So You’ve Heard André 3000’s Flute Album — Now What?
Did you listen to André 3000’s 90-minute collection of semi-ambient flute jams, New Blue Sun? I did, and I… didn’t hate it! I mean, he stacked the deck by featuring some of the most interesting players in LA on it, including percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Carlos Niño, keyboardist Surya Botofasina, and others. (Niño has just released an album with South African keyboardist/singer Thandi Ntuli that’s discussed below, and he put out his own album, (I’m Just) Chillin’, On Fire, back in September — André 3000 is one of many guests on that record.) But the music on New Blue Sun is surprisingly blissful, if somewhat meandering, and I think the album could have a real half-life beyond the initial social media explosion if Sony mails a copy to every acupuncturist in the US for in-office play.
It seems like Mr. 3000 (who I saw looking at CDs at the Aum Fidelity label’s merch table at the annual NYC free jazz gathering the Vision Festival back in 2017) has gotten on board with a recent vibe in the Black bohemian/arts community. New Age music and ultra-chill spiritual jazz have been having a moment for a few years now, for a variety of reasons including *looks out window, makes sweeping arm gesture*, and he’s not the only one to pick up the flute, in particular. Shabaka Hutchings put out an eight-track EP of ambient flute-and-synth-and-wind-chimes music, Afrikan Culture, in 2022, and recently gave an interview talking about his decision to give up the saxophone (and with it all of his groups: Sons Of Kemet, The Comet Is Coming, and Shabaka And The Ancestors) and focus on the flute. It was an interesting piece — he talked about the difference in the way a flute is played, with pure wind, versus the way reed instruments are played, using the teeth and vibrational force, and how that changes the dynamics of the music and the effect on the player. Unfortunately, the website that posted it has taken it down; I don’t know why.
Anyhow, for those of you who are new to the flute/spiritual jazz/New Age zone, welcome! Some of us have been spending our Sundays astral traveling from the couch, as gentle flutes and soft synths fill the room with rainbow haze, for many years. So consider the artists that follow to be your guides on the path to bliss and enlightenment, with some funk and soul and even classical music thrown in.
Yusef Lateef is a hugely important, yet under-recognized, figure in jazz history. I think his discography is just too wide and diverse for people to really get a grip on it, and he wasn’t enough of a weirdo to develop a cult like Sun Ra. His music combines hard bop, gospel, and blues with instruments and compositional strategies from around the world, particularly the Middle East and North Africa. He wasn’t the only one trying this out in the 1950s; bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik made a string of albums between 1958 and 1963 that offer some compelling experiments, and pianist Randy Weston did more than anyone to bridge the gap between American jazz and traditional African music. But Lateef’s work, especially on albums like 1957’s Prayer To The East and Jazz And The Sounds Of Nature and 1961’s Eastern Sounds, made it clear that the flute could be used as a path to meditation and introspection, while keeping things songful and swinging. On “The Plum Blossom,” from Eastern Sounds, he plays the xun, an avocado-shaped clay flute from China that’s been played in that country for over seven thousand years. Lateef’s concept of “world music” fused with jazz evolved over the years to incorporate funk and soul, and like Sun Ra, he embraced electronics as well, granting his work an extra, futuristic dimension. In 1987, he recorded a solo album, Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony, on which he overdubbed multiple flutes and saxophones, synths, sitar, and percussion. As its title suggests, it’s a single four-movement work running about 35 minutes and creating a blissful atmosphere throughout. It actually won a Grammy for Best New Age album in 1988.
Bobbi Humphrey, a flutist from Texas, studied classical music and jazz in high school and was encouraged to come to New York by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie after he saw her perform in a talent show at Southern Methodist University. She signed with Blue Note Records in 1971 — the first female instrumentalist on their roster since pianist Jutta Hipp in the 1950s — and appeared on trumpeter Lee Morgan’s final album. He returned the favor by playing on her label debut, Flute In. That album and the follow-up, Dig This, were slick and somewhat smooth jazz-funk, and included covers of songs by Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, the Temptations and Carole King. Her third album, 1973’s Blacks And Blues, was even slicker, and it was her commercial breakthrough. It was written and produced by Larry Mizell, who’d just worked with trumpeter Donald Byrd on his albums Ethiopian Knights and Black Byrd. Like those Byrd releases, it was a hit, and has had a long afterlife in hip-hop: whosampled.com says Madlib, Freddie Gibbs, Ice-T, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Digable Planets, and many others have borrowed from Humphrey’s gentle, soulful tracks.
Hubert Laws was also from Texas, and also blended jazz, classical, and pop into a sound all his own. After coming to New York to study at Juilliard, he played with the New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, making three albums for Atlantic as well. In 1969, he released Crying Song on the CTI label, which was an artistic breakthrough for him and for fusion: It included versions of songs by the Beatles, the Monkees, Traffic, the Bee Gees, and even two Pink Floyd compositions (the title track and “Cymbaline”) from More. The follow-up, 1970’s Afro-Classic, is even more adventurous and beautiful. Backed by Bob James on electric piano, Gene Bertoncini on guitar, Ron Carter on bass, Freddie Waits on drums, and Dave Friedman on vibraphone, as well as a percussionist and a bassoon player, Laws interprets James Taylor’s “Fire And Rain” (on which Friedman plays his vibes through a fuzz pedal, to stunning psychedelic effect) and then tackles a Mozart flute sonata, a section of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, and the theme from the movie Love Story, all in gentle, dreamlike fashion. But it’s his 15-minute version of Bach’s Passacaglia in C Minor that’s the heart of the album, and it’s truly incredible. The band swings through the piece, re-arranged for jazz instrumentation and subject to rock production techniques (Ron Carter takes an electric cello solo, and Laws runs his flute through a pedal, too), turning it into something that sounds as much like Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” as classical music.
Chicago-based flutist Nicole Mitchell is one of the most adventurous and forward-looking composers and performers around, a genuine visionary whose muse takes her in all sorts of directions all the time. She’s been making music with her various Black Earth groups for over 20 years, and on releases like 2008’s Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute To Octavia Butler and 2017’s Mandorla Awakening II – Emerging Worlds, has combined instruments from around the world with avant-garde composition and vocalizations, electronics, and sophisticated production techniques to create an unprecedented music that points to the past and the future at once. Offering, a live collaboration with Moor Mother from 2020, is atmospheric and dark, almost suffocating in its intensity at times but also beautiful and emotionally resonant. That same year, she put out Earthseed, a collaboration with poet/singer-songwriter Lisa E. Harris that felt like an avant-garde theater piece. But her 2022 album Medusae might be of the most interest to folks looking for something New Blue Sun-ish; it’s a collaboration with Italian electronic musician Fabio Paolizzo and his Video Interactive VST Orchestra (VIVO) computer system, which reacts to musical input in real time, creating cybernetic responses to Mitchell’s flute improvisations.
There’s a whole world of this kind of inner-spaceways-traveling music out there, some of which keeps one toe (or more) under the jazz umbrella, and some of which is much more avant-garde and obscure than that. May these recommendations be the start of a long and rewarding journey.
Aruán Ortiz, "Turning The Other Cheek No More"
Cuban-born, Brooklyn-based pianist and composer Aruán Ortiz has assembled an incredible, cross-generational quartet for his latest release. He’s 50, while clarinet player Don Byron and drummer Pheeroan akLaff are in their 60s, and cellist Lester St. Louis is 30. They all have unique experiences, both musical and identity-related, and so for them to come together as they’ve done here, to grapple with music inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech (as well as “The Drum Major Instinct,” a sermon delivered two months before his assassination), creates a highly charged artistic atmosphere which Ortiz’s music reflects. Pastor’s Paradox is a seven-part suite that moves from caustic free playing to delicate, almost chamber music-like reverence and travels in a dozen other directions besides. “Turning The Other Cheek No More” begins with a single piercing note from Byron’s clarinet, which is echoed by an ominous rumble from St. Louis’ cello before the piano and drums come in, and gradually it expands until after a minute, they’re traveling down the road together, guided by a loose but indomitable groove from akLaff and seemingly looking all around, wary and prepared for anything, as they march. (From Pastor’s Paradox, out now via Clean Feed.)
JD Allen - "The Revelator"
JD Allen is usually thought of as a keeper of the tenor saxophone tradition. He tends to work in trio format, and his compositions have big, bluesy hooks which he performs in a heavy, resonant tone reminiscent of Sonny Rollins or Dexter Gordon. In recent years, he’s been stepping away from what’s expected of him a little, though. In 2021, he released the solo disc Queen City, and now he’s gone to London and recorded This with two British musicians, drummer Gwilym Jones and keyboard/electronics wizard Alex Bonney. This isn’t an organ trio record with additional electronic fiddling. It’s much creepier and more surprising than that. Bonney’s often more interested in creating eerie soundscapes, circling around Allen like a ghost, than in playing any kind of supporting role. His electronics sound like the wind, or like something floating up from deep underwater, making many tracks into sax-drums duos wrapped in hums and whispers. “The Revelator” has one of Allen’s patented easy-to-sing melodies, and Jones’ drumming is heavy and energetic, a tumbling rockslide of rhythm, but Bonney is always there haunting them with deep bass rumbles and unsettling choral voicings. (From This, out now via HighNote.)
Sylvie Courvoisier - "Le Pavot Rouge"
Pianist and composer Sylvie Courvoisier has assembled a pretty amazing band for her latest release: Wadada Leo Smith and Nate Wooley on trumpets, Christian Fennesz on guitar and electronics, Drew Gress on bass, and Kenny Wollesen on drums and vibraphone. The music they make on this six-track, nearly 90-minute double CD is expansive like iridescent mist slowly expanding to cover the landscape as far as you can see. The opening track, “Le Pavot Rouge” (“The Red Poppy”), is almost 22 minutes long and begins as a kind of patient vamp, piano and vibraphone ringing out patiently in rippling minimalist patterns, occasionally augmented by bursts of distorted, reverbed electric guitar from Fennesz. When the trumpets come in, they’re in gentle dialogue at first, but later, in the piece’s second half, Wooley takes a wild, unfettered-sounding solo, somewhat anchored by deep, rumbling piano chords. This is music intended to inspire a sense of mystery and wonder, and if you close your eyes and put on headphones, it’ll do exactly that. (From Chimaera, out now via Intakt.)
André Roligheten - "Sonny River"
Like me, you probably know Norwegian saxophonist and Chris Hemsworth lookalike André Roligheten best for his long tenure in drummer Gard Nilssen’s trio, Acoustic Unity. The two are well matched in that group and in Nilssen’s larger unit, Supersonic Orchestra, and they’re playing together again here, now joined by bassist Jon Rune Strøm, who previously appeared on Roligheten’s albums Homegrown and Arv. The group also includes vibraphonist Mattias Ståhl and pedal steel guitarist Johan Lindström, and it’s that fifth element that gives the opening track, “Sonny River,” and much of the rest of the album such a fascinating and surprising sound. Roligheten’s big, Sonny Rollins-esque tone and island-hopping melody is supported by Strøm and Nilssen with a bouncing calypso-swing groove, but almost as soon as the melody’s been established, it’s yanked sideways by Ståhl’s ringing vibes and by Lindström’s almost parodically Hawaiian guitar. When his solo gets going, he almost sounds like he’s playing the musical saw. This is the kind of piece you can’t listen to without busting out into a goofy grin, and it’s the perfect antidote for cold weather. (From Marbles, out now via ODIN.)
Lafayette Gilchrist - "Undaunted"
You may have heard Baltimore-based pianist Lafayette Gilchrist without knowing it. TV writer and producer David Simon is a big fan, so Gilchrist’s music has been featured in The Wire, Treme, and The Deuce. With his aptly named band the New Volcanoes, he’s released a string of albums that combine old-school swinging jazz with rhythms derived from funk, hip-hop, and most notably the conga-laced grooves of go-go. Some of his music has the lushness of Duke Ellington, while other recordings go all the way back to stride piano. In addition to his work as a leader, he’s also played with powerhouse saxophonist David Murray and others. Undaunted is his first album in three years, a follow up to 2020’s killer double CD Now. It features a six-piece band that includes trombonist Christian Hizon, tenor saxophonist Brian Settles, bassist Herman Burney, drummer Eric Kennedy, and percussionist Kevin Pinder. The opening title track lays a complex horn line — with occasional, brief solo spots for each player — over a groove that slaps hard. The drums and percussion weave around each other as the bass booms underneath, and Gilchrist’s florid but absolutely anchored piano drives it all. (From Undaunted, out now via Morphius Music.)
Mbuso Khoza - "Endayini"
Mbuso Khoza is a South African singer, songwriter and educator who advocates for and works to preserve Zulu culture and carry it forward into the future. He has a longstanding creative relationship with pianist Nduduzo Makhathini; the two of them released a duo album, with saxophone from Justin Bellairs, last year. Now Khoza and Makhathini have put together a full studio disc, with support from some of my favorite musicians from their scene, most of whom have worked together for quite a while: trumpeter Ndabo Zulu, tenor saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane, bassist Magne Thormodsater, and drummer Ayanda Sikade, plus Ndumiso Mtshali on uHadi (a traditional Xhosa instrument that’s basically a bow with a small resonator attached, roughly equivalent to the Brazilian berimbau). “Endayini,” the opening track on the record, features Khoza singing in a heartfelt manner over hard-hitting piano, gentle horns, and a swaying beat from Thormodsater and Sikade, augmented by the metallic uHadi and a few programmed flourishes that sound like a synthesized harp. I have no idea what the lyrics are, because they’re in isiZulu, but Khoza’s voice is quite beautiful, with a passion that anyone with a fondness for any emotionally resonant music, from soul to flamenco, can appreciate. (From Ifa Lomkhono, out now via Ropeadope.)
Myra Melford - "Insertion One"
Last year, pianist Myra Melford assembled guitarist Mary Halvorson, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, cellist Tomeka Reid, and drummer Susie Ibarra and recorded For the Love of Fire and Water, a collection of ten improvised pieces inspired by the scribbly abstract paintings of Cy Twombly. Twombly’s work has never done much for me — he’s one of the few abstract painters to whom I feel like the dumb joke “My two-year-old could do that!” really applies — but the music was great. Everyone was focused and listening to each other, and the album came together as a cohesive work. This sequel features only one change of personnel; Ibarra is gone, replaced by Lesley Mok. But the music is every bit as charged and thrilling as on the first record. “Insertion One,” the opening track, feels composed, with Laubrock’s soprano sax floating and trilling like a bird atop a lurching but insistent rhythm laid down by the others. Reid and Halvorson are a brilliant team, as always (I’ve heard them together in multiple contexts, including Reid’s own quartet and larger ensembles, and they find a way to have a private conversation no matter what anybody/everybody else is doing), and Melford drops out frequently to let the others do their thing. Mok doesn’t feel like she’s trying to fill Ibarra’s shoes; instead, she finds her own place in the music. (From Hear The Light Singing, out now via RogueArt.)
Thandi Ntuli & Carlos Niño - "Nomayoyo (Ingoma Ka Mkhulu)"
This collaboration between pianist/singer Thandi Ntuli and percussionist Carlos Niño, recorded in Los Angeles in 2019, is a startlingly intimate document of two people working together for the first time — it was actually Ntuli’s first visit to the US from her native South Africa — and gradually creating a music that belongs just to the two of them. It includes reworkings of material from Ntuli’s previous album, Exiled, and some tracks are literally labeled experiments, but they ultimately establish a duo language that’s gentle and atmospheric, but with real power. “Nomayoyo (Ingoma Ka Mkhulu)” is a solo performance for piano and vocals; Ntuli performs the song, which was written by her grandfather and which she and her family frequently sing at home, in a soft voice suffused with emotion, turning it into a kind of singsong mantra that’ll stay in your head all day. (From Rainbow Revisited, out now via International Anthem.)
Isaiah Collier - "Retreat"
Parallel Universe is a double LP that Chicago-based saxophonist Isaiah Collier recorded direct-to-disc, which means live in the studio, no overdubs, no bullshittin’. He and his crack band — Collier on saxophone, flute, vocals and keyboards; Corey Wilkes on trumpet; Michael Damani on guitar; Julian Reid on keyboards; Micah Collier on bass; James Russell Sims on drums; Ra on kalimba; and Jimetta Rose and Sonny Daze on vocals — locked these grooves down and tracked them in real time, and it sounds amazing. The music is a blend of jazz, funk, and soul somewhere between the Afrocentric early ’70s free jazz group the Pyramids and Earth, Wind & Fire, with some CTI-esque soul jazz (think Stanley Turrentine or Hank Crawford) thrown in. “Retreat” is an eight-minute funk jam that’s got some Stevie Wonder in it at first, but soon turns into a barrage of rock-hard funk as Collier gets ecstatically churchy on the horn. (From Parallel Universe, out now via Night Dreamer.)
Ambrose Akinmusire - "Owl Song 1"
This album doesn’t come out until mid-December, but next month’s column is going to be the Best Jazz Albums Of 2023, so I’m telling you about it now. I’ve been a fan of Ambrose Akinmusire (pictured above) for a long time, but he really blew me away with his 2020 album On The Tender Spot Of Every Calloused Moment, which turned out to be his final release for Blue Note. It was a deep journey into the dark heart of the blues, but without any cliches. Instead, it was an anguished and meditative record that seeped into your skin, like you were sitting in a room with one of Mark Rothko’s black paintings on each wall. (I did that once; it felt like my soul was draining out of my body.)
Earlier this year, he put out a solo trumpet album, Beauty Is Enough, on his own Origami Harvest label. Recorded in a church, it was a meditative and minimalist collection of short pieces that allowed his frayed-at-the-edges sound to really come to the fore. Now he’s signed to Nonesuch and recorded a trio album with guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Herlin Riley. You may immediately make a mental comparison with the album Lebroba, which featured trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, Frisell, and drummer Andréw Cyrille; I know I did. But while this is a similarly gentle and simmering record, Smith is a much more cutting player, hurling individual notes at the listener like darts, and Cyrille is a more precise drummer than Riley, who has a deep New Orleans funk thing going at the heart of his playing, even on ballads. (I got to see him play with the late Ahmad Jamal, and at one point he slipped his shoes off behind the kit.) He’s playing in a more atmospheric style on this album than I’ve ever heard him do with Jamal, on his own albums, or with Wynton Marsalis, but he’s deeply anchored at all times, and that organic, heartfelt steadiness allows Frisell to raise his own energy level, and gives Akinmusire the freedom to soar. The first thing we hear on this album, at the very beginning of “Owl Song 1,” is Riley’s brushed snare and deep kick drum, after which Akinmusire and Frisell come in slow and thoughtful, like they’re dancing toward each other from opposite sides of the room, and when they meet the piece becomes a kind of floating country jazz groove, gentle and beautiful. (From Owl Song, out December 15 via Nonesuch.)