I was going to open with a short “we’re back!” message until I dug up our last Jazz Club column…from March 2021…which itself ended an almost year-long hiatus from the last installment of the column. Whoops.
Honestly, I miss the days when Jazz Club was a reliable source of quarterly roundups and one-off reviews. Then again, we launched the column during my transition from college to my early career, back when I had way more free time than I do now. Life will do that to you. Jazz hasn’t lost its appeal for me at all. But candidly, sitting down to write multiple paragraphs about 10+ albums in one shot has.
But similar to the genre itself, this ultimately feels like overthinking on my part. In my view, effective modern music journalism relies on “quality over quantity,” specifically when it comes to word count. That’s partially why we’ve gravitated towards columns. Reviews are great, but for me, I’d rather recommend more albums with shorter blurbs than spin out 1,000+ words on an album readers can listen to themselves on a variety of platforms. Of course, it’s still important to write well and convincingly, but I think the ability to do that with a succinct feature is the ideal compromise between music writers and our audience.
So here we are. My second consecutive March attempt to revive one of our first genre columns. You’ll notice condensed thoughts on most of these albums, which means you’ll have more time to spend actually listening to them. I highly recommend each of these records, and I hope you enjoy them enough to do the same within your own circles.
Zela Margossian – The Road (world fusion, Armenian jazz)
I’m painting with a broad brush here, but jazz frequently falls into two categories for me: “fun” and “technical.” In other words, when I’m listening to an album, do I picture the performers staring sternly at sheet music or laughing in a shared studio as their musical chemistry bonuses off the walls? Both approaches can work well, but unsurprisingly, I gravitate toward jazz that leans toward the “fun” end of the spectrum; where the most innovative and downright enjoyable ideas come to life.
What I love most about Zela Margossian’s approach to composition is how much she excels at synthesizing both of these stylistic choices. Much like her excellent debut Transition, Margossian’s quintet masterfully blends Armenian influences with vibrant, chamber-leaning jazz. Certainly, a great deal of credit goes to the rhythm section and woodwinds that accompany Margossian’s piano, but her playing is truly the fulcrum of what makes The Road work. She strikes a careful balance between the technicality of a Keith Jarret with the expressiveness of a Thelonious Monk, all with a distinct Armenian twist attributed to her musical background:
“In her early twenties, Margossian moved to Yerevan, Armenia to study classical piano at the Komitas Conservatorium. But it was after class, in the local jazz-clubs listening to artists of the likes of Arto Tunçboyacıyan and Vahagn and the Cats, that her love for jazz was stoked.”
I love the imagery of “structure” during the day and “passion” at night, because it’s that exact dynamic that makes The Road so great. Whatever flavor of jazz appeals to you most, Margossian’s quintet provides exactly what you’re looking for and more.
Black Flower – Magma (Ethio-jazz, psychedelic jazz)
At some point, I’d love to dive into the prevalence of Ethio-jazz in Belgium, considering several thousand miles separate the country from Ethiopia (5,274-mile drive with three ferries, to be exact). Belgian sextet Azmari piqued my interest last year with their excellent album Samā’ī, and now Black Flower have released an early Afro-jazz highlight for 2022. As it turns out, the group have been crafting notable Ethio-jazz for years now; their sophomore album Artifacts (2016) is one of the top-ranked albums from the genre on Rate Your Music. Unlike Azmari, Black Flower’s take on Ethio-jazz is decidedly more psychedelic, like a vintage ’70s psych rock band’s take on “jazz of the future.” Expect plenty of cosmic keys, hypnotic rhythms, and ethereal horns as the band channels the essence of Fela Kuti and Sun Ra into modern compositions.
Flora Carbo – Arthur’s Walks (free improv, spiritual jazz)
Jazz often feels like a sonic journey to me, and it’s refreshing when an artist acknowledges that experience outright. As I listened to the five tracks on Arthur’s Wake, I appreciated the accompanying visuals of, “sleepily following a path or waterway,” or, “a walk in the rain, noticing the senses,” or best of all, “finding inward inspiration on a routine route.” Australian saxophonist Flora Carbo and her collaborators soundtrack these scenes with light, playful improvisations, flitting along a fine line between spiritual jazz and freak folk to deliver some whimsical compositions.
Manuel Linhares – Suspeno (contemporary vocal jazz)
What if Owen Pallett was Portuguese and wrote Latin-flavored vocal jazz? While I doubt that question occurred to Manuel Linhares as he composed Suspenso, the comparison stuck with me during my time with the album. Part of this might be attributed to the fact that Linhares’ singing reminds me of Pallett with a surprising splash of Einar Solberg’s most tender moments. But beyond that coincidental similarity, Suspeno owes as much to contemporary vocal jazz as it does to the genres Pallett frequents, with compositions structured with the same kind of artsy chamber rock vibes. This might have more to do with my own listening background than Linhares’ musical intentions, but it’s also the main reason I enjoyed Suspenso as much as I did.
Immanuel Wilkins – The 7th Hand (post-bop, spiritual jazz)
At this point, comparing every young, innovative bandleader to Kamasi Washington is pretty cliche…but I’m going to do it anyway. The 7th Hand is hardly a carbon copy of The Epic, though both releases are defined by masterful compositions driven by excellent sax performances. And while Immanuel Wilkins shares Washington’s affinity for updating the spiritual post-bop playbook, his approach is noticeably more relaxed and unconventional. Not to mention that The 7th Hand is a fair bit shorter than Washington’s output (by, like, a lot). All that said, the most important commonality between the two composers is their torchbearer status among the newest wave of jazz to come. Albums like The 7th Hand prove you can look forward and backward simultaneously and create some truly exceptional jazz in the process.
MONODRAMA – mndrmooaa (nu-jazz)
L’Orage – Triangle (contemporary jazz)
Little North – Familiar Places (nu-jazz)
Unknown to Known – Live at the Crypt (spiritual jazz)