Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – November 2019

People often talk about particular jazz labels having an aesthetic, a through-line that encompasses most if not all of their releases. Very few labels have been as convincingly tagged this way, in the public mind, as ECM. For five decades, they have been seen as the home for a particular sort of stately, reserved, starkly beautiful jazz that politely requests your focused attention — their CDs begin with five seconds of silence, a sort of cooling-off moment between whatever you were listening to before and whatever’s about to come — and rewards it.

Of course, ECM doesn’t have a single sound, even if the production favored by label head Manfred Eicher and his longtime engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug (who died 11/5 at 75) always had certain qualities in common, in particular a precise combination of clarity and room sound and very carefully deployed reverb. But within those parameters, the variety of music released on the label is stunning, so when ECM put together a 50th anniversary concert at Jazz At Lincoln Center at the beginning of this month, the question of who would perform was wide open.

The approach they settled on was brilliant. There were close to a dozen acts, each getting 10-15 minutes onstage. It began with Brazilian pianist Egberto Gismonti, performing solo in an extremely lyrical and romantic manner. That was followed by the trio of saxophonist Joe Lovano, pianist Marilyn Crispell, and drummer Carmen Castaldi, playing two pieces from their album Trio Tapestry, released earlier this year.

Throughout the night, solo performers like bassist Larry Grenadier, and pianists Nik Bärtsch and Craig Taborn, alternated with duos and trios. Easily the most thrilling portion of the concert, for me, was two back-to-back sets. The first was a duo performance by pianist Vijay Iyer, who started out on electric piano, and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. The two improvised together for about 10 minutes in a way that was simultaneously soft and gentle, but throbbing with energy. Then Iyer left the stage, but Smith remained. He was joined by guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Andrew Cyrille, and they performed a piece from Lebroba, the album they made together last year. It was louder and more aggressive than what Smith and Iyer had done, but his stunningly beautiful trumpet playing was the common factor, each note like an ice-cold dagger fired straight through every audience member’s heart.

The day after the ECM concert, the word began to circulate that Gerry Teekens, founder of the Dutch label Criss Cross, had died on Halloween at 83. Beginning in 1980, Criss Cross released hundreds of albums by a vast range of performers, always hewing to a straightahead, hard bop-derived style. Criss Cross might have had even more of a focused aesthetic than ECM; as writer Ted Panken (who wrote liner notes for many of the label’s releases) recalled, Teekens always wanted “a burner and a blues.” Over the years, a few surprising releases emerged, especially from players Teekens had come to trust, like alto saxophonist David Binney and trumpeter Alex Sipiagin — they were permitted to bring in electronics and play around with more modern sounds. But overall, Criss Cross was always a label for folks interested in maintaining and engaging with the jazz tradition as it was understood in the 1950s and early 1960s. A lot of players who are well known today, like Mark Turner, Chris Potter, Orrin Evans, and JD Allen, recorded for Criss Cross early in their careers, and some of them returned again and again, either as leaders or as sidemen.

I reached out to some artists I know who had recorded for Criss Cross, to get their thoughts on Teekens. Bassist Eric Revis, who played on nine albums for the label, often in the company of Orrin Evans, wrote, “Gerry was truly a throwback to the days we all have read about in terms of an ‘Old School Record Dude,’ for better and worse. I admire that he kept a flame alive that was dwindling rapidly. He provided a lot of us the opportunity to record and in some cases pay rent.”

Drummer Johnathan Blake, whose 2014 release Gone, But Not Forgotten features both Potter and Turner, wrote, “He was very passionate about the music. Being a musician himself he knew what the music was supposed to sound like. He had a gift for putting musicians together who sometimes never played with one another, but somehow made amazing recordings together. He was very set in his ways, sometimes to a fault in my opinion, but he knew the direction and sound he wanted for his label. I remember when were going over the mixes for my record I wanted to change some things, and his response was, ‘But Johnathan, then it won’t sound like a Criss Cross record.’ I thought about that, and said to myself, ‘Wow, this guy really knows what he wants for his label.’ From its mix to the artwork for the cover. I take my hat off to Gerry Teekens for his dedication, and love for this music we call jazz.”

