07 Edward Simon25 Years
Edward Simon
Ridgeway Records RRCD016 (edwardsimon.com/store#!/25-Years)

Edward Simon is one of the most unique and gifted pianists of his generation. Since landing in New York during the late 1980s, he’s been extremely prolific and has worked with some of the biggest names in jazz. The singular path he’s paved for himself and fellow musicians, mixing traditional jazz and Latin-American music, has garnered him kudos and respect from peers and aficionados. However, due to the lack of publicity under which he tends to operate, a significant portion of his 17-album-strong catalogue remains largely unheralded. 

It is the fact that many people will enter this new career retrospective unfamiliar with his body of work that gives the concept so much power. Sure, they’ll come for Simon’s high-profile collaborators such as Mark Turner, Avishai Cohen and the incomparable Brian Blade, but they’ll undoubtedly stay for the bandleader himself. Edward Simon is the complete package. As a composer and arranger, he is not only a soulful melodist and an adept polylinguist, but he also knows how to maximize the potential of the jazz ensemble. The reassuring tranquility he gets out of his trio on the appropriately titled Simplicity works in magnificent contrast to the SFJAZZ Collective’s torrential sonic hurricane on the track Venezuela unida. As a player, he manages to be equal parts precise and expressive. His solo on Pere is a particularly devastating display. If, for whatever reason, you aren’t aware of Edward Simon’s stunning work, now’s as good a time as any to familiarize yourself.

09 Ultimate SoulThe Ultimate Soul & Jazz Revue
Benjamin Koppel; Randy Brecker; Jacob Christoffersen; Scott Colley; Bernard Purdie
Cowbell/Unit UTR 4959 (unitrecords.com/releases)

Renowned Danish saxophonist and composer Benjamin Koppel’s latest release is a toe-tapping, upbeat trip into the soul and funk side of jazz, guaranteed to breathe life into any of the greyest days. Koppel has called together a stellar group of musicians to enliven each track, including greats such as Randy Brecker on trumpet, Jacob Christoffersen on the keys, Scott Colley on bass and Bernard Purdie on drums. The album features both songs composed by Koppel himself and new versions of classics by artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder. The saxophonist has done a wonderful job of bringing a modern touch and his own unique flavour to well-known tunes, shining a new light on them. 

Them Changes starts off the record with a captivating groove set up by Colley’s pizzicato bass line mingling with Purdie’s driving groove, overlaid by Koppel’s soaring riffs and Brecker’s sonorous horn melodies. A spruced-up and funkier rendering of one of Gillespie’s best known songs, Manteca is positively addictive with Christoffersen’s use of the Fender Rhodes bringing just the right amount of the past into the present. Stevie Wonder’s famed tune Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing adopts a more jazz-influenced flavour than the original, bringing in a great play on the tune throughout, with Koppel’s improvised solo being the cherry on top. A fantastic record as a whole, this would be a worthy addition to any aficionado’s collection.

11 CecilTaylorBirdland, Neuburg 2011
Cecil Taylor and Tony Oxley
Fundacja Sluchaj FSR 13/2020 (fsrecords.net)

A remastered radio broadcast of a two-part improvisation by American pianist Cecil Taylor (1929-2018) and British percussionist Tony Oxley (b.1938) at an intimate German club performance, Birdland offers irrefutable evidence of the mastery of men who had at that point been collaborating for more than two decades.

Free music avatar and one of the 20th century’s most influential musicians, Taylor’s sound world is only off-putting if one is frightened by modern music. Demonstrably dramatic, shaded and fluid, while being spontaneous, every key stroke follows cerebral logic, with each piece possessing as categorical an introduction, elaboration and conclusion as any notated score. Shaking and vibrating the keyboard and pedals in both smooth and rugged fashion, Taylor’s instantly identifiable style evolves at various pitches and speeds. Often he adds pressurized extensions to intricately elaborated sequences, detouring along unexpected sonic alleyways, then cannily changing course to avoid meandering into musical dead ends. Meanwhile Oxley’s paradigm includes wooden slaps, clanging cymbal and drum plops, each precisely timed so that the pianist’s sudden staccato runs or leaps from one register to another never catch him off guard, but are shadowed or amplified and appropriately balanced.

Taylor was 82 at this gig, yet displayed no loss of interpretative power. Paradoxically in fact, his playing is more adventurous and masterful than on his first LP in 1956. Like a late-career interpretation by Rubinstein or Horowitz, this CD is both defining and definitive.

12 Melody GardotSunset in the Blue
Melody Gardot
Decca Records (melodygardot.co.uk)

Singer/songwriter Melody Gardot has reunited with the Grammy-winning production team from her very successful 2009 release, My One and Only Thrill, for a return to her jazzy roots. With the sensitive guidance of producer Larry Klein and orchestral arrangements by the legendary Vince Mendoza, Sunset in the Blue manages to be both intimate and grand at the same time. 

The opening track, If You Love Me, sets the tone for this collection of originals and standards and originals-that-sound-like-standards, as this brand new song feels as familiar as an old friend.

Actual standards get masterful treatment and don’t deviate too far from other well-known covers. Moon River, might give you a sense of déjà vu, as the engineer for the track – Al Schmitt – is the same one who recorded Audrey Hepburn’s legendary version of the Mancini classic. 

Mendoza’s arrangements enhance Gardot’s subdued delivery while never overwhelming. C’est Magnifique is a prime example. The duet, with fado singer António Zambujo, is a sensual tribute to the sea, sung in English, French and Portuguese. At its heart it’s a simple song, but the orchestration elevates it to an exquisite piece of ear candy, reminiscent of an idyllic life and love. (For a little virtual escape, check out the accompanying video on YouTube.) About halfway through the album, a lively samba, Ninguém Ninguém, is a welcome palate cleanser. Feel free to get up and dance. 

Closing out the album is a stripped down version of I Fall in Love Too Easily. Anthony Wilson’s gorgeous guitar work along with Gardot’s somewhat world-weary delivery, is an emblem for these times, allowing us to reflect on where it all went wrong.

Listen to 'Sunset in the Blue' Now in the Listening Room

13 UrbaneUrban(e)
Mike Fahie Jazz Orchestra
Greenleaf Music FRE CD 1077 (mikefahie.bandcamp.com)

Although the Mike Fahie Jazz Orchestra has been together in New York since 2012, Urban(e) is their first album. Fahie, who composed and arranged all the works along with playing trombone and euphonium, had a fascinating concept of rearranging classical works into a jazz orchestra context. 

Of course one can think back to Deodato’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, or ELP’s Pictures at an Exhibition to know this concept has been around for a while. But Urban(e)’s strength is in Fahie’s subtlety where his arrangements are always true to his source material, but sometimes that truth is more metaphoric than harmonic. His extensive liner notes provide great insight into his interpretive process. One highlight is Prélude, Op.28 No.20 by Frédéric Chopin (whose chords and style anticipate many elements of modern jazz). Chopin’s prelude is only 12 bars, but Fahie rearranges it for his orchestra, then doubles the tempo twice and writes a new melody which works into a quietly swinging piano solo from Randy Ingram. Another gem is Excerpts from The Firebird which, over its 14 minutes, uses many motifs from Stravinsky’s original. The piano mimics the firebird waking up and singing her song, the tempo picks up and as Ingram’s scales and arpeggios become livelier the piece moves into an effervescent and lively tenor saxophone solo by Quinsin Nachoff. Midway through we have an introspective section with a beautiful euphonium and tuba duet (Fahie and Jennifer Wharton) where time seems suspended for a moment. 

Urban(e) is an intelligent and sophisticated collection of jazz works which we can admire on their own, or from the context of their classical origins.

Listen to 'Urban(e)' Now in the Listening Room

14 Somi Holy RoomHoly Room – Somi Live At Alte Oper
Somi; Frankfurt Radio Big Band; John Beasley
Salon Africana (somimusic.com)

It has been six decades since the rebirth of Afrocentric musical matriarchy shepherded by Miriam “Mother Africa” Makeba in the 1960s. That flame may have flickered somewhat after her death, but has since been rekindled by such phenomenal artists as Angélique Kidjo and the women of Les Amazones d’Afrique, Rokia Traoré, Fatoumata Diawara and Sandra Nkaké. Now, with her third – and most spectacular recording – Somi joins this illustrious list of formidable women storytellers. 

Somi is adept at traditional storytelling, a gift that African griots, griottes and gnawa healers have brought to music. It is something that reflects both the nurturing characteristic of women and their new, overarching influence as contemporary musicians. Somi reflects this awakening of feminine consciousness powerfully. Her performance in Frankfurt, captured here on the two discs of Holy Room, evokes the power of femininity and storytelling at their finest. Working her magic, bolstered by the empathetic playing of guitarist Hervé Samb and pianist Toru Dodo, Somi elevates her artistry to a rarefied realm. 

She uses the power of her soaring soprano to dig deep into the meaning of the lyrics of Kadiatou the Beautiful, Like Dakar and Ingele. The bittersweet music of Alien and Lady Revisited is performed with potent evocativeness. The great German-American contrabassist Hans Glawischnig plays a masterful pizzicato introduction to The Gentry and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, under the baton of the celebrated pianist and arranger John Beasley, is superb throughout.

15 AylerXmasAn Ayler Xmas Vol. 3 Live in Krakow
Mars Williams Presents
NotTwo MW 996-2 (nottwo.com)

At first it may appear that pioneering free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler (1936-1970) and Christmas music have little in common. But especially after noting the devotional titles of most of Ayler’s repetitively rhythmic compositions, linkage become clearer. Taking this connection to its (il)logical extreme, Chicago saxophonist Mars Williams melds Ayler lines and familiar holiday ditties together with improvisational solos to create sessions that are as amusing as they are avant garde.

Aided by trumpeter Jamie Branch, drummer Klaus Kugel, bassist Mark Tokar and especially the guitar and electronics of Knox Chandler, Williams comes up with unique sonic pastiches. Linear readings of fare like Jingle Bells and The First Noel, for instance, come in and out of focus while sharing contrapuntal melodies with Ayler’s simple hand-clapping tunes. Added are brassy trumpet yelps, altissimo saxophone squeaks and multiphonic honks as well as jiggling and juddering programmed oscillations that seem to come from further out in space than the path of Santa Claus’ sleigh. 

Not content with only that admixture, the quintet ups the ante on this live December 2018 performance by adding a strain of reggae rhythms underneath the familiar tunes. Live in Krakow is a sui generis disc that’s sure to enliven – and puzzle – any holiday gathering with its joyful audacity. Plus where else would you be able to hear a straight recitation of ‘Twas the Night before Christmas decorated with baubles of dissonant stop-time whinnies, shakes and honks?

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