BY BOBBY REED
Oded Lev-Ari is a producer on the rise, having helmed acclaimed albums by Anat Cohen, the Marty Ehrlich Large Ensemble and vocal trio Duchess. (DownBeat readers might recall a profile of Lev-Ari, “Lightning in a Bottle,” which appeared in the Recording School section of the February 2014 issue.) He has had so much success behind the board that many jazz fans think of him as a producer first and a pianist second. Lev-Ari’s impressive debut as a leader, Threading, will help change that. On the track “E And A,” one of six original compositions on the disc, he states the gorgeous melody on piano—alongside sensitive accompaniment from bassist Joe Martin and hypnotic, light cymbal work from drummer Matt Wilson—before Cohen swoops in on clarinet, injecting a buoyant emotional boost. Despite Lev-Ari’s chops as a pianist, on Threading he seems more focused on the roles of composer, arranger and producer, rather than musician; he’s like a film director who casts himself in a supporting role in order to make the entire endeavor a gleaming success. His artistic ambition is admirable here, as he guides a dozen musicians to create an album with a chamber-jazz feel, featuring important contributions from three cellists: Alex Waterman, Yoed Nir and Noah Hoffeld. Lev-Ari is particularly adept at arranging pieces so that the energy builds and then retreats in intriguing ways, taking listeners on an emotional journey that leaves them longing to repeat the trip. The album’s 10-minute centerpiece, “Voices,” features ominous cello strains, exciting time-signature shifts, dazzling clarinet riffs, delicate pianism, propulsive drumming and a surprising sonic dynamism. The disc includes two arrangements of the Gordon Jenkins composition “Goodbye” (popularized by Frank Sinatra on his classic 1958 album Only The Lonely). The first version is a showcase for the gifted vocalist Alan Hampton, and the second puts Cohen in the spotlight. Lev-Ari has the talent and wisdom to recruit remarkable musicians (including guitarist Gilad Hekselman), and he has the vision to create a setting in which they can shine.
Anzic Records | iTunes
BY BRIAN ZIMMERMAN
With Foreign Territory trumpeter John Raymond poses a simple, yet essential question: How progressive can modern jazz sound while still staying true to tradition? To answer, the talented young improviser takes listeners on a journey through complex harmonies, asymmetric melodies and jagged polyrhythms—all while remaining unabashedly loyal to the rudiments of swing, blues and bop. The resulting album sounds electrifyingly new and strangely familiar at the same time. It’s foreign territory, indeed, but Raymond navigates it like a native. With his warm, vibrant tone and near-flawless articulation, Raymond’s solos jump out of the mix with clarity and grace. They avoid needless flourishes and extraneous ideas, captivating instead with their sincerity and wit. His solo turn on “Mark Time,” for example, pairs tumbling repeated phrases with knotty chromatic lines. It is brilliant and complex, yet remains completely accessible. On “Rest/Peace,” a somber ballad, his solo is brooding and inquisitive, with long lines and whispery sustained notes that linger in the listener’s ear. Joining Raymond on this project is veteran drummer Billy Hart, who has played with jazz icons Wes Montgomery and Marian McPartland. A consummate sideman and an encouraging collaborator, Hart amplifies the emotional quality of each song. “Chant,” a peaceful meditation, is made more serene through his delicate cymbal technique, while the driving, forceful “What Do You Hear?” receives an electric jolt from Hart’s dynamic snare work and explosive bass drum. Pianist Dan Tepfer, who finds freedom within Raymond’s innovative arrangements, is also superb. Tepfer’s comping technique—fresh, intelligent and unpredictable—enlivens Raymond’s exploratory style on “New Blues” and the title track. Bassist Joe Martin contributes nimble bass lines and powerful ostinatos throughout. On “Adventurous-Lee,” his resonant bass tone cuts through the serpentine melody to create an undeniable sense of swing. With his mix of modern sounds and old-fashioned feeling, Raymond is steering jazz in the right direction.
iTunes | John Raymond
BY BRIAN ZIMMERMAN
On Georgia Sunset, pianist Joe Alterman pulls off one of the rarer feats in modern jazz: he swings—hard. A passionate young jazz musician with roots in Atlanta, Alterman is one of today’s foremost purveyors of feel-good music. With a sound that’s rooted in the blues, and with a touch reminiscent of the great pianists of the 1950s—Red Garland, Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans—Alterman’s playing cuts right to the chase. Before you realize how sophisticated a player he is, your toes are already tapping. From the opening “Blue Moon,” it’s clear that Alterman has been brought up in the School of Good Taste. His talents are numerous: He hews closely to melody, respects silence and uses dynamics to create tension and flow. It takes a mature outlook to pull this off effectively. Part of that maturity has to do with the influence of his mentor, tenor saxophonist Houston Person, whom Alterman met at New York University and who joins the pianist on five of the 12 songs on this album. To hear them together is to hear two good friends in conversation. On “For Once In My Life,” the duo dialogs with soulful jazz licks and delicate repeated phrases, and on “Snake Eyes,” Alterman’s no-nonsense accompaniment wrings every ounce of blues from Person’s horn. As a soloist, Alterman’s playing is like the best kind of poetry: honest and intuitive, yet laced with intricacy and full of meaning. Listen to his playing on “How Deep Is Your Love” and his original composition “Georgia Sunset” to get a true sense of his depth of feeling. Even more remarkable is the fact that Alterman overcame a near-debilitating case of obsessive-compulsive disorder to become the accomplished jazz musician he is today. As a result of Alterman’s persistence, patience and dedication, he’s the owner of a smart, graceful style that lays the foundation for a long, fruitful career.
iTunes | CDBaby
Graffiti is not your typical jazz album: It’s more like the sound of imagination caught on tape. Tenor saxophonist JD Allen, whose talents as a composer deserve much wider recognition, designed the songs on this album to allow for maximum flexibility and exploration. As a leader, he gives his bandmates (the talented Gregg August on bass and the endlessly innovative Rudy Royston on drums) plenty of room to experiment, innovate and thrive. But the real star of the show is Allen’s bold artistic vision. The infectious “Naked,” for example, consists of two ascending melodic motifs that start, stop and repeat at Allen’s discretion. With Royston following along in lockstep (Allen chose not to use bass to give the song the illusion of playing in a free form), the song feels completely spontaneous, yet oddly coherent. Surprisingly, each solo section adheres to a firm 16-bar structure. Other compositions demonstrate Allen’s poetic sensibility. “Jawn Henry,” inspired by the African-American folktale, evokes the sound of a chugging locomotive and the clang of the hero’s hammer hitting a steel drill. The tune features a unique 20-bar solo section that oscillates between driving swing and a timeless rubato feel, allowing Allen’s tenor to soar. Despite his forward-looking compositional style and distinctly modern sound, the ambitious saxophonist hasn’t lost his fidelity to the sounds of yesteryear. “Indigo (Blue Like)” is an in-the-pocket swinger, a refreshingly new take on an ageless jazz style. But as Allen says in the liner notes, “Sometimes … the most avant-garde thing that a jazz musician could do today is try to straight up and down swing.” Allen is now part of the great lineage of saxophonist-songwriters that includes John Coltrane, Benny Golson and Wayne Shorter. Like the compositions of those jazz giants, Allen’s songs are destined for perpetuity.
iTunes | Amazon
BY BOBBY REED
NDR Bigband conductor Dale Wilson owes an artistic debt to Gil Evans, who was a master at arranging material for a large ensemble, and to Duke Ellington, who famously composed songs that would exploit the individual strengths of his soloists. Wilson wrote Tall Tales Of Jasper County: The Double Doubles Suite with two band members at the forefront of his mind—alto saxophonist Fiete Felsch and tenor saxophonist Lutz Buechner. Wilson envisioned an extended piece in which Felsch and Buechner would “double” on other woodwind instruments, and the results are stunning. On the opening track, “Brother John’s Vision,” Felsch plays alto sax and piccolo, while Buechner contributes on tenor sax and clarinet. Wilson has family roots in Jasper County, Missouri, and his essay in the liner notes describes some of the relatives who inspired this project. Thanks to the incredible musicianship of this 18-piece ensemble, a listener would not need to know the backstory to enjoy the majestic power of this suite. Wilson composed the six songs here with improvisation in mind, and with an aesthetic that equally favors grand gestures and subtle details. The track “Chloe’s Lamma” showcases the colorful personalities and impressive range of soloists Ingolf Burkhardt (trumpet) and Dan Gottshall (trombone), who both deliver intricate, nuanced lines. The 10-minute track “Havana” illustrates Wilson’s ability to deftly handle the collective power of a big band while providing well-placed spots for improvised solos. The NDR Bigband (aka the Hamburg Radio Jazz Orchestra) will celebrate the release of this album with a concert at Brooklyn’s ShapeShifter Lab on May 15.
iTunes | Inarhyme Records Shop
BY FRANK ALKYER
Dafnis Prieto has an infectious dedication to the Afro-Cuban groove, and it’s on full display with his latest recording, Triangles And Circles. The album shimmers and swells with his heart-pounding drum work, but it’s wrapped by beautiful melodic structure and thoughtful compositions that draw from a broad musical ocean. On the title track, Prieto launches into a drum solo full of power, attack and nuance. The horn section slides into a fantastic voyage of inspired interplay where Felipe Lamoglia, Peter Apfelbaum and Mike Rodriguez—on alto, tenor and trumpet respectively—glide in, over and through the tune’s theme and into some very satisfying solo work. On “Flores,” the sextet sways through a tango-infused lilt with more inspired horn arrangements. Apfelbaum, whose ability and range never ceases to amaze, plays melodica to give a bandoneon feel to the piece, and bassist Johannes Weidenmueller delivers a terrific, soulful solo. The highlight of the album is “Two For One,” a clave-driven burner that shows off the skills of each member of the sextet as well as Prieto’s inspired compositional approach. The piece drips with machismo, attitude and confidence. Apfelbaum, Rodriguez, pianist Manuel Valera and Prieto all deliver killer solos, but not at the expense of the grand vision of the song. That’s the magic of Prieto: He has the ability to offer compositions and arrangements that are distinctly him, but he craftily leaves room for pedal-to-the-metal improvisation from a truly great band.
CDBaby | Amazon
BY BOBBY REED
Guitarist Matthew Stevens has built a reputation as a dependable, creative sideman, thanks to his work with Walter Smith III, Harvey Mason and Christian Scott, with whom he recorded five albums. Now Stevens, who plays both acoustic and electric guitar, has released his debut as a leader, Woodwork, heading an impressive band that includes pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Vicente Archer, drummer Eric Doob and percussionist Paulo Stagnaro. Stevens is a cerebral composer who can craft dense arrangements with twisting, skittering lines emerging from numerous members of the band. All the songs on this 57-minute disc are original compositions except for an interpretation of David Bowie’s “Sunday.” The band’s dynamic version of “Sunday” feels organic, which isn’t surprising, considering that writing jazz arrangements for pop songs is the specialty of the Next Collective, a band that Stevens and Clayton are in and that released the 2013 album Cover Art. On his original compositions, Stevens incorporates a range of influences, including Americana and fusion flavors. There’s a density to his compositions that gives them an intellectual heft, but the mood is lightened thanks to the fluidity of the solo segments, including Clayton’s fiery, improvised lines on “Grown Ups.” Stevens can write a memorable melody, as he does on the title track, which melds an accessible theme with unpredictable, intricate solos. A digital version of Woodwork that was mastered for iTunes is available now, and the physical version is scheduled for release on May 26.
BY FRANK ALKYER
The live album Wild Man Dance marks Charles Lloyd’s return to Blue Note Records after 30 years, and it is nothing short of extraordinary. Commissioned for the 10th anniversary of the Jazztopad festival in Wroclaw, Poland, this program (recorded at the fest in 2013) washes over the listener as a beautiful, six-part suite. Lloyd approaches music as a deeply spiritual journey. The resulting suite is broad and majestic, quiet and personal, exotic yet familiar. The first movement, “Flying Over The Odra Valley,” beckons like a call for prayer. Lloyd’s tenor wails and howls, forecasting something special. The second movement, “Gardner,” evokes the romanticism of simplicity. Gerald Clayton’s lush piano work is fantastic. Lloyd has a long history of working with—and bringing out the best in—some of the most influential pianists of our time, including Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Michel Petrucciani, Brad Mehldau, Geri Allen and Jason Moran. Clayton proves to be a worthy addition to this lineage. The third movement, “Lark,” features Greek lyra player Sokratis Sinopoulos. It is a hauntingly lovely piece. In Sinopoulos’ hands, the lyra (a stringed instrument that is bowed) delivers a spellbinding, otherworldly sound. “River,” the fourth movement, serves as the perfect illustration of the beauty of Lloyd the composer. He has the ability to translate the feel and flow of a river into music. You can almost see the twists, turns and power of the roaring waters. This is a hard-core blues, which makes perfect sense. Lloyd says, “I am a blues man on a spiritual journey.” And his blues were born on the river in Bluff City, Missouri. But Lloyd is also a yogi of the blues. He knows that it’s found in every corner of the world, which makes the addition of Hungarian musician Miklós Lukács, a master of a hammered stringed instrument called the cimbalom, an inspired selection. The fifth movement, “Invitation,” begins with beautiful interplay between Sinopoulos and bassist Joe Sanders bowing his instrument while Clayton and drummer Gerald Cleaver add layers of beautiful color and texture. When Lloyd’s tenor comes in, he tells a story of love and loss, of beauty and the blues. It’s the perfect precursor to the suite’s final movement, “Wild Man Dance.” It begins with a shining touch of blues, washed in meditation and swaddled in calm, quiet and hope. Clayton displays his classically informed touch, but then it dives into an ambitious up-tempo swell driven by Cleaver’s beat. Lukács and Sinopoulos deliver praiseworthy solos. Lloyd then brings the proceedings to a wild crescendo. And when it’s finished, you can almost see the standing ovation.
iTunes | Amazon
BY FRANK ALKYER
Don’t be deceived by the title of trombonist Christian Muthspiel and bassist Steve Swallow’s new album, Simple Songs. It doesn’t mean the compositions are easy; sometimes simplicity is the most difficult thing to get right. This album presents a series of terrific duets in which two very accomplished artists attempt to strip down music to its most basic elements. They avoid overdubbing, looping and effects to focus on the purity of the songs—with great success. Muthspiel and Swallow have such terrific rapport—one picks up the melody where the other leaves off, one slides out of the bass pattern and the other naturally slides in—that it’s almost as if they’re finishing sentences for each other. Sometimes the music is sad and remorseful, like “Pa De Deux Tranquille.” Sometimes it’s silly, like “Viennese Garden.” They do lovely justice to Werner Pirchner’s “Himmelblau,” the only song that wasn’t specifically written for this 11-song set. Muthspiel is terrific on trombone with just the right mix of beautiful intonation and appropriately placed slur. Swallow’s bass oozes pure joy. And the two seem to really enjoy a good inside joke, too, such as Muthspiel’s toy piano playing on “Let My Children Waltz.” It’s fantastically fun. So, too, is “Mein! Yours?”—a play on Franz Schubert’s “Mein!” Swallow’s bass leads the melody with Muthspiel on piano to create a truly transcendent duet. “Is The Moon Still Blue?” shows off both artists’ mad blues chops. The final track, “Hymn To Health,” is simply beautiful, overflowing with hope. On Simple Songs, Muthspiel and Swallow admirably demonstrate the beauty and perfection that the art of the duet can offer.