Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – February 2019

Theon Cross

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – February 2019

Theon Cross

Hey, remember the Grammy Awards? Lady Gaga, Cardi B, Kacey Musgraves, all that stuff? I didn’t watch — hell, I haven’t even heard any of the songs or albums that won — but lots of other people did, and that’s fine. Anyway, a bunch of jazz artists won awards that night, too, and some of them were pretty great.

Wayne Shorter won Best Jazz Instrumental Album for his triple CD-and-comic book set Emanon. Even better, a few days before the awards were given out, the album was finally made available on streaming services. It’s really good, and deserves to be heard by people who can’t afford to drop $55 (or more) on it.

Trumpeter Terence Blanchard won Best Instrumental Composition for “Blut Und Boden (Blood and Soil),” from the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. The score was recorded by Blanchard’s band the E-Collective, with electric guitarist Charles Altura the primary voice, the leader on electric piano and trumpet, and a 96-piece orchestra backing them up. Check the track out; it’s great:

Drummer Steve Gadd won Best Contemporary Instrumental Album for Steve Gadd Band. I have to be honest; it’s hard for me to understand why this music isn’t jazz. Gadd is one of the chopsiest motherfuckers to ever sit behind a kit, and this record has groove, swing, complex musical interactions, and some sweet solos. Does some of it sound like 1970s sitcom music? Sure, but the Barney Miller theme was some hip shit, too.

The John Daversa Big Band’s American Dreamers: Voices Of Hope, Music Of Freedom, an album which featured DACA artists joining the ensemble, won two awards, Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album and Best Improvised Jazz Solo. I bet you can guess why. Thanks, Trump. (Seriously, it’s fine, but I would much rather have seen the big band award go to Orrin Evans’s Presence.) Singer Cécile Mclorin Salvant won Best Jazz Vocal Album for The Window; I don’t like jazz vocals, but I like her. And the Dafnis Prieto Big Band won Best Latin Jazz Album for Back To The Sunset, a really good record.

In non-Grammy news, pianist Mark de Clive-Lowe recently released the album Heritage. The Japanese-New Zealander is currently based in Los Angeles, where he hosts a club night, CHURCH, that blends beat-driven jazz and high-tech electronic music. His new album is more rooted in his Japanese culture than his previous work, and the first video, “Memories Of Nanzenji,” features a performance by dancer Alice Amano. The music is great, and the video is beautiful. We’re premiering it here, so check it out:

Trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah put out three full-length albums in 2017, and he’s already back. He’s releasing a new album, Ancestral Recall, next month, and I’ll talk about it in detail in March’s column. For now, I’ll just say that it continues to blend high-powered trumpet, ice-cold trap beats, and dense layers of polyrhythmic percussion from New Orleans, the Caribbean, West Africa and beyond. The first single is the title track, and features spoken word artist Saul Williams:

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

Theon Cross, Fyah (Brownswood)

Theon Cross is one of the most important players on the explosive London jazz scene. He’s a member of Sons Of Kemet, Ezra Collective and the SEED Ensemble, and has played with Makaya McCraven, Moses Boyd, and others. This is his second release as a leader, following 2015’s Aspirations EP. Like that record, this one mostly features Nubya Garcia on saxophone and Boyd on drums, with a different saxophonist, electric guitarist and percussionist on two tracks. Cross’s tuba playing is thick and deep, acting almost as a dub bass line underneath Boyd’s loose-but-tight drum patterns and Garcia’s hypnotic, mantralike sax lines. “Activate,” which opens the record, sets a high bar for energy that the rest of the record clears with ease.

Stream “Activate”:

James Brandon Lewis, An UnRuly Manifesto (Relative Pitch)

James Brandon Lewis, whose other project Heroes Are Gang Leaders I talked about in last month’s column, is back with a new album as a leader. It features his longtime live rhythm section of electric bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Warren Trae Crudup III, plus guitarist Anthony Pirog and trumpeter Jaimie Branch. The music is filled with the inspired, soaring spirit of early free jazz like Ornette Coleman or Archie Shepp, but its channeled through an awareness of the power of punk and metal (Pirog is a ferocious guitarist who also plays in the Messthetics, a trio with Fugazi’s rhythm section). “Haden Is Beauty,” a salute to bassist Charlie Haden, is an updating of Ornette’s and Albert Ayler’s ideas, in a way that only this combination of players could conceive.

Stream “Haden Is Beauty”:

Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom, Glitter Wolf (Royal Potato Family)

Drummer Allison Miller has been leading Boom Tic Boom for about a decade; they made their debut in 2010 as a quartet featuring violinist Jenny Scheinman, pianist Myra Melford, and bassist Todd Sickafoose. On their next two albums, and this one, cornet player Kirk Knuffke and clarinet player Ben Goldberg joined, giving the band less of a chamber vibe and more of a party vibe. Miller is a hard-hitting, forceful drummer; she wants her music to move, and “Congratulations And Condolences,” the first track on Glitter Wolf, does exactly that. Goldberg and Scheinman play a winding melody over a shuffling beat, as Melford fills in the middle with heavy chords. When Knuffke comes soaring in, dueling with Goldberg, Miller starts hitting even harder. This is a high-energy introduction to an album that combines melody, avant-gardism and a thick, pulsing bottom end.

Stream “Congratulations And Condolences”:

Lioness, Pride And Joy (Posi-Tone)

Allison Miller also drums for Lioness, a new sextet featuring alto saxophonist Alexa Tarantino, tenor saxophonist Jenny Hill, baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian, guitarist Amanda Monaco, and organist Akiko Tsuruga. Every song they play has a kind of swaying, relaxed energy that’s a little deceptive; you can lose track of how skillfully the arrangements are put together, making sure that all three horns have room to move, and how Miller drives the music hard without ever dominating the action. On “Sunny Day Pal,” they settle into a Brazilian groove, the three horns playing a long unison medley before taking hip-swiveling solos, and when Monaco comes to the fore, the energy level takes another jump.

Stream “Sunny Day Pal”:

Jeremy Pelt, Jeremy Pelt The Artist (HighNote)

Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt puts out an album every year, and I’m always excited to hear it. This year, he’s topped himself with one of his most ambitious and beautiful releases ever. The first half of this disc is a five-part suite inspired by the sculpture of Auguste Rodin. The middle segment, “I Sol Tace (Gates of Hell),” is surprisingly abstract, beginning with electronically warped trumpet layered over vibes from newcomer Chien Chien Lu and percussion, before Vicente Archer’s positively booming bass enters. The swirling, primarily acoustic music provides a bed for Pelt’s smeared trumpet lines, and his piercing high notes. This is a great album that’s likely to wind up on my year-end list.

Stream “The Rodin Suite, Part 3: I Sol Tace (Gates Of Hell)”:

Chris Potter, Circuits (Edition)

Saxophonist Chris Potter has left ECM after three albums of primarily acoustic and highly adventurous music. (If you’ve never heard 2015’s Invisible Cities, seek it out ASAP. It’s beautiful.) His debut release for Edition features a trio that includes James Francies on synths and Eric Harland on drums, and bassist Linley Marthe on four tracks. This music is much more groove-oriented, with electronic zaps and crackles surrounding Potter’s repetitive, muscular horn lines (which he doubles and triples at times, becoming a one-man horn section). Francies has a lot of leeway to create spacy soundscapes, and he makes the most of the opportunity; Harland, meanwhile, has an almost junkyard/trash-can sound to his kit at times, like it too has been warped by electronics or run through triggers.

Stream “Hold It”:

Anna Webber, Clockwise (Pi Recordings)

Anna Webber plays tenor saxophone and several different flutes on her debut for Pi Recordings. She makes music critics describe with words like “bracing,” “argumentative,” and “intense,” meaning them as compliments. She’s joined here by a bunch of dudes who specialize in this kind of spiky, forbidding art-jazz: tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Jeremy Viner, trombonist Jacob Garchik, cellist Christopher Hoffman, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Chris Tordini, and Ches Smith on drums, vibraphone, and timpani. On Clockwise, Webber extracted passages from compositions for percussion by Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgard Varése, and Iannis Xenakis, developing them into new pieces. “Kore II,” the opening track, is built around short phrases that loop and repeat at just slightly irregular intervals, kind of tumbling over each other. It kind of feels like the robot that’s trying to play the piece grows a new limb every time a groove is on the brink of setting in. And yet it’s…fun?

Stream “Kore II”:

Joe Fiedler, Open Sesame (Multiphonics Music)

Trombonist Joe Fiedler is a key figure on the New York jazz scene, but he’s also a music director for Sesame Street. The two sides of his career meet on his new album, recorded with saxophonist Jeff Lederer, trumpeter Steven Bernstein, electric bassist Sean Conly, and drummer Michael Sarin. All these pieces come from the show, and the players have a blast taking them apart and putting them back together in ways that may not necessarily appeal to children. (But they might – you never know.) The version of “Rubber Duckie” is driven by a punk-rock bass-and-drum pattern, with all three horns going wild on top, trading screeching and raucous phrases. It sounds like something from a late ’90s John Zorn album, and it’s awesome.

Stream “Rubber Duckie”:

Maurice Louca, Elephantine (Northern Spy)

Maurice Louca is an Egyptian composer, guitarist and pianist who’s assembled a 12-member ensemble for this 38-minute, six-movement suite. Most of them are unfamiliar to me, except for Swedish saxophonist Anna Högberg (the album was recorded in Stockholm) and vocalist Nadah El Shazly. It has a Mingus-esque feel at times, with multiple voices (mostly saxophones) calling to each other across a landscape of vibes, piano, bass, and drums, but there’s a strong Middle Eastern/North African energy to the compositions and the improvisatory styles at work, too. “One More For The Gutter” begins with desert blues guitar from Louca, but eventually swells into a raucous free jazz blowout with massive Ennio Morricone chords crashing down.

Stream “One More For The Gutter”:

Itamar Borochov, Blue Nights (Laborie Jazz)

Israeli-born trumpeter Itamar Borochov’s third album features contributions from pianist Rob Clearfield, bassist (and Itamar’s brother) Avri Borochov, and drummer Jay Sawyer. On one track, they’re joined by a vocal group, Innov Gnawa, combining jazz with Middle Eastern and North African music. That’s the creative recipe throughout the album, but it’s subtle – it’s more about the feel than any kind of explicitly Arabic melodies. Most of the time, the music is bluesy and introspective jazz, with the band providing lush and romantic support for Borochov’s soft-focus solos. On “Maalem,” his notes puff out in vaporous bursts, almost like he’s playing a flugelhorn through a fuzz pedal.

Stream “Maalem”:

Brent Birckhead, Birckhead (Revive Music)

Saxophonist Brent Birckhead, a sometime member of Lauryn Hill’s touring band, makes his debut as a leader here, backed by pianist Mark Meadows, bassist Romeir Mendez, and drummer Caroll Dashiell III, with guest appearances from guitarist Samir Moulay and trombonist Corey Wallace. Birckhead is a soulful, R&B-style saxophonist with a smooth but frequently emotional delivery. His bandmates match his energy; Dashiell hits hard, more like a rock drummer than a jazz drummer, while Meadows pounds out big, florid chords and Mendez maintains a steady, booming pulse. “The Mourning After” is the middle section of the three-part “Suite 187,” dedicated to Freddie Gray, who died while in police custody in Baltimore in 2015. On the album, it comes between a fierce hard bop blowout, “The Witching Hour,” and a gentle, somber version of Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free.”

Stream “The Mourning After”:

Miho Hazama, Dancer In Nowhere (Sunnyside)

Miho Hazama is a composer and conductor whose 13-member ensemble m_unit has made three albums to date, including this one. The band features seven horns, a string quartet, piano, vibes, bass and drums. The music has a surging quality, mini-melodies darting here and there over repetitive, Steve Reich-like vibe patterns, before all the horns come in like a wave, sweeping everything away. “Olympic Fanfare And Theme,” written by John Williams for the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games, lives up to its name – by the time it comes to its roaring conclusion, you’ll want to stand up and cheer.

Stream “Olympic Fanfare And Theme”:

OK:KO, Syrtti (We Jazz)

OK:KO is a Finnish quartet led by drummer Okko Saastamoinen, which also features saxophonist Jarno Tikka, bassist Mikael Saastamoinen (not Okko’s brother, as I had previously believed), and pianist Toomas Keski-Säntti. This is their second album. Like the first, it unfolds slowly and patiently. I got to see them perform once, in an art gallery in Helsinki, and their music is perfectly suited to that kind of contemplative context. “Soma” begins with a unison sax-piano figure, then switches to piano-bass; when the whole quartet locks in, after about 40 seconds, it still feels like they’re tentatively finding their way down a path together, and odd disruptions, mostly from the bass, keep popping up to throw things ever so slightly off course. The tempo is a kind of march, but it’s too pointillistic and delicate for that. Tikka eventually takes a slow, bluesy solo. I think this piece would work really well as a score for a small group of dancers.

Stream “Soma”:

Matt Brewer, Ganymede (Criss Cross)

This is bassist Matt Brewer’s third album as a leader, and it’s his most stripped-down release to date. His debut, 2014’s Mythology, featured a sextet, and his 2016 release Unspoken was a quartet date. This one is a trio with saxophonist Mark Shim and drummer Damion Reid. Shim is a rough-toned, aggressive saxophonist, spending much of his time in the fierce, squawking territory occupied by David Murray and the late David S. Ware. Reid is a precision bomb-dropper; his deployment of the floor toms on “Don’t Wake The Violent Baby” is best appreciated on headphones, so you don’t disturb the neighbors. Brewer isn’t about to be overshadowed by his bandmates; his solo on “Don’t Wake…” is a string-snapping assault with an almost Mingus-esque power.

Stream “Don’t Wake The Violent Baby”:

Tom Rainey Trio, Combobulated (Intakt)

Drummer Tom Rainey’s band on this album features saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and guitarist Mary Halvorson. “Point Reyes” is the album’s second track, coming after the almost 19-minute title piece. It’s a kind of rest break between that opening journey and the clatter-and-clang of “Fact,” which comes next. Rainey slowly taps and thumps his drums like he’s making sure they’re all secured in place, as Laubrock hisses out tiny squealing noises that sound more like a thumb rubbing a balloon than anything typically produced by a saxophone. Halvorson’s guitar notes ping and shimmer out like drops of water striking the strings. Eventually it becomes something like a cloud of sound, with a slight jangle at its center — beautiful, but destined to fade and vanish as quickly as it appeared.

Stream “Point Reyes”:

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