Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – July 2019

Turbaned organist Dr. Lonnie Smith performs at the Jazz Standard a couple of times a year, it seems. I like some of his recent albums, especially 2013’s In The Beginning and 2016’s Evolution, so when he came back at the beginning of this month leading a large-ish band (it was billed as an octet, but for most of the shows it was actually a septet), I decided to check it out.

The first three nights of his six-night stand featured him with a trio that included guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Xavier Breaker. On the night I went, four horn players were added: Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, Joel Frahm on tenor sax, Alexa Tarantino on alto sax, and Jason Marshall on baritone sax. For the final night of shows, Chris Potter came in on tenor, making it a full eight-piece.

The set began with a spacy trio jam featuring some nasty guitar work from Kreisberg. He was capable of a broad range of sounds, from biting blues-funk to weird synth-guitar stuff like imitation Kurt Rosenwinkel. The horns came out on the second number, a version of Smith’s “Falling In Love” that featured fierce fanfares and hot solos. The band also played a version of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” a surprising choice but one that they funked up very nicely. Breaker gave it a second line feel and the horns responded accordingly. Frahm’s solo was a little too busy and too long, full of houserockin’ clichés that the audience didn’t really respond to the way he might have liked.

The fifth and final piece of the night was a long, hard funk jam with plenty of wah-wah guitar and fierce drumming. Smith’s organ became positively piercing at times, like he was leaning on the keys with both elbows, and he was grinning broadly at the horn players as they soloed. Frahm was up first, and went long again, heading into an almost free-jazz shriek at times, while Maxwell went low and farty, with Smith and the drummer dropping in and out behind him like a live dub mix. Tarantino seemed tentative at first, but gradually ascended from funk riffs to speedy bebop runs that are her real strength, and Pelt closed it all out with a red-hot blast.

The band seemed under-rehearsed; they were focused on the sheet music at times, and probably wouldn’t have let Frahm dominate the way he did with a little more time to get things together. But overall, it was a fun show, and I’m glad I got to see Dr. Lonnie.

There are a couple of really interesting archival finds out this month. Sounds Of Liberation was a Philadelphia-based group formed by vibraphonist Khan Jamal and later co-led by saxophonist Byard Lancaster, both of whom should be much better known. Their other secret weapon was guitarist Monette Sudler. This five-song, half-hour session, which has no official title, was recorded at Columbia University in New York in 1973, has never been released before, and now it’s out on vinyl from Brewerytown and on CD from Corbett vs. Dempsey. The music combines jazz, funk, and soul in a very progressive early ’70s way; Jamal’s vibes are a shimmering cloud, but when the band digs into a groove, they can get into a zone somewhere between the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the earliest Earth, Wind & Fire recordings. Check out “Sweet Evil Mist”:

British saxophonist Tubby Hayes is barely known in the US, but he was one of the biggest names in jazz in his home country in the 1950s and ’60s. His hard-driving, bebop-derived style had a lot of power, but he wasn’t just a bar-walking blower; he had total control of the instrument and was capable of the same kind of lightning-fast changes and extrapolations as John Coltrane displayed on his Prestige and Atlantic albums. A previously unreleased Hayes session from 1969 featuring Mick Pyne on piano, Ron Mathewson on bass, and Michael “Spike” Wells on drums is being released by Polygram as Grits, Beans And Greens. there are LP and single- and double-CD versions, the latter featuring everything recorded at the session, including false starts and alternate takes. Here’s one of the versions of the title piece:

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

Victor Gould, Thoughts Become Things (Blue Room)

Pianist Victor Gould’s Clockwork was one of the most impressive debuts of 2016. He assembled a large ensemble that included multiple horns, extra percussion, and a string quartet for a panoramic album that expanded the parameters of jazz composition. He’s pulled the same trick again on this, his third release, and brought back some of the same players, including trumpeter Jeremy Pelt (who co-produced), flutist Anne Drummond, and alto and soprano saxophonist Godwin Louis. Dayna Stephens is heard on tenor, and the rhythm section of bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Rodney Green support it all. “October” is a fantastically lush, intricately arranged composition that recalls the late ’70s/early ’80s work of Woody Shaw in the way it blends romanticism with high-level instrumental technique, but Shaw never had a string quartet behind him that I know of, and it’s that extra element that makes Gould’s music so unique, and breathtaking.

Stream “October”:

Wynton Marsalis/Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra, Swing Symphony (Blue Engine)

Wynton Marsalis writes a lot of music. Because he chooses to emphasize his role as leader of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and his trumpet playing, he’s probably not as widely recognized as a jazz composer as he could be. And while the knock on him is that he’s just a revivalist with little to offer in terms of moving the music forward, he does have a recognizable voice. His skill at combining New Orleans polyphony with Ellingtonian lushness can’t be denied, plus there’s an additional element of goofiness that’s all his own. He seems to want his musicians to play with smiles on their faces, and to induce a similar pleasure in the audience, so he’s willing to throw just slightly over-the-top figures out there to induce a kind of circus-music drama. That happens a lot in Swing Symphony, which is exactly what its title implies: a big jazz band joining forces with a symphony orchestra, conductor and all, to create something complex but emotionally straightforward, and designed for listener comfort and enjoyment. Each of its seven movements stands on its own, more or less, but they also fit into a cohesive 62-minute whole. “Movement V: Modern Modes And The Midnight Moan” is bluesy but more uptempo than its title might imply, and the “Modern Modes” seem mostly to consist of a few dark and brooding moments that sound like movie scores. (A lot of avant-garde compositional techniques made it into horror and sci-fi movie scores in the 1940s and 1950s.) But they’re intertwined with swinging horn charts to create a capital-R Romantic effect. And there’s a short but weirdly McCoy Tyner-esque piano solo that’s worth hearing all on its own.

Stream “Movement V: Modern Modes And The Midnight Moan”:

Mark Turner/Gary Foster, Mark Turner Meets Gary Foster (Capri)

It’s relatively rare to hear Mark Turner double up with another saxophonist, but when he does, the results are awesome, as they were on drummer Johnathan Blake’s 2014 album Gone But Not Forgotten (which teamed him with Chris Potter). Here, he’s playing with 83-year-old Gary Foster, who’s far better known as a sideman than a leader and who’s played on over 500 movie scores, mostly in orchestral settings. Joined by bassist Putter Smith and drummer Joe LaBarbera, both in their seventies, the two horn players work through compositions by Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh and Lennie Tristano, plus a couple of standards. This is a double disc with only seven tunes in 90 minutes; only one is less than 10 minutes long, and two run past the quarter-hour mark. The opener, “Background Music,” sets the tone for the whole project without living up to its title at all. After a fast drum roll, the two saxophonists duck and dive around the tricky Marsh melody, a bebop head with plenty of twists and turns. Then they have to figure out how to solo on it, as Smith bounces along behind them, with one of the most rubber-band ’70s bass sounds I’ve heard in years, and LaBarbera keeps the rhythm subtle but relentless, dropping snare hits like caffeine pills.

Stream “Background Music”:

Al Foster, Dedications And Inspirations (Smoke Sessions)

Drummer Al Foster is a legend, with over 300 recording sessions to his name, in all sorts of styles. He was a member of Miles Davis’s funk-metal septet from 1973-75, and then returned to the trumpeter’s group when he came out of retirement in 1981. He’s also played plenty of straight-ahead jazz, of course; I saw him with saxophonist Joe Henderson and bassist George Mraz in 1997. On this album, he’s joined by a group of younger players — trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, saxophonist Dayna Stephens, pianist Adam Birnbaum, and bassist Doug Weiss — and almost all the songs are Foster originals, most of them named in tribute to members of his family, including his wife, his four daughters, and his son, who died in 2017. “Song For Monique” has a loping groove, and both Stephens and Pelt take short but potent solos before Birnbaum stretches out. Behind them all, Foster maintains a loose, incredibly swinging beat with precisely deployed snare accents.

Stream “Song For Monique”:

Abdullah Ibrahim, The Balance (Gearbox)

Pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, aka Dollar Brand, has been leading a septet called Ekaya since the ’80s — they’re the band heard on this album, his first in four years. There’s a lot going on on this record, from lush ballads to thick South African jazz-funk grooves to wild, almost Charles Mingus-like explosions of energy. “Tuang Guru” is one of the latter tracks; bassist Noah Jackson is positively assaulting the strings throughout, with drummer Will Terrill maintaining a maniacal hi-hat rhythm while dancing all over the rest of the kit. Above that twitching, leg-kicking foundation, the various horns (tenor sax, baritone sax, trombone, and piccolo) take turns dive-bombing across the landscape like birds of prey in search of their next meal. Ibrahim’s piano tries to calm things down, but the rest of the crew, Jackson in particular, aren’t having it.

Stream “Tuang Guru”:

William Parker/In Order To Survive, Live/Shapeshifter (AUM Fidelity)

William Parker has been leading In Order To Survive for over 25 years, always with Rob Brown on alto sax and Cooper-Moore on piano. Denis Charles was the group’s first drummer, followed by Susie Ibarra; in the early 2010s, Hamid Drake took over. This double live CD was recorded almost exactly two years ago, on July 14, 2017, in celebration of the first IOTS studio session since 1999 (it can be heard as the second disc of Parker’s Meditation/Resurrection set). The first disc is a five-part suite, “Eternal Is The Voice Of Love,” while the second includes discrete tunes. “Newark (For Grachan Moncur III)” pays tribute to the trombonist who played on the first IOTS album, and made several brilliant records of his own in the ’60s and ’70s — Evolution, Some Other Stuff, and New Africa are all must-hears, and they’re all on streaming services, so don’t miss out.

Stream “Newark (For Grachan Moncur III)”:

Gard Nilssen’s Acoustic Unity, To Whom Who Buys A Record (Odin)

The last release from Norwegian drummer Gard Nilssen’s Acoustic Unity trio was a triple live CD that included three guest saxophonists. This time out, they’re in the studio, and entirely on their own. The compositions are mostly by Nilssen and saxophonist André Roligheten, though bassist Petter Eldh contributes one tune. The album’s title is a nod to Ornette Coleman’s To Whom Who Keeps A Record, and several track titles — “Cherry Man,” “Broken Beauty,” and “Dancing Shadows” — seem like they’re intended as tributes to Ornette and Don Cherry, as well. The music has the same kind of freewheeling bounce as Coleman’s, minus the twisty melodic hooks. Roligheten’s sax lines are closer in spirit to Sonny Rollins (or JD Allen), particularly on ballad-ish tunes like “Dancing Shadows,” on which Nilssen is all over the kit as the saxophonist and bassist work slowly and steadily through a meditative melody. When things settle down after the first minute or so, the saxophonist wanders off on a questing journey as the bass and drums maintain a light, rubber-band groove.

Stream “Dancing Shadows”:

Preservation Hall Jazz Band, A Tuba To Cuba (Sub Pop)

New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band has sharply reinvented itself in recent years, shifting from a curatorial role to a more forward-looking one. Their 2017 album So It Is was a phenomenally energetic party jam filled with new original compositions, and A Tuba To Cuba is a superb follow-up. It’s the soundtrack to a documentary filmed on a 2015 tour, and includes songs featured in the movie and new material. The tunes combine New Orleans jazz, funk, Cuban music, and whatever other sounds they feel like throwing into the pot, and the result is music guaranteed to make you jump, shout, and hoist your drink in the air. “Keep Your Head Up,” featuring vocals by Eme Alfonso, is an unbelievably high-energy track featuring lyrics in English and Spanish, fierce solos, and gang shouts that you’ll be howling along with by the time you hit the replay button.

Stream “Keep Your Head Up”:

Gabriel Ferrandini, Volúpias (Clean Feed)

Portuguese drummer Gabriel Ferrandini has a long history on that country’s out-jazz scene, having collaborated extensively with saxophonist Rodrigo Amado as well as European legends like pianist Alexander Von Schlippenbach, Evan Parker, and many others. On this album, he’s playing his own compositions, joined by tenor saxophonist Pedro Sousa and bassist Hernani Faustino. All the tracks are named for the streets in Lisbon that Ferrandini would walk between his house, his studio, and Zé dos Bois Gallery, where he spent a year-long residency developing this material. “Rua da Academia das Ciências” is one of the longer pieces on the album. Sousa’s saxophone is muted and thoughtful throughout, like Albert Ayler in a particularly subdued mood; Ferrandini pushes him along with a few cymbal strikes and some extremely soft hi-hat; and Faustino booms loudly, ultimately seizing control of the music and ending the track with a heavy-footed solo.

Stream “Rua da Academia das Ciências”:

Resavoir, Resavoir (International Anthem)

Resavoir is a Chicago-based collective led by trumpeter and producer Will Miller. He builds compositional sketches out of loops and samples, then brings in musicians to fill them out and put their own spin on things, overdubbing more and more until he’s created a kind of psychedelic spiritual jazz opus in the vein of early ’70s work by producers like David Axelrod or Charles Stepney (who worked with both Ramsey Lewis and Earth, Wind & Fire). The title track is a perfect example of their music at its best; it combines soft synth chords with seagulls and wordlessly crooned vocals before the beat comes in on a wave of ticking hi-hat and conga pitter-pats. Some of the melodies could be a keyboard or an electronically manipulated wind instrument, but there’s definitely some Pharoah Sanders-ish (and overdubbed) sax soloing going on too. This is a short — 29 minutes — but hypnotic and fascinating album.

Stream “Resavoir”:

Myele Manzanza, A Love Requited (First Word)

Drummer Myele Manzanza is a native of New Zealand, and he’s gathered a bunch of Aussie and Kiwi musicians to help him make his third album, including trumpeter Ben Harrison, trombonist James Macaulay, alto saxophonist Jake Baxendale, reeds player Jason McMahon, flutist Adam Page, pianist Matthew Sheens, guitarist Django Rowe, and Mark de Clive-Lowe, Brenton Foster and Jack Strempel on keyboards. The music has a hard-hitting energy that betrays a rock influence, and may remind some people of groups like GoGo Penguin or the work of guitarist Matthew Stevens. The album’s quite dynamic, though, and journeys through a variety of moods, showcasing Manzanza’s compositional skills. “Mortality” opens with solo guitar that’s gradually surrounded by horns and keyboards, building to several crescendos in a row before launching into a soulful groove that could be a jazz version of a Delfonics tune.

Stream “Mortality”:

Markus Howell, Get Right! (Posi-Tone)

Alto saxophonist Markus Howell debuted as part of the Becoming Quintet earlier this year, an ensemble of young players assembled by Posi-Tone to showcase new talent. On his first release as a leader, he’s backed by veteran names from the label’s roster, including trumpeter Joe Magnarelli, pianist Art Hirahara, bassist Rodney Whitaker, and drummer Luther Allison. Trombonist Michael Dease guests on one track. “Warfare,” a Howell original, was inspired by his contentious relationship with his older brother; the alto and piano are set against each other, each taking high-energy solos — Howell is basically screaming at times, while Hirahara’s usual restraint and good taste are amped up significantly. Yes, there’s a Steely Dan chord in there, but there are also explosive bebop runs and jackhammer attacks.

Stream “Warfare”:

Jay Anderson, Deepscape (Steeplechase)

I’m a little bit late on this album, because Steeplechase does no PR at all for their releases, but it’s definitely worth your time. Bassist Jay Anderson has played on close to 100 sessions for this label alone, and now he’s leading a date featuring Kirk Knuffke on cornet, Billy Drewes on alto and soprano saxes and bass clarinet, and Matt Wilson on drums, with Frank Kimbrough playing harmonium on a few tracks and Rogerio Boccato adding percussion here and there. The repertoire is interesting — the band tackles standards like “Sweet And Lovely” and “Tennessee Waltz,” but also digs into pieces like Keith Jarrett’s “Shades Of Jazz” and Branford Marsalis’s “The Mighty Sword.” The tune that really sticks out, though, is their interpretation of the fifth movement of Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel. Anderson and Wilson set up a gentle pulse, over which Knuffke and Drewes emit gentle keening phrases as Kimbrough’s harmonium drones pastorally and Boccato’s percussion adds various pinging and zipping sounds. It’s a lot more … active than Feldman’s music usually gets, but it’s quite beautiful.

Stream “Rothko Chapel (Fifth Movement)”:

Jeremy Udden, Three In Paris (Sunnyside)

Alto and soprano saxophonist Jeremy Udden was a longtime disciple of soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. So this album, which features bassist Nicolas Moreaux and drummer John Betsch (who played with Lacy for many years), is a tribute to Lacy, who died in 2004. It’s not just a collection of his tunes, though; the first track, “Roland Alphonso,” is a Don Cherry composition, written in tribute to the Skatalites’ founding saxophonist. Moreaux and Betsch don’t hew to a strict ska rhythm, but their loose, swinging patterns have something of the calypso-jazz feel heard in the work of Sonny Rollins, and the sharp, ringing snare can almost cause the listener to mentally add dubby echo. Over the top, Udden rises from barely-audible puffs of air to thoughtful extrapolations of the melody, and ultimately hoarse cries, but never erupting into total shrieking — that wouldn’t suit the piece, or its dedicatee.

Stream “Roland Alphonso”:

Bob Sheppard, The Fine Line (Challenge)

Saxophonist Bob Sheppard hasn’t made an album as a leader since 2011, mostly because he’s such an in-demand sideman and studio musician: he’s worked with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, and Stevie Wonder, among others. This disc features keyboardist John Beazley, Dutch bassist Jasper Somsen, and drummer Kendrick Scott. Sheppard is a talented but very straightforward player, the kind of guy who can slot into virtually any situation and come up with something. This band provides him with surging but ultimately restrained hard-bop grooves, not unlike what Branford Marsalis’s quartet does for him, and that allows Sheppard to be exploratory while never lifting entirely off the ground. The version of Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing” that closes this album is a perfect example. His melodic statement is a series of tightly coiled little knots, laid down in a row like he’s leaving a trail for himself so he can find his way back later. Beazley takes over and things fall together a little more, as Scott lays down a shuffling rhythm that’s more nods and hints than actual beats, and Somsen maintains a steady throb. When Sheppard comes back in, he’s playing so slick and smooth, he almost sounds like Stan Getz.

Stream “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing”: