Rudresh Mahanthappa

Jazz: Semi-Top 10 For 2011

Call it semi, quasi, ersatz, but kibitzing slowly on the heels of Jim Macnie, Patrick Jarenwattananon and Hank Shteamer, I’m motivated to put up an annotated list of what are the best jazz releases I’ve heard so far this year. These are records that were new, or at least new to me, up through June, so there are things that promise some hard challenges for these choices, like the upcoming Tyshawn Sorey release.

Like Hank, I’m excited over what has been a bounty of new jazz, new playing, new thinking, not only through this year but over the past few years. Aesthetically, the music is as strong and vital as its ever been, and the music is also exploring its own history in ways that are exciting, because there’s much more to jazz than Bird, Ellington and ’60s era Blue Note. Lists aren’t the best way to handle this, but they are not terrible and the practical consideration, at least for me, is that they help me craft some, hopeful, coherence out of my usual confusion and fatigue. And so, in no particular order (except what iTunes considers alphabetical) are the 10 best 2011 jazz releases for the first half of 2011:

Alon Nechustan: Words Beyond 

It takes time for a developing body of work to seep out to the public, even to the presumed vanguard of which I’m supposedly a part, so Nechustan’s already substantial body of work is new to me. I regret that because this is a great recording, and a total pleasure from beginning to end.

What to call this? New classic piano trio, perhaps. That group, as an interactive rather than homophonic unit, has been a stand-alone strand of jazz history since the Bill Evans Trio mesmerized the scene. Nechustan is an energetic, verbose, witty, good-natured and forceful proponent (as are bassist Francois Mouton and dummer Dan Weiss) of it. The band’s playing is full of verve. They have a real power, but it doesn’t weigh them down, everything moves and grooves, the interplay is outgoing and forward pointing. Nechustan has a highly developed two handed style and provides a lot of his own counterpoint, freeing up Mouton and Weiss to add accents, counter melodies and playfully antagonistic comments.

Nechustan as a pianist with a true, personal voice. There are touches of Keith Jarrett’s country-funk by way of Brad Mehldau’s structural sense, but he doesn’t sound like anyone other than himself. All the material is original, and there are smart and respectful bits of Monk and Ellington in tunes like “Different Kind of Morning” and “The Traveler.” He writes tunefully inside tracks that go well beyond standard blues and song forms, and he often weaves improvisation in between composed sections, which give a satisfying feeling of freshness and complexity. The record is full of the great legacy of jazz ideas, and is also completely new, and seems to improve with each listen. The epitome of piano trio jazz.

You can catch this group live, at the Cornelia Street Cafe, Sunday August 7, 8:30pm, for their CD release performance.

 Ambrose Akinmusire: When The Heart Emerges Glistening

Jazz has produced a great deal of beautiful music in its 100 years, but beauty is a quality that jazz frequently discounts: there are few musicians – Johnny Hodges being a particular exception – who have pure beauty as their main value. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire is clearly dedicated to beauty, and his Blue Note debut CD is tremendously, powerfully beautiful.

Hodges idea of beauty was a certain diffident elegance of line, tone and form, a kind of Apollonian ideal. Akinmusire is a bit more Dionysian. His quintet, with Walter Smith III on tenor, Gerald Clayton, piano, Harris Raghavan, bass and drummer Justin Brown, has a powerful, plangent post-Coltrane sound, they like to sink pedal tones and toss some hefty sonic weight around. The sonic quality, which flows from the leader’s gorgeous tone, is beautiful, and the weight behind it just makes it physically and emotionally thrilling. The sound seems alive as it comes out of the speakers, forming into shapes in the air through which it moves.

The opening cut, “Confessions to my Unborn Daughter,” is the attention-getter, almost ten minutes of music that seems to be full of ever-unfolding, ever-burgeoning power. Akinmusire steps away for a great solo from Smith, who keeps his considerable fire just far enough away so we are in no danger, only delight. Everything is here from the start, and if there’s a bit of a drop-off in intensity in the rest of the disc, there’s none in quality. Everything is touched with a mature, masculine feeling for loveliness, even the short interludes variously titled “Ayneh.” There is one misstep, a sincere but unsuccessful reaction to the almost casual, horrible murder of Oscar Grant. The sentiment is worthy and understandable, the execution of the idea is not there yet. But the future is beautiful for Akinmusire.

Ambrose Akinmusire and Quintet play “Confessions to my Unborn Daughter” at Jazz Standard

 Aram Shelton’s Arrive: There Was . . .

In the Many-Worlds Theory of Jazz (which I’m making up on the spot), each new idea in the music, whether a grand conception (like Third Stream), or a development in soloing styles (modal playing, for example), leads to a splitting of a portion of the jazz universe, creating an entirely new ‘multijazzverse’ that from that moment on runs concurrent and parallel to all the current, extant jazz universes. A key element that differentiates jazz from quantum mechanics is that it’s possible to not only travel across the multijazzverses but to exist in more than one simultaneously. See here for further exploration of a similar concept.

One of these universes was created in the mid 1960s, on Blue Note records, through such classic albums as Out To Lunch, Destination Out and Point of Departure. The key features of this universe were a hard-driving, hard-bop style of swing, an exploration of non-standard forms of writing jazz tunes and harmony, a dose of free improvisation and an urgent, searching expression, full of questions without answers. A common thread was the cool, clean vibes of Bobby Hutcherson. Once that universe was created, it was left fairly moribund until the past decade, when a new generation of musicians, like Steve Lehman, set out to chart its features and possibilities. To that crew, add Aram Shelton, and this great, intriguing and unsettling disc.

By unsettling I mean this is jazz dedicated to what might be, rather than what is. Melodic lines, improvisational phrases, rhythmic patterns, these don’t necessarily resolve into neatly rearranged even lengths or consonant harmonic cadences. There is a seamless balance between notation and improvisation, and equal care and thought put into each. This band has an exciting exactitude to its sound; the lapidary coolness of excellent vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, Jason Roebke’s rolling bass patterns and the remarkable precision and drive of drummer Tim Daisy, sounding like a cross between the young Tony Williams (heard on many of those Blue Notes) and Joey Baron. Shelton has a big, slightly keening, slightly mournful sound. There are no standout tracks because everything is so good. Each time I try and pick an exemplary one, some other steals that attention. This is a disc full of ideas about the past and future of jazz, anchored by powerful emotional expression and wrapped in a brilliant surface. Whenever I put it on, it seems like the greatest thing I’ve heard.

 BANN: As You Like

What makes this so good? It’s a superb group playing at a state of the art level. More extensive review in this previous post. Read the whole thing for a review of another disc on this Top 10 list, Chris Parrello’s self-titled debut with his band, Things I Wonder. It’s got a few flaws, but the more I listen to it, the more the flaws sound integral to the music’s ambition, and to Parrello’s organic conception. I never imagined a band that could sound like it was forming itself, on the fly, out of a stew of jazz, fusion, prog-rock and punk. The Bad Plus cracked open this door, Parrello lopes through it, without any self-consciousness about making a statement. The Bad Plus comes to mind for the next release on this list:






Endangered Blood

I am familiar with the member of this band, reed players Chris Speed and Oscar Noriega, and the all-star rhythm section of Trevor Dunn and Jim Black. This is a muscular and deceptively subtle ensemble. You’d expect some thrash and a heavy rock feel with Dunn and Black, and there is some of that, but it serves as the seasoning in what is in many ways a straight-forward contemporary jazz group.

But what a group! The lack of an instrument to play chords seems to direct them towards the hard-earned values of constant interplay, counterpoint and support, in a style that comes, vaguely, out of Ornette Coleman’s concept. The sound is modern, the vocabulary is at times wonderfully archaic, like a musical cognate of the baroque, beautiful vulgarity of the dialogue from “Deadwood.” There’s an excellent examination of “Epistrophy,” the rest is original pieces from Speed, like the tender and haunting “K,” and the charmingly tipsy trad-style march, “Iris.”

It’s worth noting the sheer sound of this disc, which is upfront, natural and pleasingly rough. Part of that is Speed’s raspy tenor, but the engineering and production are excellent and unique. On a good system, it sounds like the musicians are right there in the room. And the band, along with it’s obvious might, is also relaxed, focused, witty and very humane.

Catch this band at University of the Streets, Wednesday, August 10 at 10pm.

 Honey Ear Trio: Steampunk Serenade

To my ears, Ethan Iverson’s group has not totally followed through on what they promised with their big label debut, These Are The Vistas (now almost ten years old). They proved that a group could play exceptional modern jazz with the stance and immediate excitement of a rock band, and have been doing that same thing, with varying quality, ever since. That idea is a beginning, not an end, and the Honey Ear Trio has picked it up and run with it.

The do play with a rock group’s immediate sonic and physical appeal, and do much more. While steampunk in music is pretty hard to identify, much less describe, this band gets close to it. The music reaches back into pre-jazz New Orleans marches and extends into Minute Men territory, and frequently casts the shadow of a classic power trio, with drummer Allison Miller the guiding force, bassist Rene Hart adding some screaming leads, and Erik Lawrence the front man on saxophones. These cats can really play, the musicianship is exceptional. Although they do only one standard, a rich “Over The Rainbow,” the music is full of history; with touches of Monk, moments that remind me of Steve Lacy’s great trio disc The Window, and always a persistent and most welcome flavor of the multijazzverse bequeathed by the partnership of David Murray and Butch Morris: a powerful sound that sits at the apex of the pyramid of history, and witty, pithy tunefulness, full of surprise and satisfaction.

There’s a great storehouse of musical material that the group accesses and stitches together, so the disc is full of both variety and focus. The thirteen generous tracks sound very different from each other and all of a whole. That this is a cooperative group with such a distinctive sound is even more impressive. The musicians are all new to me, and I will express my shame in that ignorance because their playing and thinking are so damn good.

 Ben Kono: Crossing

This CD, as much as I’ve enjoyed it from the start, was not in this list, nor even near it at first. But persistent listening, driven by a persistent desire to hear it more that the music clearly implanted in my head, has revealed its considerable virtues and accomplishments, and it deserves a place here.

Kono is one of the stalwart session men on the New York scene, from Broadway to the stellar big bands of Darcy James Argue and John Hollenbeck. His versatility as a player comes through on Crossing in a rich range of musical thinking; all the pieces are his own, and his writing makes excellent use of wordless voice, french horn, and his own terrific flute and double-reed playing. His writing makes the band, with Heather Laws the aforementioned singer/horn player, Henry Hey on piano, guitarist Pete McCann, John Hébert on bass and drummer Hollenbeck, sound enormous. The musical ideas come out of the contemporary legacy of sophisticated, internationally tinged jazz composition and orchestration, make use of the best lessons from the likes of Pat Metheny as well as his own colleagues. Kono places and emphasis on melody, and is a real craftsman, shifting his lovely lines through different textures and harmonies, combining sections that seem like bits of songs into larger forms and never losing track of where he has come from and where he is going.

There’s a great balance of beauty, grace and sheer cooking, and the stunning “Rice” shows this all off, with a sharp does of funk as well. Kono himself is a powerful player and an excellent improviser. My own slight caveat to the disc is entirely a bit of personal taste, and it’s that his tenor playing just a little too close to his clear forebears, Michael Brecker and Chris Potter. He has his own ideas, without a doubt, the tone is perhaps not 100% his own yet. This is not a problem on the other horns, and he appears to my ears to be at the top of contemporary jazz flutists. The surface quality of this recording may seem, at first, a bit smooth and safe, but I’m confident that the intelligence, craft and pleasure of it that rumbles under the surface will insinuate their way into your ears, as they’ve done with mine.

Matthew Shipp: Art of the Improviser 

A stupendous, monumental two disc set from an important musician, thinker and iconoclast. I’m saving a more thorough examination for an upcoming look at improvisation in general, but for now I think it’s valuable to admit that Shipp is a musician whom I’ve more admired than loved in the past. I respect his values and goals, share a number of them, but have found that the pleasure in listening to his music is often marred by a tendency towards didacticism and mannerism. There are scattered moments like that across this set, one solo and one trio recording, but they are few and ultimately overwhelmed by the incredibly depth, richness, power and mystery of the playing. If the title threatens pretensions, I would argue that it could be called The Art of Improvising and would fulfill that claim, and go far beyond it.

 MSG, Tasty!

Love the title, love the band, love the recording. Rudresh Mahanthappa, whose Apex was one of the pinnacles of 2010, is one of the cooking-est, blowing-est (and most delightful), players in jazz and blows the hell out of these eight sharp, hip vehicles, and Ronan Guilfoyle and Chander Sarjoe match him step (and stab, note, change of pace/meter/tempo) for step. Mahanthappa can torch your ears like a flamethrower when he wishes, but this session is more on the light-hearted side of intensity. He slows down for moments that explore his plangent tone, but in the main this is the kind of quick-thinking and forceful rhythmic articulation that is the welcome mainstream in contemporary jazz. Listening to Tasty! is like being driven through an exhilarating and slightly unnerving course in a Porsche, at high speed, by an expert driver. Your safety does not leaven the thrills. Delicious and satisfying.



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.