Ayumi Ishito - Midnite Cinema

Label: Self Produced, 2019

Personnel – Ayumi Ishito: tenor sax, celesta; Hajime Yoshida: electric and acoustic guitar; Steve Brickman: keyboards, piano, organ, synthesizers; Yoshiki Yamada: electric bass; Carter Bales: drums; Alessandra Levy: vocals.

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Based in Brooklyn since 2010, Ayumi Ishito is a Japanese-born saxophonist/composer whose spunky style consists in a contemporary amalgamation of genres with a profusion of mood changes and predicated in demarcated structures that involve both group texture and individual improvisation. Her sophomore album is called Midnite Cinema and, contrary to her debut trio album, features a supple quintet with guitar, keyboards, bass, and drums.

The first two tracks, “Lost Sheep” and the adventurous “Caterpillars”, follow similar methodologies, shifting time signatures and sharing a common denominator: progressive rock. Still, their passages vary in style, and in the case of the former piece, propelled by a pumping bass, you even get a bit of R&B in the 4/4 section, sax ostinatos over a more commercial hard rock approach, and an openly groovy solo by keyboardist Steve Brickman, who takes us to a psychedelic electro-funk crescendo. He delivers again on the classic metal-tinged “Under the Raff”. The cinematic “Caterpillars” even brings other elements in, like when a brief soft popish moment blows in after an accented, in-your-face rhythmic passage that is no more than a breath away from prog-rock. There’s also a gritty sax solo dipped in effects running on top of a rock-solid vamping that veers into another vamp to feature guitarist Hajime Yoshida and his patterned metal licks. Guest vocalist Alessandra Levy makes an impact, fortifying the obscure choruses suitably arranged by Brickman.

Not Today” is an indie pop song that starts like a lullaby, but gets Ishito’s wah-wah-drenched saxophone speaking expressively in the guise of a guitar. If simplicity is the word that better fits here, then “Clown Ride” feels like a kitsch cocktail of genres where everything is taken to the extreme with soft pop/rock, slippery American marching extravagances, bolero sumptuosity, and avant-garde pompousness.

Even a bit too strained sometimes, compensation arrives from “Antler Velvet”, which boasts a jazzy atmosphere in tones of ballad along with a fancy crawling beat, and “Eight Steps”, a wider step into the free/avant jazz universe where enthusiastic galloping runs contrast with darker sounds. At this point, Ishito maximizes timbral work and evokes Coltrane, while a toxic guitar noise gradually infiltrates, shoving its way toward the final.

Conceived with a mix of sly wit and calculated naivety, Midnite Cinema is rigorous fusion with uncountable transitions and some peremptory unexpected turns.

Grade  B-

Grade B-

Favorite Tracks:
03 - Not Today ► 04 - Eight Steps ► 06 - Antler Velvet


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.

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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


Charles Pillow Large Ensemble - Electric Miles

Label: Mama Records, 2018

Personnel – Charles Pillow: alto and soprano sax, flutes; David Liebman: soprano sax; Colin Gordon: alto and soprano sax, flute; Luke Norris: tenor sax, clarinet; CJ Ziarniak: tenor sax; Karl Stabnau: bass clarinet; Michael Davis: trombone; Abe Nouri: trombone; Jack Courtright: trombone; Gabe Ramos: bass trombone; Tony Kadleck: trumpet; Charlie Carr: trumpet; Clay Jenkins: trumpet; Tim Hagans, trumpet; Julian Garvue: electric piano; Chuck Bergeron: electric bass; Mike Forfia: acoustic bass; Jared Schonig: drums. 

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Besides being a sought-after sideman in both pop and jazz genres, saxophonist Charles Pillow is also a qualified bandleader whose musical adroitness shines through on his latest work for large ensemble, aimed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Bitches Brew and the strong heritage of the early electric period of Miles Davis’ music. 

Conveniently entitled Electric Miles, the album features amazing soloists such as saxophonist Dave Liebman and trumpeters Tim Hagans and Clay Jenkins in a cross-pollination of jazz and rock with ample textural dimension. Aggregating 8 tightly structured compositions (four by Miles, three by Joe Zawinul, and one by Wayne Shorter), the program is competently handled by a 17-piece big-band comprising gifted multi-generational musicians with an unaffected ability to read and improvise.

