Welcome back to another installment of Jazz Quarterly! As you may have already noticed from a quick scroll, we have a massive, eclectic list of albums in store for you today. Our usual crew of Ahmed, Dave, Nick and myself is joined by Jonathan and Eden this month, expanding what’s become the most stylistically diverse roundup post we run here on the blog. Let’s dive in, shall we?
KOKOROKO – KOKOROKO EP
As someone whose experience with jazz rarely strays from jazz guitar, I’m perhaps a bit out of my depth with London Afrobeat band KOKOROKO and their debut self-titled EP, but I’m still damn well going to try. KOKOROKO kick off opener “Adwa” with an infectious organ line that quickly becomes an ongoing motif, guiding the listener through an increasingly layered journey through horns, snappy percussion, and groovy, upbeat bass work. By the time a guitar solo snuck its way in the first time, I was fully entranced; when a blistering saxophone solo took its place, there was already no going back. Even as it explores more downtempo musical territory over the remainder of its runtime, KOKOROKO consistently feels jubilant, celebratory, and unapologetic in its absolute expression of joy. I only hope that we’re soon treated to more than just four tracks from this incredible collective.
Julian Lage – Love Hurts
I’m losing track of how many Jazz Club entries have involved me raving about a new Julian Lage album, but here we are again; it’s not my fault he just keeps pumping out stellar releases! Love Hurts sees the jazz guitar virtuoso take a step into much more emotionally charged territory than last year’s Modern Lore had to offer. Nearly every song on the album is a cover, but you wouldn’t be faulted for not being able to tell at first listen: Lage’s playing is raw and emotive like never before, and he completely makes the tracks his own with furious flourishes and gentle melancholic leads alike. A stunning album that any fan of guitar playing will delight in.
Lage Lund – Terrible Animals
Norwegian guitarist Lage Lund has only recently made his way onto my radar with the brilliant track “Aquanaut”, but the remainder of his newest album, Terrible Animals, has been just as much of a joy to explore. What makes the album truly special for me is the interplay between Lund’s guitar playing and Sullivan Fortner’s piano playing; I could frankly listen to the two musicians riffing off one another for hours on end, and it only helps that they’re backed by Larry Grenadier on bass (whose albums with pianist Brad Mehldau I’ve raved about on prior Jazz Club installations as well) and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. The album does admittedly start off on its best and becomes decidedly less experimental from then on, but is still definitely one of the most memorable jazz albums I’ve heard in the past few months and has demanded repeat listens since.
The first quarter of 2019 was chock full of outstanding releases in jazz. Today, I’ll shine a light on one of them that connected with me a lot, and provide many other amazing recommendations with shorter descriptions. To be clear: I believe those are all absolutely essential to a jazz fan’s music library!
Spinifex – Soufifex (world fusion, jazz-metal)
One of the jazz albums that rung the most with me was also one of the earliests. New York’s Spinifex quintet has been delivering mind-boggling avant-garde jazz wizardry for five years or so, and in the beginning of January released Soufifex, an Orient-inspired full-length. The album thus delves in rhythmic complexity—something that always marked to some degree Spinifex’s output—and showcases some instruments borne of musical traditions from around the world. On top of that, Soufifex also shares some traits of spiritual jazz and avant-garde metal, which decidedly gives it a unique sound. At over an hour long, the album has a lot to offer, and it’s consistently amazing throughout; I particularly love the drum beats driving the pieces.
The Richmond Avant-Improv Collective – Multiplicity (experimental jazz, free jazz)
This mad collective aims to merge big band free jazz with metal, and it works wonderfully well!
Ted Byrnes, Michael Foster, and Jacob Wick – Token Breeder (free improv)
I was rarely so moved by music so weird.
Paal Nilssen-Love et al. – New Brazilian Funk / New Japanese Noise (free jazz)
PNL is one of the premier percussionists in modern hardcore jazz, and this set of two releases demonstrates it perfectly.
Boom Tic Boom – Glitter Wolf (jazz fusion, modern jazz)
Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom is full of intricacies and creativity; it’s so much fun to listen to!
Strata – Obelisk (jazz fusion)
Somewhere between post-rock and jazz lies this beautiful release.
