Miles Okazaki: Trickster

The jazz guitarist has made his best record, marrying the Steve Coleman sensibility with so many other influences and serving up songs for an ideal quartet featuring Craig Taborn, Sean Rickman, and Anthony Tidd.

Miles Okazaki


Label: Pi
US Release Date: 2017-03-24
UK Release Date: 2016-03-24

There was a time, in the 1980s, when it seemed as though the musicians around saxophonist/composer Steve Coleman (who was espousing a musical approach he called “M-Base”) were becoming a vital center of creativity -- and one that represented a contrast to the “young lion” neo-traditional musicians who otherwise dominated that era. Ten years later, that surge didn’t seem to have taken hold. But today it is clear that M-Base and Coleman were simmering rather than boiling, and there is now a growing group of musicians from that scene who are redefining jazz in the new century.

Guitarist Miles Okazaki is a critical musician in that history, and his new recording, Trickster is a mature work for the ages.

It’s important to know that Okazaki is much more than his association with Coleman. He is a mature musician with a wide-ranging background that includes more mainstream gigs (for example, a first gig with Stanley Turrentine and four years on the road and three records with vocalist Jane Monheit); degrees from Harvard, the Manhattan School of Music, and Julliard; training with composer Anthony Davis; three prior recordings as a leader, and extensive experience beyond jazz. So, in hearing Trickster, you are hearing an extension of his experience with Coleman (and Coleman’s extended family, including folks like trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson), but also a career of thinking about and making this music.

The band includes 2017’s frontrunner for jazz musician of the year, pianist Craig Taborn, and a rhythm section we might also associate with Coleman: Anthony Tidd on bass and Sean Rickman on drums. Again, however, the association with Coleman shouldn’t hide the fact that Tidd is a wide-ranging producer and musician with credits that include work with the Roots, MeShell Ndegeocello, and Wayne Krantz; Rickman (the son of legendary guitarist Phil Unchurch) has played with DC’s Blacksheep reggae band, soul queen Angela Bofill, Ndegeochello, and Maxwell. The quartet, then, could move in any direction and every direction at once.

And it does.

The collection of sounds here has a focus and a sense of expansion at once. “The Calendar”, for example, is spun from a series of patterns Okazaki has drawn from the math of an ancient Babylonian calendar. Drums and bass lock into a wave of interlocking polyrhythms, and then harmonic variations work through a series of slow transformations. Okazaki improvises throughout, but the performance has an intense composure so that tension and excitement rise very, very slowly. It is beautiful but also clock-like: turning, spinning, moving toward high noon with just an occasional alignment of all the musicians into a cymbal crash or sudden rest.

Okazaki plays electric guitar but often with the most minimal amplification. “Eating Earth” starts with a simple melody stated in four-note phrases, the strings of the guitar sounding very purely against simple counterpoint by Taborn’s left hand and Tidd’s electric bass. Once the groove kicks in -- which might bring to mind the earthy bass line from Miles Davis’s “Tutu” but with a rhythmic complexity -- Taborn takes over with a slowly developing improvisation that begins from the written melody and turns into a fantasy of movement away from and back to the melody.

I’m just as much in love with the more soulful parts of Trickster. The opening track, “Kudzu”, starts with a Charlie Parker-esque melody played in tight octaves by guitar and Taborn’s right hand. Okazaki solos with a focus on blues elements, swinging his attack so that it catches in the groove of the rhythm section as well. Taborn improvises a fleet statement that is mostly a single-note line for his right hand, but as the solo ripens, the whole band (and his left hand too) are working like a drummer generating heat behind him.

The compositions and arrangement are not afraid to fool around with our expectations. “Mischief” starts with a plucked chordal pattern on guitar that sounds for all the world like something from a bossa nova at first. It turns into grooving example of 9/8 time, and it inspires gloriously melodic improvisations. “Black Bolt” almost sounds like a funk tune at first, and it develops a set of cross rhythms that remain grooving despite the development of a thrilling complexity. Don’t count the beats while you listen, just enjoy the sense of percolating momentum that gives the short (2:42) tune its wow factor.

The tune that most makes me want to dance is the bouncing “Caduceus”, which sets a guitar melody and piano melody in rotation around each other. The time signature is ambiguous to my ear, but it doesn’t matter as the groove is so fine -- an infectious set of popping eighth and sixteenth notes that skip and hop and... dance. Taborn and Okazaki trade lines like Bird and Diz.

There is a thematic connection between tunes, explained in Okazaki’s fun liner notes. Each composition relates to a different trickster figure from various cultures across time. The connection to the music is sometimes mathematical, sometimes cultural, but always based on the sensibility of wit, deception, or sly disruption. The compositions and their transformations by improvisation keep you slightly off-balance, and the players seem to be pressing on the forms while still working within their elasticity. First among those players is Craig Taborn, who yet again seems like the best musician to bring into your band: relentlessly in sync with the material and equally relentlessly himself at all times.

For me, the dazzling quality of Trickster is how it marries the M-Base sensibility of rhythm and melodic development to other musical experiences. That Coleman “sound” will be your first impression, but streaks of funk, slices of bop, doses of hip-hop, and echoes of jazz balladry are here too. This is what you call “putting it all together” -- which means that Trickster is that rare, mature work of an artist who has come fully into his own.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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