Saturday, May 31, 2008

Top Five(ish) Jazz Tunes of the Spring!

As I've said over and over again, so far this has been an incredible year for jazz; while it doesn't look like the flow of brilliant albums and tracks will let up in the near future, I thought it was worth commemorating what may well be the best spring in jazz since the fifties with something of a Top Five list. The problem (if you can call it a problem) is that after listing a large number of my favorite tunes since March or so and then whittling it down, I was incapable of creating a list of less than eight. I've tried to link you to the song wherever possible. So here you are, in alphabetical order, my almost-top-five of Spring 2008:

"A Change is Gonna Come" by Bill Frisell: Bill Frisell is quite possibly the single most interesting musician to gain status as one of Jazz's premier artist. He got his start playing tons of sessions for ECM, and made a name for himself by spending half of his time with Paul Motian and the other half with John Zorn; for the past ten or so years he has divided his time between working with brilliant guitar trios and making country-jazz records. "A Change is Gonna Come" represents something of a departure; neither country nor jazz, the song is a cover of a Sam Cooke song from the 60s. Greg Tardy plays a ridiculously good tenor solo after Frisell himself finishes up his own trademark solo featuring a lot of space and some notes that nobody else would play.

"Cuerro Y Alama (Body and Soul)" by Esperanza Spalding: While I have not reviewed Esperanza Spalding's "Esperanza" yet (I haven't been able to get ahold of it in it's entirety), based on the tracks featured on her myspace- and this gem, a spanish 5/4 cover of Body and Soul, in particular- that it could be brilliant. At first, when I'd heard that she spent more time singing on this album than on her gorgeous, underplayed debut "Junjo," I was a little bit apprehensive, but her voice is beautiful, and her bass solo on this track is brilliant in a melodic way.

"HumSong (Skidrow Anthem) Remix" by Ambrose Akinmusire and Yellow Then Blue: While the original is without a question growing on me (the more I listen to the album, the more I feel like I may have been a little too harsh on Akinmusire; he really is a shining light in the new jazz scene, so I suppose my expectations were just too high), the remix of "HumSong" as done by Yellow Then Blue just has a vibrancy that the original is lacking. The entrance of Walter Smith III into the track almost halfway through is accompanied by particularly spastic drums, and the sequenced percussion only makes the track seem more innovative and vital. Smith and Akinmusire in passionately trade fours, and Smith hits notes with incredible intensity.

"Lonely Woman" by Marian McPartland: If one more person reminds me that Marian McPartland just turned 90 I may cry; on the basis of her recent "Twilight World" album, she is just as vital (if not more vital) as a musician as she was in the 50s. "Lonely Woman," an Ornette Coleman cover, somehow does manages to fit in with the rest of the album. The most
astonishing thing about her cover of "Lonely Woman" is that she, a ninety year old who came up in the hard bop scene, has managed to make one of the best free jazz recordings of the year.

"Nonvignon" by Lionel Loueke: I didn't love Lionel Loueke's "Karibu;" to be blunt, it wasn't accessible like his live show in spite of Blue Note's efforts to smooth out all of the rough edges in this music. "Nonvignon," however, is without a question Lionel Loueke's most beautiful song. While the version on "Karibu" isn't as great as an earlier solo version on "In A Trance" or the version I saw at his show in Oberlin- he got the audience to sing along-, there is no question that it is one of the best songs of the Spring. In spite of extended movements away from the normal harmony in the middle, Loueke always manages to come back to the gorgeous chords of the song. If more people listened to "Nonvignon" the world would be a much happier place.

"The Remedy" by Kurt Rosenwinkel: The title track of Kurt Rosenwinkel's new live album from the Village Vanguard has the best groove of any jazz song I've heard all year, perhaps the best groove since the title track of Kenny Werner's "Lawn Chair Society," and the band is absolutely incredible. The major stand-out (with the exception of Rosenwinkel, saxophonist Mark Turner, drummer Eric Harland... hell, everybody in this band is a stand-out), for me at least, is pianist Aaron Goldberg, who, while groaning along a la Keith Jarrett, plays one of the simplest, funkiest, most brilliant motivic lines I've ever heard during his solo.

"Threnody" by Vijay Iyer: I've already talked at length about this particular track on this blog, twice. To put it simply, Rudresh Mahanthappa is the most innovative, violent saxophone player in jazz right now, and by the time he comes into the picture you've already been mesmerized by Iyer's interplay with bassist Stephen Crump.

"Wonderwall" by Brad Mehldau: Brad Mehldau, like Kurt Rosenwinkel, has been less than prolific in recent years; "Live," the latest from his trio, was worth the wait. "Wonderwall," a rhythmically interesting (the bass plays in a different time signature from the piano and drums; but the band meets up during the bridge, creating a sort of Steve Coleman vibe without sounding at all like Steve Coleman) cover of an Oasis tune, features Mehldau's usual gorgeous, funky, restrained piano playing. Mehldau, more than anyone else in the jazz world, understands that less is more, and he's come a long way since his note-heavy early records. His music manages to be complex enough to satisfy a jazz snob or music school student, but is simple and catchy enough to be accessible to just about anyone.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Tokyo Daytripper

On a whole, Pat Metheny's discography is pretty spotty. Terrible missteps like "American Garage" or, well, just about anything else by the Pat Metheny Group coexist alongside masterpieces of quiet fusion like "80/81" or "Trio 99/00;" everybody already knows that Metheny's recent "Day Trip," his trio album with Antonio Sanchez and Christian McBride, is one of the good ones. For that reason, it should come as no surprise that "Tokyo Day Trip," a sort of live B-sides spin-off record (if those kinds of records even really exist in the jazz world) is stellar. As opposed to sounding like odds and ends from the "Day Trip" trio (which, essentially, it is), "Tokyo Day Trip" stands on it's own.

In spite of "Tokyo Day Trip" being very Pat Metheny, to the point where every track with the exception of the brilliant eastern dirge "Tromso" that opens the disc falls into one of Metheny's archetypes, it is also very good. Even "Inori," the Metheny Group-esque pentatonic ballad, manages to showcase a huge amount of emotion from Metheny and the band. In fact, emotion is one of the things that really sets this particular EP apart from much else in Metheny's discography; he manages to sound neither like a robotic technician nor a contrived melodramatic actor, his two most prevalent modes. Everything on "Tokyo Day Trip," like many of Metheny's great records (Read: "Bright Size Life") sounds as if it came from somewhere meaningful.

Taking every track into account, my personal favorite is "Back Arm and Back Charge," possibly the loudest thing to come out of the jazz world since the Nels Cline Singers unleashed "Confection" on their most recent album; Metheny tries to beat Cline at his own game, and almost succeeds. That said though, every performance on this EP is a highlight; "Traveling Fast" is an up-tempo tune highlighting Metheny's technique, and "The Night Becomes You" is beautiful. Highly Recommended if you can find it.

Next time I'm going to have my TOP FIVE(ish) JAZZ TUNES OF THE SPRING! So check back here in a couple days. Who will make the Jazz Monster's Top Ten? Esperanza Spalding? Ambrose Akinmusire? Someone you've actually heard of? Check back and find out...

Monday, May 26, 2008

Hey, Chico!

Chico Hamilton is one of the two great 80+ warhorse drummers in the current jazz scene, the other being Roy Haynes. Hamilton, productive as always, has released two different albums under his own name, "Alternate Dimensions of El Chico" and "It's About Time;" the latter is an EP of dancehall remixes of Chico's music while the former is a new album from his trio, made with long-time band-mates Cary DeNigris (guitar) and Paul Ramsey (bass). The key difference between Hamilton and Haynes is the energy; Hamilton clearly cannot play the way he used to, while Haynes is not only capable, but willing to surround himself with big-name young players (Jaleel Shaw, Marcus Strickland) to keep his game up.

"Alternate Dimensions of El Chico," an album of Chico Hamilton remixes as done by DJs Soulfeast and Mark De Clive-Lowe, suffers from the same problematic inconsistency that just about any jazz remix album does; when it's good, it's good, but when it's bad, it's terrible. Take the two remixes of "Mysterious Maiden," for example. Both remixes (one of which is 12 minutes long, mind you) drag on for what seems like an eternity, and with nothing to show for it but repeating motifs. It's a shame that those two tracks are so bad, though, because almost everything else on the album is pretty good. "Je Ka Jo" and the album closer, "I'm Still Thirsty," both make you want to get out of your stuffy jazz critic chair and dance, while "El Toro" adds an interesting hook to the original tune. Who am I kidding? This album wasn't made for serious jazz listeners anyway, but for DJs in need of something fresh to spin.

I'm going to be brutally honest and say that Chico Hamilton's new trio album, "It's About Time," isn't stellar. It's unfocused and more than a little bit odd. But there are little glimmers of greatness about it; "What If," for example, features some great bass-guitar unison work, while "Nod to Gabor" (for Gabor Szabo, who got his start with Hamilton) has a ton of solo space for everybody. For a guitar trio album, however, there's something missing on most of the tracks; a good guitar trio should sound like more than three instruments (listen to just about anything Bill Frisell's done in the format), while for some reason here it sounds like there are less. For every track like "Nod to Gabor" or "6/8 For CH," which sounds like 60s Blue Note crossover jazz in the best way possible, there's a track like "Paul," which begins by searching for something that never materializes. I don't know that I can quite recommend either album, but I would say that a few of the tracks I mentioned from each are definitely worth a listen if you can find them.

Next time I think I'm going to have a review of Daniel Zamir's new "I Believe," which was released today. If not, you can probably expect a review of Pat Metheny's "Day Trip Tokyo" or Marcus Miller's "Marcus."

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Zydeco Clowns and Israeli Ex-Patriates

John Ellis and Third World Love have virtually nothing in common in terms of music, although if you wanted to play six degrees of separation they have both played with Mike Moreno at some point in their careers (John Ellis on Moreno's most recent album; Avishai Cohen with Moreno on Yosvany Terry's "Metamorphosis"). Granted, that sort of random ephemera doesn't really help anyone, or tell anyone what either group sounds like, but it's illustrative of how small the jazz world is during the Monk generation (neither Ellis nor the members of Third World Love went to the Monk Institute, but they've both played with people who have, and Cohen was a finalist in the Monk Institute's trumpet competition in the late 90s). Either way, while the aesthetics of "New Blues" and "Dance Like There's No Tomorrow" are totally different, they're both extremely interesting and worth listening to.

One track, titled "Zydeco Clowns on the Lawn," neatly summarizes the entirety of John Ellis' "Dance Like There's No Tomorrow." After opening up with squeals and other various clown noises, the track moves into a groove partly anchored by Gary Versace's organ, but also partly anchored by what any sane person initially thinks is a bass. A few seconds later, when it becomes clear that this funky music is actually being bottomed out by Matt Perrine's sousaphone (If you only click one link, click that one, Perrine's version of "The Washington Post March" is brilliant), it comes into focus that perhaps this is not music for sane people. This is not a problem, as far as I'm concerned; a surplus of good music isn't necessarily made for (or by, for that matter) people with good heads on their shoulders, and this music is too fun to ignore just because it's a little zany. There's almost no point in going into specific tracks, because somehow Ellis manages to give them perfect descriptions in their titles (even, somehow, when a track is called "Tattooed Teen Waltzes With Grandma"). This album is well worth a listen, maybe the jazz summer-party-record of 2008.

Third World Love, Avishai Cohen's band with Israeli partners-in-crime Yonatan Avishai (piano), Omer Avital (bass), and Daniel Freedman (drums), has the most in common with John Ellis on the title track of their "New Blues;" a mixture of middle eastern flavor and contemporary jazz harmony, but with a funky New Orleans beat, as well as an infectious melody, the track soars. And everything on the record is that good. While Avishai's sister, clarinet and saxophone player Anat, has been getting the most mention in the last two years ("New Blues" was released on her record label, Anzic) because of her constant stream of new music, Avishai deserves a lot more space in the trades. Last year he released "After the Big Rain," easily one of my favorite releases of 2007, and with "New Blues" he has staked a claim for Third World Love as one of the top young bands in jazz.

I don't know what I'll have next time to be honest (I'm living moment to moment with this blog), but expect something here on Tuesday. Maybe I'll do my "Top Five Tunes of the Spring" a few days before I had initially planned if I can't find "Esperanza" anywhere.

Friday, May 23, 2008

James Carter in the "Present Tense"

I have a friend who likes to describe James Carter as the best, greasiest, most intensely fatty soul food of the jazz world. There is no doubt in my mind that that description is accurate; if you have too much you'll get sick, but when you're in a certain mood nothing can really satisfy you but a good helping of JC. This is just as true of "Present Tense" as it is of any Carter album, but for a number of reasons "Present Tense" isn't just another Carter album. For one thing, he stays away from saxophones on three tracks (he plays flute on "Dodo's Bounce" and bass clarinet on both "Bro. Dolphy" and "Shadowy Sands"), and as opposed to prominently featuring his tenor and soprano playing as he normally does, he devotes a few absolutely burnin' tracks to his baritone.

"Present Tense" is of a certain aesthetic that belongs to James Carter alone- a sort of time-warp that manages to reinvent 50s Blue Note hard-bop as it would have been played by a free jazz obsessed 90s technician who can do all of the things expected of a free jazz obsessed 90s technician. Many people think of Carter's playing more as a series of random tricks he can do on his instruments (insanely high altissimo squawks, slap tonguing, etc) than any sort of legitimate harmonic and melodic invention. While that may be fair to a degree, Carter has never struck me as the sort of person looking to impress jazz critics. Carter was never set to be the next Coltrane; I think Carter falls more in the tradition of entertainers like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, another multi-reedist, who would sing into his flute and play two saxophones at once.

While Carter may not be particularly innovative, one listen to a track like "Rapid Shave," featuring his baritone playing, could convert anyone but the most jaded Brecker-ite. His playing is just so joyful, and catchy, and greasy, that it makes you want to see him regain his stature as Downbeat's permanent baritone saxophone critic's poll winner (he lost to Gary Smulyan last year for the first time in God knows how long). Of his sidemen, the most memorable is Dwight Adams, who deserves much wider exposure. He played brilliantly on Carter's 2004 album "Live at Baker's Keyboard Lounge," and he plays just as brilliantly here. His playing is totally different from Carter's; as opposed to using tricks, Adams is only interested in creating gorgeous, simple melodies. On "Tenderly," the closer, he plays one of the most elegant solos I've heard recently from anyone. This album is highly recommended for anyone (this includes musicians who do impressions) who thinks that jazz is just stuffy intellectual gallery music.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Notes on the New Downbeat: Miguel Zenon's "Beautiful Combination" Adds Up to Less Than the Sum of its Parts, In My Opinion

First off, why does everyone love Miguel Zenon so much? Seriously, if you love Miguel Zenon comment and explain it to me, because after having heard "Jibaro" (I couldn't find "Awake" anywhere) and having seen him live twice (once with his quartet, once with SFJazz Collective; both very recently) all I got was that he could shed scale patterns really fast (like, really fast). Anyway though, here's Stefon Harris, possibly beating Stanley Crouch at the ridiculous praise game, talking about Miguel Zenon:

"Miguel has a beautiful combination of all the elements it takes to move a human being"

Uh... what?
On a totally different note, though, I was really glad to see Esperanza Spalding get an article to herself, her "Junjo" was great, and while I haven't heard her new album "Esperanza" yet, the tracks on her myspace are setting it up to be a real doozy. Also, props to Downbeat for featuring Mostly Other People Do The Killing in the "Players" section. They're awesome.

Also, Jamey Aebersold and David Baker (both of whom were involved in this year's IAJE conference) can't tell the difference between Sonny Rollins and David Murray? Is this some sort of bad dream? No wonder IAJE had to declare bankruptcy...

Tomorrow I'll either have a review of James Carter's "Present Tense" or a double bill review of John Ellis' "Dance Like There's No Tomorrow" and Third World Love's "New Blues," all three of which are absolutely killin'. I've said it a billion times, but this spring season is one to remember.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Miles From India, but Not So Far Off

For some reason the idea of "high concept" has infiltrated the jazz world recently. Many albums seem to be created through sentence long pitches ("Dee Dee Bridgewater meets Africa," "Chick and Gary reunited," "Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson, two American legends," etc.) as opposed to artistic drive. That said, though, a lot of those albums turn out to be extremely good; a lot of the best albums of last year fell in that category, including Dee Dee Bridgewater's aforementioned "Red Earth" and even, oddly enough, Robert Glasper's "In My Element" ("young piano player takes on contemporary R&B without smoothing out the jazz part"). "Miles From India," a new album from too many different artists to name here, is without a question one of those albums. The sentence long "sell" for the album is as follows: "Miles Davis sidemen play Miles Davis tunes with Indian classical musicians."

For the most part, that encapsulation holds. With the exception of Rudresh Mahanthappa and Wallace Roney, who are neither Miles' sidemen nor Indian musicians (Mahanthappa is Indian-American, which I suppose counts, and Roney is the clear Miles stand-in), everyone here has played with Miles or works out of India. The really odd thing about this album, however, is that neither aesthetic really takes over the album. Everything manages to sound like an outtake from one of Miles' mid-70s records while still showing Indian influence in troves. Even the "Kind of Blue" stalwarts (with the notable exception of a pretty bloodless "Blue in Green") sound both very Miles and very Indian. "So What," which contains some of Chick Corea's best piano work I've heard in a long time, opens with Indian classical rhythmic chanting courtesy of Shankar Mahadevan and Sikkil Gurucharan, before moving into a 9/8 jam, while the famous melody of "All Blues" is played on sitar before some pyrotechnic saxophone work from Mahanthappa and Gary Bartz takes the tune out.

The tracks that don't work, however, such as "Blue in Green" and a "fast" version of "Ife," seem to go on forever. The playing is pretty good, but overall the tracks are just too jam-intensive. That said, on a whole "Miles From India" is a pretty good album; the few duds don't serve to drag the entire two disc affair down, and the ability to hear Pete Cosey play guitar for the first time in God-knows-how-long makes it worth sitting them through. As with any of these particularly good "high concept" jazz records, I'd recommend it to anyone who hears the concept and thinks "wow, that sounds like it'd be killin'."

Next time I'll have a review of James Carter's "Present Tense," and perhaps a review of John Ellis' "Dance Like There's No Tomorrow."

Monday, May 19, 2008

Tom Scott's New Album Redefines "Meh;" Dianne Reeves' New Album Redefines "Blech"

I know, I know; amidst all of the good albums out in recent months, why review two albums that are bound to be terrible? Because, in all honesty, these are the two albums- not "Tragicomic," not "Twilight World," not "History, Mystery-" that are going to sell in troves. And I'm here to tell you that one of them surpassed my expectations by about a hair, and the other one was soul-suckingly bad. So here goes; capsule reviews of Tom Scott's "Cannon Re-Loaded," a tribute to Cannonball Adderley, and Dianne Reeves' "When You Know."

Anyone with youtube knows that Tom Scott can play bop. I'd go so far as to say that anyone with youtube knows that Tom Scott can play bop well (depending on which of those videos you watch, Tom Scott either kills Ernie Watts or is killed by Ernie Watts, but he plays well on both). But when I heard that Tom Scott, the reedman behind smooth-jazz impresarios The LA Express, had an album of Cannonball Adderley tunes coming out, and that bass-slapster and Dave Sanborn partner in crime Marcus Miller was going to play bass, I have to admit I was a bit scared. You know what though? It isn't terrible. That said, it isn't good, either. Occupying some sort of odd nexus between jazz tunes and smoove-jamz, certain songs on "Cannon Re-Loaded" work much better than others. "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" grooves without being overly slippery, but "Work Song" suffers from Miller's painful slap bass line. The saving grace of most of the album is George Duke, who by now is probably used to occupying this odd little area, but Terence Blanchard and Tom Scott both play more than adequately for the material. I'd say that if you saw the title and were immediately predisposed to buy it, it's worth it; the playing is good, and it isn't overly smooth. If you saw the title and thought, "hm, Tom Scott, who's that," don't. It isn't very good.

George Duke, who redeems much of "Cannon Re-Loaded" is, as chief producer and arranger, at fault for Dianne Reeves' new album, "When You Know." I say "at fault" because "When You Know" is so bad it will probably cause some listeners- mostly those who got into Dianne Reeves based on the pretty good "Good Night and Good Luck" soundtrack- to have a passionate need to find whoever is responsible for this trash and find a way to make sure they never make anything like it again. There is no point in going into specific tracks, because with the exception of a single track (the very good straight-ahead "Social Call") everything sounds the same; corny, overly-orchestrated retreads of R. Kelly's "Bump N' Grind," as reinvented for the viagra generation. Please don't buy this album. If you do, Diane Reeves will probably think this was a good direction for her. It wasn't.

I don't know what I'm going to review next time. Marc Feldman's reissue? Marcus Miller's new album? "Esperanza?" I guess I'll figure it out then.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Bill Frisell Smashes, Scatters, and Comes Out With His Best Album in More Than Ten Years

I'm going to admit, point blank, that I am of the belief that Bill Frisell can do no wrong. As a sideman, he is one of a small handful of musicians in any idiom that can make any note beautiful; as a leader he has a consistency only matched by Brad Mehldau and his often cohort Paul Motian. So, now that I'm through with all of that praise of Bill Frisell's recent output, let me say this: "History, Mystery" is better in every single way than just about anything he's done as a leader or a sideman at least since 1997's severely underrated "Nashville;" maybe the best since his magnum opus, 1992's "Have a Little Faith." However tempting it is to keep those two albums in mind when buying this, however, those comparisons are pretty useless when it comes to "History, Mystery." It has more in common with the free-wheeling little big band tracks of, say, "Before We Were Born," but even that comparison barely scratches the surface.

"History, Mystery" is just too good, and covers too much stylistic ground, for comparisons to anything in Frisell's or anyone else's discography. The album is designed as a suite for an octet (violin, viola, cello, saxophone and trumpet along with guitar, bass and drums) as opposed to a set of unrelated songs, and each of the two CDs makes up its own clear half of the suite; the first disc is bookended by versions of the ethereal tango "Probability Cloud," while the second is bookended by versions of the ethereal country waltz ("ethereal" is a good word to describe much of this album) "Monroe." In addition, various short themes (two of "Question" and "Answer," a few "Struggle"s, a couple of "Lazy Robinson"s, etc) show up repeatedly throughout the two discs.

Of the lengthier tracks, my personal favorite is a cacophonous version of the old Lee Konitz war-horse "Subconscious-Lee," but my love of Konitz' work of the 50s probably makes me impartial on that front. Everybody plays brilliantly, and the sidemen include Tony Scherr, Kenny Wolleson, and Jenny Scheinman. Greg Tardy, the saxophone player, shines in particular on a stand-out solo on Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come." The individual tracks are not so important on this album as the way they fit together, however, and the whole of this album is much greater than the sum of its many brilliant parts; just listen to the way "Probability Cloud" segues into "Probability Cloud Pt 2," or the way the formless "Monroe" finds form in the groove of "Lazy Robinson."

"History, Mystery" has undoubtedly made its way onto my list of favorite Frisell albums, along with "Nashville," "Have A Little Faith," and 2005's "East/West." As opposed to making another trio album (as in "East/West" or "Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian") or reverting back to using country as a springboard for somewhat thought-provoking, yet a little to pleasant jazz (as in "The Willies" or "Good Dog, Happy Man"), Frisell has taken a real risk by releasing a two disc jazz suite for octet, and in doing so has created a brilliant album. I have a feeling that, along with Vijay Iyer's "Tragicomic," "History, Mystery" will stand at the end of the year as one of the year's best. The only thing that the two albums have in common is that neither sounds quite like anything else in jazz right now, and while there are clear reference points in some of the artists' earlier work, the two albums exist in their own musical worlds. Highly recommended for anyone interested in guitars, the future of jazz, or just about anything.

Also, please continue to comment! I'm sorry, Dave, I got a little carried away last time; the whole thing about "embarrassing yourself" by posting was more of a joke than anything else. As for my opinion of Eigsti's album, I stand by it; it's not that I don't think he's a great piano player, I just think he needs a little bit more time to develop into a great musician. Next time I think I'll probably post a review of Tom Scott's "Cannon-Reloaded." Or maybe the new Dianne Reeves album. Maybe I'll rant about how ridiculous the Miguel Zenon article in the new Downbeat is. I dunno, there'll be something here though, so check back!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Eigsti Needs to Pack His Knives and Go; Roberts Hits the Nail on the Head

Do you ever wish that Top Chef were about jazz instead of food? Well, I do. Just imagine, a bunch of young, up-and-coming jazz musicians duking it out for some sort of meaningless title... Who would come out on top? Would it be Walter Smith III, with his updates of old school hard-bop? Or would it be Robert Glasper, the brilliant young piano player who, after working with Mos Def, has perfected a mix of contemporary odd-meter R&B with older jazz? I hadn't heard of (let alone heard anything by) Matana Roberts until a few weeks ago when I read about her new "Chicago Project;" after listening to that album a couple times, I think she could be a wild-card in this kind of competition. After hearing "Let it Come to You," however, I think its time for Taylor Eigsti to get kicked out so he can go home, take what he's learned, and work on his craft.

Its not that "Let it Come to You" is a bad album; he plays well, his ideas are pretty good, and his band (Reuben Rogers, Eric Harland, and fellow prodigy Julian Lage) is great throughout. That said, after hearing Eigsti say a billion times that he doesn't want to be judged as a prodigy, he just can't stand up next to contemporaries like Glasper and Jason Moran. The problem is more conceptual than anything else; as I just said, he plays well and his ideas are pretty good. His work just isn't innovative; anyone who's heard Brad Mehldau's "Anything Goes" has heard Eigsti's take on standards. His originals, however, are pretty good (particularly the "Fall Back Plan" suite towards the end of the album) if not stellar. Eigsti has a great album in his future whenever he finds his voice as a piano player, but he just isn't there yet.

Matana Roberts' "The Chicago Project" is one of the best albums so far this year; its completely different from any of the other records from young people ("Karibu," "Prelude: To Cora," "Let it Come to You") that are getting a lot of press right now. While a large part of that has to do with influence (very few young musicians are so blatantly influenced by 60s free jazz), Roberts has a very distinctive voice. Her wide vibrato (barely heard from musicians since Albert Ayler) and her clearly AACM-influenced compositions just sound different from anything else coming out right now. Take the three "Birdhouse" tracks, for example; each one is a different duet with tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson, and the interplay between the two is practically telepathic. These totally free duets show the thought-process behind this album more than any of the composed heads; Roberts is more interested in interplay and improvisation than composed work. Highly recommended for those with curious ears.

I don't know exactly what I'm gonna have next time to be honest; maybe a review of Tom Scott's new album "Cannon Re-Loaded," or of the new reissue of Marc Feldman's "Music for Violin Alone..." Probably not a double review though, they have nothing in common. Also, as always, feel free to comment if you love Taylor Eigsti and think I can suck it! You may be wrong, but as long as the "comment" button is there, you're welcome to embarrass yourself in this forum.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Library of Congress Records Herbie Hancock's Move to Cheesiness for Posterity; Response to Reader's Comment

So, out of all of Herbie Hancock's albums that could possibly be chosen ("Maiden Voyage," anyone?) to be recorded for posterity, the Library of Congress have decided to save "Headhunters." I mean, don't get me wrong, I get it. It was (and I believe still is) his best-selling record and probably has his two most famous performances on it ("Chameleon" and "Watermelon Man").

In addition, its required listening for anyone interested in jazz (it may well be the most popular early fusion recording by anyone who played with Miles), and every young player gets stuck playing "Chameleon" at awful jam sessions over and over and over... But just because its required listening doesn't make it any good. Or worthy of saving over, say, "Empyrian Isles." Or "Mwandashi." Hell, "Fat Albert Rotunda" is better than "Headhunters..."

On another note, since someone commented (seriously, check it out) on my post about the AJJ's annual awards, I figured I should respond. I have heard Steve Lehman's "On Meaning" (I haven't heard the other one yet), and it is definitely pretty killin'. As for Vijay and Rudresh, the former released "Still Life With Commentator," a collaboration with Mike Ladd, although I suppose the AJJ would probably ignore it due to its being more electronic music than jazz (even though it does have some great piano work).

Tomorrow morning or afternoon I'll have reviews of Matana Roberts' "The Chicago Project" and Taylor Eigsti's "Let It Come to You," the first of which is actually produced by Vijay Iyer. Also, always feel free to comment whether you agree with me, disagree with me, feel like professing your undying love for my critical ear, or just want to let the world know that people actually read my blog.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

John Zorn's Hat Trick

John Zorn sure isn't who he used to be; folks who know John Zorn from his "Big Gundown" days would be in for a shock at his recent output. As opposed to the schizophrenic channel surfing of "Naked City" or the angry bursts of noise characterized by "Spy Vs. Spy," John Zorn has taken his downtown credibility and used it to create a forum for new music inspired by old Jewish sounds. As opposed to consolidating his (well-earned) rep as a noise-maker, Zorn barely plays saxophone these days; he's much more interested in writing music for his many performing ensembles and in using his venue, The Stone, as a veritable land of milk and honey for the downtown scene. One can't criticize him for the volume of his output though; he's released three (!) albums so far this year, not including his one-off collaboration with Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson.

The best of these three albums is "The Dreamers," by Zorn's electric Masada band, and it is also the only one to actually feature Zorn's saxophone playing. While it takes its time to unfold (the first track to really gel is the fourth track, "Anulikwutsayl," which prominently features Marc Ribot's guitar), when it finally does it never lets up. Marc Ribot and Jamie Saft (keyboard) manage to create a sort of Jewish-music-meets-surf-rock-meets-avant-garde vibe which sounds odd on paper but works brilliantly on record. Zorn himself burns on "Toys," a kitschy, nearly free-improvisatory exploration of a variety of sounds and styles too numerous to name here. Highly recommended.

"Lucifer," the tenth installment of original compositions from Zorn's recent "Book of Angels" (the sequel to his "Book of Masada"), is played by the Bar Kokhba Sextet, which also features Ribot and percussionist Cyro Baptista. The album isn't nearly as out there as "The Dreamers," and has more in common with chamber music than jazz. While that isn't necessarily a bad thing, the group doesn't move the idiom into new areas like it did on its installment of Zorn's "Fiftieth Birthday Celebration" series, and the album suffers because at time it seems boring. That said, Zorn's compositions are good, if not as stellar as those from his Book of Masada and so I'd give this album a tepid recommendation; if you love Zorn's current work, its still worth picking up.

Zorn's new edition of his "Filmworks" series, "Vol. 19: The Rain Horse," features Greg Cohen on bass, Mark Feldman on violin and Rob Burger on piano. The music is absolutely sublime; instead being all over the place as on "The Dreamers," Zorn's compositions here are beautiful in a quiet, understated way. Its not jazz in any sense of the word, but being that Zorn released so many albums I figured it was worth listening to, and I'm glad that I did. This one is definitely recommended for anyone who would like to hear a different side of Zorn, or for anyone who wants a way into his more recent classical work.

Next time I think I'll have a review of Matana Roberts' "Chicago Project," but that could change as a ton of albums were released today (including "History Mystery," by Bill Frisell, an old Zorn cohort).

Sunday, May 11, 2008

AAJ: AJJ Announces Nominees, IAJE Folds

So the latest news from isn't all depressing; there's nothing depressing about the fact that the International Association for Jazz Education, overextending itself like a prospective homeowner in 2005, declared bankruptcy or the fact that Vijay Iyer was MIA from the Association of Jazz Journalists' list of nominees for their annual awards... I would say that jazz is in great shape, wouldn't you?

First thing's first: IAJE was (and is) a great organization, and while I've never gone to any of their conferences, I was seriously thinking of skipping school to go to their conference in New York a couple of years ago. The declaration of bankruptcy comes as a result of IAJE seriously overextending itself by starting a program it couldn't afford and holding its most recent conference in Toronto, where nobody attends. A recent fundraiser to recoup these losses was too little too late. IAJE has done a good job of keeping jazz educators around the country on the same page. So, you know, goodbye IAJE. You may not get the same treatment in your obituaries as Jimmy Giuffre did, but then again he didn't bring it on himself.

As for the AJJ, an organization that seems to pride itself this award season on its love for young musicians (woah! An entire category for up-and-comers? Nah...), has managed to let Vijay Iyer, a two time downbeat rising star artist and composer of the year, slip through the cracks and not get nominated for anything. His cohort, Rudresh Mahanthappa, was not nominated for anything either, although much less established saxophonists like Steve Lehman made it onto the list for alto saxophonist of the year... huh? I could understand if the establishment journalists skewed too old, like they do in Downbeat, or perhaps if they skewed too mainstream (also, for the most part, like they do in Downbeat), but there seems to be absolutely no rhyme or reason to the way the AJJ decides on its nominees.

That said, at least some people I like (Mathew Shipp, nominated for composer of the year, for example, or Mostly Other People Do the Killing, nominated for small group of the year) have been nominated for things that they wouldn't even make the finalists list for in Downbeat.

Anyway, that's the news from the jazz world. "Disheartening" isn't the right word; maybe "hellish." Next time expect reviews of the new John Zorn albums. I promise they're on their way.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Tenor Madness: Reissues from Wayne Shorter and Ike Quebec

Blue Note's essential (and cheap) "Rudy Van Gelder" series has reissued pretty much every classic Blue Note album from the fifties and sixties at this point, and so they've begun the transition from reissuing classics to releasing some of the great forgotten gems of their catalogue from that period. Two of the most recent (both of these were reissued in the past two months) of these have been Ike Quebec's "Blue and Sentimental" and Wayne Shorter's "The Soothsayer," so here are some capsule reviews of those.

"Blue and Sentimental" is without a question Ike Quebec's best album as a leader, which stems from Quebec's absolutely killer rhythm section of Grant Green, Philly Joe Jones, and Paul Chambers. Quebec himself is in top form, although once you've heard one performance from Ike Quebec you've heard them all. Of particular note is his intense playing on the title track, a Basie favorite, and on the up-tempo closer "Like," in which Green also plays brilliantly. Recommended for those of you who have a thing for Jazz at the Philharmonic-type neo-swing.

Wayne Shorter's "The Soothsayer" doesn't necessarily count as an album from the sixties; while it was recorded in 1965 it wasn't actually released until the late seventies. Granted, the album it was shelved for- "The All-Seeing Eye-" is also pretty great, but with a line-up like this (Shorter, Freddie, McCoy, Ron, Tony- if you don't know those people by first name, you don't know jazz- and the perennially under-heard and underrated James Spaulding, who plays his ass off on this) and Shorter's brilliant originals (particularly "Angola," and the title track) there's no reason to think of it as a leftover from Shorter's sixties work. The best track actually isn't a Shorter original but an arrangement of Jean Sibelius's "Valse Triste," which Shorter called a big influence on his own "Danse Cadaverous" from the groundbreaking "Speak No Evil." In spite of the melody and changes having been written years before for a different idiom, the track fits in beautifully. Highly recommended.

Next time I'll try and have reviews of John Zorn's three (THREE!) new albums so far this year, but if not there will probably some kind of snarky commentary on recent jazz news (of which there is, as always, much to snark about) between now and then.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Casually Introducing Ambrose Akinmusire

Ambrose Akinmusire, based on his work as a side-man on various brilliant recent albums (Vijay Iyer's "In What Language" comes to mind, as does Walter Smith's "Casually Introducing Walter Smith," but we'll get to that one a little later) and on his recent wins in both of the two major trumpet competitions (the Carmine Caruso competition and the Thelonius Monk competition), is probably the young trumpet player of the moment. In spite of this fact, he has waited up until now ("In What Language" came out in 2003) to release a solo record, paying more attention to work as a sideman and on school at the Monk Institute. "Prelude: To Cora" is a pretty good record; the sidemen (including Walter Smith and Aaron Parks) play their asses off, the compositions are fairly modern sounding amalgamations of jazz (read: hard-bop and post-bop) with R+B and hip-hop, and the production only adds to these two things without getting in the way.

If you already want to buy this album based on what I just said, by all means, stop reading now. What is about to follow is a personal (and unpopular, as far as I can tell) opinion of mine about this record.

All of the stuff I mentioned above is true, but the problem is that while listening to "Prelude: To Cora," I experienced deja vu. I didn't think much of it until I realized a few minutes later that it is the same record as "Casually Introducing Walter Smith III." The three major players on "Prelude-" Akinmusire, Smith, and Aaron Parks- all play (the same) major roles on "Casually Introducing." The harmonic language that makes up Akinmusire's compositions on "Prelude" is the same harmonic language that Smith uses in his own compositions. I know what you're thinking, you're thinking "but there's clearly a difference between the two records! 'Prelude' has a vibes player! And there's much more variation on Smith's album!" Both of those things are true. Chris Dingman does not play on "Casually Introducing," although if he did it would not have been much of a different album. And the variation on "Casually Introducing-" which is, for the most part, missing from "Prelude-" was part of what made it such a great record.

This problem is illustrated best by "HumSong (skidrow anthem)," which, ironically, also happens to be one of the prettiest songs on the album. It opens up with a statement of the melody, followed by a section in which an organ trades with another rhythm section instrument (in this case vibes), which itself is followed by trading between saxophone and trumpet, and then the melody is taken out with (what sounds like) sequenced percussion. Sound familiar? That's the arrangement of "Kate Song," one of the prettiest songs on Walter Smith's "Casually Introducing." There is a remixed version on Akinmusire's website that is much more interesting; even though the playing is the same, the fully sequenced percussion adds a sense of urgency that is lacking from the album version.

But seriously, the playing is great- Parks, Smith, Akinmusire, and Dingman are all in top form- and for at least that reason you should probably ignore everything I just wrote about this album, especially if you liked "Casually Introducing." If you do not, however, have "Casually Introducing Walter Smith III," you should go and buy that album; it serves as a better introduction to this group of musicians (and includes guest spots from Robert Glasper, Lionel Loueke, Gretchen Parlato and Lage Lund).

Monday, May 5, 2008

Leftovers: "One Peace" and "Surfin' USSR"

When I say that these two albums are "leftovers," I'm not suggesting in any way that they aren't worthwhile, or that they should be passed on. Quite the opposite, actually, these two albums are kind of like the tasty little hard to get at morsels that people are usually too lazy to find, or too full to eat. "One Peace" by the Gregg August Sextet and "Surfin' USSR" by Farmers Market have virtually nothing in common other than that they are both good records that are seriously in danger of being overlooked during what is shaping up to be an incredibly good Spring season for jazz (and that they both happen to be full of brilliant arrangements, but that's just a fluke).

Gregg August has played bass for a ton of major latin jazz artists (Paquito D'Rivera and Chico O'Farrell among them), but if "One Peace" is any sort of indicator, his real love is old-school blue note style hard bop. The tunes themselves are nothing particularly special, but between some great three-horn arrangements (written by August himself) and some should-be-famous sidemen (Yosvany Terry or Stacy Dillard on tenor sax, Myron Walden on alto, Luis Perdomo on piano, E.J. Strickland on drums), the record really sizzles, particularly on the slow number "In Dedication," on which Walden and Dillard are given ample time for solos. August himself plays a pretty great solo in a modal Charlie Haden sort of vein on "Change of Course." Recommended.

"Surfin' USSR" is the fourth album from Norway's Farmers Market, a group that sounds sort of like Naked-City-goes-to-a Balkan-wedding. If that description turns you off (perhaps you have a bad childhood memory of a Balkan wedding), you should still be advised that "Surfin' USSR" is probably the most fun record I've heard all year, and one of the most technically chopsy. Farmers Market has the ability to change tempos and styles at the drop of a dime, and Stian Carstensen's compositions are extremely involved, in spite of the hilarious titles ("From Prussia with Love" is an odd-meter goof on the James Bond theme). This is another record that probably won't be coming to record store near you, but if you see it out there its worth getting or at least hearing. Highly Recommended.

That's all for now, but next time I'll have a review up for trumpet player Ambrose Akinmusire's "Prelude: to Cora." You can hear a version of one of the tracks (not the version from the album, but actually way more interesting) as the background music on his website.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Marc Ribot's "Mean-Tempered Guitar"

For those of you who are not familiar with Ribot's work, he is a classically trained guitar player who has played with everyone from Elvis Costello to The Lounge Lizards, and was one of the four major downtown guitar players featured on John Zorn's "The Big Gundown" (along with Bill Frisell, Arto Lindsay and Vernon Reid). His most recent project was an album ("Spiritual Unity") comprised of music written or inspired by the great free-jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler.

Marc Ribot's new album, "Exercises in Futility," is not a jazz record by any particular stretch; as far as I can tell very few notes on the album are improvised, and the vibe is much more in tune with contemporary classical music. However, in spite of the fact that it is not very "jazz," it is very "Marc Ribot," and so a review of it should fit here along with anything else. "Exercises in Futility" is, instead, a series of impossibly hard etudes (the "Exercises in Futility" of the title; Ribot described it as a sort of "Mean-Tempered Guitar" in an interview with on extended guitar technique and a final 9 minute improvisation ("The Joy of Repetition") built on some of the ideas from the etudes.

Ribot is such a great musician and guitar player that even hearing him play these technical etudes is a joy; he manages to imbue feeling into even the most clinical tracks ("#11 Ascending") and each etude has its own clear identity. That said, however, obviously this is not an album for anyone who has any kind of dislike of atonal music (Ribot has never gone out of his way to make his music easily accessible). Once one can get past that, though, there is a lot to get out of this album and I think that it could be a real eye-opener for guitar players (jazz, rock, classical or otherwise); the technique used by Ribot on "#8 Groove?" in particular sounds like it could be useful. I'd give this one a tempered recommendation; if you know and like Ribot, you very well may like this album (I did), but if you aren't into New York's Stone scene or aren't interested in hearing someone play guitar etudes for an hour, this one probably isn't for you.

Next time I'll hopefully have reviews of the new albums from Gregg August and from Farmer's Market, two good albums I feel are probably going to be overshadowed by all of the high profile albums of the recent (and coming; James Carter, Taylor Eigsti, and Bill Frisell all have albums out in the coming weeks) months.