The Month In Jazz — July 2022
Sometimes the artists you think will be scary as hell one-on-one turn out to be the nicest people around. A couple of years ago, I interviewed avant-garde vocalist Diamanda Gálas, whose art is often terrifying and who regards audience and cameras with the withering glare of a witch queen. She turned out to be open and friendly and laugh-out-loud funny, and the hour or so we spent on the phone was a pure pleasure.
Moor Mother’s work is often stark and excoriating. On her albums Fetish Bones and Analog Fluids Of Sonic Black Holes, as well as her work with Irreversible Entanglements, the artist born Camae Ayewa forces the listener to confront blood-soaked history and the bottomless sorrow of multi-generational mourning, coming at you like a priestess of the apocalypse. You want to turn away sometimes, but her low, infinitely patient voice draws you in and forces you to listen, to look, to think. She’s often furious, and rightfully so, but just as often she lives up to the second half of her stage name, delivering some of her most accusatory lyrics in a tone that brings to mind the line your mom could always stab you right through the heart with: “I’m not angry, I’m disappointed.”
But both times I’ve interviewed her, she’s been incredibly friendly and open, almost blissful at times. She thinks very deeply about every aspect of her work and her presentation, and is happy to discuss her creative process, her own status within not only the “music scene” but the art world as well (her collective, Black Quantum Futurism, appears at international art events like Documenta). I called her on July 1, the day her latest album, Jazz Codes, came out; she was in Paris and in a particularly good mood, despite being surrounded by chaos. “Right now I can’t even cross the street because there’s some sort of parade,” she said.
Jazz Codes is very different from Fetish Bones, Analog Fluids Of Sonic Black Holes, or even the work of Irreversible Entanglements. It started out as a collection of poems, many if not most of which were written as tributes to people she knows or just artists she admires; the names mentioned include Amina Claudine Myers, Mary Lou Williams, Woody Shaw, Betty Davis, Billie Holiday, Betty Carter, Milford Graves, Albert Ayler, Nina Simone, and scholar and critic Thomas Stanley. Joe McPhee gets a shout out in a track title as well. And throughout these intricate sonic collages, built with frequent collaborator Olof Melander, samples and drum machines blend with live instrumentation until it’s hard to tell what’s what. Pianist Jason Moran, flutist Nicole Mitchell, and various members of Irreversible Entanglements appear, along with a vast array of guest vocalists including Melanie Charles, Elaine Mitchener, Wolf Weston of Saint Mela, Justmadnice, Alya Al-Sultani, AKAI SOLO, Fatboi Sharif, and more.
Jazz Codes is an album about love: love for art, love for artists, love for oneself, love for one’s community. And over and over in our conversation, Moor Mother talked about positivity, community building, and that kind of deep humanistic love. Has she still got seething rage to spare? Oh, yeah. But for this album at least, Moor Mother is coming from the love side.
Was this album assembled as a single thing, front to back, or did you make one track after another until you had an hour’s worth of material? And how unified is the concept? Explain how this record manifested for you.
MOOR MOTHER: I sent Olof [Melander, Swedish producer and frequent collaborator] an email and I said, hey, I got this poetry book, I just wanna read a couple of poems, with just some simple jazz loops. You know? Just really short, nothing like an album, and then I picked some tracks that I liked, and I ended up singing the poems instead of reading them. So I made about 10 tracks of just me singing, having fun with the poems, and I just loved them. So I wrestled with it for a while, like, okay, let me get a singer to sing it with me, let me just keep trying to sing these over and over and over again to get ’em where I want it, and it was kinda like that. They just sat with me as these kind of songs that I loved to sing that were poems. And then I started to reach out to some of my friends in Philly and have ’em come over and sing something and — you know, it just wasn’t working out to what I needed it to be, so during quarantine I was really kinda like on a hunt for someone I can be brave enough to approach that would, you know, sing on the track with me or just sing exactly what I was singing on the track, without me. And that’s kinda how it worked, how it started.
A lot of the tracks are very short, especially when compared with Irreversible tracks, which really stretch out. What is your compositional principle? Is it just “Get this one idea across, then end”?
MOOR MOTHER: Well, Irreversible’s a whole different band. Moor Mother has always had short songs, since I started. But yeah, I don’t tend to make long songs. I have just a handful of four- or five-minute tracks in my catalog, you know? But that’s actually gonna change with the next record [laughs]. Yeah, so that’s kinda why it’s like that.
You’ve just always thought in those concise terms?
MOOR MOTHER: Yeah, well, I’m always coming from punk rock, and I’m also staying true to the poem on the page with these pieces. They’re this book I wrote of poetry called Jazz Codes. Some of the poems are dedicated to certain people I look up to, honor, played with, so they’re not long. Maybe some were long, but not a lot of the ones that I wanted to put on the little booklet CD, you know?
How much of the music is sampled and how much is live? For example, on “Arms Save” there’s flute, which is Nicole Mitchell, who’s credited, but there’s also sax and trombone. Are those sampled, or was somebody playing those?
MOOR MOTHER: Yeah, they’re like — not so much sampled but treated. They’re treated sounds. Found sounds, treated, and then some are live players. So when I have the loop, I sit with it, I’m like, okay, I want this type of singer. Then I’m like, hmm, I hear a little extra flute on this, I hear some opera, I hear strings, I hear whatever I hear. Then I go out and source, but they don’t always… the live playing doesn’t always go to what the people think they’re playing to. Things get moved around. Sometimes maybe the flute works with this [other thing] better, you know? So it’s not something that’s assigned. It’s more like orchestrating once you get all the pieces. That’s my job, to just bring all these things together.
So you have a library of sound files that aren’t particularly assigned to a given track from Day One.
MOOR MOTHER: Yeah, live sounds, yeah.
What tools are you using to make this music? Is it all done on a laptop, or did you put in any time in pro studios or anything like that? What’s your process for solo work?
MOOR MOTHER: No. I always record at home, and Olof, who [helped] with the production, he works at home also. So no one — I mean, I don’t know if maybe Aquilles [Navarro, Irreversible Entanglements trumpet player] went into the studio when he was home in Panama, but one track he just played on the beach. It’s this kind of thing, it’s wherever people are.
What do you use? Logic, Ableton, something else?
MOOR MOTHER: I use anything [laughs]. I don’t have no loyalty to any particular thing. Sometimes I’ll do something in Logic, sometimes it gets recorded because I’ll want to use a technique in another program. Real simple. Real simple.
Just whatever makes the sound that you need to make?
MOOR MOTHER: Yeah [laughs].
Jason Moran’s on this record! How did you two connect?
MOOR MOTHER: Well, you know, I’m pretty… in my mind, and some people’s minds, I’m out here on the jazz circuit lighting a fire with my band Irreversible Entanglements. So when it comes to jazz cats, we know each other. We come together, we see each other play, we respect each other, we understand what each other has given and also how they inspire within the jazz community. So that was a no-brainer, to hit up the great Jason Moran. And I know he’s — I know what he does, you know? It’s not like… I’m not reaching out to people…well, at first I didn’t know Justmadnice so much, but we worked together so well, that that was an easy friendship, and they live in Philadelphia and we’ve worked, we’ve been to different spots in the country performing live improv together. But most of the people I already know and have met in real life. Or shared a bill with.
Jason has a lot bigger ears than I think people realize. He had a band with Mary Halvorson, which I would never have predicted as a combination.
MOOR MOTHER: I’m not surprised. He’s a scholar, he’s a historian. I would put nothing past who he would work with and the avenues and things that he goes into.
When I saw the first single was called “Woody Shaw,” I was really excited, because he’s someone I love who I kind of have to preach to people about — he’s not a name that’s recognized the way he should be. What does his work mean to you?
MOOR MOTHER: Aw, man, that would be my trumpet player, Aquilles Navarro, put me on to Woody Shaw. I mean, it’s a collective story, you know? It’s about what so many of these jazz musicians have went through and innovated and given, you know, to what we know. And this is kind of like — just an offering of sweetness to the pioneers, to the people that their energies came to sit with me as I’m processing this and putting this intention forward, and Woody Shaw was just so futuristic. One of the first names that came to sit with me, as I decided to do this project. There’d be a lot of these kind of characters, these people that would push me or make it really easy — to move with ease with the poem, with the song, you know. So yeah.
You made that video with the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra — was that part of a larger thing? Is there a future project coming?
MOOR MOTHER: Yeah, we’ll do a show and collaborate in the future. I don’t kind of meet people, what do you call it… I don’t meet people as disposable or something like this. If you meet me, and we have a kinship, oh, you know [laughs], no need to worry, you know what I mean? I’ve got you in my web. I’m sticky.
There’s another track on here that’s dedicated to Amina Claudine Myers, and she’s like Jason in that she’s so deeply entwined with jazz history and the roots of the music.
MOOR MOTHER: Are you kidding me? Amina Claudine Myers is everything to me. I had the opportunity to honor her at the Carnegie Hall in Pittsburgh with Nicole Mitchell and Jason Moran, and I was able to write a poem for her and read it. So I wanted to incorporate that. She’s my all-time shining star. She’s my sun. I write her emails, she’s so sweet, you know. And the track’s called “So Sweet,” and it’s about this song she’s got, “Jump In The Sugar Bowl.” It’s fun — “Jump, jump, jump in the sugar bowl” — so I took a bit of that, and then I took a bit of her history and wrote about a crush. And then — not a crush of mine, but like the story of the jump in the sugar bowl, just thinking about Amina.
And then I also was thinking about Nipsey Hussle, actually. I didn’t know much of his work, which is unfortunate, until he had passed away, or like right before he passed away. And just thinking about this kind of Crips and Bloods thing, and this street territory amongst the sweetness. That’s one of the ones where I kept my vocal singing on it with Justmadnice and just felt comfortable, because Justmadnice is so easy, and just holds my voice with such care. So yeah, we’ll be out on the road together, definitely, when I tour next year, ’cause I have plans to tour with a band as Moor Mother. I’m really excited to bring these kind of voices alongside mine and honor so many people daily, known and not known, you know?
There’s a new Irreversible Entanglements single. Was that done specifically for Sub Pop, or was it an outtake from the last album sessions?
MOOR MOTHER: We were on tour in Chicago, and I love getting in the studio, and I’m like “Hey, guys, let’s go, we’re gonna get into the studio. I found it, and we have an off day,” and we went in and just recorded. It was unfortunate, we didn’t have our trumpet player, Aquilles Navarro, he was in Panama, so we later sent it to him and he put some overdubs on it and that’s it. And then we had an opportunity with Sub Pop to release a single and we said, “Let’s take two tracks from the Chicago session.” So there’s more tracks from the session — we just picked two. It was a fun session.
That group’s voice has evolved significantly over the three albums. Where is it going next, do you think?
MOOR MOTHER: Oh my goodness. We’re gonna go so hard on our next record, it’s absolutely like — I can’t even take it. It’s pandemonium. Okay? It’s like, oh my goodness. The next record’s gonna be so rich. We have so much music that we want to share with the world, it’s nuts. People are not gonna be able to even guess what we’re gonna put out next. And that’s how it is. No prerequisite, we’re gonna keep moving, but yeah, this next album, oh my goodness.
You’re on tour in Europe now, and you’re teaching in California as well. How has the increasing embrace of your art, and all the professional opportunities that that’s brought, impacting your capacity for activism? How are you staying involved on the ground in Philadelphia?
MOOR MOTHER: Because I travel so much, I’m not able to stay on any ground. But my work speaks for itself. You know? Any performance, any poem, any songs, like, I’m in so many bands, the message gets out there. And the message is fresh and it’s poignant and it’s recognized and it’s seen by other artists, by the audience. I make people really look into themselves and question, so my voice is always gonna be this anchor of love and positivity. And history, and future, always. I just got finished — we just did a huge installation, my collective Black Quantum Futurism, at Documenta 15. We did a performance, we got all kinds of our work in the subway all around the city. So we do these kind of large-scale installation practices everywhere we go. To me it’s not some compartmentalized structures of life; it is life. This is how we move.
How do you feel you’re evolving as a writer? I always wonder when I talk to other writers, can you feel yourself getting better? I feel like I can sometimes. I can read old shit from 20 years ago, and I can tell it’s me, but I wouldn’t say things the same way now. Do you have that impression of your own work?
MOOR MOTHER: It’s kinda hard to say, because I work a bit ahead of the industry system. So you know, the time that I get to put out what I’m writing right now is already gonna be two years from now. So it gets a bit frustrating in that kind of way. Because like I said, I already got my next album done, and then I’m working on the next album after that, so I still have to wait and so it kinda confuses and blurs things, the way that I work, but I’m going to take a break, try to catch up with myself [laughs] and just write and write and write, but I want to take the time and do that, just finishing up all this work that I’ve completed. But one thing — I don’t have my writing on a timeline, so I’ll use anything. I’ll use something from 1999. I don’t have any problems with that. If it works, it works.
I feel like you’re perceived in different ways by different communities. The jazz community thinks of you one way, the Pitchfork readership thiks of you as something else, people who’ve only heard 700 Bliss or your record with billy woods may think of you some other way, the fine art world thinks of you as one of them… do you feel like there’s a way to unify your various artistic aspects, or does it not worry you?
MOOR MOTHER: It’s gonna happen. It’s gonna happen. I love to unite. It’s always been something that I’ve done. I love to bring communities together. When I was a young kid, I liked punk rock, but I was also a popular kid. You know? So in the popular group, punk rock was, no one was listening to that. No one was hanging with the kids with the spiked hair and whatever clothes, but I was, and it was always this divide. But by the end of the semester, I was able to bring the interests together, and we all liked to get together and party and have fun. So it doesn’t matter what kind of side you were on, once we realized our commonalities, everything worked. So the cool kids were like, “Oh, my god, you’re so cool,” this kind of thing that naturally happened — it wasn’t like I was someone to take credit for it. It was just, “Hey, they do this too. Oh, word? Oh…”
And so that’s what you’re doing in the art world now?
MOOR MOTHER: I mean, I’m just saying, I have a talent for that. You know, I’m just [too] busy to do anything, to be honest, right now. So I’m working to get to a place where I’m gonna slow down a little bit and start connecting dots.
And now, new albums!
Jason Palmer - "Falling In"
Jason Palmer is a virtuoso trumpeter who should be much better known. Both in terms of technical ability and sound, he reminds me of the late Woody Shaw; it seems like there’s nothing he can’t make the trumpet do, but his focus is on complex, high-flying (but never showboat-y) solos. This set of music, recorded in Central Park on May 31, 2021, pays tribute to the free Black inhabitants of Seneca Village, a town that was dispersed via the 19th century equivalent of eminent domain in 1857, so that the park could be built. Palmer is joined by tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Edward Perez, and drummer Johnathan Blake.
“Falling In” opens the concert, and the album, and it’s immediately apparent that the performance is not only live, but outdoors, as a plane flies overhead beginning about a minute into Palmer’s unaccompanied intro. Once the band comes in, the piece gets rolling quick and hard. Blake is a rock ’em sock ’em drummer I’ve seen live several times, with the late organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, with tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and leading his own group with Turner and Chris Potter on saxes. He locks in with Perez here and they set up a hard-driving shuffle groove that lets both Palmer and Turner go off at length (the piece is nearly 15 minutes long). (From Live From Summit Rock In Seneca Village, out now via Giant Step Arts.)
London Odense Ensemble - "Jaiyede Suite, Pt. 1"
This is a very interesting London-Denmark collaboration. Saxophonist Tamar Osborn, who’s in Collocutor and has also worked with Emanative and done session work for Spiritualized, Kelis, and Sharon Lewis, joins up with keyboardist Al MacSween (who’s worked with Maisha and Sarathy Korwar), guitarist Jonas Munk, bassist Martin Rude, and drummer Jacob Skøtt. Munk and Skøtt are both members of the instrumental psych-rock band Causa Sui, and Rude and Skøtt and Osborn have also recorded a sax-bass-drums trio album. Anyway, this record is a collection of psychedelic jazz-rock jams, beginning with the two-part, nearly 18-minute “Jaiyede Suite.” Munk’s guitar lurks in the background mostly, allowing MacSween and rack upon rack of effects to spray cosmic vibes in all directions as Rude and Skøtt lay down an almost krautrock beat; Osborn drifts in and out on clouds of reverb, shifting from baritone sax to flute as the mood takes her. (From Jaiyede Sessions Vol. 1, out now via El Paraiso.)
Theo Croker - "To Be We" (Feat. Jill Scott)
Trumpeter Theo Croker is an interesting guy. He’s the grandson of the late Doc Cheatham, who was famous for his role in preserving traditional New Orleans jazz. Croker, on the other hand, always has his eye on the horizon. His music does much more than just combining hip-hop and R&B aesthetics with jazz; he creates an entire soundworld all his own, where programmed beats and sampled-sounding keyboards provide a platform for thoughtful, romantic trumpet solos, themselves fed through effects.
On this track, he’s joined by legendary neo-soul singer Jill Scott, who delivers an abstract, poetic performance that’s half sung and half recited, as the trumpet shadows her. Sometimes Croker’s repeating a simple melody, sometimes he’s soloing without seeming at all interested in fireworks or showboating. Meanwhile, the musical backdrop incorporates a hundred different sounds, from operatic wails to sudden surges of strings to dubby echo to moods that seem inspired more by Björk circa Vespertine than by jazz or soul. This is music that can only be described with that one word — you can’t pin it down any more than that, and that’s its greatest strength. (From Love Quantum, out now via Star People Nation/Sony Masterworks.)
Mark de Clive-Lowe & Friends - "Astral Travelling"
Keyboardist and producer Mark de Clive-Lowe has been blending jazz, funk, and various forms of electronic music for a long while; he was part of the London scene in the late ’90s and ’00s but moved to LA about a decade ago. On this album, recorded live at the Blue Whale club, he assembles a band that includes saxophonist Teodross Avery, bassist Corbin Jones, drummer Tommaso Cappellato, and percussionist Carlos Niño, along with vocalist Dwight Trible, to interpret music from Pharoah Sanders’ Impulse! releases of the early 1970s. What makes this exciting is that he’s not interested in simply re-creating the sounds of those classic albums; he’s happy to insert zapping synths and other surprising sounds into his own playing, and the rest of the band, most definitely including Trible, goes off; the singer’s deep baritone cuts right through the music when he’s on the mic. “Astral Travelling,” though, a track from 1971’s Thembi that’s been sampled many times by DJs, is entirely instrumental, allowing de Clive-Lowe and Avery to journey far into the cosmos. (From Freedom: Celebrating The Music Of Pharoah Sanders, out now via Soul Bank Music.)
Kirk Knuffke Trio - "Stars Go Up"
The differences between the trumpet and the cornet are subtle — I always feel like the cornet has a slightly out-of-tune sound, but in a good way — but cornet players are fiercely loyal to their horns. Kirk Knuffke is one of the preeminent 21st century cornet players; I’ve heard him in what feels like dozens of contexts over the years, and this is one of his most adventurous groupings to date. He’s teamed up with pianist Matthew Shipp and bassist Michael Bisio for a double CD’s worth of improvised pieces that have the feel of chamber music vignettes. Part of that comes from Shipp’s piano style, which is extremely heavy here, every note ringing out like he’s in an empty cathedral. Part of it is Bisio’s rumbling bass, which locks in with the piano in a way that’s kind of amazing even when you reflect that these two men have been playing together for over a decade. Another part is the absence of drums, which allows for a more fluid, internally determined sense of time — there’s no beat driving these guys, but the music still moves forward with a restless energy.
The 14 tracks range from quite long (the opening title piece is nearly 12 minutes) to surprisingly short; “Paint Pale Silver” lasts less than three minutes. “Stars Go Up” is somewhere in the middle, and lets each man contribute something brilliant, individually and together, during its five and a half minutes. It opens with gentle kissing noises from Knuffke, but Shipp comes in quick, dropping his hands onto the keys like each finger weighs ten pounds, and Bisio bounces from foot to foot between them as the cornet grows ever more vivid and active as the music goes on. (From Gravity Without Airs, out now via Tao Forms.)
Tarbaby - "Dance Of The Evil Toys"
Tarbaby is a collective trio formed about 15 years ago by pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Nasheet Waits. Each man brings in compositions, but they also dole out unexpected covers — on 2010’s The End Of Fear, they interpreted the Bad Brains’ “Sailin’ On” and Fats Waller’s “Lonesome Me” back to back. They frequently bring in horn players, too. Trumpeters Ambrose Akinmusire and Nicholas Payton, and tenor saxophonists JD Allen and Stacy Dillard, have all appeared on previous records, and alto saxophonist Oliver Lake is their most frequent guest. He’s been on their last two, Ballad Of Sam Langford and Fanon, and he’s on this one, as is trumpeter Josh Lawrence.
The album begins with a version of Trudy Pitts’ “Blessed One,” on which Evans sings(!), and ends with an achingly slow, entirely instrumental take on Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows In April.” In between, we get several compositions from each group member, two from Lake, and one from Lawrence. This is the second time Revis has recorded “Dance Of The Evil Toys”; it also opened the last Branford Marsalis album, 2019’s The Secret Between The Shadow And The Soul. There, it was a fast burner, with the saxophonist going off; here, Lawrence’s trumpet is shrill and wild, coming at the listener from multiple directions as Evans and Waits break the chords and rhythm into fist-sized chunks. (From Dance Of The Evil Toys, out now via Clean Feed.)
Thandi Ntuli - "Portal Into A New World"
Keyboardist and vocalist Thandi Ntuli is one of South Africa’s most visionary musicians. Her 2018 album Exiled and the 2020 follow-up, a self-titled album recorded live at Jazzwerkstatt in Switzerland, blended the unique jazz styles of her home country with poetry, chamber music (the live album featured a five-piece string section), funk, and more. Blk Elijah & The Children Of Meroë is a loose concept album about returning from exile and exploring the “inner-verse” of one’s heart and psyche. You could maybe compare it to the work of Janelle Monaé in terms of applying sci-fi/fantasy concepts to theories of healing.
The music features a bunch of killer SA players, several of whom have also recorded as leaders, including trumpeter Ndabo Zulu, saxophonist Mthunzi Mvubu, guitarist Keenan Ahrends, bassist Shane Cooper, drummer Sphelelo Mazibuko, and percussionist Nompumelelo Nhlapo. Like her previous work, it has elements of jazz, rock, and soul blended into a unified sound that surges in patient waves. “Portal Into A New World,” one of relatively few totally instrumental tracks, is a kind of Quiet Storm jazz ballad, with Mvubu’s alto sax taking the lead early on, closely shadowed by Zulu’s trumpet as the rhythm section lays down a mellow but powerful groove. But it gets much weirder when Ahrends launches a warped-sounding guitar solo and Mazibuko ramps the beat up considerably. (From Blk Elijah & The Children Of Meroë, out now via Next Music.)
Gard Nilssen Acoustic Unity - "Influx Delight"
Norwegian drummer Gard Nilssen’s Acoustic Unity trio, with bassist Petter Eldh and saxophonist André Roligheten, has been together for almost a decade now. Their previous two studio albums, Firehouse and To Whom Who Buys A Record, were released in 2015 and 2019, and in between those, they put out a triple live CD, Live In Europe, on which they were joined by Swedish saxophonist Fredrik Ljungkvist (of Atomic), and Norwegian saxophonists Kristoffer Berre Alberts (of Cortex) and Jørgen Mathisen (of Krokofant). There are no guests on this, their third studio album and ECM debut. But the trio explore so many different moods and styles that frankly it’s like listening to several different bands take turns in the spotlight. On “Influx Delight,” the melody Roligheten’s playing is uncannily like the late ’60s work of Ornette Coleman on albums like Ornette At 12, The Empty Foxhole, Love Call, and New York Is Now. Eldh’s bass has a Charlie Haden-esque boom, and Nilssen’s playing is light and skittering but at the same time the beat is never implied, it’s always right there and unmistakable, even verging on a Latin groove at multiple points. (From Elastic Wave, out now via ECM.)
Tumi Mogorosi - "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child"
This is only South African drummer Tumi Mogorosi’s second album as a leader, but he’s also a member of Shabaka Hutchings’ group Shabaka And The Ancestors. Like his last album, 2014’s Project ELO (no, not a reference to the ’70s prog-pop band), this disc features a small jazz group — Tumi Pheko on trumpet, Mthunzi Mvubu of the Ancestors on alto sax, Reza Khota on electric guitar, and Dasilu Ndlazi on upright bass — with guest vocalists singing lead on various tracks…and a 10-member choir heard across the entire album.
The choir’s wordless, ascending melodies give the music an effect that brings to mind Kamasi Washington’s The Epic, as well as classic jazz records like Billy Harper’s Capra Black and Andrew Hill’s Lift Every Voice. Mogorosi has an amazing way with a shuffling beat; it sounds like someone shifting their feet in the dirt as they prepare to dance, and the horns float blissfully on top, as the guitar and bass lay down a bed of chords. Pianist Andile Yenana appears on four tracks, including two versions of the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child,” each featuring a different lead vocalist. The first is Siya Mthembu from The Brother Moves On, who delivers the lyrics in a low and resonant voice that brings to mind Dwight Trible as well as Paul Robeson. (From Group Theory: Black Music, out now via Mushroom Hour Half Hour.)
Tyshawn Sorey Trio - "Enchantment"
Drummer and composer Tyshawn Sorey has made several albums with traditional trio lineups — piano, upright bass, drums — both as a leader and a sideman. But this one is unique in his discography, as it displays direct engagement with “the tradition.” The group plays tunes by Duke Ellington, Horace Silver, Bill Evans, Paul Motian, and Muhal Richard Abrams, as well as a version of “Autumn Leaves,” one of the most often-recorded standards of all time. And they do so in a way that respects not only the compositions, but the tradition of jazz performance. There are no attempts at deconstruction here, no distance from the material. These are beautiful songs, and Sorey and his bandmates, pianist Aaron Diehl and bassist Matt Brewer, want you to know that, and know that they love these songs.
Diehl is one of my favorite pianists right now. He has a quality to his playing, both behind singer Cécile McLorin Salvant and as a leader, that I can only describe as “urbane”; he’s deeply engaged with jazz history, not only with Salvant (who unearths long-forgotten but amazing songs from the first half of the 20th century and imbues them with new life and power) but in his work on projects led by trombonist Wycliffe Gordon — tributes to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington — and on Branford Marsalis’s soundtrack to the 2020 Netflix movie Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. On his own albums, he mixes his own tunes with standards and pieces by Prokofiev and Philip Glass. Brewer is a journeyman bassist who can deliver exactly what’s needed in basically any context; he has a deep melodic sense but also a perfect instinct for when to lay back and support Diehl. And Sorey, the leader in the sense that he put this trio together and likely chose all the material, plays a traditional jazz drummer’s role here. He’s never dominant — indeed, he often disappears entirely, letting Diehl float in midair, and sometimes he just plays brushes with incredible gentleness.
The opening version of Silver’s “Enchantment” lets you know exactly what to expect; it begins with Diehl alone, striking chords and extrapolating softly, but when the bassist and drummer come in behind him, the groove is instantly present, swinging hard in a way that lets you know just how steeped Sorey is in Western musical history — there’s hip-hop and funk and swing and even some rock in his playing, but he makes it all work as jazz. This is a beautiful record, one to be absorbed at leisure and at length. (From Mesmerism, out now via 7yeros Music.)