Ugly Beauty

The Month In Jazz – September 2020

We lost two major jazz voices this month. Bassist Gary Peacock died September 4th at 85. He was one of those players whose experience spans a vast range; he was a member of Miles Davis’s quintet in 1964, subbing for Ron Carter; that same year, recorded Spiritual Unity with Albert Ayler. He played in a lot of trios, with pianists whose styles were vastly different from each other — Bill Evans, Paul Bley, Masabumi Kikuchi, Marc Copland, Marilyn Crispell — and in the late ’70s became a member of Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio with drummer Jack DeJohnette. That group lasted from 1983, when they recorded Standards Vol. 1, to 2014, when they disbanded following a farewell concert at NJPAC in Newark, NJ.

Peacock was a longtime student of zen, and that philosophical influence can be felt in his playing, which was deeply intuitive and focused on close listening to his bandmates, rather than an attempt to restrict the music in terms of time or timbral range. On Spiritual Unity, he’s the perfect balance point between Ayler’s passionate flurries of notes and Sunny Murray’s rapid, pulsating drums; his brief solo on “The Wizard” is the sound of a man building a ladder to get through the ceiling of the room he’s in, while keeping one foot on the floor at all times. On “Ghosts: Second Variation,” his playing is a deep, bluesy boom, anchoring Ayler’s insistent, mantralike melody.

With Jarrett, Peacock was a completely different player. The Standards Trio was primarily a live act; they only made three studio albums, but they released almost 20 live albums, including a six-CD box recorded at the Blue Note, on which they only repeated three songs out of 38 performed. The band had a vast repertoire, mostly standards, as their name implied, though they tossed in some of the leader’s compositions here and there and on a few albums ventured into free improvisation, letting the music take them where it wanted them to go. Jarrett’s florid, honky-tonk-classical piano style (not to mention his singing along with himself) don’t really do it for me, but this was a beloved group and in that context, just as he had been with Ayler or with any of his other groups, Peacock made himself an indispensable, thoughtful part of the collective sound. There are two kinds of bassists: leader-bassists like Charles Mingus or William Parker, who dominate no matter the context and strive to make their own voice heard, both through what they’re playing and what they write for others; and bassists who strive to glue ensembles together and serve the collective music. Peacock, despite his last name, was absolutely in the latter category, and a brilliant, empathetic improviser for decades.

Stanley Crouch died September 16th at 74. He’d caught COVID-19 earlier this year, and recovered from it, but he’d been generally ill for many years, living in a retirement home. He was for a time one of the most important jazz critics in the world, writing for the Village Voice, the New Republic, the New York Daily News (where he was more of a general opinion columnist, though his views on art and culture featured prominently) and Jazz Times, as well as writing liner notes for roughly 100 albums. He’d first come to New York in the mid ’70s as a dedicated avant-gardist, having formed the group Black Music Infinity with saxophonists David Murray and Arthur Blythe, pianist James Newton, and bassist Mark Dresser, with himself on drums. That group never recorded, but if you want to hear Crouch at the kit, he’s on two tracks from the 1977 compilation Wildflowers, one with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and one with Murray.

By the end of the ’70s, Crouch had mostly turned his back on the avant-garde, and embraced a classicist view of jazz that focused on swing and the blues. He became Wynton Marsalis’s longtime mentor, writing liner notes for many of the trumpeter’s albums and ultimately co-founding Jazz at Lincoln Center, where he served as artistic consultant, helping choose the repertoire and writing essays for concert programs. He was also one of the key voices in Ken Burns’ 2001 documentary Jazz, and many of that series’ strengths and, honestly, even more of its weaknesses can be attributed to his input.

Over the course of his long career, he received Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships, among many other awards and honors, and was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2019. He published several collections of essays, most notably Notes Of A Hanging Judge: Essays And Reviews, 1979-1989 and Considering Genius: Writings On Jazz. In 2013, he published Kansas City Lightning: The Rise And Times Of Charlie Parker, the first volume in a projected multi-volume biography of the saxophonist. If Amazon is to be believed, the second book, presently untitled, will be released in January 2021.

