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DownBeat Editors‘ Picks

Editors’ Picks
August 2016



BY ED ENRIGHT
Fred Hersch Trio, Sunday Night At The Vanguard (Palmetto)
When a new album by Fred Hersch meets your expectations, you’ll never find yourself saying, “same old, same old.” Rather, you’ll appreciate how astonishingly creative, profound and enthralling the 60-year-old pianist continues to be. That’s the case with Sunday Night At The Vanguard, which presents Hersch performing with his trio at one of New York’s most celebrated jazz venues. It’s a familiar setting where Hersch finds himself in a familiar role: pushing the limits of refinement and making bold, fresh statements. Hersch’s trio with bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson has recorded a series of excellent albums over the past seven years, including 2012’s Fred Hersch Trio–Alive At The Vanguard and 2014’s Grammy-nominated Floating. Recorded live on the evening of March 27, 2016, Sunday Night At The Vanguard takes the trio’s propensity for dramatic lyricism, harmonic exploration and rhythmic experimentation to new levels of poise and audacity. Highlights include the album’s lightly swinging opener “A Cockeyed Optimist,” a Rodgers and Hammerstein standard that the trio had only played a few times previously; “The Optimum Thing,” a Hersch contrafact on Irving Berlin’s “The Best Thing For You” that showcases the trio’s drastically elastic sense of time; Paul McCartney’s “For No One,” its mood of quiet desperation amplified by the trio’s hushed, unhurried reading; Kenny Wheeler’s happy-dance “Everybody’s Song But My Own,” which Hersch played with the late trumpeter many times; and the shape-shifting “We See,” a Thelonious Monk tune that Hersch, somewhat surprisingly, has never recorded before. For more new Hersch-related material, watch for screenings of the feature-length film The Ballad of Fred Hersch—which recently premiered at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina—and Hersch’s upcoming memoir (with the working title Good Things Happen Slowly) for Crown/Random House, due out next spring.

iTunes


BY ED ENRIGHT
John Beasley, Presents MONK’estra Vol. 1 (Mack Avenue)
The first time I listened to this album in my car, I nearly missed my exit on the expressway. There is so much hep stuff happening in these new big band arrangements of tunes by Thelonious Monk that I was transported to another realm, one where the car seems capable of driving itself. Then it struck me: That’s precisely what’s happening with these charts and this ensemble of L.A.’s finest musicians and special guests, all under the direction of pianist/conductor/arranger John Beasley. Everything on Presents MONK’estra Vol. 1 feels so natural and inevitable, it’s almost as if the material plays itself. And if you enjoy Monk—whether for his undeniable logic, quirky song architecture or innate sense of swing—Beasley’s band will leave you rapt. Beasley has been writing big band charts since he was a teenager, and he has long been fascinated by Monk’s music (this debut recording by the MONK’estra is actually Beasley’s third album of material by the High Priest of Bebop). Beasley’s MONK’estra has performed live since 2013, and he has served as musical director for the Monk Institute’s Jazz Day gala concerts since 2011 and for International Jazz Day events since 2012. (He has done plenty of commercial work as well, most notably as the lead arranger for TV’s American Idol from 2005 to 2016.) Beasley knows his Monk inside and out, and he knows his way around a chart. But, most importantly, this onetime member of groups led by Freddie Hubbard and Miles Davis knows how to give his bandmembers—including guest stars Gary Burton on vibes (“Epistrophy”) and Grégoire Maret on harmonica (“Ask Me Now”)—sufficient freedom to stylize the written passages and improvise with abandon. In applying all of his acquired skills and personal passions to Presents MONK’estra Vol. 1, Beasley brings Monk to life once again for modern-minded listeners.

iTunes | Amazon


BY BOBBY REED
William Bell, This Is Where I Live (Stax)
Among those producers who have struck gold with veteran artists, there are a select few who were responsible for superb, late-career revivals: Rick Rubin accomplished it with Johnny Cash, as did Joe Henry with Solomon Burke. Add to that list producer/guitarist John Leventhal’s new collaboration with 77-year-old soul titan William Bell. Leventhal (who is known for his work with his wife, Rosanne Cash) co-wrote nine songs with Bell for This Is Where I Live. The album marks a strong return for a singer-songwriter who helped put Stax on the map with his single “You Don’t Miss Your Water“ as well as Albert King’s hit “Born Under A Bad Sign,” which Bell composed with fellow Memphis native Booker T. Jones. Leventhal, who clearly understands Bell’s aesthetic, frames the singer’s still-muscular voice with stinging electric guitar lines, percolating keyboards and punchy horn charts—yet all the instrumentation is relatively spare and consistently tasteful. On this sterling program, which is void of missteps, three tracks stand out. “Poison In The Well” pairs a head-bobbing groove with fierce lyrics, resulting in yet another gem from a man who has penned a wide range of songs about the joys and sorrows of romantic love. The album’s autobiographical title track, which references Sam Cooke, expresses Bell’s deep appreciation for his roots, while also chronicling his journey from gifted teenager to global icon. Given the popularity of numerous versions of “Born Under A Bad Sign” (including Cream’s interpretation on Wheels Of Fire), Leventhal and Bell wisely chose to record a slow, stripped-down take for this disc, allowing the listener to ruminate on the fate of a man who laments, “If it wasn’t for real bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” Fortunately, Bell has fared far better than his protagonist. This Is Where I Live will not only satisfy longtime followers, it will win Bell plenty of new fans.

iTunes | Amazon


BY BRIAN ZIMMERMAN
Will Calhoun, Celebrating Elvin Jones (Motéma)
Best known for his role in the fierce and politically incisive rock band Living Colour, Will Calhoun is a drummer whose razor-sharp technique and elastic rhythmic feel defy the bounds of genre. His astounding discography reads like a catchall bin at the record store, with sideman credits for artists as diverse as Herb Alpert and Run-DMC. But for a drummer of such immeasurable rhythmic variation, he can also lay down an undeniably gut-wrenching swing beat. That’s a characteristic he shares with one of his heroes, Elvin Jones, to whom this album is dedicated. Celebrating Elvin Jones is an inspired project, vibrant and emotionally honest, but its greatest success may be that it brings Calhoun’s boundless energy to lesser-known gems of the Jones songbook. Tunes like “EJ Blues,” with its explosive drum fills, “Saramastah,” with its sensitive brushwork, and “Whew,” with its trenchant swing, help paint a portrait of Jones through suggestion and homage, rather than emulation. That’s an artful approach, and Calhoun is wise to have followed it. He’s joined here by a commanding ensemble with bassist Christian McBride, saxophonist Antoine Roney, keyboardist Carlos McKinney and trumpeter Keyon Harrold, all of whom bring depth and dimension to the punchy arrangements. The group is augmented on several tracks by guest stars with connections to Jones’ musical legacy. Czech keyboardist Jan Hammer, a member of Jones’ trio for On The Mountain (1975), joins the band for a propulsive take on “Destiny,” and Senegalese percussionist Doudou N’Diaye Rose, a stylistic ancestor to Jones who died in August 2015, contributes a masterful solo on “Doll Of The Bride.”

Amazon | iTunes


BY BOBBY REED
Manu Katché, Unstatic
(Anteprima Productions)
The cover art for Manu Katché’s excellent new disc is somewhat misleading. It depicts the drummer alone, thrashing away at his kit, but Unstatic is, at heart, an accomplished team effort, crafted by a cohesive ensemble. Katché takes the spotlight here not with flashy rhythm patterns but with his compositional acumen and outstanding leadership. He wrote all 11 tunes, most of which are quintet or sextet arrangements, with exemplary trombonist Nils Landgren playing on five tracks. Katché seems to have composed these songs with specific instrumentation in mind, as evidenced by the gentle, nuanced dialogs by pianist Jim Watson and saxophonist Tore Brunborg that open “Blossom” and “Daze Days.” Those two numbers illustrate Katché’s ability to create accessible material that will appeal to smooth-jazz fans and devotees of straightahead jazz. Indeed, he’s a skillful balladeer, but he’s just as accomplished as a groove merchant. The track “City” offers a hip-swaying groove with a touch of light funk, resulting in a head-bobber that’s peppered with a potent motif from trumpeter Luca Aquino. Katché is acutely sensitive to the narrative arc of this 51-minute program. He is also keenly aware of the ebb and flow of musical intensity, which he intentionally dials down at the album’s midpoint before building it back up with simmering flare on the eighth track, “Ride Me Up.” On the album’s final track, Katché offers a charming, spoken-word introduction of his bandmates. The French drummer has won tremendous respect as a sideman for Sting, Peter Gabriel and Joni Mitchell, but with Unstatic, Katché shows that a generosity of spirit can help a fine accompanist become a great leader.

iTunes | Apple Music | Amazon


BY BRIAN ZIMMERMAN
Uri Caine, Calibrated Thickness (816 Music)
Uri Caine, a pianist with an animated yet erudite style, leads an agile trio through 15 dynamic tracks—several of them orchestrated, many of them not—on Calibrated Thickness, his daring new album with drummer Clarence Penn, bassist Mark Helias and guest cornetist Kirk Knuffke, who appears on three tracks. Those musicians, beyond their outsized talent, bring a fresh sense of openness to the mainstream piano trio format, as demonstrated on the free-improvised “Woke Up This Morning,” with its spikey musical exchanges, and “Downward Spiral,” in which shards of melody crystallize within a swirl of spontaneously composed sound. Clarity within abstraction is a recurring theme on this disc, a premise that lends a soft-edged shape to tracks that might otherwise feel unrestrained. “Icicles,” featuring Knuffke’s clear-toned incantations, sounds tuneful and assured even as its melody leaches out across the floor. And “Bleeding Heart,” a ballad, uses a recurring piano motif as a lighthouse in a storm, the pianist returning to the comforting phrase in times of sonic unrest. Fans of mainstream jazz might feel the same sense of solace about tracks like “Manahatta,” which finds Caine turning Tyner-esque summersaults through the pentatonic scale, and “Golem,” a brawny swing tune that lurches forward with powerful steps. These pieces, despite their more recognizable structure, nonetheless exhibit the same kind of cage-rattling vitality that has become one of Caine’s most compelling attributes. They’re also riveting examples of the pianist’s fluid improvisational technique. Those wanting to follow this dauntless sonic explorer down exciting new paths will have plenty of opportunity to do so. He celebrates the album’s release at Smalls in New York City on Aug. 29.

Amazon | iTunes


BY BRIAN ZIMMERMAN
Steve Lehman, Sélébéyone (Pi)
In the Senegalese language of Wolof, the word “sélébéyone,” which inspired the title of saxophonist Steve Lehman’s new album, means “intersection,” or a place where two things meet and are transformed anew. It’s an apt descriptor for this novel project, which unites voices from avant-garde jazz, electronic music, underground hip-hop and Senegalese rap under the banner of intrepid musical experimentalism. In overseeing this hybrid venture, Lehman—who topped two Rising Star categories in the 2015 DownBeat Critics Poll—joins a movement of musicians who are expanding the conversation between jazz and hip-hop, a venerated crew that includes artists such as Kamasi Washington, Thundercat and rapper Kendrick Lamar. But on Sélébéyone, Lehman takes the concept a step further, crafting a deeply nuanced sonic tableau in which the lyrics by rappers HPrizm (a stalwart of the New York underground hip-hop scene) and Gaston Bandimic (an ascendant Senegalese rap star) govern the album’s sound design, resulting in an aesthetic that is both emotionally raw and conceptually meticulous. With songs that touch on a diverse range of topics—from the realities of inner-city strife to Islamic mysticism—the album trades mostly in harsh, shadowy sounds and hard-edged beats, spurred on by Carlos Homs’ ghostly keyboard samples, Drew Gress’ pounding bass, Damion Reid’s quick-fire drumming, and shrieking saxophone dialogs between Lehman and Maciek Lasserre. Production was overseen with painterly care by hip-hop engineer Andrew Wright, who won a Grammy for his work on Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City (Interscope), and the album benefits from his expertise. There’s a creeping urgency to “Are You In Piece,” with its spidery saxophone lines, and a wandering uncertainty to “Cognition,” a sidelong take on acid-jazz. The album’s shortest song, “Geminou,” is also its most aggressively experimental, pitting Bandimic’s lacerating rhymes against an eerie, fractured backdrop. It’s visceral and searing, a distillation of the album’s concept in less than two minutes. If this is the direction jazz is heading, Lehman, as usual, is miles ahead.


BY BOBBY REED
Various Artists, Café Society Original Soundtrack (Sony Classical)
Woody Allen loves jazz. This is evidenced by several of the filmmaker’s soundtracks as well as his own work as a clarinetist. Allen’s 46th film, Café Society, is set in the 1930s and its soundtrack focuses on songs that Richard Rodgers composed with lyricist Lorenz Hart, including “The Lady Is A Tramp,” “My Romance,’ “There’s A Small Hotel” and “Have You Met Miss Jones?” The aforementioned tunes, along with five other songs, are interpreted here by Vince Giordano & The Nighthawks, a band that has risen to fame by breathing new life into music from the 1920s and ’30s. (Filmmakers Dave Davidson and Amber Edwards examine the savvy bandleader’s career in their new documentary Vince Giordano: There’s A Future In The Past.) Giordano’s genius lies in his ability to arrange old warhorses like “Jeepers Creepers” and “Pick Yourself Up” in ways that not only sound fresh but that cause listeners to reevaluate iconic recordings from the past. For Giordano, this is more than merely “source material”; it is a starting point for new vistas. His success is dependent upon the exemplary musicianship of his band. The Nighthawks’ pianist, Mark Shane, offers particularly nimble, memorable work here. The band teams up with vocalist Kat Edmonson for a clever rendition of “Mountain Greenery,” with the singer delivering a grin-inducing tale of life in a home “where no pests are pesterin’.” The 15-track soundtrack includes three recordings from the Depression Era: Count Basie’s “Taxi War Dance,” singer Ben Selvin’s version of “I Only Have Eyes For You” and Benny Goodman’s take on Rodgers & Hart’s “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” with vocals by Louise Tobin. All three are gems, but the sonic quality of these vintage recordings might be slightly jarring for some listeners when juxtaposed with the pristine, contemporary recordings by Giordano, YeraSon and Conal Fowkes. The latter—a pianist who has appeared on the soundtracks of previous Allen films, including Midnight In Paris—closes the program with a trio reading of “Out Of Nowhere” and a jaunty solo version of “This Can’t Be Love.” This disc is definitely a keeper.


BY ED ENRIGHT
Michael Davis, Hip-Bone Big Band
(Hip-Bone Music)
The “slip horn” might be the focus of trombonist Michael Davis’ 11th album as a leader, but Hip-Bone Big Band is about much more—namely, a full-sized modern big band staffed with elite New York players executing highly original material. There just happens to be numerous virtuosi rotating in and out of the ’bone section, including Michael Dease, Marshall Gilkes, Conrad Herwig, Andy Martin, Bob McChesney, Bill Reichenbach and Davis himself. Other horn-playing ringers include Vanguard Jazz Orchestra veterans Dick Oatts (lead alto), Nick Marchione (lead trumpet) and Scott Wendholt (jazz trumpet), as well as tenor ace Andy Snitzer and bari sax strongman Roger Rosenberg. Yellowjackets drummer Will Kennedy handles most of the drum responsibilities, establishing a wide variety of appropriate feels, from traditional big band swinging to driving rock beats to thick funk grooves. Hip-Bone Big Band is a fine showcase for Davis’ skills as a composer and arranger and his knack for highlighting the strengths of today’s top big band players. Sax solis rip with burning accuracy; trumpet section passages kill with chops and precision; smart interludes and clever counterpoint keep things balanced and brainy throughout. Some of Davis’ tunes date back to the late 1990s, while others were written in the days leading up to the March 2016 recording sessions. The leader pulls out all the stops on “CRB’s 76 Trombones,” a swinging take on Meredith Wilson’s 1957 signature song from The Music Man featuring inspired ’bone solos by Davis, Gilkes, Nick Finzer and Jeff Nelson. Hip-Bone Big Band benefits from Davis’ formidable big band pedigree, which includes stints in the bands of Buddy Rich, Frank Sinatra, Woody Herman, Louie Bellson and Bob Mintzer. The album also reflects Davis’ deep appreciation for the mentorship he received along the way. A highly committed jazz educator and active clinician, Davis plans to offer Hip-Bone Big Band (in physical or digital format) free to students at all the colleges and schools where he will appear as guest artist in the future.

ECM

Legere

NJPAC

San Francisco Conservatory

Smalls

Jody Jazz

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