Welcome back to Jazz Club Quarterly! We hope you’ve built up a craving for jazz over the past few months, because we have a diverse array of recommendations for your listening enjoyment. Other than the obvious inclusion of Kamasi Washington‘s latest compositional epic and the “lost” album from sax legend John Coltrane, we hope you find a number of surprises from Ahmed, Dave, Nick and myself that end up making their way into your regular rotation (and hopefully, your AOTY list). We have a lot of jazz to cover, so let’s get to it!
John Coltrane – Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album
The mere fact that I am writing a blurb in this column right now about a “new” John Coltrane album that isn’t simply a compilation or even some unearthed live recording is simply not something I ever imagined I would have the opportunity to do. When it was announced that an entire session of well-preserved studio recordings featuring Coltrane and his classic quartet of McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass), and Elvin Jones (drums) was discovered and would be released by Verve, the entire jazz world and far beyond seemed to stop on a dime. The relatively short version of how this recording came to be is that Coltrane and crew were in the middle of a residency at NYC’s Birdland in 1963 and reserved some time at the famous Rudy Van Gelder’s NJ studio without much in the way of any specific intent as they were between planned studio albums. Van Gelder made a copy of the master tape for Coltrane to listen to at home, and the master recording sat untouched for years until Coltrane’s longtime label, Impulse, trashed it in the 1970s while cleaning out their vaults to make space, leaving the only remaining recording with Coltrane’s first wife Juanita Naima. There it was left essentially in storage until discovered by family and eventually worked its way through the estate and family members to Verve to publish.
All of that makes Both Directions At Once function very largely as an important historic document and artifact from one of jazz’s most prized artists. But, remarkably, the album stands incredibly well on its own for simple listening. It is a fascinating collection of 7 songs that found Coltrane very much at a crossroads between the more bop-indebted compositions and playing of his early to mid-career and the freer spiritual jazz that he would soon begin to explore in earnest on A Love Supreme and only push much further from there. There is a genuinely interesting sense of push-pull happening here as Coltrane and the band work their way through more straight-laced tunes like “Vilia,” early versions of the modal “Impressions,” and the two Untitled tracks that fall somewhere in between (and, quite honestly, steal the show overall). Even the seemingly simple “Slow Blues” very clearly has the workings of Coltrane trying to break free of his own tightly-wound chordal constructs into something far more intervallic and free of tonal centers. It offers an incredibly rare and precious glimpse into what was on Coltrane’s mind musically at that moment in time. As the title suggests, you can sense him being pulled in two separate musical directions at once, in that murky and exciting space before finding his next big sonic breakthrough. But even for the casual jazz listener, there is plenty here to appreciate on face value, making Both Directions At Once all the rarer posthumous piece of history worthy of the legend and figure at the center of it.
Armando Curiel – Familia
Percussionist, trumpeter, and composer, Armando Curiel has a diverse set of skills that comes forth on his debut album, Familia. The forty-minute record plays like a suite and is an ode to concordancia.
The Spanish word has many English translations, but one of them seems more appropriate: consonance. Indeed, it doesn’t seem to be the point of Armando to challenge our ear with new dissonances and interfering frequencies. Familia is very classical in how it treats consonance, but there are more than a few harmonic devices used to keep things moving forward. “Sueños de altamar”, as well as other tracks on disc, features a beautiful vocal theme sung by Iraida Noriega, a well-known Mexican singer. There are also relatively frequent modulations, which bring new emotions to the play, and many rhythmic ideas that moreover add to the complexity and beauty of this Familia.
As a pleasing, relatively laid-back album, Familia is quite similar to Classe moyenne, from French composer Vincent Touchard, which was in my top 5 for best jazz albums of 2017. If you wish another such flattering album that gently paints aural pictures of captivating landscapes, give Familia a listen or two!
Eishan Ensemble – Nim dong
نیم دانگ (Nim dong) means something like “one-twelfth” in Persian. It’s also used to refer to someone who has few things, but behaves like a boss. I think it’s a funny way to title your first album, and it’s perhaps a commentary on musicians in general. Maybe I’m reading too far into it. Either way, ایشان (Eishan) is certainly an ensemble that sounds like a boss, with a minimal but exotic set of instruments.
