Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – August 2018

I saw Fela Kuti live. It was late in his career, in the summer of 1990 (he died in 1997), and he had long since swapped out the band that made his best-known albums in the 1970s, but it was still an amazing show. He had what seemed like an army of dancers, and the music was like an endless sea of rhythm and jazzy, funky jams. I don’t think they played more than three or four songs.

And now, nearly 30 years later, I can say that I’ve also seen Tony Allen live. Allen was Fela’s drummer in that killer Seventies band, and it was his approach to rhythm — a light, dancing funk that layered polyrhythms in a way that didn’t seem physically possible, since human bodies still only have four limbs — that was the root of the entire Afrobeat sound. In the last couple of years, Allen has turned his mastery of groove into a mastery of swing. He’s signed to Blue Note, and has released an EP of tunes made popular by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and a full-length album, The Source, that was one of the best jazz albums of last year.

On August 1, he brought the Source band to New York, performing to a packed house at Le Poisson Rouge. Harpist Brandee Younger opened the show, playing duets with a bassist that included her interpretations of pieces by Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby, as well as original music.

Allen’s group included trumpet, saxophone, a pianist who doubled on organ, and an upright bassist. They focused on material from The Source, and the music was a kind of bouncing, patient hard bop. While the trumpeter and saxophonist took plenty of fierce, high-flying solos, the rhythm team settled into a swinging but at times almost dub-like groove. Allen stayed silent, wearing a hat and sunglasses behind the kit and barely seeming to move as he played, but between songs he broke into a wide grin that showed just how much fun he was having playing this music. The crowd was shuffling to the rhythm, swaying back and forth almost as one throughout the set.

It’s hard to say whether Allen will continue operating in a jazz mode; his next release is a collaboration with techno artist Jeff Mills, coming out on Blue Note in September. But if he brings his band to your town, go.

Polish jazz trumpeter Tomasz Stanko died July 29 at 76; he had been suffering from pneumonia, and was diagnosed with cancer in April. He began his career in the early 1960s, working with pianist/composer Krzysztof Komeda. Together, they made music for several Roman Polanski movies, including Rosemary’s Baby. Stanko signed to ECM in 1975, first employing a Polish band and later, in the 2000s, forming his “New York Quartet” for two albums. His trumpet style is raspy-voiced and mournful, and instantly recognizable once you become a fan. ECM founder Manfred Eicher put together a mix of six of his pieces, which you can check out below:

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

Archival Find of the Month: Tohru Aizawa Quartet, Tachibana (BBE)

This is an incredibly rare album from Japan, originally released as a private press item by Ikujiro Tachibana, the owner of the concert hall where it was recorded. He seems to have used it as a calling card, giving away copies to important business clients. And yeah, the cover says Vol. 1, but there is no Vol. 2. It was recorded in 1975 by pianist Tohru Aizawa, saxophonist Kyoichiroh Morimura, bassist Kohzoh Watanabe, and drummer Tetsuya Morimura. It’s forceful, hard-charging bop with a couple of Latin- and Brazilian-inflected tunes. “Dead Letter,” written by Aizawa, is a slamming piece that opens with an extended piano journey, then — when Morimura jumps in — becomes very strongly reminiscent of McCoy Tyner’s 1970s work. These guys were young, and not professional jazz musicians, but they really delivered something ferocious and worth preserving.

Stream “Dead Letter”:

Wayne Shorter, Emanon (Blue Note)

Wayne Shorter’s last studio album was 2003’s Alegría. Since then, he’s released two live albums — 2005’s Beyond The Sound Barrier and 2013’s Without A Net, the latter of which featured the five-member woodwind and brass ensemble Imani Winds on the 23-minute “Pegasus,” and also marked Shorter’s return to Blue Note after 43 years. This album, due out September 14, is actually a three-CD set, packaged with a comic book scripted by Shorter (he’s a lifelong sci-fi and comic fan). The first disc contains four new studio recordings by his longtime quartet of pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade, joined by the 34-piece Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. These pieces, particularly the 15-minute opener “Pegasus,” surge and swell in a way that’s neither jazz nor classical, but some utterly modern blend of both. The other three tracks from the first disc, “Prometheus Unbound,” “Lotus” and “The Three Marias,” all reappear on the second and third discs, which document a London concert by the quartet. This is a physical-only release, so I can’t include a streaming track from the album itself, but here’s a video of the quartet and orchestra playing “The Three Marias” at the Umbria Jazz Festival in 2017.

Steve Coleman, Live At The Village Vanguard Vol. 1: The Embedded Sets (Pi)

I’m not gonna lie to you; I am not a big fan of alto saxophonist Steve Coleman’s music. I often find his records too dry and self-consciously complex for their own good, and he’s influenced a lot of other major jazz musicians to employ similar methods. But this double live album, recorded at the Village Vanguard in May 2017, has almost won me over. It contains two complete sets from a six-night stand with his band Five Elements, which includes trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, guitarist Miles Okazaki, bassist Anthony Tidd, and drummer Sean Rickman. The tunes are as intricate and tightly wound as ever, but hearing them being performed live injects a real, vibrant sense of pleasure that’s not always present on disc. On “Nfr,” the band works through a complicated melody over a bouncing funk beat; Coleman’s solo is a series of short phrases that almost seem connected to each other, while Finlayson’s is more unified and thoughtful. If you’re already a Coleman fan, this release will likely thrill you, and if you’re a skeptic like me, it might get you into the tent.

Stream “Horda”:

Nicole Mitchell, Maroon Cloud (FPE)

Flutist Nicole Mitchell has been making fantastic, utterly unique music for about two decades at this point, mostly with her constantly mutating Black Earth Ensemble but also under her own name and with other projects. On Maroon Cloud, she’s brought in three powerful collaborators: pianist Aruán Ortiz, cellist Tomeka Reid, and vocalist Fay Victor. Without percussion, the music sometimes floats like the cloud of the title, but just as often it churns and throbs. Reid’s cello is clearly one of Mitchell’s favorite sounds, as the two have been working together for years, and her scrapes and drones perfectly complement the flutist’s hoarse puffs and fluttering phrases. Ortiz’s piano gives the music weight and swing (in the sense of a boxer), and Victor’s vocals are wild. They run the gamut from soulful, sanctified wailing to half-strangled mutters and gasps that recall both Linda Sharrock and Diamanda Galás. This is heavy music that doesn’t need drums to kick you in the neck.

Stream “No One Can Stop Us”:

Steve Turre, The Very Thought Of You (Smoke Sessions)

Trombonist Steve Turre has been recording as a sideman and a leader for over 50 years; he worked extensively with Art Ensemble of Chicago trumpeter Lester Bowie, saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and trumpeter Woody Shaw. He also played on Carlos Santana’s Caravanserai, and has been a member of the Saturday Night Live band since 1985. This album is a collection of standards and ballads, with an eight-piece string section on a few tracks. The core band is Kenny Barron on piano, Buster Williams on bass, and Willie Jones III on drums, with saxophonist George Coleman and guitarist Russell Malone making guest appearances. On the opening title track, Coleman’s solo has grit and a deep blues feeling, and Turre plays both before and after him, making his own romantic statement while also framing his guest’s contribution. The strings give the track the feel of a love theme from a James Bond movie.

Stream “The Very Thought Of You”:

Bob James, Espresso (Evosound)

Pianist Bob James has composed some of the most sampled grooves in hip-hop history. You probably can’t count how many times you’ve heard “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” or “Nautilus.” This album, his first studio recording as a leader in over a decade (he’s also a member of the smooth jazz act Fourplay), features bassist Michael Palazzolo and drummer Billy Kilson. It contains nine new original tunes, a version of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'”, and a version of Grover Washington, Jr.’s “Mr. Magic.” (James arranged and conducted the original 1975 recording.) The music shifts between piano trio jazz and slick organ funk as quickly and easily as James himself swivels from acoustic to electric keyboards. The final track, “Submarine,” is a direct sequel to “Nautilus.” It has a similar melody, and James nods to the way his music became the foundation of classic hip-hop in the way Kilson’s drums are looped and treated with static to sound like a sampled LP.

Stream “Submarine”:

Brian Krock, Big Heart Machine (Outside In)

Big bands are back! Not really, but this 19-member ensemble led by saxophonist Brian Krock is doing some really interesting things with the form. Before diving headlong into jazz, Krock was a teenage prog-metal guitarist, and this album has plenty of shred courtesy of Finland’s Olli Hirvonen, but even when the music is horns and rhythm, the compositions lurch and surge unexpectedly. The beats are continually flipping in some weird direction, synths ooze out of the music to become suddenly dominant…this album is every bit as adventurous and cognizant of a world beyond jazz as the work of Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, so it’s no surprise that Argue produced it. The bulk of it is taken up with a five-part suite, “Tamalpais”; “Dipsea Steps” is part four, though each movement stands on its own. Yuhan Su’s vibraphone dances like a goat on a cliff’s edge, as the horns spill forth shimmering, repetitive phrases out of Steve Reich and Josh Bailey’s drums tick and thump. And when Hirvonen’s guitar comes roaring in at the three and a half-minute mark, look out.

