A Mo’ Better Blues For The 21st Century

A Mo’ Better Blues For The 21st Century

First, an announcement: I’m writing another book! My latest book, Ugly Beauty: Jazz In The 21st Century, came out in February and is available everywhere (Esquire called it one of the Best Music Books of 2022, which is nice), and I’ve just signed the contract to write In The Brewing Luminous: The Life And Music Of Cecil Taylor for the German publisher Wolke Verlag. Don’t worry, the book will be in English. It’ll be a cross between a biography and a critical analysis of various phases and aspects of his work, analyzing key albums from his sizable discography and discussing how his music evolved from his professional debut in the mid ’50s to the April 2016 performances at the Whitney Museum which marked the end of his public career. The plan is for it to be out in spring/summer 2024.

Two pieces of very sad news: First, cellist Abdul Wadud died earlier this month at 75. His birth name was Ronald DeVaughn, and he continued to use that name for years when working in the classical world; he was the father of R&B singer Raheem DeVaughn, who announced his passing on social media. He was best known for his work with Julius Hemphill, most notably on albums like Dogon A.D., Coon Bid’ness, and Raw Materials And Residuals, and for a long creative relationship with Arthur Blythe — he was in Blythe’s band throughout the 1970s and early ’80s, playing on classics like Lenox Avenue Breakdown, Illuminations, and the twin live albums The Grip and Metamorphosis. He also released a solo album, By Myself, which is scheduled for reissue sometime in the future, and recorded two excellent trio discs in the ’80s with pianist Anthony Davis and flutist James Newton, I’ve Known Rivers and Trio2. Wadud was an absolute master of the cello who not only expanded its role in jazz, but inspired other players; he was interviewed by filmmaker Joel Wanek and fellow cellist Tomeka Reid in 2014, and that conversation is well worth reading.

Then, as this column was being prepared, the word began to spread that trumpeter Jaimie Branch had died at 39. Branch was a genuine visionary, a brilliant trumpeter whose music was stunning on first listen and revealed greater and greater depth the more time you spent with it. She’d been a fixture on the Chicago scene since the mid-2000s, a member of multiple short-lived groups that took from free jazz and punk rock in equal measure, but it was her 2017 debut as a leader, Fly Or Die, that brought her to the world’s attention. I called that album the best jazz record of 2017, and I stand by that. As I said then, “Her playing is free and abstract, swirling around and wafting like a breeze through the storm created by the band. [Drummer Chad] Taylor in particular never seems to let up on the groove, and [Tomeka] Reid’s cello and [Jason] Ajemian’s bass give the music an African/American throb like you hear on Julius Hemphill’s early albums Dogon A.D. and Coon Bid’ness…one of the most amazing artistic statements I’ve heard in forever. An absolute must-hear.” Amazingly, the follow-up, 2019’s Fly Or Die II: Bird Dogs Of Paradise, was even better. The opening track, “Prayer For Amerikkka Pt. 1 & 2,” was a crawling blues dirge, featuring Branch singing/praying about racism, gentrification, and the systemic abuse of refugees and migrants, with her band members chiming in like a street-corner Greek chorus. And when she turned back to the horn, her playing was white-hot and lyrical in a way that could burst your heart. Watch this video, recorded in Switzerland (it’s on the double CD Fly Or Die Live), and remember a once-in-a-generation talent, gone far, far too soon.

In June’s column, I talked about three great jazz movies from the late ’80s and early ’90s: Round Midnight, Bird, and Mo’ Better Blues. Well, there’s a new entry in the genre: Learn To Swim, the debut feature by Canadian director Thyrone Tommy. It stars relative newcomers Thomas Antony Olajide and Emma Ferreira as Dezi and Selma, a saxophonist and singer whose doomed romance is explored in both present and past tense. (It took me a while to figure out it was half being told in flashback, though it was much clearer on a second viewing.)

It’s set in Toronto and is shot really beautifully by cinematographer Nick Haight. Like Mo’ Better Blues, the images are full of lush, vivid colors, putting a layer of romance on top of the performances and the whole atmosphere surrounding the characters, almost all of whom are young, up-and-coming musicians whose romantic and professional lives bleed together. But Tommy and Haight make a surprising choice to shoot the whole movie in an almost square aspect ratio, which has the effect of enclosing things and pulling you in; every shot feels like a close-up, even when it’s not. This is particularly effective during scenes where we’re pretty much inside Dezi’s head as he’s battling his grief and guilt over Selma.

It’s not a perfect movie; its oblique, interwoven narrative structure is sometimes too vague about what’s actually happening, and Dezi is kind of a prick. The tragedy at the heart of the story is pretty much entirely of his own making, and you may wind up sympathizing more with the people who repeatedly express exasperation with him than with him. Still, it’s a good and involving story and the characters have a lot of depth, and the music is really good. When a movie is about musicians, and you don’t like the music “they’re” making, it can be a fatal flaw. That’s not the case here.

Learn To Swim is on Netflix now after playing multiple festivals last year. I interviewed Thyrone Tommy by Zoom the other week, so here’s a transcript of our conversation.

Let’s start with the title. What does it mean?

THYRONE TOMMY: The title is always an interesting story. Me and the co-writer, Marni Van Dyk, one of the biggest and first inspirations that came was a poem by Stevie Smith, “Not Waving But Drowning,” and from there we called the [writing] exercise “learn to swim,” and it worked for the exercise. Then as we wrote the feature we tried a few other titles that we thought were more traditional, but they never seemed to fit. The phrase that we first came to, Learn To Swim, we just went with it and didn’t look back.

Dezi is not a very likable protagonist. Did you feel like that was a gamble, asking the viewer to travel with this guy who’s kind of an asshole a lot of the time?

TOMMY: I feel like Dezi is very, very confident. There’s obviously an arrogance to his personality, but it’s also something that Selma shares as well. It’s one of the things that connect them. They’re both very headstrong people, and too headstrong for their own good sometimes. So really it was about understanding these two people as individuals in the relationship, and having the audience really relate to the scenario more so than to Dezi and Selma.

The obvious parallel to this movie, for me, is Mo’ Better Blues, but that was very much a romantic fantasy of the jazz life, where your movie is more honest — the musicians are struggling, talking about getting paid in tens and twenties, Dezi gives up playing to repair instruments, etc. How did this story come to you?

TOMMY: I think going into the romanticism of being a musician almost parallels the romanticism people have about filmmaking, in the sense that being a filmmaker is like — a lot of it is very much sitting in your apartment and writing and working on projects, working on small projects, working on independent things, building a community and trying to get your things out there. And so, you know, the musicians that I know and the ones that exist here in the city, really – we’re taking in their stories, seeing a lot of their process, how they navigate their industry, and really trying to capture that in a way that felt organic and felt truthful to who they are and to what being a musician feels like, especially in a city like this one.

How did you cast the roles? Were you looking for a singer and a group of musicians who could act, or actors who could convincingly “play an instrument” on camera?

TOMMY: It’s a bit of a complex haywire. Dezi, played by Thomas Antony Olajide, I worked with him before on a short film I did called Mariner. We attended a conservatory called the CFC, the Canadian Film Centre, together, and he was in the short version of this film originally, so he plays saxophone a bit — maybe not with the same proficiency that he does in the film, but for us it was really about finding people who had musicality to them and could also be really, really good actors, ’cause the performance was going to be first. As far as Emma Fereira, she’s a very, very talented actor, but she also sings beautifully, so that helped a lot. And then you know with the other musicians in the film, they’re all actors of different musical capabilities, but we took them and gave them their instruments and said go off, learn this, master this, work through this piece and then come back. It was a very interesting process.

I’m very interested in the visual choices you made. Why did you go with this almost square aspect ratio, instead of the widescreen that people would usually opt for?

TOMMY: Me and my cinematographer, Nick Haight, we had shot a few things together, like the film I just mentioned, Mariner, was in that widescreen aspect, and so when we came to making this feature, we were really looking for how we could challenge ourselves, how we could try new things, how we could expand on our relationship and our dialogue. A lot of the references we were looking at were these ’70s album covers, or Blue Note, these funk and soul albums. And looking at these covers that are incredibly shot and looking at the framing and the blocking that’s inside of them, we thought, “Is there a way to do this with movement? Is there a way to do this inside our story?” And once we made that decision to go in that direction, I think there was a bit of hesitation at first, but the first day that we went and shot and we saw what we were doing, we just decided there was no turning back.

Also, you often frame your characters way at the bottom of the screen with a bunch of empty space, like sky or the side of a building, above them. What are you trying to say with that kind of framing?

TOMMY: I think one of the things that we also made a decision on quite early on is that we didn’t want to run away from where we are. We are in this incredible city of Toronto, it’s a place that acts as a backdrop to a lot of places, plays a lot of different cities all the time, every city but itself. So allowing these places to also act as characters, to also act as a foundation for our characters – these are spaces that I frequent, the musicians who play in our film frequent, and we really wanted to explore that, have that be a part of the film as well.

That was something I noticed, was that even though it’s set in Toronto, you didn’t do any cheesy establishing shots of big landmarks or anything.

TOMMY: CN Tower shots. [laughs]

Exactly. There wasn’t any of that. I was wondering where it was set, and when Dezi said that he was going to Seattle, I thought, oh, maybe this is Vancouver, and then at the end I saw it was filmed in Toronto. But it gives the sense of a real city where people actually live, but maybe by not being overtly Canadian in that traditional, expected way, it paints a different side of Canada.

TOMMY: Yeah. I mean, Toronto’s a tale of two cities, I always say. It always feels like there’s a duality to being here, ’cause you can live in a certain culture and a certain group and frequent certain bars and there’ll be a bar two doors down that’s a completely different world, and it exists in this duality. So for some people watching the film who are from here, some of these places are foreign, they’ve never stepped foot in them or hung out in that area of town and for other people, they’re so used to it, it’s common, like, oh, I drink there all the time, I go there all the time. it’s interesting getting those parallel [responses] from people.

It’s an almost entirely nonwhite cast, and you use a lot of filters and things, there are a lot of colors reflecting on people’s skin. Tell me about the lighting and photographic choices involved in that.

TOMMY: Nick is not BIPOC, but he’s a photographer in his own right and you know, we’ve worked together for a few years now, I think our first collaboration came in 2015, so we’ve had a lot of dialogue and a lot of suggestions – I’ve learned, he’s learned on film and digitally now, and it’s something that we never had a problem with. It’s something we’ve experimented with and worked on, and it just feels natural now…it felt very natural in the beginning, but the more we’ve done, the less of a dialogue it is.

A lot of the story is left vague; there are scenes where Dezi is clearly imagining things, so you’re not sure what’s real and what’s in his mind, which is interesting. And the story is non-linear. Tell me how you arrived at this story structure.

TOMMY: Yeah, it started as an exercise, and really the first short film version of it was very meditative. It was very much in Dezi’s head. And the film itself is always from Dezi’s perspective; it’s always him being this sort of [unreliable] narrator that we follow along through the different time periods. But the dual time periods happened when we started working on the feature, and we realized that in order for anyone to really understand the grief that Dezi was going through, we needed to meet the source of that, and that meant meeting Selma. And once we introduced Selma into the story more fully as a realized character, that’s when you get the second time period that’s happening, the past and the present, and the trick for us was we wrote out both versions in a very linear fashion and then we just cross-referenced where we wanted them to be. So as you read the script, the script is out of order, so to speak, this nonlinear approach is on the page. We made very deliberate choices and transitions and moved between the past and the future and vice versa.

What was it like filming this, with COVID restrictions and everything? I notice that a lot of the scenes are just one or two characters. Was that an adaptation that you had to make, or was it always gonna be that way?

TOMMY: Well, the film itself is a micro-budget film, it was shot for less than a quarter of a million dollars, so it was always a very intimate affair. But for us, COVID didn’t really change too much in our approach to the film. Obviously, crowd scenes are a little tough to do, since we shot in between the lockdowns that were taking place here in Toronto. It was really — one of the big things I think was the testing. We tested twice a week on set, and that was always something that was an experience for everyone, ’cause everyone was just sort of sequestered together all the time. Even when you went home, you just kind of kept to yourself because you didn’t want to infect yourself and bring it into the space. So it changed a lot of the ways that we would have normally approached filming, but it didn’t change much of the story and what we were gonna do visually and story-wise with the film.



Art Hirahara - "Symbiosis"

Pianist Art Hirahara (who also released Ascent, a three-track digital EP of solo performances, this year) continues to evolve his personal voice and his compositional skills on his eighth album. It features longtime collaborators saxophonist Donny McCaslin, bassist Boris Kozlov, and drummer Rudy Royston, and includes eight of his own compositions, one each by Kozlov and Royston, and a version of Wayne Shorter’s “Lost,” from his album The Soothsayer (recorded in 1965 but not released until 1979, for no reason I can understand). “Symbiosis” is a title that perfectly reflects the dynamic among the four men here. Each one is dependent on the others to help create a fully expressive statement — the way they come together on the really beautiful opening melody is fantastic. McCaslin steps away pretty quickly, though, and Hirahara takes a lush, florid solo that’s incredibly romantic without tipping over into histrionics. When the saxophonist comes back in, he takes the energy up another notch or two, with Royston delivering his trademark precision snare barrages and perfectly placed cymbal strikes. (From Verdant Valley, out now via Posi-Tone.)


Walt Weiskopf - "Black Diamond"

Saxophonist Walt Weiskopf has been on the scene for four decades. His earliest recorded credit on Discogs is from an album by the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra released in 1984, and he was working with the Buddy Rich big band before that. You may have seen him as part of Steely Dan’s touring lineup; he’s been with them for many years. He’s also written seven books on jazz improvisation, two of which have the hilarious-to-me title 16 Moderately Challenging Solos (one for tenor, one for alto).

Anyway, for the last few years, Weiskopf has been focusing his attention as a leader on his European Quartet, with pianist Carl Winther, bassist Andreas Lang, and drummer Anders Mogensen. This is their fifth release in as many years, and it’s a hard-swinging, melodically inventive record with a ton of energy. Weiskopf writes a lot of tunes, and he likes to challenge himself and his bandmates. “Black Diamond” is not a jazz arrangement of the Kiss song, thank fuck; it’s a reference to skiing, and there are a lot of twists and turns and bumps as the band makes their way downhill at speed. Winther’s solo is extremely reminiscent of McCoy Tyner’s work with John Coltrane, but Mogensen gives the beat an extra kick. And the leader is in top form, slipping and sliding and blowing past his bandmates without ever leaving them behind. (From Diamonds And Other Jewels, out now via AMM.)


Masao Nakajima Quartet - "Third Plane"

Kemo Sabe is another album in the BBE label’s J Jazz Masterclass series of individual titles, tracks from which had previously been showcased on one of their three (to date) superb J Jazz compilations. It’s the debut from pianist Masao Nakajima, joined by saxophonist Toshiyuki Honda, bassist Osamu Kawakami, and drummer Donald Bailey. Bailey was well known for working alongside organist Jimmy Smith on multiple Blue Note albums, but in the late ’70s he was living in Japan and doing sessions with Japanese artists. This is something of an out-of-time record; it’s from 1979, when fusion was at its peak in Japan, but like the music players like McCoy Tyner and Woody Shaw were making at the time, it’s a straight acoustic date that concedes nothing to electronic instruments or rock or funk rhythms. Nakajima is a traditionalist piano player who sounds very much in the mode of Bud Powell on faster numbers, though he has a more romantic side on ballads. “Third Plane” is somewhere in the middle, a bouncing blues tune with a big melodic riff from Honda and a thick bass line from Kawakami. Bailey’s drumming is consistently surprising; he throws little rolls and sudden bomblike accents in when the saxophonist is soloing, as the leader tries to keep everyone on the same page. (From Kemo Sabe, out now via BBE.)


Harish Raghavan - "In Tense"

Bassist Harish Raghavan is a crucial figure in a certain corner of the current jazz scene; he’s been anchoring trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s band for more than a decade, and also works with saxophonist Walter Smith III, vibraphonist Joel Ross and drummer Eric Harland, among others. This is his second album as a leader, after 2019’s Calls For Action. The band includes Ross, Harland, guitarist Charles Altura, and scary-talented multi-instrumentalist Morgan Guerin on tenor sax, bass clarinet, and EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument). The title track opens with a massive droning roar from Raghavan, summoning the band; Altura strums gently and Ross drops gentle patterns into place as Harland delivers precise but devastating strikes. The first solo goes to Guerin, who makes the EWI sound like a prog-rock synthesizer, shimmering off in space. When the rhythm section picks up, Ross steps forward for a delicate but emphatic statement of his own. Through it all, Raghavan’s bass is a steady presence, like a redwood tree growing out of the middle of the studio floor. (From In Tense, out now via Whirlwind.)


Allison Miller & Carmen Staaf - "New York Landing"

Pianist Carmen Staaf and drummer Allison Miller have been working together in a variety of contexts since 2015. Though it was interrupted by the pandemic, they maintained a schedule of monthly “lab sessions” where they’d get together to share and explore new ideas; that led to the 2018 album Science Fair, which featured bassist Matt Penman and guest appearances from trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens. Staaf also joined Miller in a project the drummer co-led with violinist Jenny Scheinman, Parlour Game. Nearness, though, features just the two of them. Piano-drums duo sessions are relatively rare, and this one is both unique and consistently compelling. Staaf is a thoughtful, swinging pianist with a traditionalist feel, but she’s willing to venture pretty far out at times, too. Miller jumps around professionally from jazz to folk, country, and rock — she’s toured and recorded with Ani DiFranco, Natalie Merchant, and Brandi Carlile — and she’s got a sharp, assertive style behind the kit, keeping things light and swinging but occasionally tossing in a forceful snare roll or a tumbling tom pattern that gives the music more whomp than it might have in someone else’s hands. On “New York Landing,” Staaf’s heavy, bluesy playing is perfectly matched by Miller’s powerful drumming, and when the two get to trading off phrases, the energy level goes up into the red. (From Nearness, out now via Sunnyside.)


Al Foster - "Open Plans"

I first started paying attention to Al Foster when I heard his drumming in one of the greatest bands to ever stride the earth: Miles Davis’ funk-metal septet with guitarists Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas, bassist Michael Henderson, percussionist Mtume, and a string of saxophonists (Dave Liebman, Sonny Fortune, Sam Morrison). That’s him on Agharta, Pangaea, and Dark Magus, as well as portions of On The Corner, Big Fun, and Get Up With It. He stayed in touch with Davis when the trumpeter was holed up in his apartment for five years, and played with him again when he returned to the stage in 1981 (check out the live We Want Miles if you’ve never heard it).

But those were atypical situations for him; Foster is an extraordinarily swinging bop drummer at heart. I never saw him with Davis, but I did see him in 1997 with saxophonist Joe Henderson and bassist George Mraz, and he was amazing; as minimalist and disciplined as Andrew Cyrille, but as swinging as Max Roach or anyone else you’d care to name. In recent years, he’s been recording as a leader for Smoke Sessions. This is his second album for them, his fifth overall, and it features a pretty great band: Nicholas Payton on trumpet, Chris Potter on saxophones, Kevin Hays on piano and Fender Rhodes, and Vicente Archer on bass. The tunes are spacious, with plenty of room for everyone to be heard, including Foster. And the closer you listen to him, the more impressed you’ll be. Just check out the tiny little hi-hat dings he’s dropping in around the four-minute mark in “Open Plans.” They’ll make you run the track back to the beginning and listen all over again, focusing on just him. (From Reflections, out now via Smoke Sessions.)


Billy Drummond & Freedom Of Ideas - "Frankenstein"

Trombonist Grachan Moncur III died on June 3, on his 85th birthday. He lived in Newark, NJ, 10 minutes from me by train, and I always meant to interview him, but never got around to it. In fact, I emailed the Institute of Jazz Studies (part of Rutgers University’s Newark campus) on June 3 to see if they could help me set up an interview. Oh, well.

I mention all that because Billy Drummond and his band — saxophonist Dayna Stephens, bassist Dezron Douglas, and pianist Micah Thomas — have recorded one of Moncur’s best-known compositions, “Frankenstein” (originally performed on Jackie McLean’s 1964 album One Step Beyond) on Valse Sinistre. This is Drummond’s first album as a leader since 1996, and it’s great. He’s an in-demand drummer who’s played on well over 200 sessions since making his recorded debut in 1989. Here, he’s in an Art Blakey-esque position, leading a group of younger players through bebop chestnuts (“Little Melonae”), a rarely recorded Carla Bley composition (the title piece), and “Frankenstein.” On the latter track, Drummond maintains a choppy but constantly moving rhythm as Stephens plays the almost snake-charmer-ish melody and Thomas and Douglas fill in the gaps between them. (From Valse Sinistre, out now via Cellar Live.)


The Pyramids - "Mogho Naba (King Of Kings)"

At the beginning of the ’70s, Cecil Taylor was a visiting professor at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. (He also taught at the University of Wisconsin and at Glassboro State in New Jersey, during this period.) Part of his work at Antioch involved forming the Black Music Ensemble, a group that allowed student musicians to learn from and play with Taylor and his primary musical partners at that time, alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and drummer Andrew Cyrille.

One of those students was a young saxophonist, Idris Ackamoor. He and two musical partners, flutist Margaux Simmons and bassist Kimathi Asante, joined the Black Music Ensemble. They also obtained permission (and funding) from the college to travel first to Paris and then to Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda, where they spent seven months learning African spiritual practices, participating in drumming circles and buying instruments. When they returned to Ohio, they were playing African-derived free jazz and putting on highly ritualistic shows reminiscent of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Sun Ra Arkestra (costumes, face paint, chanting, lots of percussion) but also their own thing.

They released three independent albums — Lalibela, King Of Kings, and Birth/Speed/Merging — between 1973 and 1976, all of which have been out of print for decades but have now been compiled, along with a 1975 live set from the Bay Area TV station KQED, into a 4CD box. “Mogho Naba (King Of Kings)” gives a good sense of their style; Ackamoor’s wailing sax is balanced by Simmons’ forceful flute, while Asanti’s electric bass and percussion from Hekaptah and Donald Robinson keep the rhythm churning. (From AOMAWA: The 1970s Recordings, out now via Strut.)


Kokoroko - "Age Of Ascent"

I have been waiting so long for this album. Back in 2017, Shabaka Hutchings curated the compilation We Out Here as a kind of introduction to the London jazz scene, and the last track was “Abusey Junction,” a simmering Afrobeat-jazz workout from Kokoroko. After that, they put out a four-song EP and two single tracks, “Carry Me Home” and “Baba Ayoola,” but all those did was make me want a full-length release more. Well, it’s finally here, and it’s fantastic.

The whole album has a drifting, late-summer vibe, like you’re sitting in your apartment staring out the window at people in the street below, celebrating something — you may not know what the occasion is, but you’re gonna put your shoes on and get down there and check it out. “Age Of Ascent” has an almost dreamlike quality, thanks to the simmering blend of Tobi Adenaike-Johnson’s guitar, Yohan Kebede’s keyboards, and Duane Atherley’s bass over Ayo Salawu’s drums and Onome Edgeworth’s percussion. All that creates a soft bed for the horns (Sheila Maurice-Grey on trumpet, Cassie Kinoshi on alto sax, Richie Seivwright on trombone) to roll around on, their lines pulsing and intertwining. This music is more about rhythm than melody; there are no elaborate solos, just interaction. Put it on and drift away. (From Could We Be More, out now via Brownswood.)


JD Allen - "Hammer And Hoe"

In 2016, JD Allen, my favorite living/currently active saxophonist, released Americana: Musings On Jazz And Blues with his longstanding trio of bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. It was a breakthrough for him in several ways. Creatively speaking, it was as deep an album as he’s ever made, personally and musically resonant, with impossibly deep, patient grooves over which he took introspective solos packed with meaning. And it was greeted with extraordinary favor by the press — he was even profiled in The Atlantic.

Allen made two more albums with August and Royston, adding guitarist Liberty Ellman to the group, then changed direction for a while. On 2019’s Barracoon and 2020’s Toys/Die Dreaming (full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes for that one, and there’s a description of the recording session in my book Ugly Beauty: Jazz In The 21st Century), he had a different trio, and 2021’s Queen City was a solo album, but now he’s returned to the blues on Americana Vol. 2, bringing back August and Royston and adding guitarist Charlie Hunter to the roster. Hunter is the perfect addition; his guitar tone has real bite, diving deep into the blues. And he’s as comfortable on more abstract pieces like “Irene (Mother),” a tribute to Allen’s great-grandmother, as on the tender ballad “You Don’t Know Me.”

At times, this album’s take on the blues, which is as much a mood or a spirit as a structure, reminds me of the soundtrack to the 1990 movie The Hot Spot, on which producer Jack Nitzche assembled a band that included John Lee Hooker, Taj Mahal, and Roy Rogers (not the country singer) on guitars, Earl Palmer on drums, and Miles Davis on trumpet to work through abstract, almost dreamlike blues themes. “On “Hammer And Hoe,” named for a book by Thelonious Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley that’s subtitled Alabama Communists During The Great Depression (it’s now on my to-read list), Allen busts out one of his typically concise, riff-like melodies and a passionate but controlled solo, which inspires some stinging, Grant Green-esque soloing from the guitarist. Behind them, August and Royston keep the groove bouncing and rocking. This is music best heard not in a jazz club, but in the kind of bar you have to be told about, where they still let people smoke and you’ll look in vain for a liquor license on the wall. Like its predecessor, Americana Vol. 2 is a deep, beautiful album, perfectly suited to the hot tail end of August and the beginning of autumn. (From Americana Vol. 2, out now via Savant.)


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