Power Hitters

Over at A Blog Supreme, Patrick Jarenwattananon posts correspondence with a reader who has strong feelings on what jazz is and is not. The guy has a hard-on for jazz, and that pleases me, although, like Patrick, my definition of jazz is easily more expansive yet just as rigorous. Using the correspondent’s examples, we agree that Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan were jazz singers, though I would point out that both of them did a lot of non-jazz singing, and Vaughan’s case is actually an interesting one for deeper discussion – she sang songs from the jazz canon, backed by jazz musicians, and rarely improvised. Along with jazz musicians playing a lot of non-jazz, whether out of desire to make music or make a living, there is jazz music that doesn’t contain some of the features the writer implies are essential. King Oliver, for example, doesn’t swing, same with early Louis Armstrong; swing wasn’t part of the musical knowledge base until the late 1920s – early 1930s. Also, he bookends his personal history as a jazz fan with Sketches of Spain and Bitches Brew ; the former is a record made by jazz musicians that is not a jazz record, and the latter is a heavily improvised record by jazz musicians that is also not a jazz record. But it doesn’t have to be jazz to be great music.

The epistles began over Esperanza Spalding’s new recording (which I haven’t heard) and the type of music it is, not the quality of it. There are three discs I’m going to discuss here that are each of high quality, however one would label them. I made the argument last year that “swing” is more importantly heard as a type of phrasing and articulation rather than a specific kind of beat in the drums, and these three discs are, to my ears, absolutely jazz, new, contemporary jazz of the best kind, made by the leading alto players on the contemporary scene, Steve Coleman, Steve Lehman and Rudresh Mahanthappa.

One thing you will not hear on any of these CDs is the classic, ching-ka-ching quasi-dotted-eighth-sixteenth note swing beat in the drums. You will, however, hear a lot of music that is either in-line with classic jazz playing or else directly extrapolated from it. The articulation is jazz, jazz, jazz, the ensemble interplay and arrangements are a next step along the time line from Hard-Bop. Coleman, Lehman and Mahanthappa are musical evolutionists, bringing jazz into each new day in the way the music has always evolved, by standing on the shoulders of giants and incorporating new ideas and styles across the spectrum from classical to pop music, simultaneously challenging and expanding the tradition and definition of “jazz.”

No word on what Mr. Reingewirtz thinks of Coleman’s Harvesting Semblances And Infinities , but it does feature jazz singing, one of the strongest elements on what is Coleman’s most consistently successful recording with his long-standing group/laboratory, Five Elements. Along with being a fine altoist, he’s been a leading theoretical and organizational figure in jazz over the past quarter century, committed to maintaining the balance between structure/composition and improvisation that is the essence of modern jazz. Although he labels his general concept “M-Base,” he’s expansively non-ideological, seeking both personal and collective expression through the needs of the moment, which in the jazz context means delicious flavors of funk, latin and old-fashioned march music baked into the cake of post-Hard-Bop ensemble playing. He’s also one of the finest contemporary players of chord changes, improvising fluidly over changing harmonies, communicating graceful, winning ideas while outlining the structure he is working both with and against.

Coleman has always had fine ensembles to work with, and has been influential and prolific. He also has, at times, been hampered by his understandable desire to communicate his musical values, which are deeply held and highly personal. He sees in the symbolic language of music a set of mystical meanings that are so inherent to his own thoughts and experience that they are at times impossible to communicate successfully. I admire his drive to do so, but the occasional result is a stretch of music that is too hermetic to effectively reach the listener. Harvesting Semblances And Infinities has no such weakness, it is in fact impeccable and flawless, fluid, funky and transparent. Not that Coleman has kept his thoughts hidden – his liner notes are dense with explanatory ideas – but the music works as well without explanation.

It opens joyously, with “Attila 02 (Dawning Ritual),” based on a rhythm that Coleman has favored in the past (there’s a version on “Tetragrams/Astrology I” from Weaving Symbolics ); the tune jumps, glides and soars, and shows off the two secret weapons amidst the band, singer Jen Shyu and drummer Tyshawn Sorey (joined by Jonathan Finlayson playing trumpet, Tim Albright on trombone, Thomas Morgan on bass and additional percussion from Marcus Gilmore and Ramón Garcia Pérez). Sorey is the greatest drummer of his generation, single-handedly recreating jazz rhythm through his ability to transform complex beats from electronic dance music and hip-hop into interactive, physical playing. Shyu is not just a fine singer but an excellent musician, using her voice as another instrument in the band, her lovely, clear sound adding the seduction of a siren’s call on top of the exciting, roiling seas of the tunes. There’s a classic quality to her singing, a vocabulary of color, phrasing and diction that goes back to the “canaries” featured at the front of the big bands. Her solo on the ballad-type “060706-2319 (Middle of Water)” is completely wonderful; she uses long familiar scat-singing syllables to construct musical lines that are as natural as breathing and as lovely as can be.

This idea, using small elements of sound and playing that are almost old-fashioned and clichéd, putting them to use in a modern context and towards expressing modern ideas, is essential to Coleman’s music-making. He transforms older materials into new products, respects the tradition but is constructively irreverent about it – as great as Sketches of Spain and Bitches Brew are, it does jazz no good to recreate that music when the genre depends on musicians making it new. The fundamental materials of the rollicking “Beba” are what is now old-fashioned Be-Bop phrasing and even older march rhythms, but put the phrases in Coleman’s hands and the march in Sorey’s and the result is a track that will make you tap your foot and bob your head, that has no swing but is about as deep in the history or jazz as can be, while also sounding completely contemporary. Consistently fine, interesting and satisfying throughout, the relatively weakest link is interesting for being the sole non-original, an arrangement of Per Nørgard’s “Flos Ut Rosa Floruit.” The music is lovely, but it doesn’t have the spark and swagger of Coleman’s originals, and the relaxed, muscular, confident urban sound is one of the attractive features of the music and an important part of the essence of jazz. The last track, “Attila 04 (Closing Ritual),” neatly wraps up the large scale organization of the music, and it’s one of the strengths of Harvesting Semblances that the underlying design is there for deep listening and concentration, but that expression of the music wears it’s structural and symbolic elements lightly enough that simply experiencing the great sound of the music as it moves along is a fine and hip pleasure.

Lehman (whose Travail, Transformation and Flow was the best jazz CD of 2009 and an important development in the music) joined Mahanthappa onstage at the Braga Jazz Festival in March of last year, and the result is Dual Identity , on the Clean Feed label. It’s an intense set that opens at a high simmer and then threatens to blister the ears and speakers before it’s done. That intensity comes directly from the two saxophonists who embody the post-Coltrane, post-Art Pepper style of shaping every sound, even in the slowest and quietest moments, with the feeling that there’s something explosive about to go off. It’s easy to tell the two apart; there’s a rough contrast between inside and outside, with Lehman manipulating the timbre and pitch of his edgy sound, and Mahanthappa’s expansive sense of power. Two other strains that the players bring together are two general contrasts in the urban roots of contemporary jazz; the intelligent neuroticism of Charlie Parker in Lehman, the extroverted, bluesy blowing of Cannonball Adderly in Mahanthappa, which of course is not to confine the two musicians into boxes. They are superb, deep, powerful players and that they complement each other so well demonstrates the richness of jazz.

The music can stand up to a lot of analysis, but I don’t want to steer any interested listeners away from how funky and thrilling it all is. The two start off with a slightly tense, slightly ominous duet, then the rhythm section (Liberty Ellman on guitar, Matt Brewer playing bass and Damon Reid on drums) joins in for Mahanthappa’s “The General,” a loping tune based around an almost mocking ostinato. Lehman’s “Foster Brothers” follows, slicing out his stabbing, recursive phrases. Even though the two differ in sound, style and compositional methods, their updating of Hard-Bop is in apposition. Eschewing head-solos-head arrangements and voicing tunes, they build pieces through polyphony; contrapuntal arrangements and improvisational interplay between the two horns, pulse-heavy polyrhythmic patterns in the rest of the band. It’s a thoroughly contemporary sound with clear antecedents in the bluesy, funky, tightly arranged small-group jazz of the 1950s and 1960s. Except for the specific way these musicians play, a lot of the music would be completely familiar to listeners with a casual acquaintance with Blue Note records. Lehman’s “Extensions Of Extensions Of” is close to a classic saxophone shout section, Mahanthappa’s “Circus,” the extravagantly burning centerpiece of the disc, is a straight-ahead blowing tune, with a great step-wise motion and superb solos from Ellman, Mahanthappa and Brewer, and Ellman’s “Katchu” is a ballad straight out of the Joe Zawinul book. This great set of music is capped off by “Dual Identities,” a seemingly improvised duet by Lehman and Mahanthappa, sounding like a deserved encore for a rapturous crowd. With a gripping energy matched by the brilliance of its ideas, Dual Identities is a contender for best jazz release of the year.

It faces serious competition from the Mahanthappa organized Apex (out September 28), another duet recording, with the veteran Bunky Green providing the stimulating companionship. While Dual Identity has roots in Hard-Bop, this CD has roots in the style pioneered by Coltrane; spacious, almost static harmonies anchoring great rhythmic and temporal vitality that in turn supports dazzling musical and emotional exploration from the soloists. Mahanthappa is again joined by Reid, who shares the drum seat with Jack DeJohnette. The band is filled out with the excellent bassist Francois Moutin and the exceptional Jason Moran at the piano. Everyone seems immediately and totally sympathetic to the idiom, it’s part of their musical DNA.

Green, at 75, has as much fire as Mahanthappa, but it burns in a different and complementary way. His tone is softer at it’s edge, a little bit wider, so it’s easy for the ears to tell the two horns apart, and while the younger man slices across the musical vistas with exhilaration, always looking ahead for unexplored territory, Green, at the same velocity, casts his glance at times to the sides and behind, appraising the details. He braises while Mahanthappa roasts, and the combined results are delicious. The music is deep and exciting; “Welcome” is a still fanfare with plangent bass and horns and shimmering cymbals straight out of the Impulse catalog. It then elides via simple and clever motion into the roiling “Summit,” with the two altos taking the roles of Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders. This is not just a jam, though, it’s a well made, fully rounded album, covering a range of expression, including the sinuous “Soft,” the classic, bluesy chorus and cadence of “Eastern Echoes” and the charming, tender “Little Girl, I’ll Miss You.” It’s pretty much a given that the current generation of jazz musicians, like Lehman and Mahanthappa, are going to give you loads of sophisticated, cosmopolitan intensity, but they are complete musicians, full of lyricism and the simple pleasure of just playing a good line, and Green seems to encourage that in the entire band. It’s a cliché that age imparts wisdom, because not everyone is capable of wisdom at any age, but it’s true enough for accomplished artists like him, and Apex is a great disc not only for the state of the art playing but for the wisdom that Green, too little known yet with nothing that needs proving, adds to the mix. Where Dual Identity makes music based on the previous fifty years (and yes, it has been that long) of jazz, this recording makes music with those fifty years as a living contribution. A wonderful release.

Phil Schaap, one afternoon almost twenty-five years ago, listed the leading post-Parker altoists as Lee Konitz, Art Pepper, Ornette Coleman, Paul Desmond and Jackie MacLean. Three of them are sadly and inevitably no longer with us, but reconstituting that list with Steve Coleman, Lehman and Mahanthappa, with a more than honorable mention of Bunky Green, makes it as strong as ever. The alto sax is still making jazz, and the jazz is as certain and good as ever.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.