Mary Halvorson Quintet – Bending Bridges ★★★★

FH12-04-01-016 Mary Halvorson (g), Jonathan Finlayson (t), Jon Irabagon (as), John Hebert (b), and Ches Smith (d). Rec. date not stated

2010’s Saturn Sings, the first quintet record from Brooklyn-based Mary Halvorson, was very good indeed but Bending Bridges is even better, up there with her trio work and her collaborations with Anthony Braxton and Marc Ribot. The Ribot link makes sense: there can be something cosy, almost smug, about jazz guitar, but Halvorson is closer to a tradition represented by Ribot or Bill Frisell or James ‘Blood’ Ulmer or Fred Frith or Derek Bailey.

It isn’t that she necessarily sounds like any of them, although there are hints; it’s that she has the same ability to emerge victorious, from what Martin Amis would call the war against cliché. Halvorson is an increasingly strong composer too, now clearly writing with these four other voices in mind. The vocabulary can be that of the avant-garde, but there’s at least a toe in popular music: it’s no surprise that she loves Robert Wyatt. Is there a better guitarist in her generation?

– Marcus O’Dair

Alex Hutton Trio – Legentis ★★★★

F-IRECD53| Alex Hutton(p),YuriGoloubev (b), Asaf Sirkis (d), Heidi Vogel (v), Jim Rattigan (Fr hn), and Keith Thompson (cor ang). Rec. December 2010

Alongside vocalist Kate Winter, the pianist Alex Hutton has been co-hosting the unpretentious Jazz Show on local p station Hayes FM. Hutton leaves his presenter’s chair to release his third piano trio album Legentis on the F-IRE imprint. Having earned his dues as a straightahead sideman in the 1990s, he released his trio debut Cross That Bridge in 2006 followed two years later by Songs from the Seven Hills, a graceful Jarrett-influenced tone poem to the often overlooked pastoral beauty of the landscape of his native town subtitled The Sheffield Suite. The new release Legentis retains some of the storytelling qualities and episodic variations of its predecessor but it signals a change in direction that engages with more recent trends in piano trio jazz. While Jarrett’s influence still looms large, its latin vamps hint at Avishai Cohen, pounding baroque-influenced themes at Neil Cowley, and a few of its grooves on melodic reveries recall EST.

Hutton writes excellent themes and utilises his guests well, filling out a few tracks with various instrumental colours. Heidi Vogel’s semi-operatic wordless vocal makes ‘JJ’ sound like Ennio Morricone performed by The Bad Plus while ‘Legentis Script’, partly inspired by the arrangements of film composers such as John Williams, has echoes of Flora Purim and early Return to Forever. Enter a French horn and cor anglais on a few tracks to give a folky Canterbury chamber-prog flavour while the closing ‘A Norsk Tale’ is graceful solo piano, inspired by Grieg’s Lyric Pieces. Hutton has assembled a vigorous rhythm section with a big presence featuring Moscow-born classical virtuoso double bassist and Gwilym Simcock sideman Yuri Goloubev and the high-class Israeli drummer Asaf Sirkis. For those into current piano trio jazz trends, this has to be one of the best and most interesting around at the moment.

– Selwyn Harris

Steve Lehman Trio – Dialect Fluorescent ★★★★

P142 Steve Lehman (as), Matt Brewer (b), and Damion Reid (d). Rec. August 2011

The appearance of Lehman’s octet at London’s Vortex club was one of the standout gigs of 2011, and the highlight of the performance was a passage of solo saxophone during which he conspired to turn tone and breath into a multi-part horn section of its own. This stripped down setting reinforces any claim the 34-year-old New Yorker can make to being a noteworthy contemporary exponent of his instrument and brings as much of a focus to Lehman the player and improviser as his last release Travail, Transformation And Flow did to Lehman the composer. Imaginative reprises of hard swinging bop staples such as Coltrane’s ‘Moment’s Notice’ and Duke Pearson’s ‘Jeannine’ confirm his ability to find a new way into a changes-led piece with the absent piano being felt more as liberating force than flaw, while the originals again bring his writing ability to the fore. The highlight is ‘Foster Brothers’, a piece of astoundingly controlled aggression, in which all members of the trio create fluency amid a barrage of carefully planned hesitancy, whereby they frequently dead stop and breathe for nothing more than a half beat, thus evoking in sound a process of communication via rapid fire blinks of the eye.

Damion Reid and Matt Brewer’s punishing, funky syncopations are given extreme staccato roles, and the sense of escalating tension is enhanced in the latter stage of the piece when Lehman creates a markedly nasal, piercing tone to approximate something strangely similar to the high pitched scratch of a needle on a turntable. These moments where the saxophonist and his accompanists conjure the world of mechanised sound and the hardness of programmed beats are integral to Lehman’s aesthetic. He summons up on ‘old’ instruments something of the starkness, the unflinching sequential regularity prevalent in post-hip hop popular music, all the while staying unplugged. The result is acoustic music that feels electric, or a sense of electricity snaking through an acoustic sound environment. Lehman’s straddling of these planes is done while acknowledging the ongoing relevance of swing, so that traditions are being extended and enriched rather than dispensed with. Deeply rooted in the past, this is nonetheless modernism with an all-seeing eye on the future.

– Kevin Le Gendre

Dr John – Locked Down ★★★

Nonesuch 530395-2

Dr John aka ‘Mac’ Rebennack (v, kys), Dan Auerbach (g, v, perc), Leon Michels (kys, perc, s, v), Brian Olive (g, perc, v, s), Nick Movshon (b, perc, v), Max Weissenfeldt (d, perc, v), and The McCrary Sisters (v). Rec. September to November 2011

Every generation since the 1960s has discovered Dr John and taken him to their heart. It’s led to some wacky collaborations, not least Anutha Zone with a host of Brit-poppers (ah, where now Supergrass?) while everyone from Hugh Laurie to Spiritualised have lapped up his New Orleans piano grooves. This project with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys has more going for it in that Auerbach is a long time lover of the blues. The resulting Locked Down features Rebennack heavily on vocals and organ, but less on piano or composition credit. Not surprisingly Auerbach tugs Rebbenack down a rock-blues path, recalling his Night Tripper, Gris Gris period.

The results are some suitably scuzzy sounding funk blues, from the honking saxes of ‘Revolution’, replete with a raw political edge, to the zombie swamp thang that is ‘Eleggua’. The good time rolling, mardi gras celebrating Rebennack isn’t that evident; instead Auerbach keeps the contemporary angst boiling on the voodoo groove of ‘Ice Age’ which rails against our soul-less times. Yet the 72-year-old Rebennack revels in it with a growling, apocalyptic vocals worthy of Captain Beefheart or James ‘Blood’ Ulmer. If you prefer your Dr John jazzier, with his piano to the fore, check out Duke Elegant. But if you want The Night Tripper re-invented as the voice of soulful vengeance and righteous anger for our crazed times, then Auerbach deserves much credit for this extraordinary, roaring testament.

– Andy Robson

Yazz Ahmed – Finding My Way Home ★★★★

Suntara Records SUN7422001

Yazz Ahmed (t, flhn), Janek Gwizdala (b), Shabaka Hutchings (bcl, clt), Alam Nathoo (ts), Chris Fish (clo), John Bailey (p), Simon Hale (Rhodes), Jay Darwish (b), Laurence Cottle (el b), George Hart (d), and Corrina Silvester (d, darbuka, rig and sagat). Rec. 2008 and 2009


Now in her latetwenties, Yazz Ahmed only started playing jazz on the trumpet in her late teens. You aren’t made aware of this though when you listen to this very assured, sensuously lyrical debut that draws from a rich musical inheritance. The album’s centrepiece is the four improv duos with New York-based virtuoso bassist Janek Gwidala that are based on Arabic modes she heard as a little kid in Bahrain but has only fairly recently rediscovered. The other half of the recording resonates with the music gleaned from her inspiring grandfather the trumpeter Terry Brown, a member of the original Dankworth 7, and a Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes group sideman.

The 1950s modal era is a particular focus but the sparse duo version of Miles’ ‘So What’ and the classic Blue Note Joe Henderson theme for ‘Flip Flop’ don’t sound so retro and there are affinities with Miles Davis’ influence from Andalucia on Sketches of Spain on occasion as well as the sonic impressionism of something like In a Silent Way. Meanwhile the touching Kenny Wheeler-like melancholy of the original ballad, ‘Conciliation’ and a cover of Stan Sulzmann’s ‘Birthdays Birthdays’ do more than hint at allegiances to post-1960s British jazz.

‘Wah Wah Sowawah’, (featuring a whirling guest spot from clarinettist Shabaka Hutchings, a peer from her time at the Guildhall) is also reminiscent of the Swedish trumpeter Goran Kajfes. The Jaco-influenced Gwizdala has a key role orchestrating and layering his bass via a loop station so it can sound guitar-like while any urge he might had had to overindulge in fleetfingered fusion virtuosity is quietened by the tender, spatial qualities in Ahmed’s music. It all adds up to a very pleasurable listening experience.

– Selwyn Harris

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