Who’s the funniest person in jazz? Wycliffe always knows when to go for the punchline. Jon Irabagon probably plays more musical jokes than anybody else, and Moppa Elliott is right there with him. Put those two together in Mostly Other People Do the Killing – who have a typically killer new album – and look out. Mary Halvorson can be devastatingly funny when she wants; ditto Brian Charette. Another guy with an endless supply of pretty hilarious ideas is Boston-based reedman Daniel Bennett, who has a characteristically devious new album, Sinking Houseboat Confusion streaming at Spotify. He and his long-running four-piece group with guitarist Nat Janoff, bassist Eddy Khaimovich and drummer Matthew Feick have a St. Paddy’s Day gig coming up at 8:30 PM at the third stage at the Rockwood. Cover is $10, the club wasn’t enforcing that annoying drink minimum the last time this blog was in the house there, and if you must be out on March 17, this show should be amateur-free.
The album’s first track is a steady, motoring guitar theme, John Lizard Comes Home: Janoff’s deadpan purposefulness brings to mind Jon Lundbom in sardonically carefree mode. Bennett plays his usual alto sax and also flute on the second number, Andrew Variations, an upbeat, pastorally-tinged tune with a serpentine lattice of voices (and amusing electronic patches) akin to Tom Csatari’s most humorous work.
Bobby Brick Sent Me Daniel Bennett has a purposefully vamping, modal groove and a no-nonsense alto attack from the bandleader, in the same vein as JD Allen’s “jukebox jazz.” The title cut brings back the album’s opening motorik beat, endless success of growling, distorted rock guitar changes and some wry alto/flute multitracks. Bennett sticks with the flute on Paint the Fence, with its woozy guitar sonics and surrealistic Jethro Tull jazz vibe: fans of Prague jamband weirdos Jull Dajen will love this.
Doctor Duck Builds a Patio – gotta love those titles, huh? – is a sort of syncopated take on the opening number: again, it’s like Csatari, but even more surreal and a lot more shreddy. We Are OK! opens ominously, Bennett playing eerily rippling cimbalom-like lines on piano as the tune comes together, a series of echoey long-tone phrases over a steady rhythm and then a stampeding free-for-all.
Poet Michele Herman recites her wry Little Disappointments of Modern Life over Bennett’s solo alto waves and echoes. Then he switches to clarinet for Animals Discussing Life Changes, a waltz, the most cartoonish number here. The album winds up with a spacy, vertiginous, suspiciously blithe reprise of the title theme, Bennett back on alto and joined by Mark Cocheo on guitar.
Although this is fun, colorful music, Bennett has a serious side. He came down strongly on the side of the good guys in that recent social media kerfluffle where Robert Glasper alleged that women jazz fans (“Fine European women,” to be specific) hear with their lower extremities and don’t have the brains to understand solos.
What’s the likelihood of seeing an organ jazz trio with piano and drums? About as common as seeing three jazz wits as great as bandleader and organist Brian Charette with his new trio including Henry Hey on piano and Jochen Rueckert on drums all on the same stage. Their humor wasn’t broad, some of it was very subtle, some of it very “inside.” And it ran the ganut, with rhythmic and harmonic jousting and the occasional elbow flying as they went into the paint. It’s impossible to imagine any band in New York having as much fun onstage as these three guys had Tuesday night at Smalls.
After years of being championed by this blog and its predecessor, Charette is finally getting well-deserved props from the mainstream jazz media. Organ jazz tends to get stereotyped as gutbucket, toe-tapping music, and a lot of it is – and is supposed to be. But Charette is pushing the envelope as far as anyone has with the style, as this unorthodox lineup attests. Rather than using pedals, the bandleader tirelessly walked the bass with his lefthand while conjuring up a continent worth of rivers of sound, some of them turbulent, some of them bubbly and a couple of them deep and menacing, with his right.
Hey, the longtime David Bowie collaborator, distinguished himself with his imaginative, minimalisticaly insistent lefthand attack while augmenting and spiraling off the bandleader’s kaleidoscopic tangents in the upper registers. Rueckert was the evening’s main instigator, playfully nudging or jabbing the shuffles and struts – and a couple of unexpected waltzes – into the fast lane, or off onto a siding at breakneck speed. Charette arranged an artfully dynamic setlist, as if to say, “Let’s get the complicated stuff out of the way and then do the party stuff after the break when everybody’s all liquored up.” Worked like a charm.
They opened with Time Changes, a wry over-the-shoulder shout back to Dave Brubeck. Rueckert gave the song a floating swing that enabled his own sly shenanigans as much as it smoothed the landing for Charette’s tongue-in-cheek metric mess-around. You might not expect to ever hear organ versions of Tad’s Delight, or Bud Powell’s Dance of the Infidels,as organ jazz or an absolutely rapturous and unexpectedly plaintive take of Larry Young’s Paris Eyes, but that’s Charette. The highlight of the first set was his original, Conquistador, which he explained away as a Spanish-Hungarian hybrid, turning up the smoke on his roto speaker for its rather grim Magyar harmonies.
Ironically, the best song of the night – and Charette’s compositions are songs in the purest sense of the word – happened to be the only moment in more than two hours of music where he lost the crowd. At that point, it was almost one in the morning and all the college kids and a smattering of tourists were full of booze and primed for a party anthem or two. So when Charette brought the eerie cascades of Hungarian Major down for thirty seconds or so – you know, suspense, and dynamics – the kids weren’t with it. But he got them back with the lone Jimmy Smith number of the evening, a pouncing, sprightly take of The Cat. There was also a funky, funny homage to Fred Wesley of the JB’s, and a take of the first jazz tune Charette ever wrote, a look back on a time when the Bach he’d begun with was still front and center in his fingers. Which isn’t to say that it ever left, testament to this guy’s originality and fearlessness in mashing up sounds from jazz, classical, funk and even some deep roots reggae. Charette’s next New York gig as a leader is on New Year’s Day, 2017 at half past noon – yikes – at Jules Bistro on St. Mark’s Place. Then on Jan 11 at 7 PM he’s at Smoke uptown leading a killer trio with guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Ari Hoenig.
Brian Charette gets a lot of ink here, partly because he’s been so ubiquitous. He’s gone back to his original instrument, the piano for some gigs including a turn with erudite, infectiously charismatic chanteuse Audrey Bernstein, as well as leading his own organ jazz groups. And he keeps putting out albums, all of them infused with his signature wit and penchant for pushing the envelope out of the organ jazz ghetto. If you’re down with the B3 jazz cult, toe-tapping gin lounge grooves are great fun, but like his fellow A-list organists Barbara Dennerlein and Jared Gold, Charette keeps reinventing the genre. His latest release, Alphabet City – most of which is streaming at Posi-Tone Records – is a characteristically eclectic, fun mix. of tunes. He’s doing a two-night album release stand uptown at Smoke on July 15 and 16 with sets at 7 and 9 PM; cover is just $15, which is a real deal at this place. And if the prix-fixe menu doesn’t match your requirements, you can always hang back at the bar where the sound is just as good as it is in the rest of the room.
The album is a trio session with Will Bernard on guitar and Rudy Royston on drums. You probably wouldn’t associate Royston – another increasingly ubiquitous guy – with this kind of music, but his extrovert drive is a good match for the bandleader’s sense of humor. The album kicks off with East Village, a bubbly, bustling shuffle with a subtly carnivalesque undercurrent – which makes sense considering what’s happened to the neighborhood. The band follows that with They Left Fred Out, a catchy, jauntily syncopated soul-jazz strut with characteristic Charette wit. After that, West Village, a suave swing number, has a similarly erudite, nonchalant Bernard solo at the center – and toward the end, Charette throws a few jabs toward the snobs.
Royston proves to be the perfect sparring partner for Charette’s boisterous, googly-eyed ELP riffage in the sardonically titled Not a Purist. Sharpie Moustache, a funky shuffle with a droll Zombies quote and a gorgeous oldschool soul chorus, might be a Jimmy Smith homage – remember how he had that retro facial hair thing going on?
Bernard’s sparkly hammer-ons move front and center as the latin-tinged vamp Disco Nap gets underway. The album’s best and most riveting number is Hungarian Major, a creepy, chromatically fueled, genre-defying piece, Bernard’s bell tones glimmering against Charette’s funereal Balkan syncopation. Is this Eastern European art-rock? Romany jazz? Circus music? How about all of the above?
After the sly, satirically-infused previous two downtown New York numbers, Avenue A has a disarming wistfulness set to a calm clave groove. Damn, back when the LES was Loaisaida, it sure was a lot of fun, wasn’t it? Likewise, Detours, a catchy swing anthem, leaves no doubt that taking the long way this time around was the right move, Bernard’s catchy, looping riffage setting the stage for Royston to rumble.
Charette contrasts murky atmospherics and woozily loopy pedal lines with a deadpan, lackadaisical pop hook throughout Split Black – a psychological term for how borderline personalities go off the deep end. A hazy southern soul-tinged waltz, White Lies brings to mind similar low-key collaborations between Jimmy Smith and Jim Hall. The album winds up with the oldschool 60s-style shuffle The Vague Reply, both Bernard and Royston getting plenty of room to raise the energy level. By now, it’s clear that Charette doesn’t give a damn – he’s going to do what he always does without any regard for limitations. Best case scenario is that he brings some new fans into the organ demimonde while managing to to drag the purists into his camp without any kicking and screaming.
