Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – October 2019

Evan Hunter McKnight

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – October 2019

Evan Hunter McKnight

Let me tell you about an amazing band you’ve probably never heard. Over the past few weeks, I’ve become obsessed with the George Adams/Don Pullen Quartet, a group that released twelve albums in eight years, beginning almost exactly 40 years ago.

Saxophonist Adams and pianist Pullen first worked together in one of bassist Charles Mingus’ final bands. They can both be heard on the albums Mingus Moves, Mingus At Carnegie Hall, Changes One, and Changes Two. The pianist had a reputation as an avant-gardist, based on early recordings with saxophonist Giuseppi Logan and drummer Milford Graves. But he had a deep grounding in blues and gospel, as his work with Mingus and his own bands would prove.

Adams was also steeped in blues, funk, and R&B; born in 1940, he got a gig backing Sam Cooke on tour in 1961, and spent several years with organist Bill Doggett in Cleveland before moving to New York in 1968. He played in bands led by drummers Roy Haynes and Art Blakey before joining Mingus’ group on Pullen’s recommendation.

When Adams and Pullen decided to co-lead their own band, they chose longtime Mingus drummer Dannie Richmond and bassist Cameron Brown, who had also played with Blakey and Archie Shepp, among others. On November 2 and 3, 1979, they played a pair of Italian concerts that yielded their first three albums, All That Funk, More Funk, and Don’t Lose Control. Fully half of their catalog was recorded live, and their shows were high-energy blowouts, but it’s on studio albums like 1980’s Earth Beams, 1981’s Life Line, 1983’s City Gates, and 1984’s Decisions that the scope of their work can really be heard.

The quartet’s music drew from a variety of sources, including some unexpected ones. Many of their pieces were bluesy hard bop workouts, often paying tribute to forebears with titles like “Mingus Metamorphosis” or “The Necessary Blues (Or Thank You Very Much, Mr. Monk),” but titles like “Earth Beams” and “Saturday Nite In The Cosmos” showed that they’d absorbed a few things from the spiritual free jazz school of the late ’60s and early ’70s, too. It wasn’t all foot-stomping blare, though. They had a tender side that manifested in the occasional gospel tune (they recorded “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” on Decisions) and even some gently drifting samba pieces.

Between the two of them, Adams and Pullen could create a tidal wave of sound. The pianist’s massive chords and sprawling, bebop-to-gospel-to-free jazz solos were an ideal foundation and counterpoint to the saxophonist’s bellowing horn. Adams had all the power of Archie Shepp, David Murray or Pharoah Sanders, and often ended solos with squalling, gnarled bursts of notes that would later pop up in the work of David S. Ware, but he also liked to show his soft side by playing ballads on the flute. (He also occasionally wanted to sing a blues song, which he’d do in a hoarse, shouty voice that was no more than functional.) Richmond, who’d spent decades with Mingus, was the perfect drummer for music this potentially explosive: his steady beat, and Brown’s bass, as thick as a rubber gym mat, formed an ideal foundation, allowing the two leaders to go as far out as they chose without ever getting lost on the way.

After years of work for European labels like Timeless and Black Saint, Pullen and Adams finally got a US record deal in 1986. The quartet’s final two albums, 1986’s Breakthrough and 1987’s Song Everlasting, came out on Blue Note. They’re both as solid as anything else they did, though it’s easy to wonder if they were a little over it by then; there’s a piece on Breakthrough called “We’ve Been Here All The Time.” (It swings hard as hell, and Adams in particular tears it up.) Sadly, Dannie Richmond died in March 1988, less than a year after the recording of Song Everlasting. The quartet continued for a little while with Lewis Nash on drums, but eventually disbanded. George Adams died in 1992, and Don Pullen died three years later. Cameron Brown is the only member still alive.

This was a really great band that existed in a tough time for hardcore acoustic jazz. They delivered on record and on stage, but there wasn’t much of an audience for this kind of music at the time, and they’ve largely been forgotten now. But if you want to hear big, bicep-flexing jazz played with furious energy and palpable joy, these are the guys, and they deserve to be remembered — and discovered by new listeners. I’ve put together a Spotify playlist that I think gives a good idea of what they did. Here’s a link:

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

Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis (Constellation)

Saxophonist, composer, and multimedia artist Matana Roberts has reached the one-third mark in her epic, 12-volume Coin Coin series of albums. The last one, you may recall, was a solo disc. This time, she’s joined by Hannah Marcus on guitars, fiddle, and accordion; Sam Shalabi on guitar and oud; bassist Nicolas Caloia; and percussionist Ryan Sawyer; as well as guests Steve Swell on trombone and Ryan White on vibraphone. The tracks are a mix of surging group playing, raw and noisy solos, theatrical readings of text, and haunted background vocals from the entire ensemble and a few other folks. It shifts on a dime, but never feels contrived or deliberately collage-y. Most of the pieces blend together into long suites; “Wild Fire Bare” is no exception, coursing smoothly into “Fit To Be Tied,” but I’m plucking it out so you can hear it as a taster. It opens with some of Roberts’ most blistering sax, with the guitar and violin going all noise-rock in the background as Sawyer demolishes his kit. There is a quiet passage in the final stretch, but even that surges with barely contained power. This album — this series of albums — is a staggering work of art, a must-hear.

Stream “Wild Fire Bare”:

Jaimie Branch, Fly Or Die II: Bird Dogs Of Paradise (International Anthem)

Trumpeter Jaimie Branch’s second album as a leader builds on the achievements of 2017’s stunning Fly Or Die. Cellist Tomeka Reid has been replaced by Lester St. Louis, but otherwise the personnel is the same, with bassist Jason Ajemian and drummer Chad Taylor digging deep into the minimal, bluesy grooves. Branch has written words for two tracks here, which she delivers in a hazy but impassioned voice that complements her piercing, white-hot trumpet. “Prayer For Amerikkka Pt. 1 & 2” is a crawling blues like a cross between Charles Mingus’ “Fables Of Faubus” and Julius Hemphill’s “Dogon A.D.,” until it speeds up in its final stretch like Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln’s “Freedom Day.” Branch declaims about gentrification, racism, and the abuse of refugees and migrants as background voices chatter and argue. When her horn begins to scream, it’s a call to attention and action, fierce and insistent.

Stream “Prayer For Amerikkka Pt. 1 & 2”:

Yazz Ahmed, Polyhymnia (Ropeadope)

Trumpeter Yazz Ahmed’s follow-up to 2017’s La Saboteuse began as a commissioned work to be performed on International Women’s Day in 2015. Polyhymnia is the ancient Greek muse of music, poetry and dance, and the various tracks are dedicated to historical figures, including Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, and Malala Yousafzai. The music is performed by an ensemble two dozen strong and almost entirely female, including players who’ve appeared in this column many times like saxophonists Camilla George and Nubya Garcia, guitarist Shirley Tetteh, and pianist Sarah Tandy. The nearly 10-minute opening track, “Lahan Al-Mansour,” is dedicated to Haifa Al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first female movie director. It’s a surging big band piece that combines Arabic tonalities with the broad scope of a movie score, rising and falling in thrilling waves of sound.

Stream “Lahan Al-Mansour”:

Tomeka Reid Quartet, Old New (Cuneiform)

Cellist Tomeka Reid has been part of so many amazing bands and projects, up to and including the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, that her own quartet with guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Jason Roebke, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. The band’s self-titled debut came out in 2015 on Thirsty Ear and received relatively little promotion. This second release arrives as Reid’s profile is even higher, and Halvorson is a newly-minted MacArthur Fellow, so pay attention, because it rules. Reid is a fiercely powerful soloist, leaving Roebke and Fujiwara alone to keep the bottom end throbbing as she and Halvorson throw one stinging, searing outburst after another at each other. On “Wabash Blues,” Halvorson’s guitar lines continually sound like they’re sliding out of her control thanks to her mastery of her relatively simple battery of effects, and Reid’s cello positively screams. Around three and a half minutes into this five-minute piece, the rhythm section takes over, and Fujiwara’s solo is like a series of exponentially larger explosions.

Stream “Wabash Blues”:

The Comet Is Coming, The Afterlife (Impulse!)

The trio of “King Shabaka” Hutchings, “Danalogue” Leavers and “Betamax” Hallett are back with a 29-minute EP of hypnotic sax mantras layered atop thick waves of synth and hard-driving live and programmed beats. It’s very much of a piece with Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery, released earlier this year, and its peaks might be even higher than that album’s. Poet Joshua Idehen turns up on the opening track, but the other five pieces are all instrumentals that shift between spacey, drifting clouds of sound and absolutely slamming dancefloor bangers. “Lifeforce Part I” is one of the former, while “Part II” is the latter. Taken together, they have the build and release of an Underworld track, with Hutchings’ saxophone delivering fierce, Fela Kuti-esque mantras over Leavers’ oozing, bass-drenched synth and Hallett’s pounding drums and programmed handclaps. It’s one of the most wave-your-arms-and-scream things I’ve ever heard under the umbrella of “jazz,” and it deserves to be played as loud as possible.

Stream “Lifeforce Part II”:

Joe Armon-Jones, Turn To Clear View (Brownswood)

The latest release from keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones, who’s a member of Ezra Collective as well as a solo artist, is a dense, funky thicket of sound that will remind many listeners of Herbie Hancock’s 1970s albums like Man-Child and Flood. Guests like Georgia Anne Muldrow, Nubya Garcia, and others pop up, but it’s always Armon-Jones’ own voice that gives the album its heart. His compositions blend funk, dub, and exploratory jazz fusion into something that sounds spacey yet grounded. “Gnawa Sweet” features a rich trumpet solo over complex, dancing rhythms and layers of vintage-sounding keyboards, all produced in a bass-heavy, swirling style.

Stream “Gnawa Sweet”:

Ethan Iverson Quartet With Tom Harrell, Common Practice (ECM)

I know Ethan Iverson a little. We follow each other on Twitter, I’ve interviewed him before, and I read and enjoy his website. He knows his jazz history, and enjoys learning more and sharing what he learns. That said, I was prepared to hate this record on general principles. An album of standards holds very little appeal for me in 2019. Some of the pieces this band (Iverson on piano, Tom Harrell on trumpet, Ben Street on bass, Eric McPherson on drums) performs here are ones I would be happy to never hear again in my life, like “All The Things You Are,” “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” and “I Can’t Get Started.” The fact that the band’s work on two Iverson originals, “Jed From Teaneck” and “Philadelphia Creamer,” is an order of magnitude more energized only solidifies my belief that they should have recorded nothing but new music. That said, by the time I was finished listening to it, this record had won me over, because they are clearly taking pleasure from these songs. There’s nothing rote about this material, even if you’ve heard most of these songs a hundred times before. The version of “Sentimental Journey” is a highlight; Harrell’s slightly squeaky, slightly smeared trumpet soars over Iverson’s slow-dancing piano and the rhythm section’s tick-and-boom.

Stream “Sentimental Journey”:

Chris Lightcap, SuperBigmouth (Pyroclastic)

Bassist Chris Lightcap has two main bands. Bigmouth features Chris Cheek and Tony Malaby on saxophones, Craig Taborn on keyboards, and Gerald Cleaver on drums. Superette has guitarists Jonathan Goldberger and Curtis Hasselbring and drummer Dan Reiser. On this album, he combines them into a single eight-piece unit that absolutely tears shit up. One of my favorite things about this album, beyond the music, is a really cool diagram inside the CD folder that shows you exactly where everybody is in the sonic field: one guitarist, one saxophonist and one drummer on each side, with Lightcap (playing electric throughout, by the way) and Taborn in the middle. It’s worth owning the CD just so you can stare at it while you listen. The album goes through a lot of moods, but most tunes focus on long, winding unison melodies backed by jackhammer double drums, and every once in a while someone will step out for a solo, but this is largely ensemble music that owes as much to prog rock as to jazz. “Queenside,” on which Tony Malaby and Jonathan Goldberger both get time in the spotlight, is built on a massive, complicated riff that sounds like something off a recent Opeth album. Both saxophonist and guitarist are at a peak of screaming intensity; it’s one of the most headbanging jazz tunes I’ve ever heard.

Stream “Queenside”:

Kris Davis, Diatom Ribbons (Pyroclastic)

Pianist Kris Davis is a composer of challenging but thrilling music; her work has intellectual rigor, sometimes seeming like a puzzle to be solved, but as you’re listening you remember that once you get absorbed in them, puzzles are fucking fun. On this album, she’s assembled an absolutely killer ensemble, including saxophonists JD Allen and Tony Malaby, Ches Smith on vibes, Marc Ribot and Nels Cline on guitars, Trevor Dunn on electric bass, Val Jeanty on turntables, and Terri Lyne Carrington on drums. Esperanza Spalding sings on two tracks. These players, from various mini-scenes within the broader modern jazz scene, combine in all kinds of exciting ways on this album. On the album’s title track, Jeanty manipulates Cecil Taylor’s voice from an old radio interview as Davis sets up a hypnotic, cellular prepared piano figure, in effect providing a live example of what he’s talking about, as Carrington’s drumming builds excitement, setting the stage for the saxophones’ entry. Allen solos first, then Malaby, each man demonstrating his own interpretation of Davis’ concepts as Jeanty’s electronics hiss and whoosh behind them.

Stream “Diatom Ribbons”:

Marquis Hill, Love Tape (Ropeadope)

Trumpeter Marquis Hill is a peer of guys like Christian Scott, Keyon Harrold, and Theo Croker. Like them, he’s never known a world without hip-hop, so it’s a crucial element of his music. This half-hour release is dedicated to women (except for an opening track that features the voice of the late Roy Hargrove), and on several tracks they’re heard discussing the nature of love and what they want from a partner. On the short but potent “Beautiful Us,” Hill — who plays flugelhorn throughout — spins lush, romantic melodies that are pure bedroom fuel, while using a Delfonics sample as a hook. There’s not a bad track on this record, and the whole thing goes past so quickly that there’s no reason in the world not to just glide along with it.

Stream “Beautiful Us”:

Petter Eldh, Koma Saxo (We Jazz)

Swedish bassist/producer Petter Eldh has assembled a killer new band featuring Otis Sandsjö, Jonas Kullhammar, and Mikko Innanen on saxes and Christian Lillinger on drums. The group is called Koma Saxo, but for some reason the debut album is credited to Eldh alone. Their music has a raucous, cranked-up energy that reminds me of the Julius Hemphill Sextet (a six-sax band that swung hard without any traditional rhythm instruments) and the Art Ensemble Of Chicago at their bluesiest and stomping-est. The bass and drums use almost dub levels of reverb at times, making the swirling horn riffs into something dreamlike and disorienting. On “Koma Tema,” they start off in a bicep-flexing R&B groove, with Eldh’s bass positively massive, before the various horns wander off on solo journeys, regroup, then dissolve into clouds of harmonics in the piece’s final minute.

Stream “Koma Tema”:

Rez Abbasi, A Throw Of Dice (Whirlwind Recordings)

Guitarist Rez Abbasi and his Silent Ensemble — saxophonist/flutist Pawan Benjamin, bassist/cellist Jennifer Vincent, Carnatic percussionist Rohan Krishnamurthy, and drummer Jake Goldbas — have written and recorded a new score for a 1929 Indian-German silent film. It’s dramatic music that moves through a variety of moods, incorporating Indian instruments but also blending jazz with surprisingly ferocious rock, and equally surprisingly mellow mood pieces. Several of the pieces are quite short, running two minutes or less, but “Wedding Preparation” is one of the longest, and also one of the most compelling. Goldbas cranks out a martial, driving beat, with additional percussion from Krishnamurthy and impossibly thick, almost dubby bass from Vincent, making me wonder if this is a shotgun wedding. (I’ve never seen the movie.) Abbasi and Benjamin trade off lines with the saxophonist focusing on soprano, giving it a keening, reedy sound, while the guitarist heads into a bluesy, almost Bill Frisell-ish zone.

Stream “Wedding Preparation”:

Dave Holland/Zakir Hussain/Chris Potter, Good Hope (Edition)

Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain has brought bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist Chris Potter together in a new group called the Crosscurrents Trio. The music, as you might expect, is pretty sparse at times; the tablas don’t take up as much sonic space as a drum kit, no matter how you produce or mix them. Still, that openness and spaciousness gives each musician plenty of space to wander, and Potter in particular takes great advantage of that. On “J Bhai,” Holland starts things slowly with deep, booming notes, which Hussain tap-dances around in delicate rattles, until Potter enters on tenor, taking an introspective but still melodic and gutsy solo. Holland seizes the spotlight again, and when Potter returns, the two men play a unison line before doing some almost bebop stuff with just the tabla to guide them.

Stream “J Bhai”:

Joshua Redman With Brooklyn Rider, Sun On Sand (Nonesuch)

This is quite a thing — part jazz, part modern composition, with some elements that can’t be ascribed to any genre with ease. Saxophonist Joshua Redman, bassist Scott Colley, and drummer Satoshi Takeishi are joined by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider to perform a fully written score by saxophonist and composer Patrick Zimmerli. The music is densely layered, with a frantic energy that still maintains incredible discipline. There is a certain jazzy looseness to some of it, but because the strings always need to be in place on time, it can never truly break free, and Takeishi’s drumming is more about maintaining momentum or dropping in orchestral accents (some of them quite thunderous) than swinging. The opening track, “Flash,” lives up to its title. It sounds like an ensemble playing two different Philip Glass compositions at the same time, twice as fast. It’s a literally breathtaking display of technique on Redman’s part; I didn’t know he could hit this many notes with this kind of speed, articulation and precision, and the strings are positively heroic.

Stream “Flash”:

Miles Okazaki Quartet, The Sky Below (Pi Recordings)

The Sky Below is guitarist/composer Miles Okazaki’s sequel to 2016’s Trickster, which featured keyboardist Craig Taborn, bassist Anthony Tidd, and drummer Sean Rickman. This time out, Matt Mitchell replaces Taborn, but the music is strongly related to what came before, because Okazaki is actually telling a story. Yes, this is now a series of concept albums. Fortunately, it can also be appreciated as just very beautiful, intricate music. “The Castaway” is a slow but hard-edged piece on which Okazaki’s forcefully picked acoustic guitar, and biting electric, combine with Mitchell’s synths and piano to transform into something that has the feel of a gentle, meditative take on ’70s fusion (think Mahavishnu Orchestra in ballad mode) while Tidd and Rickman trudge determinedly onward.

Stream “The Castaway”:

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