In the jazz world, 2012 is starting off strong, with some late 2011 arrivals that turned up on many year-end lists, and some new releases by either debut or under-the-radar artists who are making strong statements before some people have even bought a new calendar.
Julian Lage Group, Gladwell: This jazz guitarist’s concept album (songs based around the fictional town Gladwell) got plenty of recognition on Best of 2011 lists, and with good reason. This intriguing album navigated a path between Jeremy Udden’s folk jazz and the quasi-bluegrass of guitar master Leo Kottke. Alternating between acoustic and electric guitar, Lage builds his concept from the ground up. Blending sax and cello with his rhythm section, Lage creates a sound that seems intimately familiar, yet perpetually ephemeral. Pick of the week.
Cyminology, Saburi: A bunch of ECM titles dropped since my last column, both old-school and modern. Me, I focus on the new stuff, and the most refreshing titles here are by Iranian/German vocalist/composer Cymin Samawatie. Mixing traditional Persian music with jazz and backed by a piano trio, Samawatie manages to take the best of both modern ECM worlds: the introspective piano tinkering and the world music that really ain’t jazz. The end result is a serene yet upbeat mix of old world music in a modern jazz setting. For those of you who have grown picky with your ECM selections by way of experience, this is definitely one to look at, especially fans of Marcin Wasilewski and Anouar Brahem.
Dennis Rollins Velocity Trio, 11th Gate: The trombone-organ-drums trio isn’t one that gets explored too often, which makes U.K. jazz vet Dennis Rollins’s attempt that much more exciting. Known mostly for his involvement with hard funk ensembles, Rollins breaks away from that typecast and creates a surprisingly textured series of tunes, each way more individualistic than one might initially assume could be derived from the trio concoction of trombone, organ, drums. Yes, there’s plenty of groove throughout, but tastes of Latin, some ballad, some avant-garde deconstruction, some swing…and it all seems to fit somehow — a real solid album that should earn Rollins plenty of respect not just for the quality of the music but also the difficulty of of the task. Title track “The 11th Gate” ends the album on an outstanding note. It’s released on the Motema label, always a good source for tasteful jazz. Recommended.
Cholet-Kanzig-Papaux Trio, Connex: Nice piano trio date that gets better than nice when the bass gets aggressive and adds a delicious layer of tension to the recording. It’s the fourth album for this trio, following on the heels of a collaboration with jazz great Charlie Mariano. Nice example of the jazz coming out of Switzerland.
Gianluca Littera Ensemble Project, Sconcertango: Gianluca Littera brings his chromatic harmonica to a large string ensemble (with some percussion) for a series of compositions built around the tango. There’s some fuzziness as to when this album was officially released, and this album is cool enough to make me overlook what I can’t confirm. Frenetic, cheerful, and dramatic tunes, some quite straightforward and others with the melody wondrously misshapen. Just a beautiful, addictive album.
Lol Coxhill, Barre Phillips, JT Bates, The Rock On the Hill: Here’s one for the free jazz fans: a live free jazz performance with sax legend Lol Coxhill, Phillips on bass and Bates on drums. Recorded at a performance at the Theatre Dunois in Paris, France, nearly 30 years after their previous performance there, this trio shows themselves to be in top form. Coxhill, a vet of the European improvised music scene, has a uniquely conversational style of sax voicing, a style which alternates between convivial and abrasive, sometimes mumbling to himself under his breath and sometimes shouting right into the ear of the listener. Coxhill is one of those music treasures who are compelled to play a style of music that’ll never attract a mass audience, but who shines just as bright in front of a smaller audience.
Strange Sounds – Beautiful Music, Interrupted: Oh. My. God. I have a new most favorite album ever. Multi-reedist Araxi Karnusian is the force behind the Strange Sounds – Beautiful Music ensemble, a nonet, which includes a battalion of saxes and clarinets, piano, bass, drums and a string quartet. Cheery saxes, soaring violins and violas, piano bright and sunny, bass a cool breeze, and drums the rustle of the wind through the trees. Take your typical introverted sparse ECM-type modern jazz album and give it the big band treatment with classical music flourishes, and you start to get an idea of how this album sounds. Despite this album’s massive presence, there is an overarching sense of solitary quietness to the compositions, like immersing oneself into deep thought on a very crowded and noisy street. It appears that this album is only new to eMusic and was actually released back in 2007, but my love affair with this album precludes me from paying attention to mundane subjects like “time” and “release date” and “new”. Strange Sounds is like the noisier sister to Benjamin Koppel’s excellent Adventures of a Polar Expedition, which I also have an abiding love for, as many have read me gush about in various internet locales. Oh my yes, very, very highly recommended. Pick of the week.
James Carter Organ Trio, At the Crossroads: Yes, technically, they can probably get away with calling this a Trio album. Sax virtuoso James Carter is joined by Gerald Gibbs on organ and Leonard King Jr. on drums. But, really, it’s less a trio outing and more a tour of Detroit’s jazz scene, with other area musicians adding vocals, guitar, trumpet, and trombone to the mix for an excellent set of blues. Unless you’re fortunate to spend your winters protected from the sun by the shade of palm trees, then this wonderful set of organ trio tunes is perfect for fighting off the cold. Recommended.
Cataclysm Box, Mechanical Pieces: Well, this is a promising bit of excitement. A French quartet of sax, guitar, bass, and drums, it seems to stray close to the indie rock/jazz fusion of Todd Sickafoose’s Tiny Resistors, toying with oddly configured melodies on sax, backed by rock riffs sometimes grungy sometimes Fripp-ian, and a jazz-time rhythm structure that keeps things centered even when the tunes get out on the fringes. I find this album really striking, both in terms of its tunefulness and also for its experimentalism. No doubt I’ll mention this album the next time I construct a Jazz for Indie Rock Listeners list. Very nice.
Isaac Jaffe, Telenova Vol. 1: Well, since we’re talking about indie-jazz fusion, we might as well mention bass player Issac Jaffe’s new album. Telenova really strays far away from jazz’s center, though as this particular vein of jazz-indie fusion is becoming more commonplace, the “center” of jazz is becoming an increasingly fuzzy measurement. A quintet of trumpet, tenor sax, guitar, bass and drums, the album keeps a rapid pace throughout, and even when Jaffe gets the group to lay back on the tempo, you can tell it’s just a matter of time before they get the heart rate up again. If I were to generalize the musical interests of a typical eMusic member, I’d have to say this album would be right up the alley of many.
Jimmy Owens, The Monk Project: Here’s a treat. NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Owens gives us an album of his own arrangements of Monk tunes. Lending his sweet trumpet sound to a septet ensemble which includes modern jazz giants Wycliffe Gordon (trombone), Marcus Strickland (tenor sax), Howard Johnson (tuba, bari sax), Kenny Baron (piano), Kenny Davis (bass, and Winard Harper (drums), Owens has crafted a series of magnificent versions of classic compositions for what might be the strongest release of a strong week of releases. The feel of much of the album is blues, evident even when the ensemble sounds chipper as hell. Never sounding reductive to some past age of music, this is as fresh as bread baked this morning and just as hot. Beautiful stuff, and very, very highly recommended.
Lutz Hafner, Bar Talk With Bela: This straight-ahead album features a strong cast of players. In addition to Hafner on sax, it also features some of the best musicians on the scene — Adam Rogers, Scott Colley, Donny McCaslin, Johan Ruckert and Rainer Bohm. Hafner’s sound on sax is perpetually curious, seemingly to always be looking to discover an inventive path less traveled. Interplay between the sextet member is top-notch, and makes for a very enjoyable listen.
Carmen Sandim, Brand New: Wow, beautiful! Former Brazilian, Current Colorado pianist Carmen Sandim comes out strong with her debut album, featuring mainstays of the Denver jazz scene, including wildly talented trumpeter Ron Miles. It’s mostly a series of tuneful post-bop tracks; deep melodies made more satisfying for not resolving to a natural conclusion, nice quick step rhythms that mesh seamlessly with Sandim’s piano bounce and skip, and some seriously lyrical guitar action. Recorded on the fledgling Dazzle Records label, who has put out some strong albums as their opening statements to the scene. Highly recommended.
Ilona Kudina Quintet, Nothing But Illusion: For a variety of reasons not worth rehashing, jazz flute has an unpopular reputation attached to it. Not only is this reputation unfair and misguided, 2011 provided a whole bunch of evidence that flautist led jazz groups are a rich vein of quality listening. Add Ilona Kudina’s latest effort to that list. Backed by a quality team, including jazz vet Billy Hart on drums, Kudina presents a series of bop tunes that both swing and mesmerize. Bypassing the exaggerated breathiness typical of some jazz flute, Ilona lays back and lets the flute do the work. Nice stuff here.
Johannes Enders Trio, Mondgovel: New release from tenor sax player Johannes Enders, who seems to be continually displaying some profound growth in his sound with each subsequent recording. This trio date really highlights the confidence in his play, developing into a real jazz vet. I’ve liked previous recordings just fine, but I gotta say that Mondgovel is really noteworthy (to my ears) in his development. If you’re looking for a recording which showcases tenor sax, just hit the download button on the link above.
Eyvind Kang, Visible Breath: Avant-classical more than jazz, but Kang has strong jazz roots, having collaborated often with Bill Frisell. Known primarily for his violin, Kang has peppered his discography with a series of classical-ambient-electronica-drone albums. Visible Breath should appeal to the same people who wake to his music just as the sun rises or bliss out to at the end of a very long Saturday night of Too Much Fun. Too beautiful.
That’s it for this week. Cheers.