To steal a phrase from his fellow tenor saxophonist JD Allen, Tom Tallitsch plays jukebox jazz: hard-hitting, toe-tapping music enhanced by a shot and a beer. Esteemed by his peers in the New York jazz scene, it’s a crime he’s not better known. In a sense, he’s a throwback to guys like the Adderleys, but with more focus. His latest album is All Together Now, leading a sizzling sextet with Mike DiRubbo on alto, Michael Dease on trombone, B3 monster Brian Charette taking a rare turn on piano, with the hardworking rhythm section of Peter Brendler on bass and Mark Ferber on drums. Tallitsch’s next gig is at 10 PM on July 8 at 55 Bar with a similarly good sextet.
His compositions are full of hooks, and unexpected interludes, and ideas, and trajectories and narratives. The album opens with a characteristically catchy, bustling number, Passages, a harried latin theme with purposefully percolating solos from Dease and the bandleader himself. Hearing Charette, a brilliantly unorthodox organist, on his original instrument, the piano, is a trip, and he acquits himself well as a salsa jazz guy. Who knew!
You might not think that the Band’s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down would translate to jazz, and apparently Tallitsch doesn’t think so either – this version finds the band reinventing it as brightly festive, summer-night southern soul. And it beats the hell out of the original. Then the band switches back to a wickedly good, original Jimmy Smith/latin jazz mashup with Slippery Rock, Charette’s offcenter chords – is that a DX7, or has he found a way to get that weird, echoey sound out of a Rhodes? – anchored by Tallitsch’s sailing lines, holding it together from way up high.
The aptly titled Big Sky opens with a pastoral theme but shifts in a second into shuffling wee-hours, distantly latin-flavored ambience, Ferber’s deliciously flurrying drums with Tallitsch and DiRubbo maxing out the red-neon flavor. The most epic track here, Border Crossing is classic Tallitsch, an almost viciously swinging, vampy number, the composer’s own lively opening solo contrasting with Charette’s tightly wound, scampering attack, Ferber driving the big, concluding horn chart home with an unexpected ending.
Curmudgeon is a subtly funny shout-out to Dave Brubeck, everybody in the band playing their cards close to the vest. The second cover here is a casually swinging, goodnatured take of Frank Zappa’s Uncle Remus, a launching pad for a long, warmly crescendoing Tallitsch solo. Medicine Man brings back the Brubeck edge and catchiness, with a tightly unwinding horn chart, DiRubbo working in reverse, taking it down gently from Tallitsch’s after-the-grenade smokiness.
Greasy Over Easy is a slow, genial minor swing number, Tallitsch adding a counterintuitive edge by bouncing around rather than going for gravitas, Dease doing the same thing. Dunes, a shapeshifting, vividly uneasy jazz waltz follows; the album winds up with the slowly swaying, boisterously and then very subtly gospel-infused Arches. This isn’t a collection of knock-you-off-your-stool moments – it’s more like keep-you-at-the-bar moments. You don’t want to get up and leave because the band is so good. The album hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet, but you can get a good idea of where Tallitsch is coming from, with lots of audio at Posi-Tone Records and their soundcloud page, as well as Tallitsch’s own page.
Brian Charette – an insightful contributor to the New York City Jazz Record – is the rare music writer who also writes a good tune. And he literally wrote the book on the B3 organ. He goes under the hood: drawbar settings, mechanical tips, it’s all there. And he’s generous with his ideas: if you want to sound like Charette, he’s got all his harmonic tricks in there. He records prolifically for the reliably swinging Posi-tone label, and he’s playing the album release show for his latest one, Good Tipper – streaming at Spotify – with his reed-fueled “sextette” tonight, April 29 at Smoke Jazz Club at the southern tip of what used to be Harlem and is now more or less the Upper West tonight with three sets at 7, 9 and 10:30 PM. As an alternative to the pricy prix-fixe menu, you can hang at the bar in the back where the sound is just as good.
Charette’s playing is distinguished by fearlessness and an imperturbable wit. He has no issues with code-switching between dub, funk, Jimmy Smith and maybe even a little Messiaen if he’s in the mood. Charette’s back catalog is mostly originals; this new release is a grab bag of new material and an eclectic bunch of covers, most of them as unpredictable as you would expect from this guy. The album’s title track is a briskly swinging, amiable number centered around a genial Avi Rothbard guitar hook, Charette working a steady, full-on, allusively fluid solo midway through. The funky cover of the Zombies’ Time of the Season is an improvement on Rod Argent’s teenage original but other than offering tongue-in-cheek hubris, doesn’t really add anything. Richard Rodgers’ Spring Is Here gets a balmy, tremolo-toned bossa tinged reinterpretation, Rothbard matching Charette’s optimism as he chooses his spots.
Al Martino’s Cuando Cuando Cuando is reinvented as a roller-rink latin soul shuffle, guitarist Yotam Silberstein adding lively, wry spiraling followed by a similarly deadpan, chugging Charette solo. Another Quarter, by Rothbard is a funky soul strut with an astigmatic, somewhat acidic Charette solo that really wakes you up while the band keeps it on the purist 60s tip.
Standing Still, a Charette original, is catchily polyrhythmic as it hints at a waltz and dips in and out of doubletime. John Barry’s theme to the film You Only Live Twice gets a very straight-up take, Charette letting Silberstein carry the hooks and saving a muted menace for his own lines, drummer Mark Ferber driving it hard.
Charette tackles a couple of Jimmy Webb tunes, Wichita Lineman and Up Up and Away, the former backing away from the baroque arrangement of the Glenn Campbell hit, adding a swinging funk groove and in the process maxing out the song’s bittersweet angst, Rothbard and drummer Jordan Young building to an insistent peak. The latter is a revelation, Charette bringing an unexpected, chordally-fueled gravitas to lite 60s stoner soul, Silberstein’s guitar supplying the helium.
One and Nine, also by Rothbard, is the album’s most expansive number, a loping groove which Charette colors judiciouslly, tenor saxophonist Joe Sucato doing the same and anchoring the tune with a tinge of smokiness. Charette sets up a classic biting/pillowy dichotomy, organ versus guitar throughout his ballad To Live in Your Life (with some irresisibly clever hints of a famous 60s janglerock hit). They take the album out on the upbeat tip with a swinging, syncopated version of Joe Henderson’s The Kicker. It’s a good introduction to the many things Charette has fun with, and a continuation of a career that confounds some of the more uptight members in the jazz community but keeps everybody else entertained…and sometimes in stitches.
Fun and interesting show this past Thursday night at the Delancey with tantalizingly brief sets from soul singer/bandleader Amana Melome and paradigm-shifting jazz organist Brian Charette and his Mighty Grinders trio with Will Bernard on guitar and Eric Kalb on drums. Melome has Ellington band royalty in her veins – her bassist grandfather Jimmy Woode was a member of the Ellington orchestra and played with many other golden age jazz names as well. The Stockholm-based chanteuse maintained a low-key vibe, drawing the crowd in with her simmering, jazz-inflected downtempo and soul grooves. Backed by an electric pianist who varied his textures from song to song plus a tersely swinging acoustic rhythm section, Melome aired out a mix of tunes from her latest ep Lock and Key. Like her music, her misty mezzo-soprano vocals build a mood and explore its intricacies and secret corners rather than wailing or pleading. Her most intriguing and original number was Icarus, which recast the myth as a tribute to thrill-seeking rather than cautionary tale. Other than emo and grunge, neosoul may be the unsexiest style of music on the planet, but Melome keeps it real and could elevate a lot of people along with her.
Charette is an intrepid player, as influenced by classical music and dub as he is by the icons of jazz organ. And he can be awfully funny – he’s the kind of guy who will get a crowd grinning and shaking their heads and asking each other, did he just play that? Uh huh, he did. As usual, he couldn’t resist throwing in a handful of droll quotes when least expected – and he’ll play anywhere. The Delancey is a rock club, but Charette was clearly amped to take the gig. He opened with the shapeshifting Yue Fei, from his Square One album and then followed with the LOL faux-operatic bombast of the tongue-in-cheek Not a Purist: welcome, my friends, to the show that never ends, step inside, step inside, he seemed to be telling the crowd.
Then he flipped the script with Hungarian Brown, a trickily rhythmic, haunting Romany melody fueled by Bernard’s searing slide work: who knew he had that up his sleeve. Charette and the band wound up the night with an expansively funky take of Jimmy Smith’s 8 Counts for Rita, leaving no doubt that was where James Brown – who got his start as an organist – found his first inspiration.
Charette’s next gig is at 8 PM this Friday, March 27 at Jules Bistro on St. Mark’s Place with Matt Chertkoff on guitar and Jordan Young on drums, his last New York show before heading off to the Czech Republic where he’ll be touring next month as part of powerhouse saxophonist Mike DiRubbo‘s trio.
Brian Charette is one of the world’s most interesting and distinctive voices on the organ. Classically trained, he’s made his name in jazz although his music is just as informed by classic 60s soul, funk and even reggae. He tours constantly and writes prolifically, and he’s playing the album release for his latest one, Good Tipper; tonight and also tomorrow night, Oct 9 at Smalls at 10 PM; cover is $20 and includes a drink. Joining him for the album show are Yotam Silberstein on guitar and Mark Ferber – who really has a feel for this funky groove stuff – on drums.
The album BEFORE the latest one (yeah – the guy works fast) is a Posi-Tone release, streaming at Spotify, titled Square One. Charette has a devious sense of humor and that’s apparent right from the jaunty strut of the opening track, Aaight!, which eventually squares itself more or less into a swinging shuffle. Charette and Silberstein move more frantically yet purposefully over Ferber’s blistering yet nimble pulse on their take of Joe Henderson’s If, followed by the vintage soul-infused Three for Martina, a metrically tricky ballad with organ and then guitar holding to a warmly reflective mood.
People on Trains follows a wryly lyrical narrative: the subway takes its time pulling out of the station and then scurries along, fueled by the guitar, then the process repeats itself. It isn’t long before Charette throws in a New York-centric subway joke or two (the album cover pictures him chilling down under the Manhattan Bridge). Likewise, True Love kicks off slowly before Charette pulls it out of its balmy reverie, then Silberstein takes it back with a minimalist, practically Satie-esque solo. Then they get a swaying groove going with a warmly purposeful take of the Meters’ classic Ease Back, Silberstein adding droll wah-wah licks.
Time Changes alludes to a famous Dave Brubeck album: it’s a jazz waltz with summery soul riffage. A Fantasy does much the same with trickier rhythms and spiraling solos from guitar and drums against Charette’s anthemic washes. Yei Fei is a blend of indie classical circularity and hints of airily eerie Jehan Alain church organ music: you might not think that something like this would work, but it does. Things You Don’t Mean mixes up a strutting New Orleans funk groove with a hardbop guitar attack and then an absolutely creepy quote and variations from the Alain songbook: it’s killing, Charette at his outside-the-box best. The album sprints to the finish line with Ten Bars for Eddie Harris, the most trad organ-lounge track here – but even that goes off the rails into a deliciously warped interlude. Who is the audience for this? People who like Dr. Lonnie Smith, jambands, funk and soul and sophisticated original jazz tunesmithing, which is ultimately what this is.
The second annual Jazz & Colors festival in Central Park was a success for the same reasons that Make Music NY has been such a failure: time and temperature. Sometimes it’s that simple. Make Music NY synchronizes itself with the worldwide Fête de la Musique (the annual French busk-a-thon) on the June 21 solstice, meaning that musicians playing outdoor spaces around town wait til the sun goes down before they start, just as any reasonable person would. And by then, the rush hour crowd has rushed home to their air conditioning, or at least their window fans. Jazz & Colors, on the other hand, is held on the weekend, this particular Saturday on an absolutely gorgeous, brisk afternoon, and while crowds could have been bigger, they were a good representation of the vast expanse of demographics that make up this city. A scattering of diehards raced across the park to catch their favorite acts, a smattering of tourists seemed smitten by the chance to see so many big names for free, while random groups of New Yorkers from across the age spectrum – many among them who probably can’t afford jazz club prices – took in an eclectic, energetic bunch of performances.
How do you find your way around Jazz & Colors? With a map. This year there was one available online, and there were helpful volunteers handing out copies at the 72nd Street entrance on the west side as well as at some of the performance sites. The concept this year was to have everybody play the same two set lists, mostly standards, with a few unexpected treats and a little room for originals. Placement of the acts playing the roughly four-hour festival was perfect. There was none of the sonic competition you get between stages at, say, a Lollapalooza or Warped Tour, yet the distance between bands was short enough to encourage ambitious spectators to catch several and maybe compare interpretations and arrangements.
Pianist Arturo O’Farrill, leading his explosive Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra from behind a real grand piano on the Naumburg Bandshell, sardonically thanked the promoters for “Telling us what songs to play,” although he hastened to add that this had been a valuable learning experience. Unhappy with one arrangement they’d devised, they’d tossed it out and come up with a new one on the fly. Toward the end of one characteristically high-voltage Afro-Cuban romp, he gave his bassist a solo – who says that playing bass in a big band is a thankless task? They eventually went off set list for Las Vegas Tango, doing it as a psycho mambo that practically outdid Gil Evans and was too much fun to be vengeful, although a crescendo or two more might have pushed it past redline. Then they did their “We Live in Brooklyn Baby Milongo,” as O’Farrill put it, mambo-izing Roy Ayers’ many-times-sampled groove.
To the north and west, alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry was playing a similarly groove-driven set, leading a quartet with bass, drums and electric piano through a mesmerizingly pulsing, tropical take of A Night in Tunisia, swapping Eastern Hemisphere for the west. Then they kicked off Ray Noble’s Cherokee as brightly trad, tiptoeing swing before fattening it with a Nuyorican sway, Terry eventually swapping his sax for a chekere and adding another layer of irresistible rhythmic energy. A little further south, Brian Charette‘s organ “sextette” turned in one of the funniest and least expected moments of the afternoon on the turnaround out of the chorus of an otherwise aptly moody, shadowy Harlem Nocturne, where the horns all went crazy for a bar or two before the verse slunk around again They also made sly ghetto lounge jazz out of Take the A Train, swung Coltrane’s Grand Central Station hard with solos from alto and tenor sax, flute and bass clarinet, and gave Terry a run for his Cuban money with that same Dizzy Gillespie tune, Charette playing basslines with his left hand since he didn’t have his Hammond B3 with the pedals.
Meanwhile, just up the hill, bassist Russell Hall was leading the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars – in this case, a quartet that seemed to be a mostly student ensemble – with a purist but puckish touch, at one point wrly kicking off a solo with some unexpected, sotto vocce high horn voicings when the tenor saxophonist passed him the baton. And it was good to be able to catch the tail end of the string-driven Marika Hughes & Bottom Heavy outside the Delacorte Theatre, featuring the bandleader on cello and vocals along with Charlie Burnham on violin plus bass, guitar and drums. Hughes sang without a mic, but she didn’t need it, wrapping up her set with a richly bittersweet, darkly bluesy “love song to New York and Gil Scott-Heron.” By now, clouds had settled in overhead and fingers were getting cold, so the conclusion was timed perfectly. There were many other A-list bandleaders playing across the park, including but not limited to drummer Kim Thompson, baritone saxophonist Jason Marshall, klezmer-jazz trumpeter Frank London, bassist Gregg August, guitarist Joel Harrison, violinist Jason Kao Hwang and over a dozen other groups. If jazz is your thing – and if you’re reading this, it probably is – and you’re in New York a year from now, don’t miss this festival.
Assembling a year-end list that’s going to get a lot of traffic demands a certain degree of responsibility: to be paying attention, and to be keeping an eye on what’s lurking in the shadows because that’s usually where the action is. Gil Evans knew that, and that’s why he’s on this one.
As pretty much everybody knows, the final Dave Brubeck Quartet live show surfaced this year, as did the earliest known Wes Montgomery recordings, a tasty couple of rare Bill Evans live sets and a big box set of previously unreleased Mingus. The reason why they’re not on this list is because they’re on everybody else’s…and because they’re easy picks. This is an attempt to be a little more adventurous, to cast a wider net, to help spread the word about current artists whose work is every bit as transcendent. Obviously, there are going to be glaring omissions here: even the most rabid jazz advocate can only digest a few hundred albums a year at the most. And much as Henry Threadgill’s Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp and the historic Sam Rivers Trio’s Reunion: Live in New York are phenomenal albums, they both fell off the list since each has received plenty of praise elsewhere.
1. Wadada Leo Smith – Ten Freedom Summers
The trumpeter/bandleader’s massive four-cd box set is his magnum opus, as historically important as it is sonically rich, harrowing, cinematic and eclectic, anchored in the blues and gospel and taking flight pretty much everywhere else. Some will say that the string-driven sections of this restless Civil Rights Movement epic are classical music, and they’re probably right: Smith is just as formidable and powerful a composer in that idiom as he is in jazz. With a huge cast of characters, most notably pianist Anthony Davis and drummer Pheeroan AkLaff. This Cuneiform release gets the top spot for 2012.
2. Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans
Conductor/arranger Ryan Truesdell, a leading Evans scholar, unearthed and then recorded ten of the iconic composer’s most obscure big band works and arrangements for the first time, with the blessing of the composer’s family and an inspired cast of players. In a way, to fail to put this lush noir masterpiece at the top of the list is ridiculous, considering how emotionally intense, luminous, haunting and resonant this music is. As with Smith’s album, a huge lineup turns in a chilling performance, including possibly career-defining moments from drummer Lewis Nash, pianist Frank Kimbrough and especially vibraphonist Joe Locke. Truesdell heads up the Gil Evans Project, who put this out.
3. Hafez Modirzadeh – Post-Chromodal Out!
The most radical, paradigm-shifting and sonically intriguing album of the year was the Persian-American saxophonist’s latest adventure in microtonal music. Blue notes have defined jazz from the beginning, but this album is blue flames: and to be hubristic, here’s to the argument that this album is Vijay Iyer’s greatest shining moment so far, as he revels in a piano tuned in three-quarter tones to mimic the tetrachords of the music of Iran. An adventurous cast delivers overtone-fueled, sometimes gamelanesque mystery and menace through two suites, one by Modirzadeh, one by saxophonist Jim Norton. With Amir ElSaffar on trumpet, Ken Filiano on bass, Royal Hartigan on drums, Danongan Kalanduyan on kulintang, Faraz Minooei on santoor and Timothy Volpicella on guitar. Pi Records get credit for this one.
4. Ran Blake & Sara Serpa – Aurora
The second collaboration from the iconic noir pianist and the eclectic singer/composer is every bit as intense and otheworldly as their 2010 collaboration, Camera Obscura, and considerably more diverse. This one’s taken mostly from a concert in Serpa’s native Portugal, a mix of classics, brilliant obscurities, icy/lurid cinematic themes and a riveting a-cappella take of Strange Fruit. It’s out on Clean Feed.
5. David Fiuczynski – Planet Microjam
A stunningly diverse set by the pioneering microtonal guitarist, joining forces with Evan Marien on bass, Evgeny Lebedev on piano, David Radley on violin, Takeru Yamazaki on keyboards and a rotating cast of drummers including Kenwood Dennard, Jovol Bell, Jack DeJohnette and Club D’Elf’s Eric Kerr. Alternately otherworldly, wryly sardonic, ferocious and utterly Lynchian, Fiuczynski reinvents Beethoven as well as exploring Asian, Middle Eastern and Indian themes. It’s out from Rare Noise.
6. Neil Welch – Sleeper
The Seattle saxophonist leads a chamber jazz ensemble with Ivan Arteaga on alto and soprano saxes, Jesse Canterbury on bass clarinet, Vincent LaBelle on trombone and David Balatero and Natalie Hall on cellos through a chilling narrative suite about the murder of an Iraqi general, Abdel Hamed Mowhoush, tortured to death in American custody. Shostakovian ambience gives way to a cinematic trajectory laced with sarcasm and terrifying allusiveness. A triumph for Seattle’s Table and Chairs Music.
7. The Fab Trio – History of Jazz in Reverse
The late violin titan Billy Bang with bassist Joe Fonda and drummer Barry Altschul in a deep and casually riveting 2005 session, improvising a gospel-drenched Bea Rivers elegy, an Asian-tinged Don Cherry homage, a salsa vamp and chillingly chromatic funk and swing. Tum Records happily saw fit to pull this one out of the archives.
8. Giacomo Merega – Watch the Walls
The bassist is joined by his Dollshot saxophonist bandmate Noah Kaplan plus Marco Cappelli on guitar, Mauro Pagani on violin and Anthony Coleman on piano for a chillingly sepulchral series of improvisations that range from whispery, to atmospheric, to quietly horrific, to funereal: a bleak black-and-white film noir for the ears. Free jazz doesn’t get any better than this. It’s out on Underwolf Records.
9. Gregg August – Four By Six
The eclectic bassist from JD Allen’s trio (and the Brooklyn Philharmonic) writes intense, pulsing pan-latin themes, often with a brooding Gil Evans luminosity. This one mixes quartet and sextet pieces, with Sam Newsome on soprano sax, Luis Perdomo on piano and E.J. Strickland or Rudy Royston on drums,Yosvany Terry on alto sax, John Bailey on trumpet and JD Allen on tenor sax.
10. Orrin Evans – Flip the Script
Glistening with gritty melody, wit, plaintiveness and unease, this is the pianist’s most straightforward and impactful small-group release to date (to distinguish it from his work with the mighty Captain Black Big Band), a trio session with bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Donald Edwards. Phantasmagorical blues, chromatic soul and a haunting reinvention of the old disco hit The Sound of Philadelphia are highlights of this Posi-Tone release.
11. The Fred Hersch Trio – Alive at the Vanguard
The pianist’s third live album at this mecca is a charm, like the other two, a lavish and gorgeously melodic double-disc set culled from his February, 2012 stand there with bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson Mostly slow-to-midtempo with lots nocturnes, interplay, a Paul Motian homage, and happily plenty of Hersch’s lyrical originals. It’s out on Palmetto.
12. Brian Charette – Music for Organ Sextette
Organ jazz doesn’t get any more interesting or cutting-edge than this richly arranged, characteristically witty, high-energy session with Charette on the B3 along with John Ellis taking a turn on bass clarinet, Jay Collins on flute, Joel Frahm on tenor, Mike DiRubbo on alto and Jochen Rueckert on drums. Eclectic themes – a reggae trope gone to extremes, a baroque fugue, jaggedly Messiaenic funk and gospel grooves – make a launching pad for witty repartee.
13. Tia Fuller – Angelic Warrior
The saxophonist shows off her sizzilng postbop chops on both soprano and alto sax on a fiery mix of mostly original compositions with a warm camaderie among the band: Shamie Royston on piano, Rudy Royston on drums, Mimi Jones on bass, John Patitucci playing single-note guitar-style leads on piccolo bass, Shirazette Tinnin on percussion. Terri Lyne Carrington on drums on three tracks, and Dianne Reeves adding an aptly misty vocal on Body and Soul It’s a Mack Avenue release.
14. Guy Klucevsek – The Multiple Personality Reunion Tour
The irrepressible accordionist teams up with members of novoya polka stars Brave Combo for this playful, brightly entertaining, characteristically devious romp through waltzes, cinematic themes, and reinventions of Erik Satie. With Marcus Rojas on tuba, Jo Lawry on vocals, John Hollenbeck on drums, Dave Douglas on trumpet, Brandon Seabrook on guitar, Steve Elson on tenor sax and many others. It’s out on Innova.
15. Old Time Musketry – Different Times
On their auspicious debut, multi-reedman Adam Schneit and multi-keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch lead this quartet with bassist Phil Rowan and drummer Max Goldman through a moody yet rhythmically intense mix of wintry, pensive, Americana-tinged themes in the same vein as the best work of Bill Frisell or Jeremy Udden.
16. Endemic Ensemble – Lunar
For some reason, Seattle has put out a ton of good music this year and this is yet another example, a tuneful mix of swing, droll minatures and a darkly majestic clave tune, all with bright and distinct horn charts. With Steve Messick on bass, Ken French on drums, David Franklin on piano, Matso Limtiaco on baritoine saxes amd Travis Ranney on saxes
17. The Danny Fox Trio – The One Constant
We may have lost Brubeck, but lyrical third-stream composition is in good hands with guys like pianist Danny Fox, gritting his teeth here with bassist Chris van Voorst van Beest and drummer Max Goldman throughout this edgy, bitingly vivid, occasionally sardonic set of mood pieces and cruelly amusing narratives
18. Slumgum – Quardboard Flavored Fiber
Rainy-day improvisation, noirish third-stream themes, latin and funk interludes, Sam Fuller-style cinematic themes for a new century and playful satire from this fearless LA quartet: Rory Cowal on piano, Joe Armstrong on tenor sax, Dave Tranchina on bass and Trevor Anderies on drums.
19. Catherine Russell – Strictly Romancin’
Guitarist Matt Munisteri is the svengali behind this historically rich, expansive, soulful Louis Armstrong homage from the chanteuse whose multi-instrumentalist dad played with Satchmo for many years. With Mark Shane on piano, Lee Hudson on bass, Mark McClean on drums; Joey Barbato on accordion; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; John Allred on trombone, and Dan Block and Andy Farber on reeds. From Harmonia Mundi.
20. Juhani Aaltonen and Heikki Sarmanto – Conversations
Two old lions of Nordic jazz, Finnish tenor saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen and pianist Heikki Sarmanto trade on and off lush, nocturnal modal themes throughout this lavish, casually vivid double-disc set. Notes linger and are never wasted, the two take their time and leave a mark that’s either warmly resonant or broodingly ominous. A Tum Records release.
21. Bass X3 – Transatlantic
For anyone who might think that this is a joke, or a novelty record – Chris Dahlgren and Clayton Thomas’ basses blending with Gebhard Ullmann’s bass clarinet – you have to hear it. For fans of low tonalities, it’s sonic bliss, the centerpiece being a roughly 45-minute drone improvisation broken up into three parts, spiced with playfully ghostly embellishments amidst brooding desolation and hypnotic, suspenseful rumbles. A Leo Records release.
It’s been too long without a B3 record here. Luckily, drummer Jordan Young’s new one Cymbal Melodies is just out on Posi-tone. The title is ironic since Young plays this one very low-key and in the pocket: there are cymbals here but they’re typically providing judiciously whispery atmospherics rather than ostentatiously whirling sonic snowstorms. Recorded in a single day last winter in Brooklyn, this is mid 60s-style gutbucket jazz-lounge stuff, a sometimes tersely robust, sometimes contemplative soundtrack for gin-fueled conviviality. As with Young’s previous release, the ubiquitously original Brian Charette plays organ alongside guitarist Avi Rothbard and saxophonist Joe Sucato.
They open with a jauntily swinging roller-rink version of Wichita Lineman, veering in and out of a jazz waltz with tastily bluesy guitar over a vamp as it fades out. Lee Morgan’s Free Wheelin’ revisits a jazz waltz rhythm with carefree sax, terse guitar and one of Charette’s trademark spinning, distantly carnivalesque solos. They tackle a couple of ballads, giving Ghost of a Chance a purist bluesiness, strutting their way through a sax-and-drums version of Best Thing for You Is Me
They reinvent the Police’s Roxanne as a clave tune – it’s better than the original. Grant Green’s Grandstand sticks to the oldschool afterwork party vibe, right down to Young’s martial volleys. There are also a couple of solid Young originals here: Bird Bath, a catchy blend of Booker T. groove and lush Charette melodicism, and the pulsing, bluesy Mood for McCann. The album closes with a briskly walking take on Easy Living, with a tip of the hat to Art Farmer. The only miss here is an attempt to redeem a cloying early 70s easy-listening radio hit as a swing tune: epic fail. With all the great songs out there, the choice of that one is the only mystery here: otherwise, the tunes, if not the cymbals, hit you upside the head in a good way. Young leads a trio tomorrow night, Sept 24 at B Flat, 277 Church St. between White and Franklin in Tribeca at 8 PM.