The Bad Plus – The Bad Plus (Edition – September 2022)
With a couple of decades under their belt as bandmates, drummer Dave King and bassist Reid Anderson (also primary composers) might no longer be shocking the “jazz” world with thrashing drums and punk attitude. But, after just a short stint with its second pianist, Orrin Evans, the Bad Plus sound more fully realized and clear in direction with the addition of guitarist Ben Monder and Chris Speed’s tenor saxophone. The former can shimmer or shred, and the latter has never sounded more weighty and potent. Half the tunes are real crunchers, with distortion and power that shifts in unexpected ways. The tracks are sly and melodic — but the band finally seems to have moved past its shtick of being rock-ish oil and classical/jazz water. Now all the band members can go any direction at any time, and the result is a recording in which this jazz juggernaut seems freshly committed, with all the oars pulling in one direction.
JD Allen – Americana Vol. 2 (Savant – August 2022)
JD Allen has been making the case, with a quiet and stately manner, that he is the defining tenor saxophone voice of the last ten years. He plays with steely direction, always purposeful, melodic, free of cliches, and bold in tone. Allen doesn’t particularly sound like Joe Henderson or Sonny Rollins, but he shares the inclination of those great tenors to play every note like it is central to the composition and the whole band. In 2016, Allen released a wonderful trio recording with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston, Americana: Musings on Jazz and Blues that explored older blues forms while channeling the sax/bass/drums format that we associate with Rollins and others.
This second chapter blossoms with the addition of guitarist Charlie Hunter, who uses slide playing, reverb, and string-bending to make more explicit the ties of mid-century jazz to the roots music that we associate with the Mississippi delta. The sound of the quartet is loose and open, expansive. On a tune like “The Werk Song”, Allen uses a simple bass pattern that either the horn or guitar quietly doubles, as Royston plays a quiet, minimal pattern that hints at both New Orleans parade rhythms and simple patterns that sound almost like handclap. Bass, guitar, and tenor all improvise in front of the groove, but the impression is the same as “string of solos” on a bebop record.
Every track here feels a mile deep and rich in feeling. One of the songs that’s more modern in style (the Ray Charles classic “You Don’t Know Me”) is handled with unique openness, with Hunter’s plucked guitar sounded like a pizzicato viola, perhaps, then slipping into blues. Most exemplary, probably, is “This World Is a Mean World”, which starts with the band singing the tune casually using handclaps, then tossing off a quartet take on this spiritual that fuses Sonny Rollins with Sonny Boy Williamson. It’s not a gimmick, it’s more like the truth.
Dave Douglas Quintet – Songs of Ascent, Book 1 – Degrees (Greenleaf – October 2022)
Trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas has been intensely busy for decades, leading a huge variety of bands, starting a label, a Festival of New Trumpet Music, a podcast, and teaching. Sometimes you fall in love with one of his projects of ensembles, only to worry that he’s so busy that he won’t cycle back to it. This quintet made several spellbinding albums (including a set of live recordings that summarized its brilliance that have not gotten old), including some music based on hymns that was unusually accessible and peaceful.
The new Songs of Ascent contains 15 tunes based on the biblical psalms, the “Songs of Ascent”, plus one entirely new original (Book One – Degrees is available on disc and streaming platforms, the second book will be Greenleaf subscription-only.) The quintet — with Jon Irabagon on tenor saxophone, Matt Mitchell on piano, Linda May Han Oh on bass, and drummer Rudy Royston — is set utterly free on all this material, sounding playful and daring on themes that sound neither like psalms nor like the “hard bop” that a trumpet-sax-rhythm jazz quintet usually conjures. “Lift Up My Eyes” is a set of rising melodic shapes that the band plays entirely without a set tempo but with a sense of rushing momentum.
The improvisations proceed with a free sense of groove in solos, duets, and open group interaction that regularly finds its way back to the curious scales that are the themes. Can a band continue to evolve even as it has a kind of reunion? Why not — and Songs of Ascent may just be the high-water mark for this band of contemporary all-stars.
Julian Lage – View with a Room (Blue Note – September 2022)
If the Bad Plus tends to make drummer Dave King seem like something of a jazz-ROCK player, then listen to him along with bassist Jorge Roeder on this second Blue Note release for guitarist Julian Lage. The pocket is assured on even the slow, atmospheric songs, sure, but this is a gorgeous, atmospheric delight that uses the lightest possible “pop” groove to win our ears. King colors and nudges, and many of the wonderful atmospheres come from guest guitarist Bill Frisell, who joins the trio that played on Lage’s Blue Note debut.
Almost all the leads and solos are from Lage, but Frisell is every bit his improvising partner, as the two guitarists feed each other and inspire each other in continual dialogue. The chiming two-guitar sound calls back to the wonderful “Bass Desires” records that bassist Marc Johnson made with Frisell and John Scofield in the 1980s on ECM (and his Frisell/Pat Metheny record The Sound of Summer Running in 1997 for Verve). Lage’s compositions — check out the incomparably hip but sunny “Castle Park” — sound like they could be the theme songs to the coolest shows or the music you would want following you around on the happiest day of spring. But operating along with that graceful ease are magical harmonic shifts, the melody that never seems predictable, and a thrilling give-and-take, particularly between the guitars. There is maybe only one moment where Frisell and Lage are trading licks because View with a Room is a genial, subtle joy. All the better.
Thumbscrew – Multicolored Midnight (Cuneiform – October 2022)
This collective trio of bassist Michael Formanek, drummer/vibist Tomas Fujiwara, and guitarist Mary Halvorson have been together for a decade, and the band sounds more focused than ever on this program of original tunes (featuring all three composers) developed during a residency in Pittsburgh. If you have ever been put off by the band’s torture-suggestive name or the player’s association with the New Jazz advance wing of the new century, it’s time to love them. Formanek’s bass is usually playing an infectious pattern that anchors the band to solid ground (“I’m a Senator!” and “Capsicum Annuum”, both his tunes, or “Brutality and Beauty” by Fujiwara), even if that groove is not always straight-ahead 4/4. There is always enough room in this small group so that we hear Formanek as a formidable melodic force as well.
Fujiwara gets several tunes where he plays vibes rather than drums (the impressionistic “Swirling Lives” by Halvorson; Formanek’s tricky little “Shit Changes”), which is another factor in making Multicolor Midnight the trio’s most delight-inducing document. For fans of Halvorson’s immediately-recognizable guitar style, this is also an ideal forum for her sharp chording, drunkenly detuned but beautiful melody playing, and precise interaction with bandmates. This is in the top tier of this band’s recordings.
Terri Lyne Carrington, Kris Davis, Linda May Han Oh, Nicholas Payton, Matthew Stevens – New Standards, Vol. 1 (Candid – September 2022)
The astonishing productivity of drummer Terri Lyne Carrington has proceeded this year with a book of 101 “standard” jazz charts that had never been available before by female composers. Carrington plans to record them all, and the first batch is here, with a splendid quintet, often supporting incredible guests across 11 tracks. The jazz luminaries include Abbey Lincoln, Carla Bley, Gretchen Parlato, Eliane Elias, Marilyn Crispell, and Marta Sanchez, and Carrington has done a fabulous job of matching tunes to leading players.
The vocal tracks are standouts. Samara Joy (see below) is creamy and luxurious on Bley’s “Two Hearts (Lawns)”, and Lincoln’s “Throw It Away” was made for the distinctive voice of Somi, with the band setting up a polyrhythmic pattern that dissolves into glistening chords that still punch now and again. “Circling”, written by Gretchen Parlato, gets treatment from Michael Mayo and his powdery voice and a wonderful solo from guitarist Julian Lage. Ravi Coltrane (tenor saxophone) and Elena Pinderhughes (flute), are instrumental standouts beyond the core band.
Brandee Younger’s “Respected Destroyed” is a tune I’d never heard and now adore, with Payton getting in some delicious licks, and it is very cool that the album ends with a live track that goes out, allowing guest trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusere to mix it up with Kris Davi’s piano and the leader’s snare on a Crispell setting. The set positively confirms that women have no boundaries or limits in creative music.
Samara Joy – Linger Awhile (Verve – September 2022)
Samara is only a few years into being able to order a beer in the clubs where she is enrapturing audiences as Verve’s most recently signed artist. In person, she is pushed along by a lovely guitar trio led by stringman Pasquale Grasso, and audiences fall for her sincerity and her astonishing pitch, time, and taste. Her Verve debut is also winning, all standards but not the utterly usual suspects. For example, “Sweet Pumpkin” is a rare confection from the jazz vocal canon, and her original lyrics for Fats Navarro’s tune “Nostalgia” are sharp and not-too-cute.
In working through “Misty”, “Round Midnight”, and “Someone to Watch Over Me”, Joy is proving that she can pass the test of singing the tradition (she sounds, at times, like a young Sarah Vaughan, but Betty Carter and Carmen McCrae are in there too). The difference between this young, conservative singer and the thousand other women who perform this repertoire is more than just technique and talent, though. Joy consistently makes interesting choices on the songs we know so well. On “Misty”, for example, she sings the way-familiar melody with a mixture of bent notes, held notes, scalar runs, and phrasing that uses quick rests to create syncopation.
Maybe three times Joy chooses a note we are not expecting, just enough but too much. It’s hard to know where a singer like her is likely to go from this start. If she makes this record a few more times, yawn. If she starts covering (and creating) contemporary pop from this start, we have heard that too. But Cecile McLorin Salvant started out in roughly this manner, so let’s hope the future for such a wonderful voice is bright.
Mark Guiliana – the sound of listening (Edition – October 2022)
For a while now, drummer Mark Guiliana has been living a bifurcated musical life, with his acoustic jazz quartet and his electronic music acting as complements that never overlap. The quartet was never an outfit that played “classic” jazz, exactly, as compositional ideas that Guiliana uses in the electronic music would appear there in acoustic form, but Guiliana’s new quartet album is a more explicitly total expression. Pianist Shai Maestro (returning to the quartet) plays a Fender Rhodes, Mellotron, and “ampliceleste” as well as piano, Guiliana uses synthesizer and drum programming in spots, and saxophonist Jason Riggs varies his texture with the addition of clarinets and flute.
These expanded compositional and textural elements are concentrated in a few shorter, impressionistic tracks, with the longer performances being more like the previous acoustic quartet material, but that divide is not absolute. The charming, Satie-esque miniature “practicing silence” is an acoustic duo for Maestro and bassist Chris Morrissey, while “the most important question” and “continuation” both feast on the kinds of staccato patterns and layered compositional ideas that are native Guiliana’s electronic music.
In the end, of course, these kinds of distinctions have never really mattered, and never less though than today. The music on the sound of listening is exciting and interactive, with Guiliana’s drums constantly interacting with the buzzing, explosive improvising from his bandmates. This is the kind of music that makes “jazz” relevant to fresh ears if folks will just give it a try.
Tim Berne and Matt Mitchell – One More, Please (Intakt – September 2022)
In 2017, pianist Matt Mitchell recorded Forage, a set of compositions by saxophonist Tim Berne. Mitchell plays with Berne in the band Snakeoil, but on the solo set, Mitchell sounded like a full band himself, playing the songs with intricacy and power, leaving little room to imagine a band, or even Berne himself, getting into the action. The duo, however, has also recorded and performed often and this new set features Berne’s music in glorious counterpoint. To our surprise, perhaps, there seems to be more space in these performances, with the pair making room for each other and – deliciously often – making room for silence. “Number 2”, for example, begins with chiming solo piano (resonating string creating quavering overtones as well as rumbles of low dissonance) over which Berne eventually plays a melody, but it ends with the two musicians playing precise phrases exactly together, with quiet acting as their counterpart.
“Motian Sickness” is a beautiful tribute to the elliptical composer and drummer Paul Motian, a special thing, and we also get “Middle Seat Blues: Chicken Salad Blues”, which uses wonderful intervals to evolve into what sounds like a blues. What you won’t hear on One More is a pianist playing “chord changes” for a melody instrument. Mitchell’s approach involves plenty of lovely chords, but he is almost always playing a countermelody around Berne (or is it vice versa?) that works in the duo format to define harmony in some way. Most of that harmony is consonant but does not follow old Tin Pan Alley patterns. The result is a beguiling and airy partnership.