“On the Turntable” — April, 2019 edition

April 4th, 2019

 

 

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Spring has officially arrived in Portland.  The calendar said so on March 20, yet even before, the rain and cool weather would occasionally depart, replaced by a more present and welcome sun.   Before heading on my morning walks during March — ear buds in place — the gloves and ear warmers often stayed at home, and a sense of optimism accompanied me (and my dog) along the way.

That optimism wasn’t just about spring, it also carried over into my confidence that contemporary jazz music is in a rich and vibrant creative space.  Talented artists from all over the world are contributing breathtaking recorded performances and original compositions that widen the music’s appeal without compromising its soul.  This work is being done in the face of today’s especially daunting economics of making music – the very spirit of optimism.

In March, I discovered a wealth of fascinating recently recorded music to recommend – from legacy artists to emerging and yet unknown (to me) talent.  These are some of the best my ears encountered.

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(Songs from this playlist are available on Spotify and other music streaming services, and of course at your local music store)

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Stephan Crump’s Rosetta Trio…Outliers

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Outliers is bassist Stephan Crump’s fourth album with his all string Rosetta Trio, but the first I have spent time with.  Crump is a prolific performer and recording artist who may best be known to many of us as the bassist in Vijay Iyer’s trio.  Given that the trio consists only of Crump’s bass and the electric guitar of Jamie Fox and acoustic guitar of Liberty Ellman, the sound throughout packs a surprising amount of punch – for example, ”Esquima Dream,” which is built around an infectious rhythm and Ellman’s memorable solo.  “In Waves” is a sensational, artful (even somewhat “acoustic rock-ish”) piece that exemplifies the type of acoustic/electric interplay heard throughout the album.

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Chris Potter…Circuits

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Chris Potter has long been considered one of the top contemporary saxophonists, and Circuits, his 20th album as leader, extends this  reputation.  Lively and often intensely-groovy, this is uplifting, “play it loud” jazz with Potter supported by a brilliant rhythm section.  He sounds bright and spectacular throughout — an early highlight is his bass clarinet introduction on “Koutome” that moves into a stellar saxophone solo, and eventually exits with the swirling piano of James Frances.   Move from there into the title track, “Circuits,” “Exclamation” and “Pressed for Time” — all intense and spirited creations that spark memories of the best fusion of the 70’s (particularly from Frances and drummer Eric Harland).  I hear lots of great contemporary playing, but I also hear a nod to Cobham, Mahavishnu, Idris Muhammed, Return to Forever…Wonderfully refreshing and often astonishing.

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Sons of Kemet…Your Queen is a Reptile

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What does the future of jazz sound like?  Who knows?

A contender for having the answer is the British-Barbadian saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and his London-based group Sons of Kemet, whose vision, interestingly, takes the music back to the dance floor.  Their sound — a fusion of Africa, the Caribbean, and American jazz and rock — is red hot and scintillating and “oh-god-this-is-great” great!

How good can a band consisting of saxophone, tuba, and two drum kits be?  So crazy-good that a song from their current album, Your Queen is a Reptile, was  listed in a recent New York Times magazine piece titled “The 25 Songs That Matter Right Now.”  The song, “My Queen is Harriet Tubman,” is intense, robust, and positively relentless.  It is like three shots of caffeine topped off with another three.  I damn near danced through the park while wired into this sound.  This is absolutely brilliant, original stuff!

Three songs to check out and get a feel for their vision of jazz, and possibly its future…”My Queen is Harriet Tubman,” “My Queen is Ada Eastman” (beware of the explicit lyrics) and “My Queen is Albertina Sisulu.”  Dust off your dancing shoes…

 

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Julian Lage…Love Hurts

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(And now, for something completely different).

The guitarist Julian Lage has another terrific trio record out, this one titled Love Hurts, a buoyant, tough-but-tasteful recording that consistently shows off his virtuosity and distinct sound that results in a feast for the ears (and often toes).  “In Heaven” is a blues infected piece (written by the harmonica player Peter Ivers in 1977) with a nice loping rhythm supporting Lage’s tasty bent notes.  Two others to recommend and enjoy from this recording, which grows on me with every listen…Ornette Coleman’s “Tomorrow is the Question” and Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” one of the coolest songs of the early ’60s.  Don’t miss this session!

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Antonio Sanchez and Migration…Lines in the Sand

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We live in perilous political times…Always have, right?  Will we get through this particularly disturbing era, when American leadership finds political gain in division rather than unity?   Given this insanity, how in the world will we ever see eye-to-eye and respect one another again?

Times like these do provoke tough questions, and they also provide substantial inspiration for great jazz artists.  Jazz and politics have a long history together, after all, and it is often the drummers making the most vocal and effective statements — think Max Roach and Art Blakey.

In his new album, Lines in the Sand, the Mexican-born/now American citizen drummer Antonio Sanchez — best known as the composer of the music for the Academy Award-winning film Birdman — has created (along with his group Migration) an epic recording of cinematic proportions that illuminates the inhumanity migrants attempting to enter the U.S. border currently experience.

Recordings of this nature can be risky for the artist, and not every piece connects, but when they do, you damn well know it.  It is tough to recommend only a couple pieces from a visionary album out of concern for losing the entirety of its context, but let’s give it a try…

The album begins with “Trevasia intro,” solely a police siren accompanying voices of anguish and turmoil, some calling out “this is wrong,” others “shame!”  It is not technically a musical piece, but it is an artistic statement critical to setting the tone for the recording.  It introduces a three part suite, “Trevasia (part 1 to 3),” that characterizes the urgency, courage, and anger omnipresent in the story of today’s “voyage” (“trevasia”).  It is an at-times-thrilling twenty minute experience, highlighted by Sanchez’s peak drumming, glorious interplay between John Escreet’s tender piano and the melancholy of a viola/cello duo, culminating in Chaise Bairds’ unrelenting and intense saxophone.    It is truly a memorable listening experience. The other piece I will recommend for now is “Long Road,” which is drop-dead-gorgeous and features the vocal of Thana Alexa, who at times during this album brings to mind the angelic sound of Flora Purim.

Sanchez has made an ambitious, powerful and serious album here.  And…it is seriously good.

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Joey DeFrancesco…In the Key of the Universe

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From the political to the spiritual…jazz covers it all.

Joey DeFrancesco has made a (presumably good) living swingin’ on the Hammond organ.  His recordings are predictably groovy and fun, and his popularity among critics and fans alike has consistently put him at the top of favorites polls on the instrument for what now seems like forever.

 

In the Key of the Universe is loaded with the kind of active and energetic play we have long heard and enjoyed from Joey, but the album achieves its heights when he displays his spiritual side, tapping into, his record company Mack Avenue describes, “a strain of metaphysical jazz that’s fueled sonic searchers for more than half a century.”  His ability to effectively do so was no doubt due to his effort to “call upon disciples and missionaries of jazz to join him in paving the way to enlightenment.”

The extraordinary disciple appearing on this record to pave Joey’s (and, I guess, our) way to enlightenment is Pharoah Sanders, an eminent contributor to “metaphysical jazz”  whose work on three songs are clearly the album’s highlights.  One of the pieces, “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” was originally recorded by Sanders on his 1969 Impulse album Karma, and is shockingly good.  His sound is bright, crisp and charismatic, and meshes well with Joey’s understated keyboards.   (A bonus to this track are Sanders’ vocals).  That song is top-notch and easy to recommended, as are the other two pieces Sanders appears on, “In the Key of the Universe” and “And So it Is.”  “Awake and Blissed” features Troy Roberts on saxophone and is blistering and loads of fun.

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Brittany Anjou…Enamiĝo Reciprokataj

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Ms. Anjou is an impressive pianist and composer, and one to keep a close eye on.  Her attack on the keyboard is reminiscent of Dave Brubeck and McCoy Tyner, and she has also been compared to Red Garland.  Born in Seattle but now based in New York, the album title, translated from Esperanto, means “reciprocal love.”

Her piece “Snuffaluffagas” is my favorite song of this entire playlist.  It begins Vince Guaraldi-pleasant, swimming in tenderness and charm — I can practically see Snoopy prancing atop the dog house in my imagination.  About six minutes in she initiates a provocative two minute attack on her instrument — aided by the brilliant drumming of Nicholas Anderson and bassist Greg Chudzik — ultimately returning to the piece’s staid and composed charm.   I admit to playing this song more than any other on this list (and maybe more than any tune the entire year; I just find it so damn soul nourishing!)

Others to easily recommend:  the incredibly spirited “Reciprokataj I: Cyrene (Flight of the Butterfly) — (she must hit every note on the keyboard) — and the Tyner-esque “Hard Boiled Soup.”

I say with great confidence…Brittany Anjou is a star in the making!

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“On the Turntable” — June, 2019

“On the Turntable” – May, 2019

“On the Turntable” – April, 2019

“On the Turntable” — March, 2019

“On the Turntable” — February, 2019

“On the Turntable” — January, 2019

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