This month’s best new jazz releases are reminders of how much happiness we’re capable of giving and receiving, and that no matter how awful the times may seem, there is always reason for hope and joy.
Goran Kajfeš Subtropic Arkestra
The Reason Why Vol. 3
There some parallels to be drawn between Goran Kajfeš Subtropic Arkestra and the cosmic jazz of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, but where the latter made its home in space, the music of Kajfeš reflects a psychedelic nature more attuned to the space inside the head. The trumpeter shifts between Turkish, Swedish, African, Balkan, and NYC influences with the same mutable logic of an intense LSD trip. Over the course of three albums, the Arkestra has visited the music of Cameroonian musician Francis Bebey, Brazilian icon Milton Nascimento, Ethiopian keyboardist Hailu Mergia, and pop bands Grizzly Bear and Panda Bear. No matter where the music sources from, it grooves and sways and rages and signals loudly that life is joy and meant to be celebrated. Kajfeš is one of the more interesting musicians on the scene, and should be a fixture on anyone’s radar. His membership in the ensembles Angles 9, Pan-Scan Ensemble, and Fire! Orchestra makes it likely he’s already on yours.
When Ghosts Were Young
In the hands of Olivier Bogé, a melody is an ecosystem to explore. It’s a quality the alto saxophonist first began to nurture with his 2012 debut, Imaginary Traveler and its 2014 followup, The World Begins Today. Those recordings paired intoxicating melodies with harmonic surges that swept ‘em away, but he couched those works in a medium of restraint and succinctness. On 2015’s Expanded Places, Bogé amplified that approach, and turned the melodies loose to spread anywhere they could. That’s also his starting point on 2017’s When Ghosts Were Young. The melody is truly everywhere. “As Spark Hits The Shadows” grows from a thin flame into a conflagration, and it’s true on tranquil “Dreamers.” Bogé continues to collaborate with the musicians that have brought similar success: guitarist Pierre Perchaud, drummer Karl Jannuska, pianist Tony Paeleman, and bassist Nicolas Moreaux.
Eric Hofbauer Quintet
Prehistoric Jazz Vol.4 (Reminiscing In Tempo)
The fourth chapter of Eric Hofbauer’s Prehistoric Jazz series picks right up where the last left off, and thank God for that. Previous installments included reinterpretations of works by Charles Ives, Messiaen, and Stravinsky, and extrapolated far, far from there. So, in terms of influence and setting, Duke Ellington and his “Reminiscing In Tempo” falls right in line. Hofbauer’s quintet likes to dig deep into the soil of American music, finding the roots in the blues, folk, classical, and jazz that served as the soundtrack for the country when it was just learning to walk. That timeless view of music is something both Hofbauer and Ellington share in common, so it’s only natural that Ellington’s music is the latest stop in the Prehistoric Jazz series. Trumpeter Jerry Sabatini, clarinetist Todd Brunel, cellist Junko Fujiwara, and drummer-percussionist Curt Newton all make return appearances.
When the rain is coming down and the whole city is sitting in silence waiting for it to end, Brightbird is the perfect soundtrack. The tranquility generated by the chamber jazz of pianist Joao Paulo Esteves da Silva, bassist Mario Franco, and drummer Samuel Rohrer has a serious potency. Much in the way a storm approaching from the distance is both beautiful and ominous, this trio gives their peaceful music an electric charge. The insistent pulse of “Sun” practically bounces the melody on its shoulders. The melodic jolts of “There Were Shadows” punctures the serenity time and again before catching fire and spreading across the entirety of the song. The surging tides of “Renewal” act as a melodic accelerant, and receding only after a striking build of tension. There’s nothing about this album that isn’t beautiful.
There Be Monsters
There’s an effortless flow to There Be Monsters—which is pretty remarkable, considering that the quintet includes boisterous instruments like the tuba and the trombone amongst its ranks. The Slovenian saxophonist Boštjan Simon has an exquisite touch when it comes to shaping a melody, but the real highlight of There Be Monsters is its wealth of harmonic riches. Vibraphone and drums round out the quintet, and though their primary role is as rhythmic instigators, the duo’s enhancement of the melody isn’t a secondary consideration by any measure. A strong album, start to finish.
Made To Break
There comes a time in every extended piece from Made To Break where the ground drops out from beneath the song, and what remains is a simultaneous state of floating and falling, where the song doesn’t really seem to be proceeding in any one particular direction, but there exists, nonetheless, a heavy gravitational pull. On the quartet’s newest, it happens at the halfway mark of opening track “Hydroplane (for Shellac).” The dancing groove instigated by saxophonist Ken Vandermark and amplified by the rhythm-duo of bassist Jasper Stadhouders and drummer Tim Daisy suddenly gives way to the drifting electronics and effects of Christof Kurzmann. That’s when forward locomotion and melodic focus transforms into chaos and unpredictability. It’s as compelling as it’s startling, and as blunt as the transition can feel, it’s no less satisfying when the transformation comes full circle back to where it began. The effect is no more subtle on the blues-inflected “Contact Sheet (for Susan Sontag)” or the relentless volatility of “Slipping Words Against Silence (for Kerry James Marshall),” and that the results can vary so wildly from piece to piece is a source of intrigue that nicely complements the thrills.
Andy Hunter & Johan Hörlen
Most appealing about Confluence is its transitory nature, the sense that Andy Hunter and Johan Hörlen’s quintet is fluidly shifting between states of expressionism. At times, the ecstatic groove of hard bop drives the music, while at others, the music is the delivery system for some modern post-bop edge. And then there are those pieces that threaten to shrug off any sense of focus and instead veer into avant-garde territory. The intentionality of this is proven by the two non-originals chosen for the session: “Inner Urge” and “Warm Canto” by Joe Henderson and Mal Waldron, two artists who also live in that pocket between old-school, modern, and no-school. Not to be lost in all of this talk of influence and expression is Confluence, loaded with high-voltage melodies, tempos that keep the foot tapping, and a mesmerizing harmonic approach to bundle it all up. Trombonist Hunter and alto saxophonist Hörlen are joined by some serious talent with vibraphonist Tim Collins, bassist John Goldsby, and drummer Adam Nussbaum.
Momo Trio pull off a nifty balancing act, where the rhythmic complexities of each song at times threaten to draw the attention away from undeniably catchy melodies. The cyclic action on “The Spin” diverges into three separate, concentric paths before reuniting. On “Exoghi,” the rhythmic attack slices and dices the melody up into unequal parts, accentuating one section over the next until a composite view is achieved. “Electric Message” goes for the big statement, while “Departing Anyway” works its magic cloaked in subtlety. In both instances, what’s happening behind the scenes is equally resonant with the element that’s in the spotlight. The trio is comprised of pianist George Dousis, drummer Nikos Kassavetis, and bassist Paraskevas Kitsos. This is a nice opportunity to mention that Kitsos’s 2016 release Polemos was one of the best things to come out last year, and was undeservedly under the radar.
The quintet Die Enttäuschung has both feet planted firmly in modern jazz, but the path of their footprints extends back to the genre’s past. This makes a lot of sense considering that the current incarnation of this project—bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall, trumpeter Axel Dörner, trombonist Christof Thewes, bassist Jan Roder, and drummer Michael Griener—was originally formed to dig into the Thelonious Monk songbook. It shows. These pieces, all originals, are constructed in a way that makes their staggered cadences and wobbly melodies bop and swing and party like it’s 1959. It’s not at all uncommon for a modern jazz artist to incorporate something from the past in their forward-thinking view. In many ways, it’s one of the signifying characteristics of jazz. But it’s rare for those qualities to be equally distinct and essential to the final vision. This album could easily find a home in the library of the jazz purist and the jazz futurist.
Richard Lloyd Giddens, Jr.
The album is meant as an ode to Richard Lloyd Giddens, Jr.’s hometown of Fresno, California, and the dense imagery behaves as the embodiment of the memories and nostalgia accrued during a lifetime spent in the same surroundings. The bassist’s reveries take the form of melodic ripples across the surface of songs. Whether it be the melancholy “Storm” or the combustible “Inhibitor” or the skittering “Toasting the Mart,” the melodic inspiration that sets things in motion rarely maintains the same form throughout. The fragmented nature of the melodies plays tricks with the passing of time, as there is no discernible structure to rely upon. The result is that the music has an immediacy that is more than a little bit compelling. Giddens, Jr. is joined by the strong cast of pianist Adam Benjamin, guitarist Storm Nilson, drummer Tomas Fujiwara, and tenor saxophonist Matt Otto. Worth noting that the last two names mentioned, Fujiwara and Otto, contributed plenty to the wealth of 2017 releases.