Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – September 2018

Pianist and composer Randy Weston died on September 1, at 92. His playing style was strongly influenced by folks like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Earl “Fatha” Hines, and especially Thelonious Monk, but it was his embrace of, and efforts to explicitly link jazz to, African music that made him such a unique and important figure. (Being either 6’7″ or 6’8″ also helped with the “unique” part; he was literally a towering figure in jazz.)

Naturally, his interest in African music led him to embrace African and African-American self-determination as well. His 1960 album Uhuru Afrika, with lyrics by the poet Langston Hughes, was banned by the South African government. In 1968, he moved to Morocco, where he lived for five years, running the African Rhythms club; in 1995, he received a Grammy nomination (in the Best World Music category) for The Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians Of Morocco.

Over the years, Weston received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, among others, and he was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2001. He recorded somewhere around 50 albums from the 1950s to the 2000s, many of which featured horn arrangements by trombonist Melba Liston. I have to admit I’m not steeped in his catalog, but his 1975 solo piano disc, Blues To Africa, is fantastic, and demonstrates not only his impressive piano technique but also his concepts. You can hear a lot of Monk in his playing, but the rhythms are pure Weston.

Saxophonist Big Jay McNeely also died this month, on September 16. He was 91. McNeely was a crucial figure in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the Los Angeles R&B scene exploded, laying the foundation for rock ‘n’ roll. His pounding instrumentals and “honking” saxophone style were wildly popular with young audiences, including a lot of white teenagers, which caused him some real trouble—the LAPD and the sheriff’s department effectively banned him from performing in L.A. County. His performances were as over-the-top as his style on the horn; he wore glow-in-the-dark suits onstage, came off the stage to walk up and down the bar or the dance floor, and fell backward to play lying flat on his back, as seen in one of the greatest photos of a musician ever taken, from a show at L.A.’s Olympic Auditorium in 1953.

McNeely’s profile dimmed by the late 1950s, but he continued to perform worldwide, and even recorded a new album, Life Story, in 2015. But if you want to know what was driving West Coast teenagers wild in 1953, just listen to the amazing “3-D”:

Saxophonist Ben Wendel has a new album, The Seasons, that features guitarist Gilad Hekselman, pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt Brewer, and drummer Eric Harland. Back in 2015, Wendel wrote 12 chamber pieces and recorded them as duos with musicians he admired, releasing one a month on YouTube. Now, he’s taken that music and reworked it with this band, all of whom were originally duo partners. We’ve got a premiere of the video for “July,” which was shot at the Irondale in Brooklyn on September 7. Check it out below; The Seasons will be out October 12 on Motéma. You can also visit benwendel.com to see and hear the original 12 duos.

Our other premiere this month is from keyboardist John Escreet’s new album, Learn To Live. It’s his first album of composed music in five years – he’s been doing full-on improvisation for a while now. The band includes trumpeter Nicholas Payton, alto saxophonist Greg Osby, bassist Matt Brewer, and two drummers, Eric Harland and Justin Brown. They alternate through most of the record, but on the track we’re premiering, “Broken Justice (Kalief),” both men appear. It’s a tribute to Kalief Browder, who committed suicide after spending three years on Rikers Island prison before being released for lack of evidence against him. Here’s the piece:

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

Archival Find of the Month: Alice Coltrane, Spiritual Eternal (Real Gone Music)

After leaving Impulse!, her label home from 1968 to 1975, but before abandoning the music industry entirely to devote herself to leading a spiritual group in California, Alice Coltrane signed with Warner Bros. and made three studio albums and one double live disc. Those studio albums – 1976’s Eternal and Radha-Krsna Nama Sankirtana, and 1977’s Transcendence – have been collected on this two-CD set, and the music is wild. Eternal is a patchwork album; each track is different from the others, and there’s no one sustained mood, but everything is joyful and exploratory. Radha-Krsna… is the most devotional of the three, with strong gospel overtones to the otherwise Indian-influenced music. It ends with “Om Namah Sivaya,” a 19-minute organ/drums duo with her son Arjuna John Coltrane Jr., who died in the early ’80s. Transcendence features her harp, and her adventurous string arrangements, along with more organ-led chants. This set is only available physically, but the individual albums are streaming.

Stream “Ghana Nila” from Transcendence:

Mark Turner/Ethan Iverson, Temporary Kings (ECM)

Saxophonist Mark Turner and pianist Ethan Iverson have been friends for a long time. They’re also both members of drummer Billy Hart’s quartet, and have made two albums with that unit for ECM. Now, they’re stepping out as a duo for the first time, and the warmth of their personal relationship comes through on every one of these nine pieces. On “Turner’s Chamber Of Unlikely Delights,” they wind their way through a highly complex, ever-shifting series of melodic ideas. The saxophonist goes farther out than the pianist, who’s called upon to build the foundation, after all. Turner’s in his usual introspective zone, but there are times when he spirals up and out, as Iverson moves along carefully behind him, really seeming to think about every note. This is challenging music in the sense that if I were a saxophonist or a pianist, the idea of attempting to play it would terrify me, but from a listener’s perspective it’s just beautiful.

Stream “Turner’s Chamber Of Unlikely Delights”:

Doug Webb, Fast Friends (Posi-Tone)

Doug Webb is an L.A.-based saxophonist I’ve been listening to for several years. In addition to steadily pumping out albums (nine in eight years for Posi-Tone, including this one), he does a lot of work on TV and movie soundtracks. He was the saxophonist on the Law & Order theme, and he was the saxophone “voice” of Lisa Simpson. On this album, his band includes trombonist Michael Dease, pianist Mitchel Forman, bassist Chris Colangelo and drummer Roy McCurdy, who’s 81 but hits like a 22-year-old. In addition to some original pieces, they play tunes associated with legendary saxophonists Charlie Parker and Lee Konitz, and pieces by trumpeters Lee Morgan and Dizzy Gillespie. This version of “High Groove, Low Feedback” is a tribute to tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, who was one of Blue Note’s most popular artists in the 1950s and 1960s but who doesn’t really get his due these days: he was more concerned with melody and bluesy improvisation than deep exploration like John Coltrane or Wayne Shorter, but his music is a blast to listen to. The band digs into the bouncing, strutting melody here, and McCurdy gets a powerful drum break toward the end.

Stream “High Groove, Low Feedback”:

Cyrus Chestnut, Kaleidoscope (HighNote)

Just when you think you’ve got an artist pegged, they surprise you. Pianist Cyrus Chestnut has a well-earned reputation for playing gospel-inflected hard bop in trio format. But on his latest disc, he, bassist Eric Wheeler and drummer Chris Beck dive into pieces by Mozart, Ravel, Satie, and Debussy…and cap it all off with a version of Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water.” The classical pieces are beautifully explored, and swinging in a delicate, Bill Evans-ish way. The latter track is, frankly, great; it starts off with dancing cymbals and delicate ripples of the keys, before Chestnut turns that immortal riff (which is played by Jon Lord’s organ, remember, not Richie Blackmore’s guitar) into a massive, clanging set of chords that would make Matthew Shipp nod his head appreciatively. From there, things get as wild as you’d expect…even if you wouldn’t necessarily expect it from Chestnut.

Stream “Smoke On The Water”:

Peter Nelson, Ash, Dust, And The Chalkboard Cinema (Outside In)

Trombonist Peter Nelson has transformed some astonishing physical struggles into really creative and exciting music. This album was inspired by a medical mystery: a few years ago, Nelson began feeling pain and anxiety while playing, and eventually this metastasized into hyperventilation and pain all up and down his face, back, and arms. He went to multiple doctors, and finally consulted a physiologist who was also a fellow trombonist, who correctly diagnosed him and helped him to alleviate his pain and recover his ability to play. The album features three different ensembles: a trio with vibraphonist Nikara Warren and vocalist Alexa Barchini; a quartet with pianist Willerm Delisfort, bassist Raviv Markovitz, and drummer Itay Morchi; and a septet, which adds alto saxophonist Hailey Niswanger, trumpeter Josh Lawrence, and bass clarinetist Yuma Uesaka to the quartet. “Do Nothing (If Less Is More)” features the full septet, and is a hip-swiveling, almost big band-ish piece with some terrific solos and conversations between the horns.

Stream “Do Nothing (If Less Is More)”:

Christian Sands, Facing Dragons (Mack Avenue)

Pianist Christian Sands brings in some high-powered guests on his second album as a leader, including saxophonist Marcus Strickland and trumpeter Keyon Harrold. “Frankenstein” is neither a version of the Edgar Winter rock instrumental nor the Grachan Moncur III piece (from the album Evolution; go check it out if you don’t know it – it’s amazing); it’s a Sands original, and a very interestingly structured piece. Each horn player gets two short solos rather than one long one, and they take very different approaches. Strickland opts for a murmuring sound almost like an inner monologue, not unlike Wayne Shorter’s playing with the Miles Davis quintet. Behind him, drummer Jerome Jennings chops the rhythm into tiny cubes. Harrold, by contrast, has a rich, full tone like Donald Byrd, and his two solos consist of short but potent statements, which he ends quickly to make room for the leader.

Stream “Frankenstein”:

Drums And Tuba, Triumph! (Ropeadope)

Drums And Tuba have been around since 1995, and while they’ve never lived up to their name – there are always other instruments in the mix, notably guitar and electronics – those two sounds are crucial to their music. A lot of their compositions involve tuba player Brian Wolff (who also plays trumpet, trombone, flute, percussion and occasionally beatboxes) looping a phrase with pedals, then building more and more layers atop it as Tony Nozero sets up a thumping, irresistible beat. “This Is The Point,” the first track from their new album, is actually less intensely rhythmic than a lot of their other music, though it still has a strong pulse. The real power of the piece comes from the looped vocals, which become a multiphonic chant that takes over the listener’s brain.

Stream “This Is The Point”:

James Francies, Flight (Blue Note)

Pianist James Francies is 22. He’s from Houston, a graduate of that city’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, like other current and former Blue Note artists (pianists Jason Moran and Robert Glasper, drummers Chris Dave and Kendrick Scott). Flight, which will be out next month, features saxophonist Chris Potter, guitarist Mike Moreno, vibraphonist Joel Ross, bassist Burniss Earl Travis III, and drummers Jeremy Dutton and Mike Mitchell. Three tracks have vocals, including the first single, “Dreaming.” It’s a dreamlike, shimmering cloud of piano, synth, and sharp, clattering beats, with Chris Turner’s keening vocals coming through like a phone call from space. The drums scatter everywhere, occasionally dropping out entirely, and Francies’ piano takes its time emerging from behind Turner, but when it does it’s worth the wait.

Stream “Dreaming”:

Devin Gray, Dirigo Rataplan II (Rataplan)

Drummer Devin Gray has assembled an impressive quartet on this release. Trumpeter Dave Ballou, saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, and bassist Michael Formanek all have years of experience in dozens if not hundreds of contexts under their belts, and can pull brilliance out of their hats at a moment’s notice. On this piece, Ballou and Eskelin start off throwing short phrases at each other like two guys trying to get a conversation started without really agreeing about much, but then, miraculously, they launch into a unison melody that’s like a punk-rock fanfare.

Stream “Dirigo Rataplan”:

Shai Maestro, The Dream Thief (ECM)

Israeli pianist Shai Maestro first emerged as a member of bassist Avishai Cohen’s trio with drummer Mark Guiliana; that group made four albums together between 2008 and 2011. He then formed his own trio with bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ziv Ravitz. Their last album, 2016’s The Stone Skipper, featured guest vocalists Gretchen Parlato and Theo Bleckmann. Maestro then performed on Bleckmann’s 2017 ECM album Elegy, and now he’s’ making his label debut as a leader with this album, featuring Roeder on bass and a new drummer, Ofri Nehemya. His piano style fits into a particular modern tradition, one that combines ultra-clean classical technique with a strong interest in repetitive, almost looping figures and romantic melodies. Basically, if you’re a fan of Aaron Parks or E.S.T., you’re in a good position to appreciate what Maestro is doing on this record. The title piece is an eight and a half-minute journey that feels about half that long. Maestro and Roeder have a tight bond after so many years together, and Nehemya knows where to fit in between them, never attempting to seize control of the music but always providing appropriate rhythmic accents.

Stream “The Dream Thief”:

Jonathan Goldberger/JP Schlegelmilch/Jim Black, Visitors (Skirl)

The organ trio is one of the great gifts jazz has given the world. Whether it was Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery, or Grant Green and Big John Patton, the combination – when joined a properly funky drummer – is irresistible. Well, guitarist Jonathan Goldberger, keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch, and drummer Jim Black have found a way to combine classic organ trio whomp with 21st century weirdness on their debut album, Visitors. “Corvus,” the first single, builds from a strange and atmospheric keyboard intro that floats through the room like a toxic cloud to some seriously stinging barbed-wire blues guitar, and eventually some harsh interactions develop between the two men, creating a surging, aggro groove, all driven by Black’s rock-solid drumming. This is definitely a studio record; there are a lot of layers. But it all comes together into something organic and deeply felt.

Stream “Corvus”:

Günter Baby Sommer/Till Brönner, Baby’s Party (Intakt)

Günter “Baby” Sommer is a legendary German avant-garde jazz drummer. He’s played with Peter Brötzmann, Cecil Taylor, Wadada Leo Smith, Manfred Schoof, and many, many others. This album is a duo with trumpeter Till Brönner, recorded in December 2017, to celebrate Sommer’s 75th birthday. A lot of the pieces seem to be improvised, but there are also some standards, including a version of Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood” and, of all songs, “Danny Boy.” The latter is performed with rippling vigor by Brönner, as Sommer builds the tension with thundering, almost Sunny Murray-esque rolls behind him. A good drummer is the most important musician on any bandstand, and this album is a fantastic document of a master at work.

Stream “Danny Boy”:

Szun Waves, New Hymn To Freedom (The Leaf Label)

Szun Waves are a London-based sax-synths-drums trio; this is their second album, following a self-released debut. It includes six tracks ranging between five and 12 minutes, all of them fully improvised with no edits or overdubs. The first track, “Constellation,” almost feels like a King Crimson-esque prog band doing a big introductory fanfare to a song that’ll wind up being half an hour long, in four movements. Luke Abbott’s keyboards kick things off, with a shimmering repeated figure that drummer Laurence Pike accents with perfectly timed kick drum thumps and delicately tapped cymbals; saxophonist Jack Wyllie comes in cautiously, as more and more electronic sounds are being added to the mix seemingly every moment, including some bending-metal sounds reminiscent of early-2000s Autechre. By the halfway mark, Pike is playing an almost tribal doom beat as Wyllie seems to be playing through pedals, and the synths are a skull-rattling wave of sound.

Stream “Constellation”:

Trygve Seim, Helsinki Songs (ECM)

Norwegian saxophonist Trygve Seim wrote most of the pieces on this album in Finland’s capital city, hence the title. The band includes pianist Kristjan Randalu, bassist Mat Eilertsen, and drummer Markku Ounaskari. Randalu and Ounaskari released an album earlier this year with guitarist Ben Monder that I reviewed in July’s column. Their playing was much more active and even aggressive on that record than it is here. Seim’s pieces have a slowly unfolding quality. The energy level picks up as the disc goes on, but for most of its running time – 11 tracks in 63 minutes – it’s meditative almost to a fault. “Sorrow March” really lives up to its title, beginning with hissing and slowly bending saxophone notes from Seim that almost sound like a violin, and Randalu plucking the piano like a harp. Eventually, the drums begin to come in as though from far, far away, creating the softest possible military rhythm like they’re accompanying a coffin to a grave, and Seim emits controlled wails like a Portuguese fado singer. It’s a startlingly affecting piece.

Stream “Sorrow March”:

Pete Lee, The Velvet Rage (Ubuntu Music)

This is a surprising and lush record. Lee, a pianist, leads a quintet (tenor saxophonist Josh Arcoleo, guitarist Alex Munk, bass guitarist Huw Foster, drummer Ali Thynne) that’s periodically joined by a string quartet, the Amika Strings. The title comes from Alan Downs’s book The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World, but it’s hard to hear any rage here. Half the tunes are funky, groove-oriented fusion (“The Mirror Stage,” “Writer’s Block”), and the other half are swooningly romantic ballads (the title track, “Dependency”). On “The Velvet Rage,” the strings surge around the piano like waves lapping at its legs at first, but when a single violin emerges to duet with him, it’s both stark and beautiful. The combination of hard-driving jazz and gentle classically-derived pieces makes this one of the more multifaceted records of the year.

Stream “The Velvet Rage”:

Colectivo Colombia/Antonio Arnedo + Hugo Candelario, Soplo De Río (Independent/Self-Released)

Colectivo Colombia is a group that’s been around for 15 years but has just now made its debut album, which features saxophonist Antonio Arnedo and percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Hugo Candelario, an expert in the music of Colombia’s Pacific coast. This isn’t jazz per se, but it has a lot of qualities in common, like steady-but-shifting rhythms, intricate harmonies between reeds and the other instruments, and simple melodic figures that form the foundation for thoughtful improvisation. “La Huella” is a definite highlight; it features Arnedo soloing as Candelario shadows him on marimba and flutist Anamaría Ornamas interjecting from the corner, with the rest of the ensemble – particularly guitarist Santiago Sandoval and bassist José Juvinao – setting up grooves that occasionally become strikingly high-impact. Arnedo’s playing has an almost Wayne Shorter-esque feel, to my ear.

Stream “El Cuento De Lucía”: