Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – August 2019

One of the most fascinating things about avant-garde jazz and improvised music is the methods people use to impose structure, while still allowing plenty of room for players to run free. Last week, I went to the Jazz Gallery and watched a performance by trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum’s 9-Tette. They were premiering music from the album The Ambiguity Manifesto, which will be out next month.

The group featured Jim Hobbs on alto sax, Ingrid Laubrock on tenor and soprano sax, Bill Lowe on bass trombone, Mary Halvorson on guitar, Tomeka Reid on cello, Stomu Takeishi on electric bass, Ken Filiano on upright bass, and Tomas Fujiwara on drums. Bynum explained that they would be presenting a continuous performance of the music from the album. That didn’t mean a straight run-through of tunes, though. There were four basic themes that would be explored in various ways by the ensemble during the course of the next hour or so. And with that, they were off.

What resulted was as fascinating to watch as it was to hear. The themes were performed as unison melodies by the ensemble, with the horns obviously dominating. Takeishi and Fujiwara were a surprisingly powerful and even rocking rhythm section; the bassist kept returning to a riff that was almost a rewrite of the Peter Gunn theme. But in between those anchoring passages of collective music-making, the group broke down into subdivisions of two or three players. The most common combinations were Bynum/Hobbs, Laubrock/Cole, and Halvorson/Reid/Filiano, but other pairings emerged throughout the evening.

There were musical passages on separate sheet music pages, and apparently they were numbered, because I kept seeing one player look across the stage at another, point to that person and hold up two or three fingers to indicate which passage or idea they wanted to play (with). The other person would nod, and at the next opportunity, when the music seemed to be opening up, they’d launch into the bit they’d decided to work on. Laubrock and Cole, because they were standing side by side at the front of the stage, played together a lot, as did Bynum and Hobbs, who was immediately to his left. There were relatively few traditionally “jazzy” solos, but lots of duets or at least simultaneous playing in a conversational manner.

In the beginning, there was a lot of pointillistic squawking and tootling, as players tossed individual notes out in a staccato manner, waiting to see what would catch or who would leap out first. But after a few minutes, they’d all established their own zones, and knew who they wanted to team up with, and there was no audible hesitation as one team took the handoff from the one before, or the entire nine-piece band came together for fanfares. Some of the best passages were almost orchestral. Check out a track from The Ambiguity Manifesto below.

A recent archival box on drummer Paal Nilssen-Love’s PNL label documents a band I never even knew existed, and one I’m really glad to have learned about. The Quintet was a cross-generational Norwegian ensemble formed by three youngish musicians (guitarist Ketil Gutvik, bassist Eivind Opsvik, and Nilssen-Love) and two veterans of that country’s late ’60s/early ’70s jazz avant-garde, alto saxophonist Carl Magnus Neumann and bassist Bjørnar Andresen. The band existed in 1998 and 1999, but never made a studio album. This five-CD set contains four concerts, the first of which is a single 45-minute improvisation, and a performance on Norwegian radio. The music is free jazz in the 1960s style, but with only one horn and two basses, it’s more low-end focused than a lot of that stuff, and their long collective journeys are both meditative and thrilling. Plus, the actual package is phenomenal, with two booklets including long interviews and reminiscences, tons of photos, and much more. If you’re at all interested in Scandinavian out jazz, this is pretty much a must-hear. That 45-minute performance is streaming on Bandcamp:

Another great new live album comes from Elemental Music’s continuing exploration of trumpeter Woody Shaw’s archives. Basel 1980 is exactly what its title implies: a complete concert recorded in Switzerland in January of that year, with Carter Jefferson on tenor and soprano sax, Larry Willis on piano, Stafford James on bass, and Victor Lewis on piano. This is late ’70s acoustic jazz being performed at its highest level. Shaw was one of the most technically accomplished players to ever pick up a trumpet, and his band delivers hard-swinging, locked-in versions of every tune. Check out this 20-minute version of “Love Dance,” from Shaw’s 1975 album of the same name:

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

Nérija, Blume (Domino)

Nérija are a septet composed of some of the most talented and exciting players on the London jazz scene, including trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey, tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia, alto saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi, trombonist Rosie Turton, and guitarist Shirley Tetteh. Since their debut EP, they’ve welcomed new bassist Rio Kai to the lineup. Blume is their full-length debut, and a clear evolution is audible. On the EP, individual members brought in compositions, and a variety of voices were obvious. This time out, they’re writing together, and developing a collective sound. “Partner Girlfriend Lover” is a lush hard bop piece with some fascinating harmonies in the horn charts; it reminds me of something Wayne Shorter would have written on one of his later Blue Note albums. Tetteh gets the main solo, and she sounds like she’s been listening to Lionel Loueke — that same percussive, West African sound is clearly audible in her playing, though she also tosses in some unexpected noises, like the equipment’s going wonky and she has to yank it back into line.

Stream “Partner Girlfriend Lover”:

Steve Lehman Trio + Craig Taborn, The People I Love (Pi Recordings)

Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman has been working with bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damion Reid for ten years, in a variety of contexts. On this album, they welcome pianist Craig Taborn, another guy who’s part of their larger pool of friends and collaborators, into the studio with them. The result is tricky, complicated music that’s still suffused with real love and fellow-feeling between all the players. There’s nothing dry or hyper-intellectual about any of it. “Ih Calam And Ynnus” is fast and twitchy, with Lehman spitting out dense, Anthony Braxton-esque phrases over constantly shifting drum patterns from Reid. Brewer is nestled in the background, providing a pulse but never seeming to try to move the music in one direction or another. Taborn, meanwhile, is pounding out heavy left-hand chords that gradually give way to a manic solo. At the four-minute mark, though, there’s some kind of imperceptible signal transmitted among the four men, and the mood suddenly shifts, becoming much more placid and gentle.

Stream “Ih Calam And Ynnus”:

James Carter, James Carter Organ Trio: Live From Newport Jazz (Blue Note)

Saxophonist James Carter has gone in a lot of different directions since bursting onto the scene in the late ’80s. (He’s violinist Regina Carter’s cousin, by the way; they recorded together on his album Chasin’ The Gypsy and her Motor City Moments, both in 2000.) My favorite of his albums is his other 2000 release, Layin’ In The Cut, a fierce funk-rock session with guitarists Jef Lee Johnson and Marc Ribot, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, and drummer G. Calvin Weston. Live From Newport Jazz is, like Chasin’ The Gypsy, a collection of interpretations of Django Reinhardt tunes, but there’s neither guitar nor violin to be heard; Carter, on a variety of saxophones, is backed only by organist Gerard Gibbs and drummer Alexander White, and the music is raucous and wild, taking soul jazz about as far out as it can go.

Stream “Melodie au Crepuscule”:

ELEW, Elew Plays Rosenwinkel – Cubism (Heartcore)

ELEW started his career as Eric Lewis, a pianist who played with Wynton Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson, and many others. But in about 2010, he underwent a metamorphosis and began recording powerful solo piano covers of rock songs, and performing standing up and wearing large metal shields over his forearms. After two albums of “rockjazz” and successful tours, he’s come to a sort of middle ground. He released a trio album, And To The Republic, in 2015, and now he’s made an entire record of compositions by Kurt Rosenwinkel. I don’t often like Rosenwinkel’s own records; he’s way too infatuated with some really annoying effects pedals. But stripped down to solo piano, his music reveals its power. “The Next Step,” the title track of a 2000 album on Verve, becomes in ELEW’s hands a thunderous, floor-shaking blues (honestly, his playing reminds me more of Diamanda Galás’s than any other jazz pianist) that comes to a surprisingly tender conclusion.

Stream “The Next Step”:

Mark Kavuma, The Banger Factory (Ubuntu Music)

British trumpeter Mark Kavuma has been running a weekly residency at the Prince of Wales, a venue in London’s Brixton neighborhood, and now he’s pulled the players — tenor saxophonists Mussinghi Brian Edwards and Kaidi Akinnibi; guitarist Arti Zaits; vibraphonist David Mrakpor; pianists Reuben James and Deschanel Gordon; bassist Michael Shrimpling; and drummer Will Cleasby — into the studio for an album of all new compositions that draw on mid ’60s hard bop, but also recognize that it’s the 21st century. Cleasby swings, but there’s a strong breakbeat element to what he’s playing, too. On the title track, Akinnibi, James, Zaits and Mrakpor all take exciting solos while the drummer pounds everything home.

Stream “The Banger Factory”:

Chase Baird, A Life Between (Soundsabound)

Saxophonist Chase Baird has lately been a member of drummer Antonio Sanchez’s Migration band, and on this album, the leadership torch has been passed. The group also includes Nir Felder on guitar, Brad Mehldau on piano, and Dan Chmielinski on bass. The music they make together combines a lot of elements, including classical/chamber elegance, hard rock crunch, and post-bop sophistication. Baird’s own playing has bite; he gets hold of short phrases and won’t let them go, and he likes to let his lines end with hoarse cries. The opening track, “Ripcord,” is built around heavy piano chords and a driving backbeat, anchored by distorted guitar from Felder; it reminds me of the work of Aaron Parks, and that’s a sound I’m always happy to hear.

Stream “Ripcord”:

Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra With Wynton Marsalis, Jazz And Art (Blue Engine)

The Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra has been releasing some really interesting material this year. A live recording of leader Wynton Marsalis’s Swing Symphony came out last month, and now they’ve got a new studio album, Jazz And Art, that features compositions dedicated to Romare Bearden, Stuart Davis, Sam Gilliam, Winslow Homer, Wilfredo Lam, and Norman Lewis. “Bearden (The Block)” was composed by one of the orchestra’s trombonists, Chris Crenshaw. It’s a rollicking piece that combines big-band blare with passages that have a more old-timey feel, and other moments that set up Latin grooves — it feels like a direct nod to Bearden’s work, much of which was collage. This, like Swing Symphony, is a digital-only release, which kinda bums me out: I’d like to have a CD of this in my house.

Stream “Bearden (The Block)”:

Houston Person, I’m Just A Lucky So And So (HighNote)

Houston Person is a seriously old-school tenor player. I saw him at the Village Vanguard a couple of years ago, and it was like traveling back in time. He played standards and blues, and talked to the audience in an easy, joking manner in between tunes, and his horn had a glowing, warm tone that made you think he should have been wearing a maroon velvet tuxedo. On this album, as he’s done many times before, he’s playing familiar tunes from the jazz repertoire, and while other tenor players may have tackled them before (Dexter Gordon recorded both “Willow Weep For Me” and “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry”), he puts his own spin on everything here with the help of trumpeter Eddie Allen, pianist Lafayette Harris, guitarist Rodney Jones, bassist Matthew Parrish, and drummer Kenny Washington. The best-known version of “I Want To Talk About You” belongs to John Coltrane, from his 1958 album Soultrane. Person subverts expectations right away by letting Allen have the opening melodic statement and first solo. When he steps up, though, his solo nods to Coltrane’s 1950s “sheets of sound” style for a brief moment before digging into the bluesy, romantic style he’s made his own for decades.

Stream “I Want To Talk About You”:

Marlene Rosenberg, MLK Convergence (Origin)

Bassist Marlene Rosenberg has convened pianist Kenny Barron and drummer Lewis Nash for the MLK Trio; their debut CD features six of her compositions alongside one tune by Barron and two Stevie Wonder songs, “Visions” and “Love’s In Need Of Love Today.” Nash is an old-school drummer with impeccable taste and a gentle sense of swing; he lays back and guides the music like he’s steering an impossibly plush vintage Cadillac with one hand. Barron’s piano style is lyrical in a restrained and classy way; he sounds like each of his fingers is wearing its own little tuxedo. Rosenberg has a bouncing, energetic approach to the bass, and producer Christian McBride, a master of the instrument himself, has placed her prominently in the mix, allowing her to be a full one-third of the sound rather than just a support player. Indeed, she opens the album’s first track, “American Violet,” laying down a strong groove with Nash. When Barron enters, he’s hitting hard, his notes flowing with a deep, bluesy force that almost recalls the classic 1962 Duke Ellington/Charles Mingus/Max Roach album Money Jungle.

Stream “American Violet”:

Miguel Zenón, Sonero: The Music Of Ismael Rivera (Miel Music)

Puerto Rican alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón has made a career out of blending Latin folkloric music with jazz in unique and surprising combinations. His latest album is a tribute to legendary salsa singer Ismael Rivera, whose hoarse voice and thick accent made him a uniquely compelling performer. (Check out his 1970s albums like Traigo De Todo, Esto Si Es Lo Mio, and De Todas Las Maneras.) “Colobó” is a track from Traigo De Todo, a relatively straightforward tune with a danceable melody. Zenón and his band (Venezuelan pianist Luis Perdomo, Austrian bassist Hans Glawischnig, and Puerto Rican drummer Henry Cole) tweak it slightly, giving it an Ornette Coleman-esque lilt. Glawischnig’s rock-steady bassline and Cole’s sharp drumming keep the energy level high, allowing Perdomo to take a solo that sounds influenced as much by classical music as salsa.

Stream “Colobó”:

Kenyatta Beasley, The Frank Foster Songbook (Sony)

Tenor saxophonist Frank Foster isn’t that well known in the broader world, but he led the Count Basie band after Basie’s death, and wrote a sheaf of compositions performed by that group and his own ensembles. Trumpeter Kenyatta Beasley had originally set out to help Foster write a jazz arranging textbook, but Foster’s health didn’t allow for that, so instead he decided to record an album of the older man’s compositions. He put together a band featuring Keith Loftis on tenor and soprano saxes, Mark Gross on alto sax, Vincent Gardner on trombone, Anthony Wonsey on piano, Dezron Douglas on bass, and Alvester Garnett on drums. The album was recorded live in 2013, but not released until now. On two tracks, “Manhattan Fever” and “Katherine The Great,” Wynton Marsalis joins the ensemble. These are long, hard-swinging tunes with plenty of room for everyone to blow. On “Manhattan Fever,” Marsalis gets a long solo, but he’s not treated like a star gracing the band with his presence — the guys before and after him hit as hard as they can, too, and the result is a blowout.

Stream “Manhattan Fever”:

Ben Flocks, Mask Of The Muse (West Cliff)

This is a fascinatingly weird, not-quite-retro album by an up-and-coming saxophonist. Flocks, along with guitarist and producer Art Chersky, keyboardist Frank LoCrasto (who’s worked with Jeremy Pelt), bassist Martin Nevin, and drummer Evan Hughes, tackle a collection of songs that aren’t standards, but are old, and associated with singers ranging from Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra to Sam Cooke, Roy Orbison and Patti Page. The arrangements are a little bit soul jazz, a little bit hard bop, and a little bit lounge-act, but there’s also an edge of weirdness to them, like something out of a David Lynch movie. The consistency of the mood is what makes the album really special; it’s like you’re hearing it in a dream. The band’s version of Sam Cooke’s “Smoke Rings” features gentle guitar and organ, and a slow-dance beat, over which Flocks’ tenor floats like he’s playing a 1950s prom.

Stream “Smoke Rings”:

Curtis Brothers, Algorithm (Truth Revolution)

Pianist Zaccai Curtis and his bassist brother Luques have played with many prominent jazz musicians, including trumpeters Christian Scott, David Weiss and Sean Jones, and pianist Orrin Evans. Though they maintain separate careers, they also work together as the Curtis Brothers. This is their third album, following 2012’s Completion Of Proof and 2017’s Syzygy. The band is the same as on their debut: Brian Lynch on trumpet, Donald Harrison on alto saxophone, and Ralph Peterson on drums. The opening track, “Three Points And A Sphere,” sets the tone — it’s a blowout reminiscent of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, with just a little extra complexity to show that it’s 2019, not 1960. Peterson drives the ensemble hard, and the horns’ solos are fierce and high-energy, and the brothers are the axle around which the whole thing spins.

Stream “Three Points And A Sphere”:

From Wolves To Whales, Strandwal (Aerophonic)

From Wolves To Whales is a collective quartet featuring Nate Wooley on trumpet, Dave Rempis on alto saxophone, Pascal Niggenkemper on bass, and Chris Corsano on drums. Each of these four men is capable of extreme assaults on the listener, and there’s some of that on this roughly 80-minute two-CD set, the group’s second release, but there are also passages where they’re quite obviously listening to each other, taking subtle cues and moving the music gently and confidently in one direction or another. On “IJ,” the shortest of the four tracks (the longest runs 29:16), some of the most affecting moments come when Wooley emits a low sputtering rumble as Rempis stretches single notes as long as he can, first at the top and then at the bottom of the alto’s range, letting them dissolve into wavering cries, as Corsano gently agitates a cymbal.

Stream “IJ”:

https://aerophonicrecords.bandcamp.com/track/ij

Andrew Munsey, High Tide (Birdwatcher)

Drummer Andrew Munsey’s debut album as a leader features some serious, if currently under-celebrated, players, including trumpeter Steph Richards, tenor saxophonist Ochion Jewell, pianist Amino Belyamani (also a member of Dawn Of Midi, who I really wish would put out another album), and bassist Sam Minaie. Belyamani takes a great solo on the title track, which also opens the album; it has a kind of party vibe, mostly driven by the punchy horn melody, which is long and complex but emphatic enough that you never get lost or wonder where it’s going. Munsey’s drums sound boxy, clattering and clunking along underneath everyone else.

Stream “High Tide”: