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May 2023

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Isaiah J. Thompson
The Power of the Spirit
Blue Engine Records
2023

Since finishing second in 2018's Thelonious Monk competition, pianist Isaiah J. Thompson has established a particularly convincing profile as one of New York's most promising keyboard artists, while his recordings have been at home on Jazz at Lincoln Center's label ever since his 2017 debut, Handful Of Keys. The Power Of The Spirit can be considered the pianist's most original statement to date, as he explores nine original compositions with a powerful cast of New York's new generation, captured live over two dates at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Dizzy's Club.

The album is filled to the brim with swinging soul and gospel jazz, presented in an acoustic guise much in line with the gospel jazz spirit that emerged more frequently in the late '60s. There are big melodies, carried by wholesome cadences as on "The IT Department," extensive modal explorations with passionately shrieking saxophone cries as on "The Soul Messenger" and up-tempo post-bop as navigated on "For Phineas," with each musician—tenor Julian Lee, bassist Philip Norris and Dome Branch on drums—fighting to reach a new high after every measure. Branch drums on four of the nine cuts, TJ Reddick controls the sticks on the rest. Thompson's language is drenched in the harmonic vocabulary of the Tin Pan Alley tradition and the soloist idioms of Scott Joplin's rag and Ahmad Jamal's effortless charm, but he also borrows from more modern vanguards like McCoy Tyner. Youthful energy and stone-cold experience seem to paradoxically coexist in these cats' musical souls and if The Power Of The Spirit is any indication of what is yet to come from Thompson, then we're in for a real treat. Refreshingly old-school and tough to top.

Novembre
Encore
Umlaut Records
2023

French avantgardist quartet Novembre have been at it for over a decade now, on a journey of acoustic discovery that mixes free improvisation with intense post-production and illusory electronic trickery. Encore, the group's new double album, illustrates this binary process, the free-improvisation on the one hand and the experimentally inclined post-production on the other, most articulately: the first disc is a more straight-forward, mostly live recorded session with miniatures, free-improv and through-composed structures, performed vividly and with great precision. Motifs are repeated, but the tempi changed, forms are interrupted only to be reshaped but within a different design and cohesive windows into melancholy lyricism are destroyed with dissonance.

Interruptions help shape the dramaturgy of the record and enrich the surprising element of the group's interplay —they aren't an end in themselves. There's an Albert Ayler-esque sense of curiosity in these charts, an exploratory notion that reaches its peak on a track like "Continuum." Altoist Antonin Tri Hoang and pianist Romain Clerc-Renaud are in high-paced exchange with each other throughout, accompanied by the rhythm section of bassist Thibault Cellier and drummer Sylvain Darrifourcq at their most swinging.

The second disc? Another affair completely, closer to a late, desconstructuralist Jean-Luc Godard film than any '60s jazz avant-garde music. Field recordings, captured during the making of Encore, are manipulated, pasted together and taken apart again, recorded to tape, looped, filtered and reconstructed into an electroacoustic piece that works like a quiet movie without pictures, documenting the creative process on the one hand, but simultaneously being transformed into its own creation at once. There's something multi-dimensional about that, a thought-provoking autoreferenciality that is both soothing and irritating.

Steve Swell's Fire Into Music
For Jemeel: Fire from the Road
Rogue Art
2023

An outstanding 3-CD-set of live improvisation from tireless legends of the idiom, released in homage to late saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc, who was still alive to perform this music live in Texas, USA and Ontario, Canada between October 2004 and September 2005. The first disc comprises one hour-long improvisation from 2 October 2004, captured at the El Dorado Ballroom in Houston. It is a display of deep passion and dedication to the free art form, demonstrating the wide idiomatic reach of trombonist Steve Swell, William Parker on double bass, drummer Hamid Drake and Moondoc, in fiery display of explosive thoughts and introspection. The horns are burning, erupting in fanfare and menacing celebration to a rhythm section that doesn't so much provide rhythm as dominate it.

CD number two, recorded on 8 October in Marfa, Texas, has a different flow to it, not as restless but more swinging. The recording quality is less brilliant and transparent than that of the Houston show, but the energy captured is equally singular, as the quartet—going by the moniker 'Fire Into Music'—explores originals by Moondoc and Swell with a contagious thirst for interplay. Moondoc's "Junka Ku" appears both on the second and the third CD in two contrary performances. On the third disc, recorded on 8 September at the Guelph Jazz Festival in Ontario, the tune takes on a patient trot, bound to Parker's steady bass ostinato as saxophone and trombone fade in and out of the arrangement, giving bass and drums room for elaboration. Three hours of music well worth discovering patiently, over and over again.

Cécile McLorin Salvant
Mélusine
Nonesuch Records
2023

A rare talent of many guises, the francophile, American singer with Haitian roots Cecile McLorin Salvant has steadily been conquering the world of vocal jazz, releasing critically acclaimed album after critically acclaimed album without ever repeating herself. Her move to Nonesuch Records came with her previous record Ghost Song, featuring originals, covers of pop songs and standards in an eclectic mélange of genres, delivered with striking vocal abilities and in collaboration with her longtime musical partner Sullivan Fortner's unique chops on keys. With Mélusine comes the next exciting chapter in Mclorin Salvant's oeuvre—and it's arguably her best yet.

Chanson, appropriately performed in French (Salvant has a French mother and has lived in France) dominates the programme, performed with extraordinary charm and technical dexterity by Salvant, who has mastered her artfully virtuoso vocal abilities to an exceptional degree. In seamless sleights of hand she flexes the vowels, prolongs syllables while maintaining musical pulse and cadence, and playfully swirls around her accompanying musicians with ease and conviction. The singer is accompanied by different lineups throughout the album, drums shifting between Kyle Poole, Obed Calvaire and the untimely deceased Lawrence Leathers, piano between Aaron Diehl and Sullivan Fortner, on bass is Luques Curtis and percussion Weedie Braimah.

In between the irreproachable interpretations of evergreen-chansons like Léo Ferré's "Est-ce Ainsi Que Les Hommes Vivent," Pierre Changon, Francois Pruvost plus Modesto Romeo Martinez's "Il M'a Vue Nue" or Michael Berger's "Petite Musique Terrienne"—all impeccably instrumented and arranged —, Mclorin Salvant throws in the occasional Afro-Cuban chant in Haitian creole, adding more nuances and colorful flavors to the mix. Her own contributions do not pale in comparison—her take on chanson with "Doudou" as well as her original Renaissance-esque piece, the title track "Mèlusine" performed in duet with Daniel Swenberg on nylon string guitar, actually prove the highlights of the set. This may be the best the "Vocal Jazz"-genre currently has to offer. Not that Mclorin's art should be limited to a category—She reaches far beyond and between...

Onur Aymergen Quintet
Lunar
Losen Records
2023

Turkish guitarist Onur Aymergen leads a modern jazz quintet on "Lunar" that favors groovy ostinatos over up-tempo swing and cultivates a distinct acoustic fusion sound. There's some striking interplay to be found on the record's eight original cuts, most notably exchanged between Aymergen and pianist Can Çankaya. Both contribute bristling lines on top of ever-shifting changes on opener "Yeditepe" and turn the swing ballad "Lunar Part 2" into a melody-glazed showstopper with almost Paul Motian-esque drum-work by Turgut Alp Bekoglur, whose snare and ride accents fight any inkling of flowing continuity.

The trumpet is mainly employed for melodic unison purposes—a slight shortcoming on this disc that proves a waste of potential, for the brass picks up some slack on "Winter" and adds well-versed lines to a rhythmically angular but melodically immediate tune. More interjections of this sort would have further improved the already quite striking set. "African Ballad" is a late highlight once again showcasing Çankaya's fluid keys. Each instrumentalist takes up a solo on the lyrical track, rendering its fine melodies with passion.

Nick Finzer
Dreams, Visions, Illusions
Outside in Music
2023

Reigniting the passionate interplay and swinging verve of the trombonist's long-running sextet, Dreams, Visions, Illusions, presents Nick Finzer in fine form, sharing a ten-track program of original compositions that showcase his knack for trad-jazz swing while also presenting Finzer from his exploratory side. Divided into three acts, each entitled according to one of the album name's nouns, the set follows a loose concept based on the confrontation of dream and reality, vision and illusion. Much more tangible than the album's theme is the music on it, which alternates between up-tempo swingers like "To Dream A Bigger Dream" and "Follow Your Heart," lyrical explorations like "Aspirations and Convictions," laid-back swing tunes like "To The 'Top'" and more unusually shaped charts as illustrated on the dreamy "Visions or Mirage" or the largely through-composed "Intro To Follow Your Heart," which seamlessly segues into the song it introduces.

But more than just a random mix of jazz styles glued together by a vague underlying theme, the songs appear intricately connected by musical motifs, specific keys and an overreaching temperamental arc, constituting a logical sequence and sublime balance. Finzer's playing is unusually flexible, his trombone's attack breezy and its tone full-bodied while agile. On piano, Glenn Zaleski doesn't impose himself but elegantly adapts, adding harmonic embellishments where needed and accompanying with the kind of restraint that only the most experienced and disciplined among pianists are able to muster. Most instruments are wonderfully woven into the fabric of the music, only guitarist Alex Wintz occasionally appears out of nowhere for a quick fret-run across a couple of measures. Here's tension and relief, intrigue and reassurance, friction and harmony and, most importantly, much creativity to be discovered.

Tracks and Personnel

The Power and the Spirit

Tracks: Welcome; The IT Department; The Soul Messenger; For Phineas (Intro); For Phineas; Tales Of The Elephant And Butterfly; Good Intentions (Learn Our Names, Say Them Right); Thank You Betsy; The Power Of The Spirit.

Personnel: Isaiah J. Thompson: piano; Julian Lee: saxophone; Phillip Norris: bass; TJ Reddick: drums; Domo Branch: drums

Encore

Tracks: Onii San; Miniatures; Klaxon Pad Carnival; Please Wait; Let Co Flash; Continuum; Petit Matelot; Encore; Pantin, 25 octobre 2017, fin de matinée, petit studio; Journal, été 2017, Morvan; Panti, 25 Octobre 2017, fin d'après-midi, petit studio; Pantin, 2 novembre 2017, matinée puis milieu d'après-midi, auditorium; Cut Up, Pantin, octobre novembre 2017, lieux variés; Elie, été 2018; Coda, Pantin, 2 novembre, fin d'après-midi.

Personnel: Antonin Tri Hoang: alto saxophone, bass clarinet; Romain Clerc-Renaud: piano, keys; Thibault Cellier: double bass; Sylvain Darrifourcq: drums.

For Jameel: Fire from the Road

CD1: Improvised Music At The El Dorado Ballroom (Intro ByDave Dove); CD2: Junka Nu; Improvised Music At The Ballroom Marfa; Space Cowboys; CD3: Box Set; Junka New; Swimming In The Galaxy Of Goodwill And Sorrow.

Personnel: Steve Swell: trombone; Jemeel Moondoc: saxophone, alto; William Parker: bass; Hamid Drake: drums

Mélusine

Tracks: Est-Ce Ainsi Que Les Hommes Vivent?; La Route Enchantée; Il M'a Vue Nue; Dites Moi Que Je Suis Belle; Doudou; Petite Musique Terrienne; Aida; Mélusine; Wedo; D'un Feu Secret; Le Temps Est Assassin; Fenestra; Domna N'Almucs; Dame Iseut.

Personnel: Cecile McLorin Salvant: voice; Sullivan Fortner: piano; Aaron Diehl: piano; Paul Sikivie: bass; Kyle Poole: drums; Lawrence Leathers: drums; Godwin Louis: saxophone; Luques Curtis: bass; Weedie Braimah: percussion; Obed Calvaire: drums; Daniel Swenberg: flute.

Lunar

Tracks: Yeditepe; Spring; Huseiny; Lunar Part 1; Lunar Part 2; Winter; African Ballad (featuring Ida Aymergen); Northern Lights

Personnel: Onur Aymergen: guitar; Can Çankaya: piano; Tolga Bilgin: trumpet; Apostolos Sideris: double bass; Turgut Alp Bekoğlu: drums.

Dreams, Visions, Illusions

Tracks: To Dream A Bigger Dream; Aspirations And Convictions; Intro To Follow Your Heart; Follow Your Heart; I Thought I Should Take The Road Less Traveled; But I Did What They Said; To The Top; Visions Or Mirage; Waking Up; Now, Then, And When

Personnel: Nick Finzer: trombone; Lucas Pino: saxophone; Alex Wintz: guitar; Dave Baron: bass; Glenn Zaleski: piano; Jimmy Macbride: drums

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