Is there anyone else out there feeling regrets about the late months of 2016?
Yeah, the US presidential election was pretty depressing. But I’m talking about the music I wasn’t able to absorb and appreciate before the year was out. You get to making your “Best of” list in early December, as I did here, and you quickly realize how much music just passed you by, or you didn’t find time to listen to it. Some of it turns out to be great. And so the early weeks of January can be a time of atonement.
In 2016 I was particularly naughty, missing out on writing about or praising at least six recordings that are currently lighting up my life with pleasure. While I don’t know that these six albums all would have made my “Best of” picks, they sure might have been close.
Between Nothingness and Infinity, Nasheet Waits’ Equality (Laborie Jazz)
I’m starting with a recording that certainly would have been in my top ten. There is vast power and nuance in Between Nothingness and Infinity, the second recording by Nasheet Waits’ Equality quartet. Waits has long powered the innovative Bandwagon, helmed by pianist Jason Moran, and this group is just as formally inventive and rhythmically subtle. On this, their second recording, the band is slightly different but protean: Darius Jones proclaims on alto saxophone, Mark Helias is on bass, and Aruan Ortiz is the pianist.
The orientation of this band is clear from the songs that Waits chooses to cover: one each by Andrew Hill, Sam Rivers, and Charlie Parker, with the rest being original to the leader or Helias. “Koko” is, perhaps, the boldest choice possible, the iconic virtuoso vehicle that was part of bebop’s boldest sessions. The quartet approaches it with exuberance but originality: Waits and Ortiz start it as a duet of daring fragments before the famous head is stated, supersonic swing bolstering from below. What, you’re wondering, will Jones do with it on his solo? How do you try to stack up to Charlie Parker?
The band starts by dropping back to half-time and letting Jones build his solo in a leisurely stroll, starting with swung, bop phrasing, then moving into swirls of harmony that trace the chords more loosely as Helias moves back into regular tempo. From there, Jones replaces clear-toned intervallic leaps with long tones that he leans into with growling overtones. You might hear it the way I do: as a little lesson in jazz history from 1947 to the present.
Elsewhere, the band is more likely to dance than to dwell in too much abstraction. “Korean Bounce” struts and flows in a variety of time shifts from military to a slow drag, and Andrew Hill’s “Snake Hip Waltz” skips and saunters to a raggedy-three that sounds half-drunk in certain moments and crisply perfect in all-of-a-sudden points of focus. Waits’s “Kush” is a classic jazz ballad that the band investigates with sensual patience. Each of these performances is deeply connected to the history of the music but brings something new as well.
Much like the recording by J.D. Allen, discussed below, Between Nothingness and Infinity has a weight and power that comes from looking directly at elements of jazz that have mattered most over the years. By focusing on the beautiful, aching seam in jazz that opened up at the time of Andrew Hill and Sam Rivers, that line between tonal and atonal playing that Charlie Parker first hinted at with his radical harmonic reinventions, Waits’s Equality band sits atop a sweet spot in the music.
Each musician in this band thrills: Helias with his sound and time, Jones with his fascinating, complex tone, Ortiz’s blend of abstraction and sensuousness, and Waits — always stirring the pot to provoke more conversation. What a great record, one to listen to for years to come.
Americana, Musings on Jazz and Blues, J.D. Allen (Savant)
Tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen isn’t fooling around on this somber and exploratory outing for his trio with Rudy Royston on drums and Gregg August on bass. The feel of the rhythm section here is roiling and exciting in a manner that calls to mind late-period John Coltrane. On “Another Man Done Gone”, for example, August bows his bass fiddle in a gorgeous, continuous, harmonically free counterpoint to Allen’s blues cry. The conversation on every composition (all but two are Allen originals) is genuine, with Royston accenting and talking back, with big rests in Allen’s melody lines filled by groove and the bobbing of the bass.
Quite often, such as on “Bigger Thomas”, the saxophone tone and the way Allen moves through his harmonies will remind you of John Coltrane. The bigger similarity, though, is how Allen seems to be searching for truth, personal or otherwise. Ballad performances like the title track carry a great weight. Allen doesn’t overplay in any way — he doesn’t shriek or show off, he doesn’t growl or grandstand. But he seems like a patient artist, probing each cranny of the tune, letting his bandmates shine light upon each twist before he noses into it with invented melody.
The name Americana might seem the one overblown thing here, but the subtitle includes the word “musings”, which gets it just right. Most of the tunes are blues or richly informed by blues sensibility, and Allen’s intent is clearly to make a record that uses “jazz tools” (sax, bass, drums) to interrogate the whole tradition, from its roots. He succeeds.
The Constant, The Jim Black Trio (Intakt)
Jim Black was the rocking arsonist who burned down scores of incredible “downtown” recordings in the ’90s and early ’00s, playing the drums like he wanted to make “jazz” sound much more punk but without sacrificing even a sliver of the swing. Not that he went away, but at some point, Black came to seem less omnipresent on the scene and on recordings. It’s my own fault for not seeking him out more aggressively because his recent work is also fantastic.
Hearing him in the most anodyne of all jazz contexts — a piano trio — is proof positive that he has lost nothing on his fastball. Elias Stemeseder is the pianist, and he has to be a true “percussionist” on the keys to keep up, which he does. Thomas Morgan brings to life the strong baselines that are part of every Black composition. There are tunes, such as “Song H” and “Chinchilla”, where all of Black’s known strengths as a drummer are beautifully on display — mainly the way he combines a rocking funk and some splashing precision with a free-wheeling sense of complexity. But there are also performances here that veer toward history and tradition of a sort. On the opener, “High”, for example, it’s clear that Black is connected to Paul Motian as a musician.
Many of Black’s past projects caught fire at the intersection of freedom and groove. You can hear that on The Constant as well. “Medium” plays on a field of melodic fragments but could almost be in the book of The Bad Plus. On other tunes, Morgan gets his throbbing Bootsy on (though it is all acoustic) and Black and Stemeseder call forth squeaking, scratching sounds whose origins I’m not sure of. But, as on “Song O”, everything builds toward a thrilling, explosive, joyous climax. That’s not a bad phrase for the bulk of this wonderful recital.
Greatest Hits, Wil Blades and Scott Amendola (SAZi)
Wil Blades is a keyboard player from San Francisco by way of Chicago who has taken a particular interest in the legacy of the great jazz organists. This collection of live recordings was made with West Coast drum master Scott Amendola, and it integrates Blades’s funky and agile Clavinet work as well, making it something closer to Medeski Martin & Wood than to Jimmy Smith. This kind of thing — a funky burst of dancing energy that pits the power and sleek joy of a Hammond B3 against a popping drummer — has been a winner ever since the ’50s, of course. But these days the trick is not only to update the joys of “Back at the Chicken Shack” but also to find a fresh way to speak the language of MMW or The Bad Plus without aping these groups. Amendola and Blades manage this with ease.
First, there’s no need for a bass player here, as Blades moves across the Hammond pedals with lithe ease. On a pure B3 groove number like “Lima Bean” the group could almost be back in the ’60s, but for the jolt of electricity that animates Amendola’s New Orleans-infused groove on the drums. But the band differentiates itself most (and I love it most) when Blades incorporates his Clavinet. On “Addis” he states the theme there, then improvises with hypnotic power on B3, taking care to dramatically alter the stops so that the solo builds into something more spikey and urgent. “32nd Street” uses the Clav to even funkier purpose, using it to punch chords in call and response with an organ melody and letting it integrate more completely. “Oladipo” does this too, and the array of different sounds that these (only) two musicians get is incredible.
Amendola and Blades do more than groove. “Deep Eyes” is a mournful melody, quiet but with a gospel core that gives it depth. The shift in organ tones is thrilling, as more light and air comes into the simple melody over time. “Mae Mae” is pure witty call-and-response over a sloppy parade beat, with Blades’s wah-Clavinet trading phrases with his organ. Loose as a goose and enough to bring the sunshine through your personal clouds.
Super Petite, The Claudia Quintet (Cuneiform)
This band is the small-format version of the genius of drummer and composer John Hollenbeck. Hollenbeck also uses a large band to articulate his shimmering ideas about music, but this quintet manages much the same thing with efficiency. By combining vibes (Matt Moran) and accordion (Red Wierenga) with Chris Speed’s clarinet, the band achieves a gentle and quietly orchestral approach with a minimum of hands. Hollenbeck’s tunes on Super Petite are, of course, miniatures, ten in all. On many of these arrangements, the composed section (dig, for example, “JFK Beagle”) generates a figure that can be pulsed behind a soloist to create a different kind of accompaniment. Traditional jazz it is not, but the bending of rules is done with an elegant beauty.
Moran and Speed are fleet and engaging soloists, and they make their mark all over the recording. But the star of any Hollenbeck project is his work as an arranger; these compositions are lit from within by an exuberance and luminosity that only Hollenbeck creates. Each is a tiny soundtrack to a particular movie. “Philly” (for the drummer, Philly Jo Jones) begins with a swinging trio for Speed’s tenor, but Hollenbeck brings in eerie washes of accordion chords that become more frequent and eventually turn the song into a quirkily written melody that finds vibes, accordion, and tenor chasing each other’s tail. “A-List” is an exuberant anthem that sounds like a much larger band. “Peterborough” is a piece of interwoven chamber music that contains a strain of Phillip Glass and a strain of the Benny Goodman Sextet.
Everything on Super Petite is shot through with wit and purpose. The textures are pleasing in a pastel way, and the playing is expertly precise. But for all its ease on your ear, there something daring here. The tunes also punch you in the gut once in a while, surprise you, and at the end you have to go around for a second listen to figure out what you missed.
Convallaria, Thumbscrew — Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara, Mary Halvorson (Cuneiform)
Top ten lists this year (mine included) fawned over Away with You by the Mary Halvorson Octet, which was chock full of fascinating compositions and brilliant playing by saxophonist Jon Irabagon and the pedal steel player Susan Alcorn, among others. Halvorson herself barely featured herself there. But you can get your fill of Halvorson as a soloist and leading voice on Convallaria, the latest from her cooperative trio Thumbscrew, with drummer Tomas Fujiwara and bassist incredible Michael Formanek. All three contribute tunes and, though the name of the band suggests torture, the record is the trio’s best, most compelling, and most breezy.
“Barn Fire Slum Brew” by Fujiwara is an angular melody that hops and hums over a sleek, busy groove, and Halvorson’s solo is a pleasure that unspools in swinging joy. As she shifts her time bit, the rhythm moves into a straight 4/4 swing behind her, and then Formanek takes it. It’s not the usual throwback, traditional jazz, but it has every pleasure that can be found in the tradition. The bassist’s tunes cover the full spectrum, from the distorted ballad “Screaming Piha” to the jumpy chamber piece “Spring Ahead”, which lets him play with a bow in a nice dance with the guitar.
Halvorson’s tunes bring more of what we’ve come to love about her larger groups — such as the spinning arpeggio melody of “Convallaria” or original melody of “Inevitable”, which she accents with her unique use of her pitch-bending delay pedal. Her playing is certainly the feature of most of the tunes, and she seems more versatile and confident than ever, blending her unadorned tone with judicious effects, cutting to the core of each composition in her attack. “Inevitable” may be my favorite Halvorson performance across all her recordings — elegant and quirky at once, sentimental as a composed melody but cheeky and clever as an improvisation.
Can 2017 possibly dazzle me with this many missed gems? Bring ‘em on.