Pulsating Rhythm, Complex Jazz, Rockin’ Blues and a Batman Big-Band

The Nick Moss Band featuring Dennis Gruenling bemoan The High Cost of Low Living and complaining never sounded so good. It’s been 12 CDs in 21 years for Moss. Guess it was only a matter of time before the wily Bruce Iglauer lured him into the Alligator pit. The result is a stone winner, a shining example of Chicago blues. When one learns at the knee of such Windy City stalwarts as Jimmy Rogers, Big Eyes Smith and Fast Fingers Dawkins, you wind up becoming that which you first emulated. Moss is the man in Chicago these days. This CD proves it. Dennis Gruenling, after 28 years, blows that bad-ass blues harp so beautifully and so powerfully, he has to be looked upon as one of its leading exponents. He too learned at the knee of legends, in his case James Cotton and Snooky Pryor. The two have joined forces to write nine and cover four, all 13 are the highlights and that’s rare.

Guitarist/Percussionist/Producer Kid Anderson is their ace in the hole and between these three all hell breaks loose from barrelhouse boogie and jump blues to rock’n’roll excess and steamy sweaty cryin’-in-yer-beer woman-losing feel-bad blues. They do Otis Spann’s piano blues “Get Your Hands Out Of My Pockets” better than the master himself. Boyd Gilmore’s “Rambling On My Mind” improves upon the one produced by Ike Turner in 1952. They excavate Santo & Johnny’s 1959 “All Night Diner” out of the dust bin of history to make it come alive again as the highlight! These road dogs are going at it non-stop and should be in your neighborhood any day now.

The Bat Swings (self-released) by The Flying Horse Big Band is a true boffo whiz-bang smack to the senses. Eschewing all modern cinematic Batman adaptations in favor of the 1960s TV show, it starts with “Batmobile To Airport” on into “Bat-Spin” and “Batman Solves The Riddler.” Blues (“Batman Blues”), samba (“Holy Hole In The Donut”) and Afro-Cuban (“Murcielago En Lal Cueva”) rear their heads and it all ends abruptly and unexplainedly with the gospel standard “Amazing Grace.” Even Spider-Man makes a surprise appearance (“Spider-Man Theme”).

Pianist Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette recorded the new two-disc After The Fall live in 1998 New Jersey. All three are masters. All three were at the top of their game on this night of nights, despite Jarrett’s lingering Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. They could make art out of a paper bag and do so here with the greatest version yet of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” Some tracks jam on for over 15 minutes but there’s not a second of wasted time. John Coltrane’s 1957 “A Moment’s Notice” is a fluttery, incandescent firefly of pure goosebump-inducing artistry. From “Doxy” by Sonny Rollins to Bud Powell’s “Bouncing With Bud” and Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple From The Apple,” these three have an unerring syncopated mysteriousness at work, so in tune with each other that one would think there’s a Vulcan mind meld going on here. They even make the mundane (“Autumn Leaves” and “When I Fall In Love”) into the sublime.

Contrast (Posi-Tone Records) by Josh Lawrence & Color Theory has the Philadelphia trumpeter ending two five-movement suites with Prince’s 1986 “Sometimes It Snows In April.” It’s a sterling moment, a fitting finale for an album steeped in mourning over the loss of Lawrence’s brother-in-law, and the needless deaths of such unarmed black youths as Michael Brown (Ferguson, Missouri) and Freddie Gray (Baltimore) at the hands of the police. “Gray” and “Brown” fit right into his Color Theory, a band named after the physiological and psychological malady known as synesthesia wherein patients can hear color and see sound. I’ve spoken to Brazilian sax man Ivo Perelman (who has it) about this odd state. He considers it a blessing, not an illness.

The three-man front line of trumpet, alto sax and trombone keep swirls of sound afloat to the point of non-stop beauty. Producer Marc Free makes sure the trebly highs are detailed down to every last ping of drummer Anwar Marshall’s hi-hat while not sacrificing one iota of bassist Luques Curtis and his constant forward motion. I tried watching the music come out of my speakers but could ascertain no color.

Beloved Of The Sky (Smoke Sessions Records) by pianist/composer Renee Rosnes is the jazz equivalent of the paintings of Canadian Emily Carr [1871-1945]. One such painting adorns the cover. It’s of a lone solitary tree reaching for the sky. The nine tracks with sax, flute, vibraphone, bass and drums (by the mighty Lenny White, formerly of Chick Corea’s groundbreaking ‘70s jazz-rock fusion band Return To Forever) flow effortlessly into each other from the opening “Elephant Dust” to the closing “Let The Wild Rumpus Start” (a line taken from Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are). In between is “Mirror Image,” a misty-eyed tribute to vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson [1941-2016]. All three are the highlights. This thing grows on you.

Fernando Garcia’s Guasabara Puerto Rico (Zoho) fuses the totally rhythmic African-derived “bomba” music of San Juan—where the beats and the sound of the dancers’ heels make a kind of aural tapestry—with modern jazz. It’s a heady concoction, spearheaded by drummer/composer/arranger Garcia and special guest Miguel Zenon on the 9:35 title track. Bass, piano, guitar, sax and percussion are juxtaposed against each other on purpose to create a swirling dialogue of combatants that never let up, veering into different time signatures (oftentimes within the same song) and utilizing complex charts that not only show off the strength of each player but achieves an over-all carnivalesque feel of total abandon. This must be what freedom feels like.

Run Deep (Motema Music) by Deva Mahal is a conscious stab at soul stardom from a talented singer/songwriter and First Daughter of the blues, in this case, Taj Mahal, 75, with whom she co-wrote “Never Let You Go” in 2008 for his close-to-perfection Maestro CD. Anyone who has seen Taj recently will know this big-kneed gal with the ocean of a voice. When she wraps her pipes around gospel, pop, blues, folk, funk, rock and/or R’n’B, the earth moves. Deva has always been an independent soul. She’s lived in New Zealand (where she wrote opener “Can’t Call It Love) and Brooklyn (where she wrote “Dream.”) The title track features a rap by her sister Coco Peila. The fitting finale is the song Carol King co-wrote for The Monkees in 1966) that her dad did in 1969 and has been a staple of his set ever since, “Take A Giant Step.” As co-produced by Scott Jacoby (Coldplay) and Jarrett Wetherell (Beyonce), the sound is Modern Dancefloor. But couldn’t she have done at least one blues?

About Mike Greenblatt

A longtime music journalist, Mike Greenblatt is a contributing editor with Goldmine magazine.

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