The Month In Jazz – October 2020
I’m not much for jazz vocals. Even the so-called classic singers everyone’s supposed to love like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan don’t really do it for me. I saw Blossom Dearie live once, and it was fun — like watching someone’s aunt sit down at the piano and sing a few songs, tell a few jokes — but it wasn’t what I go to jazz clubs for. To me, jazz is an instrumental music first.
Lately, though, I’ve found myself listening to singer Cécile McLorin Salvant far more than I might have expected. She performs “Left Alone” (a song Holiday wrote with pianist Mal Waldron, but never recorded herself) on saxophonist Jimmy Heath’s final album, Love Letter, released earlier this year, and she’s on two tracks from the debut album by Artemis, a new Blue Note group featuring trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, saxophonist Melissa Aldana, clarinet player Anat Cohen, drummer Allison Miller, and others; I talked about that album last month. Salvant does Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic” and a more obscure song, “Cry, Buttercup, Cry,” with them, and those two choices perfectly exemplify what’s so great about her.
Her own albums are even better. Salvant often chooses songs you’ve likely never heard of, let alone heard, mixes them in with ones you may know, but have never heard interpreted in the way she does them, and arranges the lot into thematic albums that take you on a journey and force you to really contend with the lyrics. Her last two, 2017’s Dreams And Daggers and 2018’s The Window, take the listener on extended emotional journeys that wind up being intellectual odysseys as well. Like Frank Sinatra, she thinks very deeply about what the words are and what message the song is sending, and delivers it in a way that emphasizes that. She’s fiercely intelligent, but apparently uninterested in facile irony, never trying to “subvert” a song or perform it in a way that assumes that she — or the listener — is superior to or smarter than the words she’s delivering.
Last month, Salvant was named a Doris Duke Artist for 2020, receiving a $275,000 prize along with the honor. Now, she’s been named a MacArthur Fellow, receiving the so-called “genius grant” ($625,000 over five years) that’s previously gone to folks like Max Roach, Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, John Zorn, Jason Moran, Tyshawn Sorey, Mary Halvorson, and Vijay Iyer, among others. In the video below, she explains her philosophy of singing as a combination of storytelling and acting:
I hope the sudden influx of funds will allow her to record her recent multimedia piece Ogresse, a song cycle that explores a dark fairy tale she wrote herself, and collaborated on with big band auteur Darcy James Argue. It’s only been performed a few times, and I haven’t had the chance to see or hear it, but I really want to.
Trumpeter Toshinori Kondo has died at 71. He made his debut on the Japanese avant-garde scene in the early 1970s, working with pianist Yosuke Yamashita, but within a few years had moved to New York and begun working with a range of American and European jazz players and improvisers, including drummer Milford Graves, guitarist Derek Bailey, bassist William Parker, and saxophonist/composer John Zorn, among others. As early as 1979, on his album Fuigo From A Different Dimension, he was one of the few trumpeters to record and perform solo. He was deeply interested in electronics and manipulating the sound of his horn with pedals and effects, moving far beyond anything like a traditional jazz sound and into swirling, hypnotic abstraction.
He had a long and fruitful creative relationship with Peter Brötzmann, first appearing on the saxophonist’s 1983 album Alarm and 1987’s Berlin Djungle. In 1994, Brötzmann formed the Die Like A Dog quartet with Kondo, William Parker, and drummer Hamid Drake; that group made five albums together. I saw them once in the early 2000s, at the NYC avant-garde hub Tonic. The music was ferociously loud, and seemed to all swirl together into a giant blurring pool of sound; Kondo’s trumpet was so warped by electronics that it barely sounded like a horn half the time.
Later, Brötzmann and Kondo formed another group, Hairy Bones, with electric bassist Massimo Pupillo and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. Kondo also worked extensively with Bill Laswell in a variety of contexts; one of their projects was a duo album on which the trumpeter played, but also interviewed the Dalai Lama. More recently, Kondo had returned to solo playing, releasing a number of albums on Bandcamp.
The full experience of seeing Cecil Taylor live has rarely been captured on record. He often opened his concerts with readings or recitations of his poetry, and the poems were every bit as dense and abstract as the music, filled with allusions to history and complex ideas about spirituality (particularly animism) and creative expression itself. But when putting out live albums, labels would mostly excise this stuff, beginning the recordings with the moment he touched his fingers to the keys. Well, there’s a new live album out, At AngelicA 2000 Bologna, which redresses this a little bit. In addition to preserving his full performance, poetry and all, the second disc of the two-disc set contains an interview with Taylor (transcribed in the booklet) where he discusses the meaning of what he read, takes questions from the audience, and generally plays a role somewhere between philosopher and witty raconteur. I spent two days hanging out with Taylor at the Whitney Museum for a cover story in The Wire, and can attest that he was a blast to talk to, if a frustrating “interview subject”; he rarely gave a straightforward answer to a question, instead preferring to turn it around and examine what he took to be its actual subject from other angles, or tell you a gossipy story that had something to do with something … maybe. Anyway, both the music and the interview are fantastic; Taylor was at a peak in the early 2000s. Another live album from this era, The Willisau Concert, is one of my favorite of his solo releases, and this disc, recorded four months earlier, is its equal.
And now, here are the best new jazz albums of the month!
Sun Ra Arkestra, Swirling (Strut)
This is a thing that maybe shouldn’t exist: a Sun Ra Arkestra album without Sun Ra on it. He left this realm for the next one in 1993, after all, and while the group has released tons of archival material (there’s a giant live box of tapes from 1971 coming next month, also on Strut) and toured relentlessly, they haven’t been into a studio since the big boss made his exit. But here they are, under saxophonist Marshall Allen’s leadership, fifteen strong and doing it the old school way, mixing futuristic textures and blasts of raw electronic noise with big band arrangements harkening back to the 1930s. “Queer Notions” is almost a full century old; it was composed by Fletcher Henderson and first recorded in 1922, with a young Coleman Hawkins on tenor. That version is jumpier than the Arkestra’s, because they had to get it done in under three minutes, where these guys take nearly twice that and add on an eerie piano intro and theremin or synth swoops throughout. But the horn section is on point, hooting and growling like wild things moving through the forest at night.
Stream “Queer Notions”:
Lionel Loueke, HH (Edition)
Guitarist Lionel Loueke has been a leader for a long time, but he’s also put in time as a member of Herbie Hancock’s band. And on this new album, he’s recorded a dozen of Hancock’s tunes, plus two of his own written in a style that takes the older man’s ideas and puts his own spin on them. Like a keyboardist, Loueke seems capable of playing both melody and rhythm at once; he employs subtle effects — a dash of echo here, a slight electronic tweak to an otherwise acoustic guitar there — to mimic Hancock’s fascination with and embrace of technology. But he always leaves plenty of room for the indelible melodies to shine. His version of “Cantaloupe Island” is sharply percussive. He takes the bluesy riff for a walk, periodically slapping the body of his guitar like a conga, and letting the notes bend and flip as they come off the strings and float away on the air.
Stream “Cantaloupe Island”:
Matthew Shipp Trio, The Unidentifiable (ESP-Disk)
So once again, an awesome album has come out that I can’t write about for conflict-of-interest reasons; in this case, it’s because my wife designed the cover. I really feel like you need to hear it, though, because the music is phenomenal. So I’ve asked Nate Patrin to pinch-hit for a second time. Here’s Nate!
Even as he verges on 60 (his birthday’s in December), Matthew Shipp’s rep as a young lion of jazz hasn’t waned with his elder statesman status. As a vital bridge and the highest-profile artist to emerge between the experimenters of the ’80s and the 21st century wave of revivalists, he’s defied enough stylistic precedents and trends as a composer and pianist that he’s mostly definable by his own idiosyncrasies, age and era be damned. And helming a traditional piano-bass-drums trio on The Unidentifiable — with Michael Bisio and Newman Taylor Baker in those respective roles — lets Shipp’s unpredictable yet intuitive-feeling pieces breathe their deepest. Comparisons to Monk’s rhythm-defying spontaneity have their place (“Blue Transport System”), and you can hear traces of Sun Ra’s forays into free jazz in his more abstract pieces (solo track “The Dimension”; “Virgin Psych Space 2”). But on the whole, this is a record that feels like a singular self harnessing the forces of nature in parallel with his artistic thought process, where pieces like the roiling “Phantom Journey” and the cosmic cataclysm of “New Heaven And New Earth” unfurl like post-bop for storm chasers.
Stream “Blue Transport System”:
Moor Mother, Circuit City (Don Giovanni)
This is an Irreversible Entanglements album, sort of. Circuit City was a theatrical performance that Moor Mother wrote, for which Irreversible provided the music. According to the notes, it’s “a futuristic exploration…of public/private ownership, housing, and technology set in a living room in a corporate-owned apartment complex.” In addition to the jazz instrumentation — trumpet, sax, upright bass and drums — there are electronics courtesy of Steve Montenegro and additional voices to deliver her lyrics. On “Act 2: Circuit Break,” though, it’s all Moor Mother and the band, the music convulsing and exploding behind her as the electronics mutate everything into a wriggling, searing morass.
Stream “Act 2: Circuit Break”:
Aquiles Navarro & Tcheser Holmes, Heritage Of The Invisible II (International Anthem)
Trumpeter Aquiles Navarro and percussionist Tcheser Holmes are known to those who know as members of Irreversible Entanglements, but they were a team before that. They played as a duo on the same benefit bill where saxophonist Keir Neuringer, bassist Luke Stewart, and poet Moor Mother performed as a trio, and only at the end of the night did the idea to become a quintet occur to them all. As its title suggests, this is their second duo recording, and it features quite a few guests and some subtle but potent studio polish. On “A Night In NY,” vocalist Brigitte Zozula croons lyrics romanticizing the city in a voice that’s half Björk, half Nina Sky, as Navarro and Holmes first shadow and spotlight her, then erupt, but never drown her out completely.
Stream “A Night In NY”:
Lafayette Gilchrist, Now (Morphius)
Lafayette Gilchrist is a powerhouse pianist —- one of his bands is called the New Volcanoes — who’s been around for a couple of decades now, and has made several albums with David Murray as part of the saxophonist’s Black Saint Quartet, which has put him in the room and on the stage with players like bassist Jaribu Shahid, and drummers Andrew Cyrille and Hamid Drake. His own music is extremely heavy, drawing from forms both abstract and vernacular — he can go from seriously free improvisation to deep stride, blues and funk styles, and synthesize them into something all his own. On this long (two and a half hours) trio set, he’s backed by bassist Herman Burney and drummer Eric Kennedy. On the nearly nine-minute opener, “Assume The Position,” they set up a lurching, bone-rattling funk groove that feels not unlike some things Matthew Shipp was experimenting with in the early 2000s, but Kennedy is a more explosive drummer than anyone Shipp’s ever used. He’s mixed loud, and he sounds like he’s about ready to pound the kit right through the floor. Gilchrist is hitting hard, too; Burney’s job is basically to keep the two men separated and provide a foundation.
Stream “Assume The Position”:
Kahil El’Zabar, America The Beautiful (Spiritmuse)
Percussionist Kahil El’Zabar has assembled a really impressive crew of musicians for this album. The lineup includes trumpeter Corey Wilkes, cellist Tomeka Reid, violinist Samuel Williams, alto saxophonist Dennis Winslett, and baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, in his final recorded appearance; he died a little over two years ago, on October 4, 2018. On some tracks, a string quartet appears, but on this reworked version of the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” retitled “How Can We Mend A Broken Heart,” it’s all horns and strings. Reid and Bluiett pick out the foundation, with the violin and trumpet coming in with the melody. It’s recorded with a lot of air and room sound present, so it sounds like you’re in someone’s living room as they and their friends make music. This gives the music increased emotional power, especially when Wilkes launches into a piercing muted solo.
Stream “How Can We Mend A Broken Heart”:
Ron Miles, Rainbow Sign (Blue Note)
Cornet player Ron Miles made a fantastic album, I Am A Man, in 2017, featuring pianist Jason Moran, guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Thomas Morgan, and drummer Brian Blade. Somewhat miraculously for jazz, he’s reconvened the exact same band for this follow-up, which is every bit as lyrical and beautiful as the first album. Most of the tunes were written in the summer of 2018, as his father was dying, but it’s not a mournful record; instead, it has a hopeful, peaceful feeling, as though soundtracking a spirit’s transition to the next plane. The title track is a deep, abstracted blues, with guitar, piano and bass all floating around like leaves in a gentle breeze, as Miles works through the melody and figures out where it might want to take him.
Stream “Rainbow Sign”:
Josh Johnson, Freedom Exercise (Northern Spy)
Alto saxophonist Josh Johnson is originally from Chicago, but has been living in L.A. for almost a decade. He works regularly with guitarist Jeff Parker and drummer Makaya McCraven; I saw him play at Winter Jazzfest in 2018, as part of trumpeter Marquis Hill’s Blacktet, with McCraven on drums. This album features Gregory Uhlmann on guitar, Anna Butterss on bass, and Aaron Steele on drums, and the music and production are somewhat genre-agnostic. “Western Ave” features gentle, bluesy guitar from Uhlmann over a Steele backbeat produced with a kind of retro-soul organic feel, but there’s a little dash of keyboard in the back that verges on vaporwave. Johnson’s solo is more focused on melody than flashy displays of technique, and as the track goes on all the elements cohere into something almost like a theme for a detective show set in a remote desert town full of “characters.”
Stream “Western Ave”:
James Brandon Lewis Quartet, Molecular (Intakt)
Saxophonist James Brandon Lewis has developed a fascinating partnership with drummer Chad Taylor over the past few years. They’ve released two duo albums — one studio, one live — and now Taylor anchors Lewis’s new quartet disc, which also features pianist Aruán Ortiz and bassist Brad Jones. The music here is much less riff-based than what he does with his live trio; in fact, it has many qualities that remind me of the David S. Ware Quartet’s 1990s albums, as well as the work of David Murray. The title piece begins gently, with Ortiz picking out a sensitive melody and Lewis following along, but as it goes along the intensity builds until the halfway mark, where the saxophonist erupts into a fierce, squalling solo full of bluster.
Morgan Guerin, The Saga III (Independent/Self-Released)
Morgan Guerin is a scary talented multi-instrumentalist, currently studying at the New School in Manhattan. He’s played on albums by Tyshawn Sorey, Esperanza Spalding, Kassa Overall, and Terri Lyne Carrington, and has released three albums under his own name, of which this is the latest. On it, he plays about a dozen different keyboards, bass, drums, tenor, alto and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet, and flute. “Videotape” is a synth-heavy instrumental (guest Chris Fishman, a pianist, composer, and sound designer from LA, plays a Prophet 8 on it) with a steadily ticking funk rhythm and a future-shocked melody that lands right in the zone occupied by Georgia Anne Muldrow, Thundercat, Flying Lotus, and other similarly zoned-out artists who blur lines between jazz, funk, soul, R&B and any other sound that appeals to them.
Stream “Videotape” (Feat. Chris Fishman):
The Heshoo Beshoo Group, Armitage Road (We Are Busy Bodies)
The Heshoo Beshoo Group was formed in South Africa in 1969 by alto saxophonist Henry Sithole with his tenor-playing brother Stanley, guitarist Cyril Magubane, bassist Ernest Mothle, and drummer Nelson Magwaza. Their only album, 1970’s Armitage Road, has just been reissued by a small Canadian label. Its cover is a parody of the Beatles’ Abbey Road, intended to serve as a critique of the South African apartheid government by contrasting the poverty in which the Heshoo Beshoo Group’s members lived with the relative luxury of England. “Wait And See” is a strutting funk track, not unlike something you might hear from Booker T. & The MG’s (whose album McLemore Avenue, also released in 1970, featured their own takes on songs from Abbey Road). The two saxophones blend together like cackling birds, as the guitar — which Magubane played from a wheelchair thanks to childhood polio — bass and drums chop up the groove; Magwaza is a fierce player who drives everyone else hard, but nobody’s slacking off here. “Heshoo beshoo” is South African township slang for “moving with force,” and this band definitely chose the right name.
Stream “Wait And See”:
Spaza, Uprize! (Mushroom Hour Half Hour)
Spaza is a South African collective; the exact membership changes on each release. This is their second album, and it serves as a soundtrack to the movie Uprize!, which is a documentary about a long string of anti-apartheid protests which broke out on June 16, 1976. The music was recorded over three days in July 2016 by singer Nonku Phiri, singer/pianist/trombone player Malcolm Jiyane, bassist Ariel Zamonsky, and percussionist/vocalist Gontse Makhene. Both Zamonsky and Makhene are also members of Shabaka And The Ancestors, while Jiyane leads his own trio and Phiri is an up-and-coming singer. “Sizwile,” which mixes deep blues with dubby mixing techniques and ritualistic/theatrical percussion, recalls the Art Ensemble Of Chicago’s Paris recordings with singer Fontella Bass. The male and female voices intertwine in a duet of mingled pain and hope, singing in both Xhosa and English.
Adam Kolker, Lost (Sunnyside)
Tenor saxophonist Adam Kolker is a member of the Brooklyn Jazz Underground and plays with the Maria Schneider Orchestra and the Village Vanguard Orchestra; he also had a lengthy creative relationship with the late guitarist John Abercrombie. This CD, which features pianist Bruce Barth, bassist Ugonna Okegwo, and drummer Billy Hart, started out as a tribute to Wayne Shorter. They were going to record a collection of his compositions and call it a day. Ultimately, though, they wound up tracking a collection of original pieces and standards, plus two Shorter compositions, that together traced the older saxophonist’s influence on all of Kolker’s work. “Lost” is a Shorter composition from the album The Soothsayer, recorded in 1965 but not released until 1979. It’s a keening midtempo piece that feels like it wants to be a ballad, but the band is swinging too hard for that. Kolker’s tone is sorrowful without being overly dramatic, and Hart’s drumming, particularly behind Barth’s solo, is surprisingly forceful and emphatic.
Quentin Coaxum, You & I (Independent/Self-Released)
Trumpeter Quentin Coaxum, from Chicago via St. Louis, is a relative unknown, but he’s recorded with local musicians like guitarist Jeff Swanson and drummer Lucas Gillan and performs regularly. You & I is his second album as a leader; it features Swanson on several tracks, and the final piece brings in an 11-piece brass and reeds choir that includes fellow Chicago trumpeters Marquis Hill and Corey Wilkes, and alto saxophonist Nick Mazzarella, among others. This is a romantic album in a lot of ways. The opening track, “Constellation,” has the disciplined romanticism of a classic CTI session, Joshua Griffin’s electric bass bubbling under Julius Tucker’s almost harplike piano and Swanson’s subtle guitar interjections, with Coaxum and tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi singing in Chi-Lites-esque harmony as drummer Clif Wallace shifts from a soulful beat to gentle accents.