Miho Hazama – Dancer in Nowhere (big band jazz)
Hazama’s work on this album is to defy the expectations of the listener, and that’s why this album is so magnificent!
Flux – Path of Totality (nu jazz)
Beautiful and complex double album.
Twin Talk – Weaver (indie jazz)
The Chicago trio’s new album is at times very delicate and at times quite off-putting (in a good way). Their sense of creativity and chemistry are two of their strong points!
Green Dome – Thinking in Stitches (avant-garde jazz, contemporary classical)
It’s hard enough to come by a harp-led trio, but finding one that is this forward-thinking and competent is statistically aberrant!
Dali Mráz – Level 25 (jazz fusion)
I was lucky enough to be able to contribute to this album’s crowdfunding campaign, and I’ve got to say that I wasn’t disappointed by the final result. Masterful musicians and evocative music!
Simon Toldam Trio – Omhu (modern jazz)
Omhu is very quiet and contemplative in the more dissonant half of the spectrum. It’s like dark jazz but without all that Twin Peaks worship.
Anna Webber – Clockwise (experimental jazz)
A marvelous album of forward-thinking jazz.
Marilyn Mazur – Shamania (world fusion)
The all-female Shamania collective, led by veteran Marilyn Mazur, is one of the highlights of creative music in the first quarter of 2019!
Eli Wallace – Barriers (avant-garde, free improv)
This solo piano 37-minute improvisation defies all logic. Eli Wallace schools us on many varied compositional and advanced performance techniques in this one massive improvised session.
Agustí Fernández, Joe Morris, and Charmaine Lee – Magma (experimental jazz)
This album is the musical encapsulation of the machinations of the mad.
Whim Ensemble – Pre-Fall (free improv)
Watching this album live was revelatory for me, but hearing it on disc is almost just as good. The Whim duo takes advantage of many advanced playing techniques for piano and drums to craft something truly unique and wonderful.
Oli Steidle and the Killing Popes – Ego Pills (jazz fusion)
Ego Pills consists of an adventurous and progressive mix of jazz and rock, to our common benefit.
Adam Bałdych Quartet – Sacrum profanum (experimental jazz)
Violin-led jazz is one of those rare treats that never cease to reward. This time, it’s from Polish musician Adam Bałdych, and it’s a stunning album through and through!
Mark de Clive-Lowe – Heritage + Heritage II (world fusion, electro-jazz, breakbeat)
Okay, I’m cheating a bit here as the latter of these albums technically came out just after the end of the first quarter on April 4. But it wouldn’t be right talking about the latest two releases from the Japanese/New Zealander by way of LA electro-jazz wunderkind Mark de Clive-Lowe as anything other than a single package. Heritage seeks to bridge the many influences of MdCL’s upbringing and culture by marrying traditional Japanese themes with both acoustic jazz and the kind of live electronic remixing and chopping and screwing that he’s made a name for himself on over the past decade and change. The first half of the project takes a lighter touch, leaning in on breezy and whimsical flute, acoustic piano, and perhaps more straightforward jazz than MdCL fans are accustomed to. That said, one only need to listen to a bit of Heritage to hear MdCL’s brilliant sonic thumbprint all over it as synth washes, electronic flourishes, and glitchy notes find their way into little pockets throughout.
While Heritage focuses more on the past and traditions of Zen Buddhism and its cultural tendrils throughout Japanese art and music, Heritage II turns more to the present day and the Japan that de Clive-Lowe grew up in, one that is obsessed and fascinated by hip-hop culture, electronic music, and far more. One only need to listen to the difference between
“Bushidō I” and “Bushidō II” from the two sides to hear the marked contrast. Using the same basic theme of both, each has a distinctly modern edge to them, but the latter very clearly leans in much more aggressively, with Brandon Combs’s ridiculous drumwork closely approximating the impossible feats of breakbeat. Both albums manage to take plenty of traditional Japanese songs and themes and transform them into something entirely refreshing and new, but for those who already closely follow MdCL for his genre-defying work, Heritage II will almost certainly offer more to immediately chew on and appreciate. Whichever you listen to though, Heritage as a whole is a deeply effective and thrilling piece of work that easily slides into the MdCL canon while clearly standing apart, and in many ways above.
Minua – Still Light (chamber jazz, contemporary classical, post-rock)
Berlin trio Minua falls into that murky category of music that isn’t exactly classical but also seems to get thrown into the “jazz” category largely by virtue of its instrumentation (guitar and bass clarinet) rather than anything that is strictly jazz-like. That said, the group’s debut Minua is a haltingly gorgeous and melancholy piece that probably shares more musical dna with nordic post-rock and neo-folk than jazz or classical.
The beautifully flowing “Waterlines” is a pristine example of this as the three build up an elongated composition built from simple clarinet melodies that transform slowly as the guitars build an aquatic atmosphere all around. “Alight” could be confused for an acoustic passage within some of Jaga Jazzist’s work. And more densely-packed pieces like “Parallel Overpass” put a fascinating spin on Steve Reich-ian minimalism. It’s the moments like on opener “And After,” “October II,” and “Lumen” that really capture the emotive potential of the simple formula they execute, blending the natural sadness and nostalgia of neo-folk with beautifully mysterious chord progressions and Fabian Willmann’s bass clarinet providing haunting melodies throughout.
Basically, if you are someone like myself who is as likely to peruse our Post Rock Post column as Jazz Club, then this is a superb addition to your rotation.
Nubiyan Twist – Jungle Run (neo-soul, afrobeat, hip-hop)
There’s just something about the greater UK jazz scene that manages to draw me in in a way that the modern US scene hasn’t. There is a kind of heterodoxy, genre-smashing, and general smoothness to so much of the music coming from there that I simply can’t resist, and the latest from this London 10-piece is probably the best example of that. There is no simple way to describe what Nubiyan Twist is or does. It is constantly morphing and shape-shifting, fluidly moving through heavy traces of modern soul/r&b, hip-hop, afrobeat, latin, nu-jazz, and more without any hesitation or awkwardness. The silky smooth pipes of vocalist Nick Richards finds his perfect foil in the fiery attitude of Nubiya Brandon, creating a dynamic one-two punch of lead tracks “Tell It To Me Slowly” and “Jungle Run.” But it’s not until the group brings in the guest vocals of Ghanaian singer K.O.G on the positively bangin’ “Basa Basa” that the full weight and potential of the project becomes unlocked.
The sheer versatility and compositional fortitude of the group is astounding, conjuring the vision of a house band of the hippest club in the most cosmopolitan melting pot of a city. And given London’s long-standing reputation as the epicenter of world and cultural exchange and co-existence, it’s hardly surprising that it would produce a band that elevates the label of “world music” to such a high level. I could go on for paragraphs breaking down the utter genius of each and single track and how each successive one seems to top the other, but I’d rather not spoil the surprise and let you find out for yourself.
Kassa Overall – Go Get Ice Cream and Listen to Jazz (jazz fusion, hip-hop)
Don’t let the previous blurb make you think that the US is a total slouch when it comes to new and fascinating iterations of modern jazz. Putting an immediately-engaging spin on jazz/hip-hop fusion in the vein of Robert Glasper and the like, Kassa Overall’s Go Get Ice Cream and Listen to Jazz is indeed a sweet treat for fans of either genre. Any instance where I get to hear both some incredibly funky hip-hop jazz grooves and the legendary Roy Hargrove like on “La Casa Azul” is going to be an immediate winner in my book.
The album’s pristine production and attention to crafting deeply-pocketed beats and instrumental interplay is enough to produce plenty of involuntary stank face and head-bobbing, especially on more cut-up and tweaked tracks like “My Friend” that mix impeccable breakbeat/glitch with killer guitar and piano riffs. Then there’s the simple pleasure of hearing classics like “What’s New” and “Blue in Green” re-interpreted into freewheeling spoken word beat poetry. Go Get Ice Cream and Listen to Jazz is like a breezy summer day, floating by effortlessly, and it’s an absolute joy throughout.
Wing Walker Orchestra – Hazel (modern big band)
The big band resurgence continues to thrive. Many of the most innovative and daring compositional groups in jazz these days are working in the expanded palette of large ensemble and big band, and Jersey City’s Wing Walker Orchestra is only one of the latest to make a huge splash with their debut Hazel. Led by reed player Drew Williams, WWO shares plenty with the kind of frenetic, angular, and distinctly modern edge that peers in the modern big band scene like Darcy James Argue, John Hollenbeck, and Maria Schneider have been at the forefront of over the past couple of decades.
Williams’s compositions, however, are perhaps a bit more compact, restless, and immediate. The mixture of darkly alluring brass melodies and menacing percussion on “Heists (or Your Majesty)” is a wonderfully forward-thinking example of this. This album is also an immediate winner for me as the bulk of it is a song cycle based on characters from the graphic novel serial Saga (thus giving the album’s title), providing an exciting futuristic air to the front half of the album.
And though the rest of the album isn’t quite as focused and gets a bit more experimental at times (including a re-interpretive cover of tUnE-yArDs’ “Look Around”), there’s still plenty of hooks to hang on, especially in the triumphant “High” and kinetic closer “Marina.” All-in-all yet another impressive NYC area big band that is successfully moving the format forward with their own take on it.
The Comet is Coming – Trust In the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery (jazz fusion, nu-jazz)
While many modern jazz critics maintain a rear view mirror perspective on contemporary jazz, some of the genre’s most esteemed labels have (thankfully)taken a more progressive approach. We saw this in years past when Blue Note signed Go Go Penguin, as well as this year with Impulse! adding The Comet is Coming to their roster. While neither of these acts create music that’s unrecognizable as “jazz,” The Comet is Coming in particular have never shied away from adapting the genre to current styles and trends.
That hasn’t changed a bit on Trust In the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery, the trio’s Impulse! debut and a potential landmark release for nu-jazz. Everything from Afro-jazz to fusion to space rock is on display, leading to some wildly adventurous explorations of seemingly disparate ideas. Lead single “Summon the Fire” is an excellent encapsulation of the band’s m.o., with the band’s trio of synths, percussion and sax bursting with energy at a driving pace far more intense than the majority of releases you’ll find on modern jazz labels these days. Then again, that’s the goal that Comet is focused on proving across Lifeforce: demonstrating what jazz is capable of being in an age of endless influences and nonexistent boundaries.
Theon Cross – Fyah (jazz funk, Afro jazz)
At the onset of 2019, I would have never predicted that one of my favorite new jazz releases would revolve around a tuba. This isn’t a shot against tubas, but rather a recognition that it’s a scarcely used instrument in the modern jazz landscape. Rising UK jazz star Theon Cross is aiming to change the narrative around the brass Goliath with Fyah, a follow-up to his work on the critically acclaimed Sons of Kemet album Your Queen Is a Reptile.
While I didn’t quite share that level of excitement for Your Queen, I’ve been obsessed with Fyah from the moment Cross dropped lead single “Activate.” Across the album, and on this track in particular, Cross dazzles with his ability to play both a star and support role with his approach to the tuba. He’s simultaneously a standalone player and member of the rhythm section on nearly every track, playing with a percussive yet energetic style.
The rest of his ensemble builds on this foundation with influences from funk and hip-hop, making for an infectious display of groove that bounces and pops with each note. Still, the group is still capable of slowing things down for a more traditionally jazzy affair, such as the breezy affair on “CIYA.” The track contributes the overall narrative around Fyah, a unique and multifaceted addition to the UK jazz scene’s sterling reputation as of late.
Amirtha Kidambi & Elder Ones – From Untruth (avant-garde jazz, vocal jazz)
I’m not usually a huge fan of vocal jazz, but From Untruth isn’t your typical vocal jazz album. Lead by vocalist and composer Amirtha Kidambi, the quartet plays a kind of mystical free jazz, as avant-garde as it is oddly charming. It’s difficult to fully capture the album in a space like this, but it’s worth noting just how inventive Kidambi is as a composer and performer, as well as her prowess as a bandleader. “Dance of the Subaltern” feel fantastical and narrative-driven, as if the composition is soundtracking a piece of avant-garde silent theatre. Immediately after, “Decolonize the Mind” shows Kidambi improvising with her vocals alongside the rest of Elder Ones, essentially using her voice as a musical rather than lyrical instrument. It’s a fascinating collection of songs that’s well worth exploring for anyone at all interested in jazz’s experimental realm.
Maurice Louca – Elephantine (Arabic jazz, avant-garde jazz)
Since I first discovered jazz, I’ve constantly tried to broaden my horizons and at least appreciate (if not enjoy) every offshoot and subgenre. Artists like Yazz Ahmed and Zela Margossian have helped me dive into the world of Arabic jazz and its regional counterparts, an overarching style I’d barely touched up until La Saboteuse dropped a couple years ago.
It’s now a style I actively seek out, which landed me at the doorstep of Egyptian composer Maurice Louca and his excellent new album Elephantine. Louca leads a 12-piece ensemble through an cavalcade of subtly experimental compositions, all influenced by Arabic themes and traditions. None of the tracks are abrasively avant-garde, but each player clearly explores the outer edges of innately adventurous composition with bold, expert performances.
The results are sometimes a bit dissonant, but always expansive and organized in an orchestral setting, so as to remain just on the cusp of true free jazz. There’s no shortage of highlights throughout, though closer “Al Khawaga” truly steals the show. It’s a brash, dynamic track bolstered by each player exuding as much energy as possible for a true grand finale. IT’s a fitting conclusion to an outstanding album, one which fans of experimental jazz should take note of and spin immediately.
Quantum Trio – Red Fog (contemporary jazz, progressive jazz)
Don’t let the cover fool you – this is indeed a jazz album, albeit a fiercely modern one. This fact isn’t so clear on paper, what with a standard drum, piano and sax setup rounding out Quantum Trio‘s lineup. But as the album progresses, the ebb and flow of the group’s creativity becomes more evident and enthralling. Put plainly, this is traditional jazz played with a strictly contemporary worldview; the method of the past channeled entirely by the means of the present.
What makes Red Fog such an amazing achievement is how precise and technical each track is while also being downright cool and collected. Whether you enter the album with a cerebral or leisurely mindset, you can extract a completely different experience while still experiencing an immensely enjoyable listen. The connection between the trio is lockstep and crucial to the success of the album, as this interplay translates to seamless, dynamic performances on each track. Definitely not an album to look over if you’re at all interested in modern jazz.
Wandering Monster – Wandering Monster (jazz fusion, progressive jazz)
There’s a reason Wandering Monster is the only pick on my list that received a one-off Jazz Club feature. The UK quintet’s self-titled debut is a phenomenal collection of modern, progressive jazz fusion that’s as focused on melody and sonic appeal as it is with introspection, composition and musical dialogue.
From the jump, “Samsara” establishes itself as one of the greatest jazz singles of the year thus far, with an infectious central motif and airtight interplay from each musician. After the bouncy syncopation on “The Rush Begins,” the group displays a master class of contemporary jazz songwriting, with a variety of ideas ranging from smoky lounge tunes to massive, sweeping ballads.
While planted squarely in time-tested jazz traditions, the band executes these concepts with bold, modern techniques and a fierce penchant for the crossover appeal inherent to well-balanced jazz fusion. Each track is a enticing, memorable listen, contributing to what will easily remain one of the best jazz albums of the year.
Guest Picks – Eden & Jonathan
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Ancestral Recall (jazz fusion, spiritual jazz)
Hello! My name is Jonathan, and I don’t review jazz very often. In fact, it’s a genre of music that I only began dipping my virgin tootsies into over the past few years. I divulge this information because this is probably the worst review of an amazing jazz record you’ll ever have poured over your unsuspecting eyeballs. But where there’s a will, there’s bad writing to be had. Here is that bad writing. Please forgive.
Upon first listen, Ancestral Recall caught me off guard in regards to its rhythmic textures. While more intimately familiar with the jazz stylings of standards like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, the emphasis on percussion-heavy compositions, along with some distinct electronic elements, is a bit new for me. I must say that I love it a whole lot. “I Own the Night”, which features the poetic musings of the inimitable Saul Williams, is a glitchy, jittery smorgasbord of rhythmic textures that feels thoroughly electronic music-adjacent. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear a track like this on a Venetian Snares or an unusually energized Four Tet record. Hell, “Prophesy” feels like a step-sibling to Flying Lotus’ Until the Quiet Comes, deftly melding jazz archetypes with an electronic undercurrent that is both refreshing and shockingly effective. It’s a unique and thoroughly captivating marriage of sounds that ebbs and flows throughout the record with consistent ease.
This hybrid musical palette is also boosted considerably by the guest performers splattered across it. Saul Williams’ presence in particular is a force on every track in which he is featured, especially “The Shared Stories of Rivals (KEITA)”, which contains some of his signature spoken-word musings delivered to great effect. Throughout the record, features are utilized with universal skill. Chris Turner shows up on the disgustingly smooth “Forevergirl”, while Logan Richardson and Elena Pinderhughes make their presences felt on “Songs She Never Heard” and “Before” respectively. One of the minor miracles contained within Ancestral Recall is its ability to balance the unique contributions of each artist present here, never allowing the record to feel like the hodge-podge it could have been. Tying it all together is aTunde Adjuah’s trumpet playing, which provides a musical cornerstone around which all of the individual and disparate components on the record can congregate.
I’ve been listening to this record for weeks, and I’m still trying to dissect and fully appreciate its charms. Every time I go back to it, I find something new and invigorating to chew on. If an album tied firmly to jazz’s roots, while simultaneously aiming directly at its future, sounds even remotely appealing to you I have a hard time thinking you won’t fall in love with this record as hard as I have. While I most certainly am far from the jazzhead my esteemed peers on this post are, I remain thoroughly transfixed by the soundscapes conjured here, and consider Ancestral Recall yet another significant step in the development of my appreciation for the world of jazz. Here’s to many more albums like this one gracing my ears as the year continues.
Yotam Silberstein Quartet & John Patitucci – Future Memories (post-bop, jazz fusion)
Yotam Silberstein isn’t exactly a household name yet but that’s through no fault of his own. Rather, the sheer amounts of great jazz being released today might be a more likely culprit. However, in the jazz world itself he has enjoyed many an accolade, and rightfully so; his hand at the guitar, his vocal flair, and his compositional touch are all excellent. On Future Memories he teams up with John Patitucci (Chick Corea) and his quarter to bring forth an album of warm timbres, dextrous nuance, and Latin influences. The end result is the kind of jazz which makes you dream and wonder, setting you into a reverie, guided by the music at hand.
“Matcha” is a great example of how this work. Patitucci’s bass work is daft and present without being too overwhelming, drawing in the blanks left behind by the excellent percussion work on the track. Glenn Zaleski, a name one should watch out for since we’re probably about to see much more of it, lends his guitars to the track, adding in an emotive layer which lives “above” the deeper bass and drum compositions. Finally, the piano serves as the bridge to it all, moving between the lighter and heavier parts of the composition with beguiling and pleasing dexterity. Things feel effortless, ethereal but still present; the perfect meld of moodiness and gravitas.
Elsewhere on the album, like on “Capricho Donga”, this light-hearted mood is further amplified by Latin sensibilities, which come out especially in the tempo and the guitar. Things pick up, become more energetic and, dare we say it, groovy, before they fall out again into more improvisational, “wide” spaces where the instruments allow themselves to become untethered from straight-forward meter and ramble with each other across the track. Vitor Gonçalves’ piano deservers special accolade in this regard, as his work on this track is exquisitely agile and interesting; he moves with alarming ease between highly technical, note heavy passages and little touches of sound, where less is more and his piano plays more of a backing role. In either capacity his touch is just what the moment calls for, either dominating in its clarity or setting the other instruments ablaze.
Future Memories has plenty more tricks and approaches for you, if you choose to dig into it. It features young, ambitious, and experienced musicians working side by side to make a jazz album full of verve and with a penchant for playfulness that’s hard to resist. Side by side with that, it’s also an album with plenty to sink your teeth into it, resisting the urge to slide into complete improvisation or flights of fancy. It’s there except when it’s not, stable unless it decides to be fluid, large and impressive until it becomes intimate. Like all good jazz, it has a wide spectrum of feel to it.