So, we got slammed this week, which wouldn’t have been so bad had many of the albums just been B/B- “pretty good” recordings … but they weren’t. My Pick of the Week was a toss-up and I could’ve kept tagging these synopses with a “Highly Recommended” pretty far down my list. Not for nothing, there are several albums in today’s column that I highly recommend, even if I don’t have that tag in bold type at the end of the description. A lot of music this week that has strong, vibrant personalities — some that behave with originality and others with a comforting familiarity. Let’s begin…
Otis Brown III, The Thought of You: Drummer Otis Brown III’s debut album is a classic Blue Note Records hard bop recording that goes to church regularly and has a hip nephew that can rattle off J Dilla beats on command. The influence of pianist Robert Glasper is felt throughout much of this recording, and there are album tracks that wonderfully echo his groundbreaking In My Element. But this is more than just the influence of one musician, and Brown III’s background in a variety of jazz settings (w/the likes of Joe Lovano, Somi, Oliver Lake and Esperanza Spalding) has given him a wide expanse from which to project his expansive recording. The shifting tides of sounds on this recording sound natural and effortless, and it’s why it can sound forward-thinking and new while simultaneously echoing the music of the past (both near and far). Joining Brown III are the aforementioned Glasper, saxophonist John Ellis, bassist Ben Williams, trumpeter Keyon Harrold, and guests Shedrick Mitchell, Nir Felder, Gretchen Parlato, Nikki Ross and Bilal. An exciting, auspicious debut album. Pick of the Week.
David Ullmann 8, Corduroy: On his newest, guitarist Ullmann looks to the TV show theme songs from the 70s for his emotional template. As such, he’s crafted songs with a thick melody likely to stick, jaunty rhythms that carry the listener gently away, and, like many of those classic themes, a hint of the melancholy, whose goal is to inspire a bit of contemplation rather than sadness. Ullmann’s 8 is an all-star line-up of modern artists, including clarinetist Mike McGinnin, saxophonist Loren Stillman, vibraphonist Chris Dingman, trombonist Brian Drye, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, bassist Gary Wang, and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza. A whole of those names are involved in other projects that look back in time while simultaneously expressing themselves with a look to the future, so the success of this project should come as no surprise. Hearing album track “Moving On,” I couldn’t help but think of a wide shot of a taxi cruising over a bridge as both the shift and the night are coming to a close. A very thoughtful and very fun recording. Highly Recommended.
Hanami Quartet, Hanami Quartet: Formed originally in the spirit of raising funds to aid Japanese victims of a recent tsunami, this quartet of guitarist Andrew Trim, drummer Charles Rumback, multi-reedist Mai Sugimoto and bass clarinetist Jason Stein enjoyed their project enough to eventually put together a studio recording. This cerebrally inclined modern jazz take on Japanese songs is wonderfully engaging, a potent mix of sonic fluency and cinematic ambiance. Even when a song grows increasingly volatile, there’s always a comforting lullaby nature to it. The more I listen to this recording, the more strongly I feel about it. Outstanding. Highly Recommended.
John Dieterich, Ben Goldberg & Scott Amendola, Short-Sighted Dream Colossus: Fascinating trio session from guitarist Dieterich, clarinetist Goldberg and drummer Amendola. Tracks switch of languorous folk-ballads to grinding rock leviathans to post-post-bop peculiarities. Experimental, inventive music from three artists who don’t exactly walk paths commonly traversed. Recommended.
Reggie Watkins, One For Miles, One For Maynard: Very cool session led by trombonist Watkins, who gives a great Latin-infused rendition of Miles Davis’s outstanding track “Shhh” from In a Silent Way, a modern take on Ferguson’s “Chala Nata” that shows that a little turntable scratching won’t get in the way of honoring the original’s thick grooves, and a great straight-ahead take on McCoy Tyner’s “Contemplation” (from The Real McCoy). The Watkins original compositions fit in nicely right between these wonderful covers. Joining Watkins are pianist Howard Alexander III, bassist Jeff Grubbs, drummer David Throckmorton, saxophonists Matt Parker and Rick Matt, trumpeters Steve Hawk and Ian Gordon, percussionist Carmelo Torres, and a few guests, to boot. An album that emits all kinds of personality.
Thierry Maillard Trio, The Alchemist: Stunning recording session that augments pianist Maillard’s trio with jazz orchestra. Booming with all kinds of passion, it’s a frequent thing for the piano trio to be shouting out in a small voice from the crowd of textures and nuance. Nice eccentricities found in the instrumentation and influences, but best of all, the music behaves as would a modern piano trio session… strong melodies that race off to see where they might lead to and rhythms that crackle with life, receding only to let bits of melodic serenity slip into a passage or three. Maillard’s trio rounds out with drummer Yoann Schmidt and bassist Matyas Szandai. Absolutely beautiful.
Wadada Leo Smith, Jamie Saft, Joe Morris, Balazs Pandi, Red Hill: Intense quartet session with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, pianist Jamie Saft, bassist Joe Morris and drummer Balazs Pandi. Sometimes it’s a controlled fury, sometimes it’s untamed. Favorite moments are when Smith’s trumpet takes long slow notes that soar above a tumultuous bed of percussion… the contrast pulls the attention in two directions at once, and the challenge to take it all in is a huge thrill.
Ken Thomson & Slow/Fast, Settle: Really engaging modern set from saxophonist Thomson, who also doubles on bass clarinet. The album falls into that general category that often gets described as having angular melodies and rhythms that rock far more than they bop. The thing of it is, the shapes created by Thomson’s quintet, and the way those rhythms are manipulated are presented in a way that makes something familiar sound distinctly personal, with an emphasis on craftsmanship. Most of the time, it’s hard driving music, but when the quintet slows down, things get all kinds of alluring. Rounding out the quintet are guitarist Nir Felder, drummer Fred Kennedy, trumpeter Russ Johnson and bassist Adam Armstrong.
David Mengual Free Spirits Big Band, Vertebrats: Another thrilling session from Mengual, who always seems to make the motions of huge liftoffs and exquisite soaring a part of every one of his recordings. His newest features a series of different suites and performed by different ensembles, and the way they shift from a chamber elegance to a bop liveliness to a jazz-rock burn is a terrific series of events to follow along with. Some familiar names to this column are a part of Mengual’s group, including drummer Oriol Roca, trumpet Natsuko Sugao, saxophonist Gonzalo Levin, and clarinetists Marcel li Bayer and Pau Domenench. A good idea to go exploring Mengual’s discography, and this one is a good place to start.
Lutte Berg Trio, Hem: Charming guitar trio recording, drawing upon the influences of Berg’s Italian and Swedish backgrounds. Mostly steel strings for this session, which strongly represents folk influences. Peaceful, but expressive, and a few tracks turn up the heat a bit, but mostly this is a lesson in soothing tones. Joining Berg are bassist Tino Muto and drummer Christer Jansson.
Florence Melnotte, Whynotmelnotte: Fascinating solo set from pianist Melnotte, who adds some keyboard and a synth to her piano repertoire, augmenting it in ways that add some welcome nuance. At times, it sounds like piano is side-by-side with prepared piano, which is seriously intriguing. Each song has some kind of surprise to offer. Music that should appeal to fans of Nils Frahm and Hans-Joachim Roedelius as it will modern jazz piano enthusiasts.
Espen Eriksen & Gunnar Halle, Psalm: Gorgeous duet from pianist Eriksen and trumpeter Halle. The duo utilizes varied psalms as their jumping off point into all kinds of lovely Nordic Jazz serenity. Not a new idea for them- their previous release focused on Christmas hymns.
Kenny Werner, Coalition: Pianist Werner debuts a new album, named after his ensemble of all-stars: guitarist Lionel Loueke, saxophonists Miguel Zenon and Benjamin Koppel, and drummer Ferenc Nemeth… all who have put out albums under their own name that have been mentioned previously in this column. Easily the best part of this album is how different songs clearly reflect the particular sounds and voices of the ensemble members as leaders. Werner honors both their talents and the theme of “coalition.” A strong album.
Freddy Cole, Singing the Blues: Plenty of warmth and heart from the veteran vocalist Cole. Illustrating how the blues is reliant on over-expression to get its point across, Cole delivers these tunes with the comforting fireplace heat without skimping on any of the emotion. Comprised of themes and tunes that touch upon the places and people that helped shape his career, Cole delivers a winner. One of the best tracks, “An Old Piano Plays the Blues,” will especially appeal to fans of Tom Waits early period music. Cole is joined by tenor saxophonist Harry Allen, pianist John di Martino, guitarist Randy Napolean, bassist Elias Bailey, and drummer Curtis Boyd.
Chris Hyson, Paradise: Dreamy solo piano session that sees Kit Downes performing the compositions of Chris Hyson. Contemplative tunes, quietly expressed, but reflective of intense thoughts. A beautiful little EP of music.
Juraj Stanik Trio, Wow: Nice straight-ahead trio session from pianist Stanik, bassist Frans van der Hoeven and drummer Joost van Schaik. Modern set that echoes the focused energy and heat of a late-60s hard bop set. Nothing groundbreaking, just solid musicianship and a set of enjoyable tunes.