It might be time to consider the possibility that there will be no slow-down in the number of excellent new jazz releases in 2019. This month, we’re treated to several recordings that seek to illuminate big ideas, bold proclamations, and thematic inspirations. There are also some recommendations for those of you who just want some music with a pretty melody, perfect for blissing out.
There are few ways to better spend an evening than listening to Caroline Davis perform on her alto sax. No less remarkable is the fascinating, diverse set of projects that spring from her unbounded creativity. That wealth of talent goes all the way back to her Chicago days, with the post-bop brilliance of her Pedway ensemble, her contributions to the post-rock jazz of Whirlpool, her sonic documentary Doors: Chicago Storylines, and her ballad-as-ignition-switch 2018 release Heart Tonic. Her latest is an excellent electro-acoustic trio set with drummer Greg Saunier and keyboardist Matt Mitchell. The lyricism is the driving force, and sudden changes in direction and tempo shake out with an easy flow, like a relaxing drive through the countryside, windows down and wind in your face. I am absolutely bonkers over this album. It’s smart, it’s fun, and it hits on all cylinders.
Naomi Moon Siegel
Live at Earshot
Compact Disc (CD)
Naomi Moon Siegel may have relocated to Missoula, Montana, but the heart of the trombonist’s music still beats with the sound of the Seattle music scene. This live performance at the 2017 Earshot Jazz Festival reflects Siegel’s imprint on that environment, as well as the depth of its talent pool. Joined by pianist Wayne Horvitz, guitarist Sean Woolstenhulme, bassist Geoff Harper, drummer Eric Eagle, and percussionist Thione Diop, this is music that’s rich with the deep melodic reveries and the warm harmonic embrace that made Siegel’s 2016 release Shoebox View so damn enjoyable.
Swiss Jazz Orchestra
Swiss Jazz Orchestra & Guillermo Klein
Compact Disc (CD)
The Swiss Jazz Orchestra have a flair for the dramatic that’s immensely entertaining. A beautiful melody isn’t just an open door to an entire song, it’s a rallying cry to take it as far as it will carry them. Typically, that’s pretty damn far. Along the way, expect to encounter sudden shifts in tone and intensity, and modulations of tempo that change like the tides of the sea. The gift of this session is that Guillermo Klein, arguably one of the greatest jazz pianists of his generation, joins them on a very rewarding collaboration. Klein nurtures a melody patiently, letting each stage of its life cycle take as much time as it needs to fully bloom. This difference in approach tempers their natural inclinations; the two musicians feed off of one another, stretching out in directions that are both surprising and cohesive. This is an album overflowing with life.
Shahbaz Hussain and Helen Anahita Wilson
Compact Disc (CD)
There are plenty of intriguing attributes that bring shape to DIWAN, but all of them are eclipsed by the recording’s sublime beauty. The duo of tabla player Shahbaz Hussain and pianist Helen Anahita Wilson engage in a rhythmic dialog that is absolutely riveting, stealing hearts with melodies as rich with life as they are deep in serenity. With backgrounds in South Asian and contemporary classical, jazz, and devotional music, the duo rains the influences down upon one another, before propelling them off into a confluence of color and textures. The right combination of individual inspirations and shared coincidence brought them together at just the right time for DIWAN to come to life. It couldn’t have worked out any better. This is some of the most gorgeous music I’ve heard all year.
G. Calvin Weston & The Phoenix Orchestra
Dust and Ash
G. Calvin Weston sets in motion a relentless lyricism, and it manifests as a kaleidoscopic expressionism of chamber, soul, funk, classical, and rock influence to create the drummer’s vision of the modern jazz sound. It flows not just one sound into the next, like distinct units of influence, but instead bleeds into a greater whole. This is a stunning album, and its creative imprint is the kind of thing that might draw the attention away from Weston’s legendary background as collaborator to Ornette Coleman, John Lurie & The Lounge Lizards, Eyvind Kang, James Blood Ulmer, James Carter, and Marc Ribot.
Damon Locks’s Black Monument Ensemble
Where Future Unfolds
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
At the outset of the ‘70s, Archie Shepp released Attica Blues, an album addressing the civil rights movement and inequality in America, and awash in the diverse musics of hard bop, avant-garde, soul, gospel, funk, R&B, Coltrane, and Ellington—all of it steeped in the blues. Racism and inequality still persist today, and the diversity of music has grown exponentially over the decades, so an album like Damon Locks’s powerful Where Future Unfolds snaps right into place in the current environment. Electronic music and breakbeats mix with jazz, gospel, soul, and avant-garde; the sampled recordings of civil rights speeches are combined with the present-day words sung by the alumni of the Chicago Children’s Choir. All of it wears the blues like a second skin. Included among Locks’s Black Monument Ensemble are Angel Bat Dawid, Dana Hall, and Arif Smith. This music is perceptive and inspired. This recording stands at the center of things.
La La Lars II
Lars Skoglund brings together a quintet of musicians more associated with avant-garde, free improv, and psychedelic jazz, and guides them to expressions that capture the spirit of a ballad. Trumpeter Goran Kajfes, tenor saxophonist Jonas Kullhammar, pianist Carl Bagge, and bassist Johan Berthling join drummer Skoglund on this delightful session. An assortment of different keyboards, plus some flute and bassoon add welcome textures to a recording that could have skated by simply on the strength of melodies as warm and cheerful and inviting as the morning sunrise.
Of Agency and Abstraction
One of the most rewarding characteristics of the resurgence of the fusion between jazz and Indian music is how deeply it honors the traditions of both sides of that equation. It doesn’t boil down to merely adding a tabla and toying with some rhythms so that they approximate a raga. Time and again, we are hearing releases that display a balance between modern jazz and Indian musics, and the resulting sound shows how vast the territory is to explore. The latest successful example of this trend is the debut from Rajna Swaminathan. The percussionist leads an all-star cast featuring violinist Anjna Swaminathan, tenor saxophonist María Grand, guitarist Miles Okazaki, and bassist Stephan Crump (and some guest spots from vocalist Ganavya Doraiswamy and trumpeter Amir ElSaffar). The musical influences of East and West take turns exerting their influence over a particular piece, but it’s those passage where it becomes difficult to distinguish where one influence ends and the next begins is when the allure of this music radiates its strongest.
Greg Foat’s distinct psychedelic jazz styling is immensely captivating. The keyboardist has developed a personal electro-acoustic sound that is like no other, where the delicate whisper of acoustic guitar and melodic sigh of strings coalesce with saxophone heat, a brisk conversational demeanor from the rhythm section, and a symbiotic relationship between piano and keyboards, as if there were no distinguishing characteristics between the two. But perhaps more than anything, what makes it all so damn enchanting is the dedication to giving voice to the blues. This is never more true than on his latest, which is equal parts heartbreak and hope. The Mage is a multi-generational display of British jazz talent, with Clark Tracey, Duncan Lamont, Moses Boyd, and Malcolm Catto collaborating. If this is your introduction to Greg Foat, then the next album you purchase should be The Dancers at the Edge of Time, one of the very best things to see the light of day in 2015.
Compact Disc (CD)
This music is as soft as moonlight and no less magical. The songs on Secret Poetry are subtle, and develop with the patience of planets slowly orbiting the sun. This Netherlands-based trio of clarinetist Alex Simu, pianist Franz von Chossy, and percussionist Sjahin During have roots that extend back to their native Romania, Germany, and Turkey (respectively), and while each of those influences inform the resulting pieces, they behave more as a guiding hand than direct causation. Ultimately, it’s the strength of the melodies and the seductive way they are brought to a full bloom that carries this gorgeous album, and really make it stand out from the crowd.
And let’s end this month’s column with one from the vaults:
Beaver Harris / Don Pullen 360° Experience
A Well Kept Secret
There is so much to celebrate about this 1984 recording. It’s a peak transition point for Don Pullen, shifting from his intense avant-garde leanings toward the melodic potency of his collaborations with George Adams and the rhythmic approach of his African-Brazilian Connection ensemble ‘90s recordings for Blue Note Records. It’s got Hamiet Bluiett with his typical hurricane blues on baritone saxophone and Ricky Ford displaying his darting speed on tenor saxophone. Drummer Beaver Harris and Francis Haynes on steel drums hold a riveting rhythmic conversation that would’ve been enjoyable just as a duo session, and Buster Williams’s bounce and growl on bass is the glue that binds everything together. Originally produced by Hal Willner (and with original artwork by Ralph Steadman), A Well Kept Secret is the sonic equivalent of experiencing a thundering rainstorm and that particular joy of standing at the meeting point of chaos and beauty.