best jazz of march may 2024

JazzMatters: The Best Jazz of March-May 2024

PopMatters presents the best new jazz recordings from March to May 2024 in the realm of piano jazz. We also reflect on the legacy of the late David Sanborn.

Rest in Raspy, Soulful Peace, David Sanborn

I have written often about the soulful crossover music of the 1960s and 1970s, where jazz renewed itself in the waters of R&B and rock. Hard bop, the music associated with bands like the Jazz Messengers, was already a mixture of bebop and some earthier genres (jump blues and gospel, at least). So stirring in some Ray Charles was natural. Music by Les McCann, the early and mid-career music from the Crusaders, Mister Magic from Grover Washington, Jr., Freddie Hubbard playing “People Make the World Go Round”, the New York City instrumental funk of the band Stuff — what a delicious playlist that still is.

There was a fine line between this material and the “smooth jazz” that curdled and went bad, jettisoning most of its jazz content for programmed noodling. The artists who got it right were special and cool. One of those was saxophonist David Sanborn, who died from complications of prostate cancer on 12th May.

It may be true that most of Sanborn’s albums were marketed as smooth, but he was greater than that label in five different ways. His roots as a player were in blues (he played in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band), soul-jazz (Hank Crawford was a primary influence), and the free-blowing of the Midwest (Julius Hemphill was a mentor). While he was a sought-after studio musician after moving from St. Louis to New York, his appearances on rock and pop records were typically unforgettable: he is the killer sax on David Bowie’s “Young Americans”, “Tuesday Heartbreak” by Stevie Wonder, and the famous James Taylor version of “How Sweet It Is”. He didn’t just hold his own with super-bands like the Bob Mintzer Big Band of the 1980s — he was a star soloist.

Sanborn could play blues, soul, or jazz with fluency, but it was his sound that was indelible: warm, bright, and raspy, with an upper-register cry that everybody wanted to imitate. When Sanborn pushed his horn on those high notes, the tone would ripen and then crack open slightly. Many players can do this, but when Sanborn did it, you heard the man behind the horn, not just a piece of saxophonic schtick.

I loved him playing with the Brecker Brothers in the 1970s, and I fell hard for his Brecker-ish 1975 debut album Taking Off. He was wonderful playing with a jazz-adjacent pop singer like Michael Franks and the Gil Evans Orchestra. His 1991 album Another Hand was superb, and he was comfortable playing with musicians as different and dazzling as Bill Frisell, Jack DeJohnette, Terry Adams (of NRBQ), Charlie Haden, Marc Ribot, and Joey Baron. On 2014’s Enjoy the View, he was even matched with organist Joey DeFrancesco, vibes master Bobby Hutcherson, and drummer Billy Hart.

But it is just important to be clear: many of his relatively commercial records are full of rewards — try either his first collaboration with keyboard player Bob James (1986’s Double Vision) for some strong pop jazz or the last one (2013’s Quartet Humaine with Steve Gadd and James Genus) for mature beauty. I also enjoy Songs from the Night Before (1996, with a version of Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes”) and Timeagain (2003). His best work was evenly spread across a five-decade career in making records.

If you want to understand how versatile Sanborn was, watch as many editions as you can find (see YouTube) of the sublime television show Night Music, which he hosted in its two seasons between 1988 and 1990. This show (produced by Lorne Michaels with Hal Wilner acting as a music coordinator and Marcus Miller as music director of its house band) gave Sanborn the chance to mix in with folk singers (Nanci Griffith), rock legends (Todd Rundgren or Leonard Cohen), jazz royalty (Sonny Rollins), international titans (Milton Nascimento), and all manner of experimental musicians. Sanborn loved it all and usually found ways to add his horn to the action.

David Sanborn was a musician who bridged divides—precisely the kind of artist we always need more of.

2024: Already a Landmark Year for Piano Jazz

Recent months have produced a series of wonderful new releases — any one of which might compete for a 2024 top-ten list. I have reviewed or will soon be writing about exceptional recordings from trumpeter Dave Douglas (Gifts), vocalist Fay Victor (Life Is Funny That Way), Melissa Aldana (Echoes of the Inner Prophet), flutist Jame Baum (What Times are These), and bassist Stephan Crump (Slow Water).

But the following recordings of new music from improvising pianists early in the year have been revelatory and madly diverse. These exceptional artists span many ages, styles, identities, and histories, but I adore each of these new releases. I’m reviewing them in series to provide a sense of the breadth and intensity of the piano paradise we are in this year. (There’s more to come in the next month or two.)

The reviews are alphabetical by artist because these are a set of masters at work with exceptional balance and beauty.

Kenny Barron – Beyond This Place (Artwork, May 2024)

Kenny Barron is almost as old as Joe Biden, and I would re-elect him immediately as the reigning dean of jazz piano — nimble and ready to take on the new generation. Beyond This Place reprises his quintet with vibes player Steve Nelson and a rhythm section of Jonathan Blake (drums) and Kiyoshi Kitagawa (bass) but with the young alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins stepping in. It is Barron through and through: a couple of standards played with perfection, a Monk tune (“We See”), and the balance of original compositions from across his career.

“Scratch” is an uptempo and slightly abstract swinger that proves early in the set that Barron knows nothing about resting on laurels. Wilkins comes out the gate with incredible sweet/sour energy, his beautiful, light tone showing no particular regard to traditional harmony, pushing and pulling against Barron’s melody as the rhythm section comments on every hip note. “Tragic Magic” sounds more like classic hard bop, a tune to brighten your day, and another superb showcase for Wilkins, who cooks and sets up the contrastingly elegant statement from Nelson.

Of course, the maestro shines everywhere. The piano/drums duet on “Softly As in a Morning Sunrise” is speedy and vigorous, suggesting that Barron has not lost a step in his ability to play with agility or to invent on the spot with fresh ideas that captivate.

Fred Hersch – Silent, Listening (ECM, April 2024)

In 2022, Fred Hersch released a set on ECM of duets with trumpeter Enrico Rava, but this is his first solo album on a label closely aligned with his exploratory, inward-searching musical personality. Hersch has made many outstanding solo piano recordings, and Silent, Listening may be the most mysterious and atmospheric of them. As you might imagine, the title track is a cinematic soundscape, and “Aeon” whispers before it becomes a series of meditative arpeggios in various registers. “The Wind” is prettier and more harmonically fulsome, but it also hews to its title in offering an airy, hushed melody and patterning.

It is interesting to compare “Softly As in a Morning Sunrise” here with Barron’s aggressive duet version. Hersch conceives of it as a different kind of duet — with the right-hand melodic line being answered by pops of rhythm and harmonic counterpoint in the left. It is the set’s most conventional reading, but in its playful wit, it is pure Hersch. I also adore “Little Song”, which dares to give us a tumbling and attractive melody that could easily carry a lyric. However, as Fred Hersch develops his improvisation, it becomes more complex and passionate, with momentum between the two hands making it feel as urgent as it is pretty.

Andy Milne and Unison – Time Will Tell (Sunnyside, April 2024)

Pianist and composer Andy Milne has been active on the New York scene for three decades, known for an approach that combines elements beyond classic jazz while being founded in command of fundamentals. He played for years with Steve Coleman and other M-BASE colleagues, and his Dapp Theory band used funk, soul, and hip-hop to daring effect. Milne is also a prolific soundtrack composer. Five years ago, he started a regular piano trio, Unison, with Time Will Tell as its latest recording. Half of the tracks incorporate gorgeous tenor saxophone playing from Ingrid Laubrock, the koto artistry of Yoko Reikano Kimura, or both.

Milne’s long experience in creating compositions that build riveting structures from different sounds applies just as well in this band’s acoustic context. “Beyond the Porcelin Door”, for example, uses all five musicians with programmatic care — koto, piano, and John Hebert’s bass play a haunting three-note rising figure over which Milne’s right hand and saxophone layer a rippling melody. Clarence Penn masterfully colors Laubrock’s solo. Similarly, “Lost and Found” is a lovely ballad for just koto and piano that is reprised later in the set in a dynamic full-band arrangement that emerges from a strong Milne solo introduction that foreshadows the propulsive written bass line that makes the central theme both complex and grooving.

It is equally true that this is a terrific trio record. “Papounet”, written by Penn, is an engaging theme with the core band dancing delightfully around a 9/8 rhythm arranged in a loping five followed by four — a truly popping and unfussy bit of trickery. “Broken Landscape” is a sumptuous ballad from Hebert’s pen. Milne’s “No Matter What” is a funky workout with a pointillistic theme and my favorite track on the album. It is high time that Andy Milne gets talked about with the same intrigue as Vijay Iyer or Jason Moran.

Matt Mitchell – Illimitable (Obliquity, May 2024)

Matt Mitchell can do just about anything on a keyboard, from mad-metal-ish thrash to interpreting the thorny and fantastic tunes of Tim Berne, from holding down the piano seat in Dave Douglas’ quintet as if he were the best “new Herbie Hancock” to working seamlessly within a John Hollenbeck score for large ensemble. His new release, however, is a first on record: Mitchell improvising alone on acoustic piano with no predetermined music.

Four improvisations are spread across two CDs — or nearly two hours of music. I suppose comparisons to Keith Jarrett are inevitable, particularly given that Mitchell chose to lead with a title track that builds through 14 minutes on a dramatically tonal set of rising and falling (and fast) arpeggio patterns. The momentum that Mitchell establishes with these swirling and exceedingly beautiful webs of rolling melody never flags, and, through some musical magic, Mitchell codes stately melodies into the quiet center of his flying fingers. At his best, Jarrett could conjure these kinds of extraordinary melodic flights amidst an insistent pattern of harmonic motion and subtly shifting tone. In the track’s final few minutes, Mitchell pairs away some of the density and reveals his developing pattern to be even more Jarrett-ian: it is lyrical, heartbreaking, and virtuosic.

However, Matt Mitchell is not a musician who will likely serve up two dishes that taste the same. “Unwonted” then clocks in over 42 minutes and takes pleasure in shifting moods, tempos, and tones. The changes, however, evolve in slow-evolving patterns guided by musical logic and a connecting set of motifs and ideas. Here, perhaps, there are hints of the almost classically logical improvisations of Matthew Shipp. Listen to the counterpoint in the seventh and eighth minutes of the performance and be dazzled and delighted by the real-time intelligence of the improvising. After a pause, Mitchell restarts this piece in delicately chiming chords that evoke a harp, a Spanish guitar, cirrus clouds, and gentle rainfall. Best of all is that Mitchell brings this new mood and feeling around to reintroduce the counterpoint of the beginning while interspersing other tangents that mix the romantic, the impressionistic, and the powerfully rhythmic (a section around the 30-minute mark features a set of hammering on single notes against low chords that develops into hammerings that ping across the keyboard such that you may feel certain that a second pianist has climbed onto the bench).

There is so much more to say about the program’s second half, but the pleasure should be yours. “Abstruse Admixtures” is a more aggressive swirl of pianism, with leaping low-note patterns that could be described as post-modern, thundering boogie-woogie and semi-abstract figures and, eventually, block chords that clip the edges of Don Pullen and Cecil Taylor with imitating either. The last piece, “For Oona”, is a near-total contrast, with islands of beautiful harmony living amidst long stretches of silence, as the piano resonance is stretched and tested. Mitchell fills in the space ever-so-slowly but gradually strings together these shimmering beads more closely until they resolve into a coherent echo box of sound that moves back to silence. As always with Matt Mitchell, there is some daring to every moment of Illimitable. But each of the four pieces is astonishingly whole despite being entirely improvised — a recital of great power and feeling.

Marta Sanchez Trio – Perpetual Void (Intakt, April 2024)

Pianist and composer Marta Sanchez has been leading and recording with an exceptional quintet for many years. Her last recording as a leader, SAAM (Spanish American Art Museum), was a jewel of wonderful writing and facile arrangement. It was easy to revel in it without focusing on Sanchez as a brilliant pianist, however. The debut recording of her new trio, with Chris Tordini’s bass and drummer Savannah Harris, naturally puts a greater spotlight on her subtle but commanding pianism.

The exceptional writing is still plain, but now Sanchez sounds like two of three of the voices in the band’s interaction, with her right and left hand interwoven and independent quite often — her searching lines (written or improvised) in near-constant, virtuosic conversation. “Black Cyclone” begins with toggling jabs of melody in the low and higher registers before it breaks into a more conventional statement of theme. Still, the chatter of the piano only increases in improvisation. Harris and Tordini keep the complex time signature rolling and rumbling so that “the one” seems to be shifting beneath all the dazzling interplay.

It’s not that Sanchez plays with incredible speed or exhilarating drama but, better, that she plays her whirling, jigsaw structure with great intention and clarity. “This Is the Last One About You” has a similar contrapuntal structure, but this time with Sanchez offering rippling right-hand lines that would not embarrass Bud Powell. It is no exaggeration to say that Sanchez’s piano on “I Don’t Wanna Live the Wrong Life and Die” sounds like two different elements of a traditional big band (say, the saxophones and trumpets) playing a rushing theme in two swirling but complementary directions.

It is equally true that Sanchez brings a deep melancholy to this project, one based on themes of grief and emptiness. “Prelude to a Heartbreak” is impressionistic and transparent as an introduction to the loping and airy “The Love Unable to Give”. The lovely dissonances in her solo “Prelude to Grief” project an unsettled heart but still a heart of much grace. The trio extends those themes in “The Absence of People You Long For”, where the leader’s piano is still impressive but in the service of something softer. Perhaps my favorite performance here is “The End of That Period”, a song written in slow parade version of 4/4, with a beautiful minor melody. The different lines and voices still swirl and interact, as in many Sanchez compositions, but they are also elegiac and sumptuous. By the conclusion of this exceptional program, you won’t think about Marta Sanchez the same way.

Matthew ShippNew Concepts in Piano Trio Jazz (ESP-Disk April 2024)

Matthew Shipp remains uncategorizable. He and his collaborators work almost entirely spontaneously, without written compositions, but his recordings also seem increasingly well-structured and beautiful. This trio, with bassist Michael Bisio and Newman Taylor Baker on drums, has been working together for some time, so their collective language is highly coordinated. They are fluent in quickly discovering a vibe, tonal center, and focus, even when there is no written theme. But this collection is exceptionally telepathic, even by Shipp’s elevated standards. “The Function” has Bisio playing a fat walking bass line on a looping turnaround, so the center isn’t elusive, but the invention all around him is simultaneously fresh and consonant. The opening “Primal Poem” begins with the piano stating a gorgeous thematic idea that Shipp never entirely strays from, with intervening harmonic turns that provide just enough contrast.

The trio can also play with more dissonance, as on “Non Circle”, where Baker’s drum patterns keep everything playful and engaging, even if there is not a pattern of chords to make it sound like a song. Nevertheless, Shipp and Bisio gather incredible momentum around a set of crashing harmonies, and Baker follows them, turning up the heat as if that had been the plan all along. Ballad structures are also a strength for the band, as “Tone Iq” is a quiet tone poem that is like a flowering tree, and “Brain System” starts with Bisio playing a questing arco bass line that Shipp supports with a set of harmonic structure and answers that equal to the “lead”.

The final and longest track is titled — quite self-consciously, I’d guess — “Coherent System”. Of all the tracks, this one may travel most often into different tempos and sections, but this band doesn’t know how to lose the thread. Among free improvisers, Matthew Shipp is rare in openly embracing the word “jazz” and connecting himself to its history. What he does with his trio fits the definition, as far as I’m concerned. Themes are discovered and played with in conversational improvisation — and the precision of the execution is comparable to that of trios led by Bill Evans or Oscar Peterson. Shipp is making truly coherent free jazz, which is a format that is “classical” to jazz. All the labels apply and are transcended.