By Bobby Reed
Singer Amy Cervini spikes her new album with unexpected twists that make it a gem. As the title of her 2014 album, Jazz Country (Anzic), implies, Cervini likes to mix her jazz with a rootsy, Americana flavor. The 10-song program on No One Ever Tells You includes fresh arrangements, often with slower tempos than the tune’s more famous renditions. Cervini’s version of “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top” transforms the happy tune from Oklahoma! into a nearly existential meditation. Rarely have those yellow wheels, isinglass curtains and bright sidelights been described with such a haunting delivery. Similarly, a molasses-tempo reading of “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road),” which features Hammond B3 organ work by Gary Versace, invites the listener to conjure the bar scene Cervini so carefully has crafted. While “Hit The Road Jack” frequently is offered as a barnburner, Cervini converts it into a lament.
The singer’s choice of material is just as remarkable as her ability to inject new energy into old tunes. There are hundreds of rock and blues tunes about a male rambler who tells a woman that he can’t stick around, because he’s got to hit the highway. And jazz singer Blossom Dearie (1924–2009) flipped the script on that tale with “Bye-Bye Country Boy,” about a touring female vocalist who bids adieu to a male fan. Cervini infuses the lyric with emotional power in a stellar performance, augmented by top-tier instrumental support from Versace and guitarist Jesse Lewis. The leader’s other excellent collaborators here are Michael Cabe (piano), Matt Aronoff (bass) and Jared Schonig (drums).
The program includes one Cervini original composition, “I Don’t Know,” a relationship tune with a potent twist in the lyrics: “I don’t know why I did it/ And I don’t know why you’d stay/ I don’t know how to fix it/ All I can do is say that I love you/ Then get down on my knees and pray/ And I don’t pray.” This tune, like the entire album, was expertly recorded by Cervini’s longtime producer, Oded Lev-Ari (who is also her husband). Lev-Ari’s overall production technique—combined with the microphone placement by tracking and mixing engineer James Farber—gives the listener the wonderful sense of sitting right there in the control booth as this superb music was made.
By Dave Cantor
Anyone capable of turning both a Stooges song about shooting smack and a Kinks ode to the sun into free-jazz finery is worth a listener’s time.
Fay Victor hasn’t issued a bunch of music as a leader, and when she has, it’s largely been through her own Greene Avenue Music imprint. So, the New York vocalist hooking up with ESP-Disk for Wet Robots is a notable move. Her troupe here, augmented by guitarist Joe Morris, rumbles through aggressively artful free maneuvers, occasionally touching on minimal passages, as on “Whistling On A Skateboard,” when Victor summons guttural harmonies in tandem with Sam Newsome’s soprano saxophone.
Drummer Reggie Nicholson, Victor’s compatriot in various SoundNoise configurations, does an admirable job holding all of this together, and adds poignant detail to the bandleader’s spoken word and sound poetry.
Victor wields an outsized personality, and however ecstatic her group gets, the ideas she works to impart to listeners refuse to be overwhelmed by the churning backdrop. On “Information Highway,” the singer delves into the uses of religion and where it came from, tossing off some Spanish and German phrases before explaining the inner workings of the human brain. It might just short circuit, like a wet robot’s, she claims.
However rigorous the compositions and performances are here, folks who let Victor’s lyrics warp their minds might reap the finest reward.
By Ed Enright
This previously unreleased live recording captures Dexter Gordon (1923–1990) in concert with perhaps his finest, and most consistent, rhythm section.
Pianist Kenny Drew, bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath—the house band at Jazzhus in Copenhagen, where Gordon lived and played regularly for 14 years during the 1960s and ’70s—joined the towering tenor saxophonist for this performance at Tokyo’s Yubin Chokin Hall on Oct. 1, 1975. The well-seasoned group gets right down to business, kicking off the set with “Fried Bananas,” a signature Gordon original that was first recorded on his 1969 album More Power! The rest of the set includes two standards—“Days Of Wine And Roses” and “Misty”—plus the show closer, Billy Eckstine’s innuendo-rich “Jelly, Jelly,” the lyric of which Gordon sings, to the audience’s delight.
The tunes all run nice and long, thanks to a plenitude of meaty, extended improvisations from all onboard. Gordon is in top form, quote-happy as ever, peppering his swaggering hard-bop solos with well-placed bits of humor, huge dollops of blues and forever-clever turns of phrase. Pedersen’s breathtaking solo on “Days Of Wine And Roses” is a highlight, as is Drew’s flourishing ride on “Misty.” Bonus tracks on the album include a live 1973 performance of Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning,” recorded in Holland with Norwegian Espen Rud on drums, and a live version of the standard “Old Folks” from a 1977 concert in New Haven, Connecticut, with Gordon’s “homecoming” band of pianist Ronnie Mathews, bassist Stafford James and drummer Louis Hayes. The sound quality of these live recordings can be spotty at times, but the brilliant content of the performances makes the entire album—available on CD and vinyl—a surprise treat for Gordon fans.
By Bobby Reed
Fans of Cuban pianist Harold López-Nussa’s 2016 disc, El Viaje (Mack Avenue), certainly should check out his new album on the same label: Un Día Cualquiera. The title of the previous disc translates to “The Journey,” and on this new outing, his artistic evolution continues—but in a trio setting. He recorded the album at Boston’s WGBH Studios with his younger brother Ruy Adrián López-Nussa (drums, percussion) and Gaston Joya (bass). The album’s title translates to “Just Another Day,” and in press materials, Harold explains the title’s significance: “The idea is to put the music and the trio together in a studio and just play, the way we three do every day, any day—like a concert in the living room of your house.” And what a memorable concert it is. The stripped-down setting showcases Harold’s dynamic pianism and mastery of tempo, whether he’s delivering a dazzling, lightning-fast flourish or spotlighting his elegant touch with a ballad.
All three band members obviously relish the opportunity to interpret two songs by the great Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona (1895–1963): “Danza De Los Ñáñigos” and “Y La Negra Bailaba,” which Harold has described as being a piece that’s “somewhere between Cuban son and danzón styles.” Elsewhere, Harold pays tribute to another Cuban icon with the original tune “Una Tarde Cualquiera En Paris (To Bebo Valdés),” which begins in a meditative mode but shimmies, shifts and builds to a fiery dance tempo that the late Valdés surely would appreciate. Potent bass and drum solos enhance this track in a way that the master pianist also would have approved. On the original tune “Preludio (To José Juan),” the combination of Harold’s light touch, his brother’s agile transition from brushes to sticks and Joya’s poignant arco work results in a radiant performance that bears revisiting.
Indeed, many of these tracks feel like short films that one yearns to study repeatedly in order to absorb all their nuances. With Un Día Cualquiera, a superb trio honors the tradition of Cuban jazz, while pushing the music forward via terrific chops and impressive individualism.
By Dave Cantor
The endless terrain any good piece of music can summon in the mind’s eye seems easily traversed by this sonically expansive Swedish troupe.
Since debuting in 1979 with Basic Line, Mwendo Dawa’s issued more than a dozen albums. But Silent Voice is the band’s first release since the death of saxophonist Ove Johansson (1936-2015), who founded the group with pianist Susanna Lindeborg. He, presumably, is the voice that’s been silenced, even as four of his compositions appear among the spate of original tunes.
“The first year after Ove passed away—2016—was more or less a period to mourn, and to think about the musical future. There were some concerts we did as a trio,” Lindeborg wrote in an email about dealing with the loss and paring down the lineup. “After this, we decided that our musical world and ideas were still in development. So, the trio wanted to continue its journey. ... So, we wanted this CD to be a tribute to Ove and all the inspiration he has given us.”
Along with bassist Jimmi Roger Pedersen and drummer David Sundby, Lindeborg pushes through electro-acoustic maneuvers that might be aural representations of anything from a treacherous mountain pass to some pastoral setting, a stream calmly running through it.
“Bass Nagging,” the disc’s second track, is all rumbling and electronic filigree, Lindeborg’s chording adding menacing profundity. “Hesitation,” as its name would suggest, seems to have trouble getting started. But as the trio searches for something thematic to grasp at, the open spaces—occasionally filled by electronic bleeps and gurgles—offer an intimate glimpse into the working relationship of these performers. And the following “Inside” turns up fiery results amid a similar gambit.
The Swahili phrase “mwendo dawa” translates to “the way to a special goal,” and listeners might easily be carried along that path, while being inspired to explore the band’s hefty catalog.
By Frank Alkyer
Trumpeter Russell Gunn has been delivering thought-provoking, high-octane, genre-exploding musical goodness since his introduction in 1995 with the album Young Gunn. From Gunn Fu to Russell Gunn Presents… Bionic: Krunk Jazz to his amazingly charged Ethnomusicology series of albums exploring the black experience, Gunn isn’t wearing someone else’s jazz. He’s created his own voice, one where jazz, hip-hop, r&b and pop get up from the family dinner table and dance together in the living room.
The Royal Krunk Jazz Orkestra is perhaps his greatest vehicle for laying down complex, beautiful music for the masses. Get It How You Live is a thoroughly modern big-band recording, and what’s amazing is how Gunn pulled this together by being slightly outside the limelight. Living in Atlanta, the bandleader played a weekly gig at the St. James Live club for more than a year to develop the feel, language and musical material that appears on the album. Once comfortable, he recorded the 19-piece RKJO at The Ray Charles Performing Arts Center at Morehouse College in Atlanta. For those new to “krunk,” it’s a hard-hitting sub-genre of hip-hop that has also spawned an equally hard-hitting form of dance. And this is a record to make you do just that: dance.
The set kicks the doors in with “Sybil’s Blues,” a get-down-and-dance tune that features fellow trumpeter Theo Croker as a guest and some in-your-face soloing by trombonist Saunders Sermons. Gunn summons the spirits with his take on Shai’s 1992 hit “If I Ever Fall In Love,” his trumpet cutting sweet, pure and powerful over a horns-only arrangement that just breathes beauty. “The Critic’s Song” hits hard with the rhythm section of Che Marshal on drums, Tabari Lake on bass and Ali Barr on percussion. But Brian Hogans on alto and Mike Walton on tenor serve up killer solo work—all speed, power and rage. Walton trades eights with vocalist Dashill Smith in a hip-hop/jazz exchange that delivers big time. Beyond this, there are great vocal spots all over this record. Dionne Farris is an incredible singer, who brings her cool neo-soul vibe to tunes like “Fair,” “Hopeless” and “Ballad Of The Sad Young Men.” But the star here is Gunn himself. He’s thinking and making music on a very grand scale. One minute, he makes you want to jump out of your seat and move, the next, he’s got you wiping away a tear.
Gunn is a beautiful trumpeter, but on Get It How You Live, he proves once again that he’s also a massively talented producer, conductor, arranger and talent scout. Get It How You Live is a rare, wonderful achievement—an organic, beautiful vision of what modern music can be.
By Bobby Reed
Michael Leonhart’s new album is a testament to his glorious, unbridled ambition. He composed, arranged and conducted all the music on The Painted Lady Suite, an album that he also produced. He recruited more than 30 musicians—including guitarist Nels Cline and tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin—for the recording sessions, during which he played trumpet, bass trumpet, French horn, mellophonium, electric bass, organ, pump organ, mellotron, accordion, bass harmonica and bass melodica. The bulk of this album consists of the seven-part titular suite, which was inspired by Leonhart’s fascination with migrating swarms of painted lady butterflies, an insect that can embark on a 9,000-mile round-trip journey that involves multiple generations (due to its limited lifespan).
Song titles like “The Experimental Forest, North Dakota,” “The Arctic Circle” and “1500 Feet Above The Sahara (Night)” illustrate the depth of Leonhart’s research into the butterflies’ migration, while also nodding to the enormous scope of his sonic palette. And even if you’re not someone who geeks out on nature documentaries and butterfly minutia, you still can revel in the esoteric textures of this suite, which is fueled by a nine-piece brass section and a 10-piece group of saxophones and woodwinds. With this suite, Leonhart eschews easily digestible melodies in service of something quite complex and mysterious; this is music befitting its intriguing inspiration.
Following the suite are three tracks that show a more accessible side of the composer. “In The Kingdom Of M.Q.” has a groove akin to a march, with an arrangement spiced by a muscular McCaslin solo. “Music Your Grandparents Would Like” lopes along in a woozy, cough-syrup sort of way before Cline erupts with some gnarly guitar work transmitted from a spaceship. “The Girl From Udaipur” concludes the album with an enticing, drone-like mood, a compelling brass-section riff and the acoustic bass work of the composer’s father, Jay Leonhart.
By Ed Enright
Danish guitarist Mikkel Ploug and New York tenor saxophonist Mark Turner team up as a duo on this inspired collection of tailor-made Ploug originals.
Having toured Europe together for 10 years in a Ploug-led combo, they scaled things way down on Faroe in order to allow more subtle musical interaction and intensify their mutual focus on melodic and chordal development. In this calmer, more delicate environment, the nuances of Turner’s dry tone and Ploug’s resonant guitar emerge to form an emotionally stirring, tonally balanced picture. Their individual voices dovetail gracefully as saxophone and guitar explore their individual roles and come together to achieve a level of creative flow that’s the goal of any artistic pairing.
The music is an advanced study in musical styles and moods, at turns somber (“Faroe”), melancholy (“The Red Album”), dreamy (“Highland”), mysterious (“Warmth”), saudade (“Como”), playful (“Sea Minor”), anxious (“Steps”), flirtatious (“Celeste”) and ceremonious (“Wagner”). Incredible chops aside, Ploug and Turner succeed in tapping into the awesome power and extreme beauty of hushed, intimate interaction on Faroe. Listen to it loud for maximum enjoyment.
By Dave Cantor
Even as his posthumous Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album takes John Coltrane higher on the Billboard charts than he’s ever been, there’s an argument to be made that his A Love Supreme is one of the most crucial jazz albums ever recorded. The disc was—and remains—a devotional edict, something that proclaims Trane’s adamance in finding a bit of peace on earth. And that’s maybe what’s made his landmark album endure—and be as frequently covered as it has been. The latest jazzers to undertake a reworking of the music are a set of Southern California twins: percussionist Jonathan Mattson and multi-instrumentalist Jared Mattson.
In various pressings, Coltrane’s recording has been diced up into three or four tracks. Mattson 2, though, offer five distinct cuts, with an interlude slipped into the playlist that comes off like psych-folk band Woods jamming impromptu. But “Acknowledgement” appropriately opens with that recognizable bass figure propping up the brothers’ groove. It’s at least a step away from transcendence, but wrenching this thing out of history is a tough task. The duo swings hard in places, “Pursuance” being a notable nu-fusion display. And if nothing else, Jared dubbing in guitars, bass and keys is a herculean task few would dare, especially on material with a past like this.
Mattson 2’s Play A Love Supreme likely won’t make anyone pitch their Coltrane vinyl. But it wasn’t supposed to. The compositions here lend the Mattsons a framework to get free, while acknowledging the remarkable feats of their forbearers.