Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – January 2020

Has Winter Jazzfest peaked? When I was out exploring the annual weekend marathon (105 performances spread across 11 venues), it felt significantly less manic and crowded than it had in previous years. The only room I couldn’t get into was Zinc Bar, which was much too small for the crowd drawn by the performers they had booked. The shows at the renovated Webster Hall were busy, but you hardly felt like you needed to squeeze inside; I was sequestered in an upstairs balcony with plenty of room to sit on a couch or walk around. Other shows I attended — at SOBs, Subculture, and the Zürcher Gallery — were full but not oppressively so. Maybe it was a question of the lineup this year; when I looked over the list and made my plans, there weren’t that many shows about which I thought, Fuck, I’ve gotta see that. In fact, there was only one of those, and I got in with no problems.

On Friday night, I started out at SOBs, where the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble were playing, after a short performance by a Chicago-based footwork dance crew. Hypnotic have changed. Once upon a time, these sons of the late trumpeter Philip Cohran, whose own music fell somewhere between the Sun Ra Arkestra and the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, played a hard-driving, funky, but abstract and spiritual sort of parade jazz. It was possible to hear echoes of Fela Kuti and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band at the same time. At this performance, though, they were wearing slick suits like a “grown and sexy” R&B revue, and the music had a much more commercial bent. I half expected them to break out into unison dance steps onstage.

In search of something more challenging, I headed to Webster Hall, where trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire was playing with his quartet — Sam Harris on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass, and Justin Brown on drums. I’m not sure whether they played any new material or just explored their back catalog, but it was a really good set. Akinmusire has a tone on the trumpet that’s extraordinarily difficult to maintain. He rarely screams, staying instead more or less in the middle of the horn’s range, but he also has a sort of looseness and bagginess to his phrases that keep him forever on the edge of slipping out of tune, making a sound like the air coming out of a balloon. Brown is a forceful, pummeling drummer who never lets the energy level onstage flag, and Raghavan is the perfect midpoint between the two of them, bouncing steadily along and rarely drawing attention to himself. Harris, who got a more than fair amount of solo space, takes an approach similar to Akinmusire’s; his melodies seem like they’re slipping away from him, but they never are. This is very suspenseful music, even at its most subdued.

The next night, I saw the Cookers, an all-star band led by trumpeter David Weiss and featuring trumpeter Eddie Henderson, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Ralph Peterson. This was my second time seeing them, but my first with Peterson in the fold. Normally, Billy Hart’s in the drum chair, and the other man’s presence really changed things up. He’s an absolute warrior behind the kit; as pianist Ethan Iverson once wrote, “Women wept; children hid; pianists fainted; horn players sweated. (Bass players were seen but not heard.)” I had come in most interested to hear George Cables, because he’d had major health problems recently — in fact, he had to have one of his legs amputated above the knee. But he seemed fully recovered, and was playing beautifully, rising to every challenge mounted by the drummer or the horn players, particularly Billy Harper, who took the lion’s share of the solos while I was in the audience.

I had to leave before they finished, though, to make sure I got to Zürcher Gallery to see South African pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, whose name you may have spotted in my Best Jazz Albums Of The 2010s retrospective. He’s got an album coming out on Blue Note in April — he’s the first South African artist ever to sign with the label — and I can’t wait for people to hear it, because it’s tremendous music. As a player and a composer, he sits right beside McCoy Tyner and Pharoah Sanders, playing a forceful but lyrical style of modal jazz that incorporates African rhythmic concepts and showcases lyrics by his wife, Omagugu Makhathini.

His band included alto saxophonist Logan Richardson, bassist Rahsaan Carter, drummer Damion Reid, and a percussionist whose name I didn’t catch. The pieces they performed had a swelling, passionate quality, exploratory but never losing an essential earthbound feeling. Makhathini is at the head of a small but powerful movement of young South African jazz players, and the higher his international profile rises, the better it will be for that country’s music scene and jazz as a whole. He’s a major talent. Here’s a video of him and a different band playing “Umyazi,” a track from the forthcoming album, at the Blue Note a
year ago, in January 2019:

And now, here are the best new jazz albums of the month!

Jeff Parker, Suite For Max Brown (International Anthem/Nonesuch)

Guitarist Jeff Parker’s first album for International Anthem, The New Breed, was named for a clothing store his late father owned; this one is a dedication to his still-living mother, Maxine “Max” Brown. He constructed it alone, programming beats and setting up loops over which he’d play, then invite other musicians to contribute their own ideas. “Go Away” is one of two tracks to feature Makaya McCraven on drums, along with bassist Paul Bryan. Atop a frenetic breakbeat-like pattern, Bryan and Parker go wild, dancing back and forth past each other with the guitarist overdubbing in order to harmonize and occasionally skirmish with himself, as atmospheric keyboard drones fill in the sonic field and his voice can periodically be heard moaning the title phrase.

Stream “Go Away”:

Muriel Grossmann, Reverence (Independent/Self-Released)

Austrian saxophonist Muriel Grossmann has been on a streak the past few years, making an album annually since 2015. On her last four albums, including this one, she’s had a steady band: guitarist Radomir Milojkovic, bassist Gina Schwarz, and drummer Uros Stamenkovic. On Reverence, they expand to a quintet with the addition of organist Llorenc Barceló. The music they make together is a kind of fusion-y spiritual jazz; Grossmann is an incantatory player with a powerful sense of rhythm and a need to drive the music forward rather than floating in place. In some ways, she reminds me of Shabaka Hutchings, but slightly more intense and technically showy. Still, her tenor playing — as heard on album opener “Okan Ti Aye” — is ferocious. The music on Reverence is explicitly African-derived, and there are thunderous polyrhythms all over this record along with Milojkovic’s stinging guitar leads and Barceló’s spacy, swirling organ.

Stream “Okan Ti Aye”:

Theo Hill, Reality Check (Posi-Tone)

Pianist Theo Hill is joined by vibraphonist Joel Ross, bassist Rahsaan Carter, and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr. on his third album as a leader for Posi-Tone. The music, almost all of which Hill wrote, is expansive and thoughtful, combining forceful swing with complex, almost prog-rock rhythms at times. Hill augments his piano with an array of synths, Ross’s vibes are fast and clean, and Carter’s bass has a thick, rubber-band sound reminiscent of the ’70s. “Afrofuturism” is the longest track on the album, beginning with a Ross solo passage that gradually becomes an interaction between himself and Hill as the band slowly filters in behind. The combination of vibes and sci-fi synths, with Whitfield dancing across the kit, is strangely meditative. But Carter’s bouncing bass keeps things pumped up, and by the four-minute mark, things have gotten much more energetic.

Stream “Afrofuturism”:

Yelfris Valdés, For The Ones… (Música Macondo)

Yelfris Valdés is a Cuban-born, London-based trumpeter and composer whose music is deeply informed by jazz, contemporary electronic music, and the rhythms and spiritual chants of his Yoruba faith. Like Christian Scott, he blends thick waves of synth and crisp electronic beats with pulsing, multi-layered percussion from drummer Dario Congedo and percussionist Ernesto Marichales (special attention should be paid to bassist Josh Barber, too), and his horn lines are sharp and fierce. But there’s an even deeper undertone of spiritual/devotional music here, almost as if Alice Coltrane was into Santería. On “Ancestry,” his trumpet starts out fed through electronic filters, only emerging at full strength after vocalist Modou Touré has delivered stirring, incantatory vocals. This is an album that means to inspire you to look within, even as it encourages you to get up and dance.

Stream “Ancestry”:

Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra With Wynton Marsalis, The Music Of Wayne Shorter (Blue Engine)

For years, the knock on the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by Wynton Marsalis, was that they were conservative to a fault: Their conception of jazz ran from Louis Armstrong to Duke Ellington, and anything avant-garde was strictly out of bounds. Well, they’ve opened up a lot over the years, and this album, recorded over three nights in 2015, finds them celebrating Wayne Shorter, one of jazz’s most expansive and forward-thinking composers. Members of the Orchestra arranged Shorter tunes from the 1960s to the 1980s, and he performed with them. This 10-minute “Yes Or No,” the original of which is from his 1964 album JuJu, is a wild ride. Shorter takes a tremendous tenor solo (he plays way more soprano than I’d prefer these days, so to hear him open up at full strength here is a joy), after which Marsalis steps up and delivers an equally powerful and fleet performance, with the band absolutely tearing it up behind them.

Stream “Yes Or No”:

Large Unit Fendika, EthioBraz (PNL)

This album documents a one-off collaboration between Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love’s Large Unit and the Ethiopian ensemble Fendika, with art-punk guitarist Terrie Ex, of The Ex, joining as a guest. The title refers to the fact that they’re playing a mix of Ethiopian and Brazilian music, with the wild free jazz flavor that the Large Unit’s music possesses in spades. This is a big, loud album that you can dance to. Live, it must have been astonishing. On “Anbessa,” Fendika vocalist Nardos Tesfaye delivers a passionate, wailing performance as the band — 22 people strong, all together — rumbles and roars behind her. The complex rhythms of North African music combine with those of Brazil and Nilssen-Love’s own hard-driving jazz style (this is a guy who plays often with Peter Brötzmann, remember) as guitars, bass and many, many horns wail and howl and backing vocalists chant along. Live, this must have been a once-in-a-lifetime party. On disc, it demands to be played loud.

Stream “Anbessa”:

The Sorcerers, In Search Of The Lost City Of The Monkey God (ATA)

The Sorcerers are a trio formed by multi-instrumentalist Pete Williams, guitarist and bassist Neil Innes, and drummer Joost Hendrickx. It’s been five years since they made an album, but this is a welcome return. Their self-titled debut was a combination of Ethiopian-derived grooves and European horror soundtracks of the ’60s and ’70s. This disc, which takes its preposterous title from a National Geographic article, is a soundtrack to a nonexistent jungle exploitation film (think Cannibal Holocaust or The Green Inferno) and is simultaneously a little funkier and a little creepier. “People Of The Forest” slithers along like the bandmembers are weaving their way through a jungle at night, hoping not to be spotted. Williams plays flute and bass clarinet, the deeper instrument starting the track off with a pulsing riff like something Mats Gustafsson might play on baritone sax with the Thing, as Hendrickx (yeah, I have to double check the spelling every time) hammers out a patient, rock-steady beat. When the flute takes the lead, the bass clarinet can still be heard like a shadow with its own life, and later he doubles and triples it so low rumbles are coming from all corners of the sonic field, like you’re being stalked from the trees.

Stream “People Of The Forest”:

Jeremy Pelt, The Art Of Intimacy Vol. 1 (HighNote)

Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt has an excellent working band, but they’re not on this album. Instead, he’s taken a brief time-out to record with two veteran musicians he admires, not unlike 2016’s #Jiveculture, which he made just so he could record with bass legend Ron Carter. In this case, Pelt has put together an album of tender ballads featuring pianist George Cables, bassist Peter Washington, and no drummer. This is not a common instrumental setup. Ron Miles did it in 1999 with pianist Eric Gunnison and bassist Kent McLagen, and in 1995, Roy Hargrove, pianist Stephen Scott, and bassist Christian McBride recorded an album of Charlie Parker tunes in this manner, but there are few other examples. On “Always On My Mind” (not the Willie Nelson/Elvis Presley/Pet Shop Boys song), Pelt plays through a Harmon mute, and there’s something Miles Davis-ish about his treatment of the tune, especially when combined with Cables’ Red Garland-esque comping behind him. It’s not retro, it’s classicist, and there’s a difference.

Stream “Always On My Mind”:

Will Vinson, Four Forty One (Whirlwind)

For his latest album, alto saxophonist Will Vinson assembled multiple killer bands using pianists Gerald Clayton, Sullivan Fortner, Tigran Hamasyan, Fred Hersch, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba; bassists Matt Brewer, Larry Grenadier, Matt Penman, and Rick Rosato; and drummers Obed Calvaire, Eric Harland, Billy Hart, Clarence Penn, and Jochen Rueckert. He recorded two tracks with each — a duet with the pianist, and a full quartet piece. “Love Letters” features Fortner, Brewer, and Calvaire, and starts off slow, with Vinson up in the alto’s sharper zones, almost sounding like a soprano, as Fortner picks his way slowly and carefully across the keys. By the two-minute mark, though, the pianist has found his footing and the energy level goes up substantially as the saxophonist steps back. When he returns, Calvaire sets up a strutting rhythm behind him and he takes full advantage, running all over the room and up and down the walls.

Stream “Love Letters”:

Birth, Almost Never (Tighten Up)

In the late ’90s and early 2000s, the sax-electric bass-drums trio Birth garnered a little attention in New York and their hometown of Cleveland, but they split in 2004 and the members went on to other projects Most notably, drummer Joe Tomino joined Dub Trio, which led to work with Mike Patton, the Fugees, Blondie, and more. Well, now he’s reunited with saxophonist Joshua Smith and bassist Jeremy Bleich, and the first new Birth album in more than 15 years is here. Their music has the spaciousness and throb of dub, but erupts into an almost thrashy energy at times; Smith works through his melodies with patience and caution, and Tomino gently steers the beat more than he drives it.

Stream “Daily Scratch”:

Snekkestad/Fernandez/Guy, The Swiftest Traveler (Trost)

This is a drumless trio — horns, piano, and bass — but there’s nothing chamber-music or soothing about it. Torben Snekkestad switches from tenor to soprano sax, trumpet to clarinet, depending on the track. Agusti Fernández is a powerful, bottom-heavy pianist from the dark end of the free jazz street; he can rumble as forcefully as Cecil Taylor or Matthew Shipp, but he’s just as likely to hang on one note in suspenseful repetition. Barry Guy is a monster of free improvisation with a bass sound that’s like whipping a wardrobe with cables. At the same time, the opening track isn’t a wall of blare. It begins with fast, cell-like piano runs echoed by high-pitched scribbles from Guy and squiggling from Snekkestad, and there’s a remarkable subtlety to their exchanges as it goes on.

Stream “Both Directions”:

Aki Rissanen, Art In Motion (Edition)\

Pianist Aki Rissanen, bassist Antti Lötjönen, and drummer Teppo Mäkynen have been a working trio for several years now; this is their third album, following 2016’s Amorandom and 2017’s Another North. They’re one of those groups that combines classically tinged compositions with rhythmic concepts drawn from electronic dance music. So if you’re a fan of GoGo Penguin or were a fan of EST or Dawn Of Midi, you’ll probably like these guys as well. Their music isn’t quite as minimalist or hooky as those other groups, though; there’s a spiky weirdness at work here that keeps the listener’s attention focused at all times, never allowing things to get too slick or passive. On “Das Untemperierte Klavier,” Lötjönen’s bass and Mäkynen’s drums tick and throb like a perfectly tuned engine, except for a short bass solo, but Rissanen himself repeatedly throws obstacles in the music’s path, and his own. Either he takes a detour down the keyboard, dribbling out what sound like a burst of wrong or missed notes, or he starts playing something that seems like his left and right hands can’t quite agree on a direction. Either way, it’s fascinating.

Stream “Das Untemperierte Klavier”:

Aly Keïta/Jan Galega Brönniman/Lucas Niggli, Kalan Teban (Intakt)

Aly Keïta is a master of the balafon, an African xylophone. On this album, he teams up with two Swiss musicians: reeds player Jan Galega Brönniman and percussionist Lucas Niggli. The music they make loops and whirls like a flock of birds in the air, repeated patterns disrupted by sudden spiraling arcs of melody, particularly from Brönniman, whose wind instruments are more suited to taking the lead than the other two. Still, the combination of balafon and drums allows for a unique sound that’s part rhythm and part melody, and has an insistent, vibrant pulse. The album’s first track, “Noussandia,” begins with a low, throbbing bass clarinet passage that almost sounds like something Shabaka Hutchings might play, before the balafon comes rippling in, its quick bouncing notes shadowed by an almost sitar-like undertone, and the frenetic percussion gives it an added jolt of energy.

Stream “Noussandia”:

Ramíro González Jazz Trío, Mexican Pavilion, New Orleans 1884 (Independent/Self-Released)

Mexican saxophonist Ramíro González, joined by bassist Lasse Mørck and drummer Alex Lozano, interprets music of great importance to both Mexican history and jazz history on this album. In 1884, a Mexican cavalry band traveled to the Centennial World Cotton Exhibition in New Orleans, where they performed daily. Many of the Mexican compositions performed were published as sheet music, and influenced what later became jazz. González and his trio interpret five of these songs on this album. José Dávila’s “Ausencia” opens the album in a strutting manner that recalls Branford Marsalis’s 1989 album Trio Jeepy, a collaboration with legendary bassist Milt Hinton. Like that record, Mexican Pavilion, New Orleans 1884 sounds like the past, but juiced up with the energy of the present day.

Stream “Ausencia”:

Luke Norris, Northernsong (ears&eyes)

Saxophonist Luke Norris makes his jazz debut with this album, which features guitarist Mike Baggetta, bassist Tyrone Allen, and drummer Daniel Sunshine. (He’s previously released two EPs as a singer-songwriter, but that’s all I’m gonna say about that.) The music is patient, with a drifting quality that brings to mind Bill Frisell — Baggetta has a similarly reverb-heavy, country- and blues-derived style, and the rhythm section lopes along slowly and easily, with Sunshine only rarely dropping the hammer. The opening track, “Sketch In C,” almost needs the five seconds of pure digital silence you get at the beginning of ECM albums; it starts off with Norris and Baggetta murmuring at each other, as Allen and Sunshine rattle and throb underneath. The saxophone wanders around, occasionally returning to a brief fragment of melody, and the solos arise so gradually out of the group play that they’re halfway over before you realize they’ve started.

Stream “Sketch In C”: