A restless musical spirit who has worked in pretty much every sub-genre of jazz and improvised music you can think of, Wadada Leo Smith's "Heart's Reflections" is a sprawling 2-CD set that covers a bewilderingly vast swath of stylistic ground. What makes "Heart's Reflections" such a fascinating listen is the variety of approaches that Wadada and his band take - there are funkified 'electric Miles'-inspired jams, gossamer intertwinings of trumpet, violin, and laptop, and abstract improvisations that hearken back to Smith's AACM days.
Firmly rooted in the sort of challenging post-bop, pre-free modern jazz epitomized by the pre-electric Miles Davis Quintet of the mid-1960s, and – perhaps – the early 70s ECM sound, the music of Nordic Connect is nonetheless quite un-stodgy and rich in interesting 21st Century influences and flavors. The compositions largely, written by pianist Maggi Olin (though Ingrid Jensen, Christine Jensen and Jon Wikan each chip in some), at times, recall some of the mid-to-late 60s and early 70s Blue Note recordings by Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, as they branched out from Miles' musical orbit. As in Miles' and Shorter's music, a key feature of “Spirals” is the blurring of lines between the front line and the rhythm section. There's also a playfully relaxed, experimental spirit here that you won't hear on a lot of today's modern jazz recordings. A cooperative project involving musicians who are either from Scandinavia, or have Scandinavian ancestry, Nordic Connect also adds ethnic flavors from entirely different settings to create sophisticated, intriguing music that is completely contemporary.
Though the late 90s Exotica / Space Age Bachelor Pad Music mini-trend of the late 90s and early 2000s is long over, vibraphonist Brian O'Neill continues to make original music in this vein under the Mr. Ho's Orchestrotica moniker. Listening to the band's sophomore effort, “Third River Rangoon,” I couldn't help but wonder if he wasn't selling himself short. Many correctly associate exotica with mood music, a hip sort of sound to have on in the background while the primary order of business is sipping a Mai-Tai and eating sushi. From the first track on “Third River Rangoon,” it's clear that there's much more going on here than one would typically hear on any given Martin Denny or Les Baxter LP. Even the CD title, with its backhanded reference to Gunther Schuller's 'Third Stream Music,' suggests that O'Neill and company have loftier goals than merely updating mildly interesting background music from the 1950s.
Though both came to prominence in Anthony Braxton's revolutionary groups of the early-to-mid 1970s, the music that trombonist Ray Anderson and clarinetist / saxophonist Marty Ehrlich create on Hear You Say is adventurous, hard-swinging post-bop steeped in the blues and redolent with the organic, bobbing polyrhythms of New Orleans.
Bassist / composer Chris Dahlgren is one of those guys who has done a lot of different things in his musical career. He holds an MA in composition from Wesleyan University where he worked with an impressive array of avant-garde conceptualists and artists including Alvin Lucier, Anthony Braxton, LaMonte Young, and Christian Wolff. He was also the house bassist at the Blue Wisp Jazz Club in Cincinnati, OH, a bastion of straight-ahead and big band jazz. He's also recorded and toured with Joe Lovano, Art Lande, Fred Hirsch, Charles Tolliver, Herb Ellis, and Red Rodney to name a few. After returning to New York in the 1990s, he spent the better part of the first decade of the 21st Century working with Anthony Braxton. On “Mystic Maze,” his first recording with his group 'Lexicon,' Dahlgren draws on all of these experiences - and more - to craft a detailed, incisive musical treatise on the shortcomings of music criticism and the nature of public confrontations that may ensue when an audience doesn't get what it expects from an artist.
Trumpeter, vocalist and composer Sarah Wilson has spent significant time in the jazz and new music scenes on both the East and West coasts of the US. This is reflected in the personnel on "Trapeze Project," which features outstanding players from the Bay Area (Goldberg, Amendola) and NYC (Melford, Harris). "Trapeze Project" is Wilson's second recording as a leader, the first being "Music for an Imaginary Play," which came out in 2006. Wilson has a really interesting resumè that doesn't quite hew to the normal expectations one might have of a jazz musician. The recipient of several high-profile composing commissions, awards, and grants, Wilson has also served as a music director for a puppet theater. Clearly, Sarah Wilson is the sort of musician who makes her own way in the world – finding opportunities where others might not. The music on "Trapeze Project" is similarly bold and individualistic – yet it's full of subtleties and sweetness.
Reflections on the meaning and significance of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, typically do not inspire a rockin' good time. That's precisely what's going on with Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes, the sophomore CD from guitarist Yoshie Fruchter's great New York-based band Pitom. Fruchter and Pitom play a sort of advanced poly-stylistic instrumental rock that contains elements of jazz, traditional Hebraic music, metal, old-school prog rock, thrash, sludge and about a half-dozen other distinct musical sub-sub-genres that seem to be popping up at an alarming rate these days. So, while Fruchter's music is definitely a sort of fusion, it's definitely not "fusion-as-we-know it." Compared to the band's stellar debut CD (also on Tzadik), Blasphemy... is more measured, more focused, and yet the band seems to be heading in several new and interesting directions. Best of all, they've developed a signature sound that doesn't box them into narrow stylistic parameters. In fact, Pitom may well be the most innovative and exciting band working in the Yiddish fusion idiom aside from Greg Wall and Frank London's group, Hasidic New Wave.
"Foxy," Jon Irabagon's fourth recording as a leader is – as the whimsical cover art parody suggests – a tribute to the great Sonny Rollins. Like Rollins' "Way Out West" (compare Rollins' empty-holstered cowboy on the cover of that LP with Irabagon's similar pose on the reverse side of the CD), “Foxy” is a piano-less trio consisting of tenor saxophone, bass and drums. Here's another thing “Foxy” has in common with Rollins' historic recording - it is a genuine tour de force. Known for his abundant technique, unending improvisational resourcefulness, and boundless sense of the absurd through his work with the notoriously iconoclastic quartet Mostly Other People Do The Killing, Irabagon ups the ante even further on “Foxy,” which – despite the dozen creatively-titled track divisions - is basically a single continuous 78+ minute tenor sax solo. Irabagon is supported every step of the way by an absolutely wailing rhythm section consisting of bassist Peter Brendler and veteran avant-jazz drummer Barry Altschul. I, for one, was overjoyed to hear Altschul here, as I fondly remember his always-worthwhile playing with Braxton, Chick Corea and Paul Bley back in the 70s.
Anyone with a yen for well-played, hard-swinging, original hard-bop is going to love Alexander McCabe's "Quiz." McCabe, a young alto saxophonist who's spent time backing Ray Charles and Chico O'Farrill, is accompanied by an all-star band that includes the fantastically creative Philly native Uri Caine on piano, the rock-solid bass of Ugonna Okegwo, and either of two dynamic drummers – Rudy Royston (known for his sterling work with Ron Miles, he's Jon Irabagon's drummer of choice these days), and ex-Joshua Redman and Joanne Brackeen skinsman Greg Hutchinson.
Jazz vocalists are, by and large, not an adventurous lot. Most prefer to stick to standards and re-interpretations of contemporary pop songs. While this is a totally valid form of musical expression, I rarely seek out recordings made by vocalists when I want to hear risky, modern, cutting-edge music. With her second recording, "Mobile," the Portugese vocalist Sara Serpa boldly grabs this stereotype by the scruff of the neck and shows it out the door. "Mobile" is a startlingly individualistic collection of beautifully developed and arranged original compositions for voice and a four-piece ensemble. Serpa's clearly not afraid of words – each piece is inspired by books she's read over an 18-month period preceding this recording. Yet, on "Mobile," she functions largely as an instrumentalist, singing wordlessly. What I really like about Serpa's approach is that – contrary to the jazz tradition of scat singing – she does not try to mimic a saxophone or trumpet. Sure, she has a great sense of jazz phrasing, but what you hear is her voice. And what a voice it is! Clear, unaffected, and vibrato-less, with a crystalline purity that seems both fragile and diamond-hard.