18a Ahmad Jama 1963 1964 Emerald City Nights: Live at The Penthouse 1963-64
Ahmad Jamal
Jazz Detective DDJD-001

Emerald City Nights: Live at The Penthouse 1965-66
Ahmad Jamal
Jazz Detective DDJD-002

At 92, Ahmad Jamal can look back on a brilliant career, one reaching levels of success unimaginable to most jazz musicians. Cited by major figures such as Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett as an influence while often being dismissed by critics, Jamal explored unusual formal and textural dimensions, concentrating on rhythmic invention in a distinctive way and organizing his tunes into elaborate patterns of vamps and riffs that expanded on the kinds of big-band formal practices developed by Duke Ellington.

18b Ahmad Jamal 1965 1966These two 2CD sets come from 1960s performances at the Penthouse, a prominent Seattle jazz club of the period at which Jamal performed frequently. Originally recorded for radio broadcasts, the sound is excellent, with each set covering appearances over a two-year period. Jamal is joined by a series of rhythm section pairings, including bassists Richard Evans and Jamil Nasser and drummers Chuck Lampkin and Vernel Fournier, each team forming a vital partnership in executing Jamal’s complex extrapolations, combining detailed arrangements and fluid improvisations. Works here often develop at length, including a crystalline version of Jamal’s own Minor Moods and a virtuosic I Didn’t Know What Time It Was, one approaching the quarter-hour mark, the other exceeding it, but there are no empty segments, each one a model of focused musicality. The contemporary Feeling Good, a hit for Nina Simone, sounds like it was written for Jamal. Meanwhile, Jamal’s art is also an allusive one, whether he’s inserting Nat Adderley’s Work Song into that Bricusse-Newley pop hit or Charlie Parker’s Now’s the Time into Cole Porter’s All of You

Jamal’s multi-dimensional art, already set deep in jazz traditions, might be linked with the architectural dimension of his faith. In 1959, following travels in Muslim Africa, he moved to Chicago where he opened an alcohol-free night club called the Alhambra. Hearing the compound, suddenly shifting patterns that he and his bandmates bring to Richard Rodgers’ Johnny One Note, from delicate tinkling upper-register figures to rolling bass crescendos and sustained drum rolls, one might readily imagine that 1959 trip very likely included a visit to Spain and that other Alhambra: the palace in Cordoba. Like the palace, a Jamal performance can be a hypnotic series of abstract signs, whether geometric forms, an unknown alphabet or both, organized into fluid patterns, ones in which abstraction and attraction can arise, often free of specific meaning, everything in celebration of a transcendent symmetry.

A Rodney Dangerfield in most musical configurations, the double bass doesn’t get much respect since its workhorse qualities are used for accompaniment rather than upfront. That changed in the 20th century, especially in jazz, and then more prominently in improvised music. Innovators such as the UK’s Barry Guy, France’s Joëlle Léandre and American Barre Phillips all recorded notable solo bass discs in the 1970s and 1980s and since then many others bassists have tried their hand(s) at the challenge. What follows are a few recent examples.

01 BjornhornConcentrating on the bow, Sweden’s Johan Berthling, known for his Fire! trio with Mats Gustafsson, scratches and slices pitches and thumps from his instrument’s strings and wood on Björnhorn (Thanatosis Productions THT 12 thanatosis.org). Often sul tasto and frequently spiccato, his strained low pitches and scrappy mid-string forays frequently work up to near bagpipe-like tremolos. As on Björnhorn III, resolution is usually projected with stentorian drones. His clenched hand-on-bass-neck techniques concentrate most billowing buzzes into a solid mass, yet on Björnhorn V he spackles high-pitched colours to lighten the narrative. While the presto and staccato friction projected by his bow work sometimes suggests the strings are a millisecond away from literally bursting into flames, his one turn to pizzicato thumps out wide spatial suggestions. Furthermore when he assays Charlie Haden’s balladic For Turiya, his buoyant vibrations show he’s also capable of melodic storytelling.

02 Daniel StuderIf there are so many notes and tones in Berthling’s solos to almost make them feel cramped then Swiss bassist Daniel Studer takes the opposite approach on Fetzen Fliegen (Wide Ear Records WER 064 wideearrecords.ch). Recorded from various points in an anechoic chamber, Studer, who besides working with many groups, teaches improvisation at Bern University, uses this spatial situation to layer his sounds with as many extended silences as pressurized string trembles and swells. Making a virtue out of slowness, hard string thumps, clanking arco variations and the scraping friction which introduces the final two variations of four are magnified even more to contrast with the silent interludes. But the session is more than singular arco slices or frog-against-string accents. Cumulative friction at the end of Fetzen Fliegen 2 is so thick that jet plane engine noises are suggested before the tone thins to bow strokes. With col legno slides, Studer at junctures also creates responsive echoes between that technique and throbbing string plinks. Managing to nearly replicate recorder-like whistles with spindly stings and drum-like rumbles, his brief pivots into metallic discord only add to the expositions. Emphasizing sound shards among the quiet, Studer offers a unique definition of all that a double bass can do at a slow, anything but easygoing, pace.

03 Mike DownesFor a complete change of pace though, there’s Mind Mirrors (MMusic mikedownes.com) by veteran Toronto bassist Mike Downes. Perhaps it’s because he’s Canadian, the multiple Juno Award winner has created 11 solos, which are tasteful and somewhat gentle, but without ever letting go of the underlying beat. Still, who else but a Canuck would title the folksy, but powerful variations on one track Campfire Waltz? He’s also the only bassist here to play a standard, I Fall in Love Too Easily. Yet he’s crafty enough to avoid familiarity by offering up balanced variations on it before subtly revealing the melody. Crucially though, Downes is adventurous enough to mate field recordings of crackling thunder with the dynamic modifications from the triple stopping and reflecting tones of a Yamaha SLB200 hollow-body electric bass on Thunder. He sticks to the regular double bass on the other tracks, showing his arco and pizzicato skills. In fact on Morning Sun Ringing he alternates plucking slippery vibrations from the instrument’s strings and wooden body, while at the same time creating a warm connection with measured arco triple stops. Some pieces are foot tappers, as he modulates up and down the strings with rumbling bow work. Elsewhere he preserves the rhythm impetus on a track like Alone or Together with lighter strokes that take on flamenco colourations and darker ones which suggest Charles Mingus-like soulfulness.

04 Hernani FaustinoSomeone who evolved from playing electric bass in rock bands to creative music with the likes of Carlos Zingaro is Portuguese bassist Hernâni Faustino. His work is characterized by a deep dark tone which he displays throughout Twelve Bass Tunes (Phonogram Unit PU 5 CD phonogramunit.com). While the percussiveness and power he lays out link him to jazz stylists like Mingus and Ray Brown, his upper register echoes and col legno vibrations and recoils show that he’s firmly attuned to 21st-century improv. In fact, the first sound on Sequência, the CD’s opening track, is a buried bomb-shelter thick strum. But soon powerful string pulls give way to an agile up-and-down theme projected with guillotine-sharp slices before returning to squeaky friction. This orthodox-offbeat dichotomy plays out during most of the other 11 bagatelles with some tracks as melodious as if they were being vocalized by an operatic basso and others dedicated to string experiments. While rappelling along the string set on a track like Tríptico da Virgem de Lamego for instance, Faustino extends his multiphonic expression with thrusts that sound as if he’s also digging into the instrument’s wooden body. He can also double and triple string stop at the same time as he speeds up the exposition as on Co’ Os Olhos deepening and darkening them as it evolves. At lento and adagio tempos he can outline the timbre of each string as he touches it as on Pertença do Gato Grande, yet subtly elevate to reverberating andante lines before the conclusion. Even a rare move to arco playing on Serra das Meadas mates expressive melancholy with torqued pressure as he emphasizes bridge-centred tones. Concurrently nearly every note sounded comes out balanced and well-rounded as his multi-string and atmospheric asides are firmly grounded with straight-ahead and carefully measured plucks.

05 Joao MadeiraConcentrating on arco invention, fellow Portuguese bassist João Madeira cycles through all manner of burly drones on the two extended instant compositions which make up Aqui, Dentro (Miso Music MCD 49 22 misomusic.me). Lisbon-based Madeira, who is part of other free jazz configurations, including a double bass duo with Faustino, concentrates on using sul ponticello and sul tasto slices to extrude a chunky interface that’s almost impenetrable. Nearly, but not completely. For among the reoccurring drones, tone gradations can also be heard. At points, elevated shrieks are heard, as if he’s cutting into the instrument’s wood as well as stroking the strings. At times, these high-pitched motifs take on viscous bassoon-like suggestion or bagpipe-like hums. Emphasizing ripples across the strings as tempos shift from lento to allegro, the heavy drones even maintain their shape elsewhere when Madeira’s progress ascends to allegrissimo and prestissimo. Often, emphasized passages are repeated so frequently in sequence that you begin to fear there’s a recording fault, until he exposes new singular textures that he buzzes to a resolution. Moving into the second selection, simultaneous warm vibrating plucks and knife-sharp strokes display his facility with both techniques. As intermittent frails move to the foreground so does a touch of melody. But the key to Aqui, Dentro is how nearly oppressive bulk can be made to express polychromatic tones with an inventive strategy.

Each player here has designed a solo double bass procedure that goes far beyond expected approaches. As time evolves, it’s certain that even more novel strategies for the bulky instrument will be discovered.

01 Neil SwainsonFire in the West
Neil Swainson
Cellar Music CM111821 (cellarlive.com)

Canadian bassist extraordinaire and composer Neil Swainson’s newest release is a jazz aficionado’s dream. Blazing trumpet and saxophone melodies, catchy rhythms and energetic yet mellow bass riffs come together to form a stellar, oh-so-pleasing-to-the-ear record. It may be a surprise to some, but this is the first time in his 35-year-long career that Swainson is leading a quintet… but what a fantastic job he does yet again as a bandleader. Featuring famed musicians on the roster, such as Renee Rosnes on piano, Lewis Nash on drums, Brad Turner on trumpet and Kelly Jefferson on tenor sax, this record sees a set of fiery tunes lifted to new heights via a scintillating backing band. The album is chock-full of Swainson’s original works, serving as a great example of not only his musical talents but also his compositional prowess. 

The talented bassist says of the formation of the record: “In the process of preparing for that re-release [49th Parallel], I thought that it was time to do something in a similar vein, using the same… format on some current tunes I’d written.” “Current” being the keyword there, in the way that Swainson does a truly great job of bringing the traditional jazz sound into the contemporary musical world, modernizing melodies and rhythms while maintaining a perfect balance with a hark back to the past. A great addition to any jazz-lover’s collection.

02 Robert DiackSmall Bridges
Robert Diack; Patrick O’Reilly; Jacob Thompson; Brandon Davis
Independent (robertdiack.com)

Toronto-based drummer, composer and producer Robert Diack has released a scintillating sophomore album, taking the listener on a meandering journey through genres. The record is finely tuned throughout, a true audiophile’s dream; a sonic landscape emerges right in front of the listener and instantly transports them to another musical dimension. All pieces are penned by Diack himself along with occasional co-writers from amongst the band, truly showcasing the young drummer’s compositional talents as well as unique conceptualizations reflected within his music. The cream of the crop of famed young Canadian musicians have been gathered together for this album: Patrick O’Reilly on guitar; Jacob Thompson on piano; and Brandon Davis on bass. A perfect companion to the picturesque scenes and landscapes of autumn, this is a great addition to the explorative jazz-lover’s collection. 

The album draws upon influences from several genres, including both contemporary and traditional jazz, post-rock, fusion and country; blending them together and transitioning between them seamlessly. The result is a poignant hodgepodge, evoking a mix of emotions and images in the mind’s eye within every track. Diack himself has said that with this set of tracks, he “wanted to explore a broader swath of genre and texture” and delve into a diverse musical landscape, which he does brilliantly. Beautiful, captivating melodies layered over complex rhythms make for a must-have for the jazz aficionado who wants a true sonic experience.

03 Astrud ProjectThe Astrud Project
Anne Walsh
A to Zinc Music (annewalsh.com)

Now that the dog days of summer have passed and the transition into chillier fall weather has occurred, a warm little pick-me-up may be much appreciated. What better way to do that than with a fresh bossa nova album, a time-travelling musical journey back into warmer, joyful times. Massachusetts-native, jazz vocalist Anne Walsh’s latest release transports the listener right to sunny Brazil through blazing interpretations of bossa nova tunes popularized by Astrud Gilberto. The classic mellowness and rhythmic complexity attributed to songs from the aforementioned genre come through incredibly well, brought even more to the forefront through superb audio quality and a certain spaciousness heard throughout the album. A sizeable group of talented musicians boost this record to new heights, featuring well-known names like Mitchell Long, Tom Zink and Kevin Winard. 

Walsh’s excursion into bossa nova began when she penned lyrics to Gilberto’s scatted Não Bate O Coração. This led to her further fascination with Gilberto’s catalogue of songs and so this record, including compositions by the renowned Antonio Carlos Jobim, was born. The talented vocalist’s airy and sweet timbre contribute to her unique interpretation and take on these classic tunes; less rhythmically centred vocals than typically heard in the genre bring to the forefront the more melodious and dulcet facets within the pieces. Fans of bossa nova and jazz will be thoroughly pleased with this album as a whole, a worthy record for any collection.

Listen to 'The Astrud Project' Now in the Listening Room

04 Jeremy WongHey There
Jeremy Wong; Ardeshir Pourkeramati; Chris Gestrin; John Lee; Jesse Cahill; Alvin Brendan
Cellar Music CM100321 (cellarlive.com)

With the release of his debut CD, compelling jazz vocalist Jeremy Wong has arrived on the scene with a rather marvelous recording, loaded with content, talent and of course, Wong’s evocative, mellifluous and finely honed vocal instrument. The Vancouver native also wears the producer’s hat here, and his talented ensemble includes Chris Gestrin on piano, John Lee on bass, Jesse Cahill on drums, Alvin Brendan on guitar and gifted arranger/co-writer and tenor saxophonist, Ardeshir Pourkeramati. 

There are ten compelling tracks, all drawn from the Great American Songbook, American cinema, the Broadway stage and the pens of some of the hippest jazz composer/lyricists who have graced our planet. Wong also contributes two original compositions with both melodic appeal and clever lyrics. The opener is Rodgers and Hart’s classic Where or When. A lovely guitar/vocal intro swings into a sumptuous quartet arrangement, and Wong’s sibilant, sensual and perfectly intoned tenor/baritone vocal sound is reminiscent (but not derivative of) Chet Baker, Kurt Elling and Mark Murphy. On Invitation, the band is tight and filled with gravitas, as they move like a single-celled being through this challenging jazz standard, with the vocal line punctuated perfectly by Pourkeramati’s dynamic sax work.

Only a Dream, a charming original waltz that deftly dances us through the sadness of a lost love, features a fine bass solo from Lee. Other delights include a fine arrangement of Frank Loesser’s Never Will I Marry, which clearly displays Wong’s ability to swing and scat. A total standout is the rarely performed gem from Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf, Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.  Wong’s maturity as a vocalist is clear here, as he imbues meaning into every word, and effortlessly sails through the rather gymnastic melodic line. A fine debut from a highly talented emerging jazz vocalist!

05 Ethan PhilionMeditations on Mingus
Ethan Philion
Sunnyside Records SSC 1666 (ethanphilion.com)

Just in time for iconic bassist/composer Charles Mingus’ centennial celebrations, noted Chicago-based bassist and arranger Ethan Philion has released Meditations on Mingus, a stunning collection of Mingus’ most seminal compositions, arranged by Philion and featuring a talented all-star tentet of which the core trio is Philion on bass, Alexis Lombre on piano and Dana Hall on drums.

Mingus was a complex and contradictory individual – an eccentric genius, a poet, a powerful, muscular bassist, a social activist and also someone who coped with severe mental health issues – and it was all part of his unique, creative mojo. Philion, has said: “My goal was to put together a program of pieces that speak to current events; racism, prejudice, identity, economic inequality are all still relevant in the world today.”

The opening salvo, Once Upon a Time There Was a Holding Corporation Called Old America, begins with trumpeters Russ Johnson and Victor Garcia’s legato intro, which morphs into a paroxysm of angst followed by bold, chordal configurations and ultimately a swinging and joyous romp that then descends into chaos.  Lombre’s exceptional piano work here is both skillful and breathtaking. Other highlights include Self Portrait in 3 Colors – a reflection of Mingus’ feelings about mental health, replete with a gorgeous solo from Johnson; Meditations for a Pair of Wirecutters – a flag waver for Mingus’ noted mid-1960s sextet (the band that propelled Philion into this project), and the final track, Better Git It In Your Soul, which is a superb interpretation of Mingus’ funky, soulful anthem, rendered here with all of the swing and heart possible.  Mingus would be proud.

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