So, the free improv and avant-garde fans better think about taking out a loan or something this week, because there’s plenty of stuff out there for them this week, ranging from the mildly dissonant to embracing chaos. I recommend a handful of those in today’s column, but there were several others that didn’t quite make the cut but might make it worth your while to browse the new releases aisle on your own. The albums that get closer to a straight-ahead sound each have very personal voices to them, expressing either a further immersion in an existing sound or possess a forward-looking perspective. Or, said, differently, some very cool music out there to be had. Let’s begin…
Orrin Evans, Liberation Blues: Another quality release in the Smoke Sessions series. The newest is a live performance from pianist Orrin Evans, who leads a stellar quintet of trumpeter Sean Jones, tenor saxophonist JD Allen, bassist Luques Curtis, and drummer Bill Stewart (plus vocalist Joanna Pascale sitting in on the encore of “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes”). Highlight of the performance has to be the five-part Liberation Blues Suite, dedicated to recently departed Dwayne Burno. However, a track like “Simply Green” has an infectious tempo that sings like Spring and has cool breezy melody to accompany it, so this is an album with plenty more to offer. Evans’ recent big band release, Mother’s Touch, is a real highlight of 2014, and with this live session, Evans continues to illustrate how his deft manipulation of a common straight-ahead sound can provide the differentiation to make it seem like the music is standing all by its lonesome. If you’re keeping a short-list of current jazz artists to follow, you’d be wise to include Evans upon it.
Brandee Younger, The Brandee Younger 4tet: Live at the Breeding Ground: Okay, now this is pretty cool. Harpist Younger leads a quintet in a live performance just bursting with energy and offering up all kinds of something different. A forward-thinking contemporary jazz sound, the quintet pairs up some great interplay and solos with its thick, catchy grooves. Younger covers a couple tunes from her harp ancestors, Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane, while also showing that she’s got two feet in modern territory and walking forward, not back. Joining Younger are the soprano sax of Stacy Dillard, Chelsea Baratz on tenor sax, Dezron Douglas working both acoustic & electric basses, and E.J. Strickland on drums. This album is a very promising sign on the state of jazz. Highly Recommended.
Henry Butler & Steven Bernstein, Vipers Drag: Well, jazz fans, here’s your Impulse Records reboot. The classic label is gearing up to begin releasing new recordings again, and this duo collaboration between pianist Henry Butler and trumpeter Steven Bernstein is a nice way to start… even if it doesn’t exactly fall in line with the sound that gave Impulse its rep. All the same, Butler and Bernstein are nicely matched, serving up some nifty traditional New Orleans Jazz, and doing it while honoring both the roots of the music and their creative voices of Today. Joined by the Hot 9 ensemble, who help to make this music both fun and expressive. Recommended.
Ton Trio II, On and On: Plenty to like in the new one by Aram Shelton’s Ton Trio II. The alto saxophonist’s compositions leave the door wide open for lengthy improvisations from himself as well as bassist Scott Brown and drummer Alex Vittum. Most pleasing it the seeming ease of Shelton’s lyricism at high speeds, the way a sailboat glides across the tops of choppy waves. Released a little earlier this year, it’s just now getting offered digitally.
Yelena Eckemoff, A Touch of Radiance: Pianist Eckemoff can be consistently relied upon to offer up tasteful modern piano jazz. Whereas past recordings kept to the quiet end of the spectrum, hanging out in the same crowd as similarly serene ECM piano-led recordings, her newest has her more in a post-bop mode. The result is that the album has a bit more heat than past recordings, but nothing too extreme, comparable to a comfortable fireplace enjoyed from a moderate distance. Joining her are a strong cast of vibraphonist Joe Locke, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Billy Hart. Locke is superb in an accompaniment role, accentuating Eckemoff’s piano just right, and Turner, who certainly knows how to hit the gas pedal, always stays near even when he gets out front.
Interstatic, Arise: Very cool organ-guitar-drums trio. Heavy on the blues, but the music gets sufficiently stoned as to veer into a dense 70s trip-rock. The best part about the music is its propulsion… even when moving with a hazy cadence, there is an appealing sense of forward motion about this music, a persistent linearity that just draws the listener along for the ride. Interesting to hear guitarist Jacob Young outside the ECM universe. The trio is rounded out by other strong names, Roy Powell on Hammond organ and Jarle Vespetad on drums.
Farmers by Nature, Love and Ghosts: The double set features two complete live performances by the trio of drummer Gerald Cleaver, pianist Craig Taborn, and bassist William Parker. Recorded in France during their European tour, the Marseille set’s strongest personality trait is the wild kinetic energy generated by the trio improvisations and the way its kept in a tiny little bundle as its sent hurtling forward in wild trajectories… like a small planet, loosed of its orbit and flung out to the far reaches of space. But hidden within all that are the captivating interludes where the trio just seems to drift on the fumes of melodic fragments before slamming back on the gas pedal yet again. The Besancon performance sees the trio exhibiting a greater patience, finding ways to say more with less, and the economy of sound provides a satisfying contrast with the racing heartbeat of its predecessor. Close to two hours of music here, so if this is your thing, you’re going to get plenty of it.
Tom Harrell, Trip: You’re not gonna go wrong with the new one by trumpeter Harrell, leading a quartet comprised of saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Adam Cruz. The heart of the album is the six-part “Adventures of a Quixotic Character,” but it’s Harrell’s deft melodic flow that provides the album its life. Something about Harrell’s expressions, it’s not that he states the melody so much as pour it out and let it spread… which leads to a pursuit that gives the solos and the rhythm unit a boost of excitement as they develop. There are some moments when the volleys between sax and trumpet almost single-handedly kick the album up a notch or two.
Darius Jones & Matthew Shipp, Cosmic Lieder: The Darkseid Recital: Continuing their Cosmic Lieder collaborations, alto saxophonist Jones and pianist Shipp offer up live sets from performances at NYC’s The Stone and Jazz Standard. Both have earned their strong reps as composers and improvisers, but there is yet something startling about the sharp precision and caustic energy these two conjure up here. Unfortunately, there’s usually a drop off in electricity when a live performance gets set down on a recorded medium, but that’s not the case here. A raw visceral energy comes through strong, and the series of clashes and dissonance hold as much vibrancy as the brief stillness that separates them.
Bolt, Shuffle: Free improv set from the quartet of guitarist Eric Hofbauer, cellist Junko Fujiwara, drummer Eric Rosenthal, and alto saxophonist Jorrit Dijkstra, who also utilizes a lyricon (an electronic wind synthesizer). The sound of four simultaneous conversations that never seem to achieve unison, yet cohabit the same tiny space for so long that a curious sense of cohesion begins to emerge. Strange, curious music.
Matthew Sheens, Untranslatable: Delightful sophomore release from pianist Sheens, who adds a string quartet to the mix for an album that’s already got plenty of textures to it. Most tracks have a pleasant sing-song presence to them, though there are moments of a contemplative nature when Sheens gets out front on piano, and then there are those moments when the strings come center stage and make it all about the harmonies. Nice turn by vocalist Sara Serpa, whose laid-back delivery on this album simmers with intensity when it isn’t dancing lightly off the surface of the melody. Also contributing to the album are guitarist Mike Moreno, bassist Linda Oh, drummer Kenneth Salters, percussionist Rogerio Boccato and bassist Yanni Burton.
Monash Art Ensemble, Hexis: Compelling avant-garde session working off a new arrangement from trombonist George Lewis, who collaborated with Monash University as part of a residency. Lewis performs on the recording, adding some electronic effects to his trombone contribution, along with Australian Art Orchestra and the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music. Plenty of dissonance and sonic clashes, but it’s delivered with a pleasant airiness, disdaining the oftentimes dense consistency of similar projects, and rendering this performance with lightness equivalent to watching a flock of hummingbirds darting about quickly in a small space.
DUMiTRIO, Future Nostalgia: This guitar trio falls under the category of modern fusion, where the jazz is as vague as the other genres it blends with, and where the improvisational aspect is focus… a sense that the act of cooking the album is more important than the details of the ingredients that go into it. Guitar, drums, and bass all get to share their voice, typically in concert with one another. Some nice moments on this recording that made me want to give it a quick mention.