exactly how he’d planned it. In a way, it was like he was saying that “free” was just one more way of making music, no different than any other, and that’s sort of been the philosophy behind the Art Ensemble’s music for almost 50 years. They’ll pull from anywhere, low or high, and put it all on the same plane. They’re amazing synthesists, creating something uniquely their own out of wildly disparate elements. The last piece they played was melodic and swinging, a kind of vamp during which Mitchell introduced the bandmembers, a genial host and showman in his subdued, dry way.

A few days after the concert, it was announced that Tyshawn Sorey has been awarded a MacArthur fellowship, a so-called “genius grant” that gives the recipient $625,000 to use as they see fit. Sorey, who’s currently a professor at Wesleyan University (in fact, he occupies Anthony Braxton’s former chair), doesn’t like to draw lines between composition and improvisation in his music; like the Art Ensemble and other members of the Chicago-based AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), he’s a synthesist. He told an NPR interviewer that listeners should “Deal with the mystery of it all, because sometimes it’s best not to know. Go with how the music makes you feel.”

On that note, let’s talk about the best new jazz albums of the month!

Archival Find of the Month: Various Artists, Gittin’ To Know Y’all (MPS)

Gittin’ To Know Y’all was recorded live at the 1969 Free Jazz Meeting Baden-Baden, a festival where prominent players on the US and European avant-garde joined forces, exchanged ideas, and collaborated onstage. The bulk of the album is taken up by its title piece, which was composed and conducted by Art Ensemble trumpeter Lester Bowie; his bandmates Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell were also part of the group that played it, which also included Kenny Wheeler and Hugh Steinmetz on trumpets, Albert Mangelsdorff and Eje Thelin on trombones, saxophonists Alan Skidmore, Bernt Rosengren, Gerd Dudek, and Heinz Sauer, bass clarinetist Willem Breuker, guitarist Terje Rypdal, pianists Dave Burrell and Leo Kuypers, bassists Barre Phillips and Palle Danielsson, and drummers Claude Delcloo, Steve McCall, and Tony Oxley. While there’s plenty of high-volume blare, and some theatricality courtesy of the Art Ensemble members, taken as a whole it’s an extremely beautiful piece, and it’s great to have this album out, newly remastered, on iTunes.

Stream “Gittin’ To Know Y’all Part I”:

Wadada Leo Smith, Najwa and Solo: Reflections And Meditations On Monk (TUM)

Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, another AACM member, has two new albums out. The first, Najwa, is a liquid-sounding disc of very, very guitar-heavy dub fusion: the band features four guitarists (Michael Gregory Jackson, Henry Kaiser, Brandon Ross, and Smith’s grandson Lamar), Bill Laswell on bass, Pheeroan akLaff on drums, and Adam Rudolph on percussion. These are all guys with whom he’s had a long association — for example, Kaiser and Smith co-led the band Yo Miles!, paying tribute to Miles Davis’s electric music, and Ross is in the band Harriet Tubman, on whose latest album Araminta Smith guested. Four of the album’s five tracks are quite long, and are dedications to Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Ronald Shannon Jackson, and Billie Holiday; the title track is a short piece that’s described only as being “in remembrance of a love lost.”

Stream “Najwa”:

The second album’s title, Solo: Reflections And Meditations On Monk, tells the whole story. With nothing but his trumpet, Smith explores four Thelonious Monk compositions (“Ruby, My Dear,” “Reflections,” “Crepuscule With Nellie” and “Round Midnight”) and four new pieces of his own, inspired by Monk. He’s playing beautifully, recorded in a gently reverberant space so his most forceful notes seem to echo off the walls. You might think Monk’s melodies would lose something, absent the percussive aspects of the piano; it’s hard to convey that same lurching rhythm on a wind instrument. But Smith feels this music so deeply that he’s able to carry Monk’s spirit forward in this manner. It’s a deeply beautiful record.

Stream “Monk And His Five Point Ring At The Five Spot Café”:

Christian Scott, The Emancipation Procrastination (Ropeadope)

The third volume in Christian Scott’s trilogy of 2017 releases is out now, and it’s a slightly more organic set of music at times than the last disc, Diaspora. His longtime running partner, guitarist Matt Stevens, returns for two tracks, and the rhythms owe less to trap music and more to dub and funk; bassists Kris Funn and Luques Curtis create a deep, throbbing bottom end, bolstered by Lawrence Fields’ Fender Rhodes and locked in with as many as four drummers/percussionists. Some tracks, like “AvengHer,” do continue the electronic direction that has dominated the trilogy; the beats are so strong they distort, and a keyboard sound like someone strumming the strings of a piano sets up a warped, muted solo by Scott. Later, of course, he takes a full-power trumpet solo full of smeared high notes and lines that waver like a drunk struggling to stay upright.

