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

Itinerant drummer, with Kieran Hebden's laptop in tow, meets up with Senegalese pros for a slick little groovefest.

Maceo Parker
Roots & Grooves
Heads Up

The WDR Big Band Cologne goes to heaven, backing the man with the keys on one disc of Ray Charles, and another of James Brown.

Art Pepper
Unreleased Art, Vol. III: The Croydon Concert, May 14, 1981
Widow's Taste

A hot set with a "favorite group" he rarely recorded with—remarkable as usual.

Peter Brötzmann/Peeter Uuskyla
Born Broke
Atavistic

Two discs, no bassist, less terror, more soul, vibrant as ever, aging with some grace, some bitterness.

Bobby Previte & the New Bump
Set the Alarm for Monday
Palmetto

Slick rhythm, with drums and vibes leaping over one another, but Ellery Eskelin and Steven Bernstein cut the grease.

Houston Person/Ron Carter
Just Between Friends
High Note

Pitching woo, directed more at old chestnuts than each other.

Jon Larsen
The Jimmy Carl Black Story
Zonic Entertainment/Hot Club

Grandmother of invention tells tall tales over chintzy avant-lounge.

Marcin Wasilewski Trio
January
ECM

A near-perfect quiet storm of ECM piano, with every little detail carefully locked into place.

ZMF Trio
Circle the Path
Drip Audio

Avant violin; a Revolutionary Ensemble for liberal Vancouver.

Territory Band-6 With Fred Anderson
Collide
Okka Disk

Ken Vandermark's territory band makes more sense centered on Anderson, who breathes soul into the transatlantic avant's peculiar blues.

Louie Bellson & Clark Terry
Louie & Clark Expedition 2
Percussion Power

A bang-up big band whose octogenarian leaders are still swinging like they did for Ellington.

Willie Nelson/Wynton Marsalis
Two Men With the Blues
Blue Note

Neither man feels the blues, but call out a song and chances are they can wing it.

Esmée Olthuis/Albert Van Veenendaal
The Mystery of Guests
Evil Rabbit

Guests like drummer Han Bennink and guitarist Corrie van Binsbergen flesh out a sax-piano duo with plenty of rough edges and unfinished ideas.

Mort Weiss/Ron Eschete
All Too Soon
SMS Jazz

Clarinet-guitar duets—a late bloomer from the bebop generation alongside a young 7-stringer who can swing.

The James Moody and Hank Jones Quartet
Our Delight
IPO

Bebop upstarts, octogenarians now, relishing Gillespie and Dameron.

The Peter Brötzmann Octet
The Complete Machine Gun Sessions (1968)
Atavistic

The original fount of saxophonic terror, a certified classic, and still farther out than you really want to go.

DUDS

Rob Mosher's Storytime
The Tortoise
Old Mill

More proof that jazz is the semipop classical of the 21st century. B MINUS

Lindha Kallerdahl
Gold
ESP-Disk

Near-solo voice; shows that the avant-garde can still find new ways to annoy. C PLUS

Kate McGarry
If Less Is More . . . Nothing Is Everything
Palmetto

Stupid pet tricks, without the cute factor. C

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