We know we’re already well into the final quarter of the year, but…better late than never, amirite? Like many genres (as in, almost all of them), jazz has had a pretty phenomenal showing in 2018. And given each of our individual tastes touching different factions of the style, it’s clear that this isn’t isolated to just bop, fusion or whatever the hell Zorn is up to these days. Dave, Nick and I have attempted to compile an essential guide to what jazz had to offer over the last few months, ranging from futuristic fusion to an abrasive, headfirst dive into noise. You probably get the drill by now, so let’s get this thing rolling.
Bad Luck – Four (ambient jazz, avant-garde jazz)
Man, what a great album to kick off the column with. The first of my two numerically-titled picks is also the most easily-labeled “jazz” album of all my selections from the past few months. This isn’t meant as a knock against Bad Luck, the moniker of duo Neil Welch (saxophone, live electronics) and Christopher Icasiano (drums). I’m guilty of seeking out the most non-jazz jazz albums I can find as a means of challenging my own affinity for experimental music. Yet, what jazz has proven over the years is it’s open-ended possibilities and natural tendency to ebb and flow beyond its established boundaries (if there any still exist, at this point). Four serves as an excellent reminder of how a traditional jazz set up can sound anything but standard; when it comes to sax/drum duos, Bad Luck are masters of their craft while being unique and inventive in the process.
In essence, Four feels like a Colin Stetson record that’s focused on ambient jazz rather than post-minimalism. Welch is an excellent sax player who cycles through a myriad of styles. One minute he’s punctuating the atmosphere with an infectious bop riff, and the next he’s unleashing sheets of sound, multiphonics and other extended techniques. Those atmospheres are a key factor in the success of Four as well. There’s a certain expansiveness that comes with any type of sweeping, atmospheric effect, and it’s to the album’s benefit in this case. Underneath it all, Icasiano is a talented player as well, shuffling and jittering on his kit when the moment calls for it and breaking out with energetic, punchy percussion when needed.
To bring things full circle, the main reason I’m glad that Four happened to fall first alphabetically is that it’s the perfect precursor to where the rest of our picks fall on the spectrum. Bad Luck are a jazz duo that executes so much more than just jazz, which is precisely why the genre has no true confines. In today’s day an age, we’re lucky to have artists that can elevate the genre to new heights while still reminding us why we fell in love with the style in the first place. On Four, Bad Luck launch through a labyrinth of electronics, jazz and experimentation, coming out on the other side with an album that excels in each of its attempted musical exercises.
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Big Heart Machine – Big Heart Machine (progressive jazz)
Big Heart Machine’s self-titled debut album is how all debuts should be: perfect. Or, using less controversial terminology: pretty damn great. The New York big band plays Brian Krock’s compositions, which are both conceptually and musically interesting. The pièce de résistance is the five-dish “Tamalpais”, a composition about the scaling of the mount of the same name. At over 30 minutes long, it makes up more than half of the length of Big Heart Machine. Progressive and modern, this album is an absolute must-have.
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Kurushimi – What Is Chaos? (avant-garde jazz, noise jazz)
If this were a different type of blog, I could probably take a crack at answering the question posed by the title Kurushimi‘s latest album. But more importantly, the question of “What is this chaos” is perhaps a better thought to ruminate on. As seems to be the tradition with my picks for this column, Kurushimi are yet another jazz band that seems more interested in what the genre can be rather than what it’s traditionally been. This has always been the aspiration that’s pushed the genre forward, and What is Chaos? is no exception. This is a wild journey that’s well worth following through the numerous twists and turns is presents.
Fans of John Zorn‘s avant-prog Moonchild supergroup will feel right at home here…somewhat. The core of the What Is Chaos? feels like a more jazz-oriented brutal prog album, with prominent, pummeling percussion and bass, wild sax and vocal oddities abound. Yet, interspersed within these compositions are moments of dark ambiance and noise, slapping segments of unease into the proceedings and overall leading to an album that’s difficult to get a handle on upon first listen, and several subsequent listens as well. Just when it seems like the band’s about to launch into a full brutal-jazz-prog assault, everything quiets down, and the ensuing ominous soundscape is then itself pierced by shrill, abrasive sax lines and ugly guitar chords. Suffice it to say, What Is Chaos? is an album for music listeners who want to ruminate on this very question. More importantly, Kurushimi’s approach to avant-garde jazz, and avant-garde music in general, is proof that maximalism isn’t the sole approach required of groups aiming to be as bizarre and experimental as possible.
