Catching up with great jazz from 2015

Before 2016 gets much older, I’ll weigh in on some music from 2015. These are recordings I listened to often, but which I never got around to writing about save for the odd tweet or Instagram posts.

Archie Shepp, Attica Blues Orchestra Live: I Hear the Sound

One measure for me if I like a session, especially a session featuring a larger ensemble, is if I think “I’d love to be in the middle of that sound,” not just as a listener but adding an inner voice.

Archie Shepp (Photo by Jan Kricke)

When I first heard Archie Shepp’s Attic Blues Orchestra: Live: I Hear the Sound (released in late 2014) that feeling was particularly acute. Back in 1973 when Shepp moved into academia, I was fortunate to be at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst where he landed. Then I was doubly fortunate to play in a number of ensembles he led. This was shortly after Attica Blues album was released. While I don’t think I played any of these particular charts, I played lots of music composed and arranged by Shepp. He used these ensembles to work through his newer work including a musical theater pieces. When I heard the wah-wah trombone on the opening “Attica Blues,” I was tickled — the plunger mute was my trick, and Shepp liked the sound and gave me a chance blow. This music is so reminiscent of that time. Not just the sounds, but the spirit of a living breathing organism, of everyone having a voice with Shepp’s voice on soprano and tenor saxophone and his hearty, theatrical baritone vocals, setting the pace. (Back at UMass when he failed to recruit a baritone saxophonist for his big band, he showed up at rehearsal with an instrument that looked like a refugee from a pawn shop and played the part himself. Could he blow that horn!)

This is music hard to categorize. Shepp’s love of the Ellington-Strayhorn oeuvre is evident as well as his connection to the funk and soul vernacular, not to mention the energy of free jazz. I wish I could say the politics are dated, they’re not. Always an agitator, Shepp was also a great romantic. Amina Claudine Myers to lend her powerful pipes and piano to the proceedings as well as singers Marion Rampal and Cecile McLorin Salvant (you can readmore about her below). A string quartet adds a lush touch to the big band. Not as edgy as the original, this live session shows the wear, tears and wisdom of the years.

Shepp’s legacy will be recognized this year when he will be celebrated as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Kamasi Washington, The Epic

I hear that Shepp influence in one of 2015’s most notable releases, Kamasi Washington’s three-disc The Epic . While he’s recorded a few self-produced albums and appeared with such notables as Gerald Wilson and Harvey Mason, this really is his coming out as a leader on the national scene.

Kamasi Washington (Photo from kamasiwashington.com)

How many younger players — he’s 34 — do so on such a grand scale. It helps when you collaborate with a hip hop star Kendrick Lamar on one the year’s highly regarded pop albums, To Pimp a Butterfly. Like Shepp he uses strings and voices to expand his palette. But he uses more of them to grand effect. Like Shepp, he’s not afraid to come off as sentimental, and he uses pop grooves to deliver populist jazz without condescension.

The core of the session is a medium-sized group that fluctuates from seven to 10 players. Washington works closely with trombonist Ryan Porter to create a fat sound up front, supplemented on some tracks by Igmar Thomas on trumpet. Washington doubles up on keyboards blending piano (Cameron Graves) and organ and keyboards (Brandon Coleman), bassists, Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner on electric and Miles Mosley on acoustic, and percussion Ronald Bruner Jr. and Tony Austin on drums and Leon Mobley on percussion. Patrice Quinn provides powerful vocals, delivering the inspiring lyrics on “The Rhythm Changes,” “Henrietta Our Hero,” and Terence Blanchard’s “Malcolm’s Theme,” where she’s joined by Dwight Trible. A sample of Malcolm X speaking is welcome update of the spoken word that Shepp would incorporate in his music.

Much here does evoke the 1970s, from the disco groove that underpins “Cherokee.” Some of the sound though seems intentionally dated, even corny. I mean how many times do you actually hear the lyrics to “Cherokee”? Quinn’s earnest delivery manages to pull it off. Washington’s own horn shouldn’t be overlooked amid all this. He has a robust sound and can wail like a free player when called for, but mostly he lays down trenchant, well-built solos. He’s mastered that almost lost art of saying plenty in a few bars. His solos are jewels that sparkle in the midst of his mammoth production.

Maria Schneider, The Thompson Fields

When Maria Schneider’s Winter Morning Walks arrived in 2013, I urged music lover to make room on their desert island lists. With every release one wonders what point the composer-bandleader will peak. On Winter Morning Walks using a full orchestral complement and the ethereal voice of Dawn Upshaw, she obliterated any line between concert music and jazz.

Maria Schneider (Photo by Whit Lane)

The Thompson Fields finds her back in more familiar territory, her all-star ensemble, which is a big band that merits being called an orchestra. Familiar territory is her inspiration. She evokes the open plains of her native central Minnesota. Like Shepp and Washington, she doesn’t eschew big statements. Her concern here is the natural world and European settlers’ at times uneasy interaction with that world. The packaging is filled with photos of the plains as they are now contrasted with vintage drawings of native birds. The music is elegiac, melancholy, with the ensemble sounding more than usual like a concert band. She calls on the members of her reed section to employ an array of instruments. (Tenor saxophonist Rich Perry is the exception.) The pieces are built around their individual voices. The session opens with an echo of Winter Morning Walks with a new orchestration of “Waking By Flashlight” slipping Scott Robinson’s alto clarinet into the spotlight, after his supporting role on the original chart. (One of the many things we should be grateful to Schneider for is so consistently showcasing Robinson on his arsenal of horns, though never on ophicleide.) The Thompson Fields stands as a classic evocation of the American landscape.

Vijay Iyer, Break Stuff

Vijay Iyer’s Break Stuff requires multiple auditions to mine its treasures. On the surface it is a wonderful contemporary trio session, further down I hear how Iyer transgresses the borders of pop, jazz and contemporary concert music — are these categories the “stuff” Iyer is breaking? — and how at its core are the intricate relationships among the musicians, where the bass drum stroke is as important as the piano flourish.

Vijay Iyer Trio: Stephan Crump, Marcus Gilmore & Vijay Iyer (Photo by Barbara Rigon)

The music benefits from the long association of bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore with Iyer. Take “Hood,” for example. Iyer executes the staggering head over a beat that seems to be tripping over itself — an effect, of course, that takes absolute control. I can separate out the strands of minimalism, funk, even hip hop, but the beauty is the way they are intertwined, and the way this piece flows into Monk’s “Work.” They seem of one piece, even as Iyer introduces “Work” with Monk’s own bass lick. The pieces are full of Iyer’s mathematical eloquence grounded and intertwined with the fluid grooves articulated by Gilmore and Crump.

Cecile McLorin Salvant (Photo from cecilemclorinsalvant.com)

Cecile McLorin Salvant, For One to Love

From an abstract session that slowly unveils its beauties to singer Cecile McLorin Salvant’s For One to Love where the charms spring out of the speakers and enchant you from the opening seconds. That Salvant opens with an original, “Fog,” shows her talent and confidence. For Love, her third album, is a mix of unusual covers, recognized standards and five originals that hold their own in such heavy company. She has a powerful, fluid alto voice that can deliver a bel canto phrase or growl, as she does to great effect on “Growlin’ Dan.” On “Trolley Song” she even slips in a few notes that are a spot-on impression of Judy Garland. Drawing material from early jazz through her own recent compositions gives her a wide enough palette to show off her voice. It never feels like showing off though. Every turn of phrase, every vocal gesture is to the service of the music, sometimes to humorous effect. How many jazz singers cover “Stepsisters’ Lament” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella”?

Salvant is supported in this by a strong rhythm section including bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Lawrence Leathers, and especially pianist Aaron Diehl. Though he takes few solos — credit the leader for eschewing the singer-solos-singer routine — he makes his presence felt, buoying Salvant’s voice as it transverses this colorful musical landscape. Salvant has a lot more territory to explore.

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