Julia Hulsmann Quartet - Not Far From Here

Label: ECM Records, 2019

Personnel - Uli Kempendorff: tenor saxophone; Julia Hülsmann: piano; Marc Muellbauer: acoustic bass; Heinrich Köbberling: drums.

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German pianist Julia Hülsmann releases her third quartet album on the ECM label with a significant alteration in the ensemble’s lineup. Saxophonist Uli Kempendorff replaces trumpeter Tom Arthurs, leaving a strong impression through consistent thematic developments uttered with pacifying timbres and noir escapes, or getting the shape of fluid phrases that ramp up the flux of emotions. Remaining undivided for 17 years, the rhythm includes bassist Marc Muellbauer and drummer Heinrich Köbberling.

The 13-track album includes five compositions by Hülsmann and two disparate versions of David Bowie’s 1985 hit “This is Not America”. Kempendorff, Muellbauer and Köbberlingand contribute two compositions each to an album that will put the pianist on the map again.

The set opens with "The Art of Failing", a cautious sax/piano duet and one of the examples where the musical empathy between the two musicians in question is underlined. They embark on parallel lines on Muellbauer’s “Le Mistral”, a strong effort smoothly introduced by solo piano before segueing into a dissimulated odd pulse that results from the combination of a bass groove and brushed drums. Hülsmann's radiating comping is pretty effective during Kempendorff’s intense statement.

The spacey rendition of Bowie’s “This is Not America” is still permeated with some tension with bass and saxophone sharing responsibilities in the melodic articulation of the theme. The shorter solo piano version of this same tune closes out the album with more desolation than aspiration.

Other two pieces that achieve a wider emotional spectrum are Kempendorff’s “Einschub”, a soaring anthem brimming with rich rhythmic connectivity, and the bandleader’s “No Game”, where the band delves into post-bop sophistication with both explorative and swinging postures. The rich harmonic progression assists in bringing textural freshness without detaching from tradition, in the sense that the group delivers something new yet familiar. Like the latter tune, “Weit Weg” and “Streiflich” are expansions of originally solo piano pieces. Yet, they differ drastically in the mood. While the former is imbued in an introspective stillness, the latter advances assertively with wide steps and some classical cultivation, benefitting from gorgeous saxophone hooks.

Hülsmann composed the title track, “Not Far From Here”, specifically for this quartet and the melody stands out on top of an elegant rhythm that carries a breezy bossa vibe. In the track’s denouement, Kempendorff focuses on timbre at the same time that explores extended techniques.

These four egoless artists are here for the music and to make it sound cohesive as a whole rather than take individual praise for their actions. It’s great to realize that from one track to another, the group shifts mood without losing any of its musical identity.

Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
02 - Le Mistral ► 07 - No Game ► 08 - Einschub


Mareike Wiening - Metropolis Paradise

Label: Greenleaf Music, 2019

Personnel - Rich Perry: tenor saxophone; Alex Goodman: guitar; Dan Tepfer: piano; Johannes Felscher: bass; Mareike Wiening: drums.

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Metropolis Paradise marks the debut of New York-based German drummer/composer Mareike Wiening, who gathered a sympathetic quintet that features Rich Perry on tenor saxophone, Dan Tepfer on piano (a last-minute replacement for the regular Glenn Zaleski), Alex Goodman on guitar, and Johannes Felscher on double bass. The eight-track album of originals has the particularity of being the last session recorded at Brooklyn’s legendary Systems Two Recording Studio, a family-owned business since 1975, which closed doors on June 22nd.

The album's opener, “Free Time”, displays sax and guitar delineating the central melody on top of the harmonic velvetiness weaved by the rhythm section. Goodman starts his improvisation by picking up the final idea from Perry's early solo, but some of his expressions are also echoed by Tepfer, a permanent communicator.

Ambiguity characterizes the first minutes of “2 in 1”, where a bass pedal and bubbling drumming with rhythmic accents expand into a polyrhythmic cadence shaped with a bewitching Afro zest. It’s Goodman who claims the spotlight here, exhibiting a bright language inspired on the rock and jazz genres. Perry concludes the section for improvisation, having solely Wiening’s steady-state drums as a support in a first instance.

Influenced by Brad Mehldau and evoking springtime in New York, “For a Good Day” waltzes with sweetness as it is glowed by the bandleader’s scintillating brushwork. It’s a feel-good amalgamation of pop and jazz that benefits from a beautiful melody, tight harmonic background, and interesting statements from bass, piano, and saxophone.

The first three tunes described above might be inviting, but the highlights here are the shapeshifting “Misconception” and the elegant “Metropolis Paradise”, both carrying odd-metered signatures. The former is shaken by countercurrents, a peculiarly hammered rhythm, some controlled dissonance in the combinations of notes, Tepfer’s cool sense of groove and navigation, and Goodman’s narrative facility. The latter piece, a lovely and poetic exercise confessedly motivated by the compositional artistry of Argentine pianist/bandleader Guillermo Klein, features guitar and piano in a candid conversation, with Tepfer constantly trying to replicate and give a natural sequence to Goodman’s phrase conclusions. These two musicians work very closely throughout the album without ever trip on each other.

Also worthy of mention is “Relations”, an unpretentious, lilting post-bop piece that is the closest to tradition you will get, but still with an affinity for the here and now. Perry jumps to the forefront with empathetic bop-inflected lines, while Goodman suffuses his improvised discourse with rhythmic figures and phrase accentuations.

Not too brooding, not too exuberant, and not too bombastic, Metropolis Paradise finds an unblemished equilibrium in exerting good-natured vibes and emotion. Wiening is a name to keep an eye on.

Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
03 - For A Good Day  ► 04 - Misconception  ► 07 - Metropolis Paradise


Franco Ambrosetti Quintet - Long Waves

Label: Unit Records, 2019

Personnel - Franco Ambrosetti: trumpet; John Scofield: guitar; Uri Caine: piano; Scott Coley: bass; Jack DeJohnette: drums.

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Straight-ahead jazz can easily fall into monotony if not properly managed, but in the hands of the experienced Swiss trumpeter and flugelhorn player Franco Ambrosetti, it earns an inspired vibrancy, fully demonstrated on his 28th record as a leader, Long Waves. A dedicated bandleader, Ambrosetti has been active since the mid 60s, playing with musicians of the highest order. For this particular album, he put together a world class quintet featuring old partners: guitarist John Scofield, pianist Uri Caine, and super drummer Jack DeJohnette. Rounding out the group is a new musical acquaintance, bassist Scott Coley.

Ambrosetti crafted a seven-track body of work that comprises four of his own compositions, one by his fellow countryman pianist George Gruntz, and two esteemed jazz standards.

Imbued of seductive, warm tones and seamless modulations, “Milonga” is a tango-inspired piece that opens the album with jazzistic fluency and suavity. Apart from the drummer, who gets permanently focused on the accompaniment, each of the musicians brings their language into solos. While Ambrosetti starts timidly and ends confidently, Scofield steals the show with his expressive bluesy phrasing and octave technique. Caine is rhythmically rich and often provides harmonic obliqueness, while Colley emphasizes his big sound with melody and articulation.

The hard-bop excursion “Try Again” is reflective of Ambrosetti’s biggest influences, namely, Clifford Brown and Miles Davis, and features the same improvisers as the previously described piece, except for Colley, who gives his place to DeJohnette. The latter shines brightly before the unexpected finale and takes the lead again right at the beginning of Gruntz’s “One For The Kids”, where the grandiosity of his drumming and infallible sense of tempo become noteworthy.

Ambrosetti wrote “Silli’s Waltz” and “Silli’s Long Wave” for his wife. The latter, falsely announced as a nostalgic ballad, progresses from a rubato meditation to a medium 4/4 tempo that serves both swinging and modal incursions. The ensemble excels on the tension-release chapter.

The sentimentality of the ballad “Old Folks” and the polished Latin vibes of “On Green Dolphin Street” have distinct weights. Naturally brimming with vitality, the latter interpretation explores far more interesting paths, with Scofield constantly expressing joy in his playing as he works over an interlocking web formed by bass and drums.

If, by any reason, you’ve lost the faith in classic jazz, this modern mainstream spin-off may be a good opportunity to reconnect with it.

Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Milonga ► 03 - Silli’s Long Wave ► 07 - On Green Dolphin Street


Andrew Schiller Quintet - Sonoran

Label: Red Piano Records, 2019

Personnel - Tony Malaby: tenor saxophone; Ethan Helm: alto saxophone; Hery Paz: bass clarinet; Andrew Schiller: bass; Matt Honor: drums.

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After landing in Brooklyn, bassist Andrew Schiller, a native of Phoenix, has been displaying a level of maturity not frequently seen in musicians of his age. Asserting his extraordinary talents as a composer, player, and bandleader, Schiller redefines his quintet for the second album, Sonoran, a nine-part suite inspired by the Sonoran Desert landscape, a visual perception from his childhood.

If his 2017 debut record, Tied Together, Not to the Ground, had featured a double-horn section supported by piano, bass, and drums, then, for this new project, he goes piano-less and expands the frontline with an extra reed. Saxophonists Tony Malaby and Ethan Helm, on tenor and alto saxophone, respectively, join him for the first time, as well as drummer Matt Honor. Cuban-born reedist Hery Paz remained in the group, but switched from tenor saxophone to bass clarinet in order to provide further timbral stimuli.

The title track is an enthralling contrapuntal dance that unfolds with a multi-ostinato texture at the base and unisons from alto sax and bowed bass. A persistent bass pedal is later transformed into a thrusting groove, inviting the horn players to blow simultaneous free extemporizations.

Pace and timbre are remarkably controlled in this group, and the vivacious “Gambelii” demonstrates this quality while effortlessly mixing classical, Latin, and post-bop idioms. The free bopish attitude is aggrandized through polyrhythmic nuances in the foundation, and the soloists, Helm and Malaby in the case, may go different ways, but bring sparkle to the music. The tenor man initiates his improvisation in a disarmingly melodic way after Helm’s vertiginous explorations.

Thorny Flora” nods to Charles Mingus, marching methodically with swagger and swinging with some reedy melodic strains atop. The tune, another showcase for Malaby's inventiveness, also features Paz, who totally grabs the spotlight on “Wet Hair, Dry Hair”, an even-tempered effort crafted under a 5/4 meter signature. Here, he delivers a mesmeric, meaty solo sustained by discernible bass alignments and restless drumming, later enjoying the company of the saxophonists, whose parallel lines provide atmosphere.

An earnest avant-garde vibration shakes the very first minutes of “Shade For Shelter”. However, the piece veers into a rock-infused elation that emphasizes contrapuntal melodic associations (the two saxophones against the pair double bass/bass clarinet). The bandleader shows off tight improvisational skills, after he had explored more spacious environments on the romantically classical “Western Theme #1”, the first of three cinematic chamber vignettes.

As a multi-colorist, Schiller expands his sonic canvas with the current instrumentation, comfortably straddling multiple disciplines and providing you with deeply absorbing sounds to be discovered.

Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Sonoran ► 05 - Wet Hair, Dry Hair ► 09 - Thorny Flora


Dan Weiss Trio Plus 1 - Utica Box

Label: Sunnyside Records, 2019

Personnel - Jacob Sacks: piano; Thomas Morgan: bass; Eivind Opsvick: bass; Dan Weiss: drums.

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Dan Weiss is a special drummer who puts his wide rhythmic knowledge and keen ears at the service of his playing. He is equally comfortable leading a piano trio and a knotty large ensemble, as well as powering a metal band composed of jazz musicians. For his most recent work, Utica Box, he adds bassist Eivind Opsvick to his long-standing trio with Jacob Sacks on piano and Thomas Morgan on bass. Together, they form a tight outfit, navigating Weiss’ challenging compositions in a program of seven cuts.

There’s always a melange of styles as part of the drummer’s expansive vision, and the title track, which kicks off the album with a dreamy if slightly tense vibe, mirrors that aspect within an inventive sonic geometry. A haunting, modernistic touch emerges from beat displacement and syncopation, bowed bass murmurs that confer it a chamber-esque classical feel, and cyclic arpeggiated piano uttered with a dream-perfect intonation. The mood is then briefly reshaped by a passage enclosing succinct lines and hushed, sparse activity before the initial state is resumed, this time underlined with a hip-hop rhythm underpinning the buzzing arco bass legato and broken piano chords. The intensity inflates until piano reflections meet conversational mallet drumming and, later on, concordant bass lines. The final segment is stimulated by a medium-intensity rock pulse that keeps hold of piano cascades and droning sounds.

Disarming the listener most of the times, these shape-shifting qualities in Weiss music can also be fully enjoyed on “Bonham”, a piece dedicated to Led Zeppelin’s genius drummer John Bonham, which starts and ends with vibrant solo drum work. There’s a deliberate rock inflection by the end, where the tune follows a more steady line, with the primary chapter including nuanced bass pedals and furtive piano footprints. This is a perfect occasion to observe the beautiful touch and feel in Weiss’ playing as he brings it to the center of things with crisp ride cymbal orientation, hi-hat predominance, precious and subversive drum kicks, and even short snare rolls.

A colorful polyrhythm with Afro-Cuban influence and hints of danceable psychedelia pushes “Please Don’t Leave” into the set of highlights. At once downhearted and euphorically groovy, this exquisite piece features Sacks articulating stunning intervals as he explores the tonal range of the piano.

Referring to the nicknames of Morgan and Opsvick, “Rock and Heat” showcases the two bassists walking expeditiously and side by side in a polyphonic swinging ride. With the drummer and the pianist joining their cause, they embark on a playful on-off cycle.

Compositions such as “Last Time One More Time” and “Orange” navigate more tranquil waters. The former, a sweet lullaby inspired by Weiss’ daughter’s bedtime phrase, promotes transparency of texture with the two bassists in tandem, while the latter entails both unconventional and easy melodies, off-kilter chords, and zigzagging drumming in its narrative. There’s some nice textural roughness in certain occasions here, but for most of the time, the trio muses on moods and timbres, finishing the tune with pathos.

The compositional integrity of each piece is extraordinary, while the overall dynamic balance in the orchestration, instead of feeling clinical, keeps our ears well alert through the musicians’ steadfast and tactful control.

Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Utica Box ► 05 - Please Don’t Leave ► 07 - Bonham


Avram Fefer Quartet - Testament

Label: Clean Feed, 2019

Personnel - Avram Fefer: alto and tenor saxophones; Marc Ribot: guitar; Eric Revis: bass; Chad Taylor: drums.

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Avram Fefer has been part of the New York jazz scene for a quarter century, over which he played with illustrious figures such as Archie Shepp, Sunny Murray, and Roy Campbell, among others. His second outing on Clean Feed, Testament, is a very personal statement comprising eight exciting pieces, which apart from one of them, are culled from his self-penned repertoire. Despite five of them have been previously recorded, they appear here with an exceptional new instrumentation thanks to a fresh partnership with guitarist Marc Ribot, with whom Fefer had played before but never recorded. The other two elements of the quartet on display, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Chad Taylor, are also members of Fefer’s stellar trio and their musical excellence and rapport are pretty much in evidence throughout.

Fefer’s African influence can be testified on old and new tunes such as “African Interlude” and “Magic Mountain”, respectively. Both are put in motion with a three time feel, but where the former breathes a warm, dry air from the sub-Saharan region, the latter falls into an electric Afro-funk permeated with playful avant-garde passages. Unison sax-guitar agreements are frequent, and if Ribot often brings staccato strokes into his cool funky comping, Fefer makes use of his excellent articulation to generate soul-transporting narratives intonated with enormous passion and motivic flair. Having lots of fun, Revis and Taylor stand behind the thrilling percussive throb of these chants.

Also sliding at a medium 3/4 tempo, the breezy “Essaouira” evokes the Moroccan port city cited in its title with fascinating lyricism and a steady groove often engraved with Ribot’s ardent bluesy licks. The guitarist brings them again on “Wishful Thinking”, a rock-washed tune propelled in five and populated by Fefer’s staccato expressions, rhythmic figures, and winding phrases molded with chromatic exuberance. The final stretch has Taylor emphasizing rim-clicks and the metallic ringing of the ride cymbal.

Taylor’s “Song For Dyani” initially offers a relaxing Americana atmosphere. However, the tune’s last section attests the drummer’s departure from the mallet vibrancy and cymbal sparkle in order to join forces with Revis on another African-tinged groove.

All differing in nature, but enunciated in a way we can immediately identify their author, “Dean St. Hustle” captures the quartet in moments of swinging bravura and elevated state of interaction, “Parable” takes the shape of an acoustic folk ballad before evolving into anthemic rock, and “Testament”, an old spiritual hymn written for Ornette Coleman, bonds together avant-jazz nerve and rock density while Eastern melodic flavors take its place atop.

As usual, Fefer points for ambition and his receptiveness of other musical sources is sincere and liberating. Testament tells us who he really is as a musician.

Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
02 - African Interlude ► 04 - Song For Dyani ► 08 - Essaouira


Ingrid Laubrock / Sylvie Courvoisier / Mark Feldman / Tom Rainey - TISM

Label: RogueArt, 2019

Personnel - Ingrid Laubrock: tenor saxophone; Mark Feldman: violin; Sylvie Courvoisier: piano; Tom Rainey: drums.

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TISM joins two regular consistent duos in a unique and democratic avant-jazz quartet. Drummer Tom Rainey and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock team up with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and violinist Mark Feldman for an improvised work whose chapters don’t get too far from their signature styles.

That being said, I got the sensation that these mutable improvised forms lean a bit more on the reflective side, bringing a laid-back feeling that, nevertheless, never lose the perspective of genuinely spontaneous compositions.

The unfussy “Spectral Ghost” and “Maisons Fragiles” are patiently cooked without simmering, remaining in a controlled state of sensitive conscience. The former opens the recording with stilled brushwork (later morphing into a primitive and resonant percussive texture centered on toms), glimpses of folk melodies bounced off of the violin, a mix of cooperative and disengaged saxophone deliberations, and intricate piano textures. In turn, the latter piece, observant in its brittleness, has Courvoisier sweeping the piano strings with delicacy and Laubrock injecting gruff lines to give a boost to the last segment.

The saxophonist is also in evidence on “Tism”, initiating an energetic interlocution with Feldman. Their terse motivic remarks, long-limbed phrases, and contrasting tones are joined by the rhythmic wallops of the pianist and the intense blast-beats of the drummer. This abstract clamor softens halfway, focusing on idyllic landscapes that, in specified periods of time, are pigmented with slightly obscure tones.

Rainey’s off-centered percussion maneuvers give a unique flavor to “Tooth and Nail”, a 15-minute mind-blowing ride filled with engrossing textural fluctuations. Preceding the initial cries and whispers, Rainey enters in a candid conversational mode that stimulates Laubrock’s neurotic eruptions and Courvoisier’s astounding prepared piano. Feldman alters the scenario by adding vivid lines, and interactive dialogues succeed with openness. At some point, closer to the end, our attention turns to shrilling violin glissandos and cultivated piano meditations.

The closer, “A L’Infini”, is my favorite chapter. In addition to Rainey’s exotic percussion, which catapulted my mind to other parts of the world, we have oddly conjugated sounds from piano and violin. The spotlight is directed to Courvoisier, whose eccentrically creative sounds can be incredibly swinging. Laubrock’s outlandish decorations fit beautifully in the context, before she and Feldman embrace a feel-good lethargy. Sensations and passions become stronger in the final phase with Laubrock and Courvoisier on the cutting edge of a formidable cooperative effort. The former is earnestly expressive in her coherent narratives, while the latter accompanies with grandiose dissonant chords.

The members of this quartet collaborate and know one another for a long time, and their huge capacity of reaction to whatever may happen around them is impressive. Thus, avant-gardists and proclaimers of unfettered creativity have in TISM another motive to rejoice.

Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
02 - Tism ► 03 - Tooth and Nail ► 05 - A L’Infini


Doxas / Sacks / Lober / Sperrazza - Landline

Label: Loyal Label, 2019

Personnel - Chet Doxas: tenor saxophone; Jacob Sacks: piano; Zack Lober: bass; Vinnie Sperrazza: drums.

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Landline consists of a stellar crew of four contemporary bandleaders and improvisers, who take their compositional prowess to another level with a new challenging concept envisioned for their self-titled debut album. The process, based on the popular broken telephone game, has each member - saxophonist Chet Doxas, pianist Jacob Sacks, bassist Zack Lober, and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza - sending written notes to one of his bandmates, who has two weeks to work on it as he pleases and pass it along to the next member and so on. Each musician may ignore, alter, or maintain what was written. This well-prepared yet full of freedom process combines composition and improvisation in a totally different way and the result is 12 not-too-long episodes revealing strong capacity of invention and tightness.

The titles were given according to the final product and “Michael Attias”, the opening piece, couldn’t be more appropriate since the sax-piano unisons hold that curious ambiguity so characteristic of the aforementioned alto sax player. Snare drum assertiveness, cymbal color, and a bass pedal, here sustaining echoed phrases professed by Doxas and Sacks, are transported to the following tune, “Modern Jazz”, whose swift lines and pungent accents confer it a rock energy. The bass is then loosened to groove along recurrent expressive sax melodies soaked in chromaticism, while the entangling piano comping is fundamental to attain a perfect atmosphere.

A sheer vitality is also observed in other highlights such as “Feel the Bernstein”, which adheres to a freshly swinging mobility; the pop/rock-inflected “Flim Flam”, played with gorgeous accentuations and slight angular playfulness; “Yup”, whose disorienting tempo and contrasting timbres are complemented with absorbing individual statements from bass (introductory section), sax and piano; and “After The Money”, a successful crossing between the bluesy modal post-bop of Andrew Hill and the rock energy of Beat Happening, declared under an encouraging rhythmic thrust attributable to a dance floor.

There are also slow-moving chapters counterbalancing the more energetic ones. Examples are “Twelve Years”, which consolidates a dismal melody, continual cymbal effervescence, and dark chordal work; “Crystalline”, an exercise in piano minimalism with glacial moments and silences; and the vague “Shiny Things”, which meditates through popping sax sounds, sparse piano activity, snare drum calls, and moody bass notes.

Told half-and-half by Sacks and Doxas, “An Anecdote Regarding Anthony Braxton” climaxes in an ultimate collective laugh that closes out the recording with a bright touch of humor.

You’ll find immersive moods and textures on Landline informing us that these guys’ music is never clumsy or forced. Their big sound, open aesthetic, and compositional variety are great part of the appeal.

Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Michael Attias ► 02 - Modern Jazz ► 11 - After The Money


Remy Le Boeuf - Assembly of Shadows

Label: SoundSpore Records, 2019

Personnel: Remy LeBoeuf: alto and soprano saxes, flute; John Lowery: tenor sax, clarinet; Ben Kono: tenor sax, clarinet; Vito Chiavuzzo: alto sax, flute; Carl Maraghi: baritone sax, bass clarinet; Anna Webber: flute; Philip Dizack: trumpet; Matt Holman: trumpet; John Lake: trumpet; Toni Glausi: trumpet; Eric Miller: trombone; Natalie Cressman: trombone; Isaac Kaplan: trombone; Jennifer Wharton: trombone; Nick Depinna: trombone; Alex Goodman: guitar; Martha Kato: piano; Matt Aronoff: bass; Peter Kronreif: drums; James Shipp: percussion.

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2019 has been a particularly busy year for saxophonist/composer Remy Le Boeuf, who releases two albums as a leader with a temporal gap of just six months between them. If his earlier quartet recording, Light as a Word, fell below the expectations, then Assembly of Shadows, a large-ensemble project featuring a number of talented musicians, is a wonderful surprise that unveils different aspects of his compositional and arranging artistry.

Expertly conducted by Gregory Robbins, the album comprises a total of seven tracks, five of which integral movements of the suite that gives the album its title. The first steps are given through standalone compositions such as “Strata”, a Le Boeuf original commissioned by Japan’s Keyo Light Music Society in 2015, and a creative reading of Ornette Coleman’s “Honeymooners”. While the former follows a luxurious and consistently harmonious orchestral arrangement that thrusts flutist Anna Webber and trombonist Eric Miller to the limelight, the latter piece might feel curbed in intensity in an initial phase, a slight impression that soon goes away with the appearances of precious rhythmic details and a fluid narration by the bandleader, who centralizes our attention in his unscripted soprano audacities. The last section of this piece brings collective passages filled with humor and precision.

The five-movement suite, which tells the story of a little girl who gets lost in a forest and then falls asleep, is built with an inexorable sense of unity. Everything is imbued with resplendent tonal patterns and confident pulsations. It’s absolutely remarkable that, regardless the number of active players, some passages feel so spacious, creating shared reflexes and empathy. The tactfulness present in the second movement, “Assembly of Shadows”, can be taken as an example, here consummated by gorgeous improvisations from guitarist Alex Goodman and trumpeter Philip Dizack. The lyrical, leisurely paced “Light Through The Leaves” blends jazz and classical with imagination and embraces the rubato and the waltzing as its natural paths.

The odd-metered “Shapeless Dancer” and the neatly-wrought “Transfiguration”, third and fourth movements of the suite, respectively, are undoubtedly my favorite. Dizack and tenorist John Lowery are the highlighted soloists on the former, whereas on the latter it’s Le Boeuf and Carl Maraghi, on alto and baritone saxophone, respectively, who produce one of those magical interactive moments that soar high before invading our subconscious with its intrinsic beauty. The transcendent final minutes belong to pianist Martha Kato, who shapes up her distinguished sound with enormous sensitivity.

Succeeding in connecting with the listener, this streamlined recording alternates the douceur with the sharpness, the firm with the fragile, the cooperative consciousness with the individual instinct. Big band connoisseurs and contemporary jazz devotees should go for it.

Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Strata ► 05 - Shapeless Dancer ► 06 - Transfiguration


Gerald Cleaver & Violet Hour - Live at Firehouse 12

Label: Sunnyside Records, 2019

Personnel - JD Allen: tenor saxophone; Andrew Bishop: bass clarinet, soprano and tenor saxophones; Jeremy Pelt: trumpet; Ben Waltzer: piano; Chris Lightcap: double bass; Gerald Cleaver: drums.

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This new outing from sought-after drummer/composer Gerald Cleaver is a bottomless well of energy and robustness. Five rhythmically-charged self-penned tunes (four of them retrieved from his 2007 album Detroit, which featured exactly the same group as here) were performed live at Firehouse 12. The spirited performance brainstormed a blend of novelty and familiarity that sparkles with gut-punch improvised moments. Moreover, this is a swinging record where his razor-sharp drumming skills solidifies a rhythm section that also includes pianist Ben Waltzer and bassist Chris Lightcap. They use their rhythm knowledge and charismatic accompaniment to support the melodic journeys of trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and saxophonists J.D. Allen and Andrew Bishop, a powerful frontline.

From the beginning, it becomes clear that Cleaver wants to avoid any type of dormancy, being interested in any groovy, swinging, and stimulating possibilities. Those energetic waves arise with the radiant swinging activity of “Pilgrim’s Progress”, whose theme’s melody has the force of an orchestra. By turns, Pelt and Waltzer see their fluid phrasing being disrupted by the bandleader’s interjections, in a surprising section of exchanges.

The Silly One” is a bit less impetuous than its predecessor, but takes in elegant and sinuous collective moves complemented with striking improvisations from all three horn players. The backing presence of the bass clarinet is noticeable during the theme, and is Pelt who firstly goes impromptu with phrases equal parts articulated and expansive. He is followed by Bishop, who, in the meantime, had switched to soprano, and Allen, whose rich language leans on a vigorous post-bop sound that elicits offbeat reactions from his mates in the horn section and sets the pianist to venture with a touch of Latin in his supple accompaniment.

The title “Tale of Bricks” refers to the Book of Exodus and the music presents a mix of rigor and abandon while emanating a strong polyrhythmic feel in its introductory stage. The bass then lands in a glorious 11/8 groove over which the horn players blow with authority and gusto. In complete ecstasy, the outwardly expressive group swings in their own way, also creating tension through pedals and opportune punctuations.

This is also put on display on the closing number, “Detroit”, a tribute to the drummer’s hometown and another highly athletic exercise, instigated by a 7/8 tempo and a drum solo upfront. Intermittently swinging in four with that open posture that disarms, Cleaver and Lightcap know how to delineate a framework for their counterparts to fill. Bishop’s tenor solo is particularly attractive here by way of conclusion.

This is a true group effort where Cleaver shows his capacity of adaptation to any given situation. Hence, his kinetic fills and transitions are remodeled to better serve the Andrew Hill-tinged waltz “Carla’s Day”, a piece dedicated to his wife.

Cleaver and his Violet Hour group infuse a bracing freshness to these compositions, whose musical ardency is prone to increase pulse rates.

Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Pilgrim’s Progress ► 03 - Tale of Bricks ► 05 - Detroit


Gordon Grdina Quartet - Cooper's Park

Label: Songlines Recordings, 2019

Personnel - Gordon Grdina: guitar, oud; Oscar Noriega: alto saxophone, bass clarinet; Russ Lossing: piano, Rhodes, clavinet; Satoshi Takeishi: drums.

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The unique and interdisciplinary vocabulary of Canadian guitarist/oud player Gordon Grdina can be fully enjoyed on his new quartet album Cooper’s Park, the excellent follow-up to Inroads (Songlines, 2017), which, as it is the case here, featured the same adventurous New York musicians: keyboardist Russ Lossing, multi-reedist Oscar Noriega, and drummer Satoshi Takeishi. Throughout five original compositions, the quartet offers plenty of instrumental possibilities (four musicians play a total of eight instruments), invalidating any type of fatigue or indifference.

Take the example of the title cut, an intricate 18-minute creation with a lot to chew up. Inquisitive melodic expressions are presented in the form of unisons, leading to a free collective extemporization where melodies keep flying from different angles. After a rubato reflexion suffused with harmonic and melodic pathos, it’s Lossing who improvises beautifully in a setting that also accommodates juxtaposed guitar-sax unisons. Two of the most stunning moments occur when Noriega projects his scorching tenor over a ravishing ostinato and extroverted drumming, and when Grdina discourses with certitude, having Lossing’s funky oddities on the clavinet running in the the background.

Four of the five tunes go over 10 minutes, attaining a solid narrative arc that relies on the virtuosity of each musician. If the bandleader brandishes his guitar on the brooding “Benbow”, driving an acoustic lyrical intro before the invigorating interplay and solos attain a sonically feverish state, he does the same with the oud on “Wayward”, which develops in a calm state of mind, interweaving the placid and the somber as well as Western and Eastern sounds, prior to flaring up with insurgence and move into an indie-rock aesthetic. Takeishi shines ahead of the theme reinstatement.

Grdina’s compositional eclecticism hits active crossroads that have the power to ground us to the avant-jazz realm in a way, and simultaneously transport us to another worlds and cultures. The patiently layered “Seeds II” fuses some folk esprit wrapped in wha-soaked keyboards with rock tenacity, using hot/cold routines to challenge dynamics. It expresses a wide range of emotion that reflects the musical vision of the composer. At a late stage, we are shaken by a resonant hard-rock foray featuring burning saxophone cries with jolting dissonance.

Culminating an intriguing set of explorative music, “Night Sweats”, the shortest tune on the record, is an ode to dance that I wished it were longer. Following a psychedelic intro, an athletic 15/8 groove is installed to lift your feet off the floor.

More than fulfilling any improvisational liabilities, Grdina and his peers explore their instruments with passion, giving the appropriate direction to an admirable sonic conception. The album is dedicated to Ken Pickering, co-founder of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival and long-time artistic director of the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society.

Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Cooper’s Park ► 03 - Seeds II ► 05 - Night Sweats


Tyshawn Sorey and Marilyn Crispell - The Adornment of Time

Label: Pi Recordings, 2019

Personnel - Tyshawn Sorey: drums, percussion; Marilyn Crispell: piano.

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The Adornment of Time marks a memorable encounter of drummer Tyshawn Sorey and pianist Marilyn Crispell, two musical masterminds who fully integrated the sounds of their instruments to create fervent narratives with stunning timbres and textural realizations. For more than one hour, non-stop, you can immerse yourself in a single stretching movement comprising moments of conscious determination and curious ambivalence, peace and disquietness, atmospheric coolness and propulsive agitation, devotion and irreverence. All created in the spur of the moment.

The session, recorded live at The Kitchen in New York, kicks off serenely percussive. Piano notes gently infiltrate a region initially made of rattles, chimes, ticking sounds, sudden thuds, and crystalline vibes. The dialogue had just begun, and Crispell effortlessly extends her playing from meditative considerations to acerbic notes and tense clusters of varied intensity, whereas Sorey surprises us with unexpected crashes, candid reflections, and thunderous menaces complemented with rich cymbal expression. The ideas flow uninterruptedly, resulting in haunting explorations, pauses and silences, minimalist angularity, and hasty motions.

The duo’s deep involvement with this music, in addition to their rejection of anything conventional or banal, result in an intriguing palette of emotional colors and tones. From the depth, these sonic canvases are expressions of sadness, beauty, reserve, exuberance, and reverie.

A certain passage comes equipped with a piano pedal around which everything else revolves, another one fuses classical and jazz elements on top of the diligent and tonally rich drumming running underneath, a couple of other have dramatic string sweeps on the piano intersecting unpredictable irregular rhythms. With all that said, have in mind that regardless the complexity and the atmosphere created, the music is always readable, never forced or impenetrable. In the majestic final part of the album, refractory and spiraling piano patterns combine with looming drum attacks for a monumental climax.

These constantly innovative instrumentalists were blessed with the capacity of listening thoroughly and the ability to respond confidently, whether by embarking on thematic development or injecting experimental ideas to create anew. This is uncategorized music keeping an ample sense of communication throughout a cutting context of density and intonation.

Grade  A-

Grade A-

Leo Sherman - Tonewheel

Label: Outside In Music, 2019

Personnel - Paul Jones: tenor saxophone; Alex Goodman: guitar; Ben Winkelman: piano; Leo Sherman: bass; Dan Pugach: drums.

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New York-based bassist/composer Leo Sherman impregnates his debut album, Tonewheel, with diverse, rewarding content that includes catchy themes, stimulating improvised moments, and energy-filled vamps. The album, conceived as a musical self-portrait, reflects his existence from an early childhood until the present day, and describes sensitive phases such as when he and his family had to run away from Leningrad in 1987, his difficult upbringing in Baltimore, as well as his maturation as a musician in New York. He plays the album’s nine originals alongside saxophone sensation Paul Jones, adventurer guitarist Alex Goodman, eclectic pianist Ben Winkelman, and elegant drummer Dan Pugach.

The first track, “In Flight”, unveils the quintet’s graciously toned expressions. Besides soaring melodies, the theme statement also incorporates a suave middle passage shaped with rhythmically defined piano textures, bowed bass-guitar unisons, and saxophone counter lines. The climax arrives when the soloists - Goodman and Jones - play brilliant colors over smart, dynamic accompaniments.

Similar emotions flow from “Chagall”, a piece that revels in the edgier boundaries of modal post-bop, marked by Pugach’s hi-hat alignments and cymbal conspicuity, a progressive guitar work over pliable drums, and a rhythmically daring testimony by Winkelman. Also the title track, which closes out the album with a dramatic, quasi-theatrical feel due to the melodic folk impressions and bolero rhythm, emphasizes the generally amiable atmosphere felt along the way. However, it’s buoyed up by two dynamic head-to-head discourses delivered by Jones and Goodman, who combine pretty well.

The guitarist’s point of entry as well as his burning in-and-out moves feel so great on “The Eclipse”, where the surfaces are slightly dirtied by a rock pulse, sturdy pedals, and sparkling intensity. Before that, the bandleader had already proclaimed his improvisational qualifications, delivering groovy phrases not averse to melody.

Modifying textures by embracing the piano trio format, the quiet “Nocturne” is predominantly classical, with Pugach excelling in the drum fills and other rich details. He also launches the swinging “Holdover”, another trio effort, where he dovetails his active drumming to a vamp that anticipates the final head.

The disarming versatility of Jones needs to be mentioned. You can hear him blowing lines with languorous passivity on the relaxing ballad “Looking Back Again” and emulating darting ins-and-outs from his tenor on “Aqui Me Quedo”, a song by Chilean songwriter Victor Jara. His impromptu instincts and timbral range are more noticeable on the latter tune due to the contrasting colors applied, since the music ripples and throbs within a stylistic magnitude that goes from a medium-slow ballad to an avant-garde sax burst solely supported by drums.

Unmistakably talented, Sherman reveals great potential as a composer and instrumentalist, and his Tonewheel gives a valuable contribution to the current scene.

Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
02 - The Eclipse ► 06 - Chagall ► 08 - Aqui Me Quedo


John Yao's Triceratops - How We Do

Label: See Tao Recordings, 2019

Personnel - John Yao: trombone; Jon Irabagon: tenor saxophone; Billy Drewes: soprano and alto saxophones; Peter Brendler: bass; Mark Ferber: drums.

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Following up on the quintet recordings released in 2012 and 2017, trombonist/composer John Yao invests in a three-horn quintet identified by the name Triceratops, a three-horned dinosaur whose puissance symbolizes the force of a piano-less new group featuring saxophonists Jon Irabagon and Billy Drewes, who join Yao in the line of fire, and a solid rhythm team composed of bassist Peter Brendler and drummer Mark Ferber. How We Do comprises eight compositions, seven from Yao and one from Irabagon.

The opener, “Three Parts As One”, is a post-bop burner with a communicative, swinging warmth, to which the horn instrumentalists add considerably. After the saxophonists’ juicy-toned flights, the theme is revisited, officially welcoming the bandleader for his first individual statement. The latter is uttered with joy and filled with fine melodic ideas.

The hooky two-note bass groove laid down by Brendler on “Triceratops Blues” has a contagious effect, guaranteeing harmonic consistency for the theme’s colorful unison lines. In this case, the improvisational stretches belong to Yao, whose sound reveals a dark ripeness, and Ferber, who speaks a comprehensible language all the way.

The title cut, introduced with introspective gloss in a sort of space-time warp, infuses some avant-jazz ambiguity through passages that include vagabond bass moves, a vivid cross-stick beat, and wether distended or fragmented lines. This temperament lasts for approximately two minutes, time when a damn groove in six salute the listener with a touch of Latin and plenty of bluesy lines atop. A reeds-brass dialogue, during which each soloist is attentive to each other’s actions, can be thoroughly enjoyed before Ferber starts trading bars with his bandmates.

Although far from groundbreaking, the pieces are consistently built and I like the way Yao writes. You don’t find wasted notes in the melodies and the environment sustains a mix of contemporary and traditional elements that interweave with clarity of purpose. However, after the elegant progression of the 3/4 “The Golden Hour”, which attempts to capture that time when the sun turns magical, the initial high vibe decays a bit, probably due to the more familiar and rollicking nature of the last tunes.

Doin’ The Thing” has abrupt and brief double time inflections as its principal attraction, while “Two Sides” and Irabagon’s joyful “Tea For T” are hard-swingers converted into buoyant commemorations. Both incorporate tempo variations, with the latter being expedited in its final course and set to a speed-freak pace.

More like a fun session than anything enduring, How We Do easily connects with the listeners by spreading a musical energy that is strong and palpable. Yao is in the right path.

Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Three Parts As One ► 02 - Triceratops Blues ► 03 - How We Do


Earprint - Easy Listening

Label: Endectomorph Music, 2019

Personnel - Kevin Sun: tenor saxophone; Tree Palmedo: trumpet; Simón Willson: bass; Dor Herskovitz: drums.

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Earprint is a chord-less quartet of talented young voices in the contemporary jazz world, who found a way to make new music by connecting their individual languages and different approaches. The group incorporates a two-horn frontline composed of outgoing saxophonist/clarinetist Kevin Sun and sagacious trumpeter Tree Palmedo, and two rhythmic pillars, namely, Simón Willson on bass and Dor Herskovitz on drums, who provide solid foundations over which the improvisers soar to new heights.

For their second album, Easy Listening, all members contribute compositions, in a total of 11. The communicative methodology is noted throughout a recording that sports captivating improvised excursions and nurtures a groove-oriented temperament.

Palmedo’s “Sink Song” kicks things off with a forward-moving bass groove in five, simple ride cymbal conduction, and colorful parallel movements delineated by the horn players. If Palmedo’s individuality is restrained here to motivic remarks that serve as accompaniment for Sun’s fluid phrases, then he really seems to be singing a song as he takes expressively melodic routes on the playful “Volume”, a Wilson’s creation that gradually embraces a danceable rock abandon. By throwing in searing lines crammed with leaping intervals and dark timbres, Sun demonstrates why he is one of the most promising saxophonists out there. He takes his boldness one step further on the Herskovitz’s “Don’t Look At The Pot”, growling against an odd groove imposed with a mechanical-like motion. Apart from this particular passage, this tune follows a swinging rhythmic thrust that often accommodates bopish melodies atop.

The only somber atmosphere occurs during the intro of the solo-less “Toupée”, where the bowed bass is transformed into pizzicato before a cautious groove in five leads the way. Willson wrote this tune in contrast with the title track, in which his notes manifestly define harmonies associated with the pop/rock song format.

The drummer’s “Big Bear” distills Ornette-like melodicism across an inspired rock catchiness. The horn players combine smart hooks before an unexpected finale around kinetic drums, which gives Herskovitz a chance to amplify his usually unaggressive posture. In a totally different scenario, he lays down a cool Latin rhythm that works with talkative bass lines on Sun’s “Gallimaufry”. Before that, muted trumpet and clarinet had initiated the journey by dancing with freedom.

Also Sun-penned, “Suchness” was devised like a two-cycle funk rock engine that spins with hasty classical-like lines in phase. The combination is successful, but due to the tune’s short duration, you may feel a sensation of underdevelopment.

These four young colorists are among an exciting new crop of jazz talents, being as much musical strategists as they are ear-openers. This record is something you should try out.

Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
02 - Volume ► 04 - Don’t Look At The Pot ► 05 - Gallimaufry


Petros Klampanis - Irrationalities

Label: Yellowbird Records, 2019

Personnel - Kristjan Randalu: piano; Petros Klampanis: bass; Bodek Janke: drums, percussion.

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The fact that Greek bassist/composer Petros Klampanis splits his time between two continents, having one foot in his native Greece and the other in the vibrant New York, clearly reflects in the music of Irrationalities, his first trio album. Here, his musical ideas are supported by Estonian pianist Kristjan Randalu and the classically trained Polish drummer Bodek Janke, two kindred spirits and frequent associates whose rapport allows for a full functioning trio with a wide collectivist perception of Klampanis' music. According to the bassist, Irrationalities is inspired by the courage one must have in order to constantly reinvent themselves.

Sympathetically laying out the trio’s strengths, “Easy Come And Go” opens the record like a sumptuous dance choreographed with refined taste and appetency for groove. While Janke’s soft percussive touch reinforces the idea of world music, there are fluid unison phrases, chromatic shifts that leaves traces of Eastern aromas in the air, pedal-like sections that easily transit to unexpected rhythmic accents, and a commanding solo by the bassist, who is as comfortable taking the lead as he is sustaining structure in the background.

Cultural heritage is also found on “Seeing You Behind My Eyes”, whose deceptive Motian-esque bareness, expressed in 7/8 with soft-spoken intimacy, evolves into something busier without losing essence. If this composition embraces Greece’s typical kalamatiano rhythm, then the standard “Blame It On My Youth” is transformed through a Bulgarian kopanitsa rhythm of 11/8. Besides the unhurried yet expressive lyricism with vestiges of melancholy that defines the piece, the arrangement includes a nice intro with polite brushwork, hushed and dreamy piano, and the recognizable melody professed by Klampanis, who paints the lyric in the foreground with sentiment and agility.

The title track is a kaleidoscopic, multi-cultural journey initiated with layered voices and involving astute variations in pace, intensity, tempo, and mood. While the harmonic progressions keep the inner voices in motion, often accommodating sharp chromaticism, classical and skeletal folk elements combine, seamlessly permeating the post-bop grounds with its natural hues. After improvised speeches from Klampanis and Randalu, the tune gains rocking stamina, only to restore, moments later, that classical feel that ends up concluding the piece. Less unpredictable than the latter, but equally mature in its harmonic development and modulations, “No Becomes Yes” unfolds with a 5/8 meter signature and nurtures a touching reverence for melody. Randalu is featured in a short solo piano passage, also delivering beautiful unisons with the bassist.

A tryptic centered in a vignette titled “Temporary Secret” has its groovy first part as a highlight, but you’ll have to search for it, since it’s a hidden track on the record.

Klampanis orchestrates everything meticulously and his boundless musicality flows with integrity, sensitivity, and self-control.

Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Easy Come And Go ► 04 - Irrationalities ► 07 - No Becomes Yes


Noah Preminger Group - Zigsaw: Music of Steve Lampert

Label: Self produced, 2019

Personnel - Noah Preminger: tenor saxophone; John O’Gallagher: alto saxophone; Jason Palmer: trumpet; Kris Davis: piano; Rob Schwimmer: haken continuum, clavinet; Kim Cass: bass; Rudy Royston: drums.

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Tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger has been playing in several musical contexts with a variety of group configurations, but on his 14th album as a leader, Zigsaw: The Music of Steve Lampert, he is found at his most subversive, stepping out of his comfort zone to embrace a challenging single piece that lasts roughly 49 minutes. As the title refers, the tune's composer is the brilliant Steve Lampert, whose amalgamation of styles (electronic music is a prevailing constituent) in addition to a fully integration of improvisation and composition delight musicians and listeners alike.

Preminger had previously worked with Lempert (e.g. Zahskl’s Jukebox Vol. 1 and Vol. 2), who composed this work in response to a request from the saxophonist. If the written material is delightfully audacious, the execution is sublime. Preminger gathers a swathe of heavyweight colleagues for that effect - alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher and trumpeter Jason Palmer join the bandleader in the front row, while the rhythmic foundation is entrusted to bassist Kim Cass and drummer Rudy Royston. The septet is rounded out with the creative Kris Davis, who takes over the piano chair, and Rob Schwimmer, a secret weapon whose soundscapes on Haken Continuum and clavinet assure that everything works as envisioned.

Lampert's advanced compositional strategy consists of 12 main sections, each of which exposing a cycle of four events - a vamp-like sequence that serves as a ramp for improvisations; an open-ended improvisational segment; a reaffirmation of its danceable first part; and a so called fantasy-like section. Despite forming a sort of symmetry, these multi-shaped mosaics are initially puzzling, packed with a futuristic surrealism that pushes us to another realm. It can be hauntingly cinematic at times, referring to movies like Forbidden Planet and Alphaville (at least in my head).

The journey starts with a frantic electronic-inspired dance that also welcomes some indie rock furor. Preminger infuses post-bop and funk energy into his statement, having Davis constantly on top of things as she confers the best imaginable comping. The soloists succeed one another, externalizing their ideas and adapting to a variety of settings that go from Kraftwerk-like extravaganzas filled with pulsing tones and colossal bass lines to mysterious ambiances wrapped in offbeat droning sounds to typical avant-garde jazz layouts. At some point, near the middle, and during an inventive piano excursion, the textural configuration gets slightly groovier and jazzier, after which the saxophonists churn out some more cries. In the final section, Cass and Royston are given the chance to show their swinging abilities, in a passage that also features Davis’ independent chordal flux, incredibly delivered in countercurrent.

There’s almost no time for lethargy or ponderation here since the perpetual dynamic changes continually bring something new to be acknowledged. This is intelligent, groundbreaking music that proves unclassifiable and elevates both Preminger and Lampert to a level of distinction in the progressive 21st-century jazz.

Grade  A

Grade A

Jaimie Branch - Fly Or Die II: Birds of Paradise

Label: International Anthem, 2019

Personnel - Jaimie Branch: trumpet, voice, synths, sneaker squeaks, bells, whistles; Lester St. Louis: cello, percussion; Jason Ajemian: double bass, percussion, vocals; Chad Taylor: drums, mbira, xylophone + guests

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Chicago trumpeter Jaimie Branch became a sensation after moving to Brooklyn and release her widely acclaimed debut album Fly or Die, title that also identifies her excellent group. With Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise, another fearless socio-political manifesto that marks her much-anticipated return, she brings new elements to the recognized eclectic approach, including inflammatory lyrics that she sings with punk-like attitude. According to her, we’re not living in a particularly beautiful time and an exclusively instrumental perspective is not effective anymore. That’s why words of criticism and discontentment are essential. Most of these tunes were written while touring in Europe for the first time with her band.

Targeting racism, “Prayer For Amerikkka Pt. 1 and 2” is a tremendous force, a powerful and insurgent blues that is the absolute peak of the album. The sluggish groove meticulously designed by bass, cello, and drums airs a slightly menacing tone, with acerbic cries of protest and agony echoing from Branch’s trumpet. Whereas her vocal mechanisms can easily relate to Patti Smith during the first part of the tune, it resembles PJ Harvey in the second (the other voices belong to the illustrious guests Ben LaMar Gay and Marvin Tate), where the conspicuous acceleration and mood variation trigger off Spanish-tinged statements over the strumming of a 12-string guitar. The finale has rasping cello incisions pushing us directly to “Lesterlude”, a composition by cellist Lester St. Louis.

Both “Simple Silver Surfer” and “Nuevo Roquero Estéreo” are feel-good-riffing songs whose melodies stick in your head. The former blends folk and Latin elements and the result is humorous and playful, while the latter incorporates more than the rock suggested in its Spanish title by mixing funk, Latin, and African music into an immutable yet exuberant rhythmic state of euphoria. The spirit of Don Cherry is present.

Diversity, inclusion, and eclecticism are the words of order here. Hence, if “Bird Dogs of Paradise” is populated with droning and buzzing sounds and percussive invasions that take us to the liberating ecstasy of Art Ensemble of Chicago, “Twenty Three N Me, Jupiter Redux” awakes with a flickering electronic drone, traverses a killer ostionato-based groove in 12, and wraps up with cacophonous avant-garde eruptions.

Branch concludes the work with the singable “Love Song (For Assholes and Clowns)”, a pop-inflected waltz that veers to indie rock at some point. Chad Taylor’s drumming contracts and expands here, and you can hear the following words at the beginning: ‘this one goes out to all those assholes and all those clowns out there. You know who you are!’.

In a political time where so much feels uncertain, it’s openly revolutionary recordings like this one that impel everyone to act in order to preserve civil rights. Branch’s work exerts visceral power in an exciting way.

Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
02 - Prayer For Amerikkka Pt. 1 and 2 ► 04 - Twenty Three N Me, Jupiter Redux ► 08 - Nuevo Roquero Estéreo


Sam Dillon - Force Field

Label: Posi-Tone Records, 2019

Personnel - Sam Dillon: tenor saxophone; Andrew Gould: alto saxophone; Max Darche: trumpet; Michael Dease: trombone; Theo Hill: piano; David Wong: bass; Anwar Marshall: drums.

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Even boasting a very personal diction when discoursing, the young American saxophonist Sam Dillon brings an impressive amount of different influences to his ripe sophomore album, Force Field. Strongly inflected with the hard bop idioms from the 50’s and early 60’s, Dillon, who possesses an outstanding technique, offers a classic-derived repertoire bolstered by creative spins that show how swinging bop and post-bop traditions can be absorbed, transformed, and delivered fresh with a stamp of his own.

Dillon is primarily assisted by a rhythm section that comprises Theo Hill on piano, David Wong on bass, and Anwar Marshall on drums. However, he changes configurations, which range from trio to sextet, with the addition of guest musicians on selected tunes. They are alto saxophonist Andrew Gould, trumpeter Max Darche, and trombonist Michael Dease, who provides one of his colorful tunes to the song list, namely, “Go For The Jugular”. Flaunting a warm horn arrangement in a style reminiscent of Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, this straight-ahead piece features all guests as soloists, with Dillon spearheading the sequence with rich Coltrane-isms that gravitate toward the unbeatable fluency of his Blue Train-phase.

Before that, the title track packs a punch with its grooving modal post-bop force and a scrupulous, dancing melody composed of attractive intervals. If the theme statement infuses a bit of the Sonny Rollins’ melodic charm, the rest is purely Coltrane/McCoy stuff, with Hill employing exuberant rhythmic spasms buoyed by opportune left-hand jabs, and Dillon oscillating between effortless roundness and smart obliquity in his lines. This spiritual atmosphere is partly passed to Dillon’s uptempo “Hit It”, whose main statement also incorporates that joyous briskness that characterizes the music of Lee Morgan and John Coltrane. Marshall is called into action here, exhibiting his drumming skills after effusive the solos and before the repositioning of the theme.

Hill switches to Fender Rhodes to bring that post-bop pulse-quickening to Chick Corea’s “Straight Up and Down”, another uptempo piece with a bouncy gait and incisive trumpet lines akin to Woody Shaw and Freddie Hubbard. He continues to explore the famous electric piano in a sentimental rendition of “Marionette”, a discoverable composition by Swedish pianist Lars Jansson, which contrasts with the familiar bebop flow of Parker’s “Dexterity”, here delivered in the classic sax-bass-drums format.

With a relaxing bossa temper, “Shift” is the slowest and perhaps the less interesting tune on the record. Predominantly adhering to 4/4 motions and burning up the miles with characteristic sounds, Force Field is uneven, but still enclosing moments of pure jazz passion worth checking out.

Grade  B

Grade B

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Force Field ► 03 - Straight Up and Down ► 07 - Hit It


Dave Liebman / David Binney / Donny McCaslin / Samuel Blais - Four Visions Saxophone Quartet

Label: Sunnyside Records, 2019

Personnel - Samuel Blais: baritone sax; Dave Liebman: soprano sax, flute; Donny McCaslin: tenor sax; David Binney: alto sax.

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The music hailed from classic saxophone quartets (typically comprising soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone) can be very exciting when in the hands of wise, influential musicians. Good examples are World Saxophone Quartet and Rova Saxophone Quartet, both founded in 1977 and with the latter still active. Now, a new ensemble of the same kind arrives, with its top-notch members showing off their multifaceted genius while fully enjoying a bracing musical camaraderie.

The Four Visions Saxophone Quartet was born from an idea of baritonist Samuel Blais, who first invited his former teacher, master soprano saxist Dave Liebman, to join him. The remaining two positions available couldn’t be better filled, with Donny McCaslin and David Binney bringing their tone quality and persuasive language on tenor and alto, respectively. The quartet’s debut album features ten compositions specifically written for the occasion. Blais and Binney contributed three compositions each, while McCaslin and Liebman penned two.

Blaizza” inaugurates the session with flowing melodies in strong counterpoint and shifting tempos, combining four distinct timbres for a stunning effect. For this two-part tune straddling between modern classical and contemporary jazz, Blais sought inspiration on “Andante and Scherzo” by French composer Eugène Bozza. Conversely, his “Et Vois Et Jours” was originally written for a jazz quartet and readapted to fit the context of this disc. Manifestly, there’s absolutely no need for chordal support here since the combinations of notes clearly imply harmonic movement.

Relying on unisons, polyphonies, and question-and-answer mechanics, the passages in Binney’s “Dunes” are accessible to the ear but relatively complex in the execution. Whether intoned with stately grace or rhythmic impact, the piece is highly enjoyable, reaching a climax with the altoist’s impromptu projections on top of a groove formed by a sturdy baritone pedal and tenor-soprano ostinatos in seven. Also penned by Binney, the staccato-infused “Empty Sunbeans” could be turned into a great pop/rock song, while “Technicolor Penguins” vouches a head sequenced by off-centered melodic ideas and rhythmically accurate unisons. You’ll find poignant, tone-bent cries by McCaslin and Binney evolving into long runs toward a crescendo that culminates in piercing notes.

So luxuriant and precise in its conception, “Legions” was envisioned by McCaslin with a new found determination, and it’s all about superior interplay. It features the composer and Liebman in crisp and exuberant exchanges and Binney in a high flight. The former two deliver again on “Buy a Mountain”, another McCaslin-penned stunner.

Liebman brought the longest piece into the collection, with the cogitative “In Bach’s Studio” clocking in at nearly 16 minutes. However, it’s with “A Moody Time” that he enchants the most. Besides inside/outside offerings, he delineates epic unisons, combines a mix of thematic Eastern and Western flavors, and devises a bouncing 15/8 groove that gains emphasis with the potency of the baritone.

Promoting textural variety in their advanced writings, these accomplished saxophonists, more than fulfilling their improvisational duties, dabble in the tonal qualities of their reed instruments with an extensive range of approaches. The result is a wonderful album.

Grade  A

Grade A

Favorite Tracks:
03 - Legions ► 06 - A Moody Day ► 07 - Technicolor Penguins