Akua Dixon is the dean of jazz cello. Like Ron Carter, she began her career as a classical musician but found that that the doors of that world were closed to African-Americans. And after four decades, she’s still finding new, soulful ways of expression. On her new album, Akua’s Dance – streaming at Spotify – she only plays cello on three tracks, shifting to baritone violin for the rest of the album for a series of vivid and often poignant low-midrange tableaux. She’s playing the album release show tonight, March 11 with sets at s 9 and 10:30 PM at Sista’s Place, 456 Nostrand Ave in Bed-Stuy. Cover is $20 if you call the restaurant at (718) 398-1766 and make a reservation; take the A/C to Nostrand.
The album opens with I Dream a Dream, guitarist Freddie Bryant’s eerie pedal chords and spiky solo punctuating Dixon’s austere lines over an altered. balletesque bolero anchored by bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Victor Lewis. It’s the first of two tracks from Dixon’s opera about New Orleans voodoo legend Marie Laveau. The other, the title cut, is a slinky clave number in 7/4, Dixon’s purposeful, moody, expressive lines giving way to a majestically Spanish-flavored Bryant solo.
The twin bassline that opens the catchy, propulsive Dizzy’s Smile is a lot of fun; then Dixon takes a fond, vintage swing-infused solo. Her steady phrasing throughout Aziza Miller’s slow ballad If My Heart Could Speak to You is steeped in blues and understated plaintiveness, set against Bryant’s resonant sparkle. Dixon carries the pensive melody of Orion’s Gait, a jazz waltz, then hands off to guitarist Russell Malone, who turns up the lights.
Dixon sings Abbey Lincoln’s Throw It Away, the album’s lone vocal number, with melismatic nuance and bittersweet determination. Switching to cello, Dixon opens Afrika! Afrika! with a deep, bluesy river of a solo, Malone and bassist Carter (with whom Dixon finally reunited for their first recording date in four decades) joining in with somber elegance until Dixon introduces the dancing, gospel-infused main theme
Dixon’s take of the Sade boudoir soul classic The Sweetest Taboo has a welcome starkness and directness, Lewis adding a subtle Brazilian-tinged undercurrent, with a deliciously shivery outro from the bandleader. The version of the old spiritual I’m Gonna Tell God All of My Troubles offers broodingly intense contrast, through several subtle metric shifts. Dixon winds up the album with Don’t Stop, a hypnotically kinetic launching pad for a sailing solo from Bryant in contrast to Lewis’ uneasy rumble. As string music goes in 2016, in any style of music, it doesn’t get any more impactful than this.
Tenor sax legend Frank Wess has a new album out, Magic 101 with Kenny Barron on piano, Kenny Davis on bass and Winard Harper on drums. The title is apt. If you heard this without knowing the backstory, you might think that it makes a good, warmly purist companion piece to the recent Harry Allen/Ehud Asherie albums, and you’d be right. The backstory, of course, is that Wess was 89 when he recorded this (he’s 91 now) and is at the absolute top of his game as tunesmith through a mix of familiar standards, a couple of awe-inspiring duets with Barron, an original and a solo piece. The vibe is the same as on the two memorable Hank and Frank albums he made with Hank Jones in the past decade; casual but deep in the tradition, and in the feeling that tradition implies.
From the first note, it’s obvious that the band is amped through the roof to play with him – and they hang back, and they chill because that’s what he’s doing most of the time. Wess hits the opening track, Say It Isn’t So with a blippy Dexter Gordon-ish nonchalance that picks up as it goes along. There’s an absolutely gorgeous moment here where Harper switches to a vaudevillian shuffle on the ride cymbal, and then it all comes together. Barron’s solos here rank with anything he’s ever recorded: the neoclassical fanfare he hides in the middle of the third verse is absolutely delicious.
The Very Thought of You is a Barron feature, with some richly lingering upper register lines that sound as it he’s playing an electric piano. Harper’s subtle brushwork underscores an unselfconsciously deep, nunaced Wess solo on the first verse – it’s amazing how much control and range he still has, to rival anyone a fifth his age! The sole Wess original here, Pretty Lady, is a duet with Barron, the pianist’s coloristic, judicious lyricism against balmy sax, picking up unexpectedly with My Funny Valentine echoes. Another duet, Come Rain or Come Shine works the same vein, Barron in more of a ragtime mode against Wess’ mistiness, moving through gospel and then hitting an unexpectedly chilling couple of bars and then lingering in a noir ending. Wow!
Easy Living serves as an almost ten-minute launching pad for Wess’ warmly exploratory, richly blues-infused soloing, Davis leading the band through a subtle series of tempo shifts as it slowly picks up steam. Likewise, the bassist tackles Blue Monk with a determination not to walk simple blues change and the rest of the band follows, Barron choosing his spots, Wess taking it as high as he goes on this album. Wess ends it with a solo tenor rendition of All Too Soon, a clinic in allusive implied melody and how to choose a spot. Long may he play things like this.
It looks like we have our first classic of the year. On the cover of his new album Power Play, saxophonist Ralph Bowen stands in an alley, holding his sax more like a goalie than a winger. But the title is absolutely spot-on. This is one of those albums that musicians will hear and will immediately want to play along to. Yet ironically, non-musicians will probably enjoy this the most because they can just relax and enjoy it for what it is rather than having to figure out what Bowen is doing. Which actually isn’t all that difficult, most of the time, other than the most rapidfire passages (which will take lots of practice if you want to do them with the same kind of soul and style), because melody is simple. It lingers. As does this album.
If you play, this is a clinic in the kind of things you could be doing, and maybe should be doing. Bowen’s sense of melody is stunning, and yet completely unpredictable. He alternates effortlessly between scales and modes, shows off some wickedly blistering speed in places yet only when he really has to drive a point home. The closest comparison is probably Joshua Redman, but Bowen’s attack is lighter and more crystalline, and that contrasts, sometimes mightily, with the intensity of the tunes. He plays both tenor and alto here and is equally compelling either way. It’s hard-hitting, purposeful and tuneful beyond belief, and it elevates the crew behind him. Donald Edwards’ no-nonsense drums team up with Kenny Davis’ crisp, propulsive bass, along with Orrin Evans’ piano. About Evans, what else is there to say – everything he touches lately turns into magic (have you heard his Tarbaby album from last year? Get the damn thing!), and this is yet another example.
They don’t waste time getting started with an aggressive, matter-of-fact swing blues, which sets up an immediate contrast with the gorgeous, richly countermelodic Drumheller Valley, its intro with echoes of Brubeck, Evans kicking in a majestically chordal solo followed by an artfully divergent passage into Bowen’s lusciously ominous spirals. Two-Line Pass – a highway reference, maybe? – is relentless, Evans again matching the understated overdrive of Bowen’s restless bustle. Evans goes into rippling Americana-via-Brubeck on The Good Shepherd, a wickedly catchy modal number; Bowen’s long, bumpy descent out of the clouds on the warmly thoughtful swing tune Bella Firenze is arguably the high point of the whole album. Although on second thought that could be his big crescendo out, on alto, on the almost deviously nonchalant blues ballad Jessica, which follows it.
Walleye Jigging is a tongue-in-cheek lazy afternoon tableau complete with an expansive cocktail piano solo and an extended interlude in three before reverting to relaxed, syncopated swing. The album ends with A Solar Romance, a gently optimistic ballad that turns dark in seconds and gives Bowen the chance to work the suspense for all it’s worth, all the way to a very uneasy resolution. The lone cover here is My One and Only Love, where the bass and piano give Bowen plenty of room for what’s basically an expansive (ok, eight-minute) solo that somehow manages not to be boring. It’s only February, but you’ll see this on our best albums of 2011 list. It’s out now on Posi-Tone.