Kamasi Washington: the return of the West Coast warrior

Following his critically acclaimed triple-album, 2015’s The Epic, LA saxophonist has circumnavigated the globe with a seemingly endless series of concerts that have cemented his reputation as the go-to spiritual jazz beacon for a younger generation of devotees. Now he’s back with a fresh double-album, Heaven And Earth, a record that further mines the flamboyant choral and string flourishes of its predecessor. Kevin Le Gendre discovers how the West Coast warrior has managed to keep his feet on the ground while still looking to the stars

Populism is a buzzword in resurgence. Generally speaking, in politics, the term refers to a cynical manipulation of nostalgia for the way things were, in an idealised world, as well as fear of what, or who might be in a position of power in an imagined one. ‘Take back control of Britain’, or ‘make America great again’. The rhetoric is short-sighted, the consequences far reaching.

Kamasi Washington is forthcoming on the subject. The tenor saxophonist and composer is an established international artist who spends months at a time away from his birthplace of Los Angeles, gigging across the Americas, Europe and the Far East. He defines himself as a citizen of the world, rather than one of ‘nowhere’.

“I feel like I have a perspective globally,” he says. “Musically, I kind of always lived that life, but in the microcosm of Los Angeles; now I’ve expanded out to the actual world, so it’s me going from Little Tokyo and Chinatown [in LA] to the actual Tokyo and Beijing. There’s virtually a ‘little’ version of every culture you can think of [in LA], and then there’s the cross-pollination of that; you find everything there.”

Washington pinpoints paradoxes for those who peddle a divisive ‘them and us’ agenda. There is a map in the human mind, as well as the blueprint of hard borders. “You come to Europe and there’s a bunch of different countries that are in proximity to each other. We’re not in proximity to others. There’s like Canada and Mexico,” he points out. “So if you think of world culture, we’re pretty far away from it. But most of the biggest, most populated areas of the United States are the most diverse places I’ve ever been. American culture is multicultural, there is no American culture as a singularity, it’s a mixture. When Trump…, or he who shall remain nameless, [insults other cultures], well, it’s embarrassing that we elected someone like him as a leader.”

Though physically imposing, Washington is softly spoken, and retains a degree of calm as he makes that last point emphatically. His despair at the current incumbent in the White House, and American politics in general, is offset by a belief that, “there are more people that want this world to be a beautiful paradise than those who don’t.”

In fact, his 2017 release, the six-track EP, Harmony Of Difference, was an explicit statement on the co-existence rather than conflict between, ‘every kind of people’. Musically speaking, it was largely in the vein of Washington’s 2015 debut The Epic, an audacious triple-album that wore its title well, and captured the imagination to become the story in jazz that year. Such was its snowball effect that Washington went from relative obscurity in January to headlining a Barbican show at the London Jazz Festival in November, even though the more discerning fans of Thundercat, Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamarr would have known his name. Washington’s contribution to their techno-soldered fusion, abstract electronica and politically charged, baroque hip hop, respectively, reflected a versatility that was consolidated by the ambition of his own recording. Featuring a double rhythm-section, strings and choir, The Epic was a dense work that had strong echoes of an expansive post-modal sound often dubbed ‘spiritual jazz’, patented by John and Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders et al in the 1970s. But there was at times a hard edge in the arrangements that betrayed his love of both funk and the history of film scores, with their urbane classical and jazz resonances.

If Washington looked big on-stage, then up close and personal he also cuts a striking figure. Clad in a full-length burgundy dashiki with gold trim, he has the aura of a village elder, if not Pharoah circa Karma, and his composure and warm demeanour confer a sage-like quality that belie his 37 years. We are in the airy west London office of Young Turks, the UK label that is his new home following his departure from Ninja Tune. Washington is more than happy to acknowledge that British audiences, and the media which serves them, have had a longstanding patronage of American artists, of which latterly Gregory Porter has been a notable beneficiary. “Yeah, there’s definitely a sense that our music is more widely appreciated here,” he concurs. “You know the US has so much art and so much expression and talent, there is so much happening there, but ironically there’s not always the appreciation for it.

“LA has never been deemed the Mecca or the second Mecca of jazz. New York is the place. I always found the scene… with the isolation there was a purity among the best musicians in LA that I really appreciated. I’d go to a jam session and people would say, ‘you sound great, where are you from?’ LA? And I was like, why would you say that? Some of the greatest musicians I’ve ever heard are living there, but people just don’t know about them. Some of the great musicians from LA, a lot of them went to New York and came back because they didn’t like it; they liked the isolation, the freedom here, and that pressure to conform to a movement wasn’t for them. So they went back home; there’s a lot of individualism in LA.”

Regardless of who didn’t make it out of the ‘city of Angels’, those who put something into it are big in Washington’s world. Looming large are such as pianist-social activist Horace Tapscott, founder of the Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, Roberto Miranda and Sonship Theus, both of whom visited Washington’s school to do workshops that were life-changing, as well as more recognised figures, such as Billy Higgins. They were among the revered elders from the 1960s who paved the way in the 1990s for the emergence of the hub of young players, the West Coast Get Down, which featured Washington as well as Miles Mosley, Cameron Graves and Brandon Coleman.

These musicians also appear on Washington’s new album, Heaven And Earth, which is a development of the template unveiled on The Epic. Again the sound is one of soaring orchestrations and choral richness that betrays his love of multi-layered composing as well as impassioned improvising. With that in mind, he is happy to discuss the ongoing influence of a legend, arranger-conductor Gerald Wilson, a seminal figure in west coast jazz, with whom the saxophonist spent a great deal of time in his formative years, often visiting his home for invaluable masterclasses.

“He wanted compositions performed as they were written, but he also always wrote into his compositions space and freedom to create,” Washington recalls with a smile. He raises a hand for emphasis, his fingers adorned by large, decoratively baroque rings that glint as afternoon light starts to bathe the room. “So, for me, it was a challenge to try to figure out how to do that as well, because the band I grew up playing with was very free. We weren’t good at being confined, but I had a love for the freedom that you got from colours of large ensembles. That’s how I got the idea of recording a smaller group, letting it be free and wild and go all over the place, then writing music around that to get the best of both worlds. Gerald was really the one that turned me on to that.

“I’ll write a tune with parts for the rhythm section and record and give the musicians what I think the music is. Especially on this new record, I didn’t write songs with traditional chord changes in mind,” he continues. “It’s just colours, the different possibilities of the harmony and melody rather than… an E-major flat ninth. There’s a period where we’re going over the music and I’m explaining. Then, at a certain point, the light goes on and they get it and we record the song and it goes where it goes. I don’t give too many directions on how many bars of this or how many times we do that. If it flows, it flows into something, and once that something is down then I’ll listen and write an orchestration to go around it. When it’s done well it feels like they happen simultaneously, but it’s really a case of I can’t put the cart before the horse.

“On Heaven And Earth there’s more strings, there’s like a whole orchestra…. they’re just colours really. They’re just colours where you can add to things. There are already so many timbres that are happening in the band, with the horns, keyboard, percussion, so for me somehow that orchestra sound is just able to mix in with all of that without clashing. I don’t know how to describe it… it’s like pouring water over stone. The water will form around it; I suppose that’s really kind of how I look at it.”

Although Washington’s breakdown of his working method has a step-by-step logic at its root there is, nonetheless, a considerable grey area in which he and his accompanists operate at various junctures of a song’s development because Washington is not keen on writing in a set key signature. His desire to weave together layer upon layer of sounds – from rhythm section to horns to voices and strings – is such that he does not always map out a framework of chords prior to entering the studio. As Washington previously explained, the ulterior motive is to accommodate a degree of freedom within compositional narrative. He likes to keep things open with regard to what might be a harmony that is perceived as proper or improper, ‘in’ or ‘out’.

All of which leads to discussion and negotiation when it comes to the finer details of a particular arrangement. Washington professes as much love for modal music as he does changes-based workouts and the central question he has to answer is how three, rather than one set, of ears can hear notes and tones in a way that actually satisfies all. “You’re telling a story and within that musically sometimes it’s primary, visceral. I’m not thinking of a key, but is it consonant or dissonant?” he argues, his eyes focused as he further sketches out his modus operandi. “What kind of consonance do I want? There are some pretty big debates between myself, Cameron [Graves] and Brandon [Coleman] as to what a particular chord is in some of these songs. Brandon likes to identify a key and chord, Cameron is really attached to the colour and I’m kind of somewhere in the middle. Together, though, we usually decipher the song.”

