Maxine Gordon

Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon
(University of California Press)

With the publication of Sophisticated Giant, independent scholar Maxine Gordon has delivered on her promise to her late husband, tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon (1923–’90), to complete the biography he began writing late in his life.

Maxine draws upon personal memories, artist interviews, business correspondence, extensive historical research and Dexter’s own prose to paint a multidimensional picture of the artist affectionately known as “Society Red.” Beyond the details of his musical career—including early stints in the bands of Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong and Billy Eckstine, classic bebop recordings as a leader on Savoy and Blue Note, a dozen years spent living and playing in Europe, high-profile engagements upon his heroic return to the States in the ’70s and his Oscar-nominated, starring role in the 1986 film ’Round Midnight—the book reveals aspects of Dexter’s personal life that depict the man behind the music, ranging from the outrageously funny to the deadly serious.

Sophisticated Giant is peppered with Dexter’s voice, his witty quotes and extensive reflective notes, interspersed within Maxine’s informative narrative. Coinciding with the book’s release, Legacy Recordings has reissued a vinyl version of Dexter’s late-’70s all-star album of the same name (featuring Woody Shaw, Benny Bailey, Frank Wess, Slide Hampton, Wayne Andre, Howard Johnson, Bobby Hutcherson, George Cables, Rufus Reid and Victor Lewis), which was produced by Michael Cuscuna for Columbia.

Allison Au Quartet

Wander Wonder
(Self Release)

The third album from Toronto’s Allison Au Quartet opens with Todd Pentney’s anachronistic synthesizer radiating sounds that might indicate to listeners of a certain age that it’s time to flip over a cassette. What follows are nine more tracks that hue more closely to the jazz genre’s acoustic development, while solidifying Au’s broad compositional prowess.

The ensemble—which took home the 2016 Juno Award in the category Best Jazz Album of the Year: Group for Forest Grove—mostly sticks within the bounds of prime-bop territory, carving out a backdrop for the saxophonist to ponder melody and expression through the tender tone of her horn. As with that earlier disc, the quartet’s personality comes through most clearly on balladic work, “Morning” beginning calmly with Au and Pentney stretching to meet the dawn, then being joined by the rest of the band. On “Future Self,” Au’s tone, control and phrasing easily recall ’50s trendsetters, even as she adds some well-placed squeaks and rhythmic peculiarities to her original composition. But on “Red Herring,” it’s all intrigue, with a sturdy noir feel to the endeavor propelled by Fabio Ragnelli’s galloping drums and quicksilver thematic shifts, making the composition’s title seem more than fitting. Au’s endless lines are met, supported and enlivened by Pentney’s swells of synth, expanding the quartet’s purview beyond the territory of decades-old torchbearers. The history of the music is here, but something more expansive, too.

Greg Ward Presents Rogue Parade

Stomping Off From Greenwood
(Greenleaf Music)

Saxophonist Greg Ward turns in a program that’s as eclectic as it is electric with Stomping Off From Greenwood, a recording that features the endlessly sturdy Chicago rhythm duo of bassist Matt Ulery and drummer Quin Kirchner.

Calming bits of nuanced playing (“Pitch Black”) counterbalance some of the blustery, aggressive portions of the disc, portraying Ward’s penchant for an all-encompassing take on the genre as the band moves between tradition and the vaguely funky influences that crop up sporadically throughout the album. On the leadoff track, “Metropolis,” the band shifts from a quick-step opening gambit infused with Ward’s assured line, twined with guitar, into a lunging breakdown, something that would be suited to burly rock acts dealing with tension and release. The band swings hard a few tracks later on “The Contender,” and takes on an experimental sheen for the ruminative “The Fourth Reverie.” Rhythm and melody are replaced by Ward’s sporadic squeaks, his ensemble slowly building a musical pyre for the bandleader to burn down moments later.

Though now ensconced in the New York scene, Ward’s latest offering—suffused with not just players from, but also the exploratory fervor of Chicago’s top-tier performers—portends future successes, no matter his stomping grounds.

Mary Halvorson/Joe Morris

Traversing Orbits

The internal logic and rhythms of Mary Halvorson’s maneuvers up and down the fretboard are instantly recognizable in just about any setting. And as she continues releasing a fecundity of music stamped with the irrepressible style, the guitarist has circled back to record with Joe Morris, her one-time instructor, nodding to the importance of the music’s historical mentoring system.

Summoning a skittering storm of slinky single-note runs on Traversing Orbits, Halvorson and Morris offer up a batch of stark duets, a chance for the pair to extol their similar styles. “Semaphore” mostly sounds like stuttering, each guitarist scraping and raking picks across their six strings, summoning any kind of noise they might find suitable within the duo context. “Full Of Somehow” follows, offering up chording—largely absent throughout the program—and coming closest to what opponents of free music might think of as jazz.

Apart from guitarist Tashi Dorji, there’s perhaps not another more suitable partner for Halvorson, as she and Morris improvise their way through music that cascades and wobbles, bounces and judders. The improvisations, though, never seem aimless, each performer displaying easy mastery of their instrument. The lone setback (or perhaps one of the recording’s most sturdy recommendations) is not being able to fully figure out who’s who at any given moment.

During a career that stretches back to the ’80s, Morris has thrummed his way through avant-garde circles. And here, he and Halvorson work to enshrine freedom for another generation of improvisors.

Ellen Rowe Octet

Momentum, Portraits Of Women In Motion
(Smokin’ Sleddog)

There are two ways a listener might understand Ellen Rowe’s ambitious new album, Momentum, Portraits Of Women In Motion. One would be to consider the concept, in which Rowe pays tribute to great women of politics, music and sports, and the fact that she does so by assembling a stellar cast to play these pieces. An alternate approach would be to sidestep the album’s social content and simply focus on the music, particularly the deftly voiced horn charts Rowe has written, and the soulful, Horace Silver-style groove she pulls from the ensemble.

Personally, I’d advise a bit of both. For one thing, Rowe’s writing is trying to tell a story, and if you don’t know that “Game, Set And Match” is a tribute to Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, then the bouncing, two-note horn shots at the beginning of the piece don’t make as much sense as when you imagine them as the sound of a volley at the French Open. But even if you don’t make that connection, it’s hard not to love the skittering drum fills Allison Miller slips between the shots, the funky boogaloo pulse she drops beneath Virginia Mayhew’s tenor solo and her hi-hat work behind Ingrid Jensen’s coolly grooving trumpet.

Rowe has recruited a high-calibre crew here: In addition to Miller, Mayhew and Jensen, she has Tia Fuller on alto saxophone, Lisa Parrott on baritone, and the astonishing Melissa Gardner on trombone. As for the listener, the experience is certainly life-enhancing. Between the writing and the playing, tracks like the deeply swinging “The Soul Keepers” (a tribute to Geri Allen by way of Mary Lou Williams) and “Ain’t I A Woman” (a civil-rights tribute that’s equal parts gospel and hard-bop) are as good as mainstream jazz gets these days.

Tommy Emmanuel & John Knowles

Heart Songs
(CGP Sounds/Thirty Tigers)

Among Americana musicians today, few names are more revered than that of Chet Atkins (1924–2001). A virtuoso guitarist, esteemed producer and Nashville record executive with a great ear for talent, Atkins bestowed the rare designation CGP (Certified Guitar Player) on a very select group of pickers. Two of them are Tommy Emmanuel and John Knowles, who have teamed up for the acoustic duo album Heart Songs.

Both players owe an artistic debt to Atkins, helping make renditions of popular songs (rendered as instrumental numbers on acoustic guitar) music that not only belongs on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, but also in classical concert halls. Somewhere, Atkins surely must be smiling over the gorgeous arrangements of two country classics on this album: Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” and Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Whether Emmanuel or Knowles is engaging in intricate fingerpicking, delivering a subtle bass line or offering chiming coloration, each has the ability to highlight the melodic contours of whatever material he interprets. The diverse program here includes studio renditions of “Somewhere” (from West Side Story), the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love,” Billy Joel’s “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (popularized by Bonnie Raitt) before concluding with a couple of live tracks. This ever-tasteful, incredibly talented duo is certain to perform some of those tunes on a tour that will take them to New York’s City Winery (Jan. 15–16), The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia (Jan. 22–23), the Dakota in Minneapolis (Jan. 25–26) and Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel in Elmhurst, Illinois (Jan. 28), as well as other cities.

Ina Forsman

Been Meaning To Tell You

In the middle of Ina Forsman’s excellent new r&b album are two gutsy, related songs that are apt for the #MeToo movement. The 49-minute program features a Rashomon-like twist with tracks “Whatcha Gonna Do” (about a physically abusive man pursuing a woman as she’s walking down the street, with a focus on the male point of view) and the no-means-no anthem “Why You Gotta Be That Way” (featuring a female narrator who rebuffs a man who is pursuing her as she’s strolling down the street). These pair of songs, as well as “Miss Mistreated” (“Did you ever put some makeup on your face just to fade all the scars and bruises?”) reflect a seriousness of purpose. This 25-year-old Helsinki native has emerged as a contemplative songwriter—in addition to being a vocal powerhouse, who has conquered stages on the international blues festival circuit.

Forsman’s eponymous debut (released by Ruf in 2016) features a version of the blues standard “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl,” but on Been Meaning To Tell You, she wrote all the lyrics and wrote or co-wrote all the music. Her sense of humor and swagger slide into the funk and hip-hop-influenced “Get Mine,” as she sings a clever line with an onomatopoeic sneeze inserted: “I’m here to tell you/ That this beat is sick like ah, ah, ah-choo/ Now bless me/ I’m what they call the good kinda cocky/ That means I’m the best but I don’t say it.” Forsman does possess a mighty big voice. She might not have the transcendent pipes of, say, Adele or Jennifer Hudson, and she occasionally indulges in an extraneous vocal flight to show off her impressive range, but this newcomer is powerful entertainment personified. One might not think of Finland as a source for hard-earned, engaging r&b—but think again.

Victor Garcia

The Grind/The Groove
(Self Release)

Trumpeter Victor Garcia established himself years ago among the top jazz soloists, section players, composers, arrangers and educators on the Chicago scene. On his long-awaited debut as a leader, Garcia gets right down to the serious business of playing highly accessible, all-original music with several Windy City colleagues who are heavy-hitters in their own right.

Dan Trudell’s B-3 serves as the central axis of The Grind/The Groove, drawing from the deep well of jazz-organ tradition and serving up sublime bass lines that support and encourage the superb contributions of Garcia, alto saxophonist Greg Ward, tenor saxophonist Rocky Yera, trombonist Tom Garling, guitarist Scott Hesse and drummer Charles Heath. Over the course of 10 tracks, Garcia and the gang explore a range of styles and moods that are sure to resonate with fans of straightahead modern jazz. Dig the bluesy soul of “Zugzwang-a-Lang,” the bittersweet “Farewell, My Love,” the shifty agitation of “Confined Within,” the greasy, rockin’ funk of “Whatcha Talkin’ Bout?,” the delicately brushed waltz “Izzy’s Lullaby,” the hard-bopping “Delightful Chaos,” the lightly swinging “Blues On A Sunny Day” and the hip-hopping, second-line insistence of “Gon’ Be Alright.” Exhilarating solo turns abound throughout the program, and the smartly arranged tutti and counterpoint ensemble passages (tightly voiced for four horns) are executed with flair and precision. The writing, the playing, the grind and the groove all coalesce into one fine body of work on this auspicious leader debut from one of Chicago’s most exciting and hard-working young artists.

Mark Lockheart

Days On Earth

British tenor saxophonist Mark Lockheart is more famous in his homeland than he is in the States, thanks to his work in the big band Loose Tubes, the quintet Polar Bear and the trio Malija, as well as his albums as a bandleader. His new release, Days On Earth, showcases the musical acumen he has honed over the decades, as he combines an agile, adventurous sextet with a 30-piece orchestra conducted by John Ashton Thomas. For this 50-minute program, which Lockheart composed as a suite, he recruited luminaries from the U.K. jazz scene, including pianist Liam Noble, bassist Tom Herbert, drummer Sebastian Rochford, guitarist John Parricelli and alto saxophonist Alice Leggett.

On “This Much I Know Is True,” the interplay and intertwining of the strings and saxophones reflect the work of a cohesive unit—as opposed to a combo augmented by nonessential orchestral coloration. Thomas, whose credits include orchestrations for the superhero movies Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok, establishes an indelible, head-bobbing groove for the 10-minute track “Believers.” Throughout the program, Lockheart frequently crafts segments within each of the seven songs, so an element of unpredictability arises and the overall momentum never sags. The album closer, “Long Way Gone,” takes its title from the powerful book A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah, a native of Sierra Leone. Each movement in Lockheart’s suite was inspired by a human trait or tendency: “Long Way Gone” is connected to his ideas about humans’ quest for reconciliation; the song’s vibrant melding of an orchestral swell, a muscular tenor saxophone solo and lovely harp work by Helen Tunstall fits the theme wondrously.

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