The Month In Jazz – March 2022
Saxophonist Nubya Garcia’s been patient and methodical about building her career. Some of that has been by choice, and some hasn’t, but it’s all worked out in her favor. It’s starting to feel like 2022 could be a really good year for her.
Garcia’s first release, Nubya’s 5ive, was released in May 2017. A year later, she released the When We Are EP — two new tracks, with remixes on the flipside. She immediately emerged as a voice worth paying attention to: Her compositions and solos had a classic hard bop feel, and her tone had the richness and depth of Sonny Rollins or Dexter Gordon, but she and her bandmates laid down grooves that borrowed as much from classic soul, R&B, and reggae/dub as from jazz. She was a key player in the bands Maisha and Nérija, was on five of the nine tracks on the Shabaka Hutchings-curated We Out Here compilation, and made guest appearances with Sons Of Kemet and tuba player Theon Cross. But her full-length debut as a leader, SOURCE, didn’t come out for more than two years, an eternity in jazz. It was released in August 2020, during the heart of the pandemic, and might have fallen into a crack in the earth had the music not been so strong, emphasizing the dub element and bringing in Latin flavors as well. Garcia did everything she could to draw attention to the record in lieu of touring, particularly through her Instagram account, and even put together a remix album, SOURCE ⧺ WE MOVE, which came out in October 2021.
Last fall, things started to open up again, particularly in Europe and the UK, and despite the hassles imposed by Brexit, Garcia and her band started touring. This spring, they’ve come to the US for the first time in years. She’s been opening for psychedelic world music jam band Khruangbin, including two-night stands in St. Paul, Nashville, New York, and Boston. The tour ended this weekend, but Garcia will be doing a headlining show at Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan this Tuesday night, March 22.
I called her on March 15, the second night that she and her band would be playing the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. We talked about getting out on the road, how pandemic life impacted her music, touring a nearly two-year-old album, and more.
You’ve been doing two-night stands in most cities on this tour — has that been good? Do you get a chance to actually see the cities you’re hitting?
NUBYA GARCIA: Actually, yeah, way more than usual. Usually in Europe you fly in, you go straight to soundcheck, you do the gig, and then the same thing every day. So it’s really nice to be able to, you know, spend some time in each city. You kind of get into it a little bit.
And you’re getting to see the country a little bit, too, because you’re doing it by bus, right?
GARCIA: Yeah, exactly. We are driving all around.
I feel like a lot of Europeans have no idea how big America is, you know?
GARCIA: No. I’ve heard that so many times, and I cannot tell you how much it’s true. Every day I wake up on this bus and I’m like, What? We’re in a completely different time zone, or we keep going between Eastern and Central and it’s confusing me. It’s an incredible opportunity to get the chance to see America like this. You hear about it from other musicians or things that you read, et cetera, and it’s like Oh, the bus tour, and now it’s happening, you know?
How does playing two nights in a city impact the music? Is the second night on the same stage better than the first?
GARCIA: I try not to think about it in terms of better or worse, ’cause I think it’s just different sometimes. Each person who’s in the audience brings a different energy, and that kind of extends to the whole room. So you get to have a different experience, which is really enjoyable.
But from your perspective onstage, does it change night to night not just in terms of what you’re getting from the audience, but from what you guys are giving to each other?
GARCIA: Sometimes. I think each night wherever we are is like that. I mean, obviously the logistical side of doing two dates in a venue is that you have more time the next day to spend on sound because you don’t have to set up everything all over again, so yeah, you are a little bit deeper into the venue, and what it brings, so you can kind of hone in on some details.
How much time do you guys get, 45 minutes?
GARCIA: Yeah, we’re doing 45 minutes.
That’s not that much shorter than you would get at a jazz club, where it’s an hour, maybe an hour ten.
GARCIA: Yeah, I mean, it kind of varies. We do — if it’s, like, a headline show, it can be anywhere up to an hour and a half, if it’s a festival it can be an hour … We’ve been experiencing short sets and long sets and [seeing] how that changes the music and where we can expand things and where we can contract and just do a little taster of a tune, et cetera, which has been a really amazing opportunity, ’cause I’ve never done a succession of a string of 45-minute sets. It’s always been varying. On my own tours, usually it’s been quite long, so it’s been really amazing to kind of work this set into 45 minutes and approach it in the way that I have, which is that I really want to present as much music as I can, kind of present the album, [and even] do one or two from the remix album live, so that means everything has to be a little bit shorter, which is different.
This is a really inspired bill; your music fits really well with Khruangbin’s. Do you feel like you’re making new fans? Are you meeting people at the merch table who’ve discovered you?
GARCIA: 100 percent. Unfortunately due to COVID I can’t go to the merch table, which kinda sucks, but I’m getting messages from people who are new fans and they’ve been so supportive, and from venue staff to people who come to see Khruangbin to everyone who’s been like, “Wow, I never knew who you were before” … It’s been really great to connect with people who knew [us] before and people who never knew anything about me and they’re like, “Well, what is this?” Yeah, it’s been really cool.
This kind of cross-genre billing, you must get a fair amount of it just from playing festivals and things, but in the regular nightclub world it’s not nearly as common as it should be, I think.
GARCIA: Yeah, absolutely. But it’s getting better, I think. It’s really easy to kind of fall into the trap of, “Oh, this isn’t happening, and this isn’t happening, and why isn’t this music here,” but I think it’s important to take a step back and say, wow, five or ten years ago, I don’t know if the music that I play would ever be on this stage, at the Ryman or Radio City or whatever, especially with a pairing of a band like Khruangbin. I think we’re in a really special time, to be able to have this opportunity.
The photographer whose shots you’ve been posting on Instagram, Jackie Lee Young: Is she with you, or is she the photographer for the whole tour?
GARCIA: She is with Khruangbin. She’s their photographer, she’s on the road with them. And she’s just an incredible photographer who really is into the music and she was just like, “Oh, do you mind if I take some shots at the first couple of gigs?” and I was like, “Absolutely,” and obviously they’re amazing. We’ve all been building relationships, which is really nice, and every day the photos are super stunning.
The SOURCE album is almost two years old. How does it feel to just be touring that material now? Do you still relate to those pieces?
GARCIA: Yeah, SOURCE is two years old. Well, one and a half. August 2020, so not quite a year and a half. Yeah, it feels — it feels pretty crazy, actually, but I think I’m really happy with my decision to release it in 2020. I wouldn’t change it. And we finally started getting to play a few gigs here and there at the end of 2020, and bits all over 2021, and then the main album tour happened in the UK and Europe, and now here. So I think I’m just quite used to … what I do onstage anyway is reimagine it — we do things like the album, and don’t do things like the album, it always feels like I have the option to go anywhere, so it doesn’t feel like it’s old. It’s improvised music, and so that kind of energy has really helped keep everything moving along, let’s say. Yeah, it’s crazy to only be touring it here, in America, now, but it’s just how it is, you know? This is one of the things that’s happened after the pandemic. Everything has been delayed, and it’s kind of really lovely that it’s getting a new lease on life. There’s still people that are discovering it yesterday, and today, and will tomorrow. So yeah. It’s great.
How has the pandemic impacted your music? Did you become some kind of super-chopsy technical player, or start writing much more complex music, as a result of being locked down?
GARCIA: I don’t even know. I think I was just really happy to have more time at home to focus on practicing and playing and writing, and making plans, you know? I was, I am, a touring musician, a very, very busy touring musician, so yeah, I was very happy to be home and take a pause for a second and get back into a routine of extending my musical skills, which is different when you’re on the road, because you have limited time and limited space to practice. You have your soundcheck to play, but that’s kind of it, and maybe your hotel room. So it was nice to have the space and option to focus on a different part of my musical ability and skills.
So did you make any kind of breakthroughs or anything, from a technical standpoint?
GARCIA: Probably, but I don’t really — I’ve never really thought about it in that way. I usually notice breakthroughs way, way after. I just kind of set out, like, I really want to practice these things and I really want to write some music and get back into that really focused listening, the way that I was taught to listen at university. Studying music that way. But I was really fortunate to be able to have the space to work on, physically and emotionally, the space to work on the same thing every day, with small variety, so that I could really learn it. My technique, my sound, all of that kind of stuff, which just takes doing the same thing every single day, and I think that’s very hard to do as a touring musician – you have to really carve out space and time on the road, which is a different thing altogether. Yeah, I think I’d say maybe a breakthrough was actually realizing how much stamina I had, and wanting to keep it up over the lockdown. Playing gigs every night is very hard to recreate in your home when you have neighbors that don’t want to hear you playing saxophone all day, every day.
What’s your plan after this tour? Are you going back into the studio soon, or are you going to spend as much time on the road as possible, or something else entirely?
GARCIA: I guess a bit of all three of those things. We’re going to be touring the rest of the year, on and off. We’ve been in and out of the studio over the last year, and then there’s some more projects I’m working on writing-wise, so things are really opening up in different ways, and it’s really exciting. But first and foremost, we are gonna be out on the road for festivals and Glastonbury and stuff, where we can be, and hopefully I think we’re coming back to America. It’s looking like a busy year, in a good way.
How long is your visa good for, in terms of touring the US?
GARCIA: [Laughs] That difficult visa. It’s — I got a three-year visa, so three years from February. So I’ll be here for a while. [Laughs] We give thanks, because that was difficult, but we did it and I’m happy.
Tickets for Garcia’s headlining show 3/22 at Le Poisson Rouge are available here.
Cornet player Ron Miles died this month at 58. He wasn’t as well known as he should have been, mostly because he chose to live and teach in Denver rather than New York or Chicago or any other jazz hub. But his music was incredible. He had a clean tone and a way of slow-walking a melody that allowed you to absorb every note. He began recording in the late ’80s, and in the mid ’90s, formed a creative partnership with guitarist Bill Frisell that lasted until the end of his life. In 2012, Miles and Frisell formed a trio with drummer Brian Blade that released two albums, Quiver and 2014’s Circuit Rider. Given the instrumental palette and the nature of the three players involved, it’s extremely sparse and beautiful music that owes as much to folk, country and blues as jazz. In 2017, they added pianist Jason Moran (Miles also collaborated with Moran and guitarist Mary Halvorson on the 2018 album BANGS) and bassist Thomas Morgan and made the equally beautiful I Am A Man. Three years later, they released Rainbow Sign, Miles’ debut for Blue Note. Nobody else sounded like Ron Miles; nobody else thought about the horn the way he did. His absence leaves a hole.
Last year, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt published GRIOT, a collection of interviews with fellow jazz musicians about their craft, their history, and their feelings about the music they played and its broader meaning. It’s one of the best books on jazz I’ve ever read, because the people he spoke to were totally honest and held nothing back. Well, there’s a second volume out, and it might be even better. This time, the interview subjects include the late pianist Harold Mabern and drummer Ralph Peterson Jr., alto saxophonist Greg Osby, pianist Orrin Evans, trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, harpist Brandee Younger, bassist Esperanza Spalding, cellist Akua Dixon, drummer Johnathan Blake, pianist Kenny Barron, and more. I can’t recommend these two books highly enough; get them directly from him.
And now, new albums!
Lisa Ullén/Ellen Bergman/Anna Lund - "Come Together"
Swedish pianist Lisa Ullén is a fascinating composer whose playing and approach to the instrument draws on free jazz, contemporary composition, and everything in between. In 2018, she released a three-CD set, Piano Works, that explores a vast range of creative possibilities. Some pieces are less than a minute long, others more than 13 minutes. She, bassist Ellen Bergman, and drummer Anna Lund are all part of alto saxophonist Anna Högberg’s sextet, Attack, but have left the horns behind here and struck out as a trio. The result is one of the most powerful out-jazz releases of the year so far. Ullén’s low-end rumbles, heavy chords and occasional chipped-tooth high notes on the opening “Come Together” may remind some listeners of Matthew Shipp, but Bergman and Lund are very much a Nordic free rhythm section, unencumbered by loyalty to the blues or even folk melodies. Odd percussive sounds, impossible to identify, pierce the music from time to time, and the momentum is relentless. (From Space, out now via Relative Pitch.)
Marquis Hill - "New Gospel"
The original New Gospel was Chicago trumpeter Marquis Hill’s debut album, released independently in 2011 and incredibly hard to find now. It’s not even on his Bandcamp page. But in 2019, Hill gathered an all-star band including Walter Smith III on tenor sax, Joel Ross on vibraphone, James Francies on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass, and Kendrick Scott on drums to reinterpret those tunes in concert. The word “gospel” is somewhat misleading here; if you want music with a churchy charge, try the work of pianist Cyrus Chestnut. This is actually harmonically complex, melodically subtle hard bop in the spirit of the late ’80s/early ’90s Young Lions era, albeit more interested in collective virtuosity than skyrocketing fireworks displays by the leader. On the title piece, he goes out, delivering some searing high notes and long spiraling passages over Raghavan’s hard-driving bottom end and Scott’s shuffling beat. If you’re a fan of Hill’s more recent albums like Love Tape, Soul Sign, and The Way We Play, or the work of other modern traditionalist trumpeters like Terell Stafford and the late Roy Hargrove, this is a must-hear. (From New Gospel Revisited, out now via Edition.)
Matthew Stevens & Walter Smith III - "Loping"
Guitarist Matthew Stevens and saxophonist Walter Smith III kicked off the In Common project in 2018, having entered the studio with some deliberately simple compositions and a high-powered group of collaborators: vibraphonist Joel Ross, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Marcus Gilmore. Two years later, the project was reactivated, but this time the band included pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer Nate Smith. On their third outing, they’ve got Kris Davis on piano, Dave Holland on bass, and Terri Lyne Carrington on drums, and it might be the best one yet. Stevens and Smith always write their one-page compositions with the chosen players in mind, and Davis in particular is a strong influence on the music here. In her own work, she explores free improvisation and the use of electronics to warp and unsettle the sound, and both those things are prominent here; the short “Oliver” is a disorienting collage of disparate sounds that somehow work together. “Loping,” meanwhile, is a straightforward exercise in groove and melody, handed to the rhythm section on a tray, and Holland and Carrington dig in, letting Smith journey deep into the blues. (From In Common III, out now via Whirlwind Recordings.)
The Eubanks-Evans Experience - "Novice Bounce"
The Eubanks-Evans Experience is an unexpected but welcome collaboration. Guitarist Kevin Eubanks and pianist Orrin Evans are from two different generations (Eubanks is 64, Evans 46), but they’re both from Philadelphia, and draw from many of the same influences. This isn’t even their first encounter; Eubanks played on Evans’ 2016 album #knowingishalfthebattle, and the pianist returned the favor on the guitarist’s 2017 release East West Time Line. Evans has also worked with Eubanks’ brothers, trumpeter Duane and trombonist Robin, in the past. This is a straight duo album, with no rhythm section, but it’s not just a collection of atmospheric ballads. Evans is too hard-hitting and exploratory a player for that, and Eubanks’ guitar work has real bite. The opening track, “Novice Bounce,” starts slow, with a repeated guitar figure gradually joined by delicate, ringing piano, but that early almost Pat Metheny-esque mood dissipates over time as Evans begins to pound out chords and melodies with a heavier and heavier hand and Eubanks goes into an almost slapping, post-Wes Montgomery zone. (From EEE, out now via Imani.)
Julieta Eugenio - "La Jungla"
Tenor saxophonist Julieta Eugenio is from Argentina, but she’s been based in New York since about 2015. She released a solo EP in 2021, featuring versions of four standards, but Jump is her full-length debut, recorded with bassist Matt Dwonszyk and drummer Jonathan Barber. Eight of the album’s ten tracks are originals; the others are versions of the standards “Flamingo” and “Crazy He Calls Me.” Eugenio has a big sound and a patient way of exploring a melody that puts her in the tradition of players from Dexter Gordon to JD Allen. On “La Jungla,” Dwonszyk and Barber lay down a bouncing, snapping groove that swings, but also has a Latin pulse at its core. Barber’s tom work in particular reminds me of Rudy Royston’s playing in Allen’s trio, and Eugenio makes the most of every opportunity their playing offers her, bringing the intensity level up and down, increasing and decreasing her velocity but always maintaining a fundamental sense of melody. This isn’t a head and a solo; it’s a song. (From Jump, out now via Greenleaf Music.)
Mark Turner - "Lincoln Heights"
It’s been too long since saxophonist Mark Turner released an album. His last release as a leader, not counting Temporary Kings, the 2018 duo disc with pianist Ethan Iverson, was 2014’s The Lathe Of Heaven. This album marks the continuation of a nearly decade-long creative relationship with trumpeter Jason Palmer. The two men have played together on three previous releases, all under Palmer’s name: 2014’s Places, 2018’s Rhyme And Reason, and 2020’s The Concert: 12 Musings For Isabella. Each of those albums featured a different rhythm section; this time out, the bassist and drummer are Joe Martin and Jonathan Pinson. And like Miles Davis’s “Nefertiti,” the closing track on Return From The Stars is a showcase for the rhythm section. Martin takes a terrific, thumping and throbbing bass solo as the horns play a closely harmonized unison melody over and over and over, occasionally rising up with a little extra intensity but for the most part hanging back. (From Return From The Stars, out 3/25 via ECM.)
Melissa Aldana - "Falling"
Saxophonist Melissa Aldana came to the US from Santiago, Chile about 15 years ago and has built a strong reputation across a string of albums, beginning with 2010’s Free Fall, released on early mentor Greg Osby’s Inner Circle label. She’s subsequently recorded for Concord and Motéma, and is now signed to Blue Note, after debuting for the label in 2020 as part of the all-star sextet Artemis. This disc is co-produced by guitarist Lage Lund, and also features pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Pablo Menares (who’s been on three previous Aldana albums), and drummer Kush Abadey. “Falling” opens the album, and Menares is the first voice heard, establishing a powerful pulse around which the other band members gather. Lund is in the corner of the sonic space, offering short, pithy phrases as well as odd sound effects that almost recall Mary Halvorson; Fortner and Abadey are more locked-in, hitting hard but retreating quickly, like boxers. Aldana begins cautiously, as though stepping out of a shadow, but by the track’s midpoint she’s in surprisingly extreme territory, heading into the alto’s highest register to emit piercing squeals, then descending for low growling runs, and spinning out shockingly long phrases — you’ll start to lose your breath well before she does. (From 12 Stars, out now via Blue Note.)
Michael Leonhart Orchestra - "Shut Him Down" (Feat. Elvis Costello, Joshua Redman & JSWISS)
Composer, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist Michael Leonhart is a highly sought-after New York studio musician (he played on the Bruno Mars/Mark Ronson song “Uptown Funk”), a member of the Steely Dan live band, and much more. For several years, he’s been leading this large ensemble, which plays his own music but also puts unexpected covers into equally surprising contexts, with vivid arrangements that draw new elements out while still offering the thrill of recognition. On their last album, 2019’s Suite Extracts Vol. 1, they interpreted several pieces by Spinal Tap and several more by the Wu-Tang Clan; the medley of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” and Raekwon’s “Glaciers Of Ice” is stunning. They also reworked pieces by Howlin’ Wolf and Fela Kuti on that album, which makes “Shut Him Down,” the opening track from the Orchestra’s new album, a perfect continuation. It’s an Afrobeat strut with stinging organ, pumping horns, subtly mocking female backing vocals, a guest lead vocal from Elvis Costello, and a hoarse, crying solo from saxophonist Joshua Redman, playing a restored tenor that belonged to his late father, Dewey. On the bridge, the horns get lush and blaring, like a mid ’70s Lalo Schifrin movie soundtrack. (From The Normyn Suites, out now via Sunnyside.)
Roxy Coss - "Part I: The Body"
Saxophonist Roxy Coss has bounced around a bit in her dozen or so years on the New York scene. Her first album was self-released; 2016’s Restless Idealism came out on Origin; 2017’s Chasing The Unicorn and 2018’s The Future Is Female were on Posi-Tone; 2019’s Quintet was on Outside In, as is this new release. Quintet and The Future Is Female both featured guitarist Alex Wintz, pianist Miki Yamanaka, bassist Rick Rosato, and drummer Jimmy Macbride, all of whom return for a third engagement here. By this point, they’re a tight and extremely hard-hitting unit; Coss’s bebop-rooted solos contrast sharply but pleasurably with Wintz’s scorching rock guitar and Macbride’s thunderous, driving beat. “Part I: The Body,” which kicks off a four-track suite (the others are “The Mind,” “The Heart,” and “The Spirit”), launches with a furious, metallic riff before diving into fleet-footed swing, with Coss taking a Joe Henderson-esque solo over skillful Fender Rhodes from Yamanaka. When Wintz steps into the spotlight, though, shit goes thrillingly off the rails; he’s absolutely shredding, going well past fusion almost into power metal as Yamanaka switches to piano, pounding the keys Cameron Graves-style. (From Disparate Parts, out 3/25 via Outside In Music.)
Cécile McLorin Salvant - "Until"
Cécile McLorin Salvant is the only jazz vocalist whose work interests me. Most of the time, I prefer instrumental music; when there’s a voice, I’d rather it be in a language I don’t speak, or guttural and incomprehensible (I love gross, splattery, broken-toilet death metal vocals almost as much as Ian Chainey does). But Salvant is amazing. She has a beautiful voice and incredible taste in material. Her albums are centered around themes, and she routinely unearths songs you’ve never heard of, tweaking listener expectations by matter-of-factly presenting racist tropes or evocations of domestic violence that played fine sixty or seventy years ago, but are now shocking. There’s not as much of that kind of provocation here, but the music contains plenty of surprises. She’s abandoned the simple piano trio (with occasional strings) arrangements of her previous work and embraced the possibilities of the studio. While pianist and longtime creative partner Aaron Diehl is still around — and do not sleep on Aaron Diehl’s work under his own banner; he is fantastic — this album has flutes, banjo, synths (on a version of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights”), pipe organ, Laurie Anderson-style vocal overdubs (on “I Lost My Mind,” a Salvant original) and more. “Until,” a Sting song from the 2001 movie Kate & Leopold, is a series of surging waves, the rhythm coming in and out and Salvant’s voice doing flips in the air before descending back to earth to present the lyrics almost like a bedside prayer. (From Ghost Song, out now via Nonesuch.)