Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – December 2017

Sunny Murray died 12/8, at the age of 81, in Paris, where he’d lived for decades. Murray was one of the most important drummers in jazz history. He was crucial to the development of truly free jazz, because he broke down bar lines and traditional notions of time, creating — alongside three similarly inclined but stylistically very different players, Andrew Cyrille, Milford Graves and Rashied Ali — a kind of pulse rhythm that didn’t drive the music forward as much as it expanded it until it filled the room, filled your head and your chest, and let it take over your entire body. He also frequently emitted a low, chest-rattling moan while he played, which gave his work even more of a surging, unearthly quality. And he worked with an extremely minimal kit, usually just a snare, a bass drum and a few cymbals; he didn’t care for the sound of toms. But those cymbals sounded like a tidal wave sweeping away the building, and playing with him drove saxophonists in particular to ecstatic heights.

Born in Philadelphia, he moved to New York at the end of the 1950s and quickly hooked up with Cecil Taylor. Murray played with Taylor from 1960 to about 1963; while the two, along with saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, were on tour in Scandinavia, they met Albert Ayler. When Murray got back to New York, he joined Ayler’s group, and recorded legendary albums like Spiritual Unity, Prophecy, Bells and Spirits Rejoice for the ESP-Disk’ label. He also began recording as a leader at that time, putting out Sonny’s Time Now in 1965 and a self-titled album a year later. In 1969, he was one of the many free jazz musicians who moved to France and recorded for BYG; his albums Sunshine, An Even Break (Never Give A Sucker), and Homage To Africa are all essential listening, as are some of the Archie Shepp albums he plays on, like Black Gipsy and Yasmina, A Black Woman, not to mention pianist Dave Burrell’s Echo and trombonist Clifford Thornton’s Ketchaoua.

Murray stayed active until the 2000s, recording as a leader, with saxophonists like Charles Gayle, Jimmy Lyons, and David Murray, in duet with pianist Alexander Von Schlippenbach on Smoke, and returning to do battle with Cecil Taylor again on 1980’s It Is In The Brewing Luminous. Two of his greatest latter-day albums were duos with saxophonists: with Sabir Mateen on We Are Not At The Opera, and Arthur Doyle on Dawn Of A New Vibration.

Speaking of drummers…I recently noticed that Kate Gentile’s debut album, Mannequins, which features Jeremy Viner on tenor sax and clarinet, Matt Mitchell on piano and synth, and Adam Hopkins on bass, was getting a lot of critical love, and showing up on numerous year-end lists, so I clicked over to Bandcamp to check it out. (There was only one track streaming at the time, “Wrack.” Now, you can hear about half the album.) I was not won over, and I posted the following comment on Facebook:

Why do so many young jazz musicians write heads that sound like notes scattered on a tabletop like Scrabble tiles? Who started this shit, and how do we (critics, listeners) make it stop? Will burning down the music schools help?

As you might expect, this provoked a storm of commentary, from other critics who love the album and even from Matt Mitchell, one of several musicians who popped in to tell me I was full of shit, or too cynical, or a “complainer.” But Mitchell also threw down a challenge, reminding me that the group was playing at the Jazz Gallery the next night. He also provided a link to an interview with Gentile that I found pretty fascinating. So I went to the show.

The group was not actually performing music from Mannequins; they were playing an entirely new set of compositions over the course of two sets. I watched the first. Everyone was reading from sheet music, including Gentile, and like the album, it was complex, deliberately clunky work. The rhythms didn’t swing; they sounded like she was playing a live version of a programmed beat that skipped one drum hit every go-round. There was no groove, or sense of the blues. Whether on clarinet or tenor, Viner proceeded through the score at what felt like half-speed. He sounded like someone trying to speak a language by reciting one memorized syllable at a time. Mitchell and Hopkins should have served as the glue, but they didn’t—no one did. Everyone was playing simultaneously, but no one was playing together. As the set went on, Gentile’s compositional techniques became clear to me, and I was able to understand better what she and the others were doing. They weren’t playing jazz; they were playing chamber music, arranged for jazz instrumentation (saxophone, piano, upright bass, drums).

Afterward, I introduced myself to Gentile, who was very nice. We talked about death metal. Her music still isn’t my thing, but it’s clearly found an audience; Mannequins is popping up on multiple year-end lists. So more power to her.

And now, the best new jazz albums of the month!

Archival Find of the Month: Khan Jamal, Drum Dance To The Motherland (Eremite)

Eremite Records, a label that released a shit-ton of amazing free jazz in the 1990s and early 2000s, has built up a small catalog of reissues as well, mostly of private press albums from the 1960s and ’70s. One of the jewels they’ve recently unearthed is this album by vibraphonist Khan Jamal. Recorded live in 1972 in Philadelphia, it features two drummers (Alex Ellison and Dwight James), Billy Mills on both electric and upright bass, and Monette Sudler on guitar, and live engineer Mario Falana deserves separate credit, because he creates a psychedelic dub mix that turns the music into a rainbow sonic swirl like Lee “Scratch” Perry producing the Sun Ra Arkestra. Jamal occasionally switches from vibes to clarinet, emitting some truly raucous free jazz screeches. This album is like nothing else of its time, or since. It’s genuinely astonishing.

Stream “Breath Of Life”:

Gard Nilssen’s Acoustic Unity, Live In Europe (Clean Feed)

Norwegian drummer Gard Nilssen leads the trio Acoustic Unity with saxophonist André Roligheten and bassist Petter Eldh. This whomping triple CD features three full performances: one by just the trio, one with guest saxophone from Atomic’s Fredrik Ljungkvist, and one featuring two guest saxophonists, Kristoffer Alberts and Jørgen Mathisen. Even the trio date is a raucous free jazz blowout, and when the guests arrive at the party, things get seriously explosive. Nilssen is a subtle but high-energy drummer, maintaining rock-steady time while still finding a way to rumble and rattle all over the kit, chopping up the beat and firing machine-gun rolls at his bandmates and the audience. Roligheten, obviously, knows his tricks best, but none of the other horns are ever thrown; they all erupt in wild, caterwauling lines and intense bursts of raw sound. Bassist Eldh is the forgotten man most of the time, but without him there this music would likely come apart at the seams. He’s the fulcrum. (Perhaps worthy of note: I liked this album so much I bought it from the label, along with its predecessor, the 2015 studio album Firehouse.)

Stream “Mormor”:

Makaya McCraven, Highly Rare (International Anthem)

Drummer Makaya McCraven’s In The Moment was one of the most interesting records of 2015. He recorded 28 shows at a single venue over the course of a year, a total of 48 hours of music, then edited and remixed it into a double LP of high-potency jazz/beat music. This new album is also a chopped-up live document; it was recorded on four-track at a November 2016 show at a tiny Chicago bar called Danny’s Tavern. It features Nick Mazzarella on alto sax, Ben Lamar Gay on cornet and the one-stringed diddley bow, and Junius Paul on bass. The music is chopped up and looped, turned from raw jazz into hip-hop-derived funk with saxophone and cornet solos, and the hissy, primitive recording only gives it more visceral impact; it’s like listening to old tapes of live rap battles from the South Bronx. It’s not all beat-driven, though; tracks like “Venus Rising” feature plenty of spacious, atmospheric interaction between the horns before the rhythm comes back in.

Stream “Venus Rising”:

Leo Richardson Quartet, The Chase (Ubuntu)

Saxophonist Leo Richardson is much more of a traditionalist than other jazz musicians who’ve broken out of the UK in the last couple of years. He’s got zero interest in importing electronics, world music influences, or anything else into his sound: the dude is a straight hard bopper whose work sounds like it could have come out on Blue Note anytime between 1960 and 1966. But he and his band (pianist Rick Simpson, bassist Mark Lewandowski, and drummer Ed Richardson, who I don’t think is a relative) deliver the goods. Richardson’s style incorporates elements of Joe Henderson, Dexter Gordon, and John Coltrane, but he never sounds like he’s trying on hats: everything he plays sounds honestly felt. Trumpeter Quentin Collins produced the album, and plays on three tracks, including the title piece. When the two horns line up for the lightning-speed head on “The Chase,” with the rest of the band tear-assing along behind them and the drummer practically demolishing his kit, it’s close to breathtaking. Other tracks dig deep into boogaloo and the blues, and the album closer, “Mr. Skid,” is a 10-minute showstopper that features guest work by British jazz legend Alan Skidmore. This is a hell of an introduction to an artist I hope makes it to the US for some gigs.

