BY BOBBY REED
Any album that gets Norah Jones, Gregory Porter and Jane Monheit behind the mic for a couple of songs apiece is bound to be great. Pianist Harold Mabern’s latest album, Afro Blue, isn’t merely great; it’s an exhilarating joyride. Oftentimes an all-star project is more noteworthy for its personnel than for its music. That’s not the case here. Mabern has crafted a feel-good program of straightahead jazz that’s fueled by a remarkable lineup. His core band of John Webber (bass), Joe Farnsworth (drums) and Eric Alexander (tenor saxophone) teams up with special guests Peter Bernstein (guitar), Jeremy Pelt (trumpet) and Steve Turre (trombone) as well as two other vocalists: Kurt Elling and Alexis Cole. All the singers shine here. Porter’s rendition of the Mongo Santamaria/Oscar Brown Jr. tune “Afro Blue” is deliriously infectious; it’s one of the best things he has ever recorded. A duo version of Gordon Parks’ “Don’t Misunderstand” by Mabern and Jones showcases her nuanced, intimate vocal style. Monheit’s interpretation of the standards “I’ll Take Romance” and “My One And Only Love” highlight her incredible sense of vocal control. Elling scats up a storm on “Billie’s Bounce” and then shifts to a muscular, straightforward delivery for “Portrait Of Jennie.” The instrumental tracks are top-notch as well. The fluidity of Mabern’s pianism adds a spark to his original composition “The Chief,” and Bernstein is in the spotlight for a head-bobbing version of the Steely Dan hit “Do It Again.” Mabern closes the program with his original tune “Bobby, Benny, Jymie, Lee, Bu,” which is a tribute to Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers. Just as Blakey did, Mabern understands the value of getting audience members out of their seats and onto the dance floor.
Amazon | iTunes
BY BRIAN ZIMMERMAN
When it comes to raw energy and sheer grit, few trumpet players can rival Philadelphia legend Lee Morgan. The trumpeter, who died in 1972, was a firebrand, a bold personality who added sparks to the many groups with which he played and the many records on which he appeared. His tone—big, raspy and brash—is inextricably linked with the sound of mid-century post-bop. Now, trumpeter Terell Stafford, who teaches at Philadelphia’s Temple University, pays tribute to Morgan’s iconic style with BrotherLee Love. As he pointedly demonstrates, sometimes the best way to respect an artist’s influence is to let the material speak for itself. The program here includes seven Morgan compositions, Alex Kramer’s 1944 song “Candy” and a Stafford original. Stafford adheres closely to Morgan’s original arrangements, which means all of the gritty, hard-driving swing is left intact. “Hocus Pocus,” for example, retains the same carefree, soulful strut, and “Mr. Kenyatta,” with its pulsing Afro-Cuban feel, features the same hard-driving groove. As a soloist, Stafford is an able interpreter of Morgan’s style. His solo on “Petty Larceny,” in which he wails a repeated blues lick in the upper register, channels Morgan in intensity, while on “Candy,” which Morgan recorded on an album of the same name in 1958, Stafford’s soloing reflects his hero’s brighter, more playful side. Stafford’s original “Favor” is slow, plaintive and bluesy—a fitting homage to a player who used the language of the blues to alter modern bebop. Joining Stafford on this effort are saxophonist Tim Warfield, pianist Bruce Barth, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Dana Hall. Collectively, these musicians hone in close on the iconic Morgan sound, nailing the hard-bop feel of “Yes I Can, No You Can’t” and creating the perfectly gloomy undercurrent for the ballad “Carolyn.” The album closer, “Speedball,” is a no-frills blues, played with a reverent devotion to Morgan’s original melody. With BrotherLee Love, Stafford proves that Morgan’s compositions don’t require re-interpretation or re-invention to sound relevant to modern ears. They’re hot enough to stand on their own.
BY FRANK ALKYER
Vibraphonist/composer Chris Dingman has created a vibrant five-part suite to honor the glory of nature. It’s a project that aims to express the grand, the small, the complex and the simple beauties of the natural world through sound—a daunting task that Dingman accomplishes in stunning fashion. “The Subliminal And The Sublime is based on the concept that, under the surface of our apparent reality, there are subliminal layers of patterns, detail and depth,” Dingman said in the press materials. “When we look at these layers more closely, we have the opportunity to discover sublime truths about our world and ourselves.” To approximate these layers, Dingman employs sonic sheets that swoop, soar and race, giving a sense of grand beauty and majesty. To say this is a headphones record is a massive understatement. Close your eyes and you can almost see the clouds drifting across the mountains and the surging waters of the river. The first movement, “Tectonic Plates,” takes its time with long tones and breathy pauses. He uses Tibetan singing bowls to create a sense of grandeur and mystery. Loren Stillman’s alto saxophone whispers and coos as layers of sound wash behind him. On “Voices Of The Ancient,” Fabian Almazan’s piano sings majestically while Dingman comps counterpoints beautifully on vibes. When the band kicks in, it’s driving. Justin Brown’s cymbals dance across the headphones. Linda Oh’s bass rings clear and true. And Ryan Ferreira’s guitar adds atmospheric luster to the overall sound. The third movement, “Plea,” seems to be a heartfelt prayer for the earth. “The Pinnacles,” movement four, adds another dimension of lyrical beauty to the suite. Stillman and Dingman play beautifully with and against each other. The sound of the alto is perfectly paired with the vibes. The final movement, “All Flows Forth,” starts with droplets from the vibes that turn into a raging river of sound. In total, Sublime is exactly that—perfectly paced, beautifully performed. Chris Dingman has announced himself as a serious composer.
Chris Dingman | iTunes
There are few artists on the improvised music scene more affable or talented than Robert Glasper. The 37-year-old, Houston-raised, New York-based pianist has a casual, cool way about presenting very serious music. On Covered, Glasper takes a break from his Robert Glasper Experiment, which leans toward his hip-hop and r&b-influences, to deliver a very personal live album with his jazz trio. Recorded in Capitol Records’ famed Studio A, Glasper decided to make an album of covers that might bring his huge Experiment following in to check out jazz. It’s an amazing record where songs from Joni Mitchell, Radiohead, Kendrick Lamar and Bilal rest comfortably between reworked arrangements from the Robert Glasper Experiment’s Black Radio albums. Radiohead’s “Reckoner” just smokes. Glasper’s piano glides in perfect lyricism, informed by the modern sounds of today and backed by a total grasp of what came before. Damion Reid on drums and Vicente Archer on bass drive the tune, locking into a rhythmically complex, bad-ass groove. Mitchell’s “Barangrill” has a romantic lilt. While the music is jazz-inspired, it’s important to note that anything Robert Glasper does also drinks deep from the wells of hip-hop and r&b. He is a product of his time, as evidenced by his reading of Musiq Soulchild’s “So Beautiful,” where the trio digs into this modern r&b classic. Bilal’s “Levels” is a fantastic ballad that builds into a cool volcano. As for the Glasper originals, “I Don’t Even Care” (a bonus track from Black Radio 2) loops and swirls. Reid attacks the drumset with rapid staccato patterns and Archer punctuates just right. “In Case You Forgot” is a hoot. Glasper dives headlong into free improvisation, then unexpectedly drops in musical quotes from Cyndi Lauper and Bonnie Raitt. “Got Over,” featuring Harry Belafonte, is touching. The trio plays while Belafonte delivers his story in spoken word. It’s short and stunningly beautiful, then dovetails into Lamar’s “I’m Dying Of Thirst,” featuring the names of African-Americans who lost their lives at the hands of the police. Glasper’s son Riley and his friends read off the roll call to music that’s just too beautiful for the circumstances. This is the essence of Glasper. He is an artist for today, an artist full of great humor, love and depth. Covered displays Mr. Glasper at his best.
iTunes | Amazon
BY BRIAN ZIMMERMAN
With his debut album, Jamison Ross, winner of the 2012 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Drums Competition, delivers inspired drumming and bold song choices. He also includes some big surprises. The biggest? His voice. Ross, who until now has been known primarily for his clean, sensitive drumming, sings on 10 of this album’s 12 tracks. “When I won the Monk competition, no one there knew that I could sing,” said the 27-year-old Ross. “Ultimately, I was compelled to take a journey that incorporated my voice as part of my sound.” We should be glad he did. As a singer, Ross can evoke deep emotion with simple phrases and graceful runs, and his voice—smoky, rich and soulful—can paint vivid pictures with few words. One hears with unparalleled clarity the joyful nostalgia of Muddy Water’s 1977 classic “Deep Down In Florida,” the heartfelt optimism in Gary McFarland’s “Sack Full Of Dreams” and the deep adoration in Carmen Lundy’s “These Things You Are To Me.” It takes a skilled vocalist to add a fresh perspective to an old song, but Ross does it time and time again, perhaps because his voice is always in service to the lyrics—never the other way around. Complementing Ross are guitarist Rick Lollar, bassist Corcoran Holt, saxophonist Dayve Stewart, pianist Chris Pattishall, organist Cory Irvin, trumpeter Alphonso Horne III and guest pianist Jonathan Batiste—all of whom the drummer has known since his college years. There’s a genuine sense of camaraderie here, and Ross, a generous leader, finds moments for all his friends to shine. Horne offers electrifying solo flights on “Martha’s Prize” and “Epiphany,” while Stewart impresses with a blustery take on “Emotions,” a Ross original. A vastly creative arrangement of “My One And Only Love” finds Ross in a stirring duet with Batiste, while the instrumental “Set Us Free” features muscular solo work from Lollar. Though Ross’ voice gets top billing, his skills behind the drum set are on constant display. With his light but authoritative touch, Ross lays into tracks like “These Things You Are To Me” and “My One And Only Love” with serenity and patience. On “Jazz (Aubrielle Ross),” a tribute to his infant daughter, he fuses styles, feels and meters with ease. “Bye Bye Blues Part II” is an album highlight, exhibiting powerhouse performances from all members. Rooted in the sounds of the church, it is triumphant enough lift your spirits and bittersweet enough to bring on tears. The church, after all, is where Ross learned to sing—and play the drums. Ross is both a talented percussionist and a gifted vocalist, but his greatest gift is that he seems to genuinely love the music he’s making. Listeners are bound to do the same.
BY FRANK ALKYER
When I was a young editor, I had an opportunity to meet the late Helen Keane, a pioneering manager and producer in jazz. She came out to the DownBeat offices in the early 1990s and saw that I had an album on display. I don’t remember what album it was, nothing very important or very good. She asked why it was there, and I said, “Because that may be the last vinyl album I ever get here.” After all, by that time, the CD had taken over. Her response was priceless: “That won’t do.” And a week or so later, I received a vinyl copy of Bill Evans’ Blue In Green complete with cover art featuring a drawing of Evans by “Benedetto,” otherwise known as Tony Bennett. The note inside said, “If it’s going to be your last album, it’s got to be a great one.” She and Evans had a long and fruitful relationship. She produced his recordings, including Blue In Green. So, imagine the joy of opening this 40th anniversary box set’s booklet to the center spread and seeing a large photo of Bennett, Evans, Keane and engineer Don Cody. That’s really all that was needed for this terrific four-album set. Keane produced; Cody recorded. Evans and Bennett created intimate, honest, heart-wrenching magic. From the opening notes of “Young And Foolish” to the closing strains of an alternate take on “Who Can I Turn To,” The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings serves as a little slice of heaven on earth. This material has been released before, but that doesn’t dim the beauty of this package, with 180-gram vinyl and fantastic liner notes by Will Friedwald. The first LP is The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album from 1975. LP No. 2 is Together Again from 1976. The third and fourth albums offer bonus tracks and alternate takes, all with their own beauty and charm. This is music you play for friends, people you love, maybe late at night or early in the morning. Bennett and Evans had such a deep love and respect for each other as artists and the music they were performing. Their collaboration becomes a quiet conversation between friends. Thankfully, we get to eavesdrop.
BY BOBBY REED
Drummer Antonio Sanchez has spent 15 years as a sideman with guitarist Pat Metheny, but now he has fully arrived as an ambitious, gifted leader. Sanchez won international acclaim (and multiple awards) for his drum score for the 2014 film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), and in April he released the improv-oriented, double-CD set Three Times Three, on which he leads three different trios, working with pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist Matt Brewer, guitarist John Scofield and bassist Christian McBride, and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and bassist John Patitucci. Sanchez’s new project is a rich, mature, five-movement suite recorded with his band Migration. In the cover story for the July issue of DownBeat, Sanchez says, “The Meridian Suite sums me up better than anything else I have ever done.” Sanchez plays all the drum parts on the album, but he also contributes keyboards and vocals, alongside his tight-knit group of collaborators: Seamus Blake (tenor saxophone and EWI), John Escreet (piano and Fender Rhodes), Matt Brewer (acoustic and electric basses), Adam Rogers (guitars) and Thana Alexa (vocals). This flowing, 56-minute program reflects Sanchez’s impressive skills as a composer, as he weaves motifs throughout the suite while giving his bandmates room to improvise. Alexa’s wordless vocal segments in “Imaginary Lines” and Blake’s winding, serpentine introduction to “Pathways Of The Mind” are just two examples of the leader making wise use of his collaborators’ strengths. The result is a masterwork that strikes a balance between intellectualism and accessibility—with occasional bursts of controlled chaos to make the proceedings even more interesting. Sanchez will be on the road for much of 2015. He’ ll perform the Birdman score live with a screening of the film at the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee on June 13 and at SFJAZZ in San Francisco on Aug. 22. He’ll celebrate the release of The Meridian Suite with a June 19 show at SubCulture in New York City. More information is at Sanchez’s website.
BY BRIAN ZIMMERMAN
Aaron Diehl’s Space Time Continuum is the past and future of jazz set to music. For this album, his fourth as a leader, Diehl focused on linking artists and ideas from across generations. To bring that concept to life, he enlisted jazz luminaries like NEA Jazz Master Benny Golson on tenor saxophone and Duke Ellington Orchestra alum Joe Temperley on baritone sax to play alongside young-and-hungry artists like the emerging saxophonist Stephen Riley and upstart trumpeter Bruce Harris. The result is an intergenerational conversation that is both respectful of tradition and open to modern sounds. The sci-fi-sounding “Flux Capictor” embraces this approach wholeheartedly. Named after the device that made time travel possible in the Back to the Future movie series, the song cuts back and forth between styles, with Riley layering bristling bebop lines over Diehl’s choppy, futuristic piano comping. “Organic Consequence,” a slow, brawny swing tune, leaps across time in other ways, pairing the octogenarian Golson and the youthful Harris together for a decade-spanning dialog. “The Steadfast Titan” operates more like a time capsule. Featuring Temperley on baritone, the slow, stately melody recalls the great ballads of Billy Strayhorn, and features emotionally stirring accompaniment from Diehl and masterful cymbal work from drummer Quincy Davis. Closing the album out, the title track nods to the future by incorporating the talents of two of jazz’s brightest young stars: vocalists Cécile McLorin Salvant (who co-wrote the song) and Charenee Wade (who sings it). Diehl incorporates many voices into his new project, all from different eras and with varying approaches to jazz. Here, though, they’re all saying the same thing: The very best jazz is timeless.
BY BOBBY REED
Vocalist Rhiannon Giddens rose to fame as a member of the Americana trio Carolina Chocolate Drops, winner of the category Beyond Artist or Group in the 2011 DownBeat Critics Poll. In recent years, she has pursued other projects, singing at T Bone Burnett’s 2013 folk-music concert “Another Place, Another Time” (tied to the Coen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis) and participating in the sessions for the Bob Dylan-inspired album Lost On The River by The New Basement Tapes. Now she has released a superb solo album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, which brilliantly mixes elements of folk, blues, rock and gospel music. Giddens doesn’t stray drastically far from the folkloric territory that the Carolina Chocolate Drops have explored; the album includes three traditional tunes: “Black Is The Color,” “Round About The Mountain” and “O Love Is Teasin’.” With Burnett in the producer’s seat, the material feels vibrant and relevant to a modern audience, without getting overly glossy. Giddens studied opera, and there’s a formal quality to her engaging, authoritative vocal style. She’s soulful but not gritty, and her delivery is free of the ironic detachment heard so often when less talented 21st century troubadours delve into the past. Giddens focuses on female composers and performers on this album, offering a rousing rendition of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head” and a slinky, infectious reading of Elizabeth Cotten’s “Shake Sugaree.” The album closes with Giddens’ original composition “Angel City,” which is bolstered by the poignant fiddle work of Gabe Witcher. The performances of both musicians provide evidence that they have closely studied the masters of the past but have developed their own unique voices.