Second-Term Blues

Avant or retro, unplugged or wired, guerrilla musicians defy the neocon millennium

Pick Hits

Bernardo Sassetti Trio²
Clean Feed

The superscript implies a piano trio raised to a higher power, but here Sassetti uses cello and vibes to lower the energy—the vibes add mere ghost harmonics to his piano, the cello a sweeter, more wistful bass. Some of this was written for soundtracks, which explains its pensive moods, and why the pieces that pick up volume and speed never threaten to fly loose. This music fits into no known jazz tradition. It's more like Eno's Another Green World—unplugged. A

Irène Schweizer
Portrait [1984–2004]

Nothing in this year's bumper crop of solo piano is anywhere near as robust as the three solo cuts on this sampler from 14 albums. Eight duos, mostly with drummers, impress even more. The Swiss free jazz pioneer's straight rhythmic undertow rivals Jarrett's, and her pianistics challenge Cecil Taylor's. But as Schweizer demonstrates on the longest piece ("First Meeting," with trombonist George Lewis), her real talent is her spontaneous response to the challenges of such minuscule aggregations. One of the few compilations ever that makes me want to hear every single one of the source albums. A

The Harry Allen-Joe Cohn Quartet
Hey, Look Me Over

Given that Cohn is Al's son, you might figure this for a tribute. Indeed, Dad's songbook looms large on what remains an exceptionally well-rounded Allen showcase. There are nods to Getz and Webster, but both the lift of his jump shot and the ease of his balladry are distinctly his own. The son's guitar sets an unobtrusive groove, and the Charlie Christian feature shows how comfortable he can be in old clothes. Like Allen. A MINUS

Nik Bärtsch's Ronin

Citing James Brown as well as Kurosawa, Bärtsch's "Zen-funk" is minimalism that doesn't risk inscrutability by sticking too long in one groove. Built from repeating piano figures with clarinet, bass, and a double dose of percussion for springworks, these "modules" improvise not note by note but section by unexpected section. A MINUS

The Claudia Quintet

Leader John Hollenbeck is a drummer, so it isn't a surprise that the pieces are all rhythm studies and the band has to play along with him. Although the soft tones—accordion, clarinet, vibes—still predominate, the textures have loosened up since 2004's I Claudia, even incorporating a bit of pedal steel. But the most welcome innovation comes when Chris Speed reminds us that he also plays a mean tenor sax. A MINUS

Garage A Trois
Outre Mer

Two percussionists, Charlie Hunter guitar, and Skerik sax work through a soundtrack's worth of moods and atmosphere, all smartly anchored and acutely detailed. Suitable for background, painless if you happen to tune in, not so ebullient it wears you out. So simple—it's what jazz-funk fusion should sound like, or would in a world free of kitchen-sink production and opportunistic cross-promotion. A MINUS

Moncef Genoud
Savoy Jazz

A blind pianist from Tunisia via Switzerland hooks up with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Bill Stewart for an album that swims in the mainstream but offers a few unexpected twists: a "Summertime" that loses the melody, a Coltrane piece that radically shifts time. When Michael Brecker guests on three cuts, and Dee Dee Bridgewater sings "Lush Life" to close, it's more than marketing for once. The sax rises organically from the mix, and the vocal closes on a poignant note. A MINUS

Steve Lehman
Demian as Posthuman

Twelve short pieces, structured like a bridge with communities on both ends bracketing duo pieces where Lehman plays alto against his own programming and Tyshawn Sorey's drums. Dense and cerebral, with no wasted motion. A MINUS

Mario Pavone Sextet
Deez to Blues

Pavone describes his music as upside down: The bass and piano set the melody while the horns and violin countermove. Pavone's bass is certainly at the center of everything, the core force that drives the piano and drums of longtime comrades Peter Madsen and Michael Sarin, while perturbing Steven Bernstein's trumpets, Howard Johnson's bass horns, and Charles Burnham's violin more erratically. The complexity, even on "Second-Term Blues," is wondrous. A MINUS

Bob Rockwell Quartet
Bob's Ben: A Salute to Ben Webster

An undeniable pleasure—if anything, too easy. Rockwell's a mainstream tenor saxman who moved to Copenhagen in 1983, two decades after Webster, and settled into a respected if unspectacular career. He has the master's broad tone but none of his vibrato, so he keeps a respectful distance while luxuriating in a dozen ballads. A MINUS

Alexander von Schlippenbach
Monk's Casino

Three discs storm through the complete works—the 70 pieces Monk wrote mostly early, then rehashed as long as he lived without ever coming close to exhausting their twists and turns. Schlippenbach, like Monk, refrains from extemporizing, letting the horns grapple with the melodies. But where Monk usually featured tenor sax, this quintet spreads out with Axel Dörner on trumpet and Rudi Mahall on bass clarinet. They're also likely to rush the tempo and/or get a bit noisy, but even after three decades of post-Monk hermeneutics they're still in thrall to the text. A

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