Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – May 2018

Henry Threadgill, photo courtesy of Pi Recordings

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – May 2018

Henry Threadgill, photo courtesy of Pi Recordings

Repertory can be a fraught subject in jazz. Obviously, there are artists whose compositions have become standards, re-interpreted by artist after artist over the decades. But at the same time, there’s the constant pressure to be creative, and if you must work with other people’s music, to interpret it in such a way that your individual voice is of primary importance. There’s a real divide: the AACM insists that its members write their own music and be more than mere interpreters, while some artists seem to make their entire careers out of playing standards. For the record, I’m generally against performing the most obvious standards at this point. It’s 2018. How many more versions of “Autumn Leaves” or “What Is This Thing Called Love?” does the world need, anyway?

But there were two events this month that represented two very different ways of grappling with the music of a major jazz composer, and while one was definitely more to my taste than the other, each was interesting in its own way.

On Wednesday, May 16, I went to the Jazz Standard to see the second night of a two-night stand by a new band called Broken Shadows. The group featured alto saxophonist Tim Berne, tenor saxophonist Chris Speed, and the rhythm section of the Bad Plus, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King. They were there paying tribute to the music of three major jazz artists, all of whom came from Fort Worth, Texas: Ornette Coleman, Julius Hemphill (whose name is pronounced “hem-fill,” not “hemp-hill,” as I’d always assumed), and Dewey Redman. They also played Charlie Haden’s “Song for Ché,” but they modeled their version on the one heard on Ornette’s album Crisis, not the large ensemble version recorded by the late bassist’s Liberation Music Orchestra.

Ornette Coleman compositions may be the most instantly recognizable in jazz. Even if you don’t know the name of a given tune, you can tell in two seconds that it came from his pen. Broken Shadows played four of his pieces in an eight-song set, along with the aforementioned Haden tune, one by Redman, and two by Hemphill. They mostly opted for relative obscurities, so we didn’t get versions of “Dogon A.D.” or “Lonely Woman,” but that choice actually allowed the audience to focus on what the musicians were doing to make these performances live, rather than mentally comparing them to the records.

Perhaps it was the way the microphones were positioned, but the bass and drums often seemed louder than the horns. Speed’s solos were more fluttery and meandering than Berne’s, even when King was driving him ferociously hard. But the way the alto and tenor sang the complex melodies together was fantastic. It was a great show, with entertaining banter from King every couple of tunes.

Two nights later, I heard a very different approach to Ornette’s music. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, led by Wynton Marsalis, performed a pair of concerts on May 18 and 19, featuring big band arrangements of his tunes, many of them by saxophonist Ted Nash. I didn’t attend in person, but many of their events are streamed live, and this one was among them.

The Orchestra features five saxophones, four trumpets, and three trombones, plus piano (an instrument Ornette almost never used in his own bands), bass and drums. They pulled tunes from his entire career for the set, which theoretically could have created a fascinating, multifaceted portrait, but it didn’t, for one simple reason: Too many musicians onstage. If you’re thinking that music as unfettered as his would be difficult to arrange for big band without losing something fundamental, you’d be right. The loping, bluesy melodies were still there, but they sounded like big band charts, particularly when they were chained (there’s no other word for it) to a straight up-and-down beat. On a version of “Feet Music,” from Ornette’s album In All Languages, drummer Jason Marsalis was playing a straight boogaloo rhythm that could have come off a Lee Morgan record from 1963. And when the musicians tried to get “free,” they just sounded momentarily lost.

Make no mistake, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is packed with ferociously talented players. When they play the music of Count Basie or Duke Ellington, as they did earlier this month, they’re capable of extraordinary beauty and serious swing. But their approach to Ornette seemed to amount to saying, “See, this stuff isn’t so weird after all!” And in the process, they sucked all the weirdness out of it, along with a lot of the fun. Broken Shadows, on the other hand, delivered real excitement and joy. I hope they stick around for a while.

On that note, here are the best new jazz albums of the month!

Archival Find of the Month: Anthony Braxton, Quartet (Willisau) 1991: Studio (Hatology)

Anthony Braxton records such an astonishing amount of music in such a broad range of contexts that it seems weird to think of him as having a “band” in the conventional sense. But he has worked with certain small, cohesive units for years at a time, and one of the most notable such groups was his quartet with pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Mark Dresser, and drummer Gerry Hemingway. They first came together in 1985, and released several live albums from a UK tour that was also documented in Graham Lock’s book Forces In Motion, which is essential to understanding both Braxton’s music and his personality. Though they played together often, the quartet didn’t make it into the studio until 1991, when they recorded a four-disc set, half studio and half live, for the Hat Hut label. That release is being reissued in two parts, with the studio recordings out now and the live ones coming back next year. The music is typical of Braxton’s small group work, in that it occupies a blurry zone between jazz and chamber music, frequently getting extremely high-energy (but rarely loud) and just as often devolving into moody drones, as on “No. 161,” on which Crispell’s piano is up front as Braxton plays low rumbles on a bass or baritone saxophone. (The recording quality is such that his breath is clearly audible, adding a kind of suspense to the music.) Hemingway is barely heard, except for a few moments where he scrapes the cymbals’ edges.

Stream “No. 161″:

Henry Threadgill, Dirt…And More Dirt and Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus (Pi)

In recent years, saxophonist Henry Threadgill has focused more and more on his work as a composer; indeed, he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for his album In For A Penny, In For A Pound. He’s just simultaneously released two album-length works, each very different. Dirt…And More Dirt features a 15-member ensemble that includes three alto saxophones (including Threadgill himself), two trumpets, two trombones, tuba, guitar, two pianos, cello, two basses, and drums. Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus is performed by a relatively pared-down group: two alto saxophones — Threadgill does not play on the record — cello, tuba, three pianos, and drums. “Dirt – Part I,” the first of six movements (“And More Dirt” has four), is a slow-walking introduction to a piece that ultimately runs just under a half hour. Familiar Threadgill combinations of instruments take the spotlight, like guitar/bass/tuba, and there are solos, including a really cool two-piano interlude before the boss himself takes the spotlight. “Clear And Distinct,” on the other hand, is the last track of music on Double Up… (both of these albums feature recitations of the credits at the end, for some reason), and it has a lighter, more bouncing feel, with plenty of piano, obviously.

Stream “Dirt – Part I”:

Stream “Clear And Distinct”:

Eddie Henderson, Be Cool (Smoke Sessions)

Eddie Henderson has been one of my favorite trumpeters for years. He first broke out as a member of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band, then went on to make a couple of early ’70s solo albums — Realization and Inside Out — for the Capricorn label that were basically Mwandishi records under his name. In the latter half of the decade, he made a string of jazz-funk records for Blue Note and Capitol that gradually transitioned to disco-jazz, but even the most overtly dance-oriented ones don’t suck. These days, he’s a member of the hard bop all-star band the Cookers, and regularly releases albums of high-level acoustic jazz like this one. The band includes saxophonist Donald Harrison, pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Essiet Essiet, and former Headhunters drummer Mike Clark. Clark is as comfortable playing loose swing as head-snapping funk, but the sharpness of his snare sound betrays his roots. And on “Loft Funk,” he sets up a shuffling beat you can’t not nod your head to, as Henderson and Harrison play an intricate, pulsing melody before soloing fiercely over the bouncing groove.

Stream “Loft Funk”:

Kenny Barron Quintet, Concentric Circles (Blue Note)

Barron has his own new album out, with his regular trio — bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Johnathan Blake — augmented by trumpeter Mike Rodriguez and saxophonist Dayna Stephens. The trio made an album for Impulse! in 2016, and now they’re on Blue Note, but it’s all just divisions of Universal, so whatever. Blake is a great drummer who’s got two albums under his own name, The Eleventh Hour and Gone But Not Forgotten, both of which deserve a wider hearing. I saw the Gone… band, with Chris Potter and Mark Turner, at the Jazz Standard, and they tore it up. Anyway, Concentric Circles is a blazing hard bop record full of tight horn charts and, obviously, some great soloing from Barron, who’s one of those players beloved of his peers but not all that well known in the outside world. That’s too bad; even at 75, he’s got a hard-charging energy at the keyboard that reminds me a little bit of Thelonious Monk (there’s a version of “Reflections” here) but also of players like Horace Silver, who could dig deep into the blues and create a melody that would stay in your head all day. “Blue Waters” seems at first like a pretty straightforward composition, but the way the players chop it up, it becomes highly invigorating, to say the least.

Stream “Blue Waters”:

Dave Holland, Uncharted Territories (Dare2)

Bassist Dave Holland has played with Miles Davis, Anthony Braxton, Sam Rivers, and Chick Corea, jammed with Jimi Hendrix, and run his own bands for decades. He’s always balanced mainstream-ish work with avant-garde explorations; his 1973 debut as a leader, Conference Of The Birds, features Braxton, Rivers, and drummer Barry Altschul, and is justifiably revered. (It’s on ECM, and can be streamed on Spotify.) On this double disc, he’s put together a jaw-dropping quartet featuring saxophonist Evan Parker, keyboardist Craig Taborn, and percussionist Ches Smith. The 23 pieces include duos of all sorts — tenor/bass, bass/percussion, piano/vibes — as well as trios and pieces for the full quartet. Much of the music is totally improvised, and has that squiggly, sparse quality that’s been improv’s “style of no style” for five decades at this point. (In fact, Parker and Holland first worked together on the Spontaneous Music Ensemble album Karyobin, in 1968.) However, the group also reworks “Q&A,” a piece from Conference Of The Birds, cutting its running time from eight and a half minutes to just under five and retaining little from the original other than a short melodic figure. Parker emits dense, relentless passages as Taborn (on piano) and Smith (on vibes) bounce around like a hundred Super Balls hurled down a hallway, and Holland booms from somewhere in the middle of the storm.

Stream “Q&A”:

Cameron Graves, Planetary Prince: The Eternal Survival EP (Mack Avenue)

Cameron Graves is the pianist in Kamasi Washington’s West Coast Get Down; he also leads his own band, with many overlapping members, and tours with Stanley Clarke. His 2017 album Planetary Prince was a head-spinning blend of high-level playing that combined ’70s McCoy Tyner with neoclassical flourishes, deep electric bass, and kit-demolishing drum work from Ronald Bruner Jr. This follow-up EP contains two outtakes from the studio sessions for Prince, plus three live tracks from the album release show at L.A.’s Troubadour club, one of which is a version of Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus” with an amazing bass performance by Stanley Clarke. He’s got that big, bouncy ’70s rubber band sound, thrumming the strings like cables and eventually going all the way into the instrument’s uppermost register, as Washington goes absolutely berserk, taking his solo into Pharoah Sanders scream-fest territory. Bruner’s drum solo is similarly apocalyptic, leaving Graves, shockingly, the most restrained member of the band, for this number at least.

Stream “Black Narcissus”:

Sean Khan, Palmares Fantasy (Far Out)

UK-based saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Sean Khan joins forces with Brazilian music legend Hermeto Pascoal on his third album, named for Palmares, a settlement in northern Brazil established by escaped slaves in the 1600s. The album also features guitarist Jim Mullen, bassist Paulo Russo, and drummer Ivan “Mamao” Conti of Brazilian fusion legends Azymuth. Sabrina Malheiros sings one song, and Heidi Vogel of Cinematic Orchestra sings two. The music is not explicitly Brazilian in that lilting, curtains-blowing-in-the-breeze way; it’s got a lot of fire to it. There are two cover versions: Pascoal’s “Montreux” and “Tudo Que Voce Podia Ser,” by Milton Nascimento and Lo Borges, sung by Malheiros. Pascoal’s weird energy is a perfect match for Khan’s drive; on the title track, he contributes Fender Rhodes, whistles, and electronically distorted vocals, while the saxophonist switches back and forth between tenor and flute and Conti sets up a staggeringly complex rhythm that he somehow makes feel perfectly natural.

Stream “Palmares Fantasy (feat. Hermeto Pascoal)”:

Terence Blanchard Feat. The E-Collective, Live (Blue Note)

Trumpeter Terence Blanchard formed the E-Collective in 2015 and released Breathless, a politically engaged (the album title was a reference to Eric Garner, choked to death by police) and heavily electronic debut. This follow-up’s title has a double meaning. It’s both a description — it was recorded at three different concerts, all in cities marked by conflict between cops and black citizens — and a command, telling the listener to go out and live. The band includes guitarist Charles Altura, keyboardist Fabian Almazan, bassist David Ginyard, and drummer Oscar Seaton. Most of the music on Live is new — only one track out of seven is from Breathless. “Hannibal,” which opens the album, is a version of a piece from Miles Davis’s 1989 Amandla, composed by bassist Marcus Miller. Ginyard’s bass is as deep and filtered as Bill Laswell’s; it sounds like giant bubbles rising up from the bottom of the ocean, as Seaton cracks out an almost martial funk beat. Blanchard’s horn is fed through a bank of pedals, to the point that it almost sounds like a synth. Almazan surrounds him with washes of sound, and Altura hovers in the background until it’s time for his own stinging, mournful solo.

Stream “Hannibal”:

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, Awase (ECM)

Swiss keyboardist Nik Bärtsch hasn’t made a studio album with his group Ronin in eight years. (They did release a double live disc in 2012.) The quartet — originally a quintet — has been around since 2002, and their music has been slowly evolving like if a wall could grow its own new bricks. Bärtsch’s core concept was laid down with the title of his first album, 2001’s Ritual Groove Music; his pieces, which he calls moduls, are built around repetitive, cell-like figures that click together like the gears of a watch. Even when things get wild, it’s not a passionate artistic eruption so much as the sound of something momentarily slipping out of its pattern and then immediately returning. This album marks a slight departure for Ronin, in that it features their first re-recording of an old piece (“Modul 36,” originally on 2006’s Stoa) and their first non-Bärtsch composition: “A,” by clarinet player Stefan Haslebacher. “Modul 60,” which opens the album, is a meditative trance piece that kind of sounds like all the members gradually entering the room and settling into position. Bärtsch’s piano shimmers, one perfectly struck note at a time; drummer Kaspar Rast sets a slow, precisely ticking beat; Haslebacher lets his notes escape slowly and cautiously; and bassist Thomy Jordi is trying his best to disguise himself as Bärtsch’s left hand.

Stream “Modul 60″:

Esbjörn Svensson Trio, E.S.T. Live In London (ACT)

I get why the Esbjörn Svensson Trio (E.S.T.) were so popular. Their music combined the soft moodiness of Nordic jazz with pop and rock rhythms and melodic structures, inserting elements of classical where needed. They used electronics in a subtle but more than ornamental way, making them a crucial element of their overall sound. Other piano trios like GoGo Penguin and BADBADNOTGOOD have done similar things in the decade since Svensson’s death, but E.S.T.’s particular blend of styles remains their own. This double CD was recorded at a sold-out 2005 concert at the Barbican Centre in London, and a lot of it is loud, high-energy crowd-pleasing material. “Viaticum,” the title track from their then-new CD, presents a contrast; it’s a mellow ballad, with almost no sonic manipulation beyond some reverb on the piano. Svensson’s playing really comes to the fore here, extrapolating a gentle melody into something Keith Jarrett-esque, but obviously his own at the same time.

Stream “Viaticum”:

Kyoko Kitamura/Joe Morris/Tomeka Reid/Taylor Ho Bynum, Geometry Of Caves (Relative Pitch)

This is hardcore improvised music. Kyoko Kitamura is a vocalist who, here at least, specializes in extremely fast, staccato phrases almost like scat singing, and a kind of caterwauling close to what Diamanda Gálas does but with less of an element of raw terror. Joe Morris is a guitarist and bassist who can play pretty much anything; on this disc, he’s mostly going for tightly constrained, Derek Bailey-esque pings and scrapes, making the guitar’s strings sound so sharp and wiry you worry that he’s slicing his fingers open with every note. Tomeka Reid plays her cello like a high-tuned bass. Taylor Ho Bynum displays a dizzying variety of techniques and tones on the cornet, going from an ultra-low, almost tuba-like drone to hyper-quick, muted squiggles, hissing kissy noises, and even more indescribably noises. There is no conventional song form present, but each piece has consistency of mood, so there is logic here, if you listen carefully and let it explain itself to you. “Glowworm (Fungus Gnat)” is one of the slower, more meditative pieces.

Stream “Glowworm (Fungus Gnat)”:

Kristo Rodzevski, The Rabbit And The Fallen Sycamore (Much Prefer)

Singer-songwriter Kristo Rodzevski has made two previous albums with a group featuring some of New York’s most forward-thinking jazz musicians; this is the last disc in the trilogy. Look at this lineup: Ingrid Laubrock on saxophone, Brian Drye on trombone, Mary Halvorson on guitar, Kris Davis on piano, Michael Blanco on bass, Tomas Fujiwara on drums. The music, while it fits more within indie rock parameters than jazz — if you ever wanted to hear Mary Halvorson actually riffing, and Tomas Fujiwara kicking out a solid rock ‘n’ roll backbeat, this is the place for that — it’s still worthy of the band; it surges and swells, periodically bursting loose at the edges. Rodzevski’s voice is nasal and slightly nerdy, reminding me of John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats or John Linnell of They Might Be Giants, but it fits very well within the sort of cabaret jazz-folk arrangement.

Stream “Bucharest, 1913″:

Chad Taylor, Myths And Morals (ears&eyes)

Chad Taylor has been a crucial collaborative voice with some of the most interesting and important musicians on the edges of jazz and improvised music for decades. Along with Rob Mazurek, he formed the Chicago Underground Duo/Trio/Quartet/Orchestra; he played with legendary Chicago saxophonist Fred Anderson; he’s worked with guitarists Marc Ribot and Jeff Parker (separately); he’s a member of Jaimie Branch’s Fly Or Die band, and appears on that album; and much, much more. This is his first solo album, and it’s divided between drum work and pieces that feature the mbira, an African thumb piano. The drumming is powerful and hypnotic; his use of the floor tom is shockingly melodic. He makes the kit sing, the way Max Roach and Elvin Jones used to, while his cymbals have an almost Sunny Murray-esque attack at times. These aren’t drum solos in the bombastic sense of that term. They’re intricate works that build and recede, then come back again, and reach natural conclusions. And when he does something more abstract, like the cymbal bowing on “Carnation,” the soundscape/atmospheric effect is just as compelling as the drumming.

Stream “Phoenix”:

Otis Sandsjö, Y-OTIS (We Jazz)

Otis Sandsjö is a Swedish saxophonist currently based in Berlin. I met him in Helsinki in 2016, at the We Jazz Festival, and he’s now signed to their label and putting out his debut album. The band features three other young musicians: Petter Eldh on bass and synths, Elias Stemeseder on synths, and Tilo Weber on drums. Sandsjö himself plays sax, clarinet, and synth on the record. The music has a lot of synth to it, as the credits indicate, and that manifests in a variety of ways. The first track features squiggly solos as well as humming, droning atmospheres, and leaps from one melody to a seemingly unrelated other one that sounds borrowed from Herbie Hancock’s “Hang Up Your Hang-Ups,” then leaps again, without warning. “YUNG” (capitalization in original) starts with an echoey, valve-clapping sax intro, then becomes a hip-hop-derived groove with thick, staticky keyboards and deep bass. It keeps moving from there, though, traveling through prog, R&B, and weird zones that combine minimalism and funk. This is a band with ideas, not all good but all worth hearing.

Stream “YUNG”:

Jure Pukl, Doubtless (Whirlwind)

Jure Pukl isn’t extremely well known yet, but this album deserves attention for sure. It’s a two-tenor effort featuring his wife, Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldana, as the second horn, Joe Sanders on bass, and Gregory Hutchinson on drums. He wrote six of the nine pieces; Aldana contributed one, Sanders another, and the band takes on an obscure Ornette Coleman composition, “InterSong,” from the soundtrack to David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch. Pukl and Aldana work well together. Their voices are relatively similar, but that allows for close harmonies and makes the passages where they trade phrases back and forth fascinating, like hearing someone have a conversation with themselves. Behind them, Sanders and Hutchinson set up a thick, emphatic rhythm. The album-opening title track begins with the unaccompanied saxophones singing softly, Pukl occasionally popping his valves like he’s clearing the pipes before making a major statement. He never does, though; instead, he and Aldana play a two-part fanfare-like melody with slight variations, gradually evolving into a passionate exchange of ideas.

Stream “Doubtless”:

Chris Beck, The Journey (AWMC)

Drummer Chris Beck has been on the scene for a little over a decade — he moved from his native Philadelphia to New York in 2006, and since then has worked with players like Wynton Marsalis, Cyrus Chestnut, and Oliver Lake, among others. This is his debut album as a leader, with a band that features trumpeter Terell Stafford, tenor saxophonist Stacy Dillard, pianist Anthony Wonsey and bassist Eric Wheeler. The music is straightforward hard bop, and mostly original compositions with a few surprises, like a version of Eric Clapton’s “Tears In Heaven” on which Beck sings. The album opens with a version of “Mahjong,” a Wayne Shorter composition from the Juju album. Dillard slides smoothly through the melody line, raising and lowering the energy level at will and making his solo a bouncing, bluesy statement with help from Beck, whose style reminds me a little of Johnathan Blake, another hard-hitting but ultimately subtle player. Stafford doesn’t play on the track at all, but it still gives a good impression of the album as a whole.

Stream “Mahjong”:

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