Stream “Dipsea Steps”:

Charles Pillow Large Ensemble, Electric Miles (MAMA)

Plenty of people have interpreted tunes from Miles Davis’s “electric period” (meaning his music from 1969-75; he continued to work with electric bands when he returned in 1981, and until his death) in the past, but they usually do it in a manner that sticks pretty close to the original. Conductor and arranger Charles Pillow has done something much weirder — he’s turned these pieces, originally created with live jamming and tape edits, into big band workouts. Two trumpeters, Tim Hagans and Clay Jenkins, are up front. Hagans has grappled with electric Miles on his own in the past; his band Animation released a full live version of Bitches Brew as Asiento in 2011. Soprano saxophonist Dave Liebman, who played on On The Corner and Get Up With It, is also here. Probably the weirdest track is “Black Satin.” Originally a handclap-driven vamp based on a single hypnotic figure, the big band creates a romantic(!) intro before diving into the deep funk groove. The horns blast and squawk; where the Davis recording was a sea of overlapping electric keyboards and intricately layered percussion, this is more like a horn chorale. Hagans takes a high-flying hard bop solo; trombonist Michael Davis goes into a Fred Wesley/James Brown zone; and Liebman takes the only solo that hints at the wildness of the original. I can’t quite figure out what I think about this album, but it’s a fascinating idea.

Stream “Black Satin”:

Rich Halley, The Literature (Pine Eagle)

Tenor saxophonist Rich Halley is a terrific player who’s probably best known to jazz critics and folks in the Pacific Northwest. He lives in Oregon, and mostly stays there or in Northern California. He’s come to the East Coast for a gig or two, but he’s absolutely not trying to do anything but be the best saxophonist he can be, in his part of the country. His music is rooted in hard bop and the blues, but there’s a strong element of avant-garde freedom to it, too; he works with trumpeter Bobby Bradford off and on. On this disc, it’s just him and his regular trio of bassist Clyde Reed and his son, Carson Halley, on drums. Unlike most of their records, which feature original music, this one is a collection of pieces by his influences, including Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington…and Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Carter Family. The playing has the folkish quality heard in the music of Julius Hemphill and Charlie Haden, but Halley’s tone on the horn is seriously muscular in a Sonny Rollins-esque way. His version of Ornette Coleman’s “Broadway Blues,” from the 1968 album New York Is Now!, is taken at a deliberate pace, with the rhythm section swinging — and hitting — hard. Dropping the melody down from Ornette’s alto to Halley’s tenor makes it sound like a bear roaring in the street.

Stream “Broad Way Blues”:

John Bailey, In Real Time (Summit)

Trumpeter John Bailey is 52 years old. This is his debut album as a leader, though he’s an in-demand NYC sideman who’s recorded with Ray Barretto and Arturo O’Farrill. His tone has the bright edge you expect from someone who’s worked in Latin jazz, but his tunes are straightahead hard bop, with the exception of two Brazilian pieces, “Morro Velho” and “Ensaio Geral.” He’s recruited an excellent band: saxophonist Stacy Dillard (another dude who doesn’t record nearly enough; as far as I know, his last album as a leader came out in 2011), guitarist John Hart, bassist Cameron Brown, and drummer Victor Lewis. The album opener, “Rhapsody,” is a nine-minute tune on which everybody gets a chance to step into the spotlight, and they all make the most of it, especially Dillard and Hart; the latter man’s solo is almost dissonant at times, like he’s gonna let the strings slip away from him Mary Halvorson style, as Lewis throws surprising little accents at him from behind the kit.

Stream “Rhapsody”:

Art Hirahara, Sunward Bound (Posi-Tone)

Art Hirahara is a Japanese-American pianist who I first heard backing Australian saxophonist Nick Hempton. His first few albums as a leader were just okay, but in the last few years he’s been through some shit, and the changes in his personal life have made his music much stronger. This is his second album in a row featuring saxophonist Donny McCaslin, bassist Linda Oh, and drummer Rudy Royston, and they’ve settled into a sound that’s part hard bop, part Japanese music — they reinterpret a 1927 children’s song, “Akatombo,” and a 1952 pop hit, “Ringo Oiwake” — and uniquely their own. “Brooklyn Express” is a tune written by Hirahara, and coming early in the album as it does (it’s the second track) it sets a tone of twitchy excitement that carries through even the slower, more meditative material. McCaslin’s solo is reasonably straightforward, occasionally developing a slight harsh edge, but generally staying within hard bop parameters; Hirahara’s piano playing ripples with energy; Oh’s bass has a powerful bounce; and Royston’s drums are as aggressive as ever — he’s a player who likes to drive the band right to the edge of a cliff, with an almost intimidatingly fierce snare attack and unexpected small cymbal hits.

