Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – February 2018

This time last year, I read Bob Porter’s Soul Jazz, a really interesting book that provided a kind of alternate history of jazz from the 1940s to the 1970s by analyzing the music that was popular with black audiences, as opposed to the music that was praised by white critics. It wasn’t a masterpiece — the tone was extremely dry at times — but it inspired a whole lot of listening.

I recently finished a book I had hoped would be similarly inspiring: Bill Shoemaker’s Jazz In The 1970s: Diverging Streams, published by Rowman and Littlefield, a largely academic house. (I note here that Porter had to self-publish his book, as no commercial or academic publisher would take it on.) Shoemaker, who’s been running the website Point of Departure for many years, has adapted several essays he originally posted there, and added a lot more material, to create a year-by-year chronicle. For each year from 1970 to 1979, he picks one artist or event and hangs the chapter on it. Some of his selections are obvious — there are chapters on Anthony Braxton, Sam Rivers and the loft jazz scene in New York, Archie Shepp, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago — while others, dealing with British improv guitarist Derek Bailey or South African pianist Chris McGregor and his Brotherhood of Breath band, are more surprising.

The trouble with Shoemaker’s book, though, is that it reinforces a false narrative that’s been dominant in critical circles for several decades at this point. The avant-gardists have never had much commercial success, but they have absolutely won the war for history. Entire books have been devoted to the Art Ensemble, the loft scene, and Anthony Braxton already. Commercial success isn’t everything, but it’s not nothing, and this book is one more effort by a prominent critic to lionize the avant-garde while ignoring music with proven mass appeal.

To give one example, the 1975 chapter talks about the Montreux Jazz Festival, held every July in Switzerland. Shoemaker devotes a single paragraph to a performance by pianist McCoy Tyner’s quartet, which was released as the album Enlightenment. I’ve spent the last few weeks listening to every album McCoy Tyner released in the 1970s — there were 19, and even the worst of them is very, very good. The best are amazing. He was signed to Milestone Records at the time, a label that also had saxophonists Gary Bartz, Joe Henderson and Sonny Rollins, bassist Ron Carter, singer Flora Purim, and others on its roster. It’s impossible to paint an accurate picture of jazz in the 1970s without talking about Milestone, or CTI (a label that gave us albums by Stanley Turrentine, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Farrell, Grover Washington Jr., and many others), not to mention massively popular fusion acts like Weather Report, Return to Forever, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra…but that’s exactly what Shoemaker has done. It’s the equivalent of writing a history of metal that ignores Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Metallica in favor of Morbid Angel, Eyehategod, and Sunn O))).

None of the artists discussed in Shoemaker’s book are unworthy of coverage; they’re all great. But they represent a very narrow slice of what jazz was in the 1970s. This is a book that demands a sequel, and maybe even a direct response.

Speaking of festivals: the beginning of the year is when they reveal their lineups for the summer. And while everyone likes to pore over the massive Coachella poster, or see who’s playing the various other festivals around the country, in Jazzworld, festival season means it’s time to complain about the over-representation of acts that have nothing to do with jazz. One of the worst offenders in this regard, because the city is literally the music’s birthplace, is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. That festival runs from April 27 to May 6 of this year, and its poster is a bleak prospect indeed.

The first three rows of the lineup announcement offer Aerosmith, Aretha Franklin, Sting, Jimmy Buffett, Jack White, Beck, Lionel Richie, David Byrne, Anita Baker, LL Cool J featuring DJ Z-Trip, Bonnie Raitt, Khalid, Sturgill Simpson, Jack Johnson, Sheryl Crow, Common, Cage the Elephant, and Trombone Shorty. That’s one jazz act out of 18. (Two, if Sting is reuniting his ’80s band with Branford Marsalis, but I doubt that, and not just because pianist Kenny Kirkland died in 1998.) There are 57 more acts listed on the poster, 10 of which I would count as jazz or jazz-adjacent. For an example of what I mean by the latter term, saxophonist Charles Lloyd is playing with his rock-ish band the Marvels, but it seems like they’re there to back Lucinda Williams.

This is a damn shame, especially when contrasted with the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, one of the most popular such events in the world — it’s been running annually since 1976. This year, North Sea takes place from July 13-15, and its lineup features some of the best modern jazz acts around, with a sprinkling of soul and R&B on top. So far, performances by the Vijay Iyer Sextet, Christian Scott, Terrace Martin, BADBADNOTGOOD, Carla Bley, Pharoah Sanders, Pat Metheny, Joshua Redman and the Billy Hart Quartet, Cécile McLorin Salvant, and Hudson (a group featuring John Scofield, John Medeski, Scott Colley, and Jack DeJohnette) have all been announced. Now, Gary Clark Jr., the O’Jays, Nile Rodgers & Chic, and Earth, Wind & Fire are also on the bill, but the focus is where it should be: on jazz.

One more, quick note: Sunnyside Records, like ECM, has finally put its catalog up on streaming services. You can now check out the first three albums by the JD Allen Trio — 2011’s Victory! is where I first got on board with him; don’t miss it — and literally hundreds of other fantastic titles by folks like Bill McHenry, Jerome Sabbagh, Chris Potter, Avishai Cohen, Roswell Rudd, Harriet Tubman, and many, many more. Sunnyside is a great, if comparatively low-profile label, and the more people hear their releases, the better.

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

Archival Find of the Month: Nina Simone, The Colpix Singles ($tateside)

From 1959 to 1964, singer/pianist Nina Simone was signed to the Colpix label, releasing eight albums and a slew of singles. Colpix was a division of Columbia, and most of its catalog was devoted to soundtracks or albums by actors, but they also signed a few jazz and blues acts. Simone was in demand in 1959, having scored a major hit with “I Loves You Porgy,” and Colpix gave her complete creative control. As she put it in her autobiography, “I played what I wanted and nothing else…Hell, they weren’t paying me well enough to tell me what to play. There was no proper producer on my records — just an engineer to set everything up, an orchestrator to write out the arrangements, and the rest I did myself.” Her Colpix albums were equally divided between studio and live efforts, including recordings from the Village Gate, Town Hall, and Carnegie Hall. None of them were chart hits, but that says nothing about their quality. But now, in honor of her 80th birthday (February 21, 1933), all her Colpix singles are gathered on this two-CD set, including some rare edits that haven’t been available since the early 1960s. There’s a clear developmental arc audible, from jazz and folk singer to the powerful songwriter she’d become later in her career, but everything here is great.

Stream “Work Song”:

The Bad Plus, Never Stop II (Legbreaker)

The Bad Plus’s latest album came out last month, but I didn’t cover it immediately because I was waiting for it to show up on streaming services. It still hasn’t; as far as I’ve been able to determine, it’s only available via iTunes and the band’s own webstore (where it’s very reasonably priced; I bought CD-quality WAV files for $10). But a few tracks are up on Soundcloud, so let’s talk about it. Pianist Ethan Iverson is out; pianist Orrin Evans is in. Their styles are very different. Iverson has more of a classical side that came out not just when the group interprets Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring, but in his solos generally. Evans is a Philly player who’s got a lyrical flow, but he packs a lot of muscle into his melodic statements, which makes him a good match for Dave King, whose drumming is some of the heaviest in contemporary jazz. In between the two sits Reid Anderson, the most classically trained member of the trio but also someone with a bone-deep knowledge of jazz and a bouncy, swinging style. These tunes have a lot of whomp, but there’s a lot of subtle beauty here, too, and the overall sound of the trio is fantastic — the piano rings out, the bass is a thick boom, and the drums never quite dominate, no matter how hard King hits.

Stream three tracks from the album:

GoGo Penguin, A Humdrum Star (Blue Note)

GoGo Penguin are sometimes compared to the Bad Plus, because they’re a piano trio occupying a blurry zone somewhere between modern jazz and indie rock, with a dash of 21st century classical music thrown in. Listening to their new album, though, I don’t get the comparison. To be honest, their music sounds like instrumental Coldplay to me a lot of the time. And that’s not necessarily a criticism: I saw Coldplay at Madison Square Garden in 2003 and they were fantastic. That shimmering, minimalist melodic sense is strongly apparent on tracks from the trio’s new album A Humdrum Star. “Bardo” is a great example; it opens with bass string pops shadowed by a soft electronic drone, and Chris Illingworth divides the main melody between a keyboard and a piano that’s fed through a whole lot of reverb. When the piano really takes off, about a minute in, it sounds like it’s coming from the middle of a summer cloud. Meanwhile, drummer Rob Turner is playing a loose, somewhat swinging breakbeat, as bassist Nick Blacka unleashes massive bass booms. The intensity gradually rises, until in the final 45 minutes or so everything but a one-finger keyboard pattern drops away. If Calvin Harris made a jazz album, this is what it would sound like. But again, this stuff has its merits.

Stream “Bardo”:

Olli Ahvenlahti, Thinking, Whistling (We Jazz)

Jaska Lukkarinen Trio, Origami (We Jazz)

Finland has a shockingly strong jazz scene. I went to an amazing jazz festival in Helsinki in December 2016 and heard a bunch of incredible musicians with virtually no profile in the US. The organization that put it on, We Jazz, also runs a label, releasing records by young, up-and-coming artists, and sometimes pairing them with veterans. Olli Ahvenlahti is a pianist whose career goes back to the 1970s, but he hadn’t made a jazz album in decades. We Jazz teamed him up with drummer Jaska Lukkarinen’s trio, featuring saxophonist Jussi Kannaste and bassist Antti Lötjönen, and he brought in nine new compositions that run the gamut from swinging hard bop to gentle ballads. On “Minor Minor,” Lukkarinen sets up a stark, funky beat atop which the band journeys into a dark-tinged but hard-grooving blues.

The Jaska Lukkarinen Trio also have their own album out on We Jazz. Without a pianist, they’re able to journey farther out, and while this isn’t free jazz per se, it’s got the intensity of mid ’60s Coltrane, or trios led by Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson, at times. Lukkarinen’s a powerful player, reminiscent of Elvin Jones, cutting loose with thunderous rolls across the snare and floor tom. This group has been together for a while; this is their third album, following 2008’s Trane Ear and 2011’s Neutral Terrain. It was recorded live at the We Jazz Festival in 2015, and the audience response is enthusiastic — and deserved.

Stream “Minor Minor”:

Stream “Flow On”:

John Raymond & Real Feels, Joy Ride (Sunnyside)

Flugelhorn player John Raymond formed Real Feels (it’s a meteorological term, not “feels” in the social media sense) in 2016 with guitarist Gilad Hekselman and drummer Colin Stranahan, releasing a self-titled debut and a live album after their first US tour. Their repertoire in the beginning was a mix of pop and indie songs — the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” Thom Yorke’s “Atoms For Peace” — alongside traditional material like “I’ll Fly Away,” “Amazing Grace,” “Scarborough Fair” and “This Land Is Your Land.” The focus was on strong, recognizable melodies that would allow non-jazz-schooled listeners an easy entry point. On their second studio release, they’re mixing original tunes by Raymond with covers of pop and rock songs including Paul Simon’s “I’d Do It For Your Love,” Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill,” Bon Iver’s “Minnesota, WI” and Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'”. While the debut was a straightforward three-dudes-in-a-room document, this one features production by Matt Pierson and there are some sonic flourishes — judiciously deployed reverb, some overdubbing of extra horn lines and guitar melodies — that give it a richer, fuller sound. The title track opens the album and sets the template; Raymond’s flugelhorn has a soft, meditative tone that’s well matched by Hekselman’s gently echoing guitar and Stranahan’s quiet but authoritative drumming.

Stream “Joy Ride”:

David Murray feat. Saul Williams, Blues For Memo (Motema)

Saxophonist David Murray met poet Saul Williams at Amiri Baraka’s memorial service in 2014. The day after hearing Williams read, Murray knew he wanted to make an album with him. Four years later, here it is, billed as a tribute to Mehmet “Memo” Uluğ, a major figure on the Turkish jazz scene. The core band includes Orrin Evans on piano, Jaribu Shahid on bass, and Nasheet Waits on drums, with additional contributions from Jason Moran (on Fender Rhodes), Murray’s son Mingus on guitar, Craig Harris on trombone, and Aytac Dogan on kanun, a zither-like Turkish instrument. Williams discourses on a variety of subjects, some political, others more celebratory of life. On “A Mirror Of Youth,” Williams’ impassioned delivery — and his vocal timbre — remind me of Black Thought, while the band behind him goes just as hard, without ever abandoning melody. Murray, like Archie Shepp, has always been a living bridge between avant-garde jazz and its roots in blues and swing; he can scream like Albert Ayler, or sing low like Coleman Hawkins, and here he’s in a hard bop mode, spinning out passionate lines that always keep one foot on the ground.

Stream “A Mirror Of Youth”:

Ryan Porter, The Optimist (World Galaxy)

Trombonist Ryan Porter is saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s front-line partner, both on 2015’s The Epic and in his West Coast Get Down band. In 2008, when much of the music on this new double CD was recorded, Porter was the leader, with Washington, Cameron Graves on piano and Fender Rhodes, upright bassist Miles Mosley, and drummer Tony Austin filling out the rest of the lineup. Other tracks feature different personnel, including Jumaane Smith on trumpet, Brandon Coleman on Fender Rhodes, Edward Livingston on upright bass, Dominic Therioux on electric bass, and Robert Miller, Aaron Haggerty, and Lyndon Rochelle on drums. As always, the music is a mixture of hard bop, swing and funk, but the swoony spirituality of Washington’s work is absent; The Optimist is a strutting album. And it’s got a sense of humor, too; “Night Court In Compton” takes a straight Blue Note-esque hard bop piece and sticks a perfect rendition of the Night Court theme song in the middle as a chorus. Here’s hoping they do Barney Miller next.

Stream “Night Court In Compton”:

Akira Sakata & Chikanomatchi with Masahiro Satoh, Proton Pump (Family Vineyard)

I’ve been a fan of Japanese avant-garde saxophonist Akira Sakata for a long time; I first heard him on The Noise Of Trouble, an album by Bill Laswell’s jazz-metal supergroup Last Exit (with Peter Brötzmann, Sonny Sharrock, and Ronald Shannon Jackson — all their stuff is on Bandcamp, and it’ll blow the skin right off your skull). His 2001 album Fisherman’ featured former Miles Davis guitarist Pete Cosey, Laswell on bass, and Hamid Drake on drums, and is as good as that implies. I even got to see him live once, guesting with DJ Krush. His group Chikanomatchi features Darin Gray on bass and Chris Corsano on drums, and the music they make together is wild, unfettered free jazz with plenty of extended solos from Sakata. On this live release, they’re joined by pianist Masahiro Satoh, who has a delicate, raindrops-on-a-pond style that occasionally erupts into full elbows-on-the-keys mania. Corsano, of course, is an absolute monster on the drums, never letting the energy level flag for a moment. If this group played the Vision Festival, the crowd would be on its feet screaming.

Stream “Proton Pump”:

The John L. Nelson Project, Don’t Play With Love (Ropeadope)

John L. Nelson was Prince’s father, but the version of him portrayed by Clarence Williams III in the movie Purple Rain is far better known than the real version. Prince’s older sister, Sharon Nelson, is working to change that with this album, which features seven of their father’s compositions performed by a killer band that includes drummer Louis Hayes (Nelson’s nephew), trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, alto saxophonist Vincent Herring, pianist Richard Germanson, bassist Dezron Douglas, and a string quartet. The music was recorded at Paisley Park, but it has no pop gloss: this is a straightahead jazz album, with fully committed performances by everyone involved. The compositions cover a broad range, including romantic ballads, hard bop burners and funky, Horace Silver-esque toe-tappers. “Heart Of Mine” has a bossa nova-ish groove over which the horns, and Germanson in particular, dance joyfully. Based on this evidence, John L. Nelson was an excellent mainstream jazz composer, and everyone playing his music here gives it the respect it deserves.

