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Love Letters & Postcards from the Jazz Heart

Photo credit: Brian Andres

Chris M. Slawecki By

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Brian Andres Trio Latino
Mayan Suite
Bacalao Records
2020

Drummer and percussionist Brian Andres may have been born in Cincinnati but his musical homeland is Latin America. A drummer by age ten, Anders studied at the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music and eventually followed his Latin musical muse from local gigs with Cincinnati Slim & The Headhunters to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he founded and fronted the Afro-Latin Jazz Cartel.

Mayan Suite extends Andres' lifelong love affair with the music of Latin America while presenting the recorded debut of Brian Andres Trio Latino, the three-piece rhythm engine—drummer Andres with bassist Aaron Germain and pianist Christian Tumalan, who simultaneously co-leads the Pacific Mambo Orchestra—that drives the larger Cartel ensemble. "In the larger group, we're basically playing supporting roles," Andres explains, "Whereas in the trio, we three have to step up and contribute as individuals to make it work."

"One of the things about this trio, I wanted us individually to have a voice of our own," Andres concludes. This is the genuine genius that these three musicians spread across the five originals and five cover versions on Mayan Suite: Their individual solo voices sparkle like virtuosos, but their interplay creates a conversational fourth voice which rises up like a spirit guide in the spaces and connections between them.

Tumalan steps out in front to devour each note of the melody to Chick Corea's "Morning Sprite" and Andres' second take on Corea's "Got a Match?" (reprising as a trio the Cartel's ensemble romp through this same tune on 2016's This Could Be That). "Got a Match?" proves an excellent opener to Mayan Suite: It explodes, ignites and burns in your ears, with drums and piano both dancing with its melody and horsewhipping its rhythm.

Bassist Germain "steps ahead" through Mike Mainieri's "Islands," arranged as a bass spotlight. "I've always loved fusion, and Steps Ahead was arguably my favorite band," Andres says. "I thought 'Islands' would be a great bass feature."

Saving the best for last: Trio Latino's new performances of "On Green Dolphin Street" and "Someday My Prince Will Come" prove worthy of these timeless compositions, as Andres, Tumalan and Germain express their own individual instrumental voices and yet sublimate them into collective dialogue so natural, intuitive and brilliant that they raise echoes of ensembles led by Bill Evans and Dave Brubeck. You'll discover the genuine genius of Mayan Suite in the spaces in between.

Tigran Hamasyan
The Call Within
Nonesuch Records
2020

Tigran Hamasyan had already demonstrated that he's an excellent pianist: He won the Montreux Jazz Festival's piano competition in 2003. He was only seventeen when he released his first recording (World Passion, Nocturn) in 2005 and then he claimed top prize the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition the year after that. Hamasyan's Nonesuch Records debut Mockroot (2015), won the Echo Jazz Award for International Piano Instrumentalist of the Year.

But The Call Within also illustrates Hamasyan's remarkable gifts as a composer, musicologist and visionary. His creative perspective is deeply informed by the culture of his native Armenia and the ten originals on his fourth Nonesuch release use music (especially the drum) differently than most.

Hamasyan has suggested that the "moment of unconscious creation is the way to feel conscious," and much of The Call Within—such as its floating reflection "The Dream Voyager"—seems to move with the inscrutable non-linear logic of a dream. "Our Film" camera pans back and forth across a vocal chorus, a piano rhythm that ripples and flows like a passing river, heavy march steps and light dance steps, before it fades to black. "At a Post-Historic Seashore" sends back a different and poignantly colored snapshot, the sound of each piano note twinkling like a star and then disintegrating into stardust, in less than two minutes (and curiously but accurately echoes the "instrumental side" of David Bowie's landmark "Heroes" [1977, RCA].

Hamasyan and Swiss drummer Arthur Hnatek play their instruments off each other in ways that create dynamics and tensions very different from a typical "jazz piano" setting. In "Space of Your Existence" and "Ara Resurrected," they assemble their individual jazz pieces together into puzzles of different shapes and sizes, often with the power and fury of hard progressive rock.

And maybe you can't quite put your finger on the pulse of The Call Within by Hamasyan's design. "Unutterable seconds of longing, subliminal realization, and mostly joy fill the body as a work of art, a poem, or a melody is being born into this world for no apparent reason," he muses. "But only for the humanity to discover what is invisible: the divine mystery."

Liga Latina
Liga Latina
Multination Music
2020

Although the five musicians comprising Liga Latina are based in Scandinavia, their eponymous debut ignites your mind and heart with the passion and fire of Afro-Cuban, Cuba, Latin and Caribbean music. In the band's own words: Liga Latina is "one long love story between the Spanish guitar and the African drum."

Liga Latina centers around composer Mike Hecchi, who takes lead vocals, plays guitar (Spanish) and trés (Cuban), and is joined in the solo frontline by trumpeter Rune Krogshede. Pianist Theo Hjorth, drummer/percussionist Bo Johansen and double bassist Michell Boysen contribute luscious rhythms deep enough to swim in. Hecchi and Krogshede dive into these rhythms with deep genuineness and emotional transparency. Hecci's singing voice is not pretty but he sings with such longing that it is often quite beautiful, while Krogshede's trumpet is often so beautiful that it hurts.

Liga Latina is a beautiful experience from the leadoff "La Venganza," with thoroughly enchanting trumpet and guitar calling this piece to order and leading the percussion and piano to complete the ensemble's full instrumental sound. I don't understand the language that Hecchi sings in, but the passion in his delivery ensures me that his words come from a heart full of hurt. Piano and trumpet solos moan with that same throbbing pain. "La Venganza" is simply and profoundly beautiful.

Hecchi's strings sing out the first verse to "Cuarto De La Banda" in such gentlemanly and genteel style that his throaty, rough vocal seems to push them aside when his voice enters the tune. Flamenco overtones include bringing the music to a complete and dramatic stop, a silence into which Krogshede's trumpet solo confidently swings. "El Carretero" subsequently delivers more of the same, with percussion and piano and guitar simmering a warm and liquid Latin groove, and with Hecchi's voice and guitar, Hjorth's piano and Krogshede's trumpet pouring out primal, emotional force with every solo.

"Revealed" features a knotty electric solo by guitarist Alex Olesen, mysterious vocals by Cassia DeMayo, and music and lyrics ("I've been walking summer nights, all blue and green...") which sound as smoky and emotionally poignant as an Amy Winehouse blues.

You need to hear Liga Latina for yourself, because a writer can only explain the genuineness and authenticity of its musicians and sound as musical magic.

Josh Nelson
The Discovery Project Live in Japan
Steel Bird Music
2020

In the golden age of television commercials, one commercial distinguished between a product that was popular because it was associated with good taste and one that was popular because it tasted good. The Discovery Project Live in Japan has nothing to do with canned food but it demonstrates pianist Josh Nelson's excellent taste in repertoire and that his performance of that repertoire with bassist Alex Boneham and drummer Dan Schnelle sure lands deliciously in your ears.

Nelson's lovely piano touch as leader and primary soloist allows a warm feeling to linger from each note; even when playing something complicated, his tone keeps it from sounding difficult. Teamed with Boneham and Schnelle, Nelson's Discovery Project plays as a small group with all the disciplined excellence of a jazz piano trio but with the relaxed casual feeling of a small folk-rock coffeehouse too.

"Mint Blues" stretches blues feeling and tone across an eleven-minute framework that expands across far more than blues, and with a playful ending that sounds like Thelonious Monk obliquely shutting down a tune—great programming because it immediately leads into a Monk composition. "'Reflections' is one of my favorite Thelonious Monk compositions, and it's my first time recording it," Nelson says. "I always loved the version by Joe Lovano from his Live at the Village Vanguard record from the mid-90s." Nelson digs into stride piano (one of Monk's favorites) during his unaccompanied opening and his chords in the tune seem to head in the proper general direction but detour along their way into different but no less brilliant corners.

Nelson closes this Discovery Project with the epic meditation "Introspection on 401." Drums step out alone to clear the rhythmic path, and soon all three sojourners are simultaneously creating and reflecting the scenery along their path. A warm and clear feeling rises up about halfway in, as if all the introspection opened into peace of mind...but the trio takes off again, as if pushing on to find something more than mere contentment. "I composed 'Introspection on 401' on the 401 highway in Canada many years ago, on a misty and mysterious morning; I continue to perform this song often," he says.

"Japan holds a special place in my heart.," Nelson once explained. "The people, the culture, the food, the history, all just magical to me." Discovery Project Live in Japan sends Nelson's special, magical love letter back to Japan.

Soft Machine
Live at the Baked Potato
MoonJune Records
2020

European progressive jazz-rock ensemble Soft Machine seems to have run through more lives than even the luckiest tomcat. They've been first-rate musicians at every incarnation, and it's heartening to hear John Etheridge (guitar), John Marshall (drums), Roy Babbington (bass) and relative newcomer Theo Travis (piano, flute, saxophone) sound so vibrant as well as accomplished on Live at the Baked Potato.

Baked Potato is a souvenir, recorded at Los Angeles' legendary musical hotspot, from the ensemble's 2019 tour of North America in support of Hidden Details, the first album released under the band's original Soft Machine name in nearly forty years. This tour also celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of their first North American tour, and (believe it or not) was Soft Machine's first Los Angeles appearance since they opened for Jimi Hendrix at the Hollywood Bowl in September 1968!

Baked features beautifully tranquil passages and glorious moments of ecstatic electric freakouts. "Broken Hill" immediately brings that picture precisely into focus, melancholy and with deep blues shimmering off of Etheridge's long, twisting and turning, lines. "The Man Who Waved at Trains" similarly paints a curious and lonely-sounding portrait, while Travis' saxophone and Etheridge's guitar clasp hands and climb toward the sun in a beautiful, reflective duet that might genuinely catch your "Heart Off Guard."

"Hazard Profile Pt. 1" swings from Babbington's and Marshall's slow-rolling and monstruous 4/4 groove and the grungy fulcrum of Etheridge's psychedelic guitar, more hard-edged rock than jazz for sure. "Tales of Taliesin" erupts into a duet between guitar and drums, freeing Etheridge to rocket like fireworks into the stratospheric sound of his Soft Machine guitar predecessor Allan Holdsworth. His guitar duking it out with Marshall's drums make this rave-up well worth its wild ride. (Close your eyes while listening to these two tunes and you can almost feel yourself hurtling back into the 1970s.)

Soft Machine finish their Baked Potato with the title track of the Hidden Details studio album they were touring to support. Marshall's sharp punctuation insistently kicks the saxophone further out until Travis drops out completely, leaving the remaining trio to stir up a sweet and funky space jam that nicely sets up Etheridge to keep firing hot metal until he had no bullets left in his guitar slinger holster.

John Stein
Watershed
Whaling City Sound
2020

As his eleventh release on the label, Watershed continues the elegant and blissful creative marriage between guitarist John Stein and Whaling City Sound. A good marriage is based in compromise, in accommodating give-and-take, and Stein's give-and-take with this rhythm section of bassist Frank Herzberg, drummer Ze Eduardo Nazario and pianist Daniel Grajew creates beautiful, delightful music. Stein pours out Bobby Scott's "A Taste of Honey" with all the natural sweetness of its title for six luscious minutes. His round yet sharp sound suggests Kenny Burrell as it polishes the melody, finding and pulling out all its special brassy and blue highlights, and Grajew's solo sprinkles notes from his electric piano like refreshing springtime raindrops that splash and glisten off the cymbals. Stein's guitar and Grajew's electric keyboard stroll in style around Pat Martino's "Cisco" as nimble as tap-dancers yet as deep and soft as velvet gloves, while Nazario keeps pushing his drums further and further out to churn the supporting rhythm underneath. Nazario and Herzberg seem to know exactly just how much rhythm to play: Not too little, but not too much. Stein covers another guitarist's tune by retaining the main melody to Jim Hall's "Waltz New" for its opening and closing, but unravelling his own colorful and convincing tale in between. He also cuts the ensemble back to a trio, freeing up the missing keyboard's space for guitar and bass solos to explore. Stein closes Watershed with his original tune "The Hang," which barely seems to hold the band together but allows each instrument to explore its own improvisational path before they all come together, as if by magic, in its glorious concluding melody. But the real question about Watershed is: Why wasn't this set named "Brazilian Hug" (another Stein original included here) instead? It's warm and sunny and bright and comfortable and it explains in five minutes everything that's good about this set with dexterity and grace. It just sounds so happy and warm and bright and proper, the sound of everything fitting into place just right.

Tracks and Personnel

Mayan Suite

Tracks: Got a Match?; Viento Solar; Mayan Suite; Escucha; Someday My Prince Will Come; Islands; Morning Sprite; Si Tu Vez; Higashi Nakano; On Green Dolphin Street.

Personnel: Brian Andres: drums; Christian Tumalan: piano; Aaron Germain: bass.

The Call Within

Tracks: Levitation 21; Our Film; Ara Resurrected; At a Post-Historic Seashore; Space of Your Existence; The Dream Voyager; Old Maps; Vortex; 37 Newlyweds; New Maps.

Personnel: Tigran Hamasyan: piano; Evan Marien: electric bass; Arthur Hnatek: drums; Tosin Abasi: guitar; Areni Agbabian: piano; Artyom Manukyan: cello.

Liga Latina

Tracks: La Venganza; Cariño Corazon; Cuarto De La Banda; El Carretero; El Sabor; Revealed; Cacique; Toro Mata; Y Tú Qué Has Hecho.

Personnel: Mike Hecchi: vocals, guitars; Michael Boysen: double bass; Rune Krogshede: trumpet; Theo Njorth: piano; Bo "Bojo" Johansen: percussion; Alex Olesen: guitar; Lasse Høj Jakobsen: violin; Cassia De Mayo: vocals.

The Discovery Project Live in Japan

Tracks: Mint Blues; Reflections; Atma Krandana; Dirigibles; Kintsugi; Introspection on 401.

Personnel: Josh Nelson: piano, keyboard; Alex Boneham: bass; Dan Schnelle: drums.

Live at the Baked Potato

Tracks: Out Bloody-Intro; Out-Bloody-Rageous Pt. 1; Sideburn; Hazard Profile Pt. 1; Kings and Queens; Tales of Taliesin; Heart Off Guard; Broken Hill; Fourteen Hour Dream; The Man Who Waved At Trains; Life On Bridges; Hidden Details.

Personnel: Roy Babbington: bass; John Etheridge: guitar; John Marshall: drums; Theo Travis: flute, piano, saxophone.

Watermark

Tracks: Rio Escuro; Kobe; A Taste of Honey; Brazilian Hug; Mystified; Wally; The Kicker; Waltz New; Cisco; Dreamsville (from Peter Gunn); Charlotte; The Hang.

Personnel: Teco Cardoso: flute, alto sax, soprano sax; Daniel Grajew: piano, keyboards; Frank Herzberg: bass; Zé Eduardo Nazario: drums; John Stein: guitar.

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