DownBeat Editors‘ Picks

Editors’ Picks
September 2016

Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol & Whatsnext?, Resolution (DÜNYA)
Turkish-American composer and multi-instrumentalist Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol immersed himself in the music and culture of his native country in preparing the material for Resolution. Although the album features compositions created within a framework of Middle Eastern modes and rhythms, it also swings with strong jazz undercurrents and touches on a variety of popular genres associated with modern Western music. As a follow-up to 2014’s What’s Next?, which primarily explored compositions Sanlıkol wrote between the years 1996 and 2000, Resolution reveals a broadminded artist whose recent pursuit of fresh material has significantly honed his vision. The presence of marquee guest artists Anat Cohen (clarinet), Dave Liebman (soprano saxophone), Tiger Okoshi (trumpet) and Antonio Sanchez (drums) helps bring Sanlıkol’s powerful multicultural statement into even sharper focus, as each is featured on ambitious pieces written to their personal strengths. Indeed, over the course of nine tracks, including the three-track Concerto For Soprano Saxophone And Jazz Orchestra In C and the two-track Niyaz Suite, it becomes clear that Sanlıkol didn’t bring these high-level players onboard merely to blow. His pluralist Whatsnext? ensemble thrives on flexibility, genre-shifting at the drop of a hat and morphing from a large jazz orchestra into a combo-oriented configuration as needed. In addition to conducting, Sanlıkol contributes serious piano, haunting vocals, harpsichord, clavinet, Middle Eastern strings/winds/percussion and the Continuum Fingerboard, a keyless synthesizer that gives him access to a world of microtones. Despite all its sophistication, the music on Resolution is delightfully accessible thanks to Istanbul-born Sanlıkol’s earnest and eager pursuit of the threads that connect the traditional music of his homeland with American jazz, funk and r&b. In the mind’s eye, it conjures images of a modern big band in performance at Turkey’s centuries-old Topkapi Palace. An active ethnomusicologist, Sanlıkol (who holds an undergraduate degree from Berklee College of Music and a master’s and a doctorate from New England Conservatory of Music) is a fellow at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He is also the president of DÜNYA, the Boston-based musicians collective and independent record label that presents contemporary music influenced by Turkish traditions.

iTunes | Bandcamp

Kristen Lee Sergeant, Inside Out (Whaling City Sound)
On her 1993 album Blue Light ’Til Dawn, singer Cassandra Wilson expanded fans’ perception of what a jazz standard could be, thanks to her adventurous interpretations of 1970s compositions by Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and Ann Peebles. On Wilson’s follow-up album, New Moon Daughter, she pushed the envelope further with a version of the Boyce & Hart composition “Last Train To Clarksville,” a 1966 hit for The Monkees. On her debut album, Kristen Lee Sergeant takes a similar tack. The actress/singer, whose vocals can be buttery or deliciously tart, offers impressive renditions of songs from musical theater—including “Old Devil Moon” (1947) and the Rodgers & Hart compositions “I Wish I Were In Love Again” (1937) and “It Never Entered My Mind” (1940). Given Sergeant’s background in theater, such selections seem natural. But the program also includes dramatically fresh arrangements of three hits that were in heavy rotation on MTV in the early ’80s. Sergeant gracefully strides into the cabaret realm with “Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” She injects some wordless scatting into the Tears For Fears hit, luxuriates in elongated vowel sounds and intertwines her punchy delivery with David Budway’s intricate piano work. The Police hit “Every Breath You Take” has been reworked before—including a 2001 live version by Sting himself, featuring bassist Christian McBride and trumpeter Chris Botti—but here, Sergeant and Budway make it swing like a gate. Budway, who served as musical director for this album, relishes in shifting a song’s tempo in order to create surprises. The other musicians on the disc, bassist Chris Berger and drummer Vince Ector, are essential to the success of the most creative interpretation here: an engaging, slightly bizarre version of Modern English’s “I Melt With You.” The musicians transform it into a jazz tune, with jolts of arco riffs and diverse trap-set work that illustrates the drummer’s range. But this arrangement also includes a section that veers into performance-art territory, featuring a spoken-word interlude peppered with potent alliteration. Sergeant puts her theatricality to superb use throughout the program, but does so with enhanced flair on this track. Inside Out is a solid debut from a classically trained vocalist whose journey into the jazz realm has already yielded gems; we hope to hear more in the future.


Tom Harrell, Something Gold, Something Blue (HighNote)
Trumpeter Tom Harrell has been enchanting audiences with his liquid tone and intricate, compelling improvisational technique since the early 1970s, playing in the bands of Woody Herman, Horace Silver and Phil Woods. But it wasn’t until he formed his own quintet, in the mid-’70s, that he began to define himself as a singular trumpet voice. As a leader he proved a composer of immeasurable depth and a player of quiet strength, hedging close to the elements of lyricism and beauty even as those around him sharpened the edges of their sound against the rough surfaces of fusion. In this regard, he was assuredly an influence on Ambrose Akinmusire, a trumpeter of a similar grace and suppleness. The two appear together on Something Gold, Something Blue, a study in poise and cerebral craftsmanship. This is classic Tom Harrell music—smart and searching, yet governed by an unflustered sense of control. Harrell wrote eight of the nine tracks that appear on this album (the sole cover is a yearning rendition of “Body And Soul”), and his music is of the characteristically revelatory sort, easy on the ear even as it challenges musical conventions with sharp intervallic leaps and angular rhythmic bends. Harrell’s band—bassist Ugonna Okegwo, drummer Johnathan Blake and guitarist Charles Altura—is sensitive and malleable enough to handle the winding road map, and throughout the disc the musicians demonstrate an unshakable commitment to their leader. “Circuit” has a sprawling logic, with a tight, clustered opening melody and a center-shifting solo section over which Harrell, Akinmusire and Altura unspool luminescent solos. Omer Avital’s oud augments the jangly exoticism of “Delta Of The Nile,” and Blake’s snare-cracking shuffle—groovy, thriving and elastic—is the undeniable star of “Keep On Goin’,” a soft-funk highlight that juxtaposes Akinmusire’s bluesy wails against Harrell’s ornate flourishes. Unlike last year’s concept album, First Imrpessions, in which he interpreted songs by Debussy and Ravel, Something Gold, Something Blue is a return to form for Harrell, but it’s far from ordinary.

Amazon | iTunes

Saltman Knowles, Almost
(Pacific Coast Jazz)
The new album by Saltman Knowles—the fruitful duo of bassist Mark Saltman and pianist William Knowles—was inspired by an unlikely source: Dan Barry’s book Bottom of the 33rd, which chronicles the longest game in baseball history. The common theme? Commitment. Just like the ballplayers who poured over eight hours into their marathon matchup, Saltman and Knowles have been toiling assiduously in the coal rooms of jazz for nearly 20 years. Though they’re not the first duo on the lips of jazz aficionados—“We’re not today’s virtuosos,” they candidly admit in the liner notes—they’re an astute and gifted pairing. With Almost they prove they’re an ambitious one as well. The album picks up where their acclaimed 2010 album, Yesterday’s Man, left off: on a surging wave of hard-bop-oriented groove music. Opener “Across The Dead Sea” launches the program with a propulsive piano refrain, setting the standard for a program of precision grooves and frictionless momentum. “I Remember Yusef,” written for transcendent reedist Yusef Lateef (Saltman’s mentor at the Hartt School of Music), is enrobed in the sonic fabric of the Middle East, with an especially piquant ostinato by Knowles and a flickering trumpet solo by DeAndre Schaifer. It’s easily the album’s most engaging track, and a worthwhile stylistic detour. On a rendition of Kurt Weill’s “This Is New,” the group pivots back toward contemporary jazz, digging in for a trenchant swinger with vocals by Yvette Spears and drumming by EC3, whose muscular cymbal work keeps this rocking ship on course. Steel-pan drummer Victor Provost, a fluent jazz player, is also featured here, and his instrument’s mellifluous timbre adds a dazzling veneer to the craggy structures of his solo. The album consists mostly of originals in the hard-bop/funk vein, and the few standards included here are filtered through such prisms. The group’s interpretation of “What Is This Thing Called Love” receives an injection of hard-heeled r&b, and “September In The Rain” rises to a simmer courtesy of a muted trumpet solo by Schaifer and the enchanting vocals of Lori Williams, whose range spans gospel shouts and cabaret whispers. With Almost, Saltman and Knowles have done more than just assemble a fine band; they’ve proven their mettle as a premier hard-bop ensemble.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Jimmy O’Connell Sixtet, Arrhythmia (Outside In)
Jimmy O’Connell, a gifted and determined young trombonist, is a native Detroiter, and the brand of jazz he pursues on his latest album reflects that city’s jazz dialect, with grooves that are relaxed and playful but polished to a brilliant shine. These days, however, O’Connell makes his home in New York City (he’s a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music), and much of the Big Apple’s grit and fortitude has seeped into his composing style. On Arrhythmia, the trombonist is joined by a stable of New York up-and-comers—saxophonist Andrew Gould, drummer Jimmy Macbride, bassist Peter Slavov, pianist Tuomo Uusitalo and guitarist Tim Basom—for a program of five powerful originals and a trio of covers. From these eight pieces, he builds a potent case for wider acclaim as a performer and composer. Listenable as this album is, O’Connell’s music is noteworthy for its architectural integrity, which reveals itself in numerous ways. “Gray Matter” is built from overlaid patterns—a sprawling piano ostinato, an ornamental saxophone motif, a descending trombone phrase—whereas the title track derives strength from its swooping unison lines. His arrangement of “Lament,” by J.J. Johnson, is elegant and lucid, and O’Connell’s solo here employs a bevy of Johnson’s own tactics: pulsating bebop lines, graceful classical motifs, warmly phrased intervallic leaps. Closer “Solidarity” repositions O’Connell in the proximity of his millennial peers. Its crisp r&b groove reveals connections to the influence of Robert Glasper and his ilk. Rather than claiming allegiance to regional or generational factions—Detroit or New York, old-school or new—O’Connell seems most comfortable carving out his own unique trombone voice. Arrhythmia is a step in the right direction.

Outside in Music | iTunes

Afro-Bop Alliance Big Band, Revelation (OA2)
There’s a grand precedent for Afro-Cuban big band jazz. If the genre had a Hall of Fame, it would be stocked with vivacious, exuberant figures: Machito’s Afro-Cubans, Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band, Tito Puente. As Afro-Cuban big bands of today aim to extend this genre’s great legacy, their success depends largely on how these ensembles define themselves against existing tropes. The Afro-Bop Alliance Big Band, captained by drummer Joe McCarthy, occupies a singular spot in the timeline of Afro-Cuban ensembles, at once a torchbearer of the genre’s storied history and also one of its fiercest innovators. McCarthy—a Washington, D.C.-based percussionist and vault of Afro-Cuban musical scholarship—conceived his Alliance ensemble as a septet, and over the course of five recordings has gradually expanded the group into a big band. The larger profile hasn’t affected the band’s agility, given how easily McCarthy maneuvered the ensemble into the critical spotlight, winning a Latin Grammy in 2008. For Revelation, the Alliance’s sixth release, McCarthy enlarges the ensemble’s sonic footprint once more, adding four steel-pan drummers. The broad swath of textures only enhances the album’s already vibrant sound collage, which was assembled from compositions by the bandleader and longtime associates Vince Norman (who also contributes lively alto and soprano saxophone) and Luis Hernandez (who supplies a sturdy yet sinuous tenor). In the writing and execution, one hears a refreshing equilibrium between the Latin rhythms of Chano Pozo and Irakere and the harmonic density of modern jazz. This is music that would be equally at home on the beaches of Havana as in the nightclubs of Manhattan. Rattling Cuban rhythms and colorful jazz harmonies are the twin engines that keep this album in motion, and McCarthy and company demonstrate expert control. The meticulously executed “CuBop” and undulating “Magharibi” wear their Afro-Cuban heritage on their sleeve, while others derive vigor from their proximity to other big band traditions. “No Rest For The Bones Of The Dead” courts the anthemic large ensemble sound of the 1970s, and “Dialed In,” with its rumbling percussion and spiky horn arrangements, skirts thrillingly close to Mingus territory. Danceable Afro-Cuban rhythms and cerebral jazz arrangements—that’s a strong alliance, indeed.

OA2 Records

Michael Kaeshammer, No Filter (
If pianist-vocalist Michael Kaeshammer’s 10 previous albums haven’t converted you into a fan yet, there’s a good chance that No Filter will do the trick. More famous in Canada than he is in the States, the Vancouver Island-based artist offers a terrific program of original compositions here, with a handful of powerful vocal takes, two winning instrumentals and a couple of tracks that feature guest vocal turns (by Denzal Sinclaire on the poignant “Late Night Train” and by Joel Parisien on the metaphysical “Sweet Grace”). Kaeshammer operates in a pop-meets-jazz vein, and his impressive chops elevate the proceedings, whether he’s pounding the ivories with a touch of barrelhouse fervor or coaxing muscular sounds out of a Fender Rhodes. “Letter From The Road,” which tells the story of a traveling musician who yearns for his gal back home, is a boogie-woogie romp with a bluesy flair that will appeal to fans of Harry Connick Jr. The lover’s lament “Back Into The Pen” is spiked with both sweet and mournful tones by gifted trumpeter William Sperandei, who, like four other players on the session, is a member of the leader’s touring band. On the buoyant, Caribbean-flavored “Talk To Me Baby,” Kaeshammer’s narrator yearns to hear his lover’s voice, rather than merely read her text messages: “The i’s and u’s, the number 2’s/ LOL leaves me blue/ Let’s get love on the line/ Baby, can we talk sometime?” The album concludes with the tender, gospel-influenced instrumental “Sunset,” which reminds listeners that for all his humorous and charming vocal work, Kaeshammer is, at heart, a poetic pianist.

Amazon USA | Amazon Canada

Derrick Hodge, The Second
(Blue Note)
Bassist Derrick Hodge has long had a foothold in multiple musical worlds, building a diverse discography that includes work with the hip-hop artist Common, neo-soul singer Maxwell and numerous jazz luminaries—including Terence Blanchard, Terell Stafford, Robert Glasper, Gretchen Parlato and Kendrick Scott. In 2013, Hodge rose to a new level of fame, thanks to his debut album as a leader, Live Today (Blue Note), and a win in the category Rising Star–Electric Bass in the DownBeat Critics Poll. His past collaborations with an eclectic array of musicians undoubtedly informed his new album, The Second, which doesn’t sound like the music of any of the aforementioned artists. The new disc is about atmosphere and soundscapes more than it is about hummable melodies. Like the best work of ambient pioneer Brian Eno, this is an album that can be played as unobtrusive background music, but it also rewards close listening, thanks to its nuanced details. Hodge gets assistance from drummer Mark Colenburg on three tracks, while the spare arrangement of “For Generations” features a bluesy melody played by trumpeter Keyon Harrold, tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland and trombonist Corey King. On the album’s other eight tracks, Hodge decided to go the Prince route, playing all the instruments himself (bass, keyboards, guitar, drums, programming). Hodge composed all the material, except for one song that he co-wrote with Colenburg. The result is a highly personal program that includes chill compositions a club DJ might play toward the end of a long night of dancing (such as the title track and “Underground Rhapsody”), as well as deeply idiosyncratic fare, such as “World Go Round,” which merges bass runs with percussion that is akin to (and perhaps is) the sound of snapping fingers. “From Me To You” (the only vocal track) melds Hodge’s understated vocals, straightforward piano lines and waves of synthesizer into a dreamy love poem.

iTunes | Amazon


Wolfgang Schalk



Outline Records

San Francisco Conservatory


Jody Jazz


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