Personnel: Jeff Parker – drums, vocals, piano, electric guitar, Korg MS20, sampler, etc; Ruby Parker – vocals; Paul Bryan – bass guitar; Jamire Williams – drums Paul Bryan – bass guitar Josh Johnson – alto saxophone and electric piano; Katinka Kleijn – cello; Rob Mazurek – piccolo trumpet; Makaya McCraven – drums and sampler; Jay Bellerose – drums and percussion; Nate Walcott – trumpet
Impression: There is no shortage of catchy tune-age here…ranging from accessible and danceable jams to virtuosic flights of fancy, this is the most well balanced release of 2020 so far.
Allison Miller – Glitter Wolf (Royal Potato Family)
Accomplished drummer/composer Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom project returns with the follow up to 2016’s first-rate Otis Was A Polar Bear with an even more cohesive set in Glitter Wolf. The group, audibly strengthened by a heavy touring schedule, has revealed the elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that can only come from technically advanced performances within the realm of serving the music.
Miller, along with violinist Jenny Scheinman, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, bassist Todd Sickafoose and pianist Myra Melford has assembled a quilt of so many of the elements that make music worthwhile: hooks galore, frisky Frisell-ian melodies, optimal expressivity, swinging grooves, and astounding execution. Taking inspiration from the #MeToo Movement and Black Lives Matter, Boom Tic Boom are operating on a much-appreciated spiritually conscious level that belies so much of the divisive trash heap that is 2019 existence in the US. On top of all that, the recording, produced by Julie Wolf (“glitter wolf”?) at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, CA is masterfully present and virtually tangible.
Check Miller’s site regularly as she is nearly always bringing her thing to the people in a town near you. GW is a total blast, and I can only imagine it would be even more rewarding to experience live!
Quinsin Nachoff’s Flux – Path of Totality (Whirlwind Recordings)
The title of the sophomore release from Quinsin Nachoff’s Flux, Path of Totality, takes its name from the moon’s total eclipse of the sun back in 2017, an event that brought the world together in observation of a fleeting totality of darkness. Likewise, the moniker of the group, “Flux”, meaning “continuous change”, hints at an optimism that, no matter how dire our socio-political conditions might become, nothing is permanent. The bass-less core of the group is saxophonist David Binney and pianist/keyboardist Matt Mitchell, with drumming duties split between Kenny Wollesen and Nate Wood. They are joined on various tracks by a handful of guest musicians including trombonist Ryan Keberle and trumpeter Matt Holman.
PoT is profoundly heavy music with a staggering amount of commitment behind it, evident from the complex compositions, arrangements, and playing. Flux stretches out within these extended and multi-layered jams – a mere 6 tracks run over 2 hours – leaving the listener with an epic Beowulfian journey’s sense of completion at its end. All of the elements I love about the longform works of Charles Mingus, George Russell, or John Coltrane are present on PoT: thematic development, improvisational prowess, melodic richness, masterful arranging, pan-genre, and harmonic depth.
This is an important set of pieces expertly composed and performed for our time. One could, and should, spend considerable time with PoT and discover new stratums of excellence with each visit. Bravo, Flux.
Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord – Harder on the Outside (Hot Cup Records)
Halfway through its second decade as a band, Jon Lundbom’s Big Five Chord have taken a new approach to composition. Guitarist Jon Lundbom and saxophonist Bryan Murray worked with samples from previous Big Five Chord tunes and other Hot Cup Records-released source material, crafting them into beats around which new tunes were created. Then saxophonist Justin Wood, bassist/producer Moppa Elliott, and drummer Dan Monaghan were brought in to flesh out the material, resulting in Harder on the Outside.
According to the press release, “the title can be taken at least four different ways: (1) as metaphor for one’s personality “hardening” with age; (2) as a political statement, about alienation due to rising fascism and xenophobia; (3) as a statement about purity in free/”outside” music/improvisation; and (4) as fact, that it’s really hard to make an album when you live in Austin and the rest of your band is in New York.” Regardless, Harder on the Outside is the sound of old friends having a blast making music, which ultimately is what it’s all about.
The unique creative process used to produce HotO seems to have rejuvenated Big Five Chord seeing as all involved delivered terrific performances. It would come as no surprise to see this approach used more and more in the future, given the success here.
Christoph Irniger Pilgrim – Crosswinds (Intakt Records)
On their third album together as a quintet, Christoph Irniger’s Pilgrim sounds as if they are judiciously exploring the two (or more) sides of the same coin: each piece is both bright and dark, spacious and crowded, heavy and light, subtle and evident, electric and acoustic, etc, etc.
In the disc’s liner notes, Irniger explains, “Most of the music I write at the moment is about the duality or plurality in things… the compositions are mostly based on sparse materials, even if there are several parts. The idea is to have one story or context, and to show different emotions or pathways. Some is composed, some freely improvised, but always painted as a song.” Irniger and comrades guitarist Dave Gisler, pianist Stefan Aeby, drummer Michi Stulz, and bassist Raffaele Bossard have crafted a poised artistic statement with Crosswinds…a statement that is made both loudly and quietly.
Like Newton’s third law of motion or a delicious plate of food, Crosswinds is undeniably balanced, with compositions and playing that are both restrained and free, and the result is 100% appealing. This is some of the most engaging music to be released this year.
Miho Hazama – Dancer in Nowhere (Sunnyside Records)
Miho Hazama is a skate park architect whose immaculate designs are with some of the most agile and daring athletes in the world in mind. Hers is the beautiful and inspiring space where art and science meet, a space once occupied by the likes of Duke Ellington or Gil Evans.
Quickly following up last year’s impressive The Monk : Live At Bimhuis, Dancer in Nowhere is Hazama’s third outing with her “m_unit”, the celebrated and versatile 13-piece chamber ensemble. This set also features a top-shelf roster of guest talent including guitarist Lionel Loueke, saxophonist Steve Wilson, drummer Nate Wood and vocalist Kavita Shah. No surprise, the performances throughout DiN are at the highest level of technical excellence and Hazama’s tunes and arrangements are magnetic. The title track and album closer is especially ebullient, featuring dizzying pyrotechnics from drummer Nate Wood. Describing the musical expressiveness on display in the track, Hazama said, “There are times when you feel something, but you can’t really describe it in words… I started wondering if I could somehow describe this through music. Not necessarily a struggle or something negative: it could be happiness, fear, passion, energy. The challenge of capturing these things became a theme for me.”
It continues to be encouraging to see a gifted artist putting out work that improves upon his/her previous work. It seems as though, nearly a decade into an already remarkable career, Hazama is just getting started.
When you perform with a group of musicians for three decades certain modes of non-verbal communication tend to develop so that picking things up where you left off is quite simple. Such is the case with saxophonists Andrew D’Angelo and Chris Speed, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, and drummer Jim Black, who as Human Feel released their previous album twelve years ago and sound more vital than ever.
No bass, no problem…this quartet has talent to burn, and burn it does! The amount of ground covered by HF is staggering, from serene, minimal meditations to hyper, maximal catharsis, seemingly exhausting all sensible musical permutations. While Gold is certainly a group effort, with original tunes penned by all members, I can’t help but hear Black as the fire of the recording, perhaps because in nearly all cases, he is perpetually MVP, impressing with both refined simplicity and awe-inspiring complexity. This is no easy task given his esteemed company in HF.
Black has stated, “We believe more than ever that the four of us making music together is a necessity, and we intend to keep doing it wherever and whenever we can”… This is golden news for us all.
Eric Dolphy – Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions (Resonance Records)
Eric Dolphy is among three soloists – joining Thelonious Monk and Tony Williams in this grand distinction – who galvanized what I continue to love about the greatest improvisatory playing. His level of performance and communication on a musical instrument has yet to be surpassed and his preventable death at the way-too young age of 35 is among the worst tragedies in music history.
When I worked at record stores in my 20s I bought every single disc I could order involving Dolphy and listened to them all… a lot. Although I have yet to grow tired of his musical output, both as a composer/leader and as the single greatest sideman in the business, it was with a childlike sense of jubilation that I audibly shrieked when I heard at the end of last year that unreleased Dolphy was coming to us soon via Resonance Records. Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions is exciting not only because it collects his 1963 studio albums The Conversations and Iron Man, two of the great achievements in music making in the 20th century, but also adds, as I mentioned, UNHEARD DOLPHY MATERIAL…ALMOST 85 MINUTES OF IT!
Look, the world doesn’t need me to say even one more word about his previously issued releases mentioned above – many have written extensively about how singular those records are and why. What I will say is, if you don’t already own The Conversations and Iron Man, just buy this now and your life will almost certainly move in a more positive direction. If you already own those two records, buy this now because the radical 15-minute 12-tone/ Schoenberg-influenced opus “A Personal Statement” (somewhat of a remake of “Jim Crow” from Dolphy’s 1962 LP Other Aspects) alone is worth the price of admission.
Also, the set comes with an almost 100 page book full of interviews, commentary, photographs, recording notes, etc, etc that will make any Dolphy fan drool like a fiend. Just do it.
Layale Chaker & Sarafand – Inner Rhyme (In A Circle Records)
The work of Lebanese violinist and composer Layale Chaker just recently arrived on my radar with the release of her debut recording, Inner Rhyme, and I couldn’t be happier that it did. Merely seeing on paper the lineup of violin, cello (Jake Charkey), bass (Nick Dunston), piano (Phillip Golub), and percussion (Adam Maalouf) and I knew that I was in.
Taking inspiration from a number of diverse musical traditions including Arabic Maqam, Chaker has hit upon a gorgeous blend of sounds both familiar and less familiar to the typical western ear. With a passion for poetry, she translated twelve classical Arabic poetic meters into rhythmical meters in which to write the material included on this record. Discussing her inspiration for IR from an existentialist perspective, Chaker stated, “From the cradle to the grave, in nuptial festivals as in funerals, the very same rhythms and melodies trace and mark every stage of life for Assyrians, Syriacs, Kurds, Arabs and Gypsies. What could possibly transcend geopolitical deals and whirlwinds more than that thought?”
Finding common ground in the face of deeply polarized and deadly conflict is a sensible and natural response and one of which our leaders continue to prove they are incapable. Even so, hopeful young artists such as Chaker will continue to bring art into the world not only for art’s sake, but also to shine a light on our commonalities. Mission accomplished with grace and agility, and on a debut, too!
Jamie Saft, Steve Swallow & Bobby Previte – You Don’t Know The Life (Rarenoise Records)
From the same label and trio that brought us 2014’s The New Standard and 2017’s Loneliness Road with Iggy Pop, comes You Don’t Know the Life, the new collection of originals and improvisations, as well as standards by Bacharach, Bill Evans, and Roswell Rudd performed by veterans Jamie Saft, Steve Swallow, and Bobby Previte. On first glance at the space-age art-deco cover, the listener realizes something wicked this way comes…in the form of Hammond B3 deliciousness and magical Baldwin electric harpsichord vibes.
Surprisingly, Saft, himself a gifted recordist/producer, did not commit this material to tape. Engineered by Christian Castagno at Sear Sound in NYC, YDKTL is not a tentatively documented batch of music: an attractively compressed, bass heavy mix in which even the subtle resonances of the drums envelope you plays perfect foil to this invigorating material. At times the music hints at the cinematic approaches of Francis Lai, pop group Air, ambient 70s Miles, or dreamy Badalamenti / Lynch concoctions, but it’s something other than all of those, though no less curiously moody or undeniable. This record would belong in the “swinging, psyched out jet set jams” section of your favorite record store, if your favorite record store were sufficiently hip.
The Rarenoise / Jamie Saft partnership continues to pay dividends to listeners with yet another terrific set of tunes, and if last year is any indication, might yield one or two more releases this year.
Greg Ward – Stomping Off From Greenwood (Greenleaf Music)
Everyone already knows that Greg Ward is one of the premier musicians working in 2019 and his 2016 record Touch My Beloved’s Thought is a stone cold masterpiece. Well, he and his group of Chicago’s finest, Rogue Parade, are back at it and in a big way.
For Stomping Off From Greenwood, Ward joins the dual guitar frontline of Matt Gold and Dave Miller, supported by the fantastic young rhythm section of Matt Ulery and Quin Kirchner on bass and drums, respectively. It’s interesting and impressive to hear his writing for guitars rather than the horns of his previous outing, showcasing not only his already-known impeccable skills as an arranger, but also his versatility and creative drive. This impulse groups him with the some of the most compelling composers / performers of our time who also have no use for genre. SOFG contains super-catchy tunes, conveys a wide breadth of moods, and it is just a total blast to listen to. Did I mention that Rogue Parade can flat out play? They can and do throughout the record.
I don’t see any way for a guy as talented as Ward to keep making music and not be looked back at as one of the great musical minds of the early 21st century. He already is by many, including yours truly.
Ingrid Laubrock – Contemporary Chaos Practices: Two Works for Orchestra (Intakt Records)
Ingrid Laubrock’s Contemporary Chaos Practices: Two Works for Orchestra has to be one of the most ambitious recording projects of 2018. So many things can, and usually do, go wrong when writing to achieve a faithful orchestral performance, let alone capture an acceptable recording of that performance – it’s a wonder anyone would ever take on such an absurd task. Laubrock has attempted a first recording of her works for orchestra on CCP, and has succeeded splendidly.
She initially wrote “Vogelfrei” for the second Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Reading, performed by the American Composers Orchestra at Columbia University in 2013, and subsequently wrote “Contemporary Chaos Practices” for the 2017 Moers Festival. Augmented by soloists Mary Halvorson on guitar, Kris Davis on piano, Nate Wooley on trumpet, and Laubrock on saxophones and double-conducted by Eric Wubbels and Taylor Ho Bynum, the two pieces that comprise the record explore a full spectrum of performance/improvisation and of sound itself.
CCP is a wide world in which to spend a great deal of time in order to absorb the many intricacies of the music. A video component would have been most instructive, particularly to witness the conduction component at play with the soloists, but beggars can’t be choosers. Perhaps on volume 2…
David Virelles – Igbó Alákọrin (The Singer’s Grove) Vol. I and II (Pi Recordings / El Tivoli Music)
On the surface, a rootsy Cuban big-band and piano record seems out of place on Brooklyn’s Pi Recordings: consonance, symmetry, and tradition are not words that typically come to mind when thinking of perhaps the most progressive label on the planet. But then you spend time with Igbó Alákọrin (The Singer’s Grove) Vol. I and II by pianist and composer David Virelles and you quickly realize that it all makes sense because, like the other releases on the label, this one has excellence (and a sprinkling of signature Pi-quirk – see/hear “Sube La Loma, Compay”) written all over it.
Look, it’s no secret that I am no expert in Cuban music, but I do know that all of the classical-like tunefulness, jubilance, and repetitive drive found therein is also on magnificent display on Igbó Alákọrin. Virelles set out to celebrate the lesser-known musicians of Santiago de Cuba, and what a party it is. So much fun is had that a well-deserved break from the daily grind of global political turmoil is granted, if for a moment. The nine songs of volume 1 are with Orquesta Luz de Oriente featuring the wonderfully expressive vocals of Alejandro Almenares and Emilio Despaigne Robert and the five on Volume 2 are performed by Virelles alongside güiro player Rafael Ábalos.
Turn off the tv, put down the newspaper, and spin this record. Both your head and your heart (and your nerves!) will thank me later. Virelles’ deep commitment to research and building upon his already stellar body of work continues to impress and yield damn fine sounds!
Will Brooks and Mike Mare from New Jersey group Dälek have started a new project called Anguish, and it is an undeniable exercise in creating the darkest of moods, not unlike a Bill Laswell production from the late 80s/early 90s. They have brought keyboardist Hans Joachim Irmler from German krautrock legends Faust, as well as tenor saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and drummer Andreas Werliin from Fire! Orchestra along for the ride…and what a heavy, head-knoddingly excellent ride it is.
The tone of Anguish is decidedly bleak, a result of not only the maniacal blowing of Gustafsson, but also the hard-hitting, hyper-realistic lyrics and gritty, teeth-barring production of Brooks. Recorded in just three days during the summer of 2018 at Faust’s Scheer, a repurposed factory in Swabia, Germany, this is not music for the faint of heart. That said, Anguish does more in its little over 40 minutes to energize me than most releases this year – it’s a rally cry for those who refuse to stand idly by while injustices pile up by the minute.
Even if it might not initially sound quite right on paper, this collaboration makes perfect sense and the fruits of it are outstanding. I can’t get enough of this stuff.
Marcus Strickland – People of the Sun (Blue Note Records / Revive Music)
I really dig how Brooklyn composer-saxophonist Marcus Strickland continues to shoot for a fresh approach with his new Blue Note release, People of the Sun. Continuing the work he started with Meshell Ndegeocello on 2016’s Nihil Novi, there is no doubting the appeal of the band, production, and arrangements, and I anticipate a hit with this one, inasmuch as there can be a hit in 2018.
Strikland convened his Twi-Life group (organist Mitch Henry, bassist Kyle Miles, and drummer Charles Haynes) for POTS to take a stroll through all the great black music that has help shape him into the musician he is in 2018, namely West African griot and Afrobeat as well as post-bop, funk-soul, and beat music. The stew he has created here is quite delicious and always heavily grooving. He has also apparently really gotten into the bass clarinet, which is always a plus in the right hands, and in Strickland’s, it is.
This record works in no small part due to the fact that it’s not trying so hard to be a jazz record on Blue Note: the inclusion of undeniably non-jazz vocal performances by Bilal, Pharoahe Monch, Greg Tate, Akie Bermiss, and Jermaine Holmes is a very smart step forward in getting great music in front of a bigger audience without spinning wheels or sacrificing integrity.
Patrick Shiroishi – Sparrow’s Tongue (Fort Evil Fruit)
Patrick Shiroishi is a Japanese-American multi-instrumentalist & composer based in Los Angeles, CA who is building quite a resume with an array of interesting creative musical projects, most recently, The Musical Tracing Ensemble, Danketsu 9, and Sunreader. He has also just released his sixth solo saxophone record, Sparrow’s Tongue.
ST features Shiroishi on alto, tenor & soprano saxophones, field recordings, and snare drum, with poetry (tankas) by Shiroishi’s grandfather, Seiji Inoue, which is recited by his mother, Uzuko Shiroishi. In the artist’s words, “two pieces focus in on overtones via tenor and alto, two pieces focus on playing the alto and soprano simultaneously, with the fifth piece playing the soprano into a snare drum to create a kind of feed-back with the instrument interplaying with an audio recording of an atomic bomb slowed and reversed.”
Overall, it is quite a minimal affair, creating intriguing impressions through subtle extended saxophone techniques, the juxtaposition of disparate ambient environments, and recited Japanese poetry – one tanka translates to “I know my spirit will separate from my body someday / but now, my spirit heats me up”. This being my first experience with Shiroishi’s work, I am intrigued to see where he goes from here, as I like what I hear.
Música de Selvagem – Volume Único (ShhPuma / Selo Risco)
While living in France, São Paulo-born bassist Arthur Decloedt was faced with the insult música de selvagem, meaning “music of savages”, to describe music from his beloved Brazil. This xenophobic remark became fuel for Decloedt and saxophonist Filipe Nader as they decided to use the songs of contemporary Brazilian songwriters as the springboard for their next project. Adding drummer Guilherme Marques, trumpeter Amilcar Rodrigues, and saxophonist Cuca Ferreira to the mix, they formed Música de Selvagem and recorded said songs with the singers who penned them.
The result is Volume Único, the terrific new record joint released by Shhpuma and Selo Risco. There is an immediacy and strength conveyed through the minimalism of the tunes and brevity of the just four songs on Volume Único that is both undeniable and quite satisfying. The four songwriters/singers (Sessa, Tim Bernardes, Luiza Lian, and Pedro Pastoriz) bring contrasting material to the group, resulting in a balanced collection that runs the spectrum from aggressively dynamic to soulfully moody to dramatically dirgy to peacefully placating.
This is yet another example of how love wins out over hate, how something terrible like racism is again drown out by the beauty of art. Hopeful stories like this one make it easier to wake up anew in 2018, and I’m already looking forward to Volume Dois!
The lure of electronic music and its devices is a landmine for the composer/performer. Many have fallen by treating it as an ingredient to spice up their compositions, and in the process, came across as pandering or novel. That is decidedly not the case for Trio Heinz Herbert, particularly on their new release, Yes.
Brothers Dominic and Ramon Landolt (guitar and keys, respectively) and drummer Mario Hänni have a way of seamlessly integrating electronic processing into their more or less traditional instrumental playing, resulting in an exciting artistic expression. Some of the projects of Christian Fennesz and Supersilent and even This Heat come to mind as sonic references here, but THH’s compositional approach is something different. Utilizing piano/keyboards, guitar, and drums, they are something of a modern day bass-less piano trio, dub-mixed, perhaps even musique concrete-d, in real time, by themselves!
The ubiquity of sound processing software and hardware makes it easier than ever to attempt what THH do, but the work has to be put in to learn the gear and to actually have compelling ideas before the knob-turning commences. You also have to execute, effectively maniacally multitasking. Fortunately, these Swiss bosses have done so proficiently on all fronts and continue to grow in strength with each successive release.
This time of year in the Midwestern United States jibes most perfectly with the ECM aesthetic: spatial, remote, impeccable, suggestive, and impressionistic all come to mind. This list of adjectives is appropriate in describing a glowing oceanic panorama, Lucent Waters as it were, which is coincidentally inspiration for and the title of the new Florian Weber record on ECM.
For LW, his second ECM release, German pianist Weber has assembled one of the strongest groups on record in 2018 with trumpeter Ralph Alessi, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer Nasheet Waits. The result is everything described earlier, and in stunning fashion. In the liner notes, when asked about Weber and LW, Lee Konitz said of his protégé, “His music is totally free. He has got the texture, the feeling, just beautiful…it feels divine to me.” I couldn’t agree more.
There is a programmatic approach to the music, about which Weber describes the “twilight atmosphere of the touring musician’s world”. It’s no secret to any musician who has spent time on the road that this can be a lonesome place, for sure, and this quartet has encapsulated that mood purely here. It’s not all dark though as the jubilance of the perfect gig is reflected in tracks such as “Time Horizon” and “Fragile Cocoon”. Come on in, the waters are just fine.
John Coltrane – 1963: New Directions (Impulse! Records)
First off, what more can be or needs to be said of the legacy of absolute excellence of John Coltrane? He and his core crew of Jones, Tyner, and Garrison climbed the pinnacle of what music is capable in a way that nearly no one else ever did or ever will.
As the title of this set suggests, 1963 was a time of transition for Coltrane wherein he moved from the tradition of jazz that he had already altered forever with his extended solo-flights of spontaneous and limitless imagination, to a new place entirely the following year with the release of the genre defying A Love Supreme. This 3-CD or 5-LP set culled from his 1963 recordings Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album,John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Dear Old Stockholm, Newport ‘63 and Live at Birdland is a fascinating document of a genius becoming even greater.
Look, you don’t need me to tell you that this is a brilliant collection, and though I’m not a proponent of the old “repackage and sell at Christmas” game, 1963: New Directions makes perfect sense for the uninitiated and for those to whom certain younger musicians, and I’m not naming names here, are considered masters. This is the genuine article.
FrançoisHoule, Alexander Hawkins, & Harris Eisenstadt – You Have Options (Songlines Recordings)
A Brit, a Canadian, and an American walk into a recording studio…except this is no joke… far from it, it’s the setup for the new album, You Have Options, from clarinetist François Houle, pianist Alexander Hawkins, and drummer Harris Eisenstadt. To say this is some serious chemistry and seriously impressive music is an understatement.
The range of material on display on YHO is staggering. Included are compositions penned by each of the three musicians involved, as well as pieces by Steve Lacy, Andrew Hill, and Charles Ives. In the hands of lesser players/improvisers, the challenge would result in butchery, but these three brought their A-games and nailed it. I surprised myself by deeply enjoying the space afforded in no small part by the absence of bass on the recording, an omission that I typically lament: not a problem here given the superhuman sensitivity and exemplary musicianship of Eisenstadt, in particular.
Although it’s more undeniable now than ever that You Have Options, I submit the present release as one of the stronger options. Go get it!
Michael Formanek & Elusion Quartet – Time Like This (Intakt Records)
There is an ominous cloud permeating Time Like This, the new and first release by bassist and composer Michael Formanek with his group Elusion Quartet. Titles such as “The New Normal”, “This May Get Ugly”, and “The Soul Goodbye” speak loudly about our current political predicament. That said, it’s hard to imagine music being made since November 2016 to be anything but glum.
The seven Formanek originals on the album also exude a density and complexity, all while leaving ample room for this top-shelf ensemble of saxophonist Tony Malaby, pianist Kris Davis, and percussionist Ches Smith to freely emote and explore, in a way not dissimilar to Coltrane Quartet’s “Alabama” … as they do on the album opener “Down 8 Up 5”.
Serious times call for serious measures and bearing witness and commiserating are crucial first steps in exacting socio-political change. Formanek and company have done so with their art at the absolute highest level on Time Like This and for that, this listener is most appreciative.
Devin Drobka’s Bell Dance Songs – Amaranth (Shifting Paradigm Records)
Not only is Amaranth Milwaukee drummer Devin Drobka’s debut album as a leader, it is also an impressive showcase for his adept writing and versatile playing. Released on the Minneapolis label, Shifting Paradigm Records, this is a collection of effective compositions deconstructed with inspired improvisation, making for a sound that isn’t quite like anything out there today.
Drobka’s group Bell Dance Songs weaves a tapestry of sonic goodness that resides primarily outside of the constraints of time keeping. The triple sax threat of Chris Weller, Patrick Breiner, and Daniel Blake absolutely tear it up and then sew it back together again with the acumen of a somewhat incensed but highly skilled fiber artist. Boston bassist Aaron Darrell completes the rhythm section with Drobka and is the anchor by which the ship escapes the tempest of raging waters.
On Amaranth, close friends gathered to make art that is meaningful to them. I hear a love for the music and between the musicians that is both pleasing and refreshing. More of this, please.
The music of Danish guitarist Jakob Bro is an exquisite dance and it is never bettered than when the consummate master Joey Baron is behind the drums, especially with a pair of brushes (or anything really…or nothing) in his hands. As on 2016’s stellar Streams, this is the case on Bay of Rainbows, the new live album by Bro’s trio, rounded out by Bro’s “musical soul mate”, rock solid bassist Thomas Morgan.
To take the surface simplicity of this music as anything short of entrancing would be a mistake: what is not played by these three most astonishing listeners is of far greater importance than what is actually played. The tune selection is wonderful and is from Bro’s ever-growing arsenal of originals, going as far back as his independent releases from the late aughts, Balladeering and Pearl River.
The album is named after the deed to a plot of land on the moon given to Bro’s infant daughter, in Latin called Sinus Iridum…a fitting title for a collection of celestial and transcendent sounds at which to marvel from afar.
learn more at ECM and buy at your favorite record store or Amazon
Master Oogway – THE CONCERT KOĀN (Clean Feed Records)
Master Oogway is the elderly and wise tortoise and now resident of the spirit realm who created the ancient martial-art of king fu and is responsible for the maxim “yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift; that is why it is called the present”…he is also the inspiration for the name of a collective of four Norwegian musicians responsible for one of the more satisfying releases of 2018, The Concert Koān.
Saxophonist Lauritz Lyster Skeidsvoll and electric guitarist Håvard Nordberg Funderud take turns artfully disrupting stasis alongside the telepathic and sometimes psychopathic rhythmic propulsions of Karl Erik E. Horndalsveen and Martin Mellem, double bassist and drummer respectively. It’s not all shrapnel and smoke though: on the substantial “Mørk Materie”, one is lulled into thinking that the time has come to settle in for some typically Scandinavian blissed-out action, but pleasant as it is, the letup is only fleeting as the pummeling vibe returns with a welcome vengeance.
This is a terrific record to ready oneself for the hopeful catharsis of election day 2018, America, due in no small part to Funderud’s ferocious guitar tone and playing, at times reminiscent of McLaughlin’s work with Lifetime or Ribot’s Shrek project. I am very much looking forward to hearing what the future has in store for him and for Master Oogway.
Satoko Fujii and Alister Spence – Intelsat (Alister Spence Music)
On the staggering ninth of twelve 2018 releases celebrating Japanese pianist and composer Satoko Fujii’s 60th birthday, she has rung in another year of fruitful musical explorations in top form! The effect of Intelsat, a duo with Australian keyboardist Alister Spence, is situated along the lines of Musique concrète and film noir: intricate mystery leads to great wonderment.
The material is culled from a September 2017 performance at Intelsat Jazz Club in Kiracho, Nishio, Japan, and evidences a workout for the improvisational instincts that these two adventurous performers have in abundance. Both Fujii’s piano and Spence’s Fender Rhodes are dutifully prepared for maximum expressivity that makes for, at times, a totally alien soundscape.
When two musicians from somewhat disparate scenes convene, one never knows quite what one will get. While this is not Fujii and Spence’s first duo performance together, it is their first duo release. The reason that this improvisation works is the same reason that it always works: the musicians are actually listening. Here’s to more actual listening and more duets between these two!
Let’s start with this: Cécile McLorin Salvant is one of the three or so most compelling and excellent vocalists making music in 2018. On her new duo album The Window, her magnificently refined aesthetic and masterful interplay with pianist Sullivan Fortner sets Salvant apart in a way that is profound and likely discouraging to others in the singing game. More obscure gems from the torch and pop cannons and beyond sit comfortably aside enchanting takes on standards by Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, Dori Cayimi, and other all-time greats of songwriting.
Dense spells are cast at will as Fortner receives the go-ahead to brandish his French-Impressionistic meets German-Romantic (filtered through Monk-ish stride) dexterity as he does on Bernstein’s “Somewhere” and on the Winstone/Rowles classic “Peacocks” when they are joined by Melissa Aldana on tenor sax. When in this trance-state, one almost forgets that these are primarily songs about the total desolation that love can bring – beguiling, not unlike love’s spell itself. Despite the somewhat depressing subject matter, this remains one of the most splendid records of 2018 and one can only hope that Salvant returns to this seamless duo format with Fortner again and again in the future.
As part of Tyshawn Sorey’s exceptional trio, pianist Cory Smythe’s extraordinarily reactive playing was one of the absolute standouts at the most recent Big Ears Festival. Smythe furthers his trend of astounding on Circulate Susanna, a kind of otherworldly song-cycle inspired in part by a version of his musical upbringing in rural Illinois, particularly as it was informed by America’s dark past as reflected in the paradoxically light tone of its popular music. He is joined by the gifted and imaginative duo of guitarist Daniel Lipell and vocalist Sofia Jernberg.
Lipell’s deft acoustic guitar playing is purposefully detuned and at times liberally doused in electronic processing that only enhances the Partch-like alien-ness of the proceedings. Jernberg vocalizes in a wholly unique and gripping way: part throat harmonizing, alien binary code, part western art music master, and part possessed and/or rabid animal. There are numerous moments on this recording when I have no concept of who is playing what and how, not unlike a Kagel piece, and that is a decided plus in my book. A seemingly Burroughsian lyrical cut-up of the classic “Strange Fruit” adorns the final powerhouse track “To Gather the Wond” that I have now listened to over 20 times in a row…the mood is chilling, but I cannot get enough of it. Big props to pianist Kris Davis for releasing this one on her new imprint Pyroclastic.
For their 8th studio release, Phronesis – the vehicle for bassist Jasper Høiby, pianist Ivo Neame, and drummer Anton Eger to throw down – shows no sign of taking it easy. In fact, We Are All is a rallying cry for unity in a time of profound divisiveness. Kinetic, syncopated, deliberate, direct, and jagged are words that initially come to mind when describing the sounds on WAA, but that is selling it short. These guys are undoubtedly playing their asses off here, but it’s not simply a wank-fest by any barometer – there is a sum > parts certainty about this recording.
Collectable artwork and collectable sounds abound from the venerable Edition Records, this is a release that encapsulates 2018’s cloud of anxiety as well as its resilient pushback. At six tracks in just fewer than 41 minutes this is and will always be my kind of record.
Fred Frith Trio – Closer to the Ground (Intakt Records)
Legendary guitarist and musical maverick Fred Frith has covered a lot of territory over 50+ years, but, as he mentions in the liner notes to his new album Closer to the Ground, he has always been in a band for what only that kind of arrangement can bring. Not only is his trio with bassist Jason Hoopes and drummer Jordan Glenn another of those many bands, but it’s one of Frith’s most superlative since his much-beloved Henry Cow.
As an improvising soloist of the highest order, I can’t imagine Frith wanting for a single thing more from his latest rhythm section – they lay down metronomic and/or shifting grooves, they create sunset-like colors on which Frith eviscerates and/or gently highlights with an array of engaging tremolo and reverberant effects, and they are acutely aware of their supporting-yet-not-passive role and play and/or don’t play accordingly. Bravo to Swiss imprint Intakt Records for being home to such a vital statement from a singular artist and his inventive crew.
The Lie Detectors – Part III: Secret Unit (Chant Records)
The duo of guitarist Eyal Maoz and drummer Asaf Sirkis aka The Lie Detectors is at ease stretching out, perhaps a result of their longstanding rapport, stretching back to when they were 10 years old growing up in Rehovot, Israel. In the intervening years, Maoz and Sirkis have amassed resumes that read like a who’s who of creative music in NYC and Europe, and for good reason: these guys rip!
TLD is a finely-tuned vehicle replete with rack and pinion steering, precision gearbox, four-piston aluminum monobloc fixed caliper brakes, and on P3:SU they prove more than capable of leaping into and traversing whatever terrain presents itself. The music freaks out like early Mothers of Invention, pummels like Tony Williams Lifetime, zigzags like another wicked duo, Ruins, and locks into cruise control like a kind of majestic Endless Summer. Hop in the back and hold on to your hat…it’s heck of a gratifying ride.
Stefan Aeby Trio – The London Concert (Intakt Records)
Swiss pianist/composer Stefan Aeby’s new trio release The London Concert commences with “Shi”, an impressionistic Prelude to the Afternoon of Stefan of sorts: an amuse bouche for what later proves to have been a brilliantly-balanced meal. From there, the telepathic interplay that is a hallmark reserved for top-shelf piano trios becomes quite apparent.
Combinations of playful, deft, scrappy, and patient exchanges between drummer Michi Stulz and bassist André Pousaz drive forward and then reign in the proceedings while Aeby dazzlingly and gracefully juggles all manner of theme and variation, at times subtly and artfully augmenting his playing with Ableton’s electronic processing. This is a record that initially checks all the boxes for a fully satisfying listening experience and then immediately begs for another even deeper dive.
Günter Baby Sommer – Baby’s Party (Intakt Records)
Have you noticed that septuagenarians are getting it done in 2018? The jubilant spirit of freedom that fuels 77 year old master improviser, educator, composer, and percussionist Milford Graves is very much alive and well evidenced not only in his own infectious performances at last year’s Big Ears Festival, but also throughout the world of free and improvised music, and nowhere more profoundly than on Baby’s Party, the new release of 75 year old German improvisational drummer / vocalizer Günter Baby Sommer.
The aesthetic chemistry between Sommer and album cohort trumpeter Till Brönner is an absolute delight, not unlike a warm blanket in late autumn. The sometimes frisky, sometimes delicate musical tit for tat throughout this set traverses the history of improvisational alchemy, replete with entry points for any fan of music – no small task for two artists throwing down sounds on the fly.
Marc Ribot – Songs of Resistance 1942-2018 (Anti Records)
2018 being what it has become to anyone with a soul and a brain, it is far too easy to forget that there is still beauty and compassion in the world. Songs of Resistance 1942-2018 is a not-so-gentle reminder that, not only do some still care, but also that some will make noise about it until change follows. For this set of protest songs whose history spans the larger part of the 20th century and beyond, Ribot surrounds himself with disparate musical foils such as former boss Tom Waits, badass vocalist/bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, rock vocalist Syd Straw, Mexican actress and performance artist Astrid Hadad, and many others…and to stirring effect.
To be sure, these are primarily accessible songs of all varieties of Americana, but in the singular hands of Ribot, they become something greater. Despite the substantial weight of much of the lyrical content, S.O.R. is effectively an unexpected letter from an old friend at just the right time, just to check in.
learn more at Anti and buy at your local record store, bandcamp, or Amazon
Sungjae Son – Near East Quartet (ECM Records)
The bass-less ensemble is a fascinating beast, and can go one of two ways: sink or swim. Seoul’s Near East Quartet led by composer, saxophonist, and clarinetist Sungjae Son undoubtedly goes in later direction…in Olympic fashion too, though theirs is less a brutish marathon and more a freestyle event. Like much other music on the ECM imprint, what the group of Son, guitarist Suwuk Chung, vocalist Yulhee Kim, and drummer Soojin Suh decide not to play/sing is of paramount importance: restraint, my personal favorite artistic quality, is the raison d‘être here.
Incorporating traditional Korean gugak musical elements, dirge-y rock grooves, majestic chromatic harmonies, as well as swing, the NEQ scratches a number of the same itches that another excellent bass-less group from the eastern hemisphere, Dirty Three, did. Clocking in at just less than 37 minutes, this gem leaves the listener wanting more, which is certainly one of greatest endorsements that can be given to a recording in 2018.
learn more at ECM and buy at your local record store or Amazon
Tord Gustavsen Trio – The Other Side (ECM Records)
For Norwegian pianist/composer Tord Gustavsen, bassist Sigurd Hole, and drummer Jarle Vespestad, intentional breathing seems to be a key improvisational/compositional device: as the breath goes, so goes the music. Consequently, The Other Side is not so much about bold edicts delivered from on high, as it is about complex, if somewhat muted and/or obscured suggestions.
There is a deceptive folk-like simplicity and placidity that is persistent here, manifesting itself in a similar Scandinavian, less-is-more approach found among the ranks of the Rune Grammofon, NORCD, and Hubro rosters. In addition to inventive settings of traditional tunes and originals, there are three Gustavsen arrangements of J.S. Bach that are stunning revelations, leaving me waiting in anticipation for the next trio release from Mr. Gustavsen, hopefully in less than the decade+ that it took to get this one.
learn more at ECM and buy at your local record store or Amazon