Recently I have been mixing in reissues with new releases in these review articles … but this time around there is just way too much new stuff to step back in time. But don’t worry, I’ll be doing a separate look at some re-releases … and a separate look at some late 2010 pop & rock stuff … and also a focus article on a couple of truly superlative recent releases!
Another thing – in the past I have tended to simply list the reviews randomly … but no more. You can be assured that if a CD is first in the review list it is my favorite, and if it is last … well, it isn’t.
So, with that … time for another quick look at some recent CD/MP3 album releases!
Summary: If someone was to ask me what ‘modern jazz’ sounds like in 2010, the Mary Halvorson Quintet recording Saturn Sings would be one that I would point to immediately. She made a name playing with many of the greats of ‘contemporary improvised music’ (aka avant garde jazz) such as Anthony Braxton, Tim Berne, Jason Moran and a host of others. Her first recording in 2008, Dragon’s Head’, met with critical acclaim … but there is always the concern that an artist will be unable to recapture that magical debut. For Halvorson, that is far from the truth – Saturn Sings shows an advancing maturity in all areas from technique to composition to use of a larger band.
Her first recording was a trio featuring bassist John Hebert and drummer Ches Smith, which she has expanded to a quintet by adding Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet and Jon Irabagon on alto saxophone. Often in such combos there is a push for the guitar to fill the piano role and allow the horns to take the lead. While the horns are featured heavily and each player gets plenty of room to improvise, there is no doubt that this is Halvorson’s show.
The reason I call this a benchmark for modern jazz is that it is at once free and grounded, based in the acoustic jazz tradition yet shows awareness of and influences from modern pop and rock music. From the avant garde perspective you have microtonality, dissonance, arrhythmic sections, time shifts and some use of chaos for tension and release. And yet each of the 10 songs is thoroughly composed with different sections varying the rhythmic and harmonic structure and laying out a path for improvisation.
Halvorson has been called the most talented and creative guitarist in a generation, and I don’t attribute that to either hyperbole or to her gender – she is an amazing guitar talent who has proven herself in side roles with some of the major figures in jazz. As a solo artist she soars with unique and original compositions and improvisational techniques that are tremendously fresh and challenging and listenable all at once. This is absolutely one of my favorite recordings of 2010.
Choice Track (and why): Leak Over Six Five (No. 14) – there are numerous great tracks on the recording, but this one tells you everything you need to know. The trio lays out the structure, then is joined by the horns stating the themes along with Halvorson. As Irabagon takes the first solo, the rhythm shifts around and the structure loosens and tightens without ever losing the pulse.
You Might Love This If: You are open to experiencing some chaos and dissonance as part of listening to one of the great modern jazz records of the year.
Here is a live video of Mary Halvorson’s Trio playing at the 2010 Saalfelden Jazz Festival:
Summary: Apparently between this recording and Gary Husband’s record, I am featuring drummers … and specifically ones who have recently appeared on John McLaughlin records! I had never heard of Ranjit Barot before, but he appeared on the excellent 2008 John McLaughlin record ‘Floating Point’. This is his debut recording as a leader, and while it takes repeated listenings to reveal its beauty, it is worth the effort!
The reason I say it takes some repeated listenings is that it starts off like a ‘traditional’ fusion record but quickly shifts to larger ensembles, contemplative compositions, and more world-music styles. When I first got this it was at the same time as some other stuff and I threw it all in a playlist and shuffled and nothing seemed to ‘catch’. Yet when I played the record itself, I was intrigued by Singularity, enough so to keep listening. And I found that the rest of the recording is a tremendous blend of jazz, fusion, world music, composed sections, improvised music, and just great playing from start to finish!
Looking at the list of musicians seems to suggest a scattered project record, but that is hardly the case. Certainly musicians come and go, but the main thing here is Barot’s big ideas – every song has sections and builds and seems to have large thematic and harmonic elements come and go like the breeze. And accordingly so do the musicians. There is a large presence of Carnatic music and ideals here, and the musicians he brings are masters of the form, navigating easily between Eastern and Western traditions in a way that is pure and thoroughly musical. By the end I felt I had taken a journey … one that I have taken over time and again, learning more each time.
Choice Track (and why): Singularity – this is the ‘safe choice’, in a way, since it is the most ‘traditional fusion’ song. Yet very quickly you start to feel that there are elements of the old Shakti at work as well – it has Indian and Middle Eastern elements, a 9/8 time signature, and searing veena and guitar work from Punya Sriniva and McLaughlin. After thirty seconds you think you know where you are, but a minute later you realize you have absolutely no clue!
You Might Love This If: This is exciting jazz with a solidly international flair, fusion in the truest sense as it borrows from both East and West liberally. If you are open to this sort of world experience, you won’t be disappointed … just don’t be surprised if it takes more than a single listen.
Here is a video of ‘the making of’ Bada Boom:
Summary: Henry Threadgill released Volume I of this music in 2009, after eight years of absence releasing any new material. While I didn’t review it here, I agree with the consensus that it was a solid ‘hit’ and well worth the wait. Guess what – this is even better!
Threadgill is one of the great composers in all of avant garde music, and a strong improviser and bandleader as well. I have thrilled to his wild and varied music since I bought his early 1980s album (vinyl) ‘When Was That?’. Each time he releases new music, he makes you recalibrate your expectations. With his ‘This Brings Us To’ recordings, you need to sit back and listen deeply to these tracks, as there is nothing overt or ‘in your face’. That is because rather than working with harmonic exploration he is working with intervalic expositions within a fixed but flexible framework.
Here is the basic structure: Threadgill has composed numerous contrapuntal themes that dance over varying time signatures. Each member of the ensemble is given a separate range of intervals to work with, which allows them absolute freedom of expression … albeit in a very confined space. The result seems contemplative on the surface, but before long you will hear the shared experience of all of the musicians, playing off of each other and communicating while constrained by their assigned roles. It is challenging music to be sure – the reticent feel means you will need to isolate yourself and truly LISTEN to get what is going on. But in the end it is definitely worth the time – you will get back far more than you invest.
Choice Track (and why): Polymorph – while all of the songs are a combination of composition and improvisation, in general the start with building a structure before Threadgill populates it with his flute or alto harmonies. This has him there from the beginning, and somehow feels the same yet different all at once. It is gorgeous … well, except for that dissonance stuff. (and for the record, my wife – and kids for that matter – still doesn’t understand how I can simultaneously describe something that is dissonant and arrhythmic while using the word ‘gorgeous’)
You Might Love This If: You are looking for music that will not easily reveal itself, but is very rewarding if you persevere … and you are not to attached to traditional precept of harmony and rhythm.
Here is a video of Henry Threadgill Zooid playing live in 2010 at the Chicago Jazz Festival:
Summary: I loved Gary Husband’s work on John McLaughlin’s ‘To The One’ last year, so when I heard he was releasing a new recording I couldn’t wait to listen. When I found out who was joining him, I was even more impressed. Guitarists on the session include McLaughlin, Allan Holdsworth, Robin Trower, Steve Hackett and Steve Topping. Former Mahavishnu Orchestra members Jan Hammer and Jerry Goodman join on keyboards and violin. Rounding out the sessions are bassists Jimmy Johnson, Mark King, Laurence Cottle, Livingstone Brown and Steve Price. If this sounds like one of those ‘big project’ recordings, it certainly is … and that is both a strength and weakness.
As for the ‘weakness’ I just mentioned, it is due to this feeling at times like a bunch of ideas that Husband had put together, grabbed some of his musician friends, and laid down some tracks and then parted ways. The tracks are excellent, but each one is a distinct unit with its own sound and personality. So the issue I have isn’t that the songs are lacking or soulless – it is that I found myself wanting MORE from each combo. I mean, I haven’t heard much from Robin Trower since I bought the BLT record in 1981 … and all I get is a juicy 57 seconds of a Miles Davis Yesternow interlude!
But the strength here greatly outweighs the weakness – and there are surprises! The opening track starts with husband laying a nice cymbal rhythm and bringing in Allan Holdsworth gorgeous colors on guitar, yet when the searing solo starts it takes a second to register that it isn’t Holdworth but Jan Hammer taking the lead! The following song pulls back to a more controlled form, but Between the Sheets of Music features a crazy solo by Jerry Goodman that isn’t about showing off – it is pure energy and joy! Each of the members brings something to the recording – with each bassist there is a distinct feel, with some showing deep listening and communications, and others locking into a tight pulse propelling the others forward.
There is no fluff here – perhaps that is why this is ‘volume 1’, as the next volume is due in 2011 sometime. And while I might have appreciated getting more time to get to know each grouping on the record, this is Husband’s project, and if the goal was to show how vital and vibrant and versatile fusion can be in 2010 … and if that wasn’t the goal he should review the original goal! Because this record takes some of the great names in fusion, pulls them together and shows that the breadth of creativity and quality of music in the genre is perhaps greater than at any time in the last thirty years!
Choice Track (and why): Afterglow – this stands out from everything else not necessarily as being ‘better’ but being a piece of pure beauty from Husband as a solo pianist. It is a gorgeous composition that is reflective and intimate. In a sea of great and pounding fusion songs, this quiet and intimate break stops me in my tracks every time, reminding me that aside from being a world class drummer, Husband is a great composer and pianist.
You Might Love This If: You like instrumental music with a rock beat, great improvisation, and a showcase of some of the greatest musicians playing today!