Stream “AvengHer”:

Irreversible Entanglements, Irreversible Entanglements (International Anthem)

Irreversible Entanglements is a new group featuring saxophonist Keir Neuringer, bassist Luke Stewart, trumpeter Aquiles Navarro and drummer Tcheser Holmes. They’re joined by poet Camae Ayewa, better known as Moor Mother. Ayewa, Neuringer and Stewart performed together at a Musicians Against Police Brutality event; Navarro and Holmes were also present, playing as a duo. Months after the event, they all joined forces in the studio, recording this album in a day. It’s improvised free jazz in the 1960s tradition, recalling Archie Shepp albums like Blasé or Poem For Malcolm, or the New York Art Quartet’s “Black Dada Nihilismus,” on which they were joined by Amiri Baraka. Ayewa’s words are furious, but they’re delivered with exquisite control, never allowing the listener off the hook with showy displays of emotion. She seethes. And behind her, the music surges and flares, the horns coming in and out like she’s conducting them, the bass and drums driving it all forward with a kind of marching swing. This is Albert Ayler-style free jazz, parade melodies warped into uncanny howls.

Stream “Chicago To Texas”:

Keyon Harrold, The Mugician (Legacy Recording/Mass Appeal Records)

Trumpeter Keyon Harrold has been around for a little while; his album Introducing Keyon Harrold came out on the Criss Cross label in 2009. Over time, though, he’s evolved from a straightahead jazz player into someone blending jazz, funk, hip-hop, and R&B, not unlike Christian Scott or Robert Glasper. Glasper is one of the many guests on this album, along with Georgia Anne Muldrow, Pharoahe Monch, Bilal, Big K.R.I.T., and Gary Clark Jr., among others. His trumpet playing is powerful; his lines spiral skyward with an intensity few contemporary players can match, and the music behind him ticks and thumps and throbs. Even on the tracks without guest rappers, he’s frequently supported by a chorus, soaring behind him in a way that recalls Kamasi Washington’s The Epic.

Stream “Stay This Way (Feat. Bilal, Big K.R.I.T.)”:

Nubya Garcia, Nubya’s 5ive (jazzre:freshed)

UK saxophonist Nubya Garcia’s debut EP, Nubya’s 5ive, actually features six tracks, but one of them is an alternate take of “Hold.” Her band features Joe Armon-Jones on piano and electric piano, Daniel Casimir on bass, and Moses Boyd on drums; on three tracks, Femi Koloeso adds a second drum kit, Sheila Maurice-Grey plays trumpet on “Lost Kingdoms,” and Theon Cross plays tuba on two tracks. It’s really amazing to me how much great jazz is coming out of England these days, almost all of it from young musicians like Camilla George, Binker & Moses, and Garcia. This music has a soul groove, with the double drummers creating a dense clatter in the back as Garcia and Maurice-Grey trade ideas back and forth. Garcia is a mellow-toned saxophonist, reminiscent of Dexter Gordon or even Lester Young, allowing her lines to unspool slowly and thoughtfully, without sacrificing emotion.

Stream “Lost Kingdoms”:

Sarah Elizabeth Charles, Free Of Form (Ropeadope)

Vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles has developed a close creative relationship with Christian Scott over the past few years; she appears on the first two albums in his trilogy, and he co-produced this disc with her. But it’s definitely her vision that’s dominating here — it’s a small band (Jesse Elder on piano and keyboards, Burniss Earl Travis II on bass, and John Davis on drums, with Scott playing trumpet on four tracks out of twelve) and the music is an oozing pool of ominous synths, with the bass and drums building tension without ever allowing it to break. Charles’ voice is soft but intense, recalling Lou Rhodes of jazzy trip-hop duo Lamb. She delivers her lyrics with precision, as much like a poet as a singer.

Stream “March To Revolution”:

Rempis Percussion Quartet, Cochonnerie (Aerophonic)

The Rempis Percussion Quartet — a double-drum outfit led by saxophonist Dave Rempis, featuring bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummers Tim Daisy and Frank Rosaly — has been active, off and on, since 2004. This is their eighth CD, recorded live in October 2015, and while the liner notes claim it’s “the same old stuff,” their same old is more adventurous than most acts’ new ideas. Rempis is a gutsy, blustery player, not a lung-buster of the Peter Brötzmann but still someone who understands the aesthetic value of a wall-shaking honk. And when the band gets roaring on the two long-ass tracks that make up the bulk of this disc (“Straggler” runs 33 minutes, “Enzymes” 18), it’s an old-school free jazz rocket ride. The track streaming below, “Green And Black,” makes for a sort of soothing respite in between, though there are some weird humming and buzzing noises buried in the music, for which I blame the drummers; they’ll keep you from getting too relaxed.

