Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – November 2018

Trumpeter Roy Hargrove died early this month of cardiac arrest at 49. He had been admitted to the hospital for a longstanding kidney problem.

Hargrove came out of Texas in the late 1980s, releasing his first album, Diamond In The Rough, in 1990. He was quickly embraced by jazz elders for his stunning skills on the horn; he played on two tracks on Sonny Rollins’ 1991 album Here’s To The People. (Years later, Hargrove joined Rollins onstage for two songs at the saxophonist’s 80th birthday concert at New York’s Beacon Theatre; it was the only time I ever got to see the trumpeter live.) In 1998, he won a Grammy for his album Habana, a fusion of jazz, funk, and Cuban music recorded on the island. Two years later, he embarked on an entirely different phase of his career when he played on D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, and Common’s Like Water For Chocolate. While his hard bop albums had been lyrical and virtuosic but ultimately somewhat conservative, moving in a funk and neo-soul direction opened him up, stylistically. He also appeared on D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, Erykah Badu’s Worldwide Underground and New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War).

He never lost his devotion to jazz, though, not just as a musical form but as a calling. Hargrove was one of the three founders of the Jazz Gallery, one of New York’s most important jazz clubs. In 2013, it moved from the Lower Manhattan location he’d found, but he still maintained a presence, showing up for annual performances. He was expected to be there just before Christmas this year; those two nights will now be a tribute to his memory, and are sure to be packed. He would also regularly appear at late-night jam sessions at Smalls and other clubs, and was a mentor to many younger musicians, including Ambrose Akinmusire, who tweeted, “I don’t think I would be alive if I hadn’t met him when I did. I am extremely grateful I got to tell him as a grown man to his face.” The reaction to his death from all across the jazz world was one of shock and genuine loss — he was an absolute master of the horn, but he also seems to have been a guy almost everyone liked and respected. His early death is a major loss. Check out “I’m Not So Sure,” from his 2008 album Earfood, featuring alto saxophonist Justin Robinson, pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Danton Bolder and drummer Montez Coleman:

There’s a major new biography out of saxophonist Dexter Gordon, and it’s worth checking out for several reasons. Sophisticated Giant: The Life And Legacy Of Dexter Gordon is written by his widow, Maxine Gordon, and includes numerous passages from a never-completed autobiography. She writes that there were many subjects and periods in his life that he didn’t feel like writing about, including his drug addiction and his time in prison, but she has included them. It’s not an exhaustive, year-by-year biography, though it covers all the major milestones of his life, including his early recording sessions in the 1940s, his comeback on Blue Note in the early 1960s, his decade-plus spent living in Denmark and playing throughout Europe, and his return to the US in the 1970s. Since Maxine was Dexter’s manager long before they got together as a couple, there’s a lot of discussion of record contracts and how difficult it was to get him US bookings in 1976, after he’d been living in Europe for fourteen years, which is fascinating considering how rapturously he was received when he arrived. It also discusses his role in the movie Round Midnight, which earned him an Oscar nomination, in depth. Gordon got hold of what was originally a not-great script full of clichés and dialogue that verged on minstrelsy (sample lines are included, and they’re bad) and painstakingly transformed it, through rewriting and improvisation, into a nuanced portrait of not just one gifted musician, but the entire world of jazz and the expatriate experience. The stories of fellow jazz musicians showing up for the music sequences — which were performed and recorded live — are amazing.

There was one omission I found strange: Maxine writes about Dexter coming out of prison in the early 1950s and recording an album, Daddy Plays The Horn, for the Bethlehem label. But two months later, he recorded another album, Dexter Blows Hot And Cool, for Dootone, an album that’s just as good in my opinion but is totally ignored here. It’s entirely possible that he didn’t like it, or that the label, a small L.A. indie, ripped him off, but it would have been interesting to know that one way or the other.

Before marrying Dexter Gordon, Maxine was in a relationship with trumpeter Woody Shaw, and is the mother of his son, Woody Shaw III. Together, they’re releasing a series of previously unheard live recordings by each man via the Elemental Music label. The latest Gordon album, Espace Cardin 1977, includes something I’d never heard before: a track on which the saxophonist plays soprano, rather than his usual tenor. It’s called “A La Modal,” and it’s really fascinating the way his “voice” changes on the straight horn. Stream it below.

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

Archival Find of the Month: Charles Mingus, Jazz in Detroit / Strata Concert Gallery / 46 Selden (BBE)

Between 1969 and 1976, keyboardist Kenny Cox and trumpeter Charles Moore operated the Strata Concert Gallery in Detroit, bringing in some of the best jazz and most forward-looking jazz acts of the time, including Ornette Coleman’s quartet and Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi, among others. The Strata organization also included a label — it only put out six releases, but was respected enough that when trumpeter Charles Tolliver and pianist Stanley Cowell wanted to start their own (ultimately much more successful) label in New York, they named it Strata-East. In 1973, Charles Mingus played a concert at the Strata space, which was broadcast on local radio. The band includes Don Pullen on piano, Joe Gardner on trumpet, John Stubblefield on tenor sax, and Roy Brooks on drums: a lineup that never entered the recording studio, so this is the only document of their time together. Fortunately, there’s a lot of it. This is a five-CD or five-LP set, taken from the original master tapes, and the music alone runs close to four hours. (There’s also a lengthy radio interview with Brooks, which is fine but unnecessary.) As was often the case with Mingus, the pieces are very long, running 13 to 25+ minutes, and include classics from his catalog like “Peggy’s Blue Skylight,” “Pithecanthropus Erectus,” and “Orange Was The Color Of Her Dress Then Blue Silk.” There’s one previously unheard composition, though, “Dizzy Profile,” which appears twice. It’s a waltzing ballad that provides an excellent showcase for the little-known Gardner, and Pullen’s solo displays real tenderness.

Stream “Dizzy Profile”:

Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings (International Anthem)

Drummer Makaya McCraven has a fascinating way of making albums. He books shows (in the case of 2015’s In The Moment, a month-long residency), records everything, then takes the audio and slices it up, creating edits and montages and loops that become entirely new compositions. For Universal Beings, he assembled bands in four different cities — New York, his hometown of Chicago, London, and Los Angeles — with only one person appearing in more than one place (cellist Tomeka Reid is heard in New York and Chicago). Other guests include guitarist Jeff Parker, UK saxophonists Shabaka Hutchings and Nubya Garcia, harpist Brandee Younger, and vibraphonist Joel Ross; virtually every member of every band gets a standout moment, but the collective sound is just as important.

Stream “Suite Haus (feat. Nubya Garcia)”:

Andrew Cyrille/Wadada Leo Smith/Bill Frisell, Lebroba (ECM)

Legendary free jazz drummer Andrew Cyrille has been having a renaissance in the last few years. He’s never stopped working, but he feels more present than ever: in fact, he’s going to receive a lifetime achievement award at next year’s Vision Festival. This album, a beautifully recorded trio performance featuring trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and guitarist Bill Frisell, is a sensitive, interactive suite of five pieces; all but one are in the five- to seven-minute range…and then there’s a 17-minute tribute to Alice Coltrane, written by Smith. The tone is set from the opening track, “Worried Woman.” It has a rubato ballad structure similar to Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” but Cyrille’s drumming is much more abstract and shimmering than Billy Higgins’ was on that 1959 recording. Frisell lays down throbbing blues chords, occasionally letting a deep rumble swell up from one of his pedals, and Smith takes the lead role, his full tone and precise command of high notes giving the music a searing energy.

Stream “Worried Woman”:

Maisha, There Is A Place (Brownswood)

Maisha is a seven-piece band led by drummer Jake Long and featuring Nubya Garcia on sax and flute, guitarist Shirley Tetteh, Amané Suganami on piano and Wurlitzer, Twm Dylan on bass, and Tim Doyle and Yahael Camara-Onono on percussion. Their music is spiritual jazz very much in the realm of Kamasi Washington or early ’70s Pharoah Sanders, and when they add a string quartet and a harp, the influence of Alice Coltrane becomes obvious as well. But they’ve got their own identity, as “Osiris,” the opening track from their full-length debut (following 2016’s Welcome To A New Welcome EP and a track on the We Out Here compilation), proves. Guest trumpeter Axel Kaner-Lindstrom goes head to head with Garcia as a taut front line, and Tetteh’s extended guitar solo is a blast of Grant Green-esque jazz-funk energy. In its final minutes, bursts of dubby echo give the music one last burst of juice, as the strings build to a thrilling crescendo.

Stream “Osiris”:

Marcus Strickland, People Of The Sun (Blue Note)

Saxophonist and clarinet player Marcus Strickland’s second album for Blue Note picks up where 2016’s Nihil Novi — produced by Meshell Ndegeocello — left off. It’s a journey through all sorts of sounds from across the African/American diaspora, from Afrobeat to funk, trap, and more. There’s very little straight bebop or post-bop here, but it’s also not a jazz/hip-hop fusion album. “Timing,” the first full track after a short intro that showcases percussionist Weedie Braimah, features Strickland on tenor, but he’s also shadowing himself on bass clarinet in the background. The rhythmic bed includes a shuffling Tony Allen-esque beat and multiple layers of keyboards that bring to mind the 1970s work of George Duke, with hints of fusion’s proggier side as well.

Stream “Timing”:

Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret, The Other Side Of Air (Firehouse 12)

Pianist Myra Melford’s quintet, Snowy Egret — featuring cornet player Ron Miles, guitarist Liberty Ellman, Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass guitar, and Tyshawn Sorey on drums — has been together since 2012; this is their second album. She’s a terrific, highly creative pianist. Her compositions come out of avant-garde jazz, but focus on beauty rather than dissonance or chaos. No matter how much they may seem to be falling apart, they always hang together. The core trio of Melford, Takeishi and Sorey are a solid three-headed beast at all times. The album’s longest track, “Living Music,” comes near the end but is clearly the climax. Two-thirds of the way through, after Miles and Ellman and Sorey have all had their say, the former two murmuring and conversing as the latter sets up a bouncing rhythm like a man attempting to jackhammer through six feet of hard rubber, Melford erupts in a piano solo that has the lyrical beauty of Cecil Taylor, but also matches Sorey’s explosive force with her own.

Stream “Living Music”:

Marquis Hill, Modern Flows Vol. 2 (Black Unlimited Music Group)

In January, I saw Chicago trumpeter Marquis Hill’s Blacktet play Winter Jazzfest. That band included Josh Johnson on alto sax and Joel Ross on vibraphone, both of whom are present here, but bassist Jeremiah Hunt and drummer Makaya McCraven have been replaced by Junius Paul and Jonathan Pinson, respectively. A whole string of poets, singers, and MCs pop up on various tracks here, but it’s the instrumental music that’s the most interesting part of the album. The compositions are quick and light on their feet; Pinson’s drumming is tight but busy, setting up rhythms so fast and constantly shifting, they sound like they owe as much to Jlin as to jazz. On “Twin Flame,” Ross and Paul lay down a shimmering dance floor for Hill and Johnson, who work through a complex but romantic melody before the saxophonist takes off in a frenzied bebop solo. Hill follows him, but stays a little closer to the ground. They take turns in the spotlight for a little longer, before coming back together, then stepping back to make room for Ross, and the way they harmonize behind him as he’s going wild is really something to hear.

Stream “Twin Flame”:

Eric Harland, 13th Floor (GSI)

I saw drummer Eric Harland’s band Voyager at the Jazz Standard not that long ago, mostly to check out saxophonist Walter Smith III, whose playing I’ve admired for a while but whom I had never seen live. He was fascinating to hear; he seemed to be thinking about every note, never relying on muscle memory or rehearsed phrases. This is one of three albums he plays on in this month’s column. The band also includes pianist Taylor Eigsti, bassist Harish Raghavan, and guitarists Julian Lage and Nir Felder on a few tracks, and their music is composed but organic; it never has the dry, rehearsed-to-death feel of a lot of brainy modern jazz. “Contrast” is an absolute burner, with Smith and Eigsti taking turns driving the energy level higher and higher before descending into a softer zone in the final 45 seconds.

Stream “Contrast”:

Satori, In The Corners Of Clouds (Whirlwind Recordings)

Satori is a trio led by saxophonist Josephine Davies, with bassist Dave Whitford and drummer James Maddren. This is their second album, and Maddren’s debut with the group. There’s no sense that they’re feeling each other out, though; his thoughtful, bottom-heavy drumming (he prefers toms to cymbals, which is a good thing) lines up perfectly with Whitford’s deep, booming bass. Somewhere between and in front of them, Davies plants her feet and digs deep. Her tunes and her solos have an introspective, mournful quality that reminds me of JD Allen, and of course that’s a style that stretches back to John Coltrane. “Cry” is particularly Coltrane-esque. It starts out with wails and cries, as Maddren rattles all over the kit, but about a third of the way in it slows down and becomes a heartfelt ballad like something off of Crescent. The bassist and drummer set up a slow, marching rhythm, and Davies’ solo matches both their intensity and their patience.

Stream “Cry”:

In Common, In Common (Whirlwind Recordings)

In Common is a supergroup of sorts featuring saxophonist Walter Smith III, guitarist Matthew Stevens, vibraphonist Joel Ross, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Marcus Gilmore. These guys have all known each other for years (Smith and Raghavan are in both Eric Harland’s and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s bands, for example), and they’ve put together relatively simple, straightforward compositions that allow each of their voices to come forth without any one player dominating the music. On “ACE,” Stevens’ ultra-minimal, rock-steady guitar work, over Gilmore and Raghavan’s slowly thwacking beat, allow Smith and Ross to take beautifully expressive solos and also respond to each other in an extremely empathetic and collaborative manner.

Stream “ACE”:

David S. Ware Trio, The Balance (Vision Fest XV+) (AUM Fidelity)

Saxophonist David S. Ware’s trio with bassist William Parker and drummer Warren Smith only made one album — 2009’s Onecept — but they’ve added to their catalog with a double live disc recorded at New York’s Blue Note club, and this album, which pairs a Vision Festival performance with four leftovers from the Onecept sessions. In the studio, Ware was experimenting with multiple horns and favoring the stritch (a straight alto saxophone), and on three of the four pieces, Smith switches from a drum kit to tympani and percussion, giving the music a heaviness and gravitas that Parker matches by switching to bow. But on the live tracks here, Ware’s back on tenor, and his sound is simply massive, a foghorn-like wave of notes held so long it’s almost impossible to believe mere human lungs could power such an effort. The disc kicks off with the three-part “Vision Suite 2010,” which is simply a stunning performance — it’s almost impossible to believe that Ware had undergone a kidney transplant only a year earlier, and was continuing to suffer complications that would ultimately take his life in 2012. He sounds ferocious.

Stream “Vision Suite 2010 – Part 1″:

Andrew Lamb Trio, Casbah Of Love (Birdwatcher)

Saxophonist Andrew Lamb has a big sound, descended from the spiritual/free jazz blowers of the 1960s, 1970s and beyond — the lineage that starts with Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders and continues through Charles Gayle, the late David S. Ware, and beyond. On this album, he’s joined by bassist Tom Abbs, with whom he’s been working for decades, and percussionist Ryan Jewell, who’s younger than his bandmates but brings creativity and energy to the music. This is very much a document of live, in-the-moment interaction; there are times when you can hear the players shuffling into place or preparing their equipment before a track begins. The music has a meditative quality, rarely erupting into full-on screaming. On “Intergalactic Parables,” Lamb plays tenor and alto at the same time (two mouthpieces in one mouth), creating weird harmonies as Abbs throbs steadily and Jewell scrapes and rattles his kit.

Stream “Intergalactic Parables”:

Bill Stewart, Band Menu (Independent/Self-Released)

Walter Smith III pops up for the third (and final, I swear) time in this column on drummer Bill Stewart’s latest album. In between the two men stands bassist Larry Grenadier, probably best known for his lengthy tenure in pianist Brad Mehldau’s trio. Stewart is a hard-hitting drummer who’s as happy setting up head-nodding beats as he is swinging tastefully, and that rhythmic power frees Grenadier to pump up his own energy level. His playing is forceful and even booming here, sometimes reminding me of Stephan Crump’s work in Vijay Iyer’s trio. On the upsettingly titled “Hair And Teeth,” Stewart slams the kit hard, keeping the midtempo groove locked down until he’s ready to construct a heavy, almost rocking solo, as Grenadier makes minor tweaks to a seriously hypnotic riff and Smith travels down a long one-way road with sharp-toned, jabbing phrases that are steeped in the Texas blues he grew up on, while remaining resolutely modern.

Stream “Hair And Teeth”:

Cowboys From Hell, Running Man (Double Moon)

A sax-bass-drums trio named after Pantera’s third-best album (after Power Metal and Reinventing The Steel)? You’ve got my attention. This Swiss group has been around since 2005, and this is their third album. The lineup includes saxophonist Christoph Irniger, bassist Marco Blöchlinger, and drummer Chrigel Bosshard. Both Irniger and Blöchlinger use a lot of pedals to distort their sound, until they sound more like an industrial synth trio than a jazz group. Ultimately, the music they make together is equal parts The Thing and Shining (the Norwegian industrial/free jazz/metal act, not the Swedish black metal shithead), with some skittering, dubby grooves thrown in. The album’s first track, “Brechstang” (translation: “crowbar”), gives a solid impression of what they do. The main melodic riff is complex and winding in a prog-rock sort of way, but when Blöchlinger and Bosshard have the floor to themselves, they lock in like Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, if that group was mistakenly hired to open for Ministry. There are shimmering, gentle moments too, but this is music with wall-cracking energy.

Stream “Brechstang”:

Don Byron/Aruán Ortiz, Random Dances And (A)Tonalities (Intakt)

Saxophonist and clarinet player Don Byron was everywhere between the early 1990s and mid-2000s; his avant-garde takes on early jazz styles on albums like Don Byron Plays The Music Of Mickey Katz and Bug Music (on which he performed tunes by famed cartoon composer Raymond Scott, among others) made him a cult figure, and he broke all kinds of genre boundaries, even popping up on Living Colour’s Time’s Up. He’s been off the scene in recent years, though, which is why this album, a set of duets with pianist Aruán Ortiz, is so exciting. The music is tricky, but they make it sound both easy and natural, weaving around each other in intricate patterns, coming together on the heads before taking meandering, introspective solo journeys. Some of it feels totally improvised, but they also dip into the traditional jazz repertoire at times, as on their version of Duke Ellington’s “Black And Tan Fantasy.” Byron wanders slowly wherever the music takes him, as Ortiz lays down chords like a bricklayer. Somehow, a slow dance rhythm emerges.

Stream “Black And Tan Fantasy”:

Reggie Washington, Vintage New Acoustic (Jammin’colorS)

Like most bassists, Reggie Washington doesn’t record as a leader very often. He’s assembled a tight, top-shelf band for his fifth album, though, including saxophonist Fabrice Alleman, keyboardist Bobby Sparks, and drummer E.J. Strickland (twin brother of Marcus). While he plays a lot of acoustic bass here, he also dives into a funk/fusion zone reminiscent of Stanley Clarke’s 1970s work. The first full-length track on the record, after a short intro, is a version of Wayne Shorter’s “Fall” that treats the melody gently and respectfully, but the groove is taut and bouncy, and Sparks’ synth solo is absolutely wild. “Fall” was originally recorded on Miles Davis’s 1967 album Nefertiti, but Alleman’s soprano playing on this extremely funky track almost makes it sound like something from a late ’80s Miles album like Tutu or Amandla. And that’s a good thing.

Stream “Fall”: