Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – October 2018

On September 14, pianist Matt Mitchell (whose name has popped up in this column several times, including below — he’s on Jonathan Finlayson’s new album) tweeted this:

I replied to him with “Because people have finally given up the idea that jazz is a precious secret, and accepted the idea that it’s music normal people can listen to for entertainment? Like they did for 50 years or so?” And that’s what I really believe. I mean, that’s the whole rationale behind this column: that you, the Stereogum reader, are as equipped (and entitled) to enjoy a jazz album as any other random human with functioning ears. A corollary to that is that maybe jazz records should be marketed the same way other kinds of music are. “If you like this one song, maybe you’ll like the whole album! Buy it and see!”

Based on this tweet, and the replies to it, Mitchell seems to think that jazz should be marketed more like classical music. Orchestras don’t release one movement of their recording of a new symphony as a “single”; you’re either down to hear the entire work, or you’re not. For the most part, I disagree with that approach for jazz, though there are always exceptions. But that doesn’t mean an attempt to treat jazz like pop is guaranteed to succeed, either.

Saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s new album Blow. (punctuation in original) is very different from anything he’s ever done before. Anyone who knows McCaslin’s name at all knows that he and his band backed David Bowie on Bowie’s final album, Blackstar. And less than a year after Bowie’s death, McCaslin released Beyond Now, which was a relatively conventional record by the standards of what he’d done before — hard jazz blowing with extra keyboards and some covers of pop and electronica tunes (in this case, two Bowie songs and one by Deadmau5). But it’s only now, on Blow., that he’s really allowed things he learned working with Bowie to come to the fore and influence his creative process. Most of the songs aren’t jazz compositions at all; they’re arty rock songs, many of them co-written with Ryan Dahle of the band Limblifter, who also sings on the album. Other vocalists include Jeff Taylor, who sang “A Small Plot Of Land” on Beyond Now, former Bowie bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, and on the bizarre “The Opener,” Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon delivers a meandering, muttered monologue about an ill-fated Florida gig. The music was recorded in chunks, with McCaslin and his bandmates emailing ideas back and forth and eventually spending multiple days in the studio with different lineups of musicians, like a rock record. There are no “pure,” live-in-the-studio tracks here, and no less than four “singles” were released before Blow.’s street date. There’s even a video for “What About The Body”:

Bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding also just released a new album, 12 Little Spells. It’s available digitally and on all streaming platforms, but the physical version won’t be released until early 2019. In her case, it was something of a surprise drop: She hyped the record, which is a song cycle (each track corresponds to a region of the human body), by releasing videos for every track, one a day for 12 days, on Facebook. This is not the kind of thing a jazz artist typically does — it’s a pop/rock move. And it makes sense, given the music. 12 Little Spells is an interesting, well-crafted art-pop record, the logical next step after 2016’s Emily’s D+Evolution. The songs make her vocals and lyrics the focus, and work in a variety of moods, from stripped-down guitar-bass-drums rock (“Now Know”) to lushly orchestrated soul (“12 Little Spells”) to Soulquarian funk (“You Have To Dance”) to gospel-ish ballads (“Thang”). I hear echoes of Björk, of Joni Mitchell, of Laura Nyro, of Kate Bush. Some of the melodies have a meandering quality, clambering up and down scales like she’s feeling for an idea as she goes along, but others are tight as hell.

Thus far, though, the pop market doesn’t seem to be responding. All 12 of Spalding’s videos are on YouTube now, and most of them only have about 2000 views. The clip for “You Have To Dance” has almost 10,000. On Spotify, “12 Little Spells” has fewer than 30,000 streams; “Thang” has fewer than 20,000. (McCaslin’s “What About The Body” has about 120,000 Spotify streams, as of this writing.)

To put it mildly, those are not good numbers. It’s an extreme example, but Kamasi Washington’s video for “Street Fighter Mas” has gotten almost two and a half million views in four months. McCaslin and Spalding may be trying to “graduate” from jazz to rock and/or pop, but the broader music world isn’t buying it. Why not, and what’s the answer? I don’t know. These are good records, but good records fail to reach audiences all the time.