Here is a video of Gary Husband playing live with Allan Holdsworth and Jimmy Johnson in 2010:
Summary: After my first listen I had more or less dismissed this as a pleasant but generic recording in the style you might call ‘contemporary jazz’. It has enough funk and fusion elements that I wouldn’t call it ‘smooth jazz’, but that label might help some get a mental picture of what this sounds like. Whatever you call it, I have to say that it took me really focusing on not letting this slip into the background before I truly appreciated the musicianship and compositional skills at work here.
My wife adores this recording, which means a couple of things: first it means that it isn’t ‘out there’ like so much of my music, because she can’t stand that. Also, it means it is a solid recording. She likes stuff like The Rippingtons, The Yellowjackets, some Pat Metheny, and so on. But the songs have to have an upbeat feel, nice melody and solid pulse to catch her ear.
For me, it is about the depth and the creative flow of the compositions and improvisations. And at first you can miss just how well done the songs are, since they seem simple and effortless. That is because Hill shows some clear stylistic influences from folks like Larry Carlton in guitar playing and folks like Russ Freeman or Robben Ford in terms of setting up the songs. But don’t mistake that ease for simplicity – Hill and his compatriots weave some complex themes and lines into these simple-sounding tracks. But they never sacrifice the easy and listenable feel of the music. I was reminded of an old fave – Larry Carlton’s Sleepwalk. And for me, that is a high compliment in this genre.
I mentioned at the top that I was ‘ranking’ things this time, and as a result I was immediately concerned about what people would read into each position. The bottom line is this: Dave Hill is a wonderful guitarist and this is a solid recording. The distance between this and the final review entry might be described as a ‘chasm’, but in a review cycle that featured four of my favorite recordings of 2010 this simply isn’t at the same level. But don’t take that as meaning it is bad or unworthy of attention. Instead, mark Dave Hill as someone to watch and listen to as he continues to grow and make great music.
Choice Track (and why): All the Times – after an hour of solid funk-fusion, Hill concludes with a great solo piece that is intimate, reflective, and a wonderful combination of improvisation and composition.
You Might Love This If: If you like the sounds of jazz or instrumental rock, but want to avoid screeching fusion guitars and the crazy stuff I always seem to listen to, this is a great recording with loads of depth and substance, but also one you can put on in the background and enjoy a nice evening.
Here is a video of Dave Hill playing Do You Know from the New World recording:
Summary: I have been a fan of Marcus Miller since he joined Miles Davis for his return to music back in 1980. He has a strong presence and great bass chops, and his production skills were instrumental in the success of recordings like Tutu and Amandla. As a solo artist I have found his stuff uneven but generally enjoyable, with M2 perhaps being my favorite. Most recently I loved the three-bass collaboration SMV (Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, and Victor Wooten), which really shows off the chops all three bring to the bass.
However, more often than not Miller acts as producer or collaborates in R&B or funk recordings, which has brought him great success. This concert seems more a nod to that crossover success … but I can’t for the life of me figure out the target audience! It feels much like an old-timer coming out for a career showcase, but Miller is too young and without nearly enough accomplishments as a leader for that. It is completely shallow and unsatisfying as a jazz record, and too boring for pop fans, and to self-serving for even smooth jazz fans. I tried it out for my family, and the word that kept coming back was ‘boring’. I kept listening, trying to squeeze some joy from this since Miller is one of my favorite bassists … but alas this will be remarkable as one of my LEAST favorite records of 2010.
Choice Track (and why): Amandla – Miller wrote the title track to Miles 1988 recording, and it remains a staple of his playing style and he does a solid rendition here.
You Might Love This If: You like stuff like Chris Botti Live in Boston … on second though, in that case just go get Chris Botti!
Here is a video of Marcus Miller Live from Warsaw in late 2010:
At the beginning of this review I said I was ordering things as if according to some random form of ‘scoring’ system. That is only partially true – what is absolutely true is that Mary Halvorson’s recording is my favorite and I feel my soul die a little each time I hear something from Marcus Miller’s A Night in Monte-Carlo! But I truly love Gary Husband’s new recording and also Ranjit Barot’s and Henry Threadgill’s new stuff. Dave Hill produced a solid recording that is simply outclassed by the others.
What does that mean? It means the last quarter saw some of the best music of the year – to the extent that I am going to have a ‘feature review’ on two recent releases that stood out in terms of being creative and hitting a sweet spot for me. Mary Halvorson’s recording could really go there because it is just that good … but I decided to keep that article to two records for reasons you’ll see when it is released.
As I also mentioned, there is plenty more coming very soon: I have a plethora of re-releases and chose just a few to discuss and feature. Then I have a look at several pop & rock records released late in 2010, some good and some bad, and all of which says something about the state of those forms as we enter 2011.
Hopefully you will check out and enjoy the recordings I discuss here. Music is a very difficult business and as a music lover I try to support music I love as much as possible. That is what I say to everyone – find music you love and support the artists!
Until next time, enjoy the great joys of whatever music you love!