Thursday, November 18, 2021

Nathan Bell - Red, White and American Blues (It Couldn’t Happen Here) (Singular Recordings, 2021)

Nathan Bell is a very interesting blues and roots musician that mixes well thought out topical songs in a mode similar to Otis Taylor with anguished personal tunes that clearly come from the heart. Bell plays fine electric and acoustic guitar, adding some harmonica for good measure in addition to singing his original lyrics with vocal support from guests like Patty Griffin and Regina McCrary. Bell is a fantastic storyteller, whether singing a more standard blues about the horrors of Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana on "Angola Prison," or the more modern take on violence with the track “American Gun.” He circles back to this theme later in the album with the song “Mossberg” in which the character buys a shotgun as the solution to all of the problems he he his facing, only to literally bury the weapon at the last minute, when he realizes what he might be capable of. "Retread Cadillac (Lightnin')" is a wonderful song that welds a great guitar lead beat to the retelling of some great stories about the legendary bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins. He puts these stories in song form in very well, singing about the legend of Lightnin' as one would sing about other American folk heroes like John Henry or Casey Jones. He ends the album with a gospel song taken at an obtuse angle, shaming his invented character that Jesus isn't impressed with him or his folding money. "Folding Money" is a song that sticks with you, leaving an impression like the rest of the album. Nathan Bell plays the blues in a humble and unassuming manner singing songs of fear and hard won success, leavened by humor and grace. This fine album is very accessible and should appeal to a wide range of music fans from blues purists to roots rock explorers. Red, White and American Blues (it couldn't happen here) - amazon.com

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Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Wadada Leo Smith, Jack DeJohnette and Vijay Iyer - A Love Sonnet For Billie Holiday (TUM Records, 2021)

All three of the principals bring compositions to this excellent album, a collaborative effort between Wadada Leo Smith on trumpet, Vijay Iyer on piano, keyboards and electronics and Jack DeJohnette on drums and percussion. Smith planned the session so that the lack of a bass player would offer the musicians a wider range to express themselves. The opening track "Billie Holiday: A Love Sonnet" is a potent meditation on the life and music of the famous icon, with Smith's thoroughly unique trumpet tone and inflections leading the group through this memorable performance. The three musicians have played together in sever different configurations, and this connection allows them to combine on such a unique composition. "Deep Time No. 1" has a spooky sound with echoing repurposed recorded speech "By Any Means Necessary" by Malcolm X along side hushed cymbals and long tones of trumpet. Iyer gets really trippy effects from his bank of gear at one point, then moving to electric piano, as the band creates a complex strata or stew of instruments and techniques and incorporates a fine rolling drum feature for DeJohnette. Intricate trio playing led by a strong trumpet tone comes to the forefront on "The A.D. Opera: A Long Vision With Imagination, Creativity and Fire, a dance opera "For Anthony Davis." Deep wells of piano lay the foundation for this epic piece and, after a pause, the music grows faster, freer, pushing boundaries, the sounds the musicians create are noticeably louder and more visceral. The music shifts dramatically to spare electronics and percussion, Smith’s trumpet has a beautiful emotional tone. Super fast acoustic piano, very impressive, as the piece continues to shape-shift, demonstration the relentless creativity and vision of these musicians. "Song for World Forgiveness" establishes a mid-tempo mysterious underlying principle, where composer DeJohnette's drums course ominously with pinched toned trumpet and piano chords creating a fluctuating environment. Iyer drives emotional piano chords, amid lashing drums, stark up to this point sounding stoic throughout the performance, with Smith intoning intense long tones like breathing, the musicians come together to bring a final sense of peace to the performance. Bright piano chords and drums sounding like waves upon a shore add to this newfound sense of hard won optimism. Electronics and organ open the concluding track "Rocket" soon met buy stuttering, powerful bursts of polished trumpet that pushes the music forward as the keyboard grinds and drums percolate. Iyer's keyboards frames piercing eruptions of brass, as the music fades into the mist. This album worked quite well, the compositions from each band member were consistently interesting and offered plenty of space for exciting exploration. The CD is a typically excellent TUM production with extensive liner essays, biographies of the musicians and interesting artwork. A Love Sonnet for Billie Holiday - amazon.com

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Tuesday, November 09, 2021

Sylvie Courvoisier and Mary Halvorson - Searching For The Disappeared Hour (Pyroclastic Records, 2021)

Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and guitar player Mary Halvorson unleash their second enigmatic album, taking the time offered by 2020's circumstances to develop the music more slowly than their first record, an off the cuff live album released in 2017. The tracks on this album were specifically designated for it and led to much success, beginning with the opening track "Golden Proportion"  where the musicians demonstrate wonderfully intricate interplay, blending their pitches and tones, with the slight use of distortion which is effective in showing all the possibilities of the guitar. “Lulu’s Second Theorem” moves in a different direction with choppy guitar keeping things fresh and moving well, while developing an interesting narrative. The music drops dramatically to a quiet, subtle improvisation, where stream of consciousness lines and notions bubble up and dissipate. There is some beautifully atmospheric playing on “Faceless Smears,” revealing spaciousness rising from the core of the performance that hints at a ballad feeling with the use of gracefully rippling cascading guitar and piano. “Moonbow” develops  in a similar manner with subtle and gentle piano notes mixed with jellied smeared guitar sounds creating a funhouse mirror of excitement that leads back to subtle and quiet conclusion. This is where both musicians’ unique conception of their own sound and approach to improvisation really shines in a remarkable way. “Mind Out of Time” uses structural piano to provide foundation for strange sounding jabs of guitar, followed by lush notes and chords of piano, giving the whole performance a fascinating feeling of floating in luminal space between the instruments, between improvisation and structure. Interesting guitar sketches over skeletal piano form the setting on “Party Dress” providing an impetus for contextual interplay that is consistently excellent and surprising. This album worked very well, both musicians are masters of their respective instruments with distinctive personal voices. But it is the combination of the two voices and the mutual affinity for risk taking that really drives this album’s success. Searching For The Disappeared Hour - amazon.com

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Saturday, November 06, 2021

Steve Coleman and the Five Elements - Live at the Village Vanguard Volume II (MDW NTR) (Pi Recordings, 2021)

Recorded in May of 2018 this album presents the group one year further along than Volume One, with the band now consisting of the leader, Steve Coleman on alto saxophone, Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Kokayi on spoken word vocals, Anthony Tidd on bass and Sean Rickman on drums. Coming off of a period of lengthy touring and given a full week at the Vanguard, the band was ready to make their statement. "Menes to Midas" opens the album with some solo saxophone playing along side a bass pattern, with gradual build up from a further horn and drums. Coleman solos over thick bass, tight drums, engages with trumpet who takes control. There is spoken word rhyme, where the band comps behind, then intricate full band playing to finish. Coleman uses a mild, lengthy and restrained solo saxophone exploration to open "Unit Fractions." The bass enters along with the spoken word artist, and really amps up the tempo, launching Coleman to a complex, cascading saxophone solo, propelled by insistent drumming. Finlayson's trumpet adds nice tones to the overall package, and the full band groove is excellent, moving toward the finish. "Little Girl I'll Miss You" joins saxophon to long trumpet probing ramping up quite gradually around anchoring bass. Vocalist scats with saxophone, he gets dynamic leading into the epic suite "Compassion (drum solo) - Ascending Numeration - DeAhBo (Reset)" which has a direct lead in to a fine and fast drum feature as the rest of the band holds and then kicks in very fast. There is another fine driving trumpet solo, with excellent tone, locked into the boiling bass and drums for maximum effect. The lengthy performance mines an excellent seam with the full band paling with Kokayi's fast, great control of vocals, words and percussion with occasional horn riffs. "Pad Thai-Mdw Ntr" is deceptively subtle… then spiraling as the band is gaining momentum, very much communal and collective, each piece having a purpose, the vocalist is very declarative pushing out the words over a solid groove. There is quick band introduction, then Coleman dives back in with a lightning fast angular saxophone solo, leading to a rousing conclusion. Crisp drumming opens "9 to 5," leading to rapid progress, with the band running hot, presenting blistering jazz in a saxophone bass and drums setting. The vocalist stretching out equally fast, enunciating clearly despite speed in a very impressive manner, leading to a trumpet improvisation is equally skilled, buoyed by elastic bass and drums. "Mdw Ntr" uses a slinky mid tempo bass which works well, giving the music a nice groove, Finlayson's trumpet adding punchy additions underneath the vocalist, after which the band develops an admirable collective improvisation. "Rumble Young Man Rumble" features Kokayi, the vocalist, dives right in to open the track laying out a complex linear narrative performance and carries on with the band in support, then breaking out into a very bright toned Coleman feature, that is well into integrated full band interplay. Fading in is the final massive track "9 to 5 - Mdw Ntr" reprising some of the earlier themes performed in this set but using them as a springboard for a massive twenty one minute exploration. The group makes their closing argument here, as it were, presenting their undeniable instrumental and vocal talent, and their ability to weave together impressively as a unit for both collective improvisation and in order to support each other and the music itself. Live at the Village Vanguard Volume II (Mdw Ntr) - amazon.com

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Monday, November 01, 2021

James Brandon Lewis Quartet - Code of Being (Intakt Records, 2021)

Saxophonist and composer James Brandon Lewis is one of the rising stars in the jazz world, releasing his second album of the year in the company of Aru├ín Ortiz on piano, Brad Jones on bass and Chad Taylor on drums. The eight compositions, all by Lewis, cover a wide range of musical territory, beginning with “Resonance,” which opens the album at a medium tempo with graceful playing all around and a gradual increase in the mysterious sound. Stronger playing from the rhythm sparks deeper saxophone playing which ramps up nicely to exciting collective improvisation lead by taut saxophone. There is space for the rhythm section to play with lush piano and active bass and drums. Before the leader’s saxophone returns and the tempo returns to the slower opening feel. Gentle rhythm section playing and yearning saxophone make for an emotional setting on “Archimedean,” with the pace soon picking up to some jagged and fraught playing from saxophone and drums. The music is fast and open sounding nearly free with the personnel communicating at a very high level, especially Lewis and Taylor. Downshifting to a quieter, more yearning and emotional section marks this as one of the more dynamic performances on the record. “Per 4” has solo saxophone probing the open space, patiently and well done, joined by persistent drumming and the rest of the band falling into place. Drums push the beat forward and the band leans in developing the quality of driving or pushing ahead, creating a nice wide open full group improvisation. The title track, “Code of Being” has fast and ripe rhythm section playing with rich, intense saxophone developing alongside, creating a potent sound. Lewis’s tone gets more strident and gritty as he really digs into his solo, playing in a very exciting manner. A strong piano, bass and drums interlude forms, flush with strong cymbal play, elastic bass and flowing piano. They make their case before the saxophone glides back in and the song takes on a Milestone era McCoy Tyner like vibe, intense yet melodic. “Where is Hella” uses droning bowed bass to give the tune a spiritual vibe, and Lewis meets this with a strong stoic saxophone tone. This is very deep and exciting, locking into the late Coltrane (both John & Alice) sensibility that makes for exciting and fulfilling music, the group creates a very long, evolving performance, built like a suite with the next part focused on the deep rhythm of the bass and drums and a gentler state to the saxophone. There is a segment for a rippling piano solo backed by cymbals and bass, with the saxophone returning after a lengthy break, climbing higher back to the heavy collective improvisation, striving to the finish line. The final performance is “Tessera” beginning with lush filling piano sounding water-like, joined by romantic saxophone, creating a true ballad feel. Moving slowly and patiently with a bruised and yearning tone, Lewis causes the tempo of the performance to shift up to a freer improvisation, leading to a satisfying conclusion. This album worked very well and it is clear that James Brandon Lewis is a musician whose skill is accelerating at an advanced pace. But more than that this is a full band effort, everyone worked very well together, anticipating and reacting to each other in a very effective manner. Code of Being - amazon.com

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