Fergus McCreadie – Forest Floor (Edition)
McCreadie is a young Scottish pianist (he graduated from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2018) who is playing thrilling improvised music in a piano trio format, drawing on the folk sounds of his home. It is inevitable that people will hear some of the Bad Plus in his playing (it is powerful, dynamic piano trio music that rocks a bit and explodes with drama) as well as a slice of the Esbjörn Svensson Trio (the band is European and uses bass line figures prominently). Other fair comparisons are to Chick Corea’s more recent “Acoustik” trios (the spritely precision of arrangement), Brad Mehldau’s trios (the brooding quality that builds suspense), and Keith Jarrett (folk/gospel elements in the songwriting).
What sets McCreadie apart, of course, are tunes like “The Unfurrowed Field”, which legitimately bring Scottish/Celtic elements of melody and structure into a tradition where he sounds like he is borrowing too many elements. That track is sunny and hopeful, the kind of thing that makes you want to raise a barn, and then a song like “Forest Floor” is a tone poem that mixes majesty and portent. “The Glade” is a heart-tugging waltz that might have come as easily from the pen of a great melodist like Pat Metheny—some genuine praise. Those are the part of Forest Floor that make me want to stay tuned into McCreadie and his trio. All of these musicians can play, and when they play a bit less, they are incredible.
Dave Douglas – Secular Psalms (Greenleaf)
Go ahead—try to keep up with the musical imagination and restlessness of Dave Douglas, I dare you. Douglas has devoted the last five years to the kind of musical expansion, experimentation, and range of association that is rare in anyone, much less someone at 60. This pandemic project (imagined before March 2020 but executed between then and August 2021 with musicians in separate studios) was commissioned by Handelsbeurs Concert Hall in Gent, Belgium to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the creation of the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck.
Douglas composed this music with additional inspiration from composer Guillaume Dufay, a contemporary of van Eyk. The band spans generations and continents, with cellist Tomeika Reid from Chicago, pianist (and pump organist) Marta Warelis in Amsterdam, singer Berlinde Deman (also doubling on tuba and serpent, an early version of the tuba), guitarist Frederik Leroux and drummer Lander Gyselinck, all from Belgium. Douglas uses liturgical text as well as excerpts from the work of writer Christine de Pisan (1364-1430), known as one of Europe’s earliest professional female writers, and even the phrase “mercy, mercy me” from, well, Marvin Gaye. Leroux uses distorted electric guitar and lute, while Warelis uses organ, piano, and prepared piano.
The result is close to genre-less, except that it has the harmonic shade of Douglas himself, who delivers on a particular promise of being true to himself in what alley he explores. “Hermits and Pilgrims” may begin with an eerie combination of pump organ and cello, but it soon morphs into a very Douglas-ian triple-meter pattern for guitar, tuba, trumpet, and trap set, setting up improvisation for Reid, the leader, and piano—and then a composed ending in common time that complements but doesn’t repeat the initial theme. There are parts of the suite featuring electronics, and some rapturous songs such as “Ah Moon” put it all together: atmosphere, poetry in French, electric guitar, and piano crisscrossing atop toms and cymbals.
Catherine Russell – Send For Me (Dot Time)
The wondrous new recording from Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra featured the singer Catherine Russell, and Send for Me is her new recording as a leader, on which the sharp band is directed by guitarist/banjoist Matt Munisteri, who also plays with the MTO. Russell’s dad was a music director for Louis Armstrong, and the singer indulges that sound and repertoire in places. “Did I Remember” uses period elements in the arrangement, handing a solo to Evan Arntzen in clarinet and the very-swing-era trumpet of Jon-Erik Kellso.
There’s plenty of that kind of material (“Going Back to New Orleans”, “If I Could Be with You”, “Sticks and Stones”), but Russell has several different gears and kills at any speed. Both “Blue and Sentimental” and “Million Dollar Smile” come out of the swing era from the pens of Count Basie and Lionel Hampton. Her “You Stepped Out of a Dream” is smooth-swinging mid-century modern jazz, and this arrangement of “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)” is inspired by George Shearing’s hip post-bop sound. For all this, Russell sounds even more up-to-date when she comes off as a soul singer. “You Can Fly High” is by Earl King, the New Orleans R&B master, and Munisteri gets his moment here with a smart guitar solo.
The title track, “Send for Me” is a legitimate 12-bar blues with a soulful backbeat—and my very favorite. Catherine Russell has put in her time as a background singer for the likes of David Bowie and Donald Fagen, and she is, generally, in that category of overlooked treasures such as Lisa Fisher. But, really, she is out there featuring her fearsome talent all the time these days. Tune in.
Michelle Willis – Just One Voice (GroundUP Music)
Michelle Willis has been supporting David Crosby in his notable young “Lighthouse” band featuring Becca Stevens and Micheal League (or Snarky Puppy), as well as playing with Stevens, the Zac Brown Band, and Michael McDonald. Her own music bears comparison to Stevens, sitting in that place that isn’t exactly indie-pop and not really Americana, but is just sharp, hip, singer-songwriter music that isn’t going to threaten Taylor Swift or Olivia Rodrigo but—informed as it is by the sophisticated work of predecessors like Joni Mitchell—is worth seeking out.
Willis is a singer and keyboard player, and the arrangements on this sophomore recording are built on strong vocal arrangements (“Green Gray”, a super-fun pop song of flirtation) and undeniable piano grooves (“Janet”, a tune she was playing on tour with Crosby featuring sexy Wurlitzer piano funk). Guest turns from Michael McDonald (“How Come”) and Stevens (“Black Night”) are wonderful, but they don’t make the album. Willis, originally from Toronto and now based in Brooklyn, has her own enchanting voice and style. If it were 1973 all over again, Willis would be touring with Dylan and releasing acclaimed albums for a generation to fall in love with. Is that enough in 2022?