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October 2023: An Improvised Paradise

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The Angelica Sanchez Nonet
Nighttime Creatures
Pyroclastic Records
2023

One rarely gets to hear the contra-alto clarinet—an instrument mainly developed in the 20th century with a range extending downwards to the lower E-flat (concert G-flat), sometimes even a D or a C. On the introductory title cut of Nighttime Creatures, however, it is in plain sight, roaring through the stumbling avant-garde piece with its thunderous register like a bull in a china shop. Only here, the china shop is full of bulls that come in different sizes. The clarinetist is Ben Goldberg, who is joined by alto saxophonist Michael Attias and Chris Speed on tenor sax, Kenny Warren on cornet and Thomas Heberer on quarter-tone trumpet. The horns are stacked transparently, fading in and out of the ensemble as the score demands. Guitarist Omar Tamez grounds some of the unison lines with biting string timbres, accompanied by Sam Ospovat's percussive drum work and John Hébert on bass. Angelica Sanchez, the nonet's unassuming leader, patiently guides the action, leaving most of the call and response motifs to her hand-picked mini-orchestra throughout the eleven-piece programme.

Barring Duke Ellington's "Lady Of The Lavender Mist" and "Tristeza" by Chilean composer Armando Carvajal, the set is made up of Sanchez-originals that play a game of tug-of-war with tonal centers, motifs and various other compositional elements in a playful manner. Songs like "Cloud House" intermittently come across in a more traditional big band guise, with parts of the ensemble subsiding to let a lyrical saxophone solo unfurl—however each composition holds an unpredictable future, and what was true for the first couple of bars doesn't necessarily have to remain true after. In this specific example, Sanchez at one point starts introducing washes of dissonant lines across the keys, as new motifs are introduced with the horns scratching against the wholesome fabric of the tune in screeching registers. The ensemble's pass at Ellington is breathtaking, "Land Here" a feast of orchestral friction and "Run" sounds like equal parts Ellington-, Art Blakey and Ornette Coleman homage. If that doesn't sound like something worth checking out, then what does?

Mário Costa
Chromosome
Clean Feed
2023

The short hype-quote by Enrico Rava, printed onto the inside of the cardboard CD-sleeve edition of Portuguese drummer Mário Costa's new album comes across a tad obtrusive (it starts with "I love it. The more I listen to it, the more I love it."). Moreover, it is unnecessary; the music here speaks for itself. Accompanied by a top-tier cast of Benoit Delbecq on keys, trumpeter Cuong Vu and Bruno Chevillon on double bass, Costa presents nine original compositions that combine intricate rhythmic twists with lyrical melodies and sonic landscapes that blend acoustic jazz foundations with electronic colorations.

In addition to piano, Delbecq contributes electronic impulses via synth and samples, often responding to Costa's busy percussive framework with transfigured sinus-waves or laying down tapestries of sound with more atmospherical purpose. Costa too employs the occasional electronic interjection, all with the goal of framing Cong Vu's round tone and penetrating trumpet lines, cutting through the group sound with rare determination. Though many motifs are thoroughly though-composed, the group's breezy interplay leaves room for the notes and sounds to breathe. A modern jazz record with an electronic twist.

Ember
August in March
Imani Records
2023

A folkloric approach with spiritual tendencies inhabits August in March, the third record of the Ember trio with Caleb Wheeler Curtis on sax, Noah Garabedian on bass and Vincent Sperrazza on drums. The aspect of folklore may be rooted in Wheeler's mesmerizing alto lines that spin ritualistic melodies around steadily shifting percussive backdrops. It might also be alluded to by Garabedian's often quite fundamental bass-lines, prioritizing the root, thirds and fifths over the more eccentric forms of accompaniment. Then again, this isn't true for every cut on the record, which covers a range of styles over the course of eleven originals by the band. On the title track, for instance, Garabedian picks up the bow, occasionally blending his arco lines with Curtis's saxophone melodies before crossing into counterpoint as the drums push the percussive impulses into a subtle rubato.

There's almost a punk rock attitude to "Frank In the Morning," with the drums bashing it out to overblown alto sweeps. The music can be sparse and careful, as on the whispery and mysterious "No Signal," gentle and lyrical as with "Easy Win," and relaxing and whimsical as on the melodically more immediate closer "Sam Cooke." Between free, post-bop, rock, folk and idioms less classifiable, Ember clearly defy categorization and prefer the undefined space in-between the camps. It's an exciting space to explore.

Yonathan Avishaï
Retrouvailles
Paradis Improvisé
2023

Part of a 14-album-solo-piano-series on the Paradis Improvisé label, Yonathan Avishai's contribution Retrouvailles certainly stands out as one of the most striking results. There's a particular intimacy here that reaches beyond the mere fact that Avishaï plays alone. The listener is standing close to the piano, with one ear to the instrument's body, revealing its every detail transparently and lucidly. Recorded in one go, the pianist offers a broad repertoire, bound by Avishaï's characteristically minimalist style and soft touch.

Next to the almost simplistic originals like "Retrouvailles En Sol" and "Retrouvailles En La," Avishaï also tackles a couple of standards in the Cole Porter-penned "So In Love" from 1948 and John Coltrane's "Moment's Notice," impressionistically delivered here. On his own "Spring Waltz" the pianist seemingly channels everything from Art Tatum's rag-influenced style to Dave Brubeck's "Take Five," before going off on a neo-classical tangent. It's all expertly delivered, with high spirits and in good fun. The album concludes with a cover of the Israelian band Kaveret's 1975 hit "She Is So Beautiful," whose changes sound like something from a Billy Joel song book and which Avishaï effortlessly makes it his own here. The album isn't a grand gesture, nor a statement of intent, but a peaceful musical offering to keep one's company when the hustle and bustle of the day is over.

Todd Sickafoose
Bear Proof
Secret Hatch Records
2023

Perhaps not among the most prominent musicians in jazz circles, bassist Todd Sickafoose initially made his big break with and after producing the Anaïs Mitchell folk-musical Hadestown (Righteous Babe, 2010), which would go on to become a major hit on Broadway and beyond. But Sickafoose had already proved to be a slick arranger and producer prior to that, with his 2008 recording Tiny Resistors (Cryptogramophone Records). The project had brought the bassist together with the likes of Allison Miller and Ben Wendel. Not to mention Sickafoose being a former student of Charlie Haden's—the jazz connection is obviously there. Bear Proof was originally recorded in 2013, but its release delayed, among other things, due to the composer's ongoing success with the Broadway musical.

The album continues in the cinematic tradition of Tiny Resistors, presenting extended and mesmerizing simple chord vamps as platforms for improvisation. Miller returns on drums as violinist Jenny Scheinman performs outstanding solos on top of the often uneven time signatures that blend groove and atmospheric sound-tapestries to a conceptual effect. A song like "Flush" infuses the "musical" aspect of Sickafoose's work with a pinch of the burlesque, accompanied by Gypsy-like forays of Rob Reich on accordion and Ben Goldberg on clarinet. On "Magnetic North" Adam Levy takes the reins, leading the ten-minute folk ballad with shiny tremolo guitar strings plucking away with authentic twang. It's the kind of record that sparks images of the mind and follows them through until they roll out like a film—each frame holding a new piece of information that completes a colorful picture full of shifting landscapes, zooming in on the city, then the countryside and back again.

Kurt Rosenwinkel
Undercover: Live At The Village Vanguard
Heartcore Records
2023

Master-guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel is keeping busy on his own Heartcore label, having just recently released a follow-up to his unexpected solo piano venture Kurt Rosenwinkel Plays Piano (2021) at the end of 2022 in the shape of another instrumental solo recording, this time performed on baritone guitar, titled Berlin Baritone. Then there was The Chopin Project, a quartet venture reimagining pieces by Frédéric Chopin in a jazz guise, with Swiss pianist Jean-Paul Brodbeck, among others. Soon a one in a kind live-album of Rosenwinkel in duo with the late Geri Allen called A Lovesome Thing will see the light of day, recorded all the way back in 2012, in Paris.

Undercover too is a live recording, captured at The Village Vanguard over a three-night stint. Framed in a familiar setting, Rosenwinkel is accompanied by Aaron Parks on piano and synthesizer, Eric Revis on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums, presenting a handful of originals—some previously known, others new. "Cycle Five" opens the set and is an early highlight of the album. The interplay between the four is tightly interwoven yet spacious at the same time—Rosenwinkel proves his obvious knack for creating a catchy melody and linking it to a tricky time signature. His characteristic electric guitar tone has developed an even more reverb-drenched quality over the past decade and is completely attackless, like ripples of water in a lake just swelling and sweeping over the frets. Sometimes this effect will however rob the guitar of its grounding.

"The Past Intact" is a modern post-bop number with especially fiery contributions by Hutchinson, while "Solé" brings the group into ballad territory with Rosenwinkel in a lyrical mode, humming melodies of contemplation to a Latin-American clave. The groovy "Our Secret World," previously documented on Rosenwinkel's 2010 recording in collaboration with the Portuguese Orchestra de Jazz Matosinhos, sees Parks switching to Fender Rhodes, as Rosenwinkel "shreds" with style. On "Music" Revis makes his bass sing before Parks delivers a tasteful piano solo that segues into a guitar solo, which brings to mind the artful playing of one late John Abercrombie in more than one instance. The concluding title track "Undercover" is a 13-minute fusion workout that sees each member of the quartet stretching muscles. Rosenwinkel continues to be an exceptional musician of whom one never knows what to expect next.

Tracks and Personnel

Nighttime Creatures

Tracks: Nighttime Creatures; C.B. the Time Traveler; Cloud House; Astral Light of Alarid; Lady of the Lavender Mist; Land Here; Ringleader; Big Weirdo; Wrong Door for Rocket Fuel; Tristeza; Run.

Personnel: Angelica Sanchez: piano, compositions; Michaël Attias: alto saxophone; Ben Goldberg: contra alto clarinet; John Hébert: bass; Thomas Heberer: quarter-tone trumpet; Sam Ospovat: drums; Chris Speed: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Omar Tamez: guitar; Kenny Warren: cornet.

Chromosome

Tracks: Adamastor; Chromosome: Victória; Moluccas; Moonwalk; Antipodes; La grotte; Chamber Music; Astrolabe.

Personnel: Mário Costa: drums, electronics & composition; Cuong Vu: trumpet; Benoît Delbecq: piano, synths & samplers; Bruno Chevillon: doublebass.

August in March

Tracks: Suspense; Snake Tune; Frank In The Morning; August In March; Angular Saxon; No Signal; Easy Win; Sink And Swim; Flotation Device And The Shivers; Break Tune; Sam Cooke.

Personnel: Caleb Wheeler Curtis: saxophone; Noah Garabedian: bass; Vincent Sperrazza: drums.

Retrouvailles

Tracks: Retrouvailles en Sol; So In Love; Retrouvailles en La; Moment's Notice; Good Morning Heartache; Spring Waltz; She is so beautiful.

Personnel: Yonathan Avishaï: piano.

Bear Proof

Tracks: The Gold Gate; Bent Into Shape; Switched On; Flush; Magnetic North; Boom Bust Startup Ruin; Turns Luck; Prospects; Reverse Fortune.

Personnel: Todd Sickafoose: double bass; Jenny Scheinman: violin; Allison Miller: drums; Kirk Knuffke: cornet; Ben Goldberg: clarinet; Adam Levy: guitar; Erik Deutsch: piano; Rob Reich: accordion.

Undercover: Live At The Village Vanguard

Tracks: Cycle Five; The Past Intact; Solé; Our Secret World; Music; Undercover.

Personnel: Kurt Rosenwinkel: guitar; Aaron Parks: piano; Eric Revis: bass; Gregory Hutchinson: drums.

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