Stream “Brooklyn Express”:

Mikkel Ploug & Mark Turner, Faroe (Sunnyside)

Mark Turner is one of the most chilled-out, Zen-master saxophonists on the planet. Whether he’s playing with drummer Billy Hart’s quartet, with his own band, or in some other context, he’s always got this kind of reserved demeanor that makes you lean in and listen closely. He’s been a member of guitarist Mikkel Ploug’s quartet for several years, touring all over Europe. This is their first duo recording, though. The compositions are Ploug’s, written with Turner in mind, and their interaction is gentle and thoughtful. On “Faroe,” a soft acoustic melody provides a springboard for Turner to journey deep within himself, at times almost sounding like he’s trying out ideas in his basement, rather than making an album in a studio. Many of his phrases have a “hmm — what about this?” quality, like murmured suggestions rather than declarations. Still, the music never feels low-stakes or boring.

Stream “Faroe”:

Wojtek Mazolewski Quintet, Polka – Worldwide Deluxe Edition (Whirlwind Recordings)

Polish bassist Wojtek Mazolewski originally released Polka in 2014; it’s now been reissued with several previously unreleased tracks, including a three-part “London” suite and a version of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s “Theme de Yoyo.” However, some tracks have been removed from the original version (which is still on Spotify), and those included versions of Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” and Rage Against the Machine’s “Bombtrack,” so you win some, you lose some. The band, which includes trumpet, tenor saxophone, piano, and drums, creates a churning, hard blend of jazz and funk that kind of reminds me of The Thing, especially when they’re doing rock covers. Their version of “Theme de Yoyo,” probably the most aggressive, funkiest thing the Art Ensemble ever recorded, is great; the horns jump and shout, as the rhythm section repeatedly devolves from an airtight groove into brief interludes of free jazz chaos.

Stream “Theme de Yoyo”:

Tord Gustavsen Trio, The Other Side (ECM)

This is a piano trio album, on ECM, by three Norwegian musicians. You’ll be forgiven for thinking you already know what it sounds like, because once you listen, you’ll realize how wrong you were. Tord Gustavsen hasn’t actually made a trio record since 2007; he’s been working in quartet format with a saxophonist, and even expanding to a larger ensemble with vocalists. Now he and his longtime associate, drummer Jarle Vespestad, and new bassist Sigurd Hole have recorded a collection of new tracks, arrangements of Bach chorales, and an old piece of Norwegian church music. The pianist adds subtle electronics to some pieces, and they actually turn the energy level up quite high at times. The opening track, “The Tunnel,” is a simmering blend of gospel and jazz, but the version of Bach’s “Schlafes Bruder” is set to an unexpectedly sharp funk groove. Norwegian jazz is its own thing, blending influences that simply aren’t in the mix in other parts of the world, and this is a very interesting example of the form.

Stream “The Tunnel”:

Mia Dyberg Trio, Ticket! (Clean Feed)

Danish alto saxophonist Mia Dyberg makes her debut with this trio session, backed by bassist Asger Thomsen and drummer Dag Magnus Narvesen. She’s got a rough, hoarse tone on the instrument, and she lets her notes waver and slip away from her or dissolve into vibrating harmonics. On a ballad, she can bring it down so low it’s like a breeze is blowing through the horn. The press material for this album suggests that the musicians have adapted William Burroughs’ approach to writing in shaping their music, but I don’t hear any jagged cut-up collages or even particularly sudden juxtapositions, so I don’t know what they’re talking about. There are a few moments, like on the beginning of “Wil’s Swing,” where she sounds like she’s nodding to Ornette Coleman’s playing on the soundtrack to the movie Naked Lunch, but as the track progresses, it gets harsher and noisier, heading into Peter Brötzmann/Mats Gustafsson territory. The way the music is recorded — with plenty of room sound — adds to the organic feel; you can really hear Thomsen and Narvesen reacting to her as they go.

Stream “Wil’s Swing”:

THIS SAXOPHONE KILLS FASCISTS, Live At Hollow Earth Radio (Independent/Self-Released)

Arrington de Dionyso has taken on the name THIS SAXOPHONE KILLS FASCISTS, a project he says “channels the energy of Spiritual Free Jazz in search of new forms and directions for contemporary protest music…not preaching to the converted, but here to offer prayer, strength and medicine for difficult times.” He’s released seven albums so far, all recorded live and all containing a single half-hour track. His usual partner is drummer Sam Klickner, though other musicians often join the action. This 33-minute piece, recorded in Seattle in October 2017, features a large ensemble with 15 guest saxophonists. The result is a howling choir, mostly cutting loose with long overlapping tones that waver and blend together into a wave of continuous sound that’ll shake your teeth loose in your gums at high enough volume. Sometimes it sounds like Albert Ayler, sometimes it sounds like a bagpipe choir. In some ways it reminds me of Borbetomagus, minus the electronic distortion. Decidedly not for everyone, but if this is your kind of thing, TSKF provides it in megadoses.

Stream “Large Ensemble”: