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?

Although you couldn’t guess from major record companies’ release schedules, the purpose of a reissue program isn’t to repackage music that has long been available in different formats. It also doesn’t only involve finding unreleased or alternate takes by well-known musicians and sticking them on disc to satisfy completists. Instead, reissues should introduce listeners to important music from the past that has been rarely heard because of distribution system vagaries. This situation has been especially acute when it comes to circulating advanced and/or experimental sounds. Happily, small labels have overcome corporations’ collective blind spots, releasing CDs that create more complete pictures of the musical past, no matter the source. The discs here are part of that process.

02 ThatTimeProbably the most important find is That Time (NotTwo MW 1001-2), which captures two tracks each from two iterations of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra from 1972 and 1980. Drawn from a period when the LJCO made no professional recordings, the tracks piece together music from radio broadcasts or amateur tapes, sonically rebalanced by a contemporary sound engineer. Although the personnel of the ensemble shrank from 21 to 19 over the eight years, the key participants are accounted for on both dates. Edifyingly each of the four tracks composed by different LJCO members shows off unique group facets. Pianist Howard Riley’s Appolysian, for instance, depends on the keyboard clips and clatters engendered by matching Riley’s vibrating strokes and expressive pummelling with the scalar and circular waves and judders from the string section, which in this case included violinists Phillip Wachsmann and Tony Oxley (who usually plays drums) and bassists Barry Guy and Peter Kowald. Climax occurs when tremolo pianism blends with and smooths out the horn sections’ contributions. Quiet, but with suggestions of metallic minimalist string bowing, trombonist Paul Rutherford’s Quasimode III derives its grounded strength and constant motion from thicker brass expressions and meticulously shaded low-pitched double bass tones. Concentrated power is only briefly interrupted by a dramatic circular-breathing display by soprano saxophonist Evan Parker. Dating from the first session, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler’s Watts Parker Beckett to me Mr Riley? stands out as much for capturing the LJCO in mid-evolution as for its Arcadian beauty. Sophisticatedly arranged, the tune gradually introduces more advanced textures as it advances over Oxley and Paul Lytton’s martial drum slaps and throbs from bassists Guy, Jeff Clyne and Chris Laurence. It pinpoints the group’s transformation though, since the harmonized theme that could come from contemporary TV-show soundtracks is sometimes breached by metal-sharp guitar licks from Derek Bailey, plus stentorian shrieks and split tones from the four trumpeters and six saxophonists.

01 PeterKowaldRutherford, who plays on all the LJCO tracks and German bassist Kowald, who plays on the 1980 ones, also make major contributions to Peter Kowald Quintet (Corbett vs Dempsey CD 0070 corbettvsdempsey.com), the first session under his own name by Kowald (1944-2002). Recorded in 1972 and never previously on CD, the disc’s four group improvisations feature three other Germans: trombonist Günter Christmann, percussionist Paul Lovens and alto saxophonist Peter van de Locht. The saxophonist, who later gave up music for sculpture, is often the odd man out here, with his reed bites and split-tone extensions stacked up against the massed brass reverberations that are further amplified when Kowald plays tuba and alphorn on the brief, final track. Otherwise the music is a close-focused snapshot of European energy music of the time. With Lovens’ clattering drum ruffs and cymbal scratches gluing the beat together alongside double bass strokes, the trombonists have free reign to output every manner of slides, slurs, spits and smears. Plunger tones and tongue flutters also help create a fascinating, ever-shifting sound picture. Pavement Bolognaise, the standout track, is also the longest. A circus of free jazz sonic explorations, it features the three horn players weaving and wavering intersectional trills and irregular vibrations all at once, as metallic bass string thwacks and drum top chops mute distracting excesses like the saxophonist’s screeches in dog-whistle territory. Meanwhile the tune’s centre section showcases a calm oasis of double bass techniques backed only by Lovens’ metal rim patterning and including Kowald’s intricate strokes on all four strings. Variations shake from top to bottom and include thick sul tasto rubs and barely there tweaks. 

03 MarionBrownThere’s also a European component to American alto saxophonist ezz-thetics 1106 hathut.com), since five of the 13 tracks were recorded in 1967 with Dutch bassist Maarten van Regteren Altena and drummer Han Bennink. The remainder feature Brown with New York cohorts drummer Rashied Ali, pianist Stanley Cowell and bassist Sirone. Known as a member of the harsh 1960s new thing due to his work with Archie Shepp and John Coltrane, Brown (1931-2010), brought an undercurrent of melody to his tonal explorations. Both tendencies are obvious here with the pianist adding to the lyricism by creating whorls and sequenced asides as he follows the saxophonist’s sometimes delicate lead. Playing more conventionally than he would a year later, Brown’s 1966 date outputs lines that could be found on mainstream discs and moves along with space for round-robin contributions from all, including a solid double bass pulse and cymbal-and-bass-drum emphasized solos from Ali. Jokily, Brown ends his combined altissimo and melodic solo on La Sorella with a quote from the Choo’n Gum song and on the extended Homecoming, he quotes Three Blind Mice and the drummer counters with Auld Lang Syne. Homecoming is also the most realized tune, jumping from solemn to staccato and back again as the pianist comps and Brown uncorks bugle-call-like variations and biting flutter tonguing before recapping the head. Showing how quickly improvised music evolved, a year later Altena spends more time double and triple stopping narrow arco slices than he does time-keeping, while Bennink not only thumps his drum kit bellicosely, but begins Porto Novo with a protracted turn on tabla. From the top onwards, Brown also adopts a harder tone, squealing out sheets of sound that often sashay above conventional reed pitches. His slurps and squeaks make common cause with double bass strokes and drum rattles. But the saxophonist maintains enough equilibrium to unexpectedly output a lyrical motif in the midst of jagged tone dissertations on the aptly titled Improvisation. Of its time and yet timeless, Porto Novo, which was the original LP title, manages to successfully incorporate Bennink’s faux-raga tapping, Altena’s repeated tremolo pops and the saxophonist’s split-tone, bird-like peeps into a swaying Spanish-tinged theme that swings while maintaining avant-garde credibility.

