Ugly Beauty

The Month In Jazz – April 2020

Since my last column, there has been a wave of deaths in the jazz world, many of them related to COVID-19. Here are the ones that have stuck with me the most.

Pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs was 70. He was a wide-ranging player who could do anything from smooth R&B-tinged jazz with drummer Norman Connors — the song “You Are My Starship,” with vocals by Michael Henderson (the bassist in Miles Davis’s mid-‘70s band) was a Top 40 hit — to avant-garde work with bassist Cecil McBee on the 1974 album Mutima to stunningly high-level acoustic hard bop with Woody Shaw on discs like Rosewood and Stepping Stones: Live At The Village Vanguard. He played with drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society on the latter man’s 1985 album Decode Yourself, and in 2013 recorded a solo piano album of Jackson compositions. As a leader, he had some late ’80s and early ’90s albums, That Special Part Of Me and Dare To Dream, that were big on smooth jazz radio. He was also a teacher for many years.

Bassist Henry Grimes was 84. He was one of free jazz’s great comeback stories. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was a phenomenon, playing with Sonny Rollins, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Frank Wright, Sunny Murray, Don Cherry, Pharoah Sanders, and many more. But at the end of the decade, he vanished, and nobody heard from him for over three decades. As it turned out, he’d moved to California and been unable to find musical work, so he took straight jobs and disappeared. When he was rediscovered in 2002, William Parker gave him a bass and he returned to the scene. I saw him play a few times, at the Vision Festival and once with Cecil Taylor and drummer Pheeroan akLaff. He was an astonishingly powerful bassist, capable of holding his own in any situation, but he displayed a remarkable sensitivity too; he listened deeply and never tried to dominate the music until it was his moment to make a statement. Check him out on Cecil Taylor’s Conquistador! and Unit Structures; Sonny Rollins’ Our Man In Jazz; Pharoah Sanders’ Tauhid; and, post-comeback, Marc Ribot’s Spiritual Unity.

Saxophonist Giuseppi Logan was also 84. He made two albums for ESP-Disk in 1965 and ’66, then drifted off the scene. Those records were intense, though; his playing was a rough squawk, with as deep a sense of the blues as anyone since Ornette Coleman. Years later, he was homeless and playing in Tompkins Square Park when fellow musician Matt Lavelle, who worked at Sam Ash Music in Manhattan, befriended him. They worked together to get Logan’s life back on track; he made an album that included Dave Burrell on piano, and played some gigs here and there. I saw him at a free outdoor festival on Roosevelt Island, playing standards to a mix of out-jazz diehards and neighborhood folks who’d wandered by with their kids, because the music was outside and didn’t cost them anything. His rough, loose style made him sound like he was learning the songs as he played them, but there was a coiled energy at the heart of what he did, too, like he could erupt into Albert Ayler-esque squalls at any moment.

Alto saxophonist Lee Konitz was 92. He started out in bebop, and played on Miles Davis’s 1949 album Birth Of The Cool, but formed a powerful alliance with two kindred spirits, tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh and pianist Lennie Tristano, in the late ’40s; they made several albums together and separately between 1949 and the mid ’50s. Konitz eventually made hundreds of albums in a broad range of styles — he was willing to meet others on their territory, though he most often seemed to prefer to record standards with different groups behind him. He didn’t write much, choosing instead to attempt to always find something new in a song that he might have performed hundreds of times.

Finally, producer Hal Willner died at 64. He was best known for assembling tribute albums to people ranging from Kurt Weill to Charles Mingus, employing a broad range of performers from across the rock, pop, country and jazz spectrum. He did a similar trick when he became the music supervisor for the show Night Music on NBC in the late ’80s; he would pair seemingly impossible combinations of musicians onstage, and make it work. Two of my favorites from his discography are the long out of print That’s The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute To Thelonious Monk and Weird Nightmare: Meditations On Mingus, which is available on streaming services. Check that one out; it’s much more than a collection of cover versions — it’s a whole way of thinking about Charles Mingus.

In more positive news, there’s a great new book out called Ornette Coleman: The Territory And The Adventure, published by Reaktion in the UK and the University of Chicago Press in the US. It’s by Maria Golia, who worked at a Texas arts space called the Caravan of Dreams in the 1980s; Ornette was the act chosen to open the place, and returned there many times over the years. The book is much more than a conventional biography — you learn a lot about his childhood and artistic development, particularly the early years when he was wrestling with the blues and conventional R&B forms, and you learn about the whole Texas milieu he emerged from. But there’s also a great deal of discussion of his music and life philosophy, including extensive quotes from people in his bands, so if you’re at all a fan of his work and want to gain some real perspective on it, it’s pretty much a must-read. Highly recommended.

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

Nduduzo Makhathini, Modes Of Communication: Letters From The Underworlds (Blue Note)
Three months ago, I told you I couldn’t wait for this album to come out, and it’s finally here. Makhathini, a South African pianist and healer, is deeply influenced by the late McCoy Tyner, but there’s much, much more to him. His compositions have a churning energy that recalls Don Pullen, as well as the work of countrymen like Abdullah Ibrahim and Bheki Mseleku, but he paints on a very broad canvas, bringing in horns, percussion and frequently showcasing his wife Omagugu’s intense vocals. The band on this album includes trumpeter Ndabo Zulu, alto saxophonist Logan Richardson (the only American), tenor saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane, bassist Zwelakhe-Duma Bell Le Pere, drummer Ayanda Sikade, and percussionist Makhene. “Umlotha” is the album’s centerpiece, a nearly ten-minute instrumental driven by forceful piano but showcasing raucous, almost free jazz three-way interaction between the horns and waves of percussion.

Stream “Umlotha”:

Wayne Escoffery, The Humble Warrior (Smoke Sessions)
Wayne Escoffery is well known to a certain subset of jazz fans: he’s been in trumpeter Tom Harrell’s band for a long time, and with the Mingus Big Band for even longer. But despite releasing a string of strong albums with well-chosen personnel and quality tunes, he’s never broken out into genuine stardom. Perhaps this has turned him into the humble warrior of this album’s title. Still, his ambition continues to burn brightly. He and his working band of several years — pianist David Kikoski, bassist Ugonna Okegwo, and drummer Ralph Peterson — follow up 2018’s stormy and emotional Vortex with this disc, which includes a lengthy four-part interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s Missa Brevis. The title track, though, is a classicist hard bop tune on which guest trumpeter Randy Brecker delivers a rich, lyrical solo, and the leader’s playing has thoughtfulness and muscle in equal measure.

Stream “The Humble Warrior”:

Webber/Morris Big Band, Both Are True (Greenleaf)
This is not a typical big band album. It features 19 musicians, including the co-leaders, Anna Webber and Angela Morris, who both play tenor sax and flute; four other saxophonists; four trumpeters; four trombones; and vibes, guitar, piano, bass and drums. But the music never swings in a conventional way. Instead, it drifts along, elements emerging then fading away again, with solos appearing like an animal emerging from the mist in the middle of a forest, gazing impassively at you, then retreating. The sound is more like an environment than a piece of music; it’s everywhere at once, writing and bending and sometimes declaring itself (the reeds can rise up like a 1970s cop movie soundtrack at times) but mostly just existing. The title piece is a ten-minute journey that makes room along the way for solos from alto saxophonist Jay Rattman, Webber on tenor, and vibraphonist Patricia Brennan, but they all just feel like part of the whole, not spotlight turns.

Stream “Coral”:

Jimmy Greene, While Looking Up (Mack Avenue)
Saxophonist Jimmy Greene’s albums always had a mellow, introspective feel, but the music he’s released over the last seven years has been more subdued and melancholy than that which came before. There’s a reason for that. His daughter, Ana Grace Márquez-Greene, was one of the children murdered in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. His 2014 album Beautiful Life was a guest-star-packed tribute to her memory, while the 2017 sequel, Flowers, was somewhat more uptempo; Greene wrote in the liner notes that he imagined his daughter asking him to dance with her. Though not designated as such, While Looking Up is the third volume in this trilogy, a man’s journey through grief and acceptance. So it’s surprising, but understandable that the heart of the album comes through in an aching, ballad recasting of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” that allows just a little bit of joy to seep through, even at a stately tempo.

Stream “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”:

Art Hirahara, Balance Point (Posi-Tone)
Japanese-American pianist Art Hirahara just seems to get better album after album. That’s what’s supposed to happen, but it still comes as a surprise when it actually does. After two albums with an absolutely killer band (saxophonist Donny McCaslin, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer Rudy Royston), he’s assembled another one, keeping Royston and bringing in Joe Martin on bass and, on two of eight tracks, Melissa Aldana on sax. The first of those two is the title piece, a simmering, almost rubato ballad with gently pulsing, Philip Glass-ish piano from Hirahara over a soft, dancing rhythm. Aldana’s sax begins as a slightly ragged murmur, but gradually her volume and intensity rise, as bent harmonics fall away like a dragon shedding its scales as it flies into the air and over the horizon.

Stream “Balance Point”:

James Brandon Lewis/Chad Taylor, Live In Willisau (Intakt)
The Willisau Jazz Festival in Switzerland has been the site of some amazing avant-garde jazz performances, including some notable sax-drums duos. Archie Shepp and Max Roach recorded The Long March there in 1979, and Dewey Redman and Ed Blackwell recorded Black & Red a year later. Saxophonist James Brandon Lewis and drummer Chad Taylor made a duo album, Radiant Imprints, a couple of years ago, then took the music on tour, and when they got to Willisau they knew they had to reckon with that history. They did so in part by covering “Willisee,” the opening track from Black & Red. It’s a rip-roaring, stomping free jazz eruption with a lot of blues at its core. Taylor is absolutely slamming the kit, while Lewis goes out into zones typically occupied by Fred Anderson or David Murray.

Stream “Willisee”:

Gilfema, Three (Sounderscore)
Gilfema is the trio of guitarist Lionel Loueke, bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth. They formed in 2005 and made two studio albums, but then things got confusing, as they also began to record as the Lionel Loueke Trio when he signed to Blue Note. Apparently the difference is, when they make a Loueke album the music is all his, but when they record as Gilfema, everyone brings in tunes. Anyway, it’s been twelve years since they made a Gilfema album, and it’s a fun, fascinating blend of jazz, funk, and West African grooves. “Brio” is a particularly exciting, uptempo take on Congolese soukous that will absolutely make you jump in your seat.

Stream “Brio”:

Aruán Ortiz/Andrew Cyrille/Mauricio Herrera, Inside Rhythmic Falls (Intakt)
Pianist Aruán Ortiz arrived in New York from his native Cuba in 2002, when he was 23. His music is a thrilling, stark combination of internalized Cuban rhythm and a jazz that’s somewhere between Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor. On this album, he’s joined by one of Taylor’s most intuitive collaborators, the drummer Andrew Cyrille. Cyrille was born in Brooklyn, but his parents were Haitian, and there’s always a little of the street parade in his sparse, assertive playing. Cuban percussionist Mauricio Herrera completes the trio, adding subtle but important accents and extra beats. “Conversation With The Oaks” starts and ends with a two-fisted, hammering melody, then wanders very far afield, the keys seeming to tumble off the instrument to the ground and shatter like glass rods.

Stream “Conversation With The Oaks”:

Mike Westbrook, Love And Understanding: Citadel/Room 315 Sweden ’74 (My Only Desire)
In 1975, pianist Mike Westbrook released Citadel/Room 315, a massive suite that was part big band jazz, part fusion, and part TV soundtrack music. The original album featured a who’s who of British jazz at the time. But prior to that, he’d gone to Sweden and recorded a live version of the piece with Swedish musicians (and saxophonist John Surman). That version has never been released until now…and it rips. On “Construction,” Surman, the primary lead voice throughout, goes absolutely wild as the band creates a whirling leaf storm of sound behind him that’s somewhere between traditional big band jazz and Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats.

Stream “Construction”:

Antti Lötjönen, Quintet East (We Jazz)
Bassist Antti Lötjönen is a linchpin of the Finnish jazz scene, working in groups like 3TM and saxophonist Timo Lassy’s band, as well as with US players like Kurt Rosenwinkel (with whom he toured Europe in 2018, with Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums). This is his debut as a leader, and he’s brought in some heavy hitters: trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, saxophonists Mikko Innanen and Jussi Kannaste, and drummer Joonas Riippa. “Erzeben Strasse” is the first full-band track, after an opening bass solo, and it’s a swinging but free nine-minute workout, with a nicely punchy opening sax-and-trumpet riff that quickly gives way, allowing each member to step forward in turn. Pohjola’s trumpet playing is breathy but potent, while one of the saxophonists (sorry, I can’t tell which one) recalls Archie Shepp in his gruff bluster.

Stream “Erzeben Strasse”:

Posi-Tone Swingtet, One For 25 (Posi-Tone)
Posi-Tone Records is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and one of the ways they’re doing that is by assembling a one-off band featuring some of their most talented players, performing new music. The band includes trumpeter Farnell Newton; alto saxophonist Patrick Cornelius; tenor saxophonist Diego Rivera; trombonist Michael Dease; baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian; pianists Art Hirahara and Theo Hill (who doubles on Fender Rhodes); bassist Boris Kozlov; and drummer Rudy Royston. The album opens with a Dease composition, “You Dig,” a burner that comes leaping out of the gate and never slows down or stops swinging. Every solo is a ball of fire, and Kozlov and Royston keep the groove swinging hard.

Stream “You Dig”:

Joel Harrison +18, America At War (Sunnyside)
Guitarist Joel Harrison works in a broad range of contexts, from blues-rock to avant-country, but his large ensemble albums feature some of his most exciting music. He started writing and arranging the pieces heard here in 2014, and finally finished the project, thanks to an influx of grant money, in 2019. The opening track, “March On Washington,” is almost threatening in its intensity. It’s orchestrated like a cross between Isaac Hayes’ Shaft soundtrack and the forward-looking big band music of Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society or the Michael Leonhart Orchestra. The dancing hi-hat and massive tuba burps that open the piece, quickly joined by Harrison’s stinging guitar and sharp jabs from the trumpet, followed by vibraphone, and then the full ensemble slowly drifting in as the beat becomes a steady boom-bap, all make it sound like the score to a paranoid conspiracy thriller.

Stream “March On Washington”:

Ray Suhy/Lewis Porter Quartet, Transcendence (Sunnyside)
This is a surprising album from an unexpected confluence of musicians. Pianist Lewis Porter has taught jazz history at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ and has written a highly regarded book on John Coltrane; guitarist Ray Suhy is a member of vocalist Chris Barnes’ post-Cannibal Corpse project, Six Feet Under. (He’s also played in the weed-themed parody band Cannabis Corpse.) The two are backed by bassist Brad Jones and drummer Rudy Royston — yeah, him again. His performance here is shockingly heavy; he’s hitting with what could be the tree trunk-sized sticks John Bonham used to play with, and slamming out ultra-precise fills that almost get into Billy Cobham territory at times. On “Determination,” Suhy’s guitar has a shimmering, fusion-y tone, while Porter switches between piano and synth and Jones’ bass is just monstrously loud and powerful.

Stream “Determination”:

Mako Sica/Hamid Drake, Balancing Tear (Astral Spirits)
Mako Sica are a Chicago-based “free rock” trio whose music requires each member to play a broad range of instruments, many of which are warped through electronics. Hamid Drake is a drumming legend whose decades-long collaborations with the late saxophonist Fred Anderson, and bassist William Parker, have yielded some of the most spiritually cleansing music in free jazz history. This is the second collaboration between band and drummer, following 2018’s Ronda. The opening track, “Trapeze,” kicks off with a sort of calling-to-order of trumpet, bass, electric piano, and drums, quickly settling into a dubby, psychedelic groove that drifts along like an abandoned raft down a slow river.

Stream “Trapeze”:

Chris McCarthy, Still Time To Quit (Ropeadope)
Pianist Chris McCarthy started out in Boston, where he worked with trumpeter Jason Palmer and saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi, among others. They’re both absolute masters of their instruments, so that should be endorsement enough for you. Anyway, he’s a New Yorker now, and has made his debut as a leader with trumpeter Takuya Kuroda, saxophonist Michael Blake, bassist Sam Minaie, and drummer JK Kim joining him. The music is a solid blend of swinging hard bop, funk grooves, and even modern classical (on the eerie, atmospheric “The Nightmares”). The album’s closing track, “Bury Me In Times Square (Underneath The M&M Store),” is a lurching, bluesy jam that almost reminds me of Jaimie Branch’s “Prayer For AmeriKKKa,” but with McCarthy’s Keith Jarrett-esque piano floating beneath Kuroda’s gentle, mournful trumpet.

Stream “Bury Me In Times Square”: