Thursday, December 06, 2012

Best of 2012: Jazz, part II

Here's part II of an ongoing rundown of my favorite 2012 jazz recordings. Full, unannotated list here; intro and part I here. Part III to follow as soon as I have time to write it up!

Joel Harrison / Lorenzo Feliciati
Holy Abyss [Cuneiform]

As I suggested in a TONY preview back in May, guitarist Joel Harrison is a hard guy to keep tabs on. He's about as prolific as, say, Ken Vandermark, and even harder to pin down, stylewise; I've only woken up to his work within the past couple years, and I already feel a little overwhelmed by what there is to hear. Harrison also put out a very good album on Sunnyside this year, Search, but the one I kept coming back to was this oddity, a session co-led by Lorenzo Feliciati, a Italian fusion bassist whose name was new to me.

Like with many of the other records on this list, Holy Abyss carves out its own stylistic niche—a boldly unfashionable one that I'd loosely peg as some sort of prog-blues fusion. The second track, "Saturday Night in Pendleton" moves from a whimsical, laid-back swing intro to a raunchy roots-rock stomp, with drummer Dan Weiss sloshing it up on the hi-hat, keyboardist Roy Powell providing gleaming B3 organ and Harrison shredding in a sort of Pat Metheny–gone-roadhouse style. Some of the writing and arrangement reminds me of Metheny as well (tracks like "Requiem for an Unknown Soldier," which you can hear below, and "North Wind (Mistral)," esp.); something about the unabashed drama of the compositions and the super-stylized arrangements recalls a record like The Way Up for me. (Also, Metheny Group trumpeter Cuong Vu is on trumpet here.) But Holy Abyss has a mood all its own, evidenced in the soothing yet sinister drift of a piece like "Faith," which is much more about pure texture than flash.

I'm just now reading on Harrison's site that writing duties are shared on this record, and that's impressive because this set of pieces really does feel coherent in some hard-to-pin-down way. Maybe it's that sort of noirish mood I was getting at above in the "Faith" description, or the way the pieces will suddenly move from spacey to ballsy. As with the more proggish Metheny, this music can flirt with over-slickness, but there's enough grit to make it work. Overall, Holy Abyss really surprised me, and I'd love to hear more from this band.


Jasmine Lovell-Smith's Towering Poppies
Fortune Songs [Paintbox]

Haven't spent as much time with this one as I would've liked, but it has me hooked. Fortune Songs is an almost incredibly assured-sounding debut. Lovell-Smith is a soprano saxophonist (a still-rare specialist on the instrument) from New Zealand, and this is the first I'd heard of her; same for the other four members of her band. What she's going for her is a boldly lyrical sound, almost uniformly mellifluous without being saccharine. As you can hear on a track like "Darkling I Listen," the themes are often striking, but what impresses me most is the way the band plays like a single instrument—Lovell-Smith has a beautifully songlike style, and the entire band seems to channel that sound, operating in a kind of dreamy trance—as well as how measured and focused the improvisations are. I may be leaning too heavily on this notion, but it's very apt here: This record is of no school. Listen to the unmoored rhythm section work going on in "Confidence (Two)"; this is jazz that's free but that subscribes to no clichés of the avant-garde. (The in-time playing on, e.g., "A Nest to Fly" is just as satisfying.) Fortune Songs isn't in a hurry to grab your attention; it just patiently goes about its business. It's pretty rare for any record, let alone a debut, to put forth such a firm yet subtle aesthetic. Really impressive stuff.


Matt Wilson's Arts and Crafts
An Attitude for Gratitude [Palmetto]

This is another very beautiful and approachable record that's full of surprises. I've been impressed with Wilson's playing for many years, and his Matt Wilson Quartet records have always grabbed my attention. But this is probably my favorite album I've heard from him. What I love about the Arts and Crafts band—a quartet with Terell Stafford on trumpet and flugelhorn, Gary Versace on keyboards and Martin Wind on bass—is the way it comes off as both classic and eccentric. The band's preferred mode is simple, buoyant swing, soloists proceeding in orderly fashion, etc.; they sound thoroughly convincing playing groovy soul-jazz ("Little Boy with the Sad Eyes") or a romantic ballad ("Happy Days Are Here Again"). Where Wilson's fun-loving personality comes through is in the offbeat details—e.g., Versace's stylized accordion on "Bubbles," which also features a Wilson recitation of a Carl Sandburg poem—which add color without tipping the project over into quirkiness, and in his gleefully liberal approach to repertoire. In addition to "Little Boy," a Nat Adderley piece, you get pieces by Jaco ("Teen Town") and Jon Scofield ("You Bet"), originals from Versace, Wind and Wilson, the standard "There's No You"(played unaccompanied by Stafford, a brilliant late-in-the-album curveball) and an absolutely gorgeous Versace/Wind/Wilson rendition of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," maybe the best jazz cover of a well-known pop song I've ever heard. That performance sums up the charm of this record; as with the Yamamoto above, An Attitude for Gratitude is easy to love but still deep and nourishing.


The Cookers 
Believe [Motéma Music]

Billy Hart 
All Our Reasons [ECM]

Believe is another record that wears its charms right on the surface. The Cookers' 2010 debut, Warriors, landed on my best-jazz list for that year, but I think this one (their third LP) might be even better. The Cookers are an all-star band—convened by trumpeter David Weiss as an illustration of the timelessness of great hardbop—filled with lifers such as George Cables, Cecil McBee and Billy Hart and they play like it, with plenty of flash, brawn and virtuosity, but what I love most about them is the way their records don't just feel like a bunch of pros jamming. The repertoire consists mostly of compelling originals from the band members, arranged in little-big-band fashion. There's generally a theme-solos-theme thing going on, but there's nothing auto-pilot-y about the way the Cookers perform this material; they're playing compositions, not just heads. That said, when it's solo time, the frontline just steps up and shreds, esp. tenor player Billy Harper, who shines on two pieces he wrote: album opener "Believe, for it Is True" and "Quest." Billy Hart sounds typically magical throughout this record, whether propelling the band through a rave-up like Wayne Shorter's "Free for All" or a delicate waltz (Cables's "But He Knows"); what I love about Hart is the way that, like, say, Elvin, you always hear his personal sound stamp, even when he's playing a background role, and the Cookers is a great showcase for that. As with Spirit Fiction, Believe is another record that muddies the idea of a contemporary jazz mainstream; sure it's accessible, conventional and crowd-pleasing in a sense, a little retro even, but at the same time, it's not part of any contemporary jazz movement. It's just too damn engaging to pigeonhole.

Here's a Cookers EPK.

The Billy Hart Quartet, oft-praised on this blog, is a very different setting in which to hear Hart. All Our Reasons is only the band's second album, a long-awaited follow-up to 2006's Quartet, but it shores up what the group was doing on that earlier release, makes it official; the Billy Hart Quartet, in other words, has trademarked a sound—or more accurately several sounds. Every piece on this record has something very specific to say: the slyly funky "Tolli's Dance" and the sprawling and meditative "Song for Balkis" (both Hart originals); Iverson's "Ohnedaruth," which reconfigures "Giant Steps" much as the band scrambled "Moment's Notice" on the first record, and "Nostalgia for the Impossible," a mysterious and poetic ballad that's probably the closest I've heard another composer come to nailing the Andrew Hill vibe. Material aside, though, what I love most about this record is how it captures the way these four musicians—Hart, Iverson, saxist Mark Turner and bassist Ben Street—have braided together like ivy in this project; as I listen back to "Tolli's Dance," Turner's dusky tenor tone, Hart's whispering cymbals, Iverson's sparse chords and Street's funky undergirding all seem to spring from one mind. You feel that especially on a piece like "Wasteland," where Turner, Iverson and Street play a floating melody as Hart murmurs underneath, playing mallets on his toms. What I'm trying to get at is that this band has a headspace, a shadowy and beautiful one, and All Our Reasons captures it exquisitely. (For some background, here's my profile of the group, based on a joint interview with Hart and Iverson.)

Here's a Billy Hart Quartet EPK.


Wadada Leo Smith / Louis Moholo-Moholo
Ancestors [TUM]

Sam Rivers / Dave Holland / Barry Altschul
Reunion: Live in New York [Pi Recordings]

Speaking of shadowy and beautiful… Leo Smith has been on a tear in recent years, and it's been tough, though thrilling at the same time, to try and keep up. I've loved the various records he's put out on Cuneiform, including Heart's Reflections, Spiritual Dimensions and Tabligh, and while I just haven't had enough time to digest this year's civil-rights-themed opus Ten Freedom Summers, I look forward to digging in further. Ancestors—the second Smith album to come out on the Finnish label TUM—is very different than any of the ensemble-oriented albums listed above. It's the latest installment of an ongoing sidebar in Smith's career that has found him dueting with some of the world's best drummers, yielding stunning collaborations with Jack DeJohnette (check out 2009's America), Ed Blackwell (heard on The Blue Mountain's Sun Drummer) and Gunter "Baby" Sommer (the Smith/Sommer performance I caught at the Vision Festival a few years back was one of the best free-improv sets I've ever seen, if not the best). Here's another one to add to that list. I don't really know what you say about a record like this, other than that it documents two masterful improvisers sharing time and space, in absolutely gorgeous studio fidelity. I've always loved what I've heard of Louis Moholo-Moholo (e.g., Remembrance, his duet with Cecil Taylor, found in the big 1988 FMP box set), but because I don't own very many recordings by him and because I've never caught him live, he seems like an elusive figure to me. This record helps bring him into focus.

It's a true pleasure to hear him and Smith simply dancing together. Each of these musicians is the kind of player who has little time for the self-conscious avant-garde gesture. Yes, they're playing free, but that doesn't mean they're playing "out," i.e., they're not preoccupied with ugliness, strangeness, unconventionality, disruption. They're just interested in singing a song that's made up in the moment. There are very few free-improv records that truly matter to me—increasingly less, as time goes by, I find—but an album like Ancestors is the exception. It's not just a random live date, packaged and sold as though it had been intended as some lasting statement; it's a real legacy documented, played, recorded and issued with love.

Reunion: Live in New York is similar case. This is, in fact, a live recording, though it documents a pretty special 2007 gig, the first performance by the Rivers/Holland/Altschul trio in (as Pi reports) 25 years. I'll admit to being a tad skeptical about this release at first. First, I was worried that its reception would get too tangled up with the sad fact of Rivers's sad passing a year ago this month, making the record seem like some kind of definitive musical epitaph, when it was really just one night of music-making in a life filled with them. Second, I attended the actual concert heard here and while I definitely remember enjoying it, my recollection of the performance was that it was somewhat tentative and diffuse—about what you'd expect from three old friends who hadn't stepped onstage together in decades.

What a pleasant surprise, then, to find this music sounding so fresh on disc. I haven't spent enough time with this record to be able to give you an event-by-event rundown, but I feel secure in recommending it highly. It's pure improv, and it's very long, but the sound is fantastic, and the listening and responsiveness are exemplary. There's as much conviction and purpose in the abstract sections (such as part 3 of the first set here, with Rivers on piano) as in the swinging ones (part 4 of the same set), and in that sense Reunion: Live in New York is classic Rivers, a document of the way he didn't wall himself and his bands off from any area of jazzmaking. You can't get all the Rivers you need in just one record, but this one is definitely a real keeper, a worthy cap to any well-rounded Sam collection—not to mention the fact that it's a rare recent example of Dave Holland playing in a free-improv mode, and that it's a chance to hear Barry Altschul right at the point when he was starting to reemerge as a real force around NYC and beyond. (Speaking of, he's playing tonight at Cornelia Street Café with Jon Irabagon.)

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