Concentrate And Convey The Idea
One of the last live jazz performances I attended, on February 1, 2020, was by a one-off group called Ghidorah that appeared at the Jazz Gallery for two nights and has to my knowledge never reconvened since. They were structured like the three-headed monster that was their namesake, with bassist Eric Wheeler and drummer Rodney Green in back and a trio of tenor saxophonists (with one or another occasionally doubling on soprano or bass clarinet) up front: JD Allen, Stacy Dillard, and the man who put the project together, Marcus Strickland. They played two sets each night, and at the show I caught, Strickland began things with a short discussion of the history of the tenor saxophone and a roll call of legends, including Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Don Byas, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, and paying special tribute to Jimmy Heath, who had died less than two weeks earlier, on January 19.
I’d been listening to Allen, Dillard, and Strickland for almost a decade before that night. Allen is one of my favorite jazz musicians, period; he’s the first artist featured in my book Ugly Beauty: Jazz in the 21st Century. He releases an album a year, and each one is worth your attention. Dillard has only made a couple of albums as a leader, which is a shame, but he’s an ace session player and sideman all around New York. And Strickland has had a wide-ranging career, releasing albums on Fresh Sound, Criss Cross, and Blue Note. But a lot of his work has come out on his own Strick Muzik imprint, including his latest release, The Universe’s Wildest Dream.
The album features his band Twi-Life and a few guests, like guitarist Lionel Loueke and vocalists Christie Dashiell and Ras Stimulant. The core group — keyboardist Mitch Henry, bassist Kyle Miles, and drummer Charles Haynes — first came together on 2016’s Nihil Novi, and worked together again on 2018’s People Of The Sun, both of which were released on Blue Note. Those albums offered a forward-looking blend of jazz, hip-hop, and music from across the Black diaspora, roping in folks like Bilal, Pharoahe Monch, trumpeter Keyon Harrold, and percussionist Weedie Braimah for crucial cameos. Though there’s plenty of live musical interaction on The Universe’s Wildest Dream, it has an even more painstakingly assembled sound, with layers of synth, multi-tracked horns, and overlapping voices and field recordings. Dashiell’s vocals, on “Matter,” were captured in the street while walking home from a Black Lives Matter protest. It’s of a piece with recent work by artists like Kassa Overall, Robert Glasper (with whom Strickland studied at the New School), Theo Croker and others, who see their music not as “jazz” exactly, but part of a much wider and deeper musical river, and don’t see anything weird about incorporating the sounds and vibes of the 21st century into their art.
“I think music is definitely directly tied to technology,” Strickland told me by phone from Florida — he was born in Gainesville, grew up in Miami, and is currently teaching at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. “When music was delivered on steamboats, the music was a certain way, and it was delivered in a certain way. But we now have playlists, so I think people in general, they vibrate a lot with many different styles of music, all at once. And it’s kinda like the soundtrack to people’s lives these days is not to even really think about genres, it’s to think about a playlist. Like, what would be a great playlist for this moment? And that’s how I put together my records these days. So I’m no longer trying to just stay within a genre. I feel that those days are over; I think that’s a marketing tool. Culturally, a lot of different music is connected together. Black American music, that’s where I’m at, and I also like to blend it with diaspora music, music from all over the world, from people who are connected to Africa. You’ve got Afrobeat, you’ve got compa in Haiti, you’ve got mande music from Mali, all those things are part of the DNA that I’ve grown up with, so I’m just trying to represent myself and my generation as much as possible.”
Although certain tracks tackle race and other social issues, the album’s overwhelming message is one of environmental concern. “We can talk about how much money this person needs, or about race, or all kinds of things, but all that stuff is not gonna even exist without the preservation of the balance necessary for life on this planet,” Strickland says. He wants to keep his message positive — the album title, The Universe’s Wildest Dream, is a reference to the confluence of factors that were necessary to make Earth into a livable environment in the first place — but he’s worried that we’re being distracted by bullshit and in the process wasting time that needs to be spent fixing Earth, as reflected in the song “Dust Ball Fantasy,” on which Loueke plays guitar and sings.
“Those little cute stories you’re making up about Mars? You need to give that up right away,” Strickland says. “If you make a refrigerator, that thing breaks down. You make a car, that eventually breaks down. Now if you make a terraforming atmosphere — yeah, that’s gonna break down too. [laughs] So let’s kinda put things in perspective and really concentrate on something worthy of our resources, of our time, of the money of the richest folks on this planet.”
The album is quite short — eight tracks in just 33 minutes. Listening to Strickland and the band make a simple musical statement, extrapolate on it, and close it out with no meandering or aimlessness, I was reminded of the way so many hip-hop songs these days seem to be around two minutes long, sometimes less. Are we in an era of short records? Strickland thinks maybe so, and he’s unbothered by that. “Yeah, I think so, because it’s a reflection of where people are at this moment in time, with the emphasis on playlists. People are like yeah, let me just hear this vibe for a little bit and then get to the next thing. It’s kind of like a DJ set. Also, back in the day, Charlie Parker didn’t need that many minutes to convey music that actually changed the world. So I think we should challenge ourselves in that way as well…when you have that kind of concentration, you don’t really need that much time to convey the idea.”
Watch the video for “Amygdala,” which features dancer Madaline “Mad Linez” Riley in a one-take performance:
Strickland was a fixture on the New York scene for many years, but these days he’s living in Miami. I was curious, given the environmental concerns that dominate the new record, whether he thinks his current home is sustainable. It seems like every time it rains, Miami’s streets flood like the canals of Venice. “South Florida will be underwater not that long from now,” he agrees, “because yeah, it’s very close to sea level. I mean, it wasn’t even land when the people who made it into a town got here. It was swampland, and they filled it in. And underneath us is limestone, so it’s not gonna be above water much longer, with all that’s going on. So that’s definitely something that I feel registers, especially with Floridians, but the political climate here is quite counter to [the reality of] climate change. It’s quite counter to sustainability – there’s a general political stance here that just goes against what is actually needed to save the city… So I’m just doing as much as I can with my little corner of the world, my little piece of the pie, I’m trying to do with the platform that I have what I can towards this cause.”
In addition to his own work, Strickland is a part of bassist Christian McBride’s New Jawn, a pianoless quartet that also features trumpeter Josh Evans and drummer Nasheet Waits. They released a self-titled album in 2018 that featured all original compositions in a much more free and aggressive style than McBride — a genial and swinging player who favors an old-school approach — is typically known for. The New Jawn is an often quite raucous band that draws on the free jazz of Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp and mid ’60s Sonny Rollins. Their new album Prime, out this month, features versions of Coleman’s “Prime,” organist Larry Young’s “Moonchild,” and Rollins’ “East Broadway Run Down,” as well as new pieces by the bandmembers. The McBride original “Head Bedlam” opens the album, and lives up to its title:
“The group has done a whole lot of touring since [the first album], so I feel that getting into the groove of the tunes was far easier than before,” Strickland says. “And yeah, each band after a while becomes a family — you get to know each other, especially on the road, and through knowing each other, you kind of have a different way of interacting musically.
“[There’s] definitely a level of surrendering that needs to happen in order to play that way,” he continues. “I can play straight bebop, too; I can play some gospel music, I can play all kinds of styles, but when playing free…it brings us all together in a way that other types of music can’t. You all just really share the moment and that becomes the composition, instead of having a very strict roadmap.”
Ben Wolfe - "The Heckler"
Bassist Ben Wolfe has a lot of high-powered collaborators on this album: the pool of musicians includes Nicholas Payton on trumpet, Immanuel Wilkins on alto sax, Nicole Glover on tenor sax, Joel Ross on vibes, Addison Frei and Orrin Evans on piano, and Aaron Kimmel on drums. (Wilkins, Ross, and Evans all appeared on Wolfe’s 2019 album Fatherhood, too.) Opening track “The Heckler” features Payton and Wilkins up front, with Ross filling out the arrangement as Wolfe and Kimmel drive the music with a fast, twitchy energy. The particular way in which this quintet swings reminds me of the mid ’60s Miles Davis quintet, and Payton’s trumpet has a little bit of Davis’s darting, jabbing style, too. Ross adds compelling accents, while never feeling the need to assert chords, and Wilkins’ solo is fast and boppish. (From Unjust, out now via Ben Wolfe.)
Simon Moullier - "Empress Of The Sea"
Vibraphonist Simon Moullier is determined to push his instrument out of the background, where it’s frequently a part of mid-sized or larger jazz ensembles, and into the spotlight. His 2021 album, Countdown, was a trio effort, with bassist Luca Allemano and drummer Jongkuk Kim. This time out, he’s leading a quartet; Kim is back, but Alexander Claffy’s on bass, and Lex Korten is at the piano. Given that three of the four instruments are essentially chordal in nature, this is a music that pulses and rolls along, its melodies more surging than winding. The opening track, “Empress Of The Sea,” has a classic sort of hard bop feel, but it also feels like program music — that compositional method used in classical, where the music is supposed to make you think of specific things — painting a sonic portrait of the ocean. At certain quiet but passionate moments, you can hear Moullier singing along with his mallets as he plays. (From Isla, out now via Simon Moullier.)
Roforofo Jazz - "Love In Time"
Roforofo Jazz are a seven-member, Paris-based ensemble who blend jazz, funk, hip-hop and Afrobeat like a cross between Kokoroko and the Roots. The guitar-keyboards-bass-drums grooves are taut and jumpy, and the horn accents from trumpet and baritone saxophone give it grit and soul. Meanwhile, Chicago-born MC Days (aka RacecaR) has a delivery that reminds me somewhat of Yasiin Bey, which is about the best possible option for tracks like these. I wish the horns got more solo space, but the music has bit as well as an inspiring, anthemic energy. “Love In Time” is the opening track, and kicks things off in an explicitly Fela-esque manner, with a lyrical reference to his “Expensive Shit” tossed in along with nods to Cypress Hill and Funkdoobiest. Meanwhile, the music meanders off in a sci-fi direction with a short but excitingly weird synth solo in between horn fanfares. (From Running The Way, out now via OfficeHome.)
Diego Rivera - "La Malinche"
Saxophonist Diego Rivera is pursuing a sound he calls “Chicano Jazz,” honoring his Mexican-American heritage while staying comfortably within the hard bop tradition. His last two albums were called Indigenous and Mestizo, and Mestizo featured the same backing band heard here — pianist Art Hirahara, bassist Boris Kozlov, and drummer Rudy Royston — plus trumpeter Alex Sipiagin. But there’s more to the story behind this record: Rivera made it after spending two months battling Covid, unable to play at all. So it’s the sound of a man grappling with his heritage and his place in American culture, and working his way back into music-making, period. “La Malinche” is a soprano sax ballad named after a Nahua woman who assisted Hernán Cortés in his conquest of the Aztec people. She was also the mother of his son — the first mestizo (a person of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry) — so there’s conflict there, and that’s infused into the music. The melody has a lovely Seventies feel, and Kozlov takes an emotional bowed solo. (From Love & Peace, out now via Posi-Tone.)
Buster Williams - "The Wisdom Of Silence"
Bassist Buster Williams has had an incredibly wide-ranging career. He’s made a ton of straightahead acoustic and hard bop records, but he was also a member of Herbie Hancock’s most experimental band, Mwandishi, and appeared on solo albums by Mwandishi members like Bennie Maupin and Eddie Henderson. On this album, he’s in a reflective mood: the title, Unalome, refers to a Buddhist symbol representing individual transcendence and the path to enlightenment over the course of one’s life. Williams has been a Buddhist for decades, so this is deeply meaningful to him, and the music has a tranquil, meditative quality at times, but the band — saxophonist Patrick Williams, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, pianist George Colligan, drummer Lenny White, and vocalist Jean Baylor — bring too much energy to let it drift into placid ECM territory. On “The Wisdom Of Silence,” Baylor sings wordlessly as the music shimmers like a hovering cloud. (From Unalome, out February 24 via Smoke Sessions.)
Antti Lötjönen - "(for) Better People"
Finnish bassist Antti Lötjönen’s Quintet East — with trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, saxophonists Mikko Innanen and Jussi Kannaste, and drummer Joonas Riippa — released an excellent debut album in 2020. This follow-up is more of a suite than a collection of discrete tunes; it begins with the three-part title track, and there are four more pieces after that that all kind of hang together musically. “(for) Better People” is the penultimate track, and it’s got a very Ornette Coleman-esque feel to the horn arrangements, with Innanen on alto sax and Kannaste on tenor chasing each other through complex but bluesy lines, as Pohjola adds a high-pitched third voice. The Finnish jazz scene has developed a fascinating identity over the last few years, blending free jazz, European folk music, and ideas drawn from electronic music, progressive rock, and more. This is an all-star band featuring some of the biggest names around at the moment, and what they’re putting out is genuinely exciting. (From Circus/Citadel, out February 24 via We Jazz.)
Greg Ward's Rogue Parade - "Beware Of The Oh EEE's"
Alto saxophonist Greg Ward’s first album with his band Rogue Parade, Stomping Off From Greenwood, was a surprising journey into the kind of “free funk” that players like Arthur Blythe, James “Blood” Ulmer and Ronald Shannon Jackson pioneered in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Dion’s Quest, the follow-up, features the exact same lineup — twin electric guitars from Matt Gold and Dave Miller, Matt Ulery on bass, and Quin Kirchner on drums — but the music is heavier and more rocking, verging on metal at times. “Beware of the Oh EEE’s” begins with some seriously doomy, noisy guitar that could have come from Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light-era Earth. It takes more than two minutes for the rest of the band to come in, and when they do, Ward is blowing fierce, anthemic ’70s style “stadium jazz” riffs as the band pounds the downbeats home like carpenters, and the guitars head into a bizarro harmolodic Allman Brothers zone. (From Dion’s Quest, out now via Sugah Hoof.)
Chris Potter - "You Gotta Move"
This is saxophonist Chris Potter’s third album recorded live at the Village Vanguard, following 2004’s Lift and 2007’s Follow The Red Line. The band this time includes Craig Taborn (who played on Follow The Red Line) on piano and Scott Colley (who played on Lift) on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums. If we consider these a series, this is a major departure from the previous two in that Potter didn’t write any of the material himself this time. All six tunes are interpretations, though they’re relatively obscure. The disc opens with an epic — 14 minutes! — take on Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “You Gotta Move,” which most people probably know from the Rolling Stones’ version on Sticky Fingers. Here, it’s a constantly shifting showcase for the whole band, the instantly recognizable melody recurring every few minutes as an anchor point. (From Got The Keys To The Kingdom: Live At The Village Vanguard, out now via Edition.)
Sam Gendel - "Anywhere"
Saxophonist Sam Gendel is a talented player and an intriguing composer who seems to change direction with every new project. I first heard him on 2020’s Satin Doll, an album on which he took apart a bunch of jazz standards. His contributions to the Pino Palladino/Blake Mills album Notes With Attachments and his own 52-track Fresh Bread were equally fascinating. Cookup is a collection of bent and surprising takes on ’90s and ’00s R&B songs like Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody,” Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love,” All-4-One’s “I Swear” and the like. Because I am an irony-poisoned Gen Xer, I don’t understand how someone could do this without a sneer, but Gendel is about 15 years younger than me, so I have no choice to believe that he’s doing it because he really likes these songs. Good for him! The melodies are often beautiful, and Meshell Ndegeocello’s vocals on this version of 112’s “Anywhere” are whispers from the next pillow over. (From Cookup, out now via Nonesuch.)
James Brandon Lewis - "Womb Water"
I’ve been following saxophonist James Brandon Lewis’s career with fascination for almost a decade now, and I’ve never been able to predict his next move. He’s constantly coming up with new bands, new contexts, and challenging himself to put a new spin on his own art, but it’s also recognizably him every time he lifts the tenor to his lips. His breakthrough album, Divine Travels, featured bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver; the follow-up, Days of FreeMan, had Jamaaladeen Tacuma on bass and Rudy Royston behind the kit. For years, he led a killer trio with Luke Stewart on bass and Warren Trae Crudup III on drums, and on 2019’s An Unruly Manifesto expanded that group to include guitarist Anthony Pirog and the late Jaimie Branch on trumpet. Lately, he’s been fronting a quartet with pianist Aruán Ortiz, bassist Brad Jones and drummer Chad Taylor; he’s also made duo albums with Taylor, and co-leads the jazz-poetry project Heroes Are Gang Leaders.
On this record, he’s got an entirely new trio, featuring cellist Chris Hoffman — playing a highly distorted electric instrument — and drummer Max Jaffe, with cornet player Kirk Knuffke and keyboardist Shahzad Ismaily popping up here and there and one track, “Fear Not,” featuring the Messthetics (guitarist Anthony Pirog and Fugazi’s former rhythm section of bassist Joe Lally and drummer Brendan Canty). The music has a slow, marching quality — after a short intro track, there’s a version of Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” that becomes a beautiful duo exchange between Knuffke and Lewis over a massive grinding roar from Hoffman and a kit-rattling backbeat from Jaffe. On “The Blues Still Blossoms” he takes big bites of a simple, emotionally resonant melody and his tone is so huge it recalls Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity. He’s also capable of great tenderness, though, playing in a near-whisper on “Within You are Answers.” “Womb Water” is a Cecil Taylor composition, from his 1984 album Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants). Lewis and his trio play it at half speed, turning the incantatory fanfare of a melody into a simmering dirge. Lewis is moving so fast that who knows if this exact group will ever make a second record, and whatever he does next, I’ll be listening. But Eye Of I is a brilliant, beautiful record that deserves your focused attention. Sit with it; let it seep into your bones. (From Eye Of I, out now via Anti-.)