What makes Free Music Ensemble Ken Vandermark’s best pure improv showcase is how conducive bassist Nate McBride and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love are to his basic style—rough, rock hard, punkish. That may not have been the idea when he named the group to honor Germany’s avant-noise FMP label, but this is a band that could have been designed to kick out the jams. Still, most cuts do have soft parts—clarinet with minimal accompaniment, McBride often arco—and these cohere like never before. A
SHEILA JORDAN + CAMERON BROWN
She grew up in a coal town, fled to the city, chased Bird, and caught his piano player. George Russell asked her to sing a song in 1962, and she would have been unforgettable for that alone. It was another decade before she worked steadily, but she waltzed away with the album on Roswell Rudd’s Flexible Flyer—long my favorite jazz album. At 76 she threw this birthday party, with just bassist Brown behind her. It’s an uncharacteristically loose and happy set, strung together from medleys with generous scat and patter, sometimes ad-libbed into the music. Makes me think she’s the only real jazz singer left—the only one worth chasing, anyhow. A MINUS
Winter & Winter
One problem with ’70s fusion is that when pianists like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea went electric they gave off an air of slumming. That’s not an issue with younger players weaned on funk, disco, and hip-hop—electronics for them are an invitation to have fun. Matthew Shipp and George Colligan are good examples, but Uri Caine—surprisingly for a guy with whole albums of Schumann and Mahler in his closet—tops them all. He got it right on the first Bedrock album: Zach Danziger’s beats come first, then Tim Lefebvre’s grooves, and anything he does on synth just elaborates. This one goes further, adding a guest horn here and there, even a couple of vocals, but never losing track of first principles—which for him closes with a straight Philly soul classic. A MINUS
PETER EPSTEIN/BRAD SHEPIK/MATT KILMER
All three have interests in the world’s many musics—there are subtle Indian, Balkan, and West African spices here—but all three are homegrown and play conventional instruments. Shepik’s guitars intertwine with Kilmer’s percussion. Epstein’s alto or soprano sax floats above, as if charming snakes. A MINUS
RICH HALLEY TRIO
Mountains and Plains
The desolate, rugged landscapes in the cover snapshots are a fitting analogue to the deliberate articulation of Halley’s tenor sax in this bare-bones trio. Based in Oregon and trained as a field biologist, with previous records about Saxophone Animals and Coyotes in the City, Halley obviously comes at free jazz from far afield. And he’s collaborated with Dave Storrs and Clyde Reed for so long that they get the balance just right. A MINUS
ARTHUR KELL QUARTET
Fresh Sound New Talent
Jordi Pujol named his label for an ad touting the “fresh sounds” of West Coast jazz in the ’50s, but his search for nueva cool has focused on New York and Barcelona. The New Talent series produces a steady stream of Honorable Mention wannabes—tight, cleverly arranged, tepid little albums with much to admire and little to get excited about. This one is exemplary, with Kell’s bass firmly anchoring his tunes, while Steve Cardenas’s expansive guitar lines and Gorka Benitez’s golden-toned tenor sax flesh them out. A MINUS
STEVE LACY/JOËLLE LÉANDRE
One More Time
The grand master of the soprano sax ended his long residency in Europe with a series of “farewell concerts” in 2002, made all the more final by his death last year. A box is promised, but this duo with bassist Léandre got carved out first. She’s worth concentrating on, proving that the bass is a sonic tool kit of amazing breadth. But focus inevitably drifts to Lacy in an intimate performance that is both typical and exemplary. One to remember him by. A MINUS
HILARY NOBLE & REBECCA CLINE
Good students. Noble studied sax with George Garzone and Yusef Lateef, but he also did extra credit in Afro-Cuban percussion, and he puts both to use here. Cline picked up her piano from Joanne Brackeen and Chucho Valdés, and she delivers the whole package—she’s impossible to ignore, even in the background. Whereas most Latin jazz gravitates toward siesta, leave it to a couple of Yanks to shake things up. A MINUS
Another case where an album title has become the group name for a second album, giving reclusive pianist Cooper-Moore a bit of cover. He reminds me of Horace Tapscott—not as fast, but as dense and exacting, if anything more sensitive to the other two panels of his group, bassist Tom Abbs and drummer Chad Taylor. They play the way freedom is supposed to work—untethered but aware and complementary. A MINUS
ASSIF TSAHAR/COOPER-MOORE/HAMID DRAKE
Cooper-Moore emerges as a double threat: no piano, just homemade toys. His ashimba slips in between Drake’s frame drums for stretches of pan-African groove, with Tsahar’s bass clarinet gently tooting along. But when Cooper-Moore cranks up the twang of his one-stringed diddley bow, Tsahar switches to tenor sax and his usual Aylerisms lurch into overdrive, a style we might as well call avant-honk. A MINUS
MARK WHITECAGE & THE BI-COASTAL ORCHESTRA
BushWacked: A Spoken Opera
Except for one lyric written in 1776, the spoken words come from news reports, but they rivet your attention. The intent is outrage, but I find the words, so unflinchingly rooted in the real world, calming—compared to the anarchic jazz swirling around them. A MINUS
Dud of the Month
LINCOLN CENTER JAZZ ORCHESTRA
Don’t Be Afraid . . . The Music of Charles Mingus
This became inevitable once flacks tried to draw an orchestral line from Ellington to Mingus to Marsalis—otherwise, wouldn’t Mingus be a bit too outré for the uptown crowd? Mingus has yet to develop into a repertory staple, at least outside of the official tribute bands Sue Mingus rides herd on, and even there recent albums like I Am Three suggest they’re running on fumes. What’s missing from all the remakes is Mingus himself—the virtuoso bassist, of course, but more importantly the leader who drove small bands to play huge. Here 15 musicians play small. At the end of the tricky title piece about the clown, they even laugh small. B MINUS
DOMINIC DUVAL/MARK WHITECAGE
Rules of Engagement, Vol. 1
No agitprop, just bass and reeds, a starter kit without the racket.
At the Mill Hill Playhouse: As Long as I Live
Trad jazz teamwork—Kenny Davern, Dan Barrett, and John Sheridan are friskier than on their own recent albums.
SAM RIVERS/BEN STREET/KRESTEN OSGOOD
Old times only easier, so reminiscent of his ’60s grace it could be a self-tribute.
Norwegian avant-sax trio—two vets dating back to George Russell days, and TDWR drummer Thomas Strønen.
JOE FIELDER TRIO
Plays the Music of Albert Mangelsdorff
And, finally, simplifies the avant-trombone master for much needed clarity.
When the Crowds Have Gone
. . . you’re alone, just guitar and harmonica, crying like Blind Willie Johnson without even the Lord for comfort.
Guitar minimalism, the patterns expanding harmonically rather than repeating ad absurdum.
JOEL FUTTERMAN/ALVIN FIELDER/IKE LEVIN TRIO
Charles Lester Music
Piano-sax roughhousing, refereed by an AACM drummer who keeps both sides swinging.
Darryl Harper’s clarinet trio is a marvel of studied moderation, searching but not rushed, long but not wearing.
Large group, the deep horns, accordion and strings move slowly in thick layers of harmony.
PAUL MOTIAN/BILL FRISELL/JOE LOVANO
I Have the Room Above Her
Lovano’s ballad sense is suspect, but he adds substance to Motian’s slow abstractions.
No Work Today: Nine for Steve Lacy
Meditations on solo soprano sax—a real tightrope act.
HAMID DRAKE & ASSIF TSAHAR
Live at Glenn Miller Café
Two-thirds of Lost Brother takes its avant-honk on the road.
GEORGE COLLIGAN’S MAD SCIENCE
More organ than synth, more drums than beats, so the advance starts from further back, trading Grant Green for Tom Guarna.
Just the Beginning
Fancy hard bop with Jeb Patton piano and extra brass, sandwiched by originals celebrating Parker, lamenting Jacquet.
Flutes, chants, hand drums, soft homespun Afro-Cuban roots.
Canadians who look and sound like they just arrived from Saturn.
THE PETER BRÖTZMANN CHICAGO TENTET
Be Music, Night
Mike Pearson’s reading of Kenneth Patchen poetry provides a dry counterpoint structuring the avant-noise.
Blueprint of a Lady: Sketches of Billie Holiday
DAVID MURRAY 4TET & STRINGS