Jazz Review Roundup

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Sex Mob: Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti: Sex Mob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota (Royal Potato Family)

Call me crazy, but I feel a connection between Rota's themes for Fellini's films and the melodic styles of Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman. Granted, what each did once past their respective themes became wildly different, with Rota never abandoning harmony, Ornette twisting it in new directions, and Ayler abandoning it altogether, but before that happens, their themes share an effulgent earthiness and overflowing humanity. And who better to bring out the jazz side of that earthy humanity than the great recontextualizer Steve Bernstein and his longstanding quartet with Briggan Krauss (alto and baritone saxes), Tony Scherr (electric bass), and Kenny Wollesen (drums, gongs, log drum, waterphone, vibraphone). 

Bernstein's slide trumpet in particular has the microtonal relationship with pitch that Ayler and Coleman each cherished to varying degrees, including a wide vibrato sometimes evoking Ayler rather strongly (Bernstein also debuts his hybrid trumpet, with both valves and slide, and also plays alto horn). Bernstein's arrangements are masterful as usual, slyly witty and rhythmically lively; though there are few free outbursts (one comes at the end of "Paparazzo" from La Dolce Vita, but more often it's one player going "outside" while the harmony underpins them), there's always the possibility, which lends a certain tension; similarly, even though 99.9% of the music here stays within harmony, the methods by which it is put together, and its gestural shapes , come out of free jazz and its ancestors, New Orleans jazz and the jazzy blues of the 1920s (the style of "La Strada" in particular reflects this), while the focus on timbres and use of unusual percussion specifically recalls the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But for all that, this album is still respectful of Rota's compositions and never warps them beyond recognition. Even people who don't like avant-garde jazz will be able to enjoy it on its own terms.

Chris Kelsey & What I Say: The Electric Miles Project (Chris Kelsey)

This is the best Miles Davis tribute since Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Kaiser's Yo Miles band. Kelsey and his collaborators – electric guitarists Rolf Sturm and Jack DeSalvo, electric six-string bassist Joe Gallant, and drummer Dean Sharp – avoid easy comparisons to the originals via different instrumentation than most electric Miles (no trumpet or keyboards), the mixing in of their own free-improvisation ambient tracks, and a more modern and polystylistic set of influences than even Davis himself wielded. Kelsey, who plays soprano and straight alto saxophones here, only very occasionally recalls Wayne Shorter and Dave Liebman, but not as either sounded when with Davis. I'm hard-pressed to compare Kelsey to any saxophonist, in fact; in his booklet notes, he cites "late Coltrane, Ornette, and Braxton," but that was him in the '80s, and he's more distinctive nowadays. The guitarists may have been influenced by Pete Cosey, Sonny Sharrock, and John Scofield, all Milesians for at least a brief tenure, but have arrived at more personal styles that tend to be less aggressive (not that they lack power when needed).

The old shadow that most strongly colors this project is that of Davis's bassist for most of his pre-hiatus electric period, Michael Henderson; as Kelsey notes, "Like most of Miles's vehicles back then, "Sivad" is essentially little more than a bass line...but what a bass line!" Gallant is just as funky as Henderson but adds the slinky weight of dub to the equation, and dollops of virtuosity that change the balance of the music. Sharp studied with Jack DeJohnette, but his playing here is quite different on the many levels of groove, timbre, and rhythm, with an apparently deliberately tinny and boxy tone that's weirdly modern. Besides "Sivad," the Davis material here consists of "Agharta Prelude," "Directions," and the highlight, an epic rendition of "Ife" that takes us on an organically unfolding, subtly crescendoing journey. And then there are those ambient-improv tracks, "Mad Love" parts 1 and 2, unleashing the group's Miles-tinted mindset on fresh material that's just as invigorating as the covers. Few tributes take as many chances or reinvent their inspirations as successfully as this band does.

Brahja Waldman's Quartet: Cosmic Brahjas/Closer to the Tones (Brahja Waldman)

This Montreal/NYC band led by alto saxophonist Waldman has an unusual esthetic for a jazz ensemble, with a distinct flavor of Minimalism. This is especially clear on disc 1 of this two-disc set, recorded in 2011 with a quartet consisting of Waldman, pianist Shadrach Hankoff, bassist Martin Heslop, and drummer Daniel Gelinas. The use of repetition gives the music a kaleidoscopic feel; Waldman's light tone, reminiscent of Lee Konitz at times, also helps point to a possible Lennie Tristano lineage. On disc 2, from 2012, Hankoff is replaced by tenor saxophonist Adam Kinner, and though the approach doesn't change too much, additional comparisons that come to mind are Gerry Mulligan's brand of cool jazz and Anthony Braxton, albeit a Braxton dropped into a much less dissonant and mostly tonal context. Hearing the way the individual parts of this music revolve around each other brings me great joy.

Soft Machine Legacy: Burden of Proof (MoonJune)

This quartet, mostly consisting of former members of progressive rock icon Soft Machine, once again leans toward the band's jazz-fusion side on their first studio album in six years. Theo Travis (tenor sax, flute, Fender Rhodes piano; the one non-Soft [he's a former member of Gong], he replaces the late Elton Dean), John Etheridge (electric guitar), John Marshall (drums, percussion), and Roy Babbington (electric bass guitar) singly or in a few cases collaboratively wrote all the tracks except Softs co-founder Hugh Hopper's "Kings & Queens" (originally on Fourth). Though they sometimes exhibit, pardon the pun, a soft touch, many tracks are more aggressive, mostly in an impressively flashy fusion vein, though "Voyage Beyond Seven" even gets fairly free-form for awhile. Etheridge often sets the tone; he can be a very lyrical player and often uses effects to achieve a spacey sound, but gets plenty gritty when he wants to and unleashes torrents of notes whenever the time is right. Etheridge, Babbington, and Marshall have been playing together for a long time (first teaming on the original band's Softs in 1976) and lock into vicious grooves, moving as one. Never mind the last word of their name; this is effectively the latter-day Soft Machine, and, more freewheeling than in the Karl Jenkins-led era, sounds as good as or better than any Softs albums post-Bundles.

Gary Peacock/Marilyn Crispell: Azure (ECM)

This is heresy, but it is sometimes painful listening to Gary Peacock's contributions to this duo album. Nonetheless,  Azure is worth hearing. Despite Peacock's problems with playing in tune (and yes, I'm aware of how difficult the double bass is to wrangle in this regard), which are exacerbated by the close miking ("Lullaby" is especially excruciating), his interaction with the pianist is quite stimulating both for her, apparently, and for listeners. This is true not only on the free improvisations, but also on his compositions and even on hers. The suspenseful nature of their spontaneous interactions even on the composed pieces epitomizes the spirit of jazz. Despite Peacock's seniority and top billing, though, Crispell and her tunes and playing will be the reason I return to Azure. She's often at her most lyrical, with "Goodbye" and "Waltz after David M" especially charming. Also look for her superb ECM release Amaryllis, a 2001 trio with Peacock and late drummer Paul Motian

Roberto Magris/Sam Reed: Ready for Reed (jMood)

I think of Italian keyboardist Magris in terms of the progressive jazz he was recording for Soul Note when I first encountered his work, but his jMood albums have revealed a more grooving side that reaches a new pinnacle on this soul-jazz outing that finds him playing organ a couple of times. As much of a swinging session as it is, though, Magris still occasionally cuts loose -- check out his piano solo on "Love You Madly." The repertoire here appropriately looks back to an earlier era, with tunes by Gene Ammons and Lee Morgan plus Magris arrangements of Ellington and Strayhorn material. His featured guest is alto saxophonist Sam Reed; long based in Philadelphia, Reed came up in the late '50s playing both jazz and R&B (he's on The Silhouettes' "Get a Job") and later became soul singer Teddy Pendergrass's musical director and the horn contractor for Gamble and Huff's label Philadelphia International. The legitimacy of his jazz chops can be easily verified by listening to him take on Charlie Parker's "Quasimodo." In general, he sounds like a cross between Frank Morgan and Lou Donaldson, which is a pretty hip way to sound. There's usually a second horn, trombonist Kendall Moore, whose presence gives the heads a Blue Note feel (can't help thinking of Curtis Fuller), and the rhythm section of double bassist Dominique Sanders and drummer Brian Steever delivers a relaxed swing groove. 

Joe Locke: Lay Down My Heart: Blues & Ballads Vol. 1 (Motema)

Veteran vibraphonist Joe Locke couldn't make his crossover intentions for this album much clearer. He leads off with Bill Withers's "Ain't No Sunshine" and includes "I Can't Make You Love Me" (a big hit for Bonnie Raitt) three tracks later. He titles his liner note "People Music" and writes, "This music is meant to provide respite for folks who work hard every day.... There is no highbrow concept here.... Working on this recording brought me back to my earliest days of music-making in Rochester, NY at the F&S Lounge, Jenks n' Jones, and The Peoples' Club, where the music was part of the social fabric...." Cue outrage from offended snobbish jazz critic, right? Wrong. With two originals, two sweet tunes written by jazz greats (Sam Jones, Frank Foster), and three standards in addition to those pop tunes, this program is only slightly different from many purist jazz albums, and neither Locke nor his band (pianist Ryan Cohan, bassist David Finck, drummer Jaimeo Brown) panders by holding back their considerable jazz chops/intelligence. Nothing wrong with updating the Great American Songbook once in a while with a few more memorable melodies. Joe Locke is such a good player, if his next album were all Lady Gaga songs, I wouldn't bet against it sounding good. - Steve Holtje

steve-holtjeMr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.

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