Kirk Knuffke – Gravity Without Airs (TAO Forms, July 2022)
About a third of the music on this double-disc-length trio recording was composed by the leader, whose flute-like sound on cornet is like no other. The remainder was collectively improvised by Knuffke, pianist Matthew Shipp, and bassist Michael Bisio. If you know Shipp and Bisio, then you know that spontaneous composition is not atonal madness but a slow unfolding of ideas in real-time. Knuffke is comfortable there too, so the project sounds like a connected suite, with the composed songs simply featuring motifs that emerge sooner rather than later.
The improvisation is elegant throughout. What is most striking, however, is Knuffke’s gentle tone on a brass instrument. On last year’s wonderful Jesup Wagon with James Brandon Lewis’s band, the cornetist was a slippery, citrusy tonic to the leader’s expressionist flame. Here, Knuffke is the lead voice, and he has partners happy to follow his tone and temperature. The result is that the cornet often sounds like it has shed most of its sharp edges, moving with the sensual, easy grace of an alto saxophone or clarinet.
This somewhat otherworldly quality is an apt expression of the magic that this trio can conjure. A caveat, however: This kind of music, and lots of the free playing recently released on the TAO Forms label, has a long-form, ruminative quality, and these musicians are documenting their work with frequency, perhaps to capture the constantly evolving nature of purely improvised art. A listener might reasonably wonder if the pure volume of the output could be pruned a bit.
Nate Wooley – Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes (Pyroclastic, July 2022)
Here is another brass player whose sound is gloriously atypical but compelling. Wooley has constructed a suite of three long tracks surrounded by shorter moody intros/outros that dig deep into the atmosphere. The band is drenched in electronics of the most organic kind: guitar Mary Halvorson and her trippy effects, pedal steel wizard Susan Alcorn and her bent-note tension, and Wooley’s own use of an amplifier with his horn. The composed sections are careful and precise, with beautiful melodies that float in space, untethered to chord changes or an unwavering groove. The antecedent, perhaps, is the early electric music of Miles Davis from the 1970s, but without the swamp groove that made Bitches Brew into a psychedelic dance record.
Violist Matt Maneri joins on one track and bassist Trevor Dunn on another, and the result is something slightly more impressionistic and modern, with the guitars crisscrossing with Ryan Sawyer’s drums and the other voices in open space. Wooley’s sound, run through some echo/reverb effects, remains mostly plaintive and warm. On “Returning to Drown Myself, Finally”, his opening melody gets overtaken by a skittering Halvorson solo, a collective jam, and then Alcorn’s unique voice. If Waiting for Godot were to be translated into instrumental music, this might be it: lonely and soulful, sad and amusing too.
Charles Lloyd – Trios: Chapel (Blue Note, July 2022)
The surge of Lloyd continues, though a gentle surge it is. I tend to think of this iconic saxophonist (and very capable flutist) as having a short first act and then an extraordinarily long “comeback” second act, although the truth is he never really went away. That first act, with that quartet featuring Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette, mystically combined Coltrane’s searching spirit with some world music and almost Grateful Dead-like jamming – and it also swung like mad at times. Then he disappeared into a haze of meditation, playing with the Beach Boys as a kind of hippie-surf horn man (and probably the inspiration for Coy Harlingen, the saxophone player in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice).
His “return” was big news and had him signed to the “new” Blue Note Records in 1983, but he soon decamped for 14 albums in 20 years on ECM. Through it all, some forgettable music and some chilling wonder from a guy who always but always played good melodies, Lloyd seemed still to channel his unique vibe: spirit-filled music that distilled other styles more than anything else. On Blue Note again, he has released albums with various all-star bands, including the Wonders, with Bill Frisell. The music is good but, to my ears, often comes with a certain air of studied wonder – as if Lloyd were trying very self-consciously to live up to the myth of himself.
This new live recording is with just Frisell’s guitar and bassist Thomas Morgan (who often play with Frisell), and it sounds just like all of Lloyd’s recent work – marvelous and warm and rhapsodically melody-driven. The chance to hear Frisell as his primary accompanist is a treat, and there are long stretches where the recording is a version of a Frisell/Morgan duet, of course. The saxophone lays out for the first four minutes of “Song My Lady Sings”. “Ay Amor” is an easy joy, with everyone pushed to a bit more excitement by the rhythmic pop of the bolero form. Strayhorn’s “Blood Count” gives Frisell the chance to fuse a bit of his country/Americana sound into a class jazz composition. If you want to listen to only one of the 17 albums that Charles Lloyd has made in this century, well, this may be the purest and least affected.
DOMi & JD BECK – Not Tight (Blue Note/Apeshit, July 2022)
This keyboard/drum duo from the center of Gen Z (keyboardist DOMi Louna, from France, is 22, US drummer Beck is 19) is up-to-the-minute interesting, with copious jazz chops but a sensibility that channels hip-hop and contemporary pop—but also fusion ala Weather Report, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock (on vocoder here), and (no joke) Steely Dan—in some interesting new ways. Whatever label you want to put on it is fine, what with the contemporary vocals on about half the tracks and the other half consisting of whiz-bang instrumentals that improvise, ripple, fly, and flash.
