The Month In Jazz – May 2021
Charles McPherson, an alto saxophonist who’ll be 82 in July, has been playing jazz since the early 1960s. He was first heard on record with Charles Mingus, with whom he worked off and on for nearly 15 years. He also made more than a dozen albums as a leader in the 1960s and ’70s, slowing the pace of his output beginning in the ’80s but never disappearing completely. I saw him play a co-headlining gig with tenor saxophonist George Coleman, celebrating Coleman’s birthday, at the Jazz Standard in 2017. It was a blast; McPherson’s a little guy with a lot of energy, where Coleman is a big, slower-moving dude with an innate calm who only lets it rip when he’s soloing — it was like watching Sammy Davis Jr. share a stage with Howlin’ Wolf.
Last year, McPherson released Jazz Dance Suites on his own Chazz Mack Music label. It’s a collaboration with the San Diego Ballet, where his daughter Camille is a solo dancer. Because the pieces are written for dancers, they’re much more through-composed than his usual material, which is based on the traditional heads-and-solos model. As its title suggests, the album contains two suites, roughly half an hour long each, with one standalone, non-dance piece, “Reflection On An Election,” in between. There’s room for solos, but as he explained to me in an hour-long conversation earlier this month, the dancers don’t improvise, so the tempos have to remain steady and the musicians have to hit their marks the same way every time.
This is a fascinating evolution for McPherson, because he’s been known for decades as one of the last pure bebop players standing. He comes straight out of the school of Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt, and while his ’70s albums, some of which have recently been reissued, contain versions of tunes by Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, and plenty of original pieces, they also feature a lot of the standards that straight-ahead jazz musicians have been interpreting and reinterpreting and reinterpreting since the 1940s. As part of my personal quest to better understand jazz history from the artists’ point of view, I wanted to talk to him about his loyalty to bebop, which I have to admit doesn’t always do that much for me. So we connected on a video call and he laid it out for me, and by the end, I almost started to believe, as he apparently does, that bebop is the greatest form of music ever created.
His explanation is pretty straightforward, although he expounded on it for nearly 15 minutes in response to my very first question. According to McPherson, the fundamental building blocks of bebop are: an intricate swing rhythm with an emphasis on the upbeat, to keep the energy level high at all times; long musical lines that connect to each other “seamlessly, with linear logic”; and highly sophisticated harmonies. As he put it, “I would say that the harmony of bebop is sophisticated because it’s not only calling on all of the harmonies that we associate with jazz prior to bebop, but all of the harmonies of modern Western harmonic systems, like Stravinsky, Bartok, Hindemith, these kind of people. Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, all this, mixed in with the harmonies of Louis Armstrong, the blues shouters and yellers, and the swing music. All that’s in there.”
McPherson’s debut as a leader, 1965’s Con Alma!, featured tracks like the title piece, written by Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk’s “Eronel,” the standard “In A Sentimental Mood,” and Charlie Parker’s “Chasing The Bird.” The follow-up, released the same year, was called Bebop Revisited!, and featured tunes by Parker Fats Navarro, Tadd Dameron, Bud Powell, and George Gershwin. Even on later albums like 1969’s Horizons, when he was writing his own music, songs like Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and Sammy Cahn’s “I Should Care” were still on the menu. On 1970’s McPherson’s Mood, he bebop-ified Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour,” while also revisiting Cole Porter’s “I Get A Kick Out Of You.”
He told me, “I recognized early on [that] there was a linear logic that was as great as any so-called innovation after bebop. Fusion. Rock fusion. Funk fusion. Whatever people want to call it, the logic was no better than bebop. The harmony was no better — or worse; I don’t want to put a value on it, but no more sophisticated, let’s put it that way, and the virtuosity certainly wasn’t there. So I [decided], if I’m going to write original music, I didn’t have any problem writing in that style, because that style allowed for a broad umbrella of creation.”
That metaphor of the umbrella is crucial to understanding McPherson’s approach to bebop. He’s really not just trying to sound like Charlie Parker in 1945. He has his own thing going on, but the core principles he cites — long melodic lines, uptempo rhythms, harmonic intricacy, and instrumental virtuosity — are always present. When we talked, he rattled off a long list of names, some of the greatest legends of mid-20th century jazz, all of whom he put under the umbrella of bebop and all of whom played — and wrote — very differently from each other, including saxophonist Stan Getz, trumpeters Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, and pianists Bud Powell and Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk. (He didn’t name any drummers, but you can’t discuss bebop without mentioning Max Roach and Kenny Clarke, who revolutionized jazz rhythm.)
“What other style of jazz music has an umbrella that large, that can actually showcase the diversity and dimension of its players? … A million notes, no notes. Long and pretty, dissonant and strident. How many genres of music accommodate that variety of style? I can’t think of any… I could improvise to Prokofiev right now. Put on a Stravinsky record and I’ll play a bebop-inspired line on Rite Of Spring. It would work. I could play a bebop solo on a James Brown tune and it would be fine. So [all] I have to do is just be creative within that genre and write original music and music that’s different. I don’t have to write like Charlie Parker or Dizzy; I can write like me and still hold true to those nuances that we’re talking about and be fine, be creative forever.”
These days, bebop is decidedly unfashionable. And as I said above, it’s not my favorite jazz style; I prefer hard bop and even freer jazz that digs deeper into the blues. Bebop often feels glib and slick to me, the sound of musicians playing for other musicians and showing you how many keys they can play a song from the 1930s in, or how many different ways they can break that same song down to just its component chords and rebuild it with new harmonies, until it ceases to be a song and becomes the musical equivalent of a gymnastics routine. But what McPherson says about it is true. It is fiercely difficult, and once you’ve mastered it, you can probably do anything else that’s ever gonna be asked of you, in a musical sense. So when I asked him why young jazz musicians of 2021, who are conversant in hip-hop and contemporary R&B, but who maybe can’t play the old songs as virtuosically as their grandfathers could, should continue to wrestle with standards that are nearly a century old, he had an answer with which I found it hard to disagree.
“Young people think that the world that they come into, they don’t see it connected some kind of way. They think it starts when they get there. So first of all, that’s a lie. Secondly, nothing else is like that. No other genre of music. When you go to school for classical music, and you’re gonna go compose, nobody’s gonna tell you, don’t study Bach. ‘That’s hundreds of years ago; you don’t need that, let’s just go right to Hindemith or Edgard Varèse.’ You’re not gonna do that. If you’re gonna learn composing, you’re gonna go to school and you’re gonna learn how to write a fugue, you’re gonna learn how to write contrapuntally, you’re gonna learn how to write like Bach. After you finish school, you might not want to write like Bach, but you’re gonna know how to write like that. You’re gonna learn everything about all of it. And if you want to write like Stravinsky, fine. But you’re gonna learn about Mendelsohn, you’re gonna learn about Scriabin, you’re gonna learn about Chopin. Why is it that when it comes to jazz music, all of a sudden the approach to scholarship is not the same? ‘Oh, I’m not gonna learn about Scott Joplin,’ but you’ll go to classical music school and learn about something from 400 years ago. But if someone says ‘Go learn this Jelly Roll Morton solo,’ oh no, I don’t want to do that, that’s old stuff. But you don’t mind doing a Chopin solo written out hundreds of years ago. Why do you treat jazz differently than classical music?”
What he’s saying reveals a tremendous amount about how Black art is treated in American culture… even by Black artists. A mindset that consistently valorizes the new can all too easily turn into a deliberate washing away of the past. That’s when you see ideas like references to jazz as “America’s classical music” derided as corny and uncool. Or, worse yet, as an attempt to “gentrify” something that was (allegedly) meant to be vernacular music of the masses. (It wasn’t. Jazz musicians have always been either highly educated or brilliant autodidacts, studying and absorbing all they could and seeking to expand their work onto ever broader canvases. The history of this art form is a history of misunderstanding, mischaracterization, and disrespect… and of musical geniuses finding ways around every obstacle laid in their paths.) Like I said, I don’t love bebop myself; I don’t listen to it strictly for my own pleasure nearly as often as I listen to other jazz styles. But do I believe that a guy like Charles McPherson knows more about the music and its history and value than I ever will? And do I believe that younger musicians should absolutely study it, even if they choose not to play in that style themselves? Absolutely.
And now, new music!
GoGo Penguin - "Signal In The Noise (808 State Remix)"
GoGo Penguin are a group I go back and forth on. I understand the realm in which they dwell, that sort of e.s.t/Dawn Of Midi zone, with a little bit extra on the electronic side. At their blandest, they sound like instrumental versions of early Coldplay, but that’s rare; they generally keep the energy flowing. You could easily have played tracks from their 2020 self-titled album in venues that permitted dancing, if there had been any of those in 2020. Now, in 2021, as the world ssssslllllooooowwwwwlllllyyyyy comes out of hiding, they’re taking the next logical step and releasing a remix album. “Signal In The Noise” was one of my favorite tracks from the self-titled album, and they’ve handed it off to electronic veterans 808 State, who’ve returned it fully transformed into a late ’80s/early ’90s rave-bliss anthem. Back in 1991, I was fascinated by 808 State’s second album, ex:el, and their version of “Signal In The Noise” has the same kind of shimmering-cloud quality as their work from back then. I mean, good luck picking out the parts that were originally performed by GoGo Penguin, but great stuff nonetheless. (From GGP RMX, out now via Blue Note.)
Chris Potter - "Southbound"
In 2019, saxophonist Chris Potter released Circuits, an album that featured keyboardist James Francies and drummer Eric Harland, plus bassist Linley Marthe on four of its nine tracks. In September of last year, he was able to reconvene what is now officially the Circuits Trio (Marthe is gone) for a second encounter. The music is highly improvisatory and stretched out; the album’s final track, “Nowhere, Now Here/Sunrise Reprise” runs nearly 25 minutes. These aren’t just jams, though; there are many layers of keyboards and other electronics, and multiple overdubbed Potters, harmonizing on the complex, melodic riffs. Harland’s drums have a taut, airless quality, rattling and popping, while his cymbals have a strange, ambient hissing sound. On the eight-minute “Southbound,” the music starts out like the sun rising over the desert, with the horn softly wrapped in reverb and shadowed by an electric piano. On the first chorus, extra horns appear for the first time, first just bolstering the melody and then spinning off on their own. (From Sunrise Reprise, out now via Edition Records.)
Isaiah Collier & The Chosen Few - "Part II. Humility"
Saxophonist Isaiah Collier and his quartet the Chosen Few recorded Cosmic Transitions on September 23, 2020 at the legendary jazz engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio. The album, which also features pianist Mike King, bassist Jeremiah Hunt, and drummer Michael Shekwoaga Ode, is a five-part suite that flows seamlessly from one track to the next. In fact, when you buy the digital version, you get it both as discrete tracks and a single 56-minute version. September 23, 2020 would have been John Coltrane’s 94th birthday, and the music is hardcore spiritual jazz, very much in the vein of Coltrane’s work of 1965-66 as well as later records by Pharoah Sanders. What’s interesting about it, given the location of the recording, though, is the sound. The album has a vintage sound, but not like an Impulse! or Blue Note recording; instead, the group seems to have gone out of their way to capture the sound and feel of a self-released Afrocentric out jazz record from the early ’70s, or something that would have come out on India Navigation or Strata-East. The drums have a loose, booming quality as though the microphones are across the room, and the bass is a deep throb, more a presence than a sound. “Part II. Humility” begins with a thundercrack from the kit, and Collier’s voice on the sax is raw and heartfelt, wailing and digging deep into his phrases. Pianist King takes an extended, trilling solo, after which Collier returns in full cry as Ode absolutely batters the drums. (From Cosmic Transitions, out now via Division 81.)
James Francies - "713"
Keyboardist James Francies, heard on the Chris Potter album above, also records as a leader. Purest Form is his second Blue Note album, following 2018’s Flight. It features bassist Burniss Travis and drummer Jeremy Dutton, with a variety of guests that includes alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, vibraphonist Joel Ross, and guitarist Mike Moreno. “713” (the area code for Francies’ native Houston) lays florid, Chick Corea-esque piano over a driving backbeat. The cooing, wordless background vocals bring to mind the work of the West Coast Get Down and Thundercat. Toward the end, the smoothness goes away as the beat begins to crack into jagged shards as the piano seems to loop and do battle with itself. (From Purest Form, out now via Blue Note.)
Ralph Peterson - "Shorties Portion"
Drummer Ralph Peterson’s death in March left a sizable void in a particular corner of the straight-ahead jazz world. He was putting the finishing touches on this album when he passed, so it’s not like this is a collection of vault-scrapings or anything. It’s a coherent artistic statement, like the majority of his work. The album features brothers Zaccai (piano) and Luques Curtis (bass), a team he’d worked with extensively over the years, mentoring them on their way up and earning their loyalty when they had broken out. Vocalist Jazzmeia Horn appears on a few tracks, and percussionist Eguie Castrillo on one. “Shorties Portion,” written by Patrice Rushen, is one of the piano trio tracks, a fast, fierce workout that takes a memorable, hooky melody and sprints through it like a punk band covering a pop song — but leaving space for plenty of baroque flourishes, like a prog band covering a punk song. (From Raise Up Off Me, out 5/21 via Onyx Music.)
Wadada Leo Smith/Bill Laswell/Milford Graves - "Social Justice – A Fire For Reimagining The World"
Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith is turning 80 this year, and the Finnish TUM label is celebrating him by releasing 20 CDs’ worth of material across a half dozen or so releases, the biggest of which is a seven-disc set of his string quartets. Sacred Ceremonies is a three-disc set recorded about five years ago with bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Milford Graves, who died earlier this year. It consists of one disc each of trumpet-bass and trumpet-drums duos, and one disc of trio material. “Social Justice – A Fire For Reimagining The World” is a trio piece. Graves’ spacious yet ever-shifting rhythms are the perfect foundation for Smith’s piercing, laterally focused explorations. The trumpeter rarely displays much interest in harmony, preferring to exploit vertical range, leaping from high notes to low smears, and space, falling silent for long stretches. Laswell is kept on his toes, serving as the fulcrum between the other two men and actually playing more than I’ve heard him in almost any other context. (From Sacred Ceremonies, out now via TUM.)
Anna Webber - "Idiom I"
Saxophonist and flutist Anna Webber is one of a crop of current composers and performers, many of them signed to Pi Recordings, who approach composition as a form of problem-solving. They take a single idea and turn it into a challenge, or an obstacle to be overcome. Idiom is a two-disc set for which she’s written six compositions, each of which uses a specific woodwind extended technique as its foundation. “Extended techniques,” for those who don’t know, are basically stunts or tricks to produce unorthodox sounds: overblowing, clicking the keys percussively instead of blowing through the thing, multiphonics (producing more than one note at a time), etc. These are often things that might be considered “wrong” in certain contexts, but here Webber is using them as starting points. The first disc features her Simple Trio — Matt Mitchell on piano and John Hollenbeck on drums. The second disc is a single hour-long piece in 10 sections (movements and interludes), performed by a 13-member ensemble that includes five horns, three string players, synth, bass, drums, and a conductor. “Idiom I” opens the album. It’s a trio piece built around rapid cycling melodic figures and a ticking, clockwork rhythm that seems to slide out of gear when you least expect it. In fact, the whole thing repeatedly subverts itself, stopping at odd moments, then resuming in a lurching, clattering manner. It’s like a particularly manic, speed-addled Steve Reich piece, with Webber’s flute playing in particular so wild it’ll leave you breathless. (From Idiom, out 5/21 via Pi Recordings.)
James Brandon Lewis Red Lily Quintet - "Chemurgy"
James Brandon Lewis has never made the same album twice, and his latest project is one of his most exciting yet. It has an overall theme — it was inspired by agricultural scientist and inventor George Washington Carver — and there’s some spoken word stuff interspersed with the music, but it’s the compositions and the interaction between the members of this amazing band that make Jesup Wagon a must-hear. The Red Lily Quintet features cornet player Kirk Knuffke, bassist William Parker, cellist Chris Hoffman, and drummer Chad Taylor. That combination of instruments — horn, bass, cello, and Chad Taylor on drums — may well bring to mind jaimie branch’s group Fly Or Die, and there are definitely some sonic commonalities between the two ensembles. (Remember, too, that branch played on Lewis’ An UnRuly Manifesto.) The dialogue between Lewis and Knuffke also nods to the pairings of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry and the Ayler brothers, Albert and Donald. Add the cello for an early ’70s loft jazz vibe, and you’ve got the makings of one of the most powerful jazz records of the first half of the year. On the album’s closing track, the nearly 10-minute “Chemurgy,” Parker switches from bass to the North African guimbri, the foundation of Gnawa trance music. The piece begins with just the horns, harmonizing on a sharp-edged but old-timey melody. Then the groove starts, and things move in a grittier, Pharoah Sanders-ish direction, everyone gradually working themselves up to a level of frenzy like they’re playing a Moroccan wedding and trying to keep the crowd dancing all night. (From Jesup Wagon, out now via Tao Forms.)
jaimie branch - "Theme 001"
Trumpeter jaimie branch’s Fly Or Die is one of the most exciting bands around. Their two albums to date are brilliant modern updates of 1960s free jazz and 1970s loft jazz, with modern production techniques and a political radicalism, particularly on the second disc, that goes back to Charles Mingus if not earlier. Now their live energy has been captured on a new double CD recorded in January 2020, on a European tour that wound down pretty much just as the world did. The gig was filmed as well, as you can see from the clip above of them playing “Theme 001,” the opening track to 2017’s Fly Or Die, an album that still blows me away every time I listen to it. Chad Taylor’s fast, stuttering but utterly precise beat, paired with Jason Ajemian’s deep, full bass and ornamented by Lester St. Louis’ cello, sometimes plucked and then suddenly bowed in staccato bursts, are a hell of a trio all by themselves. But then branch comes in, blowing gleaming chromed trumpet lines with fierce intensity and power, leavened by a subtle sense of when to lean back or just fade away entirely, only to come back even stronger. (From Fly Or Die Live, out 5/21 via International Anthem.)
Sons Of Kemet - "Hustle" (Feat. Kojey Radical)
This was Stereogum’s Album Of The Week last week, for good reason. The fourth release from Shabaka Hutchings’ militant parade-jazz quartet, Sons Of Kemet, is just as thematically unified as its predecessor, 2018’s Your Queen Is A Reptile. Like last time, the group, consisting of Hutchings, tuba player Theon Cross, and two drummers, welcomes multiple guests including Moor Mother, Angel Bat Dawid, poet Joshua Idehen, and MC Kojey Radical, who’s heard on the first single, “Hustle,” with gentle backing vocals from Lianne La Havas. The video, featuring The Jaiy Twins, is as strong as the track, a defiant and even intimidating display of bravado and precise control. The way they dance is astonishing; it looks like capoeira sometimes, and like a special effect other times. The whole thing is breathtaking. The music on Black To The Future is maybe a little less “jazzy” than Your Queen Is A Reptile; there’s more dub to the sound, and more atmospheric effects in general, and the focus is on street-parade rhythms and deep tuba basslines rather than sax solos. Hutchings overdubs a lot, shadowing his sax with clarinet like a Greek chorus commenting on the music as it’s happening, and Idehen, who’s previously worked with Hutchings’ other group The Comet Is Coming, anchors the album, delivering scorching verses on the first and last tracks. This is an album that could soundtrack the whole summer, but there’s so much rage and defiance at its heart, that’s both an exciting and frightening prospect. This is as militant a record as jazz has ever seen, somewhere between Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues and Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet. (From Black To The Future, out now via Impulse!.)