Jazz Consumer Guide: Loosening (or Tightening) Up

Or slicing, or muscling—anything but letting up, really

 Rova
The Juke Box Suite
Not Two

A saxophone quartet—as tight as non-stars can be after 20 years of interaction—loosen up with a world-music jukebox concept. With Bruce Raskin's baritone the prime mover, the pulse doesn't let up, and the themes—Finnish folk to choro to Afro-Balkan to mambo to the White Stripes—give them plenty of accessible ideas to work with. The slower unison themes are rich, the breakaways startling. A MINUS

Peter Brötzmann/Toshinori Kondo/Massimo Pupillo/Paal Nilssen-Love
Hairy Bones
Okka Disk

The rock-schooled younger generation keeps the beat neatly tucked in instead of letting it run free, inducing the elders to twist their unusual horns—Kondo gets synth effects on electric trumpet, Brötzmann mixes tárogató and clarinet with his saxes—into tight wads of sound, achieving an intensity that no longer depends, as it did in their younger days, on sheer volume. A MINUS

Curlew
1st Album/Live at CBGB 1980
DMG/ARC

If this be fusion, the rock component is New York No Wave, punk's dead end. The jazz side provides the skills to beat funky and free simultaneously, and to forgo vocals in favor of George Cartwright's ecstatic sax. A MINUS

Melvin Gibbs' Elevated Unity
Ancients Speak
Live Wired

The moderns speak in hip-hop tongues, homologues to ancient drums, but cross-bred like crazy, even if you can trace all of it, like damn near everything else, back to Africa. Gibbs is a bassist who has worked under band names from Defunkt to Harriet Tubman, with side credits ranging from Sonny Sharrock to Marisa Monte to John Zorn to Femi Kuti—a career he finally unifies. A MINUS

Abdullah Ibrahim
Senzo
Sunnyside

A WDR radio shot of the pianist playing solo: a long, slow meditation that deftly sums up his career, stressing logic and craftsmanship over his signature South African riffs, which are reduced here to rough diamonds. A MINUS

Darren Johnston
The Edge of the Forest
Clean Feed

Ben Goldberg's clarinet takes flight immediately, with Sheldon Brown adding extra oomph on tenor sax and bass clarinet while the leader pokes in bits of trumpet and lays in wait for his breaks. This is postbop that looks forward, with such a broad range of moves and details that you have to credit the composer. These days, virtually all jazz musicians claim that title, but few convince you it matters. A MINUS

Jim McAuley
The Ultimate Frog
Drip Audio

An enigmatic guitarist from Kansas via Los Angeles offers two discs of homespun duos, rotating Nels Cline for denser guitar, Alex Cline for percussive backdrop, Ken Filiano for bass harmonics, and the late Leroy Jenkins for sharp-edged violin. Call it a cross between Derek Bailey freestyle and John Fahey organicism. A MINUS

Francisco Mela
Cirio
Half Note

Afro-Cuban rhythmic vamps, no more complicated than they have to be, allowing the international all-stars to follow suit: Lionel Loueke's guitar finds the groove, Jason Moran's piano learns new tricks, Mark Turner's sax stutters with shaded eloquence. A MINUS

Zaid Nasser
Escape From New York
Smalls

An alto saxophonist who risks sounding like Charlie Parker and winds up showing how it should be done. He taps Ellington for two tunes, wails through "Chinatown My Chinatown," plucks a barnburner from old-time bebop pianist George Wallington, and strings them together with a couple originals, including one from pianist Sacha Perry. Not a tribute. More like 55th Street is back in business. A MINUS

Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble
The Moment's Energy
ECM

Parker's towering career in the European avant-garde has roughly the same size and shape as Anthony Braxton's, with hundreds of obscure albums spanning 40 years. Odd then that his one widely distributed label should showcase a large and eclectic ensemble that all but buries his utterly distinctive soprano sax. Still, this is a breakthrough, with the electronics finally eclipsing the acoustic instruments even as Peter Evans's trumpet and Ned Rothenberg's reeds raise the bar. A MINUS

Andy Sheppard
Movements in Colour
ECM

Kuljit Bhamra's tabla adds soft percussion to the gentle grooves of Arild Andersen's bass and the complementary guitars of Eivind Aarset and John Paricelli—graceful, compelling movement. The colors come from soprano and tenor sax, generally going with the flow but often rising in full flower above it. A MINUS

Lisa Sokolov
A Quiet Thing
Laughing Horse

A therapist by trade, she gets so deep under the skin of these songs that you can feel the synapses firing as she makes them squirm, most clearly in covers she slices up in unexpected ways. Her "Lush Life" is cold and stony; the fear of death in her "Ol' Man River" shakes you to the bone. A MINUS

Ken Vandermark
Collected Fiction
Okka Disk

Two discs of improv duets with four bassists well known from Vandermark groups, conceptualized as day and night—the former bristling with avant interchanges, the latter slower and quieter, as close to Quiet Storm as Vandermark is likely to get. A MINUS

Honorable Mentions

Anthony Braxton/Milford Graves/William Parker
Beyond Quantum
Tzadik

Over five meetings, the avant-garde legends turn exquisite craftsmanship into explosive chemistry.

Béla Fleck
Throw Down Your Heart
Rounder
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