The Month In Jazz – June 2020

Ambrose Akinmusire

The Month In Jazz – June 2020

Ambrose Akinmusire

Ten years ago, Darius Jones flew across the New York jazz scene like a comet. His debut album as a leader, Man’ish Boy (A Raw & Beautiful Thing), was a lung-busting trio date featuring his astonishing alto sax, the richest and fullest sound produced by that horn since Arthur Blythe, and backed by Cooper-Moore on diddley-bow and Rakalam Bob Moses on drums. The music was part jazz, part gospel, and part avant-garde exploration in pursuit of pure sound, uniting at least two generations of free jazz players in collective spiritual exultation. He made two more albums in an easily comprehensible free jazz mode, 2011’s Big Gurl (Smell My Dream) and 2012’s Book Of Maebul (Another Kind Of Sunrise), using pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Trevor Dunn, and drummer Ches Smith on the latter. At the same time, he was playing in the no wave/avant-noise-rock group Little Women, whose albums Throat and Lung are stunning, and recording two sets of duos — one studio, one live — with Matthew Shipp. A six-year run of work was capped off with one of the wildest creative achievements you’ll ever hear, The Oversoul Manual.

The Oversoul Manual took Jones three years to write, rehearse, and record. It featured no instruments at all; it was a work for four female singers, written in a language of his own creation that consisted of individual patterned phonemes rather than words per se, and took the form — according to his liner notes — of a religious/reproductive rite from an alien civilization. It sounded like something that should be sung by people in robes, too. The women’s voices rose and fell, from high-pitched near-shrieks to guttural growls, harmonizing sometimes and simply overlapping other times. It was part high mass, part Philip Glass opera, and the vocal frequencies were so extreme that it could have a physical impact on your body when you were listening to it. It was performed at Roulette and then at Carnegie Hall, and beautifully recorded in the studio. And afterward, he made one more jazz album — Le Bébé De Brigitte (Lost In Translation) — and then vanished.

He didn’t disappear completely, of course; he was still playing here and there. But he stepped off the album-cycle treadmill. The last time I saw him in person was at an Art Ensemble Of Chicago concert in 2017, and when I asked him what he was up to, he said that he just didn’t feel like he had anything to say on an album right then.

I called him up last week, to check in and see how he was doing, and his feelings hadn’t really changed. He felt like the work required to write and rehearse and record an album was often a discouraging rather than an inspiring process. He told me about the years of rehearsals and rewrites that had gone into The Oversoul Manual, only to have critics respond with somewhat hostile puzzlement — “Why aren’t you playing the saxophone? What is this? How am I supposed to categorize it?” On the other hand, he told me that people whose art had inspired him, like Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill, and Wadada Leo Smith, had come to the performance or heard the work, and loved it. So for him, that was enough.

When I asked if he was coming out of retirement anytime soon, he laughed. It turns out he’d been planning to return to the music scene in 2020 with three albums, including one with strings — there’s a whole tradition of alto sax and strings that encompasses work by Charlie Parker, Anthony Braxton, Arthur Blythe, Johnny Hodges, and others — and a solo disc to be produced by guitarist David Torn. All three projects, though, were pushed aside by COVID-19 and quarantine. Personally, I can’t wait to hear any and all of them. Darius Jones is a unique and unforgettable creative voice. If you’ve never heard his previous work, dive in, and with luck, his new projects will see the light of day sooner rather than later. He’s been away too long.

Moor Mother, on the other hand, isn’t going anywhere. She’s pumping out a staggering amount of music, much of it solo work or collaborations with one other person, but the free jazz group she fronts, Irreversible Entanglements, have been digging into their live archives and have self-released two concerts so far. Live In Italy came out in May, and Live In Berlin came out this month. Each is a seamless, continuous performance, fully improvised in the moment (though lyrics from the group’s two albums do pop up here and there), and their energy is as furious and unrelenting as ever. Live In Berlin is a tight 45-minute set, probably from a festival, but Live In Italy is 90 minutes of righteous fury, almost exhausting in its power. Here’s one track from each:

And now, here are 15 more of the best new jazz albums of the month!

Ambrose Akinmusire, On The Tender Spot Of Every Calloused Moment (Blue Note)

When I saw Ambrose Akinmusire and his quartet — pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Justin Brown — at Winter Jazzfest in January, I didn’t know they were premiering music from an upcoming album. I was just spellbound by their roughly 45-minute set. Akinmusire is a fascinating trumpeter, because he never seems to cut loose. His lines murmur and sigh, and there’s always a blurry edge, as if the notes are on the brink of dissolving into the air. The rest of the band challenges him constantly, throwing aggressive waves of rhythm and pounding piano at him, but he remains focused, like a guy standing in the middle of a party working out math problems in his head. “Tide Of Hyacinth,” which opens the new album, features Juan Diaz, a Cuban percussionist and vocalist who chants in Yoruba, swerving what’s been a fractured but intense modern jazz piece off in the direction of ritual.

Stream “Tide Of Hyacinth”:

Cecil Taylor & Tony Oxley, Birdland, Neuburg 2011 (Fundacja Sluchaj)

Cecil Taylor began working with British drummer Tony Oxley in 1988, when he had a lengthy summer residency in Berlin. They clicked so completely that they wound up working together, off and on, until the end of the pianist’s life; I saw them play together at the Whitney Museum in April 2016, possibly Taylor’s final live performance, in an ensemble that also included cellist Okkyung Lee, saxophonist Harri Sjöström, and Jackson Krall on drums (Oxley, due to illness, was contributing subtle electronics). This duo set, though, features both men at the top of their game. Oxley’s particular contribution — what makes him unlike any other drummer, in free jazz or otherwise — is his crisp use of cymbals and small toms that sound like he’s playing a collection of tuned plastic buckets. He cuts right through Taylor’s tidal waves of piano, keeping pace with him at all times and offering compelling counter-narratives. The recording, courtesy of German radio, is impossibly clean and detailed; you can literally hear Taylor’s piano bench creaking during many sections. This is an essential document for any Taylor fan.

Stream “Birdland, Neuberg 2011 Part 1B”:

Nicole Mitchell & Lisa E. Harris, EarthSeed (FPE)

Flutist and composer Nicole Mitchell has long been fascinated and inspired by the work of the late science fiction author Octavia Butler. Two of her previous albums, Xenogenesis Suite and Intergalactic Beings, were directly drawn from Butler’s work, and this album, a collaboration with composer Lisa E. Harris, is derived from the novels Parable Of The Sower and Parable Of The Talents, both of which are fantastic (and eerily resonant with the present day). Harris had been working on an opera when she and Mitchell met in the mid-2010s; they began collaborating on this work, which was premiered in Chicago in 2017. The music is by a new version of Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble, featuring vocalist Julian Otis, trumpeter Ben LaMar Gay, violinist Zara Zaharieva, cellist Tomeka Reid, and percussionist Avreeayl Ra, with Harris contributing vocals, theremin, and electronics. At times, as on “Yes And Know,” it sounds like a recording of an avant-garde theater piece, but the music has a surging power even if you’re not paying attention to the lyrics and message (which, make no mistake, you absolutely should).

Stream “Yes And Know”:

Nicole Mitchell & Moor Mother, Offering – Live At Le Guess Who (Don Giovanni)

Mitchell’s second release of the month is a live recording from the 2018 Le Guess Who festival in Utrecht, the Netherlands, which was curated by Moor Mother. This 45-minute collaboration possesses a frankly terrifying energy. Mitchell pushes her flute through echo and reverb, turning it into a massive whooshing roar like an elephant’s exhalations, as Moor Mother creates electronic hisses and rumbles like a spaceship disintegrating around its occupants. Over that bed of nightmare sound, she asks with increasing urgency, “Did you see the vultures laughing? Did you see the hawk circling, looking for flesh? Have you been walking around with open eyes?” Both of these women understand the power of incantatory text and music that respects no genre. This is something unlike anything else you’ll hear this month, or this year.

Stream “Vultures Laughing”:

Chris Speed/Dave King/Reid Anderson/Tim Berne, Broken Shadows Live (Screwgun)

Saxophonists Tim Berne (alto) and Chris Speed (tenor) and bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King of the Bad Plus have had this project going for a couple of years now where they play compositions by Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Julius Hemphill, under the name Broken Shadows (a Coleman album from 1971). Haden was born in Iowa, but each of the other three men was born in Fort Worth, Texas, and there’s a particular strain of blues that runs through all of their music. It manifests in somewhat winding melodies, a generally strutting rhythm with a lot of bounce, and a willingness to follow the music wherever it seems to want to go. (Drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, who was in Ornette’s Prime Time band from 1975-77, was also from Fort Worth, and his music has many of these same qualities.) I saw Broken Shadows at the Jazz Standard in 2019 and had a blast, and this live album is every bit as swinging, funky and rocking as the gig I attended. The version of Coleman’s “Ecars,” from Ornette On Tenor, is a swinging, funky blowout with a melody you’ll recognize as coming from his pen in about two seconds.

Stream “Ecars”:

Ryan Porter, Live In Paris At New Morning (Alpha Pup/World Galaxy)

If you’ve seen Kamasi Washington live, you’ve seen Ryan Porter; he’s the trombonist standing and delivering at the saxophonist’s left. But he’s much more than Kamasi’s running partner. This is his fourth album as a leader, documenting a Paris concert from his first European tour as a headliner. Washington is there, of course, as are keyboardist Brandon Coleman, bassist Miles Mosley, and drummer Tony Austin, and they absolutely tear it up for 80 minutes (this is a digital-only release at the moment). The sound quality is boomy and raw, with a lot of space given to Mosley’s bass in the mix, and he’s playing hard — a commenter on the album’s Bandcamp page who was at the gig says he broke his instrument’s neck at the end of the set and had to play the rest of the night on a borrowed upright. Everyone’s playing hard, in fact. “Madiba,” the opening track on Porter’s 2019 release Force For Good, is a Mingus-esque vamp written in tribute to Nelson Mandela, and it has a kind of mournful but rampaging energy. Porter’s solo is pure blues, the cry of a wounded heart, and when Washington comes in behind him, he’s almost subdued, but he can’t hold back for long. By the halfway mark of the nearly 12-minute piece, he’s headed skyward and not coming back anytime soon.

Stream “Madiba”:

Kahil El’Zabar, Spirit Groove (Spiritmuse)

Chicago percussionist Kahil El’Zabar has been a major figure in avant-garde jazz since the 1970s, when he formed his still-extant Ritual Trio and Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. He’s worked with all sorts of players over the years, but his relationship with saxophonist David Murray is particularly strong; they’ve made a half dozen or so albums together over the years, of which this double LP is the latest. It also features Justin Dillard on synth, piano, and organ, and Emma Dayhuff on bass. El’Zabar’s array of percussion instruments create a more subtle, shifting rhythmic bed than a traditional drum kit would. As a consequence, Murray settles down into a deep groove, focusing on his romantic and soulful side instead of erupting in some of the shrieks and bellows he’s also known for, though his lines do get pretty far out at times. “Trane In Mind” is a fierce, churning piece that lets the band clang and thump, while Murray inhabits a zone somewhere between Coltrane and a bar-walking R&B player.

Stream “Trane In Mind”:

GoGo Penguin, GoGo Penguin (Blue Note)

UK piano trio GoGo Penguin have always been interesting, but never revelatory — to me, they fall somewhere between Dawn Of Midi and instrumental Coldplay, which is fine, but not something I need to hear most days. Their new album is a genuine breakthrough, though. Their ability to balance traditional piano trio dynamics with the surging energy of post-rock and soundtrack music, occasionally erupting with the disciplined fervor of techno or working a minimalist groove reminiscent of modern classical, makes every track here worth focusing on in detail, even as it all blends together into a seamless if ever-shifting whole. “Signal In The Noise” begins with a zing across the piano strings that reverberates out into a shimmering sine-wave cloud, before a hard-punching breakbeat launches things properly, and layers of overdubbed piano come rumbling in from both the left and right. Somewhere in the middle, a thick, woody bass rumbles and bounces.

Stream “Signal In The Noise”:

Ajoyo, War Chant (Shems)

Ajoyo is a sextet led by reeds player Yacine Boularès; this is their second album, following a self-titled 2015 debut. Guitarist Michael Valeanu, keyboardist Jesse Fischer, bassist Kyle Miles, and drummer Philippe Lemm back vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles, who’s also worked extensively with trumpeter Christian Scott, on his albums and her own 2018 disc Free Of Form. The lyrics on War Chant are impassioned and socially engaged, but the instrumental tracks are just as tough and high-energy. On “Asskyo,” they’re joined by two Japanese musicians, trumpeter Takuya Kuroda and percussionist Keita Ogawa, but the tracks is practically Afrobeat. The quick, flitting rhythm, bolstered by handclaps from multiple members of the ensemble and stinging funk guitar, plus a weird synth patch that almost sounds like a steel drum, is the perfect showcase for Charles’ wordless vocals and some tight back-and-forth between Kuroda and Boularès.

Stream “Asskyo” (Feat. Takuya Kuroda):

Vibration Black Finger, Can You See What I’m Trying To Say (Jazzman)

Vibration Black Finger is a project led by multi-instrumentalist Lascelle Gordon, formerly of the Brand New Heavies. He brings in collaborators to realize his vision, not unlike Bill Laswell or Adrian Sherwood. The last VBF album, 2017’s Blackism, owed a lot to Miles Davis’ early ’70s work (On The Corner and Get Up With It in particular); it had an electric sting and a nerve-jangling big-city energy. This album is more subdued and soul-jazzy; it opens with a version of “Empty Streets,” originally recorded in 1978 by the New Life Trio — a group featuring guitarist Brandon Ross, currently of Harriet Tubman, and percussionist Steve Reid — and sung here by Ebony Rose in a haunted but soulful manner. The tracks here come from all kinds of sources, including home recordings, field recordings, cassettes, mini-discs, and even live-in-the-studio performances. It all adds up to a collage that somehow sustains a coherent mood while making its patchwork quality both evident and a virtue.

Stream “Empty Streets”:

Ingrid Laubrock/Kris Davis, Blood Moon (Intakt)

Last year, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock made a duo album with pianist Aki Takase. This year, she’s turning it into a series, making a duo album with a different pianist, Kris Davis. Laubrock and Davis have history; they’ve worked together in a range of contexts, most notably the saxophonist’s group Anti-House, which also features guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist John Hébert, and drummer Tom Rainey, and the trio Paradoxical Frog with drummer Tyshawn Sorey. So they know each other’s musical minds quite well, and can connect quickly and easily. Under a lot of circumstances, that would be a recipe for tedium and cliché, as players fall into predictable patterns, pulling out favorite licks and meeting in the middle without really thinking or challenging each other … but not here. This album’s opening track, “Snakes And Lattice,” combines a spiky, almost Anthony Braxton-esque melody with long passages of adventurous and suspenseful duo improvisation and a slow, patient, extremely quiet wind-down that you’re really going to want to hear on headphones.

Stream “Snakes And Lattice”:

Whit Dickey Trio, Expanding Light (Tao Forms)

Drummer Whit Dickey and alto saxophonist Rob Brown have been playing together off and on, in various contexts, since 1989. On this album, one of the first releases on Dickey’s own Tao Forms label, they’re joined by bassist Brandon Lopez, who was born in 1988. The music is fascinating even if you’ve been listening to Brown and Dickey for decades, because in recent years the drummer has undergone a spiritual awakening of sorts, and it’s radically impacted his playing. There’s a new openness to his sound; where he used to do battle with his bandmates — watching him and Matthew Shipp onstage was literally like a boxing match, with bassist Michael Bisio caught in between — he now listens, and leaves them all the space they need. On “Desert Flower,” his drumming is stunningly gentle; he’s bouncing around in the background as Lopez solos, and Brown, too, seems uncommonly patient, letting long notes drift across the landscape.

Stream “Desert Flower”:

Rudresh Mahanthappa, Hero Trio (Whirlwind)

Alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s new album is a trio session with bassist François Moutin and drummer Rudy Royston, on which they interpret tunes from Mahanthappa’s biggest influences. He’s someone who thinks a lot about his music, shaping his compositions with great care and a lot of what cynics might call trickery or the pursuit of novelty for its own sake, throwing in quirky little ideas that only music students can really appreciate. I don’t feel that way myself, though; there’s always a strong, emotional core to his work, and this disc in particular feels like a passion project. It opens with a version of “Red Cross,” a Charlie Parker composition that you might not recognize — it’s not a standard — but it’s easy enough to hear his voice in the bouncing-ball melody. The three men deal with the melody reverently, conjuring the anarchic but ferocious spirit of 1940s bebop, but then they slip the leash and go wild, with Royston dropping massive Max Roach-style bombs behind the kit as Mahanthappa journeys all the way to the land of the free and back.

Stream “Red Cross”:

Alexa Tarantino, Clarity (Posi-Tone)

Alto saxophonist Alexa Tarantino (who also plays the flute) is a traditionalist, a bebop-rooted player whose lines are clean and speedy, but always leaving room for the music to breathe. This album, her second for Posi-Tone, features her partner Steven Feifke — they do weekly live-from-quarantine shows online — on piano and Fender Rhodes, Joe Martin on bass, and Rudy Royston on drums, all digging into a collection of five original tunes (four by Tarantino, one by Feifke) and versions of pieces by Horace Silver, Kurt Weill, and others. “Breaking Cycles” is a soulful workout by saxophonist Levi Saelua which lets both frontline players stretch out in a way that recalls mid ’70s jazz from the zone where post-bop meets Steely Dan.

Stream “Breaking Cycles”:

Marcin Wasilewski Trio & Joe Lovano, Arctic Riff (ECM)

Polish pianist Marcin Wasilewski has been leading his trio with bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz for over 25 years; their first album, a collection of pieces by Kyrszystof Komeda, came out in 1995. The group then joined forces with trumpeter Tomasz Stanko for several records, before resuming their own activities. This album is a collaboration with saxophonist Joe Lovano, their first studio recording since 2014’s Spark Of Life, which also featured a guest saxophonist, Sweden’s Joakim Milder. Lovano meets them on their home ground, playing with incredible subtlety and sensitivity. “Glimmer Of Hope” is a gentle ballad that features lyrical, introspective solos from both Lovano and Wasilewski, with the rhythm section hovering like a cloud underneath them.

Stream “Glimmer Of Hope”:

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