Stream “Heart Of Mine”:

Linda Sikhakhane, Two Sides, One Mirror (Independent/Self-Released)

Linda Sikhakhane is a tenor saxophonist from Umlazi Township, near Durban, South Africa, but he’s currently living and studying in New York. Two Sides, One Mirror is his self-released debut album, recorded before he moved to the US. It was produced by Nduduzo Makhathini, who I wrote about in last month’s column, and features Sakhile Simani on trumpet and flugelhorn, Sanele Phakathi on piano, Nhlanhla Radebe on bass, Sphelelo Mazibuko on drums, El Hadji Ndong on percussion, and Omagugu Makhathini on vocals. Sikhakhane’s a young player, still in thrall to his influences, John Coltrane most prominent among them; “Dance For Trane” didn’t need to be called that, as it would register as a tribute anyhow. It has a slow, modal rhythm reminiscent of both Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” and his Africa/Brass album. The presence of Simani’s trumpet gives the piece a fuller, more expansive sound, and the two men play off each other very well as Mazibuko and Ndong create a surging percussive bed behind them.

Stream “Dance For Trane”:

Shinya Fukumori Trio, For 2 Akis (ECM)

This trio is truly international: drummer Fukumori was born in Osaka, but moved to the US at 17, later returning to Japan and eventually moving to Munich when he decided he wanted to record for ECM. There he met French saxophonist Matthieu Bordenave and German pianist Walter Lang. In addition to pieces by the group members, they perform several Japanese songs, including “Kojo No Tsuki,” which Thelonious Monk recorded as “Japanese Folk Song” on his Straight, No Chaser album. Here, it’s incorporated into a medley, “The Light Suite.” The trio has a soft, careful sound — note the absence of bass — that’s best experienced on headphones. Fukumori’s drumming is more like a series of accents than a rhythm, and Bordenave’s saxophone is exquisitely controlled. It’s got to be extraordinarily difficult to play this softly without the notes dissolving into hisses and puffs, but he maintains remarkably clear definition at slow tempos and low volume. Lang’s piano is the dominant element a lot of the time, almost by default, but he inspires the others to step up, too. On “Spectacular,” his almost looping Keith Jarrett-esque melody brings Bordenave out of his shell, and Fukumori whips up a surprisingly forceful beat.

Stream “Spectacular”:

Thandi Ntuli, Exiled (Independent/Self-Released)

Keyboardist and vocalist Thandi Ntuli is another rising South African musician. This is her second album, and it’s a double disc, 15 tracks (Linda Sikhakhane plays on six of them) running just under 90 minutes. The band includes Marcus Wyatt on trumpet and flugelhorn; Mthunzi Mvubu on flute and alto sax; Justin Sasman on trombone; Sisonke Xonti and Linda Sikhakhane on tenor sax (on alternating tracks); Keenan Ahrends on guitar; Benjamin Jephta on bass; Sphelelo Mazibuko on drums; and various vocalists and percussionists on individual songs. “Exiled,” the album’s first proper track after an intro that features a spoken poem from Ntuli, has a shimmering, spiritual/modal vibe that reminds me of Kamasi Washington’s work, minus the deliberately over-the-top lushness. The singsong melody slowly rises, with Ntuli and Spha Mdlalose harmonizing wordlessly as the horns fill in around them and the bass and drums crash like waves.

