Pianist Matthew Shipp has been one of the most commanding jazz musicians of the past couple of decades, whether recording with the awe inspiring David S. Ware Quartet, or leading his own ensembles of every shape and size. This compilation tracks his work as a leader for the Thirsty Ear record label, in particular their Blue Series of recordings that stretched the boundaries of jazz and improvised music. For his albums so far on Thirsty Ear, he has shown an insatiable curiosity, recording in settings from solo piano to acoustic quartet to electro-acoustic juggernaut. What all of the music shares is a singular commitment to exploration. “Gesture” opens this album with stark piano and stoic trumpet, placed wide open in space and time with ripe trumpet arcing over a fine foundation of piano, bass and drums. Excellent bass and processed drums usher in “Cohesion” with Shipp’s repetitive piano figure building tension before bursting forth in a downpour of notes. He is very dynamic here, shifting between stabbing chords and supple runs. The enhanced drumming also supports “New ID” with piano and bass working hard to carve out a space for themselves. Shipp’s percussive piano drives the music forward with thick, elastic bass showing the way. “Nu-Bop” was a call to arms in Shipp’s quest to modernize jazz and incorporate newer elements into his improvisations. The thick bass and syncopated drums build in a heavy fashion as electronically distorted saxophone weaves around like a distant dream. The drums drive even harder, sculpting solo space and leading to a powerful full group crescendo before ship guides it out solo. Matthew Shipp has had a remarkable run of music on this label (and many others) and hopefully it will continue far into the future. If you have not had the chance to sample his extraordinary music, this makes an excellent place to do so. Greatest Hits - amazon.com
Chris Potter paid his dues the old fashioned way, coming to New York as a young man and networking through a series of high profile positions as a sideman and then emerging as a bandleader of depth and vision. After a few years of playing with his semi-fusion band Underground he returns to acoustic jazz with this beguiling and atmospheric album. Potter leads this session with his original compositions as by playing tenor and soprano saxophone and bass clarinet accompanied by Craig Taborn on piano, David Virelles on keyboards, Larry Grenadier on bass and Eric Harland on drums. Basing an album’s worth of music on Homer’s The Odyssey is a lofty goal but the group rises to the occasion, manipulating mood and melody to develop a narrative sensibility that continues through the duration of the music. “Wine Dark Sea” opens the album with a yearning motif from the leader that gradually builds into stronger swells of saxophone. Strong but patient and graceful playing from the band develop into a powerful performance. There is a lighter sound on “Wayfinder” with rippling keyboards and percussion with a mysterious sounding saxophone building in. The double keyboard approach is particularly fascinating here as Taborn concentrates on traditional piano, while Virelles provides accents with prepared piano, celesta and harmonium. “Sirens” opens with bowed bass and barely audible piano. The music builds ever so slowly like the clarion call of the women of legend, calling forth in a dark and haunting manner across the sea. After the gravity of “Sirens,” “Penelope” goes in the opposite direction with a fun choppy up-tempo performance, with complex yet very tight band interplay. Potter takes a darker tone weaving between highs lows to build up tension, and then stepping out for a well developed piano, bass and drums interlude. This is an epic and serious album that proceeds without a hint of pretentiousness. The compositions and improvisations develop to tell a magical story in music and spirit. Sirens - amazon.com
Drummer Billy Martin is well known for his long association with the popular jazz-funk band Medeski, Martin and Wood, but he has done quite a number of side projects as well. Wicked Knee consists of Martin on drums, Curtis Fowlkes on trombone, Marcus Rojas on tuba and Steven Bernstein on trumpet, and the music they make investigates aspects of New Orleans funk combined with rhythm and blues and jazz. The take the music in some interesting directions, such as covering The White Stripes garage rock anthem "Button to Button." Rojas' bumping tuba beat is what drives the propulsive song, propelling the music forward and developing a lurching, rolling gait with bass and percussion. This works really well and is one of the high points of the album. "99%" goes in another direction with a female vocalist sitting in for a slightly histrionic spoken work piece with the fractured and angular recitation layered atop squalls of brass. Some textural tracks break up the good time music, but it is the uptempo numbers that I found the most interesting. "Ghumba Zumba" and "Sugarfoot Stomp" ripple with muscular energy that takes the gutbucket flavor of the blues and funk and mixes in some of the intellect of jazz. Heels Over Head - amazon.com
Although some people might be surprised given the ironic name of the group and their memorable album cover parodies, but Mostly Other People Do the Killing is a seasoned band, playing at the very forefront of modern jazz. The members are very well versed in the jazz tradition and are committed to carrying the spirit of innovation forward. The band consists of Peter Evans on trumpets, Jon Irabagon on saxophones, Moppa Elliott on bass and Kevin Shea on drums and percussion. The band comes out of the gate swinging hard with “Hearts Content” which has a killer backbeat of bass and drums, setting a great foundation for dramatic interplay from the horns. Irabagon gains purchase and then Evans climbs aboard, joining the fray, before leading the full group back into a fine collective improvisation. The wonderfully titled “Can't Tell Shipp from Shohola” is a sly wink at pianist Matthew Shipp from a piano-less band. Evans is featured with some ironic slurred trumpet that develops into a punchy solo with moaning saxophone woven in underneath. Jon Irabagon is let loose like a caged beast on “Sayre” with a torrid and thrilling saxophone solo, while “Yo, Yeo, Yough” features Peter Evans giving forth rippling waves of trumpet like a clarion call of power. Slinky and subversive, “Is Granny Spry” ends the album on an excellent note. Ignore this group at your own peril, because they have one of the freshest and most uninhibited sounds around. They have a talent for developing earworms that stick in your mind and demand replay. Slippery Rock - amazon.com
Trumpeter and composer Woody Shaw led a star-crossed career, beginning strikingly, playing with the likes of Eric Dolphy, Larry Young and Art Blakey while still a young man in the 1960's. During the early to mid 1970's he was something of a journeyman, while releasing some excellent albums on the Muse label. Things began looking up in the late 70's when Shaw joined Dexter Gordon's band during the saxophonist's triumphant return to America. Shaw was offered a contract with Columbia Records in this period, and he used it to reach his peak, particularly on the album Rosewood which garnered several awards for a program of all original compositions written by members of the band. Particularly memorable are the Roland Kirk tribute "Rahsaan's Run" and "Theme for Maxine" which would become a set closer for their live performances. The live tracks on Stepping Stones and Stepping Stones Bonus are particularly impressive, taking the raw material of hard-bop to an explosive new level. "Escape Velocity" is indicative of the original album, focusing once again on compositions by the band members, in this case muscular up-tempo work, while the Bonus Tracks discs takes a look at their lengthy exploration of standards including "Days of Wine and Roses," "Green Dolphin Street" and the Miles Davis song "Solar." Woody III opens with a three-part suite dedicated to his son, while For Sure! adds a string section and vocals to some tracks. This is a well done compilation, collecting Shaw's Columbia albums in LP replica sleeves, with a nice booklet included that has essays, discographies and photos. Despite his formidable talent, Woody Shaw never got quite the respect he deserved, overshadowed by powerhouses like Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard and upstarts like Wynton Marsalis. But this collection makes a fine case for his inclusion in the jazz trumpet pantheon. The Complete Woody Shaw Columbia Albums Collection - amazon.com
Before tenor saxophonist John Coltrane became the all encompassing legend he remains today, he was a journeyman tenor saxophone player, highly respected by his peers, but scrambling to to make sense of the musical ideas that were swirling through his mind. This collection comes from 1956-1958, when he was recording as a leader for the Prestige record label and playing in the bands of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. The selections on this album show Coltrane’s early facility on standards, with “I Hear a Rhapsody” and “I Love You” taken from the Lush Life LP, and the later particularly interesting as the piano player lays out, allowing Coltrane more space over just bass and drums and overshadowing the open-ended work he would focus on later in his career. He has a fine rhythm section of Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Art Taylor on drums backing him on a couple of lengthy jam-like performances, “Good Bait” by Tadd Dameron and his own original “Traneing In.” Both allow for strong and confident solos which show Coltrane’s continued growth as a saxophonist. This quartet comes together once again on “Bahia,” one of Coltrane’s final performances for Prestige from December of 1958. Healthy in mind and body, Coltrane sounds like a man ready for anything, and in fact beginning the following year he would make his ascendency to become one of the music’s greats. Doug Ramsey on John Coltrane's Prestige Years via Jazz Profiles. Very Best of John Coltrane: The Prestige Era - Amazon.com The compact disc is $5.00 cheaper than the mp3, isn't that unusual.
The exchange of cultural information has always been a vital part of the jazz legacy, and Joe Lovano’s UsFive group fully embraces this concept. Developing melodies and rhythms that draw from the music’s rich history, particularly bebop, while staying true to the rich tapestry of today’s music. Joe Lovano plays a wide variety of exotic wind instruments in addition to tenor saxophone, supported by two drummers, Otis Brown III, and Francisco Mela, James Weidman on piano and Peter Slavov or Esperanza Spalding on bass, with Lionel Loueke sitting in on guitar. “Blessings in May” opens the album with some nice upbeat tenor saxophone over strong dual drum rhythm. Lovano switches to soprano for the second half of the tune, taking flight with a swirling and sweeping sound. Fast and choppy saxophone and piano usher in “In a Spin.” The group develops a deep, muscular swing with rippling piano. Lovano switches instruments after the break to a nasal sounding instrument that gives the proceedings an exotic flavor. “Drum Chant” has a very cool two drum rhythm, with bass and guitar underpinning. Saxophone enters about two minutes in, bobbing and weaving amidst the fascinating and complex percussive texture. “Royal Roost” takes Lovano back to his bebop roots, swinging super hard pushed by galloping piano, bass and drums. Cross Culture - amazon.com
Alto saxophonist and composer Rudresh Mathanappa has been at the forefront of modern jazz for several years, winning many awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship for his work as a leader and a sideman. On this album, he is supported by David Fiuczynski on guitar, Francois Moutin on bass and Dan Weiss on drums. A gamak is part of a performance of Indian classical music, something which gives each movement a unique sound. The influence of this idea is pervasive on this album, particularly on songs like “Waiting is Forbidden” which features choppy and powerful saxophone building tension against exciting sparks of guitar. “Abhogi,” which is a raga in Indian music, has been adapted to develop jazz with a distinctly East Asian flavor. Fiuczynski is particularly interesting here, with his twanging, brittle style of guitar playing offering up more avenues for exploration. The music on this album is continuously fresh and exciting, reveling in the sheer ebullience the group brings to playing jazz and creating music that keeps listeners wondering what's next. Rudresh Mahanthappa and his group present a modern and fusion-like a synthesis of world music, jazz and funk elements. It makes for complex music, but compelling listening. Gamak - amazon.com
When German saxophonist Peter Brotzmann announced the ending of his longstanding Chicago TenTet, it put to bed one of the longest standing collaborative big bands of recent memory. This album was recorded with its usual stellar mix of Americans from the Chicago scene like Ken Vandermark and Jeb Bishop along with their counterparts from Europe like the saxophonist Mats Gustafsson. This music was recorded live Cafe Ada, in Wuppertal, Germany (part 1, part 2) on April 11, 2011. This collection includes three lengthy improvisations over the course of two compact discs. “To Walk In” is a massive slab of music clocking in at forty-four minutes. The interesting thing about this performance is how it develops in a suite like fashion. Certainly there are several passages of explosive full band improvisation, but individual soloists are also featured. Brotzmann, Vandermark and Gustafsson release gales of thrilling saxophone, but there is also room for downshifting, allowing bassist Kent Kessler and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm to speak their piece as well. The centerpiece of “To Love In” comes about halfway in, a torrid section of free improvisation that becomes nearly hallucinatory in its intensity. It seems unreal that such a potentially unwieldy group can play so loud, and so fast, developing into a near state of ecstasy. Finally “To Sleep In” consolidates all of the music played during the evening, allowing the musicians to celebrate their achievements in a humble and thoughtful way. Walk Love Sleep - amazon.com
9volt is a very exciting band that consists of Rick Parker on trombone and effects, Eyal Maoz on guitar and effects, Yonadav Halevy on drums with special guest Tim Berne on alto saxophone. Maoz, who has a couple of Tzadik records to his credit is fine here on this album with a probing guitar style that turns up to lead blasting full band improvisations with full throttle guitar that are wild and unrelenting. It’s really cool to hear Tim Berne is this scenario, playing a role similar to what he did on 2011’s The Veil by the collective BB and C. Much like on that album, the music is dynamic and building, moving between avant-garde squalls of noise and abstract passages of sound sculpture. The trio is very well integrated, and the effects used by Parker and Maoz allow them to sculpt the sound even further, developing eddies and currents of processed music. The opening “Squeegie” is particularly interesting, with the horn players setting up a fine riff before Maoz and Halvey come in and just blast it apart. Everybody rallies and comes together and soon the band is playing a ferocious avant-fusion. “Yes, Your Majesty” builds from crunching guitar, to a punishing improvisation where the music is kneaded and stretched by the effects used, particularly on the trombone. This album worked really well, with each member of the group working intuitively with each other and as an organic whole. They develop an interesting aesthetic concept that allows them to interact in a complimentary fashion. Open Circuit - amazon.com
I was invited to take part in Francis Davis's Rhapsody/Village Voice year end Jazz poll and the results are available here. There are several categories and year-end essays from both Davis and Tom Hull. Individual ballots and more metadata from the voting can be found at Hull's web site.
Below is a Spotify playlist I have been adding to bit by bit during the course of the year. It has some (but not all) of my favorite tracks that came out in 2012. It really was an excellent year for music.
Part of the magic of jazz in New York City is groups of musicians coming together for brief engagements and then moving off into other groups and configurations, leaving fond memories but little recorded evidence of their existence. The Group was a very talented amalgam of musicians, veterans of the free jazz and loft scenes: Ahmed Abdullah on trumpet and flugelhorn, Marion Brown on alto saxophone, Billy Bang on violin, Sirone and Fred Hopkins on bass and Andrew Cyrille on drums. This previously unissued concert was recorded at the Jazz Center of New York in September 1986. The musicians stretch out on long performances of originals and a fascinating cover of Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” “Joann's Green Satin Dress” opens the concert will a well played medium-uptempo free-bop performance, the music is exciting and serious, but quite accessible. The Mingus composition is taken apart at length, and it takes a lot of stamina and patience to play at a slower pace for extended period of time, but the song works really well as each member of the band touches on the melody and makes it their own. “La Placita” has a jaunty Latin or Caribbean vibe to it, reinforced by Marion Brown’s wonderful opening solo, seemingly adrift on currents of air, backed by hand percussion and drums. Over twenty-five minutes in length, “Amanpondo” takes the music even further out, playing free but with a great degree of lyrical content. The musicians are very comfortable with each other and this brings out the joy in the music. Read the liner notes. The Group - Live - NoBusiness Records.
The group Confusion Bleue is named after an album by pianist Nobu Stowe, and the group continues to develop a form of free improvisation that develops a sense of dramatic intensity while maintaining control on their journey through sound. The music has some gentle scaffolding or structure, but the performances are still allowed considerable space to develop in a more organic fashion like growing crystals that change and develop their shape time flows by. This album is a seven part improvised suite, presented out of order and performed by Stowe on acoustic and electric piano, Ray Sage on drums, Ross Bonadonna on guitar, alto saxophone and bass clarinet, Lee Pembleton on sound(?), Brian Groder on trumpet and flugelhorn and Lisle Ellis on bass. "Movement V" opens the album in an upbeat fashion featuring trumpet and bass clarinet chased by fast drumming. The piano enters late into the performance, with strong drums and guitar joining the fray as the music builds ever more intense. Fast paced, "Movement III" has a multi-hued sound with subtle electric piano shading. Stowe shifts gears to acoustic piano, leading the group into an exciting collective improvisation. "Movement VII" shows the piano pushing the music forward gracefully in an exciting fashion before the movement makes a sudden drop in tone to sparse piano with sound manipulation altering the results. The music on this album is totally improvised and played in the moment, but it's hardly daunting or overwhelming. Dynamic shifts from calm and placid musical seas to raging rapids keep the listener totally engaged in the proceedings. East Side Banquet - amazon.com
This album has been a long time in the making for bassist Eberhard Weber. A longtime member of saxophonist Jan Garbarek's jazz group, Weber has taken on a project of cutting and pasting some of the bass solos recorded live with that group into a melange of bowed and plucked bass sounds, with some lingering keyboards or saxophone wafting by, either in the moment or overdubbed as framing material. It's an curious concept, and the varying snippets of solo bass from different concerts blend together quite well, developing a tightly sewn texture. Weber's bass has a unique sound, he plays special instrument, a five-string electric double bass lightly amplified and in possession of a springy elasticity which helps the music weave and flow. Using echo and delay technology he can make his music seem even bigger and wider. It's an interesting project: sampling and remaining the past to make a statement for the present. For this album, Weber has returned to his own recordings as source material and reworked them much like an artist might mold clay into a unique album with its own sense of narrative and flow. Resume - amazon.com
1. Paul Dunmall & Tony Bianco - Thank You to John Coltrane (SLAM) - Tenor and soprano saxophonist Paul Dunmall and drummer Tony Bianco take a minimalist approach to their Coltrane tribute, touching on some of his most famous themes and crafting their own improvisations out of them. Both Dunmall and Bianco are completely invested in the music, giving all they can and the effect is breathtaking. 2. Black Music Disaster (Thirsty Ear) Led by Matthew Shipp this is a fantastic collaboration between musicians of different backgrounds coming together to perform an epic improvisation that stretches the very nature of space and time. 3. Vijay Iyer - Accelerando (ACT) Iyer’s trio takes a wide ranging view of modern music by playing potent originals along with compositions by great jazz composers and interpretations of popular songs. Absorbing and infectious, this is jazz about not only the mind but the body. 4. Sam Rivers-Dave Holland-Barry Altschul, Reunion: Live in New York (Pi) The band is totally focused in the moment, like artists walking up to a blank canvas and extemporaneously creating in real time with no preconceived notions. 5. Neneh Cherry & The Thing, The Cherry Thing (Smalltown Superjazz) The album works really well, covering music from a wide range of genres and neither the musical group or the singer make any concessions to each other, but rather collaborate beautifully. Both Cherry and the band buy into each other’s sound world without hesitation and produce a powerful album. 6. Steve Lehman, Dialect Fluorescent (Pi) Lehman is now at the forefront of modern jazz and is pushing the boundaries even further with each release. They play with aggressive commitment to forward thinking improvisational music, bringing laser like focus and strong listening skills. 7. Matthew Shipp, Elastic Aspects (Thirsty Ear) The combination of the intellectual and the emotional is seamless and creates a transcendent whole that goes beyond jazz to evoke a universe of distinctive musical possibility. 8. Charles Gayle, Streets (Northern Spy) Gayle uses his musical alter-ego "Streets" where he is free to step outside of himself and let his musical exuberance truly fly. 9. Donny McCaslin, Casting for Gravity (Greenleaf) Embracing elements of electronic instruments and fusion to create new avenues for expression, McCaslin develops music that remains jazz at its heart but draws fresh inspiration from the world around him. 10. Jon Irabagon - I Don't Hear Nothin' But The Blues Volume 2: Appalachian Haze (Irabbagast) A one track album of pure excitement is a continuous blast of energy. This thrilling album isn’t for the faint of heart, but its not a one-trick pony either.
Blues musician “Magic Sam” Maghett was the total package. Flashing across the sky like a comet on his brief career, his extraordinary guitar playing and soulful vocals were unforgettable. This album was recorded not long before his tragic death and consists of a live concert at Mandrakes in Berkeley, California in 1969. It’s a blistering performance, but with one caveat, that being the sound quality which is pretty weak: this was probably recorded from the audience, giving it bootleg quality sound. Sam’s guitar work is sterling and comes through pretty clearly, but his vocals can be buried. The guitar sound cuts like a lance on a couple of Freddie King covers, “San-Ho-Zay” and “Hide Away” but really every song on this album is excellent, and it must have been unbelieveable live. Sam made “Mama Talk to Your Daughter” his own and really nails it here, allowing the band to develop a propulsive groove that they ride clear through to the end of the performance. He wrings the emotion out of the the slower numbers too, his own “All of Your Love” and B.B. King’s “You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now” simmer at a low boil, dripping with loss and loneliness. The bottom line is the sound quality: if you can handle the low fidelity, this disc is a must have for blues fans, Magic Sam hitting on all cylinders in a club setting is a force of nature. Raw Blues Live - amazon.com
Manhattan Vibes is a slick but not smooth mainstream jazz outfit consisting of Christos Rafalides on vibraphone, Sergio Salvatore on piano, Mike Pope on bass and Vince Cherico drums. Rafalides has an interesting pedigree, moving from Greece to the United States to study music and getting turned on to jazz, and eventually studying with the renowned jazz vibist Joe Locke for his graduate degree. So the musicians bring a lot of cultural weight to the proceedings and it works well with elements of island music present on the infectious opener “718” which has a light and nimble joy to it, channeling a vibe akin to Sonny Rollins compositions like “Don’t Stop the Carnival.” “Sorayia” has a quick and deft touch that allows the band to lock into a groove, centered around Pope’s bass, which is featured on a well realized solo. This disc is pleasant sounding and accessible from a group that is establishing their own niche and individual sound. This album has a contemporary jazz feel, building from the foundation of something that the Caribbean Jazz Project would play. Blue November - amazon.com
The cosmic motif of this album is quite accurate, because the musicians are questing and searching for the outer limits of the musical cosmos throughout. Ra-Kalam Bob Moses is a drummer from New York City who has recorded several albums as a leader and played as a sideman with the likes of Roland Kirk, Gary Burton and Tisziji Munoz. Recording with him on this album are Stan Strickland on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, Raqib Hassan on tenor saxophone, musette and Tibetan horn and Om-Mudra Tom Arabia on tenor saxophone. The album opens with a very impressive performance, "Sacred Exhalations", which is a twenty minute plus kaleidoscope of spiritual free jazz. The three saxophones give this and the following performance "Animal Magnetism (Zoo Logical) a wide range of possibilities, coming together for power and propulsion or splitting off for solo statements. "We Are Not From Here" takes things even further out with scalding portions of caustic saxophone and energetic drumming. "Surrender To the One" closes the album using exotic instruments and an ever shifting rhythmic groove to develop a meditative and hypnotic trance like sound that is quite unique. This album was very successful, and is highly recommended to fans of spiritual free jazz, akin to the music released by Impulse Records from the mid '60's to the mid '70's. the music is fierce, yet lyrical and unflinchingly honest. Sacred Exhalations - amazon.com