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jazz music reviews (new releases)

IMMANUEL WILKINS Omega

Album · 2020 · 21st Century Modern
Cover art 4.50 | 1 rating
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js
“Omega” is the first album by saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, but he is hardly a new comer to the jazz scene. Since his arrival in NYC in 2015 he has been building a solid reputation as an educator and as a sideman with artists as diverse as Jason Moran, Branford Marsalis, the Count Basie Orchestra and Bob Dylan. He and his chosen band have been working together for four years and it shows through in their strong communication and interplay. At first listen, “Omega” carries the hallmarks of modern jazz with its abstract and energetic mix of post bop, fusion and free jazz, but there is something new and different present in Wilkins’ music, and if you are not familiar with African American church music you might miss it. Yes, Wilkins’ music is often abstract and complex, but there is also a strong emotional element present as well. The cries and the longings of gospel music are here, but not in any cliché way. Immanuel and his band may present an emotional melody, but the way they work with it and develop it is pure modern jazz.

Wilkins often has a dry direct sax tone similar to Jackie MacLean and Steve Coleman, but he can also build up to an expressive melodic cry that recalls Albert Alyer and latter day Coltrane. The way in which Immanuel can build a solo off of a single melodic base may remind some of Kenny Garret as well. Pianist Micah Thomas has some Herbie Hancock in him, but he can also thunder in the big two handed tradition that has passed from Art Tatum to Matthew Shipp. Drummer Kweku Sumbry uses the entire kit in his maelstrom assaults in that style preferred by today’s NYC based drummers, and bassist Daryl Jones can be quite melodic, even doubling Wilkins on some of the songs melodies. The hallmark of this band is the way in which they can work together as an ensemble, trading and combining ideas in ways that break down the cliché roles of soloist and accompanist. The wide range of this band is also remarkable as they move from intense free modern bop to lyrical ballads.

The main difference in Immanuel’s music is in its powerful emotional content. There is so much great music these days, but so much of it is intellectual and dry and seems to lack heart. Even Wilkins’ song titles are significant as they reference poignant history such as Ferguson and Mary Turner, as well as his attempts to look inside with titles like “Grace and Mercy” and “Guarded Heart”. If you are tired of clever smirky play on words as song titles, you’ll find none of that here, same goes for the music. Immanuel and his band play like they mean it. Its rare for my reviews to indulge in superlatives, but this album deserves it. “Omega” is one of the best debuts I have ever heard and is also one of the best jazz albums for this year. Wilkins has managed to present a very original and personal vision, and that is not easy to do. Also, I don’t mind telling you that the ending of “Gaurded Heart” had me in tears, that doesn’t happen often with me and modern jazz music.

PAT METHENY From This Place

Album · 2020 · Fusion
Cover art 4.91 | 2 ratings
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darkshade
Pat is back! With a new lineup, bringing over long-time bandmate at this point, Antonio Sanchez, on drums. On bass is Linda May Han Oh, and on piano is Gwilym Simcock. The band is backed up by an orchestra. This is arguably one of his best albums over a 50 year career, which is quite a feat this late in the game. I haven't felt this great about a Pat Metheny album since The Way Up, released almost 15 years prior to this album. There's been some good stuff released in between, but nothing that has been as enjoyable as anything from 2005 and earlier... until From This Place.

From the massive prog-jazz opening track America Undefined, to the final heartfelt Love May Take Awhile, this album is a journey, and an emotional roller coaster, as Pat's best albums usually are. I enjoy every track here. The opener is very intense, with even some kind of rock out section in the last part, very exciting way to open things up. Same River is very classic Pat Metheny, Pathmaker is possibly the most fun tune on this album, and the harmonica player from The Way Up appears on The Past Is Us, a great tune. The emotional title song touches on the political climate of the late 2010s, but I think the final two pieces, Sixty-Six, written for Pat's age at the time, and the aforementioned Love May Take Awhile, are two of the most powerful pieces of music Pat has put out yet. The orchestral strings really shine on these last two.

I am reminded of Lyle Mays throughout this album, who passed away about a week before this album was released. The tune Sixty-Six takes on a whole other meaning for that is the age Lyle was at his passing, and the music is reminiscent of the Pat Metheny Group classic, "Last Train Home" makes it seem like a tribute to the life of Lyle Mays. The piano work of Gwilym Simcock is to be commended as he really brings out the spirit of Lyle throughout the music of From This Place. The orchestra does this as well, providing the synth-heavy background ambience Lyle would often provide in the PMG along with is piano playing, with an orchestra instead.

Overall, this album is like a marriage of Secret Story and The Way Up, while also bringing back some of the mid-Western sound from the 70s bands, with a pinch of the 80s PMG sound for good measure. All the while pushing things forward, there are many surprises throughout, some things I've never heard Pat do before. As far as his guitar playing, of course it's fantastic as usual, but this time he sounds more inspired than usual as of late, and his classic tone is back. Pat has never sounded so good. His clean guitar tone here is well balanced and warm, unlike his previous few albums where his tone was dry, far-away sounding, and cold.

Highly recommended for anyone who is even slightly into Pat's music. Great album from the modern master of Jazz.

JOHN DAVERSA Cuarentena : With Family at Home

Album · 2020 · Latin Jazz
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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js
Its not unusual for a John Daversa album to carry a theme outside of the music itself, so it is with his new album, “Cuarantena: With Family at Home”, on which he explores the importance of familial relationships in a time of quarantine through a collection of boleros, a musical form that was often a part of his family gatherings when he was young. Many of these compositions by Daversa are homages to various family members, and also many other of the compositions were written by other family members. Interspersed between the tracks, the various members of Daversa’s quintet discuss how family and music interact in their own lives. Speaking of the assembled quintet for the recording, this is an all-star ensemble with top names at every position; Gonzalo Rubalcaba on piano, Carlo De Rosa on bass, Dafnis Prieto on drums and Sammy Figueroa on percussion.

As mentioned already, every one of these songs is a bolero, but do not expect sameness, instead this album is laden with creative eclecticism. Boleros tend to be rhythmically laid back and very melodic, and you do get a lot of that on here, but there are variations too. “#45” features some high speed bebop unisons, “#22” contains fiery solo trade offs, “Puppitas” has a far out arrangement that borders on the avant-garde, and “#19”builds into an aggressive samba like energy. Still, the hallmark of “Cuarantena” are the more laid back boleros that fascinate with their open spaces and relaxed timing. The open spaces can almost recall a classic ECM disc, only with a Latin flavor and no icy reverb. When Daversa’s lonely trumpet plays over a sparse accompaniment I’m also reminded of Miles’ classic “Quiet Nights” album. All members of the band are careful not to overplay and the tracks are made more interesting because different members of the band will drop out of the mix for a while instead of all five going at it all the time. Overall, a most valuable player award could go to Rubalcaba whose wide ranging skills can add variety through his knowledge of post bop, Latin jazz and classical.

This is a beautiful album, very thoughtful and sensitive. Its great to hear musicians with mind blowing chops set their pyrotechnics aside for a while to just play music that anyone can relate to, not just fans of jazz or Latin music.

CHRISTIAN SCOTT (CHRISTIAN SCOTT ATUNDE ADJUAH) Axiom

Live album · 2020 · Eclectic Fusion
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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snobb
Five years ago I saw Christian Scott playing live on his European tour with almost the same band (vocalist Isadora Mendez Scott is not on board, sax player Braxton Cook instead of current Alex Han and percussionist Joe Dyson instead of Weedie Braimah). He sounded quite similar to what is recorded on this newest album "Axiom", just here he sounds a bit better.

Exactly as during the gig I saw live, Scott speaks a lot, plays trumpet and manages his band well. Flutist Elena Pinderhughes is a night's star filling space with nice solos generally, not too knotty for the band's music. Lawrence Field's retro keys sound great and add a lot of 70s spirit.

Comparing with some of Scott's last studio albums, music here is much more organic, and that's for good. There is a groove and a lot of African percussion, and in general this album is not much different from today's popular London based African fusion influenced sound.

Exactly as during the concert I saw, songs here are quite long, being accessible and not too complex, the lengthiness can make the album simply sound a bit bulky as a result. Still, taking in account all the pros and cons, "Axiom" is probably the best Scott album I have ever heard.

WYNTON MARSALIS Wynton Marsalis & Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra : The Ever Fonky Lowdown

Album · 2020 · Third Stream
Cover art 5.00 | 1 rating
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js
After an incredibly long and productive buildup, it looks like Wynton Marsalis has hit the apex of his career with “The Ever Fonky Low Down”, a tour de force of spoken word, music and dance that speaks volumes against the negative forces that have been on the rise in recent times. The album itself is excellent, but I do hope someday he makes the filmed performance of this more available because with dancers, a large music ensemble and a charismatic narrator in Wendall Pierce, much of the appeal of this opus is visual. The real star of the show here is the lengthy text read by Pierce as the hustling character, Mr Game (“Sell you a loan that will take your home“). Mr Game is part insincere wealthy preacher, corrupt politician and conniving criminal hustler all rolled into one as he attempts to brainwash his audience. The words were all written by Wynton, who is apparently just as talented at libretto as he is with music as he displays the background for the cynical logic that threatens our world today. I won’t try to give out too many details about Mr Game’s rap as he tries to deride ‘they’ and buildup ‘his people’, but you will hear similarities to Hitler’s speech about the Polish people, Trump’s exaggerated and fabricated claims about illegal immigrants and the twisted logic of those who try to justify, or deny, the evils of slavery, genocide and ‘ethnic cleansing’. But its not just about the Mr Games of the world, instead, Wynton is challenging us to look deeper at how we react to Mr Game and his opponents. Do we let them manipulate and divide us, or are we able to think for ourselves and keep our moral compass on track.

The rhythms on here are pure New Orleans in many flavors such as RnB, Dixieland, odd metered modern jazz, post bop modal grooves, street marches and more. On top of this rhythmic foundation Wynton interjects his orchestrations that show similarities to Ellington, Mingus, Stravinsky, Bernstein and Sun Ra. There are plenty of hot solos from the all-star band and lots of free form interaction during the longer jams. It's very telling that the music is based in New Orleans, that fertile birthplace of creativity from which a subjugated people ended up spreading their culture and changing much of the world. As mentioned before, this is a very visual production and its great watching the three male dancers improvise and move in synchronicity with methods taken from jazz ballet and New Orleans street dancing. Also enjoyable is Wendall Pierce’s very charismatic performance, especially when his eyes flash like the devil when Mr Game moves in for the ‘closer‘. Wynton's hand picked musicians bring much personality to the proceedings as well, particularly the three female singers and blues/country guitarist and vocalist Doug Wamble, whose southern drawl can sound charming and also ironically troubling.

What makes ‘Fonky Lowdown’ so powerful is that Marsalis has very thoroughly laid out what dangers lay in wait in today’s world. In a recent interview Wynton pointed out, “This is no time to be sleep walking”. I was already aware of much of what Marsalis relates here, but I have never heard it all illustrated in such a cohesive manner, once again, in Wynton’s own words, “showing us a blueprint on how to rise above populist propaganda”. Don’t expect easy answers or liberal platitudes on how to make things better. Also don't expect cliche shaming and a roll call of past grievances. Instead, Marsalis is shooting for bigger game as he displays the thinking that allows those that should know better to stand by while the 'Mr Games' of the world go about their business. 'Fonky Lowdown' is a call for everyone to pay attention and be ready to act if needed.

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JOE FARRELL Moon Germs

Album · 1973 · Fusion
Cover art 3.80 | 6 ratings
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Steve Wyzard
FUSION MASTERPIECE

It's sad that since his untimely death in 1986, Joe Farrell has been mostly forgotten. Sure, the albums he did with Chick Corea, Elvin Jones, and even Andrew Hill still have their adherents, but albums like Moon Germs remind us he deserves to be remembered as far more than just a side-man. And while this is a CTI album from 1973, don't worry: there's not an overbearing orchestra in sight.

The four tracks on Moon Germs (Farrell's "Great Gorge" and "Moon Germs", Chick Corea's "Times Lie" and Stanley Clarke's "Bass Folk Song") all follow a similar pattern: begin leisurely before launching into ridiculous speeds, Farrell takes the first solo, Herbie Hancock (electric piano - less than a year away from Head Hunters) takes the second solo, a very young Stanley Clarke (electric bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums) add their irrepressible best, before everyone returns to the beginning. Farrell, known for his Rollins-ish tone on the tenor, plays only soprano sax on this album, with the exception of "Bass Folk Song" which is his flute showcase. Like soloing, especially from these guys? On this album, solos go far beyond the usual 10-30 seconds each.

The word "masterpiece" gets thrown around all too often, but Moon Germs truly deserves it. While released in close proximity to many other fusion classics that are still revered today, this album can stand head-and-shoulders next to any of them. Highly recommended to fans of all the players involved, but most especially to Herbie Hancock fans. If you enjoy his Crossings/Sextant period, you MUST hear his performances on this album!

HORIZONS JAZZ ORCHESTRA The Brite Side

Album · 2019 · Big Band
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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js
Horizons Jazz Orchestra is a South Florida all-star big band that grew out of the remains of Lee Harris and Dennis Noday’s Superband. The last Superband album was supposed to be a tribute to Harris, their lead arranger and composer, but Lee passed away before the album could be finished and many of the band’s performers moved on to other projects. Trombonist Michael Balogh decided to finish the project by inviting some of his favorite musicians to join the remaining members of Superband thereby creating a new ensemble, Horizons Jazz Orchestra, and “The Brite Side” is their debut album. As mentioned earlier, this album is a tribute to Lee Harris and every track but one is either a Harris original composition or arrangement.

Horizons plays bright upbeat big band music with a 60s-70s pop leaning that may remind some of Quincy Jones, Maynard Ferguson and Thad Jones. Many of the band members have ties to the Stan Kenton Orchestra, so there is that influence as well. Several tracks have that Four Brothers/Woody Herman smooth sax section ensemble work which comes as no surprise since section leader Billy Ross played in the Herman band as well as with many top names in pop and RnB. Lots of instantly recognizable jazz favorites are performed here along side Harris’ originals which are easy to pick up on at first listen. The ensemble work is flawless and the solos are short and to the point, this is big band music that can easily be enjoyed by non-jazz fans and big band aficionados alike.

Some top cuts include the high energy of “After You’ve Gone, Finally” and “Fourth Dimension” which feature that smooth Woody Herman sax ensemble sound. Title track “The Brite Side” sounds like a movie soundtrack performed with a lengthy multi-sectioned 70s progressive rock arrangement and “the Sound” features a noir ballad vehicle for the tenor saxophone soloing of Billy Ross. “A Train Bossa” shows how well “Take the A Train” takes to a bossa nova rhythm and “Red Apple Sweet” is a soul jazz workout for the Hammond B3 playing of Gary Mayone.

MASAHIKO SATOH 佐藤允彦 Masahiko Satoh Trio : Transformation '69/'71

Album · 1971 · Post Bop
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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snobb
Almost all of Japanese pianist Masahiko Sato's albums were released solely in Japan which means they are not easily accessible in the Western world. For those interested in the best Japanese jazz, his name is probably heard, but the problem is where to start with his prolific discography.

Being one of the very best Japanese jazz pianists of the last half-a-century (the other equal name is Yosuke Yamashita), Sato released plenty of albums, and they all are quite different stylistically. He was one of the leading stars of the early Japanese avant-garde jazz scene, switched towards fusion later, returned back to freer forms, collaborated with more modern electronics wizards, etc, etc.

Still, if you are new to his music, and want to chose the one album where to start, "Transformation '69/'71" is the place.

Side A is recorded in 1969 and the music is excellent post-bop, groovy and elegant, with Sato's original "Tigris" being almost a jazz standard level song.

Side B is recorded with the same trio (including another Japanese avant-garde jazz scene legend drummer Masahiko Togashi and more straight and lesser known acoustic bassist Yasuo Arakawa), but two years later. The album's title comes from those two session dates and the second one is polarly different from the first one.

Still with some beauty and grace, the trio here plays knotty jazz with lots of air inside. As it is characteristic almost exclusively to early avant-garde jazz, being a free form music here radiates some spiritual energy and doesn't sound as formalistic experiment at all. It's interesting that "cosmic" effects on side B are produced by Togashi percussion, not early synth.

It doesn't evidence Satos' evolution from mainstream towards free jazz though, since during these same few years he played very different music (the good example of his r'n'b / jazz rock album is 1970 "Bridge Over Troubled Water").

This short (less than 35 minutes) album is a quintessence of Satoh's music, and it's sound quality is extremely high even for so high raised Japanese jazz recordings sound standards of the early 70s. Original vinyl is a rarity, but 2011 CD reissue (of same excellent crisp sound) being out of press still circulates on secondary market.

CHICO HAMILTON Chico Hamilton Trio Introducing Freddy Gambrell

Album · 1958 · Hard Bop
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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js
Freddie Gambrell is another pianist you can file under the tag, ‘one of the best piano players you never heard of.’. The reason you probably never heard of him is that he only recorded three albums, and the best of those three, “Chico Hamilton Presents Freddie Gambrell”, shows up in the Chico Hamilton discography, not Gambrell‘s. The best way I can introduce Freddie is to describe how I found his playing. I was listening to a 5 CD collection of Chico Hamilton music from the late 50s on random shuffle when I noticed this rather odd and attention grabbing pianist would show up occasionally. His playing was rooted in hard bop, but there were these weird surprises and unexpected jumps in his solos. All of this was reminding me of Herbie Nichols or Jaki Byard, but this guy was obviously neither of them. I didn’t even think that Chico ever worked with a pianist, but upon checking the CD package I see there is this one album with pianist Freddie Gambrell, someone I was not familiar with at all, so I wanted to find out more.

Apparently after recording this one album with Chico in 1958, Freddie released two more in 1959, with neither making much of an impact and although he worked regularly in San Francisco for the rest of his life, both as a pianist and big band leader, you can not find much more information about him than that. So really, the best of Freddie’s lasting legacy is just this one album with Hamilton. The style on here is west coast hard bop, in other words somewhat laid back. Chico and bassist Ben Tucker provide a rhythmic pocket for Gambrell but not much else. There is little interplay between the players and no bass or drum solos either, this is very much a Gambrell solo act. Freddie’s playing is rooted in the pre-Bill Evans school of Art Tatum and Erroll Garner, with a lot of blues thrown in as well. Then there are his unique excursions that can go anywhere unpredictably, this is what grabbed my attention about this guy in the first place, and its what continues to get my attention anytime I give him a listen. If you like any of the other pianists I referenced in this review, or other slightly off-kilter players like Monk or Ellington, then give Gambrell a try. This is one jazz musician who should be better known.

MASABUMI KIKUCHI Feel You

Album · 1993 · Post Bop
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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snobb
Piano player Masabumi Kikuchi, who passed away in 2015, was an unsung hero of multicultural American-Japanese jazz. Born in Tokyo in 1939 and living in New York from 1974, he went a long way on both US and Japan scenes, playing with greats such as Gil Evans, Elvin Jones, Joe Henderson and Terumasa Hino among many others. Masabumi experienced early fame as a leader playing then popular fusion in early 70s, and partially playing an early synthesizers jazz. From 90s, he became a member of Paul Motian band for decades still releasing his own albums extensively.

"Feel You" is one of Kikuchi's more obscure releases, recorded in New York and released in Japan and Germany. Here Masabumi plays as old school acoustic trio with lesser known Americans bassist James Genus and drummer Victor Jones. Stylistically covering large range of genres, "Feel You" is first of all true TRIO's album. Each member has his own significant voice here, and there is enough space for every one of them.

Album opens and closes with "Pain Killer"(I & II respectively). Funky memorable tune with deep wooden bass sounds as if the bassist is a leader of the trio. "Zig Zag" comes as true 70s post bop song with a spark, here (as well as on some others compositions) one can hear Kikuchi's moaning, not in such annoying way as Jarrett does, fortunately.

"Free Stroll" is mid-tempo freer piece, as it's title says, and the longest song on this album. Partially constructed as a dialogue between soloing piano and double bass with a support of drummer, this song is surprisingly accessible, even attractive despite of its quite loose structure.

"Little Treat" is a little ballad quite similar to such well known from Paul Motian's trio recordings (surprisingly, it is James Genus' original, the only other than Kikuchi's originals on this album, which besides of them contains two standards as well). "It Never Entered My Mind" is one of the standards (written by Hart & Rodgers), sounding here slightly melancholic and very airy.

Masabumi Kikuchi was known by his own very individual piano playing manner, when playing he's been leaving a lot of silence between separate notes. Some called his manner "a Japanese influence", he often wasn't agreeable with this tag, but as a result his music is very often quite meditative, with a touch of melancholy, but with a strict control over emotional coloring. Being a child of two radically different megalopolises, Tokyo and New York, Masabumi very often sounds as a lonely artist in a big city. Like Woody Allen in his movies, Masabumi paints his New York, just not from the Near East or Eastern Europe (Allen's heritage), but from his big city Zen-Buddhist roots.

"Up Beat Blues" actually is a brilliant post-bop piece with sultry sound demonstrating excellent collaboration between all three band members. "20th St. Shuffle" is an acoustic fusion of sort, where Kikuchi plays minimalist staccato piano over the drummer's fanfares, imitating a moving train's sound all song long.

Even if the album looks quite eclectic in genres on paper, in real life it sounds organic, united in one musical post from a capable and inspired trio.

Since both original vinyl releases (Japanese and European) are collectable rarities, the only existing reissue on CD (coming from Japan,2015) is probably easier and cheaper to find. Not really the album for newcomers, "Feel You" is interesting and valuable release for everyone who already found out the original beauty of Kikuchi's better known works and wants more.

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