09 Matty Stecks Night CravingsNight Cravings
Matty Stecks & Persiflage

It was Thelonious Monk who once said “a genius is the one most like himself.” In my eyes, that’s the goal: to acquire a distinct sound. Playing with technical prowess is impressive on its own, but knowing all the notes is only half the battle. It’s what you do with said notes that defines your artistry. 

Saxophonist Matt Steckler and his quintet Persiflage certainly exhibit an immense command of their sound on this latest effort. As he often does, Matty Stecks beautifully showcases the sheer range and breadth of his compositional talents. Not only are his melodies ingenious and wonderfully complex, but the way he manipulates form in each composition makes for a consistently exhilarating listen. There seems to be a curve ball thrown around every corner. I find myself particularly blown away by my initial listen of Agriturismo. The tune kicks off with a slightly disconcerting march, reminiscent of Henry Threadgill. Once a natural climax is reached, they hastily dissolve into a guitar/drum duet, which transitions seamlessly into an open trombone/bass improvisation and saxophone solo. 

The textures accomplished on this album are something else, which can be largely attributed both to the group’s general attentiveness and specifically the Herculean efforts of percussionist Satoshi Takeishi. Persiflage is simply an astounding band, and the results on this recording speak for themselves.

10 hafez modirzadeh facets coverFacets
Hafez Modirzadeh
Pi Recordings (pirecordings.com)

Hafez Modirzadeh, an American composer and saxophonist, has a musical vision he calls “chromodal” merging modal Persian music and the harmonic language of jazz as embodied in the work of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. Here he’s created a series of pieces, Facets, combining his own and others’ works, in which eight of the piano’s keys have been lowered in specific pitch values, creating an available series of microtones and radically altering the piano’s resonance.

The 18 pieces heard here have been divided equally among three pianists who readily blur composed and improvised musics: Kris Davis, Tyshawn Sorey and Craig Taborn. Modirzadeh joins in on tenor saxophone on ten pieces. No description can account for the numerous variations in approach or the strangely playful eeriness and structured refractions that arise. Facet 33 Tides achieves a strange, limpid and previously unknown, watery beauty. Facet 34 Defracted has Davis improvising on two Monk compositions, Ask Me Now and Pannonica, each performed later by the duo of Modirzadeh and Taborn. Facet 39 Mato Paho is a superb reverie by Modirzadeh and Sorey in which the strange colouring of pitches transforms the initial mood, while Davis makes Facet 31 Woke an epic of transforming approaches. In Facet 32 Black Pearl, Modirzadeh creates a variation on Bach’s Goldberg Variation No.25.

As novel as this wedding of cultures might seem, there’s real substance here, combining rich and related inheritances in ways that underline distinctions and highlight concordances.

11 Franco AmbrosettiLost Within You
Franco Ambrosetti Band
Unit Records UTR 4970 (unitrecords.com/releases)

World-renowned Swiss trumpeter and flugelhornist Franco Ambrosetti has released a sultry and smooth collection of jazz ballads that take you to a faraway musical world into which it’s easy to escape in these trying times. The flowing and pleasant notes that the gifted musician conjures from his golden horn perfectly mimic and showcase his “refined and poised” nature and beautifully simplistic yet poignant approach to making music come alive. Supported by a sublime backing band featuring equally famed names such as John Scofield on guitar and Scott Colley on bass, Ambrosetti’s own tunes as well as classics by Horace Silver and Miles Davis, among others, are taken to new heights. 

The record opens with Silver’s jazz standard Peace, a song that positively makes you sway along as Scofield’s melodious riffs and a softly soaring horn tune layered over Renee Rosnes’ mellow chords on the keys take you on a velvety musical journey. Silli in the Sky is a Latin-flavoured piece lovingly written about Ambrosetti’s actress wife; Jack DeJohnette’s quietly sizzling drum groove combined with lovely guitar and horn solos add just the right amount of edge to give a fiery undertone to the tune. Closing out the album is You Taught My Heart to Sing, tinged with slight melancholy but just the right amount of movement in the more up-tempo parts of the song to convey hope, ending it all on a positive and warm note.

12 Patricia BrennanMaquishti
Patricia Brennan
Valley of Search VOS 005 (valleyofsearch.com)

Making a convincing statement without raising your voice is the mark of a sophisticated conversationalist. With solo vibraphone and marimba, New York’s Patricia Brennan expresses the same concept on compositions and improvisations which rarely rise past hushed tones and evolve languidly. Additional torque comes from the judicious use of electronic effects.

This is all done so subtly though that those few instances in which the squeaky wave forms are obvious are no more disruption to the compositional flow than the tremolo pressure Brennan asserts with multiple mallets or varied motor rotation. Avoiding glittering statements, Maquishti’s 12 tracks are a study in pastel blends. This unhurried program isn’t sluggish however. I Like for You to Be Still for instance, is pulled out at a near lento tempo, but the thematic thread is never broken. Brennan also extends her idiophone timbres by creating tones that could come from bell ringing or gourd scratching. In fact, Magic Square, the most spirited tune, only picks up speed at midpoint after a series of echoing pops. It reaches a crescendo of merry-go-round, calliope-like sounds created by rolling mallets across the vibraphone’s metal bars, not striking them. Meanwhile the tracks built around more deliberate woody reverberations from the marimba evolve with similarly measured light touches.

The cornucopia of shimmering sound timbres projected is best appreciated by responding to the cumulative affiliations of this well-paced date and not expecting to hear the equivalent of a shouted argument.

13 Masabumi KikuchiHanamichi – The Final Studio Recording
Masabumi Kikuchi
Redhook Records 1001 (redhookrecords.com)

The subtitle of Hanamichi is “The Final Studio Recording.” Reading this adds significant weight to the music. There’s something about the context of finality that makes a piece of art feel much more emotional, much more sensitive or fragile, and there is certainly a sombre component to this recording, though it doesn’t sound like a weathered musician looking back on his career and trying to recapture some of the magic. It could never be that simple with Poo (pianist Masabumi Kikuchi’s affectionate alias). As the great Gary Peacock said in the liner notes, “It wasn’t until a few years before he died [in 2015] that his ‘voice’ found him.” 

Kikuchi was never one to stagnate. When he took a solo, the direction of his music was more likely to veer into uncharted territories than to revert to its original state. His wanderlust took him to countless destinations, both in terms of his sound and his life. He constantly reached beyond his own parameters, and this recording is no exception. He takes My Favourite Things and turns it into two completely contrasting spontaneous compositions. The track titled Improvisation sounds like the most calculated piece on the set. As always, Little Abi is his calling card, while also being his mode of transportation to previously undiscovered planets. In his swan song, Kikuchi still looks forward.

14 Jakob BroUma Elmo
Jakob Bro; Arve Henriksen; Jorge Rossy
ECM ECM 2702 (ecmrecords.com/shop)

In the 50 years of producing music for his ECM label, Manfred Eicher has established a rubric that almost no one thought to create before him. It is characterized by a minimalist aesthetic, with sonic works delivered in almost pristine digital sound. There is almost always superb, impressionistic cover photography, rarely any liner notes (except for the odd Egberto Gismonti album). Booklets often feature graphics and an oblique, poetic line or two that seem illuminated by a translucent and shy ray of the sun. 

This is exactly the feel of Uma Elmo by Jakob Bro, Arve Henriksen and Jorge Rossy. Put together, the two-word title might be translated as “the splendour or tranquillity (Uma) of love (Elmo).” The music has a profound and meditative quality; songs bloom into a series of exquisite miniatures. Bro’s single-note lines are spacey; they shimmer and gleam, occasionally warmed in the blue flame of Henriksen’s horns. Meanwhile Rossy bounces brushes and sticks in rhythmic flurries and glancing blows across the skins of his drums. 

Songs such as To Stanko – a doffing of the hat to the late horn player Tomasz Stanko, beloved by ECM – Morning Song, Music for Black Pigeons (in memory of Lee Konitz) and Sound Flower, are typical of this musical performance in the splendid isolation of a studio in Switzerland. Purity of sound and an enduring love of artistic expression are all over the music of this album.

15 HaeraeHaerae
Andreas Willers
Evil Rabbit Records ERR 31 (evilrabbitrecords.eu)

As the COVID-19 lockdown settled in spring 2020, German guitarist Andreas Willers began a solo recording, the same kind of project with which he had debuted 40 years earlier. He’s playing two steel-string acoustic flat top guitars here, usually one at a time, though there are pieces when there may be two involved, and he’s playing them in a number of ways, whether traditional or employing extended techniques.

Willers clearly loves the guitar as an instrument, exploring its nooks and crannies and the myriad sounds they harbour, many the kinds usually avoided: the metallic slap of detuned lower strings against the fretboard; likely the rustle of a plastic bag covering the picking hand; strings scratched longitudinally with fingernails or maybe rubbed with a moistened thumb; some hard material with some weight, probably plastic, dropped on the strings of a horizontal instrument. None of these things appear in isolation but arise in making spontaneous music, each piece developing a rich, varied life of its own in which evolving timbres and events create a sonorous whole. Sometimes he plays guitar in a conventional way, as in the three movements of langh’s arm 6-8 which abound in brilliantly articulated runs, dense chordal passages and singing, reverberant highs; there are dashes of blues, flamenco and slide with strange mergings of idioms.

While its likely audience is attuned to free improvisation, there’s enough exuberant guitar exploration here to appeal to any adventurous enthusiast of the instrument.

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