Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – September 2019

There’s always one more thing in the vault, it seems. This month, a previously unreleased John Coltrane session will appear, and much like last year’s Both Directions At Once, it’s not quite an album, but it’s more than a collection of castoffs. The eight tracks on Blue World were recorded in June 1964, as a favor to Canadian director Gilles Groulx, a friend of the Coltrane quartet’s bassist, Jimmy Garrison. This was done without Impulse! Records’ knowledge. The music was intended to serve as the soundtrack to the movie Le chat dans le sac (The Cat In The Bag), but Groulx only used a few fragments in the finished film. The tapes were essentially forgotten, until an archivist from the National Film Board Of Canada started assembling Groulx’s work in the early 2000s, and the government reached out to Impulse! to let them know about the tapes.

Musically, it’s pretty interesting, if not revelatory. There’s only one even slightly new composition — the title track is a reworking of another Coltrane piece, “Out Of This World.” The rest are re-recordings of older material: “Traneing In,” two takes of “Naima,” “Like Sonny,” and three takes of “Village Blues.” All of these pieces were originally recorded between 1957 and 1961, on the albums Traneing In, Giant Steps, and Coltrane Jazz. Hearing Coltrane and his classic quartet — pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones — put their own spin on these old and somewhat basic blues tunes is fascinating and entertaining. The sequencing turns it into something like a suite: We open with a version of “Naima,” followed by “Village Blues,” “Blue World,” two more versions of “Village Blues,” “Like Sonny,” “Traneing In,” and end with a second version of “Naima.” Other than brief track announcements from engineer Rudy Van Gelder to kick off each track, it’s a continuous journey through eight tunes that are similar enough that they could all be movements in a single long work. Check out “Blue World”:

A really cool set of reissues came out this month, too, from a pianist who’s revered in certain circles but whose legacy isn’t what it should be. Erroll Garner was a hugely successful pianist and composer of the standard “Misty”; his 1955 album Concert By The Sea was massive at the time, and was reissued as a three-CD set in 2015. But he died in 1977, and doesn’t have the posthumous profile of Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Art Tatum, or other well-known pianists of the bop era. He couldn’t read music, but he had a prodigious memory for it; there was a story of him attending a classical concert and returning home to his apartment to play much of what he’d heard from memory. He appeared on The Tonight Show many times, and was reportedly Johnny Carson’s favorite jazz musician.

Garner’s style was extremely florid and romantic, swirling jazz, classical, and old-timey music into a style that encompassed the entire keyboard and almost made backing musicians redundant. In the early 1960s, he formed his own label, Octave, and the first four (of twelve) albums released on that imprint are being reissued by Mack Avenue: 1961’s Dreamstreet and Closeup In Swing, 1962’s One World Concert, and 1963’s A New Kind Of Love. The first three are performed with his trio of bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Kelly Martin, while the fourth is a movie soundtrack featuring Garner and a 35-piece orchestra. One World Concert, recorded at the World’s Fair in Seattle, is particularly explosive; check out this version of “Movin’ Blues”:

Finally, RIP to Steve Dalachinsky, a poet and well-known figure on the NYC avant-jazz scene. I first met him 21 years ago, at the 1998 Vision Festival, and I ran into him again and again at the festival and at other gigs around town, and sometimes in record stores or just on the street. He was an often grumpy but more often smiling guy who was always happy to hang out and talk, and who knew as much about the music as any critic; if he was at a show, it was the place to be that night. He wrote liner notes for a slew of releases over the years, and wrote an entire book of poems while watching performances by Charles Gayle. When I interviewed Cecil Taylor at the Whitney Museum in 2016 for The Wire, we scheduled two days of conversations. The first day, it was just the two of us in the room, but when I showed up the second day, there was Steve, with his wife, painter and poet Yuko Otomo, and the atmosphere was notably lighter. Most of the best quotes in the piece came on that second day. I’ll miss him; he was a good friend, to me and to jazz.

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

Ahmad Jamal, Ballades (Jazz Village/PIAS)

Getting to see Ahmad Jamal live earlier this year was one of the greatest thrills of my life. His particular combination of classical technique and powerful swing, not to mention his impeccable sense of groove, was astonishing in the moment, and his albums have frequently been stunningly beautiful. Ballades is exactly what its title suggests; it’s a collection of some of his favorite pieces, performed either solo or in duo with bassist James Cammack. “Poinciana” is the piece that made Jamal famous — he first recorded it in 1951, but a live version from Chicago’s Pershing Lounge was a major hit in 1958, and he’s closed his shows with it ever since. This version is much different; the strong rhythmic vamp that gave the piece its impact has been stripped away, leaving behind a long series of melodic flourishes and low-end rumbles. The tune is still very much present, but it’s more abstract than ever, almost as if Jamal is disassembling it in order to understand its structure better and truly make it his own. In a crazy way, it reminds me of the way Cecil Taylor took apart Cole Porter tunes on some of his earliest albums.

Stream “Poinciana”:

Binker Golding, Abstractions Of Reality Past & Incredible Feathers (Gearbox)

Binker Golding is one-half of the British duo Binker & Moses. His longtime partner, drummer Moses Boyd, is absent from this solo debut; instead, he’s joined by pianist Joe Armon-Jones, bassist Daniel Casimir, and Sam Jones behind the kit. The music is a combination of contemporary London jazz (emphatic, rhythmically sturdy, seemingly built for dancing as much as head-nodding) and late ’60s/early ’70s post-bop, with tricky melodies and lush chords. On “You, That Place, That Time,” Golding journeys into an almost CTI zone. Jones’ drumming is insistent, but never over-the-top; he wants your attention, but only to the degree that he can get you focused on what Armon-Jones is playing (which is a terrific, rippling, almost Chick Corea-esque solo), and the way Golding’s got the romanticism of Stan Getz or Stanley Turrentine, with the energy of peers like Nubya Garcia or Cassie Kinoshi.

Stream “You, That Place, That Time”:

Reid Anderson/Dave King/Craig Taborn, Golden Valley Is Now (Intakt)

Keyboardist Craig Taborn, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King have known each other since the early ’80s. They’re all Midwesterners, with as much love for pop and rock as for jazz. That’s manifested in the music they’ve made as individuals, and in Anderson and King’s trio the Bad Plus. This isn’t a Bad Plus record by another name, though. It’s weirder than that, bringing in elements of synthwave and vaporwave to create something both high-energy and oddly tranced-out. On the album’s opening track, “City Diamond,” Taborn is playing an array of keyboards and Anderson might be, too; he’s on electric bass throughout the album, but even that instrument is buried or absent here, replaced by deep swelling synth chords. King switches from acoustic to electronic drums, creating a huge thwacking programmed sound. The whole thing sounds more like a track by Perturbator or Tommy ’86 than anything Taborn or the Bad Plus have ever done.

Stream “City Diamond”:

Jimmy Cobb, This I Dig Of You (Smoke Sessions)

Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue turned 60 not long ago. It’s one of the jazz albums everyone on Earth seems to have heard of, if not heard, and Jimmy Cobb is the last man alive who played on it. He’s played on literally hundreds of other albums, before and since, of course. His latest release features guitarist Peter Bernstein, pianist Harold Mabern, and bassist John Webber, and includes versions of standards like the title track, “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” “My Old Flame,” “I’ll Wait And Pray,” and others. “Blood Wolf Moon Blues” is a more recent Bernstein composition, and it’s exactly what you’d hope for — a slinky blues tune with prominent and stinging guitar, laid atop a rock-solid beat from Cobb. He’s 90 now, and still out-swinging dudes one-third his age.

Stream “Blood Wolf Moon Blues”:

Michael Janisch, Worlds Collide (Whirlwind Recordings)

Bassist Michael Janisch is also the man behind Whirlwind Recordings, a label that’s appeared many times in this column. Their releases are consistently interesting, and often excellent. Here, Janisch is leading a band featuring Jason Palmer on trumpet, John O’Gallagher on alto sax, Rez Abbasi on guitar, and Clarence Penn on drums, with guest appearances from keyboardist John Escreet, tenor saxophonist George Crowley, and drummer/percussionist Andrew Bain. That’s a strong lineup, and the compositions — all new — give them plenty to work with. “An Ode To A Norwegian Strobe” lays down a deep bed of synth ooze, while Bain’s drums set up a shuffling, live-disco thump and the horns alternate between high-speed collective outbursts and thoughtful but still extroverted solos.

Stream “An Ode To A Norwegian Strobe”:

George Coleman, The Quartet (Smoke Sessions)

Saxophonist George Coleman is another old-schooler still showing young players how it’s done. I saw him live at the Jazz Standard a while ago, with a pianist and bassist who were probably in their thirties, and they seemed absolutely thrilled to be up there with a guy who could really impart both wisdom and swing. On this album, Coleman is joined by pianist Harold Mabern, bassist John Webber, and drummer Joe Farnsworth, all veterans with total command of their instruments and their roles. On “Lollipops And Roses,” Mabern starts things off before Coleman takes a solo built out of short, blustery phrases building to long, streaming bebop lines. In the piece’s final third, Farnsworth takes a solo that has an almost Max Roach-ian aggression.

Stream “Lollipops And Roses”:

Bushman’s Revenge, Et Hån Mot Overklassen (Hubro)

Bushman’s Revenge — the trio of guitarist Even Helte Hermansen, bassist Rune Nergaard, and drummer Gard Nilssen — have made 10 albums (including this one) since 2007, eight of them for the Rune Grammofon label. This is their debut for Hubro, and it’s a slight departure, quieter and more subtle at times, and rather than invite a guest keyboardist in, as they’ve done on some previous albums, they play additional instruments themselves (organ, vibraphone). “Happy Hour For Mr. Sanders” is a gentle but energetic groove piece that comes sliding in slowly, picks up speed for a while as Nilssen gets more and more twitchy behind the kit and Hermansen solos on baritone guitar — not quite a bass, but close — and the drummer overdubs little splashes of vibraphone as well. In its final third, it comes almost to a stop and becomes shimmering and pastoral.

Stream “Happy Hour For Mr. Sanders”:

Michael Leonhart Orchestra, Suite Extracts Vol. 1 (Sunnyside)

Michael Leonhart is one of several artists doing really interesting work in a big band context right now. His last album, 2018’s The Painted Lady Suite, consisted of one large work and a few other tracks, all originals. This one, on the other hand, features Leonhart’s arrangements of tunes by Fela Kuti, Ornette Coleman, Howlin’ Wolf, the Wu-Tang Clan, and Spinal Tap. Really. This is what the Orchestra does at its raucous live gigs, and this album is a full-force blowout, with his intricate orchestrations adding new dimensions to the pieces they tackle. Their medley of Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom” and Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” may seem on the surface like the worst kind of dumb postmodern joke, but it really works. The farting baritone sax and the lush, retro-soul way the rest of the horn section handles the Tap melody, turning it into something like a Lalo Schifrin movie theme, is brilliant, and the eventual transition, just shy of the four-minute mark, into Coleman’s desolate rubato ballad (with a solo by Donny McCaslin), carries a surprising emotional weight.

Stream “Big Bottom/Lonely Woman”:

Espen Berg Trio, Free To Play (ODIN)

Norwegian pianist Espen Berg has led a trio with bassist Bárður Reinert Poulsen and drummer Simon Olderskog Albertsen since 2015; this is their third album. It’s high-energy, even aggressive music, nothing like the gentle washes of reverberant melody too often identified as the sound of Norwegian jazz thanks to the efforts of a school of players signed to ECM Records. Berg pounds the piano in a manner not unlike his countryman Håvard Wiik, alternating rippling streams of notes with big, door-slamming chords. On “Episk-Aggressiv Syndrom,” his massive, almost horror-movie opening, backed by Albertsen’s militaristic drumming, sets up a gentle but ominous passage where repetitive lines sound more like he’s drawing back for a punch than playing something beautiful for its own sake, and sure enough, the hammer comes back down soon enough. Poulsen builds a minimal, one-note-at-a-time foundation, allowing the other two to rampage all over … until suddenly the bottom drops out, two minutes in, and the whole thing becomes an extremely abstract landscape of soft scrapes, eerie pings, and distant rumbles. Eventually, structure returns, and things get louder and louder until, basically, the apocalypse occurs.

Stream “Episk-Aggressiv Syndrom”:

Wallace Roney, Blue Dawn – Blue Nights (HighNote)

Trumpeter Wallace Roney is probably best known for being Miles Davis’ backup player when the older man revived his orchestral material at the Montreux Jazz Festival in the late ’80s. That’s too bad, because he’s a strong, individual player who’s made almost two dozen albums as a leader. On his latest release, he’s doing something like what Miles once did, serving as a patron and supporter of younger players. His band on Blue Dawn – Blue Nights includes 18-year-old tenor saxophonist Emilio Modeste, 31-year-old pianist Oscar Williams II, 20-year-old bassist Paul Cuffari, and his 15-year-old nephew Kojo Odu Roney on drums. “New Breed,” written by saxophonist Dave Liebman, is an abstracted post-bop tune not unlike something Davis would have played with his 1965-68 quintet. Roney’s muted horn has a sharp, thin sound that stabs at the melody like an ice pick, as Cuffari and Kojo Roney drive him forward with gentle but insistent force.

Stream “New Breed”:

Alex Sipiagin, NoFo Skies (Blue Room Music)

Russian-born, New York-based trumpeter Alex Sipiagin has been working with a pretty interesting band for a few albums now: Beginning with 2015’s Balance 38-58 and continuing on 2017’s Moments Captured, he’s had John Escreet on keyboards (piano, electric piano, and synth), Matt Brewer on bass, and Eric Harland on drums, with Chris Potter on tenor sax and either David Binney or, as here, Will Vinson on alto. This third release might be the weirdest and most introspective yet. After Harland gets things started with a slightly off-kilter, rattling rhythm and Escreet’s synths drift in from somewhere in the ’80s, “Sky 1″ becomes a delicate conversation among the three horns, with Brewer adding ambient bass booms that seem to come from deep underwater.

Stream “Sky 1″:

Nikola Bankov, Bright Future (AMP)

Alto saxophonist Nikola Bankov is 20 years old, from Slovakia. His band (Jonas Gravlund on guitar, August Korsgaard on synths, Jens Mikkel Madsen on bass, John Riddell on drums) is joined on this debut album by tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake. The music these six players create together is partly jazz, partly rock, and partly electronic, not just because of Korsgaard’s waves of synth or Riddell’s Mark Guiliana-esque rhythms, which clatter and bash more than they swing — Bankov and Blake also play through pedals at times, distorting their horns and deploying echo and reverb and production effects. This music reminds me of what Donny McCaslin’s been doing over the last decade or so, and particularly since working with David Bowie on his final album. “Song For My Country” is a particularly fierce blowout, with an anthemic melody bolstered by dense walls of synth as the two saxophonists trade solos and Riddell hammers the drum kit.

Stream “Song For My Country”:

Matthew Whitaker, Now Hear This (Resilience Music Alliance)

Pianist Matthew Whitaker is only 18, and blind, but this is his second album, and it’s a strong statement of purpose. It includes versions of tunes by Charlie Parker, Eddie Harris, Ahmad Jamal, and others, but Whitaker’s originals reveal a unique voice, supported by guitarist Dave Stryker, bassist Yunior Terry, drummer Ulysses Owens Jr., and percussionist Sammy Figueroa, and a pair of guests: flutist Gabrielle Garo and keyboardist Marc Cary. “Emotions” is a piece he wrote for a performance at the Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School, the only community music school for the blind and visually impaired in the US, where he studied beginning at age five. It surges from powerful blues chords to a Latin interlude to a flourish of synth (also played by Whitaker) that’s just on this side of cheesy, all set to a driving groove from Terry and Owens. Whitaker has just begun studying at Juilliard; it’ll be interesting to hear what he does in the coming years.

Stream “Emotions”:

Clark Gibson, Tri-Colored Eyes (Independent/Self-Released)

Saxophonist Clark Gibson is the Director Of Jazz Studies at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma, but he makes a record every couple of years; this is his fourth album since 2010. On it, he’s joined by tenor saxophonist Jim Pisano, trombonist Euan Edmonds, organist Pat Bianchi, and drummer Jeremy Thomas. It’s fundamentally an old-school soul jazz record. Bianchi’s organ has that after-midnight feel; Thomas’ drumming is minimal and right in the pocket, halfway between sleepy and seductive; and the horns dive deep into the blues. Gibson’s alto is slightly biting, occasionally adding an Ornette Coleman-esque crying note, but for the most part he plays it slow and clean, with the tenor and trombone flanking him and filling out the sound. The album’s closing track, “Slasty,” is a perfect end to the hour-long journey they’ve taken us on; it feels almost like they’re playing through exhaustion, without ever letting the music completely slip out of their grasp.

Stream “Slasty”:

The Adam Larson Band, Listen With Your Eyes (Ropeadope)

Saxophonist Adam Larson is a hustler. He’s been playing since he was a child, and his Bandcamp page lists about six thousand youth jazz programs he participated in, as well as his academic achievements, clubs he’s played, bands he’s been a part of, educational books he’s published … frankly, it’s enough to make your eyes glaze over. I almost didn’t listen to his album, because who could be that much of a try-hard and actually have talent? But I did, and I’m glad. He’s joined on his fourth disc by keyboardist Fabian Almazan, electric bassist Matt Clohesy, and drummer Jimmy Macbride, and the music is a fierce, stabbing blend of hard bop, funk, and weirdness. Almazan’s insane synths, half Bernie Worrell and half Chick Corea, are the core of “False Pageantry,” which is a hard-driving jam featuring a thumping groove and repeated stabbing interruptions that almost drive the whole thing straight off the road, but Larson’s long, linear solo carves a path through the chaos.

Stream “False Pageantry”: