Contemplative solo piano greets listeners at the start of “Sea Goddess,” a track from Bob James’ latest recording Jazz Hands (evosound). Before long, the pianist and composer (84 on Christmas Day) is joined by a full band as mood and tempo lift, conjuring the smooth forward momentum of a ship out on the open sea. Ripples of applause follow solos from James, guitarist Dwight Sills and saxophonist Tom Braxton, provided by the audience of a Caribbean jazz cruise on which James embarked several years ago when this track was recorded. The only live cut on Jazz Hands, the song concludes the album. James’ 36th outing as a leader showcases the veteran keyboardist and composer in various musical settings, frequently accompanied by bassist Michael Palazzolo and drummer and James Adkins. Much sampled by the hip-hop community, James, who has won settlements for music taken without his permission, seems to have left behind any hard feelings as he teams up with one former offender, DJ Jazzy Jeff, on the track “That Bop.”
Founded 20 years ago, the funky horn-fueled Snarky Puppy has garnered much attention from within and without the jazz world. A recent duo project by members Bill Laurance and Michael League, Where You Wish You Were (ACT), is far-removed from the high-octane output of the group, instead concentrating on the deep communication between pianist Laurance and multi-string-instrumentalist League in a mostly acoustic setting. League, Snarky Puppy’s founder, usually plays electric bass, but here primarily plays the oud — a Middle Eastern lute — as well as a few other fretless axes (including bass). For his part, Laurance plays a “prepared” grand piano, which utilizes felt to dampen the resonance of the strings. The result is an intimate conversation that unfolds over the course of 11 tracks composed by the participants together and separately. Laurance’s “Kin,” our selection, radiates with the warmth of a familial embrace, his meditative piano eloquently supported by League’s bass lines. League’s solo, too, resonates with quiet joy.
What better location for pianist-composer Josh Nelson to record a live album than at LAX? The Southern California native, who has written tunes inspired by the often bizarre and obscure lore of the City of Angels, is among several jazz artists who have recorded at the Sam First nightclub, located near a terminal at the airport. Over two nights in February 2022, Nelson and his quintet — and guest vocalist Gaby Moreno — laid down the tracks for LA Stories: Live at Sam First, released on the club’s own label earlier this year. Energetic and entertaining, the live performances reveal the group’s synergy while playing a set mostly comprising Nelson’s original music. (A trenchant read of the Mary Poppins tune “Feed the Birds” fits right in with the theme, as Disney Studios certainly played a large role in Tinsel Town’s history.) “Forward Momentum,” the album’s aptly named lead-off track, showcases the group’s ensemble dynamics, with Luca Alemanno’s propulsive bass and Dan Schnelle’s fizzy drumming setting the pace. Nelson, tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and guitarist Larry Koonse keep the excitement level high. Nelson’s bright piano solo sounds almost giddy before he cedes the spotlight to Smith for his exuberant solo turn. All the performances seem to reflect the joy of playing for a live audience, maybe even more so following the pandemic lockdown.
Liminality, the self-released debut album by composer and producer Eric Johnsen, was a long time coming. After graduating with a degree in composition from the University of Arizona, the Tucson resident embarked on a 22-year career teaching high school history, while writing and producing music on the side. In 2018, Johnsen began recording the music for Liminality, which utilizes a core improvisational ensemble in various permutations, that at times interacts with string sections. The music itself combines jazz and fusion with chamber and orchestral elements, and interweaves Indian and Afro-Cuban flavors, as well. The opening “First Impressions” provides an exciting introduction played with bop-like intensity. Noé Secula’s staccato piano notes create a tension that’s echoed by bassist Roberto Koch’s unison lines and stretched taut with the addition of Ehren Hanson’s tabla and Chris Wabich’s drum set. Guitarist Aliéksey Vianna’s sinuous lines and Song Yi Jeon’s wordless vocals contribute intriguing colors to the mix, as Secula’s piano continues to chime brightly throughout. Johnsen’s musical concept was worth the wait — and the challenges of both COVID lockdowns and the composer’s emergency surgery in Switzerland. With luck, his next release won’t take as long to produce.
Scandinavian jazz artists often tend toward the moody and introspective, their palettes perhaps influenced by wintry climes and diminished hours of sunlight. However, when the Espen Eriksen Trio teamed up with the British saxophonist Andy Sheppard, the group’s sound seemed to brighten, as evidenced by their 2018 recording Perfectly Unhappy. Their follow-up, the optimistically titled As Good As It Gets (Rune Grammofon), builds on that partnership, with Sheppard’s lilting tenor and soprano saxes wending through Eriksen’s richly melodic compositions. Sure, there’s still plenty of self-reflection going on here, and Sheppard’s warm and thoughtful sound hardly negates that inward gaze, but he does add an open-armed approach that embraces the listener. Bassist Lars Tormod Jenset and drummer Andreas Bye add plenty of interest on the bottom end, at once sensitive and propulsive, and their strong relationship with Eriksen is evident throughout. For his part, the pianist is at his silvery best, his sustained notes hanging in the air like ice crystals. Eriken’s communicative abilities — with his seasoned rhythm section and with Sheppard — are on full display from the opening “The Other Side of Melancholy,” a perfect opening statement for an album that is certainly not burdened by Seasonal Affective Disorder.
The music of J.S. Bach has long appealed to jazz musicians, and their improvisations on his canon seem to connect with listeners, as well. At least, that was the experience of pianist Adam Birnbaum, who performed a concert of Bach arrangements at the Chelsea Music Festival in 2018 and elicited a quite favorable response. Thus encouraged, he forged ahead with recording his takes on Bach’s music, the results of which are collected on his recent recording Preludes (Chelsea Music Festival). Birnbaum’s text for the album comes from the first half of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” the composer’s renowned collection of preludes and fugues running though the 24 major and minor keys. In a trio with bassist Matt Clohesy and percussionist Keita Ogawa, Birnbaum brings his pianistic panache to selections such as “Prelude in C Major.” Included here, it’s a breezy yet soulful examination full of instrumental dazzle that hardly skimps on emotional content. Clohesy and Ogawa, as throughout, prove sensitive partners, providing color and texture, as well as rhythmic momentum. Birnbaum boasts a stellar résumé, including names such as Al Foster, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society and Cécile McLorin Salvant, the latter of whom provides the striking cover art to Preludes.
Los Angeles-based pianist and composer Christina Galisatus is emerging as an individualistic voice in the jazz world. Her 2023 debut album, Without Night (Slow and Steady), showcases her sparkling piano and contemplative compositions, which seem to have a deeply personal resonance for the San Francisco Bay Area native. It helps that Gailsatus recruited musicians who share her sensibilities, and the album is truly an ensemble accomplishment rather than simply a pianist with backing band. “A Fragile State,” our selection, is a case in point. Galisatus’ wistful piano opens the piece, her barely audible wordless vocals creating a ghostly presence. Michael Blaskey’s tenor saxophone underlines the mood, as do Joshua Crumbley’s quiet bass tones and drummer Zev Shearn-Nance’s whispering brushes. Steven Lugerner’s bass clarinet further contributes to the unsettled feel of the piece, which Galisatus has explained, is meant to illustrate a fragile emotional state and how one must roll with the changes in order to remain productive — particularly good advice for those in a creative field.
Confluence (Odd Sound), the recent duo album by Montreal-based player-composers Philippe Côté and François Bourassa, provides an apt metaphor for the coming together of two masterful musicians, like the mighty meldings of rivers to which they allude in the five-part title suite. Multi-instrumentalist Côté performs on tenor and soprano saxes alongside pianist Bourassa on several tracks, but also lends his textured touch on prepared piano to a couple of selections. His composition “Muted Song” finds Côté in a percussive role, as the strings of his piano have been “muted,” likely wrapped in felt, the resultant sound almost marimba-like (the piano is essentially a mallet instrument), but at times resembling an electronic keyboard. Bourassa’s lucid, gorgeous touch on the piano provides a resonant contrast, and the piece is quite moving and intimate.
Pianist Geri Allen gathered her roses while living, amassing accolades and awards commensurate to her status as a leading light in the jazz world. Although she died too young (at age 60) in 2017, Allen continues to have an impact, through those who remember and revere her, through younger generations who discover her compositions or recordings and through posthumous, previously unreleased recordings such as A Lovesome Thing (Motéma), a duo album with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. In 2012, Rosenwinkel had invited Allen to sit in with his band at New York’s Jazz Standard. The two were so delighted with their connection that they and determined to play together again. An opportunity arose in September 2012, when they were booked as a duo at the Jazz à la Villette festival in Paris, which, fortunately for listeners, was recorded. With no rehearsals prior to the performance, the musicians nonetheless shared a deep synergy, apparent from the drop. The pair engage in lovely, expansive renditions of standards such as Billy Strayhorn’s title tune and Monk’s “Ruby My Dear,” as well as a composition apiece by Rosenwinkel and Allen, respectively. “Simple #2” was written by the guitarist, beginning with his almost Metheny-like strum before he’s joined by Allen, his bluesy chops beautifully shadowed by the pianist’s comps. Allen then takes the lead, inventively building on what Rosenwinkel had just laid down. Obviously moved by what he just heard, his playing is even richer when he resumes the lead. The result is a conversation between musicians who obviously adored and respected one another’s talents.
If you detect an almost giddy excitement from Bennett Paster’s bluesy “Pyramid Breakfast,” a track from the pianist’s recent trio recording Radiance (self-released), that’s no accident. Paster was inspired by his early years attending the Stanford Jazz Workshop’s summer programs, where, as a high school student, he absorbed plenty of musical knowledge from teachers including George Cables, Mark Levine and Larry Grenadier, and developed close friendships. As Paster explains on his web site, he and his fellow students would gather each morning at the Student Union for breakfast before heading out to class. The cafeteria offered a “pyramid breakfast” option, in which students could assemble their own meal from the various items on the menu. “My friends and I would grab our food, then head outside to talk about what we’d learned, what we’d heard, what we were excited about,” Paster explains. Nearly 40 years after he first attended SJW, that sense of happy anticipation powers “Pyramid Breakfast,” the deeply bluesy cut on Radiance. The pianist opens with a late-night Chicago blues-like solo, which picks up momentum as it slides into boogaloo territory, with funky, New Orleans second-line rhythms supplied by bassist Gary Wang and drummer Tony Mason. Apparently, Paster played the tune at a 50th anniversary concert for SJW in 2022, returning to the place that so powerfully influenced his career.
While attending Berklee College of Music in Boston, French-born pianist and composer Dimitri Landrain landed a gig as a bandleader with a cruise line. His subsequent travels provided a remarkable education in the music of the Americas, as he became fascinated by the sounds he heard in various ports of call, particularly in Brazil and Argentina. So it’s unsurprising that his recent recording, Astor’s Place (Zoho), would pay homage to touchstone artists Astor Piazzolla and Antonio Carlos Jobim, as well as to influences such as his homeland’s Michel Legrand, Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club and Detroit’s Barry Harris, whose workshops Landrain regularly attended in New York City. The title track is a shout-out to tango king Piazzolla, and Landrain and his trio mates — bassist Jim Robertson and drummer Keith Balla — invest it with plenty of lively energy as well as dynamic rhythmic shifts. “I tried to capture the spirit and passion of tango, especially the intensity and drama, by alternating relentlessness and relief,” Landrain explains in a press release. The pianist further references Piazzolla with his song “Nostalgia,” which references the maestro’s composition “Oblivion,” and elsewhere spices the mix with rumba, samba and beguine.
Fans of The Chick Corea Elektric Band have new reasons to clear some space on their shelves. The Candid label recently released a limited edition boxed set, The Complete Studio Recordings 1986-1991, that collects the five studio albums of this premier fusion band led by the boundary-stretching pianist and keyboardist. Candid has also made available a previously unreleased live recording, The Future Is Now, comprising performances by the original Elektric Band during a 2016-2017 reunion tour. Corea, who died in February 2021, selected the live tracks personally, including a version of “Charged Particles,” from the band’s 1991 album Beneath the Mask. Always a genial presence on stage, the leader introduces his superstar bandmates before launching into the rock-influenced tune, which starts with his percolating electric keyboards and Dave Weckl’s pounding drums. Guitarist Frank Gambale, saxophonist Eric Marienthal and bassist John Patitucci add even more muscle as the piece advances, and Gambale is given plenty of space for his fiery explorations, propelled by Weckl’s wallop. The sound is immense.
In 2017, the supergroup Hudson convened at NRS Recording Studio in Catskill, New York, to record its eponymous (and thus far only) album for the Motéma label. The quartet’s members — drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist Larry Grenadier, keyboardist John Medeski and guitarist John Scofield — were all residents of the Hudson River Valley and deeply inspired by the area’s natural beauty as well as its cultural significance. After all, the town of Woodstock was just up the road, and the musicians who had called it home — as well as those who had performed at the 1969 rock festival that co-opted its name — would have an outsize influence on music, fashion and attitudes for years to come. The veteran jazz artists of the Hudson quartet, whose individual impacts on their genre have also proven profound, nod to Woodstock artists with individualistic takes on songs by The Band and Jimi Hendrix, who played the festival, and Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, who didn’t, but earned bona fides by penning an anthem about the event (Mitchell) and having a home in the area before it became a household name (Dylan). DeJohnette and Grenadier churn a chugging reggae riddim on Hudson’s charming read of Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” our selection, while Scofield picks out the melody and Medeski adds atmospheric touches on organ.
Bass virtuoso Brian Bromberg and contemporary-jazz guitar ace Nick Colionne had been friends for years, sharing stages whenever their paths crossed at various concerts and festivals. The last time they did so was at the 2021 Berks Jazz Fest, when Bromberg invited the guitarist to sit in with his band on a bluesy, humid number titled “Baton Rouge.” Although you can find the performance on YouTube, the pair never formally recorded on an album together and would never have the chance — Colionne died on New Year’s Day 2022. Bromberg, on his latest recording, The Magic of Moonlight (Artistry Music), pays homage to his pal with the tune “Nico’s Groove (For Nick Colionne).” But this is no dirge-like elegy. Rather, it’s a bumptious funker with a wicked groove, one of which the guitarist would no doubt approve. Ray Fuller’s chicken-pickin’ guitar licks kick off the tune on a lively, bluesy note, and he’s soon joined by Bromberg’s melodic electric bass. The full ensemble ups the party atmosphere, a four-person horn section punching up the proceedings and veteran percussionist Lenny Castro driving the rhythms. “When I wrote the song I just smiled,” Bromberg says in a press release. “It was a bittersweet smile because we all lost such a good friend and artist, but it was a warm smile as I knew he would have loved the song.”
While he now teaches at the University of Minnesota, Adolfo Mendonça maintains vivid memories of his “Brazilian childhood” — which, not coincidentally, is the title of his most recent, self-released recording. On individual tracks, the keyboardist, composer and educator provides musical impressions of the Ponta da Praia, a neighborhood in the city of Santos, and the Alto da Serra, a hill outside the city of Serra Negra, where people go to watch the sunset. He also honors the legendary Jobim canon with reads of “Dindi” and “Desafinado,” but reaches further afield, as well, by interpreting the Nirvana single “In Bloom.” The album’s title track has the breezy feel of bossa nova, but is electrified by fusion elements that color and texture the mix. Mendonça’s sparkling electric keyboards are prominent, and bassist Alejandro Arenas and drummer James Dreier lend rhythmic muscle. The sound of children laughing and playing further underlines the nostalgic feel, while vocalists Arthur Garrido and Tammy Scheffer add layers of joy and wistfulness for days gone by. The keyboardist’s sprightly playing evokes Chick Corea at his most lyrical, and Jose Valentine Ruiz’s superb flute solo highlights the track.
Since he resurrected Jeff Lorber Fusion in 2010, the band’s namesake keyboardist and composer has continued to release one funky slab of contemporary jazz after another. The group’s eponymous debut recording came out in 1977, and its last dropped in 1981, as Lorber went on to establish himself as a solo artist and first-call producer. With new band mates — including bassist Jimmy Haslip and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta — Lorber fired up the JLF nearly 30 years later, with the release Now Is the Time. Six albums later, the reborn JLF is still going strong, with Haslip and drummer Gary Novak returning to the fold for the recent release The Drop (Shanachie). The title track kicks off the party with a joyous funk groove underlined by Lorber’s dancing keyboards (and acoustic piano) and Cornelius Mims’ liquid bass lines, while saxophonist Randal Clark and trumpeter David Mann rocket the tune into the stratosphere.
Tasked with composing a suite for the Temple University Studio Orchestra, Bill Cunliffe didn’t dawdle, as a deadline for finishing the piece loomed large. His inspiration for the resulting three-movement Rainforests — which was performed at Lincoln Center in April and released on CD in September by the BCM+D label — was the life-giving mangrove trees that make up much of the tropical rainforests. The mangroves’ networks of roots enable the trees to manage the ebb and flow of the tides, and shore up coastlines, reducing erosion and providing fish and other organisms with food and shelter. While the suite is grand in scope, utilizing the full sweep of the orchestra, it also swings like a big band and makes use of the excellent jazz soloists of the Temple Jazz Sextet. Stocked with all-star faculty mates from Temple’s Boyer College of Music — trumpeter Terell Stafford, saxophonists Dick Oatts and Tim Warfield, pianist Bruce Barth, bassist Mike Boone and drummer Justin Faulkner — the sextet earlier this year released its second recording, Fly With the Wind, which honored the compositions of legendary Philly jazz artists. On “Batucada,” the third movement of the suite, the orchestra kicks off the piece with big band dynamics, propelled and punctuated by the signature batucada rhythms that Cunliffe had heard in the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Various rhythmic shifts maintain listener interest, as do solo spots from the sextet’s ace instrumentalists, and of course, the mesmerizing drums that keep the pulse racing throughout.
In a social environment in which lunatic conspiracy theories run rampant — some with dangerous real-world consequences — it’s nearly impossible to parody their absurdity and ubiquity. Not that Andrew Binder wasn’t game to give it a go. Armed with an Urbana Arts Grant, the bassist and composer assembled the deliciously named Conspiracy Deliracy septet to tackle original compositions that propose notions such as: Stevie Wonder really can see, Katy Perry is a lizard person, Avril Levigne died and was replaced by a lookalike, and, oh yes, birds are actually drones. And, of course, Binder nods to well-worn tropes such as faked moon landings and Area 51 alien cover-ups. But, perhaps best of all, is the assertion that “Beyoncé Is the Illuminati,” which puts the wildly popular Queen Bee at the heart of a secret society that has been pulling the strings for a couple of centuries. The tune, our selection, moves along to an almost happy-go-lucky groove. Powered by Binder on upright bass and drummer Max Osawa, it’s completely at odds with the somewhat dire warning of the song’s title — which perhaps points out just how goofy it is. The little big band blows blithely, and the composition leaves plenty of solo space for relaxed solos by saxophonist Brian Stark, trombonist Frank Niemeyer and trumpeter Justin Dyar, with fine comping and soling by pianist Kurt Reeder. The song concepts may elicit a chuckle, but there’s nothing silly about the music or the musicians, who are indeed the real deal.
In recent years, pianist and composer Yulia has been showered with awards and accolades. In 2022, the conservatory-trained Yulia Petrova was named Smooth Jazz Network’s Breakout Artist of the Year, and her compositions have been honored in categories such as “Best Jazz Song of North America” among other international recognitions. It’s reported that eight of the 10 tracks on her latest self-released album, Best Wishes, won similar acclaim. (The album itself was named Akademia Music Awards 2023 Jazz Album of the Year.) Released earlier this year, Best Wishes features performances by top contemporary jazz players such as guitarist Darrell Crooks, drummer James Gadson and bassists James Manning and Sekou Bunch, among others, interpreting Yulia’s music. But it’s the pianist herself who shines brightest. Her warm acoustic piano remains at the center of the album’s title track, which closes out the program, cushioned by electric bass, keyboards and synths, all of which underline the genial sentiment expressed in the song and album title. With influences including Bob James, Joe Sample and Dave Grusin, Yulia seems to be following in the footsteps of contempo jazz giants.
Among the many distinguishing features of movies made by auteur Wes Anderson are their soundtracks. Songs by Eliot Smith, Nick Drake, David Bowie, The Zombies and The Kinks add to the emotional content, narrative and overall feel of Anderson’s unique cinematic constructions such as The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Express and The Royal Tenenbaums. On his debut recording, The Way I Feel Inside: Inspired by the Films of Wes Anderson (Truth Revolution), bassist Marty Isenberg celebrates the personal “mix tape” quality of Anderson’s soundtracks with jazzy interpretations of music that appeared in several of his films, with an an emphasis on selections from The Life Aquatic and Royal Tenenbaums. Echoing the Velvet Underground’s original version, Isenberg and his crew put a barque touch on the Velvet Underground’s “Stephanie Says,” which is among the songs from the latter film. Dallas Heaton’s delicate harpsichord opens the piece, while Nate Ostermiller’s mandolin and Jay Rattman’s clarinet also contribute to the chamber music feel. Before long, jazz rhythm and instrumentation kick in with sprightly contributions from saxophonist Sean Nowell and guitarist Alicyn Yafee, while pianist Marta Sanchez, drummer Rodrigo Recabarren and Isenberg both anchor and propel the piece.
A native of the Philippines, Bobby Velasco started playing piano at age 5. He’d go on to serve as musical director for hit-making Filipino singers, and play with bands such as Freestyle and NXTLEVEVL, in the 1990s. However, Velasco didn’t release an album under his own name until 2022’s E.T.P., which showcased his passion for funk and fusion. The musician-composer doubles down on his commitment to those styles with his recently released single Lalah’s Lullaby (evosound), which brims with Velasco’s funky electronic keyboards, Gigi Arcay’s textured guitar, Stephene Lachica’s slippery bass lines and Otep Concepcion’s big drum sound. Despite its title, the track is far from sleep-inducing, churning a nocturnal energy that would keep most children bopping way past bedtime.
As a Vietnam veteran, guitarist and composer J. Kimo Williams could wholeheartedly empathize with the Black soldiers who faced horrific racism upon returning to the U.S. after serving in Europe during World War I. The term “Red Summer” refers to the actions of white supremacists who visited terror upon Black communities in some 36 cities across the country in 1919, with frequently deadly results. Williams didn’t face quite the same vituperation upon his return from Vietnam, but certainly, he wasn’t greeted with open arms. The experiences of 11 months “in-country” stayed with him and influenced the music he had begun conceptualizing during his tour of duty. That music was expressed in Williams’ 1990 Symphony for the Sons of Nam, and later, on his debut album War Stories. Still, the experiences of Black WWI soldiers coming home to such a brutal reception haunted him, and Williams’ recording Red Summer 1919, Acts I & II (An Instrumental Opera) (Little Beck Music) may provide a way to get the story in front of generations who may not have been aware of it. Williams recruited high-power fusion stars, including fellow guitarist Mike Stern, saxophonist Michael Brecker and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, all of whom play a role in the opera: Stern is the white slaver, Captain Stern; Williams is the African tribesman Soaritu, running for his freedom; Colaitua is the Mystic Griot; and Brecker, The Diviner. On the opera’s concluding “Epilogue — The Wise Diviner,” Brecker, who died in 2007, is heard at his most potent, his unaccompanied solo reminding listeners just how fierce he could be. (Footage of the saxophonist and Colaiuta playing the track is available on YouTube.) Williams’ playing is equally fiery, holding its own alongside the magmatic Stern.