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DownBeat Editors‘ Picks

Editors’ Picks
July 2016

Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble, Havana Blue (316 Records)
This contemporary take on Afro-Caribbean music began as a collaboration between trumpeter-composer Orbert Davis and choreographer Frank Chavez, and it took on a life of its own once the principals set the wheels in motion. Inspired to create a live presentation of music and dance that explored their African and Cuban roots, Davis, artistic director of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, and Chavez, artistic director of River North Dance Chicago, went on an exploratory trip to Havana, where they spent nine days in 2012 soaking up the local culture. The resulting seven-movement Havana Blue Suite premiered at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater in 2013 as part of the Music + Movement Festival, with Davis’ 19-piece Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble accompanying the dancers. A live recording of that performance, which vividly brought Cuba’s rich cultural history to life, is presented as the opening seven tracks of the album (the final four tracks were captured in the recording studio). The music—mostly written and arranged by Davis, with the exception of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca,” Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Chega De Saudade” and Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona’s “Al Fine Te Vi”—rings with an emotional resonance that reflects Davis’ firsthand experiences in modern Cuban society. His trumpet and flugelhorn solos are lyrical and passionate, bolstered by the support of his flexible and skilled ensemble. Other soloists of note include Steve Eisen, who takes several compelling rides on flute and tenor saxophone; pianist/keyboardist Leandro Lopez Varady, who sounds great on Fender Rhodes; trombonist Tracy Kirk, who draws upon an inner fire; and tenor saxophonist Michael Salter, always tasteful and fluent in the language of Latin jazz. The chamber group expertly merges elements of jazz and classical styles with Afro-Caribbean rhythms, dreamily drifting on a bed of strings one minute, slamming it big-band style the next. The effects of this project have been far-ranging, perhaps more so than originally intended. In December 2014, more than a year after the live premiere of Havana Blue Suite, Davis brought members of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic to Cuba for an educational residency at the Universidad de las Artes that just so happened to coincide with the U.S. government’s announcement to begin normalizing relations with the island nation. A film crew from the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes captured the musicians in action—mentoring local students—and featured them on the following weekend’s broadcast, essentially turning Davis and company into cultural ambassadors and instantly cementing the bandleader’s relationship with the people of Cuba. That historic visit also provided the source of the album’s artwork, which includes beautiful photographs shot on location by Zoe Davis.

3Sixteen Store | Chicago Jazz Philharmonic

Reggie Watkins, Avid Admirer: The Jimmy Knepper Project (BYNK Records)
Avid Admirer: The Jimmy Knepper Project is straightforward in its ambition and straightahead in its execution. Pittsburgh-based Reggie Watkins is a longtime admirer of fellow trombonist Jimmy Knepper (1927–2003), who played with some of the most notable jazz ensembles of the 20th century and was particularly well known for his work as an instrumentalist and arranger with Charles Mingus. Watkins and Knepper had met once at a Maynard Ferguson concert, and their families got to know each other somewhat through a church connection in Watkins’ hometown of Wheeling, West Virginia. So, when Knepper’s widow died in 2014, their daughter donated her late father’s Bach Stradivarius trombone to Watkins, knowing he would give the instrument a voice once more. That’s exactly what he does on his third album as a leader, a quintet outing that explores eight of Knepper’s original compositions plus a Gordon Jenkins ballad that Knepper was fond of playing. Tracks include the swinging blues “Avid Admirer,” the Arabesque “Idol Of The Flies” and the shuffle-grooving “Ogling Ogre,” all from a 1957 album by Knepper with pianist Bill Evans; “Figment Fragment,” Knepper’s contrafact on the swing era anthem “Stompin’ At The Savoy”; the complexly metered “Cunningbird,” from a 1976 Knepper album; the bossa nova ballad “Noche Triste”; “In The Interim” and “Goodbye,” both from Knepper’s 1986 album Dream Dancing; and “Primrose Path,” originally recorded in 1958 by Knepper and baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams. Watkins is joined on Avid Amirer by a team of ace New Yorkers that includes tenor and soprano saxophonist Matt Paker, who heads the BYNK label and served as co-producer; pianists Orrin Evans (tracks 1–6) and Tuomo Uusitalo (tracks 7–9); bassist Steve Whipple; and drummer Reggie Quinerly. Known in jazz and commercial realms for his well-rounded, soulful tone and an impressive range, Watkins doesn’t attempt to emulate Knepper’s sound—that was definitely not the point here. Rather, Watkins recorded Avid Amirer out of sheer admiration, and it’s his own personal enjoyment that comes across most clearly.

Reggie Watkins Music

Wolfgang Schalk, From Here To There (Frame Up)
Wolfgang Schalk is a guitarist’s guitarist. The six-string superfans who eagerly scoop up albums by Pat Metheny, Al Di Meola or Gilad Hekselman will feel right at home digging into Schalk’s seventh leader disc, From Here To There. The Austrian guitarist is known to many Stateside jazz fans for 1996’s The Second Third Man, an album that featured saxophonist Michael Brecker and later was remixed for a 2013 reissue. On his latest outing, Schalk demonstrates an admirable versatility while remaining firmly grounded in jazz. He opens the program with lovely finger-picking on nylon-string guitar for the meditative tune “Zensibility.” Elsewhere, armed with his electric axe, Schalk strides down intriguing musical paths informed by straightahead jazz (“The Now Catcher”) and bossa nova (“Starlit”). For this project, he surrounded himself with a quartet of superb players: pianist Andy Langham, bassist Carlitos Del Puerto and drummer Clarence Penn. The band shifts into a highly kinetic mode on “Wow Wow What?,” a high-hurdle race that finds the leader and Langham pushing each other frantically forward with hypnotic torrents of notes. Schalk wrote all the tunes on this seven-track program, with the exception of his joyful, deeply creative interpretation of Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll.” No matter how frenetic or soothing his playing may become, Schalk always plays with a master improviser’s sense of quest.

iTunes | Amazon

Joe Policastro Trio, Pops (JeruJazz)
Before there was the Great American Songbook, there were simply great American songs. The tunes we now identify as jazz standards—so many of them composed by just a handful of scribes working from cramped offices on Tin Pan Alley—weren’t written with that lofty songbook in mind, but were instead created as popular songs, fodder for Broadway productions and Hollywood films from the 1920s and ’30s. Popular song continues to enrich the jazz canon, and on his latest disc, Pops, Chicago bassist Joe Policastro makes the case that such musical hybridity is worth celebrating. In doing so, Policastro and his trio with guitarist Dave Miller and drummer Mikel Avery join a growing assembly of artists who embrace pop experimentalism, including keyboardist Robert Glasper, whose 2015 album Covered (Blue Note) featured songs by Kendrick Lamar and John Legend, and vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, whose latest release, For One To Love (Mack Avenue), featured a dapper interpretation of Burt Bacharach’s “Wives And Lovers.” The Bacharach staple also makes an appearance on Policastro’s album, opening the program of 11 tunes with all the spunk and steamy intimacy of a mid-century cocktail party. (This is fitting, as the song is the album’s sole composition from the 1960s.) But it’s the subsequent decade—with its overtones of disco and funk—that contributes the bulk of the material to this disc. The trio spins Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin’,” (1974) into a sweet and breezy jazz bossa, and later injects The Bee Gees’ “More Than A Woman” (1977) with a shot of crisp, bracing energy, courtesy of guest guitarist Andy Brown’s sweeping lines. Elsewhere, the group unwinds Billy Paul’s “Me And Mrs. Jones” into a silken ballad and recasts Pink Floyd’s “Us And Them” as a spacey jazz-rock investigation. Policastro, co-leader of the Gerry Mulligan tribute bands Jeru and the Mulligan Mosaic Big Band/Nonet, is a melody-minded bassist who prioritizes group cohesion over individual displays of virtuosity. His solo on The Pixies’ “Wave Of Mutilation” best exemplifies his improvisational style, which bears the mark of solid, unadorned craftsmanship. The song, repainted with dark, nuanced colors, joins Prince’s “Condition Of The Heart” (part of a touching two-track homage to the late guitar maestro) and The Cars’ “Drive” as the album’s representatives from the 1980s. More recent fare includes a calm, understated cover of Tom Waits’ “Take It With Me” (1999) and a version of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” (1991) reconfigured as—what else—a Western swing tune.

Joe Policastro Website | iTunes

Kandace Springs, Soul Eyes (Blue Note)
Kandace Springs has music in her blood. The singer and keyboardist was practically destined to become a musician, following in the footsteps of her father, a well-regarded vocalist and bandleader in Nashville, and her grandfather, who was also a professional musician. On her impressive debut for Blue Note, Springs and producer Larry Klein have crafted a program that exploits the strengths of her smoky alto. On the title track—a terrific reading of the Mal Waldron standard “Soul Eyes”—Springs demonstrates a compelling vocal expressiveness throughout her range, particularly in her lower register. Toward the end of the track, as her lines gracefully intertwine with those of guest trumpeter Terence Blanchard, the result is potent and unforgettable. Two compositions by Jesse Harris (“Talk To Me” and “Neither Old Nor Young”) showcase Springs’ ability to meld the storytelling acumen of a folk troubadour with the sleek, sophisticated musicality of an r&b diva. Even more compelling are her renditions of two songs from Shelby Lynne’s 1999 breakthrough album, I Am Shelby Lynne (“Thought It Would Be Easier” and “Leavin’”), resulting in sultry balladry that mixes elements of jazz, r&b and soul. Throughout this tasteful album, Klein exercises great care not to clutter up the instrumentation with elements that would interfere with the glorious sound of Springs’ powerful pipes. The album concludes with “Rain Falling,” a gem that reveals Springs to be a formidable triple-threat as a vocalist, pianist and composer. Fans of well-crafted neo-soul will find much to enjoy on Soul Eyes.

iTunes | Amazon

Wolfert Brederode Trio, Black Ice (ECM)
In many ways, pianist Wolfert Brederode’s trio album Black Ice is a quintessential ECM album. All the elements are there, from the elegant packaging to the ultra-spare liner notes to the exquisite production by Manfred Eicher. There’s a reason that ECM and Eicher, respectively, have repeatedly topped the Record Label and Producer categories in the DownBeat Critics Poll (with each doing so again in 2016). This disc illustrates the power of the ECM aesthetic, which places a high value on atmosphere and the space between the notes while also eschewing any form of grandstanding. For this project, Brederode is joined by bassist Gulli Gudmundsson and drummer Jasper van Hulten, two players who developed their excellent rapport in trumpeter Eric Vloeimans’ band. When a pianist crafts a melodic line of shimmering beauty, as Brederode does on “Olive Tree,” Eicher wisely lets the line “breathe” in an unfettered setting. “Cocoon” begins with a heart-tugging solo piano segment, moves into a meditative trio section accented by cymbal washes, and then takes an intriguing twist with Gudmundsson’s yearning, intricate bass solo. The tune “Curtains” has a bright accessibility that makes it a great candidate for radio airplay, but all is not sweetness and light on this disc. The tune “Terminal,” which was inspired by the lonely feeling of trudging through an airport at night, exudes a creepy vibe, as though something foul will happen soon. Throughout this cohesive program, the spare arrangements allow each musician’s talents to shine. Toward the end of the album, the slightly harsh sonic elements in the short, variant renditions of “Bemani” and “Fall” remind the listener that even when one is strolling through a field of flowers, it’s important to be mindful of the occasional jagged stone.

Amazon | iTunes

Black Art Jazz Collective, Presented By The Side Door Jazz Club (Sunnyside)
The Black Art Jazz Collective is a powerhouse of contemporary jazz talent, counting many of today’s prominent sidemen and leaders among its ranks: saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, a reliable foil in Tom Harrell’s quintet; trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, leader of his own fiery fivesome; trombonist James Burton III, a veteran of the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Star Orchestra; pianist Xavier Davis, captain of a savvy trio; bassist Vicente Archer, the sturdy bass voice in Robert Glasper’s trio; and drummer Johnathan Blake, who for years has steered the rhythm section in Harrel’s group. On Presented By The Side Door Jazz Club, a live date at the titular Connecticut venue, the collective ventures through a program of eight songs inspired by icons of African American politics and culture. The sound centers around smart, carefully orchestrated hard-bop, full of dynamic rhythm section vamps and tightly coiled frontline melodies. The opening “Double Consciousness,” a tribute to author and civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois, positions the band as a highly engaged and collaborative unit, and features a spirited exchange between Pelt and Escoffery over a seismic bass line from Archer. Two songs about Barack Obama—“Awaiting Change” and “No Small Change”—paint different but equally revealing portraits of the first African American president of the United States. The former, with its locomotive swing and agile melody, conjures notions of dignity, pride and grace. The latter, a somber ballad, invokes a more introspective mood, a possible nod to our society’s continued struggle against racism and oppression. An air of reverence animates “Going Somewhere,” the group’s tribute to abolitionist Sojourner Truth, and solos by Pelt and Burton on this track are correspondingly inspired. On “The Shadower,” the group pays tribute to one of its own: saxophonist Joe Henderson. The song is a shape-shifting masterpiece, and the spirit of that late hard-bop master arouses in the instrumentalists some of their best solo work. Pelt, in particular, is electrifying. He stretches a single note over dozens of measures, morphing the sound of his horn in odd and intriguing ways. The live audience is appreciative, and the listener will be, too. This is art music that grooves.

Amazon | iTunes

Kris Allen, Beloved
(Truth Revolution)
Saxophonist Kris Allen’s second album as a leader shows that there’s plenty of room for originality, lyricism and sensitivity in modern jazz. The Connecticut native, who studied with Jackie McLean in Hartford and is currently artist-in-residence at Williams College in Massachusetts, dedicates many of the 10 original compositions on Beloved to loved ones and musical influencers whom he holds dear. Playing mainly alto (soprano on one track), Allen leads tenor saxophonist Frank Kozyra, bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Jonathan Barber—all close friends from the Hartford, Connecticut, scene—on a mysterious yet thoughtful excursion through mostly non-standard forms that are part scripted, part unscripted and 100 percent simpatico. With no pianist or guitarist on board, the chord changes to Allen’s compositions are often less than obvious, at times outright ambiguous, and the band is free to take great liberties with the harmony. The sax players are completely exposed, carrying tremendous weight with delicacy and grace. When they pair up on tight unison melodies, their combined timbre has an almost magical, transformative effect. When they split into harmony or counterpoint, the music takes on new depths of complexity and sophistication. The rhythm players are solid and self-assured, providing just enough pulse and syncopation, never overbearing. Everything flows in a way that sounds completely natural and invites repeat listens. Beloved is a work of art that aims to connect with the best aspects of human nature and suggests values of diversity and cooperation. All in all, it’s a tremendous success, and one of the better new releases to come out this year.

Marc Ribot & The Young Philadelphians, Live In Tokyo
Most bandleaders would be hard pressed to find common ground between the stormy avant-funk of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time band and the honeyed sounds of 1970s Philly r&b. But most bandleaders aren’t Marc Ribot, the scintillating guitarist at the helm of The Young Philadelphians. On his latest disc, Live In Tokyo, Ribot and a cohort of similarly left-leaning musical chameleons—Prime Time veterans Jamaaladeen Tacuma on bass and G. Calvin Weston on drums, plus Mary Halvorson on guitar—offer a hyper-kinetic program of seven covers that attempt to bridge the gap between “outside” sounds and “inside” soul. The songs they’ve chosen to interpret range from the Silver Convention’s 1970s disco hit “Fly, Robin, Fly,” to the Ohio Players soulful jam “Love Rollercoaster,” to Van McCoy’s timeless party track “The Hustle.” All are cast through Ribot’s genre-blurring musical kaleidoscope, and what emerges from the other side is a charmingly weird amalgam of sounds and structures. And so it happens that one finds Halvorson taking a wrenching, atonal solo over a syrupy violin refrain on “The Hustle” and Tacuma laying down a crunchy, effects-laden bass solo over the peppy chorus to “Love Rollercoaster.” Unconventional as these moments are, they imbue the album with an air of freshness and a spirit of broadmindedness. But if these songs appeal with their sheer eccentricity and spunk, others appeal with their sense of raw, primal energy. “Love Epidemic” fuses the naked enthusiasm of garage rock with the astral mysticism of David Bowie’s early music, and features Ribot in a rare singing role. The lush “Love TKO,” a song associated with soul crooner Teddy Pendergrass, captures the swanky luxuriousness of the original, but adds a sharp edge via skronking solos from both guitarists. Mostly brilliant—a little bizzare—this is a musical experiment gone right.






Jody Jazz


Greg Pasenko


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