Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – June 2019

There’s a hip-hop scene in Nashville, but it would be a stretch to say that that’s what the city is known for, right? When you think Nashville, you think country, period, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

Similarly, Detroit’s musical legacy is built on three pillars: Motown, late ’60s/early ’70s rock (MC5, the Stooges, Bob Seger, and yes, Ted Nugent), and techno. (I’m talking about the mid-20th century here, so let’s leave Jack White, Eminem, and Kid Rock out of it.) But the city has a long and storied jazz history as well. In the new book Jazz From Detroit, author Mark Stryker digs deep into that history. He profiles more than two dozen musicians born and raised in Detroit, but when you see their names, you may react with surprise, because they had their greatest success when they moved away, mostly to New York. Still, players like trumpeter Donald Byrd, saxophonist Joe Henderson, guitarist Kenny Burrell, pianist Tommy Flanagan, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Elvin Jones (and of course his brothers, pianist Hank and trumpeter Thad) all called the city their home.

Stryker is a native himself, having spent 21 years writing for the Detroit Free Press; he interviewed many of the artists included in the book, and provides thoughtful analysis of all the work he discusses. Additional chapters deal with the early years of jazz in the city, from 1900-1950, and the late ’60s artist-led cooperatives like the Detroit Artists Workshop, the Detroit Creative Musicians Association and labels like Strata and Tribe. This is a really interesting book. Once you read it, you’re guaranteed to wind up chasing down dozens of records. Personally, I’m going to be exploring the discography of Yusef Lateef, whose albums combined jazz, R&B, soul, funk, and music from around the world into something completely unique. I’ve always known I should learn more about his deep catalog, I just never have until now. It’s a perfect summer project.

Alice McLeod, later and much better known as Alice Coltrane, isn’t profiled in Jazz From Detroit, but she was born there in 1937. In the early 1970s, she moved from Long Island, where she and John Coltrane had lived, to California, and established the Vedantic Center in 1975. There’s a new live recording out, Live At The Berkeley Community Theater 1972, that features Charlie Haden on bass, Ben Riley on drums, and three Indian musicians: Aashish Khan on sarod, Pranesh Khan on tabla, and “Bobby W.” on tamboura and percussion. It’s a double LP with one long track on each side, and the music is brilliant. It’s gonna be hard to find, though, as it’s a limited edition, and a bootleg, on the “BCT” label. But if you can find a copy, or download it somewhere, it’s worth hearing — the sound quality is fantastic, and the tracks fade in and out, which makes me think it may have been intended for official release at one point. One track, a version of “A Love Supreme,” has been posted on YouTube:

The Resonance label has been putting out amazing, sanctioned archival releases by artists like saxophonist Charles Lloyd, pianist Bill Evans, guitarists Wes Montgomery and Grant Green, organist Larry Young, and many others. Their releases, many of which are pulled from the personal collections of artists’ families (others come from radio stations’ vaults), have in-depth liner notes, fantastic photography, and beautifully produced music that’s always worth hearing and often provides a new insight into the performers’ history and career arc. And while their catalog is still very much worth purchasing, they’re slowly moving onto streaming services as well. They recently created two playlists devoted to Evans and Montgomery, respectively, pulling tracks from every Resonance release.

Smile With Your Heart: The Best Of Bill Evans On Resonance includes tracks from four different live albums, recorded with multiple bands in the mid-1960s:

Wes’s Best: The Best Of Wes Montgomery On Resonance also draws from four different Resonance releases, some of which go as far back as the early 1950s, documenting the very beginnings of the guitarist’s career:

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

Anthony Braxton, Quartet (New Haven) 2014 (Firehouse 12)

This is an unexpected move, even for the unpredictable Anthony Braxton. It’s a four-CD box documenting a one-off group featuring Braxton on a range of saxophones, Taylor Ho Bynum on various instruments in the trumpet family, Nels Cline on guitar, and Greg Saunier of Deerhoof on drums. Each disc contains a single piece running roughly an hour, dedicated to Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, James Brown and Merle Haggard, respectively. Not that you’d be able to tell — the band doesn’t suddenly launch into the riffs from “Sex Machine” or “Purple Haze.” But this is certainly some of Braxton’s loudest music; Cline’s guitar is sharp and biting at all times, only retreating into soft feedback or sustained drones as a precursor to the next burst of noise, and Saunier’s drumming has a primitive, slam-the-walls energy no jazz player would dare permit themselves.

Stream “Improvisation One (For Guitarist/Composer Jimi Hendrix)”:

Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble, Where Future Unfolds (International Anthem)

This is quite a thing. Damon Locks — an electronic musician and conceptualist — has joined forces with clarinet player Angel Bat Dawid, drummer Dana Hall, percussionist Arif Smith, and a half dozen singers for a live performance that bridges the gap between gospel and spiritual/political free jazz. (There was also a six-person dance group on the night.) The lyrics are a mix of pain, political outrage, and inspiration, and the rhythms combine congas and mbiras with 808 thump. The looping structures are strongly reminiscent of Makaya McCraven’s endless grooves, but Dawid’s clarinet gives the music an equally hypnotic feel, as the singers chant piercing lines like “Every morning there’s more talk of murder/Every morning at least one less alive…The words are not easeful/Separate, not equal/Power to the government/Never to the people,” from “Sounds Like Now.”

Stream “Sounds Like Now”:

Theo Croker, Star People Nation (Sony Masterworks)

I just recently found out that trumpeter Theo Croker is the grandson of Doc Cheatham, who won a Grammy in 1997 for a collaborative album with Nicholas Payton. Croker has released five albums and an EP to date, all of which blend jazz, funk, R&B and hip-hop in a thoughtful and modern way. His music isn’t as icy as Christian Scott’s, because he’s a warmer player, almost seeming to murmur and croon into the horn. Even his soaring high notes have more of a Freddie Hubbard-like vibrancy to them, especially on the lush “Subconscious Flirtations and Titillations.” Even as the beats rattle and pop, the horns and keyboards keep things velvety smooth.

Stream “Subconscious Flirtations And Titillations”:

JD Allen, Barracoon (Savant)

Tenor saxophonist JD Allen’s latest album features a brand-new rhythm section of Ian Kenselaar on bass and Nic Cacioppo on drums, replacing his longtime trio of Gregg August and Rudy Royston. I saw Allen play the Jazz Gallery recently with Kenselaar and a different drummer, Malick Koly; they were both significantly younger than he, so there was an element of coaching as he guided them through the set, pointing to one or the other when he wanted them to solo and making sure they listened closely to each other. It’s clear from the title track from this album that Allen’s enjoying his role as authority figure and teacher. The saxophonist’s lines have all the muscle of his previous work, but there’s a new twitchiness to the rhythms here — Cacioppo is a busier, less laid-back drummer than Royston, and Kenselaar is doing as much as possible to make himself noticed.

Stream “Barracoon”:

Chick Corea, Antidote (Concord Jazz)

Pianist Chick Corea is impossible to pin down; from the acoustic jazz of his quartet with vibraphonist Gary Burton to the wild fusion of Return To Forever and the Elektric Band, he’s always trying something new. On this album, he returns to the music of his albums My Spanish Heart and Touchstone, combining old pieces with new ones that blend jazz, rhumba, flamenco and more with a band that features trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, trombonist Steve Davis, flamenco guitarist Niño Josele, saxophonist/flutist Jorge Pardo, bassist Carlitos Del Puerto, percussionist Luisito Quintero and drummer Marcus Gilmore. On the title track, a romantic and atmospheric piece that starts out as a lush ballad but gradually becomes a swaying, swinging Latin jazz tune with brief interjections of Spanish guitar, he’s joined by legendary salsa vocalist Rubén Blades and, at the very end, his wife Gayle Moran Corea.

Stream “My Spanish Heart”:

Fire! Orchestra, Arrival (Rune Grammofon)

Fire! Orchestra, a radically expanded version of saxophonist Mats Gustafsson’s power trio Fire!, gets a little smaller with each release, but it’s still a very big band. On their debut album, 2013’s Exit!, they were 28 members strong, but by 2016’s Ritual they were down to 21, and a mere 14 singers and players appear on Arrival, and where the music used to feature masses of horns, guitars, and drums, it’s now focused on reeds and strings, including three violinists and a cellist. The album’s final track, “At Last I Am Free,” is a Chic cover; vocalists Mariam Wallentin and Sofia Jernberg’s voices soar and wail as the strings surge mournfully. The whole thing sounds like the ensemble is performing on a gray, rocky Swedish shoreline, as mist rolls in and coils around their feet. Gustafsson’s usual unfettered saxophone roars are rarely present on this album, and totally absent here, but it’s some of the most beautiful music ever released under his auspices.

Stream “At Last I Am Free”:

Ryan Porter, Force For Good (World Galaxy)

Trombonist Ryan Porter is Kamasi Washington’s front-line partner in the saxophonist’s band. This is his third album as a leader, recorded between 2014 and 2019 with members of the West Coast Get Down (Washington on sax, Brandon Coleman and Cameron Graves on piano and Fender Rhodes, Miles Mosley on upright bass, Thundercat on electric bass, and Tony Austin on drums) and additional guests like trumpeters Jumaane Smith and Josef Leimberg and vocalist Nia Andrews. It’s an 84-minute double album, with most of the compositions coming from Porter or his cohorts, except for two: versions of Rotary Connection’s “Memory Band” and Stevie Wonder’s “Blame It On The Sun.” On the latter, Porter’s crying trombone tackles the vocal melody, as the band implies practically a full orchestra the way they expand around him like mist.

Stream “Blame It On The Sun”:

Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, Be Known Ancient/Future/Music (Spiritmuse)

Percussionist and composer Kahil El’Zabar has been leading two groups for decades, the Ritual Trio and the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. Their names give the game away: El’Zabar is focused on highlighting the common ground between jazz, blues, and African music, creating something utterly new and forward-looking in the process. The EHE as currently constituted includes trumpeter Corey Wilkes (also a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago) and baritone saxophonist Alex Harding and cellist Ian Maksin, and their music has the gutbucket fervor of Julius Hemphill, tempered with real tenderness and introspection. “Pharoah” is a tribute to Pharoah Sanders, with whom El’Zabar has recorded in the past, and its mix of African percussion and steady groove is strongly reminiscent of early ’70s Sanders albums like Thembi and Village of the Pharoahs.

Stream “Pharoah”:

Ryan Keberle & Catharsis, The Hope I Hold (Greenleaf Music)

Trombonist Ryan Keberle has made five albums now with Catharsis, a group which features saxophonist Scott Robinson, Jorge Roeder on bass, Eric Doob on drums, and vocalist/guitarist Camila Meza. On this album, Keberle adds keyboards and vocals to his repertoire. “Despite the Dream” is a showcase for Meza’s clear, un-showy vocals. It’s a sharply political track, but its deceptively light rhythm and the steady pace of the horn solos keep it from becoming agitprop. Keberle’s solo has a joyful but bottom-heavy feel, like theme music for a cartoon elephant, while Scott Robinson’s saxophone has a big ’70s sound.

Stream “Despite The Dream”:

Timo Lassy & Teppo Mäkynen, Timo Lassy & Teppo Mäkynen (We Jazz)

The Finnish jazz scene is small and tight-knit, so tenor saxophonist Timo Lassy and drummer Teppo Mäkynen have played together in numerous contexts over the years. This is their first duo album, though, and if you’re expecting a frenzied blowout like John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space, forget it. This is closer to Radiant Imprints, the album James Brandon Lewis and Chad Taylor put out last year, but even more concise, like an early JD Allen Trio record. None of its 13 tracks are longer than 3:21, and the shortest is a mere 1:46. “Liberty, Pt. 1″ features a mantra-like melody almost worthy of Coltrane or David S. Ware, which Lassy expands into a just-free-enough solo, as Mäkynen (who also produced the record) creates a bouncing, head-nodding rhythm.

Stream “Liberty, Pt. 1″:

Nature Work, Nature Work (Sunnyside)

Bass clarinetist Jason Stein and alto saxophonist Greg Ward wanted to play together, so they started a new band, and found one of the best rhythm sections around to anchor it. Eric Revis plays with both Branford Marsalis and Peter Brötzmann, and co-leads the trio Tarbaby with pianist Orrin Evans and drummer Nasheet Waits, so you know he can handle anything anybody wants to throw at him, and Jim Black is a powerhouse who works with Tim Berne and plays in about six dozen other bands on the Brooklyn scene. The first track from this album, “The Shiver,” lets everyone introduce themselves with authority. It begins with a flurrying dual-horn melodic statement, before the bassist and drummer set up a beat that rocks back and forth and swings hard. Stein is a clattery, squalling player, while Ward lets his notes smear together into slippery, ribbonlike lines.

Stream “The Shiver”:

Noah Preminger, After Life (Criss Cross)

Tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger’s albums frequently have themes, like 2017’s Meditations On Freedom and 2016’s Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground. This time out, the seven original compositions and the version of a piece by Händel that he’s assembled all pertain, as the title implies, to worlds we may enter after we leave Earth. The CD booklet also contains a suite of poems by Ruth Lepson, inspired by the music (but not recited on the album). The band is terrific: trumpeter Jason Palmer, Max Light on guitar, Kim Cass on bass, and Rudy Royston on drums. I’m not familiar with Light at all, but he does some terrific work on “World Of Hunger”; his guitar playing has a bite that reminds me of Matthew Stevens, who played in Christian Scott’s band for several years and now works on his own. The interplay between Preminger and Palmer is excellent, too.

Stream “World Of Hunger”:

Eric Hofbauer’s Five Agents, Book Of Water (Creative Nation Music)

Guitarist Eric Hofbauer is best known for his Prehistoric Jazz series, on which he creates chamber-jazz interpretations of early 20th century classical pieces like Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England. His new project, Five Agents, is inspired by the Chinese philosophical construct of Wu Xing and its Five Agents (or Five Elements): wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Book of Water is the first in the series, recorded with a group featuring trumpeter Jerry Sabatini, tenor saxophonist Seth Meicht, trombonist Jeb Bishop, bassist Nate McBride, and drummer Curt Newton. Sabatini and Newton played on all four Prehistoric Jazz albums, so they’re very familiar with Hofbauer’s methods and style. “Water Understands Civilization Well,” the album’s opening track, is a fast, jumpy piece with plenty of polyphonic interplay and competition among the horns, each man attempting to both comment on what the others are doing and make his own statement, in a “Yeah, but have you considered…” sort of way. Hofbauer’s guitar sounds homemade, his notes pinging and dragging like a slightly more down-home version of Mary Halvorson.

Stream “Water Understands Civilization Well”:

Curtis Nowosad, Curtis Nowosad (Sessionheads United)

Drummer Curtis Nowosad’s third album as a leader features a core band of trumpeter Duane Eubanks, alto saxophonist Braxton Cook, guitarist Andrew Renfroe, and bassist Luke Sellick, with guests (trombonist Corey Wallace, several keyboardists, and a couple of singers) popping up on one or two tracks here and there. The music is slick and funky, but there’s a sharp edge to it; the album opens with a version of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Home Is Where The Hatred Is,” and though it’s an instrumental, “Never Forget What They Did To Fred Hampton” is a biting title for a piece of music. Wallace and Renfroe team up for the quick-footed melody, before Eubanks takes off on a high-flying solo as Nowosad drives him forward with a hard-swinging backbeat. When the guitarist gets his turn in the spotlight, he makes the most of it with distortion and fierce bent phrases.

Stream “Never Forget What They Did To Fred Hampton”:

Walt Weiskopf, European Quartet Worldwide (Orenda)

Tenor saxophonist Walt Weiskopf’s European Quartet should really be called his Danish Quartet, since all three of its other members are from that country. He made a studio album with pianist Carl Winther, bassist Daniel Franck, and drummer Anders Mogensen in 2018, then replaced Franck with Andreas Lang for the subsequent tour, which yielded this record. Eight of the ten tracks are Weiskopf originals; the others are a version of Mal Waldron’s “Soultrane,” which John Coltrane recorded on the 1958 album of the same name, and Quincy Jones’s theme for the movie The Pawnbroker. Obviously, “Soultrane” is a showcase for any saxophonist, but since a pianist wrote it, Winther feels free to stretch out as well. It’s got a dignified, late-night feel, the drums more of a gentle whooshing in the background than a driving force, but it’s never sleepy.

Stream “Soultrane”: