Ugly Beauty

The Month In Jazz – May 2020

It’s easy to get comfortable with your idea of what jazz is, when it’s happening right in front of you. But when there are no gigs, you’re left with the recordings. And when you spend too much time rooting around in your record collection, you start to notice that there’s a lot of music out there that doesn’t fit familiar definitions of the genre.

Many years ago, the writer Frank Kogan came up with the idea of the Superword, which he describes as “a battleground, a weapon, a red cape, a prize, a flag in a bloody game of Capture The Flag. To put this in the abstract, a Superword is a word or phrase that not only is used in fights but that is itself fought over. The fight is over who gets to wear the word proudly, who gets the word affixed to him against his will, etc.”

Kogan used the words “punk” and “metal” as his primary examples, but to my mind jazz is one of the all-time Superwords. It is freighted with so much cultural and even psychological baggage that its impact on us is practically subconscious — there are records you can play for someone who claims to know nothing about jazz, and upon hearing them they will say, “Yes, that’s jazz.” But how much of the work of, say, Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh, Tomeka Reid or Tyshawn Sorey can you say that about? The majority? In some cases, but not all. Iyer has written string quartets and entire albums of electronic music. Oh blends jazz rhythms with traditional Korean instruments and string arrangements pulled from modern chamber music. Reid composes and performs with a string trio (violin, cello, bass). Sorey has written massive, multi-hour works that fit no category at all.

For decades, musicians identified with jazz by critics and scholars (and fans), from Miles Davis to the Art Ensemble Of Chicago to Nicholas Payton, have rejected the label, with varying degrees of vehemence. They see it as limiting, patronizing, and possibly racist. And there’s truth to all of that. Even if we’re being generous, we must recognize that “jazz” is nothing but a marketing term like “hip-hop,” “country,” “rock ’n’ roll,” or worst of all “world music,” and denotes no actual musical qualities, or at least no absolutes. For every sonic trope that you can assert as definitive to a particular genre, you can tally up a thousand examples of records that don’t have that thing, but are unmistakably of that genre.

Still, we must also accept that jazz is one of the most successful marketing terms of all time. Want proof? Start with the fact that it’s been adjectivized. If someone says the word “jazzy” to you, you immediately have a vague sense of what they mean. It refers to a set of musical signifiers (loose, swinging rhythm; bluesy melodies; piano and probably horns) but also to a set of non-musical signifiers, some material — sunglasses, cigarettes, late nights in cities — and some psychological or attitudinal: a particular sort of relaxed, “cool” performance of the self.

But let’s stick with those musical signifiers for the moment. If an artist is known for making music that can be identified as jazz with relative ease, even if it’s free or avant-garde jazz, and then they release a piece of work that has none of the musical qualities associated with jazz, are they still a jazz musician? The answer should be yes, right? But what if we approach it from the opposite angle? What if someone known as a classical composer creates a piece scored for trumpet, tenor saxophone, piano, upright bass, and drums, and says that, as part of the score, the musicians will be improvising based on predetermined melodic structures? There’s room for improvisation in classical music, even more so in modern composition; they just call it “indeterminacy.” But is that piece a classical composition, or a jazz tune? And does it matter?

Perhaps it doesn’t, in the grand scheme of things. But how about this: If someone chooses to self-identify as a jazz artist, but makes music which does not possess the commonly understood qualities of jazz — improvised solos, blues forms, swinging rhythms — are they really jazz artists? Can they be written out of the genre at a certain point, if they have traveled too far from jazz’s vernacular roots? If their music, to put it crudely, isn’t black enough? And how far is too far, anyway? All of the artists I mentioned above, and many others, have pushed right up against jazz’s apparent boundaries and broken through them. They have written through-composed music for unorthodox combinations of instruments, eschewing traditional structures, and recorded compositions knowing that they would likely never be performed live.

But this blurring and obliterating of lines didn’t start with Anthony Braxton or Roscoe Mitchell. It’s been part of jazz since the beginning. Duke Ellington wrote “Reminiscing In Tempo,” a through-composed piece, in 1935. Eric Dolphy was performing the music of Edgard Varèse at the same time that he was making jazz records under his own leadership and with John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. Ornette Coleman wrote a symphony, Skies Of America, and multiple chamber music works. Charlie Parker was obsessed with Stravinsky, and likely would have explored much more broadly had he lived longer.

Am I thinking too much about what jazz is? Possibly. But I’ve had a lot of time to think lately, and I suspect a lot of musicians have these same thoughts. This is one of the reasons I admire Tyshawn Sorey so much: It takes a lot of courage to create music without thinking about what it is, or where it “fits” into the “cultural landscape,” and just offer it to people, for them to listen to or not, outside of all preconceptions.

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

Gary Bartz & Maisha, Night Dreamer Direct-To-Disc Session (Night Dreamer)

The Night Dreamer label is doing something really interesting — they’re cutting direct-to-disc albums, meaning there’s no tape, no editing, just raw performances captured in the moment. This one is something truly special, a collaboration between legendary saxophonist Gary Bartz and up-and-coming London spiritual jazz squad Maisha. Bartz started out playing with Max Roach, then Miles Davis, then stepped out on his own with NTU Troop, making a string of classic albums in the early to mid ’70s, and in recent years he’s returned to prominence as a kind of elder statesman. On this session, the band rerecords two of his old tracks, but it’s the new compositions, including “Harlem To Haarlem,” that are the real attraction. Over a strutting groove from guitarist Shirley Tetteh, keyboardist Al MacSween, bassist Twm Dylan, drummer Jake Long, and percussionist Tim Doyle, Bartz and guest trumpeter Axel Kaner-Lidstrom stretch out and uncoil soulful solos.

Stream “Harlem To Haarlem”:

Anna Högberg Attack, Lena (Omlott)

Alto saxophonist Anna Högberg’s band Attack made an amazing debut album back in 2017, then kinda drifted off the radar. But they’re back, with one new member (tenor saxophonist Malin Wättring is out, trumpeter Niklas Barnö is in) and six fantastic new pieces. Some of them are highly energetic free jazz in the classic late ’60s style, with plenty of aggressive drumming and Cecil Taylor-esque piano from Lisa Ullén. But Högberg can write a riff, too. “Dansa Margit” features a really good one; it starts off with a big, bottom-heavy bass-and-drum groove, with the piano driving hard and the horns coming in with a honking melody line you might think was from a Blue Note album from 1964, but things start to get weird once tenor saxophonist Elin Forkelid, who’s been huffing and puffing in the corner by herself like a boxer waiting to enter the ring, starts her solo. It’s conventional in an Archie Shepp-ish way to start, but she starts blowing harder and harder until the whole band downs tools and waits her out. She’s on her own for close to two minutes, until she starts blasting them over and over with a single maniacal phrase until they get back to work. It’s awesome.

Stream “Dansa Margit”:

Aaron Parks, Little Big II: Dreams Of A Mechanical Man (Ropeadope)

Pianist Aaron Parks’ quartet Little Big, featuring guitarist Greg Tuohey, bassist David Ginyard, Jr., and drummer Tommy Crane, is allowing him to make the most visceral and immediately gripping music of his career, by blending jazz concepts with the thump and clang of rock. On “Friendo,” he switches back and forth between piano — where he’s playing big rock chords like he’s in Supertramp or something — and proggy synth to create an eerie, floating melodic feel even as Ginyard’s thick, soupy bass and Crane’s head-nodding beat create a rock-solid foundation. Tuohey’s guitar has sharp, jagged teeth, and his solo is a patient extrapolation of ideas that never gets all the way to Shred City. Little Big is a real band, with a lot of road miles under them, and that gives their music a unified, collective feel that ad hoc gatherings of players, however sympathetic, can’t match.

Stream “Friendo”:

Orrin Evans/Captain Black Big Band, The Intangible Between (Smoke Sessions)

The fourth release by pianist Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band has an ineffable Philly-ness to it that’s hard to describe with any precision, but you can hear it. Evans is 100% a son of his city, and from the opening “Proclaim Liberty” to the ending “I’m So Glad I Got To Know You” (a dedication to the late drummer Lawrence Leathers), this album has a churning, soulful energy that’s kind of a cross between the fierce drive of McCoy Tyner’s large-ensemble records and the lush orchestrations of early ’70s Gamble & Huff. “Proclaim Liberty” has a swelling grandeur, with the thundering drums providing an anchor that allows the band to sway and dance around as a red-hot trumpet solo builds and builds. Late in the piece, when everyone drops out but Evans, the drummer, and a saxophonist, the energy spikes right into the red.

Stream “Proclaim Liberty”:

Tropos, Axioms 75AB (Biophilia)

Tropos are a new group of young improvising musicians out of the New England Conservatory. This is their debut, and they’re making a powerful statement by juxtaposing five pieces they created themselves against six versions of Anthony Braxton compositions from the 1970s. These pieces, many of which appeared on his Arista albums, are among his least forbidding and most immediately captivating, and the members of Tropos — vocalist Laila Smith, alto saxophonist Raef Sengupta, pianist Phillip Golub, bassist Zachary Lavine, and drummer Mario Layne Fabrizio — have fun with them. Their version of “23c,” which first appeared on his Arista debut, New York, Fall 1974, features Smith and Sengupta strutting side by side through the complicated, staccato melody as Golub, Lavine, and Fabrizio play around behind them, sometimes setting a martial rhythm and other times wandering away into skittering abstraction, but always coming back when it’s time to drop the hammer.

Stream “23C”:

Shirley Scott, One For Me (Arc)

Shirley Scott was one of the foremost organists in jazz during the ’50s and ’60s; she first teamed up with saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, and later Stanley Turrentine (to whom she was married; they divorced in 1971). In 1975, she recorded this album for the Strata-East label as a conscious act of rebellion against the image the music business had required her to portray for decades. She picked sympathetic collaborators — tenor saxophonist Harold Vick and drummer Billy Higgins — and wrote three of the five tunes herself, rather than interpreting standards. “Keep On Movin’ On” is a funky, soulful groove, but it’s almost ten minutes long, and Scott goes farther out than was usual for her — not into outer space the way Larry Young might have, but it’s easy to tell she was aware of what was happening in the broader music world, and even easier to tell she’s enjoying the hell out of stretching this way.

Stream “Keep On Movin’ On”:

Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra With Wynton Marsalis, Christopher Crenshaw’s The Fifties: A Prism (Blue Engine)

It’s really astonishing to me how interesting the Jazz At Lincoln Center’s catalog of albums has become in the last few years. They keep coming up with concepts and showcases for guest stars and for the members’ compositions that really make it hard to see them as just an institutional retro act, which is how they were portrayed for many years. On this album, recorded live in 2017, trombonist Christopher Crenshaw filters various jazz ideas and modes from the 1950s through a modern sensibility, creating a suite that honors the innovations of that decade while demonstrating all the ways in which those ideas are still dominant today. The last and longest track, “Portrait Of The New Thing,” deals quite overtly with the work of Ornette Coleman in its opening fanfare, but you can hear echoes of other folks who were pushing boundaries at that time, too, including Charles Mingus and Sonny Rollins.

Stream “Portrait Of The New Thing”:

In Common, In Common 2 (Whirlwind)

In 2017, tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and guitarist Matthew Stevens brought together a group that included vibraphonist Joel Ross, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Marcus Gilmore and made a killer album under the collective name In Common. Two years later, they’ve completely revamped the lineup, with Micah Thomas on piano, Linda May Han Oh on bass, and Nate Smith on drums. The compositions are what Smith calls “One Page Songs” — they’re short, simple forms that focus on melodic immediacy, allowing the band to stretch out in interesting ways. The results speak for themselves. “Lotto,” the first full track on the album after a one-minute introductory tribute to the late Roy Hargrove, features a bubbling, energetic riff that Smith and Stevens play in unison, while allowing the other band members to take potent, what’s-my-name solos in between.

Stream “Lotto”:

Anne Mette Iversen Quartet +1, Racing A Butterfly (BJU)

Danish bassist Anne Mette Iversen’s long-running quartet with tenor saxophonist John Ellis, pianist Danny Grissett, and drummer Otis Brown III welcomes a guest, trombonist Peter Dahlgren, for a lighthearted, relaxed album that seems to trace the same kind of looping, abstract patterns in the air that a butterfly does as it moves around a garden. The title piece, which is the album’s second track, offers Dahlgren a lengthy solo spot, and he makes the most of it. The trombone is an innately vocal instrument; it sounds more like a person or some large animal than a machine, which is probably why it was used as the voice of the schoolteacher in the Peanuts animated cartoons. Dahlgren never shouts or smears his notes, instead letting them flow naturally, like he’s telling you something interesting he just read. And Ellis counters him in a totally congenial way, at times seeming to laugh like the trombonist has shared a joke.

Stream “Racing A Butterfly”:

Chad Taylor Trio, The Daily Biological (Cuneiform)

Drummer Chad Taylor is a Chicago legend who’s played with basically everybody of note on that city’s extremely vital music scene. His two partners on this album, tenor saxophonist Brian Settles and pianist Neil Podgurski (there’s no bassist), are friends he’s known since the mid ’90s but never recorded with before. The music they’re making together is free but songlike. The album-opening “The Shepherd” gives everyone a chance to shine, working through a complex sax-piano melody before running through a sequence of solos, of which Taylor’s is the most aggressive, tumbling across the kit like he’s hammering the drums into their housings.

Stream “The Shepherd”:

Archie Shepp, Raw Poetic & Damu The Fudgemunk, Ocean Bridges (Redefinition)

Archie Shepp has always embraced vocals. Many of his classic albums, including but hardly limited to Fire Music, Blasé, Poem For Malcolm, and Attica Blues, have featured poetry and chanted slogans. This album is a collaboration with his nephew, who raps as Raw Poetic and sounds kind of like CL Smooth to my old ears. A live band — guitar, keyboards, bass, and drums — sets up a groove that sounds like something Pete Rock would have sampled once upon a time, Shepp solos at length, and at various points Raw Poetic comes in and out. It’s all improvised in the studio, and sounds it; the complex, ragged-but-right arrangements heard on Shepp’s own 1960s albums are absent, but there’s definite inspiration here.

Stream “Tulips”:

Tineke Postma, Freya (Edition)

This is Dutch saxophonist Tineke Postma’s sixth album, but it’s also her first since 2014, and her first for Edition. She’s rounded up a killer band that includes trumpeter Ralph Alessi, pianist Kris Davis, bassist Matt Brewer, and drummer Dan Weiss. These are folks as capable of working in wild avant-garde and free contexts as they are swinging. The music on Freya is somewhere in between; the title track starts out as a gentle ballad, but Weiss is jumpy in the back, repeatedly attempting to pump the energy up with a burst of militaristic snare or thump of the kick drum. Eventually, he succeeds. Postma’s solo, with a sympathetic and encouraging Davis shadowing her, has an almost Wayne Shorter-esque combination of abstraction and fierceness.

Stream “Freya”:

Gabriel Chakarji, New Beginning (Chaksmusic)

Pianist Gabriel Chakarji is originally from Venezuela, currently living in New York. This is his debut album, and he’s surrounded himself with some killer players — trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, tenor saxophonist Morgan Guerin, bassist Edward Perez, drummer Jongkuk Kim, and percussionists Daniel Prim and Jeickov Vital. Venezuelan percussion is different from other Latin styles; it’s hard for someone not steeped in it to explain it, but you’ll hear instantly how it’s different from Cuban or Brazilian rhythms, to pick two obvious examples. On “No Me Convence,” the piano almost seems to stumble along, as half-lost as O’Farrill’s trumpet is fierce and assured. But it’s Chakarji’s composition, and he has it firmly in his grasp. The longer the piece goes, the more intricate and tumbling the three-part percussion/rhythm team’s action gets, and when they finally get a moment in the spotlight, they’re bouncing and clattering like a six-armed drum solo, with the trumpet like a car alarm going off in the middle of an earthquake.

Stream “No Me Convence”:

Chip Wickham, Blue To Red (Lovemonk)

Flutist and saxophonist Chip Wickham makes a kind of spiritual jazz that’s heavily indebted to Alice Coltrane and Yusef Lateef, but also has a strong downtempo/chillout-room feel. The beats underpinning the long flute solos, drifting organ, and shimmering harp are clearly intended to make you nod your head, not tap your foot, and there’s a significant low end presence, too. In headphones, this stuff rumbles. “Interstellar” comes at the end of the album’s first side, and Wickham’s flute is gradually swallowed up by an eerie electronic effect that Miles Davis and Teo Macero might have stumbled upon in 1972, turning the hypnotic melody into a weird, keening cry that eventually dissolves in a ripple of echo.

Stream “Interstellar”:

Jonathan Barber & Vision Ahead, Legacy Holder (Independent/Self-Released)

This is drummer Jonathan Barber’s second album as a leader; his 2018 debut was called Vision Ahead, and now he’s using that name for his band, which includes alto saxophonist Godwin Louis, guitarist Andrew Renfroe, pianist Taber Gable, and bassist Matt Dwonszyk. Barber is the primary composer, and he’s got some tricks up his sleeve. “29” is a song marking his transition out of his twenties, and you’ll want to listen carefully — not just to the nicely staccato sax-guitar opening melody, or Louis’ and Renfroe’s bebop-to-burnout solos, but to the drums. See if you can figure out what kind of hyper-complex rhythm he’s put together…oh, wait, it’s actually a 4/4 groove, just chopped up into such tiny glittering bits it’s enough to make your head spin.

Stream “29”: