Scott Routenberg Trio - Supermoon

Label: Summit Records, 2018

Personnel - Scott Routenberg: piano; Nick Tucker: acoustic bass; Cassius Goens III: drums.


Supermoon, the second outing of the trio led by under-the-radar pianist Scott Routenberg, is the follow up to last year’s Every End Is A Beginning. As happened in the previous CD, the new work released on Summit Records, is exclusively composed of originals and features Nick Tucker on acoustic bass and Cassius Goens III on drums.

Routenberg, who was not averse to genre explorations in an initial phase of his career (Jazztronicus), provides us with a fine collection of jazz songs inspired by his two sons, Julian and Florian.

Opening the program is the title track, which dissipates all types of positive energy. The tune was written for Florian, who was born on the evening of the supermoon, and conveys the liveliness of a child in the form of a colorful rock-based song with boiling drum fills, grooving bass lines, as well as a burning piano ride.

Things start graciously feathery on “Everything Is Alive”. Still, the rhythmic and harmonic textures stiffen up for Routenberg’s eloquent solo, eventually returning to the initial quasi-classical docility.

Florian’s obsession with trains is illustrated on “Locomotivity”, an uptempo burner in six with a subtle Latin feel and boppish motifs to be enjoyed. This one was co-written by Routenberg and his wife Sofia Kraevska.

Both “Quiet Times”, a melodious reflection requiring cohesive interplay, and the closing “Little Song”, a tranquil ballad in which the trio finds room to breathe, have soft, warm-hearted natures, in opposition to the playful “Bebop Baby”, whose swinging verve is pelted with Bird-inspired lines and a rhythmic bounce similar to Benny Green. Tucker also enchants while discoursing in sympathy with Gershwin’s classic rhythm changes.

Supermoon is a product of Routenberg’s parental and musical inspirations, but also a work of unified expression from a charismatic trio that shows enough attributes to provide us with substantial moments of gratification.

 Grade  B

Grade B

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Supermoon ► 02 - Everything Is Alive ► 08 - Quiet Time

Kyle Nasser - Persistent Fancy

Label: Ropeadope, 2018

Personnel – Kyle Nasser: tenor and soprano saxophones; Roman Filiu: alto saxophone; Jeff Miles: guitar; Dov Manski: keyboards; Nick Jost: bass; Allan Mednard: drums.


Saxophonist Kyle Nasser, a native of Massachusetts, forges his sophomore album, Persistent Fancy, with a strong team spirit and a signature of his own. The CD, inspired by literary and philosophical works as well as personal experiences, comprises 14 compositions molded with classical, rock, and jazz influences. Nasser gathers a competent sextet, forming a dynamic frontline with Henry Threadgill’s indispensable altoist Roman Filiu. They are backed by an efficient rhythm section with Jeff Miles on guitar, Dov Manski on keyboards, Nick Jost on bass, and Allan Mednard on drums. The guitarist is the only ‘survivor’ from Nasser’s 2015 album Restive Soul.

The album’s opener, “Split Gut”, is a tempting invitation formalized by piano moves effortlessly synchronized with bass and drums. Amidst rock discharges and oblique crescendos, there is still space for a conversational interaction between the reed players. Initially cordial, the dialogue expands after a while, until getting the phrases juxtaposed. Miles’ wah-wah guitar is attractively noir and his attacks point in the direction of the next indie rock-driven song, “Arrival”, originally written for a trio gig in Chile.

The rock genre is revisited again with “Sticky Hipster”, a fusion exercise that homages the musical tendencies of Nasser’s Brooklyn neighborhood. It’s filled with guitar sounds in the style of Alan Holdsworth, rapid saxophone runs, and hearty drum slaps. Also, the second part of “Eros Suite”, featuring ostinatos and cyclical harmonic progressions with the drummer at full force, creates an adherent rock muscle that is dropped in its romantic third and last part.

There is another suite in the program that piqued my curiosity through its distinct tone colors in an agile amalgamation of jazz and classical music. The three-part “Baroque Suite” was inspired by Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues and shows Nasser’s compositional sophistication. The first part (prelude) implements a sort of rock-ish Middle Eastern cadence in seven before a passage that consolidates classical piano and synth effects. The second part (a fugue) serves as a showcase for the saxophonist's delineations, whereas the conclusive part three is a 2-minute swinging fantasy where they fully enjoy improvisatory freedom.

The classical influence sticks out once again on the sole non-original on the album. “Arioso” is an excerpt from prolific German violinist Paul Hindemith’s “Ludus Tonalis”, while, on the contrary, post-bop orientations are in the base of “The Ascent of Henry Monmouth” and “3-Way”.

Contrasting with the rest of the tunes, we have the title track, immersed in synth replications while rock and jazz elements fuse with an electronic-like vibe; and the happy, suggestive pop song “Coffee and Cannabis”, which closes out the album.

Pivoting into a variety of sonic territories, Nasser presented well-developed ideas that openly welcome cross-genre pollination.

 Grade  B

Grade B

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Split Gut ► 05-07 - Baroque Suite ► 07-09 - Eros Suite

Cuong Vu 4Tet - Change In The Air

Label: RareNoise, 2018

Personnel – Cuong Vu: trumpet; Bill Frisell: guitar; Luke Bergman: bass; Ted Poor: drums.


Cuong Vu nurtures the idea of group identity with another multifaceted quartet album featuring singular guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Luke Bergman, and drummer Ted Poor. Change In The Air is the followup to Ballet: The Music of Michael Gibbs and includes only original compositions brought by all the four members of the ensemble - Vu, Poor, and Frisell contribute three tunes each, and Bergman one.

Surprisingly, the album starts with a longing jazz ballad penned by the drummer, who employs brushes for a more delicate sound. But there are other balladic incursions like Frisell’s discreetly bluesy “Far From Here” and “Long Ago”, a slow folk number with a rustic touch that advances methodically with conspicuous snare drum activity. The guitarist’s writing style is unequivocal and his sound aesthetics is transported to this quartet.

Poor’s “Alive”, one of the record’s most exhilarating pieces, is a resolute epic that shifts and shines with Frisell’s full-bodied country-rock guitar emboldened by the dependable bass-drums flux, while the adventurous Vu unleashes spontaneous phrases in tones of blue, where every note is played with passion and grit.

Bergman’s sole composition “Must Concentrate”, offers engrossing chord changes over an initially static rhythm. However, the group doesn’t linger in that particular orientation for too long. They work dynamics with gusto, weave engaging textures (Bergman plays additional guitars), and the song easily gravitates toward the alternative pop/rock style, differing from the less impetuous temper that had been created with the previous waltzing tune: Frisell’s contemplative yet alert “Look, Listen”.

Round and Round” has the melodic instruments articulating polished phrases, whether in unison whether echoed in tandem. There are two versions of this examination, but Vu’s finest compositional effort is “March of the Bat and the Owl”, a jolt of swamp-funk and rock with staccato accents, distorted guitar, shifting tempos and sumptuous rhythms. Evidently, you’ll find the band following the routines of stretching and release with awe-inspiring virtuosity.

Cuong Vu and his reliable associates play melancholic melodies and embrace slow tempos with the same precision and creativity as when they improvise on the razor’s edge. This is a highly enjoyable disc; one that thrives through effective teamwork and forthright personal statements.

 Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
02 - Alive ► 07 - March of the Bat and the Owl ► 10 – Far From Here

Wayne Horvitz - The Snowghost Sessions

Label: Songlines, 2018

Personnel – Wayne Horvitz: keyboards, electronics; Geoff Harper: counterbass; Eric Eagle: drums.


Although well rooted in his jazz pianism, Wayne Horvitz, a likable musician who made his name in the 1980’s downtown New York music scene, dauntlessly ventures in different styles that range from classical to electronic. The Snowghost Sessions marks his first trio record since the 80’s, featuring 14 tracks whose cinematic quality is stepped up through the application of electronic effects, amplified and processed piano, and a few overdubs. Old compositions are rejuvenated and new ones come to life dressed in 21st-century sonic outfits.

The album is a product of a weeklong residency at SnowGhost in Whitefish, Montana, and features a rhythm pair from Seattle: contrabassist Geoff Harper and drummer Eric Eagle.

The overdubs work nicely on “No Blood Relation #1”, a plaintive waltzing experiment layered with acuteness. Horvitz pastes a surrounding noise effect with his keyboard for spiciness, having bass and drums working tight in the back. Conversely, the second version of this piece feels very jazzy, underscored by Eagle’s sober brushwork. Also recreating himself with brushes while waltzing, the drummer propels the short “Trish”, an old tune written for The Royal Room Collective Music Ensemble, with resolution.

While “The Pauls” is patiently cooked and feels experimental in its quietude, even evasive at times, the downtempo “Northampton” spreads beautiful melody and a gospel flavor that derives from the lengthened organ chords. The dissonant vibe induced by the combination of piano and bass is delicious. Also melodically poignant and prone to ambient, “Yukio and Nao’s Duet” - referring to dancers Yukio Suzuki and Nao Ashimine - rests on an endless harmonic cycle. Both dancers collaborated with Horvitz in 55: Music and Dance in Concrete, a 2014 installation whose variations 21 and 7 were picked up for this album. The former offers a short bass solo over a minimal classical loop, while the latter brings up a relaxed, trippy beat and soaring electronics as variants.

Don’t think everything is undisturbed and contemplative because broader gestures of the trio originate denser scenarios such as the ones heard on the riotous “IMB”, whose crazy swinging passages are enlivened with electronic processing for a psychedelic effect, and “For James Tenney”, which moves forward at a galloping rhythm until the final chordal burst.

Attentive to sound design, Horvitz goes on making interesting albums, typically distinct from one another, where audio mixing has an important role.

 Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
02 – No Blood Relation #1 ► 04 – IMB ► 06 – Northampton

Mary Halvorson - The Maid With The Flaxen Hair

Label: Tzadik, 2018

Personnel - Mary Halvorson: guitar; Bill Frisell: guitar.


Pursuing fashionable sounds, Mary Halvorson joins forces with her fellow guitarist Bill Frisell on The Maid With The Flaxen Hair, where both follow their natural stylistic impulses to interpret nine ballads associated with Johnny Smith. The idea came from saxophonist John Zorn, who opened the doors of his record label, Tzadik, to these guitar-centric duets with abundance of melody and experimentation.

Electronic seasoning confers a 21st-century presentation to timeless standards shaped with hints of folk and country, cases of the languid “Moonlight in Vermont”, which even swings a bit in its B section after a few slow dissonant bends; “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning”, sculpted lightly with an uncompromising posture; “The Nearness of You”, limned with rhythmic staccato attacks and introductory melodic divagations to obtain a marvelously fresh sound; and “Misty”, whose unadulterated voice leading goes along with buzzing and sliding rusty drones.

Wry sounds spread throughout and sometimes the sound of the guitarists blend in such a way that it’s hard to say who’s doing what, especially when Halvorson doesn’t use that descendant pitch shifting effect that characterizes her playing. The title track, a classical prelude by Claude Debussy, exhibits echoing phrases and follows a necessary synchronization with a contemplative country-jazz propensity.

The duo pushes the envelope of the American folk idiom on both “Scarlet Ribbons For Her Hair”, a popular song, and “Shenandoah”, dated to the early 19th century.

The fanciful orchestrators end this session with Smith’s 1954 hit “Walk, Don't Run”, in which swinging jazz segments cohabit with Bach's innuendos.

This is a fun, accessible disc from two openminded sound-shapers who bring interesting ideas to songs from the past.

 Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Moonlight in Vermont ► 02 - The Maid With The Flaxen Hair ► 06 - The Nearness of You

John Scofield - Combo 66

Label: Verve Records, 2018

Personnel - John Scofield: guitar; Gerald Clayton: piano, organ; Vicente Archer: bass; Bill Stewart: drums.


On Combo 66, top-tier guitarist John Scofield is featured in a quartet with his longtime drummer, Bill Stewart, and two new collaborators, pianist/organist Gerald Clayton and bassist Vicente Archer. Scofield keeps the fire burning, commemorating his 66th anniversary with a provocative blend of post-bop, rock, swinging blues, soul-jazz, and funk.

His nonpareil guitar strokes and bracing language are immediately perceived on the opening tune, “Can’t Dance”. The guitarist discloses his incapacity to dance but, on the other hand, substantiates the ability to play swinging post-bop pieces with hints of soul-jazz à-la Lou Donaldson with groove, humor, and hot bluesy licks.

Also reflecting the state-of-the-art technique of the guitarist within a swinging environment, we find tunes such as “Icons At The Fair”, shaped with taut and joyous abandon and complemented with bar trades between guitar and drums; “King of Belgium”, where the bebop ethos is brought to the present for a tribute to Belgian harmonica master Toots Thielemans; and “Dang Swing”, which captures the essence of the country blues with a buoyant temperament. Clayton is in the spotlight on the latter tune, demonstrating with agile hands why he is the first choice of Charles Lloyd and Roy Hargrove.

An infectious rock riff inspirits “Willa Jean” (Scofield wrote it for his granddaughter) before it takes a more straight-ahead course when the melody becomes salient. A similar energetic stamp is also found on the noir-ish straight-eight “Combo Theme”, but it eventually faints on the ballad “I’m Sleeping In”, gently stirred by Stewart’s brushed snare.

The guitarist also has a penchant for waltzing songs and he colors them with a contagious energy. “Uncle Southern” has a soaring, lenient organ accompanying and brings strong American flavors for a brew of jazz, gospel and R&B, whereas “New Waltzo” exhales some driving funk at a medium-fast speed. Curiously, my favorite tune on the album also flows with a three time feel, but is none of the above. It’s a bonus track called “Ringing Out”, which comes impregnated with an astonishing rhythmic proficiency. Clayton sticks out once again with a superb improvisation imbued with logic flurries containing spiky notes, and expanded with clever harmonic integration.

Scofield creates an automatic empathy, letting us know that he is here to fly for many more years.

 Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Can’t Dance ► 03 - Icons At The Fair ► 10 - Ringing Out (bonus track)

Devin Gray - Dirigo Rataplan II

Label: Rataplan Records, 2018

Personnel - Ellery Eskelin: tenor saxophone; Dave Ballou: trumpet; Michael Formanek: bass; Devin Gray: drums.


Dirigo Rataplan, a genuine product of the fertile musical ground of New York, is one of the brainchildren of Brooklyn-based drummer Devin Gray, who also leads the quartets Relative Resonance and Fashionable Pop Music. This stellar chord-less quartet includes stalwarts of the ‘scene’ such as saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, trumpeter Dave Ballou, and bassist Michael Formanek, with whom Gray establishes a vital rhythmic thrust. For Dirigo’s second chapter, the drummer based himself on experiences he had over the past six years and also tried to reflect how we, as human beings, currently live in the current world.

Materializing bold modernistic impulses through a grooving, carnivalesque samba flavor, “Congruently” discloses in its title how the quartet communicates. The rhythm team weaves an unbreakable net over which Eskelin and Ballou interacts, going separate ways but eventually converging when required.

Rollin’ Thru Town” flows freely and loosely, digressing without a particular direction. While the frontline juxtaposes insouciant phrases, the bassist pushes back and the drummer completes the scenario with colorful, freewheeling chops. The musicians find a common path by the end, rejoicing in their trajectories with a laudable affinity.

If the quietness of “The Feeling of Healing”, dedicated to Steve Grover (Gray’s former teacher in his Maine), is also prone to divagation, then the shifting “Trends Of Trending” bounces off with an astute bass groove that is momentarily interrupted to install an unanchored passage demarcated by a darker semblance. The piece regains further impetus for the final section, where dry rhythmic punches are validated by the restless horn players. There is some hints of funk in its nature, just like it happens on “The Wire”, an energetic avant-garde feast a-la Don Cherry where melodic unisons give place to an uproarious reaction while Eskellin blows with an unrestricted sense of exploration. Ballou also impresses with a sudden, energetic entrance, complemented with fulminant high-pitched attacks that never feel extreme.

Before finishing dynamically with “Micro Dosage”, a short yet adventurous piece, the quartet builds “Intrepid Travelers”, departing from an unhurriedly rubato and landing on a waltzing cadence that brings Formanek to the forefront. The bassist shows how fluid and creative he can be with melody.

Employing modern jazz patterns to describe the quotidian life, Gray is far from predictable as a composer. By proclaiming an intelligent approach to song structure with plenty of groove and diversified tempos, Gray shapes Dirigo Rataplan II as an urgent contemporary record. And of course, because each member of his quartet is a virtuoso player, it all sounds effortless and responsive, regardless of the complexity of the passages.

 Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Congruently ► 03 - Trends of Trending ► 10 - Micro Dosage

Tyshawn Sorey - Pillars

Label: Firehouse 12, 2018

Personnel – Tyshawn Sorey: conductor, drum set, percussion, trombone, dungchen; Stephen Haynes: trumpet, flugelhorn, small percussion; Ben Gerstein: trombone, melodica; Todd Neufeld: electric and acoustic guitar; Joe Morris: guitar, double bass; Carl Testa: double bass; Mark Helias: double bass; Zach Rowden: double bass.


Drummer/composer/bandleader Tyshawn Sorey is a genius of modern composition. Embracing a completely different lineup and instrumentation when compared to his previous piano-trio session Verisimilitude (Pi Recordings, 2017), Sorey sculpts his forthcoming CD, a nearly four-hour, three-CD set opus entitled Pillars, to be quite an experience. However, it requires patience from the listener since the electro-acoustic octet he conducts digs deep into the abstract with a combination of sounds that can range from minimalistic hushes to ominous shouts and slashes to relentless machine-like sonic cycles. It’s difficult to say which parts are improvised and which are scored, but his willingness to try new things yields unpredictable outcomes on this particular work.

Part I kicks in with a long section of resonant ruffs with changing frequencies and overtones, morphing into a variegated patchwork of acoustic guitar and cymbals. This happens before the bassists are brought to the forefront and, whether bowing or strumming, create buzzing drones that support Stephen Haynes’ trumpet bursts designed in the upper register. Later, he is joined by Ben Gerstein’s trombone for a long conversation. Tweaked electronic vibes help to describe an unsettled cosmic reality through eerily phantasmagoric incursions or extraordinarily luminous points. Somewhere closer to the end, I could hear a bomb being dropped, an ambulance, a final blow… the trombone screams and the jittery percussion give the final touch to a dystopian scenario.

Part II is launched with a coalition of double basses - dented bowed reflections, cutting scratches and loose pizzicato sometimes create odd grooves. Then it’s time for electrical guitar rumination with effects, strident pointillism, harmonics, and drones. It precedes the war-like battalion that is arriving, emulated by melodica and drums. Water sounds with frenzied trumpet atop end up in a more accessible passage with trombone, guitar, and percussion.

Well-coordinated guitar plucks join the bowed basses to form eccentric chords in the solemn ritual that opens Part III. The trombone wails sound sweet when compared to the following lethargic section marked by cavernous arco bass, cymbal shatters, thumping toms, and electronic reverberance. The climax arrives with riotous attitude, softening again with the addition of acoustic guitar before diving into the haunting low-pitched sound waves that always return at the end of each part.

Sorey and his bandmates don’t reinvent but rather create from scratch with no preconceptions. This type of sound design would work wonders in movies like Malick’s The Tree of Life or Guy Maddin's experimental docufictions, offering sinister textures and timbres with sensorial intensity, instead of easy melodies on top of chord changes with perceptible rhythms underneath. I cannot say I would listen to this music every day (you have to be in that particular mood), but there is always something to be discovered when I do it. I’m still adjusting to Sorey's bold new sonic shapes.

 Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Part I ► 02 - Part 2

Wolfgang Muthspiel - Where The River Goes

Label: ECM Records, 2018

Personnel - Wolfgang Muthspiel: guitar; Ambrose Akinmusire: trumpet; Brad Mehldau: piano; Larry Grenadier: bass; Eric Harland: drums.


In order to address a new set of never-recorded compositions, Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel reenlists the same American musicians who had brought Rising Grace, his previous album, to life. The guitarist builds up Where The River Goes as a natural follow-up to its predecessor but offering new experiences with each tune, a fruit of his deep musical sensibility.

Pensive guitar expressions introduce the title track right before they are turned into systematic chordal fluxes accompanied with gentle single-note delineations from pianist Brad Mehldau. The lyric vein inspires the soloists - fabulous trumpet player Ambrose Akinmusire sounds sharp and candid; Muthspiel brings some folk influence into the jazz linguistic domain; and Mehldau, invariably conveying interesting ideas, outlines precise phrases articulated with gusto.

The title “For Django” (supposedly penned for guitarist Django Reinhardt) should make us think about some sort of swinging treatment, which doesn’t happen. Instead, the piece feels more thoughtful than precipitous, becoming immersed in a dignified solemnity that never darkens. This lightness in mood is effectively corroborated by bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Eric Harland, who restrain from pushing too far, and reinforced through a passage that promotes end-to-end communication between piano and guitar. Akinmusire justifies the constant calls from his fellow musicians, pulling off soaring solos that nobody else can match. Afterward, he lays down the melody of “Descendants” with lingering notes and fine focus. Although the piece starts nostalgically crystalline, seeking a certain amount of ambiguity and actually getting it with the contribution of slightly dissonant bends from the bandleader, it ends up being shaken by an intense rhythmic passage.

After “Clearing”, a complete spontaneous creation that touches modern classical and cyclical minimalism, it's time for the acoustic glow of “Buenos Aires”, a solo guitar portrait of the Argentinean capital.

The initially ruminative “One Day My Prince Was Gone” enjoys the exploratory freedom for a while, before exhibiting unison lines over a swinging rhythm. This ultimate thrill anticipates Mehldau’s “Blueshead”, which stands up for bop-derived melodies and solos containing abundant call-response interaction.

Muthspiel returns to the acoustic guitar introspection on the closing piece, “Panorama”, decompressing through amiable chromatic shifts within the arpeggiated movements.

The quintet, united by a strong rapport, adopts this uniform, exquisite approach to Muthspiel’s writing, creating a catchy narrative that incorporates both warm and glacial developments.

 Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Where The River Goes ► 04 - Clearing ► 07 - Blueshead

Darren Barrett's Time For Romance - But Beautiful

Label: dB Studios, 2018

Personnel – Darren Barrett: trumpet, vocals; Takeru Saito: piano; Santiago Bosch: keyboards, synth; Youngchae Jeong: bass; Daniel Moreno: drums; Judy Barrett: percussion + guest Kurt Rosenwinkel: electric guitar.


On his new album with the Time For Romance band, Canadian trumpet player Darren Barrett shows an enormous respect for jazz tradition, devoting himself to pure melody and transforming eight classic ballads to be firmly fit in the present. Sporadically, we can sense the same innovative, futuristic vibes that made The Opener, his previous album, an unexpected phenomenon of the contemporary jazz. These are mirrored in tunes like “Everything Happens To Me”, where we find him flirting with hip-hop rhythms and dubstep synthesis while reeling off bop-inflected phrases with long-held notes; and “The Touch Of Your Lips”, here designed with a flamboyant Afro-Latin rhythm and tasteful sound effects while upholding the warm, mellow tone reminiscent of Chet Baker.

The passionate guitar of Kurt Rosenwinkel (playing the intro all alone) lights Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” before the invasion of a percolating Latin rhythm emphasized by the presence of percussionist Judith Barrett. The bandleader improvises with soul, having Santiago Bosch’s synth ‘disturbances’ rolling sporadically in the back. In that way, he is even more persuasive on the wonderfully sedative “Invitation” as well as on “But Beautiful”, in which he has the company of Japanese pianist Takeru Saito as a featured soloist. Both pieces have the foundation builders - bassist Youngchae Jeong and drummer Daniel Moreno - holding on their function of timekeepers.

Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream” was subjected to a laid-back treatment in order to get an inebriating feel without losing its original soul-jazz flair. It opposes to Benny Golson’s “Ugly Beauty”, which is not so interesting in terms of texture.

The album closes with “Every Time We Say Goodbye”, which conforms to the romantic direction with a somewhat cheesy dedication to all the lovers. Besides adding organic sounds to it, Barrett sings the song.

These re-imaginations of ballads chosen from the Great American Songbook don’t have the powerful impact of Barrett’s last year’s originals. That wasn’t expected since the nature of the music is very different. However, and despite making us enjoy immortal melodies, the instrumentation and modernistic garnishes of But Beautiful, didn’t captivate me as much as I would have liked.

 Grade  C

Grade C

Favorite Tracks:
02 - Invitation ► 06 - But Beautiful ► 07 - Everything Happens To Me

Jonathan Finlayson - 3 Times Round

Label: Pi Recordings, 2018

Personnel – Jonathan Finlayson: trumpet; Steve Lehman: alto saxophone; Brian Settles: tenor saxophone; Matt Mitchell: piano; John Hebert: bass; Craig Weinrib: drums.


If you dig sterling modern jazz, Jonathan Finlayson is a name to memorize. At the age of 36, the Californian trumpet ace is flying way above the standards and is still receiving accolades for his fantastic CD Moving Still, featuring his Sicilian Defense group. On the newest 3 Times Round, his third outing on Pi Recordings, he is joined in the frontline by two vibrant saxophonists - altoist Steve Lehman and tenorist Brian Settles - whose fieriness and passion help taking Finlayson’s compositions to a level that many experienced musicians would aspire to reach.

The album’s opener, “Feints”, is full of life. Punchy unisons, impeccably executed by the horn section, buoy up the theme statement while the sonic tapestry underneath is allusive of Steve Coleman, with whom Finlayson has been working with for the past 20 years as a core member of his Five Elements group. The improvisations kick off with pianist Matt Mitchell, who weaves single-note melodies before dexterous concurrent movements are delineated on distant registers. The bandleader embarks on a swaggering three-way dialogue with the saxophonists. They delve into the agitated textures with gusto, taking their advanced vocabularies with them. This becomes also salient on “Grass”, a modernistic epic laid out with nerve. Here, Lehman and Settles compete furiously, employing sharp-edged speeches. After Finlayson’s searching discourse, Mitchell departs for a compellingly beautiful exploration. Freedom is so intense, and still, the tunes have well-defined structural ideas locked in.

A Stone, A Pond, a Thought” is a haunting modal contemplation that sort of dissipates the brisk vibes emanated by the previous compositions. Piano, drums and John Hebert’s arco bass conspire to create an extraordinary, functional foundation that supports the prevailing appeals by the trio of horns with firm spirituality. There are some other pieces with a controlled temperament, cases of “Refined Strut”, which is sprinkled with a fanciful tango-ish rhythmic feel and affecting balladic tones; and “Rope From The Sky”, a dark chamber-like experience.

The longest cut on the album is “The Moon is New”, which clocks in at 14:07 and commences with an enthusiastic piano ostinato flanked by timely piano/bass wallops on the lower register. This odd-metered rhythmic flux is posteriorly dismantled through a combination of reflective melodies from piano and bowed bass. There are more unisons declared with terse angularity, anticipating the individual improvisations, which arrive separated by deliberate pauses. All of them are surrounded by a particular mood and comes filled with evolutionary spontaneity and supple fluidity. In his own arresting style, Finlayson assures the tone and quality of his instrument; Lehman fires up shuddering attacks with fractured curls and sharp angles; Settles is tremendous, aspiring to a sort of Coltranean ascension; and Mitchell is never redundant in its creative process. The soloists also shine on the provocative “Tap-Tap”, whose rich orchestration and defying tempo sort of align with the slanted push-pulls of Henry Threadgill.

This is a must-have album from a rising trumpet star and smart composer whose innovative jazz perspective has absolutely everything one might ask for. One of the year's very best.

 Grade  A+

Grade A+

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Feints ► 03 - A Stone, A Pond, a Thought ► 07 – Tap Tap

Troy Roberts - Nu Jive Perspective

Label: Inner Circle Music, 2018

Personnel – Troy Roberts: saxophone; Tim Jago: guitar; Silvano Monasterios: keys; Eric England: bass; Dave Chiverton: drums.


New York-based Australian saxophonist Troy Roberts, a two-time Grammy-nominated artist/composer, releases a rhythmically provocative album, his eighth as a leader, in the company of an adventurous quartet: guitarist Tim Jago, keyboardist Silvano Monasterios, bassist Eric England, and drummer Dave Chiverton.

The opening track of Nu-Jive Perspective, “Fame & Four Tune”, is an amalgam of Steve Coleman’s M-base and Michael Brecker’s crossover jazz. With Roberts expelling fierce popping sounds from his tenor, the tune’s passages oscillate between ecstatic turbulence and hip composure.

Abiding by a 6/8 meter, “Slideshow” incorporates an immersive sax solo over a funky strut. Mordant wha-wha bass thumps and organ flare-ups are also part of the show. Rippled wha-wha effects also mark the short “Phish HQ”, whose conglomeration of soul, jazz, and funk vibes recalls Jamiroquai’s style.

The bass pumps 5/4 grooves with vigor on the emphatically rhythmic “Table For Five” and “Jack The Sipper”. With the rhythm team playing in the pocket, the latter piece thrives with remarkable improvisations by Roberts and Jago, two exciting soloists. The soulful, explorative side of the guitarist is ruling on “Adamant Eve”, an R&B song, slowly developed with deep melodicism and a hip-hop beat; as well as on the shifting “Through The Eyes of Psychoville”, whose vertiginous rhythm takes us to a psychedelic neo-funk realm intercalated with moments of pure jazz.

The lullaby-ish melody introduced by Monasterios on “Professor Ghetto-Rig” is posteriorly overlapped by the cool funk that slinks its way through the groove. Roberts also maintains a close relationship with melody on “Avni Lane” and the more contemplative “Belle”, whose pure laconic voice diverges from the joy imparted by the gospel-infused “Veepea-Are”.

Nu-Jive Perspective is a kaleidoscopic and groove-oriented endeavor that showcases Roberts’ passionate musicality. The way he traverses styles feels all at once genuine, accessible, and daring.

 Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
04 - Jack The Sipper ► 06 - Avni Lane ► 08 - Through The Eyes of Psychoville

Shai Maestro - The Dream Thief

Label: ECM Records, 2018

Personnel – Shai Maestro: piano; Jorge Roeder: acoustic bass; Ofri Nehemya: drums.


Comprising six originals and two solo piano covers, The Dream Thief marks a strong ECM debut as a leader from the Israeli pianist Shai Maestro, whose trio includes longtime associate Jorge Roeder on bass and a new partner, the drummer Ofri Nehemya (replacing Ziv Ravitz). The band’s state of mind airs a candid sophistication that also feels gentle and literate, expressing carefully practiced mechanisms and spontaneity alike. However, Maestro decides to open solo with a rendition of Matti Caspi’s “My Second Childhood”, a rubato reflection eked out by yearning tenderness and profound beauty. The choice to include a song from Caspi is not fortuitous since Maestro is a confessed admirer of his work and even took some lessons from him in the past.

The Forgotten Village” is sculpted with a rich lyricism, adheres to a quintuple meter, and counts on subtle irregular beats to pave an irregular ground. The Peruvian bassist is eloquent in his solo, drawing vivid emotions with virtuosic deliberation.

Gently lit by the glow of legato/staccato cymbal moves in Nehemya’s brushwork, the title track also soars well above, feeling more spherical than polygonal in its reserved posture. This inclination is gradually dismantled as texture and rhythm step up in intensity. It culminates in a scintillating improvisation by the bandleader.

Tidal rubato waters wash “A Moon’s Tale”, whose deep sonority comes from the mallet drumming, whereas “Lifeline” shines through with an aching fascination for the impressive melody. According to the pianist, this piece was originally conceived as a 4/4 burner, but was conveniently slowed down here to fit the album’s introspective mood.

Instigating fondness through gracious developments and inspired interplay, “New River, New Waters” is a fulfilling experience that also proves the trio as high flyers. Even when there's a loud call for freedom, they never eschew melodic and motivic clarity in its statements nor ingenious rhythmic nuance.

A confluence of classical and jazz streams give a magical touch to “These Foolish Things”, another solo effort, before the poignant “What Else Needs To Happen” raises awareness of the gun problem with the assistance of a couple Obama speeches.

Emotionally charged atmospheres surround The Dream Thief, a definitive statement of maturity from Maestro, a refined world-class pianist.

 Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
02 - The Forgotten Village ► 05 - Lifeline ► 07 - New River New Waters

Cory Smythe - Circulate Susanna

Label: Pyroclastic records, 2018

Personnel - Cory Smythe: piano, autoharp, electronics; Daniel Lippel: detuned acoustic guitar, electronics; Sofia Jernberg: vocals.


Pianist Cory Smythe, an experimental visionary artist who has collaborated with Tyshawn Sorey, Ingrid Laubrock, and Peter Evans, releases his first album as a bandleader. For that purpose, he convenes the quirky guitarist Daniel Lippel, a bandmate in the International Contemporary Ensemble, and the groundbreaking vocalist Sofia Jernberg, a key member in Mats Gustafsson’s The End. Circulate Susanna, heavily inspired by the violent words of Stephen Forster’s “Oh, Susanna”, comprises a set of microtonal studies that convey perplexity and a touch of fear.

The extraordinary strangeness of Smythe’s formula prods and baits the listener, following bizarre circular trajectories that, pushing boundaries, feel uncomfortably dystopian.

Valid examples of what was described above are “Susanna Soil Flutter”, whose foreboding vibes communicate dissonantly with jagged chants in its piercing, wailing, and guttural forms; “Ladies Load the Telegraph” stealthily brings obscure undercurrents conjured up by rolled, birdlike vocalizations, low notes on the piano, and vehement guitar plucks and scratches; “Circulate Susanna”, whose angular pianism incites Jernberg to mutate her voice; and also “Heads Circulate to Mole”, in which guitar and piano synchronize in an odd way to establish another enigmatic soundscape.

Circulate to Mole” offers detuned guitar bends, which serve as platforms for the clamorous, flickering vocal projection of the singer. If this piece openly embraces an oblique avant-country, then “Reverse Soil Flutter” ends up covered in dense layers of sound that bring forth a psych rock-inflected expressionism.

Among my favorite tracks are “Heads Gather The Stars” and “To Gather The Wind”. The former behaves like an unearthly operetta, running with tweaky, dreamlike intonations due to aerial guitar slides and gloomy piano; while the latter applies fragmented lyrics from “Strange Fruit”, earning chamber contours due to Lippel’s bowed guitar.

This spine-chilling opus reflects a chimeric ambiguity charged with phantasmagoria. It's terrifying, definitely risk-taking, and not like anything you’ve heard before. It might not get an immediate positive impact, though, due to its uncanny nature.

 Grade  B-

Grade B-

Favorite Tracks:

02 - Circulate to Mole ► 07 - Heads Gather The Stars ► 13 - To Gather The Wind

Ilhan Ersahin's Instanbul Sessions - Solar Plexus

Label: Nublu Records, 2018

Personnel - Ilhan Ersahin: saxophone; Alp Ersonmez: bass; Izzet Kizil: percussion; Turgut Alp Bekoglu: drums + guests Erik Truffazz: trumpet; Ibrahim Maalouf: trumpet; Nils Petter Molvaer: trumpet; Dave Harrington: guitar; Mauro Refosco: percussion; Arto Tuncboyaciyan: percussion; Kenny Wollesen: drums.


New York-based Swedish-Turkish saxophonist Ilhan Fredrik Ersahin is not only an eclectic musician and composer but also a successful club owner since 2002, the year he opened Nublu in Manhattan’s East Village.

Boasting the same alternative sounds this club has been cultivated for more than a decade, the project Istanbul Sessions has another album coming out on Nublu Records with the title Solar Plexus. The core members - bassist Alp Ersonmez, percussionist Izzet Kizil, drummer Turgut Alp Bekoglu - are joined by a set of respected guests on this album, broadening textures and creating gripping soundscapes. They are French trumpeter and longtime collaborator Erik Trufazz, drummers Kenny Wollesen and Brandon Lewis, guitarist Dave Harrington, percussionists Mauro Refosco and Arto Tuncboyaciyan (also a singer), and trumpeters Ibrahim Maalouf and Nils Petter Molvaer.

Overture Solar Plexus” mixes atmospheric synth, saxophone wails, and pounding rhythmic strokes that have little in common with the dancing percussion of the piece that follows it. On “Farewell to Earth”, the linearity of the bass groove, laid down with a quasi-tribal, funky feel marks the nucleus of this piece, which explodes with seismic intensity in the last minute with a rampant synth invasion.

Infinite Gathering” feels like a work song. Introduced by a rebellious saxophone and wet percussion, this number also displays epic chants uttered with the force of Karmina Burana. Before the triumphant finale, there are soaring trumpet lines and keyboard-driven modulations that take us to Jocelyn Pook’s mechanisms used in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.

The longest piece, at more than 11 minutes, is the flickering “Pris”, a trippy voyage that is not averse to dark tonalities, especially in its last phase. Along the way, you will find melodious trumpet, lamenting vocals, psychedelic synth sounds, distorted guitar, saxophone aphorisms, and a static rhythm established by the deep resonance of electric bass and mallet drumming.

Ersahin explores saxophone timbres with echoing effects on “Rachel & Rick”, which starts off with airy electronic pointillism. The music goes through a radical change when an elated, danceable rhythm is put into practice before returning to calm waters.

Malleability is a key factor in the group’s performance and that is obvious on pieces like “Moon Dance”, a trip hop-ish exercise with an invariably downtempo vibe a-la Massive Attack; the contemplative yet rhythmically uninhibited “Sea of Stars”; and the imaginative yet unsettled closing piece, “Arrival”, which was wrapped in wha-wha acidity in a part obscure, part primal exploration.

Ersahin makes use of his wide-ranged influences to explore mood with a sense of comfort and delightfulness. If you have a penchant for the experimental ambient genre in its multiple variations and forms, this is a record for you.

Favorite Tracks:

 Grade  B+

Grade B+

02 - Farewell to Earth ► 03 - Infinite Gathering ► 05 - Rachel & Rick

Stefon Harris & Blackout - Sonic Creed

Label: Motema, 2018

Personnel – Stefon Harris: vibraphone, marimba; Casey Benjamin: alto and soprano saxophones, vocoder; Felix Peikli: clarinet, bass clarinet; James Francies: piano, keyboards; Mike Moreno: guitar; Jean Baylor: vocals; Regina Carter: violin; Daniel Frankhuizen: cello; Elena Pinderhughes: flute; Joseph Doubleday: marimba; Joshua Crumbly: bass; Tarreon Gully: drums; Pedrito Martinez: percussion.


Prodigious vibraphonist/marimbist/composer Stefon Harris, a mallet master who has recorded as a member of the SF Jazz Collective and The Classical Jazz Quartet, renews the group Blackout for their first recording since 2009, the time when the Grammy-nominated Urbanus caught the jazz world’s attention.

Sonic Creed, a reflection on African American life in our times, comprehends inspiring explorations of tunes by masters such as Bobby Timmons, Horace Silver, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Hutcherson, and Abbey Lincoln, plus a tribute to Michael Jackson and a couple of original compositions that go perfectly well with the rest of the material.

Absorbing funk and Latin rhythms revive Timmons’ “Dat Dere”, here colorfully arranged with smooth vibe/keys-induced textures and Mike Moreno’s catchy guitar. The soloists operate distinctively under the rhythmic fervency put together by keyboardist James Francies, bassist Joshua Crumbly, drummer Tarreon Gully, and guest percussionist Pedrito Martinez.

Harris originals show the importance of the family. The ethereal “Let’s Take a Trip to the Sky” was penned with his wife in mind and treated with rich chordal movements and a steady minimalistic beat supporting the lustrous voice of Jean Baylor, while “Chasin’ Kendall” was written for his two sons, capturing a summertime breezy feel that results from an accessible jazz with cool posture, rhythmic stability, and an esteemed, memorable bass riff anchoring the groove. After Harris, the soloists are Felix Peikli on bass clarinet and Casey Benjamin on alto saxophone.

The latter and the vibraphonist exchange phrases on the lenient “Throw It Away”, a tribute to Abbey Lincoln where the melody flies confidently on the wings of a daring soprano saxophone. You’ll also find electronic sound waves mixing with a syncopated rhythm, subdued guitar with dissonant bends, soaring vibes, and invariably strong bass delineations.

Horace Silver’s “Cape Verdean Blues” is a danceable number with Afro-Latin cross-rhythms and glittering improvisations by Benjamin, who shows proficiency in range, tone, and language; and Harris, who sounds unclouded while articulating fluid melodies with unrestraint conviction.

Whereas Shorter’s “Go” is introduced by a relatively complex guitar ostinato in nine, embracing an earnest post-bop that gradually slants to funk before slowing down in the last minute, Hutcherson’s “Now” has an initial chamber treatment with the presence of violinist Regina Carter, cellist Daniel Frankhuizen, and flutist Elena Pinderhughes. Inducing an adult, contemporary melange of soul, R&B, and jazz, Baylor enhances the piece with an expert vocal arrangement.

To conclude the CD, Harris, unaccompanied, drives Michael Jackson’s ear-pleasing ballad “Gone Too Soon” with meditative introspection.

Filled with gorgeous ideas, Sonic Creed offers a smooth voyage to the world of jazz masters with imaginative, regenerating sounds deep-rooted in the powerful African American culture.

Favorite Tracks:

 Grade  B+

Grade B+

01 – Dat Dere ► 02 - Chasin’ Kendall ► 04 - Cape Verdean Blues

Miguel Zenón - Yo Soy La Tradición

Label: Miel Music, 2018

Personnel – Miguel Zenón: alto saxophone + The Spektral Quartet - Clara Lyon: violin; Maeve Feinberg: violin; Doyle Armbrust: viola; Russell Rolen: cello.


The powerful musicality and extended possibilities one can achieve by combining saxophone and strings were tested and confirmed by jazz giants such as Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Ben Webster, Cannonball Adderley, Lee Konitz, and many more.

Drawing from several musical and cultural Puerto Rican traditions, saxophonist Miguel Zenón takes the concept to a completely different level on Yo Soy La Tradición, recipient of 8 chamber-like pieces written for alto sax and a quartet of strings. With the help of The Spektral Quartet - Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg on violin, Doyle Armbrust on viola, and Russell Rolen on cello - the saxophonist validates his own identity, exploring the Puerto Rican roots and heritage with compositional virtuosity.

Rooted in the Catholic tradition, “Rosario” is layered with sequences of rapid movements, occasional counterpoint but also a convergent unity presented in the form of unisons. Zenón breathes in synch with the quartet at his service, just like happens on the following “Cadenas”, a phenomenon metered in six, where the folk melodies of the saxophonist are subjected to violin responses and episodic replications.

Both “Yumac” and “Viejo” are connected to the Jibaro tradition. The former, set about like a Paganini’s caprice, has the quintet symphonizing tunefully with contrapuntal brilliance, pointillistic pizzicatos, and unfailing parallel lines; while the latter makes its way through arpeggiated interplay, having portentous slashes of cello contrasting with limpid saxophone wails in a beautiful dance of timbres. By the end, Zenón casts off an inspired solo. He pulls off another great improvisation on the melodious “Promesa”, a mournful lament inspired on the festivities of the Three Kings Day.

With a sequence of dominant chords in its harmonic progression, “Cadenza” waltzes steadily with the strength of a Mozart’s minuet until a pulse-free navigation makes us lose the sense of tempo. The final section reinstates the triple time, appending handclaps in an exultation of the Latin music's spirit.

Yo Soy La Tradición is a chamber tonic for the ears. Its complexities, in form and tempo, are hidden through cerebral arrangements that permit an intuitive readability of the music. Because in music, demanding executions usually require demanding listenings, get ready for the challenges this CD offers.

 Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:

02 - Cadenas ► 05 - Viejo ► 07 – Promesa

JP Schlegelmilch / Jonathan Golberger / Jim Black - Visitors

Label: Skirl Records, 2018

Personnel - JP Schlegelmilch: keyboards; Jonathan Goldberger: guitars; Jim Black: drums.


This cohesive new organ trio co-led by Brooklyn-based keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch, guitarist Jonathan Goldberger, and drummer Jim Black, ventures down creative paths of indie rock with a casual, serrated jazzy edge in its statements. Their album, Visitors, is staggeringly crafted with a rugged, psychedelic rock technique and assertive textural developments, featuring eight tracks whose instrumental depth is consummated by the magical interplay among the trio members.

Corvus” is a prog-rock archetypal that perhaps better illustrates this. Electronic manipulations precede the excavation of a 7/4 groove exalted by sturdy rock moves and fleshed out by an incandescent guitar solo that comprehends flickering sound waves, bluesy riffs, arpeggiated sequences, and jazzy chords. After a calmer passage, the groove shifts to six, seducing Schlegelmilch and Goldberger to embark on a cross-conversational dialogue while Black holds to a funky percussive flux.

Showcasing brighter tones and intense emotions, “Ether Sun” is a Pink Floyd-esque song elegantly arranged with soaring keyboard sounds, smooth bass coordination, and firmly fixed rhythm.

Stressing idiomatic rock textures, “Lake Oblivion” is divided into two distinct yet complementary parts. The first one carries a restless ambiguity in its classic hard-rock charisma, while the second, advancing at a 5/4 tempo, equips the same package with popish acoustic instrumentation and a distorted electric fizz.

The title track comes hooked in a triple meter. The versatile drummer moves with sheer boldness, supporting the use of methodical synth maneuvers for ambient and noisy guitar strokes for impact.

If “Chiseler” erupts with tactile dissonances and power chords in a clear inclination toward prog-rock, then “Terminal Waves” has its climatic peak with Goldberger’s cryptic metal-inflected solo over an exquisite textural work that becomes slightly tumultuous until mitigated by atmospheric organ layers and drones.

Being a deluxe product of like-minded cohorts, Visitors is also striking and rewarding, displaying enough personality and range to keep us thrilled.

 Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:

03 - Ether Sun ► 04 - Corvus ► 06 - Lake Oblivion II

Walking Distance - Freebird

Label: Sunnyside Records, 2018

Personnel – Caleb Curtis: alto saxophone, trumpet; Kenny Pexton: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Adam Coté: double bass, mellotron; Shawn Baltazor: drums, percussion. Featured guests - Jason Moran: piano, samples; Ben Rubin: bass, mellotron.


Walking Distance, a quartet of emerging New York artists, takes inspiration on Charlie Parker to create bop-derived originals with a contemporary twist. For their sophomore album, Freebird, they invite virtuosic pianist Jason Moran to join them in 6 of the 9 tracks. Alto saxophonist Caleb Curtis signs nine of the twelve tracks, two of them co-penned with bassist Adam Coté, who also delivers “Quasar Halo”, a disciplined chamber musing sweetened by docile unisons traced by clarinet, alto sax, and arco bass, and contrastingly bolstered by enthusiastic piano injections and relatively busy drum work.

Relying on an unbending form and structure, “William” starts the album off as a pure hard bop exercise, thriving with Curtis and Moran’s eruptive vocabularies while Coté and drummer Shawn Baltazor assure an indestructible bass-drums foundation. An engulfing melodic crescendo announces a short drum solo, renewing its vows before the reestablishment of the theme’s vibrant energy.

Tenor saxist Kenny Pexton devises “Pexterity” as a primordial bop fantasy, having thrilling horn lines crossing the frantic rhythm led by Coté’s sturdy pizzicato and followed by Balatazor’s swinging drum flow. “Donnalise” is a recognizable contrafact of the celebrated “Donna Lee”.

Producer Ben Rubin plays mellotron and additional bass on the absorbing “Simple Ghilnoorty”, whose rhythmic suggestions bring a mechanical electronic feel, for which stationary noir-toned chordal layers also contribute. Feeling fresh, these mechanisms deviate from the briskly swinging pulse of “Ghilnoorty Classic”, whose walking bass and static saxophone lines confer it a moderate flow; and “Bigment”, which starts as a classic march before swinging with strategic coordination. This particular piece was built on Bird's “Segment” and features Curtis on trumpet.

On “Lost & Found”, Baltazor starts coloring with loose hi-hat hits but later infuses snare-driven transition fills while enjoying the thumping bass rambles of Coté. Both support the bright melodicism of the reeds.

Even idolizing this swing-to-bop core, the band vouches for variety, which is reflected on “Feather Report” (an allusion to the revered band Weather Report), a fusion delight, magnificently enhanced by Moran’s keyboard dexterity and containing multiple shifting passages and interesting rhythmic deconstructions. What had started as a sort of desert song due to the freedom of its bass plucks and sliding moves, ended up in a triumphant jazz-rock stride. Another example of variability is “Cheat Sheet”, whose magnetic funky bass and melodic punctuation invite us to an adjacent swinging passage before returning to the initial boiling point.

Baltazor’s “Fly By” gains ground as a transformative stretch, starting with considerable bop affluence but morphing into a danceable, uptempo 3/4 ritual marked by keyboard samples, vigorous bass, Eastern-tinged lines, and ebullient drum attacks. A breath of fresh air in an album that, enjoying the comforts of hard bop, empowers up-to-dateness so it can be considered colorful, modern, as well as a personal statement.

 Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:

02 - Feather Report ► 04 - Simple Ghilnooorty ► 11 - Fly By

Allison Miller / Carmen Staaf - Science Fair

Label: Sunnyside Records, 2018

Personnel – Carmen Staaf: piano; Allison Miller: drums; Matt Penman: bass; Dayna Stephens: tenor saxophone; Ambrose Akinmusire: trumpet.


Science Fair marks a successful collaboration between drummer Allison Miller and pianist Carmen Staaf, both accomplished musicians and composers. The album, produced by the avant-garde clarinetist Ben Goldberg, flourishes with great musical choices and dynamic interplay. Each tune, regardless of the group configuration, displays an attractive jazz-rock hybridity that sparkles with genuine vitality.

Miller’s “What?!” suggests a kaleidoscopic avant-garde explosion before a cool drum beat takes over. Agreeable yet challenging melodies are delivered by illustrious trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and saxophonist Dayna Stephens, both inventive soloists. Mood and rhythm are subjected to changes, impeccably designed by Miller, Staaf, and bassist Matt Penman, who rounds out the rhythm section. Together, they coordinate effervescent pulses, thick grooves, and dizzying undertows.

The horn players become fully active once again on “Weightless”, a triple-metered piece that starts rambunctiously rhythmic, shining with pinpointed piano-bass articulations and lyric improvisations from sax, bass, piano, and trumpet. Not all of them are delivered under the same mood, and Akinmusire’s tremulous and lachrymose dissertation demands careful contemplation at the end.

The elegiac “Symmetry” sheds rich, emotional chord passages, featuring the pianist in the pinnacle of her lyricism. Her methodical dark voicings pair with Miller’s intelligent, multi-timbral drum chops, setting the perfect tone for Stephens’ poignant exhortation.

The band is reduced to a classic piano trio configuration for “Ready Steady”, which explores the shapes of space and rhythm with easygoing melodies surrounding the shimmering brushwork of the drummer and the tireless if undeviating trajectories of the bassist, who improvises upfront. However, Staaf dares to thrill by going through rowdy angular contortions at the same time that liberates delicious fragrances of Monk's music in the air. The bandleaders refuse additional accompaniment for the Latin-tinged duet “MLW” (a tribute to pianist Mary Lou Williams), which they eke out with an acute sense of timing. The song recalls “Caravan” in a crossing between Dizzy’s exotic spells and Jessica Williams’ rhythmic punches.

Staaf speaks sophisticated idioms on her breezy “Nobody’s Human”, a jazzy straight-eight piece with a fine melodic figure at the center; and on “West of the Moon”, a contrafact on the jazz standard “East of The Sun”, whose serpentine patterns perpetuate a certain uncertainty about which path to take: rock or swinging jazz? She ends up mixing both before the definitive installation of a frantic, combustible rhythm with Miller in absolute command.

And “Skyway” is a honey-toned ballad that closes out the album with minimalist fashion, featuring Penman in a double front: theme’s statement and improvisation.

Miller and Staaf's openness to exploration and their knowledge of jazz tradition allow great interactions to occur, with the rest of the members integrating this fantastic, hook-filled project with commitment and fun. The sonic aesthetics pack a punch, luring you in when you least expect it.

 Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:

01 - What?! ► 03 – Ready Steady ► 07 – West Of The Moon