Such Sweet Thunder: inside Duke Ellington's literary world

A crucial but frequently overlooked aspect of Duke Ellington's creative life was his engagement with literature. From Shakespeare to Steinbeck, Ellington's love of the written word inspired much of his late music, as Lana Crowe reveals

Duke Ellington was an artistic polymath, displaying a talent for writing, painting and theatrical production in addition to his abundant musical talent. Much of Ellington’s written work has remained unpublished, perhaps because – as he admitted to Richard O. Boyer during an interview for The New Yorker – “you can say anything you want on the trombone, but you gotta be careful with words”. For this reason, his literary legacy has gone widely unacknowledged, particularly when compared with the abundance of writing on his catalogue of music. Ellington’s interest in literature is, in fact, discernible in both his literature-inspired musical compositions and, indeed, his own writing.

Ellington’s eclectic memoir Music is My Mistress is a rich and insightful text, full of accounts of his extensive time on the road, short poems, descriptions of the many important people in his life, and a variety of other musings that provide a glimpse into his complex and energetic mind. A personal favourite is a chapter entitled ‘The Taste Buds’, in which Ellington (notoriously a man of large appetite) advises the reader on the best places to acquire a variety of food, from Räk Crêpe in Sweden to Poppets in London to baked beans in Harry Carney’s mother’s house. However, it is Ellington’s poetic aspirations that truly enlighten his holistic artistic ability. His most significant surviving poem was written to accompany his pioneering 1943 composition Black, Brown and Beige. Despite the vast critical interest in the avant-garde musical composition, the full poetic text of Black, Brown and Beige remains unpublished, residing only in the Archives Centre of the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C..

Though never published – it gained exposure only through the publication of extracts in Music is My Mistress, and having been adapted into an unsuccessful musical (My People) and an unrealised jazz opera (Boola) – Ellington scrupulously edited and reworked the poem, once going so far as to suggest that “the script itself is more interesting than the music”. The poem undoubtedly deserves to be read as a serious work of African-American modernist literature. It follows the journey of Boola, an African-American Everyman, from freedom in Africa to slavery in America, before culminating in a poetic depiction of contemporary Harlem. The poem is saturated with American literary culture – alluding to the work of Langston Hughes, Eugene O’Neill, Walt Whitman and T.S. Eliot, amongst others – and is an enlightening, maybe even crucial, accompaniment to the musical composition, as well as a valuable literary text in its own right.

 

“It is easy to imagine that Shakespeare would have felt an affinity to Ellington’s rejection of generic boundaries”

 

Ellington’s interest in literature extends to a number of musical compositions that were based on literary texts, the most notable being Such Sweet Thunder, a suite entirely inspired by the works of William Shakespeare. Ellington’s ambitious attitude towards jazz has elicited comparisons with Shakespeare: he is a figure in jazz of Shakespearean proportion, and critics have written of his music as having “a truly Shakespearean universality”. The harmony of the Ellington/Strayhorn writing partnership can make it difficult to discern who composed what – “a whodunit game indulged in by the band”, in Strayhorn’s words – much as the ongoing debates about Shakespearean authorship seek to determine the contribution of contemporaries like Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Middleton to Shakespeare’s works. It is easy to imagine that Shakespeare would have felt an affinity to Ellington’s rejection of generic boundaries; the composer considered artistic categories to function like an echo chamber, used “by a person who feels that the one he’s talking to doesn’t know enough about the language in which he speaks”.

Ellington eschewed the boundaries of jazz by using typically classical forms, creating jazz arrangements of classical suites, and referencing classical music in his more conventional jazz compositions just as, 350 years earlier, Shakespeare put deaths in comedies, jokes in tragedies and thrived in the instability of genre that was characteristic in Early Modern theatres. “Somehow,” wrote Ellington, in the programme notes of the 1956 Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival, “I suspect that if Shakespeare were alive today, he might be a jazz fan himself – he’d appreciate the combination of team spirit and informality, of academic knowledge and humour, of all the elements that go into a great jazz performance”.

According to Derek Jewell, Ellington and Strayhorn “read and re-read all the plays as thoroughly as Duke had once gone through the Bible”, research that is discernible in the playful yet complex interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays found in Such Sweet Thunder. Ellington and Strayhorn create distinctive characterisations through, for example, the gradual crescendo of the elegant jazz-waltz ‘Lady Mac’, or the unpredictable phraseology and wincing high-pitch trumpet (courtesy of Cat Anderson) in the Hamlet-inspired ‘Madness in Great Ones’. The title track of the suite, despite quoting A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is in fact an interpretation of Act One Scene Three of Othello, a musical rendition of “the battles, sieges, fortunes” that Othello recounted to Desdemona during their courtship – a tale that, as Ellington often joked, must have been one swinging story.

‘The Star-Crossed Lovers’ is the suite’s Romeo and Juliet-inspired piece: a duet between Johnny Hodges on alto saxophone, who dominates the piece as Juliet, and Paul Gonsalves on tenor as Romeo. It is no coincidence that the opening recalls the first chord of ‘Sophisticated Lady’: the dominance of Juliet’s voice in the piece is a comment on the relationship between the young lovers in the play. Juliet often anticipates Romeo’s dialogue – “Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say ‘Ay’” – and becomes so instructive that Romeo’s behaviour becomes an expression of Juliet’s desires. ‘The Star-Crossed Lovers’ is Romeo and Juliet told from Romeo’s perspective: infatuated with and subjugated to his sophisticated lady. There is even a respect for poetic form evident in the four musical ‘sonnets’, which are made up of fourteen ten-note phrases following the rhythm of iambic pentameter, each with the capacity to be played alongside a spoken Shakespearean sonnet without alteration. An occasion on which the revered Shakespearean actor Richard Burton recited Shakespeare while Ellington “stroked the keys” produced “one of the greatest theatrical experiences that [he] ever had”.

Another significant example of Ellington and Strayhorn’s literature-inspired compositions is Suite Thursday: the suite is a reading of John’s Steinbeck’s novellas Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, which depict life on America’s Pacific coast before and after the Second World War. Though initial reception of Suite Thursday was wanting, it has since garnered critical acclaim for its “evocation of literary mood and character”. It was first issued, in a revised form, alongside Ellington’s arrangement of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite. Perhaps it was the controversy surrounding Ellington’s interpretation of Peer Gynt – the Grieg Foundation barred the arrangement in Norway, a condemnation of jazz and Ellington’s attempt to push its boundaries – that led the artistic ambition of Suite Thursday to fade into obscurity.

Cannery Row opens with a question about literature’s ability to truly capture a place: “how can the poem and the stink and the grating noise – the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream – be set down alive?”. It is unsurprising that Ellington, the master of musical portraiture, read this as a challenge. The suite opens with a foghorn-like trombone phrase, followed by a dreamy piano depiction of the “quiet and magical” life in Cannery Row. Steinbeck’s aural similes, such as how “the evening crept in as delicately as music” are honoured in the suite. It is in the second movement, ‘Schwiphti’, that the orchestra depicts the cacophony of Cannery Row: the brass section squeals as the “cannery whistles scream”, and the up-tempo discord throughout the movement captures the “rumbles and groans and screams and rattles” of pre-war Cannery Row coming to life each morning. Although the suite does not presuppose knowledge of the source material, the literary aspect of the suite enhances both the texture of the music and diversifies the denotation of Steinbeck’s texts.

Duke Ellington moved in literary circles: he was personal friends with writer and social activist Langston Hughes, and publicly praised his political poem ‘I, Too, Sing America’. Through Hughes, Ellington was introduced to a young Ralph Ellison, whose 1952 novel Invisible Man has gone on to become a seminal work of twentieth-century American literature. According to Ellison, Duke Ellington “influenced even those who had no immediate concern with the art of jazz”. This undoubtedly included a large number of poets and novelists: his presence is evident in works from Boris Vian’s surrealist French novel L’Écume des Jours to Geoff Dyer’s imaginative jazz criticism But Beautiful. As a self-declared forerunner in the “increasing interrelationship between the adherents to art forms in various fields”, Duke Ellington understood the importance of one seemingly simple yet sophisticated principle in both music and literature: “when it sounds good, it is good”.

Explore: 'Duke Ellington's finest year'

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John Coltrane: Beyond the Holy Mountain

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of John Coltrane, one of the true musical giants of the 20th century whose monumental legacy casts a considerable shadow across jazz and out into the wider artistic world. With the recent release of his wife Alice’s ashram recordings, The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, and his son Ravi’s ongoing ascent to the upper echelons of contemporary jazz, Kevin Le Gendre examines how the iconic saxophonist’s work continues to influence music, art and spirituality today

Jazz has been marked by notable early deaths. Clifford Brown, Booker Little and Scott LaFaro are among some of the most deeply lamented tragedians, cut down in their prime, before they had reached their thirties, a stage in life often fruitful for those with ideas and talent.

John Coltrane succumbed to liver cancer at the age of 41 in 1967, but by that time he had produced a body of work so rich it secured him a status of prophet pathfinder who embodies certain ideals in the creative act, regardless of whether or not it is allocated the term ‘jazz’. It is not so much that Coltrane’s flame was prematurely extinguished, but more that he, like one of his role models, Charlie Parker, managed to blaze a luminous trail into his truncated time on earth, so that the size of his discography, 45 studio sets (as co-leader and leader) and 11 lives, is matched by its far-reaching influence. That untimely demise has just served to brighten the halo of overachievement around our hero’s head. Above all, the saxophone virtuoso represented inspiration to many others.

 

“Coltrane possessed a rare gift for affecting listeners through an intense focus on sound”

 

Rashied Ali, a member of one of Coltrane’s last bands, said: “When Coltrane died the avant-garde died with him, something died with him, the leader.” Whether or not the sub-genre or school to which the saxophonist putatively belonged was indeed ‘free’ or ‘new music’, or a sound beyond the superficialities of genre, the point was made with conviction, if not deeply held reverence, simply because the term leader suffixed considerably much more than a band in Coltrane’s case.

There was also stewardship in a wider sense, whereby he would be an exemplar, if not figurehead, to whom his peers and successors would look. Which is entirely logical when one considers that, along with Sonny Rollins, he helped to define an integral part of the contemporary vocabulary of his chosen instrument, the saxophone, and that he brought a towering gravitas to his epic concert appearances.

The presence of the Coltrane name in other guises – his late, also influential wife Alice and their saxophonist son Ravi, who is active today on his own musical terms – provides an interesting sub-plot to the central story of the man who opened new musical doors for others.

John Coltrane is undoubtedly a jazz icon of the highest order. Whether or not his leviathan stature as an improviser casts a shadow on his relevance to a world beyond art music is a moot point though. In fact, locating his oeuvre within a single idiomatic space is problematic when one considers the marked difference between the various phases of a career that concludes with the structural abstractions, if not opacity, of 1965’s Om and Expression, but also boasts the intricate, invigorating quicksilver swing of 1959’s Giant Steps, the latticed orchestrations of Africa Brass, and the spellbinding modal praise songs of 1964’s A Love Supreme. There was Coltrane the composer-sound seeker-concept maker who assumed several guises all framed by Coltrane, the driven, all-consuming improviser.

Coltrane possessed a rare gift for affecting listeners through an intense focus on sound, sometimes by nothing other than a single short phrase, so as we consider all of those flights of fancy in which he dissects the finer points of tonality, chord and scale, to the extent that he seemingly destroys and recreates the essence of a song, then it’s worth remembering he could also be at his most compelling when performing an underrated function in jazz: playing a melody. Coltrane’s sensitivity, sincerity and clarity renders ‘Naima’, a love song, in the most engagingly tender way, which makes it as relevant to the canon of pop music as anthems like George Gershwin’s ‘I Loves You Porgy’, Aretha Franklin’s ‘Natural Woman’, and Willie Nelson’s ‘Crazy’. ‘Naima’ features a solo by pianist Wynton Kelly, not Coltrane.

His formative years in Philadelphia and his full maturity in New York afforded experiences rich enough to heighten that kind of editorial wisdom. The gigs with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and George Russell, those preternatural progressives who could hear what others could not, were vital to his development, but of equal note is the music made with alto saxophonist Earl Bostic and vibraphonist Milt Jackson. 1961’s Bags & Trane is a reminder of Coltrane’s worth as an exponent of blues and R&B. At times the set comes tantalisingly close to the work of Ray Charles insofar as it generates the warmth, the goodness, the joyousness, the ‘soul’ of which he was the harbinger.

Furthermore, there was a clear parallel between some of the mechanics of Coltrane’s later work and those of the outré architects of funk, a specific tangent of soul. With James Brown, John Coltrane shared a sonic density, an uncut heaviness, a conception of mountains of sound. Look at the tools and techniques they deployed: doubling of instruments (guitars and voices for JB, basses and reeds for JC, drum kits for both); integration of African percussion; expansion of performance length. Both engaged in a supersizing of groove and emotional intensity. Both probe turbulence, if not violence in timbre. Both take a ‘no compromise’ stance. The points of divergence between Brown and Coltrane should not blind us to those of convergence.

While we see Coltrane’s energy shape early 1970s independent American and European jazz, from ‘deep’ or ‘spiritual’ labels like Strata East and Tribe to players like Frank Lowe and Evan Parker, his permeation of improv-inclined rock bands such as the Grateful Dead and instrumental soul-funk combos is also discernible, even though the danceable sound of these acts appears alien to his own. However, the acknowledgement of his impact is writ large all around. If Clifford Jordan recorded ‘John Coltrane’ then Kool & The Gang penned ‘I Remember John W. Coltrane’.

Members of Kool, in their early guise as the Jazziacs, admired and may well have played with some of Coltrane’s trusted sidemen, Pharoah Sanders and McCoy Tyner in New York, but what is equally important is the path of the pianist who replaced the latter, John’s wife Alice. She took the harp John himself had purchased for her and made it an integral part of work that saw her probe jazz, gospel, blues and Indian musical traditions as she embraced the teachings of a guru, Satchidananda, and became a ‘swamini’, or spiritual leader herself.

Alice’s unwavering faith led her to withdraw from commercial recording altogether in the late 1970s, but that should not deflect attention from her Warner and Impulse! albums. They stand as kith and kin to that of the illustrious spouse who encouraged her. “John not only taught me to explore, but to play thoroughly and completely,” she once said.

As the recently released CD The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda shows she recorded music at her ashram that availed itself of state of the art technology. Her use of synthesisers and electronics, often betraying advanced study of European classical orchestration, imbued her work with striking otherworldly nuances. At times, the hymnal themes conspire to soar right to the heavens.

Taken together, the music of John and Alice thus covers a wide electro-acoustic spectrum. Where the former innovated ‘unplugged’, the latter crafted novel resonances by ‘plugging in’, especially on that reedy, waspish wurlitzer organ. But the common denominator between the two composers was sublime tone poetry. You can call it ambiance, mood, or mantra, but the feeling generated was startling and has reached far into the more discerning end of modern music. Consider the chain: John inspires Alice; Alice finds her voice; Alice becomes a cult; anybody from Radiohead to Laura Veirs hails her great songbook.

Alice is a substantive part of John’s procession because, while her music grew from his to a large degree, it was not bound by it. In both cases there was an immense strength of character that is instructive to anybody who is serious about creating something really new in art. Above all there was a daring. A challenge to the self as well as to others to the extent that the idea of category or boundary between schools becomes irrelevant.

Fittingly, the latin-rock and soul artists who felt the Coltranes’ spirit and channelled it to pastures new were one-offs. Consider these incumbents: Carlos Santana covers John (Love Devotion Surrender) and records with Alice (Illuminations). Stevie Wonder plays John’s music on stage (‘Giant Steps’) and in the studio fashions something that has the unorthodoxy of Alice (The Secret Life Of Plants). Coltrane had disciples, the Coltranes’ gifted musical devotees.

Having said that, the second son Alice bore John, Ravi, has become a force in his own right, having overcome the none too enviable handicap of being the saxophonist son of one of the greatest of all. “I’ve seen a lot of guys hit a Coltrane wall!” said modern day tenor titan David Murray, in reference to the dead end that can await those who take an overly reverential, ultimately imitative road to the legend. John is unavoidable, but, paradoxically, he’s also to be avoided if one is to really do justice to what he stood for. Yet Ravi is not just the child of John. He is the child of Alice too, and draws inspiration from both of his parents, as human beings as well as legendary musicians.

Since his emergence in the mid-1990s, as a sideman to such as Steve Coleman, Billy Childs and Bheki Mseleku, Ravi has developed a very impressive creative voice of his own, and his original writing on albums such as Moving Pictures, From The Round Box and Spirit Fiction is excellent. His recent work in Jack DeJohnette’s trio, exemplified on 2016’s superb CD In Movement, reflects his full artistic maturity.

 

“Coltrane explored dualities: individual voice and collective energy; single mind and plural expression; local culture and universal consciousness; a sound that is ‘in’ and ‘out’”

 

That band is actually a vital entwinement of several historical strands. Alongside Ravi is bassist Matthew Garrison, son of Jimmy, a member of John Coltrane’s classic quartet, and DeJohnette sat in with John and recorded with Ravi’s mother Alice, both in her Impulse! period and on her gorgeous 2007 ‘out of retirement’ set, Translinear Light. In other words, rich chapters of jazz history coalesce in this small group with big ideas, an ensemble of different generations of players who are bound by common cause.

Indeed, the sustained development of DeJohnette, Garrison and Coltrane Jr is proof positive that musicians with a degree of courage can circumnavigate the ‘Coltrane wall’ described by Murray, and that a real handle on Coltrane, conceptually as well as sonically, will enable an artist to paint a portrait of their true self rather than produce a facsimile of another, no matter how well burnished the image.

As Denys Baptiste shows on The Late Trane it is entirely possible to acknowledge the genius of John Coltrane without being overwhelmed by it, precisely because Baptiste thought wisely about the intriguing relationship between art and pop music, reminding us that folk forms were also an essential part of the great innovator’s world view. Seen from the vantage point of the 21st century the idea and meaning of John Coltrane is immensely appealing for reasons of integrity if not idealism, an unstinting pursuit of one’s personal vision that will lead a skilled musician wherever they have to go, even if that means wailing, hollering and moaning in the middle of a concert, as was the case on the mesmerising 1965 Pharoah Sanders-guesting Seattle performance.

Coltrane explored dualities: individual voice and collective energy; single mind and plural expression; local culture and universal consciousness; a sound that is ‘in’ and ‘out’. All of which invites us to think about our ultimate perception of him. He may be a monumental part of jazz heritage, but he also leaves a blues legacy, one that does much more than swing into song forms of 12 bars with pitches bent towards desolation and salvation. Coltrane bequeaths a puzzle on what we really know, from a philosophical, social and political, as well as musical standpoint, of the blues, a phenomenon born of yesterday that still speaks to the mannish boy and motherless child of tomorrow.

 

Photo by of John Coltrane by Chuck Stewart, courtesy of Impulse!

Photo of Alice Coltrane by Sri Hari Moss

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

Thelonious Monk: essential recordings

A completely unique pianist and composer, Thelonious Monk was born 100 years ago, in October 1917. His recordings (both live and in the studio) continue to inspire jazz musicians today, and many of his albums – perhaps most notably Brilliant Corners – remain essential listening. Here's a quick overview of just a few of his finest moments on record, complete with Jazzwise reviews...

 

Monk Brilliant CornersBrilliant Corners

Poll Winners Records | ★★★★★

Thelonious Monk (p), Clark Terry (t) Sonny Rollins (ts), Ernie Henry (as), Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers, Tommy Potter (b), Max Roach and Art Taylor (d). Rec. 1954 and 1956

Today, musicians tackle Monk’s music with apparent ease to where it has now become repertory. But it wasn’t always like that. Back then, it really separated the men from the boys. Brilliant in both title and content this album may well be, but by all accounts it was a bitch to make. The title track being patched together, by producer Orrin Keepnews, from fragments of no less than 25 incomplete takes. But seemingly, the three separate sessions that were needed to actually complete the five original tracks were all fraught with tension and frustration. For instance only four tracks use horns: while Rollins appears on all four, Ernie Henry plays on three while Clark Terry is only heard on ‘Bemsha Swing’. To make up for a shortfall in time, an unaccompanied Monk slipped behind the keyboard to rework ‘I Surrender, Dear.’ Perhaps because this was far from being a conveyor belt blowing session, all the participants had to face up to what became a real challenge when not only getting to grips with the dangerous curves that beset the title track but also ‘Ba-Lue Bolivar BaLues-Are’ and ‘Pannonica’. Whatever the motivation, both Rollins and Henry seldom played better than right here. And the eventual outcome? One of the truly great indispensible albums. Do note, having slipped into the public domain in terms of copyright, versions of Brilliant Corners are mushrooming. The only difference between this release and the official reissue is the addition of three tracks taped two years earlier. Other than that, it has the same sleeve design and sleeve note. Roy Carr

 

 

Monk ColtraneThelonious Monk with John Coltrane

Riverside/OJC Remaster | ★★★★★

Thelonious Monk (p), Ray Copeland (t), Gigi Gryce (as), John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins (ts), Wilbur Ware (b), Art Blakey and Shadow Wilson (d). Rec. 1957

For decades these sessions remained tantalising evidence of what might have been. In 1957, Coltrane was trying to reconcile the world of the junkie with the world of a successful musician in the most high-profile sideman gig in jazz as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet. It wasn’t working out and after a run at the Café Bohemia which ended on 28 April, Davis, exasperated with his sideman’s unpredictability, unceremoniously fired him. Coltrane seized the opportunity of getting his life in order, and during a two-week period in May apparently won the battle against heroin. He had earlier begun to rehearse informally with Monk, and ‘Monk’s Mood’ from 12 April included here was actually recorded while Coltrane was still with Davis. From that point Coltrane began to see more of Monk, rehearsing informally during the summer of that year. The June session with a larger ensemble includes Coleman Hawkins, with whom Monk first recorded with as a sideman in the 1940s and who was an early influence on Coltrane. According to trumpeter Ray Copeland, Coltrane was nodding off during ‘Well You Needn’t’ and Monk called “Coltrane, Coltrane” to indicate his solo turn. Coltrane comes in immediately, surely more ready than Copeland thought. Soon after, possibly 18 July, Coltrane joined Monk’s trio making it a quartet at the Five Spot at 5 Cooper Square in Greenwich Village – a collaboration that has subsequently acquired the stuff of legend – in a residency that lasted for most of 1957. Lewis Porter, Coltrane’s most lucid biographer, reports that most listeners present during this period were overwhelmed, citing quotes by J. J. Johnson and Francois Postif that only add to myths that swirl around this historic moment in jazz history.

Coltrane has always credited Monk for the significant artistic growth he experienced during the latter period of 1957. An indication of where he was headed can be heard on the quartet track ‘Trinkle, Tinkle’ from July 1957, albeit there were many months of nightly magic on the bandstand to pass under the bridge at this stage. During the tenure of the Five Spot gig, Coltrane’s stature as a musician grew visibly with the result that he was in the recording studios an incredible ten times, twice as a leader for Prestige, once for a special session for Blue Note and the rest as a sideman. Yet for all the historic significance of these Riverside recordings, we get is an incomplete picture of Coltrane’s artistic development with Monk and for years jazz historians have yearned for elusive evidence of his final leap into greatness (something that was by no means apparent to contemporaneous observers at the beginning of 1957, including Orrin Keepnews who produced the Monk/Coltrane Riverside dates). Over the decades writers have expressed exasperation that Riverside (who would later record Monk with Johnny Griffin live at the very same Five Spot club) did not document this incredibly important partnership with live recordings.

As if in answer to a maiden’s prayer, in 2005 Larry Apelbaum of the Library of Congress stumbled on a set of previously unknown recording of a Carnegie Hall concert by this group from 29 November 1957. On the nine tracks issued on Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall we finally get an indication of how far the rehabilitated Coltrane had travelled during this time, a snapshot more valuable than even these historic Riverside recordings, but that, as they say, is another story. Stuart Nicholson

 

 

Monk TrioThelonious Monk Trio

Essential Jazz Classics | ★★★★ 

Thelonious Monk (p), Al McKibbon, Nelson Boyd, Gary Mapp, Percy Heath (b) and Art Blakey, Max Roach, Roy Haynes (d). Rec. 23 July 1951-7 July 1958

Monk plays Duke Ellington/The Unique Thelonious Monk

Essential Jazz Classics | ★★★★ 

Thelonious Monk (p), Oscar Pettiford (b) and Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey (d). Rec. 21 July 1955-3 April 1956

There’s some serious stuff on these two reissues, especially the Monk Trio. Mostly consisting of the three relevant Prestige dates, it’s supplemented by two trio tunes from his last Blue Note sessions plus the famous Newport set with Roy Haynes (in reasonably good sound). Apart from five standards, we get Monk tunes such as ‘Trinkle Tinkle’ and ‘Little Rootie Tootie’, nearly all in their debut versions except for ‘Round Midnight’ and ‘Blue Monk’ at Newport. The difference with the Ellington/Unique pairing, comprising his first Riverside albums, is that he was focussing exclusively on standards in often quirky renditions (e.g. ‘Tea For Two’ totally reharmonised with the sequence of Monk’s ‘Skippy’). Brian Priestley

 

 

Monk TriosComplete 1947-56 Trios

Essential Jazz Classics | ★★★★ 

Thelonious Monk (p), Gene Ramey, Al McKibbon. Nelson Boyd, Gary Mapp, Percy Heath, Oscar Pettiford (b) Art Blakey, Max Roach and Kenny Clarke (d). Rec. 24 Oct 1947-3 Apr 1956

The EJC label is well named in this case, although the contents render redundant an earlier CD of Monk’s first two Riverside albums (well almost, since the two solo tracks from them plus the Prestige ‘Just A Gigolo’, are omitted here – because they’re not trios). This is important music and, with the passage of time, it becomes more evident that Monk was essentially a pianist, leaving horn-players the task of replicating his piano rather than writing anything specifically for them. Combining all the non-horn Blue Note and Prestige material (including four standards) with the Riversides makes this invaluable. Brian Priestley

 

 

Monk Round MidnightRound Midnight: Complete Blue Note Singles (1947-1952)

Blue Note | ★★★★

Thelonious Monk (p), Idrees Sulieman, George Taitt, Kenny Dorham (t), Danny Quebec West, Sahib Shihab, Lou Donaldson (as), Billy Smith, Lucky Thompson (ts), Milt Jackson (vib), Gene Ramey, Robert Paige, John Simmons, Al McKibbon, Nelson Boyd (b), Art Blakey, Shadow Wilson, Max Roach (d) and Kenny Hagood (v). Rec. 15 October 1947-30 May 1952

We’re told the jukebox was invented in 1890, but it certainly came of age in Depression-era America, and it not only ‘downloaded’ individual singles but eventually encouraged over-the-counter sales too. Logically then, the programming of the current release follows the order in which the singles appeared, rather than the strict order of recording, so there’s a greater variety of instrumentation than we’re accustomed to track-to-track, with different sessions providing each other’s A and B sides. (Did you know that ‘Round Midnight’ was first backed with ‘Well You Needn’t’, two future standards for the price of one?) Of course, the reissue then cheats by augmenting those 29 singles tracks with the 14 extra takes and three whole new tunes that surfaced in the LP era, so this is as complete as any previous reissue. Oddly, I can see no credits for remastering and, apart from a higher volume level, this sounds the same as earlier Rudy Van Gelder remasters – i.e. very good. You ask about the music? As well as the original versions of classic tunes, we have Monk at his most intense and concentrated so, if you don’t have the material, you need to now. Brian Priestley

 

 

Monk RollinsThelonious Monk & Sonny Rollins Complete Recordings

Essential Jazz Classics | ★★★★

Thelonious Monk (p), Sonny Rollins (ts) with (coll. pers.) Clark Terry (t), J.J. Johnson (tb), Julius Watkins (frhn), Ernie Henry (as), Percy Heath, Tommy Potter, Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers (b) and Willie Jones, Art Taylor, Max Roach, Art Blakey (d) plus (bonus tracks) Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown (t), Bud Powell, Richie Powell, Horace Silver (p), George Morrow (b) and Roy Haynes (d). Rec. 8 August 1949-14 April 1957

This is the real deal, and Essential Jazz Classics is clearly the right label for such an intelligent compilation. Obviously it’s not all quite as brilliant as Brilliant Corners, but that’s here as well as is the entirety of Blue Note’s Sonny Rollins Vol.2 with J.J. Johnson, where Thelonious (splitting the piano work with Horace Silver) appears on ‘Reflections’ and ‘Misterioso’. An even greater service is done by bringing together tracks formerly spread over several OJC albums, namely Monk’s Friday The 13th session (with Rollins and the pioneer french-hornist Julius Watkins) and Rollins’ ‘I Want To Be Happy’ quartet date, where Monk gets relatively little space because Sonny was so energised. There’s a palpable sense of both leading parties stretching and discovering themselves, despite the 13-year age-gap, and these four groups of material are absorbing and irreplaceable. That’s all they wrote together, but even the bonus material is of interest, with the young Rollins on Bud Powell’s version of ‘52nd Street Theme’ and an airshot previously unknown to me of the Roach-Brown-Rollins group playing ‘Round Midnight’. Even those who already have much of this material may be tempted by this collection. Brian Priestley

 

Monk classicThree Classic Albums Plus

Plus Avid Jazz | ★★★★

Thelonious Monk (p) with (coll. pers.) Donald Byrd, Thad Jones (t), Eddie Bert (tb), Robert Northern (frhn), Jay McAllister (tu), Phil Woods (as), Charlie Rouse (ts), Pepper Adams (bs), Oscar Pettiford, Henry Grimes, Sam Jones (b) and Art Blakey, Roy Haynes and Art Taylor (d). Rec. 17 March 1956-2 June 1959

Monk is on superior form in each of these original albums, namely The Unique T.M. (with Pettiford and Blakey), the famous At Town Hall, and 5 By Monk By 5 with a quintet featuring Rouse and Thad Jones. Compared to more routine material from the 1960s, this is a reminder of how energetic and inventive Monk was, when he was just approaching wider public acceptance. In particular, the opening trio album has his reharmonised versions of ‘Tea For Two’ and ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ (the former, though appearing on record for the first time, had already provided the chord-sequence for Monk’s 1952 recording, ‘Skippy’). The ‘big-band’ concert, while undoubtedly an ‘event’, is a mixed bag but a definite highlight is its orchestration of the pianist’s recorded choruses on ‘Little Rootie Tootie’. But the sleeper might be the quintet with Rouse (new in the job and still sounding enthusiastic) and the oblique Jones, using the same rhythm-section as At Town Hall. The ‘plus’ content consists of the 1958 Newport trio set with Grimes and Haynes (as seen in Jazz On A Summer’s Day), complete with announcements by Willis Conover. Fortunately, the reissue audio is presentable, if a bit toppy, while the Newport set sounds far clearer than on a previous CD release (Jazzwise 127) although that makes the slight flutter on the tapes more discernible. Brian Priestley

 

 

Monk ColtraneThelonious Monk/John Coltrane Complete Live At The Five Spot

Phoenix | ★★★★

Thelonious Monk (p), John Coltrane (ts), Ahmed Abdul-Malik/prob.Wilbur Ware (b) and Roy Haynes/prob. Shadow Wilson (d). Rec. July 1957-11 September 1958

Only discovered in the 1980s, this five-track, 44-minute recording first released by Blue Note was done with a table-top mic by Naima (Juanita) Coltrane. Dating not from the famous 1957 residency of Monk’s quartet with Trane, Ware and Wilson, but from a single night when Trane depped for Johnny Griffin, it has less than optimum sound, where the piano is prominent in the mono mix and the saxophone is several feet away. Everything he plays is audible and, when Monk lays out for several choruses at a time, it’s crystal clear how far Coltrane is developing his late-1950s style. Haynes is recognisable (and was paid retrospectively by Blue Note) but his ‘I Mean You’ is a collectors’ item, as the drum solo uncharacteristically speeds up and is cut off abruptly by Monk’s return. The remaining two tracks totalling 11 minutes, claimed as being from the same date and first added by Phoenix stablemate Gambit, have a cleaner balance ‘engineered’ by Nellie Monk, probably near the start of the original quartet’s stint. Either way, provided you get your head around the sound (better than many later Trane bootlegs), this is a fascinating document. Brian Priestley

 

thelonious aloneThelonious Alone in San Francisco

Poll Winners | ★★★★

Thelonious Monk (solo p) plus (four tracks each) Henry Grimes (b) and Roy Haynes (d). Rec. 7 July 1958-21 April 1961

The main album, whose cover-photo of Monk on a local streetcar is reproduced on this public-domain reissue, was done in 1959 at the same time as Riverside’s famous In San Francisco by Cannonball Adderley. Compared to that exciting and populist affair, this is a personal and introspective recital which doesn’t raise the temperature but gets close to the heart of Monk’s style. The breakdown of the contents is already revealing, in that there are no fewer than three blues in B-flat, including a sprightly ‘Blue Monk’, the largely chordal theme of ‘Round Lights’ and the slow-medium ‘Bluehawk’ (whose title hints at the club where the pianist was appearing with Charlie Rouse and a local rhythm-section). Then, alongside three of his own best ballads, Monk addresses four songbook items, two of them familiar standards (‘Everything Happens To Me’, at 5’40” the longest track, and Irving Berlin’s ‘Remember’) plus two obscurities – ‘You Took The Words Right Out Of My Heart’ (memorably revisited 36 years later by the Paul Motian trio) and ‘There’s Danger In Your Eyes, Cherie’, a minor slip in the latter occasioning the only retake. The bonus material is both earlier and later, including four slightly throwaway solos from the 1961 quartet’s European tour, also originally issued on Riverside. The early set is less easily found elsewhere, being Monk’s trio appearance at the 1958 Newport festival, with the bass solo that was cut out for Jazz On A Summer’s Day being restored and with the boat-race comments safely removed. All of this well-recorded programme illustrates the pianist’s thoughtful approach and, even when not always premeditated, his still radical voicings remain idiosyncratic and inimitable. For all his eventually wide and beneficial influence, there was only one Monk. Brian Priestley

 

 

Monk AloneMonk Alone

Columbia/Legacy | ★★★★

A double-CD collecting all Thelonious Monk’s solo-piano work for Columbia between 1962 and 1968, this thoroughly delightful compilation contains not only the whole of one of the great pianist’s bestloved albums, Solo Monk, but also 14 previously unreleased tracks, prompting Orrin Keepnews to insist in his characteristically pithy notes that this is not primarily a reissue album. Monk concentrates mainly on standards, played in his familiar stride-based style, liberally embellished with the clanging dissonance and startling use of space and dynamic and textural variety that set him apart from his contemporaries. Both the predictable standard choices (“Body and Soul”, “These Foolish Things”) and the less well-known (“Just a Gigolo”, “I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams”) - not to mention such self-penned classics as “Round Midnight” and “Ask Me Now” receive typically quirky, intensely thoughtful treatments, and the whole might be intended as an illustration of just what Monk meant by his apparently oxymoronic title “Ugly Beauty”. Indispensable. CP

 

 

Monks DreamMonk’s Dream

Columbia | ★★★★

Monk (p); Charlie Rouse (ts); John Ore (b); Frankie Dunlop (d). Rec. 1862

Monk

Columbia | ★★★★

Monk (p); Charlie Rouse (ts); Larry 6ales (b); Ben Riley (d). Rec. 1964

When the Monk quartet is playing well it usually brings a smile to the listener’s face. As a rough-&-ready yardstick to judge his albums by, it’s not a bad place to start, especially with his Columbia output, generally critically regarded as something of a curate’s egg when compared to his ground-breaking earlier recordings. Perhaps it all depended on Monk’s mood. Certainly for his first Columbia date, Monk's Dream, recorded in late 1962, he was sounding pretty pleased with life, as the ebullient rhythms and jaunty theme statements testify. In this he is aided by the idiosyncratic and highly enjoyable approach of drummer Frankie Dunlop, a man who seemed to have an entirely sympathetic lope to his beat when it came to matching Monk’s rhythmic progress through a performance. On top of that, Rouse sounds more engaged than on many an occasion later on although he still elects to play solos which select material from a very small motivic pool. But one of the nicest things about the date is the superb recording quality delivered by the Columbia engineers. This in itself is a first for Monk, whose experiences at the hands of Blue Note, Prestige and Riverside were more often than not decidedly well below the hi-fi category. That said, Monk brings no new material to Monk’s Dream, preferring re-workings of originals and revisits to favourite old standards. But it brings a smile to the face, so who’s to worry?

Monk, a studio album from 1964 (all but one track from late in the year), has the rhythm section of his last great group in place and is another very happy date. Recording quality is again superb, with Rouse in particular benefiting from a warm and close microphone sound. The repertoire choice on this date is even more conservative than on any of his earlier Columbia dates, with no less than four standards being served up unvarnished, and a children’s song, That Old Man’, being given the Monk treatment and passed off as an original. Of the other two Monk songs, ‘Pannonica’ is a touching re-make, while ‘Teo’ is actually new and is one of the most spirited efforts on the date. Ben Riley, replacing Dunlop on drums, is a more conventional player but swings like mad: you can imagine Thelonious dancing around the studio in response during his frequent absences from the keyboard on this date. Another happy face record: we don’t have to make innovative masterpieces every time we come to the studio, do we? After all, Monk’s art didn’t exactly evolve much after 1949: he just got various great musicians to record with him as time went by as recording budgets expanded.

 

Ella Fitzgerald: essential recordings

Ella Fitzgerald, whose centenary is being widely celebrated this year, left a huge legacy of classic recordings. Here's just a small sample of some of the finest currently available, complete with full reviews of each

 

Ella FitzgeraldElla Fitzgerald Sings The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book

Essential Jazz Classics EJC55689 | ★★★★★

Ella Fitzgerald (v), with various personnel including Ellis Larkins (p) and Nelson Riddle (cond, arr), plus orchestra. Rec. various dates

As far as vocal jazz goes, Ella Fitzgerald’s series of songbook albums recorded for Norman Granz’s Verve label in the 1950s represent something of a high-watermark. Featuring 59 songs recorded over an eight-month period, reissued here as a 3CD set, the Gershwin songbook was to be the largest single recording project that Fitzgerald worked on. It finds the vocalist at the height of her considerable powers, whether scatting on a scintillating ‘I Got Rhythm’ (the one occasion the singer gets to scat during the entire songbook), effortlessly navigating the waltz-time ‘By Strauss’, or melting the heart with ballads such as ‘But Not For Me’. Coupled with Nelson Riddle’s brilliant charts, it’s little wonder that the collection led Ira Gershwin to say that he’d “never known how good our songs were until I heard Ella sing them”. In addition to the original 59 songs included on the 5LP set, we also get to hear the singer’s first attempt at recording a Gershwin songbook, namely the 1950 10-inch Decca LP Ella Sings Gershwin featuring eight sparkling duets with pianist Ellis Larkins. An additional Gershwin duet (‘Nice Work If You Can Get It’), recorded by Fitzgerald and Larkins in 1954, rounds off this unmissable, landmark set. Peter Quinn

 

 

Ella Fitzgerald Voice of JazzThe Voice of Jazz

Verve Records (10-CD Box) | ★★★★★

Ella Fitzgerald (v); plus various personnel. Rec. 1935-1989

Featuring over 12 hours of music, this 10CD retrospective from Verve Records presents some of the finest jazz singing ever recorded. Tracing an entire lifetime’s devotion to the art of the song, we hear everything from the eighteen-year-old Ella’s first studio recordings made with Chick Webb and his Orchestra in June 1935, ‘I’ll Chase The Blues Away’ and ‘Love and Kisses’ – the singer having landed the job just three months previously – right up to the title track of her final studio album, the appositely titled All That Jazz recorded in 1989. With over 200 newly remastered studio (CDs 1-8) and live tracks (CDs 9-10), the beautifully packaged box set includes a 96-page hardback book with an extensive essay on the singer’s career, illustrations, Ella Fitzgerald album covers and photos, as well as complete track information and credits. From swing to bebop, and from calypsos to bossa nova, Ella could do it all – brilliantly. This is an absolute treasure trove. Peter Quinn

 

 

Ella Fitzgerald Cole Porter Song BookElla Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook

Verve | ★★★★★

Fitzgerald (v) and the Buddy Bregman Orchestra. Rec. 1956

Norman Granz had long cherished the ambition to have Ella recording for his label but had to wait until 1956 to make the signing. His first project for her was to record as many Cole Porter songs as they could lay their hands on in large ensemble style and release them (initially as volumes one and two) on an unsuspecting but quickly enraptured public. The idea caught on and Ella kept doing composer songbooks well into the 1960s. Nobody did it better, even though it could be said that Sinatra’s studious avoidance of such anthologies produced the greater individual legacy. Keith Shadwick

 

 

Ella and LouisElla and Louis: The Complete Norman Granz Sessions

One | ★★★★ Recommended

Louis Armstrong (t, v), Ella Fitzgerald (v), Trummy Young (tb), Ed Hall (cl), Oscar Peterson, Billy Kyle (p), Herb Ellis (g), Ray Brown, Dale Jones (b), Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson and Barrett Deems (d), plus Russell Garcia Orchestra. Rec 1956-57

This 3CD set brings together the two albums that Ella and Louis made with the Oscar Peterson Quartet (with either Buddy Rich or Louie Bellson added to the Ellis/Brown edition of the trio), plus the version of music from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess that they made with Russell Garcia. The two Peterson albums were most recently out again from Essential Jazz Classics, and it’s only a couple of years since Verve reissued Porgy in a budget edition. However, this set brings the whole lot together, and adds a pair of tracks from a Hollywood Bowl All Stars concert where Ella and Satch teamed up the day before making the original Ella and Louis sessions. One might wonder why One records didn’t go the whole hog and add the earlier collaborations that the two principals had done for Decca in 1946 with Bob Haggart, as there’s some spare running time left on the third and final disc. Nonetheless, this is a treat, and it is good to have all of the studio material done for Granz under one roof. If you don’t have this, it’s more or less an essential purchase, and one of the most joyous examples of music-making ever done by either star. The informal soundcheck of ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy’, the coyness of Ella’s ‘I Won’t Dance’ and the at-the-mike romance of ‘Don’t Be That Way’ are all great moments, to which must be added the sheer dazzling, ethereal beauty of ‘Autumn in New York’, which is one of the finest tracks ever recorded. There might be better versions of some individual tracks done by other singers, but as a body of work, this is pretty much unsurpassed. Alyn Shipton

 

 

Ella Fitzgerald Live in ParisLive in Paris 1957-62

Fremeaux | ★★★★

An aural snapshot album of Ella – six concerts done at the height of her latterday powers, excellently recorded at the Olympia, giving fascinating insight into how her act and slight variations in backing band developed.

 

 

 

 

Ella Fitzgerald BBCBest of the BBC Vaults

Voyage Digital Media | ★★★★

Ella Fitzgerald (v), plus various personnel including Tommy Flanagan (p). Rec. 1965-1977

The BBC archivists have been busy, unearthing some priceless Ella Fitzgerald performances for what is the first in a series of CD/DVD releases entitled Best Of The BBC Vaults. The twofer, remastered using the very latest audio restoration techniques, includes complete sets from Show of the Week: Ella Fitzgerald Swings (1965), Ella Fitzgerald Sings (1965), Omnibus Presents Ella Fitzgerald at Ronnie Scott’s (1974), plus a 1977 edition of Jazz From Montreux. The DVD clocks in at over two hours, with the accompanying CD offering edited highlights from all four shows. The two 1965 sets – the first with the Tommy Flanagan trio, the second a shared bill with the Johnnie Spence Orchestra plus the trio – are outstanding, from incendiary readings of ‘Goody Goody’ and ‘Something’s Gotta Give’ to a luxuriantly arranged ‘Body And Soul’, the latter featuring the briefest of solos from Tubby Hayes (mystifyingly not included on the Best Of CD). It will be fascinating to see what else the archivists have uncovered. Peter Quinn

 

Ella Fitzgerald Like Someone in LoveLike Someone In Love

Essential Jazz Classics EJC55465 | ★★★★

Ella Fitzgerald (v); plus various personnel including Stan Getz (ts). Rec. 1956-1957

Featuring a studio orchestra arranged and conducted by Frank DeVol, Like Someone In Love (1957) dates from an especially fertile period of Fitzgerald’s career, recorded at the same time as her Ellington Songbook. The album’s personnel remains a mystery (the original liner notes are all of five lines long), but Stan Getz is featured as soloist on the languid album opener ‘There’s A Lull In My Life’, plus ‘What Will I Tell My Heart?, ‘Midnight Sun’, ‘You’re Blasé’ and ‘What’s New? with music by Jimmy Van Heusen and words by Johnny Burke, the title track has never sounded lovelier, Fitzgerald caressing the opening line (‘Lately I find myself out gazing at stars, Hearing guitars like someone in love’) with infinite tenderness. A Getz quartet version of the title track, recorded the previous year, makes a fine bonus track. Peter Quinn

 

 

Ella in HollywoodElla in Hollywood

Verve | ★★★★

Ella Fitzgerald (v), Lou Levy (p), Herb Ellis (g), Wilfred Middlebrooks (b), Gus Johnson (d) and orchestra. Rec. 1961

Previously only available on CD as a Japanese import, this reissue has been in the pipeline for such a long time that fans of the singer had probably begun to fear it would never see the light of day. Recorded in the same year as Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Harold Arlen Songbook, Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! and Ella Returns to Berlin, Ella in Hollywood is one of the finest live dates in the singer’s discography. Ella is on imperious form in the relaxed, intimate atmosphere of The Crescendo nightclub, coupled with a highly responsive band and great material including her early hit ‘Mr. Paganini’. At whichever end of the tempo spectrum, from the supercharged opener ‘This Could Be The Start Of Something Big’ to the sumptuous ballad ‘Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home’, Ella delivers each song with a bell-like clarity and absolute control. To hear some of the greatest examples of jazz singing, listen to the beautifully controlled upwards glissando on the opening ‘you’ of ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’, the remarkably long-lined phrasing of ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’, and the jawdropping, divinely inspired scat in the 10-minute tour de force of ‘Take the “A” Train’. Peter Quinn

 

Twenty years of Jazzwise's Albums of the Year

Jazzwise Albums of the Year

Every year our writers vote for the recording that they think most deserves the accolade 'Album of the Year'. And here they are in all their glory - from 1997 to today. If you're looking for a great new jazz album to add to your collection - this is the perfect place to start...

Coltrane1997

John Coltrane 

The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings

Impulse!

What comes across to an overwhelming degree is what a powerhouse group this was, working its determined way through its new-minted repertoire. Coltrane’s own tenor style was balanced nicely between the swashbuckling approach of the later Atlantic studio dates and the more intense, ferocious storms of notes and contrastingly tender ballad essays of the years ahead. He drives the rhythm hard, pacing Elvin Jones every inch of the way and essaying singular odysseys into the new improvisatory trails he is discovering for himself. Dolphy, by contrast, seems often to be watching from a distance, approaching the band from oblique, almost playful angles. He rarely solos for any length of time but seems to scatter a whole range of ideas and suggestions to Coltrane, who responds with renewed vigour in his pursuit of his own personal demons and goals. None of this would have been possible without the staggering input of Jones and the two bassists, Garrison and Workman (Workman eventually left the band, exhausted by the physical demands of playing so long and so hard). Tyner is the least central figure here, his role yet to develop from a purely supportive one, often dropping out entirely when Coltrane or Dolphy are at their most vocalised and charged.

Yet the band is a wholly focused one, whatever variations in personnel Coltrane wrought from night to night, tune to tune, version to version. Of all the music made available here, only the raggedly executed "Brasilia” could never have been seriously considered for initial release, such is the consistency of the band’s performances.

One final point: in an edition which is supposed to be definitive in every respect, I’m surprised to find that author/Coltrane analyst David Wild in his tracing of the history of the tune "Impressions”, while noting the "So What” parallel, makes no mention of the source for the Coltrane melody itself - Debussy’s "L’isle Joyeuse”. Perhaps that’s why the tune was initially called "Excerpt” by Coltrane, for that’s precisely what it was. The later title hardly attempts to obscure the issue, either, considering Debussy’s usual musical pigeon-hole. Be that as it may, live jazz recordings just don’t come any better or more engrossing than this. Keith Shadwick

 

Brahem1998

Anouar Brahem 

Thimar

ECM

Tunisian classical oud player Anouar Brahem was introduced to Dave Holland’s playing through Angel Song, and the Wolverhampton-born bassist performs a function here - his lithe propulsiveness is the rhythmic heart of the band - almost identical to the one on the earlier ECM recording. Woven around his rock-steady centre are Brahem’s mellow oud improvisations and John Surman’s plaintive skirling (at times almost miraculously Middle Eastern-sounding) on soprano, plus his deliciously woody bass clarinet. Overall, a typically meditative, tranquil and beautiful ECM album with enough improvisational power to please jazz fans, and an album that also continues a recent run of fascinating collisions between jazz and the music of the Maghreb. Chris Parker 

 

Douglas1999

Dave Douglas 

Songs for Wandering Souls

Winter and Winter

Trumpeter Dave Douglas is one of the most consistently intriguing musicians working in contemporary jazz, and has an invaluable capacity for turning up something strikingly different with almost every project.

 

 

EST2000

EST 

Good Morning Susie Soho

ACT

Fantastic, they’re back! EST - pianist Esbjörn Svensson together with Dan Berglund on bass and Magnus Ostrom on drums, the most inventive piano trio to arrive on the scene in years - deliver the follow up to last year’s outstanding From Gagarin's Point Of View. EST are redefining the art of the piano trio. Impossible, I hear you cry; well, listening to their new album makes me realise that the impossible has been achieved. This is an awesome work of immense power, beauty and futuristic musical vision. This is an unbelievably essential album - from the beautifully reflective opener ‘Somewhere Else Before’ to the mind-blowing nine-plus minutes epic ‘The Wraith’ you know you are listening to important music (and how often can you say that these days?). The Esbjörn Svensson Trio was formed in 1993, a constant lineup for this forward-thinking trio has aided the development and success they strive for and so richly deserve. With this latest instalment of their musical vision, EST have definitely established themselves as the forward thinking contemporary piano trio. Mike Chadwick

 

Texier2001

Henri Texier 

Remparts D’Argile

Label Bleu

This album is drawn from music composed and improvised for Jean-Luis Bertuccelli’s film of the same name. The film was originally released in 1970 and focuses on the lives and struggles of the people of the Algerian-Tunisian Sahara. In 1999, Bertuccelli decided to incorporate a live performance of Texier’s trio and weave this into and around the film’s minimal soundtrack. My guess is that the combined impact of the visual image with this music must be very powerful indeed. However, without even seeing the film , it is still clear that this record derives from a truly inspirational source. To his credit, Texier has avoided the obvious and cliched choices that could have damned this project. He uses themes and forms that reflect the music of North Africa, but without trying to invade that culture or pillage its music styles. Compositions aim to suggest and compliment the visual image not appropriate it through some fake, stylistic contrivances. So, at various times, the music can be allowed to swing in those ways we associate with African-American music or explode in an Aylerish outburst of rage or instead hint at more evidently North African modes. There’s a good example of this in the way Tony Rabeson’s drums are used in the music. They are certainly central to the sound and placed far up in the mix. Drums are important in the music of the region but there is intention to imitate. Rabeson’s approach is quite different. Often he suggests something that is not immediately influenced by either jazz or Arabic music but which is nevertheless touched by both. In a similar way, altoist/clarinettist Sebastien Texier will weave serpentine, snake-charmer lines over a more obviously jazz-based performance from the rhythm section. Post-modern perhaps but far more than bricolage.

Texier’s playing is astonishing. It must help that he is so clear about Bertuccelli’s vision for this project but he actually has such a profound sense of purpose here that it is positively transcendental. He thunders, drums and pounds out the pulse behind this music like a man with a mission. On this form, he must be quite inspirational to play alongside. By all accounts, Bertuccelli produced a film that reflected the sadness and joy of its subjects. Their suffering is not to be patronised or treated to the voyeurism of some kind of cultural tourism. We should only be left with the impression of their dignity and integrity. I suspect this is what Texier has sought to achieve here and he may just have surpassed his best hopes for the project. Duncan Heining

 

Shorter2002

Wayne Shorter 

Footprints Live

Verve

An intriguing prospect on paper. The legendary 67 year old saxophonist surrounded by a young, stellar acoustic band (drummer Brian Blade, bassist John Patitucci, pianist Danilo Perez) revisiting the classic mid-60s material that assured Wayne Shorter a place in jazz history. The cynics would say that it's a sign of his creative stasis; the return to an acoustic format is a soft option for an artist whose recent electric albums never quite hit home. Or that his prolific writing has finally dried up. Wrong on both counts. Footprints Live, has anything but comfort zones or complacencies; it is a bold, impassioned on-the-edge work that shows that Shorter’s original recorded versions of ‘Footprints’, ‘Juju’ and 'Go' were far from closed chapters and that if anything the spirit more than the structural bones of these pieces has endured; the tunes themselves have become clues to new puzzles, points of departure for new explorations. As engineer Rob Griffin pointed out, this new band is almost like "an advanced string quartet” and the muscular intricacy of the music requires absolute concentration from the listener. The centre of gravity is constantly changing and just when the band appear to be settling into a recognisable framework, they puckishly shift metre or harmonic sphere, stretching to the avant-garde or coming back in to more accessible post-bop. Perez's impassioned latin phrases and Brian Blade’s inventive percussive fills stand out but it's Shorter’s tender and turbulent playing that holds it all together. There is nothing remotely nostalgic about this record; it is more a testimony to Wayne Shorter's ability to blur perceptions of the known and unknown, past and present, old and young. Surely that is a mark of greatness. Kevin Le Gendre 

 

Baptiste2003

Denys Baptiste 

Let Freedom Ring!

Dune

It was a serene afternoon turning into evening. Dark times were ahead the day Martin Luther King was assassinated. Since then he has been hailed as a universal inspiration for anyone in the world who believes in civil rights and peace and justice for all. Saxophonist Denys Baptiste has worked out what the man means in this suite originally commissioned by the Cheltenham International Jazz Festival and the Jerwood Foundation.

He is joined by a 12-piece group that allows the ebb and flow of jazz to coalesce with the foaming swell of Ben Okri's voice reading from his epic poem ‘Mental Fight'. Highlights? Well, Okri’s calm yet compelling voice speaks volumes; Robin Banerjee's chattering guitar is a vital presence but above all the community at work is what makes the wounds that cut so deep for so many, heal. Stephen Graham

 

Iyer2004

Vijay Iyer/Mike Ladd 

In What Language?

Pi

’The airport is not a neutral place.’ This is the clef de voute of the short, incisive and thought-provoking sleeve notes that accompany this fascinating album. Indeed anyone who’s been the object of customs officers’ ire for possessing sedi­tious skin tone, dangerous hair or a beard of mass destruction, will relate. Airports are places where power is exerted and Iranian film maker Jafar Panahi, travelling from a festival in Hong Kong, found him­self on the wrong side of the gate when he was detained by INS officials at JFK. He was shackled to a bench for several hours and then sent back to Hong Kong. This was before 9/11. In What Language is Iyer and Ladd's musical response to this infamous incident; it is a treatise on the airport as a place of 'conflict and quarantine, reception, departure and detention.' Iyer is one of the most interesting young American improvisers that you probably haven't heard of, a gifted pianist who's played with Steve Coleman and Greg Tate’s Burnt Sugar project. Mike Ladd is the maverick MC and spoken wordsmith who you should have heard of. Flagship artist of the important alt-hop Ozone label, he is idiosyncratic, bombastic, complex, surreal and cerebral - everything that mainstream hip-hop isn’t.

Iyer and Ladd’s collaboration slides almost directly into the lineage of Thirsty Ear's important bridge building between the worlds of the avant-garde and electronica. It’s sonically exciting, idiomatically blurring. Most of all In What Language is a political lour de force; a vivid, cogent, at times arresting 17 piece song cycle that becomes a powerful evocation of the immigrant experience at zero hour, where predatory paranoia poisons race relations to the core. Iyer and Ladd, who wrote all the lyrics even though he didn't voice the entirety (Ajay Naidu brilliantly plays a range of immigrant characters), come across as two hemispheres of the same brain. The pianist has written in an agitated and agitating fashion, using semi-classical motifs and spooky spirals of chords as the flickering lights that illuminate the runway of Ladd’s texts. At times Iyer’s compositions float as statically and oppressively as those customs queues that never move, at times they shuttle into intense, intrepid propulsion, like the blue touch paper arguments that break out over ‘ID’. In each piece there is light, shade, ebb and flow in the music that sketches out drum & M-base or haunted Asian-inflected laments where Iyer’s harmonic subtleties come to the fore. Imagine this inconjunction with penetrating Ladd lines such as ‘We are the vegetation that will subdue the lobby in the airport’ and you have a profound, potent work whose range of characters and scenarios makes a stage adaptation a logical next step. I for one hope that this important, moving meditation on the destructive static of discrimination takes off in theatres around the world for this is an artistically accomplished protest piece from two brave, uncompromising players. With excellent production from Medeski, Martin & Wood/Wu Tang’s main man Scotty Hard and fine input from up and coming guitar slinger Liberty Ellman and Steve Coleman’s fly young trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, the electricity crackles without respite. The airport is not a neutral place. And this is not a neutral album. Kevin Le Gendre

 

Ladyland2005

Acoustic Ladyland 

Last Chance Disco

Babel 

While last year's Camouflage documented their early re-imaginings of Jimi Hendrix, Last Chance Disco shows a working band that has blossomed into an angry teenager. On this, their second album, Acoustic Ladyland ditch Hendrix to storm through 11 beautifully outrageous, X-rated jazz-rock creations. How refreshing their lack of respect for convention and tradition is and how unusual it is to hear a jazz group, especially a British one, that sounds so utterly original.

While most of its members are in their late twenties or early thirties, Acoustic Ladyland have the energy of hormonal high school rockers on this album. A tenor sax jazz quartet in appearance only, equally, if not more, a product of The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs and Franz Ferdinand than any jazz tradition.

Musically, Last Chance Disco veers from sweet to sour: the hardcore, new-wave jamming of 'High Heel Blues' and the whirlwind, ska-drenched 'Deck Chair’, that morphs into free form grindcore rock by the end, versus the tender 'Nico’, a tribute to The Velvet Underground. Wareham screeches as if he’s Albert Ayler reborn, mimicking vocal lines and guitar riffs rather than sax solos. Underneath it all is the relentless, quick-witted rock drumming of Sebastian Rochford (outrageous on ’Of You’); the rip-roaring keys of Tom Cawley and Tom Herbert’s masterful electric basslines.

If rock critics fail to pick up on Last Chance Disco, then they’re missing out. Sonically adventurous and damn loud, this is music to give Wynton a heart attack. But the album isn’t aimed at jazz audiences anyway. As Wareham defiantly sings on the album's only vocal number (‘Perfect Bitch’): "now I'm leaving you/thank you all the way/l’ll tear up all the rules/not going to play.” He could be saying “adios" to the jazz scene - but ironically, he has also created one of its most irresistible albums in years. Tom Barlow

 

Marsalis2006

Branford Marsalis 

Braggtown

Marsalis Music

From the opening track ‘Jack Baker’ which pins your ears back with a level of intensity that is magnificently sustained from the first bar to the last, it is clear that Marsalis has made the transition from eternal wunderkind to artistic maturity with playing here that demonstrates the gravitas and profundity few musicians of his generation or the current generation in any style of jazz possess. Unmistakably in the tradition of the tenor giants of jazz - Coltrane, Rollins, Johnny Griffin at their peak - Marsalis remains deliciously apart from his legion of contemporaries through the sheer force of his musical personality. He can be powerful and compelling (‘Black Elk Speaks’, ‘Blackzilla’), hauntingly beautiful (‘Hope’, ‘Fate’and '0, Solitude’) and mysterious (‘Sir Roderick Aloof'). This broad expressive range is matched by a desire to be heard, after all he is surrounded by like minded musicians who have coalesced into one of the finest ensembles in jazz. Stuart Nicholson 

 

Empirical2007

Empirical 

Empirical

Destin-e

Empirical could turn out to be one of the most important bands in UK jazz history. Their debut album is outstanding. It's not just another jazz quintet, but a proper band, encompassing jazz’s past, present and future. You can feel the strong influence of Ornette throughout the entire project, but the freedom is structured. There’s a constant African undercurrent, especially on ‘The Deep' and the Ali Farka Toure composition, ‘Tulumba’. There’s even a section of Forbes’ haunting ‘Kite’, which wouldn't sound out of place on an ECM record. Phelps’ 'Clapton Willow’, on the other hand, has an almost Ellingtonian dignity. Facey’s passionate playing, with occasional hints of both Colemans and (on ‘Blessings') even Cannonball, still has its own sound. Phelps, too, has a sound of his own. It’s peppery in places, very variedly rhythmic with glimpses of Booker Little, perhaps and Don Cherry. Charles and Forbes have their own things going and adapt so quickly to whatever direction the soloists and/or arranged passages take, often where you least expect them. One of the many highlights is the lengthy, multimood ‘A Tyrant’s Tale’ by Phelps, with tender then Cherry-like trumpet over sombre chords from Downes, whose playing is so fresh on every track. British Album of the Year!

 

Holland2008

Dave Holland Sextet 

Pass it on

Dare2

Well, this has to be my CD of the year. It is surely one of Dave Holland’s best albums in a long and distinguished career as a musician and as a composer. The best are always immediately recognisable – Ellington, Mingus, Brubeck, Ornette, Coltrane.

And Dave Holland is definitely another for that pantheon. Everything combines perfectly here, there’s nothing wasted or out of place. Performances, arrangements and compositions all make perfect sense. I’ve never been a fan of Mulgrew Miller but in this setting he’s a revelation. His introduction to ‘Equality’ is simply gorgeous. Eric Harland on drums is already one of the greats and the three horn frontline combine beautifully, especially in that interlocking, New Orleans derived counterpoint of which Holland is so fond. Listen closely and there are so many delightful touches here – like the way the trombone doubles the piano or bass line or the way woodwind or trumpet background figures comment upon or tell a different tale from the main theme. ‘Rivers Run’ – the most abstract piece here – heads off into dark and uncharted waters, while the title track closes the record in fine, funky style. This is the most honest record, emotionally and artistically, you will hear in a long time. It’s all in the groove. Duncan Heining

 

Jarrett2009

Keith Jarrett 

Testament Paris / London

ECM

Keith Jarrett is one of a handful of artists in jazz who gives evidence of almost continuous artistic growth, refining and improving not only his approach to the piano in terms of touch but to his melodic and harmonic conception as well. Throughout he has striven to exile cliché and gratuitous gesture so that his solo discography from Facing You in 1972 to this, quite possibly the finest representation of his solo art to date, is one of a style, conception and approach continually evolving. For example, he is critical of his touch on Köln Concert, well aware that through his exacting process of self examination and self improvement it is now something that is admired and even envied by the piano playing fraternity in jazz.

What Radiance (2002) and The Carnegie Hall Concert (2006) made plain was that he was past the long, uninterrupted solo improvisation seeking instead spontaneously conceived episodes that were sufficient in themselves, shorter blocks of material that said everything Jarrett wished to say in the moment. If this rigorous self-editing resulted in episodes of five or 15 minutes, so be it. With Testament – a three CD set of his concerts at Salle Pleyel in Paris and the Royal Festival Hall in London at the end of last year – the creation of these episodes has become more refined, and also more expansive with Jarrett inclined to draw on a wide range of musical inspiration rather than the more focused creation of a single mood. This approach is best illustrated by the London concert, where over 12 musical episodes Jarrett moves from an introspective, requiem-like opening to moods that rock with such exuberance it delighted his audience. It is a fascinating document of what those who were present on 1 December last year say was an occasion charged with electricity, with Jarrett delivering at the very top of his form. Stuart Nicholson  

 

2010Phronesis Alive

Phronesis 

Alive

Edition

To a larger extent than many of their contemporaries, Danish-born double bassist Jasper Høiby's Phronesis make music not only for the mind and heart but also for the body. This is their third album to date but the first for Cardiff-based label Edition who have recorded the piano trio in their natural habitat: in front of a live audience.

It's a selection of material culled from two consecutive nights at the Forge in Camden Town. Live recordings are usually unmanageable but this one has been put together with a lot of TLC, meaning attention to detail in every area. It has paid healthy dividends, with a live sonic that reflects the band's ability to join together intimacy and energy, the tender and animalistic. It's all in spite of regular member, the Copenhagen-based swedish drummer Anton Eger, having to be replaced in a lastminute.com-type line-up change. Høiby couldn't have got a better replacement if they'd had all year to find one. New York-based drummer Mark Guiliana is a real scoop. Best known for his tenure with bassist Avishai Cohen, who's the main role model for Høiby's virile, percussive bass style, Guiliana also works with excellent New York pianist Jason Lindner and vocalist Gretchen Parlato. Here, the drummer's explosive polyrhythmic palette is always tempered by a great pair of ears. There have been comparisons with EST, and although Phronesis shares with them a pulsating sense of groove there is less of an emphasis on any contemplative Nordic roots as such. Rather Høiby's wonderfully sensuous, memorable Mediterranean and eastern folk-flavoured themes tend to resonate more with Avishai Cohen's. At the same time there's a classic piano trio jazz heritage that's mainly down to the ever-improving pianist Ivo Neame. Though he sometimes recalls Chick Corea's Spanish-tinged percussive fluidity, Jarret's rhapsodising, McCoy Tyner's trancey Trane period and even Mehldau's pastoral folk-pop piano in places, Neame has his own way of doing things. Alive is about as exciting as it can get without actually seeing this band live and in the flesh. Selwyn Harris

 

Gregory Porter Water2011

Gregory Porter 

Water

Motéma

New African-American male jazz vocalists are thin on the ground to say the least, so the arrival of New York based Californian Porter is definitely something worth raising a hallelujah for. Gospel and soul are indeed also part of the deep well of black music from which he draws and there is as much Donny Hathaway as Lou Rawls or Bill Henderson in both the impassioned fire and technical finesse of Porter’s performance. While he has the pipes to really make a song, especially those of the soul jazz or swing persuasion, come to life, Porter is also capable of tremendous subtlety elsewhere, no more so than a crystalline reading of ‘Skylark’, in which he holds languorous, long tones to perfectly capture the wistful nature of the piece. Powerful social commentary such as ‘1960 What?’ lend further substance to the programme, but intelligent lyrics aside, it is the quite startling voice and well marshalled charisma of Gregory Porter that mark him out as a substantial addition to the canon of jazz singing. Kevin Le Gendre

 

2012Courtney Pine House Of Legends

Courtney Pine 

House Of Legends

Destin-E

Unquestionably one of the most joyous albums Pine has ever made, this is music to be listened to on several levels. On the surface, it’s just brilliantly effective dance music, and it is to be hoped that when the band tours in the spring, they’ll clear the chairs and leave space for everyone to take to the floor. But underneath the carefree surface is both a living and a thoughtful exploration of the Caribbean heritage, with nods to South Africa, and towards London.

One track above all typifies the record, and that is ‘Liamuiga: Cook Up’. The title is both the Kalinago Carib Indian word for ‘fertile land’ and an indication of the heady mixture of sources (or musical sauces) that have gone into the piece. The title was given to the tune as the result of a competition organised for listeners to Winn FM 96.9 on St Kitts and Nevis. The most effective element of the record is the accomplished rhythm playing that absorbs a series of different rhythms and pulses from the islands, but never loses touch with a jazz sensibility. This gives Courtney the ideal backdrop for his personal exploration of the possibilities of the soprano saxophone, wistful and melodic on the Zouk Love pieces and aggressively involved on ‘The Tale of Stephen Lawrence’. Additionally, a real delight for fans of ska or soca is the way that guests such as Rico Rodriguez or Bammi Rose have been drawn into the album’s heady mix. Rico’s laidback behind-the-beat phrasing adds swagger and style to ‘Kingstonian Swing’ while Rose’s gently passionate flute brings sophistication and intricacy to ‘Song of the Maroons’. Plenty of review records command fine words and then get consigned to the shelves never to be played again. I can guarantee this one will be providing the backdrop to energetic extrovert dancing for years to come. Alyn Shipton

 

Wayne Shorter Quartet Without A Net2013

Wayne Shorter Quartet 

Without A Net

Blue Note

It was 44 years ago that Wayne Shorter made his debut on the Blue Note label, as a precocious 26-year-old tenor saxophonist in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1959. Now in his 80th year, he has re-signed with the label that was scene of some of his great triumphs of the 1960s, when label founder Alfred Lion invited him to record as a leader in his own right in 1964 that resulted in classics such as Night Dreamer, Juju, Speak No Evil, Adam’s Apple and Super Nova. It’s been a long journey since then, worldwide acclaim as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet and with Weather Report, and in more recent times with his own quartet, which made its debut on record in 2002. But Without a Net is something special, comprising eight tracks recorded during the quartet’s 2011 European tour and the ninth track, the 23-minute ‘Pegasus’, recorded at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles with the Imani Winds. The result is Blue Note’s finest recording since its reincarnation in the 1980s under EMI and quite possibly the finest album of Shorter’s career. The starting point of this group is the abstracted improvisational forms explored by Miles Davis in the 1960s that culminated in one of the great classics of recorded jazz, Live at the Plugged Nickel from 1965, its precepts carried forward through subsequent Miles groups, such as the lost sessions of 1969, through into his abstract jams of Bitches Brew and beyond. This is the key that unlocks the door to this remarkable album, where Shorter’s maxim of “rehearsing the unknown,” with everyone responding to the impulses of the moment, results in some inspired music making that represents jazz at its finest, not just in the here and now, but of the past and the future as well. Stuart Nicholson

 

2014Michael Wollny Trio Weltentraum

Michael Wollny Trio 

Weltentraum

ACT

With regular bassist Eva Kruse taking a sabbatical following the birth of her second child, the critically acclaimed piano trio [em] is reconfigured with addition of the American bassist Tim Lefebvre and emerges as the Michael Wollny Trio. Weltentraum – rough translation, ‘we search the dreamworlds’ – is an album of standards, but not your usual standards, these are pieces by the likes of Alban Berg, Gustav Mahler, Paul Hindemith, Edgard Varese, Wolfgang Rihm, Friedrich Nietzsche and Guillaume de Mauchaut which are morphed into intense, personal statements by Wollny that are revealing of his artistic growth, musical curiosity and growing stature as an artist. The themes are linked by Wollny’s initial idea of creating an album of ‘night’ songs – music with a mysterious aura of darkness and intrigue. This ‘dark’ theme enabled songs such as ‘Little Person’ by Jon Brion and Charlie Kaufman from the film Synecdoche, New York and ‘In Heaven’ by Peter Ivers and David Lynch from the film Eraserhead to be included in a remarkable, yet subtle, tour-de-force where less is more and the resources of melodic invention are craftily exploited. The odd-tuneout comes at the end – a version Pink’s ‘God is a DJ’ with a vocal by Theo Bleckmann recorded live at the Philharmonie, Cologne in March 2013. Its message of optimism is a fitting epilogue to an album that already is a serious contender for the Critic’s Picks of 2014. Stuart Nicholson

 

Washington2015

Kamasi Washington 

The Epic

Brainfeeder

The title is not to be taken lightly. In numbers it translates as: 3CDs; 17 songs; 32-piece orchestra; 20-piece choir; 10-piece band. With scale being such a defining feature of this music it is also worth noting that there are 172 minutes to contend with, and it is to Washington’s credit that the output is justified, first and foremost because the artistic ambition matches the sweeping production.

Known for his work with producer Flying Lotus and a member of the Los Angeles aggregation The West Coast Get Down, Washington is a player and composer with a penchant for long-form pieces in which melodic lines are ornate anthems wrapped in finely shaded orchestral threads. Although music industry marketeers will inevitably tag this as ‘spiritual jazz’ the dominant aesthetic thankfully avoids any of the sub-genre’s clichés, such is Washington’s desire to draw together references that are refreshingly disparate. In real terms that means that the all-important choral basis of the music – mostly sleek soprano lines that soar around the themes like a volley of flutes and piccolos – blends Horace Silver and Pharoah Sanders from the 1980s rather than 70s (think the former’s The Continuity Of Spirit and the latter’s Heart Is A Melody), while some of the rhythmic and harmonic content has the authoritative, dark-tolight stance of the great Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra. Washington’s own playing, with his dry, stark tone and concise, clenched phrasing is impressive, but the greatest achievement of this work is the newness that springs from a deep historical root.

Moving from hard swing to funk to some of the digital age sensibilities scoped out by Thundercat, this is an album of progressive present day thinking that willfully acknowledges its debt to the past, as befits the ongoing relationship between the two. So if there is a sample of a Malcolm X speech it is relevant to the current political debate: There’s nothing wrong with being a Muslim. There is something very right about the premise and execution of this work. Kevin Le Gendre 

 

Garland2016

Tim Garland 

One

Edition

 A new group and a new beginning for Tim Garland in what is the finest album by a British jazz musician for quite some while. First, a word about Garland’s virtuoso playing on tenor and soprano saxes, which has reached a level of excellence and maturity that is truly world class. On soprano he offers an evenness of tonal density throughout the registers of the instrument; nothing sounds pinched or forced, and while his articulation is precise and accurate, each note rings through with remarkable clarity even in legato passages. Expressing himself in melodic, rather than pattern-based, improvisation, his playing is virtually cliché free, often using ‘compositional’ devices such as the use of the rising line to create a feeling of tension. This feeling is also reinforced by the occasional use of side-slipping.

On ‘Bright New Year’ he plays with such freedom within form it represents a striking example of exemplary contemporary jazz improvisation. Equally, on ‘Colours of Night’ he exhibits a degree of both technique and taste (the two rarely go hand in hand) that few in jazz can equal. On tenor saxophone he retains this melodic lucidity, evenness of tonal density (from bell tones to false-fingered high notes at the extreme of the saxophone’s range) and on ‘The Eternal Greeting’ he gives a virtual master class in manipulating the rising line to potent and dramatic effect.

Garland has developed the story-telling privilege that is the province of the great jazz improvisers – a Garland solo is not a breakneck bunch of notes thrown at listeners for them to try and make sense of, but solos of architectonic construction that have a beginning, a middle and an end and take the listener on an absorbing journey. But even mastery of your chosen instrument at the level Garland has achieved (and which few in jazz can match) is not enough in jazz today. The challenge is to create an effective context to give expression to the improvisers art. Here again Garland scores, with an ensemble that has done away with the traditional piano-bass-drums role of the jazz rhythm section and placed the rhythmic role in the hands of keyboards, Ant Law’s eight-string guitar which covers the bass notes and Asaf Sirkis’ innovative drums/ percussion. This fresh approach – a development of the rhythmic approach adopted by his previous group Lighthouse – is integral to Garland’s compositional ingenuity with pieces written in a way that shows this unusual approach to rhythm to best advantage. Here, Asaf Sirkis emerges as an unsung hero with a performance that is surely world class. Rebello and Law are exemplary too, offering maturity and flair in both ensemble and solo that contribute significantly in making this album special. Stuart Nicholson 

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