Committed as he is to the improvising tradition – Washington’s solos on Heaven And Earth are as bracing as anything he has thus far recorded – he has drawn much from the world of classical music, which is something of a building block, not just for scoring music, but in creating texture and dynamics. On The Epic he covered Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’, but the piece he cites as an essential ear opener is Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ for its “sense of breathing” as it builds, broadens and boils to climax.

The rich sound palette and the combined weightiness of the woodwinds, brass, timpani, celesta, harp and strings makes that an entirely appropriate reference for somebody like Washington, whose own music has a similar grandeur. But the other salient fact is that Ravel’s chef d’oeuvre was commissioned by the Russian actress and dancer Ida Rubenstein in 1928 and that it is a ballet as well as a composition.

Physical movement synergises potently with sound. Even a cursory glance at Washington’s aesthetic, from his style of dress to the artwork of his records, suggests he has a keen eye for forms of expression beyond the world of music, thus fitting into a lineage of polyglot musicians whose interests are not limited to all things sonic. Quite by chance we met a few days after our conversation at an exhibition by African-American artist Lorna Simpson at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in central London. The work was an intriguing creation that featured canvases depicting glaciers in saturated ink and palls of smoke, as well as collages and reconfigurations of pioneering black lifestyle magazines Ebony and Jet, and their super slick adverts, dislocated from their more habitual setting of the front room or the barber shop.

Simpson’s exhibition was astutely called ‘Unanswerable’, and in many ways the title pinpointed a central conundrum with regard to the enduring perception of individuals, communities and cultures deemed minority. What possible response can there be to the enormously complex history, with its endless value judgments, of people of colour at this point in time? Simpson sees the artefacts in her work as, “having a resonance in terms of how we are living now under the Trump regime as quite frightening.” More tellingly, Simpson also made clear in a recent interview that the thing she fears in the current climate is ‘apathy’, and that chimes with Washington’s whole outlook on life, from both a political and musical point of view. On Heaven And Earth, the song that loosely translates that is ‘Connections’, which was directly inspired by Nate Parker’s 2016 movie The Birth Of A Nation, a gripping account of the life of Nat Turner, a slave who led a bloody revolt against his masters in Virginia in 1831.

“Yeah, it really tackled the idea of complacency, because Nat Turner said he had a relationship with his slave master where he didn’t have it ‘bad’, not like Frederick Douglass did,” Washington states very calmly. “He didn’t really have that, but he still understood that the whole scenario he was in was wrong. And that, if that’s the case, things need to change. It’s about the connection he had between his mother and future wife. The funkier part of the song felt like the exploratory connection that two people have that are not family. The film was really powerful because it spoke about taking matters into your hands and not looking for someone else to do anything for you.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: http://www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

John Coltrane: the lost album

The unexpected news of the existence of an unreleased John Coltrane studio session, now issued as Both Directions at Once – The Lost Album, is sure to get the jazz world’s pulse racing. Featuring the classic line-up of Trane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones, Stuart Nicholson assesses the importance of its place in the iconic saxophonist’s relentlessly creative canon on the Impulse! label

For some while now, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, son of jazz legend John Coltrane, has dedicated himself to raising sunken treasures from his late father’s recorded legacy. Thanks to diligent research he brought us One Up, One Down (Impulse!) in 2005, a live 1965 recording from New York’s Half Note that contains what many regard as one of Coltrane’s greatest recorded performances. Now, he has discovered a complete ‘lost’ Impulse! studio session from March 1963, a period where Coltrane’s Classic Quartet was hitting their straps. It is released this month as Both Directions at Once – The Lost Album.

In March 1963, Coltrane was booked into Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey for two sessions, one on the 6th with his quartet, and another the following day for the session that produced John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. Apparently, Coltrane took a ¼-inch reference tape of the quartet session home to study, a practice quite common in the recording industry. However, nothing further seems to have been done with the tapes, while at some point the studio’s multi-track masters were lost by Impulse!. There things remained until Ravi Coltrane discovered the reference tape in his father’s archive. At the time of the recording session, Coltrane’s career was in the ascendancy, his life a whirl of national and international touring, recording sessions and more touring. When he did get time off, he spent it with his then wife Juanita and their 13-year-old daughter, Toni, at his St. Albans, New York home, listening to his collection of records by harpist Carlos Salzedo.

In 1963, the Impulse! label was entering what many people now consider to be it’s golden period and it was saxophonist John Coltrane who was at the forefront of the label’s ambitions, the poster-boy who had come to personify the label’s slick marketing slogan: ‘The New Wave of Jazz is on Impulse!’. Each album was stylishly produced with a gatefold sleeve, trademark orange and black album spine, attractive laminated cover art and high-quality liner notes that enveloped a well-recorded product, all for $5.98 per album. The brainchild of producer Creed Taylor, the label created a stir from the very beginning with its first batch of releases in 1961 that included Gil Evans’ Out of the Cool, Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth, and Ray Charles’ Genius + Soul = Jazz.

Uniquely, Impulse! was allowed to develop with the mindset of an independent label within a major label infrastructure since ABC Paramount bankrolled the production and promotion costs. In a market already saturated with high-quality jazz and eye-catching cover art – Blue Note, Verve, Atlantic, Contemporary, Pacific Jazz and more – Impulse! raised the bar even higher, and in so doing its sales began approaching those of successful pop recordings. “Within a couple of months Genius + Soul = Jazz had sold over 150,000 LPs and ‘One Mint Julep’ was Top 10,” said Creed Taylor later, “A few months later, Blues and the Abstract Truth did pretty well too.” By the end of 1961, Impulse! had captured the imagination of jazz fans, DJs (essential for radio play), record retailers and, crucially, jazz musicians.

After catching a performance of the John Coltrane Quartet at the Village Vanguard, Creed Taylor phoned Coltrane, who was then recording for Atlantic, and asked him if he would like to record for Impulse! However, the Shaw Agency, who were handling Coltrane at the time, felt the saxophonist should receive special treatment from the label, and a deal was eventually worked out that enabled Taylor to secure Coltrane’s signature for a $10,000 advance for the first year with two year options that rose to $20,000 annually thereafter.

Coltrane was contracted by Impulse! to produce three albums a year. His first was with his regular working quartet of McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums, augmented by a large ensemble. Oliver Nelson was picked as arranger, but didn’t show at the recording date, so Eric Dolphy hastily wrote some charts for the album, which was subsequently called Africa/Brass. It was at this point that Creed Taylor, after producing six albums for Impulse! and establishing the label’s identity in the marketplace, was approached by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to take over the Verve label, which it had just bought for $2.5 million from Norman Granz. This unique opportunity and a generous offer was enough to tempt Taylor, who completed the editing for Africa/Brass in his new office at Verve.

The man ABC Paramount picked to replace him was Bob Thiele, whose main experience was in the pop field, where he had brought Buddy Holly to Decca’s subsidiary Brunswick, followed by Jackie Wilson. He then moved to Dot Records, followed by Roulette Records, where he pulled off the collaboration between Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. He took over at Impulse! in November 1961, “I don’t think I was at Impulse! for more than a week when we decided to record Coltrane at the Village Vanguard,” he recalled. “The first night, as I recall, I was pretty shook up; I was confused. But by staying involved, the music began to make sense to me.”

Thiele hit the ground running with Impulse! – in the last two months of 1961 and through to the end of 1962, he recorded music for 25 Impulse! albums, carefully avoiding the pitfall of reinventing the winning formula created by Taylor and the label continued to grow. So too did Thiele’s association with Coltrane, whom he later admitted had taught him a lot about jazz during the three albums he recorded with the saxophonist in 1962.

Although Coltrane was in the studio only three times in 1963, he was also recorded live twice, at the Newport Jazz Festival on 7 July and at Birdland on 8 October. From these sessions Impulse! released four albums: John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Impressions, Live at Birdland and, in 1993, Newport Ö63. Both Directions at Once – The Lost Album fits into this continuum. When looking at the circumstances of the album it must be remembered that Coltrane enjoyed special status at Impulse!. In practical terms this meant a degree of autonomy in the recording studio, where he was allowed space to experiment and arrive at an album in more or less his own time. This was quite different to the way jazz albums were usually produced – a studio would be booked for four or five hours with the expectation that at the end you’d have an album for release. As Bob Thiele later recalled: “People like Coltrane, or Duke Ellington, record so much they almost forget about what was recorded, and it literally piles up.” In such circumstances, it’s possible to see how the tapes for Both Directions at Once – The Lost Album, were overlooked and remained undiscovered for so long.

While it’s the first time in years an unissued Coltrane quartet studio session has been released, The Lost Album does raise a number of intriguing issues. The record company press release claims the session was unknown until 2004 and unheard until now, yet the session was cited on page 90 of the discography that accompanied The Classic Quartet – Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings box set which was released in 1998! Matrix numbers 11382 through to 11388 were even assigned to the seven numbers recorded that day, comprising four ‘Untitled Original’ recordings (two of which were subsequently identified as ‘Impressions’ and ‘One Up, One Down’), plus ‘Vilia’, ‘Nature Boy’, and ‘Slow Blues – Original’. ‘Vilia’ originally appeared on an Impulse! sampler LP back in 1965, The Definitive Jazz Scene Vol. 3, and was added as a bonus track to the 1996 CD, Live at Birdland with this brief explanation: “The bonus track ‘Vilia’ was the first tune recorded at a 6 March, 1963 session that also included the quartet’s first attempt at ‘Nature Boy’ and the five then untitled originals… no master of the other tunes has survived.”

The Both Directions at Once – The Lost Album recordings were made off the back of a two week engagement at Birdland but the question of whether Coltrane was starting to “push in new directions” at the time remains moot. Bootleg recordings of Coltrane at Birdland on 23 February (on the Ozone and Session Disc label) and 2 March (released on the Alto label) give little away in this respect. Equally, we are able to trace Coltrane in live performance during the intervening four months between Ballads, recorded on 13 November 1962, and John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, recorded on 7 March 1963, by means of several authorised and unauthorised concert recordings during this period. Again, they do not betray evidence of any new direction, rather sticking night after night to a core repertoire built around pieces such as ‘Impressions’, ‘Chasin’ the Trane’, ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’, ‘Mr PC’ and ‘My Favorite Things’. Certainly the classic quartet was achieving a kind of relaxed cohesion, having performed together for almost three years and were beginning to take liberties with their repertoire (something that can be discerned in the quintets of Miles Davis during the 1950s and 1960s) and Coltrane’s playing seemed more questing as he became more confident in his surroundings, but “a new direction”? That’s a bit of a subjective judgement call, since we might have expected evidence of this on subsequent Impulse! recordings, such as the 29 April 1963 Impulse! date that year which appeared on Dear Old Stockholm or the Newport Jazz Festival recordings from 7 July 1963.

What we do know, however, is that Coltrane gave an interview in Paris on 1 November 1963 where he said he needed to get away from playing the “same tunes over and over” – something he had been doing for more than two years. If we allow ourselves a certain amount of rationalisation with hindsight, we might say that The Lost Album seems to anticipate these thoughts by several months since, other than ‘Impressions’, a staple of his live performances at the time, and a workout on the blues (it is often overlooked that Coltrane was a masterful interpreter of the blues idiom) called ‘Slow Blues’, the rest of The Lost Album is given over to new pieces – Franz Lehar’s ‘Vilia’, two new unnamed originals plus ‘Nature Boy’ and ‘One Up, One Down’. However, it was not until the Crescent session for Impulse! on 27 April 1964, just over a year later, that he introduced a whole new album of originals, and even in the run up to his magnum opus, A Love Supreme, on 9 December 1964, he was continuing to rely on his core repertoire in live performance.

Ultimately, then Both Directions at Once – The Lost Album perhaps should be seen as a valuable addition to Coltrane’s discography, part of a continuum, yes, but no less valuable for that, as he and McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones work with new material – as Coltrane himself put it in an interview just three months before the recording session, “I’ll only give a skeleton or a framework for a song and from then on it’s up to them to create their own parts to it. It sort of shapes itself, through individual contribution and effort. That way everybody can kind of develop, you know, develop in their own sense of musicianship, too, because they have to make their own choices and decisions.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: http://www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

Jazz in Mexico today: a beginner's guide

Filulas Juz

Patrick McMahon offers a guide to the thriving jazz scene in Mexico, including a list of artists to listen out for. You can enjoy most of these tracks in our Apple Music playlist 'Mexican jazz today'

When thinking about jazz from Latin America, how often is it that Westerners will think of Mexico? In fact, the country sends a steady stream of talented musicians to the prestigious US music colleges and has produced a number of internationally successful players. Two immediate examples are Antonio Sánchez, who regularly plays drums for Pat Metheny and composed the acclaimed soundtrack for Birdman (2014), and Tino Contreras, who has been touring and recording around the world since the 1960s.

The capital Mexico City is fostering an active jazz scene that is increasingly popular and exciting, which, as one of Latin America's most important cities, benefits from hosting many international musicians both passing through and settling permanently. Venues such as Zinco Jazz Club, Parker & Lenox and Casa Franca ensure there are numerous options for seeing jazz pretty much every day of the week in the city. Having seen so much great jazz here, I have put together a playlist of 10 pieces for Jazzwise readers that shows off some of the interesting music groups currently based in Mexico, which range from straight-ahead jazz quartets to marimba ensembles and modern electronic jazz groups.

Filulas Juz – 'V.R.H.'

Probably one of the most exciting and original jazz groups in Mexico at the moment, Filulas Juz combine together an eclectic range of modern timbres, grooves and even sound objects in their music. The result is a unique sound that evades categorisation with just one genre label. 'V.R.H.' is from their most recent album 3773, a carefully crafted collection that smoothly flows between each singular piece through intricately produced interludes. The group come from Querétaro, a city not far from the capital in the centre of the country, and they are gradually building up a following of fans who are intrigued by the group's inventive compositions and captivating live performances.

Héctor Infanzón – 'La Chipita'

One of Mexico's highly renowned jazz pianists, Héctor Infanzón has enjoyed a successful international career as a composer and performer. Currently based in his home town Mexico City, Infanzón studied at Berklee College of Music in 1985 and has shared the stage with such jazz greats as Wynton Marsalis. His album Citadino (2007) features the piece 'La Chipita', which is based around a pulsating afro-Carribean groove that makes a great base for Infanzón's solos. The album is filled with interesting tunes centred around these syncopated Latin-Caribbean feels, and neatly exhibits Infanzón's tight arranging skills and his virtuosic playing.

Diego Franco Quartet - 'No Tiemblo, Vibro'

Diego Franco is a young and promising saxophonist and composer who is already renowned on the jazz circuit in Mexico City. Born to a musical family, Franco originally trained in the country's second city Guadalajara before moving to the capital in search of more opportunities to perform and develop. His quartet have formed a really fresh sound where straight-ahead grooves suddenly morph into hip hop beats and warm ballads pick up into energetic Latin feels. A great example of this is his piece 'No Tiemblo, Vibro', which translates as "I Do Not Tremble, I Vibrate", where after nearly six minutes of energetic racing the quartet slip back into a slick groove that is well worth the wait.

Le Monqué Spazzuah - 'Cherry Trees'

If you have been wondering what a group that describes itself as 'panic nu-jazz' sounds like, then look no further. La Monqué Spazzuah come from Toluca, the capital of Estado de México, and have been popping over the state border to unleash their music on Mexico City jazz clubs for the last several years. Although they move between all kinds of different feels and grooves, the tracks which really stand out are those that ferociously jolt through uneven time signatures, such as 'Cherry Tree' from the album T3RC3R MUNDO (2015). Largely based around a 5/8 rhythm, Le Monqué Spazzuah perform this piece with a relentless intensity that demands the listeners attention, ringing true with the band's bold self-labelled genre.

