Nduduzo Makhathini – In the Spirit of Ntu (Blue Note)
This music has been international for most of its 100-year history, but there is no time like now. South Africa has inspired the history of the music and also absorbed the American form, transforming it through fusion. The most famous names (Hugh Masakela, Abdullah Ibrahim) are giving way to a new generation of wonderful artists. Pianist Nduduzo Makhathini has just released his second recording for Blue Note (which kicks off a new “Blue Note Africa” imprint), and it is impressive.
Makhathini is 40 years old and has been releasing his music for about eight years while building associations with folks as diverse as Shabaka Hutchings, Herbie Hancock, and Wynton Marsalis. His first two sessions, released in 2014, are distinctive even as they reflect the influence of Bheki Mseleku, Keith Jarrett, and McCoy Tyner – with compositions that reveal a sense of history and place. Mother Tongue and Listening to the Ground are my picks from this early period, with a driving jazz rhythm section supporting voices and hard bop horns that are crisp and joyful.
The Blue Note debut, Mode of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds, sounded underwhelming to me; oddly, I hear it has more derivative of Makhathini’s Tyner influence than his early work. But the new In the Spirit of Ntu is the opposite: fresh and bold at once, beautiful and uncluttered with excessive history.
Caili O’Doherty – Quarantine Dream (Positone)
Positone is a machine, pumping out a seemingly endless string of mainstream (that is, modern bebop and post-bop with a good dose of soulful swing) recordings, often by younger musicians. I applaud the whole enterprise, particularly when it is so clear that producer Marc Free is making an effort to give young women a chance to be leaders and composers, creating terrific bands that play with coherent excellence. I listen to more of them than I can coherently write about – because they are exceedingly listenable and warm, generally. I’m intrigued by the latest from this pianist, originally from Portland, Oregon, and now based in New York.
O’Doherty leads off the recording with an Oscar Peterson tune, “Blues for Big Scotia”. With Peterson recently on folks’ tongues because of a documentary about him, it’s fun to be reminded that his music is still pushing young pianists to step up to the plate. The band features saxophonist Nicole Glover (who recently joined the all-female collective Artemis) from Portland, Israeli bassist Tamir Shmerling, and drummer Cory Cox from Houston. Listen to the leader’s “WTF” to hear a clear-as-a-whistle swing that breathes free and features thoughtful improvisations. They take on Duke Pearson’s “You Know I Care” to superb effect, swerving around its harmonic obstacle course with wit. I will admit that I expected “Salt and Vinegar” to be a cookin’, bluesy tune only to discover a daring composition that challenged me to keep up.
There are a few excellent ballads here as well (of course there are: Marc Free makes sure that all these albums are carefully balanced, just maybe a bit too much so?), including a rarely heard Charles Tolliver tune that uses a hip martial rhythm that melts into sexiness, “Truth”. Caili O’Doherty is playing the truth, and this is a Positone release that stands out.
Aaron Seeber – First Move (Cellar Live)
I rarely write about the Washington, DC area musicians just because I live in this fabulous city. Drummer Aaron Seeber is a DC guy who studied with local legend Paul Carr and came up listening to DC heroes like Buck Hill and Larry Willis. First Move is his debut, a sweet slice of mainstream jazz that features some heavyweight talent: Warren Wolf (also local – Baltimore) on vibes, alto saxophonist Tim Green (also Baltimore), bassist Ugonna Okegwa, and the sublime Sullivan Fortner on piano.
The collection of tunes is everything you could want: one each from Benny Golson, Charlie Parker, Mingus, Geri Allen, Mulgrew Miller, Mal Waldron, and even Al Foster. Seeber wrote the title track, and it happens to cook too. Seeber sounds a lot like Ralph Peterson, Jr. – the kind of drummer who is not afraid to mix it up with everyone while constantly elevating the band’s purpose. I like how he chatters and gets messy at times, only to pull it all back in with a press roll or tumbling tom figure so that he is right on the beat, lashing the band forward with his ride cymbal. Go, DC.
Whit Dickey Quartet – Astral Long Form: Staircase in Space (TAO Forms)
Like this month’s “Can’t Miss” recording, this is a quartet date led by a drummer and featuring violist Mat Maneri. Dickey generally practices utterly free improvisation. He leads this band (also featuring Rob Brown’s alto saxophone and bassist Brandon Lopez) through a series of atmospheres and directions that sound mostly mournful and searching. Dickey was channeling the loss of a parent and a mentor (the drummer Milford Graves), and perhaps the whole band shared this frame of mind.
The performances are largely distinguished by which player leads the band into things – Lopez starts and sets up “Staircase in Space”, while “The Pendulum Turns” is table-set by Dickey. As a fan of Brown – I like his tone, and honestly, as he rarely plays wild or ugly and tends to phrase everything as if he had a lyric he was imagining, I am willing to follow him everywhere he goes in these open spaces. As the other main melody instrument, Maneri can be harder to hear as a pure, linear improviser. He bends strings, plays double/triple stops, and works in between the line and chordal atmosphere. But, as a whole, this collection could almost be one long (and single) improvisation, as the tempos and vibes don’t vary when heard collectively.
John Scofield – John Scofield (ECM)
When John Scofield, who has become a minor star through his glancing association with the “jam band” scene, sits down and plays “My Old Flame” as a solo guitar piece – no overdubs, no looping, just a guy and his axe in a quiet room – you hear his soul alive in the moment. This second ECM recording as a leader is another pandemic project and his first-ever solo guitar outing. Still, it is better heard as another color in Scofield’s joyous spectrum, one in which he tends to toggle between loud/funky stuff and gentler projects. Playing a standard, unadorned so you can hear every finger press down on every string, the guitarist sounds fresh and honest, eschewing any fancy footwork or other distraction.
Most of the tracks employ looping or overdubbing to allow Sco to accompany himself, usually with utmost delicacy. His original tune “Honest I Do” sounds intimate and exposed and wonderfully otherworldly as he dials up a contrasting guitar sound for a solo, and “Danny Boy” sounds appropriately haunted. That said, and given Scofield’s restless ability to work with so many different kinds of bands, hearing him as a loop-happy solo artist is not what I want most from this distinctive guitar voice. After a pass or two, this seems like minor or lesser Scofield, though charming and beautiful.
Gilad Hekselman – Far Star (Edition)
This Israeli-born guitarist is in the generation of players that follows Scofield, Frisell, Metheny, and Kurt Rosenwinkel and can use the instrument’s wide range of sounds and textures to create orchestral effects as well as adventurous saxophone-like improvisations. That skill is tested on Far Star, another pandemic recording project, though only three songs are Hekselman-only (with overdubs). Still, his collaborations here with drummers (Eric Harland, everywhere these days, Ziv Ravitz, Nomok, and Amir Bresler) and one with keyboardist Shai Maestro lean heavily on layered guitar sounds as Hekselman conjures a variety of pleasing tones and textures.
The compositions are very consonant and melody-forward. “Far Star” has a chamber delicacy, whereas “Magic Chord” allows Harland to drive a set of surging harmonies and a fiery guitar melody with a darker cast. “The Headrocker” sounds like it could be a John Scofield track in its bobbing groove and guitar tone, while “Long Way from Home” sets up a percolating Methenyesque landscape, with a high, whistling guitar/synth limning the melody. I am most enthusiastic about Hekselman when he is improvising over these constructions, finding ways to sound more like himself.
David Virelles – Nuna (Pi)
Yet another pandemic project. But this set of relatively short “etudes” for piano (and, in a few cases, piano and percussion) feels like a natural part of Virelles’s development as an artist. As both a musician and a pianist, Virelles always combines and reshuffles his influences and identities. He doesn’t jump from Afro-Cuban folkloric complexity to the harmonic sophistication of 21st-century jazz to the legacy of the grand piano via Western classical music – he is always all of that at once, with emphases shifting and piling up to create an individual identity. This collection of relatively short pieces is his Facing You (that timeless Keith Jarrett recital on ECM just turned 50 and deserves its own column!), a mission statement.
As a solo pianist, he is mesmerizing and pensive on “Danza De Rosario”, then playful on “Caundo Canta El Cornetin” as he shifts through a dozen well-known tunes. “Tesseslations” uses cycling repetition from minimalism, and he could pass for Debussy on “Nacen”. Julio Barreto is a superb partner on three tracks, with “Ghost Town” being my favorite. He enters 40 seconds into the track and sets Virelles free to float a bit more, and then generates a dialogue between left and right hands that is mediated by a compelling ground rhythm. Then, when Barreto suddenly cuts out, the effect is magic, as the pianist remains, floating in mid-air, a wonder of levitated momentum. In addition to a full spectrum of piano brilliance, Nuna sounds like an absolute gem, the piano full-bodied and crystalline in how it has been recorded.
Ches Smith – Interpret It Well (Pyroclastic)
Ches Smith is a drummer and percussionist who embodies contemporary, improvised, creative music (whatever you wanna call it, man, whatever) as well as anyone. He has roots in something like progressive rock (Mr. Bungle) and Haitian drumming, in composition and mostly free improvisation. His trio with violist Mat Maneri and pianist Craig Taborn is one of those oh-so-Brooklyn bands that exemplifies the New Jazz territory between free improvisation, composed New Music, and various strains of world music and hip-hop. But the strength of each player’s personality is so clear, and they are so well-coordinated that the trio never sounds too abstract. In 2016’s The Bell (ECM), the trio covered many styles, from chamber jazz to noise, from composed atmosphere to polyrhythmic chatter.
For this new recording, the band is joined by guitarist Bill Frisell, who heard them in concert and expressed admiration. He is utterly at home in the give-and-take that animates songs such as “Mixed Metaphor”, which begins in delicacy but develops into a bottom-shaking groove. The shift from ECM to the Pyroclastic label, with production by David Breskin (who worked with John Zorn, Vernon Reid, and others back in the 1980s) and recording by Ron Saint Germain (whose credits stretch from Bad Brains and Living Colour to Bill Frisell and Nels Cline), results in the recording having plenty of bite when it wants to. “Clear Major” is a thrilling, mostly open space for improvisation, with Smith’s precise trap drumming dueling with viola and electric guitar in reaction to a simple, composed atmosphere putting Maneri’s melody in contrast to Taborn’s insistent low two-note figures.
Frisell allows himself both the beautiful tones and ringing figures of his “Americana” style (“Trapped” and “Deppart”, the set’s two bookends) and gnarled distortion (the title track, as things develop), as the moment requires. Smith chimes on vibraphone for beauty and can be merciless as a drummer. Most steady throughout is Taborn’s piano, which often acts as the musical organizing principle, establishing harmonic boundaries and rhythmic patterns, but letting them morph and slip as the conversations progress. In sum, the trio truly becomes a quartet on Interpret It Well, and each player is elevated. This is my favorite Frisell playing in a decade, and it may be the only place where I feel that Mat Maneri’s viola sounds purposeful, free, and balanced. Ches Smith uses the full range of his skills as a drummer and a tuned mallet percussionist. The music isn’t accessible like Robert Glasper, but it is beautiful still.