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Roll Call: Big Band Edition, Sept. 3, 2020

I get a lot of music for my consideration, more than 325 new releases so far this year. Almost all of them are notable for something, and I’d like to give them their due. So every week, I’ll do quick hits on the releases of the preceding seven days. it’s a great writing exercise, and a lot of fun, too.

Labor Day is this weekend and the prospect of hearing ensemble jazz of any kind seems very far away. When the ensemble crowds more than a dozen players onto the bandstand, most of them playing instruments activated by the breath, big band performances are likely to be the last to return.

Yet at a moment when things couldn’t get much stranger or more ironic, here comes one of the richest crops of big band recordings in a long time.

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Roll Call: August 28, 2020

I get a lot of music for my consideration, more than 325 new releases so far this year. Almost all of them are notable for something, and I’d like to give them their due. So every week, I’ll do quick hits on the releases of the preceding seven days. it’s a great writing exercise, and a lot of fun, too.

Scientists place the origin of the Romany people in Rajasthan in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent. In this context, one might view Rez Abbasi’s Django-shift as the latest in a series of interrogations of the guitarist’s South Asian heritage with musicians such as pianist Vijay Iyer, saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and vocalist Kiran Ahluwalia, his partner. But Django Reinhardt, a Belgian-born Roma, is also a sometimes-overlooked part of the jazz guitar heritage, too.  Does that make “Django-shift” a tribute record? Maybe, but there’s no ventriloquism here, none of the distinctive chop-chop  of the Manouch rhythm that drove Reinhardt’s “gypsy jazz,” and no violin foil, either. Abbasi favors the lightly electrified tone of his predecessor, but he occasionally rocks out, too.  So does the band, which features Neil Alexander‘s electric keyboards and Michael Sarin‘s crisp, flexible drumming. Abbasi arranges “Django’s Castle” and “Douce Ambience” as lounge-y organ-trio features and Monk is invoked as often as Reinhardt, especially on the arrangement of Reinhardt’s “Diminishing.” On “Django-shift” Abbasi honors Django by being himself, and in so doing casts a fascinating new light on a player we shouldn’t forget.


There are times on Champian Fulton’s new Birdsong when her vocals linger so far behind the beat that I feared that the pianist couldn’t stay with her. Except that Fulton is the pianist, and she’s terrific, channeling not only Errol Garner rhythmic games of chicken, but also such pre-bop masters as Teddy Wilson and Billy Kyle. Few instrumentalists play like this anymore since this elastic approach to rhythm was all but swept away by the bebop charge led by Charlie Parker, whose centenary today this release celebrates. It didn’t disappear entirely, though, surviving in the vocal styles of Dinah Washington, Nancy Wilson and Betty Carter, who took rhythmic elasticity to an extreme. Fulton has a lighter, less bluesy voice than those luminaries, but she uses it playfully and is a fearless improvisor. Her musicmaking fairly overflows with joy on this program of 11 songs associated by Parker and it’s often thrilling to hear her highwire act.  Saxophonist Scott Hamilton is an old hand at this kind of material and Fulton’s father, Stephen, adds trumpet on a couple of songs. The rhythm team of bassist Hide Tanaka and drummer Fukushi Tainaka ticks along deferentially in a way that today’s more assertive rhythm sections abjure. If all this suggests a record that might have been made in, say, 1961, well, you’re not wrong.  But there is something almost radical in the way Fulton and her mates bring to this material something that jazz could use more of these days:  charm.


Who knew that the 17 melody notes of “Moonlight In Vermont” exactly fit the 5-7-5 metrical pattern of haiku? Violinist Tomoko Omura did and built her arrangement of the overplayed standard around 17-beat rhythmic cycle. It’s one of the many felicities built into her new Outside in Music release Branches Vol. 1Omura is a self-effacing leader, opening lots of room her airy rhythm section of guitarist Jeff Miles, Pablo Menares on bass and drummer Jay Sawyer and pianist Glenn Zaleski whose sparkling touch steals the show. Omura’s five originals , inspired by Japanese folktales, unfold with the clarity—and a bit of the mystery—of a Murakami short story.  The comparisons don’t end there; “Branches Vol. 1” clocks in at a brisk 36 minutes,  but it’s as light and refreshing as a bottle of sparkling rosé.


It’s tempting to call Matt Wilson the Clown Prince of Jazz, but that misses the point. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments on his new Palmetto Records release Hug! that are laugh-out-loud funny, and he fairly telegraphs as much with titles such as “Space Force March” (in a medley with Sun Ra’s “Interplanetary Music”) and “Man Bun.” That’s a bit of misdirection from the ebullient drummer who instead plants his flag with the title smack in the middle of the 11-cut program. It’s “Joie de Vivre”  by saxophonist Dewey Redman, in whose band Wilson broke in. Little surprise then that the music’s Ornette Coleman flavor goes beyond Wilson’s quartet lineup of two horns, bass and drums, one that Coleman popularized. Like Don Cherry, puckish cornetist Kirk Knuffke eschews the trumpet for a more pungent instrument, here the cornet. Jeff Lederer rolls out a velvety tenor saxophone tone on the dapper Redman tune, pipes brightly on soprano on the earwormy “Hamba Kahle” (not the Abdullah Ibrahim tune) and plays a droll clarinet on “King of the Road” (yes, that one). Chris Lightcap, replacing Paul Sikivie, adds his usual bounce on bass.  As for Wilson, has any drummer lifted a band like this since Billy Higgins? On sticks or brushes, his beat is almost giddy; he’s rhythmic helium. No bandleader in jazz communicates the unbounded joy of living and making music than Wilson does. Coming in the middle of the swirling dread of 2020, Matt Wilson’s bighearted, thoroughly wonderful “Hug!” might be the most subversive release of the year.

Two other releases that dropped yesterday, Mike Fahie’s “Urban(e)” and Manuel Valera’s “José Martí En Nueva York,” are big band dates that are so notable that they’ll receive their own review sometime this week–if the power stays on.

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Roll Call Extra: August 20, 2020

We’ve reached the point of the summer that would normally be peak jazz festival season. And while there’s no replacing the alchemy of sun, live music and effortless companionship that makes this the sweetest time of year for many jazz fans, the last couple of weeks have brought an armful of unusually compelling new releases to salve the sting of live music’s continued absence.

Did any jazz musician have a better year in 2019 than Greg Ward? He seemed to show up on a disproportionate number of the year’s best releases including his own “Stomping Off From Greenwood,” bringing fiery commitment, dazzling facility and a secure grounding in the blues, a modern-day Cannonball Adderley. He’s been quieter this year, but the release of High Alert,” a three-song, 23-minute EP, is a reminder of his gripping artistry–and one with an unusually compelling backstory. While on tour in 2009, Ward and the band were hustled off their train into the middle of a neo-Nazi rally in Moravia. Chased by rioters, they managed to escape to Poland and relative safety. You don’t need to know any of this to hear the menace in the siren effects that begin the title cut or the urgency and confusion of the argument between Ward’s alto and Rob Clearfield‘s piano in the urgent, Romany-tinged “Dogfight.” When Quin Kirchner’s drums slam the door shut, the chase is on. It’s heart-pounding stuff, culminating in alto shrieks from Ward. The concluding movement, “To Know Peace,” is a flowing song of thanksgiving with deep-toned bass from Jeff Greene and a pastoral, quintessentially Midwestern Clearfield solo drenched in hope and optimism. Ward and his Chicago band made this recording in 2013. It’s not clear why he sat on it for so long, but he couldn’t have picked a more apposite time to release it.

That goes double for Gregg August’s Dialogues On Race, Vol. 1,” a commissioned piece originally performed in 2009 but seemingly written for this precise moment. Writing for and leading a midsized ensemble from the bass, August’s project inevitably recalls Charles Mingus. Yet August is white, and the appropriately sober respectfulness with which he approaches his subject is world’s away from Mingus’ volcanic passions, but no less moving for it. Is there any other way to hear Marcus Rojas’ strangled tuba solo in “Letter to America” than as the voice of George Floyd, even though it was recorded 15 months to the day before Floyd’s murder? Another murder, that of Emmet Till (65 years ago next Friday) runs like a through-line emotionally and thematically uniting the work’s 12 movements. Many were inspired by poems by Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and others, and a few offer direct settings of complete poems or excerpts. The most moving of them might be “I Sang in the Sun,” delivered in a high tenor of unearthly purity by Forest Van Dyke. The instrumental ensemble, including tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen, trumpeter John Bailey and the sensitive pianist Luis Perdomo, is all in and every member contributes to the economical and vivid solos. This isn’t hortatory, mount-the-barricades music. If August is calling us to do anything, it’s to reflect on the moment and the attitudes and injustices that brought us to this baleful place in American history. The most eloquent voice on the record belongs to Mamie Till whose measured, clear-eyed reflections on the murder of her son embody August’s message of fearless witness and eternal vigilance. She is the conscience of an eloquent and deeply-felt musical statement, one that offers a rebuke to the society that stubbornly clings to values and behaviors that makes such a statement necessary in the first place.

