I get a lot of music for my consideration, more than 450 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 offer hot takes on the releases of the preceding seven days. it’s a great writing exercise, and a lot of fun, too.
To celebrate her 60th birthday year in 2019, pianist Satoko Fujii released an album a month. With a work ethic like that, no mere global pandemic could keep her down. “Prickly Pear Cactus” (Libra Records) is presumably her final release of 2020, though with Fujii, you never know. It’s really more of a collective effort by the Kobe, Japan-based pianist, her husband Natsuke Tamura on trumpet and New York laptop
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.
With 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.
When 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.
Around 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.