Tambuco - 'El Devenir de la Noche'

There is not exactly a surplus of pieces written by jazz composers for percussion quartets, but after hearing 'El Devenir de la Noche' you might start to wonder why it is not done more often. Tambuco are a GRAMMY nominated percussion ensemble from Mexico who have performed and recorded with such acclaimed groups as Kronos Quartet and The Michael Nyman Band. Héctor Infanzón wrote the piece 'El Devenir de la Noche' especially for this group, which was released on an eponymous album that included compositions for seven other ensembles. Tambuco's performance stands out as the most intriguing on the album because of its unusual instrumentation of four marimbas, which blend seamlessly in and out of one another as they hammer out Infanzón's fast interlocking rhythms and colourful harmonic changes.

Xuc Trio - 'Little Tikes'

Xuc Trio (pronounced 'suc') formed a few years ago in Mexico City, and have developed their own distinct sound that delicately balances between being technical and accessible. Led by guitarist Juanjo Gómez, the trio pools together some great musical talent from the city, who are inventive with the limitations presented by playing a mixture of funk, groove, jazz and rock with just three musicians. Their album Semillas de Copinol confidently crosses through lots of different genres without the listener ever forgetting who is playing, and also captures the exceptional communication between the players that is so evident when seen live.

Xinto - 'Tricoma Son'

Son jarocho is the folk music of Veracruz, one of Mexico's states that sits along the Gulf of Mexico. Xinto is a project that aims to place this traditional style within a jazz context to give it a new edge. Folk melodies are superimposed over odd time signatures and extensive solos are given to instruments like the jarocho requinto, resulting in a unique type of jazz that is saturated in Mexican identity. Different players are invited to each concert, and occasionally the third wall is broken by asking audience members to come up sing their favourite son jarocho tunes, making each of their performances a fresh experience.

Alex Mercado Trio ft. Scott Colley & Antonio Sánchez - 'Wise'

Alex Mercado has attained a tremendous reputation in the Mexican jazz scene for his impeccable technique and inventive soloing, making him one of Mexico City's jazz giants. Another Berklee trained musician, Mercado began playing on cruise ships and teaching music before establishing his international career. He can now be found on the lineup of such prestigious festivals as North Sea Jazz, although is still a regular on the Mexican jazz circuit too. 'Wise' was released on his album Symbiosis (2014) and features the renowned players Scott Colley and Antonio Sánchez as its rhythm section. Opening with a growling bass riff in 5/4, 'Wise' is a great demonstration of Mercado's remarkable creative talent and improvisation skill, which soars as the piece develops.

La Orquesta Vulgar – 'Mambo 38'

Although this lively group of young musicians have not been playing for long, La Orquesta Vulgar have already built up a strong following in Mexico City and a reputation for putting on a good show. Its members are alumni from various music schools in Mexico City, who combine all their different tastes and musical interests together to form their energetic jazz-influenced music. The spirited playing by the group's drummer, Luis Flores, is a real highlight of their shows, as can be seen in their live performance of 'Mambo 38' for Cicuta Records.

Vladimir Alfonseca Trio - 'Modí'

You know that you are listening to Vladimir Alfonseca as soon as you hear his incredibly soft, warm tone enter. Some of his other pieces use a nylon-stringed classical guitar, and it is not hard to hear how his electric tone is a subtle imitation of that soft classical timbre. Having initially studied at Escuela Superior de Música, Alfonseca went on to further study composition and arrangement, and is now a regular performer in Mexico City. His piece 'Modi' sees his mellow timbre placed into an intricate, complex arrangement that sweeps in and out of different metres and time signatures, resulting in a unique sounding piece that is both driven and delicate.

Patrick McMahon completed his bachelor's degree in music at the University of Sheffield in 2016, and since August 2017 he has been living in Mexico City. As well as researching some of the traditional styles of music from Mexico, Patrick has been playing with local musicians and scoping out the best jazz that's being made there.

Jazz drumming and the vision of Jonathan Barber

Kay Shackelford introduces a bold new force on the jazz drumming scene: Jonathan Barber

When listening to Jonathan Barber, there’s an earful of innovative and thoughtful rhythmic execution that causes pause. Barber is technically well groomed, focused and a little fussy over what drum products will deliver the ‘right’ sonic landscapes from his drum set. In addition, Barber is far from self-limiting as it relates to contributing to the musical conversation between jazz and postmodern music. He’s delving into new trends in the realm of electronic drumming, and his open-mindedness is paying off. Recently Modern Drummer Magazine asked their readers this question: "Who is The Up and Coming drummer of 2018?" The results came in and Barber took home the celebrated award. 2018 also marks another milestone for Barber as he will release his debut album, Vision Ahead, which is also the name of his band. The album comes out May 11, 2018.

The 28-year-old drummer is performing a lot, and is often pegged by notable jazz musicians. Barber has provided time keeping for Marcus Strickland, JD Allen, Jeremy Pelt, Terrace Martin, Stanley Jordan, Erykah Badu and the list goes on. In between gigs, the very driven Barber is back in New York, hosting late night sessions at the prominent Small’s Jazz Club in Greenwich Village.

Recently, Barber was chosen to be an artist for Sunhouse, a company that specializes in sensory percussion. He is featured in multiple videos that showcase Sunhouse products, such as the Galactic Brine collection, an assortment of twenty kits with a total of over 2000 sounds. The videos featuring Barber have become viral on social media, and shows the greatness that millennial drummers have to offer. Creating new possibilities in artistic expression for today’s drummer, Sunhouse’s “modern take on electronic drums” has also been employed by many contemporary and inventive drummers such as Marcus Gilmore, Antonio Sanchez, Mark Guiliana, and others. Yet Barber’s recent success is far from superficial.

It was personal tragedy that forced Barber into a new dimension of life resulting in illuminative choices concerning his band, career, and also propelled him to write more. “Two years ago in November 2016, I lost my brother unexpectedly. I didn’t have a name for my band. And I really wanted a name – I didn’t want it to be just The Jonathan Barber Quintet. So I was searching for a sound and a brand if you will. So once that experience happened, I went through the obvious emotions of being devastated and hurt, but after I took some time away from the scene, the phrase Vision Ahead was like a light bulb that went off in my head.”

Barber’s band have navigated together through personal and professional changes during the years. This close relationship has resulted in a winning brew of musical synergy. “For about 6 years the band has been playing together. The group consists of myself, pianist Taber Gable, guitarist Andrew Renfroe, and bassist Matt Dwonsyzyk. We all went to The Jackie Mclean institute of Jazz at The University of Hartford. From that college experience, it really formulated a sound and chemistry. We watched each other develop, pushing and influencing each other musically. And we also moved to New York together.”

Looking to bring a new ‘colour’ and a person to challenge the band with their ability, Barber sought out saxophonist Godwin Louis about two years ago, who completed the talented group. Barber says the chemistry of the group is “undeniable.”

Vision Ahead’s collective musical dexterity shines through on the album’s first release, a cover of Eldar Djangirov’s “Airport” which also features Barber on vocals. The piece is a good start to get to know his work. “Airport” has lyrics that provide wisdom about living a successful life which I would say stems from Barber’s personal faith journey, and some tasty guitar work by Andrew Renfroe. While in New York, Barber met Djangirov, who is a jazz pianist and leader of The Eldar Trio, when both were a part of JD Allen’s album recording of Grace. From there, Barber and Djangirov kept in touch, and he even accompanied Djangirov on a Midwest tour.

However, it was while watching Djangirov’s trio perform “Airport” on YouTube that a deeper affinity for Djangirov’s work occurred. Djangirov’s technique and harmonic idiom on “Airport” entranced Barber. “I was like, “Wow, what is that.” I was a fan of his work already but ‘Airport’ really captured me. That style was different from most of the work he’s known for. When I first heard the song, I felt the vibe and pulse so strong and the melody was so singable. Eldar played 8th notes chords on his left hand while playing the melody on his right hand. It was rhythmic, and had elements like playing the drums. ‘Airport’ became one of my favourite songs and when I was on a plane, the lyrics came to me. I just kept writing, writing, and writing. After writing the lyrics and presenting it to the band, I asked who’s going to sing it? And my band was like – you!”

The album Vision Ahead features twelve songs with eight original compositions by Barber. You will also find the treat of sensory percussion on the tracks “Statement of Vision,” “Time Will Tell,” and “Carry On.” The album also features vocalists Denise Renee and Sasha Foster.

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