The Month In Jazz – May 2022

Hugh Mdlalose

The Month In Jazz – May 2022

Hugh Mdlalose

I’ve been a huge fan of South African pianist Nduduzo Makhathini since hearing his album Ikhambi in 2018. Since that time, I’ve had the chance to see him live, and had several in-depth conversations with him, first on my podcast in 2019 and again a year later via Zoom, when he, trumpeter Ndabo Zulu, and singer/songwriter/historian/public intellectual Mbuso Khoza talked to me about Zulu’s album Queen Nandi: The African Symphony and about a much broader post-colonialist cultural project they’re all embarked on, together with many other South African artists and writers across disciplines. Like Shabaka Hutchings, Soweto Kinch, and others, Makhathini is embarked on a long project of cultural reclamation and reckoning in a post-colonial world.

His new album, In The Spirit Of Ntu, is out this week. It’s his second record for Blue Note, and the inaugural release for Blue Note Africa, a brand-new sub-label that he’s spearheading. The album is very different from its predecessor, 2020’s Modes Of Communication: Letters From The Underworlds, starting with the band, which includes three players he’s worked with before — saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane, trumpeter Robin Fassie Kock, and percussionist Gontse Makhene — and three new faces: vibraphonist Dylan Tabisher, bassist Stephen de Souza, and drummer Dane Paris. There are guest appearances from Swiss singer Anna Widauer (singing on “Re-Amathambo,” a reworking of the first track from Ikhambi) and US saxophonist Jaleel Shaw. Makhathini himself is singing more; his gentle, almost whispering voice can be heard on most tracks, while his wife Omagugu, who appears on all his records, is only heard once here. (The track she’s on, “Mama,” is an emotional crux point of the album, though, as you’ll read below.) Some of the music is much more oriented toward percussion and layers of interlocking rhythm than before, and his piano playing has changed, too. It’s more dissonant at times, and weightier, the notes landing like metal bars dropped from the ceiling. The album ends with “Senze’ Nina” and “Ntu,” two somewhat somber tracks that blend into each other; “Ntu” is basically a solo piano piece that serves as a kind of anchor, and a reckoning with everything the musicians and the listener have learned on the hour-plus journey that’s come before.

Makhathini came to New York a few weeks ago to play a couple of shows at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s club, Dizzy’s, and I called him up. We spoke about the new music, the concept of Ntu, about his own growing status within the South African music scene, and more. A slightly edited transcript of our conversation is below.

This new album is very different from your previous work. The vibraphone and all the percussion on the first track, “Unonkanyamba,” is a new sound for you, and even your piano style seems to have changed — it’s less McCoy Tyner and more Randy Weston. Tell me about that track: what it means to you and why you chose it to open the record.

NDUDUZO MAKHATHINI: Everyone says that. Man, that’s so crazy. Someone said the same thing at the gig yesterday. The whole Randy Weston thing, and the transition. I don’t even know, man! [laughs] Yeah. So some years ago, I visited a guitarist called Jimmy Dludlu, who’s signed to Universal, and I kind of co-produced his last album [History In A Frame] and played on it. He’s part of the Shangaan people living in Mozambique, and they have all different kinds of music there and they play such high tempos and stuff, so I picked up this vibe from that experience, just thinking about, what does it mean to expand beyond South Africa, but [stay in] southern Africa and bring in those elements into my sound, as part of the things that I have access to via geography. So this album particularly is drawing a lot from things in Mozambique, things in Zimbabwe, and those kinds of neighboring countries, and the relationships between the people and their dances, their cultures… it’s just broadening in a sense, broadening my scope, so to speak.

I think that’s really important, because I feel like in the eyes of the larger world, South Africa is really the only African country that has a jazz image, but there have to be jazz musicians in Nigeria and Mozambique and Zimbabwe. There have to be, but the media doesn’t know.

MAKHATHINI: What it is, is there’s quite a number of writers now writing about African piano from a Ghanaian perspective, and Nigerian perspectives, so that’s really exciting, because it’s the first time this happens. But like you say, there’s jazz everywhere. Lionel Loueke is from Benin, there’s been jazz musicians in Ivory Coast, there’s been jazz musicians in Congo — Ray Lema, great piano player — but also in Kenya and everywhere else, you know. So I think there is a sense in which one can start tapping into the broader… oh, well, how about this, the drumming pattern I’m using on the cymbal in that first song is borrowed from the Senegalese kind of drumming, which by extension is also found in the Dogon people [in Mali]. So, I mean, I’m just thinking about it now, but I’ve been listening to a lot of broader African music, and this album is like a manifestation of those things. ‘Cause this is not necessarily jazz influences that I’m getting from the continent, but it’s the jazziness that exists already in folk music of Africa. There’s something about the jazziness that existed before jazz itself, as a sensibility that was there, that was taken through the transatlantic [passage], so I think I’m invoking a kind of essence that brought about this sound. So yeah, man, it’s been a big fascination, and of course the first comment you made about the piano, now I’m thinking about it, I got to play a lot of solo piano during lockdown, and I think that sincerely changed my playing drastically. ‘Cause I’ve been playing a lot by myself, ’cause that’s all I could do for almost two years, man. Solo piano, doing live concerts online and all of that. So maybe that’s partly what has changed the sound.

On the last track on the record, “Ntu,” there’s a very somber feeling; your solo part at the end is very heavy and there’s some dissonant stuff, it kinda reminded me of Matthew Shipp a little bit.

MAKHATHINI: Oh, man — of course, you are Philip Freeman. You’ve been listening, man. Damn! You know, I’ve been thinking about Matthew Shipp and Andrew Hill a lot, man. These are some of the people that have influenced me quite heavily, but it seems like these are not the most obvious things in my playing, so I never speak about them, ’cause no interviewer asks me about it. But actually, Matthew Shipp and Andrew Hill — I was thinking about them a lot in that last piece. And actually, if you checked it out, “Senze’ Nina” is actually one song with “Ntu.” I just never stopped playing in the [studio] and it became too long, so I had to chop it between “Senze’ Nina” and end that part and sort of go to “Ntu.” But it was one piece. The band is just standing there [laughs], they didn’t know what was going on so they’re just looking at me. They played a little bit, and then they stopped eventually and I just kept playing. So again, it’s like, you know, this whole projecting from stillness, so to speak. It’s like, I’ve been playing a lot by myself, so it was very easy for me to just break into that kind of abstract world, but also it speaks to the very idea of Ntu and how that holds the African cosmology together, but also a lot of it is lost, and there is a sense in which we enunciate from a space of disparity. We are looking for these things, post all the catastrophes that have happened in Africa. It’s like the biggest agenda was that of erasure. So sometimes it’s painful to remember, ’cause most of the things are not there anymore. But it’s also an important exercise, so this piece represents the kind of complex of remembering in Africa.

Can you explain the Ntu concept to me? ‘Cause I’m not 100 percent sure what the story is.

MAKHATHINI: Sure. The greater population of Africa comes from what we call the Bantu people that moved around the continent. So this is what holds the relationship between words, etymology, the sounds, the music… in short, Ntu is vital force. Many years ago, when people were doing research and trying to really understand what the Bantu people were about and their cosmology, a lot of philosophers came to the conclusion that the Bantu people believed that everything has spiritual essence, or spirit essence, and that’s what creates the immortality or the view as it were of being here and being elsewhere simultaneously, like being constantly aware of the ones that have passed, our ancestors, and being aware of the ones to be born. So this kind of triad is really what holds the Ntu concept together. But also, Ntu has four major manifestations. Muntu is a manifestation of being, divinities and the spirit world, and then there is kintu, which is the manifestation in the environment, mountains and water, all of those energy vortexes that hold African cosmology together, but also there is hantu, which is the concept of time and space, and then there is huntu, which is modality. So it’s four manifestations that hold the Ntu world together. But also, it tells us about wholeness. We say in Isizulu [a phrase] which basically means, you are because of everything else that’s around you. It brings in this idea of a communal sense, [which] becomes very central, and then my question was like, what does this mean for sounds to enunciate from all of this richness of cosmology and epistemology and ontology, all in one place? So that’s really what it is, and it’s like a way of also making at least the next generation understand our relationship to sound, so it’s not just an abstract idea of improvisation, but improvisation as a way of holding the worldview together or invoking a worldview.

Other than Linda Sikhakhane, Gontse Makhene, and your wife, Omagugu, the band is entirely different on this record than on your last album. What made you decide to change up the musicians, and why did you pick these players in particular?

MAKHATHINI: So man, it happened by chance. The whole band now is people that are younger than me. Some are like 20 years younger than me. And you know, this has never been the case. I’ve always had my peers playing with me. Linda and those guys are like 10 years younger, some are 15, but how it really happened was, it was through the National Arts Festival. I was asked to mentor a group of young people; I was conducting this group called the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Band, which is something they do every year, where they select some of the best musicians in the country that are students, put them together, and they are conducted by a musician like myself. So I was with these guys and South Africa started to burn. This was when the lootings were happening, and some of them couldn’t get there on time ’cause the airports, everything was burning in South Africa. So when I was with them I started thinking, oh man, how lucky are we — the whole country’s burning and here we are making music. And we were preparing for an online gig. And that really speaks to the song “Emlilweni,” which basically translates to “In The Burning Fires,” and it talks about what does it mean for songs to emerge out of burning fires, to no longer be a backdrop to vital moments but to actually be the thing that speaks through the burning fires. But nonetheless, I was with these guys and when I was meant to record, I was supposed to come to the US and we tried that and it just seemed impossible, with flights and everything. People didn’t want to have anything to do with South Africa because of omicron, so we couldn’t travel. And I started thinking when I was at home, hey, how about these young people I was working with? And that’s how the whole thing came about. And I was like, man, this is my tenth album, I’ve been given so many opportunities by older musicians myself, what would it mean for me to take a risk and record with these really inexperienced musicians, and man, it just happened to be the most honest album I’ve ever created.

How put together are your compositions? Are they heads and lyrics, and then you figure out the rest with the band in the studio, or are they fully arranged charts?

MAKHATHINI: I’m very prepared when going to the studio, with regards to material. ‘Cause I’m very particular with parts. I think of it as like devotional music, so to speak, so there are things that are very important that I have to script, and then those things lead to what I call embellishments; that’s when all the improvisation happens. But I was very, very organized with parts and everything, especially [when] playing with musicians that are not as experienced. I kind of had to be ready to bring everything to them. So I wrote all the parts, and I don’t know — like, I’m sure you noticed I’m singing almost through the album, which I never often do. So this was another thing. It’s like, I’ve been singing a lot at this time, and then of course Omagugu… we lost my mom-in-law last year, and Omagugu wrote that song [“Mama”] for her when she was alive, and never got to sing it to her. So during the funeral, we prepared for Omagugu to sing this, and of course she couldn’t at the funeral, it was just too intense. So this was meant to be on the album, because Ntu is about that as well, it’s about the essence and the energy of a mother, so I was like, this is fitting. And she sung it, man, but she’s crying at the very end. ‘Cause she just did that one take, and she was like, “I want to do it again ’cause I started crying,” and I said no, this is perfect. And then Anna Widauer, you know her from [my album] Inner Dimensions, she’s from Switzerland, she’s on that project that I did, and Jaleel [Shaw] of course. So these are my three guests. Jaleel, I was supposed to come and record with him here, but couldn’t, then I said, Jaleel, can you come to this side, but he was reading about all the stuff [going on], and when we were preparing he got really intimidated and said “No, no, no.” He’d just gotten married and everything and he said, no, no [laughs].

So did he record in New York and you punched it in?

MAKHATHINI: He cut it in New York, but a lot of people say it sounds like he was in the same place. I think this is the magic of this album, man. Don Was, when he listened to it, he said everything just holds together. That was his comment. And I feel like it really does. Conceptually, sonically, thematically, it’s just like, it’s like a little magic that happens when you put out the tenth album [laughs].

What made you decide to re-record “Amathambo” with English-language lyrics? I was really fascinated by that, because that was the first song I ever heard by you, and also, it seems like it’s been very important to you to sing in indigenous language, so why English now?

MAKHATHINI: Oh, man. Okay, so… the singing in indigenous language is very, very important. It still is. I was just elaborating quite a bit in English, as we’re doing now, in interviews, and all of these themes were coming out in English as I’m explaining what is happening with the songs, so I just sent all of those ideas to Anna, to write with those ideas what the idea of amathambo is. Basically, in the first version, the idea of amathambo is like seeking meaning, it’s like the throwing of the bones, but it’s the moment before you gather the meaning through divination. So this one is a response, it’s talking about, what are these translations now that are happening when the bones are thrown. So the whole thing was conceptualized in English, and it was going to be difficult for Anna to sing in Isizulu, so I just said, yeah, go for it, you know. So it’s a reply from the ancestors. I used the idea of re- as like a reply, a response, a re-amathambo. But also the energy Ra, so there’s a sense in which I’m also referencing the energy of the sun in there as well.

So this young jazz band you were working with, you produced an album for them for the Mushroom Hour Half Hour label, which will be out later this year. Tell me more about that project.

MAKHATHINI: Oh, man. Like I say, Standard Bank has this — it runs two major festivals. On the one hand it’s the Joy Of Jazz, and on the other hand it’s the National Arts Festival, and it funds the jazz division of that as well. So part of this is that there are many programs, including various collaborations with mainly European musicians, which has given birth to Bänz Oester and the Rainmakers with Ayanda [Sikade] and those guys, but part of what they do as well is they open a competition for young musicians to send in demos. Then the selection committee sits and they select these people and they are mentored by a conductor. So for 2021, I was selected as the conductor, and I was working with these guys, and I proposed to Standard Bank, since I was the young artist for jazz in 2015, they gave me that award, which is quite a prestigious one in South Africa, I said to them, we have this relationship, and now I’m mentoring these guys for a week, but you know, I’m always thinking about what happens when these students graduate. They lack opportunities. So I wrote a proposal to Standard Bank to record this for the first time. I mean, they’ve been doing this every year since the ’90s and they’ve never recorded it and released it publicly. So this is basically that, but it’s also a way of celebrating my songbook, ’cause all the music was written by me. So it’s immortalizing the sound, while thinking about what sound can give possibly to the next generation, and how does that create an opportunity for them to get out there.

You two are the same age, but when I asked Ayanda this earlier this year he laughed at me, but… it sounds like you’re an elder now.

MAKHATHINI: Man, it’s crazy. It’s like, because we’ve lost so many of the elders, it’s… while my age is not really there yet, I kind of have to give — I’m one of the very lucky musicians that… I really learned from the great masters, which doesn’t happen anymore. People learn from curriculums. I studied with Bheki Mseleku, I studied with Zim Nqawana, I studied with Bhusi Mhlongo, with all these great masters, man, and I was kind of in that last generation that would learn from the masters. They are gone. They are gone. So somehow it’s the role that I have to play. I have to give everything that I’ve learned to the generation that follows. This is the only way. Otherwise we’ll have a serious discontinuity.

But doesn’t it kind of — I mean, I’m even older than you, and it’s almost bothersome to think that there is a generation after you, in a sense, isn’t it?

MAKHATHINI: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. It’s crazy, man. You’re getting old! [laughs] Man, you know, sometimes I think of it this way. It’s like, if you think about the greatest musicians, we know about their creative work when they were like in their twenties, whether it’s Miles Davis or Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. But, in their forties — some of them didn’t reach that age — but somehow the grace period is in the twenties, so the next 20 years that I’m gonna start now is a different kind of thing. So I think I’m deliberate about what that means, you know, and the fact that we’re not here forever, and also, man, it’s true that I’ve really been taught by great teachers. It’s so true. And I feel lucky in that way. So, like, Linda never met Bheki Mseleku or Zim Nqawana or Bhusi Mhlongo, but he knows all of these people through me telling him stories, showing him stuff, and telling him what these people said, this is what they played.

***

At Makhathini’s second show at Dizzy’s, Shabaka Hutchings turned up to guest on the new song “Omnyama,” as you can see in the video above. Hutchings has his first-ever solo recording out now, just calling himself Shabaka; it’s called Afrikan Culture, and it’s a short (eight tracks, 28 minutes) collection of pieces for flute and wind-chimey percussion, with a little bit of kora and mbira here and there. It’s not jazz; it’s more the kind of thing you’d put on while getting acupuncture. It’s pretty nice, though. Check out the opening track, “Black meditation,” below:

And now, new albums!

10

Jonathan Barber & Vision Ahead - "Poetic"

Drummer Jonathan Barber has been leading his band Vision Ahead with no lineup changes for three albums now, a relative rarity in jazz. The quintet consists of saxophonist Godwin Louis, guitarist Andrew Renfroe, keyboardist Taber Gable, and bassist Matt Dwonszyk, and they’ve got their own language at this point. Barber lays down a plush but emphatic backbeat, his snare hissing like a box of sand being shaken as his cymbals wash past like waves. The group’s compositions are songlike, with immediate melodies aimed at the normal human ear rather than pitches only jazz students can hear. On the opening title track, Barber’s rhythms are complex, halfway between the intricate funk of the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste and Tony Williams’ gradually evolving solo on Miles Davis’s “Nefertiti,” as Renfroe and Gable (playing Fender Rhodes) journey into a deep Soulquarian space. The guitarist takes a stinging, distorted solo in a Ben Monder/Matthew Stevens style, while Louis’s gentle alto floats in and out to deliver the Quiet Storm-ish melody and a meditative solo. (From Poetic, out now via Vision Ahead Music.)

09

Doug Webb - "The Message"

LA-based tenor saxophonist Doug Webb is a first-call player on a vast array of West Coast studio sessions, from commercials to movies. Clint Eastwood has used him several times; he can be heard on the soundtracks to Changeling, Mystic River, Gran Torino, and Million Dollar Baby. He’s also played on Rod Stewart’s standards albums and in a thousand other contexts. But his wildest claim to fame is that he’s the saxophone “voice” of Lisa Simpson. And somehow, he still finds time to make albums under his own name, always bringing an interesting new idea to the session. On this disc, he put together an organ trio (Brian Charette at the keys, Charles Ruggiero at the kit) and then invited two guest horns to the party: Greg Osby on alto and Bob Reynolds, who’s played with Snarky Puppy and John Mayer, on second tenor. The three horns combine into a hurricane of sound, but each man gets plenty of time in the spotlight. On the title track, they deliver a forceful, riffing melody straight from the 1960s Blue Note catalog. Osby is up first, with a bluesy solo full of piercing upper-register cries. Webb and Reynolds have very different styles, the leader tearing it up in a fervent, post-bebop manner, chewing on phrases in a way that recalls the late Fred Anderson, while Reynolds is a smoother, more lyrical player in the manner of Grover Washington, Jr. But both men are driven to great heights by the explosive drive of Charette and Ruggiero. (From The Message, out now via Posi-Tone.)

08

Jacob Garchik - "Fanfare"

Trombone and soprano saxophone is an unorthodox combination, but that’s the front line here; the leader on trombone, and Sam Newsome, probably New York’s best known and most adventurous soprano player, by his side. Behind them are pianist Jacob Sacks, bassist Thomas Morgan, and drummer Dan Weiss. Garchik is a conceptualist, and a musician’s musician; he’s released a solo disc he called “The Atheist Gospel Trombone Album,” he does arrangements for the Kronos Quartet, and he’s recorded with Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Mary Halvorson, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, and many, many more. (His website even has a section labeled “I betcha didn’t know I was on”.) Each of the tracks on Assembly has a one-word title declaring the compositional strategy that’s being explored — “Collage,” “Pastiche,” “Bricolage,” etc. “Fanfare” lives up to its title, beginning with a repeated unison horn figure over an equally repetitive rhythm section battery played so tightly it could be a loop. But after just under 90 seconds, all that stops on a dime and we get a romantic, singing trombone solo with just piano accompaniment. That lasts two minutes, before there’s an outburst from the entire ensemble, simply to keep us from getting too comfortable, and then the two Jacobs are alone together again: first the pianist solo, then an even more swoony duo, then one final full-quintet eruption to end the piece. (From Assembly, out now via Yestereve.)

07

Will Bernard - "Four Is More"

Guitarist Will Bernard has a deep interest in groove; he’s worked with Charlie Hunter, the jazz-funk jam band T.J. Kirk, and Galactic drummer Stanton Moore. But he’s got an out/noisy side, too; he can be heard on “Hell Broke Luce” and “Pay Me” from Tom Waits’ Bad As Me. On this album, he’s accompanied by bassist Chris Lightcap and drummer Ches Smith, two guys who know how to lay it down thick and heavy. And on “Four Is More,” he brings in two ringers: alto saxophonist Tim Berne and keyboardist John Medeski. They start things off with a tight ascending melody that could come from one of John Zorn’s recent bands (Medeski is in both Simulacrum and Chaos Magick), before Berne begins to cut directly against the grain of what Bernard is doing. Then things spread out even further, as Medeski begins dropping short, precise phrases in exactly the right places and Lightcap’s bass absolutely booms from the middle of the mix as Smith sounds like he wants to muster everyone into a parade — lots of fast snare rolls and emphatic strikes, which the others blithely ignore in favor of abstract sound-scaping. (From Pond Life, out now via A Train Entertainment.)

06

Kyoko Kitamura/Taylor Ho Bynum/Joe Morris/Tomeka Reid - "Imaginary Donuts"

The quartet of vocalist Kyoko Kitamura, cornet player Taylor Ho Bynum, guitarist Joe Morris, and cellist Tomeka Reid first came together on 2018’s Geometry Of Caves, which was followed by Geometry Of Distance a year later. This third installment is more of the same: completely free improvisation that never devolves into anarchy, because each of the four musicians is listening carefully to the other three and making sure that what they’re contributing is complementary and adds to the whole picture. Kitamura’s vocals range from Dadaist streams of syllables that could almost be words to a vast array of sputtering sounds, coughs, hisses, pops, and uncanny noises that sound like she’s screaming through a harmonica. Bynum’s cornet has bite, even when muted; Morris’ fingers scrape and pluck the guitar strings, the notes pinched off and bent out of shape; and Reid’s cello playing is ominous and atmospheric, and occasionally percussive. “Imaginary Donuts,” one of the album’s shorter tracks, offers a lot of croaks, murmurs and whistles from Kitamura and Bynum, as Morris and Reid pluck their strings together in a bebop-meets-bluegrass race. This music is absolutely not for everyone, but I love it. (From Geometry Of Trees, out now via Relative Pitch.)

05

Whit Dickey Quartet - "Space Quadrant"

On his 2020 album Expanding Light, drummer Whit Dickey introduced a new trio featuring alto saxophonist Rob Brown (with whom he’d been working since the late ’80s) and bassist Brandon Lopez, a new member of his artistic circle. Two years later, he’s expanded that group with the addition of another longtime collaborator, viola player Mat Maneri. Dickey, who studied with free jazz legend/holistic healer Milford Graves at Bennington College, doesn’t play in the same avalanche-like manner that Graves (who died in early 2021) did; his approach to the kit is often cautious and exploratory, like he’s encountering it for the first time and isn’t 100% sure what it might do. But that’s what makes him one of my favorite drummers. His snare work in particular is consistently fascinating. And his personality, as a person and a leader, lends itself to collective improvisation — he gives everyone here, especially Maneri, room to journey as far afield as they like, and he’ll be there to anchor things, to give them all a home base to return to, but he’s never going to pen them in. (From Astral Long Form – Staircase In Space, out now via Tao Forms.)

04

Brandon Seabrook - "Subliminal Gaucheries"

Two years ago, guitarist Brandon Seabrook released an amazing album, Exultations, with multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore playing the one-stringed diddley-bow and Gerald Cleaver on drums. It was skronky and explosively energetic, with a fucking ton of low end. Cooper-Moore may have only had one string to work with, but he’s a goddamn virtuoso, and was able to play postpunk/dub bass lines on it, as Cleaver’s drums snapped and rumbled. Normally, the world of improvised music being what it is, a record like Exultations would have been a glorious one-off, but now it’s an actual band, and their follow-up release, In The Swarm, is even better than the debut. Seabrook has brought in his second instrument, the banjo, and Cleaver has added electronics, while Cooper-Moore continues to hold it all down with his one-stringed thunderstick (to borrow Mike Watt’s term). “Subliminal Gaucheries” is one of the prettier and more subtle tracks on the record; Cleaver’s electronics emit high-pitched pings and hums, as Seabrook’s guitar rings out from the corners of the sonic field (unlike the debut, this isn’t a purely improvised session; there’s a lot of subtle but important production work going on) and Cooper-Moore rumbles from the center. (From In The Swarm, out now via Astral Spirits.)

03

David Murray - "Seriana Promethea"

Legendary saxophonist and bass clarinet player David Murray has a new group he’s calling the Brave New World trio, with bassist Brad Jones and drummer Hamid Drake. As you might expect with Drake behind the kit, this is intensely rhythmic music, with a swing to its funk and a funk to its swing. Jones keeps his bass lines simple, focusing on forward movement and intensity, but there are some surprising turnarounds, and his ability to ratchet up the energy level through punchy, repetitive phrases is thrilling. Sometimes he sounds like Charlie Haden in Ornette Coleman’s early ’70s band, and sometimes he sounds like Bootsy Collins in James Brown’s 1969-70 band. The music is all by Murray, except for a version of Sly And Fhe Family Stone’s “If You Want Me To Stay.” On the opening title track, Murray plays his second favorite instrument, the bass clarinet, over a kind of dub-jazz groove; Jones strums his bass’s strings as Drake lays down an intricate, head-nodding drum pattern that inspires the leader to sputter and clap his valves, sliding into the most subterranean catacombs of the instrument’s range as ringing snare and hissing hi-hat turn the whole thing into a kind of holy trance of endless groove. (From Seriana Promethea, out now via Intakt.)

02

Peter Brötzmann/Fred Van Hove/Han Bennink - "Schwarzspecht"

German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann has collaborated with many, many people in his sixty years of making music, but two of his most consistent and inspiring creative partners were two Dutchmen: pianist Fred Van Hove, who died last year, and drummer Han Bennink. They all recorded together for the first time on his 1968 octet album Machine Gun, and on 1969’s Nipples, but it was as a trio in the early 1970s that their music truly blossomed. Beginning with 1970’s Balls, three live albums (with guest trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff) later reissued as Live In Berlin ’71, and several other albums, they created a kind of Surrealist free jazz, setting Brötzmann’s blustering horn against Van Hove’s wildly creative piano and Bennink’s use of the drum kit as a source of found sounds as much as rhythm. This previously unreleased recording from a Berlin concert ranks with the best of the group’s work; the nearly 14-minute “Schwarzspecht,” which opens the show, starts from zero, with Brötzmann roaring like a bear as Van Hove falls around the keyboard as though searching for something he’s sure he left there. Ignoring the drum kit at first, Bennink is a second reed, emitting high-pitched sputters and squeals. When he does actually sit down, he’s yelling and woo-hooing from behind the kit as he plays, exhorting the other two to ever greater heights. (From Jazz In Der Kammer 1974, out now via Trost.)

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Mary Halvorson - "Night Shift"

Guitarist Mary Halvorson has long been an under-recognized composer. Across her initial string of releases, which featured ever-expanding bands (trio, quintet, septet, octet), the pieces were numbered in the order she wrote them, and by assembling them into a playlist you could hear a voice emerge and develop. She’s no longer numbering her compositions, and her style is pretty much established at this point. She doesn’t prioritize her own instrument, preferring to sit in the middle of the music and offer a certain amount of leadership and guidance while playing a fundamentally supportive role. This album, one of two she’s released simultaneously on Nonesuch after years on Firehouse 12, features a new band including trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, trombonist Jacob Garchik, vibraphonist Patricia Brennan, bassist Nick Dunston, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. On “Night Shift,” which opens the album, the first lead voice is Brennan’s, who kicks things off with Dunston and Fujiwara, laying down a smooth, almost R&B groove with a hard-hitting beat and takes the first real solo. She then trades speedy lines with Halvorson as the horns play a kind of cascading fanfare melody behind them. Garchik’s trombone solo is raucous and swinging; Halvorson adds squiggly, almost dubbed-out guitar sounds behind him as Dunston and Fujiwara keep the beat kicking along. Put Halvorson’s avant-garde reputation aside; this track could almost fit on an early-2000s Ninja Tune compilation. (From Amaryllis, out now via Nonesuch.)

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