best new jazz
KATE GENTILE / Photo: Otto M.

JazzMatters: The Best New Jazz of April and May 2023

Our jazz columnist chooses the best new jazz albums of the past two months while reflecting on the passing of Ahmad Jamal and highlighting Walter Smith III.

Ahmad Jamal’s Influence and Artistic Legacy

In April, pianist Ahmad Jamal passed away. I came to adore his music — his touch and the big spaces he created in his music — because I impulsively bought his 1974 release Jamal Plays Jamal on a Sam Goody run in my jazz-crazed adolescence. No one thinks that this is Jamal’s peak period except for me. His bass player, Jamil Nasser, is funky and high in the mix and arrangements, Jamal makes very cool use of the Fender Rhodes electric piano along with his trademark acoustic sound, and the string arrangements are integral and un-sappy. But this is one trademark of Jamal’s career: he was often lauded (as an NEA “Jazz Master”, for example) and more often underrated.

The days when Ahmad Jamal was undervalued as a pianist making “cocktail music” by tone-deaf critics have been over for decades. Jamal’s music was popular but profound, combining economy and groove with potent artistry. Famously, Miles Davis loved this music and was heavily influenced by it, copying many Jamal arrangements and repertoire choices for his first great quintet. 

It is easy to understand Davis’ (and listeners’) affection if you listen to Jamal’s most popular recording, Live at the Pershing: But Not For Me (recorded live in a Chicago hotel lounge in early 1958). A piano trio (with longtime bandmates Israel Crosby on bass and Vernel Fournier on drums) serves up music that is simultaneously restrained and powerfully, compactly arranged for impact. The best analogy has always been to Count Basie. Like Basie’s big band, Jamal’s trio plays arrangements that contain bursts of crisp harmony surrounded by lots of open space.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The opening (title) track sets out the melody in a way that is both extremely organized and loose-as-a-goose. Jamal plays sharp block chords, first in the middle of the piano, then up high, then shifting to a single note line in the high treble range, while his left-hand punches low chords. Crosby’s bass line is given big open spaces through which to emerge so that it all sounds like a call-and-response between the instruments. Did they play every note exactly like this every night? Because it is that controlled and effective.

As Jamal begins what would seem to be his “solo”, the same feeling persists: he tinkles with casual fun, worrying a single blues lick, he revisits the melody for a second, then he punches some pungent harmonies and plays a section of block chords, leading to a section of blues licks in a single-note fashion, left unaccompanied by any left-hand comping. It is mesmerizing and seemingly perfect, with a funky ending coming up without a full-scale return to the melody.

Tune after tune on Pershing has this quality of being tightly arranged and wide open too, each a relatively brief performance that leaves no fat on the bones. Except, that is, for the eight-minute “hit” song that the album produced, “Poinciana”. The tune was written by Nat Simon and Buddy Bernier in 1936 from a Cuban folk tune, Glenn Miller recorded 1943 in the style of that day, and Bing Crosby had a hit with it around that time in a version that is fussy and corny.

Jamal remakes it ingeniously, basing it around a Fournier drum groove that digs in deep and never lets up. Jamal states the melody in beautifully harmonized block chords, letting them ring at the end of each phrase, but he contrasts this to a newly composed lick that he plays in the bass range of the piano, connecting the piano and drums in a danceable moment. The tempo is moderate. and nothing ever heats up, but Jamal strings together a series of written-out licks and short moments of spontaneity on top of Crosby and Fournier simply grooving. Every trace of corniness or faux-Latin posing from the early recordings is gone.

Ahamd Jamal, in eight tracks of beautiful design, made the piano trio into a delicious act of arrangement and deliberate design, subtracting much of the “fuss” of jazz (the headlong flurries, the wonder about where it’s all going) but leaving intact three elements: swing that was emphasized dramatically by the use of silences, genuine conversation among the voices of the group, and rich harmonies. Is it any wonder that audiences loved it and musicians emulated the feeling?

He is missed.


London Brew – London Brew (Concord Jazz)

The power and influence of the music that Miles Davis made after he converted his 1960s band into a wild, funk-infused, open-ended groove orchestra have been a long time coming. Bitches Brew was a hit album, but the jazz world took decades to get its head around the genius of Davis’s absorption of James Brown, Sly Stone, and Jimi Hendrix (and, maybe more surprisingly, Ornette Coleman and the AACM) into his modal jazz aesthetic. As a new generation that grew up on the hybrid thrill of hip-hop has become jazz masters, the new century has exploded with music that nods to Davis’ pioneering free-funk.

This new recording, which emerged from a covid-interrupted concert event, features a host of British players (Shabaka Hutchings is just the most US-known of a dazzling group) who recreate a few elements of the Davis formula (the prowling, sexy bass clarinet lines originally by Bennie Maupin, for example) but mostly take Brew as inspiration for their own creativity. It is a sprawling 88 minutes of music that defies summary, track by track, but if you put on “Mor Ning Prayers”, you would hear electronic textures, atonal overdriven guitar, and soothing piano chords opening up to a throbbing bass groove that buoys a saxophone duet over time.

Those ingredients are not particularly borrowed from Miles Davis, and that is exactly why the album is so glorious: it openly acknowledges its inspiration but flies out beyond those borders just as easily. Five minutes into “Mor Ning”, you’re dancing to an irresistible Rhodes groove that is underpinned by Theon Cross’s tuba propulsion and lifted by blues guitar. Resist it if you can.

Kate Gentile – biome i.i (Obliquity)

The drummer and composer Kate Gentile released her first recording as a leader, Mannequins, in 2017, but she hasn’t been sitting idle. In partnership with pianist Matt Mitchell, she released a six-disc Snark Horse recording in 2021, and she has been playing and recording in other configurations throughout the last six years. But Mannequins was so distinctive and exciting—a kind of New Jazz that was both compositionally daring and fueled by a punk-ish abandon—that I have been eagerly awaiting her next collection.

On biome i.i, Gentile has written a 13-piece composition for herself and the International Contemporary Ensemble, a new music collective that lists several “jazz” or jazz-adjacent musicians (vocalist Fay Victor, pianist Cory Smythe, trumpeter Peter Evans) among its dozens of members. The ensemble here is seven strong: violin, flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, bassoon, piano, vibes/percussion, and Gentile’s drums and percussion. There are sections of exceptional beauty (“oergn”) that are not afraid to move into dissonance, and there are gnarlier elements, such as “chorp”, which are alternately freely improvised and scored with harsh intervals as a staple. The biggest element in Gentile’s toolbox is adventure. “flibb” takes your ears for a dipping, darting ride: the strings vibrate like Bartok, then the band stutters like a hip-hop ensemble; Smythe plays chords evoking Herbie Hancock, but then the ensemble starts stomping in a way that suggests that Jelly Roll Morton wrote a tune with John Zorn.

Because Gentile is a truly excellent jazz drummer who is mostly uninterested in writing for performing mainstream “jazz”, her most “new music”-ish moments take on a sense of swing, and the parts of biome i.i that include lots of jazzy improvising and writing (“xooox”, perhaps) sound like they were cooked up with a group of precise chamber players in mind. But it is all unerringly fascinating and adventurous. “drode” is the kind of writing and performing that you have to listen to again and again. It is propulsive and melodic, even if the melodies tend to turn back on themselves constantly. There isn’t a plugged-in instrument in sight, but it all somehow sounds electric and buzzing.

Ben Wendel – All One (Edition)

Ben Wendel is a saxophonist (and bassoonist, strangely relevant here) with the quintessentially 21st-century jazz resume — teaching, gigs with pop stars and classical ensembles, and his own ambitious work as a composer and player. He co-founded the band Kneebody, a perfect example of a band that is both improvisationally daring and groove machine, and he has played with brilliant peers such as Linda May Han Oh, Dan Tepfer, Gerald Clayton, and Todd Sickafoose. All One is one of the most delicious pandemic projects yet. Wendel wrote a series of modern, complex orchestrations for his own overdubbed tenor and soprano saxophones, using bassoon and some EFX to cover the bottom of the register, then invited six guest soloists to be featured (often in duet with his own improvising horn).

On two vocal features, we hear the sublime Cecile McLorin Salvant address “I Loves You, Porgy” and Jose James gently caress “Tenderly”, each arrangement pushing the singers away from a conventional approach to a familiar song. A Wendel original, “Wanderers”, puts Wendel in dramatic conversation with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, a soloist who has been less lauded recently if only because his composing (in and outside of “jazz”) is so acclaimed.

What a great choice to arrange one of Bill Frisell’s own tunes (“Throughout”) for Frisell as a soloist. This is the most lyrical and delicious of Wendel’s arrangements, weaving as many registers as you can imagine into one flexible, rotating bed of triple meter. Listeners unfamiliar with flutist Elena Pinderhughes will be utterly knocked out by her rich tone and bent-note control on “Speak Joy”, which features a Wendel arrangement that pulses and throbs while featuring a low part that bobs, tuba-like, as Pinderhughes (or Wendel on soprano saxophone) hangs a melodic solo up high. “In Anima”, for pianist Tigran Hamasyan, shimmers with some synthesized sounds, but the whole is utterly organic, with Wendel’s unusual tonal shifts becoming as important as Hamasyan’s strong solo.

David Cook – Loyal Returns (Sunnyside)

Speaking of Ben Wendel, he is both the producer and tenor saxophonist on the new quintet recording of pianist David Cook. Let’s get this out of the way: Cook has long been a music director for Taylor Swift’s band. But his jazz credentials are equally wow (Mark Guiliana’s band, singer Shayna Steele, trombonist Alan Ferber, Victor Wooten, Christian McBride, and on it goes). His nine original compositions on Loyal Returns are melodically arresting, formally complex, harmonically adventurous, and fabulous platforms for improvisation.

“Blues in Muri”, for example, starts off with some Monk-ish solo piano and then begins a slow-drag groove that allows for a winding minor melody. Drummer Kendrick Scott is in subtle, Nawlins-y conversation with the rest of the band throughout, and bassist Matt Clohesy takes a riveting solo before the leader bests him. The brooding title track offers a bass line melody before the horns develop a sunnier theme over a still-ominous syncopated backbeat. Here you will find trumpeter Philip Dizack and Wendel trading eight-bar statements that eventually run together into a thrilling collective improvisation.

“Brighter Places” is elegiac and nimble, and “Party Song” is a rushing, boppish theme that might have ripped on a Freddie Hubbard album from 50 years ago. If you love modern jazz, the kind of post-bop that swings like mad but keeps surprising you with twists and turns, then, yes, you need to hear this one. Taylor has good taste, but mainly David Cook has great taste and talent.

Artemis – In Real Time (Blue Note)

The first recording from Artemis — an all-star band of women centered on the fabulous rhythm section of drummer Allison Miller, pianist Renee Rosnes, and bassist Noriko Ueda — seemed just slightly flat to my ears. Not so the follow-up, with the trio and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen returning and newcomers Alexa Tarantino and Nicole Glover on reeds. Maybe it is inevitable that there will be chatter about a brilliant cover of “Penelope” by the late-great Wayne Shorter (Jensen nods to Miles Davis but is mostly utterly original in a stunning opening) or a compelling cover of Lyle Mays’s “Slink”.

But I can’t get over how compelling Tarantino’s “Whirlwind” is, with its out-of-tempo opening that relaxes into a surging 6/8 for her flute solo, or how Allison Miller’s “Bow and Arrow” sounds like a jazz classic, with its shifting time feels and flash-lit harmonic bursts. I’m not picking out Rosnes’s ballad “Balance of Time” because this band is made up of women — I think it’s the most compelling slow tune I have heard in a few years, period. Like the compositions of Carla Bley, this one uses space and logical development to dare the improvisers to be truly original. Jensen soaks up the glow and the tune and reflects it back. This is an album that should grow over time.