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Explore the undefinable, otherworldly, esoteric genre known as nu jazz

Push the envelope of the jazz genre with daring new releases that challenge the mind and heart from artists Tim Berne's Snakeoil, Marc Cary Focus Trio, Brian Hass and Matt Chamberlain, Myra Melford, Gretchen Parlato, Ahmad Jamal, David Hazeltine Trio and Stan Getz at his Montreux best.

By Mike Greenblatt

If you've become bored with the same-old, same-old, there's never been a better time to discover new musical territory, thanks to the recent bumper crop of new jazz (aka Nujazz and nu jazz) releases.

"Shadow Man" (ECM), by Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, ups the ante on the band’s self-titled 2012 debut. Together four years, the alto saxophonist and his world-class quartet have achieved a stunning synthesis of sound that dares you to classify it. The action gets intense ... morphing the outer-space approach of latter-day John Coltrane into a band setting. This inter-band telepathy informs such unique tracks as “OC/DC,” “Socket” and “Cornered (Duck),” all 20 minutes long. The disparity between the kick to the gut (drummer/percussionist/vibraphonist Ches Smith used to play in metal and punk bands) and the oddly asymmetrical soothing passages are downright dizzying. Berne plays Paul Motian’s “Psalm” as a celestial duet with pianist Matt Mitchell and it’s like the calm before another storm. Oscar Noriega is the band’s secret weapon on clarinet and steals the show. Could there be another band as adventurous, luminous and dynamic? This is music you either concentrate upon or you have to leave the room. Go there if you dare.

The Marc Cary Focus Trio. publicity photo

The Marc Cary Focus Trio. publicity photo

"Four Directions" (Motema Music), by the Marc Cary Focus Trio, is also innovative, challenging and risky. The disparity between its organic acoustic tracks and its synth-laden electronica is not only charming and highly entertaining, but it’s at the crux of Cary’s entire oeuvre. Dude plays piano but also plays synthesizer, Wurlitzer and Fender Rhodes. And get this: he also plays keyboard instruments of his own invention, one of which is an "ultra sonic sensor that transmits the movement of people in the audience and converts it into MIDI compatible data," later used both live and on CD. Four Directions branches off into just that, one such direction being India. “Todi Blues” is based on the traditional Indian classical raga yet is fused with his experience playing in Washington DC go-go bands. With Sameer Gupta on drums and tabla and Rashaan Carter on bass (plus guest bassist Burniss Travis), the directions branch out into a waltz in honor of vocalist Betty Carter [1929-1998] and some delicious fusion on a cover of “Spectrum,” originally by The Tony Williams Lifetime.

"Frames" (Kinnara/The Royal Potato Family) is an original 11-track suite for piano and percussion written and performed by pianist Brian Haas with drummer Matt Chamberlain. Haas is the founder of the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey with whom he has toured for 20 years and recorded 21 albums. “I felt completely drained,” he says. Moving from his Tulsa Oklahoma home to Santa Fe New Mexico—with its deserts and mountains—invigorated his spirit. This duo concept had been talked about for 13 years and now that it’s here, one can hear the influences that sparked its genesis: Harlem stride piano of the 1930s, ambient minimalism of such avant-garde composers of Philip Glass and Steve Reich and, key to its success, a lush cinematic modernism. As with Berne and Cary, Haas loves to juxtapose the serene with the rocky cliffs of danger. Don’t get lulled into a false sense of security with its mesmerizing pastoral passages because you might get jarred at any moment with a shock. This is music wherein your debut listen is one experience…and subsequent listens are totally another, because, unlike your debut listen, you know what’s coming…but you still don’t know exactly when.

Brian Haas and Matt Chamberlain Frames
Myra Melford. Publicity photo.

Myra Melford. Publicity photo.

"Life Carries Me This Way" (Firehouse 12) is a solo experiment by Myra Melford where the pianist approximates 11 paintings by Don Reich. Reich, who died in 2010, was a California artist known for his striking canvases, filled with abstracts, still lifes and wildly colorful cartoon-styled visions. Every one of his paintings has been reproduced in the CD’s packaging so one could listen to Melford’s impressionistic approach while gazing upon the painting that inspired it. Thus, his Cubist landscape “Park Mechanics” becomes the odd angular opening track. His “Red Land” becomes her slow, as-the-sun-rises, kind of dawning. His “Piano Music” turns into modular avant-garde-isms where she clusters heaps of notes atop each other in flurrying dramatic fashion before smoothing out into a panoply of emotion, genre-defying logic and pristine beauty.

Gretchen Parlato. Publicity photo.

Gretchen Parlato. Publicity photo.

Our token vocalist this blog is the cool Gretchen Parlato, who's been singing in New York City bistros for a decade. "Live In NYC" (ObliqSound) is a CD/DVD recorded at The Rockwood Music Hall. With sympathetic backing of keyboards, bass and drums, Parlota adds percussion and her own very stylistic and idiosyncratic way with words. She infuses Herbie Hancock's "Butterfly," Lauryn Hill's "All That I Can Say," Wayne Shorter's "Juju" and five more with a sophisticated, sultry and soulful samba feel.

Ahmad Jamal Sunday Morning Jazz

Ahmad Jamal. Publicity photo.

"Saturday Morning" (Jazz Village), by the 83-year old piano legend Ahmad Jamal, has this educator, composer and role model playing as brilliantly and progressively as he ever has.

This one's a quartet with drummer Herlin Riley, bassist Reginald Veal and percussionist Manolo Badrena, all masters in their own right. His reworking of Duke Ellington's "I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good" is, alone, worth the price of admission. Doris Day once sang "I'll Always Be With You."

Somewhere in Jamal's poly-rhythmic bursts of creativity is its melody. James Moody may have popularized "I'm In The Mood For Love" but Jamal turns it inside-out and upside-down. Get the picture? Plus, Jamal's new originals are all instant classics.

"Impromptu" (Chesky) by The David Hazeltine Trio — Hazeltine, piano; George Mraz, bass and Jason Brown, drums--is a stone gorgeous beaut of classical motifs arranged for jazz trio. I'm talkin' Debussy's "Clair de lune," Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," Tchaikovsky's "Waltz Of The Flowers," Chopin's "Prelude," Bach's "Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring" and three more. This stuff is good for you. Like vegetables. Mmmmm.

David Hazeltine Trio Impromptu

In closing, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention "Live At Montreux 1972" (Eagle Rock Entertainment) by The Stan Getz Quartet.

Stan Getz Live at Montreux 1972

Why does this apply to a new-jazz blog? Getz [1927-1991], the pioneering tenor and baritone saxophone player who championed Brazilian music for the masses with his 1964 “The Girl From Ipanema” after jumpstarting Woody Herman’s bigband in the ‘40s, and ultimately swerving between the cool school of jazz and some heavy bebop, was always a forward-thinking, new-jazz advocate. Thus, on this cherished night at the world’s most legendary European festival, he furthered the nascent jazz-rock fusion scene with a band comprised of pianist Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke (it’s where they met before forming Return To Forever) and drummer Tony Williams…legends all. Sure, they do Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” but they also work out on Corea’s “Captain Marvel,” “La Fiesta” and “Day Waves.”