Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – March 2019

Shabaka Hutchings is very tall. I’m gonna guess at least 6’5″ and maybe 6’6″. I’m 6’2″, and he loomed over me when we met last year. On Monday night, I saw him perform with The Comet Is Coming at New York’s Mercury Lounge, and he towered over his two bandmates, keyboardist Dan “Danalogue” Leavers and drummer Max “Betamax” Hallett, too. (With TCIC, he calls himself King Shabaka.)

The Comet Is Coming have just released their second full-length, Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery, as part of Hutchings’ deal with Impulse! Records. (They put out Your Queen Is A Reptile, by his group Sons Of Kemet, last year, and there’s supposed to be a second album by Shabaka And The Ancestors, on which he collaborates with top-shelf South African jazz players, on the way.) TCIC isn’t Hutchings’ group, though, creatively speaking. They started out as a duo called Soccer96, and Leavers and Hallett still make music under that name. Hutchings saw them live and wanted to collaborate. The combination is astonishing, particularly on the new album. Their earlier material was a little less focused, more about vibe than compositions, but the new stuff is both viscerally exciting—Hallett is a ferocious drummer—and beautiful.

Leavers’ Roland synths and pedal boards are almost defiantly retro; there wasn’t a laptop to be seen anywhere onstage at the Mercury Lounge. He plays it all, live and in the moment. The primary melodies often have a synthwave feel, with some improvisatory flourishes that recall Alice Coltrane’s 1980s devotional music. Hallett, playing a small kit belonging to the club, still managed to create a big, powerful sound, cranking the beat up to at times astonishing tempos.

Hutchings is almost anti-virtuosic in his approach. When I interviewed him last year, he talked about playing what he calls “stupid sax.” He explained it as follows: “You go through college and there’s all these things in the air, in the zeitgeist that says, ‘You need to be better.’ And it’s come from working in the capitalist system. We need to accumulate more jazz chops. We need more information, we need more facility, we need more everything. But what about if we don’t need any more anything? What if we need to go back to a place where we just have our creativity, and a piece of metal? And I call that stupid sax. You take the saxophone and you just get ignorant. I practice — I’ll transcribe and I’ll practice out of étude books, but the real thing is when I’m onstage trying to actually approach the instrument from a point of unknowing, trying to unlearn all that stuff. I really don’t want to sound like Mark Turner or Joe Lovano, cause they just sound too good. They sound like they know what they’re doing. I’d rather be that guy in the corner with people going ‘Uhhh…I guess he can play.'”

He can definitely play. He’s not a big-voiced, resonant player like Coltrane or Rollins or JD Allen, and he doesn’t construct elaborate solos. He goes for a hoarse, crying sound rooted in R&B honking, with a little bit of reverb and distortion from a pedal, and he grabs onto phrases and digs his teeth in, turning them into something mantra-like, driving the audience wild with pure repetition and force. He even did this during an unaccompanied solo passage, grinding a sax riff into the stage until the audience was all but screaming.

There were gentle moments, too, of course. After about twenty minutes of manic fury, Leavers began a version of “Unity,” from the new album, with an extended synth solo that was part prog and part New Age, and the piece itself was quite beautiful, with Hallett playing a rhythm that seemed to owe something to West African music. But the fast, stomping performances of pieces like “Summon The Fire” and “Super Zodiac,” which blended seamlessly together into one long stretch of jackhammer drumming, pulsing synths and fierce sax, were what set the tone for the night. A woman at the lip of the stage was dancing furiously throughout the set, and people throughout the packed room were bouncing around, nodding their heads and jumping in place.

There was an opening act; a vibraphonist named Will Shore, whose music combined minimal, Kompakt-style techno with melodic flourishes from his primary instrument. He’s got a three-track EP out called A Hundred Times that’s worth hearing.

Record Store Day is next month, and the lists of titles being released/reissued are already out. A decent number of jazz titles are included; here are a few to keep an eye out for: Louis Armstrong, Disney Songs The Satchmo Way; The Art Ensemble of Chicago, The Spiritual; John Cage Meets Sun Ra, s/t (7″); Bill Evans, Evans in England; Griot Galaxy, Kins; William Hooker, Mindfulness; Wes Montgomery, Back on Indiana Avenue; Cecil Taylor, The Great Paris Concert; Various Artists, The Rough Guide to Arabian Jazz.

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

Christian Scott, Ancestral Recall (Ropeadope)

You would think a guy who’d put out three albums in a single year would take some time off before returning to the studio. Not Christian Scott. He’s back already. Ancestral Recall sounds pretty much like the music he’s been making since 2015’s Stretch Music. It’s a mixture of programmed trap beats and live percussion that incorporates rhythms from everywhere from New Orleans to West Africa, the Caribbean, and beyond, and the keyboards are as ice-cold as those on Miles Davis’s Tutu. Meanwhile, Scott himself is a powerhouse trumpeter, blowing long streams of notes at full strength like Freddie Hubbard or Donald Byrd reborn. The dude is terrifying on the horn. Saul Williams, unfortunately, doesn’t really need to be here. He mutters a few lines that add nothing — I’d rather just hear Scott play. The rest of the album is a lot more satisfying than this first single, trust me.

Stream “Ancestral Recall (feat. Saul Williams)”:

Branford Marsalis, The Secret Between The Shadow And The Soul (OKeh/Marsalis Music)

Branford Marsalis has kept his quartet—pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Justin Faulkner—together for a long time. Revis has been by his side since 1997, Calderazzo since 1998, and Faulkner since 2009, but this is only the group’s third album, and the one before this, 2016’s Upward Spiral, featured vocalist Kurt Elling, so I ignored it, because I hate jazz vocals. The good thing is, this album features the band at the top of their game. The music is surprisingly complex and frequently quite harsh; Marsalis has never been as retro-minded or cautious as his trumpet-playing younger brother, and on the opening “Dance Of The Evil Toys,” he goes quite far out, squawking and growling, as the band takes the already somewhat double-jointed melody and disassembles it on the spot.

Stream “Dance Of The Evil Toys”:

Joshua Redman, Come What May (Nonesuch)

This is saxophonist Joshua Redman’s first recording with pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Reuben Rogers, and drummer Gregory Hutchinson in almost 20 years; their last release together was 2001’s Passage Of Time. It’s a concise, potent album, just seven tracks long and very different from his amazing 2018 release Still Dreaming, but every bit as impressive. Redman was overhyped at the beginning of his career, but has steadily gotten better and better. “How We Do” is a quick, swinging bop tune with an infectious melody that Goldberg supports with big, muscular chords as Rogers and Hutchinson lay down a series of perfectly placed explosions in back. Redman’s solo is fleet and somewhat abstract, but overall the piece is grounded and exciting.

Stream “How We Do”:

Sarah Tandy, Infection In The Sentence (Jazz Re:freshed)

I first noticed pianist Sarah Tandy in alto saxophonist Camilla George’s band; both of George’s albums, Isang and The People Could Fly, have been featured in this column in the past. Tandy makes her solo debut here, with a concise (six tracks, 34 minutes) album featuring Sheila Maurice Grey of Neríja and Kokoroko on trumpet, Binker Golding of Binker & Moses on saxophone, Mutale Chashi of Kokoroko on bass, and Femi Koleoso of Ezra Collective (and a fellow member of Camilla George’s band) on drums. The music lays hard bop-inspired horn interplay over shuffling, soulful rhythms, occasionally settling down for an introspective ballad. On the album’s second half, Tandy switches from acoustic to electric piano. The closing “Snake In The Grass” is a thick funk groove with Tandy laying down dense organ as Grey takes a fierce, barbed solo.

Stream “Snake In The Grass”:

Cochemea, All My Relations (Daptone)

Cochemea Gastelum, touring saxophonist with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings for almost 15 years, has stepped out on his own with this album, and it’s a powerful combination of out jazz and spiritual/ritual music from across the world. The personnel includes seven people credited with different percussion instruments, plus fellow Dap-Kings Bosco Mann on bass, and Victor Axelrod on clavinet. There’s lots of handclapping and chanting, too. On “Al-Mu’tasim,” he plays an electric saxophone, which sounds like it was fed through a wah-wah pedal, and Mann plays the guimbri (a North African bass-like instrument; if you’ve never heard Pharoah Sanders’ album with guimbri master Maleem Mahmoud Ghania, Trance Of The Seven Colors, check it out — it’s on Bandcamp). It’s a hypnotic piece that’ll make you feel like you’re sitting in the desert at midnight, in a condition halfway between dreaming and astral projection.

Stream “Al-Mu’tasim”:

Marilyn Mazur, Shamania (RareNoise)

Danish percussionist Marilyn Mazur has been leading her own projects since the 1970s; she’s also known for being the only female member of a Miles Davis band, working with him in the mid-’80s. Shamania is a new band featuring ten women from different areas of the Scandinavian jazz scene: saxophonists Lotte Anker and Sissel Vera Pettersen, trumpeter Hildegunn Øiseth, trombonist Lis Wessberg, keyboardist Makiko Hirabayashi, bassist Ellen Andrea Wang, drummer Anna Lund, vocalist/percussionist Josefine Cronholm, percussionist Lisbeth Diers, and Mazur as composer, leader and percussionist. The music has a ritualistic quality at times, especially when Øiseth is blowing into a goat horn, as she does on “CHAAS.” The piece is named for the Danish notation for what would be C, B natural, A, and A flat in English. It starts out free, with the goat horn being answered by cries from the saxophones, but at the three-minute mark a driving rhythm begins and Hirabayashi takes a fast, almost Chick Corea-esque synth solo.

Stream “CHAAS”:

Vijay Iyer & Craig Taborn, The Transitory Poems (ECM)

The only two-piano jazz albums I have any real familiarity with are Embraced, on which Mary Lou Williams and Cecil Taylor did battle at Carnegie Hall (check it out on YouTube sometime) and Octopus, a release from last year featuring Kris Davis and Craig Taborn. This disc, a live concert by Taborn and Vijay Iyer, is much friendlier encounter than Embraced. The two men are longtime friends and kindred spirits who played in Roscoe Mitchell’s Note Factory band together, and they’re very much working together here, one man laying down a surface over which the other dances. “Sensorium” begins with delicate trickles of notes, occasionally punctuated by a speedy, almost Taylor-esque rumble. Eventually it becomes a kind of shimmering cloud, with the two men combining their energies to create something that’s like what either one of them might play alone, just with more notes.

Stream “Sensorium”:

Kokoroko, Kokoroko (Brownswood)

Kokoroko, an Afrobeat-jazz octet, had a massive breakout single with “Abusey Junction,” from 2018’s We Out Here compilation; it got over 18 million views on YouTube. That track closes out their four-song debut EP, but the other three pieces here may be even stronger. The three-horn front line (Sheila Maurice-Grey on trumpet, Cassie Kinoshi on saxophone, Richie Seivewright on trombone) are backed by guitarist Oscar Jerome, keyboardist Yohan Kebede, bassist Mutale Chashi, drummer Ayo Salawu, and percussionist Onome Edgeworth. Their music has the rhythmic intricacy of classic Fela Kuti and Ebo Taylor tracks, but is willing to go wild when the moment’s right. The EP was recorded loose and raw in the studio, and at the end of the powerful opening track, “Adwa,” on which Kinoshi takes a fierce, skronking solo, her bandmates can be heard congratulating her afterward.

Stream “Adwa”:

Josh Lawrence, Triptych (Posi-Tone)

Trumpeter Josh Lawrence’s new album features three three-song suites, each of which was posted separately as an EP on Spotify. The band includes Zaccai Curtis on piano, his brother Luques on bass, Anwar Marshall on drums, and Caleb Curtis (no relation to the other two) on alto sax. One of the suites is a tribute to some of Lawrence’s early influences—the tracks are called “Earth,” “Wind,” and “Fire,” but they’re actually inspired by other artists. “Earth” is a nod to Miles Davis’s earliest experiments with electric instruments: not the trance music of In A Silent Way, but the ostinato-driven explorations of Miles In The Sky, Water Babies and Filles De Kilimanjaro. The way Lawrence and Caleb Curtis dance over the moody, slowly bouncing groove set up by the rhythm section, and the way Marshall dices up the beat, will almost certainly remind you of Davis tracks like “Two Faced” or “Mademoiselle Mabry.”

Stream “Earth”:

Joey DeFrancesco, In The Key Of The Universe (Mack Avenue)

For a long time, I thought organist Joey DeFrancesco was a cornball, a soul-jazz nostalgia act. But in the last few years, he’s made some genuinely interesting music, and I’m fine with admitting that I’ve come around. On this record, he goes in a spiritual jazz direction that’s more in the spirit of Larry Young than Jimmy Smith. He’s got Billy Hart on drums, Sammy Figueroa on percussion, and Troy Roberts on saxes, and on three tracks in the middle of the album, Pharoah Sanders joins the action, even reprising his classic hippie-jazz anthem “The Creator Has A Master Plan” (though this version is 11 minutes, rather than 32). Pharoah’s tone is still as massive and resonant as ever, and if he doesn’t spend as much time screaming at full force as he once did, it’s a pleasure to hear him nonetheless.

Stream “The Creator Has A Master Plan”:

Logan Strosahl Spec Ops, Sure (Sunnyside)

In 2017, saxophonist Logan Strosahl released Book I Of Arthur, a totally insane attempt to grapple with the legend of King Arthur via music that blended jazz with 16th and 17th century polyphony, setting four horns together in harmony and adding a female vocalist as well. Here, he’s stripped things down and made a much more conventionally “jazz” album, with Henry Fraser on bass and Allan Mednard on drums and himself as the only horn. It kicks off with “Bark,” a piece built around an Ornette Coleman-ish melody and a bouncing, Ed Blackwell-ish rhythm from Mednard. But before long, it’s gone totally berserk, Strosahl playing lightning-fast, Anthony Braxton-esque knots of notes and flapping his valves like the horn’s caught in a tornado. Even when he brings it back down to earth, he sounds almost frantic. It’s a wild journey, but one worth taking. I’m still waiting for the next chapter of the King Arthur series, though (we were promised a trilogy).

Stream “Bark”:

Joe Martin, Étoilée (Sunnyside)

Bassist Joe Martin has assembled a top-shelf band for this album: saxophonist Mark Turner, keyboardist Kevin Hays, and drummer Nasheet Waits. That’s almost the same band as his 2001 debut as a leader, Passage; on that album, Jorge Rossy was on drums. The opening track, “A World Beyond,” on which Hays plays electric piano, has a slow-burning groove to it, with Waits shuffling the beat like a brand-new deck of cards as Martin both sets the foundation and leads the charge, his bass booming and throbbing. Turner’s saxophone is a subdued cry, adding a touch of Joe Henderson to his usual Zen calm, and Hays’ keyboard work has an early ’70s feel like something you’d hear on CTI or Milestone.

Stream “A World Beyond”:

Lage Lund, Terrible Animals (Criss Cross)

Guitarist Lage Lund assembles pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey to play ten new original compositions on this album. Lund is a pretty quiet, unassuming player, but here he’s messing around with a lot of effects, which make his guitar sound synth-like at many points. On “Suppressions,” he starts off with some extremely soft, almost whistling sounds that remind me of a less annoying Kurt Rosenwinkel, as Fortner’s piano shimmers and ripples. When the piece proper begins, with a booming bass line from Grenadier, Lund goes through a variety of moods, at first playing gently and romantically, then allowing Sorey to build the energy level up, and matching it, until he’s tearing fiercely at the strings, Grant Green-style.

Stream “Suppressions”:

Atomic, Pet Variations (Odin)

The Scandinavian quintet Atomic have been together for about 20 years, and have made more than a dozen albums. The band includes trumpeter Magnus Broo, saxophonist Fredrik Ljungkvist, pianist Håvard Wiik, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Hans Hulbaekmo, each of whom has multiple other projects going, but when they assemble as a unit they do things they’d never do in any other context. This album features all cover versions, including tunes by Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Steve Lacy, Carla Bley, Edgard Varèse and Jan Garbarek. The latter piece, “Karin’s Mode” (named for Norwegian jazz singer Karin Krog), closes the album, and it combines a strutting bass line with honking, squalling horns and some decidedly abstract piano.

Stream “Karin’s Mode”:

Snarky Puppy, Immigrance (GroundUp)

Snarky Puppy aren’t exactly jazz: their music combines jazz with funk, prog rock, and rhythms and textures from around the world. But they’re almost always interesting, and their new album is definitely worth hearing. They’ve settled down a little bit on Immigrance, allowing themselves to roll with a groove for a while rather than offering the tight, complex arrangements and fierce solos of their earlier work. “Coven” is a slow, drifting mood piece with a beat that kind of tumbles over itself in slow motion, as an extended guitar solo wanders the landscape and the horns interject here and there.

Stream “Coven”: