The Month In Jazz – January 2021
William Parker deserves a Pulitzer Prize, or at least a MacArthur Fellowship. His body of work is nearly 50 years deep at this point, and encompasses vocal and instrumental music (his own original compositions, and brilliant reinterpretations of others’ work), poetry, criticism, and journalism. His long-running bands the William Parker Quartet and its expanded incarnation Raining On The Moon; In Order To Survive; and the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra are balanced by short-lived or one-off ensembles that may only appear for a single album or concert. In addition to work under his own name, he’s been a key member of groups led by Cecil Taylor, Peter Brötzmann, Bill Dixon, David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp, and others. Although his work hinges on a deeply individual voice, he is a community builder at heart. He and his wife, Patricia Nicholson, have run the annual Vision Festival in New York for over 20 years, and that single annual event has grown to encompass multiple performance series running all year long, many of them outdoors and free, an invitation to the public to experience high-level out jazz as just one more form of art, as physically as it is aesthetically accessible.
Parker, born in the Bronx in 1952, grew up poor, spending whatever money he could scrape together on jazz records. He was athletic, playing football as a teenager, but eventually determined that he would devote his life to music and writing (he was already keeping a diary and writing poetry before ever picking up a bass), though he also had a deep interest in film.
He studied with Richard Davis via New York City’s Jazzmobile program and received early advice from Charlie Haden, but mostly pursued his own path based on deep and intense listening, and playing in as many contexts as possible. As he says in Cisco Bradley’s Universal Tonality: The Life And Music Of William Parker, published by Duke University Press, “If you spend your life trying to be Charlie Parker, who will be you? We fail musically when we try to be something other than ourselves.” Beginning in the early 1970s, he was forming groups and taking part in performances all over the city, even when his poverty forced him to walk with his bass from the South Bronx to Greenwich Village or the Lower East Side for a gig. Before long, he made important connections. He first performed with Cecil Taylor in 1974, and was the pianist’s regular bassist from 1980 to 1991, during which time he also worked with Brötzmann, Dixon and many others. Over time, his own music and his reputation as a leader grew.
These days, Parker is one of the pillars holding up the New York free music community, and while he’s primarily known as a “free jazz bassist,” he has in recent years revealed himself as an artist utterly without boundaries. This month, he’s putting out a 10-CD box set, Migration Of Silence Into And Out Of The Tone World, on the AUM Fidelity label. Each disc features a different ensemble, and he doesn’t even play on more than half of them. Many of them feature female singers, interpreting lyrics by Parker that encompass everything from memories of his childhood to tributes to important musical figures to analyses of American history, including the Japanese-American internment camps at Manzanar and the US government’s treatment of Native Americans. Another disc is a showcase for Eri Yamamoto, who delivers solo piano versions of 14 Parker compositions.
Some of the music would be difficult to ascribe to Parker, if heard “blind”; the third disc, The Mystery Of Jah, is a collaboration between vocalist Ellen Christi and trumpeter Jalalu-Kalvert Nelson, with a lot of electronic manipulation of the sound and lengthy excerpts from an interview with writer James Baldwin. The seventh disc, Afternoon Poem, is a solo vocal disc performed by Lisa Sokolov, using overdubbing to harmonize with herself with astonishing precision. The eighth disc, The Fastest Train, is instrumental, and features Parker, but he’s not playing bass; instead, he’s utilizing his collection of flutes, and a pocket trumpet, as two Dutch musicians, Klaas Hekman and Coen Aalberts, play flute and small, hand-held percussion instruments. The resulting music is soft-spoken and even ritualistic at times, recalling the work of Don Cherry or the Art Ensemble Of Chicago in its non-hierarchical exploration of sounds from all over the world.
This is not a box to be listened to front to back. Each disc is unique and discrete, and deserves separate consideration as an individual work, giving it enough time to sink in before moving to another. What brings it all together — and what makes it so stunning — is that it’s not an emptying of the archives, as some of his previous boxes have been. All of the music was recorded between November 2018 and February 2020, specifically for this collection. The intention, clearly, is to present 10 different facets of Parker’s music, and in the process reveal the commonalities and universal qualities that run through all of his work.
This sonic universality is mirrored by Parker’s urge toward collaboration, which is one of the major themes of Bradley’s book. Throughout the text, he repeatedly and consistently frames Parker not just as an individual creative spirit, but as part of an artistic community and perhaps even more importantly, part of the wider world. His art is inextricably bound up with his politics, which are not so much left-wing in the traditional binary concept that governs debate in the US as humanist. Parker believes everyone has something to contribute, and that stifling that contribution through political oppression, lack of opportunity, or any other mechanism is a loss for all humanity, because the potential was infinite.
Furthermore, while he has made solo bass recordings, he never dominates the ensembles he’s in, always serving the collective sound. Bradley shows this by analyzing many of the groups Parker has been part of over the years and documenting the ways in which personal friendships fueled artistic partnerships, and vice versa. At times, Parker becomes a supporting player in what’s theoretically his own story — a long section on his time with Cecil Taylor is more of a biography of the pianist than the bassist. But each of his own major projects, including the quartet, Raining On The Moon, Little Huey, and In Order To Survive, is discussed and analyzed in depth; his family history and personal life are documented in detail; and ultimately as full a portrait as possible of William Parker, artist and human being, is painted. Essential reading.
And now, the tunes! (You’ll notice that the format below has changed slightly; there are only ten releases, and they’re numbered now. There are two reasons for this. January’s kind of a thin month for new releases, though all the music below is excellent, and I liked Black Market’s structure enough to steal it.)
Diego Piñera - "Clave Tune"
Uruguyan-born, currently Berlin-based drummer Diego Piñera recorded his latest album in Paramus, NJ in early February 2020, just before the world shut down. His previous release, 2018’s Despertando, was more of an exploration of his roots: In addition to employing Uruguayan rhythms and interpreting tracks by early influences like saxophonist Gato Barbieri and pianist Ernesto Lecuona, it featured a tune written by Piñera’s father. This album is more of a look forward. He’s brought in three New York aces — saxophonist Donny McCaslin, guitarist Ben Monder, and bassist Scott Colley — and written all the tunes himself, except for a closing version of Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk.” The simply titled “Clave Tune” is the longest track on the album; it’s also the opener. (Not a strategy I typically favor, by the way.) It’s set to a Latin groove, but a fractured, tense one; the melody features McCaslin and Monder playing phrases in unison, then splitting apart and going their own ways, sometimes solo. Piñera’s playing is intricate without ever seeming busy for complexity’s sake, and when McCaslin is deep into his solo he allows passion to drive him into almost Dexter Gordon territory, as Monder and Colley lay down a thick floor for him to dance on. (From Odd Wisdom, out 1/29 via ACT Music.)
Michael & Peter Formanek - "Hoarse Syrinx"
Michael Formanek is one of the best-regarded bassists on the current New York scene; among other things, he’s a member of Thumbscrew with Mary Halvorson and Tomas Fujiwara, plays regularly with Tim Berne, and leads his own groups. Saxophonist Peter Formanek is his son, and Dyads, the album this piece comes from, is their first release together. It should be made clear up front that this was not some half-assed quarantine project — “Hey, son, since we’re both stuck in the house, why not record some stuff?” Dyads was recorded in a for-real studio in December 2019, after the two had already done a string of tour dates, so they’d had time to develop their collective voice. “Hoarse Syrinx” balances on the edge between composition and freedom; there’s clearly a written melody, which they execute with precision and energy, but for much of it father and son are working side by side rather than together. Michael Formanek’s bass sound is absolutely huge; he strikes his instrument in a way that makes you think his hands must be the size of catcher’s mitts. Peter Formanek’s tone is hoarse and bluesy, and somewhat miraculously for a young player, you can’t hear his record collection coming from the horn. He’s got his own ideas already, which makes me want to hear more from him, whether accompanied by his dad or in some other context. (From Dyads, out 1/29 via Out Of Your Head.)
Shintaro Quintet - "Don’t Forget Me"
The third volume in the BBE label’s J Jazz series of compilations, which gathers modern (read: not free or particularly avant-garde) jazz from 1960s-1980s Japan, will be released next month. I’ve already pre-ordered my copy. The sets have proved successful enough that BBE is also reissuing entire albums by some of the artists featured. These are often incredibly obscure records, privately released in extremely limited numbers at the time and fetching vast sums on Discogs and in collectors’ circles. That’s definitely the story with Evolution, by the Shintaro Quintet, led by bassist Shintaro Nakamura with trumpeter Shunzo Ohno, tenor saxophonist Robert Kenmotsu, pianist Jeff Jenkins, and drummer Fukushi Tainaka. It came out in 1984 in a tiny edition, and one track, “A Blind Man,” was featured on the first J Jazz compilation. The album was recorded in New York, and Jenkins and Kenmotsu were actually American players. “Don’t Forget Me” is a modal piece that could have been recorded anytime between 1959 and today; Ohno’s trumpet solo is very much in a Freddie Hubbard vein, while Kenmotsu (who doesn’t get as much spotlight time here) is a dry, Wayne Shorter-esque voice. Jenkins’ piano playing recalls McCoy Tyner, but with a slightly more restrained feel like Tommy Flanagan or someone. Nakamura’s not the kind of bassist who leaps to the front; he’s the beating heart of the music, throbbing from dead center, and Tainaka’s drumming has the stability of Philly Joe Jones, under whom he studied; he’s got power, but he’s holding it in reserve until it’s needed. (From Evolution, out now via BBE.)
Emmet Cohen - "Dardanella"
Emmet Cohen is a 30-year-old pianist with a deep interest in early, pre-bebop jazz history. He’s been making a series of albums called the Masters Legacy Series in order to play with legends like the late Jimmy Cobb, Albert “Tootie” Heath, Ron Carter, George Coleman, and Benny Golson. But his new album Future Stride, which journeys pretty far into jazz’s past, features all players from more or less his own generation: trumpeter Marquis Hill, saxophonist Melissa Aldana, bassist Russell Hall, and drummer Kyle Poole. As the title indicates, a lot of the music incorporates stride piano, a tradition that continues into the present day but which is mostly identified with players of the 1920s and 1930s like Fats Waller. (Jason Moran, one of the modern players with the most stride in his style, had a whole show, All Rise, in tribute to Waller. There’s new music from Moran below.) “Dardanella” was written by legendary pianist Art Tatum; he played it fast, but Cohen’s version starts out heavier and more booming, with thick left hand chords. As it goes on, the tempo picks up and the energy level rises even higher as it becomes florid and romantic. When Cohen is in full flight, with Poole slamming the kit around the room behind him, he reminds me of Ahmad Jamal: not the genteel Jamal you hear on record, but the wall-banging, holy-shit Jamal I saw in concert a few years ago, who rolled across the keyboard like a thunderstorm. (From Future Stride, out 1/29 via Mack Avenue.)
Ethan Iverson - "Tempus Fugit"
Bud Powell was one of the most important pianists in jazz history. Though his professional career was interrupted by multiple stays in mental hospitals, and he died too young (of tuberculosis, at 41), he established the sound of jazz in the late 1940s and early 1950s; his piano style was every bit as important to bebop as the horns of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. His astonishing technique, particularly manifested in his speed and virtuoso, horn-like right-hand flourishes, can still be heard in the work of players who came after him like McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea. In 2019, Ethan Iverson, formerly of the Bad Plus, arranged a batch of Powell tunes for big band, premiering the work at a festival in Umbria, Italy. The core band features Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, Dayna Stephens on tenor sax, Ben Street on bass, and Lewis Nash on drums, with about a dozen additional horns. While I wouldn’t have made a stylistic connection between Powell and Iverson, it’s natural that a guy as fascinated by and steeped in jazz history as he is would know Powell’s work inside and out, and he delivers well here, moving through the speedy, complex melody of “Tempus Fugit” with no hesitation. Jensen’s trumpet solo is every bit as fast and furious as his, and the horns punch in the accents on the Latin-ish melody with an almost cartoonish intensity. (From Bud Powell In The 21st Century, out 1/29 via Sunnyside.)
Ivo Perelman Trio - "Amethyst"
A Brazilian who made his recorded debut in 1989, saxophonist Ivo Perelman has maintained a stunning pace over the last two decades in particular, often releasing more than five albums a year with varying personnel. (Full disclosure: I’m releasing Polarity, an album by Perelman and trumpeter Nate Wooley, on my Burning Ambulance Music label next month.) He embraces an aesthetic of totally free improvisation, starting every session or live performance with no thought of where it will end up. This is a trio session with pianist Matthew Shipp and drummer Whit Dickey, a semi-sequel to 2015’s Butterfly Whispers, though he’s also recorded a duo album with the drummer and several quartet albums, adding bassist Michael Bisio to the group. The thing about Perelman is that he’s not just a free blower, screaming along in the wake of Charles Gayle, Frank Wright, Arthur Doyle, etc. He’s an extremely lyrical player, focused on beauty; you can hear a lot of classic jazz language in his solos, even if the forms aren’t rooted in the blues or locked to chord changes. On “Amethyst,” his lines rise and fall like fireworks arcing in the sky, as Shipp and Dickey move along parallel and complementary tracks without ever trying to nudge him in one direction or another. And they’re all listening intently to each other, making sure they’re each contributing something meaningful at all times. (From Garden Of Jewels, out now via Tao Forms.)
Jason Moran - "Toni Morrison Said Black Is A Rainbow (Shadow)"
Pianist Jason Moran went into the studio on January 4 of this year. Two days later, he had enough material for his third solo album, following 2002’s Modernistic and 2016’s The Armory Concert. And on January 15, he posted it on his Bandcamp page. The music is reflective of the times: It sounds like it was created after almost a year of fear and isolation. Even the lighter pieces are emotionally weighty; the opening “Follow The Light” sounds like a Philip Glass score to a movie that’s gonna bum you right the fuck out. He also returns to the stride piano that’s at the heart of his style, combining the standard “Body And Soul” with “Intimate Friends,” a tune by former Temptations singer Eddie Kendricks. Half the tracks are labeled “(Honey),” “(Tear),” or “(Shadow),” indicating that he’s using an effect called DRIP which creates a kind of cloudy reverb. Moran is from Houston, and he explicitly cites DJ Screw in the liner notes when explaining his use of this effect. “Toni Morrison Said Black Is A Rainbow (Shadow)” closes the album; it’s dark and dense, slow-moving and ominous. He turns the melody into something like a loop, returning to it over and over like he’s trapped by its sadness, but still managing to break out here and there with little flourishes. (From The Sound Will Tell You, out now via Yes Records.)
Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet With Wynton Marsalis - "Out Amongst The People (For J Bat)"
Once upon a time, Wynton Marsalis had his own band, but this album is made with a subset of musicians from the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra, which he leads but which I guess officially belongs to the institution, not to him personally? Anyway, the lineup is Ted Nash on alto sax and flute; Walter Blanding on tenor and soprano saxes; Elliot Mason on trombone; Dan Nimmer on piano; Carlos Henriquez on bass; and Obed Calvaire on drums. The eight compositions are all clearly in Marsalis’ voice as a composer, which is to say they combine various classic jazz styles, with a focus on hard bop melodies, lush Ellington-esque orchestrations, and New Orleans rhythm. “Out Amongst The People (For J Bat)” is a dedication to Jon Batiste, who’s performed with the Orchestra in the past and whose work on Stephen Colbert’s late night talk show helps bring New Orleans jazz and funk to a gigantic national audience. It’s got a stomping, tambourine-accented beat, and all the solos are short and to the point, staying firmly on the right side of the “listen to me improve this tune” vs. “I will now jack off in your ear” divide. (From The Democracy! Suite, out now via Blue Engine.)
Damon Locks' Black Monument Ensemble - "Sounds Like Now"
As its title suggests, the 13th volume in the Jazzman label’s long-running Spiritual Jazz compilation series, most of which have been archival in nature, is devoted to new music. Of course, we’re talking about jazz here, so “new” is relative; some of these tracks are indeed quite recent, but some go back to the beginning of the 21st century. The collection is split across two volumes, each featuring a dozen tracks and each sold separately. “Sounds Like Now” comes from Vol. 1. It’s a live performance from 2018 that originally appeared on Locks’ 2019 album Where Future Unfolds, with a band that featured Angel Bat Dawid on clarinet, Locks on electronics and vocals, and Dana Hall and Arif Smith on drums and percussion, with as many as six vocalists up front. The music is built around a simple loop and ever-shifting rhythms, as the singers chant lyrics that decry the conditions of modern life (“The words are not easeful/ Separate not equal/ Power to the government/ Never to the people/ Movies show apocalypse/ We’re living through the sequel/ I thought in time things would change/ In fact they’ve stayed the same”) giving it the feeling of movement soul, or old footage of Black Panthers marching and chanting. The airy live sound gives it an immediacy, like it was surreptitiously recorded from the back of a church or community meeting. (From Spiritual Jazz 13: Now!, out now via Jazzman.)
Bokani Dyer - "Ke Nako"
In 2017, the compilation We Out Here — curated by Shabaka Hutchings and featuring many one-off combinations of players — helped introduce the London jazz scene to the wider world. Now, Johannesburg seems ready to take its place as a global jazz capital, and the Brownswood label is once again helping spread the news. This album was curated by vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu and keyboardist Thandi Ntuli, utilizing dozens of musicians across its eight tracks, which were recorded over the course of five days exclusively for this set. The album opens with keyboardist Bokani Dyer’s “Ke Nako,” which is sung in a mix of Setswana and English and features Mthembu and Ntuli on vocals, Dyer on piano and vocals, Ndabo Zulu on trumpet, Sisonke Xonti on tenor sax, Amaeshi Ikechi on bass and Simphiwe Tshabalala on drums. It’s a perfect jump-off, as it begins with close horn harmony before the backing trop launches into a churning African-gospel rhythm, Ikechi’s bass and Dyer’s piano a single rumbling sound as the vocals soar over the top. Zulu and Xonti take joyous, vibrant solos that match the uplifting tone of the lyrics, and the whole thing gets your heart pumping and your ass in gear. (From Indaba Is, out 1/29 via Brownswood.)