Cocooning with Jazz Documentaries
As this music gathers historical and academic weight, more valuable documentary films tackle the subject of jazz. The last season brought us two that I watched in early winter.
Aside from multi-part Jazz by Ken Burns, which attempted a stem-to-stern look at the full canon in the context of US history, the typical jazz doc covers a single musician. A biography is a well-understood form and, when it works, viewers emerge with a keen desire to know more about and hear more music from trumpeter Lee Morgan (I Called Him Morgan by Kasper Collin was terrific), singer Nina Simone (Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone), or singer/trumpeter Chet Baker (Let’s Get Lost by Bruce Weber). Two recent documentaries of note are about the great originator, Louis Armstrong, and bassist Ron Carter.
Black and Blues, directed by Sacha Jenkins, might be the best jazz documentary in 30 years. Jenkins, whose background is in hip-hop, spends less time explaining to us how Armstrong became the music’s most important figure—instrumentally and vocally—before 1945 and more time explaining his social meaning in a country that was changing rapidly around him and, in part, because of him. We come to see not just the great musician and entertainer but also a very willing public figure who had to wrestle with the racism that held him and other Black Americans back even as he moved forward, often in daring ways.
The key element of Black and Blues is how intimate it is. Jenkins uses footage of Armstrong at home, interviews with his wife, Lucille, and reel-to-reel tapes that Armstrong made of his own musings. There are plenty of interviews with fellow musicians and performers, but they are less dazzled and laudatory than they are themselves self-reflective. Best of all is the section in which actor/activist Ossie Davis—from a generation younger than Armstrong’s—confesses that he simply thought of Pops as an old-fashioned figure who cow-towed to the establishment too much. As he got to know Armstrong directly, he realized (and this film helps us to see) that the man was more complex and principled than he had realized. Black and Blues contains plenty of music and musical analysis, but it is set apart by exposing the more hidden activism at Armstrong’s core.
PBS recently debuted Ron Carter: Finding the Right Notes, a biography of the great, famously well-recorded bassist. The charm of this film is Carter himself—a soft-spoken but authoritative man who came up playing classical cello as a Black youngster, switching to bass so that bandleaders (who had other choices at cello) could not sideline him in the name of racism. Ultimately, Carter becomes enraptured with jazz, yet his brilliance in making any record (regardless of style) sound better leads him to record with folk musicians, pop stars, orchestras, and hip-hop outfits.
Carter cuts a dashing and elegant figure as he moves through his story, and the doc is replete with other musicians talking about the man and his art. (Herbie Hancock is in every jazz doc you can think of, and he’s here too, one of Carter’s most important collaborators.) But it feels just a bit empty. It is cool, of course, that the ubiquitous (and, therefore, somewhat taken for granted) Carter is having his day. But other than making so many recordings, the narrative is reluctant to explain why Carter’s music is interesting and innovative.
Perhaps it is asking too much for a public television documentary to explain how the rhythm section of the Miles Davis Quintet in the 1960s created a more elastic approach to both swing rhythms and harmony while never quite disposing of song form. But if we don’t get a hint of Carter as an innovator, then he (and all of the music) comes off as being merely genial, merely classic or historical or widely recorded. I wish the thesis of the film was: with Paul Simon and Roberta Flack, Ron Carter found just the right notes, and with his jazz peers he quietly dynamited convention.
THE BEST JANUARY JAZZ ALBUMS
Fred Hersch and Esperanza Spalding – Alive at the Village Vanguard (Palmetto)
Pianist Fred Hersch is consistently interesting and fresh. His work comes out of the modern jazz tradition we usually associate with Bill Evans and Kenny Barron (see below), and his natural habitat is the piano trio or the solo recital. But he also loves to play in a duo format. When he plays duets on standard tunes with a singer—in this case Esperanza Spalding, never picking up her bass—it seems fair to think of the classic Evans/Tony Bennett duets. These days, it is also fair to think of Cecile McLoren Salvant’s advanced collaboration with pianist Sullivan Fortner.
These live (“Alive” if you like the title) recordings are casual and fun, with the air of a pick-up session that wasn’t planned or arranged. There are individual moments of wonder. On Hersch’s “Dream of Monk”, for instance, a somewhat aimless scat solo by Spalding ends on a set of spontaneous but coordinated descending phrases that deliciously drag the tempo, setting up a piano solo that dodges in and out of Thelonious-ish stride time. An actual Monk tune, “Evidence”, is free-wheeling and exploratory, as the partners work across material that is brilliant and familiar.
But too much of this recital meanders. “My Little Suede Shoes” (the Charlie Parker calypso) and Neal Hefti and Bobby Troup’s “Girl Talk” get extended to their detriment by verbal freestyling that probably played better in the room than it does on repeated listening. When the duo tackles great songs, ballads particularly such as “Some Other Time” (not the Bernstein tune but the one by Comden and Green) or “A Wish”, everything gels.
Art Ensemble of Chicago – The Sixth Decade From Paris to Paris, Live at Sons D-‘Hiver (Rogue Art)
The recent revival of this essential ensemble has been breathtaking. Reed player Roscoe Mitchell and drummer/percussionist Famoudou Don Moye are the only remaining members of the classic quintet, but the new incarnation of the AEC is both genuinely new (featuring chamber music played strings and a healthy dose of compelling poetry by Moor Mother, among others) and grounded in the verities of the band: percussive crosstalk and talent coming out of Chicago (most notably, cellist Tomeka Reid and flute player Nicole Mitchell).
There are times when the chamber ensemble passages ring with such clarity and freshness (“We Are on the Edge“ and “Variations and Sketches from the Bamboo Terrace“) that you can’t believe it is from the pen of saxophonist Mitchell. At other times, the old identity of the band as a fractured/recombined jazz quintet is reinvented with vocals (some operatic in technique and style) and with relatively straightforward jazz piano. Moye still mixes swing with a joyous embrace of Afro-Latin percussion, and Mitchell’s alto and sopranino saxophones are tart and tasty across all the music. Beyond these leaders, trumpeter Hugh Ragin plays puckish, free, and interactive improvisations on nearly every track.
It is also worth noting that the band is not beyond crowd-pleasing. “Funky AECO” uses electric bass in cross-current with acoustic bass and trombone to get down in a loose-limbed way, and “Odwalla” is an AEC classic that precedes the last track of this live concert: a minimalist free improvisation that develops into a dramatic mixture of voices, poetry, bass/drum/percussion groove, and even a closing sequence that suggests a New Orleans parade stroll.
Marcus Strickland Twi-Life – The Universe’s Wildest Dream (Strick Muzik)
There has been a lot of chatter devoted to the idea of “spiritual jazz” ever since Kamasi Washington’s The Epic took the scene by storm seven years ago, channeling and re-setting the music made a half-century ago by folks like Pharoah Sanders. (Sanders passed just a few months ago after a late-career resurgence of his own.) This new outing from Twi-Life, the funk and hip-hop-infused project from reed player Marcus Strickland mixes some of that “spiritual” vibe with a dose of Afrofuturism, plenty of hope, and not a little party groove. To my ears, it is better than Washington’s—or most of the other—“spiritual jazz” of the last ten years.
Twi-Life layer saxophone and clarinet sounds from Strickland with feathery synth sounds, piano, and organ from Mitch Henry. Electric bassist Kyle Miles and drummer Charles Haynes play every kind of music with everyone who matters, and the ensemble here achieves the goal that Weather Report (the great 1970s and 1980s fusion band) set for themselves: no one solos and everyone solos. While the leader’s horns would seem to be the logical “solo” instrument (and, perhaps, do more “improvising” than the rest of the band), the real action on outstanding tracks like “Matter” and “Infinity” is in how richly the overdubbed horns—sometimes layered in written harmony, sometimes improvising fresh lines, often with a bass clarinet lurking around the bottom in an original way—rub and intersect with the thrumming, swirling keyboards.
The outstanding track may be the collaboration with guitarist/singer Lionel Louke, “Dust Ball Fantasy”, which benefits from an exceedingly dynamic additional voice. None of the tracks are long, but each takes your ears on a dynamic journey.
Lakecia Benjamin – Phoenix (Whirlwind)
When I saw Lakecia Benjamin with a solid rhythm section playing Coltrane (John and Alice) music at the DC Jazz Festival in 2021, I felt that her playing was outshone by her bandmates, particularly pianist Zaccai Curtis. She has a cheddar-sharp tone on the alto saxophone, and it was bold to take on that music, but on the album, she was promoting, I also thought her concept was ahead of her playing.
But this new recording is both conceptually strong (including a wide range of collaborators and styles and addressing both political and personal issues) and allows Benjamin’s playing to soar. Rather than sounding like a side-person on her own record, already in the shadow of the Coltranes, Phoenix features her own layered arrangement of fresh material. Her alto is often snaking across melodic lines that are half bop and half hip-hop, and when it emerges to improvise (such as on the title track), she is scorching and rhythmically lyrical at the same time. When Georgia Anne Muldrow, Dianne Reeves, Patrice Rushen, and poet Angelica Sanchez appear, they don’t tower over the leader but fit into a concept that is balanced and exciting. Reeves’ feature, “Mercy”, makes the vocal and Benjamin’s alto into duet partners, with even the arrangement of strings working toward a whole.
The band that plays throughout is strong and united. Trumpeter Josh Evans is locked in with Benjamin on ensemble passages and tart soloist. Even “Trane”, the album’s nod back to the previous recording, finds fresh ground, and the spiky melody “Basquiat” inspires Benjamin’s best solo of the set, spurred on by piano clusters from Victor Gould and clap-trap drumming in the Ed Blackwell tradition from E.J. Strickland. The title of the collection (as well as the tune “Rebirth”) likely refers to Benjamin’s recovery from a near-tragic car accident in 2021 that broke her jaw, concussed her brain, and punctured an eardrum. I am thrilled to have her back, truly better than ever, fulfilling her promise at another level.
East Axis – No Subject (Brother Mister/Mack Avenue)
Writing about the titanic musical output of pianist Matthew Shipp and the loosely affiliated musicians who tend to play with him—playing in a manner that often involves no formal compositions—could be a full-time job. But there was no way I could pass on the sophomore outing from this band. In 2021 this rhythm section (Shipp, bassist Kevin Ray, and Gerald Cleaver on drums) worked with saxophonist Allen Lowe, making a small collection of long tracks that were dazzlingly melodic and tonal, even as they were “free”.
No Subject brings in reed player Scott Robinson in Lowe’s place, and the choice is right on the money. Robinson is known for a rare eclecticism, as he plays with the Maria Schneider Orchestra, works some New Orleans music, is a commanding bebop player, and roams free too. The relatively short sketches here are completely improvised, but the band sounds like it is connected by a set of ingenious wires or pulleys or tubes that allow the slightest musical feint by one to be followed or complemented by the others.
“Metal Sounds”, for example, goes through several chapters—from a high tenor saxophone peal that gets a slow thunder of accompaniment to, eventually, a mid-tempo walking swing that persists through clashing dissonance only to end in a controlled deceleration. The band explores a spectrum of styles and moods: contemplative (“Word and Respect”), contrapuntal intrigue (“I Take That Back”), jagged swing (“I Like I Very Much”), and noirish travelog (“Excuse My Absence”). The range is hardly surprising from this band, particularly as Robinson can use a wide range of horns to match any mood.
Tyler Mitchell Octet – Sun Ra’s Journey featuring Marshall Allen (Cellar Live)
Tyler Mitchell is a bass player who has played with brilliant mainstream bands (most notably Art Taylor’s “Taylor’s Wailers”) and beyond the center of the music, including with Sun Ra’s Arkestra, back when the leader was still on planet Earth. This new recording (live at Small’s, the terrific Greenwich Village basement club) is his second to blend Ra material with other wonderful tunes that have a Ra kinship. He created a loose-limbed octet with trumpet, tenor, and alto saxophone, and a rhythm section with drums and two percussionists, and then he added the miraculously 98-year-old saxophonist who played with Ra from 1958 onward and led the band after Ra’s death.
The size of the band is perfect: structured and rich but never uptight, reminiscent for me of the David Murray Octets from the 1980s. When the group play’s Thelonious Monk’s “Skippy”, Ra’s enterprise is rooted in bop and stride as well as avant-garde classicism. Because it is followed by a pair of Allen originals (“New Dawn” and “Cosmic Hop”), that can sound futuristic as well as Jelly Roll Morton-esque just underlines how timeless all this music is. If Sun Ra ever seemed like a gag or a cul-de-sac in “serious” creative music, Mitchell’s superb new recording reminds us of what a sturdy link in the chain he always was.
CAN’T MISS PICK
Kenny Barron –The Source (ArtWork)
When I was first falling in love with this music in the 1970s, I could not get enough of the pianist Cedar Walton. He played on a string of propulsive albums by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers recorded in the early 1960s and early 1970s too, and I soaked up all his records, including a series of wonderful sideman performances on CTI records where he developed a distinctive style on Fender Rhodes electric piano as well as his “It’s Gotta be Cedar” acoustic piano style. I wanted to know who else was in this bag.
The other pianist I have long adored in the same way is Kenny Barron. Almost a decade younger than the late Walton, Barron is still making vital, contemporary music. He came from the storied Philadelphia jazz tradition and made his name by playing in Dizzy Gillespie’s quintet, then later working closely with Stan Getz, among others. By now, he is an acknowledged master and leader. And, as a relatively mainstream player, maybe I have come to expect his new music to be maturely brilliant and unsurprising.
His new recording, however, is a solo piano outing called The Source, and it has me largely out of breath. The recital mixes four originals with a pair each from Thelonious Monk and Ellington/Strayhorn plus a standard. Barron is elegantly himself—it’s not that he has taken a sudden left turn. But this performance is the definition of freedom. Barron starts with his own “What If”, running entirely improvised melodies in curlycue lines that swirl around bass note thumps and jabbed clusters, resolving into a cycling four-note bit of stride rhythm that is topped by a quirky repeated blues lick. And then Barron moves off into a set of inventions over the bass pattern that takes you around a thousand corners very quickly. On tune after tune, the pianist exercises a casual yet precise touch, able to exercise the artistic latitude to do anything that feels right at any moment.
My favorite track is “Sunshower”, a revisit of one of Barron’s most often-played tunes. Typically it is an impressionistic swaying ballad, but this exploration of its modes sifts through darker passages of free playing, with the left-hand bass parts dropping out, and then into a long exploration of Latin playing. Close behind is Barron’s take on Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t”, which plays in the vicinity of Monk’s theme for nearly its full run-time. Even “I’m Confessin’ That I Love You” provides fodder for dazzling play that treats those old-fashioned chord patterns as porous walls that can’t contain Barron’s need to play.
Other highlights include an insistent version of “Isfahan” and a Barron waltz ballad, “Dolores Street, SF” that I am astonished I didn’t know before. Like so much of Kenny Barron’s music, you listen to it and feel that it has always existed as some of your very favorite music. At the same time, he plays with such pure invention that it also surprises you. This combination of beauty and daring is what I like most about the full scope of this music. And Kenny Barron embodies it as well as any living jazz musician.