We’re back with more fantastic jazz from the second quarter of 2017! Unfortunately, the departure of staff writer and our friend Jimmy Mullett from Heavy Blog has left a hole in our Jazz Club trifecta. Thankfully we were able to fill that void quickly with our buddy Dave Tremblay of Can This Even Be Called Music?! Dave is constantly finding interesting and original stuff in the way of jazz and elsewhere, and we’re excited to have him join and help us recommend jazz of all stripes that demands your attention.
Our list this quarter has a pretty distinctly international feel to it. Though jazz is very much an American music in origin, for decades now much of the most exciting and boundary-pushing music from the genre has come from artists either living elsewhere or who have immigrated to America, bringing their own traditions and influences with them. Some of the more stodgy and rigidly traditionalist fans and critics of jazz may scoff at some of these kinds of permutations and experimentations, but it is in fact these artists and this music that is keeping the genre alive. Jazz does not need “saving,” as all too many thinkpieces have wrung their hands over for many years. The music itself continues to survive and thrive in every direction imaginable, and as new generations continue to take what their mentors and idols did and put their own spin on it, they will carry new traditions to entirely new generations of people. And in a time when there is so much conflict and strife between much of the west and non-western people, particularly those coming from largely Muslim nations, it’s particularly heartening to see a couple of albums make our list and garner wide attention from people of middle eastern descent who have incorporated traditional music from the region in unexpected and entirely thrilling ways. Jazz is in good hands. Just listen.
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Diaspora (nu jazz, post bop)
Back in 2015, composer and trumpeter Christian Scott’s modern spin on classic bop with Stretch Music earned him some deserved attention among the NPR crowd. Unfortunately for him, this breakout dropped the same year as Kamasi Washington’s The Epic, critics and jazz fans’ near-unanimous jazz AOTY from the moment it was released. Two years later, Scott seems determined to establish equal footing with his own three-disc epic released over the course of 2017. He’s followed up a foray into fusion on Ruler Rebel in April with Diaspora, a late-June treat overflowing with summery nu jazz anthems.
Diaspora is post bop for a warm, breezy afternoon in Central Park. Scott’s approach to bop follows in the modern trend of jazz’s reflexive affection with hip-hop, such as BADBADNOT GOOD and Flying Lotus. Every track on Diaspora presents a seamless combination of boom bap production and smooth jazz à la Jan Garbarek, albeit with a heightened youthful spirit. Fans of the genre should be flocking to these two installments in the trilogy and start salivating for the finale of The Emancipation Procrastination; Scott’s work as a composer and performer warrant immediate attention for anyone who appreciates artists hellbent on constantly reinvigorating the genre and their own sound.
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Yazz Ahmed – La Saboteuse (Arabic jazz, world fusion)
In a way it feels strange to be including the British-Bahrani trumpet/flugelhorn player and composer Yazz Ahmed in this list given that this tends to be a place for generally overlooked or niche artists and given just how often we’ve already written about her and her excellent album La Saboteuse over the past couple of months. But that is much more a testament to how much Ahmed’s intoxicating blend of late 60s fusion jazz, middle eastern melodies/rhythms/motifs, and more modern influences has managed to break through to much broader, mainstream attention than anything else. You can read one of our other in-depth writeups of the album for more extensive takes on how great it is, but given that I am one of the few jazz-inclined people on the Heavy Blog staff to have not written about this album at this point, I wanted to point out one relatively small aspect that I feel has gone under-appreciated.
With “Bloom,” Ahmed has finally produced a jazz cover of a Radiohead track that actually sounds like something more than simply a cover. Don’t get me wrong. The myriad of standard, piano-driven jazz covers from the likes of Brad Mehldau are classics and are perfectly pleasant to listen to, but they’re almost always both too beholden to the original and too stuck in playing to jazz cliches. It certainly helps that “Bloom” is somewhat of an atypical track for the group anyway (a grossly underrated one at that), and it also certainly doesn’t hurt that Ahmed contributed to the original recording of that track and others on The King of Limbs. But what makes it such a great rendition is that, ultimately, it still feels 100% like a Yazz Ahmed composition and one that in every way belongs on the album. It takes on a life of its own completely separate from the original, and it’s magnificent. If nothing else, it serves as an incredible entry point for fans of all types into easily one of the best jazz albums of any type this year.
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Black Motor – Branches (avant-garde jazz, modal jazz)
On Branches, Finnish trio Black Motor‘s simple-yet-experimental approach to modality is akin to a classy jazz club being overrun by the drifters from the surrounding alleys. Modality was first introduced to jazz by Miles Davis on his 1958 composition “Milestones,” which encapsulates the style’s reliance on musical scales and set melodies as a harmonic framework rather than chord progressions. As is evidence by highlights in Davis’ modal period like Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain, the style is often characterized by long, drawn out notes and patient, soulful playing, something Black Motor saxophonist Tane Kannisto captures beautifully with his clean, sultry playing. Backed by the capable hands of bassist Ville Rauhala and drummer Simo Laihonen, the core of Kannisto’s playing strikes an even-handed tone of brash accessibility; he’s never harsh enough to scare of jazz traditionalists but never shies away from a passionate run of notes that flirt with light free jazz tendencies. It’s a powerful, confident record bursting with potential and confidence, something that might act as a good gateway for experimental jazz virgins looking to venture into the genre’s darker underbelly.
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Peter Brötzmann/Heather Leigh – Sex Tape (European free jazz, free improvisation)
Buckle up and strap on—this is probably the most twisted sex tape you’ll experience this year. On his latest release, veteran free jazz saxophonist Peter Brötzmann has enlisted an unusual bedfellow with Heather Leigh, who surrounds his conniptions with an elastic atmosphere courtesy of her pedal steel guitar. Brötzmann’s playing is unsurprisingly abrasive and versatile, opening with a raunchy riff before breaking out into his usual rapidfire reed abuse. It’s incredible how he’s continued to expand his dexterity and endless creativity throughout such a prolific career; the legend status he earned with Machine Gun (1968) and Nipples (1969) has only been bolstered by late career highlights like Sex Tape.
Yet, while most of Brötzmann’s recent, young collaborators have matched his voracious spirit, their instrumental offerings have been relatively standard, such as saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and even Artur Smolyn’s electronics and production efforts. Joining Leigh’s pedal steel in unholy matrimony makes for an incredibly fresh duet that’s unique even by Brötzmann’s standards. Her ambient backdrop strikes a perfect balance between electronic and organic textures, ebbing and flowing to add further depth to the duo’s performance. Leigh certainly doesn’t tame or diminish Brötzmann’s free-wheeling assaults, but she does extract new sonic territory from his playing that contorts into perhaps the most noteworthy free jazz album of the year thus far.
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Bryan & the Aardvarks – Sounds From The Deep Field
Here’s a concept that is neither new and has been explored through artistic mediums to death: space is massive. Like, seriously, ever-expanding massive. There’s been plenty of music committed to tape about this, some great and more than some of it terrible because it gets too lost in its own fascination with spaciness and seemingly endless jams. The latest album from NYC-based Bryan & the Aardvarks, Sounds From The Deep Field, is an example of this done well. The group features an eclectic mixture of classical/chamber, proggy jazz noodling, and spacey production and synths. Even at its most ethereal though, the music never wanders too far astray from its strong compositional foundations. At their root, many of these tracks are pop compositions filtered through the lens of space rock/jazz, offering just enough space oddity and instrumental technicality to give the music a strong identity and profile that is incredibly consumable and demands repeat listens.
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Amir ElSaffar / Rivers of Sound – Not Two (Arabic jazz, microtonal jazz, world fusion)
Amir ElSaffar is an Iraqi-American trumpeter who has already released a handful of albums as a leader and several under his previous ensemble, Two Rivers. His latest album, Not Two, appears to be a direct reference to that ensemble as the small group has been expanded into the expansive 17-piece Rivers of Sound. Like the multitude of other middle eastern jazz players and composers who have exploded onto the scene in recent years, ElSaffar manages to capture the nuanced and complex beauty of the musical traditions he pulls from while blending them with modern jazz compositions and playing in a way that sounds entirely fresh and original. Instruments like oud, buzuk, and santur blend with cello, violin, sax, and trumpet to create swirling melodies and rich walls of sound, while re-tuned vibraphone, piano, and guitar add to the traditional microtonal foundation of it all. The entire album possesses a very meditative quality to it, as motifs and rhythmic patterns enter, overlap, intertwine, swell, and fade both independently and in concert with each other. There are structures there, but they require a certain patience and openness to suss out. Not Two is far from a purely cerebral or difficult album to listen to however. The tracks presented here are full of energy and emotion that ought to entice even those completely unfamiliar with some of the non-western musical influences woven throughout. And for you prog fans who get off on complex meters and time signatures, there’s even a track called “Hijaz 21/8” just for you! In all seriousness though, Not Two is a beautiful, deep, and rewarding album that understands that to truly fuse multiple musical traditions together one must build something that stands entirely on its own and sounds like one music.
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Human – Fractured Lands (avant-garde jazz, free jazz)
There’s not much information going on about Human… Thanks in part to the online scarcity of Babel Label, which released their latest album, Fractured Lands. However, we still know that it is a British free jazz quartet consisting of drummer Stephen Davis, violinist Dylan Bates, trumpeter Alex Bonney, and pianist Alexander Hawkins. That is, indeed, a rather unusual set of instruments, but they manage to really get the most out of this combination. At just under forty minutes, Fractured Lands boasts ten tracks walking the fine line between improvisation and composition. It’s often hard to tell, because some themes recur, and the game of each musician is in almost constant perfect synchronicity with the rest of the band. There are some parts that sound definitely more free than others, and some that sound like meticulous compositions, but there is a vast territory in between these two extremes, where I really am unsure which roles improvisation and composition play. The result is a pleasurably ambiguous record that can be harsh and challenging as well as more contemplative and plain beautiful. Be certain to give it a shot!
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Lean Left – I Forgot to Breathe (European free jazz, jazz rock)
As Jimmy and I discussed in our conversation on jazz fusion, there’s always been controversy over the divide between jazz-leaning “fusion” and jazz-adjacent “jazz rock.” Herbie Hancock and the Mahavishnu Orchestra both fall under the jazz fusion umbrella despite falling further towards the jazz and rock ends of the spectrum, respectively. But when it comes to abrasive free jazz quartet Lean Left, the jazz rock label couldn’t be more obvious and exhilarating. Terrie Ex and Andy Moor extract severe, aural punishments from their guitars and keep pace with saxophonist/clarinetist Ken Vandermark, whose baritone and tenor work shows incredible command of his instrument as his lungs unleash a thrash and bash romp. Add in the rapid veracity of workhorse drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, and you have an incredible marriage of free jazz and noise rock unlike anything else from any of its genre’s 2017 offerings. The quartet’s cohesion makes their individual contributions even more impressive; while music of this nature could easily cause a rift between its players and devolve into meaningless chaos, the group maintains a clear link throughout each track that adds a light but much needed backbone to make I Forgot to Breathe the successful controlled demolition it is. Just make sure you brace yourself for the shock waves after the as their collective rampage turns their surroundings into rubble.
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Orchestre national de jazz de Montréal – Under the Influence Suite (orchestral jazz, vocal jazz)
The Orchestre national de jazz de Montréal, or ONJM (tr: Montreal National Jazz Orchestra) was founded in 2012 and reunites composers and players to commission, play, and record new and classic jazz compositions. The Under the Influence Suite is a piece commissioned to conductor Christine Jensen in 2015 as a tribute to her influences as a musician, composer, and conductor. The fifty-minute piece, in five parts and eight tracks, pays homage to trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, pianist Jan Jarczyk, and saxophonists John Coltrane, Lee Konitz and Wayne Shorter. The whole piece goes through a lot, as you might have already guessed; from chorale, to an expansion of Giant Steps, to a work similar to Out of Nowhere, to pure improvisation. Under the Influence features singer Sienna Dahlen, which complements perfectly the jazz orchestra and provides us soaring melodies, entrancing and wonderful. This is an album that is very powerful and evocative, a gem in the genre.
Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble – Oregon Stories (jazz poetry, orchestral jazz)
Oregon Stories is the latest release from PJCE, or the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, which consists of twelve members playing compositions from writers of Oregon. The three songs on this record are from trumpeter Douglas Detrick, pianist Darrell Grant, and guitarist Mark Orton, and they are scores to radio interviews. These interviews are stories of three different people: Deborah Dempsey, DeNorval Unthank, told by his daughter Lesley Unthank, and George Akiyama, told by historian Linda Tamura. This elevates PJCE’s music to more than mere entertainment, and into the realm of social activism, making a statement about the inclusivity of jazz and the equality of people. The digital version of Oregon Stories includes the instrumental versions of each score, but it’s important to experience the full thing at least once by listening to the stories recounted here. Another thing setting them apart is their lack of conductor, which is unusual for ensembles of this size. It could then be argued that this therefore plays into the world of chamber music, as a duodecet.
Given the nature of their purpose, the three songs are quite large, each standing at eighteen, fourteen, and nineteen minutes in length. They brilliantly reflect the different moods present in the interviews, from pride to anxiety, fear, hope, and countless others. They are also heavily layered and quite intricate, making great and sometimes clever use of the twelve-member band. Oregon Stories really is an original and deeply interesting album, and it bears a heavier meaning that makes it resonate even more with me. It is a must-have for any jazz fan.
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Rumpus – Somehow (jazz fusion, vocal jazz)
From France, Rumpus is a jazz fusion band with seven members. Saxophone, trumpet, and keyboards augment the usual quartet format. Released in April, Somehow consists of six tracks and spans a little less than forty minutes. The female-fronted septet is a more traditional jazz band than the previous two entities I discussed, but their compositions are of equally great quality. The songs have a highly energetic output complete with lush chords and velvety melodies that strum my strings quite efficiently. From funk and soul to pure fusion, passing through other subgenres of jazz that I’m not too certain of, Rumpus have crafted a true delicacy that, still after four months, stays in my head as a great record that deserves yet another listen. I hope it will be the same for you!
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Shubh Saran – Hmayra (jazz fusion, progressive jazz)
I’ve been talking a lot about jazz musicians who have come over from non-western countries fusing non-western music traditions with western jazz and more, and Shubh Saran is further proof of the many forms that can take. The Indian-American guitarist, much like fellow guitarist Rafiq Bhatia (Son Lux), who is also of Indian descent, absolutely possesses an edge, technicality, and flair that comes straight from the modern jazz and progressive schools, and the music of Hmayra reflects that. It’s the kind of sleek, thrilling progressive jazz with plenty of hooks and groove to it. Propulsive tracks like “Slip” and “The Imposter” are sure to draw comparisons to the likes of Tigran Hamasyan and more. But there are also hints and flourishes throughout the album that give it a more worldly feel to it, and there’s plenty here that showcases Saran’s own compositional and playing style. Also, the album art for this, which you unfortunately can’t see from the embedded video below, is brilliant. Hmayra is a confident and striking full-length debut for the young guitarist, one that should put him on the radar for fans of proggy modern jazz.