Unsurprisingly, the number of new releases is beginning to dwindle as the year comes to a close. The upside is that stranger releases break through the surface and get attention they otherwise wouldn’t. And while there are definitely some strange albums this week (I’m looking at you, Peter Evans), what’s surprising is that this week’s list pretty well represents each of the various jazz sub-genres. So, a little something for everyone.
Jimmy Greene, Beautiful Life: It’s impossible to look past the tragedy that inspired this beautiful album. Saxophonist Greene lost his daughter in the awful events of Sandy Hook. This album came from the grieving and the rebuilding in the wake of that pain. It’s also impossible to not feel the earnestness in this music, which is beautiful in its own right, outside of its context. That combination of emotional honesty and strong musicianship is a potent force, and it’s what Greene harnesses from first song to last. He’s joined by an all-star line-up of artists, including (but not limited to) Cyrus Chestnut, Kenny Barron, Christian McBride, Pat Metheny, Lewis Nash, Renee Rosnes and the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. Pick of the Week.
Ola Kvernberg & the Trondheim Soloists, The Mechanical Fair: Absolutely stunning new release by violinst Kvernberg, who adds a string section to this enthralling mix of Nordic folk, chamber and jazz. At its core, it’s Kvernberg, drummer Erik Nylander, guitarist Petter Vagan (with dobro & acoustic 12-string of particular interest), guitarist Even Helte Hermansen (including baritone guitar), and bassist Ole Morten Vagan. But add in all the cellos, violas and violins, and the result is curious, absorbing music is given a sweeping grandeur. Highly Recommended.
James Davis, James Davis Beveled: Excellent session from Davis, who skips deftly between passages of languorous harmonies and those of spirited tunefulness. With himself and Chad McCullough on flugelhorns, Michael Salter and Anna Najoom on bass clarinets, Daniel Thatcher on double bass and Juan Pastor on drums, they create an ebb and flow of harmonic warmth via a chamber jazz sound and some lively action with a modern jazz approach. Tracks like “Inward Gaze” lock in on the contemplative nature of harmonic immersion while a track like “Flight Pattern” lets the solos do the talking. Just a beautiful album.
Peter Evans Quintet, Destination: Void: Named after a Frank Herbert novel about a space mission to create an artificial intelligence. Evans has an appealing relentlessness on trumpet, where his lyricism is eclipsed by breadth of his motion. Not whimsical… this is serious fun. Oddball sounds from both ends of the spectrum… the sizzle and blip of electronics and the deft manipulation of a prepared piano. And it’s not all sudden, sharp turns and dizzying aeronautics… “Make It So” brings an uneasy serenity that drifts peaceably but has an unmissable intensity just around the corner. Joining Evans on this session are drummer Jim Black, pianist Ron Stabinsky, bassist Tom Blancarte and Sam Pluta with the live electronics.
Ettore Fioravanti, Traditori: An absorbing session from drummer Fioravanti, who provides an appealing ramshackle, off-the-cuff presence to songs. Along with the original compositions, they hit a wide range of covers, from Thelonious Monk to Lou Reed to John Lennon. Saxophonist Marcello Allulli, guitarist Marco Bonini, bassist Francesco Ponticelli and pianist Enrico Zanisi fill out the quintet. Nice textures added by each musician, whether it’s switching things up on guitar or keys or effects, or just bringing in a thick groove after some unconventional improvisations.
Talmest, Talmest: Very cool quartet of mandolin/slide guitar, clarinets, contrabass and percussion. They seem to hit on a variety of regional folk musics, but keep to a common center so that the globe hopping doesn’t become a hodgepodge of influences. There’s some Indo-jazz, some Mediterranean jazz, some traditional jazz, some hot jazz… all in small doses and all bursting with personality.
The Stoner, Kinder Call: This quartet always has possessed a dreamy, almost nonchalant sort of presence. Nils Berg brings that kind of sound to all his projects, whether it’s with the deep resonance of bass clarinet or the sharper edges of tenor sax. Pianist Jonas Ostholm balances Berg’s reeds out with a sing-songy delivery that provides some life to the dreams. The rhythm section of bassist Nils Olmedal and drummer Jon Falt are just as likely to add color to the melodies as they are tension to the tempos.
Greg Foat Group, Live at the Playboy Club: Recorded live during their time as the house band at London’s Playboy Club. Album really brings the listener into the scene. Maybe that has something to do with it being taped direct to analogue. Maybe it has something to do with the audible crowd noise. Maybe it’s just because it’s a lively performance. Plenty of spacey vibes from keys, grooves from the rhythm section, some modal action from trumpet… a fun session.
Tim Allhoff Trio, Kid Icarus: Personable piano trio session from pianist Allhoff. Modern tunes with a lighthearted bounce and charming melodies. A pop music sensibility to several of the tunes. Easy to like.
Alessandro Lanzoni, Seldom: Tuneful new album by pianist Lanzoni, who paints scenic backdrops with bold colors. Joined by trio mates, bassist Matteo Bortone and drummer Enrico Morello, plus guest trumpeter Ralph Alessi, Lanzoni’s compositions are pretty easy to embrace, though they rarely travel in a straight-ahead direction. A flair for the dramatic on this one, and a storyteller’s approach. Quite beautiful at times, enjoyable always.
Nels Cline & Julian Lage, Room: Duo collaboration between two guitarists at the forefront of their instrument. Both contribute compositions to the recording, but its the conversations that develop during improvisations that are the highlight of the session. Most of the time, it’s not really their use of vocabulary that wins the day as it is the way their peculiar lexicons come together, sometimes meshing, sometimes colliding, and sometimes weaving about one another in a compelling, strange pattern.
Sonny Simmons & Moksha Samnyasin, Nomadic: Free jazz legend Simmons is now in his eighties and he’s still offering up sonic journeys that sound just as provocative as his classic ESP label work. For his newest, he and his alto sax team up with the Moksha Samnyasin trio, which features the sitar, bass and drums of Michel Kristof, Thomas Bellier and Sebastien Bismuth. It’s a mix of psychedelia, free jazz and Middle-East music, and not unlike some of Rob Mazurek’s recent recordings, it echoes strongly of a 1970s jazz-trip-rock fusion era while still taking a forward-thinking approach to what this music could be. Definitely something different here, but familiar in its way, too… a potent combination of innovation and nostalgia.
Jeff Herr Corporation, Layer Cake: Fun release by drummer Herr, whose compositions develop all kinds of interesting motion. It’s a trio formation, with saxophonist Maxime Bender and bassist Laurent Payfert. The tempo is the tracks of the roller coaster and the melody is the car that whips around it. The sudden shifts and changes is the kind of thing that just leaves me smiling. Nifty cover of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.”
Stefan Pasborg & Carsten Dahl, Live at SMK: Drummer Pasborg and pianist Dahl are pro’s pros, and have carved out a name for themselves in the European and Danish jazz scenes (and, actually, in this column over the years). This energetic set was recorded live at a performance at Copenhagen’s Statens Museum for Kunst, and all the energy from a live show comes right through on the recorded medium. The duo setting provides an intimate experience, but the electricity they generate radiates something far more extroverted. Some real cerebral moments on this album, challenging in their way, but easy to connect with.
Engines Orchestra & Phil Meadows Group, Lifecycles: Nifty modern jazz orchestra set that combines the Phil Meadows quintet of saxophonist Meadows, trumpeter Laura Jurd, pianist Eliot Galvin, bassist Conor Chaplin and drummer Simon Roth with the wind instruments and strings of the Engines Orchestra. More swerving than swing. Focus on the unexpected plot twists than a reliable sense of where the beat is going to fall. Plenty of excitement, though it’s transitions from moments of frenzy to those of calm that best represent what’s best about this unusual recording. Good stuff.
Harr & Hartberg, Doden er Darlig Gjort: Really personable session that has a Norwegian jazz and pop blend… and I mean that in its best light. The vocals are disarming. The piano and percussion develops a nice conversational patter. Trumpet has a nice airy presence. I kept thinking this album would wear thin with me, but, nope. Totally obscure reference: I am reminded at times of the excellent recording by Icelandic artist Einar Scheving’s Land Mins Fodur (definitely worth checking out, too).
SKM Banda, Panontikon: Seriously likable recording by this Slovenian quartet that features a variety of stringed instruments (guitar, 12-string guitar, banjo, ukulele, kalimba, etc) and percussion, with a delirious blend of folk, jazz, indie-rock, pop and any number of other ingredients. If you liked recent albums by I Think You’re Awesome and Tunto, you should probably just hit the download button right now.
Paul Begal, Chatter: Solid modern post-bop set from pianist Bedal, who is joined by a seriously strong cast from the Chicago scene… trumpeter Marquis Hill, alto saxophonist Caroline Davis, bassist Matt Ulery and drummer Charles Rumback. Nothing fancy here, just quality interplay that honors both melody and tempo without showing favoritism to one or the other. The resulting balance leads to some inspired play. Not gonna go wrong scooping this one up.
The Thing & Thurston Moore, Live: I’m sort of liking the idea of Scandinavian free-jazz rockers The Thing annually recording a new collaboration with a music icon. In 2012, the trio of bari saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, electric bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love released an inspired recording with Neneh Cherry (The Cherry Thing) that opened up a new facet to the trio’s typical hard-charging demeanor. Their newest has them offering up a live recording from a show at Cafe Oto when they were touring with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore (who, it should be noted, has been doing the free jazz improv thing for a while now). It’s all the intensity you could possibly ask for, and the way bits of melodicism break into the clearing at opportune moments is pure gold.
And let’s wrap up with one from the vaults…
Keith Jarrett, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Hamburg ’72: Recorded live in the time leading up to when saxophonist Dewey Redman would be the fourth piece of Jarrett’s American Quartet (and some amazing sessions on the Impulse Jazz label), Jarrett was still working with Haden and Motian just as a trio. However, it has all of the ingredients of soul, blues, gospel that the American Quartet sessions possessed, as well as their liveliness and grace. At a time when all kinds of archival crap gets flung at a public far too desperate to buy up anything by the old masters rather than focus on the gems of the present ones, right here, ECM Records does it (and jazz fans) right. Each of these artists perform at the top of their game on this spectacular session. Well worth picking up whether you’re a long-time fan of these three all-time greats or just new to their names. Powerful music. Note: Jarrett hits the soprano sax a couple times on this album. I’d have preferred he just kept to the piano, but nothing about his performance on sax is detrimental to the proceedings, and quite surprisingly, sometimes it actually enhances it.