After abandoning the radicalism of his early years, Crouch migrated toward a small-c conservatism, politically and aesthetically. His views on jazz were inextricable from his views on Blackness; in Ethan Iverson’s words, he “strove to place himself in the tradition of Ralph Ellison and, especially, Albert Murray, thinkers through which the idea of embracing Blackness and embracing American-ness became one and the same.” (Iverson’s full obituary for Crouch is a must-read.) He believed that there was no higher musical calling than swinging, and fusion in particular filled him with rage, as did hip-hop. His response to Miles Davis’s electric music was a bizarre combination of sorrow and scorn; he seemed to feel that the trumpeter had sold his talent, and that the resulting music was vulgar and unworthy of Davis and of serious attention (it was often hard to tell from what he wrote about it whether he’d given it any more than a cursory listen). He was right about a lot of things, wrong about many others, but he was a jazz lifer and his perspective — informed, challenging to the point of combativeness — was unique and valuable. His absence leaves a serious void.

Some good news: Thelonious Monk’s Palo Alto has been released! I’d intended to include it in last month’s column, but it was mysteriously yanked from the release schedule. Some sort of legal mess, apparently, but now it’s out. The short version of the story: In 1968, Monk was on the West Coast to play some dates, and a high school student named Danny Scher (who later became one of the biggest concert promoters in the country) booked his quartet to perform at his school, Palo Alto High. The school’s janitor, an amateur audio engineer, tuned the piano and recorded the performance, which Scher had in his possession for over five decades, until arranging to release it through a partnership between Legacy and Impulse!.

The quartet heard on this recording — Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone, Larry Gales on bass, and Ben Riley on drums — had been together since 1964, making albums like Monk., Straight, No Chaser, and Underground, as well as numerous live records. They were a tight unit, and pulled from a fairly short book of songs on the road, so the performances were almost always strong, and Palo Alto is an example of them at their fiercest, swinging hard as hell. Listen to this version of “Well, You Needn’t”:

The annual Doris Duke Artist Awards were announced recently, and in addition to several people from the worlds of theater and dance, two major jazz artists, drummer Andrew Cyrille and vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, won. Cyrille has been working since the 1960s, including several stretches with Cecil Taylor; I’ve seen him live twice, once with saxophonist Bill McHenry, pianist Orrin Evans and bassist Eric Revis (as heard on the album La Peur Du Vide), and once in a trio with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and guitarist Bill Frisell (as heard on the album Lebroba). His combination of precise, minimalist timekeeping and almost parade-like rhythms, drawn from his West Indian background, have been a vital contribution to the rhythmic language of both avant-garde and mainstream jazz, and he’s doing amazing work right now — this is no lifetime-achievement award. Salvant is one of the most interesting jazz vocalists around; her 2017 album Dreams And Daggers is essential, and who knows? Maybe this money will enable her to record Ogresse, her collaboration with big band writer/arranger Darcy James Argue.

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

Artemis, Artemis (Blue Note)
Artemis is a straight-up jazz supergroup, formed by pianist Renee Rosnes and featuring trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, saxophonist Melissa Aldana, clarinetist Anat Cohen, bassist Noriko Ueda and drummer Allison Miller. Cécile McLorin Salvant sings on two tracks. Five of the nine pieces on their debut album are composed by group members; they also tackle Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder,” the Beatles’ “Fool On The Hill” and Stevie Wonder’s “It’s Magic,” and an obscure jazz tune, “Cry, Buttercup, Cry,” originally recorded by Maxine Sullivan in the 1940s. Salvant is well known for diving deep into the dramatic potential of a lyric, choosing her material with extreme care and combining songs on her own albums in order to create a rounded composite portrait of love and loss. She does exactly that here, fully inhabiting the song’s words before stepping aside and letting Cohen, Jensen and Aldana take sharp solos that have a vintage feel without seeming like pastiche.

Stream “Cry, Buttercup, Cry”:

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Axiom (Ropeadope)
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and his band were the last musicians to play at the Blue Note in NYC in March, before it was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I had planned to be there, but when venues were reduced to 50% capacity, I emailed the publicist and had him take my name off the guest list, both because I was spooked and because if Scott and company were gonna be playing to a half house, I figured as many of those people as possible should be regular paying customers. Part of me kept wishing I’d gone, though, so I’m really glad they recorded the shows, producing this live album. He’s backed by flutist Elena Pinderhughes, alto saxophonist Alex Han, keyboardist Lawrence Fields, bassist Kris Funn, drummer Corey Fonville and percussionist Weedie Braimah, and they’re all in amazing form, tearing into pieces from Stretch Music, his 2017 trilogy of albums, and 2019’s Ancestral Recall, plus some new material. One of those tracks is a version of “Guinnevere,” the Crosby, Stills And Nash song that Miles Davis recorded around the time of Bitches Brew. (It was released on the 1979 compilation Circle In The Round.) This band turns it into an epic, nearly 11-minute jam that fuses classic late ’60s jazz-rock with the ice-cold trap-jazz that’s been Scott’s trademark.

Stream “Guinnevere”:

Various Artists, Blue Note re:imagined (Blue Note)
This compilation gathers a number of high profile UK jazz acts and turns them loose on classic — and sometimes obscure — tracks from the Blue Note catalog. Sometimes they’re reworked almost beyond recognition; jazz tunes become “jazzy” house music songs. But other, more traditional versions pay tribute to the originals while playing to the strengths of the young performers. Ezra Collective’s take on Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” is a perfect example of the latter category. Pianist Joe Armon-Jones spins out a terrific solo as TJ and Femi Koleoso, on bass and drums respectively, keep the groove bottom-heavy and locked-in, and trumpeter Dylan Jones and saxophonist James Mollison harmonize on the instantly recognizable melody.

Stream “Footprints”:

Terje Rypdal, Conspiracy (ECM)
Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal is a legend for a reason; his early to mid ’70s albums for ECM — a self-titled disc, What Comes After, Whenever I Seem To Be Far Away, and Odyssey — are some of the most beautiful and yet rocking fusion efforts of that decade, easily on par with John McLaughlin’s or Larry Coryell’s most out work, but with an essential Nordic calm that renders their sprawling instrumental journeys almost dreamlike. He’s been focusing on live work for quite a while; this is his first studio album for ECM in twenty years. But it features the debut of a brand-new band, also called Conspiracy, with Ståle Storløkken on keyboards, Endre Hareide Hallre on bass, and Pål Thowsen on drums, and they seem to have really kicked him in the ass. The title track features his trademark long sustained notes and crunching chords, with Storløkken’s organ and Hallre’s bass swelling around him like a rising tide and Thowsen’s drums like thunder.

Stream “Conspiracy”:

Cosmic Vibrations, Pathways And Passages (Spiritmuse)
Vocalist Dwight Trible’s resonant, theatrical baritone is well known to Kamasi Washington fans; he sings on both The Epic and Heaven And Earth. He’s also got a deep solo discography, and has now formed Cosmic Vibrations, a collective of L.A. spiritual jazz players that includes Pablo Calogero on tenor sax, bass clarinet, woodwinds and flutes; Derf Reklaw on congas, percussion and flute; John B. Williams on upright bass, Christopher Garcia on indigenous percussion, and Breeze Smith on drums, percussion and loops. Pathways And Passages is notably darker than some of Trible’s other work. The opening track, “Nature’s Vision,” sets the tone: bells and gongs establish a ceremonial feeling as Calogero’s saxophone emits mournful cries. Trible delivers a monologue about how history will view those who protest and strive to improve civilization, but behind himself, he can be heard wailing wordlessly like a sorrowful ghost haunting a temple at midnight. When Calogero returns, Trible begins scatting and almost beatboxing along with him as Williams and the rhythm players set up a powerful groove. The whole album is like this. It’s dark and intense, emotionally raw at times, but beautiful too.

Stream “Nature’s Vision”:

Christian McBride Big Band, For Jimmy, Wes And Oliver (Mack Avenue)
In 1966, organist Jimmy Smith and guitarist Wes Montgomery teamed up for a recording session, backed by drummer Grady Tate, percussionist Ray Barretto, and a 15-piece horn section arranged and conducted by Oliver Nelson. Bassist Christian McBride pays tribute to the two albums that session yielded — Jimmy And Wes: The Dynamic Duo and Further Adventures Of Jimmy And Wes — with two longtime friends, organist Joey DeFrancesco and guitarist Mark Whitfield, plus his own big band. They generally stick to the original Nelson arrangements, putting their own spin on things without getting too radical. But this version of the spiritual “Down By The Riverside” is plenty wild nonetheless; DeFrancesco’s solo is lightning-fast, focusing on explosive right-hand runs as McBride holds down the bottom end, and Whitfield maintains that same energy level. When the horns come blaring in unexpectedly, things jump straight up into the stratosphere.

Stream “Down By The Riverside”:

Dan Weiss/Starebaby, Natural Selection (Pi Recordings)
Drummer Dan Weiss put together a fantastic band in 2018 — Matt Mitchell and Craig Taborn on keyboards, Ben Monder on guitar, and Trevor Dunn on electric bass — and called it Starebaby. They made an album, which combined improvisation, electronic music, and doom metal into something utterly unique and deeply foreboding. He kept Starebaby together long enough to play some live shows, which were as well received as the album, and immediately following that tour, went back into the studio and cut this sequel, which has all the power of the debut combined with the confidence that time on the road can bring. These new pieces, three of which cruise blithely past the 10-minute mark, often feel like the work of King Crimson: rhythmically punishing, with melodies that seem to hover like dark gray clouds, grafting jazz to metal and vice versa and turning the whole into something ominous and cold-eyed. “Acinna” is particularly KC-esque, stomping resolutely forward as Monder takes grinding, distorted solos in between passages played by the world’s heaviest piano trio.

Stream “Acinna”:

Eric Revis, Slipknots Through A Looking Glass (Pyroclastic)
Bassist Eric Revis gets around. He’s a member of Branford Marsalis’s long-running quartet; he also works often with Orrin Evans; and he’s even recorded and toured with Peter Brötzmann. But when he puts a record out under his own name, you should pay even more attention than usual, because he’s an extremely creative composer and assembler of bands. This group features Kris Davis on piano (and is released on her Pyroclastic label), Darius Jones on alto sax, Bill McHenry on tenor sax, and Chad Taylor on drums, with Justin Faulkner as second drummer on two tracks. “Earl & The Three-Fifths Compromise” is one of those, a grumbling blues with stern interplay between the two horns and biting piano from Davis, as Taylor and Faulkner build the groove up to a breathtaking level of intensity, then start tearing it apart again. Revis is the anchor, the immovable redwood-sized force in the middle of it all.

Stream “Earl & The Three-Fifths Compromise”:

Chien Chien Lu, The Path (Independent/Self-Released)
I first heard vibraphonist Chien Chien Lu on trumpeter Jeremy Pelt’s last album, Jeremy Pelt, The Artist; her classical precision and impressionistic washes of sound were a terrific addition to the ensemble sound. Pelt plays on several tracks from Lu’s debut as a leader, alongside a largish ensemble that includes pianist Shedrick Mitchell, guitarist Quintin Zoto, Richie Goods on electric and upright bass, Allan Mednard on drums, Ismael Wignall on percussion, violinist Yoojin Park, and cellist Phoebe Tsai. The trumpet is not heard on the album’s opening track, though, a version of Roy Ayers’ “We Live In Brooklyn Baby.” The band lays down a thick-bottomed funk groove, atop which Lu shimmers without ever going over the top. She leaves lots of space for Zoto, instead, and he takes a biting solo with a taut ’70s flavor, which the strings augment in a Blaxploitation-soundtrack style.

Stream “We Live In Brooklyn Baby”:

Mino Cinélu/Nils Petter Molvær, SulaMadiana (Modern Recordings/BMG)
Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær has long explored areas in between jazz, electronic music, and mélanges of rhythms and approaches from various parts of the world, creating a blurry, from-no-place sound that nonetheless retains a surprising sharpness. Percussionist Mino Cinélu, from Martinique, was a member of Weather Report, and also played on several Miles Davis albums and toured with him in the 1980s. This album features short tributes to musicians both men knew — drummers Tony Allen and Jimmy Cobb, and saxophonist Manu Dibango — alongside shimmering, dreamlike longer compositions. Cinélu occasionally sings, and plays other instruments (bass, keyboards) in addition to a wide range of drums, percussion instruments and shakers. “Indianala” is a soft but persistent piece on which Molvær’s horn seems to come through a cotton cloud, shadowed by synths, as tablas and other hand drums, following a rhythm set by a shaker, set up a steady rhythm repeatedly accented by unexpected sounds.

Stream “Indianala”:

Takuya Kuroda, Fly Moon Die Soon (First Word)
Japanese trumpeter Takuya Kuroda has been around for almost a decade, making music that blends jazz and hip-hop in a way that feels organic rather than mercenary. He’s worked with DJ Premier, and vocalist Jose James; he released one album on Blue Note and one on Concord; Fly Moon Die Soon is his sixth album as a leader. His trumpet is multiply overdubbed on “Change,” blending with the guitar, bass, organ and drums to create a smooth funk backdrop that recalls Roy Hargrove’s work with the RG Factor (and the Soulquarians), while his lead lines, even through a mute, pierce and sting. Vocalist Corey King delivers what I have to admit are kinda placeholder-ish lyrics, but his voice is nice enough.

Stream “Change”:

Context Chameleon, Komorebi (Dome Of Doom)
Context Chameleon is an electronic project spearheaded by L.A. artist Erik Otis. Komorebi is a Japanese word for sunlight filtering through trees. Most of the music is created on a range of keyboards, and has a cosmic quality that places it somewhere in the neighborhood of Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Steve Roach et al. But there are a few guests here and there, contributing guitar, turntables, trombone, and on the title track, saxophone and drums. Both instruments are played by Tomoki Sanders, the youngest son of Pharoah Sanders. I saw him make a guest appearance with his father at Iridium at the very end of December 2019; he’s a talented player, and his work here complements Otis’s pulsing, almost Jean-Michel Jarre-ish keyboards perfectly. His horn floats in on a cloud of reverb like he’s descending from the sky and filtering through the trees, and his drumming — focused mostly on the cymbals — provides accent more than rhythm, giving the music an almost ceremonial aspect.

Stream “Komorebi (feat. Tomoki Sanders)”:

Miki Yamanaka, Human Dust Suite (Outside In Music)
Pianist Miki Yamanaka was inspired to write much of her second album by a photograph by conceptual artist Agnes Denes. Human Dust is a picture of exactly that: a pile of cremated remains. (Denes had a show at The Shed, the big new venue in New York’s Hudson Yards, that opened in October of last year and ended in March of this year; I went early in the run and was blown away.) Yamanaka, who doubles on piano and vibraphone throughout the album, is joined by alto saxophonist Anthony Orji, bassist Orlando Le Fleming, and drummer Jochen Rueckert. “Human Dust Suite III: Tummy” is a gentle, but joyous piece that conjures the pleasure evident on a cat’s face when you rub its belly. Rueckert’s brushed drums are more ambient than rhythmic, and Orji’s saxophone tootles like a clarinet; Yamanaka overdubs herself, but only at a few points. For the most part, she switches from vibes to piano and back.

Stream “Human Dust Suit III: Tummy”:

John Hollenbeck, Songs You Like A Lot (Flexatonic)
Percussionist and composer John Hollenbeck kicked off a trilogy ten years ago with Songs I Like A Lot, a collection of arrangements of unexpected tunes, running the gamut from Queen’s “Bicycle Race” to the traditional “Man Of Constant Sorrow” and performed by vocalists Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry, pianist Gary Versace, and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. The project picked up again in 2015 with Songs We Like A Lot, which included versions of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” the Carpenters’ “Close To You,” and more. And now the trilogy ends with Songs You Like A Lot, the “you” being fans of the first two albums, who got to vote for songs to be recorded on this one. Among the inclusions are a version of the Peter Gabriel/Kate Bush duet “Don’t Give Up” on which Bleckmann and McGarry switch parts, and a radical reworking of the Bee Gees ballad “How Deep Is Your Love?” McGarry takes the lead here at first, singing the words like she’s being fed them one by one, but when the piece rises to a crescendo on the title phrase and the whole big band comes in behind her, it’s almost operatic, and on the chorus, she and Bleckmann first trade lines, then harmonize, and it’s quite beautiful in a very weird, art-song way. Then he sings the next verse like an alien, and then there’s a ripping sax solo… This version of this song would never, ever chart, but it’s pretty fucking great.

Stream “How Deep Is Your Love?”:

Ainon, Drought (We Jazz)
Ainon is a Finnish quartet formed by cellist Aino Juutilainen; the other members are Satu-Maija Aalto on violin and viola; Suvi Linnovaara on saxophone, clarinet and flute; and Joonas Leppänen on drums. As you might expect, given that instrumentation, Drought is an album that blurs the line between jazz and chamber music. “Kruununhaka” opens the album, and sets the tone; it unfolds slowly and patiently, beginning with a low, droning sax melody that’s enveloped by violin and cello, as the drums tick out a calming rhythm. As it progresses, the violin comes forward, giving the music a dark and autumnal feeling, and in the piece’s final half, tension and dissonance build as Leppänen’s drums become more aggressive, until the whole thing explodes.

Stream “Kruununhaka”: