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DownBeat Editors‘ Picks

Editors’ Picks
June 2016

Sugar Blue, Voyage (MC Records)
Blues vocalist and harmonica wizard Sugar Blue is a revered artist whose level of fame has been hampered by a sporadic, sparse discography. Voyage is a welcome addition to the recorded oeuvre of a musician who remains a stunning showman on the concert stage, where he belts out blues classics and generates intricate harmonica fireworks, all the while sporting a bandolier full of blues harps. The album consists of new material plus a rousing rendition of Ray Charles’ 1956 hit “Mary Ann.” The disc opens with “On My Way (Sarah’s Song)” a tune on which Sugar Blue’s vocal combination of honey and grit makes him sound a bit like the great Johnny Nash. Along with the program’s expected (yet still dazzling) harmonica work, Sugar Blue explores country blues on “New York City” and delivers an upbeat gospel vibe on “12 Steps.” He offers social commentary on the rocker “Life On The Run,” as guests Maya Azucena and Sonix The Mad Scientist help deliver a timely message for a nation caught in racial strife and deadly violence: “Do you remember the name Emmett Till?/ How many innocent boys must be killed?/ So we must stand together, black, brown and white/ Together we’ll take the fear from the night/ Too many good men and women have died/ To live in a country with justice denied.” Sugar Blue certainly knows how to get listeners to dance and have a good time, but with this track, composed with his keyboardist Damiano Della Torre, he’s motivating people to make this world a more peaceful place.

Amazon | M.C. Records

Warren Wolf, Convergence (Mack Avenue)
Warren Wolf, a vibraphonist with a lyrical bent and a painterly way with chords, is back with his third Mack Avenue album, Convergence. It’s a captivating and assertive disc on which the longtime SFJAZZ Collective member raises his exquisite playing to new heights. He’s joined in the effort by some of the best leaders in jazz: Christian McBride on bass, Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums, John Scofield on guitar and the radiant Brad Mehldau on piano. The album, a swirling mix of originals and smartly curated covers, finds the band shifting through varied permutations, shrinking and expanding from duo to quintet. The variability of sound makes for an engaging listen. Songs like “King Of Two Fives,” a duet between bass and vibes, and “New Beginning,” which features vibes and piano, provide moments of deep intimacy and spiritual connection. The blustery “Soul Sister” and the steamrolling “Havoc,” which include all five players, deliver frenetic bursts of energy. These episodes intermingle with touching ballads like “Four Stars From Heaven,” which Wolf wrote in dedication to his four children, and which features chime-like vibraphone work and a shimmering drum solo by Watts. The program closes on an equally tender note with “Stardust/The Minute Waltz,” a graceful melding of the Hoagy Carmichael standard and Frédéric Chopin classic that blurs the line between jazz and classical phrasing. In between, listeners will find numerous examples of Wolf’s characteristic wit and ingenuity. “Cell Phone,” for example, is a song inspired by a ringtone. Listen carefully during Wolf’s solo and you will hear the familiar Nokia melody. It has never swung harder.

Amazon | iTunes

Marquis Hill, The Way We Play

Though he now lives in New York City, Marquis Hill, winner of the 2014 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition, is proud to be a Chicagoan. On The Way We Play, the trumpeter imbues nearly every aspect of the album with hometown pride—from the cover art (an aerial shot of downtown Chicago with the city’s flag superimposed over the skyline) to the song choice (“Bulls Theme” is a riff on the Alan Parsons Project song “Sirius,” which became an anthem for the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls dynasty team). The Windy City also asserts itself in the album’s supporting players, a crack ensemble that includes alto saxophonist Christopher McBride, vibraphonist Justin “Justefan” Thomas, bassist Joshua Ramos and drummer Makaya McCraven. Even the album’s guest artists—trombonist Vincent Gardner, percussionist Juan Pastor and poet Harold Green III—hail from the City of Big Shoulders. And though Washington, D.C., native Christie Dashiell may not speak with a Chicago accent, she slides effortlessly into the conversation held by her accompanists on a sublime reading of “My Foolish Heart.” That song is among the many Great American Songbook standards Hill has chosen to interpret through his r&b prism on The Way We Play. He also includes smart revamps of “Smile” by Charlie Chaplin and “Polka Dots And Moonbeams” by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke. The groove-laden arrangements provide the perfect soundscape for Hill’s fluid improvisational style, which, with its glass-like lucidity, recalls the crisp elegance of hard-bop stalwart Donald Byrd. It’s no coincidence that Byrd, an early pioneer of merging jazz and r&b, is the subject of a lovely homage by Hill, who leads the group through a touching version of the late trumpeter’s “Fly Little Bird Fly.” Sultry and swaggering, it’s a poignant example of modern jazz done the Chicago Way. Marquis Hill and his band, the Blacktet, will perform at the Green Mill in Chicago on June 25, the Iowa City Jazz Festival on July 2 and Ginny’s Supper Club in New York City on July 22–23.

Amazon | iTunes

Quincy Jones, Live In Ludwigshafen 1961 (SWR Jazzhaus/Naxos)
Before Quincy Jones began his career as a producer and label executive with Mercury Records in the early 1960s, he briefly led a big band that toured North America and Europe to rave reviews but ultimately fell apart due to financial shortcomings. Jones, who originally assembled the orchestra for a traveling production of Harold Arlen’s Broadway show Free And Easy, for which he served as musical director, staffed the band with jazz musicians whom he’d gotten to know through his work as a trumpeter and composer-arranger. His long resume already included collaborations with the bands of Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, Billy Eckstine and others. When Free And Easy’s European run ended in February 1961, the band continued to perform under Jones’ leadership. Their concert on March 15, 1961, in the German city of Ludwigshafen is documented on this remastered recording from the SWR (formerly SWF) archives. Live In Ludwigshafen 1961 benefits from a band of aces, including saxophonists Phil Woods, Budd Johnson and Sahib Shihab; trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Benny Bailey; trombonists Curtis Fuller, Melba Liston and David Baker; guitarist Les Spann; and conguero Carlos “Patato” Valdes, among others. They soar, swing and blow with vitality on a program of mostly familiar tunes—several of them arranged by Jones—that have long been part of the big band canon. It’s rare to hear such gems as “Air Mail Special,” “Solitude,” “Stolen Moments,” “Lester Leaps In,” “Moanin’,” “Summertime,” “I Remember Clifford” and “Caravan” performed with such passion and conviction. The ensemble covers an enormous dynamic range, executing exaggerated, explosive swells to extreme effect. Despite the hard work that was put into editing and remastering Live In Ludwigshafen 1961, there are numerous points where individual instruments or entire reed/brass sections are way too low or altogether out of balance in the mix, undoubtedly a pitfall of recording in a live setting. But don’t let such flaws discourage you from checking out the album and ultimately enjoying the magic of Jones at the peak of his jazz powers.

Amazon | iTunes

Spin Cycle, Spin Cycle (Sound Footing Records)
Spin Cycle is a multifaceted New York-based quartet that’s fresh on the scene. Its members, however, are hardly newcomers to the world of straightahead jazz, fusion, funk and beyond. Co-led by drummer Scott Neumann and saxophonist Tom Christensen, and featuring guitarist Pete McCann and bassist Phil Palombi, Spin Cycle began two years ago as a collaboration between well-established musicians who knew each other from playing together in various ensembles of note. It didn’t take long for them to emerge as a cohesive unit that commands an exceptional stylistic range and exhibits a go-for-broke attitude. Spin Cycle’s self-titled debut CD is an all-original program of 10 tunes—six by Christensen and four by Neumann—that captivate with bright melodic lines, deep-seated grooves, catchy rhythmic devices and sophisticated harmony. Improvisations run wild, as soloists embrace aggressive and daring ideas from the realms of modal jazz, free-jazz, second-line and soul, not to mention good old-fashioned swing. In lieu of the more traditional piano role, McCann’s guitar gives the band the flexibility to work within a wide variety of interesting textures, from delicate, airy sparseness to hard-core electric crunch. Christensen mostly plays tenor, tearing it up with a heady, offbeat approach that can’t help but bring the late Joe Henderson (his onetime teacher) to mind; he breaks out the soprano for the hymn-like ballad “Drift,” which features the versatile Palombi in a prominent role. Neumann displays a natural capacity for swing and odd meters alike; most notable, though, is the surprisingly strong melodic qualities of his compositions. With mini-tour dates just around the corner, Spin Cycle has the potential to connect with a broader national audience as well as international listeners. Let’s hope they receive the attention they merit and stay together for a sufficient stretch of time to build on the strength of their debut album and develop a substantial body of work. The group is scheduled to perform at the Jazz Room in Waterloo, Ontario, on June 25; the Rex in Toronto on June 26; and the Rochester Jazz Festival in Rochester, New York, on June 27.

Spin Cycle | CD Baby

Bob Dylan, Fallen Angels (Columbia)
Over the decades, Bob Dylan has frequently reinvented himself—and rarely repeated himself. He’s taken on a variety of roles: traditional folksinger, social protest troubadour, singularly original rock composer, country crooner, fire-and-brimstone gospel belter, roots-music icon and, now, wistful interpreter of the Great American Songbook. Dylan has released 37 studio albums, each of which is significantly different from its predecessor—with two exceptions. In 1992, he released Good As I Been To You, a solo acoustic program of traditional folk songs, which he followed up in 1993 with a similar solo album, World Gone Wrong. That disc, along with Dylan’s latest release, Fallen Angels, are the only points in his oeuvre when one might accurately call an album a “sequel.” His new album has numerous things in common with its acclaimed predecessor, 2015’s Shadows In The Night. This is yet another program of Great American Songbook tunes previously recorded by Frank Sinatra. The songs were recorded with Dylan’s excellent, acoustic-leaning touring band, and again were produced by Dylan himself (under the pseudonym Jack Frost) with recording engineering and mixing by Al Schmitt. Fans who dug Dylan’s weathered yet poignant vocal navigation through tracks like “Autumn Leaves” and “Some Enchanted Evening” on Shadows are sure to enjoy the heart-tugging interpretations on Angels, such as “All The Way,” “It Had To Be You” and “Young At Heart.” The arrangements and musicianship are exquisite throughout, whether it’s Donny Herron’s yearning viola on “Maybe You’ll Be There” or drummer George Recile’s jaunty brushwork on a zippy rendition of “That Old Black Magic.” There is one tune here that Sinatra never recorded, and it’s a gem: the Johnny Mercer/Hoagy Carmichael composition “Skylark.” With viola and acoustic guitar guiding the way, Dylan portrays a narrator filled with weary, heartbroken wanderlust. The listener becomes Dylan’s companion on a lonely path, hoping to find a blossom-covered lane.

Matt Baker, Almost Blue
(JazzElm Music)

Australian pianist and vocalist Matt Baker has settled into his new home, New York City, in fine fashion. And nothing makes a young jazz musician feel more at home than collaborating with high-caliber players, such as the ones who populate Almost Blue. For his fifth leader project, Baker is joined by bassist Luques Curtis, drummer Obed Calvaire, guitarist Lage Lund, tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm and percussionist Bashiri Johnson. As a pianist, Baker proves he can excel among such esteemed company. With Baker at the helm, this crew has crafted a predominantly straightahead program that swings yet also offers unexpected turns. Frahm, who appears on three tracks, adds muscular punch and a fiery solo to “Theme From ‘The Apartment,’” which is also spiced with a crisp dialogue between Baker and Calvaire. (Baker revisits this lovely melody in a solo setting for the album’s concluding track.) Lund, who plays on six tracks, offers a solo on “The End Of A Love Affair” that epitomizes sophistication and elegance. Baker arranges standards like “Autumn In New York” and “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning” with an admirable combination of respect and creativity. Most noteworthy here are the three vocal tracks, which showcase Baker as a wise curator and charming singer free of extraneous flourishes. His reading of Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys classic “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” demonstrates Baker’s skillful phrasing, while his tender yet powerful vocals on Ron Sexmith’s “Foolproof” will help this tune on its journey toward “new standard” status. The album’s title track (which was penned by Elvis Costello and interpreted by Diana Krall on her 2004 disc The Girl In The Other Room) features subtle, seductive brushwork by Calvaire and a restrained vocal performance that aches with grace.

David Gibson, Inner Agent
On his fourth album for Posi-Tone, trombonist David Gibson delivers a program that provides a great showcase for his aesthetic. Inner Agent offers a satisfying combination of strong original compositions and carefully chosen interpretations. After years of work in a variety of settings—including big bands, such as the George Gee Swing Orchestra and Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band, as well as a long stint with the funk-oriented, fun-loving Hot Pants Funk Sextet+1—Gibson knows exactly how to execute his musical vision. On his original number “Axe Grinder,” Gibson gives his gifted bandmate Freddie Hendrix plenty of room to unleash some fiery trumpet work and stratospheric high notes. On another Gibson original, “The Scythe,” the bandleader recruits a couple of monster saxophonists, Caleb Curtis on alto and Doug Webb on tenor, to add vivid color as well as exhilarating solos. Gibson nods to one of his heroes, trombonist Curtis Fuller, by including two of his compositions: “The Court” is a swinger injected with a remarkably fluid trombone solo, while the medium-tempo “Sweetness” demonstrates Hendrix’s ability to add emotional impact with elegant extended notes. Elsewhere, pianist Theo Hill adds a light, dancing quality to the Billy Taylor classic “I Wish I Knew” (a tune that Gibson heard as a kid on a Nina Simone album). Inner Agent concludes with a version of George Harrison’s “Here Comes The Sun,” rendered at a deliberate tempo with expressive cymbal work from Kush Abadey that helps makes this one of the finest jazz interpretations of a Beatles tune we’ve heard in a long time.

Noah Preminger, Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground
(Self Release)
Tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger delves into nine haunting pre-war Delta blues classics on Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground, the second release by his quartet with trumpeter Jason Palmer, bassist Kim Cass and drummer Ian Froman. These are some seriously old blues that communicate timeless tales of the human experience, a repertoire of brutally honest music that stirs the soul with its heartfelt directness. Songs by such immortal bluesmen as Bukka White (whose music was the focus of this group’s previous album, 2015’s Pivot: Live At The 55 Bar), Skip James, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson prove to be a tremendous source of inspiration for Preminger, who plumbs the depths of the originals seeking ancient, universal truths and exploring new possibilities for meaningful interpretation. Preminger and company take the slow laments and sanctified, down-home melodies that are so characteristic of Delta blues and offset them with urgent improvisations and jazz-informed reconstructions. At times, like on Patton’s “Spoonful Blues,” Preminger and Palmer seem to be channeling the tandem spirits of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, gently intoning together on a floating, harmonized melody one moment, soloing with absolute abandon the next—as Cass and Froman ride a steady groove of their own underneath it all. The group gets right to the point in discovering and revealing the direct connections that have always existed, just below the surface, between old-school blues and modern jazz. The whole album resonates with a kind of naked truth, its core essence expertly captured by engineer Jimmy Katz, who has a knack for achieving an unadorned “live” feel in the recording studio. This is storytelling at its very best, and the sincere personal spin Preminger places on the repertoire makes it that much more intense and compelling. The saxophonist, who now has five albums as a leader featuring various quartet lineups, will release an LP later this year with guitarist Ben Monder, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Billy Hart on the vinyl-only label Newvelle.

Jeff Parker, The New Breed
(International Anthem)
Two years ago, Jeff Parker, best known as the guitarist for the Chicago post-rock band Tortoise, moved to Los Angeles, where he has been steadily reinventing his musical persona. The change of scenery has served him well, and the fruits of that reinvention are borne out with striking conviction on The New Breed. Inspired, perhaps, by the city’s venerable legacy of jazz and hip-hop fusion, the longtime AACM member has chosen to delve deep into experiments with electronics, sampling and beat-making on his latest disc, and though the territory may be new for him, it is not totally foreign. Parker, who has dabbled with beat-making on and off for the past few years, had his interest stoked after collaborating with fellow Chicagoan Makaya McCraven on the drummer’s stellar 2015 album, In The Moment (also on International Anthem), which mixed live recording, sampling and post-production to magnificent effect. Parker is in fine form on that album, creating swaths of gauzy, textured sound via loops and overdubs, and he brings much of that aesthetic to The New Breed, though with a heavier emphasis on the loose-limbed hip-hop of the late J Dilla. Album opener “Executive Life” sets the standard for this head-nodding fare, featuring a hypnotic woodwind sample layered splendidly over drummer Jamire Williams’ heavy backbeat and Parker’s searing, feedback-driven guitar. The sound is serene yet disorienting, potent and full of momentum. The group reprises a similar vibe for “Jrifted,” which uses a sample from Aretha Franklin’s “Day Dreaming” to create a background for Josh Johnson’s rippling saxophone and Paul Bryan’s wobbly bass. And while songs like “Par Ha Tay,” with its 808 breakbeat patterns, and “Visions,” with its synth chord clusters and sci-fi sound effects, lean more heavily toward the “produced” end of the electronic spectrum, they are no less human in spirit. The most profound statement on this disc, however, belongs to “Cliché,” which features Parker’s daughter Ruby on vocals. The song, with its winding tendrils of melody, strikes a balance between neo-soul coolness and avant edge, much like the rest of this remarkable album.



University MN Press



Jody Jazz


Greg Pasenko

Galaxy Audio


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