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Roll Call: August 21, 2020

I get a lot of music for my consideration, more than 300 new releases so far this year. Almost all of them are notable for something, and I’d like to give them their due. So every week, I’ll do quick hits on the releases of the preceding seven days. it’s a great writing exercise, and a lot of fun, too.

Teodross Avery - Harlem StoriesWith the possible exception of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk has been the subject of more tribute albums than any jazz musician I can think of. The notion of a tribute album has more to do with marketing as it does with music, and again like Ellington, Monk’s music, vast and endlessly current, needs no special pleading. To his credit, Teodross Avery says as much in the publicity materials for “Harlem Stories: The Music of Thelonious Monk,” and the CD bears him out. Avery plays the music relatively straight, reminding us that while Monk is a godfather of jazz’s more exploratory directions innovations from the 1950 on, he’s also a foundation stone of the mainstream. Both sides of the composer are represented by the two bands Avery chooses here with bassist Corcoran Holt the only common member. The first, features pianist Anthony Wonsey and drummer Willie Jones, III, on whose label, WJ3, the CD was released. Avery’s strong, bright tone leads the charge through four of Monk’s greatest hits and the seldom-covered “Teo” (get it?) with Allakoi Peete’s cajon adding discreet color to “Ruby My Dear.” Jones is a quintessential East Coast drummer, right on top of the beat, but when Marvin “Bugalu” Smith takes the drum chair for the final five compositions, the beat gets wider. Credit pianist D.D. Jackson who joyously pushes the band to explore the brilliant corners of Monk’s lines. Jackson’s florid, extravagant style couldn’t be farther technically from Monk’s laconic concision yet gets to the core of the master’s revolutionary, trickster spirit.

The ultimate secret truth of jazz is that there’s no going back. Still, what fan of jazz vocals can resist a little nostalgia for the 1950s when the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington were all on the scene? In that light, the week after the death of Annie Ross might not have been an ideal time to audition Allegra Levy‘s “Lose My Number.” Or maybe it was. Levy’s voice doesn’t have Ross’ sparkle or her insouciant sass, but, damn, she’s fearless. Who else would dare write lyrics to a program of nine snaky, boppish lines by the trumpeter John McNeil? Levy’s generation is tagged with being post-ironic, an accusation that five minutes on Twitter will render laughable, but her  lyrics are nicely mordant and in a cool sort of way, as weltschmerzy as Lorenz Hart’s. Love songs for the “Modern Love” generation.  “Livin’ Small” makes McNeil’s coiling melody into a post-Crash update to “The Folks Who Live On The Hill” or “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” “Strictly Ballroom” is a boppish, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross-ish update of Berlin’s “I Won’t Dance” (“I wish when you held me it was only in highest esteem.“) while “Tiffany” is a daydream of luxury with a songful bass solo by Carmen Rothwell and a glittering, diamond necklace of a piano solo from Carmen Staaf, who dazzles throughout. Indeed, the trio, driven by drummer Colleen Clark, almost steals the show while McNeil delivers a trumpet benediction on three tracks. “Lose My Number” is a keeper in every way.

Camila Nebbia - AuraWhen ears&eyes records sent a record of new music from Buenos Aires, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t the bristling, whip-smart and fiercely committed music that I found on “Aura.” Saxophonist and composer Camila Nebbia‘s compositional style occupies the increasingly porous borderlands between jazz and contemporary classical music. She draws from the large ensemble strategies of Anthony Braxton, the rhythmic cycles of Anna Webber’s big band work and the attention to sound and timbre of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. There are echoes of tango in the arcing glissandos in the strings, and the revolutionary fervor of tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri’s early ensembles on Impulse. Those records had an explicitly political subtext that’s suggested in Nebbia’s “La desintegracio?n,” which alternates order and chaos until sharp orchestral tuttis slam the door. Like Barbieri’s ensembles, Nebbia’s nine musicians play with a jostling looseness. Soloists elbow their way to the front of the sonic picture, say their piece and step back, like speakers at a student protest. It’s wonderfully fresh and exciting and even the unadorned sonics add to the DIY authenticity of the project.

 

The saxophonist Jane Bunnett once told me that “once the clavé gets inside you, you hear clavé everywhere.” The five-beat heart of Cuban rhythm is as close as music comes to an irresistible force, and it’s the best thing about Kemuel Roig‘s “Genesis.” Like a lot of artists in their debut statements, the Cuban-born pianist, composer and arranger throws everything he has at this one: dreamy arrangements, churchy power ballads, movie-theme melodies and even a tender ballad dedicated to Roig’s young son. Here, as occasionally elsewhere, things can get a little too pretty, but then the irresistible rhythm kicks in to sweep you away. Roig is also a playful soloist and a witty arranger. Setting Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge” to a 6/8 Afro-Cuban rhythm for Chris Potter was a shrewd acknowledgement of the tenor player’s rhythmic strength. More Potter in clavé, please.

 

Sanlikol - The Rise UpAround thirty years ago, musicians such as clarinetist Chris Speed and trumpeter Dave Douglas explored integrating elements of Balkan music into a jazz context, and lately the Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir El’Safar and the Canadian oud player Gordon Grdina have something similar with the scales and improvisational methods of the Middle East. Yet the music of Turkey, the empire that governed both regions for centuries, has been relatively little explored. “The Rise Up,” by Turkish-born, Boston-based pianist, composer and arranger Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, begins with a kind of missionary zeal to make Turkish culture and music more intelligible by using as entry points familiar narratives, among them the poetry of Rumi and the Sephardic diaspora to the Ottoman Empire. The latter was suggested by saxophonist David Liebman, who commissioned the nine-part suite and is its primary soloist.  That’s one connection “The Rise Up” makes with the classic “Sketches of Spain,” which was a practically concerto for Miles Davis. The similarities don’t stop there. “Sephardim,” the second of “The Rise Up’s” three movements incorporates the solea that arranger Gil Evans used in the earlier masterwork. The orchestra, conducted here by Ken Schaphorst, echoes Evans’ assortment of low and high brass and doubling woodwinds. Sanlikol plays oud, ney, an end-blown flute, and zurna, a reed instrument and even sings in a five-man Byzantine choir. It’s a poignant reminder that the Ottoman empire was multi-ethnic and multi-cultural and the heart of this deeply-felt and lovingly executed project.

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Roll Call Extra: August 20, 2020

We’ve reached the point of the summer that would normally be peak jazz festival season. And while there’s no replacing the alchemy of sun, live music and effortless companionship that makes this the sweetest time of year for many jazz fans, the last couple of weeks have brought an armful of unusually compelling new releases to salve the sting of live music’s continued absence.

Did any jazz musician have a better year in 2019 than Greg Ward? He seemed to show up on a disproportionate number of the year’s best releases including his own “Stomping Off From Greenwood,” bringing fiery commitment, dazzling facility and a secure grounding in the blues, a modern-day Cannonball Adderley. He’s been quieter this year, but the release of High Alert,” a three-song, 23-minute EP, is a reminder of his gripping artistry–and one with an unusually compelling backstory. While on tour in 2009, Ward and the band were hustled off their train into the middle of a neo-Nazi rally in Moravia. Chased by rioters, they managed to escape to Poland and relative safety. You don’t need to know any of this to hear the menace in the siren effects that begin the title cut or the urgency and confusion of the argument between Ward’s alto and Rob Clearfield‘s piano in the urgent, Romany-tinged “Dogfight.” When Quin Kirchner’s drums slam the door shut, the chase is on. It’s heart-pounding stuff, culminating in alto shrieks from Ward. The concluding movement, “To Know Peace,” is a flowing song of thanksgiving with deep-toned bass from Jeff Greene and a pastoral, quintessentially Midwestern Clearfield solo drenched in hope and optimism. Ward and his Chicago band made this recording in 2013. It’s not clear why he sat on it for so long, but he couldn’t have picked a more apposite time to release it.

That goes double for Gregg August’s Dialogues On Race, Vol. 1,” a commissioned piece originally performed in 2009 but seemingly written for this precise moment. Writing for and leading a midsized ensemble from the bass, August’s project inevitably recalls Charles Mingus. Yet August is white, and the appropriately sober respectfulness with which he approaches his subject is world’s away from Mingus’ volcanic passions, but no less moving for it. Is there any other way to hear Marcus Rojas’ strangled tuba solo in “Letter to America” than as the voice of George Floyd, even though it was recorded 15 months to the day before Floyd’s murder? Another murder, that of Emmet Till (65 years ago next Friday) runs like a through-line emotionally and thematically uniting the work’s 12 movements. Many were inspired by poems by Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and others, and a few offer direct settings of complete poems or excerpts. The most moving of them might be “I Sang in the Sun,” delivered in a high tenor of unearthly purity by Forest Van Dyke. The instrumental ensemble, including tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen, trumpeter John Bailey and the sensitive pianist Luis Perdomo, is all in and every member contributes to the economical and vivid solos. This isn’t hortatory, mount-the-barricades music. If August is calling us to do anything, it’s to reflect on the moment and the attitudes and injustices that brought us to this baleful place in American history. The most eloquent voice on the record belongs to Mamie Till whose measured, clear-eyed reflections on the murder of her son embody August’s message of fearless witness and eternal vigilance. She is the conscience of an eloquent and deeply-felt musical statement, one that offers a rebuke to the society that stubbornly clings to values and behaviors that makes such a statement necessary in the first place.

Timely in a different way is the Michael Formanek Quartet‘s cheekily titled Pre-Apocalyptic,” which was a surprise drop on Bandcamp’s August 7 no-fee day. Along with releases by Nick Dunston and Anna Webber, “Pre-Apocalyptic” inaugurated Out of Your Head Records‘ new Untamed series of digital-only releases that the label says have “a quicker turnaround than a traditional studio album.” That doesn’t exactly apply to the Formanek release, which was recorded at an unidentified tour stop in 2014. Judging from the apparent size of the audience and the sound quality, my guess is that “Pre-Apocalyptic” is a stage recording of the May 9 performance at Vicenza, Italy, but matters of provenance dissolve in the face of music this powerful and imaginative. Formanek is a Hubble Telescope of a composer and this is music that peers deeply into cosmic vistas. Absent is the vast soundscape afforded by ECM on 2012’s “Small Places” on which four of the seven compositions here originally appeared, but the complex, haunting music hangs in the air, a beckoning mystery. It’s always fascinating to hear Tim Berne as a sideman, here bluesier than he tends to be on his own projects. Drummer Gerald Cleaver is low in the mix, which is a shame; his decisions on when to push the band and when to comment are uncanny. Craig Taborn is absolutely at the top of his game, which means he’s mindblowing as both an accompanist and a soloist–and frequently both simultaneously. Formanek is the dark matter that holds all this mindpower together. If you’re not convinced that you need to download “Pre-Apocalyptic” right away, consider that all proceeds from your purchase will be given directly to the artists, and OOYH Records will donate an additional $1 for each album sold to Black Lives Matter, the organization chosen by Formanek. By the way, the very cool cover art is by T.J. Huff.

When this dreadful year ends, there won’t be much to look back on with fondness. Still, seeing these three releases on the lists of the best recordings of 2020, you’ll have to conclude that musically at least, this was a pretty good year.

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Roll Call: August 14, 2020

 

Yeah, it’s been a minute.

Procrastination is the work-spouse of every writer and I’m inordinately friendly with mine, but that’s not what happened here. Frankly, the events of late May were so momentous that writing about music seemed not just a luxury, but almost an insult. It was a time that called for witness and for listening–and not to music, even music of urgency and substance. The silence that was tugging at my coat was the silence of the confessional or the sickroom, a place in which one could try to process the fever that this society was trying to sweat out.

I haven’t completely done that, but lately, I’ve felt another tug on my coat. It was music, reminding me that consolation, inspiration and explanation are all still out there waiting. And joy, the kind that happens when you share a world with brilliant creators.

I’ve missed some exceptional releases, and will hopefully loop back to give them the consideration they deserve, maybe in feature reviews that will post midweek, but at the moment, the best way to jump back in is to resume this Friday roundup of the week’s releases.

Countdown. 

 

Debut recordings these days often take the form of calling cards designed to show off everything the leader can do. When that leader is as versatile, fluent and well trained as trombonist Javier Nero is, focus can take a back seat to exuberance. Still Freedom offers an appealingly generous tasting menu that leaps out of the gate with “Double Vision,” a Blakey-an burner with Messengers alumnus Brian Lynch on top. Before its 66 minutes is up, “Freedom”

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Roll Call: April 24, 2020

I get a lot of music for my consideration, more than 174 new releases so far this year. Almost all of them are notable for something, and I’d like to give them their due. So every week, I’ll do quick hits on the releases of the preceding seven days. it’s a great writing exercise, and a lot of fun, too.

Grdina Marrow Safar-E-DaroonThough it probably wasn’t what he had in mind, Gordon Grdina has certainly earned a break from the pace of his busy spring on the recorded front. Already this year, the Vancouver guitarist/oud player has released three CDs under his own name with three different groups, Nomad, Resist (which I reviewed here) and now Safar-Al-Daroon” from yet another band. This one, called Marrow, features a dark-hued string trio with a couple of New York ringers, bassist Mark Helias and cellist Hank Roberts, and the impressive and versatile young Canadian violinist Josh Zubot. Hamin Honari contributes colorful and propulsive grooves on Persian goblet and frame drums.

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