By Frank Alkyer
Ah, Dafnis Prieto. As a drummer he’s a propulsive explosion of joy, energy and rhythm. As a composer and arranger, Prieto demonstrates a talent for beautifully layered, complex music that somehow remains dance-worthy. Now, The Cuban-born, New York-based bandleader has expanded that talent onto a larger musical palette with Back To The Sunset.
The release marks the debut of the Dafnis Prieto Big Band, a project we started hearing about early in 2017, when Prieto began a fund-raising campaign to support organizing, rehearsing and recording this 17-piece, heroic big band. The DPBB had its world premiere last August. After three days of rehearsal, it delivered a rave-filled, three-night stand at Jazz Standard in New York City, then immediately went into the studio to lay it all down for history. The result is a big, beautiful, bodacious tribute to Prieto’s heroes and one of the best recordings of the year.
Prieto has assembled an all-star Latin jazz lineup here. The trumpet section of Mike Rodríguez, Nathan Eklund, Alex Sipiagin and Josh Deutsch; the saxophone section of Román Filiú, Michael Thomas, Peter Apfelbaum, Joel Frahm and Chris Cheek; the trombones of Tim Albright, Alan Ferber, Jacob Garchik and Jeff Nelson; and the rhythm section of Manuel Valera, Ricky Rodriguez, Roberto Quintero and Prieto deserve to be called out individually, because they played amazingly as a group.
The set kicks off with “Una Vez Más”—a bold tip of the hat to Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri and trumpeter Brian Lynch. It just pounds with bravura. Guest soloing here, Lynch blows with power and poise, matching the force of the band. Lynch’s solo is followed by a rhythm explosion between Prieto and Quintero on percussion. There are two other very interesting guests on this set that one might not expect to hear in a Latin jazz setting. Saxophonist Henry Threadgill takes the lead on Prieto’s lovely ballad “Back To The Sunset,” which he dedicates to Threadgill and Andrew Hill. It’s a song of lush horn-section work, with Threadgill’s plaintive alto saxophone fluttering, cooing and crying to take the tune in surprising directions.
Another guest, alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, is fantastic with his spiritual, contemplative lead over “Song For Chico,” dedicated to Chico and Arturo O’Farrill, as well as Mario Bauzá. Inviting Threadgill and Coleman to the gig demonstrates Prieto’s wide musical world without boundaries. He has worked with and admired both. They, in turn, greatly enhance music that some might consider outside their milieu. And that’s what this record is about: forging a different kind of trail through musical love and admiration.
The set closes with “The Triumphant Journey,” dedicated to Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo, even dropping in musical quotes from these giants of Latin jazz. It’s a fantastic closer to a terrific album. Prieto might be paying tribute to his heroes, but this isn’t a nostalgia piece. He points clearly toward a future for big band music, as well as Latin jazz. I hope this band gets to tour. It needs to be heard.
By Bobby Reed
As the sons of famous musicians, artists such as Joshua Redman, Ziggy Marley, Dweezil Zappa and Mud Morganfield face some unusual professional challenges. Comparisons to their iconic fathers are inevitable, yet each of these musicians has succeeded in staking out his own artistic territory.
Due to the timbre of his muscular voice, Morganfield will never fully escape the shadow of his father—the blues titan Muddy Waters (1913-’83). But Morganfield’s new album, They Call Me Mud, reflects his evolution as an artist who simultaneously embraces his heritage and pursues his own road. There are two fine, potent Muddy Waters tracks on this album—“Howling Wolf” and “Can’t Get No Grindin’”—but those tunes aren’t as compelling as Morganfield’s original compositions, such as the funk-flavored “Who’s Fooling Who?”
The program on this terrific, 12-track album illustrates that Morganfield is much more than a gruff blues belter. “Cheatin’ Is Cheatin’” demonstrates his talents as a nuanced crooner, as well as his skills at conveying the vulnerability of a protagonist. Studebaker John contributes intricate, mesmerizing harmonica work to several tracks. The disc closes with the instrumental number “Mud’s Groove” (one of three tracks on which Morganfield plays bass), which showcases another harmonica wizard, Billy Branch. On the album’s title cut, Morganfield sings, “The blues is my birthright,” and no one could disagree.
By Ed Enright
The second album from New York-based Spin Cycle is even more streamlined and in-the-pocket than the piano-less quartet’s 2016 self-titled debut, which earned critical praise for its bold braininess, infectious catchiness and broad stylistic range. On Assorted Colors, drummer Scott Neumann and tenor/soprano saxophonist Tom Christensen—the group’s co-leaders and primary composers—gracefully explore the continuity of jazz expression while embracing a diverse assortment of music genres. With bassist Phil Palombi and guitarist Pete McCann on board once again, Spin Cycle gets straight to the heart of the matter.
From the moment the group dives head-first into the leadoff track, the playfully angular and hard-swinging “Break Tune,” the intensity never relents, until Christensen completes his exhilarating tenor workout on the athletic closer, “Fit Bit.” Even the more subdued numbers, like the minor blues “Possum Dark,” the minimalist “Mist” and the gentle ballad “Third Floor,” smolder beneath the surface. Characteristics that made the group’s initial release so appealing—strong melodic hooks, rock-solid grooves, advanced harmonies and aggressive, deftly executed improvisations—have been refined by two years of intensive touring and are displayed even more cohesively on Assorted Colors. With this sophomore release, it’s clear that Spin Cycle is on a roll, with momentum to spare. (Spin Cycle will perform an album-release show at Smalls in New York on April 13.)
By Bobby Reed
Melodies, melodies, sumptuous melodies. That’s the central attraction of Eliane Elias’ new album, which also features dazzling bouts of improvisation.
The origin story of this instrumental album is intriguing, but not as compelling as the music itself. Mitch Leigh (1928-2014), the Tony-winning composer of the music for the 1964 stage production Man of La Mancha, approached Elias in the mid-1990s and asked her to write and record new arrangements of songs that were included on the original cast recording. Thrilled at the invitation, the Brazilian pianist selected nine compositions and assembled two top-notch piano trios: one with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jack DeJohnette, and one with bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Satoshi Takeishi. (Percussionist Manolo Badrena appears on eight of the nine tracks.)
Elias and her collaborators recorded this material in 1995, but due to contractual obstacles, it was never released. Now, with the blessing of the Leigh family, this gem finally is available. One need not have any familiarity with the stage or film versions of Man of La Mancha to enjoy this excellent album, which is filled with hummable melodies and Elias’ impressive, right-hand improv flourishes. Deftly avoiding sentimentality and cliché, the pianist has crafted a compelling samba arrangement of “The Impossible Dream” (one of the show’s most often-interpreted tunes). Elias utilized the Brazilian rhythm of frevo in her arrangement of “A Little Gossip,” which is spiced with an agile solo by Johnson. “I’m Only Thinking Of Him,” which features Gomez and DeJohnette, feels completely fresh in 2018.
It took a long time for this album to arrive in the marketplace, but Elias’ fans will certainly rejoice that it did.
By Dave Cantor
Opening with a thrum of dissonance, Nels Cline’s newest effort stakes out pretty unique territory as the guitarist brings along six-string foil Julian Lage.
From the outset, “Furtive” finds the pair gamboling around each other’s lines, giving bassist Scott Colley and drummer Tom Rainey the task of holding it all together. At times, as on “Temporarily,” the quartet evokes an electrified combo from the ’60s, adhering to the genre’s past just enough to keep traditionalists from having a fit. A handful of cuts, like “Imperfect 10,” “As Close As That” and “River Mouth (Parts 1 & 2)” head-fake toward some of Mahavishnu John McLaughlin’s most serene and introspective moments, never fully embracing fusion, just hinting. But there’s a balance struck between some of the album’s relatively conventional moments and Cline’s clear affinity for avant-garde twists and turns. Perhaps Currents, Constellations is a reference to those knotty strains of the genre; or maybe just a clever distillation of the architectural doodle on the album’s cover. It’s that sort of uncertainty, whether Cline’s in full-on jazz mode or animating a Wilco cut, that’s made him an epoch-defining performer and composer.
By Dave Cantor
Designed as a narrative supported by 13 works from British visual artist David Emmanuel Noel, Pictures At An African Exhibition engages in tracing the history of humankind through song.
Based on Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, which the pianist wrote after visiting a museum and used what hung in galleries as a starting point, saxophonist Darryl Yokley claims the concept in order to compose a corrective history of humankind while nakedly shuttling emotion through his instrument. Even if the album weren’t conceptually solid, the large ensemble—replete with flutes, clarinets, a bassoon and a guest spot by drummer Nasheet Waits—convincingly moves through jazz styles, touching on bop, getting free for a bit and exploring big band sounds.
The album opens with a triumphant melody from Yokley on “First Sunrise,” a track that’s meant to illuminate the dawn of human history. Thematically moving across centuries, the saxophonist leads his group through works aimed at elucidating African philosophy and life in a small village, before addressing the horrors of human beings hunting and enslaving each other, and examining the fallout from exploitative mining—both the environmental toll and laborers’ suffering.
Yokely’s compositions—even amid political discourse and analyses of the jazz genre—are strong enough to tie together the seemingly disjointed works of art at the heart of Pictures At An African Exhibition.
By Dave Cantor
Mary Halvorson’s inner rockist isn’t ever too far from the surface.
On her new album, Code Girl, the guitarist includes vocalist Amirtha Kidambi in an ensemble that’s been gigging sporadically for a little more than a year. The contrast between the quieter moments on the album that foreground Kidambi’s contributions with Halvorson’s most muscular musical proclamations creates a new context for the bandleader to unloose her compositional aptitude.
“Accurate Hit” showcases Halvorson and Kidambi dueting, but comes after some of the noisiest moments on the record, as the bandleader concludes “In The Second Before” with one of Code Girl’s most free moments, drummer Tomas Fujiwara rumbling defiantly behind the trancing ensemble. On “The Unexpected Natural Phenomenon,” Kidambi is the focal point, her vocal gestures approximating some of Halvorson’s outré performance. When the vocalist does deal in traditional lyrics, though, it’s almost a string of riddles.
Longtime fans might not be looking for—or expecting—vocal lines to accompany the bandleader’s deft guitar theatrics, but Kidambi’s inclusion in the ensemble provides an avenue for Halvorson to expand her palette and potentially move toward some new artistic finery.
By Ed Enright
Listening to this new jazz suite by saxophonist/composer Patrick Zimmerli brings to mind the giant, ornate clock located in the heart of Prague’s Old Town Square. I appreciate not only the elaborate network of gears and levers in constant motion, but ultimately the fascinating beauty of the whole thing, in both form and function. Using time as its basic material and inspired by Zimmerli’s love of serial composers, Clockworks is a program of profound music, deeply rooted in a jazz aesthetic, that will be enjoyable to even the least mathematically minded listeners among us.
Polyrhythms and changes of meter abound, as time is stretched and warped to the point where actual beats become unrecognizable and everything just flows. Let the musicians do the counting while you sit back and enjoy the ride. Clockworks is a major accomplishment that benefits from the chops and sensibilities of Zimmerli’s collaborators—pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Chris Tordini and drummer John Hollenbeck—each of whom shares a strong rapport with the leader and understands the goal of balancing “outside”-leading content with more “inside”-sounding statements. It’s a highly structured, optimistic work that begins with abstract note permutations, runs through a course of mind-bending variations and ends on a strong, singable melody. According to Zimmerli’s liner notes, the piece reflects the arc of his 25-year career as a composer, which has undergone an evolution from the more esoteric, complex nature of his early projects to the more accessible, emotionally satisfying qualities of his recent work.
By Bobby Reed
Although many fans think of straightahead jazz and swing-oriented tunes when they see the Posi-Tone logo, the excellent new album by pianist David Ake demonstrates that the label also gives improvisational artists the freedom to travel wherever the muse carries them.
Ake’s Humanities documents 12 adventurous, improv-fueled journeys taken by a stellar band that includes Ralph Alessi (trumpet), Ben Monder (electric guitar), Drew Gress (acoustic bass) and Mark Ferber (drums). An educator and musicologist at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, Ake composed all the music on the album, with the exception of an intriguing arrangement of the Grateful Dead tune “Ripple.” Ake allows his collaborators to take flight; at various points on a track like “Hoofer,” he, Alessi and Ferber might craft individual lines that intertwine, yet occasionally contrast with one another to create a satisfying tension—but the track still feels cohesive. Monder shows that he can add subtle coloration to a track, or he can explode like a thunderstorm, as he does with the squall on “Groundwork.”
Throughout the disc, Alessi displays the wide variety in his sonic palette, delivering lines that are fiery, elegant and unpredictable. The band members on this project clearly enjoyed their individual freedom, but as a listener, one can always sense the sturdy architecture within the composition.