Jazz Consumer Guide: Little Innovations Run the World

Echoes of Basie, Mingus, Tyner, etc., with chops and abstractions all their own

Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra
We Are MTO
Mowo!

Count Basie's ghost band is still working, available for gigs like their recent post-historic match with a batch of old Ray Charles tapes—they're still sharp and snappy, but nowhere near as fresh as Bernstein's MTO. Bernstein boned up on Basie while working on the soundtrack to Robert Altman's Kansas City, then transplanted the idea of a KC territory band to Tonic in NYC, gigging once a week, not recording until the results were too legendary to resist. Here, you get old pieces from Basie, Don Redman, Fats Waller, and others genuinely obscure; an old-sounding brass-band "All You Need Is Love"; and modern flourishes like lead guitar and Charlie Burnham violin. I doubt anyone dances to this, but that doesn't mean it isn't fun. A

Vijay Iyer
Tragicomic
Sunnyside

With alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa waxing Coltrane-ish, it's tempting to cast Iyer as the new-model McCoy Tyner. He plays with equal facility, but with no swing in his swagger. He sets up rumbling rhythms, then busts them up into abstract blocks. He can delicately ponder a slow spot and, no matter how fast the pace picks up, he's always thinking ahead. Actually, compared with Tyner, he's more impressive. A

Ben Allison & Man Size Safe
Little Things Run the World
Palmetto

Like fellow bassist-composer Charles Mingus, Allison uses his titles to advertise public thoughts of no obvious relationship to the music. Here, the title cut refers to the Gaia hypothesis—that bacteria maintain the Earth as a habitable environment. "Man Size Safe" refers to Dick Cheney, with "Blowback" as the consequence. Unlike Mingus, though, Allison manifests little anger in his elegant and poignant postbop. A MINUS

Steven Bernstein
Diaspora Suite
Tzadik

A little overblown, but, hey, what else do you expect of a suite? Using the Nels Cline Singers, plus extra guitar, as the core of his rhythm section, Bernstein sounds Ellingtonian with just two brass and two reeds. A MINUS

Dave Douglas & Keystone
Moonshine
Greenleaf Music

Several years of electronic dabbling finally pay off: DJ Olive's scratching and Adam Benjamin's Fender Rhodes are woven seamlessly into the rhythm, but the garbled Bush sample seems to be there just to make you wonder. New saxophonist Marcus Strickland more than lives up to his illustrious predecessors. And then there's the trumpeter: Douglas wins those polls not for his compositions—he's too far over everyone's head for that—but for his chops. A MINUS

Mike Ellis
Bahia Band
Alpha Pocket

The sweet spot between Ellis's sparsely avant Chicago Spontaneous Combustion Suite and his luxuriant Mali-meets-Brazil Speak in Tones project Subaro: a group from the nordeste Brazilian melting pot, with a groove that can't stop, chants that don't get in the way, and the leader's soprano sax, which bites a little when he gets excited. A MINUS

Scott Fields Freetet
Bitter Love Songs
Clean Feed

Exorcising the "slime trail of bile that love leaves behind," Fields's guitar doesn't ramble for once: He is focused, calm, cool, concise. Bass and drums forgo the avant free-for-all, keeping him on track without demanding attention. His misery is our gain. A MINUS

Fieldwork
Door
Pi

Steve Lehman's alto sax distills the acidic tones of his mentors Jackie McLean and Anthony Braxton, which might seem to limit him, but here, his trio support from pianist Vijay Iyer and drummer Tyshawn Sorey is so brimful with clever ideas and good cheer that he simply brings them back into earthly balance. Too tight to be a supergroup, although the individual talents warrant that claim. A MINUS

David Murray/Mal Waldron
Silence [2001]
Justin Time

Cut in Brussels a year before Waldron's death, this may now be seen as a remembrance of an all-time piano great, but Murray fills the room so prodigiously that you have to work to hear how skillfully Waldron ties it all together. A MINUS

Sun Ra
Some Blues but Not the Kind That's Blue
Atavistic

Two "small group" sessions that fell through the cracks and wound up in Atavistic's remarkable Unheard Music Series. Mostly covers, familiar songs like "My Favorite Things" and "Black Magic" shot into unforeseen orbits. The horns cut the grease, but the piano (or organ, on the 1973 tracks) dominates: Ra's mix of stride, bebop, and something from the outer reaches of the galaxy is pretty amazing. A MINUS

Sonny Rollins
Road Shows Vol. 1
Doxy/Emarcy

Who else could throw together an album of seven concert shots spanning 27 years, with five different drummers, and make it all sound of a piece—much less a tour de force? A MINUS

Vandermark 5
Beat Reader
Atavistic

Opening up feature space for cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm slows them down, drawing in Ken Vandermark's clarinet for approximate ballads. Still, most of this is loud enough, and when they crank it up, what you notice even more than Dave Rempis's lead sax lines is how strong and agile Vandermark has gotten on baritone. A composer's group with improvisers' skills, they haven't dropped a merely good record since 2000's Burn the Incline. A MINUS

Honorable Mentions

Steve Reid Ensemble
Daxaar
Domino
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