What Is Chaos? is a multifaceted and impressively balanced approach to toying with the formulas of several avant-garde subgenres. Where the group could have easily pumped up the intensity of their sonic assault and called it an album, they instead show a keen ability to approach songcraft from a macro perspective. “Patience” isn’t usually the first word that comes to mind when I think of experimental music, but I’m glad that it’s an apt description in the case of what Kurushimi have spliced together here. Compositions that seem elusive and subdued at first quickly prove to be well-conceptualized and even more effectively collated.
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Ben Marston & Hugh Barrett – Unfound Places (ambient jazz)
Trumpetist and pianist Ben Marston and Hugh Barrett join forces on Unfound Places, released via Art as Catharsis on June 22, to craft a stunning ambient jazz album. Meditative, contemplative, the opus takes you through melancholic deserted landscapes, which the artwork for the album parallels marvelously. Thanks to the musicians’ experience, creativity, and talent, the duo feels much bigger than it actually is: notes come up from every angle to fill the aural spectrum and give a tangible impression of fullness. Unfound Places is a wonderful album to sink into.
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The Necks – Body (avant-garde jazz, minimalism)
Frankly, there isn’t much more to say here than, “It’s a new album from The Necks; listen to it.” When I think of consistency in music, few other bands come to mind as immediately as the legendary masters of minimalist improvisation. As I wrote in my review of their last alum Unfold, the band have been one of the most noteworthy mainstays in avant-garde music for decades, and unsurprisingly, Body is no exception. The trio returns to their monolithic, one-track approach and craft yet another hour-long ode to meditative, transcendental ambient jazz minimalism.
For those uninitiated, albums from The Necks revolve around careful, lockstep interplay between Chris Abrahams (piano, organ), Tony Buck (drums, percussion) and Lloyd Swanton (bass). Like a phantom Bill Evans playing avant-garde post-rock, every Necks album starts and remains slow, but its inner propulsion emanates outward, building a consuming aura. It’s a unique intersection of jazz, minimalism, ambient music and post-rock that’s truly unmatched in the modern music landscape (or really any period of these genres’ existences).
What separates Body is the way the composition incorporates elements of experimental rock, particularly during the latter half. As the track develops, it takes on a sort of post-punk vibe without fully removing itself from the central ethos that makes the Necks who they are. But this added rock edge makes for an even more kinetic iteration of the Necks formula, and it lends itself to the trio’s mastery of tweaking a blueprint just enough to remain engaging but consistent. They may not be your standard jazz group, but its traits like this that define the band’s extraordinary legacy, and more importantly, their continued growth.
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Shell From Oceanic – How to Let Go (jazz fusion, progressive metal)
As someone who heavily gravitates towards the realm of fusion when it comes to all things jazz, this summer was a very kind one for me, as several great examples of jazz fusion came out in Q3 (okay, technically this came out June 29, so I’m fudging by a couple of days, but hopefully you’ll forgive me). Surely near the top of that list is the sophomore album from Portugal’s Shell From Oceanic, How To Let Go. Employing similar compositional frameworks as other great instrumental progressive rock and metal acts of recent years, How To Let Go is a fantastic trip through technical acrobatics, waist-deep bass grooves, cosmic synths, and more.
While tracks like “Dancing In Circles” and “8am” lean more heavily on the rock/metal side, sounding in league with other great instrumental prog acts like Pomegranate Tiger, the group never stray too far from their jazzier roots, especially on lighter and bouncier songs like opening tracks “Inner Fiction” and “Vode Mo Garnum.” The transitions from these musical facets are seamless, especially as the group inject plenty of spacey futurism throughout. The title track in particular is wonderful at accomplishing this as it effortlessly moves from theme to theme while tying it all together with a distinct mood and energy. Much like the enticingly pretty rendering that adorns the album’s cover art, their music has a rich, organic quality to it while remaining curiously alien and diverse enough to not get pigeonholed into being any one thing. How To Let Go, despite being rather brief at just over a half hour, uses every moment its got to its fullest extent, presenting a fully-realized fusion sound that is impossible to pin down and will delight you as much as keep you guessing what comes next.
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Slowly Rolling Camera – Juniper (jazz fusion)
Britain’s Slowly Rolling Camera have spent most of the past 5 years as one of the most exciting examples of soulful jazz experimentation, a series of masterful instrumentalists revolving around a nucleus of show-stopping vocalist Dionne Bennett. Across two full-lengths and an EP, the quartet – featuring Bennett, Dave Stapleton on keys, Deri Roberts on electronics, and Elliot Bennett on drums – was an irresistible meeting of sultry and smooth, fire and ice, etc. Their entire premise was a meeting of disparate influences across jazz, electronics, soul, hip-hop, and more, and creating alchemy from it, and it was nothing short of an incredible success.
So what happens when a core piece of that is stripped away? SRC’s third album, Juniper, answers that as Dionne Bennett parted ways with the group, leaving them as a fully instrumental trio. Rather than attempt to replace her or otherwise somehow fill the huge gap left in her absence, the band instead pivoted away from that sound and more towards their individual strengths. Juniper is more-heavily rooted in the sounds of nu-jazz than their previous works as the combination of cool jazz grooves and electronics takes front stage. It’s hard not to hear plenty of early-career Jaga Jazzist and Portico Quartet here, especially in the more trip-hop-influenced tracks like “Hyperloop,” but SRC more than manage to put their own spin on the sound with some great compositions and the same thrilling level of instrumental mastery that elevated their previous work. The increased use of horns and guitar throughout also help add some welcome flavors to the mix. Fans who have come to expect a certain thing from the band may be left feeling a bit cold by Juniper as it almost entirely leaves behind the more soulful core of the original quartet’s fingerprint, but for those who are happy to hear expertly-executed modern jazz with a cool European edge will find plenty to love here.
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TAUK – Shapeshifter II: Outbreak (nu-jazz fusion, synthwave, trip-hop)
There are times when the sheer aesthetic of a group, from their sonic makeup to their album art and beyond is just so wonderful and precise that I feel like all I need to say is “look at this thing and you will understand.” New York-based quartet TAUK and their two latest releases, Shapeshifter I: Construct (released earlier this spring) and Shapeshifter II: Outbreak fit the bill perfectly for that. The devastatingly alluring and graphic cover art of the two albums, full of bright colors and cyborg-filled retro-futurism is a wonderful mixture of elements old and contemporary.
As such, the music follows suit, combining elements of classic 70s jazz fusion, 80s spaced-out synth-scapes, and 90s/2000s funk and trip-hop grooves, all wrapped up in some more contemporary embellishments and sensibilities. Everything about this band and the music presented here are so fearless when it comes to embracing every possible cliche of those respective sounds and styles that it simply blows past them back into the realm of unadulterated fun, joy, and coolness. And, much like the album’s title itself, the band always somehow manage to slyly shuffle those sounds and influences around from track-to-track, constantly offering a slightly different and fresh take on whatever pieces they’re combining. Simply put, Shapeshifter II is a constant thrill ride through and through, as close as this kind of fusion can come to music worth throwing a huge dance party to.
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Eli Wallace – Slideshow Junky I (experimental jazz)
One of my favourite jazz labels, Iluso Records, keep putting out great albums. This year, among many others, Eli Wallace’s Slideshow Junky I is of note. The album regroups two trios, both headed by pianist Eli, and together as a quintet on “D Is For…”, playing some wild experimental compositions. These tracks often play with rhythm, harmony, and progressions in order to come out with something truly unique and mesmerizing. Prepare to be blown away.
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Walt Weiskopf European Quartet – Walt Weiskopf European Quartet (post-bop, contemporary jazz)
This one hits a particularly sentimental sweet spot for me. Back in my teens, a period when many readers of this site were likely idolizing the shredding guitarists of their choosing, I, a nebbish jazz nerd living the irl Whiplash life of competitive big bands, instead focused much of my attention on a “shredding” sax player: Walt Weiskopf. Although he’s been around for a few decades now and has garnered plenty of renown in the mainstream jazz world for his work, he is far from a household name outside of there (unless you’re a Steely Dan superfan and know their live band inside and out). For someone like me though at that time when how many notes per minute someone could fit into a solo was directly proportional with how good they were – Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” obviously being the pinnacle – Weiskopf’s blazing technique was utterly unimpeachable. More impressive, his solos were far more than simple runs up and down scales or series of arpeggios. They were complicated and knotty almost to a fault, constantly mixing in unpredictable intervallic steps and twists and turns that could remain lockstep in the complex chord progressions he constructed. Not only that, but he also proved himself to be a very compelling composer and arranger, especially in his large ensemble work through the 90s into 2000s (Song For My Mother, Siren, and Sight to Sound are still near-perfect classics in my eyes).
Over time I sort of lost track of Weiskopf’s work, though I would check in once in a while, even as much of his output over the past decade or so never quite captured the same magic I felt from that earlier work. His latest album, simply titled Walt Weiskopf European Quartet, changed that though. Perhaps it was the change of scenery and working with some new faces that rekindled something I felt had been missing for a bit, but the music present here, though not radically different from the bulk of his catalog (and featuring one re-recording of his own work as well as a standard in the timeless “Soul Eyes”), has a different edge and attitude to it. Opener “Kma” is a typical barn-burner, but in this no-frills quartet format, it feels meatier, more immediately propulsive and visceral. There’s also just a generally darker edge that flows throughout the album that speaks to me in a way that is difficult to describe, whether it’s the vaguely exotic lead melody of “Gates of Madrid,” solemn and exploratory “Wizard,” the utterly jagged “See the Pyramid,” and menacing “Darth.” The foundation hits a bit harder throughout, the bass thumping, piano slamming down its dense chords, and Weiskopf simply just letting it all fly, frequently on the knife’s edge of his tone.
For those who have a fondness of the labyrinthine post-bop work of the early to mid-60s of the likes of mid-career Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, and many others, European Quartet will fit in very neatly in that oeuvre while offering more than enough in the way of modern jazz edge to keep you engaged throughout.
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Woven Entity – Two (psychedelic jazz, spiritual jazz)
From the moment I placed my worn-out vinyl copy of Om on my turntable, I’ve staunchly argued (to no one in particular) that it’s one of the most underrated records form both John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders. Spirituality and jazz are natural bedfellows, and the way they can be combined makes for an expansive world of possibilities. Om made that point perfectly clear for me early on with my journey with jazz and informed my interest in artists that employ spirituality in their music, even composers like Kamasi Washington with a markedly different approach.
Such is the case with Woven Entity, a band that can hardly be called “free jazz” in any traditional sense of the word. But what Two exhibits is a clear affinity for mysticism and spirituality, which courses through the album’s lifeblood from the initial, forward introduction of “Om.” The album is perhaps the most meditative spiritual jazz album I’ve heard, almost the foil of an artist like Kamasi who’s enamored with large, sweeping statements of piety. Woven Entity feels more personal and intimate, as well as more intuned with the highs and lows of an individual’s faith.
With shuffling percussion, whirring and bursting sax, meandering bass and cushioning electronics, the ensemble comes together in a way that feels as urban as it does tribal. Moments on the album range from jazz-leaning trip-hop, while others feel more attuned with what immediately comes to mind when music on the idea “spiritual jazz.” In a sense, it almost feels like what Shabazz Palaces might sound like if they ditched hip-hop and embraced jazz head on. This is particularly due to the electronics that remain a steady influence without ever feeling overbearing.
The entire affair is intriguing, contemplative and, above all, just plain excellent through-and-through. Two is yet another reminder that jazz will never be a static genre; because of its very nature, there are unending possibilities of what the style can be infused with and molded into. I wish I’d discovered Woven Entity sooner, but in any case, I’m excited to follow how the band’s career progresses.
John Zorn – In a Convex Mirror (avant-garde jazz)
John Zorn needs no introduction. The New York composer and saxophonist is famous for his incessant musical output, creativity, diversity, and proficiency. On In a Convex Mirror, Zorn is joined by Haitian percussionist Ches Smith and Japanese musician Ikue Mori on electronics. The latter gives a texture to the whole thing, while Ches’s drumming provides a polyrhythmic anchor to John’s saxophone bursts and idiosyncrasies. The album is magnificently weird and fascinating.