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DownBeat Editors‘ Picks

Editors’ Picks
May 2016

Cyrus Chestnut, Natural Essence (HighNote)
A consummate trio pianist whose stylistic umbra incorporates blues, bop and beyond, Cyrus Chestnut delivers a strong performance with Natural Essence, an album noteworthy for both its infectious groove-making and sweeping balladic beauty. Chestnut, who grew up playing organ in the church, keeps an ember of gospel burning throughout much of the music on this nine-track disc. That ember is often stoked into flames by the gusty encouragement of his bandmates: the articulate drummer Lenny White and the eternally solid bassist Buster Williams. Part of the joy in listening to this music is hearing Chestnut and his crew animate familiar standards with a fresh, soul-inspired life-force. They carve a deep, r&b-flavored groove into the Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen classic “It Could Happen To You,” and later add a shiny swing veneer to Rodgers and Hart’s “My Romance.” Even the ballad “Dedication,” a crystalline composition by White, unfolds with a sacred dignity, its elegant melodic lines unfolding with the deliberate momentum of a sermon. Bookending the set are a pair of deep tracks by two acclaimed hard-bop standard-bearers: Joe Henderson, whose “Mamacita” kicks things off with a vivacious Latin flair, and Gigi Gryce, whose “Mintority” brings the album to a roiling close.


JD Allen, Americana: Musings On Jazz And Blues (Savant)
JD Allen has always played deep, soulful music. But on his latest album, Americana: Musings On Jazz And Blues , he demonstrates his ocean-deep and abiding love for the blues. From the opening riffs of “Tell The Truth, Shame On The Devil,” Allen delves into the core of American music. No muss, no fuss—this is just a gut-busting, full-on blues assault. With Greg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums, this is a powerful, stripped-down unit where there’s plenty of room for all three artists to explore the foundation. On the standard “Another Man Done Gone,” Allen wails and moans on tenor sax. August digs deep with a beautiful bass solo, and Royston dances like a hummingbird over the snare and cymbals. “What is the blues and how is it connected to jazz?” Allen asks in the liner notes. His answer is delivered through great improvisations, including solos on the original “Sugar Free,” an uptempo, swinging number, and “Americana,” a brooding, grave blues. Toward the end of this nine-song program, Allen delves into saxophonist Bill McHenry’s “If You’re Lonesome, Then You’re Not Alone,” the one tune that doesn’t follow the classic I-IV-V-I blues form (as noted by Steve Futterman in the liner notes). But this, too, makes perfect sense in Allen’s blues spectrum. “In my opinion, the blues is the gateway to the past and the future of American music; the well from which gospel, jazz, rock, country, rhythm & blues and hip-hop are drawn,” Allen said. The bottom line: Allen’s blues will have you tapping your toes and thinking at the same time. It’s a rare and wonderful recording.


Marcus Strickland, Nihil Novi
(Blue Note)

Saxophonist and composer Marcus Strickland takes the title for his latest album from the Latin expression nihil novi sub sole, which can be translated as “nothing new under the sun.” The album is his statement of rhythm, soul, hip-hop and jazz that borrows from the ancient to the now, but is presented from Strickland’s open, honest and heartfelt viewpoint. Produced by Meshell Ndegeocello, Nihil Novi takes a journey through music that bends and breaks categorization. The record is shaped by Strickland’s love of beat-making, with its chill, laid-back melding of rhythm, sonic layering and melody. There are tunes like “Sissoko’s Voyage” that nod to the beats and melodies of Africa, and others like “Cycle,” “Celestelude” and “Mirrors” that sink into your soul and make a home. “Talking Loud” and “Alive” seem ready-made for urban radio, featuring the fine vocals of Jean Baylor, whose direct, cool vibe works well with the beats and rhythm-driven horn work. Musically, Strickland’s band, Twi-Life, hits a fine balance with trumpeter Keyon Harrold, bassist Kyle Miles, drummer Charles Haynes, organist Mitch Henry and keyboardist Masayuki Hirano. The music features guest spots by bassists Pino Palladino and Ndegeocello, keyboardists Robert Glasper and James Francies, drummer Chris Dave and guitarist Chris Bruce. Some of the record’s coolest moments are short musical interludes like “Cherish Family,” Strickland’s homage to his father’s influence, and “Mingus,” a nod to the master bassist and composer. The latter is followed by “Truth,” featuring beautiful soprano saxophone work by Strickland. The tune features the voice of Strickland repeating, “The thing that drives me the most is the pursuit of my truth. The most honest representation of who I am.” On Nihil Novi, he delivers a slice of that truth. And it makes for a great album, perfect for a summer’s day.


Camille Bertault, En Vie (Sunnyside)
Like many Stateside jazz listeners, I first heard French vocalist Camille Bertault on YouTube, thanks to videos of her scatting along to solos she had transcribed, such as John Coltrane’s iconic romp on “Giant Steps” or Cory Henry’s improvised keyboard lines on Snarky Puppy’s “Lingus.” Some of these clips were dazzling displays of vocal dexterity, which raised the bar on expectations for her Sunnyside debut, En Vie. Bertault does not disappoint. Whether she’s singing in French or unleashing remarkable streams of improvised, wordless vocals, Bertault enjoys empathetic accompaniment here. The nimble trio supporting her consists of bassist Gildas Boclé, drummer Antoine Paganotti and pianist Olivier Hutman, whose light touch is elegant yet authoritative. Bertault wrote lyrics for the Wayne Shorter composition “Infant Eyes,” and in her version there’s a segment in which her voice resembles a horn. Her singing momentarily mimics a drum on the album’s title track, while “Tatie Cardy” has a vocal segment that sounds like a tape player on fast-forward. Another original tune, “Course,” features four overdubbed vocal tracks, with splendid harmonic results. This album of six originals and four interpretations shows that Bertault is more than merely a sly vocal gymnast; she’s a fine composer and a singer who carefully coaxes the emotional impact out of a melody. A highlight of the album is the Jimmy Rowles composition “The Peacocks”—a tune that has been recorded by John McLaughlin and Esperanza Spalding—rendered here as “Cette Nuit,” with Bertault’s original lyrics. It’s a performance that showcases her admirable vocal range, scatting skills and ability to interweave melodic lines with supple instrumentation.


Hiromi, Spark (Telarc)
For some jazz critics and listeners, fusion is a dirty word. But the term is applicable to the dynamic music created by pianist Hiromi Uehara. “Other people can put a name on what I do,” Hiromi says. “It has some elements of classical music, it has some rock, it has some jazz, but I don’t want to give it a name.” For the past five years, Hiromi has recorded and toured the world in a trio with contrabass guitarist Anthony Jackson (Paul Simon, Steely Dan) and drummer Simon Phillips (Jeff Beck, Joe Satriani, The Who). In her trio’s intricate music, the fusion elements that make it appealing to, say, a prog-rock fan, are the very things that make it distasteful to some jazz critics (e.g. Phillips’ aggressive style of drumming, which can resemble rumbling thunder). Hiromi has built a tremendous rapport with these bandmates and she composes with their individual styles in mind. Her music has long been driven by uptempo, muscular propulsion, which is plentiful on Spark, but the album also incorporates elements one may not automatically associate with this trio. Latin rhythms influenced the shape of “In A Trance” and “Wonderland,” while “All’s Well” and “What Will Be, Will Be” are peppered with bits of musical humor—and there’s even a hint of the blues on the latter track. Amid all the dense arrangements and powerful, pounding rhythms in the program, Hiromi conjures a different mood with the solo track “Wake Up And Dream.” It’s a contemplative, nine-minute tune that illustrates her mastery of slower tempos and idyllic lines. Everyone knows that Hiromi can run like a cheetah, but on this tune she embodies the grace of a swan.

Amazon | iTunes

Theo Croker, Escape Velocity (OKeh/Masterworks)
There are a few things you need to know about Theo Croker. He’s a 30-year-old trumpeter/composer/arranger out of Leesburg, Florida. He is the grandson of the late, great trumpet legend Doc Cheatham. He studied at Oberlin College’s music conservatory. He lived in China for a number of years before returning to the U.S. in 2013. He thinks big. He thinks differently. And, as demonstrated on Escape Velocity, his second album for the OKeh label, he is a product of the here and now. This recording has groove. This recording has production. This recording has ambition to burn. Take the tune “Transcend.” It’s 3 minutes and 53 seconds of dance floor-worthy groove fueled by Eric Wheeler on bass and Kassa Overall on drums with some slammin’ good horn lines by Croker, Irwin Hall on alto saxophone and Anthony Ware on bari. “This Could Be (For The Traveling Soul)” kicks that groove into a high-speed head-bopper that glides to a sudden stop. There’s an urgent coolness to these proceedings, as if Croker and company are playing for their lives, but doing so at their own sweet pace, as witnessed on tunes like “No Escape From Bliss,” “A Call To The Ancestors” and “It’s Gonna Be Alright.” The trumpeter also has arena-sized musical vision, as evidenced by the great jazz-rock anthem “Because Of You,” which is my favorite tune on this amazing 15-track set. And there’s one more thing you need to know about Theo Croker. The great jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater has been his mentor for the better part of a decade. She produced Afro Physicist, his 2014 debut on OKeh, as well as Escape Velocity. And she sits in for a guest vocal on the shimmering jam “Love From The Sun” (which Bridgewater recorded in 1974). Croker overlays a live recording that he played on with Bridgewater onto a new studio performance. It’s a very cool effect. All of this adds up to one thing: Escape Velocity is an amazing album of poise, power and ambition. Croker is an incredibly talented artist we will be listening to for a very long time.

Amazon | iTunes

Dave King Trucking Company, Surrounded By The Night

Complex simplicity—the notion that difficult musical concepts can be made to sound easy, even inevitable—has been a key ingredient of drummer Dave King’s music since his early days in the trio The Bad Plus, which he co-founded in 2000. The Dave King Trucking Company is his primary leader vehicle, and this iteration features the inimitable talents of guitarist Erik Fratzke, bassist Chris Morrisey and saxophonists Chris Speed and Brandon Wozniak. Surrounded By The Night is the group’s third album, its title perhaps a wink to King’s sprawling, ethereal aesthetic sense. Take “Delta Kreme,” the album’s opening track, which begins with a gentle descending phrase that Speed and Wozniak play with tender restraint, as if watching their own breath in the cold. It undergoes various changes in rhythm and key-center as the song sails forward, and while the transformation is subtle, it is undeniably hypnotic. “Don’t Be Suspect Of A Gift” triggers a no less visceral reaction, sounding brash and yearning—like an early ’60s rock tune—but with an icy strain of modal bop laced through. On the surface, King’s compositions are impressive for their structural magnitude—a song like “Parallel Sister Track” astonishes with its metric ingenuity—but like snowflakes and changing leaves, their beauty is of a natural and organic sort. Despite their technical exterior, these songs make for a lovely, accessible program.

Amazon | iTunes

Michael Dease, Father Figure
Michael Dease is an inventive trombonist with an athletically tuneful sound and a predilection for bringing his instrument’s voice to the fore. Having built the foundation of his career as a section player in bands led by Christian McBride and Roy Hargrove, he has now become a preeminent leader in his own right. Within his preferred artistic setting—the bop-oriented small group—he has recorded a number of fine recordings for Posi-Tone. Father Figure, his latest for the label, is as poignant a statement as he’s ever made. The album places Dease in the dignified role of jazz elder amid a crew of young and hungry jazz musicians: saxophonists Immanuel Wilkins and Markus Howell (who split lead duties on alternating tracks), drummer Luther Allison, bassist Endea Owens, vibraphonist Behn Gillece and pianist Glenn Zaleski, who appeared on Dease’s previous album, Decisions, and who exudes an almost telepathic bond with the trombonist. The two share the spotlight on an exceptionally swinging version of “Marian The Librarian,” and create swaths of dreamy magic on “Brooklyn.” And while Dease’s limber, flickering bop lines are an undeniable attraction (check the machine-gun tonguing on “Riff Raff”), it’s his ability to shape a group dynamic that really makes an impression. On group jams like “Church Of The Good Hustle” and Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation,” he blazes a trail that his young acolytes seem all too happy to follow.

Steve Smith/Tony Monaco/Vinny Valentino, Groove: Blue
(Q-rious Music)
Just like a comic book superhero, this album has a fascinating, unlikely origin story. In March 2011, drummer Steve Smith and guitarist Vinny Valentino (both of the band Vital Information) played at the Java Jazz Festival in Jakarta, Indonesia. After their gig, they walked past a bar lounge and heard someone wailing on a Hammond B-3 organ. They ventured closer to the stage, and that’s where they met organist Tony Monaco. They proceeded to jam with him alongside other stars from the festival (including George Benson and Roy Hargrove). Five months later, following their commitments at a drum camp in Cleveland, Smith and Valentino decided to drive to Monaco’s home in Columbus, Ohio. The trio recorded some tracks in Monaco’s studio. Now, five years later, the music is widely available on the aptly titled Groove: Blue. This album presents the sound of world-class musicians feeling no pressure—just the joy of making music with friends. Greatly influenced by organ trio albums from the 1960s, Smith, Monaco and Valentino groove their way through five original compositions and four standards: “Cherokee,” “On Green Dolphin Street,” “It’s Only A Paper Moon” and “That’s All.” Although Smith is the most famous member of the trio—thanks to his work with various groups, including rock band Journey—he yields the spotlight to his bandmates on this disc. Valentino’s fluid fretwork brings a Pat Martino-like intensity to his original composition “Bugalulu,” and Monaco’s playing alternates between simmering heat and scorching fire throughout the smile-inducing program. The organist’s tune “Indonesian Nights” features a slinky groove, and its title makes this listener think about the trio’s origins. So the next time you’re at a jazz festival, be sure to swing by the late-night hang. You never know who’ll show up.





Steve Webster—EC Barlow

Jody Jazz






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