By Mike Greenblatt
The ghost of Charles Mingus hovers over bassist-composer Gregg August’s Dialogues On Race (Iacuessa Records). Mixed with the poignant poetry of Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, August has co-produced, performed, written and arranged these 12 tracks on two CDs for 12-piece jazz band plus strings and vocalists. An ambitious project, rising out of the Brooklynite’s experiences performing Latin, Classical, Avant-Garde and bop with the likes of Ornette, Chick and Branford, and fueled by an overriding sense of dread at what America has become, August has brilliantly sharpened his focus. It took over a decade.
August even found a soundbite of the mother of Emmett Till, lynched in 1955. “I can’t imagine writing music today without a greater narrative purpose,” August explains. He feels it’s “imperative to address the world as it is, particularly with the urgency of our political moment.” Now add angry-yet-uplifting trumpet, soprano sax, trombone, piano with Latin flourishes, deep grooves, and a wellspring of the kind of buoyant arrangements that bring this vision to life while making sure not to club you over the head with their intent…and you have an important work for our times that is still entertaining as hell. Somewhere, Mingus is smiling.
Hypersphere (ArtistShare) by Dave Pietro, his eighth, is an album filled to the brim with bubbling brown sugar. Producer/Arranger/Saxophonist/Flautist Pietro wrote, arranged and produced all eight tracks. He’s handpicked the kind of cats for his septet that perfectly compliment his thrilling solos with some mighty moments of their own. Trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, piano, keyboards, bass and drums/percussion fill the mix with dizzying action. It’s one of those records wherein you can sit and actually watch the music pour forth from your speakers.
Kemuel Roig came to Southern Florida at age 12 from his native Cuba and settled in to be the man-in-demand for a litany of Latin Jazz stars. He spent eight years touring with the legendary trumpeter Arturo Sandoval as well as spicing up the music of guitarist Al Di Meola. Now, at the young age of 32, he presents his debut, the aptly-named Genesis, self-released, self-produced, with a bevy of musicians—16 in all—well-versed in his brand of Afro-Cuban festivities. But it’s also so much more. His solo flights of fancy on piano are complex trips to heaven. Trumpeter Randy Brecker positively burns on highlight “Conversation.” The other highlight is “Café Con Leche” where you can taste, smell and feel the sound of Miami.
Message From Groove and GW (Arabesque Records) by the Radam Schwartz Organ Big Band has oh so many highlights from Coltrane’s “Blues Minor” and the Isleys’ “Between The Sheets” to Nat Adderley’s “Work Song,” Aretha’s “Ain’t No Way” and Bach’s “Von Gott.” The four trumpets, five saxophones and two trombones add heft to an already weighty proposition. The title refers to the work that organist Richard “Groove” Holmes [1931-1991] did with the Gerald Wilson Big Band wherein the organist played the bass parts (as does Schwartz). The native New Yorker solos on all 10 tracks. Twelve of the thirteen cats here also solo. Radam is a damn dynamo: influenced by Jimmy Smith [1928-2005], his sound is funky, syncopated, frothy and like icing on the best cake you’ve ever tasted. His time in the bands of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and David “Fathead” Newman has served him well. This, his 10 album (besides appearing on 40+ albums of others) is a delicious doozy.
Swiss tenor sax man Christoph Irniger’s Open City (Intakt Records) throbs with a life pulse radiating spiritual awareness. His trio with bassist Ziv Ravitz and drummer Raffaele Bossard (augmented with alto saxophonist Loren Stillman and trombonist Nils Wogram) plays a mystifying, adventurous kind of soundtrack music for a non-existing whodunit. The plot meanders helter-skelter through a myriad of changes and totally captivating side-trips, its 47:06 totally original, near brilliant and always entertaining. Stillman almost steals the show with his pipes, strength and propensity to go way out on a limb. Born in London, road-tested in New York City, now residing in Germany, when asked, he jumped at the opportunity to travel to Switzerland to record Open City. They bonded during a gig in Zurich, dueling saxes wildly soloing, but Irniger wanted more. Enter that big, long, sliding thing (as Dinah Washington once described it). The full and satisfying sound of a good ‘bone is always a plus. This intense front-line of two saxes/trombone makes Open City one of the best jazz albums to come out of Europe in quite some time.
John Beasley is one big-time heavyweight major-league motherf*cker. How many piano players can say they’ve played in the bands of Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Steely Dan and Herbie Hancock? His previous two MONK’estra recordings are both keepers and this third one, MONK’estra Plays John Beasley (Mack Avenue Records) concentrates on his own Thelonious-inspired compositions adding some Ellington and Bird (“Donna Lee” done Afro-Cuban). Beasley arranges spectacularly. He produces with an ear for exquisite detail. His cast is a super-session, an embarrassment of riches, with stars like organist Joey DeFrancesca, flutist Hubert Laws, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. He keeps it hoppin’ with some tracks featuring the entire 16-piece MONK’estra and others with a hot septet (dig those two tributes: “Sam Rivers” and “Masekela”). Then there’s a quintet that fuses Monk with folkloric North African rhythms (“Implication”). And it’s but a trio on “Be YOU.tiful.” If you only buy one jazz album this year…
The Choir Invisible (Intact Records), by Charlotte Greve, Vinnie Sperrazza and Chris Tordini, is a high-wire, no-chord act in nine all-original tracks of spontaneous composition juxtaposed with beautifully constructed pre-written pieces. The three Brooklynites support each other during solos to the point wherein their interplay and playful chemistry elevates the proceedings into art. Alto saxophonist Greve moved from her native Germany to New York in 2012. She’s obviously listened to her Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler records (all of which feature a trailblazing sax backed by but bass/drums). Drummer Sperrazza, 41, is an educator and native New Yorker, a leader in his own right, who drummed for the Mark Morris Dance Group’s Beatle-centric Pepperland performances in Liverpool England. Tordini is one of the most in-demand bassists in New York City. One listen to The Choir Invisible and you’ll understand why. Together, they make magic.