The Month In Jazz – December 2020

Deneka Peniston

The Month In Jazz – December 2020

Deneka Peniston

This was a rough fuckin’ year for jazz. Once upon a time, I’d begin almost every one of these columns with an account of a live performance I’d witnessed sometime in the previous month. I haven’t done that since March. And I don’t know when I’ll get to do it again. Nobody does. And the music is already suffering. Venues are closing; the Jazz Standard, one of my favorite places to see live music, was the first to go. (This reminiscence from a former waitress is terrific; go read it.)

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see even more economically precarious clubs like Smalls and Mezzrow (neither of which are attached to restaurants; they exist purely to showcase the music), tourism-dependent places like the Blue Note and Birdland, or even legendary spots like the Village Vanguard shut their doors, too, if things don’t get back to the way they were. Some places, like Roulette in Brooklyn and the Vanguard, set up really high quality streaming capabilities and allowed people to watch performances online, but honestly, the social aspect is missing; it’s not nearly as much fun to watch a jazz performance from your couch as it is to do it in a room full of other fans, to hear them suck in their breath along with you at a particularly stunning moment, or erupt in applause after one of those solos that seem to levitate every seat in the house.

We lost a lot of musicians this year, too. Jazz players, as a group, are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. They tend to be older; they’re concentrated in densely populated urban centers; and they’re often struggling financially, or living in less than ideal conditions. So before we begin the final Ugly Beauty column of 2020, I want to do an “In Memoriam” montage of all the jazz musicians I know of who died this year. Let’s set it to McCoy Tyner’s “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit,” from his group’s performance at the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival (later released as the album Enlightenment):

Sadly, this list may be incomplete, but it’s every name I know of:

Tony Allen, drummer, 79; Robert “Bootsie” Barnes, saxophonist, 82; Toni Belenguer, trombonist, 42; Percy Brice, drummer, 97; Cándido Camero, percussionist, 99; Alton “Big Al” Carson, singer, 66; Jon Christensen, drummer, 76; Jimmy Cobb, drummer, 91; Freddy Cole, singer and pianist, 88; Richie Cole, saxophonist, 72; Pamela Cornelius, singer, age unknown to me; Jacques Coursil, trumpeter, 82; Stanley Crouch, critic and sometime drummer, 74; Eddy Davis, banjo player/bandleader, 79; Manu Dibango, saxophonist, 86; Ronny Drayton, guitarist, 67; Cleveland Eaton, bassist, 80; Kali Z. Fasteau, multi-instrumentalist/composer, 73; Simon H. Fell, bassist/improviser, 61; Eddie Gale, trumpeter, 78; Andy González, bassist, 69; Henry Grimes, bassist, 84; Steve Grossman, saxophonist, 69; Bob Gullotti, drummer, 70; Onaje Allan Gumbs, pianist, 70; Jimmy Heath, saxophonist, 93; Art Hoyle, trumpeter, 90; Pedro Iturralde, saxophonist, 91; Reggie Johnson, bassist, 79; Vic Juris, guitarist, 66 (died 12/31/19); Peter King, saxophonist, 80; Toshinori Kondo, trumpeter, 71; Lee Konitz, saxophonist, 92; Alex Layne, bassist, 80; Giuseppi Logan, saxophonist, 84; Mike Longo, pianist, 83; Johnny Mandel, composer, 94; Ellis Marsalis, pianist, 85; Lyle Mays, keyboardist, 66; Don McCaslin, pianist/vibraphonist (Donny McCaslin’s father), 93; Jymie Merritt, bassist, 93; Lennie Niehaus, saxophonist, 90; Robert “Brother Ah” Northern, multi-instrumentalist/arranger, 86; Gary Peacock, bassist, 85; Marcelo Peralta, saxophonist, 59; Charli Persip, drummer, 91; Bucky Pizzarelli, guitarist, 94; Francis Rocco Prestia, bassist, 69; Alfred “Uganda” Roberts, percussionist, 77; Claudio Roditi, trumpeter, 73; Wallace Roney, trumpeter, 59; Annie Ross, singer, 89; Hal Singer, saxophonist, 100; Viola Smith, drummer, 107; Ed Stoute, pianist, age unknown to me; Ira Sullivan, trumpeter, 89; Danny Ray Thompson, saxophonist, 72; Keith Tippett, pianist, 72; McCoy Tyner, pianist, 81; Bobby Ward, drummer, 81; Don Weller, saxophonist, 79; Andrew White, saxophonist, 78; Hal Willner, producer, 64; Helen Jones Woods, trombonist, 97.

And now, on a more optimistic note, here are the best new jazz albums of the month!

Brandee Younger & Dezron Douglas - Force Majeure (International Anthem)

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that many musicians on the New York jazz scene are coupled up. What is surprising is how few of them took the opportunity to record quarantine duo projects. Saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and her husband, drummer Tom Rainey, have recorded close to 40 improvised pieces so far under the collective title Stir Crazy; they’re all available on Laubrock’s Bandcamp page. But Force Majeure, by harpist Brandee Younger and bassist Dezron Douglas, is the only album-as-album I’ve seen come out of COVID lockdown. The couple were doing weekly livestreams on Facebook for much of the year, playing standards and pop songs and anything else that appealed to them and would send positivity out into the world. One of the most beautiful pieces is a version of John Coltrane’s “Wise One,” originally from the album Crescent, which the pair dedicate to the memory of Ahmaud Arbery, who was murdered in Georgia in February. Younger’s treatment of the ballad’s melody is naturally lighter than the saxophonist’s, but Douglas’s powerful bass playing is every bit as heavy as Jimmy Garrison’s was.

Dave Douglas - Overcome (Greenleaf)

Trumpeter Dave Douglas has long been attracted to hymns, traditional songs, and the like; his 2012 album Be Still was packed with them, and the title track from 2019’s Devotion was a version of a sacred harp piece from the 1800s. This album, released unexpectedly at the beginning of the month, opens with a version of “We Shall Overcome” sung by Fay Victor and Camila Meza, backed by Douglas, trombonist Ryan Keberle, bassist Jorge Roeder, and drummer Rudy Royston. Each woman takes a verse on her own, then they harmonize for the rest of the tune, as Douglas and Keberle carry on a separate conversation in the back of the room. What’s most impressive about this track is that each group member recorded their part separately, at home, sometime between July and September. And yet listening to it you’d swear they were all in a single room, singing and playing together. It’s really beautiful.

Dave Brubeck - Time OutTakes: Previously Unreleased Takes From The Original 1959 Sessions (Brubeck Editions)

Dave Brubeck’s quartet with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, bassist Eugene Wright, and drummer Joe Morello was together for a decade, from 1958 to 1968, and during that time they recorded something like two dozen albums. (Even more, if you count records where clarinetist Bill Smith took Desmond’s place.) One of their earliest studio albums, though, was 1959’s Time Out, which was massively successful and remains an essential listen. This disc, as its title indicates, is a kind of mirror-image version of the album composed of alternate takes. The version of “Take Five,” the one Brubeck tune people know if they know any (or know without knowing who it’s by), is a little faster and looser than the buttoned-down Columbia Records version; both Desmond and Brubeck are playing a little more freely. It’s less reverb-heavy, too, with more room sound when Morello starts the drum solo that holds the whole thing together. The original is still a must-hear, but this is a fascinating bonus version.

George Coleman Quintet- In Baltimore (Real To Reel)

George Coleman is a Memphis-born tenor player who doesn’t get nearly the respect he deserves. He was Wayne Shorter’s immediate predecessor in Miles Davis’ quintet, and his somewhat more traditional style didn’t always mesh perfectly with what Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams wanted to do, but Davis had him in there for a reason. In any case, Coleman also recorded with Elvin Jones, Ahmad Jamal, Lee Morgan, Max Roach, Jimmy Smith, and many others; he even played on Hancock’s Maiden Voyage with Carter and Williams after leaving Davis’ band. This newly discovered live recording comes from May 1971 and features trumpeter Danny Moore, pianist Albert Dailey, bassist Larry Ridley, and drummer Harold White. Despite the year, there are no electric instruments or fusion-oriented strategies here — this is a straight hard bop date. That’s what the crowd in Baltimore wanted to hear: standards, blues and swing. The band even dusts off “I Got Rhythm,” the chord changes for which were the foundation of much bebop improvisation and exploration in the 1940s. Coleman has a big, flowing tone, and Moore is a fire-spitter; Dailey, Ridley and White drive them hard, and the crowd responds with audible enthusiasm.

Adrian Younge & Ali Shaheed Muhammad - Jazz Is Dead 05: Doug Carn (Jazz Is Dead)

In the 1970s, keyboardist Doug Carn recorded several jazz-funk albums for the Black Jazz label that have earned him a devoted cult audience among listeners but also among producers and DJs. When Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad put together the Jazz Is Dead series, for which they team up with legends of previous generations to record new material, Carn was near the top of the list. On this album, the trio are joined by trumpeter Zach Ramacier, alto saxophonist Shai Golan, and drummer Malachi Morehead for a collection of short but powerful groove pieces that have an early ’70s feel, owing as much to Funkadelic or Caravanserai-era Santana (minus the scorching guitars) as to early electric Miles or Carn’s own back catalog. The opening “Dimensions” features stabs of Hammond B3 over a massive, blown-out backbeat worthy of the Meters, and the horns murmur and wail in the middle of the mix, occasionally rising to the fore in spiraling harmony.

Binker & Moses - Escape The Flames (Gearbox)

The duo of saxophonist Binker Golding and drummer Moses Boyd broke out of the London scene relatively early; they were originally members of singer Zara McFarlane’s band, then debuted under their own names with 2015’s Dem Ones. But 2017’s Journey To The Mountain Of Forever, a double CD, was their masterpiece (to date), a double CD that featured multiple guests, including legendary free saxophonist Evan Parker. This live recording is from the release party for that album, and while it’s just the two men onstage, they create a thundering avalanche of energy. On “Intoxication From The Jahvmonishi Leaves,” a six-minute album cut stretches to 10 with an extended drum solo, while Golding’s thick saxophone sound combines a Sonny Rollins-esque tone with Shabaka Hutchings’ ability to grab onto a riff and ride it to the end of the world.

Sisonke Xonti - uGaba The Migration (As-Shams/The Sun)

South African saxophonist Sisonke Xonti’s second album is a powerful and conceptually unified effort built around a four-part suite that addresses issues of migration and loss of identity through music and poetry. The other five tracks on the record are just as strong, though. Xonti is a strong writer whose compositions blend classic hard bop with an almost orchestral romanticism and occasional exostic touches, like the throat singing and bass drones on the first track of “The Migration Suite.” The core band features trumpeter Sakhile Simani, pianist Yonela Mnana, bassist Benjamin Jephta, drummer Sphelelo Mazibuko, and percussionist Tlale Makhene, with guests on a few tracks. On the album opener, “Newness,” Bokani Dyer, a leader in his own right, plays Fender Rhodes. The piece travels from a Coltrane-ish sax intro to some surprisingly free, rhythm-fracturing horn interplay to hand-waving gospel piano to a closing vocal chorus, and it all works, separately and together.

Jesse Ryan - Bridges (Fwé Culture)

Saxophonist Jesse Ryan was born in Trinidad, though he’s currently based in Toronto. With his debut album, Bridges, he’s attempting to — wait for it — build a bridge between jazz and Trinidadian music, in this case by incorporating Tambrin drumming, a traditional rhythm from Tobago. The core band consists of Ryan, various guitarists on different tracks, piano and Fender Rhodes, bass, and drums, but on four tracks, the Mt. Cullin Tambrin Band joins in, nearly doubling the size of the ensemble in the process. They’re heard quite prominently on the opening “Big Ole’ Shoes,” their frame drums pounding away underneath as Ryan and guitarist Andrew Marzotto take lighthearted but stinging solos.

Alonzo Demetrius - Live From The Prison Nation (Onyx)

NJ-born trumpeter Alonzo Demetrius’ self-released debut album begins with a sample of a speech by Angela Davis; later in the album, the voice of Mumia Abu-Jamal is heard. It’s always difficult to gauge the polemical value of what is primarily instrumental music; no matter what a piece of music may mean to its composer or performers, the listener may take away an entirely different message. One man’s political protest is another man’s fuck-soundtrack. But the music on Live From The Prison Nation is beautiful no matter how you receive it. Demetrius’ playing is mellow and fluid, occasionally fed through effects (carefully deployed echo makes it sound like he’s replying to himself) and supported by an able band of peers, plus South African bassist Benjamin Jephta. He’s not trying to blow the walls down, or see how many notes he can pack into a breath; from the first notes of the opening “Expectations,” this album attempts to draw you in and give you both the time and the opportunity to think.

Nels Cline Singers - Share The Wealth (Blue Note)

Guitarist Nels Cline has put together an expanded version of his long-running band the Nels Cline Singers (there is no singer) for their Blue Note debut. This 79-minute CD, also available on double vinyl, features saxophonist Skerik, keyboardist Brian Marsella, bassist Trevor Dunn, drummer Scott Amendola, and percussionist Cyro Baptista, and the music they make is extremely varied. There are two pieces, “Stump The Panel” and “A Place On The Moon,” that take up almost a whole LP side each, and shift between skronky apocalypses and long atmospheric passages. “Princess Phone” feels like a straight homage to Miles Davis circa 1970-71, while other tracks are so pretty they could have come off a Bill Frisell record. “Headdress” is somewhere in the middle, a mellow and lovely piece that starts off with just guitar and synth, but when the full band comes in the heavily distorted drums and reverbed-out saxophone give it a hazy feel like it was produced by Daniel Lopatin.

Patrick Cornelius - Acadia: Way Of The Cairns (Whirlwind Recordings)

The TransAtlantic Collective was a band that existed from 2005 to 2009, touring the US, the UK, and Europe and making one album, 2008’s Traveling Song. More than a decade later, four of the five members of the collective — alto saxophonist Patrick Cornelius, pianist Kristjan Randalu, bassist and Whirlwind Recordings founder Michael Janisch, and drummer Paul Wiltgen; only trumpeter Quentin Collins is absent — have reunited under Cornelius’ banner. Since the early 2010s, the saxophonist has split his output between Whirlwind and Posi-Tone, so his compositions have a mix of skillful playing and big, easy-on-the-ear hooks. The opening “Way Of The Cairns” features a memorable melody carried in unison by sax and bass, but Randalu’s piano is a powerful force at the center of the music, too.

Muriel Grossmann - Quiet Earth (Self-Released)

Austrian saxophonist Muriel Grossmann has a deep love of spiritual jazz and African music; her albums have titles like Reverence, Elevation, Momentum, and Natural Time. Her latest features her longtime working band: guitarist Radomir Milojkovic, organist Llorenç Barceló, bassist Gina Schwarz, and drummer Uros Stamenkovic. It’s very much in the vein of her previous work, so if you’re a fan you’ll be pleased. “African Call” is a lengthy workout, driven by Barceló’s organ, which is mostly soulful but occasionally flies off into space, not unlike the mid to late ’60s work of Larry Young. Each of the lead instruments is given plenty of solo space, with Milojkovic’s loose, rattling style sounding like Grant Green on Lee Morgan’s Search For The New Land as Grossmann journeys into a Joe Henderson-esque zone, with Schwarz and Stamenkovic laying down a steady but shifting polyrhythmic groove behind it all.

Tani Tabbal Trio - Now Then (Tao Forms)

Drummer Tani Tabbal isn’t as well known as he should be, considering that he’s worked with Roscoe Mitchell, David Murray, James Carter, the late Geri Allen, and the Sun Ra Arkestra. This is his third record with this trio, but the previous two, 2016’s Triptych and 2019’s Opposite Edge, were self-released and hard to come by. The group has a strong collective voice; alto saxophonist Adam Siegel has a big, almost Albert Ayler-esque sound on the small horn, and bassist Michael Bisio, best known for his work in Matthew Shipp’s trio, absolutely booms through the center of the music here. Tabbal himself is a skittering, somewhat sparse drummer with an extremely organic sound, as if he’s slapping the drums with his hands rather than using sticks. He reminds me of Andrew Cyrille, adding a parade-like element to his rhythms. “Khusenaton” has a jumpy, excited energy rooted in Bisio’s mesmerizing bass line, which Tabbal augments and accents as Siegel takes off in Jimmy Lyons-esque free-bebop exploration.

Will Vinson/Gilad Hekselman/Antonio Sanchez - Trio Grande (Whirlwind Recordings)

Saxophonist Will Vinson made a really good album for the Criss Cross label in 2018, It’s Alright With Three, featuring guitarist Gilad Hekselman and drummer Antonio Sanchez. That same group has reunited for Trio Grande. Much as he does in flugelhornist John Raymond’s trio Real Feels, Hekselman often plays at the low end of the guitar’s range, occupying a zone somewhere between guitar and bass and building up a strong rhythmic foundation before launching into biting, distorted soloing. On the album’s opening track, “Northbound,” he and Vinson get into some very nice, tight unison playing before the leader’s solo, which is melodic but also high-energy, leaping upward into registers where I can’t tell if it’s an alto or a soprano. Meanwhile, Sanchez (who wrote the piece) takes a commanding, martial solo of his own.

Uncivilized - Garden (Self-Released)

Uncivilized is a large ensemble “led” by guitarist Tom Csatari, and Garden is an album that unfolds like a single long, flowing piece somewhere between Don Cherry’s Organic Music Society, Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians, and the post-hippie jams of Popol Vuh or Sunburned Hand Of The Man. It’s not actually one thing, though; there are versions of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” and the Twin Peaks theme blended into the swirl. And it all ends with a slow, New Orleans funeral version of Stevie Wonder’s “Evil” on which the various horns — trumpet (including a guest appearance from Jaimie Branch), alto sax, bass clarinet, and flute — tootle and blare in semi-polyphonic semi-harmony over a backdrop of two guitars, bass, drums, and a little bit of electronics. This feels like something barely thrown together that achieved its form as it was happening, and it’s probably best heard only once (not because it sucks, but because that’s the best way to preserve the purity of the experience). This sonic journey is one well worth taking.

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