Out of Sydney, Australia, the music of Tehran-born musician Hamed Sadeghi comes into life with this quintet under Art as Catharsis. Nim dong is referred to as a “Persian jazz” album, and, if you take some time to listen carefully, you’ll come to see and enjoy greatly this uncommon cultural mix. Hamed’s Iranian classical music background and contemporary jazz knowledge come face to face on this album. What comes out of this union might greatly displease purists of both parent genres, but there is great beauty to behold in there. While “world fusion” is an accepted and existing term for labeling music, it hardly ever denotes music that is so thoroughly interbred as this, so it’s difficult to apply it here, but the premise of the appellation would be correct.
What’s so jarring, at first, is the use of primarily Persian instruments: the tar, the setar, the oud, and a traditional set of percussions. These are joined by saxophone, guitar, and double bass, which complete the international marriage. When you think of “jazz”, you most likely don’t think about these instruments having a jam session on the desert sand… However, once you grow accustomed to the idea, you’re left wanting more, and asking yourself why there aren’t more examples of such music.
Nim dong is a unique merger that is unlikely to be equalled in the near future. Therefore, as a pioneer, it definitely earned its place in my part of this article.
Song Yi Jeon – Movement of Lives
One criminally underknown jazz musician is Wonju, South Korea-born, New York-based singer Song Yi Jeon. Her most recent album with her quintet, Movement of Lives, came out on April 5, little more than two years after their debut, and it has barely been touched by the critiques and listeners of the jazz world. Here I will try to rectify this with my clumsy words.
First of all, the album is highly dynamic in all manners. The most obvious of which might be the vocal delivery. Thanks to Song’s varied range of techniques and timbres, many messages reach us without the need of words or music. The raw feeling alone gets across just fine, and that’s a good thing since most of the album features wordless scat singing! Then, there are all the instruments backing the Korean singer, which are also rich with dynamics and interesting harmonic and melodic ideas. The piano, most of all, seems to have a soul of its own, with concise melodies that rapidly ebb and flow.
After you’ve been filled to bursting with almost an hour of amazing contemporary jazz, there’s the little bonus of a traditional Korean folk song. The divide is strongly marked, especially on the vocal side of things, but it’s an incredible interpretation that further exemplifies the talent of Song Yi Jeon as a singer. This album has gone by mostly unnoticed, but do yourself a favour and give it an ear.
Kindo – Happy However After
There have been a number of big changes happening in the (Reign of) Kindo camp since we last heard from them with 2013’s excellent Play with Fire. There’s the name change to just “Kindo”, of course, but the New York jazz-rock group have accompanied that with a wholesale change in sound, too. And so 2018 brings us Happy However After, wherein the electronic, Dirty Loops-like opener “Human Convention” immediately signals a sonic shift: abandoning their seamless integration of lush jazz arrangements and snappy indie rock in favour of a wholly different take on the latter genre. With that being said, It’s quickly apparent that this sound is not entirely representative of the record as a whole, with Kindo exuberantly embracing all sorts of styles as the album progresses. “Let Me Be” is an incredibly fun percussive tune featuring foundations in Latin jazz, while “Return to Me” sounds like a mix between Kindo’s more minimalist This Is What Happens sound and some newfound pop sensibilities. Besides the obvious eclecticism on display, the other major change is the band strongly de-emphasizing piano lines, which arguably formed the core of their sound prior. Instead, Happy However After has Kindo building around vocalist Joey Secchiaroli, whether on the ballad-like songs (“Catch the Gleam”, “About Love”) or more energetic cuts (“Smell of a Rose”). While his performance remains phenomenal as always, the difference still remains palpable, and can admittedly feel a bit strange to ears that have grown very accustomed to the old instrumental-rich (Reign of) Kindo sound.
Happy However After might not please everybody as a full package, but at the same time, its willingness to try basically everything means that there are bound to be parts of it that any given listener can get something out of. While maybe sounding a bit disparate at times, it stands that the album is the sound of a band in flux; actively challenging and reinventing themselves, sometimes even over the course of a single song. Perhaps they may not have completely found the answers this time around, but the sheer energy and creativity being put into the task is reason enough to make Happy However After a vibrant and enjoyable release.
Lonker See – One Eye Sees Red
Both my recommendations for the month are more representative of jazz’s influencing power rather than it’s practice in pure form. I guess my anticipation for Kamasi Washington‘s new album consumed my focus in terms of new jazz (scroll to the end for Nick’s take on the record). Of course, there were several of jazz albums that caught my interest over the last few months, but none earned a regular spot in my rotation quite like One Eye Sees Red. As with the majority of releases from Instant Classic, One Eye Sees Red is a complex album with numerous assets interlocking to create an enthralling experience. Similar in a way to Merkabah‘s Million Miles, Lonker See leverage rock and jazz with an incredibly seamless ratio. There’s something on here for fans of either genre and especially those who love how the two styles can overlap to create some truly thought-provoking yet heavy-hitting music.
Lonker See tap on a potent combination of post-rock, psychedelic rock and space rock to create the foundation for their jazzy stylings to run amok. Tomasz Gadecki certainly assists in the album’s spacious jazz-rock vibes with his exceptional work behind the saxophone and synthesizer. It’s an eclectic blend spanning three tracks of lush, unraveling mystique, which is particularly potent on the 17+ minute tracks “Lillian Gish” and “Solaris,3 & 4.” It’s fascinating to listen to each of these elements unravel in real time, and how seamlessly the band’s stylistic exploration comes together into a cohesive whole. It’s worht the journey for jazz and rock fans a like, and it’s trek I encourage everyone reading this to take.
Brad Mehldau Trio – Seymour Reads the Constitution
It’s been some time since pianist extraordinaire Brad Mehldau first blew my mind with his sweeping double album Highway Rider, an expansive take on orchestral, occasionally ‘cinematic’ jazz. Despite all the album’s ambition and technical accomplishments, what stuck out in between, naturally, remained the fluidity and scope of Mehldau’s playing: sometimes relaxed, languid, and emotional, but just as easily becoming tense, rhythmically challenging, and even downright dissonant when the song called for it. This complete mastery of his instrument carries over, naturally, to 2018 trio offering Seymour Reads the Constitution. Of course, Mehldau returning to the trio format he initially made his name on means Seymour lacks Highway Rider’s scope and soaring sonic palette, but this format only allows the emotional sway in Mehldau’s playing to shine all the more. Opener “Spiral” is easily one of his finest original compositions to date, immediately setting the laid-back, warm tone that permeates most of this album. And once said tone has been set, it’s off to the races with Mehldau’s famed improv abilities, his rhythm section following with aplomb across a number of original compositions (“Ten Tune” being another highlight) and covers alike.
Of course, the album never particularly drops off after that, but the trio do save the best for last: a lively take on Sam Rivers’ “Beatrice” wraps up the record, and not before featuring spellbinding solos from all three musicians, either. As soon as its final flourish signals the end of the record, it still feels as if the trio could have continued on their merry path forever — but it seems all us saps are left with is a mad scramble for the repeat button. Either way, Seymour is the perfect album to unwind to on a sunny day, and given that it’s mid-July we’ve got quite a few of those to go around — so why not give it a spin?
The Messthetics – The Messthetics
As I mentioned in my blurb for Lonker See, my picks for this quarter are hardly straight-up jazz albums. But to me, that’s the beauty of the genre; it’s as much an idea as an established style, and its influence can be felt through nearly every genre in operation today. One of my favorite jazz subgenres is the incredibly intriguing “jazz-punk” culture spawned by Black Flag‘s Greg Ginn. His marriage of jazz loose, improvisational style with the intensity of punk was a revelation on the band’s post-Damaged work, and especially on the criminally underrated EP The Process of Weeding Out. So when the rhythm section of Fugazi announced a new jazz-punk album based on the notion that “structure begets improvisation,” you better believe I jumped on it as soon as it dropped.
Brendan Canty (drums) and Joe Lally (bass) of Fugazi fame bring Anthony Pirog (guitar) on board to round out their lineup as The Messthetics. And as far as meeting expectations go, the trio absolutely nail it on their self-titled debut. There are shades of Fugazi’s post-hardcore magic, of course, but the trio brings a signature jazzy flair to the proceedings that bring aboard a tantalizing improvisational spirit. Throw in some light math and noise rock influences, and you have a well-rounded album that’s truly a captivating sight to behold. It’s not your father’s jazz-rock, but with grooves and compositions this good, I’m sure he won’t mind.