This music is the next step past Robert Glasper’s jazz/hip-hop—not really grounded in old-school R’n’B, even if the duo has played for Erika Badu. It is more a kind of breakbeat fusion, with Beck playing hopped-up, precise grooves that sound broken and put back together again in the hippest ways. The melodies never sound pre-cooked, which is where the Steely Dan and Weather Report vibes enter—the stuff is quirky, original, not a simulation of “bluesiness” or “soul”, but strange. DOMi’s keys are agile in the extreme, even if you’ve heard this kind of thing before. But somehow, together, they sound less superficial and show-offy than breathtaking. If you are someone (like me) who begrudgingly admires the British whiz-kid (no so kid anymore) Jacob Collier for his mega-skills but thinks he has nothing to say and sings like a weird old dude in an Irish pub, then DOMi & JD BECK may be more your thing. Collier is busy winning Grammys and gathering the admiration of older folks, but this duo is just as skilled and has new fields they want to—playfully—explore.
“Moon” features Hancock’s vocoder, and two tracks let bassist Thundercat play with these younger cats, putting some Jaco Pastorius wonder into their sound. “Take a Chance” adds Anderson Paak and a bunch of hooks—an attempt at a single, for sure. And it works! Better, maybe, is the track and sets up some MC action from Snoop Dogg and Busta Rhymes. But when they add guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel on “Whoa”, the band sounds like a legitimate rival to those John Scofield funk outfits, but actually more harmonically daring and fleet.
DOMi & JD BECK got famous on social media, jamming and sometimes just goofing around. This traditionally formatted album is not where they live. But they are capable of wow-ing even in this old-school format. Why not give in to the chops when there is this much fun behind them?
Tyshawn Sorey Trio – Mesmerism (Yeros7, July 2022)
Sorey is a composer, drummer, and occasionally a trombonist who has been mainly pursuing music that straddles the line between classical new music with an experimental bent and New Jazz that works in complex forms. That’s not to say that this ravishing program – consistently entirely of songs that are or could be “jazz standards” and composed by others – is the first time we’ve heard Sorey swing or play with rapturous traditional technique. A sideman for Myra Melford, Vijay Iyer, and many others, Sorey long ago had proven himself an inheritor of work by Max Roach, Roy Haynes, and Jack DeJohnette.
On Mesmerism, Sorey works with a new piano trio, not the one featuring Chris Tordini on bass and pianist Cory Smythe – a trio more dedicated to carefully notated pieces that rarely indulge in blues or swing feel. Here, Aaron Diehl (the pianist for singer Cecile McLoren Salvant and a dreamy leader of his own bands) and Matt Brewer (the bassist) ground Sorey’s work in a sound that has more in common with Bill Evans, Horace Silver, and Muhal Richard Abrams than Sorey’s recent music.
It is not wonderful because it is more traditional, though that is certainly the case. Mesmerism conjures magic because Sorey’s instincts and skill at sculpting sound into very purposeful auras work in any setting. These compositions are more tonal than his typically are – for example, the standards “Detour Ahead” and “Autumn Leaves”. But Sorey adjusts these most well-known tunes in small ways that allow them, once again, to sound fresh. “Detour Ahead”, for example, keeps fooling your ear with modulations to new keys, so that it has the harmonic sound of a Tin Pan Alley standard but one that is twisting through space in constant evolution.
“Autumn Leaves” reconfigures the famous melody so it has been abstracted and made more modern, though the famous chordal motion is mostly intact. Diehl and Brewer flow through the performance gracefully, and the mid-tempo swing the trio locks into after the bass solo is as vintage as a classic Red Garland performance.
The trio’s take on Paul Motian’s “From Time to Time” is the most mysterious and cloaked performance on Mesmerism. The melody only emerges at the very end, but in getting there the band honors the spirit of so many Motian recordings that it honors the source by gesture. Horace Silver’s “Enchantment” is altered mainly by being dramatically slowed at the beginning and then played so that the groove is deepened by losing the signature bassline and letting Sorey imbue it with greater polyrhythmic power.
In end, even the most straight-ahead sounds are deep. “Two Over One” is by Abrams, and the arrangement is in burbling three-quarter time. It lopes and chimes, with Diehl’s two hands jabbering just like Sorey’s toms. It is ravishing, with a particularly incisive solo from Brewer. The closer “REM Blues” is a simple blues from Duke Ellington, suggesting that Sorey well understands the power of pure groove in the jazz tradition. The tune is barely a thing, but the trio does what jazz groups have done for a century: take something glib or slight and enrich it, elevate it with the soul that comes from intimate conversation.