The Westerlies

New Jazz This Week: John Ellis, The Westerlies, Tiptons Saxophone Quartet

Dave Sumner

By Dave Sumner

on 05.14.14 in News

Not a huge bounty of new jazz releases this week in terms of overall numbers, but the qualitative strength of what it did have to offer is pretty remarkable. Pretty much a toss-up between the top two albums on this list as to who received the Pick of the Week tag, and a few more albums that might’ve received it on other weeks. Only real trend I can find for this week’s Picks is that most of the albums lean to the exuberant side of the emotional spectrum, which means lots of fun, cheerful music to pick from. And a fact that may interest only myself: Two solid renditions of Mulgrew Miller’s “Soul-Leo” in this week’s Picks (the Hofmann and Hayes recs). Now, with that, let’s begin…

John Ellis, Mobro: A project led by tenor saxophonist John Ellis and playwright Andy Bragen, MOBRO tells the story of the MOBRO 4000 garbage barge that couldn’t find a home. An hour-plus through-composed piece, and comprised of nine musicians and four singers (including Alan Ferber, Joe Sanders, Mike Moreno, Becca Stevens, Shane Endsley and John Clark), is about as wildly expressive as anything to come out this year. That, in and of itself, isn’t enough to single out this album’s excellence. However, its adherence to a cohesive perspective lends it a lyricism that makes this avant-garde presentation as easy to follow as a good book… a story that’s exciting and fun and surprising. A hell of an accomplishment. Pick of the Week.

The Westerlies, Wish the Children Would Come On Home: A brass quartet that decided to embrace the strange and beautiful music of composer Wayne Horvitz. The Westerlies capture the alien warmth and touching soulfulness inherent in so much of Horvitz’s music, of a soundtrack orphaned from the movie conceived in dream and never put to film. Two on trumpet (Riley Mulherkar & Zubin Hensler) and two on trombone (Andy Clausen & Willem de Koch). An added bonus are the four improvisatory tracks, for which Wayne Horvitz himself performs on. Just a beautiful album. Highly Recommended.

The Tiptons Sax Quartet & Drums, Tiny Lower Case: There is a warmth and exuberance to this music that is strongly reminiscent of traditional New Orleans jazz. And while that’s not the style of the Tiptons Quartet, their mix of Romanian, Klezmer, Soul, Jazz (and more) reflect the odd soup of influences that contributed to jazz in its earliest New Orleans forms. Music that is catchy without ever getting saccharine, heart-on-the-sleeve evocative without ever becoming superficial. Thick grooves are augmented by wildly careening solos, harmonies bolstered by tempos that bounce with life. And capital-F fun. Most especially fun. With Amy Denio on alto sax & clarinet, Jessica Lurie on alto & tenor saxes, Sue Orfield on tenor sax, Tina Richerson on bari sax, and Robert Kainar adding drums & percussion. Recommended.

Holly Hofmann, Low Life: Crack session from flutist Hoffman, who runs with an alto flute for this outing. This aspect will be significant for some of you who dislike the occasional shrillness of the standard c-flute, as well as its tendency to flap its wings a bit too frenetically. Hoffman develops a nice casual gait on her alto, and her lineup of John Clayton, Jeff Hamilton, Anthony Wilson, and Mike Wofford are some solid choices for pulling off a straight-ahead session with the right mix of professionalism and poetry. Their rendition of Mulgrew Miller’s “Soul-Leo” worth the price of admission alone. So good.

Hellmuller, Risso, Zanoli, Norsten: This trio recording of guitar, double bass, and drums has a supremely appealing breeziness to each song, a sense of freely improvised creativity, even if it turns out that the trio sticks to a pre-planned script. Melodies flow over fluid beds of rhythm. The mix of folk and jazz has a personality that leans more to the former, but behaves in a way that more favors the latter. Calming music, regardless of whether the trio hits the gas pedal or just lets the music hang sweetly in the air.

Sana Nagano, Inside the Rainbow: Engaging session from violinist Nagano, who is joined by improv giant Karl Berger on vibes and guitarist John Ehlis. Avant-garde, but not in a pushy in-your-face way. Music shifts between a motion of stop-and-go traffic to one of peaceful drives through a pastoral countryside, but this music is absorbing at either speed. Nice offering for her debut album. Worth noting that Nagano is also a member of Adam Rudolph’s Go: Organic Orchestra, an outfit that has a nifty talent at creating unconventional music that is terrifically engaging.

Led Bib, The People In Your Neighbourhood: Holding tight for ten years, the Led Bib quintet celebrates that anniversary with a new release. That constant line-up of two alto saxophonists (Chris Williams & Pete Grogan), drummer Mark Holub, bassist Liran Donin, and Toby McLaren on Fender Rhodes continues to offer up grooves with a driving tempo and as much rock attitude as it does jazz. A track like “Angry Waters (Lost to Sea)” shows their talent at nurturing catchy melodies, and letting them slowly emerge from the rhythmic fog. An album that accurately reflects this group’s distinctive personality.

Jonathan Scales Fourchestra, Mixtape Symphony: Charming release from the trio Jonathan Scales on steel pan, Cody Wright on bass, and Phill Bronson on drums. The mix of steel pan’s dreamy melodies and the active grooves from Wright and Bronson make for a nice contrast in textures.

Dave McDonnell Group, The Dragon and the Griffin: Strong release from saxophonist McDonnell, who leads an all-star cast from the improv scene of guitarist Chris Welcome, bassist Joshua Abrams, and drummer Frank Rosaly. Songs with a heavy presence, but with a corresponding lyricism that provides a light touch throughout. The elasticity of the tempos is a nice album trait, especially when McDonnell sneaks in some blues or shifts from an abrasive hard-bop to one more melodically driven. The album also features some outstanding interludes, where McDonnell is joined by vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz and cellist Tomeka Reid, and McDonnell switches from sax to electronics & effects. Worth noting that McDonnell is a member of Diving Bell, Herculaneum, and some Elephant 6 projects.

Louis Hayes, Return of the Jazz Communicators: These Smoke Sessions recording are consistently outstanding, bringing in seasoned vets from the jazz scene for straight-ahead sets that swing like mad and kick out all kinds of vibrancy. The latest is from drummer Louis Hayes, featuring a quartet comprised of tenor saxophonist Abraham Burton, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, and bassist Santi Debriano. Music with warmth, music full of life, and 100% Jazz. And since some of you are wondering, the “return” part of the title refers to Hayes’s late-60s collaboration with Joe Henderson and Freddie Hubbard.

Fredrik Kronkvist, Reflecting Time: Pleasant straight-ahead set from alto saxophonist Kronkvist, who is joined by pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Reuben Rogers, and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. Upbeat tunes have a nice chipper attitude, but it’s when Kronkvist slows things down, like on the alluring “Embraced,” that the album really shines.

Lee Konitz, Standards: Live at the Village Vanguard: Jazz giant Lee Konitz continues to put out some excellent work, showing no signs of slowing down… his 2011 collaboration with Jakob Bro and Bill Frisell (Time) still resonates with me. Recorded not much earlier that that is this swinging live set matches his alto sax with drummer Ziv Ravitz, bassist Jeff Denson, and pianist Florian Weber. Pretty sure this is the second offering from the handful of dates Konitz’s “New Quartet” held court at the Vanguard, with a 2010 release of a similar name as its predecessor.

Ben Bennett & Jack Wright, Tangle: Drummer Bennett teams up with free jazz vet Jack Wright (on alto & tenor sax) for three long-form improvisatory pieces where notes skitter about, then suddenly rear back and shout. There is a pleasant hyperactivity to this music, a conversation where the sounds represent not only the dialog, but also the gestures and non-verbal cues that provide as much information as the words themselves.

Batik, Headland: Enjoyable quartet session that shifts between a serene Nordic jazz sound and a modern fusion recording. This shift mostly hangs on which type of guitar Ed Verhoeff is using. When on a steel string acoustic, it’s the former, and when he picks up an electric, the latter. For my own tastes, the fusion-y tracks cost the album a bit of its appeal, though on a track like “Cirrus,” the quartet shows how some restraint with the electric burn can go a long way. But when Verhoeff is on acoustic guitar, songs just shine with a lovely moodiness. The quartet is rounded out by pianist Wolfert Brederode, bassist Mark Haanstra, and drummer Joost Lijbaart.

Rene Bottlang, Andy McKee, Autumn in New York: Interesting modern set from pianist Bottlang and bassist McKee. Featuring some heavy hitters like saxophonist Oliver Lake, drummer Billy Hart, and guitarist Vic Juris in various roles, these tunes often have an abrasive melodicism and punctuated tempos, but the occasional break into introspective drifts make for a nice change of scenery.