A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.
24 July 2020
You can find million-and-one words in the music press about "supergroups"—the thrills and spills that occur when hotshots from different bands get together to create a new group mixing players who are otherwise leaders of acclaim. Not unlike basketball teams that combine superstars, it sometimes works and other times doesn't—for every LeBron James/Anthony Davis dream team, you will find a Kawai Leonard/Paul George misfire.
But it is often different in jazz. Even bands that have made a string of recordings together rarely play together for most of a whole year, much less a few. With rare exceptions, most creative musicians shuffle between different projects for recording and touring anyway. Their superb training and flexibility allow them to groove and improvise freely, even without months or years of repetition and familiarity. Arguably most of the classic Blue Note catalog was just a series of "supergroup" dates—and that music is some of the most comfortable and in-sync in the history of music.
With Artemis, Blue Note Records are presenting the latest jazz supergroup—six of the most acclaimed players from the last two decades, with only one player who hasn't topped polls or received a sweet feature in Downbeat. But it is also a group of unusual variety. The line-up spans generations, backgrounds, and styles. Bassist Noriko Ueda is the least known player, and saxophonist Melissa Aldana, at 31, is the youngest. Pianist Renee Rosnes and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen are veterans from the mainstream, while drummer Allison Miller is better known for playing the new jazz and musicians from outside of jazz. The players were born in Israel, Chile, Japan, Canada, France, and the United States.
For all that variety, no one seems out of place, with a front-line of trumpet, tenor sax, and (okay, this is a bit unusual) clarinet and a classic piano/bass/drums rhythm section. The wildcard is the inclusion of vocalist Cecile McLoren Salvant on two tracks. Mainly, this sounds like a classic, cracking, and swinging Blue Note band. The tradition is alive.
There is also variety in the original compositions that these all-star players have broad to the session. However, this variety is also where some of the seams in the supergroup concept show a bit. They are different enough to be slightly odd when heard side-by-side.
Miller's "Goddess of the Hunt" opens the collection on what may be its strongest note, with a piano/bass repeated-note figure setting up a groove that propels a contrasting melody: dark, slow, and moody as expressed by harmonized trumpet and tenor sax. The clarinet and right hand of the piano enter with a counter-melody before the dam breaks, and Aldana's torrent of tenor surges with the first improvisation. Miller's band often uses the combination of trumpet and clarinet. This arrangement takes advantage of this slightly unusual instrumentation—the clarinet never seems "soft" even as it butts up against Miller's propulsive and thrilling drumming. Indeed, Cohen's solo here may be the best stretch, beginning gently and flowingly and then turning into more of a dialog with Miller's accents and nudges.
Ueda contributes and skipping, fast waltz, "Step Forward" that starts with Cohen's solo, again exceptionally fluid and rhythmic. But it's the rhythm section that stands out most, using the pliant push-pull that always marked the great piano/bass/drums trios that gave the Jazz Messengers their elan. Ueda pops and delights, Miller sounds like Ralph Peterson on one of his most tasteful days, and Rosnes turns in a piano solo of great momentum and dynamic variance. Cohen's "Nocturno" is a gentle, moody, minor piece that demonstrates a third way to approach the modern mainstream.
However, the two other originals sound less connected to the best of what this band can do and from another world. Aldana's original, "Frida", is a fussier affair, with shifting tempos and lots of intricate arrangement. It seems like it is from a different, more modern date. Cohen is using her bass clarinet here, and there always seems to be another counter-melody lurking in the shadows. And Rosnes contributes "Big Top", which has an antic quality that mimics a circus, with slide whistle sounds and fun collective improvisation that evokes its title. It swings too, bouncing around from one section to another. These compositions have some merit, but they make Artemis more of a collage than a focused effort.
This sense is enhanced because the two Salvant vocals also seem to be from another album. Stevie Wonder's "If It's Magic" is a wonderful choice—rarely covered by "jazz" groups and given a Rosnes arrangement that sounds like stylish musical theater—not so much a ballad as ornamentation with no tempo or improvisation. But it gives the six instrumentalists next to nothing to do, reducing them to the barest of backgrounds. Salvant seems like she is singing from another studio on the other side of town. "Cry Buttercup, Cry" is also a rarity, a Maxine Sullivan vehicle on which Salvant can use the full range of her "classic jazz" tonalities—sounding a bit like Sarah here, a bit like Carmen there. By contrast, Cohen's solo on clarinet and Jensen's Harmon-muted statement sound modern and original over a gorgeous swing from the rhythm section. We hear more of the band here, but it seems apart from Salvant.
For many, the highlight of Artemis may be its two instrumental transformations of well-known songs. Jensen has reimagined the Beatles' "Fool on a Hill" as a gestural modern jazz song, with new harmonies and moments of suspension, while the known melody still shines through. It is as "tricky" as the Aldana original, but all its pieces feel more endearing and connected, with the voicing of the three horns completely lush, even as the trumpet gives us the lead voice. Rethinking truly beloved rock songs is so often a fool's errand, but Jensen aces this one.
Rosnes reimagines Lee Morgan's ever-funky "The Sidewinder", a Blue Note classic of classics. This version still has pocket, but it has been slowed down and given a more complex horn arrangement, with muted trumpet, bass clarinet, and tenor saxophone engaging in all kinds of slinky contrary motion, creating dishy, unexpected chords. Aldana, Jensen, and Cohen then trade statements quickly, setting up a bluesy solo for Rosnes. Like Jensen's "Fool", this arrangement delivers something new and something familiar simultaneously—a trick outcome delivered.
As with many supergroups, the real joy may be in a certain degree of discovery. For jazz fans who have been digging the rise of young Melissa Aldana, getting to hear the relatively established Rosnes for the first time could be a revelation. Alli Miller combines power and wit, but it's rare to hear her in this kind of mainstream context: she shines. Ueda sounds like she deserves as much attention as her younger colleague Linda May Han Oh. Ingrid Jensen is versatile and assured, and she makes every solo here into a story.
For me, the greatest revelation is Cohen. Perhaps I haven't really tuned into her for reasons I cannot explain, but she is the most consistently startling soloist on these nine tracks. Her clarinet has a dark cast but also a remarkably flexible way of phrasing. She may own distinctive sound on her instrument in the music.
Artemis the band throws spotlights on all these talents, even if Artemis the album is a bit scattered compared to the most recent recordings from any one of these musicians. The supergroup doesn't do everything well, at least not the first time out of the gate.
(Oh, and Blue Note is trying not to make a big deal out of the fact that every member of this band is a woman. Right on. The music and these composer/players—varied and prominent, and brilliantly talented, each—are elite by any measure.)
Artemis was first put together three years ago by Rosnes, and it's unreasonable to dream that it becomes a truly regular touring or recording ensemble. But I'd love to hear them reassemble when possible. Artemis sounds like a first step that is tentative at times. The best for this supergroup is yet to come.