One more thing: guitarist Gilad Hekselman’s latest album, Ask For Chaos, came out at the beginning of September. It was recorded with two different bands. One, Zuperoctave, includes keyboardist Aaron Parks (more about him below) and drummer Kush Abadey; the other, the gHex Trio, features bassist Rick Rosato and drummer Jonathan Pinson. The second ensemble recently filmed a video for “It Will Get Better,” and we’re premiering it here. It’s a nice track, and Hekselman is a player I like a lot. (He’s also a member of flugelhorn player John Raymond’s Real Feels, who I’ve written about here before.)

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

Archival Find Of The Month: Koichi Matzukaze Trio + Toshiyuki Daitoku, Earth Mother (BBE)

Back in February, the BBE label put out an amazing compilation, J-Jazz – Deep Modern Jazz From Japan 1969-1984. In the months since, they’ve been reissuing full albums by some of the groups featured on the compilation. The latest is saxophonist Matzukaze Koichi’s ultra-rare Earth Mother, from 1978. It’s a collection of five tunes that feature bassist Tamio Kawabata and drummer Furusawa Ryojiro (a bandleader in his own right), plus guest piano and Fender Rhodes from Daitoku Toshiyuki. The closing track, “Don’t Worry About Tenor Saxophone,” is a romping, bluesy jam that sounds not that far away from the music David Murray was making on Black Saint in the early ’80s. It’s traditional, but scribbles way outside the margins when necessary, and all the solos (Koichi, Toshiyuki, and Kawabata) are gutsy and forceful.

Stream “Don’t Worry About Tenor Saxophone”:

Ambrose Akinmusire, Origami Harvest (Blue Note)

Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s fifth album, his fourth for Blue Note, feels like the kind of thing you do when you’re spending other people’s money, and it is: Judd Greenstein of Manhattan’s Ecstatic Music Festival and Kate Nordstrum of St. Paul’s Liquid Music Series approached him for a commission, and Greenstein asked, “What’s the craziest idea you have?” It turns out that his idea was to combine a jazz band — including Walter Smith III on saxophone, Sam Harris on piano and Marcus Gilmore on drums — with the Mivos string quartet and vocals from Kool A.D., to create a swirling, theatrical art-song epic. There’s one three-minute interlude here, but otherwise the tracks range from eight to 15 minutes in length, with all the really long ones coming up front one-two-three. This is not a record that wants to make things easy for you. The opener, “A Blooming Bloodfruit In A Hoodie,” starts with an extended string passage, and when the piano and drums come in, so does Kool A.D., who delivers an extended poem before devolving into scattered outbursts atop the music. Akinmusire himself doesn’t seize the spotlight until the piece’s final minutes, with a lovely solo over a booming programmed beat.

Stream “A Blooming Bloodfruit In A Hoodie”:

Tyshawn Sorey, Pillars (Firehouse 12)

Drummer/composer Tyshawn Sorey has created one of the most imposing musical works of 2018 on his latest album. Pillars is a three-CD set, with each disc containing a single 75- to 78-minute track; the complete piece runs 3:50:19. The ensemble features Stephen Haynes on various members of the trumpet family; Ben Gerstein on trombone and melodica; Todd Neufeld on electric and acoustic guitar; Joe Morris on electric guitar and upright bass; Carl Testa on bass and electronics; Mark Helias and Zach Rowden on additional basses; and Sorey himself on drums, percussion, and trombone. It’s hard to even describe this piece, because as with any work of such extended duration, it’s more like installation art: you should just put it on and walk around in it, let different parts catch your attention and absorb what you can. The first piece is a whole world all by itself. Forcefully bowed basses create gigantic drones as electric guitars clang and zing, and Haynes’ trumpet recalls Lester Bowie’s work with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, shifting between murmurs and shouts. The electronics surge and pulse, feeding back and emitting almost tectonic roars. This is a breathtaking work that could just as easily be filed alongside Bill Dixon, Sunn O))), or Anna Thorvaldsdottir. You won’t hear anything else like it anytime soon.

Stream “Pillars I”:

Camilla George, The People Could Fly (Ubuntu)

Alto saxophonist Camilla George made her debut as a leader with Isang, at the end of 2016; this follow-up is even better. Her core band — pianist Sarah Tandy, bassist Daniel Casimir, and drummer Winston Clifford — is still present, but a variety of guests liven things up, including trumpeter Quentin Collins, vocalists Cherise Adams Burnett and Omar Lye-Fook, guitarist Shirley Tetteh, and drummer Femi Koleoso of Ezra Collective. The music is part hard bop, part West African groove, and always has a surging, vibrant energy, even on ballads. George’s tone on the alto is rich and full, closer to the deep cry of Cannonball Adderley than the sharp keening of Ornette Coleman. On the title track, Tetteh and Koleoso take things into a highlife zone as Tandy switches to electric keyboard; the guitarist’s solo a kind of tumbling, rolling quality, stinging phrases building on each other to keep the music moving forward instead of hovering in place while she shows you everything she can do. This is a perfect match for George’s saxophone, which always serves the melody rather than the player. There’s clearly an individual concept at work here, but it’s manifested through a collective voice. No one is ever just a supporting player.

Stream “The People Could Fly”:

Lionel Loueke, The Journey (Aparté)

Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke makes his debut for the Aparté label after five releases on Blue Note (four under his own name and one as part of the Blue Note All-Stars). It’s a quiet, mostly acoustic record, but that overall gentleness masks a lot of passion and the presence of a whole bunch of high-powered guests, including bassist Pino Palladino, violinist Mark Feldman, percussionist Cyro Baptista, and trumpeter Étienne Charles, among others. The tracks are generally pretty short, in the two- to four-minute range, dominated by Loueke’s finger-picked guitar and his crooning vocals. On “Gbê,” Charles’ trumpet provides a soft but potent harmony behind the intricately twanging strings and the pattering of multiple percussionists. Loueke seems to be singing almost under his breath, delivering the vocals like a late-night voicemail, and the horn could be coming from the next room or down the street.

Stream “Gbê”:

Rudy Royston, Flatbed Buggy (Greenleaf)

Each of drummer Rudy Royston’s three albums as a leader has been completely different from the others. His debut, 303, featured trumpet, saxophone, guitar, piano, and two bassists; the follow-up, Rise Of Orion, was a stripped-down, exploratory sax-bass-drums trio date. Both of those were easily identifiable as jazz records, though. This one? Not so much. The band includes John Ellis on bass clarinet and saxophones, Gary Versace on accordion, Hank Roberts on cello, and Joe Martin on bass. In some ways, its churning hillbilly blues grooves remind me of violinist Regina Carter’s albums like Reverse Thread and Southern Comfort, or like the work of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Royston is pulling from a whole different black American music tradition here. On “Hourglass,” his drumming combines meditative swing with a kind of hard-driving prairie funk that reminds me of Ronald Shannon Jackson, and the cello takes violin-like lead lines while the accordion wheezes like a steam engine crawling uphill — until the end, when Versace takes a solo that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Tom Waits album.

Stream “Hourglass”:

Stefon Harris & Blackout, Sonic Creed (Motema)

Vibraphonist Stefon Harris is a brilliant musician who doesn’t record often enough. I first heard him as part of alto saxophonist Greg Osby’s band in 1999, alongside pianist Jason Moran, bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits. (The latter three would ultimately become the Bandwagon, a trio that exists to this day.) This is his first album as a leader since 2009, and it’s terrific. It opens with a version of “Dat Dere,” a tune first recorded by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and also includes versions of pieces by Bobby Hutcherson, Abbey Lincoln, and Wayne Shorter, alongside multiple Harris originals. A radical reinvention of pianist Horace Silver’s “The Cape Verdean Blues,” though, is one of the album’s real highlights. Harris’s style on the vibes is hard-driving, with a startling precision. The band — saxophonist Casey Benjamin, bass clarinetist Felix Peikli, flutist Elena Pinderhughes, guitarist Mike Moreno, pianist James Francies, bassist Joshua Crumbly, drummer Terreon Gully, and percussionist Pedrito Martinez — execute the piece’s rhythmic and melodic twists and turns and tempo changes without ever seeming to break a sweat, but when it’s time to erupt, they’re all in.

Stream “The Cape Verdean Blues”:

Jonathan Finlayson Sextet, 3 Times Round (Pi Recordings)

Trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson is in high demand among musicians who need a player capable of virtually anything asked of him, but who can still remain creative rather than just being a note-spewing machine. He’s recorded and performed with Henry Threadgill, Muhal Richard Abrams, Steve Lehman, and Mary Halvorson, among others, and has been a member of Steve Coleman’s band for nearly 20 years. This is his third release for Pi Recordings, following 2013’s Moment & The Message and 2016’s Moving Still, each of which featured a different band (though guitarist Miles Okazaki appeared on both). 3 Times Round brings back the rhythm section from Moving Still — pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist John Hébert, and drummer Craig Weinrib — and adds two guest horns: Lehman on alto sax and Brian Settles on tenor sax and flute. The opening track, “Feints,” sets the tone for the album. The melody is fast and busy, the saxophones humming like insects’ wings as Finlayson spits out lines that are like bebop stripped to a core of maniacal focus. Mitchell’s solo clatters and bongs at first, but eventually becomes lyrical and even romantic. This music doesn’t swing, exactly, but neither does it hover in place — it’s got a bouncing, vibrant energy.

Stream “Feints”:

Orrin Evans, Presence (Smoke Sessions)

Despite his new, high-profile role as the pianist for the Bad Plus, Orrin Evans is maintaining the solo career that got him where he is. One of his most formidable units is the Captain Black Big Band, named for his late father’s favorite brand of tobacco. They’ve had as many as 18 members on previous releases, but this time out, they’re reduced to a nonet, with several positions (alto sax, trumpet, trombone, drums) featuring different personnel from track to track, as the album was recorded at two different shows a month apart. The music is rooted in hard bop and the blues, with a raucous, party-starting feel at times. “Trams,” written by tenor saxophonist Troy Roberts, begins with handclaps and maintains a bottom-heavy, strutting groove throughout its nearly 12-minute running time. Anwar Marshall’s chopped-up beat and Evans’ heavy chords, not to mention the sharp horn interjections, almost recall Steely Dan’s “Home At Last,” before the whole thing erupts into polyphonic party-time blare.

Stream “Trams”:

Aaron Parks, Little Big (Ropeadope)

Back in 2008, pianist Aaron Parks was signed to Blue Note. He made one great album for them, Invisible Cinema, with a killer band: guitarist Mike Moreno, bassist Matt Penman, and drummer Eric Harland. The music was almost prophetic — a lot of players have come along in the years since blending jazz and indie rock in their compositions, much the way Parks was doing back then. Unfortunately, he was dropped right after that. He’s subsequently done a ton of sideman work and made two albums for ECM. This is his debut for Ropeadope, and it’s kind of a ten-years-later sequel to Invisible Cinema. The lineup is different: Greg Touhey is on guitar, David “DJ” Ginyard is on bass, and Tommy Crane is on drums. But compositionally, it’s got the same high-energy, anthemic style as its predecessor, and everybody is willing to go out. “Kid,” the album’s first track, features some absolutely searing electric guitar over jackhammer drums and thick, almost dubby bass. Parks himself switches capably between tender, romantic piano and wild, zapping prog-rock synths.

Stream “Kid”:

Christian McBride, New Jawn (Motema)

“Jawn” is a generic Philadelphian noun: it can refer to pretty much any person, place, or thing. Bassist Christian McBride’s New Jawn is a band featuring saxophonist Marcus Strickland (who’s got an album of his own coming out soon; I’ll talk about it in my next column), trumpeter Josh Evans, and drummer Nasheet Waits. Pianoless quartets tend to grant the members a lot of freedom: the Ornette Coleman quartet is the paradigmatic example, but in the decades since plenty of other groups have explored similar territory, bouncing around wherever a melody or a groove takes them. Evans and Strickland are a great front line, because each man keeps one foot in hard bop tradition while being more than willing to speed up, slow down, get abstract, or do whatever else serves the music best in the moment. And of course, McBride, one of the most prominent bassists of the last 40 years, leads from the back, bouncing everyone along as Waits keeps up a clattering, shuffling, always swinging groove. This performance of “Middle Man” was recorded live on KNKX Public Radio in Tacoma, Washington.

Watch “Middle Man”:

Cuong Vu 4tet, Change In The Air (RareNoise)

Last year, trumpeter Cuong Vu made a terrific album, Ballet (The Music Of Michael Gibbs), with a new band featuring guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Luke Bergman, and drummer Ted Poor. A year later, they’re all back with a new set of original music. The album is a true collective effort, as all four members brought in tunes but they all fit together, creating a series of moods but a cohesive overall vibe. “Alive,” the album’s second track, was written by the drummer, and has a moody, midnight-in-the-desert feel. Frisell’s guitar has a deep electric blues clang, going downright noise-rock in the piece’s final minutes. Vu’s horn crackles like a drive-in movie speaker, even as his passionate lines soar above the rest of the band like a hunting hawk. Bergman’s bass is a throaty rumble like an idling bulldozer, and Poor slams the beat home like he’s just waiting for everyone else to shut up so he can solo. (He never does.)

Stream “Alive”:

Jerome Sabbagh & Greg Touhey, No Filter (Sunnyside)

I’ve been a fan of French-born, New York-based saxophonist Jerome Sabbagh for quite a few years. He’s made several excellent albums with guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Joe Martin, and drummer Ted Poor; I particularly recommend 2014’s The Turn. On this record, he teams up with New Zealand-born guitarist Greg Touhey, Martin on bass, and Kush Abadey on drums. The opening track, “Vicious,” sets up an ominous, churning riff that’s then punctuated/interrupted by a quick, rippling phrase that Sabbagh and Touhey double on sax and guitar. The main sax melody, though, is slower and more thoughtful. Sabbagh prefers to think through his solos; he reminds me of Mark Turner in the way he avoids clichés and goes inside himself instead, offering patient and introspective messages on the horn. Touhey is an interesting partner, because he’s willing to get big and loud. His solo here is a shred-fest, by comparison, full of distortion and fast, ripping lines. Abadey breaks the beat down into thumping fragments before the ensemble reunites to bring it all home.

Stream “Vicious”:

Samuel Blaser, Early In The Mornin’ (Outhere)

Swiss-born trombonist Samuel Blaser is a very interesting player, composer and conceptualist. (Check out his 2009 album Pieces Of Old Sky for some beautiful, Zen-like work with Tyshawn Sorey.) This album is a deep exploration of blues and abstracted funk featuring a core band of keyboardist Russ Lossing, bassist Masa Kamaguchi, and drummer Gerry Hemingway, plus two guests: saxophonist Oliver Lake and trumpeter Wallace Roney. On “Levee Camp Moan Blues,” which features all three horns, they start out singing together in almost gospel-ish harmony, but eventually take turns in the spotlight. Lake’s solo is harsh and squawking; Roney’s ripples like a pond in the moonlight; and the nominal leader sputters out a flurry of staccato notes and low groans.

Stream “Levee Camp Moan Blues”:

Jakob Bro, Bay Of Rainbows (ECM)

In 2016, Danish guitarist Jakob Bro made a really beautiful album, Streams, with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Joey Baron. This new live disc was recorded at New York’s Jazz Standard, last year. For the most part, this is not extremely high-energy music; there are two versions of a tune that’s literally called “Mild,” and another is simply titled “Evening Song.” There is one piece, “Dug,” that gets pretty noisy in the middle, but if I picked that one to showcase, it would be highly dishonest of me. The first version of “Mild” gives a very clear picture of what’s to come. The band seems to shimmer into existence, Baron gently washing the cymbals as Bro’s guitar emits soft chords that never make any demands on the listener, and yet you’re likely to find your attention very gradually being drawn in closer and closer. Morgan’s bass has a pure, woody sound that’s an ideal complement to and balancing point between the other two. Sit down in a comfortable chair and let this music wash over you.

Stream “Mild”:

Dave Rempis/Tomeka Reid/Joshua Abrams, Ithra (Aerophonic)

Three of Chicago’s most interesting musicians — saxophonist Dave Rempis, cellist Tomeka Reid, and bassist Joshua Abrams — team up for just under an hour of mostly low-key chamber interactions. This music could be improvised, it could be composed, or it could be some combination of the two; what matters is that it becomes three people speaking with one voice. They all come from different places, creatively and otherwise, but there’s an essential Chicago-ness to the collective sound. They’re listening to each other, they’re leaving a lot of space and exploring the value of silence, they’re picking up percussion instruments when that seems called for — this is absolutely descended from the work of Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, and Wadada Leo Smith, but there’s modern classical compositional technique at work here, too, and other unidentifiable elements that Rempis, Reid, and Abrams bring from who knows where. It feels like a suite, or like a single complete performance cut up into chunks, so any track will do as a representation of the whole.

Stream “Wattle And Daub”: