The Thompson Fields; Maria Schneider Orchestra.
It’s been eight years since Maria Schneider released new music (if you don’t count the 2014 track she recorded with David Bowie). The wait, as always, is forgiven: The Thompson Fields is a characteristically gorgeous production from Schneider and her uber-competent orchestra, and an even more epic offering than her last release, 2007’s tone poem, Sky Blue.
Schneider’s penchant for thick orchestral textures aside, this doesn’t always sound like a big-band album. Many of the pieces begin with skeletal fragments—a single trumpet, or a few accordion chords from Gary Versace—and only bring in the winds and brass for sweeping climaxes. And even the more swinging, horn-heavy compositions, such as the bouncy “Arbiters of Evolution,” sound like nothing else in the contemporary big band world. It’s only when the band’s soloists step to the fore that the music begins to sound slightly more conventional—but conventionality can be just as effective. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin and trumpeter Greg Gisbert are in particularly fine form, and Schneider shrouds their swooping lines and monstrous chops in zig-zagging counterpoint and dense chords.
Even more so than is typical for Schneider, not a note is wasted. Perhaps this is because the inspiration for these pieces is particularly personal: the Thompson Fields exist near Schneider’s hometown in Minnesota, a region that served as the inspiration for many of the album’s compositions (many, but not all: “A Potter’s Song” is dedicated to the memory of the late Laurie Frink, a legendary trumpet teacher who held a spot in the orchestra from its genesis). Schneider’s built an awfully high bar for herself, but miraculously, The Thompson Fields finds her continuing to develop as a composer. Even if it takes eight more years for this living legend to put another record out, this album should be plenty to chew on until then.
ArtistShare; 2015; approx. 78 min.
The Chase; Nick Finzer, trombone.
Straight-ahead jazz trombone is difficult to pull off convincingly, which makes New York trombonist Nick Finzer’s latest album of originals a particularly engaging release. Finzer can be seen on Youtube with Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, covering tunes by the likes of Bon Jovi and Iggy Azalea in the style of 1920s hot jazz. His own music, however, comes straight out of the Art Blakey lineage, with a few detours along the way.
There are medium swingers galore here, though each has a different vibe than the next. It’s the exceptions to this rule that stand out most, though. Of particular note is “Spheres of Influence,” an ethereal Afro-Cuban groove tune with a hypnotic bass line. Finzer has surrounded himself with an ace band, including Lucas Pino, who commands the saxophone with authority and takes a nice turn on bass clarinet, and Glenn Zaleski, a pianist with a deft touch and clever ideas. But the trombonist always sounds like the leader, and this isn’t just because he takes the top voice in his three-part arrangements. Finzer has excellent command of his instrument and the songs’ harmonic structures, developing the bop language of J.J. Johnson into his own powerhouse sound. Special attention should also be given to Jimmy MacBride, whose contemporary take on straight-ahead drumming propels the album throughout.
Origin; 2015; Approx 63 min.
Luminosity; Don Braden, saxophone.
Like his fellow tenorman Joshua Redman, Don Braden graduated from Harvard and soon caught the eye of his era’s jazz giants. This meant stints with Freddie Hubbard, Betty Carter and Wynton Marsalis, among others. Yet while Redman has made forays into fusion and orchestral music, Braden seems content with the hard-bop circuit. Not that this is a bad thing— Braden is a fine hard-bop player—but it leaves this quartet session wanting a bit more. “First Steps,” for instance, opens the album with a twist on Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” but never quite stands on its own as a composition.
Still, when this band gets going, they can really cook. Braden’s been playing with this particular organ quartet for years, and the longevity shows. The 6/8 groove of “The Time We Shared” lets the band stretch out, with guitarist Dave Stryker’s gritty blues licks emerging as a high point. Later, Braden shows off his flute chops on a jazz waltz rendition of “A Whole New World” from Disney’s Aladdin—a choice that works, but sits on the edge of gimmickry. A pair of guests also help kick the energy up a bit, with Claudio Roditi appearing on the standard “I Could Write a Book,” and Sherman Irby playing alto sax on Herbie Hancock’s “Driftin’.” Roditi’s guest spot is uneven; he’s an underrated player with a beautiful tone, but Braden’s laserlike lines end up stealing the tune. Irby, who holds the lead alto chair with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, helps close out the album with a particularly tasteful solo. With just a touch of pop-saxophone flair, he offers a cool, spacious statement before yielding the floor to Braden and company.
It’s ultimately Braden’s playing that defines the album. Indeed, with twisting lines that could go on for days and an ability to sit inside any sort of groove, it’s no wonder he’s become such an in-demand sideman. It would be nice, though, to see him really push a band the way so many great leaders have pushed him.
Creative Perspectives Music; 2015; Approx. 61 min.
Like It Is; John Fedchock New York Big Band.
With such standout recent releases from the top big bands and trombonists on the scene, this release from journeyman trombonist/bandleader John Fedchock might seem inconsequential. But sometimes, classic repertoire and flawless execution are enough to win the day. From the opening drum fills on Fedchock’s arrangement of “You and the Night and the Music,” this album is an attention-grabber. It helps that his band, who all play full-bore throughout, is so accomplished and well-rehearsed: you can hear each individual trumpet part, the bass trombone hits like a jumbo jet, and Fedchock’s trombone solo, emerging from the cacophony of the opening melody, simply glides. His syrupy tone is a highlight throughout the album, with just enough solo time that he sounds like the leader without dominating.
It’s a joy to hear Fedchock—and the many voices at his disposal— tackle classic tunes such as “Just Squeeze Me” and Cedar Walton’s Latin cooker “Ojos de Rojo.” The latter is particularly exciting, with the tune’s trademark bass line handled by bari sax, and the solo section dominated by a crisp statement from New York trumpet mainstay Scott Wendholt. Fedchock’s originals are just as appealing. The mellow, Cuban-influenced tune “Havana” is one of the album’s most beautiful statements, with a subdued brass soli and a sultry, conga-fueled groove courtesy of Bobby Sanabria. Even on more conceptual tunes, like the album closer, “Ten Thirty 30,” Fedchock manages to keep the organic feel of the composition. That particular tune, written for the Clifford Brown Symposium, makes use of only material from Brown’s compositions and solos, and features Wendholt again on a fiery trumpet solo. As fun as it is to pick out snatches of “Joy Spring” here and there, the piece is best experienced as a whole—a tribute to a late master from one of the longest-running big bands on the scene.
MAMA Records; 2015; Approx. 70 min.
Storyline; Alan Jones, drums.
The Alan Jones Sextet is a Portland institution, albeit one that has been present in fits and starts since the late 1990s. With Storyline, however, the omnipresent local drummer/teacher looks to start a new phase in his band’s saga, with a new lineup and fresh compositions. The new band is a meeting of several generations: Jones’s former students Nicole Glover and Jon Lakey hold down the tenor sax and bass chairs, while pianist Greg Goebel and alto virtuoso John Nastos represent a slightly older—but still in their early 30s—slice of the local scene. Trumpeter Charlie Porter bounces between Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, B.C. and offers a powerful new voice for Jones’s intricate, soulful compositions.
The first tune may begin with vocal chanting, but this is a high-concept post-bop album through and through. Indeed, the chanting soon gives way to “Rumpus,” a burning piece full of off-kilter hits and searing solos from Nastos and Porter. Even more electric is the odd-meter tune, “Paleocentric,” with an angular bass ostinato driving the composition to scintillating heights.
Jones isn’t just a technical whiz, though his playing, a fiery brand of timekeeping that lies somewhere between Elvin Jones and Jack DeJohnette, is a major selling point. The album’s slower tunes also showcase his gift for melody: “The Road To Maupin,” presumably about the central Oregon town where many a white-water rafting trip begins, eschews groove for a Keith Jarrett-esque folk melody and stuttering cymbal pattern. Later on, “Vow” gives Goebel an ample showcase for his creative lines.
What makes Storyline work is that it’s not just a collection of knotty tunes nailed by an impeccable band. Each player on the record is a major voice in the Portland scene, making the session feel more like a meeting of the minds than just Jones’s mad vision.
Puzzle; Mitchel Forman, piano.
Mitchel Forman is a prolific sideman who’s played with the likes of Wayne Shorter, Stan Getz and Jon McLaughlin. Perhaps with this new CD, which features bassist Kevin Axt and drummer Steve Hass, Forman will finally grab the spotlight as a leader.
From the opening track, a clever interpolation of the Cole Porter standard “What Is this Thing Called Love” and Keith Jarrett’s “Death and the Flower,” Forman establishes himself as a unique voice on the piano. His style is precise, reminiscent of Oscar Peterson at times, but with a Jarrett-like harmonic sensibility. For most of the album, which has several fresh takes on jazz and pop standards, the focus is on Forman’s playing and his synergy with the rest of the trio. On the Charles Mingus classic “Nostalgia in Times Square,” Forman offers a thick helping of the blues, and his trio-mates respond, ultimately breaking into a full-bore Blakey shuffle. On a re-harmonized, breakbeatinspired take on Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” Hass fills every space between Forman’s rapid-fire lines with stunning accuracy.
Though the originals on the album don’t quite have the same staying power as the reinterpreted standards, they’re more than suitable springboards for the trio. One of the more memorable tunes is the rock number “Passing Smile,” which features Forman on melodica as well as piano (he also plays synth and organ throughout the album). The repetitive melody of the song borders on smooth jazz territory, but Forman’s piano solo, which juxtaposes melodic high-note lines with percussive lefthand stabs, keeps the proceedings three-dimensional. The brisk “Cartoons” is reminiscent of something the Robert Glasper trio might cook up, with a gliding melody that never sounds like a caricature.
With up-tempo swing, odd-meter grooves, and singable melodies, one gets the sense that there’s nothing this trio isn’t game for.
BFM Jazz; 2015; approx 68 min.
Black Heron and the Spoonbill; Cartridge; and Dreaming Awake; Barra Brown, drums.
Together, these two summer releases from PJCE Records compose an excellent snapshot of the breadth of Portland’s music scene. Though the label is still young, it has already cemented itself as the most reliable source for local creative music.
Cartridge is an improvising duo of flutist/saxophonist John Savage and percussionist Will Northlich-Redmond, and while their album’s stark flute-and-drum opener, “North Korean Blues,” might seem to set the tone for the rest of the project, it’s only the beginning of this globe-trotting affair. Sonically, each track is a total surprise, but the music is rarely jarring. While the duo veer into the occasional atonal wandering, the album’s lush sonic palette—reverb-heavy guitars, droning voices, Jan Garbarek- esque saxophone—maintains a gentle ambience. Black Heron and the Spoonbill might be the most left-field release from PJCE Records yet, and at least one listener hopes that the trend doesn’t end here.
PJCE Records; 2015; Approx. 33 min.
Drummer/composer Barra Brown is another unique voice on the Portland scene, though one can hear the influences: His quintet’s sweeping melodies harken to Brian Blade’s Fellowship Band in particular, with heavy folk and rock components. Brown’s no jazz snob—his other credits include stints with indie rock bands Alameda, Old Wave, and Ages and Ages—and this shows in his accessible yet adventurous music. I must confess a bit of bias (I’ve played with many of these musicians and even subbed with Brown’s quintet), but to my ears, Brown’s band is one of the best in town. Trumpeter Thomas Barber and saxophonist Nicole Glover have become ubiquitous on the scene as horn section members, while Dan Duval and Arcellus Sykes are just as impressive on guitar and bass, respectively. Pay particular attention to the accurately named “Tale,” featuring Old Wave frontman Adam Brock on vocals, which opens as a gentle folk song and grows into an utterly cinematic climax.
PJCE Records; 2015.
Crisis; Amir ElSaffar, trumpet.
Cross-cultural fusion can lead to unsatisfying, watered down results, but with his mixture of jazz and traditional Arab music, Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar finds a balance that feels utterly organic. His Two Rivers Ensemble doesn’t try to jazz up these meditative songs; they just play them. While they are all accomplished improvisers, the improvising here fits within the context of the pieces—nobody is showing off.
ElSaffar’s playing is reminiscent of Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen, but ElSaffar’s sound is more vocal, partially due to his tendency to bend notes to mimic the microtonal intonation of Middle Eastern music. But he can also deliver a searing Freddie Hubbard-style line, as he does on the slow-building “Flyover Iraq.”And he does actually sing a wavering melody on several tracks. The rest of the band seems to have an equally strong handle on the style. Tareq Abboushi and Zafer Tawil handle strings, with Abboushi on the long-necked lute and Tawil offering up several melodic oud solos. Saxophonist Ole Mathisen is often in unison with ElSaffar, and while his style is more percussive than the trumpeter’s fluid lines, he handles the microtonal melodies with equal precision. Bassist Carlo DeRosa and drummer Nasheet Waits lock up in a manner reminiscent of the Charlie Haden-Billy Higgins partnership in Ornette Coleman’s band.
There is a political bent to this music, and a sense of urgency that propels it from piece to piece. And while it’s not a suite per se, the album has an unmistakeable arc linking its stoically beautiful compositions. Much in the way that 1960s free jazz responded to the civil rights issues of the day, Crisis is protest music of the highest order, the music of a people imbued with the freedom of improvisation. If this album falls on the right ears, it could make a lasting impact.
Pi Recordings; 2015; Approx. 67 min.
While ECM Records has long been the go-to label for European jazz, it doesn’t have all the good stuff. In fact, Drifter, a scintillating pan-European quartet led by Finnish pianist Alexi Tuomarila and Belgian saxophonist Nicolas Kummert, is probably too high-energy for Manfred Eicher’s pristine tastes.
Flow is a bit of a comeback for the band, which was signed to Warner Brothers before the label suddenly dropped all its jazz and classical acts. Now signed to the nascent Edition Records, the quartet sounds as tight as ever, with touches of the Keith Jarrett European band and other post-bop touchstones like Dave Holland’s mathematically-minded ensembles. But ultimately, this band doesn’t quite sound like anyone else.
Groove is essential to the quartet’s sound. The opener, “Crow Hill,” gently builds out of a meditative piano ostinato with a relaxed rock-style beat from drummer Teun Verbruggen. Even pieces that don’t seem quite as rhythmic, like the rumbling, melody-driven “Harmattan,” ultimately coalesce into intricate groove tunes. Indeed, “Harmattan” is highlighted by a river of eighth notes from Tuomarila over a gently clattering drum beat. Kummert is also given plenty of room to shine, with a tone reminiscent of Mark Turner and a melodic sense that feels strongly indebted to Jan Garbarek. When Kummert sings, though, the results are less than electric, particularly on the otherwise beautiful “Lighthouse,” which is spoiled by its obtrusive vocal melody.
Still, this is a fine portrait of European jazz today, filled with strong compositions and powerhouse playing. Maybe these young players (who are still only 30 or so) will be signed to ECM one day—but maybe they don’t need to be.
Edition Records; 2015; Approx. 57 min.