The Month In Jazz – January 2022

Rog Walker

The Month In Jazz – January 2022

Rog Walker

This year has started off hard. Four key but too little appreciated figures in jazz history died while this column was being prepared.

The most famous of the recently passed was James Mtume, born James Forman in Philadelphia in 1946. Best known to some listeners as a percussionist with Miles Davis’ group from 1971 to 1975, and to others as the leader of Mtume, whose hit single “Juicy Fruit” became the foundation of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy,” his creativity carried him throughout Black music for several decades. His father was the saxophonist Jimmy Heath, but he was raised by his stepfather, James “Hen Gates” Forman, a pianist who played with Dizzy Gillespie and Dinah Washington. After moving to California for college, he took the name Mtume, which means “messenger” in Swahili. (He later bestowed Swahili names on the various members of Herbie Hancock’s band Mwandishi.) Mtume recorded and performed with Sonny Rollins, Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Gary Bartz, and others, but his work with Miles Davis is what he’s best known for in jazz circles: He can be heard on On The Corner, Get Up With It, Agharta, Pangaea, Dark Magus, and Big Fun; there’s even a track named for him on Get Up With It, as you can hear above. (The late Greg Tate’s band Burnt Sugar covered “Mtume” on their 2003 album Black Sex Y’all Liberation & Bloody Random Violets.) In the mid ’70s, Mtume partnered up with Reggie Lucas, another former member of Davis’ band, and they wrote and produced hit songs for Roberta Flack and Stephanie Mills; the latter track, “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” won a Grammy in 1980. Later in life, he left music behind, becoming a politically engaged talk radio host in New York, but was always happy to discuss his artistic legacy; he famously took on critic Stanley Crouch in a 2010 debate about Davis’ electric music, and was interviewed by hip-hop journalist Chairman Mao for Red Bull Music Academy in 2014.

Saxophonist Charles Brackeen was born in Oklahoma in 1940. His playing occupied a zone somewhere between the melodicism of Ornette Coleman and the passionate eruptions of Albert Ayler, and he kept the spirit of free jazz alive in the mid to late ’80s, though few were listening. He recorded his first album, Rhythm X, in 1968; it featured three ex-members of Ornette Coleman’s band, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Ed Blackwell, but still sat on a shelf for five years until Strata-East put it out in 1973. He appeared on two albums by the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra in the early ’70s, one led by Cherry and one by violinist Leroy Jenkins, and can be heard with trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah on the loft jazz compilation Wildflowers. He and Abdullah formed a short-lived group, the Melodic Art-Tet, with bassist William Parker and drummer Roger Blank; a CD of a 1974 performance featuring Brackeen’s compositions was released in 2013. Brackeen then joined drummer Paul Motian’s trio with bassist David Izenzon (another former Ornette collaborator) and made two albums, 1978’s Dance and 1979’s Le Voyage. He was a member of the first lineup of drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, appearing on the albums Eye On You and Nasty. In the ’80s, Brackeen recorded under his own name again, first with trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez, bassist Malachi Favors, and drummer Alvin Fielder on 1987’s Bannar; the following year, he formed a different group, with Olu Dara on cornet, Fred Hopkins on bass, and Andrew Cyrille on drums, making two more albums, 1988’s Attainment and Worshippers Come Nigh. On Twitter, Melvin Gibbs (the Decoding Society’s bassist) wrote, “thinking about Charles Brackeen/saxophonists of his era were built different/they played like/every time they played was the last time/they were Ever Gonna Play/that aesthetic rubbed off on me.” But after the late ’80s, Brackeen retired from music. He hadn’t been heard from in 30+ years at the time of his death. Which is a shame, because the music he made back then had real power and beauty, but it’s still out there if you want to hear it (Bannar, Attainment, and Worshippers Come Nigh are all available on Bandcamp), and you should.

Vibraphonist Khan Jamal, born in Florida in 1946, came out of Philadelphia in the early ’70s, combining free jazz spirituality and fusion grooves. He had a great melodic sense and could write hooky pop melodies (check out “Nubian Queen” from his 1984 album Infinity above) but was also willing to journey out into avant-garde spaces or just drift on a cloud of sound. He’s also on the Wildflowers compilation (twice) as a member of drummer Sunny Murray’s Untouchable Factor, and was also a member of the Decoding Society on Nasty. (Both of those groups also included alto saxophonist Byard Lancaster, a frequent Jamal collaborator who died in 2012.) He kept working well into the 2000s, appearing on Jemeel Moondoc’s superb Revolt Of The Negro Lawn Jockeys in 2000 and Matthew Shipp’s 2003 album Equilibrium. In the last couple of years, some of Jamal’s records have been reissued, including Infinity and 1973’s Drum Dance To The Motherland, and a session by the collective Sounds Of Liberation has been released as well.

Finally, Belgian pianist Fred Van Hove died. Born in 1937, he was likely best known for his association with Peter Brötzmann; he can be heard on Machine Gun, Nipples, Balls, FMP 0130, and a trilogy of live albums (Couscouss De La Mauresque, Elements, and The End) later collected as Live In Berlin ’71, among others. He and Brötzmann had a trio with Dutch drummer Han Bennink that made some of the most anarchic, anything-goes music of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Bennink would smack anything in sight with his sticks, or drop them entirely and pick up a horn or some other noisemaking device, and Van Hove was capable of slipping suddenly but seamlessly from totally free jazz to hard-charging boogie-woogie, as heard on the track above from FMP 0130. but he also recorded extensively under his own name. His 1969 album Requiem For Che Guevara, on which he plays organ, is a wild, theatrical work for large ensemble and choir, and he made three albums of solo piano for the Vogel label in the early ’70s which were gathered up as a two-CD set in 2002. In 2019, he reunited with Brötzmann for a performance at the Summer Bummer festival in Antwerp; the performance was released as a limited edition LP, Front To Front.

One final note: I’ve written a book! Ugly Beauty: Jazz In The 21st Century will be released at the end of this month by Zero Books in the UK. It analyzes the state of jazz from a variety of angles, mostly through profiles of over 40 musicians ranging from Kamasi Washington, Vijay Iyer, Shabaka Hutchings, and Nduduzo Makhathini to Christian Scott, Jaimie Branch, Mary Halvorson, and Moor Mother. I divide them into five broad categories: traditionalists, avant-gardists, spiritual jazz players and those coming from outside the US, musicians coming from a punk/DIY perspective, and a group of five trumpeters I believe represent the future of that instrument. In between profiles of artists, I discuss questions like what jazz “means” two decades into the 21st century. Has streaming culture rendered music literally meaningless, removing all context beyond the playlist? Are there any traditions left to explore? Are any sounds off limits? Has the destruction of the apprenticeship model (young musicians learning from their elders) changed the music irrevocably? How far out can you go and still call it “jazz”? Or should the term be retired? You can get it from Amazon (or anywhere else); if you’re a regular reader of this column, I’m pretty sure you’ll find something in it of interest.

And now, new music!


Kenny G - "Emeline"

Did you know Kenny G hasn’t made an album in six years? New Standards is his follow-up to 2015’s Brazilian Nights, on which he explored bossa nova. This time, the story is he’s writing pieces (the album contains all original compositions) with the feel of classic 1950s jazz. On the record, he’s accompanied by piano, bass, drums, and a string section. I don’t know whether the strings are real or keyboard-generated; they sound plush, though. He plays alto sax on a few tracks, but mostly sticks to the soprano. The opening “Emeline,” the track I’m spotlighting here and the first single, doesn’t sound even remotely 1950s, though. It sounds like every Kenny G track I’ve ever heard, just with strings. I don’t have any kind of burning hatred of Kenny G. I watched the HBO documentary about him and came away thinking that he really is misunderstood by a lot of critics, mostly because they insist on comparing him to hardcore jazz musicians, knowing that judged by those criteria, he’ll come up short. But if you judge him based on what he actually is — instrumental R&B in the slick, aspirational vein of Anita Baker, Sade, etc. — he’s good at what he does. This track is well produced and well played (the documentary reveals that Kenny G edits his takes relentlessly in the studio, punching in phrases until it’s perfect), and has a hooky melody, but it’s very forgettable; once it was over, I couldn’t hum it back to you. (From New Standards, out now via Concord Jazz.)


Sex Magick Wizards - "Exaltation"

Sex Magick Wizards were in consideration for this column as soon as I read their name. They’re a young Norwegian quartet led by guitarist Viktor Bomstad, with support from saxophonist Sigrid Aftret, bassist Henrik Sandstad Dalen, and new drummer Ingvald André Vassbø. (Krokofant drummer Axel Skalstad played on SMW’s 2019 debut.) A lot of the music on this album has the same kind of galloping, hard-rock energy as the Hedvig Mollestad Trio, with the addition of sax, but “Exaltation” is a more complex piece. It starts slow, with a booming bass line and a guitar melody that winds around like a snake climbing a pole, but Aftret interrupts, causing the rhythm to stop and start. As it goes on, shifting between forward momentum and pastoral lassitude, it feels like a nod to early ’70s folk-prog, which there was a lot of in Scandinavia. About 1:30 in, though, Bomstad steps on the pedal and tears into a guitar solo with enough reverb that it sounds like he’s playing in a slightly larger room than everyone else in the band, and after that there’s no turning back. (From Your Bliss My Joy, out now via Rune Grammofon.)


Fred Hersch - "Breath By Breath"

A lot of jazz critics love Fred Hersch. I think that — not just the widespread praise, but the particular aspects of his music they seem to love — has made me suspicious of him, so I’ve stayed away from his work in the past. The concept behind this album drew my attention, though, so I checked it out, and I’m glad I did. Hersch has paired a standard trio (himself on piano, Drew Gress on bass, and Jochen Rueckert on drums) with a string quartet and created some really beautiful pieces. He’s a very romantic pianist in general, focused on melody and atmosphere and rarely getting aggressive at the keyboard. On the title track from this album, those qualities are brought to the forefront; it begins with Gress plucking a single note over and over again, like Michael Anthony on Van Halen’s “Runnin’ With The Devil,” and then the strings come in, almost like wedding music. It’s a full minute before Rueckert appears, brushing his cymbals gently, and it’s not until almost two minutes into this six-minute piece that Hersch touches the keys. The trio’s interaction is a calm and focused dance, the piano solo unfolding patiently, never leaving the core melody behind, and at the four-minute mark, the strings return, adding almost 18th century adornments to the piece. This album has not inspired in me the breathless devotion Hersch gets from my peers, but it’s good stuff. (From Breath By Breath, out now via Palmetto.)


Tony Malaby's Sabino - "Scratch The Horse"

Saxophonist Tony Malaby spent the pandemic playing outside, under the NJ Turnpike; he’s got five volumes of the Turnpike Diaries series, live recordings with various partners, available on Bandcamp. The Cave Of Winds, on the other hand, is a studio album, recorded in June 2021 with guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Tom Rainey. The band is called Sabino, named for an album Malaby released in 2000, with Marc Ducret in the guitar chair instead of Monder. It also has some musical connections to the trio album he, Monder and Rainey released last year, Live At The 55 Bar. The record runs the gamut from gentle, atmospheric pieces to cranked-up jazz-rawk pieces like the one I’m sharing here, which lives up to its title because Monder’s guitar sound is practically Neil Young-ish, and by the time Malaby reaches the climax of his saxophone solo, he’s in Peter Brötzmann territory. Behind them, Formanek and Rainey set up a formidable groove, throbbing and roaring and clattering. (From The Cave Of Winds, out now via Pyroclastic.)


Jim Black - "Let It Down"

In the early 2000s, drummer Jim Black led a quartet, Alasnoaxis, with saxophonist Chris Speed, guitarist Hilmar Jensson and bassist Skúli Sverisson. They made about a half dozen albums that hovered on the edge between muscular jazz and skronky alt-rock; Jensson’s guitar had a lot of scorch to it, Speed’s lines emphasized long notes and ascending melodies, and Black’s drumming had a powerful drive. This disc is a kind of artist-chosen (hence its title) best-of, gathering ten tracks sourced more or less evenly from their catalog. “Let It Down” comes from 2004’s Habyor and opens with a nice unison riff from guitar and sax, but it almost immediately splits into two dissonant halves. Jensson sounds like he’s got his fingers caught in the strings, while Speed sounds like he’s choking on something. Sverisson, playing electric bass, locks in with Black and grinds out a big, stomping groove that wouldn’t be out of place on a noise-rock album from the mid ’90s. (From My Choice, out now via Winter & Winter.)


Akira Sakata/Takeo Moriyama - "Mitochondria"

Saxophonist Akira Sakata is a fascinating guy. One of the key players from the Japanese free jazz scene of the early ’70s, he’s somehow become a semi-mainstream celebrity at home, appearing on talk shows and in movies. He studied marine biology in college and has recorded albums in tribute to plankton. He’s worked with Bill Laswell and DJ Krush, among others, and currently has a band, Chikamorachi, that occasionally features Jim O’Rourke. O’Rourke mixed this album, which is a collection of duos with drummer Takeo Moriyama recorded on cassette in 1986 and now unearthed. It sounds surprisingly “good,” but of course it’s screaming, full-on free jazz. The music is pure energy — on the title piece, Sakata is in full cry from the beginning, releasing long, intense streams of notes for the first six minutes, before stepping aside to let Moriyama deliver an absolutely crushing drum solo that reminds me of what Max Roach was doing around the same time, when he’d taken the precision of his bebop playing and married it to a more thunderous post-fusion style and an increased compositional complexity. In the final minute, Sakata comes sprinting back in, squealing and roaring, his saxophone somehow managing to sound like a man screaming at you from across the street. (From Mitochondria, out now via Trost.)


Boris Kozlov - "Page One"

In 2021, Posi-Tone Records’ owners wanted to keep making records under pandemic conditions, so they asked four of their regular roster of players to form a “pod” and work together on multiple sessions throughout the year. Pianist Art Hirahara, vibraphonist Behn Gillece, bassist Boris Kozlov, and drummer Rudy Royston were the chosen four, and they made a total of five albums together: one under Hirahara’s name, one under Gillece’s, and one each by backing trumpeter Alex Sipiagin and alto saxophonist Alexa Tarantino. The final installment in the series comes under Kozlov’s leadership, and the guest this time is saxophonist Donny McCaslin. “Page One,” not the Joe Henderson composition but a piece by McCaslin, kicks off the album with a gong strike from Royston and a short bowed intro from Kozlov, then becomes a dramatic, hard bop burner with a punchy, memorable hook, on which everyone gets a moment in the spotlight. Kozlov is the bassist, arranger, and musical director for the Mingus Big Band, and he wrote six of the eleven songs on this album, which have a modern classicist feel; they swing hard, and are arranged with a fullness that makes them sound like there are more than five people playing. (From First Things First, out now via Posi-Tone.)


Greg Spero - "The Chant"

In the early 2000s, Ropeadope launched the Experiment series; the first volume was The Philadelphia Experiment, which featured keyboardist Uri Caine, bassist Christian McBride, ?uestlove on drums, and the late Pat Martino guesting on guitar. That was followed by The Detroit Experiment, led by producers Aaron Luis Levinson and Carl Craig and featuring pianist Geri Allen, among others; and The Harlem Experiment, with Levinson producing yet again and contributions from clarinetist Don Byron, ex-David Bowie guitarist Carlos Alomar, and many more. That was in 2007. Fifteen years later, the series is back, this time led by keyboardist Greg Spero and featuring Marquis Hill on trumpet, Irvin Pierce on tenor sax, Jeff Parker on guitar, Joel Ross on vibraphone, Darryl Jones on bass, and Makaya McCraven on drums. The opening track, “The Chant,” sets the tone for the album. It’s the kind of slow, ticking groove McCraven puts on his own albums, with the horns playing a steady, pulsing fanfare as Jones’ bass rumbles in the middle (remember, he was in Miles Davis’ band in the ’80s, before becoming the Rolling Stones’ replacement for Bill Wyman) and Spero and Ross lay down heavy, shimmering chords and quick ornamental trills, with Parker poking through like a needle hidden in a pillow. (From The Chicago Experiment, out now via Ropeadope.)


Black Flower - "Magma"

Black Flower are a five-piece group from Belgium, led by saxophonist/flutist Nathan Daems, with cornet player Jon Birdsong, keyboardist Karel Cuelenaere, bassist Filip Vandebril, and drummer Simon Segers. Their music is a blend of jazz (both Western and Ethiopian) and Asian music, Afrobeat, and dub. It has a rough, crate-digging sound at times, though this album is a little more polished than some of their previous work. Still, it’s got the same visceral yet psychedelic energy that’s propelled all their previous work. On the opening title piece, Cuelenaere takes an absolutely spellbinding organ solo, with the massively distorted bass filling in behind him and reverb-heavy cornet and baritone sax appearing like the players are trying to punch their way out of a fog bank. Then, suddenly, in the piece’s final minute, the murk clears for just a few seconds, letting Birdsong make a clean, concise statement before the whole band comes back in for one last dubbed-out, warped fanfare. (From Magma, out 1/28 via Sdban Ultra.)


Immanuel Wilkins - "Emanation"

Alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins’ second album is a seven-track, hour-long suite; the final section, “Lift,” is almost half the album, running more than 26 minutes. The group — Micah Thomas on piano, Daryl Johns on bass, and Kweku Sumbry on drums — are joined on two tracks by flutist Elena Pinderhughes, and by the Farafina Kan Percussion Ensemble, who play congas, adding a kind of Afro-Cuban edge to the music, on another. “Emanation” is the opening track from the album, and features just the quartet. Wilkins is a fast, beboppish player whose intricate lines sometimes remind me of Jimmy Lyons’ work with Cecil Taylor. Thomas, though, delivers a heavy, ornate, almost classical piano solo, while Johns and Sumbry are laying down a rough, assertive groove; the drummer sounds like he’s almost chopping at the kit. The music has an almost ceremonial, ritualistic aspect, which ties into the cover art depicting Wilkins being baptized in a river. There’s none of the emotional distance you get from many young players who are focused on perfect technical execution (which the saxophonist also has; he’s already a master of his horn, with a polished but lived-in sound). This is heartfelt music and absorbed in one continuous, hour-long session, it has a powerful effect on the listener as well. (From The 7th Hand, out 1/28 via Blue Note.)

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