Old Forms, Fresh Outlooks

Innovation reigns, from 36-CD retrospectives to the Hüsker Dü of free jazz

Pick Hits

Chris Byars
Photos in Black, White and Gray
Smalls

Referencing Gigi Gryce’s alto sax and Lucky Thompson’s tenor, Byars finds new niches in bebop, picking up ’50s threads that got pummeled by hard bop, discarded by the avant-garde, then buried under whatever passes for post-bop these days. Much as bebop developed underground in places like Minton’s where musicians played for each other, the same dynamic developed at Smalls in the ’90s, connecting a new generation to unreconstructed veterans like Frank Hewitt and on to the foundations of modern jazz. Tapping into the process, Byars sounds fresh even while working in such a well-worn form. A MINUS


Chris Byars, Photos in Black, White and Gray
Chris Byars, Photos in Black, White and Gray

That Devilin’ Tune: A Jazz History [1895-1950]
WHRA

Miles Davis reduced jazz history to four words: Louis Armstrong Charlie Parker. Ken Burns’s 10-hour Jazz didn’t go much further than adding Miles Davis. Martin Williams’s canon-establishing five-CD Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz was more judicious, but he disposed of the origins problem by contrasting two takes of “Maple Leaf Rag”—one by Scott Joplin, the other by Jelly Roll Morton. Compiler Allen Lowe takes the contrary approach, picking records for the questions they raise. He’s repackaged his book into four boxes totaling 36 CDs and 854 songs. Researchers will want the first box, which doesn’t get to Armstrong until the last cut. Fans might start with the third, which announces “Swing is here” and never lets up. A


The Claudia Quintet
For
Cuneiform

I can’t conceive of calling this “post-jazz” or “post-rock”—two filing suggestions for John Hollenbeck’s ensemble—but “post-minimalism” would make sense: The beats are similar, and the melodies emerge in soft tones, pixilated and dithered like the artwork. But the self-imposed limits have been discarded for real-world complexity: resonant acoustic instruments, shifting time, even passages where Matt Moran talks and Chris Speed squawks. Only a dead-ender wouldn’t call it jazz. A MINUS


The Neil Cowley Trio
Displaced
Hide Inside

A rock-ribbed acoustic-piano trio, full of thumping chords, pogoing beats, assured elaboration, and calculated tension and release, showing they know English folk music—from Pink Floyd to Coldplay, anyway—and hoping to please as much as to dazzle. Ends with a whiff of electronics, remixing a fast one. A MINUS


Happy Apple
Happy Apple Back on Top
Sunnyside

Bad Plus drummer Dave King’s other power trio, with Erik Fratzke’s bass plugged in and Michael Lewis leading on one sax or another. Given their Minneapolis address, it’s tempting to call them the Hüsker Dü of free jazz, assuming you can manage the translation. It is jazz, after all, and while they like rock grooves more than most, they never leave it at that. A MINUS


Matt Lavelle Trio
Spiritual Power
Silkheart

Avant like it ought to be: sharp, shocking, bursting with creative ideas. Bassist Hilliard Greene and drummer Michael T.A. Thompson are worth tracking on their own, but Lavelle has a unique twist: playing three songs each on flugelhorn and bass clarinet, an unprecedented mix. His bass clarinet is utterly distinctive, its normal airiness choked down to short trumpet-like bursts. His native trumpet returns on one track, amid shouts of “Sí Se Puede.” Right— they can. A MINUS


Hugh Masekela
Live at the Market Theatre
Times Square/4Q

A 30th-anniversary bash for the Johannesburg venue, and a triumph for the trumpeter/vocalist who put his homeland’s music on the world stage in the 1960s. This works as an informal career summary, its two discs allowing him to stretch out and work the crowd and even preach a little, knowing there’s more than celebrating left to do. A MINUS


Yerba Buena Stompers
The Yama-Yama Man
Stomp Off

Second-generation revivalism, inspired less by King Oliver (whose two-cornet, banjo, and tuba lineup set the mold) than by Lu Watters’s Yerba Buena Jazz Band, which invented trad jazz. The Stompers’ John Gill started by ransacking those charts for such unambitious delights as Dawn Club Favorites and New Orleans Favorites. Running low after four albums, they’re finally forced to dig deeper, such as the 1908 title song. Watters should be proud; Oliver might wonder about the backward thinking. I just get off on the ebullient good humor that has always been the heart of jazz. A MINUS


Chris Potter Underground
Follow the Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard
Sunnyside

Adam Rogers’s guitar snaking over Craig Taborn’s blippy Fender Rhodes and Nate Smith’s drums makes for a fresh update on the old organ trio—especially when the pace slows, Taborn looks to be as far ahead of the field as Jimmy Smith was in 1958. Potter can play soul jazz, but he’s most impressive when he kicks out the jams, raising r&b honking to a higher plane. A MINUS


John Sheridan and His Dream Band
Swing Is Still the King
Arbors

Pianist Sheridan and his band of Arbors all-stars arrange a batch of Benny Goodman–linked songs in their own style, where the atmosphere is cool and the swing is gravity-free. Rebecca Kilgore enters on the fourth song and sings most of the rest, turning old chestnuts into delectable treats. A MINUS


Assif Tsahar/Cooper-Moore/Chad Taylor
Digital Primitives
Hopscotch

They mean “Postmodern Primitives,” but have the good sense to look for another term. Cooper-Moore is central: His homemade string instruments—diddley-bow, mouth bow, bango—add a hillbilly twang to Harry Partch tonality, and he sings one, “Ol’ Saint Peter,” which is more campfire tale than hymn. The others are bemused, with Taylor’s possibly digital beats sometimes sounding like balafon, and Tsahar putting his new-thing sax on the back burner until the closer, comping and cooing on bass clarinet and pulling out the old didgeridoo. A MINUS


Fay Victor Ensemble
Cartwheels Through the Cosmos
ArtistShare

She reminds people of Betty Carter, perhaps because so few jazz singers ever look to break new ground. Victor’s voice is relatively unmannered, but one trait she does share with Carter is her ability to command a band worth listening to with or without her: Guitarist Anders Nilsson is always up to something interesting, while bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Michael T.A. Thompson have a knack for showing up unheralded on good albums. The songs explore the cosmos, but the closer homes in on earth. A MINUS


David S. Ware Quartet
Renunciation
AUM Fidelity

Reportedly the finale of the most formidable quartet since Coltrane’s, with stars William Parker and Matthew Shipp and a series of drummers marking epochs within the era. One more live shot to go with Live in the World. A MINUS


Dud of the Month

Chris Potter 10
Song for Anyone
Sunnyside

Ten musicians, with flute-clarinet-bassoon among the winds, and guitar joining the violin-viola-cello-bass for strings. It seems like every jazz musician aspires to compose and arrange on a large canvas, but more often than not, ambition gets the best of them. Potter only manages drab, static backgrounds, then chews them up with his tenor sax. With chops like his, why bother? B


Additional Consumer News

Von Freeman
The Best of Von Freeman on Premonition (1996-2006) [Premonition]
Invisible until he turned 75 and morphed into Sonny Rollins’s scrawny little brother.

Adam Lane/Ken Vandermark/Magnus Broo/Paal Nilssen-Love
4 Corners [Clean Feed]
Two composers, two Vikings to brawl with them.

Josh Roseman
New Constellations: Live in Vienna [Accurate]
Jah-driven funk, severely bent but rarely broken.

Marcus Strickland Twi-Life Group
Open Reel Deck [Strick Muzik]
Malachi Rivers recites and cajoles over a state-of-the-art sax quartet.

The Blueprint Project
People I Like [Creative Nation Music]
The guest rhythm section takes a mischievous turn: Han Bennink.

Amir ElSaffar
Two Rivers [Pi]
One Iraqi, the other American, played out in mutual respect as jazz, not war.

Terence Blanchard
A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina) [Blue Note]
Wading through when the ghost of 1927 revisits Congo Square.

Frank Morgan
A Night in the Life [High Note]
Plays Bird songs, sweet and soulful—it isn’t just pianist George Cables who reminds me of Art Pepper.

Sonic Openings Under Pressure
Muhheankuntuk [Clean Feed]
Writhing, snaking improv lines against David Pleasant’s “densemetriX” beat, with a momentary torrent of rap.

Matt Chamberlain/Bill Frisell/Tucker Martine/Lee Townsend Floratone [Blue Note] Disembodied grooves veiled with guitar tones; future music intended as folk.

Paul Zauners Blue Brass
Soil [PAO/BluJazz]
An Austrian trombonist and connoisseur, collecting fine songs from Africa and Afro-America and burnishing them to a fine luster.

Quadro Nuevo
Tango Bitter Sweet [Justin Time]
Cosmopolitan folk music, too pat for jazz, too danceable for chamber music.

Charlie Haden/Antonio Forcione
Heartplay [Naim]
In a sentimental mood, so soft it’s almost subliminal.

The Phil Woods Quintet
American Songbook II [Kind of Blue]
With Brian Lynch and Bill Charlap. So supremely mainstream, you feel like saluting.

Allen Lowe
Jews in Hell: Radical Jewish Acculturation [Spaceout]
From Massapequa to Maine, what a long, strange trip it’s been.

Duds

Satoko Fujii Quartet
Bacchus [Onoff]
Godzilla tries to waltz, succumbs to toxic heavy metals.

Herbie Hancock
River: The Joni Letters [Verve]
A classy band, especially Wayne Shorter, wasted behind a bevy of vocal caricatures.

Miroslav Vitous
Universal Syncopations II [ECM]
Funk horns and multiple drummers whitewashed by heavenly voices.

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