Kenny Garrett Seeds from the Underground (Mack Avenue)
By David R. Adler
Alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett took an electric turn on his 2008 Mack Avenue debut Sketches of MD, a live album that harked back to his ’80s apprenticeship with Miles Davis. He ventured further into “fusion” through 2009, touring with Chick Corea and John McLaughlin in the Five Peace Band. With Seeds from the Underground, his second Mack Avenue disc, Garrett returns the acoustic idiom of earlier outings such as Beyond the Wall (2006), Standard of Language (2003) and his revered ’90s titles Triology and Pursuance.
Pianist Benito Gonzalez from Sketches of MD stays on board, leaving the Rhodes and synthesizer behind and contributing some of the finest solos of the date. Nedelka Prescod (a.k.a. Echols), the vocalist from Beyond the Wall, returns to sing on three tracks (though her persistent doubling of the vamp melody on “Haynes Here” grows excessive). On bass is Nat Reeves, whose first appearance with the leader dates back to Introducing Kenny Garrett in 1984. On drums, from Garrett’s hometown of Detroit, is the young Ronald Bruner, a powerhouse who seizes the spotlight on the title track. Percussionist Rudy Bird gives the rhythm section a fuller, more involved sound, starting with the bright Latin-tinged opener “Boogety Boogety.”
Garrett is one of the few mainstream players who can bring the alto sax into ecstatic “Chasin’ the Trane” territory, and his recent collaborations with Pharoah Sanders have heightened this impulse all the more. It’s readily apparent on “J. Mac,” a burner with echoes of “Afro-Blue,” and “Du-Wo-Mo,” a midtempo tribute to Ellington, Monk and Woody Shaw. (Most tracks on Seeds are dedications.) “Laviso, i Bon?”, though inspired by the Gwo-ka tradition of Guadeloupe, is a modal 6/8 blues that closes the date with Gonzalez in brilliant form.
These compositions, firmly rooted in the harmonic language and tempestuous rhythm of the Coltrane-Tyner mid-’60s, have their value as blowing vehicles. But Garrett sustains greater interest with the limping asymmetric meter of “Wiggins,” or the slow and mournful minor blues of “Detroit,” which relies on sumptuous vocal harmonies and a hypnotic background of crackling vinyl, with no drums, and no solos.
If working bands are a rarity in jazz today, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt seems not to have gotten the memo. Soul is his fourth album to feature the same steady quintet lineup, with JD Allen on tenor, Danny Grissett on piano, Dwayne Burno on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums. (The first, November, released by MaxJazz in 2008, was soon followed by the HighNote discs Men of Honor and The Talented Mr. Pelt.)
Rooted in an expansive, fiercely swinging, darkly hued sound reminiscent of Miles Davis’s mid-’60s quintet, Pelt’s group still has its own identity, and how could it not? These are leading players of our day, genuine personalities with bands of their own, and as a unit they have a way of reaching beyond themselves. Soul is their first collection devoted mainly (but not wholly) to ballads.
One could say that Soul burns at a lower temperature than Pelt’s previous efforts, but it burns nonetheless. The program, once again, is mostly original, although the quintet reworks George Cables’s “Sweet Rita Suite,” a waltz with an alluring piano/bass intro and a fine muted-trumpet turn from the leader. “Moondrift,” a lesser-known Sammy Cahn tune with a shining guest vocal by Philadelphia’s Joanna Pascale, is concise and perfectly placed, a gratifying departure.
The six remaining titles are Pelt’s, and they’re beautifully done. “Second Love,” the opener, is deeply meditative, a model of harmonic subtlety. The closing “Tonight…”, featuring Pelt in quartet mode without Allen, has a gentle but persistent rolling tempo anchored by Cleaver on mallets. While the music is horn-driven to a large extent, Grissett dominates “The Ballad of Ichabod Crane” and solos first on both “The Story” and “The Tempest,” putting the front line on notice. He’s the band’s not-so-secret weapon.
With “The Tempest” and “What’s Wrong Is Right,” Pelt stirs it up and brings Soul out of the ballad realm. The former slips between agitated 6/8 and 4/4, recalling a type of heightened rhythmic ambiguity once heard from Tony Williams. The latter is a strutting midtempo blues with no chords — Grissett doesn’t comp at all behind Pelt or Allen and then solos with his right hand exclusively. It’s an open-ended concept that harks back to Miles Smiles, and it moves the album deeper into uncharted waters.
It’s always worth noting when a respected sideman ventures out as a leader. But debuts are sink-or-swim affairs, so what of Johnathan Blake’s The Eleventh Hour? It swims, and thanks primarily to a sideman’s intimate knowledge that the right players, the right chemistry, means everything. The core band features Mark Turner on tenor and Jaleel Shaw (Blake’s fellow Philadelphian) on alto, a gripping front line. The rhythm section, with pianist Kevin Hays and bassist Ben Street, couldn’t be more seasoned. The special guests, making every moment count, are Tom Harrell, Robert Glasper, Grégoire Maret and Tim Warfield.
As the prodigious drummer in bands led by Harrell, Kenny Barron and many others, Blake has developed sharp leadership instincts. He’s also got a confident composer’s hand: seven of the 10 tracks on The Eleventh Hour are Blake originals, with a remarkable expressive range. “Rio’s Dream” and “Time to Kill” are infectiously melodic, while “Of Things to Come” is a fierce piano-less burner. “No Left Turn” alternates slow-churning swing with a flowing, enigmatic 5/4 section, pitting Turner against Warfield’s second tenor. “Clues,” a fast and funky variant of Monk’s “Evidence,” includes cage-match trading between Shaw and Turner and a brilliant acoustic-electric turn by Hays. The leadoff title track grooves patiently and mysteriously, built on Glasper’s swirling Rhodes and the timbral blend of saxes against Maret’s harmonica.
There’s no mistaking Harrell’s warm, assertive sound from the first seconds of “Blue News,” a Harrell-penned E-flat minor blues. Or Turner’s spiraling, upward-reaching lines on the intro cadenza of “Dexter’s Tune,” a well-chosen Randy Newman instrumental from the film Awakenings. Maret and Glasper return for the closer, the pianist’s own “Canvas,” which has both a melancholy air and the feel of a perfect pop hook. Turner played on the original version from Glasper’s 2005 Blue Note debut, but here it is Maret, battling the pianist in a round of trades, who stands out.
Blake’s rhythmic footprint, of course, is everywhere in this music. His playing is furious but never overpowering, always alive with inner detail, galvanizing the players in his midst. But in a set spilling over with virtuoso performances, what’s most compelling is the musical storyline and clarity of purpose, which makes The Eleventh Hour a work of spotless integrity.
Andrea Centazzo, Moon in Winter (Ictus) Peter Paulsen Quintet, Goes Without Saying… (SquarePegWorks)
By David R. Adler
These two discs are worlds apart in some ways, but there’s a link to be found in the acute, versatile trumpet of Dave Ballou. Both sessions feature a quintet: Moon In Winter, an evocative chamber-improv date from Italian-American percussionist Andrea Centazzo, is freer in concept, while Goes Without Saying…, from the unheralded Pennsylvania bassist Peter Paulsen, is a darkly shaded postbop gem.
What amazes most on Moon in Winter is the panoply of sound from Centazzo’s percussion — a strategic onslaught of metal and wood, seemingly unlimited in variety. With the MalletKAT, a marimba-like MIDI controller, Centazzo builds other layers as well, at times sounding like a vibraphone, accordion, Rhodes or abstract synthesizer, bolstering the contributions of pianist Nobu Stowe and bassist Daniel Barbiero. Much of the interplay is free, but there are a number of finely composed themes, often harmonized by Ballou and woodwinds man Achille Succi, who switches between alto sax, clarinets and shakuhachi as the music demands.
The dominant focus is “Moon in Winter,” parts one through five, interspersed with three “Winter Duets” and two freestanding pieces: “The man with foggy fingers,” in a doleful rubato, and “Absolutely elsewhere,” which contrasts Succi’s feverish staccato alto with Ballou’s Kenny Wheeler-esque flight toward the end. (Regrettably, there is an obtrusive buzzing, some sort of static interference or distortion, heard throughout Moon in Winter. It was checked on multiple stereo systems, with two different copies of the disc.)
Peter Paulsen, a jazz bassist with extensive symphony experience, has three earlier releases to his credit (Three-Stranded Cord, Tri-Cycle, Change of Scenery). On Goes Without Saying… he brings seductive compositions to the table and leads a formidable band with Ballou on trumpet and flugelhorn, Chris Bacas on tenor and soprano, Mike Frank on piano and Chris Hanning on drums. Although the music is more tonal or mainstream than Centazzo’s, Ballou is consistent in personality, from his pinched half-valve entrance on Wayne Shorter’s “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum” to his lyrical intensity on Kenny Wheeler’s “’Smatter” and Kenny Werner’s “Compensation” (all three of these cannily arranged by Paulsen).
The bass intros on “You Said You’d Call” and “Psalm” (arco and pizzicato, respectively) highlight Paulsen’s rounded tone and unerring intonation. And the leadoff title track, its bright triplet feel barely concealing a sense of inner mystery, should establish that Bacas is one of today’s great unsung voices on soprano sax. In all there are six Paulsen originals, each a model of smart orchestration and rhythmic and harmonic subtlety, marked by a truly individual touch. It’s easy to see why they inspire brilliant performances all around.
An album by the Metta Quintet always begins with a premise. The group’s 2002 debut, Going to Meet the Man, was inspired by James Baldwin’s short stories. Subway Songs (2006) evoked the bustle of New York mass transit and mourned those killed in the London tube bombings of the previous year. Big Drum/Small World continues with a statement on jazz globalism, featuring music by composers of disparate backgrounds: Marcus Strickland, Miguel Zenón, Omer Avital, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Yosvany Terry.
Drummer Hans Schuman, founder of the band’s nonprofit parent organization JazzReach, teams up with Strickland, bassist Joshua Ginsburg and two impressive newer recruits — pianist David Bryant and altoist Greg Ward — in a program that highlights the varied and distinctive voices of these guest composers. Strickland’s “From Here Onwards” leads off in a joyous and breezy mood, with saxophones in polyphony during the theme and swinging hard on the solos. Zenón’s “Sica” and Terry’s “Summer Relief” fit well together as complex, multi-themed works in a progressive Latin vein. Mahanthappa’s “Crabcakes,” introduced by Strickland and Ward in a devilish pas de deux, launches into brain-bending rhythmic repeats over fairly static harmony. Avital’s “BaKarem,” set up by Ginsberg’s passionate solo intro, brings forward the most accessible melody of the set: mournful but dancing, with a Middle Eastern tinge that prevails in much of Avital’s work.
The drawback is that Big Drum/Small World could be appropriately subtitled Short Album: it’s over in just 34 minutes. Yes, in an era of overly long CDs, concise is often a plus. But this recording feels somehow less complete, less of a journey, than the Metta Quintet’s previous two. And a quibble, perhaps, but the saxophones are overly reverbed and too severely panned (it’s especially apparent through headphones). The band sounds less live as a result. Although this is compelling music by highly gifted composers, and Metta deserves praise for bringing it to light and playing it so well, we’re left wanting more.
Ilhan Ersahin’s Istanbul Sessions Night Rider (Nublu)
By David R. Adler
As founder of the club Nublu, tenor saxophonist Ilhan Ersahin has had a notable impact on live music in New York, increasing the creative traffic between jazz improvisers, beatmakers, world music bands and avant-gardists of all stripes. Ersahin’s reach also extends to Istanbul and the nightspot Nublu Istanbul@Babylon, where jazz and club music come into contact with the sounds of Turkey and the surrounding region. The quartet project Istanbul Sessions is solidly representative of these efforts. It features the leader with Alp Ersönmez on electric bass, Izzet Kizil on percussion and Turgut Alp Bekoğlu on drums.
Ersahin has a rich and full tenor tone and good instincts as a soloist, but he’s not pushing to be the sole focus of these nine tracks. He plays through a variety of electronic effects, distorting and manipulating his sound and rendering the horn as an element in a sonic mosaic. Thanks to smart post-production and mixing, each instrument yields unexpected sounds, different ones on nearly every track. Yet the group’s previous effort, Istanbul Sessions with Erik Truffaz, featuring the renowned “nu-jazz” trumpeter, had a more alluring tonal and harmonic palette, and stronger compositions.
At a tight 40 minutes, however, Night Rider is a good listen, with vibrant beats and subtle interlocking patterns from Bekoğlu on full kit, punctuated by Kizil’s dumbek and frame drums. Ersönmez combines low bass lines with a more guitaristic and polyphonic approach, overdubbing a slick wah-wah part on the opening “Etnik” and starting his own composition “Gece Inerken” (“night descending”) with beautiful rubato fingerstyle passages. “One Zero” growls with distortion, while “Hadi Gel Artik” skips along with poppy syncopation and “Huzur” (“peace”) sounds like spacey but energized indie-rock. Is it Turkish? Somehow, yes, but this is music that wears its cosmopolitanism on its sleeve.
On releases such as Orange Blossom, Herculaneum III and Olives and Orchids, the Chicago sextet Herculaneum fashioned a sound full of urgent, percolating rhythm and well-placed dissonance — a horn-heavy aesthetic with echoes of Blue Note’s ’60s avant-garde wing. Their newest, UCHŪ, is true to form, with eight concise tracks held together by the powerful work of bassist Greg Danek and drummer Dylan Ryan.
While the Herculaneum lineup — four horns and rhythm section — remains big and compelling, UCHŪ lacks some of the timbral variation of the band’s earlier efforts. One misses the crisp guitar of John Beard and the occasional vibraphone of Ryan, which gave the group a moody chamber-jazz dimension. And yet other changes are afoot: for the first time, alto saxophonist David McDonnell, tenor saxophone/flutist Nate Lepine and trumpeter Patrick Newbery weigh in with original compositions (Ryan is normally the band’s sole composer).
“Dragon’s Office,” by McDonnell, starts the album in a springy 5/4, with snaky trombone/tenor unisons expanding into four-part voicings, lush yet wonderfully acidic. Danek bows the bass on the heavily African groove of “Elmyr” to mimic the squeaking percussion of a guica. On both these cuts McDonnell takes charge as a soloist; he returns with Dolphy-esque fire on Ryan’s “Little Murders” and Newbery’s heavy metal closer “Rumors.” Lepine’s tenor solos on “Chianti” and “Fern” also have a satisfying balance of logic and intensity. Broste’s moment comes on “Age of Iron,” a slow-swinging line by McDonnell, ideal for the lonely trombone rumination that continues as the track fades away.
Lepine’s “Fern” is the standout: unhurried, insistently grooving, with a thick harmonized horn passage that bookends the piece. Bass and drums play along the first time through, but in the final 30 seconds it’s the horns alone, laying bare the counterpoint’s nasty inner workings.
Eric Harland, Voyager: Live By Night(Space Time/Sunnyside) Owen Howard, Drum Lore(BJU)
By David R. Adler
There’s no one way for a drummer-bandleader to approach a recording project, and these two highly dissimilar outings make it plain. Eric Harland, one of today’s most celebrated sidemen, debuts as a leader with Voyager: Live By Night, a furiously energetic concert document recorded in Paris over the course of four nights. Owen Howard, an underrated figure affiliated with the Brooklyn Jazz Underground, devotes his fifth album Drum Lore to his forebears, paying homage to the great drummer-composers of the past and present. While Howard’s is a finely crafted studio date with only one original piece, Voyager features Harland’s writing almost exclusively.
One can’t doubt the big heart and often jaw-dropping interplay of Harland’s quintet, and in particular the eloquent fire of Walter Smith III on tenor saxophone. Harland’s tunes have a visceral appeal, with anthemic melodies and charging, rhythmically off-center vamps that bassist Harish Raghavan locks down with impressive force. The set has a suite-like narrative shape, with seamless segues between a few tracks, as well as three “Intermezzos” — mainly drum solos — to serve as connective devices. Only “Cyclic Episode,” by Sam Rivers, seems not to fit the mold; a partial take, it fades out right after the tenor solo. (Smith’s ripping uptempo performance makes clear enough why it was included.)
Voyager does have its flaws. At 78 minutes it’s too long, and after a point, the huge crescendoing climaxes start to seem redundant and overly busy. The mix is also uneven: Taylor Eigsti’s piano is too far back, and Julian Lage’s guitar sound isn’t captured at its beautiful best. There’s a certain warts-and-all character to the product.
Howard’s more satisfying Drum Lore could be seen as a historical primer on the achievements of drummer-composers, from Chick Webb’s widely known feature “Stompin’ at the Savoy” to some fairly obscure modernist works: Jack DeJohnette’s “Zoot Suite,” Billy Hart’s “Duchess,” Al Foster’s “The Chief,” Ed Blackwell’s “Togo” and others. Howard’s arrangements bristle with creativity, the band swings and burns, and most important, none of this sounds like an assignment or a backward-looking tribute. It would be easy to mimic Tony Williams’ stop-time breaks on “Arboretum,” but Howard does no such thing. His vivid interaction with the soloists, and solid rapport with bassist Johannes Weidenmueller and pianist Frank Carlberg, would be a strong sell whatever the material.
Apart from trombonist Alan Ferber’s appearances on four tracks, Drum Lore is saxophone-centric, with altoist John O’Gallagher, tenor/soprano man Andy Middleton and multireedist Adam Kolker assuming varied roles. Smartly, Howard expands and contracts the ensemble throughout, giving Middleton a chance to shine in tenor trio mode on Denzil Best’s “45º Angle” (a gem from the repertoire of Herbie Nichols). “Flip,” a piece of classic ’50s cool by Shelly Manne, closes out the disc with bass clarinet, muted trombone and drums — an inspired departure from the original with Shorty Rogers and Jimmy Giuffre. Clearly Howard knows his stuff, but even better, he plays the hell out of it.
Aaron Goldberg and Guillermo Klein Bienestan (Sunnyside)
By David R. Adler
As pianists, Aaron Goldberg and Guillermo Klein couldn’t be less alike. Goldberg is a leading virtuoso soloist of our day. Klein’s chops are far more modest, and his main artistic canvas is his extraordinary little big band Los Guachos. On Bienestan, these Sunnyside labelmates generate sparks as co-leaders, offering the best of both worlds: Klein’s compositional and arranging smarts, Goldberg’s spellbinding execution. Klein plays Fender Rhodes while Goldberg sticks to piano (a textural combination heard previously on Klein’s 2010 release Domador de Huellas). Bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland provide inspired backup, while saxophonists Miguel Zenón and Chris Cheek beef up the ensemble on a number of tracks.
Rhythmic ingenuity is a big part of Klein’s aesthetic, and his arrangements of Charlie Parker’s “Moose the Mooche” and “Blues for Alice” on Bienestan are among the most staggering examples to date. Speeding up and slowing down according to some confounding logic, the beat undulates in perfectly natural sync thanks to the players’ sheer skill. It’s not merely bebop in an odd meter, but something far more intricate. The two Rhodes-piano duo pieces, “Implacable” and “Airport Fugue,” are tours de force of a more intimate type, with labyrinthine cross-rhythms that seem to filter Bach and Terry Riley through some alien computerized prism.
Bienestan also includes the frequently played standards “All the Things You Are” and “Manhã de Carnaval,” but as you can count on with Klein, something else is afoot. Both these tunes appear in two versions, with intriguing reharmonization and subtle contrasts in ensemble makeup. They’re as integral to the mood and design of the album as the Klein originals.
Tucked away amid these thematic elements are a number of compelling standalone originals by Klein. Harland seizes hold of “Human Feel” for a fine drum feature, while Cheek shines on soprano during “Yellow Roses” and Penman lays the melodic foundation for “Impresion de Bienestar.” As much as it revolves around its two principals, Bienestan is very much a full-band record.