Trombonist Steve Davis wrote, “Gerry Teekens gave so many musicians a chance to record, if not a first chance to record as a leader, as was the case with me. When I was coming up in the late ’80s/early ’90s, the Criss Cross Jazz label epitomized the ‘real-deal’ New York sound. Most of my favorite musicians were recording for Teekens, so it was a dream come true to finally get to do so myself in 1995, when I recorded The Jaunt. I stayed with his label for about a decade afterward, making seven CDs as a leader and appearing on 14 more as a sideman… a total of 21 dates for Criss Cross. I can’t thank Gerry enough for the opportunities he provided musicians to cultivate and document all kinds of music. His label got it out there to the listeners, especially the diehard jazz fans around the world … who love Criss Cross recordings! You could always tell Gerry truly loved the music and enjoyed being around the musicians during record dates. He seldom if ever got in the way of the music. After a take, he might comment through the talk-back mic, ‘That was great.’ Or, ‘I think we do another take.’ Gerry had a truly unique accent and speaking voice. You’d recognize it immediately from all of the brief phone conversations you’d make over to the Netherlands to speak with him to line up and negotiate money and personnel for the next record date. The calls were on the landline (no cell phones or email yet) so you had to get right to the point, as it was expensive! Gerry was tough and could be opinionated, but ultimately he was fair and open to new musicians entering the fold. I had to work on him for a while to consider hiring the great saxophonists Mike DiRubbo and Jimmy Greene. It didn’t take long for him to fall in love with their playing and give them each several record dates of their own. Musicians like Eric Alexander, Peter Bernstein, Mark Turner and Brad Mehldau advocated for me in the same way. It was a rite of passage to become a Criss Cross recording artist … I am very proud to be a part of the Criss Cross legacy.”

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

Terri Lyne Carrington & Social Science, Waiting Game (Motema)

Drummer and educator Terri Lyne Carrington has been balancing art and activism for several years, striving for gender justice in the jazz scene while addressing social issues in her music. Waiting Game, recorded with a new band that includes pianist Aaron Parks, guitarist Matthew Stevens, multi-instrumentalist Morgan Guerin, and vocalists Debo Ray and Kassa Overall, is a double disc. The first half is a collection of 11 songs featuring guest rappers, singers, and spoken word performers, including Meshell Ndegeocello, Rapsody, Malcolm Jamal-Warner, and others. The second half is a four-part, 42-minute improvised suite, “Dreams And Desperate Measures,” featuring Parks, Stevens, and bassist Esperanza Spalding. “Trapped In The American Dream,” featuring vocals from Overall, opens the album with a meditative beat, evocative piano, and subtly stinging guitar from Stevens.

Stream “Trapped In The American Dream”:

Dave Douglas, Engage (Greenleaf Music)

Last year, trumpeter Dave Douglas recorded Uplift, a collection of music that was sold at first only to subscribers, via Bandcamp. Eventually, though, it became a proper album made available to the broader public. This year, he’s done it again, with a new band. Engage features Anna Webber on alto and bass flutes and tenor sax; Jeff Parker on guitar; Tomeka Reid on cello; Nick Dunston on bass; and Kate Gentile on drums. The album opener, “Showing Up,” sets the tone for the whole disc. The melody, built around a major triad (or so the liner notes say — I can’t read music) has a slow forward marching quality, beginning with Douglas’s trumpet over cello, bass, and drums, the guitar gradually joining in, with the flute entering last. Douglas and Webber seem to be singing together, in an almost holding-hands-and-swaying sort of way; he’s long had an interest in folk melodies and traditional songs, and that shows up here. Parker’s guitar solo takes the music in an unexpected direction, though, adding elements of uncertainty and zigzagging like he can hear Gentile’s rock-steady beat behind him, but he doesn’t feel particularly obligated to stick with her.

Stream “Showing Up”:

The Bad Plus, Activate Infinity (Edition)

The second album by the new version of the Bad Plus, with Orrin Evans in the piano chair, crept out into the world at the end of October. Like its predecessor, Never Stop II, it contains all original material: four pieces by bassist Reid Anderson and two each by Evans and drummer Dave King. The pianist wrote “The Red Door,” and it’s an uptempo piece that begins with a single low, heavy chord followed by a dancing, almost Thelonious Monk-ish melody. When Anderson and King lock in, though, they’re playing a light, flickering rhythm that swings but also seems to bounce. The piece’s middle section takes a sharp left turn into almost free playing, though, with Evans’ piano suddenly diverging from the core melody entirely, like he’s passed through the titular door into a dark room and is wandering around bumping into things, as King’s drumming takes on a scurrying, almost Rashied Ali-esque aspect. Eventually, of course, things come back into line, with Evans returning to the melody while King is still soloing. It takes a few seconds for him to re-establish the groove, but when he does, it’s even more energetic than before.

Stream “The Red Door”:

Junius Paul, Ism (International Anthem)

Bassist Junius Paul has been an integral part of the Chicago jazz scene since the early 2000s, playing on albums by trumpeter Corey Wilkes, saxophonist Ernest Dawkins, and drummer/producer Makaya McCraven, among others. He’s currently a member of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, and appears on their recent double CD. This set, also a double disc, is his debut as a leader, and includes tracks from seven different sessions or live performances between 2016 and 2019, with a range of personnel. “Paris,” one of two extremely long pieces, is performed by the trio of Paul, McCraven, and trumpeter Marquis Hill. For nearly twelve minutes, these three drive each other faster and faster, harder and harder, without ever losing the powerful, trance-like groove.

Stream “Paris”:

Mareike Wiening, Metropolis Paradise (Greenleaf Music)

If you don’t live in New York, you may not know what Manhattanhenge is. Twice a year, the rising and setting sun aligns perfectly with the east-west streets in Manhattan, and everyone rushes out to photograph it for Instagram. Drummer Mareike Wiening, born in Germany, has been living in New York for the last six years, and the tunes on her debut album are dedications to her new home. The band includes tenor saxophonist Rich Perry, pianist Dan Tepfer, guitarist Alex Goodman, and bassist Johannes Felscher, and the music has a gentle, early-evening sort of chamber quality. It’s basically the jazz equivalent of Manhattanhenge: lush and romantic, but also subdued and very tasteful. The title piece is the album in a nutshell, beginning with slowly cycling piano and bass before the saxophone and drums tiptoe in, with the guitar just slightly behind. Eventually, Tepfer and Goodman begin trading fleet, lyrical phrases back and forth, as Wiening pumps up the energy level, only to drop it back down again as Perry launches a perfect sunset ballad solo.

Stream “Metropolis Paradise”:

Santiago Bosch, Galactic Warrior (Independent/Self-Released)

Venezuelan keyboardist Santiago Bosch’s second album as a leader is a soundtrack to a nonexistent video game. The music is entirely composed, though it has the freedom of improvisation at times. The ensemble includes Bosch on piano, Fender Rhodes, and synths; Tucker Antell and George Garzone on tenor saxes; Darren Barrett on trumpet; Tim Miller on electric guitar; Dany Anka on electric bass; Jared Henderson on upright bass; Juan Ale Saenz on drums; and Vasilis Kostas on laouto (a Greek lute). Some of the pieces are overtly soundtrack-y, but “Living In The Past” is a hard-driving prog-fusion jam that showcases some seriously high-tech, Allan Holdsworth-ish guitar from Miller and Bosch going full Return To Forever on the keyboards.

Stream “Living In The Past”:

Michele Rosewoman’s New Yor-Uba, Hallowed (Advance Dance Disques)

Pianist and composer Michele Rosewoman has been leading her New Yor-Uba ensemble for over 30 years, blending contemporary jazz with a variety of traditional Cuban rhythms and folkloric musical forms. This isn’t “Latin jazz”; it’s an often stunning synthesis of old and new, assembled by someone who’s spent her life studying this material and making it her own. The bulk of Hallowed is taken up by a 10-part suite, “Oru de Oro” (“room of gold”), which journeys through a variety of rhythms dedicated to various Orisha deities. Atop that constantly fluctuating bed of percussion, a five-piece horn section lays down complex, almost big-band melodies and stinging, adventurous solos. Two stand-alone tracks conclude the album. “The Wind Is The First To Know (For Oya)” is traditional, and begins with Fender Rhodes and bass before shifting to vocals — lead and chorus — and percussion. Eventually, the entire ensemble comes steaming back in.

Stream “The Wind Is The First To Know (For Oya)”:

Esbjörn Svensson Trio, Live In Gothenburg (ACT Music)

The Esbjörn Svensson Trio (aka e.s.t.) were a tremendously successful recording and live act in Europe, and a lot of European jazz fans have missed them a lot since Svensson died in a scuba accident in 2008. Naturally, their former label, ACT, has been digging into the archives: in 2018, they released a live concert from London in 2005, and now this 2001 recording from their home country has appeared. Their music incorporated electronics and modern production techniques, transforming the traditional piano trio into something poppier and more organic and attracting a broader audience in the process. “Good Morning Susie Soho,” the title track from their 2000 studio album, is expanded here from just under six minutes to almost twelve. Dan Berglund’s bass is fed through what sounds like a combination of fuzz and wah-wah pedals, and Magnus Öström’s drumming has the sharp, ringing snare of ’90s alt-rock; Svensson’s piano, meanwhile, has the lyricism and gospel edge of Keith Jarrett.

Stream “Good Morning Susie Soho”:

Eri Yamamoto Trio & Choral Chameleon, Goshu Ondo Suite (AUM Fidelity)

Pianist Eri Yamamoto has always seemed like an outlier on the AUM Fidelity roster, even though she’s recorded extensively with bassist William Parker, and with drummer Whit Dickey as well. Her own work, recorded with her long-standing trio of bassist David Ambrosio and drummer Ikuo Takeuchi, often has a raindrops-on-a-pond gentleness, but it swings hard at times, too. The bulk of this album is taken up by the seven-part title suite, which combines her trio with the 50-member vocal ensemble Choral Chameleon. The music is based on the “Goshu Ondo” circle dance song, performed at a summer festival in Japan. The swooping voices of the choir, delivering the Japanese phrases in an exultant and life-giving manner over the powerful performance of the trio, brings to mind the work of Alice Coltrane, as well as Andrew Hill’s 1969 album Lift Every Voice. This is joyous music.

Stream “Part 1”:

Dan Weiss Trio Plus 1, Utica Box (Sunnyside)

Percussionist Dan Weiss leads a quartet on this release: pianist Jacob Sacks, and two bassists, Thomas Morgan plucking and Eivind Opsvik bowing (mostly, but not always). This combination of basses is similar to what Ornette Coleman was doing in his final groups, but there, the bowed bass — played by Tony Falanga — was operating in a slightly higher register, like a cello. Here, Opsvik mostly stays low. Two pieces, “Jamerson” and “Bonham,” reveal Weiss’s influences from beyond the world of jazz, even if neither piece sounds like a Motown or a Led Zeppelin song. The nearly 12-minute “Orange” rolls out like an endless carpet of drums, Sacks’ piano as subtle as a Morton Feldman piece at certain points and the two bassists rumbling and thrumming. Even in its quietest passages, the piece, which is written in such a way that it’s impossible to tell what’s improvised (if anything) and what’s not, has a simmering intensity that’s closer to modern classical than jazz. Like the rest of this album, it gets more beautiful the more carefully you listen.

Stream “Orange”:

Michael Formanek Very Practical Trio, Even Better (Intakt)

Bassist Michael Formanek’s new trio combines two long-term creative relationships into a new group. He was a member of saxophonist Tim Berne’s Bloodcount and other ensembles beginning in the 1990s, and has been playing with guitarist Mary Halvorson in the trio Thumbscrew and other groups over the last decade. Because there’s no drummer, the musicians are required to create rhythm themselves rather than have it imposed on them. On the opening track, “Suckerpunch,” Formanek lays down a thick, bouncing bass line as Berne and Halvorson intertwine a long, complicated melody. Eventually, around two minutes in, they split off into simultaneous solos that have nothing to do with each other — Berne is squalling and squawking, while Halvorson is picking out rapid-fire runs and hitting her delay pedal to make it sound like the strings are sliding off the neck. Formanek, too, is exploring, but still manages to keep the floor underneath everyone.

Stream “Suckerpunch”:

Gerald Cleaver & Violet Hour, Live At Firehouse 12 (Sunnyside)

A little over a decade ago, drummer Gerald Cleaver made the album Detroit, in tribute to his hometown. On this release, he reconvenes that band — JD Allen on tenor sax, Andrew Bishop on various reeds, Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, Ben Waltzer on piano, and Chris Lightcap on bass — for a ferocious performance of four tracks from Detroit and one additional piece. While at its core this is hard-swinging post-bop, descended from the Miles Davis quintet of 1965-68 (and Kenny Cox’s Contemporary Jazz Quintet, a band well known in Detroit but with little national profile), the members are willing to go pretty far out. The 11-minute “Tale Of Bricks” builds from a slow drum intro and a simmering piano solo to some complex three-horn interplay, followed by fierce solos from Pelt, Bishop and Allen, as Cleaver explodes behind the kit.

Stream “Tale Of Bricks”:

David S. Ware New Quartet, Théâtre Garonne, 2008 (AUM Fidelity)

Following the dissolution of his legendary quartet with Matthew Shipp, William Parker, and a succession of drummers, saxophonist David S. Ware formed a new group with guitarist Joe Morris, Parker, and drummer Warren Smith. They recorded one album, 2009’s Shakti; Morris departed, and the Ware/Parker/Smith trio made 2010’s Onecept, calling it quits after that. Since Ware’s death in 2012, AUM Fidelity has released two archival collections of studio and live material by the trio, and now the quartet gets their time in the spotlight with this concert recording. Three of the pieces performed over the course of the 73-minute album come from Shakti, but “Durga” appears only here. It’s a ferocious, nearly 18-minute blowout, but the presence of a guitarist rather than a pianist gives it a tighter, more groove-oriented feel, and Morris takes a fantastic solo in between long, lung-busting outbursts from Ware, as the rhythm section erupts in a constant but precise manner. Smith is a somewhat more minimalist drummer than others the saxophonist played with, preferring to keep things tight, like a rockslide in a tunnel.

Stream “Durga”:

Saxophone Summit, Street Talk (Enja)

Saxophonists Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano formed Saxophone Summit in 1999 with Michael Brecker. Joined by pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Billy Hart, they recorded a mix of originals and late-period John Coltrane tracks on 2004’s Gathering Of Spirits. Brecker died in 2007, and Ravi Coltrane joined the group for 2008’s Seraphic Light and 2017’s Visitation. On this fourth album, he’s been replaced by alto player Greg Osby, and the music is all original, with each band member contributing one piece. “A Portrait” is written by bassist Cecil McBee, and he grants himself a short introduction, but the piece itself is built around a fanfare-like three-horn melody, after which each man takes a passionate but melodic and anchored solo.

Stream “A Portrait”:

William Hooker, Symphonie Of Flowers (ORG Music)

Drummer William Hooker has released a double LP with a variety of personnel, and it’s tremendous. One track is a duo with pianist Mara Rosenbloom; another is a trio featuring Rosenbloom and saxophonist Stephen Gauci. Two others feature a larger ensemble that includes electronic musician Eriq Robinson, saxophonist Devin Waldman, and drummer Marc Edwards, among others. The first three tracks, a suite of sorts, feature piano and multiple drummers. On “Chain Gangs,” Edwards, Warren Smith, and Michael Thompson, plus Hooker for a thunderous, nearly 10-minute workout that’s like a cross between Matthew Shipp and early DJ Shadow. Seriously, you can’t tell me these guys aren’t playing breakbeats here.

Stream “Chain Gangs”: