Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – April 2018

Cecil Taylor died on April 5, less than two weeks after his 89th birthday. It would be impossible to condense his artistry into this intro, so I’m gonna talk about the time I personally spent with him.

I hung out with him for two days in February 2016, writing a story for The Wire to coincide with “Cecil Taylor: Open Plan,” an exhibit at the Whitney Museum that combined audio and video with posters, album covers, magazines, and other ephemera from his career. (The issue was out by the time the show opened; spotting a copy in one of the glass cases was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill all its own.)

Years ago, I read an article about the Wu-Tang Clan where RZA arranged to meet the writer at 2 AM in a parking lot. Waiting at the Whitney to meet Taylor for the first time, I was as nervous as I imagine that other writer must have been. I’d been listening to his music for close to 20 years at that point, since seeing him play the Village Vanguard, with Dominic Duval on bass and Jackson Krall on drums, in 1997. Some of his albums — ones listed below — are among my favorite works by anyone, ever. But I’d heard he was impossible to interview in any conventional manner, and could be savagely dismissive of writers, so part of me was convinced it was going to go very badly indeed.

Fortunately, it didn’t. Taylor, a small, Yoda-like man with heavy-lidded eyes that seemed as big as ping-pong balls, was everything I expected. Urbane and aristocratic, he listened politely to my questions, though he rarely answered them. Instead, he told me stories about his childhood, gossiped about jazz legends he’d known and played with, and every once in a while offered a thought about the nature of creativity, or beauty. I did manage to get him talking about the piano itself, which I considered a major victory.

On the first day, I sat in silence for hours while he worked on a piece he’d perform in April. He’d strike a key or two, then scrawl something in pencil on a piece of paper. I took a look at it on the second day, before he arrived; it was covered with complex patterns of letters, the names of notes, surrounded by inscrutable symbols. The whole thing looked to me like a drawing by Cy Twombly; when I told him so, he purred (there’s no other word for it) happily.

The great tragedy of Cecil Taylor’s passing is that no one will ever again have the experience of seeing him perform. I saw him three times with a trio, once leading an orchestra two dozen players strong, and once with a quintet that included saxophone, cello, drums, and electronics. He’d start performances dancing in a highly gestural style, declaiming imagistic poetry as he emerged, slowly moving around the stage, sometimes taking 15 minutes or more to actually sit down. When he did, his piano style was volcanic, explosive, and breathtakingly beautiful. You couldn’t follow the flow of ideas; they came too fast. You had to just sit back and let it wash over you like a tide. When it finally ended, you walked out into the night with your head spinning, unable to even listen to other music for hours or days.

His discography is nowhere near as large as it should have been. Ideally, it should have been a Braxton-sized warehouse full of discs, but he went years between albums, and put together some incredible ensembles (like the orchestra I saw) that were never recorded at all. There’s still a lot to dig into. Here are a few recommendations, broken into categories.

Solo Cecil: the early to mid ’70s were Taylor’s golden era for solo piano performances. Indent, from 1973, is a must, as is the astonishingly beautiful Air Above Mountains, from 1975 (note: the CD version has close to twice as much music as the LP). The two volumes of Garden, from the early ’80s and recently reissued, are also brilliant, and don’t miss the late-career resurgence heard on 2000’s The Willisau Concert, on which he makes full use of a Bösendorfer Imperial piano, which has nine extra keys at the low end of the instrument’s range.

Trio Cecil: The double disc Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come, a 1962 live recording with Jimmy Lyons and drummer Sunny Murray, is a crucial document of Taylor’s first truly free work, but the sound quality’s pretty raw at times. If you want one of the great musical bargains of your life, pick up 2 Ts For A Lovely T from Amazon’s MP3 store; for $11, you get 10 full live sets, mostly consisting of one 45-minute track, with William Parker on bass and Tony Oxley on drums, recorded in 1990.

Small-group Cecil: When he put together ensembles, Taylor often favored unusual combinations of instruments. His 1978 sextet, with trumpeter Raphé Malik, alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, violinist Ramsey Ameen, bassist Sirone, and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson is my absolute favorite of his groups. Their albums The Cecil Taylor Unit, 3 Phasis and Live In The Black Forest are all essential; their final recording, the double live disc One Too Many Salty Swift And Not Goodbye, is even more glorious, but it’s massive. Don’t start with that one, but don’t miss it, either. Also, his twin Blue Note albums from 1966, Unit Structures and Conquistador!, are revered for a reason.

Large-ensemble Cecil: Taylor didn’t get to work on a broad canvas that often, but in 2000, he performed what amounts to a full-on concerto with the 17-member Italian Instabile Orchestra, which was released as The Owner Of The River Bank. It’s pretty breathtaking.

I saw another amazing musician perform at the beginning of this month. Drummer Billy Cobham’s current show focuses on music from 1973’s Crosswinds, though the arrangements are radically different — the group I saw consisted of electric guitar, electric bass, keyboards, and bassoon, which was wild, especially when the player started feeding it through pedals, turning it into a kind of watery ribbon of sound. Cobham’s drumming, with Mahavishnu Orchestra and on his 1970s solo albums, was absolutely crushing — he had an incredible precision, based on years of marching band/drumline training, that enabled him to execute staggeringly fast fills and complex polyrhythms, and he’s barely lost a step. I saw him in a good-sized room — Sony Hall, in Times Square — and his solo made people gasp out loud.

Finally, Kamasi Washington has announced a new two-CD set, Heaven And Earth, to be released June 22. He said on social media, “The Earth side represents the world as I see it outwardly, the world that I am a part of. The Heaven side represents the world as I see it inwardly, the world that is a part of me.” One song from each disc has been released, and if this is any indication, Heaven and Earth is gonna be…wait for it…epic.

Here’s “Fists of Fury”:

And here’s “The Space Travelers Lullaby”:

And with that, here are the best new jazz albums of the month!

Archival Find of the Month: Various Artists, J-Jazz – Deep Modern Jazz From Japan 1969-1984 (BBE)

This compilation is exactly what its title says: 10 tracks (12 on vinyl, if you can find a copy of the 3LP version) from rare Japanese jazz albums, most of them from the 1970s. Most jazz fans know that jazz is hugely popular in Japan, that records stay in print there long after they disappear from US shelves, etc., etc. But music by Japanese artists rarely makes it to the West. This compilation aims to show American and European listeners what they’ve been missing, and it’s killer. One of the rarest tracks is “Dead Letter,” by the Tohru Aizawa Quartet; if you can find a copy of their 1975 private press album Tachibana at all, it’ll cost you close to $1000. The band featured Aizawa on piano, Kyochiro and Tetsuya Morimura on saxophone and drums respectively, and Konzoh Watanabe on bass. “Dead Letter” is an intense, hard-driving performance very much reminiscent of the John Coltrane quartet, or of McCoy Tyner’s 1970s work. (Coltrane, who toured Japan months before his death in 1967, loomed large over the country’s scene, if the tracks on this set are any indication.) Aizawa’s piano playing is forceful to the point of pounding, and the Morimura brothers match him all the way; Tetsuya beats the shit out of his kit.

Stream the Tohru Aizawa Quartet’s “Dead Letter”:

Sons Of Kemet, Your Queen Is A Reptile (Impulse!)

This record came out March 30, but I didn’t have space for it in last month’s column. For those who don’t know, Sons Of Kemet is one of saxophonist/clarinetist Shabaka Hutchings’ three main projects, along with the noisy, synth-heavy The Comet Is Coming and Shabaka And The Ancestors, in which he works with South African jazz musicians. He’s signed a deal with Impulse! to release records by all three, and this is his opening statement. It is so fucking good. He’s joined by tuba player Theon Cross and two drummers, Something Skinner and either Seb Rochford or Eddie Hick (on several tracks, a third drummer — either Moses Boyd or Maxwell Hallett — joins the action). Poet Joshua Idehen and jungle vocalist Congo Natty show up, too, as do fellow saxophonists Nubya Garcia and Pete Wareham. The rhythms are both thunderous and nonstop, chugging and bouncing with no need for bass (Cross serves as both bottom end and counter-melody). Each track is called “My Queen Is…” and pays tribute to a figure from black history, most of them relatively obscure. Harriet Tubman and Angela Davis were the only two I recognized right away, so off to Wikipedia I went. On “My Queen Is Yaa Asantewaa,” named for an Ashanti warrior queen, Hutchings and Garcia trade off phrases, but they also wind their lines together like they’re dancing. Behind them, the percussion clatters and booms, as the tuba maintains a steady, throbbing pulse. This is an album you can’t stop moving to, but it’ll also make you think.

Stream “My Queen Is Yaa Asantewaa”:

Anteloper, Kudu (International Anthem)

Anteloper is a duo project from trumpeter Jaimie Branch and drummer Jason Nazary. It’s much more than just a splattery free jazz trumpet-drums duo, though. There are passages of wild improvisation, of course, but there’s a strong melodic element, too — in fact, Branch’s fanfare-like horn riffs are the foundation of the music. Plus, the two have added thick layers of synth, and Nazary’s beats are frequently looped into head-nodding breaks. Honestly, this music has as much in common with Excepter as it does with jazz, and that’s exactly what makes it great. The album’s centerpiece is the 15-minute “Ohoneotree Suite,” which kicks off with synth squiggles straight out of 1970s prog, as Nazary sets up booming, distorted drum patterns. Eventually, it becomes a sprawling trumpet/synth/drums journey, with Branch’s horn sampled and looped behind itself, fed through effects to sound warped and disturbing as the main line explodes with echo and reverb. It’s woozy, trance-inducing music that sounds like someone’s trying to wake you up from a nightmare by playing a trumpet at you. It’s as unexpected and compelling as Branch’s Fly Or Die was last year.

Stream “Ohoneotree Suite”:

Dana Murray, Negro Manifesto (Ropeadope)

Drummer Dana Murray is from Omaha, Nebraska, but his debut album is a seething blend of jazz, hip-hop, and industrial that sounds like nothing else out there. Murray mixes live and programmed rhythms, and brings in a pool of collaborators, tenor saxophonist JD Allen most prominent among them. Throughout much of the album, he provides a counterpoint to the at times extremely grim lyrics, the bone-cracking beats and ominous, off-putting noises caroming around the mix. On “The System,” though, you can barely tell he’s there; his horn is fed through a massive amount of distortion, its mournful phrases turned into the scream of a dying machine over pulsing synth bass. The real centerpiece of the track is the vocodered voice that spits a bitter lecture somewhere between Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier” and El-P at his most nihilistic and cynical. This is a harsh record that offers a powerful critique of our world, but it’ll make you nod your head from beginning to end.

Stream “The System”:

Renee Rosnes, Beloved Of The Sky (Smoke Sessions)

Pianist Renee Rosnes has assembled a killer band for her new album: Chris Potter on tenor and soprano sax, Steve Nelson on vibes, Peter Washington on bass, and Lenny White on drums. It’s her second Smoke Sessions release, and her 17th album as a leader; she’s also played on scores of albums as a member of the band. Her style at the keyboard is powerful and modernistic, combining classical technique and sharp, clean phrases with a dramatic compositional style. The music is reminiscent of mid ’60s Blue Note albums by players like Joe Henderson, Andrew Hill, Bobby Hutcherson (with whom Rosnes worked), Sam Rivers, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams; it swings, and never loses touch with the blues, but it’s also abstract and biting. The album opener, “Elephant Dust,” sets up everything to come with a clattering, fierce blowout. Potter’s solo is harsh and frantic, chewing up phrases and spitting them out, and Rosnes dive-bombs all over the keyboard in furious clusters of notes as Washington and White attack their instruments behind her. Nelson attempts to calm things down when his time comes, but the relentless forward movement has already been established.

Stream “Elephant Dust”:

Jakob Bro, Returnings (ECM)

Danish guitarist Jakob Bro teams up with Norwegian trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, American bassist Thomas Morgan, and Norwegian drummer Jon Christensen for a cross-generational album (Bro is 39 and Morgan 36; Mikkelborg is 77 and Christensen 75) of extraordinary beauty. I mean, let’s get it out of the way: Returnings is exactly the kind of music people mean when they talk about the “ECM sound.” Bro’s guitar is ultra-clean, every note ringing out into a gigantic empty cathedral; Mikkelborg’s flugelhorn is a softly puffing cloud; Morgan’s bass booms majestically; and Christensen’s drums combine cool jazz restraint with orchestral dignity, especially when he starts gently smiting the toms. There are moments of unexpected aggression; Christensen kicks off “View” in an almost ritualistic way that reminds me of traditional Japanese music. But “Strands” really exemplifies what this album is at its absolute best. The melody, set up by Bro and filled in by Mikkelborg, is lush and beautiful; the way their voices weave together is absolutely fantastic. Behind them, Morgan throbs steadily, and Christensen sets off underwater rumbles on his kit.

Stream “Strands”:

Victor Gould, Earthlings (Criss Cross)

Pianist Victor Gould is a member of trumpeter Jeremy Pelt’s current quintet; I wrote about their live album in last month’s column. His own debut as a leader, 2016’s Clockwork, was a great showcase for him as a composer and arranger, maybe even more than as a player; the pieces ranged from trios to an 11-member ensemble, including a string trio to create a blend of jazz and modern chamber music. This time out, he’s stripped things down. He’s got Dezron Douglas on bass and Eric McPherson on drums, and just a few guests: Tim Warfield on soprano sax, Godwin Louis (who also played on Clockwork) on alto sax, and Kahlil Kwame Bell on percussion. Gould writes or co-writes four of the album’s 10 tunes; the rest are by folks like Horace Silver, Mulgrew Miller, Bobby Hutcherson, and Dizzy Gillespie, plus a version of the standard “Lover.” And the only time both horns are heard together is on “Blues On Top,” which is why it’s the track I’ve chosen to talk about here. It’s a light-footed, swinging bebop number on which Warfield and Louis trade off solos made up of short, almost repetitive phrases in a very similar range, so that at times it can seem like one player talking to himself. Warfield tries to keep his soprano sounding more like a clarinet, but it gets squawky sometimes. Gould had a really heavy McCoy Tyner influence on Clockwork, but he’s developing a more individual voice now, and it’ll be exciting to continue following him.

Stream “Blues On Top”:

Joe Lovano & Dave Douglas, Scandal (Greenleaf)

Saxophonist Joe Lovano and trumpeter Dave Douglas formed a band called Sound Prints a few years ago, to pay tribute to the music of Wayne Shorter. They released a live album on Blue Note in 2015, and are now making their studio debut on Douglas’s Greenleaf label. As before, they’re backed by pianist Lawrence Fields, bassist Linda Oh, and drummer Joey Baron. They play two Shorter tunes (“Fee Fi Fo Fum” and “Juju”), four by Lovano and five by Douglas. The version of “Juju” is a nine-minute simmer; the horns mull over the melody, occasionally embarking on solos that are like aimless walks through the woods. Douglas goes for high notes and smeared phrases without ever making it seem like anything dramatic — he’s just kind of wandering around, rooted to the ground but not tethered to anything in particular…at least not until Lovano joins him in close harmony, playing the main phrase softer and softer until Fields takes over for a brief, trilling but powerful piano solo, as Oh slaps the bass around behind him and Baron closes things out with a softly explosive coda.

Stream “Juju”:

Steve Gadd Band, Steve Gadd Band (BFM Jazz)

It hurts my brain a little to learn that legendary drummer Steve Gadd, whose collaborative album with Chick Corea I wrote about in January’s column, is James Taylor’s touring drummer. I mean, all I know about James Taylor’s music is what I remember from the soft rock radio station my mom listened to when I was a kid, but I can’t imagine that being a particularly rewarding exercise for someone with his skills. But Gadd and all the musicians in the Steve Gadd Band — trumpeter Walt Fowler (who got his start with Frank Zappa), guitarist Michael Landau, keyboardist Kevin Hays, and bassist Jimmy Johnson — are also members of Taylor’s live band. This is their fourth album under Gadd’s leadership, though, and it’s a pretty nice collection of instrumental pieces that journey through blues, jazz, and funk. It’s tasteful without ever tipping over into wankiness; they all work together to serve the compositions, transitioning smoothly from one solo to the next as Gadd lays down intricate rhythms with clockwork precision. “One Point Five” features a particularly nice blend of Latin funk, with an airtight performance from behind the kit, and quite beautiful trumpet work from Fowler.

Stream “One Point Five”:

Sly & Robbie Meet Nils Petter Molvaer Feat. Eivind Aarset & Vladislav Delay, Nordub (OKeh)

The billing on this album is easily the most elaborate I’ve ever featured in this column. To break it down, Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer has been making moody, vaporous electronic jazz for a couple of decades; he feeds his horn through a wall of effects, and is backed by a synth-heavy band that’s closer to rock than jazz, though they incorporate techno rhythms at times, too. Occasionally, they touch on dub, which is why this collaboration between him and the legendary rhythm team of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare works. Their miles-deep bass and thumping drums are the perfect foundation for him to soar and coo over. Eivind Aarset is a Norwegian guitarist who works on a lot of ECM and Rune Grammofon projects, and he shows up to deliver bursts of very clean noise here and there; Vladislav Delay is a Finnish minimal techno artist, so presumably he’s adding keyboards. There are vocals on some tracks, which is OK but unnecessary. The album opener, “If I Gave You My Love,” is the album at its best: beautiful, moody, head-nodding jazz-dub.

Stream “If I Gave You My Love”:

Nat Birchall, Cosmic Language (Jazzman)

Saxophonist Nat Birchall combines jazz and Indian music on this album, which features just four tracks in 35 minutes. Adam Fairhall plays the harmonium, a small pump organ-like instrument used to create drones during ragas; Michael Bardon is on bass; and Andy Hay is on drums. It’s very much a collective music. On “Humility,” for example, Birchall takes the first solo, and it’s more like a fanfare, not unlike the way John Coltrane would introduce a piece with his quartet in 1963 or 1964. The crying, spiritualized tone is similar, too, though this is no mere imitation. Hay creates a tumbling, call-to-prayer feeling on the drums rather than setting up a rhythm intended to drive the music forward; it feels like the sound is hovering all around you like a cloud. When Birchall winds down after three minutes or so, Fairhall’s harmonium dominates, offering slowly unwinding accordion-like melodies. He’s eventually succeeded by Bardon, who creates thick bowed drones. The piece is almost nine minutes long, but simultaneously feels like much less and like it could go on forever. This is extremely deeply felt music, mostly meditative but at times ecstatic.

Stream “Humility”:

Ill Considered, Ill Considered 3 (Independent/Self-Released)

Ill Considered are a spiritual jazz quartet (Idris Rahman on sax, Leon Brichard on bass, Emre Ramazanoglu on drums, Satin Singh on percussion) from the fringes of the currently booming UK scene. Their self-titled debut album was tracked during a two-hour improv session, and their second was a live disc. This time out, they’re embracing the studio a little more, while still maintaining their improvisatory edge and the collective freedom that’s at the heart of their sound. There are also some short solo tracks from Rahman, Brichard, and Ramazanoglu. “Incantation” is a perfect example of what they do; it’s a slow, simmering piece with Brichard’s bouncing, pinging, reverb-heavy bass lines (overdubbed so he’s playing off himself) every bit as important as Rahman’s punchy saxophone phrases or Ramazanoglu’s steadily ticking drums, and Singh’s hand drums adding delicate filigrees around the edges. The production gives it an almost Bill Laswell-esque spaciness, like you’re floating in a cloud.

Stream “Incantation”:

Nick Finzer, No Arrival (Posi-Tone)

Trombonist Nick Finzer has been around for a few years; his first three albums were on the Outside In label, but now he’s signed to Posi-Tone. He’s had a steady band on all three of his previous studio albums — Lucas Pino on sax and clarinet, Alex Wintz on guitar, Dave Baron on bass, and Jimmy Macbride on drums — and they’re all here. Only one position has changed. On his debut, 2013’s Exposition, Samora Pinderhughes played piano; on 2015’s The Chase and 2017’s Hear & Now, Glenn Zaleski took over; and this time out, it’s Victor Gould’s turn. The album is half original material (which is very strong; Finzer is a creative composer who puts his own spin on traditional forms without seeming like he’s doing things just to impress his music-school buddies) and half inspired versions of tunes like “Maria,” from West Side Story; Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing,” Duke Ellington’s “Pyramid,” and most surprisingly of all, Prince’s “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold.” He gives the tune a fantastic sense of drama, taking a lush and moody solo that’s succeeded by more harsh playing from Pino (with Wintz laying down stinging guitar in the background) over an avalanche of drums from Macbride.

Stream “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold”:

Mike Clark & Delbert Bump, Retro Report (Ropeadope)

Drummer Mike Clark rose to fame with Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters band; he’s one of the greatest funk drummers of all time. In addition to appearing on Hancock discs like Thrust, Flood (the version of “Hang Up Your Hang-Ups” is all-time), and Man-Child, he’s worked with Betty Davis, trumpeters Eddie Henderson and Jack Walrath, the band Brand X, and more. On this disc, he joins forces with awesomely named organist Delbert Bump, guitarist Elias Lucero, and saxophonist Vince Denham for a collection of jazz and soul classics that includes takes on Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk,” Thelonious Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t,” Bill Evans’ “Peri’s Scope,” Tommy Tucker’s “Hi Heel Sneakers,” and more. The gritty, greasy sound of the record is probably best summed up by the two tracks “Chicken” and “More Chicken,” the first of which is a strutting trio piece, just guitar, organ and drums. Clark’s beat ticks along like a high performance engine, as Bump grinds out thick riffs and melodic extrapolations and Lucero chops out one-chord accompaniment in the background. On “More Chicken,” the same piece is augmented by a fierce horn arrangement from Denham, who takes some wild tenor and soprano solos as the band clatters down the road.

Stream “More Chicken”:

Pawan Benjamin, Tinte Baja (Independent/Self-Released)

Pawan Benjamin is a saxophonist and bansuri flute player of Nepalese descent from Madison, Wisconsin. He studied saxophone with Roscoe Mitchell and is a member of Brooklyn Raga Massive. This is his debut album, a trio disc that features Martin Nevin on bass and Sean Mullins on drums, and all three members on percussion. Packing 13 tracks into just 38 minutes, it reminds me of the JD Allen Trio at times, especially given Benjamin’s thick, resonant tone on the horn. The compositions, all originals except for a version of Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing,” combine folk melodies with jazz improvisation in a slow, patient manner. The rhythms are straightforward, gently swaying and even somewhat bluesy at times. “Jhalka Raya Buka (Night Band, Nepal)” lives up to its title, setting up a late-night mood with rattling percussion and a steady, thumping beat as Benjamin spins out meditative but passionate phrases.

Stream “Jhalka Raya Buka (Night Band, Nepal)”:

Shatner’s Bassoon, Disco Erosion (Wasp Millionaire)

Shatner’s Bassoon are a UK-based group with three prior albums to their name (which in itself is a jokey reference to William Shatner’s jazz poetry), and they cite Mr. Bungle, Frank Zappa, the Cardiacs, and Man From Uranus as some of their influences. Ugh, right? Well, I’m being just a little unfair to them; they’re also into Tim Berne, John Zorn, and Fred Frith. The quintet (Oliver Dover on alto and baritone saxes, and clarinet; Craig Scott on guitar; Johnny Richards on keyboards; Michael Bardon on bass; Joost Hendrickx on drums) make clattery, high-tension math-rock with reeds on top. It doesn’t swing, and it’s intricately composed in a way that recalls Battles with extra synth squelch, but if you approach it from that angle — a kind of staccato minimalism with occasional outbursts — then a track like “Derpa Days” can be highly enjoyable.

Stream “Derpa Days”: