Opus 5 – Swing on This (Criss Cross, May 2022)
I write too little about contemporary musicians who simply play top-notch post-bop modern jazz. You’ve heard it all before, perhaps, but the truth is you haven’t. The language established by modern jazz is fresh when it is spoken by top players who aren’t afraid to make the music newly expressive. This collective has recorded five albums now for the venerable Criss Cross label, and they know each other through intersections via the Mingus Big Band, directed by bassist Boris Kozlov. Pianist Dave Kikoski is a constant “talent deserving wider recognition” in my book, a percussionist at heart who jabs and coaxes every band he is in to greater joy.
The front line of trumpet/flugelhorn master Alex Sipiagin and tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake is first-call, and drummer Donald Edwards writes (two tunes here) as well as the grooves. Kikoski’s “Pythagoras” and Sipiagin’s “Sight Vision” (where Kikoski sprinkles in some Rhodes electric piano) are both complex but engaging compositions that show off the band as much more than a group that sounds like The Jazz Messengers. But, that said, when Opus 5 closes the set with Bobby Watson’s “In Case You Missed It”, you realize that reprising some of the old Messengers’ repertoire is long overdue.
Al Foster – Reflections (Smoke Sessions, August 2022)
More straight-ahead music worth hearing, from two drummers. Veteran Al Foster has played with just about everyone, and this is a solid session featuring tunes by McCoy Tyner, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson… you get the idea. The band is solid gold from a generation down the line, with Chris Potter on saxophone, Nicolas Payton on trumpet, bassist Vincente Archer and pianist Kevin Hays in the rhythm section, each player bringing a tune (Foster: three) to the session as well. The quintet utterly explodes on a fresh, fast arrangement of Rollins’ “Pent-Up House”, and another highlight is Potter strolling and extolling over just bass and drums on Tyner’s “Blues on the Corner”. Payton sounds appropriately tart on Miles’s “Half Nelson”. The band lacks nothing in polish and precision, but there is more punch in the newest release from another played-with-everyone drummer.
Billy Drummond – Valse Sinistre (Cellar Music Group, August 2022)
Drummond is a bit younger than Foster, but also a first-call drummer who happens to lead a group of daring, younger musicians. This, his first recording as a leader in 26 years, is fresher and more eclectic that the Foster release. The title track, a classic that Drummond often played with its composer, Carla Bley, gives young pianist Micah Thomas one of many chances to shine here, opening the track with an angular, searching bit of solo piano that leads us into a surprisingly hopping waltz. Thomas is the composer of “Never Ends”, which gives saxophonist Dayna Stephens a chance to play soprano on a keening, unique melody that shifts into an appealing mid-tempo swing.
Stephens’ tenor sax is breathy and lush on the ballad Laura and urgent on Drummond’s original “Changes on Trane & Monk”. “Frankenstein” is the classic inside/outside track from Grachan Moncur III, and Moncur’s bandmate Jackie McLean is represented by his classic “Little Melonae”, as arranged by bassist Dezron Douglas. In addition to tunes by Frank Kimbrough, Stanley Cowell, my favorite track here is a very loose and modern version of “Lawra” by the drummer Tony Williams. There, but really all across this outstanding recording, you can hear three generations of superb improvisers cracking open great tunes and generating life. Honestly, young Micah Thomas – is he now our foremost Generation Z creative musician? – now makes every record he is on an event.
Allison Miller and Carmen Staaf – Nearness (Sunnyside, July 2022)
I was a fan of the 2018 release from drummer Allison Miller and pianist Carmen Staff, Science Fair, where they mixed trio and quartet tracks featuring a horn. Nearness boils the partnership down to a duo, and the dynamism is not reduced at all. Staaf’s “New York Landing”, for example, is a meaty blues with a McCoy Tyner depth and pocket, her left hand deep and powerful where a bass player might be needed, and Miller stoking the fire like a modern Elvin Jones. Miller and Staaf are also richly intimate on quieter tunes. Staaf’s “Birds” begins with the sound of fluttering wings and develops into a rat-a-tat bedazzle of exchanged polyrhythms that make the duo sound like a much larger band of tap dancers.
The fact that Staaf theoretically controls two-thirds of the musical functions of the band (the harmony and melody) turns out to be wrong. Miller is the most melodic drummer working today, and her range of dynamics and texture, layering loud/soft, shimmer/thump, click/swoosh, and her ability to sculpt the sound of the duo make her an equal partner with Staaf. The title track (the standard “The Nearness of You”) is wonderfully transformed while still melodically intact, and a casual version of Thelonious Monk’s “Ask Me Now” also stands out, putting Staaf and Miller on par with generational elders like Kenny Barron and Al Foster. But both musicians shine, perhaps first and foremost, as composers. Miller’s engaging opener, “Dan Dan”, uses popping piano bass lines and hooky harmonies to remind us that improvised music channels joy as well as a great pop song.
Ronnie Foster – Reboot (Blue Note, July 2022)
Fans of vintage organ jazz – the genre drenched in blues melodies, great grooves, and the intersection of soulful jazz guitar and the Hammond B3 electric organ filling up the room from the bottom (pedals) to top (whistling sounds pushed through a Leslie speaker cabinet) – will love this return to recording by Foster, who made classic 1970s records for Blue Note. That this kind of music shows up on tasty hip-hop tracks is old news, of course, and the sound itself has a certain nostalgia to it. But who is making this kind of music anymore?
Other than the Hammond, the other key voice here is Michael O’Neill’s guitar, which sounds plenty like George Benson on many tracks – appropriately, given that Foster was a critical player on Benson’s best albums. The music may look backward, but it does so with spirit. O’Neill channels Mr. Santana on “Carlos” and Johnny Copeland on “Hey, Good Lookin’ Woman”, where Foster sings a Chicago-style blues. In other spots, such as the title track, Reboot sounds like it is inspired by the pairing of gutarist John Scofield with Medeski, Martin & Wood. But mostly (check out the cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely”), this recording provides wonderful vintage comforts with plenty of soul.
Chucho Valdes and Paquito D’Rivera Reunion Sextet – I Missed You, Too! (Sunnyside, July 2022)
Fans of the Afro-Cuban strain of jazz will know that pianist Chucho Valdes was the fire that burned beneath the work of the Cuban supergroup Irakere. Alto saxophonist and clarinet master Paquito D’Rivera was the band’s ripping soloist who defected to the US famously in 1980, where his star ascended further. Here they are, together again, six decades after they first met.
Unlike the heartfelt but frail Joni Mitchell, these musicians (Valdes is 80 and D’Rivera is a spritely 74) sound in their butt-shaking prime on this joyful date. With the exception of the fun but kinda schticky “Mozart a la Cubano” (Valdes and the band playing Mozart’s greatest hits for a few minutes with a mambo vibe), the program is vintage Latin Jazz played at the highest level. “Claudia” is a slippery-good ballad with D’Rivera’s clarinet at its most gorgeous and lovely muted trumpet from Diego Urcola. Cookers prevail, generally.
“Mambo Influenciado” is a punchy joy with Rivera’s alto sax as pungent as ever, and “El Maja de Vento” begins with a lovely piano introduction before exploding in post-bop Latin joy – but the duet on “El Dia Que Me Quieras” is a heartfelt closing number. Valdes’s piano chops are masterful, evoking McCoy Tyner-styled modernism as well as a romantic streak, and D’Rivera’s gently vocal-styled saxophone moves with a grace and melodic sure-footedness that brings to mind masters like Adderley and Phil Woods while remaining personal.