Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – July 2018

Earlier this month, I went to Newark to meet violinist Regina Carter. She was in town to serve as artistic director of an all-female jazz residency, put together by NJPAC. She, saxophonist Tia Fuller, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, and a large faculty of teachers took students from 14-25 through a weeklong immersion program of individual lessons, small ensemble work, trips to jazz institutions in the area (the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark is a major research hub; anyone who’s written a serious book on jazz has doubtless spent many hours in their archives), and even lectures about the music industry. The goal is not just to help these singers and players improve their technique, but to give them a more well-rounded picture of how to be a jazz musician, whether that means learning to arrange a composition, to structure an improvisation so it has flow and meaning, or to figure out how to market yourself in the 21st century. It’s a lot like the Willie Mae Rock Camp For Girls, but with an added veneer of professionalism, since they’re assuming that the students want to pursue professional careers in jazz.

In that regard, Carter is an excellent role model. She’s built a career that’s lasted since the late Eighties, starting out with the all-female quintet Straight Ahead before making her solo debut in 1995. She’s made albums for Atlantic, Verve, and currently releases her work through Sony. But this is crucial: In 2006, she won a MacArthur fellowship, the so-called “genius grant” which gives the recipient $500,000 over five years, no strings attached, and that’s allowed her a degree of independence few musicians have. She now produces her own music—her latest album, Accentuate The Positive, is a collection of tunes associated with singer Ella Fitzgerald—and licenses it to labels, rather than signing traditional contracts. She runs her own show, managing her own career, and that’s exactly the kind of example up-and-coming female jazz artists need to see.

Plus, her music’s great. Here’s “Reach For Tomorrow,” from Accentuate The Positive:

Cuban pianist Harold López-Nussa recently released Un Día Cualquiera (English translation: Just Another Day), a trio album with bassist Gaston Joya and Ruy Adrián López-Nussa, his younger brother, on drums and percussion. He’s a high-drama pianist who combines Latin sounds with a baroque improvisational style reminiscent of McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea (who obviously takes a lot from Latin music himself). But there’s a lot of deeply romantic, almost classical playing on the record, too. The trio went back to Cuba and played in the streets of Havana. Here’s an exclusive video premiere of them performing the tune “Hialeah”:

Guitarist Jared Mattson and his identical twin brother, drummer Jonathan, have a duo called, unsurprisingly, the Mattson 2. They’ve made several albums on their own, and have released collaborations with guitarist Ray Barbee, Japanese vocal duo Chokolat and Akito, and Chaz Bundick of Toro y Moi. Their work blends jazz fusion, psychedelia, and a surprising element of surf music, allowing them to appeal to jazz fans and jam-band hippies alike. Their next release will be a full-album cover of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme—a bold statement, but not an unprecedented one. Branford Marsalis’s quartet did it some years ago; Alice Coltrane recorded a segment of the work on her 1972 album World Galaxy; and Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin did the same on their Love Devotion Surrender album in 1973. They’ve made a video for “Resolution,” the second movement of the piece, and we’re premiering it exclusively below. Check it out:

One final note: the National Endowment for the Arts, which miraculously continues to exist, announced its annual list of Jazz Masters this month. They’ll be honored at a concert in Washington, DC in April 2019. This year’s group of honorees includes vocalist Bob Dorough (who passed away after being notified that he’d been chosen, but before this announcement); pianist Abdullah Ibrahim; composer, arranger and big band leader Maria Schneider; and critic and onetime drummer Stanley Crouch. Congratulations to all of them. Maria Schneider’s albums are tough to find—she’s adamantly anti-streaming, and makes her work available via PledgeMusic and her own website—but they’re very much worth hearing. She collaborated with David Bowie on the original, long version of the song “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime),” which led to him recruiting saxophonist Donny McCaslin and his band for the Blackstar album.