Stream “Green And Black”:

Eric Hofbauer Quintet, Prehistoric Jazz Volume 4: Reminiscing In Tempo (Creative Nation)

Guitarist Eric Hofbauer’s Prehistoric Jazz series is one of the most fascinating and individualistic things around. Conductor Leonard Bernstein once referred to Igor Stravinsky’s composition “Le sacre du printemps” (The Rite Of Spring) as “prehistoric jazz,” and Hofbauer took that as both a hint and a challenge, re-arranging the piece for a jazz group that included trumpeter Jerry Sabatini, clarinetist Todd Brunel, cellist Junko Fujiwara and drummer Curt Newton. After tackling Stravinsky, they moved on to Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour la fin du temps,” which they changed to “Quintet For The End Of Time,” and Charles Ives’ “3 Places In New England.” Now Hofbauer and company have moved on to interpreting “Reminiscing In Tempo,” one of Duke Ellington’s classic early long-form compositions. The original ran nearly 13 minutes, spread across four 78 RPM sides, and was thus broken into movements — it also featured no improvisation. Hofbauer has nearly doubled the piece’s length to 24:48, by giving the various instrumentalists room to stretch out and abstract the original’s mournful swing (it was a tribute to Ellington’s mother, who had recently died). Still, even when it seems to be dissolving, the melodic figure that anchors the piece keeps returning to the fore. This is a beautiful piece, in both its original and re-interpreted versions.

Stream “Reminiscing In Tempo”:

Rachel Therrien Quintet, WDYT (Self-Released)

Montreal-based trumpeter Rachel Therrien has explored some interesting ideas as a leader. Her last album, 2016’s Pensamiento: Proyecto Colombia, was recorded in Bogota with local musicians and featured rhythms and melodic structures from all over the country. On this new disc, though, she’s fronting her regular quintet that includes saxophonist Benjamin Deschamps, pianist Charles Trudel, bassist Simon Pagé, and awesomely named drummer Alain Bourgeois. It’s conventional hard bop with an occasional dash of funk, and you can definitely tell the band has been playing together for a while (Trudel, Pagé, and Bourgeois have been in Therrien’s band since her 2011 debut, On Track, and Deschamps joined on the follow-up, 2014’s Home Inspiration). Pagé is a definite MVP here, as his thick, almost electric sound gives the music real bounce; Bourgeois complements him with strutting drum work on the title track.

Stream “Why Don’t You Try”:

Tomas Fujiwara, Triple Double (Firehouse12)

Drummer Tomas Fujiwara has assembled a sextet for his new album that’s actually a double trio: two drummers (himself and Gerald Cleaver), two guitarists (Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook), Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and Ralph Alessi on trumpet. That’s a lot of whomp in the back, and indeed, the opening “Diving For Quarters,” which runs 11 minutes, conjures up some serious drum thunder as the horns wander like lost parade musicians and the guitars skronk and ping. Two versions of “Hurry Home” are presented as guitar/drums duos, the first pairing Seabrook and Cleaver, the second Halvorson and Fujiwara. The former is more atmospheric, the latter slightly more countrified, but both exhibit a powerful energy. “Blueberry Eyes” is a simmering, bluesy track with a lot of snarl in the trumpet and the drummers playing like they’re working together to create one thundering, eight-limbed beat monster.

Stream “Blueberry Eyes”:

The Co-Op, s/t (Brown Brothers)

This album could almost have filled the Archival Find of the Month slot. It was recorded in 2007, but is only just now being released. The Co-Op was a band that included trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, pianist/vibraphonist Warren Wolf, bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Kendrick Scott. Every member brought in compositions, which the others then shaped and interpreted. This is a really interesting and surprising record. It’s got elements of mainstream hard bop, but there’s also a lot of fusion in the sound. On “Journey,” Pelt’s trumpet sounds like it’s being fed through a pedal, and Wolf’s vibraphone is backed by slightly manipulated, wordless male vocals. Hodge switches between acoustic and electric bass, depending on the tune, and whatever he’s playing, it’s huge at all times; Scott’s drumming is busy, but extremely taut, with a crisp snare attack. On “Jake’s Dilemma,” Wolf is on keyboards and vibes (with the help of overdubbing); his synth lines shimmer and echo, and the vibes are an aggressive counter-voice. Meanwhile, Pelt and Gordon are basically shouting at each other across the almost psychedelic soundscape the other three have set up. This is really strong stuff, available only on vinyl but well worth seeking out.