04 AthnorStill, the best argument for maintaining a comprehensive reissue program is to expose new folks to unjustly obscure sounds. Armitage Road by the Heshoo Beshoo Group (We Are Busy Bodies WABB-063 wearebusybodies.com) and Athanor’s Live At The Jazzgalerie Nickelsdorf 1978 (Black-Monk BMCD-03 discogs.com/seller/Black-Monk/profile) fit firmly in that category. The first, from 1970, features a South African quintet of aHenry Sithole, tenor saxophonist Stanley Sithole, guitarist Cyril Magubane, bassist Ernest Mothle and drummer Nelson Magwaza that combined local rhythms and snatches of advanced jazz of the time. The other disc highlights an all-Austrian take on committed free jazz bands like Kowald’s who were playing elsewhere. The quartet consists of alto saxophonist Harun Ghulam Barabbas, trombonist Joseph Traindl, pMuhammad Malli and pianist Richard Ahmad Pechoc, all of whom are as little known today as are the South African crew members. Not that it affects the music, since, as the discs attest, both bands were more interested in making an original statement than in fame. Somewhat unfinished, as are many live dates, the Nickelsdorf disc tracks how the quintet members worked to put their stamp on the evolving Euro-American free jazz idiom. Choosing to extrapolate individual expression, the quartet uses as its base a mid-range Teutonic march tempo, propelled by chunky drum rolls. Never losing track of the exposition during the 70 minutes of pure improvisation, Barabbas, Traindl and to a lesser extent, Pechoc, work through theme variation upon theme variation in multiple pitches and tempos. Sometimes operating in lockstep, players’ strategies can include chromatic reed jumps and plunger trombone wallows along with distinctively directed piano chording. When the horns aren’t riffing call and response, one often propels the theme as the other decorates it, and then they switch roles. As they play cat and mouse with the evolving sounds, although Barabbas can exhibit altissimo, Energy Music-style bites and Traindl up-tempo plunger growls, connective lopes are preferred over unbridled looseness. With Malli’s press rolls and rumbles holding the bottom, the group meanders to a conclusion leaving a memory of sparks ignited for the applauding audience.

05 ArmitageThe outlier of this group of discs is Armitage Road, where the sounds are closer to emerging soul jazz than more expansive avant garde. Still, this strategy may have been the best way a quintet of all Black players could gig in Apartheid-era South Africa. However, the pseudo-Abbey Road cover photo of the band, including wheelchair-bound polio-stricken Magubane crossing a dusty township street, subtly indicates that country’s unequal situation. Magubane wrote most of the tunes and his Steve Cropper via Grant Green-style chording is prominent on all five tracks. Backed by fluid bass work and solid clip-clop drumming, the lilting tunes often depend on twanging guitar riffs and responsive vamps from the Sithole brothers. The gospelish Amabutho (Warrior) and concluding Lazy Bones, which mix a swing groove with electronic vibrations and some slabs of responsive reed honks, offer the meatiest output. Additionally Magubane’s double-stroking solo suggests just how the much the players were holding back. Despite this, the album didn’t yield another Mercy Mercy or Grazin’ in the Grass, clearly the musical role models for the band whose name translates as “moving by force.” Still, those band members who didn’t die young or go into exile – more by-products of the Apartheid system – had extended musical careers, as did most of the players featured on the other CDs. Armitage Road has been reissued by a small Toronto company, a reality reflected in the size of the other labels here. The high-quality output also proves once again that musical values and bigness are often antithetical.

01 Diana KrallThis Dream of You
Diana Krall
Verve B0032519 (dianakrall.com)

Four years ago, Diana Krall was working in the studio with her longtime, legendary producer Tommy LiPuma. LiPuma was ill and Krall knew it, so the pair recorded over 30 tracks during those sessions. The initial result was Turn Up the Quiet, released in 2017 shortly after LiPuma died. That album was a return to Krall’s classic, stripped-down jazz sound and This Dream of You is a continuation of that exploration. An homage to the Great American Songbook, and her friend and mentor, Krall delivers the exquisite sound and technique we’ve come to expect from her, both on piano and vocals.

Working with three different small ensembles, the majority of the songs are with her bandmates, John Clayton (bass), Jeff Hamilton (drums) and Anthony Wilson (guitar). The opening track with that crew, But Beautiful, sets the minimalist tone as the album moves from breathy ballads to gently swinging mid-tempo standards. It diverges into somewhat trad/rootsy territory on three tracks featuring the ensemble of Marc Ribot (guitar), Tony Garnier (bass) Karriem Riggins (drums) and Stuart Duncan (fiddle), including the title track, a country-tinged Bob Dylan tune. In-demand players, Christian McBride (bass) and Russell Malone (guitar), appear on two tracks, including a gorgeous, slower-than-slow rendition of Autumn in New York.

The top-notch production has Krall’s vocals front and centre in the mix so it sounds as if she’s right in the room with you, giving you a big old aural hug. It’s just what the doctor ordered in these pandemic times.

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