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jazz music reviews (new releases)

HENDRIK MEURKENS Cobb's Pocket

Album · 2019 · Hard Bop
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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js
For those not hip to pro musician lingo, the word pocket refers to keeping a steady groove, and if a drummer has ‘pocket’, then the rest of the band can solo with confidence knowing their man is not going to drop the beat or lose the momentum. One of the kings of pocket for several decades now has been Jimmy Cobb, the drummer for Miles Davis’ famous groove fest known as “Kind of Blue”, as well as countless other well known jazz recordings on up to the present. It should come as no surprise then that when Hendrik Meurkens wanted to record his new album of hard bop and soul jazz numbers he reached out to his old friend Jimmy to man the drum chair one more time, hence his new CD title, “Cobb’s Pocket”. Joining Hendrik and Cobb on here are two other veterans who have jammed often with Meurkens in the past, Mike LeDonne on B3 and Peter Bernstein on guitar.

Hendrik is somewhat of an odd one in the jazz world in that he is a virtuoso harmonica player. He started out on vibraphone, which he still teaches, but switched to harmonica early on and remains one of the few jazz performers on the instrument. Don’t expect too much of the bluesy and country sounding clichés we often associate with the harmonica, instead, Meurken’s playing is infused with rapid bebop runs that recall saxophonists like Charlie Parker and Eric Dolphy. Some of the wide interval leaps he takes almost sound like vibraphone licks, possibly he pictures the vibe keyboard while choosing his notes. LeDonne and Bernstein fill out the sound with a mix of blues and bop sourced soulful solos.

Three of the tunes are Henrik originals. Meurken’s tunes remind me of 60s Quincy Jones in that they would make for great TV theme songs. Other tunes include a Latin flavored Mancini “Slow Hot Wind” and Sam Jones’ hard driving “Unit Seven”. Possibly the top track is the high speed title tune, “Cobb’s Pocket”.

STEVE LEHMAN Steve Lehman Trio + Craig Taborn ‎: The People I Love

Album · 2019 · Avant-Garde Jazz
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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snobb
After a three year gap, one of the most most interesting sax player of today's American creative jazz scene Steve Lehman returns with "The People I Love" album. Same trio as on 2012 "Dialect Fluorescent" is improved with another new generation leader - pianist Craig Taborn.

Radically different from Lehman last studio work - electronics and rap filled "Steve Lehman & Sélébéyone"(2016), this new album represents his return back to jazz roots, possibly Lehman's most jazz-rooted album to date. Framed with "Prelude","Interlude" and "Postlude" - three short acoustic sax/piano duets with Taborn, "The People I Love" contains Lehman's usual dry but warm take on some of his older compositions and some covers too. Most unusual between chosen covers is "qPlay" from Brits IDM duo Autechre - fully acoustic minimalist composition with melancholic tune and repetitive rhythmical structure.

Another cover is a knotty energetic take on Swiss-based American guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel two decades old song "A Shifting Design". Lehman's own "Echoes" is combined to one piece with Jeff "Tain" Watts' mainstream "The Impaler"(originally - with Branford Marsalis on tenor sax and Wynton Marsalis on trumpet). Lehman's "Curse Fraction", originally recorded with quintet in 2007,here sounds much relaxed,minimalist and even melancholic.

Taborn's addition (for the first time ever) gives some warmness and better balance for the usually scientifically perfect Lehman band sound, the choice of material looks like a successful step too. More intimate than Lehman's bigger bands, this quartet offers best from both Lehman and Taborn music in one place.

LE REX Escape of the Fire Ants

Album · 2019 · Eclectic Fusion
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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kev rowland
It is safe to say there are few bands quite like Le Rex. While there are many who are challenging existing musical forms there can be few who can be said to be attacking quite like this. For a start, I can’t think of another band who have a line-up quite like this, as we have alto saxophonist Benedikt Reising, tenor saxophonist Marc Stucki, trombonist Andreas Tschopp, tuba player Marc Unternährer and drummer Rico Baumann. Yes, you read that correctly, four horns and a drummer, no guitar, bass or piano in sight, and of course no room whatsoever for a singer. Although arguably it can be said that the tuba does sometimes play the role of a bass as it anchors the bottom end of the sound, it is far more common for Unternährer to be a key part of the melody and there are times when he takes on the lead role.

Although jazz is the starting point, on the way to the end Le Rex are actually incredibly progressive in their outlook as they bring their eclectic bent into songs which are always fascinating and interesting, moving in directions one can rarely fathom: there is no way to predict what is going to happen next. But these are all songs as opposed to improvisations, and originally were scored, although the band rehearsed them so they could play them live in the studio without reference. When I play this, I have discovered that sometimes my ear is following one particular musician through the threads, at others I am jumping between them, and others when I open my mind and try to take it all in at once. Interwoven, complex and complicated, one would imagine that this might be a hard album to listen to, but nothing could be further from the truth as it is such a delight from beginning to end. I can imagine fans of the likes of Art Zoyd getting as much from this as those who would consider themselves to be more traditional jazz lovers as opposed to prog. Yet another great release from Cuneiform Records, so glad they are back on the scene.

KENNEY POLSON For Lovers Only Volume II

Album · 2019 · Pop/Art Song/Folk
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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kev rowland
It is strange to hear an album like this in 2019 as in many ways it is about forty years out of time, even down to the backing vocals on the opener “Stella by Starlight”. This is very cleverly performed lounge jazz with often a latin feel, with production, sounds and guitarwork very reminiscent of what was happening with the music scene as they attempted to move away from disco, but were unsuccessful. It is very clever, and Polson is a great soloist playing within arrangements which always have him to the fore, but even the use of electronic keyboard/synths makes it all feel very dated indeed. In many ways I get the impression I am going to get a sugar overload, as there is just so much sweetness, but much of the raw heart has been ripped out of this and it becomes just too bland. Playing one or two songs is fine, but working my way through the album, which I have done multiple times, is still something of an effort as it all feels too plastic, too false, too veneered. I am sure that anyone into this style of jazz will get a great deal from it as there is no doubt that it is very well performed and produced indeed, just not for me.

JORDON DIXON On!

Album · 2019 · Hard Bop
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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kev rowland
Jordon Dixon was born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He started playing tenor sax when he was twelve and was performing in local clubs within just three years. After high school, he enlisted in the Marines, serving the country for 11 years and having many opportunities to perform music. After his honourable discharge, he moved to Washington D.C. and enrolled in the music program at the University of the District of Columbia, meeting and playing with Allyn Johnson, who has been the director of the jazz program there since 2005. He graduated in 2016, the same year that he made his recording debut with ‘A Conversation Among Friends’.

He has now returned with ‘On!’, which like his debut is solely comprised of original numbers, and again sees him working with Johnson. The line-up is completed by Herman Burney (bass) and Carroll V. Dashiell, III (drums), while J.S. Williams (trumpet) guests on two numbers as he did on the debut. So, sometimes a quintet, sometimes a quartet, and often even working as a trio (no drums), this is a very interesting album indeed: it certainly doesn’t sound like the work of a band leader who in many ways is new to his craft. This is a string album of complex and interwoven songs, and although everyone has their turn at showing off their chops, this is very much a band designed to work together. The key is definitely the relationship between Johnson and Dixon, as they bounce off each other, repeating each other’s themes and melodies. It is Johnson who takes the singular melody from Dixon and drives it, finessing and stretching the themes so that they provide a curtain against which Dixon can stay within it or move tangentially.

There is a great deal on here to enjoy, from frenetic hard bop to numbers which are far more laid-back and delicate, and it is one of these to which I find myself often returning, “She Meant It When She Said It”, which uses space very much as an additional musician. It is slow, respectful, and Johnson’s production and mastering captures it all in manner which makes the listener feel they are there in that small room during the performance. The bass here is simply sublime, working with the piano to provide the perfect backdrop, while a few delicate cymbal touches here and there is all we hear from Dashiel. Delicate yet powerful, this song typifies what this album is all about.

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MUHAL RICHARD ABRAMS Levels And Degrees Of Light

Album · 1968 · Avant-Garde Jazz
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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snobb
"Levels And Degrees Of Light",released more than a half-century ago, is an almost forgotten cornerstone evidence of the entire epoch, and that's a shame. One of AACM founder pianist Muhal Richard Abrams (or simply Richard Abrams at the time of release) debut contains lot of ideas which have been developed for upcoming decades with a great success.

Just three longish compositions, all different but beautiful in their own way. One big surprise is lot of ambient sounds, similar to "white noise" on two longest album's compositions, recalling early synthesizers sound. Not common in jazz, early (rare and really expensive) synthesizers attracted interest of some known pianists, as Paul Bley or Richard Teitelbaum among others,so there are some recordings coming from 70s with use of this instrument,but the biggest surprise is that there on "Levels And Degrees Of Light" no electronic devices are used at all!

Main sources of ambient noise are Gordon Emmanuel vibes on opener and Leroy Jenkins violin on "The Bird Song". On "Levels And Degrees Of Light" classically trained vocalist Penelope Taylor sings over the ambient sounds, with addition of Abrams soloing on clarinet. Album's longest composition "The Bird Song" (filling all B-side on original vinyl release, but stated second in line on CD reissue)contains characteristic for 60s recitative poetry (read by David Moore).

"My Thoughts Are My Future - Now And Forever" which closes digital edition of this album, is shorter and more usual for the time groovy high-energy free jazz composition with staccato piano,sax soloing from Anthony Braxton (most probably his first ever recorded work) and lot of space for drummer Thurman Barker.

The album which probably doesn't sound such a radical from time distance at the day of release was innovative and perfectly illustrated the musical concept of then newly established musical school/movement of innovative Chicagoan artists which is still alive and active nowadays.

STEVIE WONDER Innervisions

Album · 1973 · RnB
Cover art 4.60 | 16 ratings
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js
Stevie Wonder was on a roll in the 70s, knocking out one great album after another that placed at the top of the game in RnB, pop and singer/songwriter productions. With so many good albums to choose from, picking the best would be hard, but you couldn’t be too far off if your choice was 1973’s “Innervisions”. Here we have a near perfect Wonder album, with each song being a polished gem that bears the obvious fruits of endless care and toil. When you listen to all the ornate instrumental details, you can hear the immense amount of labor that went into this project, but just let the songs sing and you will be immersed in emotional narratives that cover the spectrum from mournful to celebratory.

“Innervisions” is an eclectic album that ranges from the hard funk of “Living for the City”, to the art balladry of “Visions” and “All in Love is Fair”, to the jazzy abstractions of “Too High”. The music is inventive and became very influential over the years, but likewise, the lyrics are heartfelt and can hit hard in their insights and unflinching truth as Stevie address personal turmoil in relationships, as well as the irrational hatred and fear of his fellow man. Wonder performs almost every instrument on here himself, with some limited help from guests on a few tracks, but the result does not sound stifled as some home recording projects can sound, instead, Stevie by himself sounds like one hell of a hot jam session, no easy task.

LYN STANLEY London Calling -A Toast To Julie London

Album · 2018 · Vocal Jazz
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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kev rowland
The complete album title, ‘London Calling: A Toast To Julie London’, shows what this release is all about, which is Stanley taking songs recorded by Julie London (plus a couple she feels she would have if she had still been musically active when they were written) and providing her own tribute. The production is superb, with great space and ambience, and there is certainly a live feel to the album. Stanley also hasn’t been afraid to bring in Latin influences where she feels that would add to the arrangements as she is strong that this is a tribute as opposed to her attempting to re-record note for note what Julie had already achieved.

The booklet contains very good notes on the history of each song, as well as who played what, plus a new photo of Stanley on each page. So overall the release has been incredibly well handled. That Stanley has a wonderful voice is never in doubt.

WAYNE SHORTER The Collector (aka Etcetera)

Album · 1979 · Post Bop
Cover art 4.43 | 7 ratings
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Steve Wyzard
WAYNE: THE GREAT ONE

So what's the best Wayne Shorter album? While many would opt for Night Dreamer, The All-Seeing Eye, or Adam's Apple, let it be said here that in spite of its complicated release history, Et Cetera is his crowning achievement as a leader in the studio. Recorded on June 14, 1965, four of the five tracks (all except "Toy Tune") were released with "The Collector" (an outtake from Adam's Apple) in Japan only. The full album was finally given a wide release as part of Blue Note's "LT" series in 1980.

As of this writing (2019), all four performers are still with us today: Wayne on tenor sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Cecil McBee on bass, and Joe Chambers on drums. The low-key opener, "Etcetera" (6:20) is an ever-opening flower, both hypnotizing and unforgettable as it gradually unfolds. I have no idea if this was ever performed live, but it would have made a phenomenal solo trade-off number on stage. One of Shorter's most beautiful ballads, "Penelope" (6:44), comes next, with Wayne's tone and Herbie's solo being especially poignant. The light and breezy "Toy Tune" (7:22) is followed by Gil Evans's "Barracudas" (11:04). This intense workout gives the group a chance to stretch out, with both Wayne and Herbie having their most awe-inspiring moments on the album. Cecil McBee's bizarre bassline and substantial solo dominate the closing "Indian Song" (11:35). Everyone is at the top of their game throughout, and fans of all four players are urged to seek this one out.

It remains an unfathomable mystery why it took 15 years for this album to be released in USA/Europe. I will even go so far as to say that this is the best release in the famous (or is it infamous?) "LT" series, beating out Larry Young's Mother Ship and Grant Green's Nigeria by a close margin. Don't let Et Cetera's original cover dissuade you: yes, it's a wall of TV's. Huh?

THE ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO Nice Guys

Album · 1979 · Avant-Garde Jazz
Cover art 3.98 | 5 ratings
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snobb
The Art Ensemble of Chicago(AEOC) is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. They already played a series of gigs in US and announced upcoming European tour in October. Double album with new studio and some live recordings "We Are on the Edge" has been just released as well.

The band for all these decades was an unorthodox avant-garde celebrities of sort - their early circus-like shows and use of nontraditional sound instruments ("little instruments" - bells, bicycle horns, birthday party noisemakers,etc,etc)made them name partially around Europe as non-conformist forerunners, at the same time they were rarely supported by music critics and never experienced real commercial success. With years to come they received almost cult status as influential early avant-garde jazz band, but many newcomers are often disappointed when listening their one or another album.

There are many reasons why it happens that way, but the main one is their music worked well when evidenced live and in the times when them looked really alternative/counterculture act (i.i. late 60s -early 70s). The Western world was different and it wanted something revolutionary or even "revolutionary". They just started in right time (and in a case with Paris ca.1969 - in right place). Their music doesn't date all that well, at least some part of it.

The other reason why many their albums (to be honest - almost all) doesn't sound all that attractive today is on a peak of their early popularity they released plenty of badly recorded and edited music. All but one their albums recorded between 1969 and 1974 were released on tiny European (predominantly French) labels as BYG or America and often sound as unedited demos. In case with AEOC music bad sound mix and uninspired editing means that the listener receives a collection of muddy directless never-ending noises coming from small instruments time to time interrupted by tuneful marches and "true" instruments soloing. Those familiar with band's impressive discogs will probably agree that it is almost impossible to mention even a few really great their albums (in whole). As rule, even their better releases contain few stronger pieces and lot of fillers. At the same time, early live recordings are predominantly of bootleg quality and can be recommended for hot fans and collectors mostly.

Their first American major label release came in 1974 only (on Atlantic) and it stays one of their better works for sure. Second album has been released after five years only, and it is the one we are speaking about - "Nice Guys" on prestigious ECM! Musically it represents a wide variety of regular AEOC music, but in term of quality it is a big step ahead. Renown by their recordings exclusive airy clear sound, ECM people recorded the material in their main Tonstudio Bauer in Ludwigsburg with full respect to each of many sounds traditionally produced by band. At last the dedicated listener can hear every smallest bell's ring and car signal's call as if he's in a room where the band is playing live.

Surprisingly how much that sound/mix quality adds to band's music - being musically mostly the same on "Nice Guys" the band sounds much richer and for sure more attractively. Then, there are only 6 compositions chosen for the album and them mostly are all quite short (in AEOC terms). It means there are no long bulky "little instruments" soling at every possibility, as it was before. General band music's relaxed and improvisational nature is presented well enough but still all material is edited making it much more listenable.

The opener "Ja" contains reggae rhythms and is one of these band's songs that stays in memory for years. Less than two-minutes long "Nice Guys" is a groovy song nicely filling the gap between the opener and "Folkus" - a longer and freer composition demonstrating all the collection of band's "little instruments" and gongs sounds and excellent recording studio and ECM engineers abilities as well. And - it doesn't sound annoying or boring.

On "597-59" band runs ahead on whole cylinders with continuing reeds soloing over the groovy drums/bass shaking ground, in a true free jazz fashion. Finishes with extended solo bass dance.

"Cyp"doesn't have such busy sound as other album's compositions, it is slower,almost static with crispy sound from each instrument, free and near philosophical. "Dreaming of the Master" - the closer and longest album song, is dedicated to Miles Davis and surprisingly enough it sounds not much different from Miles himself, circa late 50s.At least in the beginning and the end - central part is dedicated to free jazz.

"Nice Guys" is a high quality representative AEOC album covering their first five years. As almost any other ECM release it has re-issued many times and it isn't a problem to find it for purchase. One better choice for newbies and anyone interested to find out why Art Ensemble of Chicago are celebrities till now. Find it, listen and then go to see them live.

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