Stream “The Chase”:

Wayne Escoffery, Vortex (Sunnyside)

Wayne Escoffery is an under-recognized tenor saxophonist who’s been doing excellent work for a variety of labels including HighNote and Savant, Posi-Tone, and for the last few years, Sunnyside. He’s got an old-school sound on the horn, recalling players like Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons, but with a post-Coltrane melodic approach (clearly audible on “Judgment”) and an innate romanticism. On this album, his first studio release since 2012, he’s backed by pianist David Kikoski, bassist Ugonna Okegwo, and drummer Ralph Peterson Jr., all of whom have been his working band for two years. This gives the music a lived-in feel; their interactions are intense, but confident. Several guests turn up, too: Jeremy Pelt plays trumpet on one track, while Kush Abadey is the second drummer on two, and percussionist Jaquelene Acevedo contributes to three. In the liner notes, Escoffery explains the concept behind Vortex: basically, it’s how he sees America, and the music mirrors his struggle with his own upbringing and how he’s adjusting the lessons he learned growing up in order to pass them on—or not—to his own son. There’s a lot of emotion in these nine tracks, and it comes out in a wide variety of ways, all of them compelling.

Stream “Vortex”:

Delfeayo Marsalis, Kalamazoo (Troubadour Jass)

Trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis doesn’t have the profile of his brothers, saxophonist Branford and trumpeter Wynton, but he shares their talent, and Wynton’s interest in celebrating the eternal verities in jazz’s past. On this live album, he and his band—which includes his father Ellis on piano, Reginald Veal on bass, and Ralph Peterson on drums—work through standards like “Autumn Leaves,” “If I Were A Bell,” “My Funny Valentine,” “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” and “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans.” Marsalis is the sole horn, which isn’t common; the trombone is frequently a backup voice in a larger ensemble, or paired with a saxophone. But he uses the extra time well, singing in a rich, full voice, especially on ballads. The biggest surprise is a swinging New Orleans-style version of the Sesame Street theme song, which allows Marsalis to plug in his mute and go to town.

Stream “Sesame Street Theme”:

Lisa Hilton, Escapism (Lisa Hilton Music)

Lisa Hilton is a pianist and composer who does a lot of charity work for the blind. Once a year or so, she makes an album—sometimes solo or in a trio, but more often joined by some of New York’s best horn players. She’s got a particular bond with saxophonist JD Allen, who’s been on at least seven of her albums in the last decade, including this one. The band also includes bassist and drummer Gregg August and Rudy Royston, from Allen’s regular trio, and trumpeter Terrell Stafford. This is traditionalist modern jazz: Hilton’s melodies frequently blend the two-handed punch of Horace Silver with the moodiness of McCoy Tyner, and her playing has a stately flavor that sounds better suited to a concert hall than a jazz club, but the rhythm section swings like hell, and the band gets in and out of the tunes fast; the longest track on this 39-minute album runs a still-concise 5:16. “Zero Gravity” is one of the more abstract pieces, the mantralike horn line recalling the autumnal airiness of Miles Davis’s Nefertiti. “Too Hot” has a similar feel, the music slowly rising and falling and Allen’s saxophone seeming to wander in from a previously unnoticed corner of the room.

Stream “Too Hot”:

Jimmy Chamberlin Complex, The Parable (Make Records)

Yes, this is that Jimmy Chamberlin, the Smashing Pumpkins guy. He started out as a jazz drummer, and is able to create subtly shifting rhythms without the clattering looseness that frequently takes over when rock players try to “jazz things up.” His band consists of saxophonist Chris Speed, keyboardist Randy Ingram, guitarist Sean Woolstenhulme, and bassist Billy Mohler, and their music is a blend of jazz and rock, propelled by heavy, driving beats and twangy, biting guitar. Chamberlin’s first album under the Complex name, Life Begins Again, came out in 2005. It also featured Woolstenhulme and Mohler, with a few other guests. He’s operating in a zone not far from some of Ginger Baker’s work, on albums like Going Back Home and Why?. Speed’s contributions are compressed but potent statements—he’s not looking to dominate; it’s not his show—and Ingram fills in a lot of space with expansive piano solos. This isn’t some indie rock jagoff’s vanity project; this feels like a band of longtime collaborators cranking out some lived-in tunes, with a few ringers there to push things over the top.

