Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – January 2019

It’s goddamn January and jazz artists are trying to smother me already. I got sent two 12-CD sets this month.

The first, Anthony Braxton’s GTM (Syntax) 2017, is one of those things that’s gonna be a hard slog even for existing fans. It’s a collection of a dozen hour-long works — so yes, each disc is a single track — featuring a group of 12 vocalists, and no instrumentalists. The pieces are virtuosic displays of compositional, organizational, and vocal talent; the singers do all sorts of things, from chanting sequences of numbers to reciting strings of seemingly disconnected words chosen strictly for their phonic beauty to cooing and whooping along. It’s theatrical, avant-garde in the best way, and even fun at times, but it’s also a lot, and probably best experienced (Braxton prefers the term “friendly experiencer” to “listener,” and I like that idea — he’s composing with the confidence that you’re checking his stuff out by choice, and nobody’s making you) one disc/work/hour at a time over a period of several days, or however long it takes you to hear them all. It’s not homework; it’s art.

The second 12-disc set I’ve been dipping into this month is just as ambitious, if slightly less intimidating at first glance. Drummer Mark Lomax II’s 400: An Afrikan Epic is “only” about eight hours long in total; it’s a collection of meditations on the African diaspora and the slave trade. Each disc (note: this is a digital-only set) is different. One features nothing but drums and percussion, cycling through complex polyrhythmic conversations for 35 minutes. Another features a pair of half-hour saxophone-drums duos, very much in a free jazz vein. Others feature his jazz quartet, which operates in a spiritually charged, exhortatory, Coltrane-meets-gospel style. Still others add strings. Lomax is an ambitious composer, and a heavy-duty drummer, and his collaborators are uniformly excellent. This is a collection I’m gonna be dipping into all year long, I think.

The AACM suffered two major losses this month. Saxophonist Joseph Jarman, formerly of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and drummer Alvin Fielder both died in early January.

Fielder performed on Roscoe Mitchell’s 1966 album Sound, one of the earliest AACM releases, but left Chicago in 1971 to move to Mississippi and run his family’s business. He didn’t re-emerge as a musician until the late ’80s, and developed particularly strong creative relationships with saxophonist Kidd Jordan and multi-instrumentalist Joel Futterman.

Jarman was a saxophonist and poet who gave the Art Ensemble’s performances a strong edge of theatricality and political engagement — he frequently recited poetry or sang during their concerts and on their albums. His playing was fierce, a perfect counterpoint to Roscoe Mitchell’s more acerbic, abstract meditations and Lester Bowie’s exuberant trumpet. He was ordained a Buddhist priest in 1990, and left the Ensemble in 1993 to run a dojo and an aikido studio in Brooklyn. In the early 2000s, he returned to the Art Ensemble and performed with them for a few more years. I got to see him with them twice: playing in 2005 (check out the live album Non-Cognitive Aspects Of The City, recorded at the same string of shows I attended), and in October 2017, when he made a special appearance, reading a poem and singing. He also gave the opening invocation at the beginning of every one of the first 11 Vision Festivals.

Drummer Kassa Overall is kicking off a residency at the Jazz Gallery; once a month between now and June, he’ll play with a different pianist, with each set recorded for an eventual…something. January’s duo partner was Jason Moran, but it turned out to be a trio set, because bassist Evan Flory-Barnes was added to the lineup. They played a surprisingly long set — almost 90 minutes — that included music by Ravel and pianist Geri Allen, and also featured some sound manipulation from the board, in the manner of a live dub mix. Overall’s style behind the kit is swinging, but blocky; at the Jazz Gallery, he seemed happier locking into a hip-hop groove with Flory-Barnes than swinging, and his drum solos had a thick, muscular aggression, including barrages of tom and snare. Overall is even more multifaceted than that performance suggested, though; he recently released an album, Go Get Ice Cream And Listen To Jazz, that features folks like the late trumpeter Roy Hargrove, guitarist/singer Arto Lindsay, trumpeter Theo Croker, and others. The music is very beat-driven electronic jazz, informed by hip-hop and abstract R&B of the head-nodding post-Soulquarian school. Well worth hearing, if that’s your thing.

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

Archival Release Of The Month

Eric Dolphy, Musical Prophet (Resonance)

This three-CD set, released on vinyl last year for Record Store Day, combines two previously released albums—Conversations and Iron Man—with close to 90 minutes of previously unreleased material, all of it coming from a single set of 1963 recording sessions. The band includes trumpeter Woody Shaw (making his first studio date), saxophonist Clifford Jordan, flautist Prince Lasha, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, bassist Richard Davis, and drummer J.C. Moses, among others, but there are pieces performed by Dolphy alone and duets between him and Davis, and you get multiple takes of each of those, allowing you to get a deep understanding of his musical language, which was one of the most personal and human-sounding ever. He and Ornette Coleman are the two players best able to convey the cry of the blues through saxophone or clarinet, and that mournful, introspective quality is on incredible display throughout this set.

Stream “Mandrake (Alt. Take)”:

Various Artists, A Day In The Life: Impressions Of Pepper (Verve)

I hate the Beatles. I’ve hated them since I was a child. I don’t like their songs, and their cultural omnipresence, fifty years after their breakup, fills me with rage. So imagine what it would take to get me to listen to an album of jazz interpretations of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and admit that it’s actually really good. The first smart move the compilers here made was to not include any vocalists. These are all instrumental pieces, made by ferociously talented, adventurous musicians including guitarist Mary Halvorson, harpist Brandee Younger, drummer Makaya McCraven, keyboardist Cameron Graves, trumpeter Keyon Harrold, Shabaka and the Ancestors, and more. The latter group’s version of “Good Morning Good Morning” is a dense, dubby jungle of saxophones crying like lost elephants amid layer upon layer of rumbling percussion.

Stream “Good Morning Good Morning”:

Angel Bat Dawid, The Oracle (International Anthem)

Angel Bat Dawid’s music is like nothing I’ve heard before — not just because of the sounds she makes, but how she makes them. She’s a multi-instrumentalist who mostly plays clarinet and keyboards, but she also sings and handles percussion. She played every instrument on The Oracle, layering them one at a time…and recording all of it on her phone, wherever she happened to be. But it doesn’t sound like a collection of demos or field recordings; it sounds like a fully realized, totally cohesive album that falls somewhere between Alice Coltrane and Portishead. “Impepho” is one of the more abstract, jazzier instrumental pieces. She layers multiple squawking and keening clarinet tracks over a swirling bed of keyboards and clattering percussion like a mellower version of Miles Davis’s “Rated X.”

Stream “Impepho”:

Dezron Douglas, Black Lion (Independent/Self-Released)

Bassist Dezron Douglas has been a first-call player on the New York scene for years, playing in straightahead hard bop contexts as well as more adventurous, forward-looking groups. He appeared most recently on Makaya McCraven’s Universal Beings, which was Stereogum’s #1 jazz album of 2018. This six-track digital-only EP, which features saxophonist Stacy Dillard, trumpeter Josh Evans, and drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons, among others, runs the gamut from bluesy hard bop to reggae to lush ballads. The opening “Soulris” is a spiritual jazz-funk track with emotional power and spiky interplay among the horns, with piano and organ giving it a powerful foundation.

Stream “Soulris”:

Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom, Glitter Wolf (RPF)

Drummer Allison Miller’s band Boom Tic Boom makes weird, arty party music. The group features violinist Jenny Scheinman, cornet player Kirk Knuffke, clarinet player Ben Goldberg, pianist Myra Melford, and bassist Todd Sickafoose. The compositions on their latest album bounce and lurch, with parts fitting together in off-kilter combinations that conjure images of one of those giant factories in a video game, where you have to duck and dive around things that are forever on the brink of smashing you flat. The album’s opening track, “Congratulations And Condolences,” lays a folkish melody over hard, pumping piano chords and a drone from Melford (who has a deep interest in Indian music, and also plays harmonium), and Miller’s slamming backbeat. Goldberg’s clarinet solo tootles and bubbles, leading into a high-flying statement from Knuffke.

Stream “Congratulations And Condolences”:

Rosie Turton, Rosie’s 5ive (Jazz Re:freshed)

Trombonist Rosie Turton, also a member of the sextet Nerija, steps out as a leader on this EP, which features violinist Johanna Burnheart, Maria Chara Argirò on piano and Wurlitzer, Twm Dylan on bass, and Jake Long on drums. That combination of instruments takes things out of the realm of hard bop or jazz-funk and allows the group to explore drone and minimalism, which they do a little on “The Purge,” Burnheart’s violin heading out into almost ecstatic zones as Argirò’s piano sets up a powerful pulse and Long’s drums are half swing and half march. Turton herself has a full tone on her horn, and her lines pop and bubble, rarely sliding or smearing. With violin and Wurlitzer to contend with, she opts for crisp articulation, a welcome contrast.

Stream “The Purge”:

Heroes Are Gang Leaders, The Amiri Baraka Sessions (Flat Langston’s Arkeyes)

Heroes Are Gang Leaders is a collaborative project co-led by saxophonist James Brandon Lewis (whose killer new album will be discussed in next month’s column) and poet Thomas Sayers Ellis. Their previous albums have paid tribute to black writers like Gwendolyn Brooks and James Baldwin; as its title indicates, this one grapples with the legacy of Amiri Baraka, a legendary poet, essayist, and deeply insightful jazz critic. The music is mostly played by a small group, with multiple vocalists reciting, singing, or commenting on Baraka’s work. Lewis’s solos are gruff, but emotional. The music is a mix of free jazz, soul and gospel, with an exhortatory power that matches the words. If you like Burnt Sugar, Archie Shepp, or Fire! Orchestra, you’ll like this.

Stream “Sad Dictator”:

Jamie Saft/Steve Swallow/Bobby Previte, You Don’t Know The Life (RareNoise)

This is keyboardist Jamie Saft’s third album with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bobby Previte. On the first two, he stuck to piano; here, though, he switches to electric keyboards, playing Hammond and Whitehall organs and a Baldwin electric harpsichord, which sounds about as wild as you’d guess. Swallow is on electric bass, too, and this often feels like more of a blues or even a classic rock album than a jazz album. This is a really interesting album that blurs the lines between organ jazz, psychedelia, and just plain weirdness, but it’s also sensitively and beautifully played. The title track feels like something by the Moody Blues or Procol Harum — no surprise, since it’s by the Moving Sidewalks, guitarist Billy Gibbons’ late ’60s pre-ZZ Top band.

Stream “You Don’t Know The Life”:

Sam Harris, Harmony (Independent/Self-Released)

Don’t hate Sam Harris because he shares a name with a douchebag podcast “philosopher.” This one is a talented, adventurous pianist who’s worked with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and drummer Rudy Royston, among others. On this trio release, he’s backed by bassist Martin Nevin and drummer Craig Weinrib, but the nature of the music means they’re barely present for much of its half-hour running time. It begins with soft, minimal chords that are gradually overtaken by flourishes like the ice on a frozen lake’s surface cracking beneath your feet. Later, the music moves into a lyrical zone that may remind you of Keith Jarrett, but there’s a lot of other stuff going on here, too — really heavy blues combined with almost free jazz journeys out.

Stream “I”:

Lucas Gillan’s Many Blessings, Chit-Chatting With Herbie (Jeru Jazz)

Pianist Herbie Nichols was a relatively obscure 1950s player who recorded a couple of albums for Blue Note and Bethlehem in the 1950s, and died of leukemia in 1963. While his music wasn’t that popular, his fellow jazz musicians loved his work and tributes to him have popped up here and there over the decades. Drummer Lucas Gillan has recorded a new one with trumpeter Quentin Coaxum, tenor saxophonist Jim Schram, and bassist Daniel Thatcher. It’s a re-recording, track by track, of 1956’s Herbie Nichols Trio, but with two horns instead of a piano. This gives the music a lurching, bluesy feel with lots of melodic twists and turns. “Wildflower” starts out like a ballad but quickly becomes a strutting dance number, with Gillan smacking the drums as the horns coil around each other like mating snakes.

Stream “Wildflower”:

The Way Ahead, Bells, Ghosts And Other Saints (Clean Feed)

This septet is a kind of Norwegian free jazz supergroup: the lineup includes André Roligheten on tenor sax and clarinet; Kristoffer Alberts on alto and baritone saxes; Niklas Barnö on trumpet; Mats Äleklint on trombone; Mattias Ståhl on vibraphone; Ola Høyer on bass; and Tollef Østvang on drums. Among them, they’re members of groups like Angles, Cortex, Friends and Neighbors, and the Fire! Orchestra. On this record, they’re not so much showing a way ahead as journeying into the past, as the music is very much derived from and indebted to 1960s out jazz. The blaring horns at times nod to Albert Ayler, but the presence of the vibraphone adds the atmosphere of mid ’60s Blue Note albums featuring Bobby Hutcherson.

Stream “Headway Heat”:

Something Blue, Maximum Enjoyment (Posi-Tone)

Posi-Tone Records co-owner Marc Free produced this session by teaming up three newish members of the label’s roster (alto saxophonist Alexa Tarantino, tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon, and trombonist Nick Finzer) with rhythm players who’ve been around for a while: pianist Art Hirahara, bassist Boris Kozlov, and drummer Rudy Royston. The music is bluesy hard bop, with tight, swinging arrangements of some new pieces and some old ones from other Posi-Tone albums. The record it reminds me of most, though, is Oliver Nelson’s The Blues And The Abstract Truth, from 1961, especially on a piece like “Overcooked,” where the lush three-way horn interplay is balanced by a high-energy, bouncing rhythm section.

Stream “Overcooked”:

Jasper Blom, Polyphony (Whirlwind Recordings)

Tenor saxophonist Jasper Blom and his quartet (guitarist Jesse van Ruller, bassist Frans van der Hoeven, and drummer Martijn Vink) are joined by two guests, one one each disc of this double live album. For the first set, trumpeter Bert Joris steps up, and for the second, it’s trombonist Nils Wogram’s turn. The quartet has been together since 2006, so their language is well established and their rapport with each other is tight, but Joris fits right in, harmonizing seamlessly with Blom and taking solos that honor the group’s existing methodology without trying to drag them in a strange new direction. Wogram is a slightly noisier and wilder player, and with him around, the music becomes slightly more abstract and high-energy, but all of this material is worth hearing.

Stream “Decidophobia”:

Erik Jekabson, Erik Jekabson Sextet (Wide Hive)

Trumpeter Erik Jekabson is one of a pool of players working with Wide Hive label owner Greg Howe. In addition to work under his own name, he’s been part of the punk-skronk Throttle Elevator Music project alongside Kamasi Washington, and Counterweight. This is his second album with a sextet that includes saxophonist Dave Ellis of the Charlie Hunter Trio, guitarist Dave MacNab, bassist John Wiitala, drummer Hamir Atwal (who’s worked with tUnE-yArDs), and percussionist John Santos. It’s much mellower and more beautiful than those other groups’ work. “Floating Song” lives up to its title; Atwal’s rhythm is a steady tick with occasional washes of cymbal, and Jekabson and Ellis sing together in slow harmony as MacNab fills in soft, tingling chords in the background.

Stream “Floating Song”:

Muriel Grossman, Golden Rule (Dreamlandrecords)

Muriel Grossman is a tenor and soprano saxophonist from Austria, who’s released ten independent albums, including this one, since 2007, all but one in partnership with Serbian guitarist Radomir Milojkovic. On this album, the pair are joined by bassist Gina Schwarz and drummer Uros Stamenkovic, both of whom also appeared on her 2016 and 2017 albums Natural Time and Momentum. The music is spiritual jazz in a Coltrane-ish mode, with some additional exotic elements. “Promise” features Grossman on tenor, and what sounds like a melodica doing soft Indian-derived things in the background, as Stamenkovic dances along the edges of his cymbals and Milojkovic and Schwarz bounce and ripple, creating an ever-flowing stream for her to float on.

Stream “Promise”:

Karl Strømme Quintet, Dynalyd (Riverboat)

Norwegian trumpeter Karl Strømme leads a new group on his latest album. Saxophonist Hallvard Godal has been by his side for close to twenty years in various bands, but the other members—guitarist Per-Arne Ferner, bassist Trygve Waldemar Fiske (from saxophonist Hanna Paulsberg’s band), and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen—are all working together here for the first time. Strømme’s tone is ridiculously strong and clear; he sounds more like a classical player than a jazz guy a lot of the time, and his lines unfurl like a banner in slow motion. At times, he doubles on synth, giving the music a slightly cloudy, shimmering aspect. On “Huk,” the band hangs back for the first half of the piece, before slowly assembling behind him for a softly swinging conversation.

Stream “Huk”: