The Month In Jazz – February 2020

Pat Metheny

The Month In Jazz – February 2020

Pat Metheny

If you ever get the chance to watch Tyshawn Sorey play the drums, take it. Sorey is a brilliant composer — his albums Koan, The Inner Spectrum Of Variables, Verisimilitude, and (if you’ve got the time for a three-hour three-CD set) Pillars are all brilliant, not to mention his duos with pianist Marilyn Crispell (The Adornment Of Time) and violinist Jennifer Curtis (Invisible Ritual) — but watching him onstage behind a kit, just delivering for a solid hour, is something else again.

I got to see him at the very end of January, playing in pianist Vijay Iyer’s trio, with Linda May Han Oh on bass, at the Jazz Standard. They were there premiering new music. They played seven pieces in all, with Iyer addressing the audience at the beginning and end of the set. In between, it was all business.

The first piece was a strutting vamp, as much a showcase for Oh and Sorey as for Iyer — the pianist played very softly at first, then struck harder; the effect was like he was being faded in by an engineer. Sorey took a big solo, Oh a shorter one. This led into a gentle ballad, with the drummer switching to brushes at first, but halfway through the music erupted, leaping into double time and getting loud as fuck. Oh was dancing with her bass as she played, and Sorey’s attack was astonishingly precise, but as forceful as death metal.

The next few numbers were a journey through various piano styles. They played a bouncy and swinging but complex piece that sounded like what might have happened if Chick Corea, rather than Vince Guaraldi, had gotten the gig composing music for the Peanuts animated cartoons; Sorey’s drumming was like Roy Haynes playing breakbeats. That transitioned seamlessly into a calmer, midtempo piece with a very Keith Jarrett feel and lots of space for Oh to wander and explore. After that, the trio entered an almost Thelonious Monk-ish zone, with Sorey playing like an angry Questlove, knocking out a steady soul beat punctuated by fierce snare rolls. Iyer, meanwhile, was hitting in such a disjointed style he sounded like chopped-up samples of piano at times.

The set ended with another ballad, very soft and slow with Sorey using mallets on the toms and hi-hat and Oh offering little beyond the occasional boom, and then a big McCoy Tyner-esque closer. Iyer was all over the keyboard and Sorey was almost martial, as Oh bounced and danced between them, sounding like Dave Holland. Eventually, pianist and drummer began trading fours, hard and heavy, before the piece ended in an almost Latin zone. I’m sure this group will be on the road at some point, and I highly recommend seeing them if they come near you. Whatever any future studio versions of these tunes may wind up sounding like, they won’t have the explosive energy these three create live, and like I said, any time you get the chance to see Tyshawn Sorey behind a drum kit, do it.

Some sad news: keyboardist Lyle Mays died February 10 after struggling with what was described as a “recurring illness.” Although he released five albums under his own name, and appeared as a sideman on records by Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, and Earth, Wind And Fire, among others, he was best known by far for his work with guitarist Pat Metheny. The two men co-founded the Pat Metheny Group in 1977, and composed and arranged nearly all of the band’s music together. He stayed with Metheny until 2010, winning 11 Grammy Awards along the way. The Pat Metheny Group’s music has had an incalculable impact on the sound of contemporary jazz fusion over the last four decades. Metheny wrote on his website, “Lyle was one of the greatest musicians I have ever known. Across more than 30 years, every moment we shared in music was special. From the first notes we played together, we had an immediate bond. His broad intelligence and musical wisdom informed every aspect of who he was in every way. I will miss him with all my heart.”

Metheny and Mays made a duo album in 1981, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls; listen to “September Fifteenth” from that album:

Drummer Jon Christensen also died this month. Beginning in the late 1960s, he played on albums by saxophonist Jan Garbarek, pianist Bobo Stenson, and guitarist Terje Rypdal, effectively serving as ECM Records’ house drummer and helping to establish the label’s sound. He was a member of Keith Jarrett’s “European quartet” of the mid ’70s, making five albums with that group (which also included Garbarek and Swedish bassist Palle Danielsson). “’Long As You Know You’re Living Yours,” from 1974’s Belonging, is a great example of his loose, relaxed but perfect groove. (Donald Fagen of Steely Dan loved this song so much he basically ripped it off for “Gaucho”; Jarrett sued, and was added as a co-author.) 

I visited Norway in 2018, and spoke to drummer Erlend Dahlen. When I asked Dahlen if there was a specifically Nordic rhythmic concept, he said, “For me, it started with Jon Christensen, the drummer — back in the late ’60s, early ’70s, he started to play in waves, with more cymbals, different than many jazz musicians in Norway. I think he was the first guy who made this foundation about playing in waves, so when people talk about the Nordic sound, in my opinion it’s from Jon Christensen, because it’s a different approach to the drums. He walked his own way. I listened to him a lot, and most of the drummers in Norway have as well. He’s the boss, in Norway.”

Listen to “’Long As You Know You’re Living Yours”:

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

Pat Metheny, From This Place (Nonesuch)

Pat Metheny’s been touring for a couple of years now with Gwilym Simcock on piano, Linda May Han Oh on bass, and Antonio Sanchez on drums. This is their first studio recording, and it’s a massive, highly ambitious effort, on which they’re backed by a full orchestra. The strings aren’t just a swaying, swooning backdrop, though; they really take a dominant role at times, and at other times they accentuate what the quartet members are doing in a deep and considered way, like the orchestrations on classic CTI albums from the 1970s. The 13-minute album opener, “America Undefined,” sets out the parameters for the whole project: Metheny and Simcock take lyrical, tale-spinning solos, there’s a short but beautiful piano-bass duet passage, and then, eight minutes in, Metheny vanishes and the trio, the orchestra, and some very subtly deployed electronics create what amounts to a whole second piece full of atmospheric washes of sound and gentle melancholy. This is extraordinary music.

Stream “America Undefined”:

Carla Bley, Life Goes On (ECM)

Pianist and composer Carla Bley has a long-running trio with saxophonist Andy Sheppard and bassist Steve Swallow. This is their fourth album for ECM, following 2016’s Andando El Tiempo, and they’re digging deep into the blues, among other things. The title piece is part of a four-part suite, the individual sections of which are titled “Life Goes On,” “On,” “And On,” and “And Then One Day” — it was written as the 81-year-old Bley was recuperating from an illness, and it has a slow, low, but never gloomy feel. This is the blues as the sound of determination, of grinding forward even when life seems to be resolutely stuck in first gear. Bley leaves the solos to her bandmates, keeping the music anchored with rock-steady, minimalist timekeeping. Swallow is up first, his bass booming and rumbling. Sheppard’s solo is a murmur at first, and soon slides into the realm of squeaking, honking overtones that seem on the verge of slipping out of his control, but never do. At one point, Bley drops out entirely, letting the saxophonist and bassist take a short walk together before she comes back in to guide them home.

Stream “Life Goes On”:

Kassa Overall, I Think I’m Good (Brownswood)

Drummer Kassa Overall is as adept a beatmaker and laptop producer as he is sitting behind the kit. I saw him play a trio set at the Jazz Gallery last January with pianist Jason Moran and bassist Evan Flory-Barnes, one of six monthly gigs that were recorded, and which make up some (but far from the majority) of the source material for his new album. Still more music was recorded one-on-one with various players, and it was all blended together by Overall over a period of months, finally yielding an album that’s a dense collage of almost diaristic lyrics, guest appearances by some high-profile and up-and-coming instrumentalists, and songs that blur the lines between jazz, R&B, hip-hop, and something entirely new. “Please Don’t Kill Me” features vibraphonist Joel Ross, trumpeter Theo Croker, and harpist Brandee Younger, with Overall on beats, keyboards, and vocals. 

Stream “Please Don’t Kill Me”:

Charles Lloyd, 8: Kindred Spirits (Live From The Lobero) (Blue Note)

This live album, which is being sold as a deluxe box set, was recorded at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, California on saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s 80th birthday. He was joined by pianist Gerald Clayton, guitarist Julian Lage, bassist Reuben Rogers, and drummer Eric Harland, with organist Booker T. Jones (yeah, the Booker T. And The MGs guy) and Blue Note president Don Was, on bass, joining the band partway through the set. The show begins with a nearly 22-minute version of one of Lloyd’s signature compositions, “Dream Weaver,” but picks up steam with a 12-minute “Requiem,” on which Lage and Clayton do the heavy lifting; Lloyd’s own solo is mostly murmurs and squiggles. Still, if you’re a fan, there’s plenty of energy and excitement here.

Stream “Requiem”:

Christian McBride, The Movement Revisited: A Musical Portrait Of Four Icons (Mack Avenue)

Bassist Christian McBride has composed and produced an epic, dramatic work paying tribute to four icons of black history: Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The music features a big band with five trumpets, five saxophones, four trombones, vibes, piano, bass, and drums, plus a 10-member choir and four actors, including Wendell Pierce (Bunk from The Wire), narrating the words of the four icons. If this sounds like the kind of thing that could easily be turned into a PBS television special, well, you’re not wrong. But McBride is a skilled writer and arranger, and he’s come up with some decent melodies, given the soloists room to run, and kept things exciting when they could be stately and serious-unto-death. The line of saxophonists stepping up to deliver one or two quick, jabbing phrases in “Rumble In The Jungle” does more to nod to Muhammad Ali’s spirit than the choir’s words.

Stream “Rumble In The Jungle”:

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, The Fantastic Mrs. 10 (Intakt)

Saxophonist Tim Berne’s band Snakeoil — featuring clarinetist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell, and percussionist Ches Smith — made four albums for ECM between 2012 and 2017, and have now moved over to Intakt, bringing guitarist Marc Ducret (a member of other Berne ensembles, including Big Satan and Science Friction) on board in the process. Berne has a very specific musical language; his alto lines are extraordinarily long and wandering, and his bands vacillate between a kind of disintegrating/ambient soundscapes and hard, biting skronk-bop. “The Amazing Mr. 7” starts off extremely quiet, with Ducret and Smith scraping and rattling and Mitchell dropping short keyboard passages — sometimes a trickle of melody, sometimes just a low-end clang — between them. Eventually, things reach a kind of crescendo and Berne enters; at the piece’s snarling midpoint, he’s chewing up the horn with Noriega chasing him like a shadow that wishes him ill, Smith on congas and Mitchell in full free jazz mode. 

Stream “The Amazing Mr. 7”:

Moses Boyd, Dark Matter (Exodus)

Drummer Moses Boyd, of Binker & Moses, has played with keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones, saxophonist Nubya Garcia, tuba player Theon Cross, and singer Zara McFarlane; he’s one of the rhythmic linchpins of the London scene. This is his second album, following 2018’s Displaced Diaspora, and it’s a fusion of jazz and electronic music. On the first single, “Stranger Than Fiction,” he lays down a complex, dancing rhythm with an almost trap feel (check out the cymbals and hi-hat), drenches it in synths, then gradually begins to lay in other instruments, most notably trumpet, but there’s some subtle guitar buried in the background, too. This is a fascinating, constantly shifting track that will make your head nod, mesmerized by the hypnotic synth and drum patterns, even as the trumpet pierces through and soars skyward.

Stream “Stranger Than Fiction”:

Gard Nilssen’s Supersonic Orchestra, If You Listen Carefully The Music Is Yours (Odin)

Norwegian drummer Gard Nilssen, who leads the free jazz trio Acoustic Unity and also plays for the hard-rocking fusion act Bushman’s Revenge, was named the artist in residence at the 2019 Molde Jazz festival. He took the opportunity to assemble a 20-piece band with an atypical (to say the least) lineup: three drummers, three bassists, two trumpets, one trombone, and seven saxophonists. This allows for a sound somewhere between the melodic blare of the Duke Ellington Orchestra in full cry and the Globe Unity Orchestra’s lung-bursting eruptions. “Jack” is an adaptation of an Acoustic Unity tune, expanded into a floor-shaking romp with hurricane-force horn charts riding an avalanche of rhythm. It swings like an elephant’s dick.

Stream “Jack”:

Aaron Diehl, The Vagabond (Mack Avenue)

Pianist Aaron Diehl worked with drummer Lawrence Leathers for several years, backing vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant on 2015’s For One To Love and 2017’s amazing Dreams And Daggers. Leathers was murdered last June; this album is dedicated to him. It covers a surprisingly broad range; after a string of seven originals, it includes versions of Sergei Prokofiev’s “March,” Modern Jazz Quartet founder John Lewis’s “Milano,” Sir Roland Hanna’s “A Story Often Told, Seldom Heard,” and Philip Glass’s “Piano Etude No. 16.” The Diehl original “Magnanimous Disguise” begins with a rumbling, dramatic figure that reminds me of the work of Aaron Parks, but it quickly shifts into a much lighter zone, skipping along like a kid running through a park in spring to look at cherry blossom trees. It winds down with skittering little trickles of notes, and a final return to that initial riff before bassist Paul Sikivie (another veteran of Salvant’s band) takes it out.

Stream “Magnanimous Disguise”:

Ken Fowser, Morning Light (Posi-Tone)

Saxophonist Ken Fowser is a traditionalist; his first two albums, 2016’s Now Hear This! and 2017’s Standing Tall, sounded like unearthed Blue Note sessions from 1959. On 2018’s Don’t Look Down, he tweaked the formula a bit, adding a dash of soul jazz here and there. Morning Light is another slight evolution. He’s changed the band up, bringing in Tadataka Unno on piano and Vince Dupont on bass, but his frontline partner, trumpeter Josh Bruneau, is still around, as is drummer Joe Strasser, and the music is less imitative of Hank Mobley and Lee Morgan in 1959 and more of Miles Davis’s quintet of 1965 — at least how they presented themselves on records like E.S.P. and Miles Smiles, and not necessarily their balls-out, free-flowing live performances. “Three For Leathers,” obviously, is another tribute to deceased drummer Lawrence Leathers; the guy had a lot of friends on the New York scene. It’s not a mournful ballad, but a midtempo, swinging tune that allows Fowser and Bruneau to explore a nice melody and take a couple of expressive if classicist solos.

Stream “Three For Leathers”:

Massimo Biolcati, Incontre (Sounderscore)

Bassist Massimo Biolcati is one-third of Gilfema, a group featuring Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke and Hungarian drummer Ferenc Nemeth. They’ve got a new album I’ll be talking about next month. On this disc, though, he’s leading an ensemble featuring saxophonist Dayna Stephens, pianist Sam Yahel, and drummer Jongkuk Kim. They perform four of his originals, and five surprising interpretations, including Charles Mingus’s “Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love” and Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” On the latter track, Stephens offers a quick run through the melody, just long enough to say, in effect, “This is the song we’re playing; you know it,” before Yahel takes a long solo that makes only an oblique reference to said melody as it winds down. The saxophonist sticks much closer to the tune, effectively serving as lead vocalist. Biolcati and Kim are a quick-footed, skittery rhythm team.

Stream “Everybody Wants To Rule The World”:

Matt Mayhall, Fanatics (Independent/Self-Released)

Drummer Matt Mayhall released his debut album, Tropes, in 2016; the band included saxophonist Chris Speed and guitarist Jeff Parker, among others. Those two have rejoined him for this sequel, a trio date on which the tunes are simple platforms for extended, bluesy soloing. On “Longview, TX,” the first proper piece after a short intro track, Mayhall sets up a dancing, strutting beat somewhere between Ed Blackwell and Zigaboo Modeliste, as Parker grinds out distorted blues riffs that periodically resolve into a lilting melody, and Speed goes wandering into a thicket of barbed lines. At several points, the two men are soloing simultaneously in a way that recalls Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic theories, while still managing to stay rooted to the ground.

Stream “Longview, TX”:

Dan Rosenboom, Absurd In The Anthropocene (Gearbox)

Trumpeter Dan Rosenboom didn’t just take a single band into the studio to bang out his tunes; he assembled this album over the course of multiple sessions with various ensembles. The resulting album is a fire hose of electronic fusion, heavy on synth and pyrotechnic horn solos, with complex charts and extremely hard-driving, almost rock rhythms. The track I’m spotlighting, chosen mostly for its title because the whole record is great, is “Pushed To The Edge Of Ideas By Dispassionate Bias-Algorithm Bots,” and it features Gavin Templeton on tenor sax, Jerry Watts Jr. on booming electric bass, and Gary Novak on drums, with producer Jeff Babko slathering it all in sci-fi synths. The unison horn melody is a winding but punchy riff worthy of the Brecker Brothers, and the track just has a thundering, aggressive feel throughout.

Stream “Pushed To The Edge Of Ideas By Dispassionate Bias-Algorithm Bots”:

Reverso, The Melodic Line (Outhere)

Reverso is an intriguing chamber ensemble featuring trombonist Ryan Keberle, pianist Frank Woeste, and cellist Vincent Courtois. Their first album had a drummer; this time, it’s just the trio, which gives their music much more of a melodic focus (as the title indicates). On the opener, “Blue Feather,” there is some rhythm provided by handclaps, but in general this music is all about the way Keberle and Woeste dance around each other, with Courtois not so much providing a foundation as filling in the middle spaces in the mix. The melody is romantic without being sappy or too slow; the piece has a kind of early-morning sunlight-filtering-through-the-Manhattan-skyline sort of feeling, particularly when Woeste’s heavy piano and Courtois’s dancing, violin-like phrases get it started, setting up Keberle’s entrance.

Stream “Blue Feather”:

Warren Wolf, Reincarnation (Mack Avenue)

Vibraphonist Warren Wolf’s new album is a departure from his previous work, which was straightahead jazz in the mode of Bobby Hutcherson or Milt Jackson. This record has some elements of that, but it’s primarily an attempt by Wolf and his band, including pianist Brett Williams, bassist Richie Goods, guitarist Mark Whitfield, and drummer Carroll Dashiell III, to pay tribute to the R&B that he grew up listening to. The only actual cover is a version of the Isley Brothers’ “For The Love Of You,” though; the tribute aspect comes in the music, which has a smooth, late-night feel. “Come And Dance With Me” is an outlier on the album, but it’s also a highlight, a tender and vibrant piano-vibes duo with a melody that could easily be a wedding song if someone were to set lyrics to it.

Stream “Come And Dance With Me”:

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