Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – December 2018
This month’s column is a little different than the ones before it. Since December is a pretty thin time for new releases, I’ve decided to talk about ten albums that almost made my Best Jazz Of 2018 list, and five (actually six) of the best reissues or archival releases of the year. But first, a few other things of interest.
This year’s Grammy nominations, which came out on December 7, are pretty interesting, from a jazz perspective. First of all, three albums that I would definitely file under jazz — trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s The Emancipation Procrastination, drummer Steve Gadd’s Steve Gadd Band, and guitarist Julian Lage’s Modern Lore — are nominated for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album. The other two nominees in the category are bassist Marcus Miller’s Laid Black, which is a jazz-funk fusion effort, and drummer Simon Phillips’ Protocol 4, which is another fusion disc with a little more rock to it. The self-titled debut by Chris Dave and the Drumhedz, which came out on Blue Note, is nominated for Best Urban Contemporary Album, indicating that the lines between jazz, funk, R&B and hip-hop are blurring again.
The nominations for Best Improvised Jazz Solo are a mixed bag: violinist Regina Carter, for a track from vocalist Karrin Allyson’s Some Of That Sunshine; trumpeter John Daversa, from his big band album American Dreamers: Voices Of Hope, Music Of Freedom; pianist Fred Hersch, from his album Live In Europe; pianist Brad Mehldau, from his album Seymour Reads The Constitution!; and saxophonist Miguel Zenón, from his album Yo Soy La Tradición. I’ve never understood the idea of giving someone a Grammy for a single solo, especially since a good solo arises naturally out of the song itself. So why not rename this category Best Jazz Performance, and honor the whole track? Oh, well.
I don’t listen to jazz vocalists very often, so I’m gonna take the Grammy folks’ word for it that Freddy Cole’s My Mood Is You, Kurt Elling’s The Questions, Kate McGarry’s The Subject Tonight Is Love, Raul Midón’s If You Really Want, and Cécile McLorin Salvant’s The Window are good albums. They’re all nominated for Best Vocal Jazz Album. (I did like Salvant’s last album, Dreams And Daggers, a lot, and it won the Grammy in this category earlier this year.)
The nominees for Best Latin Jazz Album are Eddie Daniels’ Heart Of Brazil; Dafnis Prieto’s Back To The Sunset; Bobby Sanabria’s West Side Story Reimagined; Elio Villafranca’s Cinque; and Miguel Zenón’s Yo Soy La Tradición. The only one of those I’ve heard is the Prieto; it’s really good. The nominees for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album include the Count Basie Orchestra’s All About That Basie; John Daversa’s American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music Of Freedom; Orrin Evans’ Presence, which I wrote about in this column; John Hollenbeck’s All Can Work; and Jim McNeely’s Barefoot Dances And Other Visions.
The big category — Best Jazz Instrumental Album — includes three albums I’ve heard and like a lot (two of them are discussed below, in fact), and two others I haven’t heard at all. The nominees are saxophonist Tia Fuller’s Diamond Cut; Fred Hersch’s Live In Europe; Brad Mehldau’s Seymour Reads The Constitution!; Joshua Redman’s Still Dreaming; and Wayne Shorter’s Emanon. I would be happy to see Redman or Shorter win, and I would be stunned — in a good way — to see Tia Fuller take it. She’s an under-recognized player, better known for her tenure in Beyoncé’s all-female touring band than for her own work as a leader, and Diamond Cut features some absolutely killer musicians, including bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette on roughly half its tracks.
Last year was the 100th anniversary of Thelonious Monk’s birth, so naturally a lot of musicians grappled with his work. Two releases this year offered renditions of all 70 of his compositions. (A third, by pianist Jed Distler, will be along in 2019.) The first was by Miles Okazaki, who rearranged them for solo guitar and recorded them at home in Brooklyn; there’s room and street sound in the background, and the album — called Work — sounds like he’s sitting in front of you playing the music. It’s a performance, but also oddly intimate, like he’s taken these tunes deep inside himself and absorbed not only the sequences of notes and the rhythm, but also the emotional content. When you hear these tunes on unaccompanied guitar, you can really hear the blues in them. It appears to be a digital-only release for now, but it’s divided into six “albums.”
The second complete-Monk release of 2018 is a six-CD box by pianist Frank Kimbrough, accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson, bassist Rufus Reid, and drummer Billy Drummond. It’s a more straightforward treatment of the catalog, but this was the way Monk himself recorded most of his compositions — as a quartet, usually with a saxophonist. And it’s not that straightforward. Though Robinson plays tenor sax here, he also plays bass sax, trumpet, echo cornet, bass clarinet, and contrabass sarrusophone, whatever that is, and his solos get pretty fractured and wild. Also, the group subdivides a lot; “Blue Sphere” is a sax-drums duo, while “Reflections” is a duet for bass and bass sax, “Crepuscule With Nellie” is a solo piano piece…you get the idea. I like both these releases, but I know I’m gonna come back to the Kimbrough more often.
Finally, a piece of sad news: New York’s Cornelia Street Café is closing at the end of the year, after over four decades in the same location. It was a great little place to see interesting performers from across the jazz spectrum, and the restaurant upstairs was pretty good, too. Back in 2006, I interviewed saxophonist Noah Howard there for a feature in The Wire, and I saw plenty of shows there over the years. I’m gonna miss the place.
And now, here are the albums!
The Bad Plus, Never Stop II (Legbreaker)
The thirteenth album by this long-running piano trio marked a major change: pianist Ethan Iverson, who’d gradually become a more prominent figure than his bandmates, writing a highly regarded blog and doing the lion’s share of interviews, left the group. He was replaced by Orrin Evans, whose music as a leader is very different from Iverson’s or the Bad Plus’s, but he fits right in. As I said in February’s column, “Evans is a Philly player who’s got a lyrical flow, but he packs a lot of muscle into his melodic statements, which makes him a good match for Dave King, whose drumming is some of the heaviest in contemporary jazz. In between the two sits Reid Anderson, the most classically trained member of the trio but also someone with a bone-deep knowledge of jazz and a bouncy, swinging style. These tunes have a lot of whomp, but there’s a lot of subtle beauty here, too, and the overall sound of the trio is fantastic — the piano rings out, the bass is a thick boom, and the drums never quite dominate, no matter how hard King hits.”
Stream “Hurricane Birds”:
Amaro Freitas, Rasif (Far Out)
Brazilian pianist Amaro Freitas’s second album is a startlingly unique version of a piano trio disc. His compositions are built out of little melodic cells arranged into intricate patterns, like Nik Bärtsch (but less trance-like) or Matthew Shipp (but less clanging and aggressive). Bassist and drummer Jean Elton and Hugo Medeiros combine heavy swing with the blasting rhythms of northern Brazil. On the opening track, “Dona Eni,” Medeiros plays a version of the militaristic parade-ground rhythm known as maracatu; this is something that’s played by as many as 100 drummers in unison, and he comes damn close to that same level of power, all by himself. On the album’s final two tracks, “Plenilúnio” and “Afrocatu,” Henrique Albino guests on flutes, clarinet, and baritone sax, overdubbing himself into a horn section. This is not samba-jazz; this is something much more interesting.
Stream “Dona Eni”:
Art Hirahara, Sunward Bound (Posi-Tone)
This is Japanese-American pianist Art Hirahara’s second album in a row featuring saxophonist Donny McCaslin, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer Rudy Royston. Their sound combines hard bop with Japanese music — they reinterpret a 1927 children’s song, “Akatombo,” and a 1952 pop hit, “Ringo Oiwake” — and becomes something all their own. Even the slower, more meditative material on this album has a twitchy energy that’s that much stronger in the uptempo pieces like “Brooklyn Express.” McCaslin’s playing is more classically hard bop here than on his own work; Hirahara’s piano playing ripples with energy; Oh’s bass bounces hard; and Royston’s just one of the most aggressive, hard-swinging drummers alive, with an almost intimidatingly fierce snare attack and unexpected small cymbal hits.
Stream “Brooklyn Express”:
Joshua Redman/Ron Miles/Scott Colley/Brian Blade, Still Dreaming (Nonesuch)
This album, which I discovered late in the year (it came out in May) is kind of a tribute to a tribute. Here’s the story: In the late 1970s, four musicians who’d played with Ornette Coleman — Redman’s father Dewey, cornet player Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ed Blackwell — formed a group called Old And New Dreams to play Ornette’s music. Now Ornette’s gone, as are all the members of Old And New Dreams, but Joshua Redman is paying tribute to them with this new group. All the music was written by Redman or bassist Scott Colley, except for versions of Haden’s “Playing” and Coleman’s “Comme Il Faut,” but it has a leaping, bluesy energy and the melodic and harmonic freedom that comes straight from Ornette. It’s really something.
Stream “New Year”:
Logan Richardson, Blues People (Ropeadope)
Alto saxophonist Logan Richardson’s fourth album as a leader came as a big surprise. His last release, Shift, featured a band of heavy hitters, including guitarist Pat Metheny and pianist Jason Moran. This time around, he’s formed a group with mostly unknown players: guitarists Justus West and Igor Osypov, bassist DeAndre Manning, and drummer Ryan Lee. The music they create together nods in the direction of the blues, but there are elements of hard rock and dub here, too, and Richardson’s saxophone has a heartfelt cry. At times, he doesn’t even play himself — he just lets the band tear it up. This album reminds me of the work of Harriet Tubman, Burnt Sugar, and other acts that draw from the complete panorama of black music: rock, funk, dub, hip-hop, and everything in between.
Stream “Hunter Of Soul”:
Javier Santiago, Phoenix (Ropeadope)
Minneapolis-based keyboardist (and occasional trumpeter) Javier Santiago made his full-length debut this year, with an excellent band that included saxophonists Dayna Stephens and Ben Flocks, guitarist Nir Felder, bassist Zach Brown, and drummer Corey Fonville. Trumpeter Nicholas Payton showed up on one track, and flugelhornist John Raymond guested on another. This is an album with elements of funk and R&B, but it’s jazz before anything else. The melodies remind me a little bit of Kamasi Washington’s, recurring here and there to provide an anchor or a home base before each player wanders off on his own journey. Santiago’s keyboard lines overlap and harmonize, becoming a kind of mist that still manages to give everything shape, and Fonville’s drums (augmented by programmed beats) have a sharp clack that occasionally explodes into a distorted boom.
Stream “Tomorrow (feat. John Raymond)”:
Wayne Shorter, Emanon (Blue Note)
Wayne Shorter’s Emanon is a three-CD set (one studio, two live) that could easily be a two-CD set — not because any of it’s disposable, but because the live material only adds up to 76 minutes. It also comes packaged with a science fiction graphic novel he wrote, which…sure, fine. The music is what’s really important, and the music is astonishing. He uses the band he’s been working with since 2001: Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and Brian Blade on drums, and then adds a 34-piece orchestra for the studio recordings. The music surges and swells, trills and erupts; at times, it brings to mind Miles Davis’s Sketches Of Spain, but it’s got an explosive life force all its own. Three of the pieces from the studio disc are also presented on the live discs, and in two cases they expand to twice their original length. Shorter’s quartet is one of the most telepathic units in jazz; they move as one, while allowing each member to go as far out as he wants. This is a physical-only release, but here’s a video of the band and an orchestra performing “The Three Marias” (first recorded on his 1985 album Atlantis) at the Umbria Jazz Festival.
Watch “The Three Marias”:
Thumbscrew, Ours/Theirs (Cuneiform)
Thumbscrew is the trio of guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. They released two albums simultaneously this year. Ours is a collection of new compositions, while Theirs is a set of covers. Whether they’re playing their own tunes or others’, though, the strength of their own personalities (individual and collective) comes through. Formanek’s bass sound is absolutely massive, like he carved the instrument out of one of those redwood trees you can drive through; Halvorson, on the other hand, frequently does something to her guitar to make it sound like it’s coming from underwater, or being beamed down from orbit, and Fujiwara’s drums have a martial crispness. There’s a certain element of simultaneity (as opposed to togetherness) to the music — which makes Formanek’s count-off at the beginning of “East Of The Sun” weirdly hilarious — but when they do lock in, they create a totally unique blend of jazz, twanging post-rock, and high-energy improvisation.
Stream “East Of The Sun”:
Salim Washington, Dogon Revisited (Passin’ Thru)
Saxophonist Salim Washington is backed by bassist Hilliard Greene and drummer Tyshawn Sorey on this album, which has a crying, questing feel reminiscent of 1970s loft jazz, while still existing in the present day. This is spiritual jazz with a powerful, swinging bottom end, and Sorey is all over the kit, chopping the rhythm into tiny cubes, scooping them up and scattering them across the floor. As its title should indicate, the album includes a version of Julius Hemphill’s legendary, hypnotic “Dogon A.D.” with a guest appearance from viola player Melanie Dyer. After individual solos, she and Washington embark on complex unison interactions, as Sorey chops up the minimalist, thumping beat of the original, turning it into a kind of shuffling zombie march. This is a passionate and meditative album that will wind its way deep into your soul.
Stream “Dogon AD”:
Gabriel Zucker, Weighting (ESP-Disk’)
Pianist Gabriel Zucker’s debut album also features Tyshawn Sorey on drums, along with trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and saxophonist Eric Trudell. There’s no bassist; the fifth member of the ensemble is the room, because Weighting features absolutely masterful use of mic placement and reverb, and even post-production. Listen to this album on headphones at least once. O’Farrill and Trudel play together at least as often as they solo, but they’re frequently swallowed up by reverb and echo, as though they got lost on the way to the microphone. Sorey’s playing a lot, on a kit that sounds like it’s made out of wooden buckets and barrels, and he’s kept in the background to prevent him from totally drowning everyone else out. Zucker’s approach to the keyboard reminds me of free jazz’s most aggressive players, like Dave Burrell, but a lot of this music is extremely gentle and beautiful, too.
Stream “The Uselessness Of Truth/Not To Be Anything More”:
REISSUES/ARCHIVAL RELEASES OF THE YEAR
Anthony Braxton, Sextet (Parker) 1993 (New Braxton House)
One of the biggest boxes of the year is this radical expansion of what was once a double album into a limited edition 11-CD set. In addition to Braxton on an array of reeds, the band includes Ari Brown on tenor and soprano saxophones, Paul Smoker on trumpet and flugelhorn, the late Misha Mengelberg on piano, Joe Fonda on bass, and either Pheeroan akLaff or Han Bennink on drums. Just as the band combines Americans and Europeans, the music is a mix of bebop tradition with avant-garde exploration. Some tracks are under two minutes long, while others sprawl out for more than half an hour; some pieces are performed as many as six times, while others get only a single run-through. And believe it or not, it pays to listen to the whole thing in order, because it’s not just a chronological presentation of the music as it was recorded in October 1993; it’s been very carefully sequenced by Braxton (except for Disc Seven, the one with Bennink on drums). It’s an epic journey, but one very much worth taking.
Dave Douglas Quintet, Brazen Heart Live At Jazz Standard (Greenleaf)
This is an eight-CD live box documenting four nights of performances from November 2015 by an amazing band. Trumpeter Dave Douglas, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer Rudy Royston made three albums together between 2012 and 2015: Be Still, Time Travel, and Brazen Heart. When the latter came out, Douglas booked a week at the Jazz Standard in New York, and recorded every show. Hearing them go through these tunes for two shows a night, four nights in a row, is the kind of experience a listener doesn’t get that often; there’s plenty of variation in the set lists from night to night, and the pieces are frequently stretched to twice the length of the studio versions, and beyond. If you’re a fan of any of these superb players, this is a must-hear.
Stream “Hawaiian Punch”:
Milford Graves, Bäbi (Corbett vs. Dempsey)
Drummer Milford Graves’ Bäbi (pronounced “Baby,” I guess?) is one of the all-time free jazz Holy Grails. Released in 1976 on his own label, original vinyl copies will set you back triple digits. So when Corbett Vs. Dempsey reissued it this year, as a two-CD set paired with a whole previously unreleased session from 1969, it quickly became one of the year’s must-own items. The group, on both discs, features Arthur Doyle and Hugh Glover on reeds, and Graves on drums, and that’s it. It’s some of the most high-energy, mind-blasting free jazz you’ll ever hear; the drummer sometimes abandons his kit in favor of an almost pre-lingual howling and wailing.
Stream the album:
Wes Montgomery, In Paris: The Definitive ORTF Recording (Resonance)
Jazz guitar legend Wes Montgomery hated to fly. As a consequence, he only toured Europe once in his career, in 1965. He had an amazing band that included Harold Mabern on piano, Arthur Harper on bass and Jimmy Lovelace on drums, and saxophonist Johnny Griffin showed up to perform on several tunes. This is a concert that’s been widely bootlegged over the years, but Resonance got hold of the original master tapes, recorded by the French radio organization ORTF, and the music simply sounds incredible.
Various Artists, J-Jazz – Deep Modern Jazz From Japan 1969-1984 (BBE)/Various Artists, Spiritual Jazz Vol. 8: Japan (Jazzman)
Japan is well known as a haven for jazz collectors, and a great place for American jazz artists to tour, but the country’s own artists are relatively obscure. These compilations (Spiritual Jazz comes as two double LPs, sold separately, or a single two-CD set) pull tracks by performers you’ve probably never heard of — I certainly hadn’t — from albums that originally appeared on tiny labels and now sell for exorbitant sums. The music covers a broad spectrum; a lot of it sounds very influenced by John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner, incorporating modal structures and allowing for extended but disciplined soloing. There are also some elements of traditional Japanese music inserted here and there, and some fusion excursions — basically, these players were every bit as inspired and creative as their Western counterparts, and this music is frequently amazing.
Stream Tohru Aizawa’s “Dead Letter”:
Stream New Direction For The Arts’ “Sun In The East”: