Ugly Beauty

The Month In Jazz – August 2020

Free jazz is often seen as an old man’s music; even players considered part of the new generation seem to be going gray. Pianist Matthew Shipp, for example, will turn 60 in December, and drummer Hamid Drake recently celebrated his 65th birthday. But there are some young musicians taking up the mantle of the music and carrying it forward. One of them is Polish multi-instrumentalist (he plays alto sax, flute, and various clarinets) Mat Walerian, currently living in Brooklyn. He’s connected with Shipp, Drake, and William Parker, and made four albums since 2012 for the ESP-Disk’ label (and appeared on one of the pianist’s releases, Sonic Fiction).

His interests are fairly wide-ranging. He likes electronic music as much as jazz, though that doesn’t show up on his records. He’s got a deep passion for Japanese culture and Eastern philosophy, and created the Okuden festival back in Poland; the name refers to “inner transmission” or “hidden teachings.” By email, he says that Okuden “was about being independent — on a much, much smaller scale but kind of same concept as the Vision Fest, presenting it from the musicians’ point of view. It is going to follow — don’t know if this or next year, but it will continue.”

His first release, The Uppercut, was a live duo from Okuden with Shipp, about whom he says via email, “We have similar taste in what we like — we have similar taste of humor — we listen to a lot of different kinds of music; we like disco, we like dancing, we like boxing and sport in general — we don’t like clowns — we both like electronic music like Aphex Twin. [I] was listening to Matthew’s music since the late ’90s … so this is kind of special [that I] started to work with Matthew in 2011.”

His second release, Jungle, was a trio date featuring Shipp and Drake; his third, Toxic, featured Shipp and William Parker, and no drummer; and his latest album, a two-CD set running nearly two hours and bearing the unwieldy title Every Dog Has Its Day But It Doesn’t Matter Because Fat Cat Is Getting Fatter, features all three of his chosen collaborators. The meditative nature of his music is immediately audible in the first track, “The Forest Council”:

Though he’s already made four albums for one of the most legendary labels in out jazz, and run his own festival, Walerian is barely getting started. He says, “I don’t feel like I’ve done much, despite the obvious matter being the fact of the people I work with — that makes me feel it makes sense doing music, so … I want to do more recordings, just that. [I’m on my] fourth album only, but it is consistent work as this is what I believe in — consistency — also I do not feel like expanding the circle of people I play with; I just want be able to work with the uncles more and more.” With that attitude, we’ll likely be hearing from him for years.

Independent, artist-owned labels have been a crucial part of jazz history since the 1950s, if not earlier. Charles Mingus and Max Roach started Debut in 1952; it lasted five years. In the 1960s and 1970s, drummer Milford Graves put out his own music, as did Sun Ra on his El Saturn imprint. Strata-East, co-founded by pianist Stanley Cowell and trumpeter Charles Tolliver, released some killer music in the 1970s, and other examples abound. Two less well-known labels are getting their due this year, with reissues and compilations putting their music back in the public eye.

Black Jazz Records was founded in Oakland, CA by pianist Gene Russell and percussionist and sound engineer Dick Schory (he helped develop quadraphonic sound and the Dynagroove recording process). They released 20 titles between 1971 and 1975, which have gone in and out of print ever since. The latest editions are coming via Real Gone, an excellent reissue label that put out Ornette Coleman’s Crisis and Ornette At 12 a few years ago. They’re releasing five Black Jazz titles — the Awakening’s Hear, Sense And Feel; Doug Carn’s Spirit Of The New Land; Gene Russell’s New Direction; Kellee Patterson’s Maiden Voyage; and Walter Bishop Jr.’s Coral Keys — at the end of this month. They’re all in a soul-jazz vein, with the Awakening moving closer to Earth, Wind & Fire and Bishop a swinging pianist whose album features trumpeter Woody Shaw and drummer Idris Muhammad. This is a catalog that’s very much worth investigating.

