09 The Artist John LeeThe Artist
John Lee; Carl Allen; Miles Black; Cory Weeds
Cellar Music CM111620 (cellarlive.com)

I first knew John Lee primarily as a drummer, but even at that point close to a decade ago, he wore plenty of different hats. On The Artist, we hear Lee featuring himself on upright bass. Having not heard the young musician in several years, I first thought this was a strange choice, but hearing the first 20 seconds of music are enough to assure even the most critical listener that Lee is in his element. 

This album features an excellent cast of musicians who brilliantly execute its hard-swinging repertoire. As both a bassist and a drummer, it makes sense that Lee is acutely aware of the relationship between these two instruments in a jazz rhythm section. He’s chosen American drum great Carl Allen to join him, and he fits into this Canadian ensemble perfectly. 

The music heard on The Artist is unapologetically straight ahead, but the energy Lee’s band brings to it makes it appealing to listen to in 2022 and ensure that it’s by no means just a time capsule harkening back to a bygone era. Tracks like Soul Leo and Carl’s Blues set the mood for the album, and Lee’s two originals, Life is a Beautiful Thing and The Artist, fit this vibe to a tee. 

Like so much great jazz, this album can be enjoyed in several different contexts. I initially took diligent notes while listening through high-fidelity headphones, then subjected it to a second listen while chopping carrots and onions in the kitchen. The Artist passed both tests!

12 Ches Smith Interpret It WellInterpret It Well
Ches Smith; Craig Taborn; Mat Maneri; Bill Frisell
Pyroclastic Records PR 19 (chessmith.com)

Drummer/vibraphonist Ches Smith’s capacity for creative synthesis became clear with last year’s Path of Seven Colors, a combination of Haitian vodou music and jazz, ultimately named best jazz album of the year by The Guardian. Interpret It Well is similarly outstanding work, adding guitarist Bill Frisell to Smith’s trio with pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri. The title appears in a sparse drawing by Raymond Pettibon in whIch a railroad track and telephone poles seem to drift toward approaching smoke or a tornado. (It’s sufficiently significant that a 42 by 27cm reproduction is folded in the CD sleeve.)

Working with Smith’s compositional sketches, the musicians meet the titular challenge admirably, with a special balance of individual freedom and collective invention, at different moments weaving together disparate materials into a kind of polyphonic unity. As the theme of the title track is gradually elaborated, a Webern-ish abstraction is matched by the concrete blues of Frisell’s electric guitar. Taborn is transforming throughout, luminous flurries giving way to looming chords, which turn to arpeggiated pointillism with drums and viola adding turbulence. Mixed Metaphor opens with a sparse, liquid beauty but ultimately becomes a home for Maneri’s dissonant intensity. 

The program unfolds with a sense of assembling meaning, a new understanding intuited out of what might be described as complementary disjunctions among harmonies, melodies, rhythms and timbres, a different music arising from familiar elements and rare empathy. 

13 John ScofieldJohn Scofield
John Scofield
ECM 2727 (ecmrecords.com/shop)

Stalwart New York-based guitarist John Scofield has gone in an even more bold direction than usual with his latest release on ECM. The band? Scofield at the electric guitar, accompanied by a looper pedal and the many decades of playing experience that make his music so unique and excellent. The looper makes this album less of a traditional solo-guitar experience than you may be familiar with from Joe Pass or Ted Greene, but it’s not a gimmick to make Scofield’s life easier. Instead, he treats the pedal like a bandmate he is intimately familiar with. There are also plenty of moments where Scofield shows off his ample harmonic sensibilities, which can be overshadowed in ensemble settings by his fiery single-note, line playing.

As a brief technical note that I hope can be appreciated by jazz guitar experts and casual fans alike, I heard Scofield interviewed several years back about things he still wanted to improve upon with his playing. Then in his 60s, he gave a very tangible response about hoping to add wider intervals and more angular sounds to his music. It was beautiful to hear someone talk about how much there still is to learn, even after decades in the industry. What brought this to mind now, is that I hear concrete evidence of the 70-year-old guitar master playing these very intervallic ideas on this solo guitar offering. 

While Scofield continues to find meaning through playing music, we can all find a little just from listening to this poignant opus.

14 PoeticPoetic
Jonathan Barber & Vision Ahead
Independent (jonathanbarber.bandcamp.com/album/poetic)

Connecticut-native, famed drummer Jonathan Barber has released a scintillating third album with Vision Ahead, a group of musicians he’s been pushing the limits with for over a decade. Barber has worked on refining his sound on this record, honing in on a unique modern sound with just enough of the classic mixed in to intrigue both older and newer fans of the genre. Featured are all original compositions, not only by the drummer himself but also by guitarist Andrew Renfroe, alto-saxophonist Godwin Louis and keyboardist Taber Gable. A journey through a beautiful musical landscape, this album is sure to catch the attention of many a listener from the first note. 

Barber mentions that “the album showcases… the striking cohesiveness of a band who have performed by each other’s side…” and that is certainly very apparent throughout the record. Within each piece, each musician’s talents are very much showcased, but there’s a blending of sounds and instruments, of vibes, that only comes from having a true understanding of your fellow musicians. What lends a truly specific and interesting dimension to the pieces is how they are very much driven by rhythmic grooves but not in an overpowering way, it all comes together for a captivating whole. 

From beginning to end, this album pushes the boundaries of the genre in the best ways possible, leaving the listener waiting for the next musical statement from this extraordinary musician and group.

15 What does it mean to be freeWhat Does It Mean To Be Free
Anthony Fung; David Binney; Luca Mendoza; Luca Alemanno
Independent (anthonyfungmusic.com)

Drummer/composer Anthony Fung was born in Richmond Hill and raised in Canada, but has studied and lived in the United States for several years. He earned a Bachelor of Music degree from Berklee and a master’s from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance. What Does it Mean to be Free? is his third album and was recorded in L.A. where he currently lives. 

This an exciting album with eight original compositions and a great arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s Sighteeing, all played with an intense yet grooving style by some stellar musicians. In addition to the core quartet (Fung on drums; David Binney, alto sax; Luca Mendoza, piano; Luca Alemanno, bass) several tracks have special guest performers. On the title track, Andrew Renfroe brings some blistering guitar work including a high intensity exchange with Binney on sax. Defiance features Braxton Cook on a tender yet intense alto sax melody throughout and Alemanno with a pretty bass solo. Let Us Not Forget to be Kind has Roni Eytan providing some beautiful Toots Thielmans-influenced harmonica. 

Throughout the album Mendoza’s piano is spectacular, providing tasteful accompaniment and solos on the slower tunes and effortlessly complex bop lines on the up-tempo numbers. Fung’s drums are propulsive and complex while still providing a solid backing to the proceedings. What Does it Mean to be Free? At least part of the answer has to be: free to make great music. 

17 Rhodri DaviesFor Simon H. Fell
Rhodri Davies
Amgen 04 (rhodridavies.com)

A studied requiem for UK bassist/composer Simon H. Fell (1959-2020), Welsh harpist Rhodri Davies uses transformative prestidigitation on this eponymous disc to exhibit the assemblage of timbres, pitches and rhythms he can induce from the acoustic pedal harp. Davies and Fell were members of the imposing string trio IST for 25 years – cellist Mark Wastell was the third participant – and although most of this salute evolves at moderato and lento tempos, it’s no lachrymose dirge. Instead, the performance includes interludes of bubbling drama, heartfelt emotion and coiled percussiveness.

Interspaced with pauses and reverberations, Davies’ almost hour-long creation forges unique harp timbres, which alternately resemble vibraphone reverberations, tombak-like drum strokes, keyboard-like vibrations and woody rubs against unyielding material. All are used for emphasis and sequence shifts. Expected thick glissandi, multi-string drones and singular staccato echoes figure in as well, so that by midpoint multiple strokes are layered into an almost opaque squirming mass. Its subsequent division into single-string high and low twangs and plinks that move forward and ricochet back into the concentrated narrative, suggest not only IST’s multiple string tropes, but the sort of unique compositions Fell wrote, arranged and played.

Properly saluting a fellow string player and improviser, this session also confirms Davies’ innovative ability to come up with near-orchestral, multi-string motifs sourced with compelling skill from the attributes of only a single stand-alone harp.

18 Blue JournalBlue Journal
Ester Wiesnerova
Independent (esterwiesnerova.com)

The eloquent vocalist Ester Wiesnerová bids you to sink into her very private world with this elaborately packaged Blue Journal: 11 songs, and an illustrated, 120-page book. Here Wiesnerová invites us to enter what appears to be a musical portal. Listening to the opening bars of her very first song – Sinking Deep – you will find it hard to resist relocating yourself into her world. Her voice is like a warm, inviting, whispered breath as the poetic alluring lyrics are released into air. 

Wiesnerová is accompanied by musicians completely attuned to her vision and artistry. Sam Knight’s questing horn soars above tumbling cascades of Charles Overton’s radiant harp. Kan Yanabe’s percussion colourations glued together with the gentle rumble of Michal Šelep’s bass also invite us with impassioned conviction into Wiesnerová’s private world. 

Wiesnerová beckons you between the sheets (so to speak) of the Blue Journal. She lures you into this music of unsentimental intelligence, with her clear, beguiling tone. At the heart of her artistic conception is Nightingales and Maple Trees, a song that lies at the heart of Wiesnerová’s secret soundscape deep inside her Blue Journal

Throughout this repertoire, warmth and affection abound, befitting the delicately amorous subjects of the songs. For her part the inimitable Wiesnerová breathes her way into this extraordinary music with imagination and infectious musicality.

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