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.

Rickie Lee Jones – Pieces of Treasure (BMG Modern)

Rickie Lee Jones is not a standard pop star who decides to make a jazz album — a category for which a certain cynicism is due. The singer-songwriter only had one notable “hit” (“Chuck E.’s in Love” reached No. 4 on the charts in 1979, a literal lifetime ago for most of us) and then a series of well-reviewed singer-songwriter collections as she watched the pop landscape shift away from her literate, hip style. But, whether you liked Jones’ early work or kept following her as she started to make jazz recordings (a great version of “Makin’ Whoopee” with Dr. John, the album Pop Pop that included performances by saxophonist Joe Henderson, bassist Charlie Haden, and Bob Sheppard on reeds that were mostly standards), she always sounded like she was a jazz singer, with a vocal approach that was full of bent notes, melodic embellishment, swing rhythms, and a tone full of personality.

This new record is a better jazz record than Pop Pop, featuring Rob Mounsey’s piano, Russell Malone’s gentle guitar, David Wong on bass, Mike Mainieri’s elegant vibes on “Just In Time”, and some lovely string arrangements by Gil Goldstein, such as on a moving “All the Way”. What Jones achieves on Pieces of Treasure is no simple thing: she delivers these well-worn songs (“Here’s That Rainy Day”, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”, “On the Sunny Side of the Street”) in a way that honors the history but is fresh and personal. “Rainy Day” contains a few fresh chords, such as on the slow-vamped coda, and “One for My Baby” is given a novel bass line that reframes the song and removes all memory of the iconic Sinatra version. Kurt Weill’s “September Song” gets a neat makeover with Malone, Wong, and Mounsey playing a cool duet beneath the atempo verse. Throughout, Jones’s quirky vocal tone is used artfully — never flat or indulgent, always honest.

John Pizzarelli – Stage & Screen (Palmetto)

Ah, so John Pizzarelli has another album of classic standards out? This time, all songs from movies or Broadway? What else is new? Yes, this is another terrific outing from the charming seven-string guitar wizard and oh-so-comfortable singer with his guitar/piano/bass trio, ripping off delights like “Too Close for Comfort”, “I Want to Be Happy”, and “As Time Goes By”. But there is a real difference this time out: pianist Isaiah J. Thompson, the first Pizzarelli keyboard partner who goes toe-to-toe with the leader and, well, sometimes steals the show. Great.

This is Pizzarelli’s best working band ever, and Thompson is not only a melodic and fiery soloist, but he brings a smidge more bebop harmony to Pizzarelli’s largely swing-era sensibility. The result just makes Pizzarelli’s art better, just like a trusty and delicious cuisine that gets tastier in fusion with a new ingredient. No less a warhorse than “Tea For Two” gets a blues-drenched makeover here at a slow tempo, with Thompson all over the place while Pizzarelli occupies the center. And fear not, guitar fans: Pizzarelli remains a wonder, tossing off a solo instrumental take on Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time” that is sublime.

Gretchen Parlato and Lionel Loueke – Lean In (Edition)

Has there ever been a more natural musical pairing than Lionel Loueke and Gretchen Parlato? Loueke is a guitarist and singer from Benin who has been playing jazz in the United States and around the world for more than two decades — and there are times when he can sound out of place in a standard jazz group. Parlato is an idiosyncratic singer with a delicate sound and a million brilliant moves, but whose version of “Body and Soul” was probably never going to be her centerpiece. They have recorded together before, but Lean In is their most complete and winning collaboration. It works so well because it draws rhythms and inspiration from around the world, with both artists simultaneously subtle and busy.

Though initially inspired by George Benson and Wes Montgomery, Loueke’s guitar has always been a quieter, more acoustic-sounding vehicle, mimicking percussion at times and a perfect match to Parlato’s textured vocal approach, which is alternately fluid and percussive. On “Muse”, for example, Loueke plays a quiet, complicated finger-picked percussive pattern, which is complemented by additional percussion from drummer Mark Guiliana. Parlato floats atop the ripple of sound, leading to an acoustic solo from Loueke.

Layers of sounds shift in and out of the arrangement, including electric washes of guitar, concluding with wordless singing. Loueke sings too, sometimes an octave below Parlato (“Nonvignon”), sometimes in scatted ensemble with Parlato (“Akwê”), sometimes in percussive clicks and pops. Highlights include “I Miss You”, which could be a successful pop song but is elevated by the more artful and minimal approach here, and “Walking After You”, the album closer.


Walter Smith III – return to casual (Blue Note)

If there were a thousand great albums made between 1955 and 1965 that featured a jazz quintet fronted by a trumpet/saxophone front line, then perhaps the equivalent in recent decades has been a quintet with electric guitar and saxophone out front. The first Blue Note recording from tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III features such a band, including long-time associates Matt Stevens (guitar), Taylor Egisti (piano), Harish Raghavan (bass), and Kendrick Scott (drums). When the quintet leaps out with the opener, “Contra”, it sounds quite a bit like a biting, swinging Blue Note from the early 1960s. The differences, however, are also powerful and all for the good.

As a saxophonist and composer, Smith combines the undeniable drive of that earlier era with the jittery, hip-hop-informed rhythms and more complex compositions that have distinguished the new century. There is also an appealing slickness to the sound of this band — not some kind of “smooth jazz” vibe but a feel for creating pleasing textures. On “Pup-Pow”, for instance, he starts with piano and guitar chiming together, then layers his liquid tenor sound into the pattern while unleashing Scott to play a rattled drum pattern beneath things. Here and on other tracks, the band has the shimmer that another generation associated with bands by George Shearing or Gary Burton.

On “Amelia Earhart Ghosted Me”, Smith is joined in the front line by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who chases the leader across a bleak landscape in improvisations that are frisky and fun. Rather than “comping” beneath the soloists, the guitar and piano stay on a lonely-sounding set of two-note, giving Ragavan and Scott the freedom to respond to the soloists. Equally inventive in form is “Quiet Song”, which opens on a few-note melody that is utterly overcome by a busy Egisti piano solo, followed by a longer theme that is overrun by Matt Stevens in guitar ecstasy. Only then does “Quiet Song” get slightly calmer in a gospel-driven section that finally lets the leader solo.

I am not a Kate Bush fan, but her “Mother Stands for Comfort” is an undeniable highlight. Understated, the track is gorgeous meditation, with Stevens playing with kalimba-like delicacy. After a few minutes, Smith and Stevens play a pointillistic duet to close it. James Francies guests on electric piano for “K8 + BYU$”, a pulsing stop-and-go theme that includes that rarest thing (who knows why): interlacing Rhodes and acoustic piano improvisations — a tapestry of melody and texture that takes center stage and then closes the track in just piano/piano beauty.

The album concludes with “Revive”, a Smith/Egisti duet that is as majestic and heartfelt as any recording I’ve heard in several years. Smith writes melodies that are not afraid of wide intervals, on the one hand, but embrace lush lyricism at the same time. Egisti knows exactly how much embellishment might be too much, and he sits back, allowing Smith’s plaintive tone to carry the track. It is a rare moment when Walter Smith III showcases himself over the tune or his bandmates. And it seems just right.

Michael Blake and Chroma Nova – Dance of the Mystic Bliss (P&M)

Michael Blake has been an enchanting reed player who is unafraid of new settings for strong melody ever since the 1990s. This new one is a dazzling direction, with Blake (on tenor sax, soprano saxophone, as well as, for the first time, flutes) and a string band (guitar, violin, cello, bass) and Brazilian percussion. Christopher Hoffman plays some gripping cello improvisations that you must hear, and Blake has set up a series of grooves that are propulsive regardless of tempo. “La Coeur du Jardin”, for example, is a mid-tempo track that uses skipping percussion to percolate, pushing your feelings along. “Little Demons” uses a set of crisscrossing Latin rhythms to make coy a series of exchanges between tenor sax and strings — a tune that sounds both sexy and wide open.

The strings sometimes play as a tight ensemble and, at other times, are independent voices that hold their own. On “Love Finally Arrives”, saxophone, violin, cello, and guitar form a night sky of shooting stars. “The Meadows”, by contrast, gives the flute center stage as the strings sound like an organ, sounding thick chords that are like a tide that then give way to a percussive pattern that could work on an Abdullah Ibrahim recording. The variety of textures that Blake conjures from this ensemble is magic. I love the sound of a modern jazz ensemble as much as anyone, but drums/bass/keys can be a cliche as much as anything, and this band just sounds different, even as Blake uses it to advance great harmonies and daring polyrhythms. On “Prune Pluck Pangloss”, the band sounds like a modern tango ensemble, a classical chamber group, a daring freak-folk string band, and a New Jazz outfit all at once or in turns.

The music on Dance of the Mystic Bliss was inspired partly by the death of Blake’s mother. It is, however, joyful stuff, a celebration, and an act of uplift. The perfect memorial.