BY BRIAN ZIMMERMAN
At 28 years old, pianist Sullivan Fortner is no stranger to accolades. He won his earliest—a Cox Cable “Amazing Kids Award”—at age 11, just four years after he began playing piano in his native New Orleans. His profile has only risen from there. He holds degrees from both Oberlin College and the Manhattan School of Music, and has toured with Roy Hargrove, Christian Scott and Stefon Harris. But perhaps his biggest accomplishment to date came this past March, when he won the 2015 Cole Porter Fellowship In Jazz, presented by the American Pianists Association. With Aria, his major label debut, Sullivan makes a solid case for why he’s deserving of such acclaim. Whether playing standards or originals, Sullivan favors a gentle, feathery touch, and a number of the songs on this album carry a light, suspended quality as a result. The title track, which opens the record, floats on a current of shimmering piano rolls from Fortner and flickering cymbal rhythms from drummer Joe Dyson Jr. The follow-up “Ballade,” an album highlight, conveys a similarly buoyant feel, and features a dreamy solo by Fortner in the middle register and a lovely, almost whispered melody by tenor saxophonist by Tivon Pennicott. Things get knottier on Monk’s “I Mean You,” with Aidan Carroll laying down a thick, rumbling bass line and Fortner mashing chords on the piano. But even through the dissonance, Fortner maintains his refinement and poise. The group takes a Picasso-esque approach to the standard “All The Things You Are,” clipping and rearranging rhythms, but then drives the melody into a sweltering Latin solo section to round things out. The album closes with “Finale,” an amalgam of Fortner’s styles and abilities. It begins with the pianist unaccompanied, playing a twinkling passage in the upper register, and quickly takes the listener through soaring second-line rhythms, a thunderous bass passage and, of course, more nimble-fingered soloing from Fortner. For a musician who has already accomplished so much, Fortner seems poised to make an even bigger name for himself in the near future. Aria is as good a start as ever.
iTunes | Amazon
BY BRIAN ZIMMERMAN
In the thick of a bass solo on “Descarga Entre Amigos,” the third track on bassist Carlos Henriquez’s debut album, The Bronx Pyramid, guest vocalist Rubén Blades whispers a faint command into the microphone: “Habla, Carlitos.” In the grand scheme of things, it is a small moment, so hazy and distant that it practically disappears into the background. But on another level, it represents the album as a whole. Since 1998—shortly after receiving his high school diploma—Henriquez has played bass in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. His role there is supportive but essential, like the roots beneath a tree. But with The Bronx Pyramid, Henriquez pushes his voice to the fore, and what he has to say is powerful. The influence of the JLCO—and its director, Wynton Marsalis—is evident in the album’s trenchant grooves and graceful melodies. The title track works its way under the skin through a cool and contagious bass line, over which Michael Rodriguez’s trumpet statement tiptoes catlike from chord to chord. The ballad “Joshua’s Dream” offers a sweet, lilting refrain by tenor saxophonist Felipe Lamoglia that is both heartfelt and heart-aching. Throughout, Henriquez never loses sight of the more danceable aspects of the Puerto Rican music he grew up listening to in his native Bronx, and on “Chuchifrito,” he crafts a lively bass solo that will undoubtedly get hips swaying. Over the course of his career, Henriquez has provided reliable support for such Latin jazz stalwarts as Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri and Celia Cruz. But it is a real pleasure to hear him front and center. This latest disc, the second release for the JLCO-affiliated label Blue Engine, proves why he is an emerging master in the Latin jazz idiom. Habla mas, Carlitos.
Amazon | iTunes
BY ED ENRIGHT
Invoking the concept of “zero gravity”—a fearless approach to interaction and orchestration that comes right out of the Wayne Shorter playbook—Danilo Pérez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade make their debut as a trio with profound things to say. The resulting album overflows with substance, which is no big surprise considering the abilities and accomplishments of these particular individuals (each is an experienced leader in his own right), not to mention the fact that they’ve played together for more than a decade as members of Shorter’s acclaimed quartet. Children Of The Light consists almost entirely of original compositions—seven by pianist/keyboardist Pérez, three by bassist Patitucci and one by drummer Blade—with a creative take on the Shorter composition “Dolores” incorporated into the program. Demonstrating a childlike sense of wonder, the trio members toy with forms and harmony, turning their own compositions inside-out with spontaneity and glee. They create complex tonalities that calm the soul with illusions of vastness but keep the ear wondering what’s coming around the next bend. The group favors a transparent sound full of invention that seems to exist in its own world. The cosmic presence of Shorter is obvious on the track “Light Echo,” which is the trio’s way of acknowledging the saxophonist’s lasting influence. Pérez, Patitucci and Blade first worked together on the sessions for Pérez’s Motherland project in 2000, and their years spent with Shorter have raised them to a level where they function as a single organism. Children Of The Light (whose title is a play on “Children Of The Night,” from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ 1961 album Mosaic) shows us a flicker of what these three like-minded artists are capable of; let’s hope they lift us into even higher realms of illumination in the years to come.
Amazon | iTunes
Sidney Bechet, jazz’s grand master of the soprano saxophone, was born in New Orleans in 1897, just four years before Louis Armstrong. But while Armstrong’s name has been enshrined in jazz history, Bechet’s legacy, though widely respected, has collected some dust. With Bechet: Our Contemporary, New York saxophonist Rob Reddy hopes to bring much-deserved attention back to Bechet’s role as a jazz pioneer. Reddy, an avant-gardist known for his collaborations with Reggie Workman and Pheeroan akLaff, takes a progressive approach to this project, which consists of four Reddy originals and four arrangements of Bechet tunes. In both, Reddy’s aim is to underline the originality and adventurousness of the late reedist’s style. The effect is pleasantly disorienting. Reddy’s “Up-South” begins with a raucous brass band intro, which immediately transports the listener to the banks of the Mississippi, circa 1920. But just as quickly, Marvin Sewell’s crunchy, distorted guitar pushes through the mix, creating ripples in the illusion. Later, Bechet’s “Song Of The Medina”—originally a clomping, minor-keyed dirge—becomes a storm of avant-garde interplay, with trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and violinist Charles Burnham capturing the mood through long, sorrowful cries. “Erasing Statues,” a bluesy shuffle, features smeary, caterwauling motifs that stumble drunkenly behind the beat. It is so classically New Orleans, so infused with the sounds of the previous century, that it’s hard to believe it was written by Reddy. But that’s part of the genius of this album, which so efficiently obscures the boundary between old and new, traditional and modern. Often, Reddy’s compositions sound the most “old-fashioned,” while Bechet’s sound the most “cutting edge.” If there was ever a line between traditionalism and modernism, Reddy has done his best to erase it.
BandCamp | iTunes
BY BOBBY REED
Dee Dee Bridgewater and Irvin Mayfield are simpatico collaborators: Her voice can sound like a trumpet and his trumpet can sound like a voice. On the new album Dee Dee’s Feathers, the two musicians deliver engaging dialogues that deftly respond to each other’s moves while always remaining in service to a song’s arrangement. Bridgewater—a youthful, 65-year-old vocalist—and Mayfield—a bold, 37-year-old trumpeter and bandleader for the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, which is featured on this disc—come from different generations but they’re completely in step on this disc. Both musicians show their versatility on this 67-minute album, which celebrates the music and culture of Mayfield’s hometown, New Orleans. Mayfield can get bluesy and slurry with his muted trumpet work (as he does on a fine reading of Hoagy Carmichael’s “New Orleans”), or he can offer an unfettered, beautiful tone (as he does on his original composition “C’est Ici Que Je T’Aime”). Bridgewater’s scatting can add fireworks to a brass-band-flavored dance number like “Treme Song/Do Whatcha Wanna,” or she can deliver a gorgeous, flowing ballad, as illustrated by a heart-tugging rendition of the standard “Do You Know What It Means.” This album is completely infused with Crescent City culture, from the guest appearance by Dr. John on “Big Chief” to the brilliant version of Harry Connick Jr.’s “One Fine Thing” to the new original tune “Congo Square,” written by Bridgewater, Mayfield and famed percussionist Bill Summers. Bridgewater may not be a New Orleans native, but she sounds at home in the city’s music. (Bridgewater, Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra will perform a “New Orleans Masquerade” show at the Apollo Theater in New York on Oct. 31.)
| Barnes & Noble
BY BOBBY REED
Singer Lizz Wright is not as famous as she should be. But her fantastic new album (and debut for Concord), Freedom & Surrender, will certainly and justifiably raise her profile. The reasons that Wright is not more well known might be due to her hard-to-categorize aesthetic, or the pace at which she releases albums. The new disc is her fifth leader project, and its predecessor—the gospel-flavored Fellowship—came out in 2010. One of the new album’s highlights is “Right Where You Are,” a rich, sensuous duet with Gregory Porter (who topped the Male Vocalist category in the 2015 DownBeat Critics Poll). Wright and Porter, who toured together in 2013, have a lot in common: Both are jazz singers with strong gospel and r&b backgrounds, and both are dynamic live performers who can win new fans with each performance on the jazz festival circuit. Like Porter, Wright is blessed with a mighty voice and tremendous control. Thanks to the unique quality of her smoky alto, she can make a song completely her own, as she does with a touching version of folk icon Nick Drake’s “River Man” and a slow, wonderfully creative arrangement of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody.” Freedom & Surrender represents a step forward for Wright as a composer: She had a hand in writing 10 of the 13 tracks, often collaborating with the album’s producer, Larry Klein, who’s known for his genre-blending production work with Herbie Hancock, Madeleine Peyroux and Billy Childs. Throughout the album, the instrumentation and arrangements cleverly showcase Wright’s mesmerizing vocals. The intricately constructed “Somewhere Down The Mystic” incorporates acoustic guitar, mandolin and bouzouki, while “The Game” weaves in a subtle Hammond B-3 and Wurlitzer organ. Wright offers a potent love anthem with “Surrender,” featuring her own gospel-influenced, multitracked backing vocals. This cohesive album—one of the finest of the year in any genre—will appeal to fans of the sophisticated pop of Shawn Colvin and Norah Jones.
BY ED ENRIGHT
Jon Irabagon’s latest album is his most straightahead outing since The Observer, his 2009 Concord debut, which came on the heels of his 2008 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition victory. That album featured the saxophonist, mostly on alto, fronting a rhythm section of veteran players Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid and Victor Lewis. This time around, Irabagon relies on longtime bandmates Luis Perdomo (piano), Yasushi Nakamura (bass) and Rudy Royston (drums) to provide the swinging grooves and team spirit that drive Behind The Sky. The all-original, 11-song program features Irabagon on tenor and soprano, with guest trumpeter/flugelhornist Tom Harrell on three tracks, in a mainstream setting that’s miles away from the avant-garde and experimental works for which the saxophonist is best known. Irabagon’s stated intention with Behind The Sky is to connect with listeners on an emotional level; the album focuses on a theme of grieving and explores various ways he has dealt with the recent loss of certain loved ones and mentors (including the late Kenny Wheeler). This is not a mournful album, however. Granted, it has its share of reflective moments, but Behind The Sky is replete with uplifting melodies, hard-driving swing and smile-inducing group interaction. Harrell sounds as lyrical and pensive as ever: Listen to how gracefully his flugel dances with Irabagon’s tenor on “Obelisk” as the two thoughtfully explore the contours of the composition—in harmony, dissonance and unison—before launching into an unexpected two-horn improvisation that eventually leads back to the theme. With Behind The Sky, Irabagon isn’t so much holding back as he is playing to existing strengths that might otherwise be neglected as his “outside” inclinations continue to develop and inform his body of work. The more daring, experimental side of Irabagon is prominently displayed on Inaction Is An Action (Irabbagast), a simultaneous solo release that documents his bold explorations on the tiny sopranino saxophone. Reminiscent of Sam Newsome’s brilliant solo soprano saxophone CDs, Inaction Is An Action exposes the wide sonic potential the sopranino offers, including the use of radical extended techniques (e.g., microtones, multiphonics, percussive sounds, overblowing, vocalizations). The dual release of Behind The Sky and Inaction Is An Action shows many facets of this wide-ranging, groundbreaking saxophonist and confirms him as one of the more important composers and improvisers of our time.
BY BOBBY REED
Shemekia Copeland examines both the dark and bright sides of life on her new album, Outskirts Of Love. Belting out tunes with one of the most commanding voices in blues today, she addresses the harsh realities of life (commenting on homelessness in “Cardboard Box”) and conveys the hopeful message of gospel music (offering a prayer in “Lord, Help The Poor And Needy”). Guitarist Oliver Wood of The Wood Brothers produced the album, which is muscular and focused, yet still makes room for guest artists Robert Randolph, Alvin Youngblood Hart and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons—all of whom make terrific contributions to one song apiece. As the daughter of blues guitarist Johnny Copeland (1937–’97), Shemekia is steeped in the history of the genre, and here she offers strong renditions of her father’s tune “Devil’s Hand” as well as “Wrapped Up In Love Again,” written by the great bluesman Albert King (1923–’92). A willingness to explore Americana adds intriguing texture to the album, as she lambastes sleazy record executives on the country-tinged “Drivin’ Out Of Nashville” and crafts a poignant, powerful version of John Fogerty’s “Long As I Can See The Light” (which was released as the B-side of a Creedence Clearwater Revival single in 1970). She also puts her own remarkable stamp on ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago” with Gibbons spicing things up with a guitar solo that embodies his less-is-more ethos, both in terms of tempo and number of notes. This disc, which marks Copeland’s return to Alligator—the label for which she recorded four albums between 1998 and 2005—is one of the best of her still-ascending career. (To read review of a recent concert by Shemekia Copeland, click here.)
By ED ENRIGHT
Duke Robillard concentrates on true pioneers of American music from the 1920s through the ’40s on this collection of “roots” music—blues, trad jazz, Appalachian music, country, swing, r&b and early rock—the very stuff that has informed his work as a performing artist and producer for five decades. The vocalist and master of multiple stringed instruments (he plays period-appropriate acoustic guitars, dobro guitar, mandolin, tenor harp, ukulele and cumbus here) surveys 13 good-old good ones by the likes of Stephen Foster, Jimmie Rodgers, the Delmore Brothers, W.C. Handy, Hank Williams, Big Bill Broonzy, Sleepy John Estes, Robert Lockwood and others, as well as four of his own originals and the timeless-sounding “Evangeline” by Robbie Robertson. And it’s all done in earnest, in an all-acoustic environment. Old-time instruments, old-school tunings and Americana-minded musicians—Mary Flower on acoustic fingerstyle and lap slide guitars and vocals, acoustic bassists Marty Ballou and John Packer, pianist Matt McCabe, drummers Mark Teixeira and Marty Richards, clarinetist Billy Novick, Doug James on baritone saxophone and harmonica, tenor saxophonist Dave Babcock, Jon Ross on mandolin, Russell Gusetti on concertina and the Providence Mandolin Orchestra—lend an air of authenticity to the tracks, which resonate with unadulterated honesty. Robillard called on several special guests for this special outing (he notes in the liners that it was 10 years in the making), including vocalists Maria Muldaur and Sunny Crownover, one-time Muddy Waters harmonicist Jerry Portnoy and the since-deceased Kansas City piano legend Jay McShann. Given his extensive experience as a bandmember (of Roomful of Blues, Fabulous Thunderbirds), bandleader, songwriter and producer, not to mention his keen interest in all things blues, roots and jazz, Robillard serves as a living link from some of the most influential artists and composers of America’s pre-World War II past to the present day. And it’s all covered here. You’ve heard of the Great American Songbook? You can call this the Great Americana Songbook.