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

Archival Find Of The Month: Erroll Garner, Nightconcert (Mack Avenue)

Pianist Erroll Garner is the subject of a major reassessment and celebration. It’s not like he was some forgotten figure; his 1955 album Concert By The Sea is one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time. But in 2015, in time for its 60th anniversary, it was expanded from a single LP to a three-CD set, only getting better in the process. In 2016, Ready Take One, a collection of previously unreleased studio recordings from 1967-71, was released. Garner’s style was both distinctive and astonishing; he had an extremely powerful left hand, drawing from stride and early jazz, but he played his right-hand melodies, which were filled with baroque flourishes, slightly behind the beat, giving the music a feeling somewhere between tension and effortless cool. The fact that he didn’t read music—a 2012 documentary about him is called No One Can Hear You Read—makes his style that much more fascinating. Nightconcert is a recording from 1964, taped at the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam; a few of its tunes were released, in edited form, back then, but the full concert has never been available. “No More Shadows” is a Garner original, a slow ballad that begins with heavy blues chords but quickly becomes romantic and suffused with trilling classical eruptions. He’s backed by bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Kelly Martin, who don’t do much here but keep the beat steady for him. It was Garner’s show.

Stream “No More Shadows”:

Justin Brown, Nyeusi (Biophilia)

Drummer Justin Brown has earned a lot of respect in the last few years working with trumpeters Ambrose Akinmusire and Terence Blanchard, bassist Esperanza Spalding, and pianist Vijay Iyer, as well as funk and fusion dudes like Thundercat and Flying Lotus. Nyeusi—pronounced “nee-yo-see”—is his debut as a leader, and the band features Jason Lindner and Fabian Almazan on keyboards, Burniss Earl Travis on bass, and Mark Shim, normally a saxophonist, on wind controller, an electronic device that sounds like someone humming into a vocoder. “Waiting On Aubade” gives you the feeling for the album as a whole; it’s a silky, keyboard-driven jazz-funk jam in the realm of Thundercat or Flying Lotus, but leaning even further back toward the 1970s work of keyboardist George Duke. Brown’s drumming is complex and powerful, adding an element of progressive rock thunder to what could otherwise be a spacy but go-nowhere jam. This is an album that floats along like a multicolored cloud, but climbing on board provides a relaxed and pleasurable ride.

Stream “Waiting On Aubade”:

Javier Santiago, Phoenix (Ropeadope)

Keyboardist and occasional trumpeter Javier Santiago makes his full-length debut with this album, fronting an excellent band (Dayna Stephens and Ben Flocks on saxophones, Nir Felder on guitar, Zach Brown on bass, and Corey Fonville on drums) and inviting a few well-chosen guests to the party. Though it has elements of funk and R&B, it’s definitely a jazz album before anything else. Fonville’s drumming shuffles and swings, while the horns float in and out of Santiago’s mist of overlapping keyboard lines—the melodies have a feel similar to Kamasi Washington’s at times, coming in periodically to provide an anchor before everyone goes off on their own journeys again. “Alive” is the album’s final track, and trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who’s been exploring contemporary sounds and styles on his own recently but is an absolute flamethrower on the horn, steps into the spotlight. Fonville gives him a stuttering, snapping beat to play over, and he bounces on it like it’s a trampoline, employing a rich, full tone reminiscent of Donald Byrd’s 1970s work.

Stream “Alive”:

Black Art Jazz Collective, Armor Of Pride (Savant)

The Black Art Jazz Collective is a band that lives up to its line-in-the-sand name. The lineup includes trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, trombonist James Burton III, pianist Xavier Davis, bassist Vicente Archer, and drummer Johnathan Blake, all in-demand and highly respected names. This is their second album and studio debut, and it’s a collection of expertly constructed straight-ahead acoustic jazz tunes that recall the 1970s when bands like Eastern Rebellion or Woody Shaw’s groups were taking hard bop into thrilling new realms. “The Spin Doctor” is a triumphant eruption, launching with a high-speed three-horn melody that downshifts into a zone of abstraction before Escoffery dives into a fast, high-energy solo. Pelt is up next, his full tone and impeccable command of the horn allowing him to spit out long, complex lines that sound like Black Thought verses, while Burton’s trombone solo pulses and swells without ever devolving into smears; he, too, is a precise and energetic player. Blake’s drumming is key to the whole exercise; he drives the band hard at all times, chopping up the beat and keeping the other players on their toes.