Zawinul’s “Pharaoh’s Dance” opens with a deep-running tranquility, indicating that this music can be satisfyingly funkified with coolness and strongly boosted by legitimate solos. Pillow’s voice erupts with clarity after a short interlude that echoes trumpet riffs. Before him, it was Hagans who delivered a great solo with pure post-MIles intention.

Also penned by Zawinul and popularized by Miles, “In a Silent Way”, displays a blatant variation in the rhythmic intensity, having the inaugural docile atmosphere veering to an electrifying rock groove populated by Jared Schonig’s stupendous transition fills and Julian Garvue’s keyboard ecstasy. The drummer takes the liberty to embark on a short solo ride before concluding the piece with the rest of the band.

Rendered with grandiose counterpoint and delicious unison lines, “Bitches Brew” never boils over, except when Hagan's trumpet hits the stars. In turn, the solo-free “Sanctuary”, which honors Wayne Shorter, is filled with abundant serenity, in opposition to the relentless, outgoing moves of Miles’ “Spanish Key”, fueled with passionate improvisations from Jenkins and Pillow..

Coaxing wide dynamics with broader hooks “Black Satin” and “Yesternow” are set on fire due to Dave Liebman’s stunning flights on soprano. His discourses are designed with flashy outside efforts, lavish emotional crescendos, and brilliant resolve. While “Satin” thrives with the rhythmic magnetism of powerful bass lines and rocking drum fluxes, “Yesternow” is elegantly brought to life by a creamy alto flute.

Mr. Pillow shaped up Electric Miles with scrupulous arrangements containing fluttering horn lines and expressionistic individual solos. Everything flows with an electrifying poise. 

Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
 01 - Pharaoh’s Dance ► 04 - In a Silent Way ► 07 - Yesternow 


Thumbscrew - Ours

Label: Cuneiform Records, 2018

Personnel - Mary Halvorson: guitar; Michael Formanek: double bass; Tomas Fujiwara: drums.

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Avant-jazz trio Thumbscrew, a collaborative project co-led by guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, augmented their discography with the release of two new complementary if conceptually distinct albums, suitably entitled Ours and Theirs. Following the example of their second album, Convallaria, these sessions were born from a residency at Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum and demonstrate the strong sonic chemistry of musicians who have been regular presences in one another’s bands.

Theirs consists of ten visionary renditions of non-originals, including standards (“East of the Sun”, “The Peacocks”), post-bop sensations (Wayne Shorter’s “Dance Cadaverous”, Herbie Nichols’s “House Party Starting”, Stanley Cowell’s “Effi”), hard-bop classics (Benny Golson’s “Stablemates”), avant-garde numbers (Misha Mengelberg’s “Weer is een dag voorbij”), and even Brazilian (Jacob do Bandolim’s “Benzinho”) and Argentinean (Julio De Caro’s “Buen Amigo”) pieces.

Conversely, Ours exclusively comprises originals, having each artist contributing with three compositions.
Halvorson’s “Snarling Joys” exudes a sonic exoticism brought forth by flamenco-like attacks on the guitar and a thoughtful bass solo over a more temperate texture. There’s depth in the groove, yet, unrelated with the one presented on “Saturn Way”, which thrives with the percussive incantation of Fujiwara, its author, and also impresses through Formanek’s fluttering arco rumination. 
 
Suffused with lamenting chords, “Smoketree” advances at a medium-slow tempo imposed by a groove in nine. The inventive artistry of Halvorson, the snare drum palpitations of Fujiwara, and the empathic statement of Formanek are prominent. The bassist also delivers on “Unconditional”, a flirtatious tune driven by Fujiwara’s mallet appeal. This composition still sounds intriguing despite carrying a more standardized jazz phrasing and harmonization.

Formanek’s “Cruel Heartless Bastards” goes back and forth in tempo, jolting with changed-up rhythms and textures. Although rhythmically complex, the piece encloses rock-driven passages outlined with power chords, robust bass pumps, and effusive drumming that bear some resemblance with Pixies or The Fall, even if not so rough on the surface. Its energy has less to do with the groovy march of “Thumbprint”, but gets closer to “Words That Rhyme With Spangle”, a post-rock piece that cracks out dynamic kinetics, morphing into a jumbled amalgam of speckled drum chops, unfettered bass, electronic seizures, and revolutionary guitar spins.

An advanced post-bop harmonization affiliates with sharp melodic angularity to fabricate “Rising Snow”, which finds a sensitive equilibrium between the raw strokes of the pulse and the atmospheric velvety of the guitar.

The experimental sounds of Thumbscrew evolve with large amounts of imagination and boldness not to disappoint you. Whether playing originals or covers, their rhythmic deconstructionism and eccentric melodic conductivity make you dabble in this luxurious sonic bubble bath for the ears.

       Grade  A-

       Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
03 - Cruel Heartless Bastards ► 04 - Smoketree ► 08 - Words That Rhyme With Spangle


Jamie Baum Septet+ - Bridges

Label: Sunnyside Records, 2018

Personnel – Jamie Baum: flutes, singing bowl; Amir ElSaffar: trumpet, voice; Sam Sadigursky: alto sax, bass clarinet; Chris Komer: french horn; Brad Shepik: guitar; John Escreet: piano; Zack Lober: bass; Jeff Hirshfield: drums + guests Jamey Haddad: percussion; Navin Chettri: percussion, voice, tanpura.

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Jamie Baum, an in-demand flutist based in New York and a prominent figure on the current jazz scene, gathered her acclaimed Septet+ in order to release Bridges. Co-produced with the pianist Richie Beirach, the album is a multicultural feast that straddles the boundaries between various musical styles. Here, the contemporary jazz is interlaced with Arabic/maqam, Jewish, and South Asian musical traditions.

The exotic scale inherent to “From The Well”, the odd-metered piece that starts the session, suggests all those influences. Typical rock harmonic movements intercalate with the improvisations, with Baum introducing that section by delivering dexterous phrases while having Brad Shepik's cracking guitar comping in the background. Also, Sam Sadigursky conducts his fluid bass clarinet counting on the suaveness of John Escreet’s piano to support his moves. At a later stage, employing swirling techniques with both hands, the pianist becomes crucial in the creation of an avant-garde scenario that best fits Amir ElSaffar’s foreign world of fascination. The piano then acquires dreamy tones while Jeff Hirshfield’s drumming gets sprightly with cymbal preponderance. For the finale, sonic layers are tied up together, deep-laid by the competent horn section.

Influenced by a Jewish prayer and conveying a celestial peace, “Song Without Words” sounds superbly sweet-toned in the voice of ElSaffar, who got melodic support from Chris Komer’s French horn and the woodwinds. Baum penned this song in memory of her late father S. James Baum.
 
Hirshfield’s way of brushing the drums here is intimately relaxing, and he shows it again on “Contemplation”, the third and last part of Honoring Nepal: The Shiva Suite, which is Baum's response to the devastating 2015 Nepal earthquake. The first two movements are “The Earthquake” - initiated with singing bowl and piano, followed by a low-pressure chamber section slowly invaded by the stormy winds of Shepik and Hirshfield - and “Renewal”, which advances confidently through a priceless rhythmic disentanglement in five. Featuring percussionist Jamey Haddad, this piece exposes piano and guitar in strict textural collaboration, and also shows Baum and Sadigursky alternating bars while improvising.

Deriving from a melody of Pakistani Qawwali vocal master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, “Joyful Lament” was arranged with Shepik’s guitar as the main focus, and the guitarist reacted with a monumental solo filled not just with blazing flames and impactful distortion but also with an open soul. It is definitely one of the boldest and most delightful moments on the album. 

Mantra” features Nepali musician Navin Chettri, who sumptuously plays tanpura and sings with a penetrating timbre. The embraced mood clashes with the one in “Ucross Me”, which almost feels like an electronic exercise due to repetitive multi-pitched phrases. Bassist Zack Lober ultimately locks a funky groove that validates ElSaffar's motivation to coloring unabashedly until Shepik appears in big once again.

Jamie Baum intelligently fuses the earthly and the spiritual, the modern and the tradition, in a lavish, catchable effort that extracts multiple abilities from this brilliant cast of players. Crossing these ‘bridges’ signifies to live rich musical experiences. What are you waiting for?

       Grade  A-

       Grade A-

Favorite Tracks: 
01 - From The Well ► 05 - Renewal ► 07 - Joyful Lament  


Peter Erskine & The Dr. Um Band - On Call

Label: Fuzzy Music, 2018

Personnel - Bob Sheppard: saxophone; John Beasley: keyboards; Benjamin Shepherd: electric bass; Peter Erskine: drums.

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Consummate drummer Peter Erskine, a former Weather Report member, has always shown an inclination for electric jazz fusion. Commanding The Dr. Um Band with metrical depth and angular vision, he releases On Call, a new double album on his own music label, Fuzzy Music.

The disc one includes brand new material recorded in the studio whereas disc two encapsulates previously recorded tunes performed live in Occhiobello, Italy. All the members of the quartet - saxophonist Bob Sheppard, keyboardist John Beasley, and electric bassist Benjamin Shepherd - penned compositions for the studio session, which opens with Erskine’s “For The Time Being”. Initially enigmatic, the piece veers to a daring, dark-toned jazz funk, with the band keeping the groovy pose on Sheppard’s “Might As Well Be”, a crossover fantasy that salutes saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi. The versatility of Beasley is perceptible through attractive attacks and strange sounds. The keyboardist contributes to the song lineup with a pair of compositions - “If So Then”, inspired by the Miles Davis Quintet, is boosted by an adventurous piano solo and exceptional collective interplay; “Silver Linings” is a respectful homage to Horace Silver whose borrowed moods adapt to the band’s style.

Penned by the bandleader, “Uncle Don” displays a ceremonious organ as the introduction and a scratching backbeat in an early stage. Afterward, the band places cool harmonic progressions on top of rock-steeped rhythms, having funky bass lines running along.

The live session, filled with enthusiasm and excitement, opens with a couple of tunes by Erskine: the cerebral, blues-based “Hipnotherapy” and the funk-inflected “Hawaii Bathing Suit”. The former thrives with woody bass grooves decorated with wha-wha effects and concordant drumming, while the latter is a playful avant fusion that captivates through gorgeous unisons, apt improvisations, and an effusive drumming with strong Latin accents. 

After the soaringly atmospheric first section, Henry Mancini’s “Dreamville” combines bossa nova rhythms with balladic tones, whose silky textures result from mixing light funk, smooth jazz, and malleable R&B elements. The tune was retrieved from the album Second Opinion (Fuzzy Music, 2016), just like “Eleven Eleven”, a frenetic steeplechase with rock-solid rhythmic passages and powerful wha-wha bass lines. Although not too temperamental, the soloists opt for dazzling, straightforward approaches to express their lines of thought. 

Erskine’s mutable “Northern Cross” is not a softer either, displaying influences of American music while bridging the worlds of funk, jazz, and rock. This could be a possible outcome of having Joshua Redman playing with Return To Forever. 

With the live recording surpassing the studio session, On Call sparks with tremendous rhythmic engagement as it shows Erskine’s productive modus operandi.

       Grade  B+

       Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
03 (CD1) - If So Then ► 02 (CD2) - Hawaii Bathing Suit ► 04 (CD2) - Eleven Eleven


Gordon Grdina Quartet - Inroads

Label: Songlines, 2017

Lineup - Gordon Grdina: guitar, oud; Oscar Noriega: alto sax, clarinet, bass clarinet; Russ Lossing: piano, Fender Rhodes; Satoshi Takeishi: drums.

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If you feel like listening to something atypical, something that organically blends creative jazz, free-form improvisation, and Arabic classical music, go for the Vancouver-based guitarist/oud player/composer Gordon Grdina. Inroads finds this innovator teaming up with the visionary multi-reedist Oscar Noriega, consolidated pianist Russ Lossing, and multi-tasking percussionist Satoshi Takeishi. And I have to tell that this bass-less quartet sounds amazing. 

Surprisingly, the record opens with a brilliantly executed solo piano piece entitled “Giggles”, whose affectionate, oneiric ways captivated me instantaneously. The second version of this piece, “Giggles II”, closes the album like a spacious tone poem generated by the complemented lyricism of guitar and piano, and accompanied at some point by a brief, considerate, and never-intrusive percussive fondling.

Rambling like a taut folk dance, “Not Sure” mirrors indecision (so, good title!) about where to land, but all the passages probed by the quartet feel engrossingly connected. The journey includes animated guitar-clarinet polyphonies, followed by Lossing’s lofty solo over a distorted guitar groove. Meddling written passages anticipate moments of sheer abstraction, some of them intense, other even-tempered. The final three minutes of this piece are simply marvelous, having piercing saxophone shrieks and incisive melodic bursts implanted into a massively noisy wall of distortion erected with gutsy impetuosity.

Piano and Fender Rhodes merge as one to bring “P.B.S.” into life. Simultaneously roving and complex, this composition also embraces experimentation, feeling pretty much stately in its rock-inflected conclusion. This posture has a total discrepancy with the one adopted on “Fragments”, a still-explorative yet balmy meditation where we may indulge in the sentimental exoticism of the oud. The bandleader, a confessed adept of Hamas Aldine and Rabih Abou Khalil, interacts with Lossing, combining cleverness and pathos to create wistful cadenced movements that get deeper in plangency with the addition of bass clarinet. 

Noriega makes use of the hollowness of this beautiful instrument again on “Kite Flight”, a two-minute juxtaposition of free thoughts he co-wrote and exchanged with the guitarist.

The modernistic, Eastern-tinged “Apocalympics” starts with a pure guitar sound before allowing the clarinetist to phrase his ideas. He does it with wails and warbles, flying high above the supple yet rugged sonic textures. The outstanding control and temporal poise of Takeishi’s drumming takes further expression throughout his improvised stretch.

Grdina distills his music with lancinating virtuosity and deft narrative arc, integrating avant-jazz and world fusion with savoir-faire. Consequently, Inroads feels like a multicultural hymn to spontaneous creativity.

       Grade  A-

       Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Giggles ► 02 - Not Sure ► 03 - P.B.S.


Brian Charette - Kurrent

Label/Year: Self Produced, 2017

Lineup - Brian Charette: organ, electronics; Ben Monder: guitar; Jordan Young: drums, electronics.

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The extreme agility of Grammy-nominated Hammond organist, Brian Charette, is widely known, regardless the musical style he decides to jump into. Working with a wide range of musicians from different backgrounds such as Chaka Khan, Lou Donaldson, Joni Mitchell, and Will Bernard, the virtuosic musician applies his refined musical skills to a dashing, revolutionary new work entitled Kurrent, where he leads an extremely bendy trio with Ben Monder on electric guitar and Jordan Young on drums.

Charette’s genre-bending experiments, enhanced by a debonair amalgam of electronics and soaring layers of synth, immediately earned my sympathy on the opening tune, “Doll Fin”. A floating bass groove transports us to a sleek soul with hints of funk, so typical of the 70s. Psychedelic organ-driven melodies are set against the catchy current braced by the sustained atmospheric sounds of Monder. The latter sets the house on fire with a quick-witted solo that shows his outgoing musicality, and the tune re-acquires the loungy expression for Charette’s improvisation before segueing into a rock-infused discipline propelled by an effusive polyrhythmic approach and galloping unisons. 

Time Changes” boasts a pretty memorable riff as a basis, embarking on a progressive jazz-fusion that would be approved by bands such as Return To Forever or Soft Machine. The danceable rhythm, nearly Brazilian, is emancipated by Young, whose drumming style is tailored for this record.
 
Besides a wonderful organist, Charette reveals his adroitness in electronic manipulation and voice sampling. “Mano y Mano” is a good example, combining Kraftwerkian robotic words, breezy psychedelic soul, and striking heavy metal passages with a feel-good posture. A cutting guitar improvisation confirms what we already knew: Monder is as much effective playing limpid jazz textures as uncompromising distorted rock.

When the smooth jazz of George Benson hugs the contemporary post-bop/fusion of Pat Metheny, you get “Honeymoon Phase”, which precedes “Schooby’s Riff”, an outlandish exercise devised with an obstinate bass groove upfront and a routined backbeat. This groovy setting, crisply textured by Monder’s mind-blowing chords, is periodically interrupted with vocalized samples and giddily weird vibes. The final moments bring once more the irreverence of the guitarist, who unveils the hard rocker in him.

Boasting a rising sense of playfulness while positively quivers with edgy melodic pointillism, “5th Base” has something of Funkadelic but particularly reminisces Frank Zappa in its jazz, funk, and rock instigations drowned in bluesy undertones.

Opposing to the classical suggestions and some experimental textures of “The Shape of Green”, the deep funky spirit of the last track, “Catfish Sandwich” invites us to move our bodies uncontrollably, somewhere at an underground dance floor. 

Kurrent, a riveting spiral of unprecedented modern fusion with reverence for the dandy sounds of the past, is likely the boldest record from Charette, a visionary artist to be followed very closely.

        Grade  A

        Grade A

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Doll Fin ► 03 - Time Changes ► 09 - 5th Base


Anouar Brahem - Blue Maqams

Label/Year: ECM, 2017

Lineup – Anouar Brahem: oud; Django Bates: piano; Dave Holland: bass; Jack DeJohnette: drums.

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Tunisian oud player and composer Anouar Brahem is a widely reputed artist who has recorded extensively on the ECM label. Indelible works such as Barzakh, The Astounding Eyes of Rita, and especially Thimar, a memorable trio session with British multi-reedist John Surman and American bassist Dave Holland, are among his most accomplished works.

The top bass player mentioned above is part of the triumvirate that interact with Brahem in his latest outing Blue Maqams, a collection of mostly new compositions based on the Arabic modal music system that fits the unequal world chamber-jazz current he usually embraces. The other members are the British pianist Django Bates and the legendary American drummer Jack DeJohnette, who round out the real jazz rhythm section.
 
Opening Day” brings interesting ideas en-route, taking us instantaneously to torrid, distant places through the oud-bass singalong. Bates’ point of departure fully corroborates with Brahem’s melodic phrase. It all ends up in a three-side parallel melodic movement whose fluency is disrupted through a sensitive bass solo by Holland.

The bassist’s amazing sound and virtuous sense of groove, always with DeJohnette’s sober-minded rhythmic measures alongside, constitutes the body of the songs. “Bom Dia Rio”, whose Portuguese title means ‘good morning river’, and “Persepolis’s Mirage” are typical cases of spectacular drifts delivered at unusual tempos. Masterfully layered, the former tune meditates through the oud sounds after jolting with a super 10/8 time signature. On the latter piece, marked by passages with 14 beats per measure, we can hear the exotic lute-like instrument, impeccably dominated by the bandleader, embracing deep-toned sounds while advancing in perfect consonance with the bass.

There’s a soulful contemplation attached to “La Nuit”, where piano and oud embark on a candid one-to-one conversation, reflecting conjointly until the bass and the drums become involved. It feels like a tranquil prayer of gratitude.

Denoting an inflation of the Western feel due to a delicate waltzing jazz approach, the title track changes radically when Brahem isolates himself, exploring his innermost musicality. After this retreat, the reappearance of the rhythm section sounds no less than magical.

Regardless the title and the rhythmic touch, the piano-less “Bahia” doesn’t sound particularly Brazilian, rather exhibiting an occasionally hummed 2-minute solo introduction by Brahem, who first recorded this piece in 1994 with saxophonist Jan Garbarek for the latter's album Madar.
 
Blue Maqams has no need to pound or poke, finding tranquility in the pragmatic acoustic formula and unblemished technique evinced by the quartet. In these disturbing times, nothing better than listening to music that is congenial, peaceful, and deeply felt. Anouar Brahem delivers all that and more.

        Grade  A-

        Grade A-

Favorite Tracks: 
03 - Blue Maqams ► 06 - Bom Dia Rio ► 07 - Persepolis’s Mirage


Amir ElSaffar Rivers of Sound - Not Two

Label/Year: New Amsterdam, 2017

Lineup includes – Amir ElSaffar: trumpet; Ole Mathisen: saxophone; JD Parran: saxophone; Mohamed Saleh: oboe; Miles Okazaki: guitar; Craig Taborn: piano; George Ziadeh: oud; Jason Adasiewicz: vibraphone; Tareq Abboushi: buzuq; Carlo DeRosa: bass; Nasheet Waits: drums; etc.

// this review was originally published on LondonJazz News on May 15 //

The musical capacities of Amir ElSaffar deserved wide recognition in 2007 when his acclaimed debut album entitled Two Rivers was released on Pi Recordings. Born in Chicago to an Iraqi father and an American mother, ElSaffar, a trumpeter, vocalist, composer, and bandleader, has been an enthusiastic emissary of a fusion style that blends Iraqi maqam music and contemporary jazz. His aptitude to merge both styles as an organic whole was strengthened after learning from maqam music masters in Baghdad, as well as collaborating with jazz forward-thinkers like Cecil Taylor, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Oliver Lake, and Vijay Iyer.

ElSaffar’s new double-disc album, Not Now, released on Amsterdam Records, features a closely-knit 17-piece ensemble that comprises both Western and Middle Eastern musicians of remarkable technical caliber.

The disc one opens in a surreptitious way with “Iftitah”, where layers of sound are gradually stacked up, creating mystery at first, and then gaining majestic contours with the horn section. The finale displays the saxophone players embarking on a striking collective improvisation over a racing, swinging pulse commanded by bassist Carlo DeRosa and drummer Nasheet Waits. It took me to another dimension in a rare moment of exalted ostentation. Too bad it didn't last longer!

Exotic perfumes are exhaled from “Jourjina Over Three”, which overflows with serpentine microtonal melodies delivered in unison, and “Penny Explosion”, an enchanting piece that initially dances at 3/4, but eventually shifts in tempo, still maintaining the festive tonalities.

Plaintive and hypnotic, the slow-paced “Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son)” is a burst of sentiment. It features an intensely harmonious and glowingly spiritual piano solo by Craig Taborn, who resorts to thoughtful polyphonies to impress. The latter also designs the final setting, together with vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, and guitarist Miles Okazaki in a juxtaposition of provocative ostinatos.

Opening the disc two, “Layl (Night)” is a levitating prayer immersed in Byzantine scales and sinuous phrases played in unison, while “Hijaz 21/8” and “Shards of Memory/B Half-Flat Fantasy” invite us to dance with their modal incursions and chromaticism. On the former, amidst several other improvisations, we can hear ElSaffar’s dissertations on trumpet, while the latter finds the perfect poise between Arabic sounds and chants, sectional classical formulas, jazz infusions, and mesmeric rhythms. Everything leads to a massive collective improvisation.

I've found soul in ElSaffar’s compositions and responsiveness in his arrangements. It’s perceptible that these tunes never close doors to exploration and new possibilities. Regardless the great individual moments, the main force of Not Two comes from the collective whose members, unselfishly and victoriously, walk in the same direction.

          Grade  A

          Grade A

Favorite Tracks:
01 (CD1) – Iftitah ► 04 (CD1) – Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni ► 03 (CD2) – Shards of Memory


Kurt Rosenwinkel - Caipi

Label/Year: Razdaz Records, 2017

Lineup – Kurt Rosenwinkel: guitars, voice, bass, piano, synth, percussion; Mark Turner: tenor saxophone; Pedro Martins: voice, drums, synth; Frederika Krier: violin; Chris Komer: French horn; Alex Kozmidi: baritone guitar; Eric Clapton: guitar; Andi Haberl: drums; Amanda Brecker: voice; Zola Mennenoh: voice; Kyra Garey: voice; Antonio Loureiro: voice.

kurt-rosenwinkel-caipi

Influential American guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel opted to radically change direction in Caipi, a Brazilian jazz fusion record whose concept and compositions had been worked on over the last ten years. 
Accompanying the virtuoso guitarist, who also sings and plays bass, keys, and percussion, are international artists of undeniable quality. The lineup includes the saxophonist Mark Turner, multi-instrumentalist Pedro Martins, and intermittent appearances of violinist Frederika Krier, French horn player Chris Komer, baritone guitarist Alex Kozmidi, drummer Andi Haberl, rock/blues guitarist Eric Clapton, and a quartet of vocalists.

A myriad of colorful confetti covers the tropical landscapes described by the title track, where typical Brazilian rhythms fuse seamlessly with the straight-ahead post-bop style that the guitarist has been plunging in. On top of the highly-colored acoustic voicings, the radiance of his effect-drenched electric guitar sound is completely identifiable with previous works, even if applied to a new context.

Both “Kama” and “Casio Vanguard” are inspiringly utopian, having Portuguese lyrics uttered with recurrent falsettos. The former is inundated with synth vibes, acquiring an R&B feel that takes us back to the 80s. In turn, the latter is encircled by a Brazilian pop-folk that combines many influences, from Gilberto Gil to Hermeto Pascoal. Rosenwinkel mesmerizes every time he expresses himself on the guitar. 

Summer Song” is a breezy, ear-catching piece that features singable melodies over an underground dream-pop atmosphere. 

A ternary bass groove, glued to a festive samba rhythm, is laid down in “Chromatic B”, creating the ideal conditions for the guitarist’s explorative take offs. It gets us stoned of relaxation before opening a way to a double dose of indie pop with “Hold On” and “Ezra”. The latter, composed for Kurt’s son, features Mark Turner soloing in-the-rhythm. 

The saxophonist can be heard again in “Casio Escher”, a floating, feel-good tune initially driven by acoustic guitar and superiorly vocalized by Amanda Brecker and Pedro Martins. It comes recharged by the empowerment and colorful expressiveness of the soloists, Turner and Rosenwinkel, in the case.

Tinged with an Afro-Brazilian rhythm and richly harmonized, “Interscape” is another favorite of mine, and comes shaped by wordless vocals in a grateful exultation of beauty and joy. 

Fans of Kurt Rosenwinkel will certainly be surprised with the new path but don’t really have to worry. Firstly, because the compositional expertise and guitar skills of their hero remain intact and recognizable. Secondly, because this fusion sounds good, spreading blissful vibes over the blue skies.

         Grade  A-

         Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 –  Caipi ► 09 – Casio Escher ►10 – Interscape


Brian (Shankar) Adler - Radioactive Landscapes EP

Label/Year: Circavision Productions, 2017

Lineup - Matt Moran: vibraphone; Santiago Leibson: piano; Jonathan Goldberger: electric guitar; Rob Jost: bass; Brian (Shankar) Adler: drum set, ghatam.

Drummer/composer Brian (Shankar) Adler brings out another EP entitled Radioactive Landscapes, following up last year’s fusion doublet, Binary and Mysteries Of The Deep.
This work comprises three tunes, each of them lasting around five minutes. To shape it, Adler reunited his quintet composed of vibraphonist Matt Moran, guitarist Jonathan Goldberger, pianist Santiago Leibson, and bassist Rob Jost.

Gowanus 40” kicks in by spreading a scent of mystery before setting foot in a groove laid down by Jost and Adler. Leibson and Moran infuse great part of the harmony and melody while Goldberger fills with stringed texture. The generated funk-rock pulse suffers occasional disruptions and variations, and Goldberger’s final breakthrough wakes us up from a sweet state of levitation and lethargy.

In “Watertown 34”, it’s possible to imagine water drops falling while listening to the synchronous intersections of Moran’s vibes and Leibson’s keys. The hypnotic ghatam's vibes introduced by the bandleader, push them into a mystic dance that gains an extra layer with Goldberger’s punctual guitar tremolos wrapped in effect. An abrupt detour leads us to a rock-inflated rhythm set up by bass and drums, triggering a distorted improvisation by the persuasive guitarist.

On the last tune, “Nuearth 49”, the quintet sets a more melancholic musical landscape, working together in an introspective commitment.
Gracious moments can be enjoyed in a confluence of diverse ambiances and influences.

Favorite Tracks:
01 – Gowanus 40 ► 02 – Watertown 34