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DownBeat Editors‘ Picks

Editors’ Picks

Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet The 21st Century Trad Band
(Basin Street Records)

As the album title The 21st Century Trad Band suggests, Jason Marsalis’ quartet mixes modern-day sounds with traditional ones. The title track includes a quote from the most traditional of tunes, “When The Saints Go Marching In,” while the song “BP Shakedown” begins with a recording of Rep. Joe Barton’s comments on the federal government’s response to the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Marsalis, who topped the category Rising Star–Vibraphone in the 2013 DownBeat Critics Poll, has surrounded himself with fantastic musicians: pianist Austin Johnson, bassist Will Goble and drummer David Potter. Some of the album’s tracks feature the so-called Discipline Ensemble—Marsalis on marimba, glockenspiel, tubular bells, vibraphone and xylophone—but this is truly a band effort. The quartet has fashioned a strong album with an appeal that extends beyond the thrill of hearing a master of the mallets at work. One section of “Ratio Man” shows just how killer this band can be as a trio (when Marsalis isn’t playing). Marsalis’ tune “Nights In Brooklyn,” which has the feel of a film-noir soundtrack, features Potter’s supple brushwork and Johnson’s gorgeous piano lines. This album showcases Marsalis’ command of the vibraphone’s melodic and percussive qualities, as well as the leader’s eagerness to share the spotlight with his fine collaborators. Marsalis’ tour dates include a concert at Indianapolis’ Jazz Kitchen on Nov. 16 and a residency at San Francisco’s SFJAZZ Center on Dec. 4–7.

iTunes | Basin Street Records

Kenny Barron & Dave Holland The Art Of Conversation (Impulse!)
They had me at the title: The Art Of Conversation. Two of the greatest musicians on earth getting together for a set of intimate ballads? C’mon, this was bound to be good. But it’s better than merely good. This is an unforgettable musical pairing. Barron wrote three beautiful tunes in this set, my favorite being the very fine “The Only One,” a cool tribute to Thelonious Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t.” Holland contributes four tunes, all of which are sensational. I was especially taken with “Waltz For Wheeler,” a tune dedicated to British trumpeter/flugelhornist Kenny Wheeler, who passed away on Sept. 18. Holland, who played often with Wheeler, has called him one of his musical inspirations. The set also includes three great standards—Monk’s “In Walked Bud,” Charlie Parker’s “Segment” and the Billy Strayhorn/Duke Ellington gem “Daydream,” which closes the set. What makes this album so special is how respectful each of these artists is to the process here. A good example is their work on Barron’s composition “Rain.” The pianist lays down an absolutely majestic harmonic bed for Holland’s melodic turns. “For me, it’s a harmony lesson every time I play with him or listen to what he does with chords and reharmonization of things,” Holland said about Barron in the liner notes. This is an album of great love and respect.

iTunes | Amazon

Charlie Haden & Jim Hall
Charlie Haden - Jim Hall
This live recording by two recently departed masters sat in the can for way too long before being released this fall on the revived Impulse! label. Now, listeners can finally feast on one of jazz’s classic duo performances: the historic meeting of bassist Charlie Haden and guitarist Jim Hall that took place at the Montreal Jazz Festival on July 2, 1990. It wasn’t their first or last time playing together, but this was without a doubt their most significant and memorable musical encounter—just the two of them onstage with their instruments for more than an hour. The two musicians had a lot in common: a high comfort level with all manner of jazz standards, a willingness to explore each other’s original material, a soft touch, a reputation for accessibility, the courage to make critical choices based on what they hear in the moment, and an underlying need to swing. All those qualities are illustrated by this transcendent set, which includes the standards “Bemsha Swing,” “Turnaround,” “Body And Soul” and “Skylark” as well as two compositions from Hall and two from Haden. These players inspire each other, seeking not only harmonic accord but also gentle dissonance—and sometimes clashing not so gently—for the sake of fun and sheer beauty. Haden’s bass sound is gutty and pliant, his pitches dead-on accurate and his attack articulate and deliberate. His time, in the absence of a drummer, is impeccable. Hall’s tone is crystal-clear, his guitar effects ranging from flat and clean to round and chorused, his melodic lines stated as strong single notes, split into octaves or riding atop chords voiced to conjure a virtual backing ensemble. They comp for each other selflessly and know how to stay out of each other’s way. These two musicians make virtuoso playing sound so easy and relaxed, it belies the high level of art spontaneously playing out onstage—the natural result of years of complete dedication to their instruments and to the music as a whole. This is an album for the ages.

iTunes | Amazon

Jon Batiste, Chad Smith &
Bill Laswell, The Process

(M.O.D. Technologies)
The Process is a musical experiment that could have gone very right, or very wrong. It came together when bassist and sonic explorer Bill Laswell invited Chad Smith, drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and keyboardist Jon Batiste, a New York musician steeped in the sounds of his hometown of New Orleans, into the studio to record—without a script. “I wanted to take a risk and be inspired by other musicians who feel the same,” Smith said, describing why he signed onto the project. “There was no music written before we got to the studio. Whatever comes into your head. Grab a rhythm and run with it.” So, the verdict? This is a terrific record, at times driving, at times atmospheric, at times simply touching. The goal was to take these fine musicians out of their respective comfort zones. Smith plays with world music zeal on “Drop Away.” Laswell has just as much fun playing with electronics as he does playing bass on “Haunted.” And Batiste digs into washes of synths and piano on three interludes titled “B1,” “B2” and “B3.” Everyone is playing a little differently than they do with their “day” gigs. This is one of those albums where you can see the artists just smiling their way through the set, enjoying the twists and turns along the way. “Timeline” has the feel of New Orleans grease, with Laswell and Smith laying down a serious rhythm for Batiste’s Hammond-fueled overdrive. “Spiral” and “Time Falls” have driving beats and attitude to match. And the final tune on the album, “The Drift,” is a great, spaced-out headphones experience. Let’s hope there’s a Process II.

M.O.D. Technologies | Special Edition LP

Lisa Mills, I’m Changing
(Mills Bluz Records)

Lisa Mills is a roots-music singer-songwriter whose soulful mix of blues, gospel, r&b and country would appeal to fans of Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams. Mills formerly toured with Big Brother & The Holding Company, singing Janis Joplin’s music, and one can hear the icon’s influence on Mills. But Mills’ songwriting and vocal range give her a distinct identity. The liner notes to her new album, I’m Changing, state that the project began as a “re-recorded, re-engineered, reconsidered take on her 2005 album of the same name.” The 2014 version contains some brand-new recordings as well as hybrid tracks that use her 2005 vocals. On the technical side, the top-notch production, mastering and mixing give this album a cohesive feel. The a cappella original “Tell Me” and an interpretation of Reverend Robert Wilkins’ “I Wish I Was In Heaven Sittin’ Down” are powerhouse gospel numbers, while Mills’ “I Don’t Want To Be Happy” uses religious imagery to examine a troubled relationship: “Act a fool, that’s all I ever do/ Take each lie you make and believe it to be true/ And I kneel at the altar in the church of the painful truth/ I don’t want to be happy/ I just want to be with you.” Pat Murphy’s fiddle augments the poignancy of the title track, and T.K. Lively’s drum rolls add to the emotional impact of “The Truth.” Some blues belters sacrifice nuance for gusto, but that’s not the case with Mills, who can grab the listener’s attention with a robust shout or a subtle, gently delivered phrase.

iTunes | Paypal

Oliver Lake Organ Quartet,
What I Heard
(Passin’ Thru)
This is the third B-3 organ-centric small-group recording by alto saxophonist-flutist-composer Oliver Lake, who has released more than 35 albums as a leader, not to mention a couple dozen titles with the World Saxophone Quartet and Trio 3. With so many great young players creating a B-3 resurgence these days—like the Larry Young-influenced Jared Gold featured here—Lake has been inspired to compose tunes for organ trio and quartet that incorporate an open-ended approach to improvisation. What I Heard offers the thick, funky feel of classic organ grooves combined with highly disparate musical elements: advanced harmony, some odd time signatures, unusual song forms, tightly arranged ensemble playing and the fearless, free-ranging improvisational approach that Lake has embraced since the 1960s, when he was a founding member of the Black Artists’ Group of St. Louis. The results are fascinating, as Lake, Gold, trumpeter Freddie Hendrix and drummer Chris Beck stretch the traditional organ-group concept in imaginative ways, complementing the underlying grooves and arrangements with angular, speedy, skronking post-bop solos and plenty of spontaneous group interaction. There’s an interesting background story to What I Heard: The original themes of these nine compositions began as pieces that Lake wrote with the intention of performing with poets and spoken-word artists. Here, they have been filled out and developed into something much bigger and more far-reaching—an organ group sound for the future.

Bandcamp | Passin’ Thru Records

Bill Frisell, Guitar
In The Space Age!
Guitarist Bill Frisell is an artist who follows his heart—and then gives heartfelt music to his fans. Whether it’s the vast sonic expanses of his 2013 masterpiece Big Sur or the country-inspired beauty of Nashville from 1997, Frisell always finds deep themes and great love in a dizzying array of musical settings. On Guitar In The Space Age!, Frisell revisits some of the music that made him want to become a guitar player—tunes from the late 1950s and early ’60s. From the opening gnash of The Chantays’ “Pipeline,” it’s clear that this 14-track gem is going to be a fun ride. That surf theme continues with The Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl” and The Astronauts’ minor hit “Baja.” There are nods to the early legends of rock guitar with Link Wray’s “Rumble” and Duane Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser.” Frisell has always had a strong connection to country music, so the set includes killer versions of Merle Travis’ “Cannonball Rag” and Jimmy Bryant’s “Bryant’s Boogie.” The album also features two Frisell originals, “The Shortest Day” and “Lift Off.” Both are terrific, but “Shortest Day” took my breath away. It’s a lovely ballad, an ode to youth and first loves, musical and more. Beyond the touch and tone of Frisell’s guitar work, the other element that makes Guitar In The Space Age! so darn good is the band. Don’t call this a backing band. With Frisell, it’s a group with great give-and-take. Greg Leisz is fantastic on guitar and pedal steel. He and Frisell have a kinship that is truly special. Tony Scherr just kills it on bass. And Kenny Wollesen’s drum work is groove perfection. Overall, Guitar In The Space Age! provides an amazing interpretation of early rock ’n’ roll.

Amazon | iTunes

Marcin Wasilewski Trio,
Spark Of Life
For the terrific album Spark Of Life, Polish pianist Marcin Wasilewski has augmented his trio—Slawomir Kurkiewicz (bass) and Michal Miskiewicz (drums)—with Swedish tenor saxophonist Joakim Milder. This trio (formerly known as the Simple Acoustic Trio) has collaborated with other musicians before: The three musicians appear on guitarist Jacob Young’s latest album, and they have worked extensively with trumpeter Tomasz Stanko. Here, Milder contributes not only a round, satisfying tone, but also his original composition “Still.” Spark Of Life is the type of album that fans of the ECM aesthetic embrace: It’s got generous sections of meditative, medium-tempo tunes, it’s brilliantly produced by Manfred Eicher and the eclectic set list includes songs unlikely to be performed by hordes of U.S. jazz musicians. The program includes versions of Polish rock band Hey’s “Do Rycerzy, Do Szlachty, Do Mieszczan” and Krzysztof Komeda’s “Sleep Safe And Warm” (from the film Rosemary’s Baby), as well as Kurkiewicz’s arrangement of “Largo” from Grazyna Bacewicz’s Piano Sonata No. 2 (1953). The band interprets material that is more familiar to Stateside fans, too, such as an acoustic reworking of Herbie Hancock’s “Actual Proof” (from his 1974 album Thrust) and a version of The Police’s pop hit “Message In A Bottle.” With his refined sense of melody and great touch, Wasilewski owes a debt to Bill Evans. The leader’s original compositions, such as “Austin” and “Sudovian Dance,” are hauntingly gorgeous. This album includes two versions of the title track: One is a shimmering trio treatment that evokes a melancholy mood, and the other features painterly, overlapping lines from Milder and Wasilewski.

Amazon | iTunes

James Farm, City Folk (Nonesuch)
The quartet known as James Farm includes four of the most talented improvisers on the scene today: Joshua Redman on saxophone, Aaron Parks on piano, Matt Penman on bass and Eric Harland on drums. The band’s sophomore outing, City Folk, is the follow-up to its self-titled 2011 release, which was critically acclaimed in DownBeat and many other places. But City Folk is even better. It’s as though the group has figured out its purpose and really embraced its ensemble nature. Groove and cool sophistication permeate City Folk, which features 10 originals written by the band members. Parks’ “Unknown” begins with the pianist’s beautiful intro, soon punctuated by Harland’s laid-back groove. Redman plays the melody, with Parks occasionally doubling him. All the while, Penman gently nudges the rhythm along. Even though there are powerful solos by Parks and Redman, no one grandstands here; there’s a real dedication to the song. The same holds true on the Redman-penned title track: Penman delivers a lovely bass solo leading into a section where Redman, Penman and Harland trail each other. It’s a great effect. The compositions are just as strong as the musicianship here. I especially enjoyed the twisted pleasure of Penman’s “Aspirin”—a fun, wildly quirky tune. “North Star,” Harland’s only compositional contribution to the album, is a majestic tension-builder that weaves solos effortlessly. The bottom line is that James Farm deserves to be heard, and City Folk is a treat.

Daniel Lanois, Flesh
And Machine
Producer-engineer and guitarist-vocalist Daniel Lanois—known as a protégé of ambient music innovator Brian Eno, and recognized for his Grammy-winning work with Bob Dylan and U2—has released albums as a leader before. But his latest, Flesh And Machine, is something altogether different. Touted as an artistic rebirth for Lanois, the album reaches far beyond the realm of ambient sound and challenges age-old concepts of what a “song” is. Lanois achieves this unusual feat using only steel and electric guitars, piano, his voice and, perhaps most important of all, ultra-versatile drummer Brian Blade, his only musical partner on this entire production. Using tons of samples and heavy doses of electronic processing, Lanois meticulously pieced together each track one little sonic bit at a time, like a mad scientist experimenting in a lab, until every single note, chord and beat landed in exactly the right place. There are a lot of layers here, as well as plenty of breathing space, too. The soundscape that Flesh And Machine spans is vast and breathtaking. One minute, it sounds like you’re sitting in the center of some cosmic, swirling, timeless symphony orchestra; the next, you’re on a playful, easygoing stroll in the park accompanied by a simple, hummable melody. Although this album could serve ambient purposes quite nicely—for example, letting it play in the background while you’re working—it also has the potential to blow your mind if you crank up the volume or don a pair of headphones for detailed listening. Lanois is so creatively meticulous, and Blade so incredibly tasty, that Flesh And Machine is definitely worth the attention of anyone who’s curious about new sounds and aural sensations. Lanois, Blade and bassist Jim Wilson have been performing some of this material live in recent weeks, deploying samples and processing in real-time to complement their playing. Upcoming North American shows include Danforth Music Hall in Toronto, Nov. 9; City Winery in Nashville, Tennessee, Nov. 13; Lincoln Hall in Chicago, Nov. 14; World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, Nov. 20; Brighton Music Hall in Boston, Nov. 22; and L’Astral in Montreal, Nov. 23.


Alex Mercado

Dusty Groove



Jody Jazz

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