By Brian Zimmerman
There’s a concentrated energy in the music of Kate Gentile, and the percussionist’s latest album, Mannequins, finds that energy channeled through multiple conduits: clamorous acoustic free-jazz, searing heavy metal and stormy electro-noise. On the whole, her compositions, which are frenetic and alive, serve as incubators for rapturous improvisation and rhythmic daring. Even through moments of levity and sparseness, the music retains taut suspense. It’s an aesthetic Gentile honed through years of collaboration with some of the most brilliant minds in creative music, including Kris Davis, Anna Weber, Chris Speed, Anthony Braxton and John Zorn. Mannequins features a well-credentialed band: Jeremy Viner (reeds), Adam Hopkins (bass) and Matt Mitchell (piano, Prophet 6 and electronics). Together, these four musicians create a footprint that is much larger than its individual parts. The opener, “Stars Covered In Clouds Of Metal,” demonstrates the quartet’s formal elasticity, with Mitchell’s electronics sounding like a chorus of distorted guitars against Gentile’s jagged, furious beat. “Hammergaze” shifts the emphasis toward texture and shadow, its ghostly drones, unhindered by time and tempo, creating a mesmeric swirl. Pieces like “Wrack” and “Alchemy Melt [With Tilt]” recall the earthy soulfulness of Ornette Coleman’s early avant work; there’s a nebulous sense of swing that undergirds Viner’s thrilling, audacious tenor lines. As a composer and performer, Gentile demonstrates a strong command of rhythmic intricacy and a cunning musical discernment. She’s developing a signature sound. Expect to hear more of it soon.
By Bobby Reed
Tom Waits is a gifted songwriter who—like Bob Dylan and the late Leonard Cohen—has a vocal style that alienates some people. For listeners in that camp, a new instrumental collection of Waits’ compositions might be enlightening. Dirt In The Ground is the second album of Waits tunes recorded by trumpeter Aaron Shragge’s band Innocent When You Dream. Waits’ classic 1987 album, Franks Wild Years, is a touchstone for Shragge. “Innocent When You Dream,” a song that appears twice on that album, is the source of the band’s name, and the sextet interprets three Wild Years tracks here: “Hang On St. Christopher,” “Temptation” and “Way Down In The Hole.” Shragge and tenor saxophonist Jonathan Lindhorst offer emotional, vocal-type tones on “All The World Is Green.” The arrangements of “Ol’ 55” and the tearjerker “You Can Never Hold Back Spring” feature wondrous interplay between Lindhorst’s tenor and the pedal steel guitar work of Joe Grass, who plays on eight of the album’s 11 tracks. An even more exotic mixture occurs on “The Briar And The Rose,” which blends of Grass’ pedal steel with the haunting sounds of Shragge on shakuhachi, a type of flute. If you are already a Waits fan, this album might send you scrambling to purchase any titles in his catalog that you’ve missed. And if you’re not a Waits fan, this album could convert you.
By Bobby Reed
Alan Broadbent is a musician’s musician. As a pianist, composer, arranger and conductor, his work has tremendously enhanced albums by Woody Herman, Natalie Cole, Charlie Haden’s Quartet West and Sir Paul McCartney. Broadbent wrote orchestrations for four tracks on Diana Krall’s excellent new album, Turn Up The Quiet (Verve). Fans of his work with Krall will definitely want to check out his new leader project, Developing Story, which was recorded with the London Metropolitan Orchestra in Abbey Road Studio 1. Producer Ralf Kemper does a masterful job of blending the music of the orchestra with that of a nimble jazz piano trio: Broadbent, bassist Harvie S and drummer Peter Erskine. The anchor piece for this album is a three-movement suite titled Developing Story [For Jazz Trio And Orchestra], and in the liner notes, Broadbent explains that it was somewhat inspired by the music of Gustav Mahler. This 26-minute suite is a brilliant showcase for Broadbent the composer, and the third movement, in particular, highlights his elegant pianism. Compelling renditions of two Miles Davis tunes, “Blue In Green” and “Milestones,” illustrate Broadbent’s stellar skills as an arranger. Listeners need not be familiar with the versions of those tunes by Davis or Bill Evans (or anyone else) to appreciate the power and drama that Broadbent and company have crafted here. The album concludes with a breathtaking interpretation of “Children Of Lima,” which Broadbent wrote for Herman and the Houston Symphony in the 1970s.
By Bobby Reed
When Oregon appeared on the cover of the Oct. 10, 1974, issue of DownBeat, the magazine’s table of contents contained a blurb for readers who were not familiar with the band: “Four former members of the Paul Winter Consort … comprise this unusual acoustic chamber ensemble. Their music is full of peace, beauty and freedom of expression … .” That description of Oregon’s music is still apt today. Nearly 50 years after it was founded, the quartet still has two of its original members: woodwinds player Paul McCandless and guitarist and keyboardist Ralph Towner. Rounding out the group are longtime drummer/percussionist Mark Walker and double bassist Paolino Dalla Porta, who joined in 2015 but is making his recording debut with Oregon on its terrific new album, Lantern. All 10 tracks here are original compositions—except for a beautiful rendition of the traditional tune “The Water Is Wide,” arranged by McCandless, who plays an impressive array of instruments on this disc: oboe, English horn, soprano saxophone and bass clarinet. Towner displays his exceptional skills on classical guitar, piano and synthesizer. While some tracks have a bit of a world-music feel, others, like “Walkin’ The Walk,” are clearly in the jazz vein. Throughout the program, all four musicians’ exquisite solos are featured amid polished, profound cohesion. Graceful teamwork is what makes Lantern shine so brightly. Oregon is currently on tour, with dates in numerous European cities, including Augsburg, Germany (July 12), Warsaw (July 15), Rome (July 17) and London (July 20–21).
By Brian Zimmerman
There are flashes of musical prestidigitation evident in nearly every track on Sleight Of Hand, the latest album by NYSQ. The time-tested ensemble—reedist Tim Armacost, pianist David Berkman, drummer Gene Jackson and bassist Daiki Yasukagawa—brings its mystic touch to eight standards of the Great American Songbook and interprets them in ways both foreign and familiar. The group takes an innovative approach on tunes of the well-worn sort (“I Fall In Love Too Easily,” “Lover Man”) and a couple of more recently minted gems (Hank Mobley’s “This I Dig Of You,” Herb Ellis’ “Detour Ahead”). The quartet’s version of Mal Waldron’s “Soul Eyes” is revved up, refracted and stretched across new rhythmic patterns, and Armacost and Berkman offer agile, bop-laced solos. And the group wrings all of the emotional poignancy out of “In A Sentimental Mood,” taking it at a deliberate rubato that allows ample room for silence and reflection. At just over three minutes, it’s the album’s shortest track, but it’s also the most affecting. In terms of pure swing, it’s hard to beat the group’s rendition of “Ask Me Now.” In their hands, the immortal Thelonious Monk tune ricochets around spiky rhythmic corners and careens down surprising harmonic lanes. Reinterpreting the standards is one of jazz’s most longstanding traditions. The New York Standards Quartet has a way of making that tradition seem fresh.
By Brian Zimmerman
Pianist Spike Wilner, manager and partner of the famous New York jazz club Smalls, defends his status as one of the city’s premier trio leaders on Odalisque, his latest live album for Cellar Live. A Manhattan native, Wilner is a jazz institution in his hometown. He’s also one of jazz’s most colorful characters. He can trace his lineage back to a rabbinical dynasty founded by his great-great-great grandfather, Moses Sofer, who was also a Kabbala master and mystic. Wilner was part of the first—and now renowned—class of music students at the New School For Social Research’s Jazz and Contemporary Music Program, which included classmates Brad Mehldau, Chris Potter and Peter Bernstein. The music on Odalisque prides itself on an appealing type of eclecticism, marked by equal parts buoyant swing and pugnacious modernism. “The Upasaka” (the title refers to a follower of Buddhism) launches the program on a note of propulsive soul-jazz; it’s steered down a blazing rhythmic path courtesy of a bluesy ascending riff from Wilner’s left hand and drummer Anthony Pinciotti’s crackling cymbal. Wilner, Pinciotti and bassist Tyler Mitchell bring the same unflagging energy to a rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” with the sense of play and sweetness dialed to the max. The title track (which takes its name from one of fine art’s most famous figures: the nude woman in recline) reflects a slower, more tender side of the trio, with baroque ornaments that evoke a sonic sensuousness. Wilner’s take on Rodgers and Hart’s “Little Girl Blue” is just as emotionally stirring, beginning with slow, rain-soaked gestures that transition into a crisp, swinging trot. It’s among the album’s most arresting pieces, and it attests to Wilner’s ability to connect with an audience.
By Ed Enright
Rova Saxophone Quartet reinvents a classic recording by the late soprano saxophonist and composer Steve Lacy (1934–2004) on Saxophone Special Revisited. Lacy’s 1975 album Saxophone Special, culled from December 1974 performances at London’s Wigmore Hall, was a seminal entry into the pantheon of free-jazz works for saxophone quartet. It featured Lacy, Steve Potts, Trevor Watts and Evan Parker on multiple saxophones—plus guitarist Derek Bailey and synthesist Michel Waisvisz—bravely executing a suite of the leader’s densely arranged compositions that required them to dive head-first into extended group improvisations. The album—which was contemporaneous with Anthony Braxton’s saxophone quartet recording on New York, Fall 1974 and predated any works by the World Saxophone Quartet—was an inspiration to the members of Rova, who came together as a group in late 1977 (and whose personnel has remained the same, with one exception, ever since). A group known for its unique ability to synthesize modern composition with collective improvisation, not to mention its appetite for advanced techniques and raw adventure, Rova has performed its own arrangements of Lacy’s now-famous suite live on several occasions over the years. The quartet of saxophonists Bruce Ackley, Steve Adams, Larry Ochs and Jon Rasking is supplemented by guitarist Henry Kaiser and synthesist Kyle Bruckmann on Saxophone Special Revisited, which was recorded in September 2015 at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California. Although Rova’s interpretation is obviously not an attempt to re-create all the nuances of the original recording, the ensemble succeeds in achieving the same chiming tonality that Lacy strove for in his dissonant, cycling arrangements. In this context, with obvious reverence, Rova and company sculpt brilliant improvisations of melody and noise that are honest to the core and utterly free of restraint. This is thrilling, cathartic stuff. Two bonus tracks, “Clichés” and “Sidelines,” feature Rova’s spirited take on compositions Lacy recorded after the release of Saxophone Special.
By Izzy Yellen
Known equally for his work as a jazz and world musician, trumpeter Itamar Borochov returns to the jazz quartet format with his sophomore album as a leader, following Yemen Blues’ INSANIYA (Magenta Marketing Inc., 2016). But just because this album has a jazz focus doesn’t mean his world-music background loses its place in his voice, a unique hybrid of the Middle East and Brooklyn, compelling technique and delicate lyricism. Two of the tunes are powerful arrangements of traditional songs, and throughout the album, rhythms and harmonies rooted in the Middle East peek through, making for an album as tied to contemporary jazz as it is to Borochov’s cultural roots. While it may seem light and easy to listen to at first, Boomerang is much more religious than one might expect a jazz album to be. The album stands out because of this, especially due to its conceptual and musical representations of the Jewish faith. As the liner notes (by writer and educator Aryeh Tepper) state, the nine songs here take the listener on a journey through the world, Borochov’s life and spirituality. If you decide to follow, your own life can be enriched with a connection to Borochov’s music that goes beyond a mere appreciation for his virtuosity and thoughtful composition.
By Izzy Yellen
The Meridian Trio’s debut is an exciting snapshot of the ever-evolving Chicago free-jazz scene. An album suited for seasoned listeners, those looking to get to know the scene and anyone in between, Triangulum puts together bluesy improvisation and free-spirited writing, all of it coated in a thick, focused intensity. Such qualities can certainly be attributed to the individual players, but it’s the trio as a whole that wields such astonishing power. These improvisers often seem to move together towards one indeterminate destination, and the unified cryptic nature of their performance rears its head in a way that encourages a feeling of foreboding but also one of comfort. The three players know each other well in this setting—thanks to their many weekly gigs prior to making this live recording—and they share a solid foundation upon which they can perpetually surprise each other, always pulling out new sounds and pushing themselves to new heights. The album has its tender moments as well as ominous vibes, but it brims with the swinging electricity for which the trio’s live performances are known.