The Month In Jazz – November 2020
If you’re not steeped in jazz history, you may not realize how mind-boggling it is that Ras Baraka is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey. I live close to Newark, so I see him on the local news fairly regularly — the city is struggling pretty badly with COVID-19. And he seems like a decent guy working hard for his city. But he’s the son of Amiri Baraka! I can’t figure out how you grow up with one of America’s most important poets, but just as importantly, a guy who was a hard-line Marxist for decades, and whose wife remains a committed member of the Communist Party USA (full disclosure: Amina Baraka released an album in 2017, and my wife designed the cover), as your father, and decide to run for mayor.
Thought about another way, though, it makes perfect sense. Amiri Baraka loved Newark. He grew up there, moved to New York in the late ’50s and early ’60s, but by the mid-’60s had moved back and would make Newark his home base for the rest of his life, until his death in 2014. He worked on the campaign of Harold Washington, Newark’s first Black mayor, elected in 1970. Amina Baraka is a native of the city, too. I can only imagine that they fostered a deep love of the place in their kids (Baraka had nine kids from three relationships).
Indeed, a new book describes in detail just how much Amiri Baraka loved Newark, and how much a part of him the city really was. James Smethurst’s Brick City Vanguard: Amiri Baraka, Black Music, Black Modernity, published by the University Of Massachusetts Press, is a fascinating study of Baraka’s life and work. In a series of linked essays, Smethurst analyzes his biography, the evolution of his political beliefs, his association with the Beat poets and eventual break with them to launch the Black Arts movement, his poetry, and — most importantly to readers of this column — his interest in and work with jazz.
Baraka wrote about jazz a lot, delivering liner notes for labels like Prestige and Impulse!, most notably for John Coltrane’s 1963 album Live At Birdland. He was an early supporter of free jazz, particularly the work of saxophonist Albert Ayler and drummer Sunny Murray. (He released Murray’s 1965 album Sonny’s Time Now on his own label, Jihad Productions — I know — and appeared on one track, reciting the poem “Black.”) He also worked with the New York Art Quartet, reading his poem “Black Dada Nihilismus” on their self-titled debut album.
Smethurst writes incisively about the way Baraka’s notes changed how such things were done, moving from dispassionate observations of the recording sessions, leavened with a few quotes from the musicians, to a more poetic and romantic evocation of the music and its meaning. His book Black Music, which gathers some of those liner notes along with other articles from the mid ’60s, is fantastic and essential to understanding the era. It’s particularly fascinating to read Baraka and understand that when he talks about free jazz as a voice for Black populism, he recognizes the avant-gardism in James Brown as well (Brown famously yells for saxophonist Robert “Chopper” McCullough to “Blow me some Trane” on “Super Bad,” from 1969).
This is a great book that gave me a lot of insight into Amiri Baraka, the Black Arts movement, and the avant-garde jazz of the ’60s. These days, now that jazz has been thoroughly embraced as high culture, it’s hard to remember that these legendary musicians were mostly from working class backgrounds and were often broke as fuck when they were making their classic records. Amiri Baraka’s Marxism wasn’t academic; it arose out of populism and poverty and struggle. In America’s current atmosphere of political upheaval, probably the worst since that era, it’s important to keep that in mind. Plus, the guy really could write, and Smethurst reminds you of that, too.
There’s a pretty fascinating new box set out, culled from the vast archives of the Sun Ra Arkestra. Egypt 1971, released by the Strut label, is exactly what it sounds like: a compilation of live and studio pieces, TV broadcast audio, interviews, and even field recordings, all from a December 1971 trip the Arkestra undertook at the invitation of drummer and Egyptian jazz promoter/enthusiast Salah Ragab. Ragab, a veteran of the Egyptian military, led his own Cairo Jazz Band, whose work is documented on the 2006 compilation Egyptian Jazz. He and Ra collaborated on the album The Sun Ra Arkestra Meets Salah Ragab In Egypt in 1983; that material is not included here. What you do get are three reissued live albums, plus two LPs’ worth of previously unreleased music, including what seems like a full concert recorded at Ragab collaborator Hartmut Geerken’s house in Heliopolis, Egypt. Some of this stuff was recorded the day I was born, so I decided to check it out. Ra’s early ’70s material is the most interesting to me, because he was doing a lot of really interesting experimentation with synthesizers and electronic sounds, and there are tracks on here, like the two-part “Nidhamu,” that approach pure sound art. Of course, the stuff he was best known for — the big band charts interspersed with exotic percussion, the free jazz blowouts, the chanted mantra/slogans — are all here, too. I’ve never been a diehard Ra fan, but I found it a rewarding listen. If you’re already into his music, this is a solid collection well worth investigating. If you’re a newcomer, it’s probably not the best starting point, though.
And now, here are the best new jazz albums of the month!
Sonny Rollins - Rollins In Holland (Resonance)
Holy shit. This two-CD/three-LP set is an unbelievable treasure. It contains four previously unreleased studio tracks, and seven live tracks (two from a club date, and five from a concert presented in full), from 1967. Rollins was joined by two local Dutch musicians for the session and the shows -- Ruud Jacobs on bass, and Han Bennink on drums. If, like me, you mostly know Bennink for his work in hairier contexts, as part of the ICP (Instant Composers Pool, not the other one you may be thinking of) or performances with Peter Brötzmann, Derek Bailey, and other devotees of total improvisation, hearing him behind an exploratory but still traditionalist horn player like Rollins is kind of amazing. This version of the bebop chestnut “Tune Up” is a showcase for both Bennink and Rollins; the saxophonist’s horn sounds huge, like you could walk right into its bell, and the drummer absolutely demolishes his kit both on the intro and then later, when he takes an extended solo.
Charles Mingus - At Bremen 1964 & 1975 (Sunnyside)
This four-CD set pairs two concerts Charles Mingus played in Bremen, Germany, a little over a decade apart. The first was at Radio Bremen’s Studio F, and featured his band with trumpeter Johnny Coles, Eric Dolphy on alto sax, bass clarinet and flute, Clifford Jordan on tenor sax, and Dannie Richmond on drums. The second, recorded 11 years later at the Postaula auditorium, showcased his then-new band with Jack Walrath on trumpet, George Adams on tenor sax, Don Pullen on piano and, again, Richmond on drums. Mingus made several excellent albums -- Mingus Moves, Changes One, and Changes Two -- toward the end of his life with Adams, Pullen, and Richmond, and tunes from those records are delivered in strong, emphatic versions here. “Free Cell Block F, ’Tis Nazi USA” comes from Changes Two, and its title refers to the Attica prison riots of 1971. Despite that angry title, the music is joyous and celebratory, a trick Mingus pulled often.
Dave Douglas - Marching Music (Greenleaf)
Once upon a time, I was a huge Rollins Band fan. I saw them about a half dozen times between 1989 and 2000 (when he took the name and applied it to a totally different group of musicians). I mention this because on this album, trumpeter Dave Douglas is backed by guitarist Rafiq Bhatia and the Rollins Band rhythm section from 1994-1997, bassist Melvin Gibbs and drummer Sim Cain. And yeah, it’s heavy as hell at times, settling into that Brontosaurus groove they did so well back then. Sure, guitarist Chris Haskett’s harmolodic metal leads aren’t there -- Bhatia is a somewhat more atmospheric player -- and you’ve got Dave Douglas’s clean post-bop lines instead of Rollins barking self-help mantras at you like he’s going to murder you if you don’t achieve enlightenment right now, but Cain’s face-slapping, polyrhythmic backbeat is back like it never left, and Gibbs’ bass is a huge post-metal throb. On “Safe Space,” they set up the same kind of simmering groove they had on “Liar” all those years ago, and the muted trumpet and wavering haze of heavily effected guitar are the perfect counterbalance to the moodiness.
Junk Magic - Compass Confusion (Pyroclastic)
As both an old dude and a metalhead, it amuses me greatly that the first track on the second Junk Magic album is called “Laser Beaming Hearts” -- a line from the Judas Priest song “Metal Gods,” from 1980’s British Steel. That said, there is nothing metal about this music. Junk Magic is a Craig Taborn project; they made their debut in 2004, with tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart, viola player Mat Maneri, and drummer Dave King. On this follow-up, Stewart is out, replaced by Chris Speed, and bassist Erik Fratzke has been added. The music is extremely electronic, with every instrument subject to heavy processing and post-production; “Laser Beaming Hearts” begins with stuttering, pulsing synths that sound more like the latest Autechre record(s) than anything “jazz”. It takes almost three minutes for a conventional groove to kick in, but when it does, it’s awesome, somehow lighthearted and head-knocking at once.
Joel Ross - Who Are You? (Blue Note)
Vibraphonist Joel Ross’ second album as a leader features Immanuel Wilkins on alto sax, Jeremy Corren on piano, Kanoa Mendenhall on bass, and Jeremy Dutton on drums, plus Brandee Younger on harp. Ross has been a part of some seriously impressive projects, most notably Makaya McCraven’s Universal Beings; on his own, he’s both a virtuosic player and a generous bandleader, giving everyone plenty of space to wander around and make their voices heard. On a version of John Coltrane’s “After The Rain,” Ross and Younger create a backdrop like beaded curtains shifting gently in the breeze, as Mendenhall and Dutton thump and boom, and Wilkins takes a soulful solo in the middle of the alto’s range, imbuing each phrase with a kind of sober introspection that draws you in and keeps you fascinated.
Matana Roberts & Pat Thomas - The Truth (Otoroku)
Alto saxophonist Matana Roberts' primary project remains her 12-part Coin Coin series, but this live duet with British pianist Pat Thomas is a terrific performance that deserves preservation. Recorded in December 2018 at Café OTO in London, it’s only available on vinyl. The first side features three relatively short pieces, while the second is a 16-minute blowout. The album opens gently, with Thomas alone, feeling out the space and establishing a patient, exploratory mood which stays in place when Roberts enters. Her playing is more melodic and even beboppish than might be expected; there are times when the pair of them sound like Cecil Taylor and Jimmy Lyons, creative partners for more than 25 years (who somehow never recorded a duo album, I’m just realizing as I type this). But Roberts and Thomas absolutely have their own individual and collective languages, too, and this is a fascinating and thrilling encounter.
Tim Berne/Matt Mitchell Duo - Spiders (Out Of Your Head)
Saxophonist Tim Berne has led a lot of really fascinating bands over the years; they tend to last until the other players are too much in demand, and then everything falls apart. Right now, one of his primary creative partners is pianist Matt Mitchell. They’ve been working together since 2008, primarily in the band Snakeoil, but the pianist has recorded an entire solo album of Berne compositions. They speak each other’s language fluently. This is the third Berne/Mitchell duo release, a live recording from February 2020. It opens with “Increminced,” a 12-minute piece that meanders around a long and winding melody in typically Berne-ian fashion, as Mitchell lays down a shimmering bed of piano like a carpet with platinum threads woven through it.
Susan Alcorn Quintet - Pedernal (Relative Pitch)
The pedal steel guitar has almost no profile in jazz. Susan Alcorn is an absolute master of the instrument, though, and has recorded with Joe McPhee, Mary Halvorson, Nate Wooley, and others. Halvorson appears on this quintet album, as do bassist Michael Formanek, violinist Mark Feldman, and drummer Ryan Sawyer. The opening title track begins with a melancholy, wide-open prairie melody that could have come off a Bill Frisell album. When the rest of the instruments come in, things get folk-ish for a few seconds, before Alcorn takes off in wild improvisatory zones, abandoning the steel’s usual zinging, humming sound for sharp plucks that Halvorson echoes and expands upon. By the piece’s midpoint, it’s come apart in shards, and the same wide-open prairie has been overrun by locusts.
Linda Sikhakhane - An Open Dialogue: Live In New York (Skay Music)
South African saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane came to New York for a few years to study at the New School. While there, he released his debut album, Two Sides, One Mirror, which was an excellent example of post-Coltrane/Tyner spiritual jazz: questing, but melodic and heartfelt and easily accessible to listeners who didn’t want to be screamed at. This follow-up, a live recording (with some studio overdubs) that started out as his senior recital, is more lush, with a broader instrumental palette that includes trumpet, flute, piano, harp, and extra percussion as well as chanted vocals. Sikhakhane himself plays both tenor and soprano. The 12-minute “Amakhosi” begins with an almost ritualistic calling to order: deep bass, gentle harp, percussion, and a low male vocal chant. When Sikhakhane enters, he’s flanked by flute and flugelhorn, and the latter instrument, played by Lesedi Ntsane, gets the first solo, a full-throated if mournful eruption.
Ingrid Laubrock - Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt (Intakt)
Ingrid Laubrock isn’t just a terrific saxophonist. She’s also a brilliant composer. Her 2018 album Contemporary Chaos Practices combined stunning writing for large ensemble with conducted solos by top-shelf improvisers. On this two-disc set, she interprets the same set of five compositions twice, the first time with the 18-member EOS Chamber Orchestra and five soloists (herself, keyboardist Cory Smythe, bassist Robert Landfermann, drummer Tom Rainey, and Sam Pluta on electronics) and the second time with a small ensemble of herself, Smythe and Pluta, joined by accordion player Adam Matlock, violinist Josh Modney, and harpist Zeena Parkins. The opening “Dreamt Twice” starts with buzzes and pops from Pluta, eventually yielding to gnarled solos from Laubrock and Smythe, with the orchestra coming in here and there but never in a predictable or clichéd manner. You’re gonna need to walk around with this one for a while, to let the patterns emerge slowly over time.
Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra - Dimensional Stardust (International Anthem/Nonesuch)
Cornet player, multimedia artist, and broad-minded conceptualist Rob Mazurek has many projects, but Exploding Star Orchestra is easily the most expansive. Numbering roughly a dozen members or more, depending on the occasion, many of whom are among the most respected players around, they create a swirling atmosphere that’s part jazz, part modern composition, and part guided improvisation. This album, recorded between 2018 and 2019, features folks like Nicole Mitchell, Jaimie Branch, Chad Taylor, Jeff Parker, Joel Ross, and more. Mazurek himself mostly conducts and shapes the music, rarely picking up an instrument himself, but his voice comes strongly through every track. On “A Wrinkle In Time Sets Concentric Circles Reeling,” Damon Locks delivers poetry that brings to mind Robert Calvert’s apocalyptic warnings with Hawkwind, but the music is light and flickering, with Ross’ vibraphone coming to the fore and making it all seem to dance.
Dave Gisler Trio With Jaimie Branch - Zurich Concert (Intakt)
Dave Gisler is a Swiss guitarist whose trio with bassist Raffaele Bossard and Lionel Friedli released an album, Rabbits On The Run, in 2018. On this 2019 performance from the unerhört! Festival in Zurich, they’re joined by trumpeter Jaimie Branch. Gisler is a loud, noisy, rock-oriented guitarist, and his playing here falls somewhere between the clouds-of-metal sound of Harriet Tubman’s Brandon Ross and the ear-sanding rock of Raoul Björkenheim. Branch is in power trumpet mode, sounding almost like early ’70s Freddie Hubbard at times; she’s really cutting loose here. “Rabbits On The Run” is both noisy and free, with Friedli laying down a frantic beat that’s like Rashied Ali playing hardcore and Bossard bouncing in the back. Still, Branch is in fanfare mode, her lines rippling across the sky as Gisler unleashes waves of scorching guitar.
The MIYUMI Project - Best Of The MIYUMI Project (FPE)
Bassist Tatsu Aoki has been doing fascinating work under the radar in Chicago for decades. His best-known projects are likely his quartet albums with legendary saxophonist Fred Anderson, but the MIYUMI Project deserves wider attention, and this compilation should help with that. The music mixes jazz arrangements with Japanese taiko drumming and other Asian traditional sounds, and manages to make that neither new age nor cheesy/patronizing. “Now,” one movement of an extended suite, lets the drums thunder and Aoki’s bass boom, but there’s plenty of funk and jazz flavor to it, too, and a modern classical edge from the bass, cello and violin. Its relentless marching rhythm and the sharp, biting horns remind me of Julius Hemphill’s “Dogon A.D.,” but in a way it also brings to mind Frank Zappa’s early ’70s jazz arrangements on Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo.
Enrique Rodríguez And The Negra Chiway Band - Fase Liminal (Soul Jazz)
Enrique Rodríguez is a composer, keyboardist, and percussionist from Chile whose music is somewhere between spiritual jazz and instrumental funk, with elements of early ’70s soundtracks to psychedelically tinged horror movies as well. It’s likely to remind you in more or less equal measure of the Sorcerers, the Heliocentrics, the work of Matthew Halsall, and maybe Maisha as well. The tunes are mostly short, so there’s not a whole lot of solo space granted to the horns, but the charts they’re playing are fierce and exciting, especially in contrast with the airy, floating synths and the layers of somewhat free percussion. “No Quiero Seguir Así” is a beat-driven track with a deep, pulsing bassline and warped, half-submerged keyboards that could almost be vibes; it drifts along until it seems to deflate as it comes to an end. It could be a particularly spaced-out backpack hip-hop track from the late ’90s or early ’00s, but in 2020 it counts as jazz.
Philip Zoubek Trio - Nonplaces (WhyPlayJazz)
Pianist Philip Zoubek’s trio with bassist David Helm and drummer Dominik Mahnig plays a spiky, clanging version of free jazz, with occasional synth injections, that takes a little bit from modern classical composition but remains rooted in the jazz vocabulary. “Memento,” a piece built around a tumbling rhythm pattern that becomes both cyclical and cellular almost in spite of itself, reminds me a lot of work by the current incarnation of the Matthew Shipp Trio, with Michael Bisio on bass and Newman Taylor Baker on drums. Like that group, there’s a melodicism to the rhythm section’s swing, but it’s always just off-kilter enough to keep you on your toes as a listener. Meanwhile, Zoubek himself comes up with hard-hitting phrases that leap toward catharsis but still manage to stay part of the main piece.