Stream “El Born”:

Borderlands Trio, Asteroidea (Intakt)

Borderlands Trio is a collaborative group featuring pianist Kris Davis, bassist Stephan Crump, and drummer Eric McPherson. They’re not a typical piano trio; Davis (who records as a leader, as a member several of bassist Eric Revis’s groups, and in many other contexts) somehow manages to strike the keys in a way that mutes half their sound. The prepared piano rarely rings out—instead, it ticks and clinks like a ceramic teacup being tapped on a tabletop. Crump, who works often with Vijay Iyer and leads his own trio with two guitarists, is doing some of the most interesting work of anyone here. His instrument booms and rumbles, sometimes pinging like a detuned banjo. McPherson keeps relentless time, often tapping the rim of his snare like a frustrated schoolteacher trying to bring unruly kids into line. Even when they do move into somewhat conventional free jazz modes, like on “Body Waves,” there’s always something unexpected going on, in this case the way McPherson seems to create echo and dislocation effects just with his abstract approach to the kit, while Crump seems to be scrabbling for a handhold on his bass and Davis plays like the transitional phrases between her keyboard eruptions have been erased by the engineer.

Stream “Body Waves”:

Clovis Nicolas, Freedom Suite Ensuite (Sunnyside)

Bassist Clovis Nicolas has made a risky move on this album, tackling Sonny Rollins’s 1959 epic, “Freedom Suite.” As the album cover makes very clear, Nicolas is a white dude, and Rollins’s composition was intended as an expression of liberty in the face of the treatment of African-Americans in society at the time. Playing it in 2017 with a racially mixed band (saxophonist Grant Stewart is also white, trumpeter Brandon Lee and drummer Kenny Washington are black) sends an entirely different message. Its reception is up to the individual listener. The band is excellent, and they do really interesting things with the piece, breaking it up into three four- to five-minute movements and two minute-long interludes (the original was a single 19-minute track). Lee’s trumpet playing has a Wynton Marsalis-esque feel, with a lightness of touch and a strong blues sense, and Stewart knows better than to just deliver a Rollins imitation. The rest of the album includes a few originals, and versions of the standards “Fine And Dandy” and “Little Girl Blue,” and it’s all very well done, but “Freedom Suite” is one of those pieces, like “A Love Supreme,” that should be tackled with caution, if at all.

Stream “Freedom Suite, Part III”:

Daniel Rosenthal, Music In The Room (American Melody)

Trumpeter Daniel Rosenthal leads a quintet on his second album as a leader: Rick Stone on alto sax, Charlie Kohlhase on alto and baritone saxes, Jef Charland on bass and Luther Gray on drums. As with so many of these chordless ensembles, there’s a large measure of Ornette Coleman-style freedom; “Improvisation I” (on which Stone is not heard) shares that meandering, abstract blues quality that Coleman’s interactions with Don Cherry always had, and “Easy Money” has the bounce of a tune like “Ramblin’.” Charland and Gray (who’s worked a lot with guitarist Joe Morris; anything the two of them play on is worth your time) are a high-energy, swinging rhythm section, basically building a trampoline for the horns to bounce on. This is a joyous album with the same kind of interactive exchange of ideas heard in folk music—an influence Rosenthal takes from his father, Phil, who sings and plays guitar, mandolin, and banjo.

Stream “Easy Money”:

Nick Maclean Quartet, Rites Of Ascension (Label)

This Toronto-based ensemble is led by pianist Maclean, and also features trumpeter Brownman Ali, bassist Jesse Dietschi and drummer Tyler Goertzen. Six of the album’s 11 tracks are Maclean originals, one is by Ali, and four are by Herbie Hancock: “Cantaloupe Island,” “Driftin’,” “One Finger Snap,” and “One.” On a few tracks, including the version of “One,” Hancock’s voice is heard, expressing a creative philosophy clearly influenced by his Buddhist faith. All the music, including the original pieces by the bandmembers, comes out of a mid ’60s “inside-outside” zone where traditional rhythms—blues and hard bop—serve as the foundation for complex harmonic and melodic exploration. It’s an approach that’s lost none of its potency in the 50-plus years since players like Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Andrew Hill, and others began stretching the boundaries of acoustic jazz in 1963-64.

Stream “One”:

Satoko Fujii New York Orchestra, Fukushima (Libra)

Pianist Satoko Fujii has a massive discography, and it’s only going to get bigger in 2018, as she’s planning to celebrate her 60th year by releasing an album a month. One of her multiple 2017 releases was this epic work, which features a 13-piece band that includes Ellery Eskelin, Andy Laster, Tony Malaby, and Oscar Noriega on reeds; Dave Ballou, Herb Robertson and Fujii’s husband Natsuki Tamura on trumpets; Joe Fiedler, Curtis Hasselbring and Joey Sellers on trombones; Nels Cline on guitar; Stomu Takeishi on bass; and Ches Smith on drums. The album is a single 57-minute piece in memory of the 2011 nuclear power plant disaster; throughout its five movements, she combines voices in surprising ways (baritone saxophone paired with guitar, clarinet backed by a choir-like brass arrangement, trumpet against drums), breaking the ensemble down into small sub-groups only to bring it all roaring back at emotional climaxes. It feels almost symphonic, rather than like a big band album or like a bunch of avant-gardists shouting at each other. It’s beautiful stuff.

Stream “Part 1”:

Paul Giallorenzo Trio, Flow (Delmark)

Chicago pianist Paul Giallorenzo teams up with bassist Joshua Abrams and drummer Mikel Patrick Avery for this album on Delmark. This is Giallorenzo’s second trio disc—the first one featured Ingebrigt Håker Flaten of the Thing on bass and Tim Daisy on drums, so obviously it had a little more whomp to it, but this one is hardly cocktail music. In fact, “A-Frolick-Ing” reminds me of Matthew Shipp’s work, the way it begins with a twitchy up-and-down figure that then turns into a small, quick back-and-forth, before moving into an almost Monk-like statement. Behind him, Abrams and Avery maintain the kind of steady pulse Monk liked from his rhythm sections. This is a great example of how to be both classicist and modern at the same time.

Stream “A-Frolick-Ing”:

Matt Lavelle Quartet, s/t (Unseen Rain)

Matt Lavelle is well known within the lower Manhattan avant-garde jazz scene, but not so much outside it. His primary outlet is the large ensemble 12 Houses, which can feature as many as 16 members. This quartet album finds him backed by pianist Lewis Porter, bassist Hilliard Greene, and drummer Tom Cabrera on a collection of tunes that take hard bop to the edge of freedom but never tip all the way over; Lavelle loves his Ellington and blues as much as the cry of 1960s players like saxophonist Giuseppi Logan, with whom he’s had a long personal and professional relationship. Lavelle plays trumpet, flugelhorn, and alto and bass clarinets on the album, and the pieces vary from Coltrane-esque meditations (“Tamir Rice” is practically a new version of “Alabama”) to jumpy uptempo numbers (“Matt’s Mode,” “Matt Bop”) to gospelized blues vamps (“Fear Has Got To Go”).

Stream “Tamir Rice”:

Aaron Parks/Ben Street/Billy Hart, Find The Way (ECM)

This is an album I would have written about back in May, but couldn’t because ECM didn’t have its music on streaming services. Now that they’re on Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, etc., I can tell you about one of the year’s most beautiful piano trio discs. Parks has had an interesting career. He started out as a literal prodigy, self-releasing four albums as a teenager and joining trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s band when he was 20; he can be heard on the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s movie A Tale Of God’s Will (A Requiem For Katrina). In 2008, he signed to Blue Note for one album, Invisible Cinema; after that, he spent five years as a sideman and a member of the band James Farm before signing with ECM, where he debuted with 2013’s Arborescence, a solo disc that shimmered (and not just because of label head Manfred Eicher’s trademark reverb haze). On this follow-up, he teams with bassist Ben Street and drummer Billy Hart, a rhythm section I saw backing pianist Ethan Iverson (and saxophonist Houston Person) at the Village Vanguard. Neither man is content to lurk in the background; they match the energy coming off the keyboard with their own assertive statements. As a composer and soloist, Parks goes for big, even romantic gestures; he wants you to feel something when he’s playing, and he’s not subtle about that desire. This record wears its heart on its sleeve, and is all the more beautiful for it.

Stream “The Storyteller”: