06 David SanfordA Prayer for Lester Bowie
David Sanford Big Band featuring Hugh Ragin
Greenleaf Music GRE-CD-1086 (greenleafmusic.com)

Lester Bowie, co-founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and one of the leading lights of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, was a legendary trumpeter known for his adventurous and often humourous music. Beneath this veneer was his avant-garde, deeply Africanized vision for jazz. 

Referencing everything that the trumpeter stood for, composer and arranger David Sanford empowers his big band to evoke the spirit of Bowie through high-octane performances on A Prayer for Lester Bowie. Each of eight exquisite charts is especially rewarding for the quality of the performance, advanced by stellar soloists featuring trumpeters Hugh Ragin and Brad Goode, saxophonists Anna Webber and Marc Phaneuf, trombonists Jim Messbauer and Ben Herrington among several other virtuoso musicians. 

While the centrepiece of the album is the song that gives it its title, written by – and featuring – Ragin on trumpet, the other charts are equal, in the fabulous richness of orchestral texture, to the album’s principal song. In fact, about three of the most miraculous minutes of the album can be heard on popit (also featuring Ragin) as well as the balletic Woman in Shadows and the dark-toned Soldier and the CEO. Throughout the repertoire on this recording the musical chemistry between the musicians is seamlessly intuitive. Woodwinds, brass and rhythm sections sparkle in ensemble with eloquence and vigour while judiciously placed solo movements are always poetically declaimed.

Listen to 'A Prayer for Lester Bowie' Now in the Listening Room

07 Mary LaRoseOut Here
Mary LaRose; Jeff Lederer; Tomeka Reid; Patricia Brennan; Nick Dunston; Matt Wilson)
little(i)music (littleimusic.com)

After his two-year stint with Chico Hamilton’s band, clarinetist, flutist and alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy rose to eminence in the iconic bands of Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and Booker Little, becoming known as much for his forward-thinking harmonic and rhythmic conception, as for his lyrical, human-speech-like solos on bass clarinet and flute. 

Mary LaRose, a remarkable artist in her own right, captures all of Dolphy’s character and artistry into an eerily prescient vocal album featuring prominent – and lesser-known – repertoire from  Dolphy’s unique canon, adding lyrics, brilliantly executed polyphonic vocalese and singing throughout. Another striking aspect of this music is the sensuality of sonority, confirming without question that Dolphy was an absolute master of orchestral language with a subtlety of timbre. 

Jeff Lederer’s arrangements of the charts on Out Here capture the majesty of Dolphy’s music revelling in its extravagance, while the group comprising cellist Tomeka Reid, vibraphonist Patricia Brennan, bassist Nick Dunston and drummer Matt Wilson deliver strongly committed, full-blooded performances. 

But make no mistake, this recording is launched into the stratosphere by the high jinks and vocalastics of LaRose. Her visionary aesthetic and idiomatic performance is behind the kinetic energy of the album’s most memorable songs: Gazzelloni and Music Matador, the latter featuring trombonist Jimmy Bosch and percussionist Bobby Sanabria. Warm Canto – with its clarinet choir, including Isaiah Johnson and Cameron Jones, lifting aloft LaRose’s contrapuntal vocals – is the album’s crowning glory.

08 Noah HaiduSlowly – Song for Keith Jarrett
Noah Haidu; Buster Williams; Billy Hart
Sunnyside Communications SSC 1596 (noahhaidu.com)

Few pianists in contemporary jazz have dominated the concert grand piano like Keith Jarrett, an artist of the first order, who was riveting in solo performance and similarly thrilling with his longstanding trio, comprising bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette. The death of Peacock and the pianist’s rapidly declining health have meant that the world will be deprived of one of the greatest, most versatile performing artists in recent memory. 

To pay homage to someone with such an outsize artistic personality would seem to be an enormous challenge, the task made even more daunting because of the choice to show respect for Jarrett by playing in a trio format. But not so much for the prodigious piano virtuoso Noah Haidu, who could not have picked better musicians for this venture than venerable bassist Buster Williams and drummer Billy Hart.

Haidu attempts to retain the emotional intensity and depth of characterization of Jarrett’s work, without emulating his idol on the album Slowly. To do otherwise would have been ill-advised given the distinctive nature of Jarrett’s improvisatory playing. Rather, Haidu impresses with a more discursive style featuring idiosyncratic pitching and a tone that seems to evaporate in short transcendent phrases. The repertoire is wisely chosen and the album includes the appropriate and thematic Air Dancing, a balletic composition by Williams; Lorca, an elegiac piece by Hart; and Haidu’s eloquent composition Slowly. The album’s apogee is Jarrett’s wistful composition Rainbow.

09 Satoko FujiiPiano Music
Satoko Fujii
Libra Records 201-067 (librarecords.com)

Prolific Japanese avant-garde pianist and composer Satoko Fujii has shown yet again on her newest release that she continues to push the boundaries of jazz to new limits. The listener is taken on a peaceful yet eerie journey through an ethereal and transcendent soundscape unlike any other. Both pieces are penned and mixed by Fujii herself, showcasing her behind-the-scenes skills as well as her thorough involvement in both the performative and editorial aspects of the record. For anyone who wants to take in a full musical experience that tells a true and almost lifelike story of its own, this album is a great pick.

The almost-19-minute-long opening track Shiroku is slow to unfold but allows the listener to immerse themself fully and take on an almost meditative state, following the smooth ebbs and flows, crescendos and decrescendos of the music. What makes the compositional aspect of the record unique is the fact that both pieces are made up entirely of one-to-two-minute-long recordings on the prepared piano that have been forged together and overlayed seamlessly, creating a sonorous landscape for the ears. Fujii calls the result of this technique a “sound collage,” something new to her and which she describes as making music “like building with Legos.” The album closes with Fuwarito, a slightly livelier piece that has shorter melodic and rhythmic phrases that lend a slight note of positivity and brightness to the music.

10 SundayCD004Sunday at De Ruimte
Marta Warelis; Frank Rosaly; Aaron Lumley; John Dikeman
Tracatta/Doek RAW 868 (doekraw.bandcamp.com/album)

Maintaining its reputation as a haven for exploratory musicians is Amsterdam, where this intense but informal improvisational session was recorded. None of the now-resident players are Dutch. Demonstrative tenor saxophonist John Dikeman and spartanly rhythmic drummer Frank Rosaly are Americans; inventive pianist Marta Warelis is Polish; and propulsive bassist Aaron Lumley is Canadian.

Alternately pensive and passionate, the quartet cannily constructs the four improvisations with fluid integration and without obdurate showiness. That means that each time the saxophonist launches a paroxysm of fragmented cries, tongue slaps and other extended tendencies, the pianist’s fleet patterning and the bassist’s fluid pumps decompress the exposition into sonic blends.

With Rosaly mostly limiting himself to rim shots, delicate shuffles or cymbal scratches, this contrapuntal procedure plays out throughout, most spectacularly on the lengthy Masquerade Charade. Resonating from atmospheric bass-string drones and single-note keyboard clips, by the track’s midpoint the moderated emphasis is challenged by Dikeman’s tone smears, note spears and hoarse sputters, until Lumley’s stinging stops and Warelis’ dynamic cascades connect each player’s lines into a joyously squirming finale.

Dikeman’s skill at distinctively shattering complacency with reed bites, honks and kinetic yelps is never limited by the pianist’s cerebral interpretations, frequent doubling by the bassist’s metronomic pulls or string sweeps, or the occasional bell clatter from Rosaly. Yet the cohesive program that arises from this constant push-pull defines the quartet’s dramatically realized strategy. It also substantiates the Netherlands’ appeal to foreign players.

11 EastAxisCD006Cool With That
East Axis
ESP-Disk 5064 (espdisk.com)

Created by committed improvisers, this CD is one that won’t frighten those who shy away from free music. While engagement is present, alienating pressure is omitted. Strength isn’t missing, but is so much part of the New York quartet’s DNA that it doesn’t need to be emphasized. Drummer Gerald Cleaver’s powerful and elastic beat and pianist Matthew Shipp’s spidery pecks or cultivated patterning are guiding factors here. Bassist Kevin Ray’s pinpointed plucks move the program forward without demanding attention, while Allen Lowe operates in chameleonic fashion, alternately mellow or biting on tenor saxophone and smooth or raucous on alto.

Often harmonized by Lowe and Shipp, buoyed with straight-ahead rhythms from the others, themes swirl, splatter and slide as on the title track where Shipp’s single-note comping moves between Basie and Monk. Similarly, Lowe channels Sonny Rollins’ intensity and Lee Konitz’s invention depending on his chosen horn. These bolts between staccato timbre fanning and affable tonal exposition are most obvious on the final track. At 28 minutes, almost double any other, One offers space for the rhythm section’s only solos plus distinct transitions. Spurred by a drum backbeat, the initial metronomic swing encompassing reed bites and glossolalia allows everyone to trade breaks later, and in the final sequence descends to a sophisticated march with slurring saxophone lines and keyboard bounces. 

Play this CD for anyone and that person will probably confirm he or she is Cool With That.

13 LightAndCD007Light and Dance
Judson Trio
RogueArt ROG-0112 (roguart.com)

Taking advantage of the unique textures available with unusual instrumentation, members of the Judson Trio stretch the connective limits during this two-CD set of one live concert and a studio date. Following a five-year partnership, Paris-based bassist Joëlle Léandre, New York violist Matt Maneri and drummer/percussionist Gerald Cleaver can perfect searing or subdued improvisations with sonic understanding.

Except for the drummer’s crunching kit-exercising on the final selection, tracks pulsate fluidly since none of the players stick to standard forms. Besides refracting creaky spiccato scratches, Maneri’s pizzicato strums create mid-range continuum. Léandre’s command of connective pressure is a given, but she also expresses pointillist expositions with the speed and malleability of a small fiddle. Colourist Cleaver’s accompaniment is expressed with cymbal clanks, gong-like resonation, pointed ruffs or drum top spanks.

Frequently moving in three-layered narratives or broken-octave elaboration, the trio’s musical cooperation is expressed most succinctly on the live Wild Lightness #4. After the bassist’s singular string plucks state the theme, Maneri’s string scordatura counters with widened strokes. Directly transformed into squeaky below-the-bridge scratches, his unique tones intersect with Léandre’s sul tasto narrative elaborations and are decorated with Cleaver’s bell-tree-shaking tinctures.

Light and Dance is dedicated to exposing all the obvious, hidden and expanded textures available from the interactions of the three players’ instruments during all 18 tracks. If equivalent pliable concepts were expressed by governments, irritants like trade wars and Brexit could likely be avoided.

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