Black Fire Records was an indie label run by DJ and record promoter Jimmy Gray and bassist James “Plunky” Branch, leader of the band Oneness Of Juju. It only lasted a few years, but their releases were excellent blends of jazz, funk, and soul, particularly the ones by Oneness Of Juju and the debut album by Experience Unlimited, who would later shorten their name to E.U. and have a massive hit with the go-go anthem “Da Butt.” A new Strut Records compilation, Soul Love Now: The Black Fire Records Story 1975-1993, gathers up ten tracks, some of which didn’t come out until the 1990s, when the label was revived.

Master percussionist (and holistic healer, and martial artist) Milford Graves is one of a small group of drummers — the others include Andrew Cyrille and Rashied Ali — who basically invented the free jazz approach to rhythm in the mid-1960s. Graves is seriously ill, as a recent New York Times feature revealed, but he’s also about to be the subject of a major exhibition, Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal, at the Institute Of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. At the same time, the Corbett Vs. Dempsey label has just reissued two of his albums as The Complete Yale Concert 1966. They’re duos with pianist Don Pullen, originally issued as In Concert At Yale University, Vol. 1 and Nommo on the Self-Reliance Productions imprint. How indie were these records? The first copies of the first volume featured hand-painted covers, and now fetch hundreds of dollars on the used market. So having all this music in one place on CD is a phenomenal gift.

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

Nubya Garcia, Source (Concord Jazz)

I’ve been waiting what has felt like an unreasonable amount of time for this album to come out. Garcia made her debut with a killer six-track EP, Nubya’s 5ive, in 2017, and solidified her status as a star of the London jazz scene with the groups Nérija and Maisha, her work on Theon Cross’s Fyah, and performances on five of nine tracks on the We Out Here compilation. Now she’s finally putting out a full-length album under her own name, and it’s extremely strong. Garcia is a melody-minded player who enjoys exploring a tune’s possibilities, rather than going for extreme sonic effects; she rarely screams, though she’ll dive into the tenor’s lower reaches. On the 12-minute title track, she’s joined by trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey (here billed as Ms Maurice), alto saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi, and trombonist Richie Seivwright, all of Afrobeat-jazz ensemble Kokoroko (Kinoshi is also in Nérija, and leads the SEED Ensemble). It’s built on a thick, dubby groove with head-swallowing bass, wordless female backing vocals, heavy echo and reverb, and tight horn section charts; the solos arise organically out of the rhythm, and the feeling is like floating forever on a softly rising and falling tide.

Stream “Source”:

Regina Carter Freedom Band, Swing States: Harmony In The Battleground (Tiger Turn/eOne)

Plenty of jazz musicians have made politically engaged music; there’s usually at least one album in this column with a message to convey, whether subtle or explicit. Violinist Regina Carter has made this record with the intention of drawing people’s attention to the importance of voting, and she’s done so with an impressive band that includes trumpeter John Daversa, pianist Jon Batiste, Alexis Cuadrado on bass, Kabir Sehgal on bass and percussion, and Harvey Mason on drums. They’ve taken songs identified with so-called swing states, and other parts of the country as well, and turned them into swinging jams; there are few morose ballads here, though she plays a short solo version of “We Shall Overcome” that’s quite moving. They even manage to turn John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High (Colorado)” into something worth hearing, thanks to the addition of a bouncing rhythm. Carter’s clean, quick violin lines, shadowed by Daversa’s multitracked horns and anchored by Sehgal’s percussion, turns the song into the perfect soundtrack for a walk through the woods on a sunny spring afternoon.

Stream “Rocky Mountain High (Colorado)”:

JD Allen, Toys/Die Dreaming (Savant)

Hello! It’s your resident metal doofus, Ian Chainey. Phil wrote the liner notes for JD Allen’s new album, Toys/Die Dreaming, so I’ve been summoned from the end of the bench to pinch-hit, allowing me to write about jazz for the first time since [*checks notes*] ever. Okay. No pressure. This will be something. Phil, who is a real five-tool contributor and regularly writes excellently about everything, is paying my flailing forward by penning a blurb for this month’s The Black Market, Stereogum’s metal column. Please, check that out. Please. We, uh, need the numbers. I’ve destroyed our readership by forcing them to listen to brutal death metal.

“The G Thing,” the second track on saxophonist JD Allen’s Toys/Die Dreaming, has a cinematic midnight moodiness to it. The head is street-lamp lit, a Nighthawks siren call for those who naturally gravitate towards late-night loneliness. That’s familiar territory, so, while the ballad is an original, it ruminates with a classic sensibility. I obviously lack the necessary vocabulary and knowledge to properly pinpoint the form, but Sonny Rollins’ strolling trios are probably the most applicable comparison, since Allen’s three-piece is likewise free of a chording instrument. And, indeed, Rollins’ name was one Allen cited when talking to Noah Fishman around the release of Love Stone, the 2018 album with his other crew, Gregg August (bass) and Rudy Royston (drums), along with Liberty Ellman on guitar. “The tenor saxophone has a rich tradition in ballad playing,” Allen said, “so there was a lot to pull from.”

Not unlike the brooding The Matador And The Bull, “The G Thing” allows Allen to pull a heck of a lot from himself. It keys into a supremely soulful humanity that gives even the more brainy twists of his solo a relatability. That’s the other part of this song’s story. Toys/Die Dreaming is Allen’s second album with bassist Ian Kenselaar and drummer Nic Cacioppo, following last year’s wonderfully bracing, searing Barracoon. One of the oft-written things about this trio is that Allen is working with younger players. “I felt I had something to offer, and they’re a lot younger, so I felt they had things to offer me,” Allen said to Phil for a profile in DownBeat. Those things smolder throughout the solo, where both Kenselaar and Cacioppo play subtly abstract stuff with a fiery intensity. “He’s been very influential on the past year of my playing,” Kenselaar said of Allen in the same piece. “This newer music that we’re doing is reaching out into a little bit more of the avant-garde vein, but still coming from straightahead, swinging stuff. That’s been really fascinating for me, just to delve into that.” All three develop a fascinating conversation in “The G Thing”’s middle, pushing each other to have a pavement pounding adventure. It’s a neat flip. Just when you think “The G Thing” is content to hang out on a fire escape, smoke and steam wafting towards the stars, it hits the streets. When the song starts walking, the players wear out their shoe leather, racking up the miles. It’s like nine different songs depending on where you place your attention, though I particularly love how Allen can reclaim it with a well-placed bwomp. No matter how far out the others travel, he can pull them back to center. Of course, trying to hold on to all the threads really taxes my un-jazz brain meat. But, again, that’s just a chapter within the greater story: The vibe is just so sublime. Everyone’s playing is shot through humanness; some real flesh and blood stuff. I could stay in this world forever, spinning noir-ish yarns while “The G Thing” makes its rounds within its lively city. Good music tells a story. Great music helps you tell your own.

Stream “The G Thing”:

Gregg August, Dialogues On Race Vol. 1 (Independent/Self-Released)

As Ian mentioned, bassist Gregg August anchored JD Allen’s trio for about a decade, but he’s made a few records under his own name that are great, too. This double CD might be the most ambitious thing he’s ever done. A suite commissioned by the Jazz Gallery in 2009, it features a nine-piece band, a string section, and a poet, plus audio from a documentary called The Untold Story Of Emmett Louis Till. As its title and subject matter suggest, it’s heavy stuff, but it’s also thrilling music. It’s the kind of thing Charles Mingus used to do: make a wrathful statement about society in a way that would make you want to jump out of your chair. The opening track, “Sherbet (Just To Be Certain That The Doubt Stays On Our Side Of The Fence),” is a bouncing, strutting instrumental with a kind of Latin shuffle groove and some killer sax and piano solos. It’s a great way to lure the listener in for what eventually becomes a rough ride, but one absolutely worth taking.

Stream “Sherbet (Just To Be Certain That The Doubt Stays On Our Side Of The Fence)”:

Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids, Shaman! (Strut)

In 1969, Cecil Taylor landed a teaching gig at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. (You can hear a recording of a 1969 campus concert here.) He stayed off and on until 1973, forming the Black Music Ensemble, an orchestra that mixed Antioch students with some of his core collaborators. Saxophonist Idris Ackamoor studied with Taylor at Antioch, and traveled to France afterwards, where he and two fellow students formed the Pyramids. The group broke up in 1977, and reunited a decade ago; this is the third album by the new incarnation. You might expect “Theme For Cecil” to be a free blowout, but it’s not. Ackamoor’s music combines ’70s style spiritual jazz in the vein of Pharoah Sanders with Afrobeat, funk, North African grooves, Afro-Cuban percussion and rhythms, and much more. The piece begins with an exploratory horn fanfare, but once that ends, a thick funk groove comes in and we’re in Fela-meets-Pharoah territory.

Stream “Theme For Cecil”:

Bill Frisell, Valentine (Blue Note)

Bill Frisell’s latest album is his first with two longtime compatriots, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston. They’ve toured together for years, but somehow never made it into the studio until now. It’s a good thing they did, because the music they’ve made together has a lot of bite. Royston is a hard-hitting, quick-thinking player, one of my favorite drummers around right now; although his grooves are rock-solid, he never seems interested in settling down, and freely hurls grenades at his collaborators to keep them on their toes. Morgan, by contrast, is a calming presence, anchoring the music. As a team, they provide a mix of steadiness and tension, which on this disc inspires Frisell to play with real bite. He moves away from the placid Americana of a lot of his other work and back toward the barbed jazz of his best records. On the title track, he takes a bebop-ish melody and bends it into new shapes that fall somewhere between Ornette Coleman and Mississippi hill country blues, errant notes flying here and there and creating sparks where they land.

Stream “Valentine”:

Asher Gamedze, Dialectic Soul (On The Corner)

There is an incredible amount of great new jazz coming out of South Africa right now. The current generation of players are inspired and collaborative; pianist Nduduzo Makhathini is the best known, but you should absolutely know names like Ndabo Zulu, Benjamin Jephta, Thandi Ntuli, and Asher Gamedze. The young drummer’s debut as a leader (he played on Angel Bat Dawid’s The Oracle last year) is a fierce, passionate effort that begins with a three-part, 19-minute suite, then moves through five shorter tracks, all performed by a pianoless quartet and a vocalist. “Hope In Azania,” the penultimate track, has a shuffling, bluesy groove anchored by Gamedze’s loose but right-on-time drumming and Thembinkosi Mavimbela’s powerful, Charlie Haden-esque bass, with tenor saxophonist Buddy Wells and trumpeter Robin Fassie-Kock taking passionate, songlike solos and coming together for a hypnotic, instantly memorable singsong melody.

Stream “Hope In Azania”:

Thumbscrew, The Anthony Braxton Project (Cuneiform)

Thumbscrew — the trio of guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara — seem to spend as much time interpreting others’ music as they do writing their own. Last year, they released Ours and Theirs simultaneously, the former a collection of new pieces and the latter a set of covers that spanned a broad range, from Benny Golson to Herbie Nichols to Wayne Shorter to Stanley Cowell to Misha Mengelberg. On this disc, as the title implies, they tackle nine compositions by Anthony Braxton, many of which had never been recorded. One piece, “Composition No. 14,” appears three times, as each member takes a solo crack at it. “Composition No. 274” is one of the more conventionally melodic and predictably structured tracks; it has a kind of marching, militaristic rhythm that falls apart and rebuilds itself seemingly measure by measure, as Halvorson’s solo leaves loose notes strewn across the floor before bringing it all home with breathtaking precision.

Stream “Composition No. 274”:

Immanuel Wilkins, Omega (Blue Note)

Immanuel Wilkins is an alto saxophonist who has relatively few credits to his name, but he was on bassist Harish Raghavan’s Calls For Action and vibraphonist Joel Ross’s Kingmaker in 2019, and that seems to have been enough to get him signed to Blue Note, with pianist Jason Moran serving as producer on his debut album. The band includes pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Daryl Johns, and drummer Kweku Sumbry; Thomas and Sumbry also played on Calls For Action. Wilkins has a big, honking tone, with plenty of lung power to back it up. He starts “Warriors,” the album’s first track, in a fairly gentle and melodic style, with the band coming in relatively softly behind him. Sumbry wants your attention, but he doesn’t want to have to pound his drums through the floor to get it, so he races around the kit, hitting everything twice. Both Wilkins and Thomas take fast, fierce solos, spinning out long beboppish lines that occasionally shimmy sideways a little but never lose the road entirely.

Stream “Warriors”:

Various Artists, Kaleidoscope: New Spirits Known & Unknown (Soul Jazz)

If you’ve been reading this column, or paying any attention to jazz over the last couple of years, you know that London has produced an incredible wave of talent since about 2015. This compilation, from the Soul Jazz label, gathers up tracks from twenty London acts. The biggest names aren’t here; there’s nothing from any of Shabaka Hutchings’ groups (Sons Of Kemet, the Comet Is Coming, and Shabaka And The Ancestors) or Maisha or Nubya Garcia. But the groups that are represented are 100% worth the listener’s time, and provide a panoramic overview of one of the most exciting jazz scenes in the world, past or present. One group featured is Ill Considered, a quartet that’s deserved wider attention for a while. They’ve self-released close to a dozen albums which blend jazz, dub and even rock; “Long Way Home” comes from 2017’s Live At The Crypt. Saxophonist Idris Rahman digs into mantra-like phrases as electric bassist Leon Brichard, drummer Emre Ramazanoglu, and percussionist Satin Singh hold him down with a patient, ticking groove that reminds me of drummer Idris Muhammad’s early ’70s albums.

Stream “Long Way Home”:

Michael Formanek Quartet, Pre-Apocalyptic (Out Of Your Head)

The Out Of Your Head label has responded to COVID-19 by launching the digital-only Untamed series, which allows them to put out releases more quickly than if they opted for physical formats. One of the first is this live album by bassist Michael Formanek, leading an all-star quartet featuring Tim Berne on alto sax, Craig Taborn on piano, and Gerald Cleaver on drums. OOYH will be donating $1 from each sale to Black Lives Matter, and all the rest of the money goes straight to the artists. It was recorded “somewhere in 2014,” and while it has a kind of chamber jazz feel at times, there are some extremely swinging and beautiful pieces, like “Small Places,” which starts out as a repetitive piano trio riff before Berne joins in and yanks the music down a side path. Before long, they’re in full rolling-and-tumbling free jazz mode, with Cleaver and Taborn careening along behind Berne, who’s unleashing almost Pharoah Sanders-worthy roars in between speedy free-bop lines. Formanek is a patient leader, providing a thick pulse for them to come back to, if and when they feel like it. Eventually, they do.

Stream “Small Places”:

Billy Childs, Acceptance (Mack Avenue)

Keyboardist Billy Childs won a Grammy for his 2018 album Rebirth, and he’s returned with the same band on this release: saxophonist Steve Wilson, bassist Hans Glawischnig, and drummer Eric Harland, accompanied on some tracks by vocalists Alicia Olatuja, Aubrey Johnson, and Sara Gazarek. Flutist Elena Pinderhughes, who’s worked with Christian Scott, is on one track, and percussionists Rogerio Boccato and Munyungo Jackson show up here and there, too. Most of the album is acoustic, except for “Leimert Park,” the track spotlighted here. On that one, Childs switches to Fender Rhodes and synths, and Glawischnig picks up the electric bass. It’s named for the area of Los Angeles that holds the World Stage, an arts center and performance space where Kamasi Washington and Thundercat got their start as teenagers. Childs originally recorded it with Paul Jackson and Mike Clark of the Headhunters, and that’s clearly audible — it’s a strutting, funky retro fusion tune with a head-nodding groove, layers of keyboard, and some sharp soprano sax work from Wilson.

Stream “Leimert Park”:

Jeff Cosgrove/John Medeski/Jeff Lederer, History Gets Ahead Of The Story (Independent/Self-Released)

Drummer Jeff Cosgrove, who’s played in a trio with bassist William Parker and pianist Matthew Shipp, has formed a group to perform the music of Parker’s long-running quartet. That group, which featured trumpeter Lewis “Flip” Barnes, alto saxophonist Rob Brown, and drummer Hamid Drake, was one of his most conventionally swinging — they moved seamlessly from melodic hard bop heads to trance grooves that could last ten minutes or longer. Cosgrove’s trio, which features John Medeski on organ and Jeff Lederer on sax, focuses on the melodies; most of these pieces are reasonably short. But they also get quite free at times, as on the album-opening “O’Neal’s Porch,” on which Lederer’s saxophone alternately squiggles and squeals, heading up into a piercing upper register that reminds you he’s a big Albert Ayler fan. Behind him, Medeski is playing some very out stuff that may remind you of things he’s done recently with John Zorn. This will make you hear the William Parker Quartet’s music with fresh ears, but it’s also a blast all on its own.

Stream “O’Neal’s Porch”:

Quinsin Nachoff, Pivotal Arc (Whirlwind RecoQuinsin Nachoffrdings)

Saxophonist Quinsin Nachoff has written a three-movement, nearly 45-minute concerto that showcases violinist Nathalie Bonin, with eight horns (including himself), a rhythm section, and a string quartet behind her; paired that with a traditional string quartet piece; and finished the whole thing off with the 15-minute title track. It’s part jazz, part classical, and impressive from beginning to end. “Pivotal Arc” has an almost cinematic scope and feel at times, the strings and horns creating vast sweeping landscapes of sound, but it’s also an aggressive showcase for bassist Mark Helias and drummer Satoshi Takeishi, both of whom get plenty of solo and spotlight time. The drummer does a call-and-response with the entire massed ensemble that’s both viscerally thrilling and intricate enough to demand repeated, focused listening. Nachoff takes a solo that sounds like Stan Getz metamorphosing into Evan Parker, werewolf style, and the strings and horns come blaring in with Stravinsky-esque fervor. This is a seriously ambitious record.

Stream “Pivotal Arc”:

Alan Wakeman, The Octet Broadcasts: 1969 & 1979 (Gearbox)

This album documents a previous generation of exciting British jazz. Alan Wakeman (cousin of prog-rock keyboardist Rick Wakeman) came up in the late ’60s and early ’70s, playing alongside folks like saxophonist Alan Skidmore, trombonist Paul Rutherford, and drummer Paul Lytton. The two BBC radio sessions collected here feature one-off bands that never toured or recorded official albums, and the compositions themselves are equally unheard. Wakeman’s music combines somewhat pastoral melodies derived in part from English folk with atonality and free jazz explorations. The 1979 octet features three tenor saxes (Wakeman, Skidmore, and Art Themen), trumpeter Henry Lowther, Rutherford on trombone, Gordon Beck on piano, Chris Lawrence on bass and Nigel Morris on drums, and sometimes has a surging, searching quality reminiscent of John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass. “Manhattan Variation” on the other hand is a big, stomping hard bop piece that almost prefigures the David Murray Octet, who’d make their debut in 1980. The horns come charging out, and Beck’s piano, which starts with an almost free intro, goes into houserockin’ mode, taking up the majority of solo space as the horns sway and harmonize like background singers.

Stream “Manhattan Variation”: