When press releases surrounding Miles Mosley’s latest project were circulated last fall, little did we know just how strongly an album built around the theme “uprising” would resonate. By the time the album dropped last week, the country was embroiled in protests that show no sign of abating. Now Mosley’s concept for Uprising seems downright prescient:
The word “uprising” is often used in moments in which a group of people witness their strength in numbers and band together to seize an opportunity. This embodies the time we are currently living in, where people all over the world in art and politics are recognizing their own power in numbers. It is prophetic as it deals with the different tenants of survival within a world of mystery and ambivalence. From brotherly love to the dangers of good intentions, these are all universal occurrences to which we all seek advice.
If the album’s theme is not enough to draw you in, the music is a powerful hook. Mosley composed the music and also contributes lead vocals and his virtuosity on the upright bass. He’s backed by a soul stew otherwise known as the West Coast Get Down: Kamasi Washington and the late Zane Musa on saxophone, Dontae Winslow on trumpet, Ryan Porter on trombone, Brandon Coleman on keyboards, Cameron Greaves on piano, and drummer Tony Austin. Completing the aural tapestry, a full orchestra and choir are added to several of the tracks.
On Uprising, the WCGD collective fulfills another mission: “to defy genre and combine musical influences to make jazz dangerous and exciting again, while paying tribute to the legends before them.” Some of these legends include Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix, whose Southern soul and psychedelic rock are synthesized with jazz on nearly every track, along with message songs reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield.
The album kicks off with “Young Lion,” a fabulously funky song espousing the attributes of a young, woke man with Mosley singing, “set me free, let me run . . .I’m so on fire, look what I’ve become, I’m high, high, higher.” The track also demonstrates Mosley’s incredible bass technique, as the track closes in a fury of distorted riffs that might fool you into thinking he switched up his bass with electric guitar. This is followed by “Abraham,” a song framed with biblical references that begins peacefully with a keyboard backed intro. As Mosley concludes the first verse, “I’m scared, mediocrity is everywhere, but not here!,” the band explodes into action—proving that mediocrity will never fly with this renown ensemble.
In a recent LA Weekly interview, Mosley says he wanted to include “heart-wrenching songs of loss and disappointment,” but also “a soundtrack for this crazy time that people can lean on.” Many of the tracks embody these feelings of disillusionment; however, they never fail to inspire. The reverb soaked anthem “L.A. Won’t Bring You Down” seeks to embolden young artists to hold their own in the City of Angels, cheering them on with a shouting soul chorus, punchy horn section, and liberal applications of the wah wah pedal on the bass. This flows naturally into the emotional ballad “More Than This,” which starts off in a slow groove, then explodes in a powerful flurry of fuzzed up bass as Mosley shouts, “I was promised, maybe the whole world was promised, so much more than this!” Other stand out tracks include “Your Only Cover” and “Reap a Soul”—the latter a bit reminiscent of The Wiz in its “get on down the road” theme. In fact, both songs have lush orchestrations and a ‘70s era Broadway quality. The album concludes with “Fire,” a celebratory tune with Latin rhythms and full string section that will definitely get everyone on their feet, clamoring for an encore.
All of these tracks were recorded in 2012, at the same month-long session that gave birth to Kamasi Washington’s debut album, The Epic, and Cameron Grave’s Planetary Prince (though his tracks were eventually re-recorded). Now it is Mosley’s turn in the spotlight, and that light shines like a solar flare. With Uprising, Miles Mosley takes a huge dose of soul and funk, fuses it with astonishing bass technique enhanced with crazy special effects, and tops it off with empowering lyrics and vocals. This album will no doubt be one of the highlights of 2017!
Inauguration day saw a new release from the prolific jazz saxophonist Noah Preminger, aptly entitled Meditations on Freedom. Many Americans have felt confused, afraid, and uncertain in the past few months and Preminger’s newest release channels these sentiments into meditative and provocative music. Composing original tunes and bringing several carefully chosen covers into the studio within weeks of the 2016 U.S. elections, Preminger and company recorded primarily from sketches, eschewing elaborate and polished arrangements for sounds that could touch the still raw nerves of his listeners. The unvarnished sense of the present on this record is heightened by the fact that each of these tracks was recorded live and released with no edits, lending the album the kind of immediacy that a listener may experience at a live set while allowing the musicians to act and react rather than scrubbing the record clean of potentially broken or missed notes. This technique gives this set of tunes a sense of urgency, one that is made even more stark by Preminger’s ensemble choice of a quartet that features no chording instrument, relying solely on melodic counterpoint for harmony. Featuring Preminger on saxophone, Jason Palmer on trumpet, Kim Cass on bass, and Ian Froman on drums, the group’s minimalistic approach ensures that every note counts, as it must with this ensemble and this material.
As the musical and technical choices set this album’s mood, Preminger’s selection of material provides the bulk of the political and social commentary. It is, of course, hard to convey specific social or political statements through instrumental jazz, an abstract medium generally unsuited to convey semantic meaning except through association or allusion. Many artists try to solve this problem with sweeping titles that appear to convey something that the sound therein cannot. Preminger’s solution to this problem is to intersperse his original tunes (complete with provocative titles like “We Have a Dream,” “Women’s March,” and “The 99 Percent”) with renditions of familiar socially-conscious numbers.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the way this group approaches its material is that Preminger and his quartet play the most familiar tunes in the set in a way that makes them seem to unravel as they progress. It would be easy (perhaps even lazy) to note that the quartet’s treatment of these tunes sees them dissipate as it seems that civil society is doing. What actually appears to be happening on these tracks, however, is more sophisticated: what makes these renditions especially salient is not that they actually fall apart, but that they clearly have the potential to. We can hear signature melodies on each of these songs before they morph into nearly unrecognizable improvisation over unfamiliar changes. They usually return to the familiar bits, but in a way that requires the listener to check the liner notes to make sure it’s still the same song.
The first two tracks are covers of songs that address racism in the United States head on: Bob Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game” (which can be heard below) and Bruce Hornsby’s “Just the Way it Is.” The band performs musical operations on these otherwise familiar tunes—we can recognize the songs in a way but they seem a bit off, almost as though they are being heard underwater. Dylan’s meandering vocal melody appears while the chords under it move in unexpected ways; the signature piano intro on the Hornsby tune is played by the horns before the quartet departs in a different direction than Hornsby could likely have imagined. It appears that Preminger meditates on freedom by pondering the perilous position of hard-won liberties—a house of cards that, like these songs, could easily fall apart with one wrong move. This thesis is supported by the tenuous feeling throughout the record—even the original tunes are not readily hummable, but melodically evanescent. The album feels transient, listening to it an absorbing meditation which is gone as soon as the final seconds tick off of the last track.
With Meditations on Freedom, Preminger and company have released an immediate artistic statement that packs quite a punch in a time that may be optimistically characterized as uncertain. Any flaws that may be found in the album’s one-and-done production style mirror the flaws that Preminger and company appear to highlight in democracy itself, full of promise but ultimately ambiguous in result. There are no shout choruses, no moments of divine Charlie Parker transcendence, but instead a preponderance of more muted soul-searching.
It is critical to note that this record does not end on a bright note—a fairly sunny reading of George Harrison’s “Give Me Love” is followed by an original, “Broken Treaties,” that reads as a lament for all of the hard fought battles that may have now been lost. Preminger’s music will likely not inspire revolution; rather it seems to grieve a failed one. Even the album’s gorgeous version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” is tinged with loss—sure, a change is gonna come, but will it be a good one? It is difficult to interpret many of these numbers as seeing the glass half-full, and that may be precisely the point.
The most challenging part of Meditations on Freedom is its clearly articulated and profound sense of loss. Preminger and company’s skill at articulating this in a musically cogent way is what ultimately makes this album both so good and such a downer.
Released just in time for Black History Month, jazz elder Randy Weston’s epic work, The African Nubian Suite, traces the history of the human race through music, with a narration by inspirational speaker Wayne B. Chandler, and introductions and stories by Weston in his role as griot. This recording captures a live performance at New York University by the Institute of African American Affairs on Easter Sunday, 2012, and indeed possesses a sermonic quality. Stressing the unity of humankind, Weston incorporates music that “stretches across millennia”—from the Nubian region along the Nile Delta, to the holy city of Touba in Senegal, to China’s Shang Dynasty, as well as African folk music and African American blues.
Each movement of the suite involves different musicians, who enter a circle in order to “tell stories.” The opening tracks lay out the story of “Ardi” (Ardipithecus ramidus), referencing the oldest known remains of a human-like female hominid who lived in Nubia over 4.4 million years ago. Disc one features Cecil Bridgewater on trumpet (“The Call”), Howard Lewis Johnson on tuba (“Ardi”), Moroccan musician Lhoussine Bouhamidy on gnawa (“Sidi Bilal”), Gambian musician Salieu Suso on kora with T.K. Blue on flute (“Spirit of Touba”), Min Xiao-Fen on pipa (“The Shang”), and Martin Kwaakye Obeng on the Ghanaian balafon (“Children Song”), all accompanied by Weston on piano.
Disc two traces the development of the blues, “from its origins in the Niger Delta to its transmutation in the Mississippi Delta.” Weston ponders the roots of the blues in his introduction before launching into “Blues for Tricky Sam,” featuring a solo by Robert Trowers on trombone in a tribute to the bluesy nature of Duke Ellington’s horn section. “Cleanhead Blues” is a tribute to Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, performed here by Weston and Billy Harper on tenor sax. Weston then heads further south to Central America, drawing from his own Panamanian roots on “Nanapa Panama Blues” with Alex Blake on bass.
After a poignant monologue by Chandler on “The Woman”—the basis of all creation—Weston launches into a song by the same title featured poet Jayne Cortez, which is definitely one of the highlights of this set. The two-part movement “The African Family” introduces African percussion with drummer Lewis Nash and percussionists Neil Clarke and Ayanda Clarke, followed by the “battle of the saxophones” between T.K. Blue and Billy Harper. The project concludes with “Love, The Mystery Of,” bringing the jazz musicians together in a short instrumental penned by Guy Warren.
In these troubling times when our nation is divided by politics, race and religion, Weston uses The African Nubian Suite as a vehicle to remind us of our common heritage: “We all come from the same place – we all come from Africa.” As eloquently stated by Robin D.G. Kelley in the liner notes: “There are no superior or inferior races, no hierarchies of culture, no barbarians at the gate. Instead, Africa—its music, land, people, spirituality—tie us all together as a planet.”
Corey Henry was raised in the birthplace of jazz—New Orleans’s Treme neighborhood. Inspired by his environment and musical family, Henry started learning trombone at the age of 10, and by age 16 he was hired to play with the Treme Brass Band. Since then, he’s become a vital part of the New Orleans jazz scene, performing with his Little Rascals Brass Band and the nationally touring jam band Galactic. Last September, Henry released his solo debut, Lapeitah, out on Louisiana Red Hot Records. Produced and co-written by Brian J., Lapeitah includes nine originals and one cover that showcase modern New Orleans funk at its finest.
There are a number of guest stars on Lapeitah, including alto saxophonist Greg Thomas (George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic). Thomas plays on the exuberant “Muddy Waters” (below) and the soulful “We Got the Funk,” both of which share vocal choruses straight out of 1970s funk scene. Thomas is also featured on the instrumental “Get Funky,” which displays the connections between jazz and funk in a playful call and response between varying soloists and the rest of the musicians.
The album also features a number of guest vocalists, such as Corey Glover (Living Colour) on an impressive hard rock cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9.” Glover’s gritty vocals, which at times dissolve into rock star shrieks, are echoed by the timbre of Henry’s raw, relentless trombone solo. Nowhere is Henry’s New Orleans origin more evident than on the original “Baby C’mon,” featuring vocals by Cole “Ms. Cake” Williams. This funky, upbeat second-line pride song is perfect for Mardi Gras celebrations in Henry’s hometown.
The fusion of jazz and funk makes Lapeitah a joyful, celebratory outpouring of two of New Orleans’ most famous musical cultures. While the songs may sound carefree, the carefully curated songwriting and talent that Corey Henry and Brian J bring to the album prove that Henry is a force to be reckoned with in the New Orleans jazz and funk world.
Conversations: Live in Chicago is a strong set by bassist Pennal Johnson, recorded in his hometown. The record mixes programmatic themes—as on the tracks “Are We’” Parts I, II, and III, which deal with race, representation, and history—with straight-up funky jazz. Johnson’s more conceptually challenging tracks on this record are sonically reminiscent of Sun Ra at times, and jazz-fusion pioneers at others. However, the standouts on here are his (presumably) crowd-pleasing covers of funk standards such as “Cissy Strut” and “Mothership Connection.” He also digs deep into gospel on the tracks “Lead Me Guide Me” and a gospel rendition of the film Rocky’s theme, “Gonna Fly Now.”
Johnson is accompanied by a rhythm section full of crack players, including Buddy Fambro (guitar), Andre Henry (drums), Mark LeBranche (keys), and Royce Cunningham (percussion), as well as great horns and a strong vocal section that shines on his funky cover of The Beatles “Come Together.” Of course, as leader of the band, Johnson takes the starring role, playing the melodies of most tunes, and establishing the infectious grooves that permeate this release. While the sudden alteration between hardcore socially-oriented jazz and funky grooves can get a bit dizzying, the record at times feeling like two distinct sets blended together, there is no doubt that the musicianship on Conversations: Live in Chicago is of the highest caliber.
This live performance captured in a two-CD/DVD set is an exciting release for Gregory Porter fans. His concert, performed on May 16, 2016, was filmed at the Philharmonie in Berlin and featured favorites from his albums: Water (2010), Be Good (2012), the Grammy Award-winning Liquid Spirit (2013), and his most recent album, Take Me To The Alley (2016).
Though live performances lack the creative production liberties that exist in studio recordings, the DVD and CD combination set allows fans to witness Porter’s talent and his love of performance as he serenades his audience. The staging of the Philharmonie is minimalist and intimate with simple lighting and just enough space for Porter and his band: pianist Chip Crawford, drummer Emanuel Harrold, double bassist Jahmal Nichols, and saxophonist Tivon Pennicott. The audience surrounds the stage at all angles, drawing their focus towards the music.
Blending influences of jazz, gospel, blues, and soul, Porter wields his voice with deep control and gentleness. “Be Good (Lion’s Song),” “Take Me To the Alley,” “Hey Laura,” and his encore song, “Water Under Bridges,” each beautifully demonstrate his creative imagination and themes of love and fond memories.
Porter and his band approach “Holding On,” “Liquid Spirit,” “1960 What?,” and his second encore song, “Free,” with increased energy and instrumental experimentation—calling attention to themes of racial oppression, collective pain, freedom, and hope for a stronger future. Occasionally during the performance, the film returns to a moving train car where Porter reflects on the meaning behind certain songs. Porter explains, “‘1960 What?’ is a documentary in a way, it’s protest, but it’s not what I want to happen, it’s what did happen.” The song encompasses the many places and people affected during this decade of racial unrest in the United States.
This live concert is an excellent collection of music by Gregory Porter. His performance is moving, entertaining, and surely even better in person.
Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and his brother Zack (the drummer in this quartet outing) are third-generation New York jazz royalty. Their grandfather, Chico O’Farrill, was an in-demand arranger and composer and made recordings with Charlie Parker, Clark Terry and many other greats. Their father, Arturo O’Farrill, is a two-time Grammy winner and leader of the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. So a heavy burden of expectations rests on the young O’Farrill brothers’ shoulders. With Stranger Days, they have chosen a new jazz direction, decidedly not Latin-flavored and decidedly the kind of melodic/swinging music associated with their father and grandfather.
The O’Farrill brothers, along with Chad Lefkowitz-Brown on tenor sax and Walter Stinson on bass, take a turn into free-jazz with episodes of bebop and the occasional aside of a brief swinging melody fragment. It’s abstruse music, and it takes a few listens to this album to understand the music and Adam O’Farrill’s vision.
The liner notes, by Zack O’Farrill, help. Zack notes that his brother is a “true cinephile” and an avid player of videogames. He cites those influences on Adam’s musical approach, a dedication to movie-like musical pictures and game-like interplay between the musicians. Plus, the brothers grew up immersed in music and were exposed to many different styles and genres. The music of this quartet seems particularly influenced by free-jazz and modern classical music, but they arrive at a somewhat more accessible style that is not all atonal/a-rhythmic screeching instruments. Indeed, at times they sound like the great Clifford Brown/Max Roach quintet, which says much for their musical chops.
If you saw the O’Farrill name and expect something Cuban-big band-swinging, you won’t find it here. But Stranger Days is worth a listen because Adam O’Farrill and his bandmates strike out in new directions. They are young, and there is a wide world for them to explore. It will be interesting to hear where they go from here.
Akosua Gyebi goes by many names: she acts as the lead singer of the New York City jazz group Sweet Blue Fire, member of indie rock group The Goddess Lakshmi, and she just released her fourth full length solo album under the name Kosi. On her website, she calls her latest project, I Know Who I Am, a “concept album telling the story of guilt, absolution, love and self-actualization through original jazz and negro spirituals.”
The opening track starts with a 50-second snippet of “Hallelujah,” which she later sings in full. It is raw and especially emotional in light of Leonard Cohen’s recent passing. The album includes traditional spirituals such as “Servant’s Prayer” and “Walk With Me,” as well as many originals such as the dark, twisting jazz song “Guilty.” In the final track, “Morning After Blues,” Kosi’s goal of self-actualization is fulfilled, as she sings about accepting her body, her talents, and where she is in life. A snippet of the song can be heard in the promo below:
While the recording quality is not always the most impressive, the skills of the backing musicians and Kosi’s passionate vocals still stand out on this sometimes unusual but captivating album chronicling her journey to self-acceptance.
On the 2-disc set Basically Baker, Vol. 2, the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra celebrates the big band legacy of the late David N. Baker. The celebrated performer/composer founded the Jazz Studies program in 1968 at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where he was a beloved mentor to countless students over the decades—some of whom are featured on this project. The first Basically Baker volume was recorded in 2005, and though trombonist Brent Wallarab said Baker talked to him for quite some time about a second volume, Baker’s death this March at the age of 84 gave the project the momentum it needed. For Wallarab, “the project was a way we could all channel our grief into something productive that honored David’s wishes to care for his music after he was gone.”
Basically Baker, Vol. 2 is remarkable because it features music that was previously performed almost exclusively at Indiana University. Contributing to the challenge of honoring Baker’s legacy are many of Baker’s students and protégés, such as Wallarab, saxophonist Tom Walsh, trumpeters Mark Buselli and Pat Harbison, and pianist Luke Gillespie, who form the main jazz orchestra. Special guests also appear on the album, and according to Wallarab, “many musicians cancelled or rescheduled other commitments already on the books to participate.” Trumpeter and multi-Grammy winner Randy Brecker, an IU alum, and IU jazz faculty guitarist Dave Stryker play on Baker’s composition for his granddaughter, “Kirsten’s First Song,” and IU jazz faculty trombonist and Patois Records label founder Wayne Wallace is featured on “Honesty.” A version of “Honesty” performed at the IU Jacobs School of Music can be seen below:
Basically Baker, Vol. 2 is not just a monument to Baker’s music, but also to his legacy and accomplishments. David Nathaniel Baker was born in Indianapolis in 1931, when the country was racially segregated, and jazz was a new, controversial form of music. Much had changed by the time of his death in 2016, and Baker contributed to these transitions through his jazz and classical compositions, his mastery of the trombone and cello, and his role as a pioneering jazz educator. In fact, many of the compositions featured on this album are from his extremely prolific first decade at IU. Baker loved using blues, popular song, and bebop in his jazz compositions, and even worked with Dizzy Gillespie for his arrangement of “Bebop,” the only non-Baker composition that appears on the album.
Through compositions such as “25th and Martindale” and “Harlem Pipes,” Baker honored his home, his family, and the global jazz community. Now on Basically Baker, Vol. 2, Baker’s own work and life is honored. The album posthumously furthers David Baker’s mission “to create, to swing, and to teach,” and cements his legacy by preserving his music for generations to come.
Editor’s note: One of Baker’s early projects at IU was the edited volume The Black Composer Speaks (1978). Interviews and research materials used for the production of the book are housed at the IU Archives of African American Music and Culture and described on this collection finding aid.
Artist: Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra
Label: Troubadour Jass Records
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: September 16, 2016
September’s new release by trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis is a strong, if jumbled, album full of social commentary, strong arrangements, and all-around great playing from the trombonist’s sturdy and compelling band.
While the album’s title, Make America Great Again!, is lifted straight from the headlines of the 2016 presidential race and suggests that Marsalis is shooting for penetrating political discourse (although a cynic might say this is a clever way to plug the album through serendipitous Google or Amazon hits), much of this release is simply a study in good jazz band writing. There certainly are gestures at social commentary, including an excellent arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner” as the record’s opening cut. The title track offers a fairly obvious critique of the even more simplistic Trump campaign slogan, pointing out the conspicuous problems with the “Make America Great Again” rallying cry, given the country’s (to be charitable) checkered past. This cut features the voice talents of the great actor Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme); unfortunately, the spoken word he delivers offers very little insight into the problems really at the heart of the resurgence of far right-wing politics in America. Overall, it seems like Marsalis, an artist who specializes in a particularly historically-conscious approach to jazz, is simply preaching to the choir on this one.
This album’s real high points are those where the band plays its swinging heart out. Marsalis and company dig deep into New Orleans trad-jazz on “Second Line,” comb West African music, rap, and jazz on “Back to Africa,” call back to the height of dance bands on “Symphony in Riffs,” play what sounds like the Basie chart for “All of Me,” and they even include a backbeat arrangement of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” complete with solo breaks. The Uptown Jazz Orchestra is a stylistic juggernaut, the album a veritable history book of American music. This compelling stylistic variety is largely due to the strength of the arrangements (by Kris Berg, Phil Sims, and Marsalis), but the absolute taste and skill of the players is not to be understated, either.
Marsalis and company’s music, rather than their political commentary, have the possibility to make American music great (again?). Without a doubt, this is the most stylistically diverse jazz album we will hear in 2016, a great alternative to the trite narratives we have heard from all sides of the political spectrum this year. I recommend turning off the news and putting on this record.
Wadada Leo Smith’s multi-movement suite, America’s National Parks, is a musical proposition for a more expansive and inclusive definition of who and what can carry the label as an American National Park. Spread out over six movements, Smith evenly divides his focus on pre-existing National Parks and sites and individuals that should be bestowed the designation of a national landmark. In this composition Smith melds “Ankhrasmation,” his self-designed graphic score notation with sections of composed and improvised music. Such an approach leads to thematic unity and cohesion within each of the movements while also providing ample room within each piece for the members of the Golden Quintet to shine. The addition of cellist Ashley Walters to the group for this recording provides Smith with a greater sonic palette and contributes to a soundscape and musical moments unheard before in his recordings. If there were one word to describe this recording, it would be sparse. The sparseness of the recording contributes to a sense of intimacy where one can envision each musician attentively listening to one another that in turn leads to moments throughout the piece of unique instrumental combinations and arrangements that emerge and grab the listener’s attention.
The three movements based upon Yellowstone, Sequioa/Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Parks are all remarkable for the sonic visualization of the openness and majesty of these parks. Moments of note in these three movements include the simple melody played by pianist Anthony Davis and Smith in the opening moments of the Yellowstone movement, the loose and enveloping soundscape produced by the quintet that complements Smith’s extended solos in the movement inspired by Sequioa/Kings Canyon National Park, and the cool, icy playing of Smith that mirrors the glaciers of Yosemite.
The three remaining movements, as noted earlier, take their cue from sites and individuals not formally within the National Park system. In “New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718,” Smith proposes that the entire city of New Orleans, not just a specific location or a certain performance style, should be memorialized as a National treasure. Smith does not attempt to recreate the music of New Orleans per say, but rather alludes to the sounds of the city while never quoting them explicitly: from the movement’s opening with a bass riff similar to the chants of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian tribes, to Smith’s blunt attacks and trumpet flourishes reminiscent of ragtime and early jazz, to the moments where pianist Anthony Davis’s runs can be heard as a homage to circum-Caribbean styles and genres.
The second movement (“Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National park”) takes as its cue the work and legacy of musicologist Dr. Eileen Southern In addition to being the first black female tenured professor at Harvard, Dr. Southern’s scholarly work greatly contributed to our understanding of the history and development of African-American musical practices in the United States. In what can best be described as an abstract call and response, Smith and the Golden Quintet demonstrate how this central practice to African-American musical culture, when placed in the right hands, produces a musical moment that extends beyond the categories and genres placed upon Black music and musicians.
For the fourth movement, Smith turns his attention towards the murky waters of the Mississippi River. Smith does not celebrate how the waterway fits within the ethos, ecology, or history of the American nation, but rather points to the river’s dark history as a disposal site for black bodies. Smith accomplishes this through an episodic-like structure alternating with brief moments of silence. The musical interruptions mirror Smith’s idea that the disposed bodies float to the top and disrupt the flow of the river while also reminding us of the humanity of said bodies.
America’s National Parks offers a unique musical meditation on the idea of common property and memory and puts the full range of Smith and The Golden Quintet’s skills and talents on display. Alongside recent accolades, awards, and gallery retrospectives, this album serves as a superlative reminder that Smith is one of America’s most talented composers and performers active today.
Ashleigh Smith’s debut album on Concord is collection of upbeat and bright songs of love and encouragement warmly reflective of the album title, Sunkissed. The track-list contains cover renditions of recognizable tunes and original music by Ashleigh and her band members, Nigel Rivers and Joel Cross, whom she met while studying jazz at the University of North Texas. The recordings include jazz arrangements with a full band, brass section, and string ensemble to support Ashleigh’s harmonious vocals.
The bossa nova beat of “Best Friends” introduces the album with a bittersweet plea to heal from the pain of a lost friendship. With Joel Cross’s acoustic guitar taking the lead followed by piano, brass, and a chorus building up into a key change, the song is hardly gloomy as the lyrical theme may imply:
“The World is Calling,” written by Smith and Rivers, showcases her confidence and creativity as a jazz vocalist, while “Sunkissed,” co-written by Smith, Rivers, Keitie Young, and Nadia Washington, expresses encouragement to embrace one’s inner and outer beauty:
Don’t you let it go,
Mocha skin so brown,
Don’t you drop your crown,
Hold your light keep shining now,
Baby can’t you see?
You’re my little brown skin queen.
Smith and her sister, Lauren Smith, together wrote the lyrics of “Into the Blue,” a love song that grapples with the complexity of emotions following the loss of a relationship. “Brokenhearted Girl” follows, a song about lost romance and emotional maturity with a melody similar to the children’s song “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Each original piece reflects artists who have influenced Smith’s music—from Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Bill Withers to Sting. “Beautiful and True” is the only song that was written for Smith to perform by her former teacher, Rosanna Eckert. Her interpretation is as intense as it is gentle, with a dynamic orchestration encapsulating the climactic near-conclusion of the album.
The various cover songs emphasize the album’s themes of wonder and imagination. From the Beatles classic “Blackbird” to “Pure Imagination,” made famous by the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Smith experiments with the original musicality of these songs. Utilizing jazz instrumentation and dreamy vocal harmonies, she creates a truly haunting sound. “Love is You,” originally by Chrisette Michele, and “Sara Smile” by Hall and Oates similarly inspire a sense of familiarity, both complementing and completing Smith’s showcase of talent.
Guitarist Joshua Breakstone and his cello quartet (featuring bassist Lisle Atkinson, cellist Mike Richmond, and drummer Andy Watson) pay tribute to pianists on the group’s latest release, 88. In the liner notes to the record, Breakstone notes that, as a guitarist, he has always considered pianists “family,” because both instruments share the duties of being both accompanists and soloists.
While there isn’t really anything new here for fans of small combos or jazz guitar, Breakstone and his trio do what they do best: delivering compelling small-combo jazz, using a set of great tunes as vehicles for their improvisations. This approach leads to a set of halfway familiar tunes, such as a Latin rendering “Lolita” (from the Kubrick film of the same name), Tad Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now,” and the lesser-known standard “Soul Eyes,” composed by Mal Waldron. The playing on this record is stellar, from Richmond’s fiery cello solo on “v to the band’s sturdy navigation of the potentially slippery Lennie Tristano tune “Lennie’s Pennies.” The only original on the album, Breakstone’s “88,” seems familiar as well, straight in the post-bop style pioneered by many of the musicians who Breakstone and company pay tribute to on this record.
Overall, there isn’t anything groundbreaking here, but Breakstone’s quartet plays compelling tunes with aplomb. This is certainly worth a few listens, and for jazz cellists, guitarists and pianists, some serious study.
In 1959, Quincy Jones put together a big band orchestra for the European musical Free and Easy. The show lasted only a couple of months, playing for small audiences in Utrecht, Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris. Marooned in Europe with a payroll to meet, Jones and company set off touring the continent, booking venues and collecting money to pay their way forward. Eventually, the band ran out of money and came home to the U.S., with Jones $145,000 (in 1960 dollars) in debt. Mercury Records president Irving Green offered Jones a vice president position, and Jones went on to arrange and/or produce hits by Dinah Washington, Leslie Gore, Billy Eckstine and others. He eventually made his biggest mark on music as a producer (Michael Jackson, Patti Austin, George Benson, Aretha Franklin, etc.), but continued to make jazz and jazz-pop albums throughout his tenure with Mercury.
Jones continued touring with a big band early in his Mercury executive career, and live recordings made in Zurich, Switzerland on March 10, 1961 and the 1961 Newport Jazz Festival in July of that year, have been released by Mercury/Polygram. Jones recorded his last strictly-jazz big band album, The Quintessence, for Impulse! Records in December, 1961, essentially ending his career as leader of a touring jazz big band.
On this CD is the band’s complete concert of March 15, 1961 at the Pfalzbau auditorium in Ludwigshafen, Germany. The well-made mono recording highlights the combination of ensemble and solo playing that was the trademark of Jones’ skilled and modern-sounding band. Featured are excellent live renditions of tunes on Jones’ Mercury studio albums, including “G’Won Train,” “Birth of a Band,” “Stolen Moments,” “Moanin’” and “I Remember Clifford.” Also included is a superb version of the Count Basie classic “Lester Leaps In” featuring great solos by guitarist Les Spann and pianist Patty Bown.
It’s worth listening carefully to Jones’ introduction of the band (track 13, which is followed by a somewhat loose and joyous version of “Birth of a Band,” the title cut to Jones’ first Mercury album). This lineup included many future headliners and leaders on 1960s jazz albums. That Jones could assemble such a band testifies to his influence in the music business even at a relatively young age. Although his greatest career highlights were years forward, this concert demonstrates why Quincy Jones always had the respect of musicians, and always knew how to please an audience.
Did you ever wonder where the musicians in the bands that appeared on various television variety shows in the ‘60s and ‘70s—such as the Mike Douglas Show, the Ed Sullivan Show, the Tonight Show, and the Dick Cavett Show—went after work? Well, an important part of this answer is disclosed in this two-disc CD set from Resonance Records. The musicians gathered at the Village Vanguard—sometimes in the audience, but more often as members of perhaps the most distinctive jazz big band of the past fifty years. Some reviewers referred to this group as simply THE Jazz Orchestra, capitalizing THE for emphasis. But let’s first set the early foundation for this wonderful collaboration.
The recording careers of Thad Jones and Mel Lewis intersected many times and spanned similar decades. Jones made his mark with Count Basie and his appearances on recordings stretch from the ‘50s until his death in 1986. Lewis, who began with Ray Anthony and continued with Stan Kenton, was active as a session drummer throughout his career. Lewis’ first recording dates from 1949 (with Anthony), and he was a regular in clubs and studio sessions led by many well-known musicians and vocalists alike through the ‘80s. The first time that Jones and Lewis recorded together was in a studio in Chicago booked by Argo Records for a session led by James Moody, released as “Great Day.” It preceded the sessions on this CD set by three years.
Unlike other Resonance releases, over half of the tunes on All My Yesterdays previously appeared on a CD released by Alan Grant in collaboration with BMG Records. The notes to this Resonance release state that Grant’s earlier release was unauthorized, despite the fact that Grant, a noted jazz deejay, directly facilitated the organization of the band and its appearance at the Village Vanguard. Grant’s release also included his brief interview with Mel Lewis that was broadcast a week prior to the opening performance at the Village Vanguard. While this interview is excluded from All My Yesterdays, the Resonance set importantly adds five previously unreleased performances. By including a thick booklet containing many interviews with the musicians, Resonance makes this a truly definitive and wonderful production, taking a place alongside an earlier compilation by Mosaic Records of the majority of commercially released recordings by THE orchestra.
The style of the performances on All My Yesterdays is inclusive, ranging from elements that sound like traditional swing arrangements (hear Hank Jones’ Basie-tinged piano introduction to “Ah, That’s Freedom” on the second CD) to almost free form (such as the alto solo on “The Little Pixie”). Across this range, the band integrated soloists inside original arrangements, producing landmark recordings that demonstrate much of the history of jazz from the ‘30s through the ’70s. Jones was truly the creative leader providing the charts, but Lewis contributed the rhythmic unity and momentum that anchored each performance, seemingly both relaxed and propulsive at the same time.
The first CD opens with a thundering performance of Thad Jones’ original composition, “Back Bone.” Voices of band members and other musicians in the audience are heard throughout, shouting words of encouragement. The house was full and passions were high, while the level of creativity in the performances disappointed no one. Section work was tight, and soloists were inspired. The second CD’s highlight is a wonderful performance of “Lover Man;” however, the unique passion of band and audience on the first CD provides many high spots. We are truly fortunate that this special debut was captured so well on this recording. And by the way, the sound quality on these new CDs is absolutely beyond reproach. Resonance provides a wonderful release that you will enjoy, especially if you appreciate the evolution of big bands in the history of jazz music.
The official recorded history of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra began one month after these live Village Vanguard recordings. They appeared on LPs released on Solid State Records (a label owned by United Artists Records), which were later compiled and reissued with additional selections by Mosaic, including THE Orchestra backing vocalist Joe Williams. Another live recording one year later also captured a performance at the Village Vanguard. The final released recording of the band dates from 1985 on Atlantic, and it was the last time Jones and Lewis were recorded together in this reconstituted gathering. The only television program featuring the band I know of was on Jazz Casual, issued on DVD and streamed on YouTube. It is worth your time to watch it.
As a personal note, when in New York during 1971 to conduct interviews for part of my own doctoral research, I was fortunate to have a Monday evening free. Having heard of THE Orchestra, I hopped on the subway and reached the Village Vanguard in time to be seated before the opening set. Live, the performances were every bit as exciting as those captured on these wonderful CDs. Listen and I bet you will agree.
Track listings for each CD and session personnel follow:
Disc 1: February 7, 1966
Back Bone—All My Yesterdays—Big Dipper—Mornin’ Reverend—The Little Pixie—Big Dipper (alternate take). Personnel: Thad Jones (tp, flhrn, arr.,cond.); Jimmy Nottingham, Snooky Young, Jimmy Owens, Bill Berry (tp); Garnett Brown, Jack Rains (tb); Bob Brookmeyer (v-tb); Cliff Heather (b-tb); Jerome Richardson, Jerry Dodgion (as,cl,fl); Joe Farrell (ts,cl,fl); Eddie Daniels (ts,cl); Marv “Doc” Hollady (bar); Hank Jones (p); Sam Herman (g, perc); Richard Davis (b); Mel Lewis (d).
Disc 2: March 21, 1966
Low Down—Lover Man—Ah, That’s Freedom—Don’t Ever Leave Me—Willow Weep for Me—Mean What You Say—Once Around—Polka Dots & Moonbeams—Mornin’ Reverend—All My Yesterdays—Back Bone.
Personnel: Thad Jones (tp, flhrn, arr.,cond.); Jimmy Nottingham, Bill Berry, Jimmy Owens, Danny Stiles (tp); Jack Rains, Garnett Brown, Tom McIntosh (tb); Cliff Heather (b-tb); Jerome Richardson, Jerry Dodgion (as, cl, fl); Joe Farrell (ts, cl, fl); Eddie Daniels (ts, cl); Pepper Adams (bar); Hank Jones (p); Sam Herman (g); Richard Davis (b); Mel Lewis (d).
Robert Glasper is arguably one of the most eclectic musicians in the business, perhaps in spite of (or maybe because of) the fact that he is generally considered to be a jazz musician. The opening track of the Robert Glasper Experiment’s newest release, Artscience, announces that the group intends to venture into the broad realm of musical styles and sounds that may fall into the category of “Black music.” As the soundscape gradually morphs from fast post-bop to a slow-burn hip hop groove, a sample of Glasper’s voice plays, declaring “The reality is, my people have given the world so many styles of music, so many different styles…we want to explore them all.”
The group’s newest release, Artscience, is difficult to call a jazz record at all, drawing from the precedent set on previous Black Radio releases. However, these earlier records largely owed their crossover appeal to high-profile guest stars like Snoop Dogg and Norah Jones, while Glasper’s band served as a supporting ensemble, performing at peak when laying down funky neo-soul grooves for artists like Jill Scott and Anthony Hamilton. On Artscience, the group retains this crossover appeal while keeping the production self-contained. This record is full of electronically-oriented R&B with dance floor and slow jam ambitions.
“Day to Day” is a funky and robotic neo-disco dance cut that could easily have been culled from a Daft Punk record, complete with string swoops and autotuned vocal harmonies. Much of this record recalls the synth heavy, ‘80s-influenced sounds that artists like Blood Orange are rocketing to the top of the charts. While some of Glasper’s signature acoustic piano and Rhodes sounds are present, there are also synthesizers and production effects all over this album. Most of these tracks are structured like pop songs with slight modifications. For instance, “No One Like You” follows the verse-chorus-verse-chorus format, but it features an extended outro with solos by saxophonist by Casey Benjamin, Glasper, and a drum break by Mark Colenburg. It is as though the group takes the extended dance break sections found on Michael Jackson and Prince records and fills them up with killer jazz solos, serving the album’s pop ambitions while reminding the audience that these are monster players. The disc’s most memorable track, “Let’s Fall in Love,” borrows its title from a jazz standard, but is a slow jam full of breakbeats and atmospheric synthesizers.
Listeners looking for guest stars like those featured on the Robert Glasper Experiment’s previous albums or for the kind of solid jazz playing found on the Glasper’s acoustic records will be surprised, but pleasantly so, by the strength of the group’s R&B songs on Artscience. While this is not the seminal entry in Glasper’s catalog, it is certainly a solid one.
During his lifetime, Erroll Garner was a somewhat controversial figure with jazz aficionados. The main knock was that he was a technical master of the piano with plenty of flair and piano-bar panache, but not enough soul and swing to be a jazz heavyweight. Despite the bickering among jazz critics, Garner (who died in 1977) did not have trouble filling performance spaces or selling albums, but his place in the public ear waned after his death. His live Concert by the Sea remains one of the best-selling jazz albums ever, and received a deluxe 3-CD reissue (and was nominated for a Grammy) last year. Now, Sony/Legacy has dipped into the archives of Garner’s late manager, Martha Glaser, and found 14 finished but never released recordings, the content of this new album.
Ready Take One is composed of recordings made in 1967 at Universal Recording Studios in Chicago; in 1969 at Capitol Studios New York; and in 1971 at RCA Studios New York. The album closes with a live version of Garner’s hit, “Misty,” recorded in Paris in May 1969. For the 1967 sessions, Ike Isaacs on bass, Jimmie Smith on drums and Joe Mangual on congas backed Garner. For the 1969 and 1971 studio and live recordings, Earnest McCarty, Jr. replaced Isaacs on bass. The fact that the band and style of playing remains consistent throughout makes the album hold together as a coherent sequence of enjoyable tunes rather than an “archive dig” of disjointed musical examples.
According to Robin Kelly’s liner notes, Garner’s style in the studio was much like his style on stage with his band: he would call out a tune and then go, with the band responsible for keeping up with whatever improvisational twists he chose to explore. Fortunately, the backing musicians were up for the challenge, and the recordings sparkle with the excitement of a quartet doing what good jazz musicians do—exploring and reacting to each other rather than playing heavily-rehearsed and written-down music. And, for the record, although all of the players are technically excellent, the album gushes with swing and soul.
One admittedly minor criticism: although the liner notes emphasize the fact that the reissue producers chose to keep audio of Glaser calling out take numbers and a few seconds of studio banter here and there, this “bonus material” does not add anything to the music. In fact, it slightly interrupts the flow of the album.
Six of the album’s 14 cuts are Garner originals; “High Wire” and “Wild Music” are particularly nice. The Paris recording of “Misty” also stands out because, despite playing the song thousands of times to ever-eager audiences, Garner could still bring excitement and a connection of “I’m playing this song just for you” to what was yet another performance. Also interesting is the band’s take on the Juan Tizol/Duke Ellington standard “Caravan.” Garner’s decision to take the melody apart and reassemble pieces of it on unusual beats doesn’t always work, but the approach shows how the band was not content to run through standards in any sort of traditional way.
The 1971 sessions, especially, show the influence of funk and acid-jazz on more traditional performers. Garner sometimes sounds quite a bit like Ramsey Lewis (“The In Crowd”), and that more-soul/less-swing approach was probably preferred by live audiences of the time. But, Garner never shies away from virtuosity, so there is always crisp execution of complex right-hand runs and rock-solid left-hand rhythm.
Sony/Legacy has an arrangement to mine the archives of Garner and Glaser, and more releases are promised. Hopefully, there is more of this kind of polished music in the vaults. And, hopefully, future reissues producers will assemble and sequence future releases into enjoyable, musically coherent albums like Ready Take One.
Cosmic Adventure marks the second album from French jazz violinist Scott Tixier. Born in France, and trained in both classical and jazz violin, Tixier relocated to New York City in 2008 and has been busy in the jazz scene there every since. His performance resume is quite diverse, from Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life Tour to being featured on the soundtrack of the Keanu Reeves film John Wick. On Cosmic Adventure, Tixier shines not only as performer, but as a composer as well; all of the originals on the album are penned by him, except for “Mr. Tix,” a composition by French harmonica player Yvonnick Prene.
One of the major highlights of the album is the interplay between Tixier and Prene, who has a featured role on the album. The combination of violin and harmonica is initially a somewhat unusual pairing but these two make it work, with one of their best outings being “100,000 Hours.” In the final song, though, it is the interplay between Tixier and tenor saxophonist Chris Potter that shines through, as they beam themselves to Mars at the speed of light. Energy is great from the other players as well: Justin Brown (drums), Glenn Zaleski (piano), and Luques Curtis (bass).
Influence comes from many places on this album, in particular a heavy Latin influence. Percussionist Pedro Martinez provides congas for the first two tracks, “Maze Walker” and “Dig It,” and his presence is felt widely. Tixier also utilizes his French influences, most notably through acknowledging the work of Jean-Luc Ponty. As the most eminent jazz violinist not only in France but arguably in the world, Ponty’s presence is felt throughout the album. Even the album’s title, Cosmic Adventure, hearkens back to Ponty’s 1978 release Cosmic Messenger. The other French influence on the album is the famous jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, whose composition “Troublant Bolero” is featured. The only other standard on the album is Erroll Garner’s “Misty,” which features a stunning extended pizzicato section. This is one of Tixier’s strengths: using the wide vocabulary of the violin to fit the needs of his improvisational jazz expressions. His careful use of vibrato, pizzicato, and other extended techniques keeps the listener at the edge of their seat, waiting to hear what he’ll do next.
In Cosmic Adventure, Tixier is able to place the cosmos on a spectrum, shifting from one mood to the next, and from intricate details to grandiose melodies without missing a beat.
Allen Toussaint’s final album is a commemorative collection of reimagined compositions by musical visionaries who have defined American music, particularly in the genres of jazz and blues. Released within a year after his untimely passing, American Tunes tells the story of peaceful weariness from a lifetime of sensation, longing, and unpredictable complication. Toussaint is a beloved New Orleans icon known far and wide as an award-winning composer, performer, producer, and collaborator since the 1950s. This album is a hat’s off to the musicians who inspired Toussaint while also demonstrating his undying commitment to his home and the people of Crescent City.
American Tunes complements Toussaint’s former record, The Bright Mississippi (2009), which was also produced by Joe Henry and released on Nonesuch Records. It matches his interest in intertwining New Orleans elegance into his instrumental performances written by the jazz and New Orleans R&B greats. Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Bill Evans, and more are featured in addition to a few exciting guest musicians. Toussaint especially recognizes Professor Longhair, his longest enduring inspiration, whose song “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” is slowed and sweetened on this album, turned into a more reflective instrumental rendition.
The album opens with “Delores’ Boyfriend,” a steady and playful blues instrumental by Toussaint following into a mischievous, yet almost vaudevillian tune titled “Viper’s Drag” by Fats Waller. Toussaint performs solo for much of the album, though each track stands alone in distinction, such as “Big Chief” and “Hey Little Girl.” However, a small band joins Toussaint on certain tunes such as “Confessin’ (That I love You),” “Lotus Blossom,” “Rosetta” and “Waltz for Debby.” Percussionist Jay Bellerose, tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd, bassist David Piltch, Greg Leisz on Weissenborn and electric guitarist Bill Frisell each carefully and delicately add texture to the compositions, highlighting Toussaint’s unmistakable grace on the piano. On “Danza, Op. 33,” an orchestral section along with pianist Van Dyke Parks supports Toussaint on this classical tune composed by New Orleans native Louis Moreau Gottschalk.
While the majority of the tunes do not feature the original lyrics, a pleasing collaboration takes place on two songs of this album performed by vocalist Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Giddens joins Toussaint, providing her deep soulful vibrato, in celebration of Duke Ellington on “Rocks in my Bed” and “Come Sunday,” which was famously performed by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Toussaint’s second original composition, “Southern Nights,” a refreshing piano duet with Van Dyke Parks, brings the album to a near close.
On the last track of the album, Toussaint finally takes his turn at the microphone singing his arrangement of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” A song with lyrics so touching and appropriate, it is truly difficult to listen with dry eyes. Simon’s lyrics are reassuring while Toussaint’s voice is calming as he sings:
“Oh, it’s all right, it’s all right
It’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all I’m trying to get, some rest”
Pleasant and playful, though distantly melancholic, American Tunes is a satisfying collection of New Orleans jazz, R&B, and classical music clearly inspirational to a musician who has in turn inspired other creative minds. In the liner notes, Tom Piazza reflects on Toussaint’s return to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: “His return was a sign that New Orleans, itself, was back. You would see him, as before, at the supermarket, or at a concert, and every time you saw him you were happy and grateful.” Friends and fans are happy and grateful as well to have received American Tunes as a parting gift in remembrance of the great Allen Toussaint.
Jazz chanteuse Catherine Russell offers a special treat with the release of her sixth album, Harlem On My Mind, a tribute to her mother’s birthplace and the performers who made the Apollo Theater the mecca of Black entertainment. Encompassing a dozen selections from the Great American Songbook, the album brings new life to gems of the Harlem jazz scene of the 1920s-1940s.
Opening with the title track, Russell gives a sophisticated, subtle yet swinging interpretation of this Irving Berlin chestnut. First performed by Ethel Waters in 1933, the song speaks to an expat in Paris longing to get back to the Cotton Club and the “Hi-de-ho” (a reference to bandleader Cab Calloway). Following are three songs made famous by Billie Holliday in the 1930s. “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me” (1926) highlights the terrific backing band in an arrangement by Andy Farber. “Swing! Brother, Swing!” by the great Clarence Williams is a wonderful uptempo romp, with Russell and the band perfectly articulating the style and mood of the period. On the ballad “The Very Thought of You,” Russell’s smooth as butter interpretation digs into the groove on this slower, more atmospheric version of the Lady Day classic.
Returning to the 1920s, Russell interprets another Clarence Williams song, “You’ve Got the Right Key, but the Wrong Keyhole,” originally performed by vaudeville singer Virginia Liston with Williams in the 1920s. This bluesy arrangement features animated solos by Matt Munisteri on banjo and Mark Lopeman on clarinet.
Russell’s father, the legendary pianist/composer/bandleader Luis Russell, recorded the popular Henry Nemo song, “Don’t Take Your Love,” with his last big band in the 1940s so it obviously holds a special place in his daughter’s heart. Once again, Russell stretches the ballad to its limits in a slow and sultry arrangement reminiscent of the Nancy Wilson version.
Returning to songs made famous by Billie Holiday, Russell covers the 1929 Fats Waller jazz standard “Blue Turning Grey Over You” and the pop classic “You’re My Thrill” from 1933. These are followed by another pair of songs with close ties to Harlem: “I Want a Man” popularized by Annisteen Allen and Lucky Millinder (onetime leader of the house band at the Apollo), and “When Lights are Low” by Harlem born Benny Carter and Spencer Williams.
The album closes with a pair of songs from the 1960s: “Talk To Me, Talk To Me” by actor/composer Joe Seneca (popularized by Little Willie John and Aretha Franklin), and Dinah Washington’s “Let Me Be the First to Know“ (from her Back to the Blues album).
With Harlem On My Mind, Catherine Russell provides yet another instant classic, brimming with impeccable style, faithful interpretations, and top notch arrangements. Few singers today could pull this off with as much aplomb and sophistication as Russell, who was quite literally weaned on this music as the daughter of two notable jazz musicians. Young vocalists take note – this is how you sing in the pocket!
Editor’s note: Russell will be touring throughout the fall in support of the album, and will appear in December as guest vocalist with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis.
Drummer Will Calhoun has proven time and again that he’s comfortable performing any style of music, from the hard rock of the groundbreaking band Living Colour, of which he is a founding member, to jazz, fusion, funk, and hip hop. But for his solo albums, the Berklee School of Music graduate most frequently chooses to further his exploration of jazz. On his latest release, Celebrating Elvin Jones, Calhoun pays homage to the legendary drummer. As a member of the John Coltrane Quartet, Elvin Jones became one of the most influential drummers of all time, performing on the seminal album A Love Supreme, as well as many other albums for Coltrane and other artists ranging from Miles Davis to Ornette Coleman, Freddy Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Quincy Jones, and J.J. Johnson. Jones also released dozens of his own projects between 1961-1999 on the Atlantic, Impulse!, Blue Note, and Vanguard labels.
Jones made a profound impact on Calhoun, who met the drummer at a Village Vanguard concert when he was just 14. The two maintained contact over the years until Jones’ passing in 2004. According to Calhoun, “Elvin connected my worlds. Although I saw him playing jazz, I felt rock and roll, I felt fusion, I felt African music. It sounds electric, it sounds acoustic, it sounds very African, it sounds very Latin, there are all these elements in there.”
A bevy of seasoned veterans join Calhoun on Celebrating Elvin Jones, including Christian McBride on bass, Antoine Roney on sax, Carlos McKinney on keyboards, and Keyon Harrold on trumpet—all of whom either played with or were influenced by Jones. The album opens with the Jones original, “EJ Blues,” first released on Live in Japan 1978 by the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine. Clocking in at just over seven minutes, Calhoun’s arrangement is less than half the length of Jones’ live version, but certainly doesn’t disappoint in this energetic reading with extended solos by McBride and Harrold. On “Whew,” composed by bassist Wilbur Little who recorded it with Jones on the 1969 album Poly-Currents, McBride deftly weaves in and out of the complex rhythms and improvisations. Next up, the band lays into Coltrane’s “Harmonique,” included on Jones’ 1984 tribute album Brother John. Establishing a solid groove from the get go, Calhoun and McBride fully support Roney’s solo efforts.
From here the album takes a significant detour with “Sarmastah,” penned by Calhoun, who surprises listeners with an introspective 12-string acoustic guitar solo. Backed by Roney on soprano sax and McKinney on electric piano, Calhoun also covers percussion, drawing upon the “cymbal mystique” for which Jones was famous in this rhythmically complex track. Following are two great showcases for Calhoun’s technique: Wayne Shorter’s “Mahjong” and “Shinjitsu,” composed by Keiko Jones (Elvin’s wife), that’s a tour-de-force on which Calhoun unleashes a wide range of percussion during extended solos.
Two prominent guest artists are featured on the final tracks, which are definite highlights. The late Senegalese percussionist Doudou N’Diaye Rose (who died shortly after this recording) and five of his group drummers perform the intro on the arrangement of the traditional Japanese folk song “Doll of the Bride.” Calhoun then takes over, channeling Rose’s ability to create complex ever-changing rhythmic variations which propel his group through several improvisatory sections that showcase each member, before concluding in a flurry of percussive effects.
Keyboardist/composer Jan Hammer joins the group on the final track to revisit “Destiny,” which he performed on Jones’ 1974 album, On the Mountain. In a grand finale that’s nothing short of cataclysmic, Hammer drives the melody forward before handing the reins to Calhoun, who unleashes an explosive array of percussion, then brings the group back to conclude the piece with a satisfyingly progressive fusion.
In his tribute to Elvin Jones, Calhoun proves his own status as a master drummer with an impressive arsenal and intellectual curiosity that’s worthy of respect. Hats off to the other members of the group, who all contribute to this fantastic effort.
Chicago trumpeter Marquis Hill, who studied under Ronald Carter at Northern Illinois University and earned a masters in jazz pedagogy from DePaul University, released several projects of his original music on Skiptone Music. In 2014, Hill won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Trumpet Competition, which awarded him a recording contract with Concord Records. From this contract comes his debut album for Concord Jazz, The Way We Play, which pays homage to jazz standards reinterpreted by Hill and his ensemble, the Blacktet, featuring Christopher McBride (sax), Justin Thomas (vibes), Makaya McCraven (drums), and Joshua Ramos (bass).
The title track, “The Way We Play/Minority” is playful mashup of a Gigi Gryce tune and features spoken word by Harold Green III. It can be listened to as a manifesto (“the way we play is / the way we love”), or as Hill emphatically states, “this is the sound of my band, which is uniquely Chicago.” Green enters after the intro, claiming the music’s blackness, stating “the way we play signify from which we came/Black always in season.” Light and fast paced, Hill’s rendition never numbs a gut or unseats a listener as free jazz strove to do. This is a fantastic piece, which describes many of the songs on this release. It dances the spirit in a comforting way and is great at romancing the beings that this society has had us become. The drumming is singularly superb and so the trumpet playing.
Other highlights are Horace Silver’s “Moon Rays,” which inspires idealism in its listener, and the Afro-Cuban take on “Fly Little Bird Fly” (by Donald Byrd), which also features spoken word by Harold Green. His prose asks “the descendants of sharecroppers” to “sprinkle black girl magic” and “rise and dance.” Are these songs politically romantic? Marquis Hill seems to intend to transform at least some of the tracks into statements of political activism or even protest. Also included on the album is an Afro-Latin version of “Smile,” the Charlie Chaplin tune, while “My Foolish Heart” is a love ballad with R&B influences featuring Christie Dashiell on vocals.
Marquis Hill’s The Way We Play is a delightful album that combines the best of two worlds: Archie Shepp without the jagged edges, post-bop with overt protest.
I personally first heard of British group Incognito in the 1990s, when the acid jazz scene made its way to the U.S. Groups such as Fertile Ground and the Brand New Heavies gave Incognito a run for their money on who was going to be the big dog. Well, in 2016, I think it is unanimous. Brand New Heavies had a taste of mainstream success and Fertile Ground was strictly an underground favorite, but Incognito is still regularly putting out new material. Their latest, In Search of Better Days, is Incognito’s 17th album, and if you are even a little familiar with their previous work, then you know what time it is. Incognito is funk, soul jazz and house. Yes, you read it right, house!
The intro for “Better Days” starts off with a very trippy house feel. After a buildup of five minutes, vocalist Vula Malinga takes over and then the track begins to sound more like we expect from Incognito. Different vocalists are showcased throughout, including Imaani on the opening track, “Love Born in Flames”:
Maysa is featured on four tracks, including “Racing Through the Bends.” Catchy lyrics, combined with Maysa’s vocals equals a winner. Maysa shines on all of her tracks, but hands down this is the ONE. Vocalist Tomoyasu Hotai gives “Bridges of Fire” a very different feel, but without a doubt it’s still smooth. Incognito is just that, smooth. After seventeen albums, Incognito has proven they have staying power. That’s a good thing.
If he is not already, vibraphonist Warren Wolf will soon become a household name for jazz fans. His third full-length release, Convergence, showcases Wolf’s development thus far and makes a strong case that he belongs on the A-list of jazz performers and composers. His all-star ensemble helps give Wolf a boost in starpower while also reminding listeners that he can easily hang musically with the long-time big boys of jazz. This supporting cast has countless records among them: Christian McBride (bass), Brad Mehldau (piano), Jeff “Tain” Watts (drums), and guitarist John Scofield on two tunes. Not only does Wolf hold his own with these longtime heavies, but he also steps up to the plate as a solid bandleader—the album includes six of Wolf’s own excellent compositions and five covers, ranging from delicate readings of Hoagy Carmichael and Chopin (“Stardust/The Minute Waltz”) to a soulful Stevie Wonder tune (“She Knocks Me off My Feet”).
The disc opens with Wolf’s original “Soul Sister,” a 4:54 burner featuring Scofield bending strings and using his most articulate phrasing, and Wolf comes in swinging, transitioning from bluesy motifs to hard-driving bop lines. Wolf’s composition doesn’t just lie in the typical soul/bop currency of contemporary jazz—for instance, the track “Cell Phone” is based upon a ringtone that Wolf heard while traveling at the airport, leading to an off-kilter sense of time and melody that animates the quirky tune. Wolf knows his history, too—his recording of Bobby Hutcherson’s “Montara” is a fitting tribute to the pioneering vibraphonist.
All in all, Convergence may be just that for Wolf’s career—the cast and set of influences he has assembled on this album reflect artistic and musical maturation. This is a must-hear release for jazz fans.
While these two new CDs from Resonance—Moments in Time and Getz/Gilberto ‘76—are sold separately, they are taken from the same engagement that featured Stan Getz’s quartet performing at Keystone Korner, a famous club located in San Francisco, the week of May 11-16, 1976. João Gilberto was regularly featured during the final portion of each set during this engagement. Overall, as a jazz enthusiast, I prefer the first CD to the second where Getz solos in a supporting role on only half of the included performances. But more about that later. All recordings are previously unreleased and selected from the archive held by the owner of the club.
Getz gained early fame as a member of the Four Brothers in Woody Herman’s Orchestra. His solo on “Early Autumn” remains a delight to hear. But perhaps his reputation grew the most following the release of his album Desafinado, with Charlie Byrd, that introduced bossa nova rhythms to U.S. listeners. This album also marked the beginning of his relationship with João Gilberto as a composer and later, as a performer when they toured along with Gilberto’s then wife Astrud and released subsequent albums on Verve and Columbia. Getz continued to perform at (mostly) a high level throughout his lifetime, and some readers may be familiar with his final statements captured in his final recording fifteen years later in 1991 with Kenny Barron, released as People Time.
The first CD, Moments in Time, includes three tunes Getz had not previously recorded, namely “Infant Eyes,” “Cry of the Wild Goose,” and “Peace.” Two ballads in particular reflect how Getz’s style continued to evolve from earlier stages in his career. His more traditional roots are clear in his luscious performance of Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss” while his more assertive attack is evident in Wayne Shorter’s composition “Infant Eyes.” The latter performance demonstrates the high level of cohesion obtained by this quartet. To me, the only drawback in the CD is that “Con Alma” is simply too long due to portions of repetitive playing that diminish its overall impact. Listening to this album is a delight even though it does not appreciably extend the depth of Getz’ overall discography. For that reason, some may pass it by despite the quality of the performances.
The second CD, Getz/Gilberto ’76, features João Gilberto. Getz only participates as an occasional soloist, limited to solos on alternate tracks beginning with the second. To me, Gilberto’s smooth voice is not sufficient to sustain my interest throughout the album. He sings in a delicate, whispering style, but does create interest by taking liberties with the rhythmic pulse of each tune. His approach is most effective on “Aguas de Marco.” Also, the sound quality on this CD is somewhat harsh to my ear, accentuating Gilberto’s sibilants and Hart’s cymbals and sharpening Getz’ sound. This deprives the recording of some of the warmth and richness it deserves. For these reasons, I clearly prefer Moments in Time. Despite the historical interest of Getz/Gilberto ’76, it will appeal more to completists.
Other recordings by each principal artist, whether together or apart, are superior to these new releases. This is much less of a problem with Moments in Time although, to my ear, two tunes on that CD have a somewhat thin sound and also fail to capture the richness of Getz’s lush tone. Perhaps they may have been recorded on a different evening?
The album liner notes suggest that there may be additional releases from the Keystone Korner archive in the future, featuring other artists. This would be most welcome if they match the quality of Resonance Records’ two previous releases containing selections from this valuable archive featuring Freddie Hubbard and Jaki Byard with Tommy Flanagan.
Recorded in a marathon 11-hour session (with a second volume coming later this year), the compositions on Planetary Prince feel like jazz odysseys in miniature. The record’s shortest cut clocks in at 8 minutes, while the three remaining tracks are each longer than 10—not the length of most of Bitches Brew, but not small potatoes either. These tracks give the musicians plenty of time to stretch out, exploring the cosmic themes implicit in the album’s title, with tunes derived from The Urantia book, a volume of esoteric religious philosophy.
Graves and company are obviously well-versed in a number of musical styles, from the modern Coltrane-influenced jazz that permeates this record, to fusion (Graves’s other gig is with the pioneering bassist Stanley Clarke’s band), to classical music (he’s done soundtrack work too), to hip hop (as evidenced by Washington and Thundercat’s work with Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg), to heavy metal (including Graves’s participation in Jada Pinkett Smith’s nu-metal band Wicked Wisdom). While it is difficult to see how each of these influences come to bear on this record at any individual moment, it is possible to hear the group’s fearless virtuosity as a consequence of being so well-versed—if you’re good at everything, it’s hard to find anything off limits.
The titular first track features a tight drum groove punctuated by Bruner’s in-the-pocket fills underneath Graves’s blistering piano solo, with the band momentarily becoming a tight jazz-rock trio before Washington enters with a solo that evolves from sparse to space-filling, playing with time like other players might play with changes. “Andromeda” manipulates musical atmospheres—combining minimal accompaniment with soaring melodies, the tune derives much of its interest from its shifting textures and flowing melodies. “Isle of Love,” propelled by a lilting piano ostinato over which the band’s improvised and composed melodies swirl, indicates Graves’s prowess as a composer/arranger, and “Adam & Eve” is downright cinematic, growing from concert piano flourishes to double (sometimes triple) timed bebop lines over a half-time groove worthy of the heaviest metal.
Overall, Planetary Prince is a strong release by a leader and supporting cast of players who are pushing jazz into a thoroughly modern, inescapably hip direction. This group’s blend of cosmic themes, hip compositions, monster playing, and intricate textures makes for what will assuredly be some of the year’s best jazz.
Miles Davis is something of a musical Mona Lisa: iconic, innovative, and—despite being well-documented—open to as many possible interpretations as there are interpreters. This is likely in equal parts due to Davis’s ever-shifting musical approach as well as his cryptic and often ambiguous utterances. Everything’s Beautiful must be read as one of many possible ways to interpret Davis’s music, perhaps usefully construed as paying tribute to Miles the innovator. It is no accident that this tribute is led by an innovator in the contemporary jazz scene, Robert Glasper, who alternates between albums with his electric/electronic and acoustic groups, bringing hip hop and jazz with him along the way. Each of the album’s 12 cuts, with the exception of the first track, features a guest artist; each of these artists presents a unique take on Miles that is filtered through Glasper’s electronic neo-soul jazz fusion, with heavy sampling from Davis’s large body of recorded work, including both the trumpeter’s music and voice.
As the album’s cover art, created by Francine Turk based upon Miles’s own artwork suggests (and tinged with the heavy influence of Basquiat), Everything’s Beautiful is largely an impressionistic effort. While its songs are built around Miles samples, it is often difficult to tell where samples end and new material begins. Tribute albums often consist predominantly of cover versions of key tracks from the original artist’s repertoire. However, Everything’s Beautiful features a starkly different approach—the closest thing to a cover on Everything’s Beautiful is Georgia Anne Muldrow’s reading of “Miles Ahead,” an electronic reimagining of the iconic tune that features Glasper’s only piano solo on the disc. Much of the record depends on creative sampling—rather than grabbing a tune’s hook (a la US3’s “Cantaloop”), Glasper and company pick small bits and pieces to construct their new tracks. “I’m Leaving You,” for instance, is punctuated by a sample of Miles saying “Wait a Minute” atop a Lenny White drum pattern. John Scofield (a Davis band alum) grooves and solos on the funky track while Ledisi lays down R&B inflected vocals. This sampling technique also informs the album’s opener, “Talking Shit,” on which Glasper and company lay down instrumental grooves combined with a sample of Davis talking about playing, likely recorded in the studio between takes.
The album is chock full of other superstar guests—Bilal appears on “Ghetto Walkin’”, Illa J (J-Dilla’s younger brother, who Glasper knew from his days hanging out at Dilla’s house with Kareem Wiggins and) lends vocals to “They Can’t Hold Me Down,” Eyrkah Badu sings on “Maiysha (So Long)” and even Stevie Wonder makes an appearance, playing harmonica on the instrumental “Right on Brother.” Each of these cuts reflects the featured artists’ as well as Glasper’s interpretation of Davis’s legacy, lending broad room for experimentation in hip hop, funk, soul, R&B, and jazz, as the individual collaborator sees fit.
What this album lacks in cohesiveness or definition it makes up for in droves with experimentation. Everything’s Beautiful draws upon Miles Davis the innovator, using the trumpeter’s words and music as a springboard for new sounds and approaches, solidifying jazz and hip hop through Glasper’s tasteful neo-soul production. I must emphasize that there is nothing definitive about this album—it is certainly not the final word on the trumpeter’s musical legacy and represents only one part of Miles. But the adventurousness that these artists purvey is certainly a fitting tribute to a musician who was on the vanguard of all of the major jazz movements during his lifetime.
Bill Evans’ earliest issued recordings date from 1943, but his fame began to develop with his heralded recordings for Bill Grauer at Riverside Records, beginning with New Jazz Conceptions in 1956. He recorded as a sideman before and after that debut, including recordings led by Tony Scott, George Russell, Gunther Schuller, and Charles Mingus; however his most famous early affiliation, beginning in 1958, was with Miles Davis, interspersed with occasional recordings with other emerging stars, including sessions led by Cannonball Adderley and Chet Baker. One could simply not imagine a richer apprenticeship for a career that continued until a final recording on September 8, 1980, fittingly called His Last Performance. (For those with ties to Indiana University, two of George Russell’s recordings with Bill Evans also included our own beloved David Baker and, with regard to the rich jazz legacy of Indianapolis, a later recording led by J.J. Johnson.)
Evans can be enjoyed at many levels. His early Riverside recordings were criticized by some as resembling “cocktail piano.” Time clearly does not honor such comments made by some early critics. Throughout his career, Evans remained faithful to improvisational approaches that constantly reflect the underlying melodies. His love for certain tunes was clear; however, the rhythmic and harmonic variations that increasingly entered his vocabulary as a performing artist established his reputation as one of the finest pianists and artists in the history of recorded jazz music. His rich legacy survives in various studio, concert, and club recordings, as well as in a large number of bootleg issues. His popularity has led to multiple releases over the years packaged as deluxe box sets that document all stages of his career.
Some Other Time is simply the latest released recording in his career, featuring a full day of recording captured on June 20, 1968, in the legendary studio of Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer in Germany’s Black Forest. A number of recordings on his MPS/Saba/BASF label featured pianists, and the sound quality of all that I have heard is superb. When the label was acquired by Universal/Verve, the series of albums by Oscar Peterson was featured in two fine CD sets. This recording by Bill Evans would fit nicely into that series. Due to problems obtaining legal rights, this music remained unissued until now, perhaps because of Evans’ ongoing relationship with Verve Records at the time.
The late 1960s was a busy recording time for Herr Brunner-Schwer, and this session is nestled chronologically amidst several releases by one of Europe’s most famous jazz groups, the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band, a group he extensively documented on MPS records. Fortunately, despite his busy schedule, there was time for this relaxed, invited studio performance following Evans’ appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival. The Verve album released from that performance won Evans his second Grammy ® award, yet another indication of the level he reached in this trio with DeJohnette (drums) and Gomez (bass). Perhaps the fact that DeJohnette played the piano before shifting his attention to drums played a role in framing their relationship?
Some Other Time is one of the finest recordings in the recent series of releases by Resonance Records. Evans is relaxed. His approach is pure. The surroundings suited him. The sound quality is ideal, capturing subtle nuances in the performance of these fine tunes. Recordings with this particular version of the trio can only be heard in one other place, the box set The Secret Sessions (Milestone 8MCD-4421-1), although the musicians are also included in another released recording with John Lewis. Perhaps recordings will surface some day from the Trio’s subsequent four week booking at Ronnie Scott’s club in London, for that, too, was a special place.
The notes that accompany this new release are well prepared; however, I am personally moved to add that the first CD closes with the finest and most moving performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time” that I have ever heard. It may be just my mood of the moment, but Evans’ performance strikes me as deeply personal and reflective. It rightly serves at the chosen title for this remarkable album. Emotional responses to musical performances are always very personal, and others may obviously disagree with me on this point, as I might even feel at a different time. But this tune was positioned as a climax near the end of Bernstein’s On the Town, and in that role caused us to think about what may lie in our futures. Evans’ future was clouded by the legacy of his drug use, but here he fills us with a sense of awe, wonder, and hope.
Obviously I am a fan of Evans’ artistry, holding many of his audio and video recordings in my personal collection. Some Other Time: The Lost Session from the Black Forest serves two purposes: to provide an introduction for those who have not listened to Evans before, and to deepen the appreciation of his talent for those who, like me, have enjoyed many of his recordings in the past. Long ago, when I had a weekly radio program on a Purdue University student-run station, I used Evans’ recording of “The Washington Twist” as my theme song. That takes me waaaay back. But this music, while recorded in 1968, is truly for all of us today.
Today, jazz musicians drift into Americana music with ease and frequency. Anthony Wilson is the latest jazz guitarist to take the plunge into Americana with his superb release, Frogtown. The album’s name is taken from the Frogtown neighborhood in Central Los Angeles, also known as the Elysian Valley. Frogtown’s population of 8,000 is predominately middle-class Latinos and Asians, who, recently, have resisted gentrification through community organizing. Wilson does little to connect the album’s thirteen songs back to this neighborhood in an explicit fashion, but the musical quality of Frogtown is what merits attention.
In this jazz/Americana context, Wilson’s guitar expertise and songwriting talents go hand-in-hand. Frogtown’s title track—destined to appear on a public radio program somewhere—is as catchy-as-they-come and features deceptively lush orchestration. “The Geranium” is a moody jazz tune, whose melody recalls Wes Montgomery’s “Bock to Bock.” This reminds us that Anthony Wilson is no stranger to the jazz canon: his father, Gerald Wilson, was a jazz trumpeter, big band leader, and arranger in Los Angeles whose career began in the 1930s.
A surprise on the album is Wilson’s singing. To date, Wilson has crafted his musical identity as a supporting guitarist with jazz/pop musicians like Diana Krall, Al Jarreau, and Paul McCartney. Yet, on Frogtown, Wilson’s voice takes center stage. “I Saw It Through the Skylight” is a spry vocal performance—he sings as if he has just found love all over again. On “Shabby Bird,” Wilson makes the best of his limited range, with a harmonized vocal line that is clean and understated.
Frogtown is largely composed by Wilson, but the accompanying cast of instrumentalists and producers make the final product shine. It is not a surprise to see Jesse Harris on the album, as the musician/producer has worked with many jazz artists who venture into Americana, such as Norah Jones and Julian Lage. The band also features the talented Petra Haden on fiddle, producer extraordinaire Mike Elizondo on bass, Patrick Warren and Josh Nelson on all-things piano, Jim Keltner and Matt Chamberlain on drums, and a special appearance by tenor saxophone legend Charles Lloyd on “Your Footprints.”
In its convincing drift from jazz to Americana, Frogtown is a solid release that shows Anthony Wilson to be as multi-faceted as the neighborhood for which his album is named.
Newark, NJ native Larry Young (also known as Khalid Yasin) is probably best known for his fiery organ-combo recordings for Blue Note, or perhaps for his late 60’s membership in the original Tony Williams Lifetime group, with drummer Williams and guitarist John McLaughlin. In this new 2-CD collection, we hear the 24-year-old Larry Young moving away from the soul-blues organ combos he had led since his first recording in 1960, and toward a more modern, modal jazz heard on his classic Blue Note album Unity.
Young’s performances for the French public broadcaster, ORTF, were recorded in late 1964 and early 1965, broadcast once and then kept in a vault until Resonance Records made a release deal with the French national archives’ media division, the INA. Good news for jazz fans, Resonance hints that there are worthwhile recordings by many other American jazz musicians in the INA vaults, and they intend to release them.
The ORTF recordings place Young in a variety of settings: trios, quartets and larger groups. Most were made in the ORTF studios, but two cuts are from a broadcast of l’Acadamie du jazz’s concert held February 9, 1965 at La Locomotive club in Paris. One of those performances is a 20-minute rendition of Young’s “Zoltan,” which he later recorded as the opening track of Unity. The song is a tribute to Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly, which is the result of an interesting part of Young’s background. He learned piano from Hungarian émigré Olga Von Till, who studied with classical composer Bela Bartok in Budapest, and also taught jazz piano great Bill Evans, and many less famous students in northern New Jersey. Ms. Von Till is profiled in the album’s sizable booklet, an interesting side character in an important jazz career.
According to the album’s liner notes, Young was in France in late 1964 and early 1965 because there were paying gigs, and freedom from the tense political and racial environment then coursing through Newark and New York. He signed on with tenor saxophonist Nathan Davis’s quartet at the Paris club, Le Chat Qui Peche (the Cat who Fishes), which included his Newark jazz buddies, trumpeter Woody Shaw and drummer Billy Brooks. The group recorded about half of the cuts across the 2 CDs, and Davis and Shaw also played in the larger-group recordings made by ORTF.
While some of the playing is rougher than would be expected on Young’s Prestige or Blue Note albums, the musicians often lock into deep grooves, and the crystal clear recordings by ORTF’s engineers showcase each musician’s contribution. The long jams work because the playing is imaginative and the soloists are clearly being driven onward and upward by their band mates. There’s a one-take-or-bust excitement to everything, very capable musicians driven by spontaneous grooves and improvisations. This kind of jazz is hard to pull off, and is rarely heard at such a high level.
It’s worth noting that these recordings fall around and just after the time Young made his first Blue Note album, Into Somethin’ (recorded November 12, 1964) and a few months before he made the seminal Unity (recorded November 10, 1965). It’s clear that Young is moving toward something that was new and different for the jazz organ, more abstract, fleet-fingered and percussive, different from the blues-funk style of many of his contemporaries. He would go on to explore a more free-form style, and end up in the earliest group of fusion-jazz musicians, playing on the first two Tony Williams Lifetime albums and on Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew.
In the ORTF recordings, now out of the vault and available to all, we hear an energized Larry Young moving his art in a new direction, in the company of capable cohorts. Throw in some high-class packaging and a 68-page booklet with details about Young’s life, the ORTF and its jazz shows, the circumstances of these recordings, and remembrances of Young’s band mates and friends, and the result is indeed a very appealing release.