Nyeusi – Nyeusi
There is certainly something fascinating and exciting going on in LA right now when it comes to all things jazz-related. I already mentioned Kamasi Washington and his entire crew and friend group, including the likes of Thundercat, Miles Mosley, Cameron Graves, and more who have found their own success in solo work and collabs with other musicians. You have Flying Lotus doing his thing and finding new avenues into blending jazz fusion, electronic music, hip-hop, and more. You have Kendrick Lamar and his own collaborations with Washington, Thundercat, Terrace Martin, and others injecting more mainstream attention to jazz and specifically black jazz artists. That vibrant community continues to spin out more fantastic new artists, and you can count CA-born drummer Justin Brown and his new project Nyeusi among them now, even as he bases himself in NYC.
Brown has played with both Thundercat and FlyLo recently, and the influence and common tastes of each can be felt immediately throughout Nyeusi. It’s full of funky, skittery beats, cosmic synths, and enough cool swagger to get anyone moving. The two “Lesson” tracks and “Fyfo” feature the exact kind of spacey atmosphere and LA cool groove that has become FlyLo’s calling card for years, and more silky r&b influenced pieces like “Replenish” definitely fit well within Thundercat’s own oeuvre, but Brown more than puts his own percussive and compositional spin on each. “Waiting on Aubade” and “Entering Purgatory” lean heavily on otherworldly synth lines to contrast the absolute fire and fury coming off from Brown’s expert drum work. For obvious reasons Brown’s drums, intoxicating beats, and acrobatic fills are the star of the show here, but Nyeusi is far more than a beat and groove sampler. It’s a strikingly confident debut that is only more proof that the creative energy pulsing through the work of the new LA jazz scene is having a wide influence that is sure to continue producing excellent, enjoyable, and challenging work.
Kamasi Washington – Heaven & Earth
To be perfectly honest, if you are reading this column right now you almost certainly already know who Kamasi Washington is and have already listened to his latest opus Heaven & Earth at least once. If you follow jazz in even the most casual way Washington is pretty much impossible to escape, and for good reason. Since releasing his triple album debut The Epic, Washington’s star has skyrocketed to levels pretty much unforeseen in the world of jazz in decades. The blend of knotty compositions borrowing heavily on 60s-era post-bop, a transcendent technical playing style that has rightfully drawn many comparisons to the spiritual jazz period of John Coltrane, and a modern consciousness in drawing some more contemporary funk/r&b influences all placed in the context of modern iterations of black empowerment and racial conflicts all weave together to form a powerhouse package that has captivated an audience well beyond the scope of just about all other contemporary mainstream jazz figures.
All of this is the base info that you likely already know. And if you want a more in-depth look into the inner workings of Washington’s follow-up to that debut, Heaven & Earth, I highly recommend you read Scott’s fantastic write-up of it in our Top 25 of 2018 (So Far) post here. For the most part, Heaven & Earth doesn’t stray too far from the foundation that The Epic laid. Kamasi and co. are just as sharp as ever in producing huge sounds and blistering solos mostly within a cosmic jazz framework. And frankly, when they’re operating at this high of a level so consistently, it’s hard to quibble too much with that. But there are also plenty of little surprises here and there that keep this from turning into a re-tread. You have the kung-fu pastiche of opener “Fists of Fury” that manages to rise well above its Bruce Lee soundtrack source material into a definitive statement of black power and action in the face of unrelenting abuse. There are tracks like “Can You Hear Him” that start with a familiar blueprint of Washington and trombonist Ryan Porter trading off silky smooth melodies and lead lines only to have Brandon Coleman’s absolute fiery spaced-out synth solo take the entire thing to far more “out” place than we’ve really heard the group go before, only to have Kamasi swoop in to restore some sense of balance between order and chaos. There are the beautifully sweeping and pretty touches of “The Space Traveler’s Lullaby,” which wouldn’t be at all out of place serving as the backdrop to the idealistic space exploration that forms the core of Star Trek. There’s even experimentation with vocoder effects packed within a peppy latin swagger in “Vi Lua Vi Sol.”
Frankly, to go into any more detail than this would turn this from a blurb into a straight-up review and essay, so I’ll stop here and simply say that if you somehow are reading this and have yet to listen to Heaven & Earth, you should do so immediately. You are unlikely to hear anything that better represents the melting pot of classic and modern jazz influences in such a joyous and expertly-crafted package.