Stream “The Spin Doctor”:

This Is It!, 1538 (Libra)

Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii has always kept herself busy—she leads multiple small groups with varying instrumentation, and two different big bands, and occasionally records solo. This year, though, she’s going all out, celebrating her 60th birthday by releasing an album a month. 1538, recorded under the name This Is It!, is one of the most abstract and challenging things she’s ever done. The group is a trio featuring drummer Takashi Itani and Fujii’s husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura. On the title piece, she plays heavy, booming chords and somber runs in the spirit of Matthew Shipp, while Itani delivers barrage after barrage from the drums and Tamura explores extended trumpet techniques, hissing and sputtering through the horn and producing furious squeals. At the halfway mark, though, her two partners drop away, leaving her alone to pound out a dark, ominous solo. When the drums return, they sound more like junkyard percussion, or like they were recorded from down the hall, and Tamura comes back screaming and distorted, like Godzilla heard through a walkie-talkie. This is harsh music, but it’s also very beautiful, on its own terms.

Stream “1538”:

Tim Warfield, Jazzland (Criss Cross)

Saxophonist Tim Warfield has made nine albums for the Criss Cross label. He started out as a straight-ahead acoustic hard bopper, but in recent years he’s frequently gone in a groove-oriented organ jazz direction. On this record, his band consists of trumpeter Terell Stafford, organist Pat Bianchi, drummer Byron Landham and percussionist Daniel Sadownick. The album includes versions of Wayne Shorter’s “Sleeping Dancer, Sleep On,” originally recorded by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and Lou Donaldson’s “Hipty Hop,” as well as the traditional gospel number “Wade In The Water.” The funky track “Theme For Malcolm” was recorded by trumpeter Donald Byrd in the late ’80s; this version is kicked off by a percussion-and-cowbell rhythm that calls to mind Steely Dan’s “Do It Again,” before the punchy horn melody fires up. Stafford takes the first solo with a deep, full tone on the trumpet, and Warfield follows him with a remarkably mellow and clarinet-like soprano saxophone statement.

Stream “Theme For Malcolm”:

Emile Parisien Quartet, Sfumato Live In Marciac (ACT)

“Sfumato” is a painting technique wherein tones and colors are allowed to shade gradually into one another, producing a kind of haziness and blurred outlines. It’s a great title for a jazz album, and soprano saxophonist Emile Parisien has used it twice now. This live album is a sequel to a 2016 studio recording by the same band: pianist Joachim Kühn, guitarist Manu Codjia, bassist Simon Tailleu, and drummer Mário Costa. As on the studio album, they’re joined by clarinetist Michel Portal and accordionist Vincent Peirani, but there’s one more guest here: Wynton Marsalis, who apparently was on vacation in Marciac, France when this concert was played and recorded. The music is a weird combination of French music and hot jazz; the saxophone and clarinet wind around each other as the accordion becomes surprisingly dominant, but the bass and drums surge and thump hard. Marsalis performs on a version of composer Henry Lodge’s “Temptation Rag,” from 1909, which they take at an absolutely breakneck pace, throwing long streams of notes at each other in a way that’ll leave you out of breath just listening to it.

Stream “Temptation Rag (feat. Wynton Marsalis)”:

Jeff “Tain” Watts, Travel Band: Detained In Amsterdam (Dark Key Music)

Though he’s worked with dozens of high-profile players over the last 30-plus years, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts is best known for his tenure backing Wynton and Branford Marsalis. He’s on Wynton’s Black Codes From The Underground, J Mood, and Live At Blues Alley, among others, and on Branford’s Trio Jeepy, Crazy People Music, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, and many more. He’s a one-man demolition crew; people who just assume Wynton Marsalis is in thrall to a 1950s idea of swing must have chosen not to notice Watts’ almost Ginger Baker-like eruptions behind the kit. For the last decade-plus, he’s been making his own music on his own Dark Key Music label. This live album, recorded at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam in February 2017, features guitarist Paul Bollenback and bassist Orlando le Fleming. It gets its title from the fact that Watts and crew were detained when they attempted to fly home after the show. “Ice Age” is a bluesy, atmospheric piece, with a strong shuffling beat from Watts, that brings to mind the mid-’90s Ginger Baker Trio, with Bill Frisell on guitar and Charlie Haden on bass, but also has echoes of newer players like Julian Lage. On the album, it leads directly into a volcanic drum solo called “Brainlifter.”

