I didn't have enough free time in 2014 to review nearly as many of last year's prolific output of fine jazz albums as I wanted to. Here's a small step toward catching up, plus two 2015 releases (Ligeti/McDonas, The Side Project Saxophone 4tet).
Composer and French horn player Tom Varner is indeed full of surprises, and they are not confined to the suite of that name (which, surprisingly, has 15 movements). I was most surprised by the outburst of New Orleans jazz in the last piece on the CD, "Mele," which Varner calls "a Gil Evans-influenced variation on the harmonic structure of a pop Hawaiian Christmas song." In general the music here seems highly composed -- these are not heads with strings of solos -- but still allowing for improvisation. The soloists who make the biggest impression are trombonist David Marriott and, no surprise here, Varner himself, but everybody in his nonet acquits himself admirably. Occasional aberrations aside, the style is "inside-outside," advanced harmony with a fair amount of dissonance, most often during solos. Many of the sections of the suite are quite short (eight are under a minute each, most of them with just one player), seemingly character sketches, but the longer sections are thematically compelling.
If there's one thing I'm a sucker for, it's soul-jazz renditions of pop tunes. This tribute to '70s pop (mostly of the R&B variety) hits that sweet spot. Veteran guitarist Stryker works here in a quartet with vibraphonist Stefon Harris, organist Jared Gold, and drummer McClenty Hunter, and they've got the sound -- not as revivalists, not as some cutesy gimmick, but as a style that never went out of fashion in certain quarters and is not some affectation, but rather a completely organic impulse. Nor is it pandering; these are rich, full, uncompromised jazz arrangements. Stryker's mellow, rounded tone carries the melodies; at times ("Wichita Lineman" being a prime example) there's a Wes Montgomery feel, but that's just one of his reference points. Great music, great fun.
Stefano Leonardi/Stefano Pastor/Fridolin Blumer/Heinz Geisser: Conversations About Thomas Chapin (Leo)
Thomas Chapin, alto saxophonist/flutist extraordinaire, died of leukemia at age 40. Tragic as that was, he had already left his mark with a huge discography (29 albums as leader or co-leader, including the group Machine Gun; 44 as a band member; plus three cameos) and a legacy as a nice guy who could play "inside" (he was a member of the Lionel Hampton band for years) or "outside." Aside from Chapin's own "Anima," this album consists of group improvisations, and they really do get the Chapin aesthetic (though they stick to the "outside" side of it). The importance of listening in the creation of such music (something that not all practitioners seem to appreciate) is clearly paramount to Leonardi (flutes), Pastor (violin), Blumer (bass), and Geisser (percussion) and makes all their interactions joyful and artistic, with plenty of space and a talent for spontaneous melodies when situations call for them.
Most of this album is an unusual combination of sophisticated jazz composition and whimsical lyrics found on the internet. The 13-minute title track is a story (compiled from multiple sources and adjusted by Katz) of five bicyclists justifying to their Zen teacher why they ride. Rebecca Shrimpton's vocal delivery is a bit cutesy at times, but mostly it works. The music underneath, well, it's an amazing amalgam of rich harmonies, skittering solo lines, and shifting styles, moods, and rhythms. The suite Wheelworks uses quotes attributed online to Albert Einstein, though Katz's research eventually revealed that few of them were entirely accurate and some were completely apocryphal. Most of them are quite brief, and there's less focus on the words here than in the title track; the vocals are often treated almost as another instrument in the texture, and I have no complaints about Shrimpton's delivery. Once again the moods and styles shift; "Under the Cloak of War" even includes a lengthy pedal steel guitar solo by Norm Zocher that, far from sounding incongruous, is brilliantly fitting. This is a helluva band; no soloist is less than magnificent. Also particularly impressive are trombonist David Harris, alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs (mistakenly uncredited for his great solo at the end of "Why Do You Ride?"), and pianist Mina Cho. "SamiBadGirl" is an instrumental (well, no words, at least; Shrimpton sings in unison with instruments at several points) tribute to a cat, which seems apt for the album's internet-centric concept. A bonus track of sorts is "Monk's Mood" arranged for sax quartet, a mellow send-off.
Lukas Ligeti-Thollem McDonas Duo: Imaginary Images (Leo)
McDonas is half pianist, half hurricane; in Ligeti he has a drummer of equal energy and imagination. If you're not into completely free improvisation happening in the moment, you might think it's chaotic, but you'd be wrong, because there's definitely two great minds shaping the progressive evolution of these sounds; if you're a jazz purist, you might think it's not jazz, but rather avant-garde, and you might be right, but there's enough jazz in there for me to be comfortable including it here. "The Gravity of Up" is not only a thrilling closing track, it's perhaps -- though don't ask me to explain why using mere words -- the poetic phrase that best typifies the exuberance and presumed philosophical underpinnings of the spontaneous creativity on display here.
I feel like the band name could signify Metheny bringing the different musical threads of his career into one context, because there's a lot of variety here, ranging from Metheny's classic rounded guitar-tone melodicism to his squealing synth-guitar and Orchestrion to some Ornette-inspired moments to the occasional Latin rhythms. Giulio Carmassi (piano, organ, cello, clarinet, flute, alto sax, French horn, trombone, trumpet, vibraphone, voice, whistling), Chris Potter (soprano and tenor saxes, clarinet, bass clarinet, alto and bass flutes), Ben Williams (electric and acoustic basses), and Antonio Sanchez (drums) give Metheny a lot of timbres to work with, and the return of keyboards definitely recalls the Pat Metheny Group of yore (minus the layer of cheese that Lyle Mays sometimes slipped into). Moods and vibes change up frequently, often within a track. If you don't like Metheny, this won't change your mind, but I do, and I think it's up there with his best 1978-84 work.
The Side Project Saxophone 4tet: #thispartysax (Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit)
I first encountered this band when they were playing in the subway; I was sufficiently impressed to buy this CD. Now, it might seem as though a sax quartet (plus, on the record, a drummer) playing arrangements of pop songs is gimmicky, but they do it so well, and the drummer's so funky, and the charts are so hot, and it's such a fun album, that it would be a shame to not listen due to snobbery. Lauryn Hill's "Doo Wop (That Thing)," Stevie Wonder's "I Wish," Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," and Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" are just a few of the grin-inducing selections played with exuberance, not irony.
Ricart is an electric guitarist who draws some unearthly sounds from his instrument; the rest of his quartet is trumpeter Herb Robertson, bassist Jason Ajemian, and drummer Andrew Barker, joined by the great British tenor saxophonist Paul Dunmall for over an hour of full-blast spontaneous composition. Chamaeleon gets off to an unpromising start for a few seconds with some shaky intonation from Robertson during a quiet beginning, but once these guys get going, it's a thrilling ride through high-energy territory in which inspiration never falters.
This is unabashed fusion. Liebman, on soprano and tenor saxophones plus wooden flute, is of course a veteran of the style from his days in Miles Davis's electric band (there's a version of "In a Silent Way" here); the other players, who may be more prog-rock than fusion, are Michel Delville (guitar, synthesizer, electronics) and Tony Bianco (drums, loops, percussion). I could do without twee vocalist Saba Tewelde on "The Secret Place," but I'm not going penalize this album for one easily skippable four-minute track, because Liebman -- who has become even greater over the past decade than he already was -- must be heard here, and the settings/atmospheres that Delville and Bianco conjure under and around him are much more than a stylistic rehash. I particularly like the way Liebman and Delville interact; Liebman often seems to take his cues from the guitar and then elevate them to another level. If you're into fusion, this is pretty damned exciting fare.
Few of the musicians who made the LP Attica Blues (Impulse!, 1972) are still alive, but the legendary Archie Shepp gathered some like-minded American jazz artists -- notably pianist/singer Amina Claudine Myers, drummer Famoudou Don Moye, and bassist Reggie Washington, plus a cameo by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire -- and a whole bunch of French musicians into a big band (or maybe I really should say orchestra, as there's a small string section) for some 2012-13 concerts. I wish the great Joshie Amstead, who is still with us, had been included; she is sorely missed on the heavily revamped "Attica Blues," which is also missing a lot of its previous lyrics -- though it's still funky as hell. For some reason the invocations on Attica Blues are absent here; two were brief, but the lengthier "Invocation to Mr. Parker" is missed. On the other hand there are a few tunes from other Shepp albums ("Mama Too Tight," "Déjà vu," Cal Massey's "The Cry of My People," Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday") plus frequent collaborator Myers's love song "Arms," bringing this album to a hefty 78 minutes. (A couple more Shepp tunes are bonus downloads.) The majority of the tracks have vocals; singers besides Shepp and Myers are Cecile McLorin Salvant and Marion Rampal. Shepp's plangent tone on tenor is one of the great sounds of jazz, and it's especially effective in this context. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.