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jazz music reviews (new releases)

DAVID K. MATHEWS Fantasy Vocal Sessions Vol 2

Album · 2020 · RnB
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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David K. Matthews is a keyboardist, who along with spending 20 years with Etta James, has worked with countless artists in the fields of jazz, RnB, pop, rock and blues. The Fantasy Vocal Sessions is his latest project with the current release being his Volume 2. While Volume 1 dealt with traditional jazz, Volume 2 is RnB oriented with many songs also showing a gospel influence. The word fantasy not only alludes to David’s desire to bring together some of his favorite singers and musicians, but also refers to the fact that at least the first two albums of his series were recorded in the famous Fantasy Studios. Unfortunately future installments of this project will have to find another studio because Fantasy has finally been closed.

This is an interesting collection of vocalists gathered here, with a couple of surprises including rockers Alex Ligertwood and Steve Miller. Some of the best performances come from Amikaeyla Gaston, who is given three songs to cover including beautiful versions of the Isley’s “For the Love of You” and Stevie’s “Super Woman”. I especially like the fact that she didn’t change the gender on Wonder’s lyrics. That always sounds so corny when a singer feels compelled to change lyrics to fit who they are. Another great performance comes from Glenn Walters, who transforms the 60s pop classic “Goin Out of My Head” into something much more substantial and soulful. Another top performance is Tony Lindsay’s intense gospel flavored reading of “So Sweetly”.

Joining Matthews in the backing bands are an all-star cast of bay area session musicians, and most tunes give the vocalists a break for a top notch jazz solo on guitar, sax or keyboards. The arrangements are inventive and sometimes pleasingly retro. Is that an Arp String Ensemble I hear on some of these tracks, what a nice 70s vibe that texture can provide. The arrangement on James Brown’s classic “I Feel Good” is an ‘underground’ version, and it recalls the busy syncopated horns of Tower of Power. No big surprise as many of the musicians on here, including David himself, have worked with the mighty Tower. Apparently David has more fantasy sessions on the way, with future installments featuring blues and Latin jazz

FRED RANDOLPH Mood Walk

Album · 2020 · Soul Jazz
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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Lately a lot of young people in London, LA and elsewhere are rediscovering that jazz doesn’t belong in a museum, it can be relevant, now and fun, party music with a message if you want. No doubt its great seeing this happen. Those of us who have been around for a while can recall a jazz style that was great for parties, while being socially relevant, back in the 70s. That style was called soul jazz and it fueled many a backyard gathering and late night club date back in the day. Fred Randolph’s new CD, “Mood Walk” is not retro soul jazz per se, but it does capture a similar spirit with its mix of upbeat hard bop, funk jazz, Latin grooves and laid back change ups. The CD’s appeal is pushed further by the fact that Randolph’s band is made up of musicians that know each other well and have played together often over the years, this is not of those quickly thrown together recording dates.

Fred is a multi-instrumentalist who tried his hand at guitar and saxophone before settling on the bass. In addition to his CDs as a leader, Fred works as a sideman in many different styles including, classical, rock, samba, salsa and RnB. Fred’s assembled band on “Mood Walk” is super hot with trumpeter Erik Jekabson and saxophonist Sheldon Brown leading the way with veteran confidence and youthful energy. One of the best tracks is the Congo derived driving energy of “Nouveau Monde”. When Greg Sankovitch enters with a flying B3 solo, it sounds like you are in classic Santana land. “Mr Now” mixes Coltrane inspired hard bop with more Latin flavor, while “T Bone Slide” and “Funky N.O. Thing” kick the party in high gear with the funk jazz. Life has been hard lately, let “Mood Walk”, lighten your burden.

MUHAL RICHARD ABRAMS Celestial Birds

Boxset / Compilation · 2020 · Avant-Garde Jazz
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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snobb
It is almost an axiom that no-one likes compilations in jazz (and rock music as well). Still, there are hundreds and thousands of them, predominantly with the openly commercial reason of trying to sell old as new, usually collecting all the most successful pieces in one place.

"Celestial Birds" is oppositely different. It contains some more unusual Muhal Richard Abrams compositions, with a strong accent on early electronics sound.

Avant-garde jazz never had a commercial potential as musical genre, and it has even less in the 20's. The risk of releasing such albums is moderately high, but thanks to zeitkratzer series director Reinhold Friedl and German label Karlrecords the world got the rare possibility to refresh (and for many newcomers - to find out) this lesser know side of AACM founder.

Vinyl album's side A is dedicated to 22+ minutes long "The Bird Song", which originally filled whole side B of Abrams debut, "Levels and Degrees of Light", released in 1968. The composition opens with recitative Chicagoan poet David Moore's poem and continues with dominating analogue synthesizer's vibes scented with minimalist saxes(Anthony Braxton & Kalaparusha), bass(Leonard Jones), drums (Thurman Barker) and violin (Leroy Jenkins). Differently from later and more regular use of electronics in jazz, here the whole music sounds quite cold, technological and close to minimalist composers pieces. It's interesting, that for this compilation the original version of the song has been used, with reverberations removed from the CD reissues.

"Conversations With The Three Of Me" is taken from much later, 1989 album "The Hearinga Suite", released in Italy. Here we found Abrams playing solo, first on piano and then - on synth. Piano part sounds as neo-classic dry composition which ends as spacey synth improvs. "Think All, Focus One" is another Abrams solo composition, played solely on analogue synths (comes from 1995 album of the same name). Abrams sounds not much different from Frank Zappa playing Synclavier on his unorthodox album "Jazz From Hell". The closer, "Spihumonesty", is recorded with a larger combo, including Roscoe Mitchell on reeds among others. Dominating synths sound here is mixed with free jazz small orchestra.

Early recordings presented on this compilation are coming from the time when synthesizer meant actually an extremely expensive studio, which were rare and hardly accessible for the jazz musician. Abrams was among very first jazz musicians experimenting with synthesis of jazz and electronics, and his works sound interesting even now.

KIRK KNUFFKE Brightness : Live in Amsterdam

Live album · 2020 · Eclectic Fusion
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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Kirk Knuffke, a cornetist based in New York since 2005, is one of this generation's leading artists on his instrument. He's played with William Parker, Roswell Rudd, John Zorn, Dave Douglas, Myra Melford and Jon Irabagon among many others, and has built a strong reputation as an inventive and skilled side-artist.

He started recording as a leader in 2008, he moved from freer avant-garde jazz to various forms of free-bop, finding there his own easily recognizable sound. It came almost as a surprise to realize that after twelve years and a series of his own albums, "Brightness.." is Knuffke's first ever released live album (European "Chew Your Food" live album from 2010 is more a collective Knuffke-Ellis-Wollesen trio work).

Following Knuffke music for some years, it always attracted me for being unpredictable. Having his own signature sound, Knuffke never plays the same things twice. All of his albums are recorded with different line-ups and/or different, sometimes quite unorthodox, concepts (a great example is his "Witness" from 2018 - cornet/clarinet/piano trio in support of operatic baritone Steven Herring singing standards, some arias and a few Knuffke originals).

For those new to Knuffke's music, the best parallel is Eric Dolphy's transitional period works, except Dolphy did a great step from bop to free, Knuffke five decades after moves in the opposite direction.

On "Brightness", bare-naked cornet-bass-drums trio plays in soft and warm atmosphere of Amsterdam's most legendary jazz club - Bimhuis. In fact, current Knuffke's trio with drummer Bill Goodwin and bassist Mark Helias is half of 2015's Knuffke sextet, responsible for the release of the notable "Arms And Hands" album.

Seven compositions, all tuneful (similar to a modern standards of sort) are played with a lot of inspiration and grace, still with a strong feel for early bop. Vibrato-less clear sound of cornet draws moody melodies with relaxed beauty, adding freer solos here and there and leaving enough space for deep physical bass soloing and swinging drums, and - probably for the first time ever - Kirk sings on "The Mob, The Crown, The Mass".

Returning back to the parallels with Dolphy's music, Knuffke in fact plays same free-bop as Dolphy did. Just if Dolphy started on ground moving to faster, freer more chaotic sound, Knuffke returns back bop-rooted avant-garde jazz back to its roots.

Simply and great - just can't stop listening to it again and again.

It's interesting, that just a few days ago Knuffke released his second album this same year, this time on the European SteepleChase label and in accordance with the label's reputation - a bit more conservative. Still, he again chooses a trio format - not really a traditional one, with Kenny Wollesen on drums and Bob Stewart on tuba. Kirk can't stop surprising his fans again.

YUJI MUTO & MAKO KIMATA Fission

Live album · 2020 · Jazz Related Improv/Composition
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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DamoXt7942
"Fission" was released in May 2020 as the second shot of Yuji's improvisation series, in collaboration with a female metalcore drummer Mako KIMATA. Each of them has already been renowned as a session musician in other metal / jazz / avantgarde units as you know, and you have definitely been looking forward to such a instrumental battle between the two talented artists. Wondering where two eccentric originality would go ... if they could be united or not. An everlasting amazement will end up with this brilliant stuff.

The first track "Killer Hornet" kicks you away from the real world, along with Yuji's deep, heavy, explosive but sincere, polite guitar play and Mako's eccentric, complicated, strict drumming. An improvised magnificence is perfectly concordant with another play. Let me say at first, this superb session was live upon stage, actually. "Killer Hornet 2" gets more impressive and innovative. The middle part full of melodic cores and dramatic drumming is kinda killer. You can easily suppose such a powerful, complex stuff could not be played at one stretch without breathing.

On the contrary, the second one "Fission Improvisation" gets started with Yuji's quiet, gentle, but eccentric guitar phrases. Sounds like his guitar might give a speak to the audience in front of him, and Mako's drumming be supportive of Yuji's attempt to be a poet, especially the former part of this track. However, the latter stage is crazy ectopic and dissected. Their excessive play reminds you slightly of Behold ... The Arctopus, in spite of the fact they are only two.

In "A World Inside A Dew Drop" Mako's percussion play fills your brain with percussive dew drops. A gorgeous, beautiful tune really ... happy to imagine the audience listened to this one with tremendous emotion. The last "20-6", that I don't know the real meaning of, is quite relaxing. Apparent is such an expression the two instrumental atmosphere got merged and crystallized completely. You can feel aftereffects of comfort, after being knocked out by their bombastic plays.

An evaluation for improvisational creations should owe a lot to how technical and completely harmonized. In this sense, their works are great indeed. On the other hand, quite difficult to find and get to so-called sound innovation via such material. All the same, this album is fantastic.

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JOHN MCLAUGHLIN Extrapolation

Album · 1969 · Post Bop
Cover art 3.76 | 18 ratings
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John McLaughlin, much like his contemporary and sometimes band mate, Chick Corea, started his career with a very distinctive style, only to abandon that approach and tone things down for the rest of his career. Interesting to note that both were influenced by guru types when they changed their way of playing. “Extrapolation” is McLughlin’s first album as a leader and features a young guitarist willing to take crazy chances while plying with a fierce intensity that never totally returns on subsequent albums. Don’t get me wrong, John had many more great performances and recordings throughout the rest of his career, but he never again played with the freedom and abandon he does here. This McLaughlin has a rough approach that is both avant-garde and rootsy at the same time, especially compared to the po0lished sheen of many of his later albums.

The music on “Extrapolation” is all McLaughlin originals that combine bop, blues, free jazz, RnB and Indian music. Besides John, the next star of the show here is the versatile and energetic drumming of Tony Oxley, who is right at home playing anything from bluesy grooves to all out free onslaughts. John Surman’s gnarly baritone fit’s the gritty music perfectly as he adds his solos that combine RnB riffing with soaring free jazz. Brian Odges is an anchor on bass, and his well recorded input adds strength to the mix. Many of the tunes are very short and eclectic ranging from ballads to avant-garde bebop, but the best tracks are the longer ones where the band is given time to build their intensity. Listen to John’s intense note bends influenced by Indian music. Along with dropping the freer tonality, McLaughlin never recorded as much in that style again. Indian note bends have always been a part of his playing, but on this first album he merges this with a soulful blues flavor that adds so much bite to his solos. Some of John’s subsequent work with Miles Davis also features his earlier approach to the guitar.

MARC JOHNSON Second Sight

Album · 1987 · Fusion
Cover art 4.25 | 4 ratings
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Steve Wyzard
ENDLESS SUMMER DAY

If you've never been convinced that a back-cover photograph could epitomize an album of instrumental performances, take a look at Dieter Rehm's placid beach scene on the back of Marc Johnson's Second Sight (1987). While Johnson's first album with the same line-up (1986's Bass Desires) was an off-the-wall avant-garde surprise, Second Sight, while retaining some of the same textures, is otherwise very different. This is a much more cohesive, accessible, thought-provoking, and yes, relatively quieter album that doesn't sacrifice any of Bass Desires's sense of adventure or experimentalism. Second Sight remains the better album for the simple reason of more memorable compositions and atmospheres. Which of course begs the question, "Why is there a lone helicopter over the ocean on the front cover?"

The vigorous drumming of Peter Erskine and the howling guitar trade-offs of Bill Frisell (left-channel) and John Scofield (right-channel) mark "Crossing the Corpus Callosum" as a continuation of the previous album. The beach seems very far away in this musical depiction of a futuristic landscape with Frisell's special effects and Johnson's arco playing. From here on out, the sonic atmosphere changes radically, with Frisell's following "Small Hands" being a gently picked largo. Erskine's "Sweet Soul" is one of those magical moods you wish could last forever: somewhat reminiscent of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows", Scofield takes the first verse, Frisell the second verse, and both join together on two choruses for this album's most soulful (naturally) track. Before anyone thinks this has become an easy-listening album, Scofield's "Twister" and "Thrill Seekers" restore order with twangy guitars, rock'n'roll clichés, offbeat drumming, bizarre basslines, and much soloing. Johnson, who never dominates the material, takes his first solo on "Thrill Seekers", which fades with more of Frisell's loopy effects. "Prayer Beads" is entirely a solo piece for Johnson, with a performance moving from leisurely to energetic. Listen to the double-bass strings snap against the fretboard in a resonant recording studio (credit: Rainbow/Oslo). "1951" is a quirky, country-ish Frisell composition with stops and starts, bends, slides, a wandering bridge, and subtle percussion from Erskine. The album closes peacefully with Johnson's "Hymn for Her".

Before recording this album, both Johnson and Erskine had guested on John Abercrombie's masterful Current Events, and many of the same ethereal atmospheres on that album appear on this one. In spite of the wild contrasts, Second Sight is a lot more beautiful and a lot more "just plain fun" than Bass Desires, and is highly recommended to fans of all the players involved. In 1998, Johnson and Frisell would record an album called The Sound of Summer Running that attempts to be an aural sequel to this album, but falls just short. It's on the Verve label, and has Pat Metheny replacing John Scofield, and Joey Baron instead of Peter Erskine.

HENRY ROBINETT Jazz Standards Then, Volume 1

Album · 2019 · Hard Bop
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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Guitarist Henry Robinett has been playing jazz since the late 70s, including stints in NYC with big names like Hal Galper, Clifford Jordon, Muhal Richard Abrams and Chico Freeman. Since the late 80s he has been recording as a leader, usually in a somewhat radio friendly style of fusion with influences from around the world. If you are already familiar with his previous albums, then it might come as a surprise that his latest offering, “Jazz Standards Volume 1”, is a set of grooving hard bop played with energy and playful creativity. These tracks were not actually recorded recently, instead, they were recorded back in 2000 and have been sitting on the shelf since then. Apparently Henry gave them a listen again and decided they were worth putting out and it’s a good thing because this is one of the better recordings of these well known tunes in recent years. Its hard breathing new life into songs that have been recorded by so many, it takes a lot from an artist to lift these up one more time, and Robinett and his quartet come through on every track.

Henry’s playing is often in a rapid abstract blues bop style, maybe somewhat similar to Joe Pass or Barney Kessel, but really he has a personal voice all his own, particularly when he goes into a skittering barrage of muted notes as sheets of sound. Pianist Joe Gilman is similar in his playing that mixes in the pocket hard bop with more extravagant excursions that push the band. As a quartet they present a healthy variety from the high speed, “The Way You Look Tonight”, to the mysterious, “Soul Eyes”, and the rambunctious free wheeling chaotic energy of “Invitation”.

LINDA MAY HAN OH Initial Here

Album · 2012 · Nu Jazz
Cover art 4.50 | 1 rating
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There have never been many female bass players in jazz. Malaysia-born (parents were Chinese immigrants) and Australia-raised, Linda Oh is with no doubt among the leading.

After studies in the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (her thesis was on the classical Indian music rhythms in Dave Holland's solos), she moved to New York in 2008 where she completed her master's degree at the Manhattan School of Music and released her first album as leader all that same year.

Linda very soon became a part of New York creative jazz scene, playing and recording with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, sax player Jon Irabagon and pianist Vijay Iyer among many others. In 2011 she became a member of the Dave Douglas Quintet, and a year later, Linda released her second album as leader, "Initial Here", on Douglas' Greenleaf label.

Of the album's ten songs, all but two are Oh originals. Her compositional talent is really impressive - the opener "Ultimate Persona" recalls Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra's Spanish revolutionary hymns-influenced songs and stays in your head for a long. "No. 1 Hit" is a beautiful mix of baroque and very playful Latin, with exceptional elegance, all - very groovy and danceful.

"Thicker Than Water" is a Chinese folk influenced song with another rising star, vocalist Jen Shyu singing in Mandarin and English. Of two non-originals, one is a brave and really successful take on classics, combining Leonard Bernstein and Igor Stravinsky on one song ("Something's Coming/Les Cinq Doigts").

The other is Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday", a piece of rare beauty here. The closer "Deeper Than Sad" is a piano-led memorable ballad with impressive sax soloing.

The band is really impressive - from Linda's regular collaborator of the time, Cuban pianist Fabian Almazan, to capable drummer Rudy Royston and tenor Dayna Stephens (who sounds here somehow less traditional than on his solo albums).

Linda's bass is a separate story though - it sounds warm, physical, but not too heavy and dominating, more as dancing over the tunes. Perfectly recorded, the music with no doubt sounds as a bassist album, but there is plenty of space for each band member's soloing. Dense sound is surprisingly aerial, worm and soft and full of playfulness.

This album of perfect tunes, variable, well played music and positive atmosphere, once started you will return back to it most probably more often than once or twice.

JUNIUS PAUL Ism

Live album · 2019 · 21st Century Modern
Cover art 3.98 | 2 ratings
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Think of all the great musicians that have come from Chicago’s AACM and its influence. If you are not already familiar with Junius Paul, then you can add him to your list. Paul has been around for a while, jamming with heavyweights like the Art Ensemble, Roscoe Mitchell, Oliver Lake and Fred Anderson, but he didn’t release his first album, “Ism”, until 2019. With an album out as a leader now, Paul’s name will start becoming more familiar because he is a powerhouse on the acoustic bass. I forget which famous bass player once said that the most important part of playing the bass is being heard. On “Ism”, Paul comes through loud and clear as he keeps a strong presence amid some very busy ensembles.

“Ism” is made up of various jam sessions, many recorded live, arranged cohesively to make a sort of collage album. Despite being recorded in different locations with different musicians, the album has a nice flow and logic. Junius is a very versatile musician and the music on here veers from free jazz, to hip-hop grooves, high energy McCoy Tyner styled modal trips, electronic psychedelics and simulated African percussion ensembles. Through it all, Paul is always a bass player and avoids any gratuitous soloing, he is a bass player’s bass player and that is what makes so much of this music sound so good and tightly together. An all-star cast of musicians appear on here, including Tomeka Reid, Marquis Hill, and many more.

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