Timely in a different way is the Michael Formanek Quartet‘s cheekily titled Pre-Apocalyptic,” which was a surprise drop on Bandcamp’s August 7 no-fee day. Along with releases by Nick Dunston and Anna Webber, “Pre-Apocalyptic” inaugurated Out of Your Head Records‘ new Untamed series of digital-only releases that the label says have “a quicker turnaround than a traditional studio album.” That doesn’t exactly apply to the Formanek release, which was recorded at an unidentified tour stop in 2014. Judging from the apparent size of the audience and the sound quality, my guess is that “Pre-Apocalyptic” is a stage recording of the May 9 performance at Vicenza, Italy, but matters of provenance dissolve in the face of music this powerful and imaginative. Formanek is a Hubble Telescope of a composer and this is music that peers deeply into cosmic vistas. Absent is the vast soundscape afforded by ECM on 2012’s “Small Places” on which four of the seven compositions here originally appeared, but the complex, haunting music hangs in the air, a beckoning mystery. It’s always fascinating to hear Tim Berne as a sideman, here bluesier than he tends to be on his own projects. Drummer Gerald Cleaver is low in the mix, which is a shame; his decisions on when to push the band and when to comment are uncanny. Craig Taborn is absolutely at the top of his game, which means he’s mindblowing as both an accompanist and a soloist–and frequently both simultaneously. Formanek is the dark matter that holds all this mindpower together. If you’re not convinced that you need to download “Pre-Apocalyptic” right away, consider that all proceeds from your purchase will be given directly to the artists, and OOYH Records will donate an additional $1 for each album sold to Black Lives Matter, the organization chosen by Formanek. By the way, the very cool cover art is by T.J. Huff.

When this dreadful year ends, there won’t be much to look back on with fondness. Still, seeing these three releases on the lists of the best recordings of 2020, you’ll have to conclude that musically at least, this was a pretty good year.

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Roll Call: August 14, 2020


Yeah, it’s been a minute.

Procrastination is the work-spouse of every writer and I’m inordinately friendly with mine, but that’s not what happened here. Frankly, the events of late May were so momentous that writing about music seemed not just a luxury, but almost an insult. It was a time that called for witness and for listening–and not to music, even music of urgency and substance. The silence that was tugging at my coat was the silence of the confessional or the sickroom, a place in which one could try to process the fever that this society was trying to sweat out.

I haven’t completely done that, but lately, I’ve felt another tug on my coat. It was music, reminding me that consolation, inspiration and explanation are all still out there waiting. And joy, the kind that happens when you share a world with brilliant creators.

I’ve missed some exceptional releases, and will hopefully loop back to give them the consideration they deserve, maybe in feature reviews that will post midweek, but at the moment, the best way to jump back in is to resume this Friday roundup of the week’s releases.



Debut recordings these days often take the form of calling cards designed to show off everything the leader can do. When that leader is as versatile, fluent and well trained as trombonist Javier Nero is, focus can take a back seat to exuberance. Still Freedom offers an appealingly generous tasting menu that leaps out of the gate with “Double Vision,” a Blakey-an burner with Messengers alumnus Brian Lynch on top. Before its 66 minutes is up, “Freedom”

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Roll Call: April 24, 2020

I get a lot of music for my consideration, more than 174 new releases so far this year. Almost all of them are notable for something, and I’d like to give them their due. So every week, I’ll do quick hits on the releases of the preceding seven days. it’s a great writing exercise, and a lot of fun, too.

Grdina Marrow Safar-E-DaroonThough it probably wasn’t what he had in mind, Gordon Grdina has certainly earned a break from the pace of his busy spring on the recorded front. Already this year, the Vancouver guitarist/oud player has released three CDs under his own name with three different groups, Nomad, Resist (which I reviewed here) and now Safar-Al-Daroon” from yet another band. This one, called Marrow, features a dark-hued string trio with a couple of New York ringers, bassist Mark Helias and cellist Hank Roberts, and the impressive and versatile young Canadian violinist Josh Zubot. Hamin Honari contributes colorful and propulsive grooves on Persian goblet and frame drums.

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