Stream “Exiled”:

Kevin Sun, Trio (Endectomorph Music)

Saxophonist Kevin Sun is a smart guy. In addition to his work on the horn, he’s a jazz scholar, who frequently conducts interviews for the Jazz Gallery’s website and posts transcribed solos on his blog. On this album, his first as a leader, he’s joined by bassist Walter Stinson and drummer Matt Honor. Sun admits to being in thrall to players and composers like Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer, and Steve Lehman, so it’s not surprising that the melodies here are complex and tightly wound, but the rhythm section keeps things swinging and loose even when the putative leader is journeying deep inside the horn. “Find Your Pose” has a long, meandering melody line, but Stinson and Honor set up a bouncing, finger-popping beat that grounds Sun and allows the listener to travel along with him on his journey. And when they pull the old-school move of trading off — a burst of saxophone, followed by a reply from the drums — it’s both suspenseful and fun. This is new jazz that maintains a direct line of communication with what’s come before, neither handcuffed by tradition nor disdainful of it, and that’s to be applauded.

Stream “Find Your Pose”:

Nicolas Masson, Travelers (ECM)

I’ve been a fan of Swiss tenor saxophonist Nicolas Masson ever since hearing his fourth album, Departures, in 2012. He’s a thoughtful player who wraps his lines around you like a spider patiently trussing up a fly. He’s a perfect match for ECM, for whom he’s already made two albums as part of the trio Third Reel. Here, he’s joined by pianist Colin Vallon, bassist Patrice Moret (who was on Departures), and drummer Lionel Friedli. Vallon and Moret have also recorded for ECM as part of a trio with drummer Julian Sartorius; they put out Danse in 2016. “Gagarine” is a slow but determined intro to Travelers; Vallon’s piano and Friedli’s drums sketch the outlines of a moody landscape into which Masson steps, playing long and carefully chosen upper-register notes, gradually winding them into a melody that has a slight Balkan feel, conveying loneliness tinged with peace.

Stream “Gagarine”:

Ken Fowser, Don’t Look Down (Posi-Tone)

Saxophonist Ken Fowser’s first two albums as a leader were near-perfect evocations of 1950s hard bop; he and his front-line partner, trumpeter Josh Bruneau, sounded like a modern day Hank Mobley and Lee Morgan in front of pianist Rick Germanson, bassist Paul Gill and drummer Jason Tiemann. This time out, he’s changed things up a little: Although the only membership change is behind the drums, where Joe Strasser has taken over for Tiemann, the music has a slightly more adventurous spirit — say, 1964 instead of 1957. Tracks like “Queens,” “Coming Up Shorter,” and “Fall Back” recall classic Blue Note albums, with their high-speed but catchy melody lines, hard-driving piano-driven rhythms, and pairing of an emphatic blues feel with a willingness to explore mood and abstraction. And on “You’re Better Than That,” Germanson switches to electric piano and Bruneau mutes his horn for a softly swinging, Latin-influenced piece.

Stream “You’re Better Than That”:

Sylvie Courvoisier Trio, D’Agala (Intakt)

Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier has had a trio with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Kenny Wollesen for a few years now, and a relationship with the Intakt label out of Switzerland for even longer: this is her 11th album for them. This is the trio’s second release, following 2014’s Double Windsor on Tzadik. Each of the nine pieces is dedicated to someone Courvoisier found inspiring, including several people (pianist Geri Allen, guitarist John Abercrombie, political activist Simone Weil) who died in 2017, while the album was being prepared. The music is abstract, but driven by a powerful bottom end; Gress and Wollesen are mixed loud and hit hard, and they set up grooves that allow Courvoisier to spin out long, exploratory lines. On “Bourgeois’s Spider,” dedicated to sculptor Louise Bourgeois (who died at 98 in 2010), she builds from gentle, pinging prepared piano to thundering runs that start at the bottom of the keyboard’s range and go all the way up, as the drummer slaps the snare and teases the cymbals until they’re rattling like a screen door in a hurricane, occasionally unleashing perfectly timed kick-drum booms. Meanwhile, Gress maintains a steady throb between them.

Stream “Bourgeois’s Spider”: