Early in the month, I filled out my ballot for the DownBeat critic’s poll, and when I got to the Blues Album/Artist categories, I had a lot of catch-up listening to do. And what a pleasure it was! I have a decent library of classics blues, but barely touch on the contemporary scene. Good thing I caught up, because the contemporary scene is excellent.
So I’ve been listening to almost nothing but the blues for the past four weeks (with significant excursions into Lee Morgan’s Blue Note catalog), and it has been a great experience. 100 years worth of music, from Ammons to Zydeco, has entirely refreshed my outlook, but also dominated my time.
Which leads me not only to the notable new recordings I heard in April but also to the first of a handful of Recordings of the Week (also behind, but that’s due to having to write five concert reviews in seven days, finish an article for Music & Literature, and whip out an emergency editorial for the May issue of the Rail):
I plumped whole heartedly for Noah Preminger last year; he’s one of a handful of young jazz musicians who not only have a strong individual voice, but who have an exploratory direction. What I mean by that is not that he is playing free improvisation, exploring his soul on a nightly basis, but that’s he’s set his path in a certain direction and is moving down it without needing a clear goal or direction. His path is a process, and that process is exploring the blues and updating contemporary jazz through it.
He put out a strong, exciting live album last year, and has a new one coming out this month, Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, that is some of the deepest and most beautiful jazz I’ve heard in quite a while. Quiet, focused, even internalized, where the previous record was extroverted, the new one is also a far distance further along the path. He gets that way by going farther back in time and simplifying his means.
The album is Delta blues played by a jazz quartet—this is both literal and figurative. All the tracks are based on transcriptions of the original vocals from the likes of Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson, and Skip James. The band makes it into jazz, with concise improvisation from Preminger and the great trumpeter Jason Palmer, while the rhythm section of Kim Cass and Ian Froman lays down a responsive pulse.
The music making is intensely soulful, with that mix of experience and determination that makes the blues an essential part of the human experience. Preminger describes exactly what I have found so compelling, important, and morally exemplary in the blues: “it’s very real, and you don’t hear that very often in contemporary music. It’s not a poor man’s music anymore.” As you’ll read in my upcoming Rail editorial, the one I had to write in a rush, there’s no bullshit in the blues. And there’s no bullshit in this tough, rich album.
Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground has a May 6 release date. Pre-order here. In New York City, catch the album release show May 17 at Jazz Standard. You won’t be sorry, this band is notably intense live.
Finally, despite the relatively low number of new hearings in April, some excellent CDs did work their way through my ears:
- Miranda Cuckson/Blair McMillen: Bartók/Schnittle/Lutoslawski. A premiere violinist and a terrific accompanist play muscular, brilliant 20th century music. I love the sequencing on this release, the music and playing continuously gaining mystery and profundity. The two play this program at (le) poisson rouge on May 10.
- Brian Charette: Once & Future. Swinging, funky, ass-kicking organ jazz from Charette, with Will Bernard and Steve Fidyk. Charette has all the classic sounds and styles under his fingers and feet, but his thinking is contemporary. From “Jitterbug Waltz” on through “Dance of the Infidels,” “Hot Barbeque,” and “Blues for 96,” this is the most purely enjoyable release I’ve heard so far this year. (Release date June 3)
- Kepler Quartet: Ben Johnston, String Quartets Nos. 6, 7, & 8. The end of a long, hard, and worthwhile journey. Johnston’s string quartets, formed out of just intonation and the plain spoken communication of folk music, are at the heart of what American culture aspires to: the new man, unfettered by the atavism of blood and geography, speaking in the universal language of the Great Oversoul. Listen to excerpts of his work, and hear our podcast talk with violinist Eric Segnitz, here.