Second-Term Blues

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


Pick Hits

Bernardo Sassetti Trio²
Ascent
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

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Irène Schweizer
Portrait [1984–2004]
Intakt

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
Arbors

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
Stoa
ECM

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
Semi-Formal
Cuneiform

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
Telarc

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
Aqua
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
Pi

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
Playscape

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
Stunt

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
Intakt

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

Sonny Simmons
The Traveller
Jazzaway

Sonny goes to Norway, hooking up with Anders Aarum's piano trio and a string quartet conducted by veteran flautist Vidar Johansen. Ordinary in themselves, the string arrangements set Simmons so at ease that he plays with unforeseen grace and clarity. A MINUS

Miguel Zenón
Jíbaro Marsalis
Music/Rounder

This starts out as the music of Puerto Rico's countryside, a thick stew of Arabic and African roots, its seasoning crossed with elements from Cuba and points south. But Zenón isn't tempted by folk instruments or traditional melodies. He maps the extraordinarily complex rhythms onto standard jazz piano-bass-drums, then improvises fast, jaunty alto sax lines in lieu of the usual vocalist. A MINUS


Dud of the Month

Taylor Eigsti
Lucky to Be Me
Concord

Concord's latest youth pitch at the adult-contemporary market looks like the Mod Squad scrubbed up for the neocon millennium: blonde ingenue Erin Boheme, black trumpeter Christian Scott, and this slightly scruffy white pianist. All three have talent, of course—Eigsti is a 21-year-old prodigy on his third album, clearly a hot property. But they wouldn't have gotten all that hair and skin budget, not to mention all that advertising, if they looked as geeky as Steve Lehman. The music is groomed, too: Eigsti gets two top bass-drums tandems and plenty of cover—Coltrane, Björk, Porter, Mussorgsky, the Soprano theme song—for his scrawny originals. B MINUS


Honorable Mention

Sonny Simmons
The Complete ESP-Disk' Recordings
[1966]
ESP-Disk'

Kicking off a great career, give or take 20 years in hell.

Marc Johnson
Shades of Jade
ECM

If Eliane Elias's label insists she play the pop star, she'll release her serious work under hubby's name.

Gianluca Petrella
Indigo 4
Blue Note

A constructive traditionalist, working from Ellington through Sun Ra, willing to get his trombone dirty.

Ben Goldberg Quintet
The Door, the Hat, the Chair, the Fact
Cryptogramophone

Steve Lacy as Zen master, or Dr. Seuss, with Kenny Clarke as the cat with the hat.

Exploding Customer
Live at Tampere Jazz Happening
Ayler

Swedish freebop quartet, two horns performing aerial acrobatics, and the usual great drummer—in this case, Kjell Nordeson.

Jamie Davis
It's a Good Thing
Unity Music

Count Basie's ghost band, Joe Williams's ghost singer.

Jason Kao Hwang
Graphic Evidence
Asian Improv

A Chinese tinge to the violin, as Francis Wong's soprano sax looks east from Coltrane to come full circle.

Antonio Arnedo
Colombia
Adventure Music

Folk instruments, trad tunes, toned-down Barbieri-ish sax, beats by Satoshi Takeishi.

Ray Barretto
Time Was—Time Is
O+ Music

Another memoir of bebop's Spanishtinge—the congalero's last. Unexpected Plays the Blues in Need Fresh Sound New Talent Pianist Sergi Sirvent's trio twists Monk for old and new needs.

Bob Belden
Three Days of Rain
Sunnyside

A soundtrack for Chekhov in Cleveland, with Joe Lovano to keep you snug and warm.

Brent Jensen
Trios
Origin

Standard curriculum, but the alto saxophonist aces his orals.

String Trio of New York with Oliver Lake
Frozen Ropes
Barking Hoop

They spar mostly, but find common ground on "Texas Koto Blues."

Ray Russell
Goodbye Svengali
Cuneiform

A fusion guitarist remembers his own personal Gil Evans.

Jimmy Amadie Trio
Let's Groove! A Tribute to Mel Tormé
TP

The pianist's Tormé is less the point than guest Phil Woods channeling Benny Carter.

Kenny Wheeler
What Now?
Cam Jazz

The mild man of Europe's avant-garde in a drumless all-star quartet.

Andrew Lamb & Warren Smith
The Dogon Duo
Engine

Not only does this $6.79 list CD boast the cheapest packaging I've ever seen, there's nothing bogus in the duets either.


Duds

JAMES CARTER/CYRUS CHESTNUT/ALI JACKSON/REGINALD VEAL
Gold Sounds
Brown Brothers

JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER'S AFRO-LATIN JAZZ ORCHESTRA
Noche Inolvidable
Palmetto

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