Watch a video about the making of the album:

Sherman Irby & Momentum, Cerulean Canvas (Black Warrior)

Alto saxophonist Sherman Irby is a veteran of the mainstream jazz scene; in fact, he’s the lead alto player in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra under Wynton Marsalis (who plays on two tracks here). This is his first album as a leader in a few years, but it’s really strong, and features a killer band: pianist Eric Reed, bassist Gerald Cannon, drummer Willie Jones III, and two different trombonists — Vincent Gardner on four tracks and Elliot Mason on three others. Irby’s voice on the alto reminds me of Cannonball Adderley’s. He’s gritty and soulful, but also surprisingly delicate in his phrasing and stays away from the sharper edges of the horn’s range, which allows him to harmonize extremely well with the much fuller-sounding trombone. The Reed-Cannon-Jones trio can dig deep into the blues, too; “John Bishop Blues” (named not for a black poet or civil rights leader, but for the owner of a BBQ joint in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where Irby grew up) is a highlight of the album, on which both he and Marsalis get seriously lowdown. The only track on which Irby is the sole horn is “Smile Please,” a version of the Stevie Wonder song that’s thoroughly transformed into a swinging, late-night jazz number.

Stream “Smile Please”:

Tim Armacost, Time Being (Whirlwind)

Tim Armacost is a veteran saxophonist, originally from L.A. but well known in both New York and Japan, who’s recorded as a leader and as a member of the aptly named New York Standards Quartet. This disc arose out of a vision he had of playing Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” with a very specific rhythm section: Robert Hurst and Jeff “Tain” Watts, both of whom backed Branford Marsalis for many years. So he pulled them together for this brooding, intense album. On a few tracks, they’re also joined by pianist David Kikoski, whose gentle rain-on-a-pond style suits the slowly unfolding compositions very well. As for that version of “Lonely Woman,” it’s quite something. It starts with a powerful call to action from Watts, after which Armacost and Hurst start out dividing the melody between them in something almost like call-and-response, but which quickly becomes a sort of harmony singing. While they’re repeating the melody over and over, Watts is erupting behind them — the effect is almost reminiscent of Miles Davis’s “Nefertiti,” where the melody was a mantra and drummer Tony Williams soloed his ass off throughout the track.

Stream “Lonely Woman”:

Tom Rainey Obbligato, Float Upstream (Intakt)

Drummer Tom Rainey is well known in avant-garde circles; he’s played with saxophonist Tim Berne and pianist Craig Taborn, and has a trio with saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and guitarist Mary Halvorson. This group includes trumpeter Ralph Alessi, Laubrock, pianist Kris Davis, and bassist Drew Gress, and with that lineup you might expect dense, brain-warping pieces of high-intensity modern jazz, but not so. Obbligato is a vehicle for these folks to explore jazz standards, and do so in a reverent (but still adventurous) manner. The album includes versions of “Stella By Starlight,” “Beatrice,” “What Is This Thing Called Love,” “What’s New,” “I Fall In Love Too Easily,” and “There Is No Greater Love” — tunes your average jazz fan has heard dozens of times. The thing about this is, it could easily have been a snarky demolition job. In the ’90s, an album like this would probably have been exactly that: picking the melodies apart in a music-nerdy way that would have seemed subversive or satirical if you too were a music nerd who’d studied all these tunes for years, but to the average listener would have just seemed like a wanky waste of time. Fortunately, this is not that. Instead, what comes through most strongly here is the deep love these players have for this music. The solos arise naturally out of the melodies, the rhythms swing, and the whole thing has a gentle, warm feel.

Stream “Beatrice”:

Ivo Perelman, Live In Brussels/Live In Baltimore/Heptagon/Scalene/Philosopher’s Stone/Octagon (Leo)

Brazilian saxophonist Ivo Perelman releases albums in bunches. Once a year, he drops six or seven CDs at once, usually with varying personnel. Lately, he’s been involved in a deep creative partnership with pianist Matthew Shipp, so they’ve put out a lot of duo records as well as trios with bassist William Parker, or various drummers. This latest batch of six albums includes a two-CD sax-piano duo set (Live In Brussels); one where they’re joined by drummer Jeff Cosgrove (Live In Baltimore); a quartet session featuring Parker on bass and Bobby Kapp on drums (Heptagon); another trio, this one with Joe Hertenstein on drums (Scalene); a drumless trio featuring trumpeter Nate Wooley (Philosopher’s Stone); and a Shipp-less quartet featuring Wooley, Brandon Lopez on bass, and Gerald Cleaver on drums (Octagon). Perelman is an extreme free player. All of his albums are 100% improvised, and the tracks only have numbers, not titles. He’s got a weird, sputtering energy on the horn — he murmurs as often as he shrieks, and he enjoys exploring its uppermost register, emitting leaky-balloon squeals before returning to an almost Coleman Hawkins-like mellow zone. Shipp’s heavy hand on the keyboard is an ideal counterpoint to Perelman’s relentless blowing, and with Parker and Kapp behind them, Heptagon is an intense journey; its calm moments never last long, and it always seems to be building to some kind of ecstatic peak.

Stream “Heptagon Part 3″: