Perez, Patitucci and Blade, Children of the Light.
This trio of veteran players has spent over a decade as the backbone of Wayne Shorter’s acclaimed quartet, blending freewheeling improvisation with dense grooves. It’s a bit of a surprise that they haven’t released a trio album before, as each player is a prolific composer and bandleader outside of the Shorter quartet. Fortunately, this album is worth the wait. It’s far more than Shorter sans Shorter; rather, pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade blend their own distinct sensibilities to craft a truly collaborative and enjoyable experience.
The title track gives a partial snapshot of the album’s aesthetic, though there’s much more that the group can do. Featuring an intricate call and response between bass and piano and bubbling, spacious drumming from Blade, the track is a labyrinthine suite highlighted by sparkling solo work from Perez. But high-concept acoustic improvisation isn’t the only mode these players occupy. “Lumen” is an exercise in Afro-Cuban grooves that features a rubbery electric bass line from Patitucci. Perez, meanwhile, pulls double duty on electric and acoustic piano. He spends much of the track tentatively dueling with himself before erupting into a burst of icy piano notes.
The album stays in this heady, rhythm-oriented, and eminently enjoyable space for the majority of its runtime, though it’s highlighted by a departure: Blade’s contribution, the folkinspired slow burner “Within Everything,” is a refreshing change of pace with a gentle melody and tasteful bass solo from Patitucci. Also unexpected is a mid-tune segue into the Shorter classic “Dolores,” with inventive hits and a re-harmonized melody.
The busy schedules of these three might keep them out of the studio for a good while, but this outing should be enough to tide listeners over until their next release. There’s certainly enough dense musical interplay to chew on until then.
2015, Mack Avenue.
Grant Richards - Numinous.
Numinous is billed as “A Grant Richards Project,” and that’s exactly what it is. Richards is a 23-year-old Portland native and Berklee College of Music grad who’s been lighting up the Portland scene for years, and in a move reminiscent of Kamasi Washington’s recent triple album The Epic, Richards’s latest release strives for more than you’d expect on a standard “album.” Numinous presents a mix of fine players from both coasts on a genre-bending odyssey that feels both wide-ranging and miraculously unified.
While Richards’s modern-jazz sensibility burns bright throughout the project, he also pulls from the J Dilla school of soul-sampling hip-hop and a variety of other grooves. “Colossus,” for one, marches along over a loping Afro-Cuban vamp, while “Dissension” is a smooth Latin number featuring the dueling saxophones of Edmar Colón and Rafael Agular. The title track is an upbeat hip-hop anthem featuring tasteful statements from Richards and guest saxophonist Dayna Stephens, while “Monad Nomad” is a simmering free-time piece that never feels stagnant.
Meanwhile, tracks like the tongue-in-cheek (but totally accurate) “Emo Battle Jazz” positively burn. Stephens shines bright throughout; somehow, his carefully subdued playing constantly surprises. When the horn solos give way to Richards and the rhythm section, it becomes especially apparent that these musicians play together often. Bassist Zwelakhe-Duma Bell le Pere and drummer Charles Burchell never shy away from an opportunity to break down the time, leave spaces in odd places, or drop bombs underneath Richards’s polished solos.
Still, even with all the hard swing and angular solos present here, Richards’s wide-ranging project ultimately strives for some form of crossover success. He’s included a reworking of Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise,” with fine work from Jaime Woods, and he refers to the album’s final “Outro” as an “earbug,” intended to get stuck in the listener’s ear. Here’s hoping the album reaches a non-jazz crowd; Stevie Wonder fans could benefit from Richards’s fresh take.
Noah Preminger - Pivot: Live at 55 Bar.
The new live album from saxophonist Noah Preminger is an hour long and comprises just two tracks. And yet an expansive epic it is not: the two pieces documented here are, at their core, simple tunes based off the songs of blues singer Bukka White. There are few frills to the music. With a skeletal arrangement of saxophone, trumpet, bass and drums, Preminger harkens to the Ornette Coleman quartet and other piano-less ensembles.
Coleman is a particularly suitable reference point: the plaintive blues melodies are stretched out over a churning bed of swinging bass and drums, the horns in perfect unison, and then Preminger launches into a solo. As a saxophonist, Preminger possesses a husky tone and favors the juicy mid-register of his instrument, but he manages to cover just about every register in the course of his ten-minute epic improvisations. Such extended solo statements could feel indulgent in another’s hands, but Preminger miraculously manages to keep his solos hurtling forward until further variation is simply not possible.
Sprawling solos aside, Preminger is far from the only standout voice on this set. Equally impressive is trumpeter Jason Palmer, an underrated and original Boston-based voice. Like Preminger, Palmer holds back from over-eager high-note playing, instead weaving intricate lines and building melodic structures atop the constantly shifting bass and drums. For their part, bassist Kim Cass and drummer Ian Froman are the secret heroes of this date. Like the Billy Higgins-Charlie Haden or Jimmy Garrison-Elvin Jones pairings before them, the two seamlessly react to the combustion happening in the horns, laying out a canvas that is far from blank.
All this said, there’s a feeling of slightness to the record. The compositions are, at their core, simply extended jams. But Preminger is already gearing up for another live recording, this time at Manhattan’s legendary club, Smalls. And if his output remains this constant, it’s excusable if not every release feels like a major statement.
Jon Irabagon - Behind the Sky.
Jon Irabagon - Inaction is an Action.
Mostly Other People Do The Killing - Mauch Chunk.
Jon Irabagon is having a good year—or at least a typically productive one. Though he first made his name as the saxophonist for the anarchic post-bop quartet Mostly Other People Do The Killing, Irabagon has carefully built up a loaded catalogue that is equal parts hard-swinging and totally free.
Of his two solo albums this year, Behind the Sky falls firmly in the former camp, with an ace band that includes trumpet legend Tom Harrell, pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Rudy Royston. The originals here are mostly medium tempo swingers, and while the saxophonist’s previous straight-ahead outings have lacked energy, the band assembled here has a particularly kinetic chemistry. Harrell only appears on a few tracks, but he is in fine form as well.
2015, Irabbagast Records.
Inaction is an Action is a less purely enjoyable aesthetic experience but is nonetheless a fascinating exploration of sound. Irabagon treats the saxophone like the machine that it is and pushes it to the limits of what it can do. There may be too much squealing and squawking for some, but it’s nonetheless a riveting, visceral listen.
2015, Irabbagast Records.
Surprisingly, the most disappointing Irabagon release this year is the new record from Mostly Other People Do The Killing. The band recently lost trumpeter Peter Evans, who was a key force in the its genre-busting style, and perhaps this is why they sound more restrained than usual (this isn’t to discount Irabagon’s work here: he still shines whenever he’s present, dropping bits of noise and quoting “Misty” in opportune places). The album takes its title from a Pennsylvania town that, through a humorous chain of events, was renamed in honor of Oklahoma athlete Jim Thorpe. It’s a pity that the music isn’t as far-out as the concept; though the tunes move swiftly between feels and styles, the lack of Evans and addition of bebop-steeped pianist Ron Stabinsky lead to a bit less killing than usual.
2015. Hot Cup.
Ochion Jewell - VOLK.
In 2014, Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi published The Divide, a look at the injustice that stems from economic divisions in America. Among the stories told in the book is that of Ochion Jewell, a New York-based saxophonist with a Cal Arts degree. On an early Brooklyn morning in 2011, Jewell was accosted by undercover police officers, beaten and arrested on a fabricated drug charge. His response to the experience arrives in the form of VOLK, a somber elegy of an album that incorporates musical traditions from around the globe.
The album’s compositions feel like movements within a grander statement: the haunting backbeat of “At The End of the World, Where the Lions Weep” gives way to the unstable “Pathos Logos,” which leads into the delicate chords of “Kun Mun Kultani Tulisi.” Using elements of Arab and African music, Jewell has crafted a distinct musical landscape that sometimes gives way to pounding rock grooves and shudders of free improvisation.
While the members of Jewell’s band come from a strong modern jazz background, they also come from wide-ranging cultural roots. Pianist Amino Belyamani hails from Morocco, while drummer Qasim Naqvi is Pakistani-American and bassist Sam Minaie comes from Persian heritage. Also included on a few tracks is Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke, who offers some vibrant, contrapuntal lines without dominating the music.
Late on the album, the band covers “O Shenandoah,” with languid bowing from Minaie and soft flourishes from Naqvi. After a delicate start, the tune becomes a jazz ballad straight out of a film noir, a subtle foil to the fusion that has come before. It’s also an encapsulation of the album’s dominant mood, which remains mournful and focuses the listener’s attention on the heaviness that inspired it.
Fred Hersch - Fred Hersch Solo.
What is left to say about Fred Hersch? The pianist, who turns 60 this year, has steadily put out a series of impeccable recordings and played a plethora of standout shows, from scintillating trio dates to an intimate live recording with Nancy King. It’s not really a question of whether a Fred Hersch release will be good, since he only seems to work between the categories of “great” and “spectacular.”
This new solo piano release certainly doesn’t feel like a landmark in Hersch’s career. And yet it’s a near-flawless example of what Hersch does best, a collection of several reworked standards and a couple of originals, all rendered with a hyper-sensitive touch in a spacious Catskills church.
Hersch has long been an excellent interpreter of Brazilian music, and his version of “Olha Maria/O Grande Amor” is no exception. The first of these tunes is marked by ebbs and flows, fluidly inching up in volume before subsiding once more. When the time comes, though, Hersch launches into a gently percussive take on “O Grande Amor” that stretches the boundaries of a samba feel. Other highlights include the original tune “Whirl,” which feels like a late Romantic-era sonata being played in the center of a tornado, and a subdued take on Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” that utilizes every inch of the piano.
The more well-trodden tunes on the album are perhaps less interesting initially, but Hersch manages to wring new pleasures out of even the most tried-and-true standard. His take on Monk’s “In Walked Bud” is sometimes conventional, but at its brightest moments it becomes almost fugal.
This solo record is just one more piece of evidence confirming Hersch as a jazz piano treasure, but it’s not like that has ever really been up for debate.
Brian Ward - Palouse Skies.
It wasn’t too long ago that Brian Ward left Portland to teach jazz at Washington State University. While still in the Rose City, Ward appeared everywhere, playing with the likes of Bobby Torres, Obo Addy and Curtis Salgado. Though he’s now a few more miles north, it’s reassuring to see that Ward is still working extensively on his own music. Palouse Skies might not break any boundaries, but it’s much more than a typical piano-jazz album, and his inventive originals are made more lively by the polished improvisors playing them.
Ward seems to be taking his cues from Sunday at the Vanguard- era Bill Evans: his lines snake through the changes, slipping through new harmonic loops with every passing bar while maintaining a bouncy feel. The rhythm section of bassist Scott Steed and drummer Dru Heller alternate between ethereal textures and hard-driving swing, and a particularly strong balance of these is exemplified in the moody “Boo’s Waltz,” which also features a swinging bass solo.
Interestingly, the fluidity and ease of the originals seems to dissolve a bit when standards are thrown into the mix. An uptempo take on “I’m Old Fashioned” is cleanly executed, but the playing feels stiff in comparison to the more relaxed originals. This stilted air is not quite as present on the medium-swing “Like Someone in Love,” but compared to the rumbling original “Time for Lime,” for instance, these most straight-ahead cuts are haunted by a feeling of sterility.
Still, these are minor concerns, and they barely subtract from what is a perfectly pleasant trio record that, refreshingly, is not afraid to take chances. Take “Skateology”: Ward’s solo is full of octave stabs and punchy melodies, and Steed’s bass solo gets a little “Yeah” from someone else in the room. There’s an air of joy about the proceedings that seems to iron out any little kinks.
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah - Stretch Music (Introducing Elena Pinderhughes).
New Orleans trumpeter Scott recently rechristened himself by this much longer moniker, and it’s gone hand-in-hand with an expansion of his sound. Scott has always explored the dividing lines between jazz, hip-hop and rock, but his recent releases have made the blend of styles much more organic. Indeed, he’s finally come up with a name for this eclectic concoction: “Stretch music.”
What he hasn’t quite yet found, however, is a gift for indelible melody. In many cases, this is easily overlooked. The sprawling album’s first track, “Sunrise in Beijing,” is built off a haunting prepared piano loop and a stuttering, processed drumbeat that gives the piece flavor even while the melody meanders. The same goes for “Liberation from Gangsterism,” which uses its dense texture as a springboard for Scott to improvise toe-to-toe with the album’s special guest, Elena Pinderhughes.
Pinderhughes is a 20-year-old flutist who has been previously featured in collaborations with Ambrose Akinmusire and Vijay Iyer. On the cover of Stretch Music, her name is bigger than Scott’s. Within the context of the album, Pinderhughes is actually less of a star than the billing might suggest. But when she does come to the fore, she lights up the proceedings. Her playing is subdued and blues-tinged, and it blends surprisingly well with Scott’s breathy but often bombastic playing.
Scott’s bands have always been excellent, and this crew, featuring saxophonist Braxton Cook and guitarist Matt Stevens among others, is no exception. What has changed are Scott’s compositions, which have become more daring if not more memorable (drum machines and overdubs run rampant throughout, but never without reason). Scott has yet to release a perfect album, but each release feels like a fuller, more powerful statement than the last, and this drive to say something seems to push him further and further toward the top.