Stream “Ice Age”:

Tom Tallitsch, Wheelhouse (Posi-Tone)

NJ-based saxophonist Tom Tallitsch is back with a new quintet featuring Josh Lawrence on trumpet, Jon Davis on piano, Peter Brendler on bass, and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums. That’s a high-energy band, and Wheelhouse uses them to their full potential with a collection of hard-swinging pieces. Although it opens in an atmospheric, Coltrane-in-1964 sort of way, with Tallitsch calling the church to order, the title track quickly becomes a burner, with the two horns harmonizing on a tight Blue Note-style melody as the rhythm section bounces along behind them. Lawrence is a great foil for Tallitsch; his voice on the trumpet is forceful and creative, taking the music in unexpected directions without ever losing its classicist feel.

Stream “Wheelhouse”:

Walt Weiskopf, European Quartet (Orenda)

Saxophonist Walt Weiskopf has been around for decades; he arrived on the New York scene in 1980, has recorded close to 20 albums as a leader, and appeared on countless more as a sideman. He’s also been a member of Steely Dan’s road band since 2002, and played on their 2003 album Everything Must Go. This is his first album for the Orenda label after four releases on Posi-Tone. It features Danish pianist Carl Winther, Swedish bassist Daniel Franck, and Danish drummer Anders Mogensen, and was recorded at the MillFactory studio in Copenhagen. The music, though, is straightforward, energetic hard bop in the classic American style. The album opens with “KMA,” a jumping tune driven by Mogensen’s light, skipping but still aggressive drums. Weiskopf is a traditionalist player who sounds strongly influenced by Atlantic-era John Coltrane (think albums like Giant Steps and Coltrane Plays The Blues), and that sound is all over this piece; his solo is straight out of 1959, but in a good way. He’s a fast player with total control of the horn, never slipping out of the groove or going so far out that the rhythm section can’t reel him back in.

Stream “KMA”:

Michael Leonhart Orchestra, The Painted Lady Suite (Sunnyside)

Composer and multi-instrumentalist (seriously, he plays close to a dozen instruments on this record) Michael Leonhart has assembled a killer lineup for this debut. Guitarist Nels Cline is here—Leonhart arranged and conducted the 21-piece orchestra on Cline’s 2015 album Lovers—as is saxophonist Donny McCaslin. Other players come from the Village Vanguard Orchestra, the Dap-Kings, and Antibalas, among other places. Most of the album is taken up by the title piece, which is inspired by migratory butterflies. It’s lush and shimmering music that runs through a variety of moods and tones, but always retaining an essential grace. “Music Your Grandparents Would Like” is tucked away toward the end of the album, and it’s a swaying, horn-driven piece that sounds like J.G. Thirlwell reworking David Shire’s theme from The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three as a love ballad.

Stream “Music Your Grandparents Would Like”:

Jason Palmer, At Wally’s Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 (Steeplechase)

Wally’s is a legendary Boston jazz club that’s been in business since 1947. Everyone who studies at Berklee or the New England Conservatory winds up hanging out there, and notable figures who come through town, even if they’re booked somewhere else, often find themselves at jam sessions there. It’s almost as legendary a venue as the Village Vanguard in New York. Trumpeter Jason Palmer has been playing there on weekends since 2006, and in 2016 he recorded two CDs’ worth of material with tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger, guitarist Max Light, Chris McCarthy on Fender Rhodes, Simon Willson on bass, and Lee Fish on drums. The two discs are high-energy hard bop intended to keep an audience focused and tapping their feet; every solo leaps forward and heads straight for the sky. On “Stop, Drop And Roll,” Light absolutely tears it up, as Fish positively batters the kit behind him; on “Style,” the band settles into a funky hard bop groove reminiscent of Lee Morgan and rolls hard for nearly nine minutes. Palmer is obviously at home on this stage, and secure enough in his leadership role to let others explore their own ideas in full, but when he takes a solo of his own, it’s ferocious. He’s got a unique tone and an ability to spit notes at a breathtaking pace without ever losing control. He’s not just some revivalist, either; in 2015, he released Wondaland, an album of Janelle Monáe compositions. His is a name worth knowing.

Stream “Stop, Drop And Roll”:

Stream “Style”:

The Jamie Saft Quartet, Blue Dream (RareNoise)

Jamie Saft is best known as an organist — he’s worked with everyone from John Zorn to the Bad Brains — but in the last couple of years, he’s been focusing on piano, first with his trio The New Standard and earlier this year on Solo A Genova. This disc features saxophonist Bill McHenry, bassist Bradley Jones, and drummer Nasheet Waits. The band tackles three standards—”Violets For Your Furs,” “There’s A Lull In My Life,” and “Sweet Lorraine”—the last of which is a tribute to Village Vanguard owner Lorraine Gordon, who died recently. But the original compositions are really fascinating, displaying Saft’s creative spirit in all its facets. As his gigantic beard might indicate, he’s a somewhat spiritual guy by nature, and “Infinite Compassion” shows that side of him quite strongly. McHenry sounds bizarre on the track, like Albert Ayler playing the world’s biggest kazoo, but Saft lays down massive, churchy chords behind him as Jones and Waits move forward as though marching in a processional. It’s a deep, Coltrane-ish (John or Alice, you pick) journey within.

Stream “Infinite Compassion”:

Dave McMurray, Music Is Life (Blue Note)

Dave McMurray is a Detroit-based saxophonist who’s been around since the 1970s, working in a wide variety of contexts including the avant-jazz ensemble Griot Galaxy, the weirdo funk-rock band Was (Not Was) and as a sideman with tons of artists including Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan, Bootsy Collins, Brian Wilson, B.B. King and the B-52’s. A lot of those gigs came through his relationship with Don Was, who used him on many of his production jobs and has now, as head of Blue Note Records, given him a solo deal. This album is a stripped-down, raucous effort featuring electric bassist Ibrahim Jones and drummers Ron Otis and Jeff Canady, depending on the track. McMurray adds minimal keyboards to a few pieces, and some others have strings arranged by Maurice “Piranhahead” Herd. The music throbs and pounds, and McMurray’s voice on the tenor is as big as a baritone at times. The album features mostly original compositions, but there are a few surprising covers, including the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” and George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog.” You wouldn’t think the latter piece, being built out of layer upon layer of looping keyboards and vocal chants, would work in a sax-bass-drums format at all, but by reducing it to its bass line and a few repetitions of the melody (bolstered by some judicious overdubbing), it becomes a high-energy workout that’ll have you bobbing your head and stomping your feet.

Stream “Atomic Dog”:

Mark Kavuma, Kavuma (Ubuntu)

Mark Kavuma is a UK-based trumpeter of Ugandan descent. On his debut album, he’s backed by saxophonists Ruben Fox and Mussinghi Brian Edwards, guitarist Artie Zaitz, pianist Reuben James, bassist Conor Chaplin and drummer Kyle Poole. The tunes are almost all his own, and they have a strong 1950s hard bop flavor with a few surprises here and there—Zaitz’s guitar is especially stinging. When all three horns lay into a melody, there’s real muscle there, and Poole’s drumming serves to punch the energy level even higher. The only two non-originals are not jazz standards; they’re much older than that. The gospel song “Abide With Me,” which comes close to the end of the album, started out as a poem in 1847 and was set to music in 1861. “Carolina Moon” is a pop song from 1924, which Kavuma heard on a Thelonious Monk album (Genius Of Modern Music, Vol. 2). Kavuma’s version is fairly similar to Monk’s, from the opening statement of the melody on piano to the lush horn charts. The addition of guitar gives it more of a jump-blues/early rock ‘n’ roll feel, though, and Poole’s drums aim for the high-energy swing Max Roach had on the original, but wind up seeming to bounce in place. Still, Kavuma himself has a rippling, rich trumpet sound with some pleasingly piercing high notes at his command.

Stream “Carolina Moon”:

Kristjan Randalu, Absence (ECM)

Kristjan Randalu is an Estonian pianist who teams up on this album with American guitarist Ben Monder and Finnish drummer Markku Ounaskari. They recorded it in the south of France, which I’m sure was very nice for them. Randalu plays a lot of notes very fast, in shimmering clouds with a lot of repetition and sudden eruptions. Monder is operating in a very different mode, letting his notes ring out softly and slowly and for the most part avoiding the bursts of distortion that frequently characterize his work in other contexts. Ounaskari’s approach to the kit falls somewhere between these two poles. He is frequently silent, but when he does emerge from his burrow, it’s to softly brush the kit or dance lightly across the cymbals. “Lumi I” has a kind of ominously swelling quality; Ounaskari gets remarkably aggressive, playing actual drum rolls as Monder and Randalu climb skyward in unison, before the pianist takes off on a rippling, classical-ish solo. Like many ECM releases, this album lulls you into thinking you’re gonna get a pleasant afternoon nap, then slaps you in the face just as you’re nodding off.

Stream “Lumi I”: