Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – May 2019

Ahmad Jamal will turn 89 on July 2, and he doesn’t perform live very often anymore. So when the opportunity to see him play at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, NJ arose last week, I jumped. I’d recently interviewed his longtime drummer, Herlin Riley, and was expecting an evening of dignified swing that combined bluesy vamps with some classical flourishes and lush, romantic melodies. That was not at all what transpired.

Jamal began his professional career playing a kind of chamber jazz, before that was really a thing: his early albums featured a piano/guitar/bass trio. When he formed a more traditional group, though, with bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier, he broke out. His 1958 album At The Pershing: But Not For Me stayed on Billboard’s album charts for over two years, and ultimately sold over a million copies. It contained his best-known song, “Poinciana”:

At the Princeton show, Jamal was joined by bassist James Cammack, who’s been playing with him for something like 40 years; Riley on drums; and Manolo Badrena on percussion, which in this case encompassed everything from congas to trap drums to wind chimes to a small electronic device that played a sample of Mr. T shouting, “Quit the jibber-jabber!”, surprising audience and band alike. This was a high-powered rhythm section: Riley anchored the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for 17 years, and has made two albums as a leader since 2016, and Badrena was a member of Weather Report and Spyro Gyra, among many other groups. And they came to play.

Jamal announced the title of every tune either before or after he played it, and conducted from the bench, starting pieces solo and pointing to Riley or Badrena when he wanted them to come in, then offering additional gestures to indicate tempo changes or returns to the main melody. (This Wax Poetics interview offers great insight into Jamal’s career and musical concepts.) The set began with “Quest For Light,” from his 1987 album Crystal, an uptempo vamp with ornate melodic fills that set the tone for the night. Badrena was doing every bit as much work as Riley — the two of them, and Cammack, swung ferociously hard and fast. Jamal clanged out rumbling chords from the low end of the keyboard, created suspense by hanging onto a two-note figure until it felt like an explosion was coming, and danced across the higher keys.

As the set went on, it only seemed to increase in intensity. The band swung harder and harder, the drummer and percussionist practically dueling with each other, speeding things up to a frantic, breakneck pace without ever losing control of the hypnotic groove, as Jamal and Cammack encouraged them and kept the music flowing. After the fourth number, I was astonished to see Riley — impeccably dressed in what was clearly a three-piece suit with the jacket left backstage — slip his shoes off. Between tunes, Jamal mentioned that he likes to hire drummers from New Orleans; in addition to Riley and Fournier, he also worked with Idris Muhammad for years. The grooves these men set up for him allow him to take pieces as far out as seemed possible, and then keep on going. Even the expected closing version of “Poinciana” was far from a rote recitation of a familiar tune; these guys were on a quest to somewhere, and we were just following along. This was as far from a mellow evening out as I could have imagined. I’m incredibly glad to have seen Ahmad Jamal live, and if you’re inclined to investigate his catalog, you could do a lot worse than starting with his latest album, 2017’s Marseille, which features this same band, and working your way backwards.

The Smithsonian Folkways label recently released a five-CD box celebrating 50 years of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival with rare and previously unreleased live recordings. For the most part, they do what you’d expect them to and concentrate on local acts working within the tradition of New Orleans music — sure, Bonnie Raitt’s there, but she’s playing a duet with piano legend Allen Toussaint. There’s also a track by Big Freedia, to bring things up to the present day. The music spans a broad range, from the early jazz the city’s known for to deep blues, from gospel to Dr. John’s psychedelic swamp soul to amazing performances by Professor Longhair, the Neville Brothers, the Meters, and more. Just to prove that New Orleans jazz isn’t all clarinets and tubas, though, I’m going to share a track by saxophonist Donald Harrison, who also happens to be trumpeter Christian Scott’s uncle. Here he is tearing into the title track from his 1999 album Free To Be with Andrew Adair on piano, Vicente Archer on bass, and John Lamkin on drums:

The Lithuanian label NoBusiness and the American writer Ed Hazell have embarked on a trip through the late saxophonist and composer Sam Rivers’ archives, with his daughter’s approval. They’re going to be putting out eight albums of never-before-heard material over the next few years, starting with Emanation, a live concert from June 3, 1971 featuring Rivers on tenor and soprano saxophones, flute, and piano, Cecil McBee on bass, and Norman Connors on drums. This is the same group heard on Rivers’ legendary Impulse! Records debut, Streams, but recorded two years earlier. The performance consists of two long totally improvised pieces; check out the first below.

And now, the best new jazz records of the month!

Ezra Collective, You Can’t Steal My Joy (Enter The Jungle)

London’s Ezra Collective have finally released a full-length debut, after two absolutely killer EPs, 2016’s 7 and 2017’s Juan Pablo: The Philosopher. The latter ended with a version of Sun Ra’s “Space Is The Place,” and You Can’t Steal My Joy kicks off with “Space Is The Place (Reprise),” effectively marking their output as a continuing stream of music. The core group includes trumpeter Dylan Jones, tenor saxophonist James Mollison, pianist Joe Armon-Jones, bassist TJ Koleoso, and drummer/bandleader Femi Koleoso. On the album’s final track, though, they expand significantly, teaming up with Afrobeat jazz squad Kokoroko for a red-hot version of Fela Kuti’s “Shakara” that begins with deep, pumping synth bass before the percussion, guitar and electric piano come in, and when the combined horn section punches out the fist-pumping melody, the energy level is explosive.

Stream “Shakara (Feat. Kokoroko)”:

Melissa Aldana, Visions (Motema)

Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldana’s new album was inspired by the art of Frida Kahlo, and features a new band including pianist Sam Harris, vibraphonist Joel Ross, bassist Pablo Menares, and drummer Tommy Crane. Aldana has a big, resonant sound (Sonny Rollins was the influence that caused her to switch from alto to tenor), and her introspective phrasing is well suited to ballads. The first 90 seconds of “La Madrina” are slow and mournful, Ross’s vibes and Menares’ bass hanging off of Harris’s heavy chords like snow on tree branches. When things pick up, and Crane starts really driving the music forward, the music shifts between full-ensemble fanfares and gentle subdivisions, allowing each player to make potent statements in turn.

Stream “La Madrina”:

Paul Bley/Gary Peacock/Paul Motian, When Will The Blues Leave (ECM)

In 1999, pianist Paul Bley recorded the studio album Not Two, Not One for ECM, with Gary Peacock on bass and Paul Motian on drums. They had first recorded together in 1963, but never reconvened since (though Bley worked with each other man on numerous occasions). When Will The Blues Leave is a live album from the tour supporting Not Two, Not One. The title track is an Ornette Coleman composition, from his debut album, 1958’s Something Else!!!!, and Bley performed it with Coleman’s group live that year. Here, he speeds through the melody in a flurry of notes, before Peacock launches a lightning-fast walking bass line and Motian sets off a hard-swinging rhythm that builds to a solo like a sequentially triggered series of explosions.

Stream “When Will The Blues Leave”:

Dave Douglas, Devotion (Greenleaf Music)

Trumpeter Dave Douglas’s latest release is a bassless trio disc featuring pianist Uri Caine and drummer Andrew Cyrille. It’s an equal collaboration in every sense; the opening track is a piano-drums duo, and Caine and Cyrille are going full strength throughout (which isn’t always the case; when a producer like ECM’s Manfred Eicher allows it, the drummer can get so minimal he’s barely present). “Rose And Thorn,” which comes in the album’s final third, is almost New Orleans jazz, with Caine playing a rollicking, rambunctious babbling brook of notes as Cyrille throws down some serious parade beats, including plenty of cowbell. When Douglas dives in, his tone is rich and full, and his lines, while abstract, convey nothing but raw joy.

Stream “Rose And Thorn”:

Matt Mitchell, Phalanx Ambassadors (Pi Recordings)

Pianist Matt Mitchell claims the music on his fourth Pi Recordings album is “pretty definitively the most challenging music I’ve ever written for a band,” and I’m not about to argue with him. This is some dense stuff. The band includes Miles Okazaki on electric guitar, Patricia Brennan on vibes and marimba, Kim Cass on bass, and Kate Gentile on drums. I had a nice conversation about death metal with Gentile at the Jazz Gallery one night, and while the beats she’s dishing out here don’t have the intensity of, say, Necrophagist, they are remarkably busy. The opening track, “Stretch Goal,” has all the complexity of a Frank Zappa composition from the Hot Rats-Waka/Jawaka era, minus the hard rock guitar (Okazaki is more of a taut, skronk-and-ping player) and post-R&B horn charts. The piano and vibes tumble over each other in intricate patterns, as the bass and drums whomp and boom, until it all comes to an end as suddenly as if someone had blown a whistle.

Stream “Stretch Goal”:

Steve Davis, Correlations (Smoke Sessions)

Veteran trombonist Steve Davis’s new album features a band of players younger than himself, including some who studied under him at the University of Hartford. Three of the musicians — saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, pianist Xavier Davis, and bassist Dezron Douglas — also work together in the Black Art Jazz Collective, a group with two excellent albums to its name. The compositions, most of which were written by Davis, are relatively straightforward hard bop tunes, but the album ends with an absolute burner: “Inner Glimpse,” a McCoy Tyner piece first recorded on 1973’s Enlightenment, itself a must-hear. This version allows Xavier Davis to stretch out, obviously, but trumpeter Joshua Bruneau rips shit up, too. The leader takes a brief but potent solo, before making room for drummer Jonathan Barber.

Stream “Inner Glimpse”:

Joel Ross, KingMaker (Blue Note)

Vibraphonist Joel Ross has been popping up a lot in the last year or so. In 2018, he played on drummer Makaya McCraven’s Universal Beings, saxophonist Walter Smith III and guitarist Matthew Stevens’ In Common, pianist James Francies’ Flight, and trumpeter Marquis Hill’s Modern Flows Vol. 2, and in this very column, he’s also on Melissa Aldana’s Visions. KingMaker is his debut as a leader, featuring a band of relative unknowns: alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, pianist Jeremy Corren, bassist Benjamin Tiberio, and drummer Jeremy Dutton. “Ill Relations,” which begins with a tender figure from Ross, quickly becomes a gently meandering group statement, with each bandmember making potent contributions, whether it’s Wilkins’ concise alto phrases or Corren’s sharp beats.

Stream “Ill Relations”:

Burton Greene/Damon Smith/Ra Kalam Bob Moses, Life’s Intense Mystery (Astral Spirits)

I don’t know why I thought Burton Greene was dead, but he’s not. An early free jazz pianist, he recorded for the ESP-Disk label in 1966 and 1967, and for BYG-Actuel in 1969 — he claims to have been the first jazz pianist to play the strings inside the instrument rather than striking the keys, a technique many players have employed subsequently. On this album, he’s joined by another veteran, drummer Ra Kalam Bob Moses, whose drumming has a martial, thumping quality and whose kit is recorded like he didn’t take it out of the closet before he started playing it. That marching quality is particularly evident on “Anything That Isn’t Yes, Get Rid Of It,” where Greene starts things off solo, practically punching the keys as he dumps out a Thelonious Monk-like melody that’s almost pre-jazz in its pounding simplicity, and the bassist and drummer only slowly emerge behind him, one man emitting bowed drones and the other clattering and thumping. Eventually, the power differential shifts, almost imperceptibly until it’s impossible to miss that the piece has become a drum solo with piano accompaniment.

Stream “Anything That Isn’t Yes, Get Rid Of It”:

Brian Krock, Liddle (Outside In Music)

Reeds player Brian Krock is young, but ambitious. He leads the 18-piece ensemble Big Heart Machine, whose self-titled debut album came out last year, but on this disc, he’s working with a mere quintet — BHM members Olli Hirvonen on electric guitar and Marty Kenney on upright bass, and new faces Matt Mitchell on piano and Fender Rhodes and Nathan Ellman-Bell on drums. Simon Jermyn plays electric bass on one track, and baritone guitar on another. Eight of the pieces are originals, full of snarl and clang; the outlier is a version of Anthony Braxton’s “Composition 23B,” from his album New York, Fall 1974. The original is a bouncing, headlong slice of skronky post-bop, one of his most conventional pieces but still all barbs and sharp edges. Krock’s group, simply by adding piano, turns it into a piece of chamber music, retaining the speed and tautness but transforming some seriously knotty melody lines into Steve Reich-style ripples.

Stream “Composition 23B”:

Sam Ospovat, Ride Angles (Skirl)

Drummer Sam Ospovat has composed an album’s worth of music for the trio of pianist Matt Mitchell (yeah, him again) and bassist Kim Cass, with occasional guest appearances by guitarist Brandon Seabrook, alto saxophonist Nick Lyons, and vocalist Lorin Benedict. The music is deceptively uncomplicated, only revealing its secrets over time and multiple listens. At first, the opening track, “Off The Shelf Self (Head Voice),” has the stutter and clang of Thelonious Monk, with just a touch of desolation. Cass’s bass is almost a Seventies rubber-band twang, and Ospovat’s drumming is sparse and occasionally disconnected. Mitchell’s playing leaves tiny intervals between phrases, the sound of thought.

Stream “Off The Shelf Self (Head Voice)”:

Sam Dillon, Force Field (Posi-Tone)

Tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon makes his Posi-Tone debut fronting a quartet that includes pianist Theo Hill, bassist David Wong, and drummer Anwar Marshall. Guests — trumpeter Max Darche, alto saxophonist Andrew Gould, and trombonist Michael Dease — pop up on various tracks. On a version of Chick Corea’s “Straight Up And Down,” which Dillon arranged based on two different recordings, Darche takes the spotlight as Hill switches to electric piano, and the result is an intense sprint on which Wong and Marshall dice up a fast swing beat like Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette backing Miles Davis in 1969. The melody is basically a fanfare that Darche and Dillon take at speed, and while the saxophonist’s solo has a Joe Henderson-esque mix of aggression and focus, the trumpeter takes the torch and uses it to burn the whole studio down.

Stream “Straight Up And Down”:

Barrett Martin Group, Songs Of The Firebird (Sunyata)

Percussionist Barrett Martin’s new album is a sort of soundtrack to his book The Way Of The Zen Cowboy; you can get it as a download with purchase of the book, or buy it as a stand-alone CD. Its 20 short tracks feature Martin on all kinds of percussion (drums, vibraphone, marimba, gamelans, gongs, kalimbas, and surdo, plus piano), Dave Carter on trumpet, Curtis Macdonald on alto sax, Hans Teuber on baritone and tenor saxes, Andy Coe on electric guitar, Ryan Burns on piano and organ, Dune Butler on bowed bass, Evan Flory-Barnes on upright bass, and Thione Diop and Lisette Garcia on various percussion instruments. There are guests, too: Wayne Horvitz plays keyboards on two tracks, Peter Buck (ex-REM) plays acoustic guitar on one, and Kim Thayil (ex-Soundgarden) adds guitar to three. The music is generally a muscular, funky blend of jazz and Afrobeat, with plenty of space for the baritone sax to punch you in the gut. On “The Firebird,” Thayil doles out giant slabs of the kind of post-metal noise guitar he pioneered with Soundgarden, then takes a solo that’s both fierce and unsettlingly controlled, like a guy staring right into your eyes as he tells you he ate your dog.

Stream “The Firebird”:

OGJB Quartet, Bamako (TUM)

The OGJB Quartet is a collaborative, improvisational ensemble made up of alto saxophonist Oliver Lake, cornet player Graham Haynes, bassist Joe Fonda, and drummer Barry Altschul. They made their debut at Winter Jazzfest in 2016, and Bamako is their debut album. Lake has been a major if underrated figure since the loft jazz era, while Haynes (the son of legendary drummer Roy Haynes) has been around since the ’80s; Fonda and Altschul have worked together for many years, including trios with violinist Billy Bang and saxophonist Jon Irabagon. Bamako opens with the 15-minute “Listen To Dr. Cornel West,” a bouncing, churning free jazz journey composed by the bassist. The way the horns dance past and around each other, over Fonda’s booming bass and Altschul’s constant but constantly shifting rhythms, reminds me of the equally amazing quartet Other Dimensions In Music. Let this piece carry you away; it won’t feel like a quarter hour, I swear.

Stream “Listen To Dr. Cornel West”:

Quantum Trio, Red Fog (Emme)

Quantum Trio are another bassless ensemble like the Dave Douglas album mentioned above. This group features Michał Jan Ciesielski on tenor & alto saxophones, Kamil Zawiślak on piano, and Luis Mora Matus on drums. Red Fog is their second release of 2019; they released the double disc Quality Studio Live at the beginning of the year. These guys are not fucking around; their music has aggression in spades, and uses the studio as a tool. Ciesielski’s saxophone is frequently doubled, or fed through electronics; Zawiślak’s piano has a deep, echoing boom; and Matus’ drums are processed into massive, rocklike beats. On “Liquid Fire,” which is almost as heavy as the Gojira song of the same name, the drums are the first thing you hear, and they’re an absolute barrage, like Squarepusher gone death metal. When the piano comes in, it’s a wall of giant low-end chords, and the saxophone sounds like a synth. It’s wild, high-energy stuff.

Stream “Liquid Fire”:

G. Calvin Weston & The Phoenix Orchestra, Dust And Ash (577)

Drummer G. Calvin Weston first came to public attention as a member of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time in the 1980s, but he’s also worked with guitarists James “Blood” Ulmer, Marc Ribot, and Derek Bailey (on a wild noise-funk album called Mirakle that you should definitely seek out), saxophonist James Carter, and others. Here, he’s leading an electric band — David Dzubinski on piano and keyboard, Tom Spiker on guitar, Elliot Garland on bass — augmented by a string trio with Carlos Santiago and Benjamin Sutin on violins and Ajibola Rivers on cello. The eight-minute title track is an astonishing blend of rock, funk (check out those disco hi-hats hovering over Weston’s thundering beats), and searing strings.

Stream “Dust And Ash”: