By Mike Greenblatt
Rachel Therrien loves her flugelhorn. On the cover of her exquisite fifth album Vena (Bonsai Music), she’s clutching it in rhapsody. She also blows a hot trumpet with her quintet of pianist Daniel Gassin, bassist Dario Guibert, drummer Mareike Wiening and sax man Irving Aceo. An international kind of gal, born in Canada, living in New York City, she studied music in Cuba, and toured extensively in Europe and Ukraine. Her Euro band sparkles on her 15 post-bop originals. Highlights include “75 Pages Of Happiness” for her 75-year old father, “Migration” for her life on the road, “Parity” for her strong feelings about gender equality and “Bilka’s Story” for an unforgettable Ukrainian friend. Latin flourishes abound. This one’s a keeper.
Connie Han says her music is “tough, primal, raw but still intellectually engaging.” She’s not kidding. An exquisite pianist in the McCoy Tyner mold, she also plays the hell of the Fender Rhodes keyboard. The follow-up to the outrageous potential of her 2018 Crime Zone debut, Iron Starlet (Mack Avenue Music Group) is what she is. A new voice for a not only a new generation, but for the generations who lived through the fusion and bebop revolutions, she’s also a bandleader of a dream quintet with bassist Ivan Taylor, drummer/producer Bill Wysaske, sax man Walter Smith III and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt (the new Freddie Hubbard!). Highlights include the 1948 jazz standard “Detour Ahead,” Han’s jazz waltz “The Forsaken” and a roots-reverent cover of “Chambers Of Tain” off Black Codes From The Underground, the Wynton Marsalis album that fueled the ‘80s New Traditionalist movement.
Ben Rice and RB Stone are Out Of The Box (Middle Mountain Music). With 22 previous albums between them, Brooklyn (Ben) meets Indiana (RB) on this all-original self-production featuring the sounds of the 3-, 4- and 6-string Cigar Box Guitar and their soulful blues-drenched vocals (with harmonica, drums, bass and tambourine). Be it Mississippi Delta (think Skip James), Roots Rock, Instrumental Jams, Rockabilly, Americana or Delbert McClinton-inspired Texas Honky Tonk, these boys do it up right for catchy repeated listening.
Al Gold’s Paradise may look different from yours. The cover has that abandoned-building feel but there’s nothing abandoned about these 10 dynamite originals. Gold produces, plays electric and slide guitar plus mandolin while howling like a true-blue Jersey boy playing down the shore. His vocals punctuate the proceedings with grit. In fact, it’s an all-Jersey crew of 13 and every track—especially highlight “Boogie In The Dark”—reeks with that Asbury Jukes party feel only with a lot more blues. This one’s a keeper!
There’s action aplenty on Not There Yet by the Chicago Yestet (Tiddlywinks Music). The intent of the 13-person Yestet is to cry out against America’s racist DNA but even if it sails over your head, the music itself is so vibrant, so alive with complex charts and powerful performances by three saxophones, two trumpets and two trombones all buoyed by a bass/guitar/piano/drums base that it can be digested whole on that level alone. The new jazz vogue of spoken-word passages works well in this context. Trombonist Joel Adams is the Yestet’s bandleader and composer. He’s fond of THE GROOVE so, although influenced by the Thad Jones/Mel Orchestra, he has also taken from the funky playbook of James Brown. The two obvious highlights are a transcendent 10:55 meandering on John Coltrane’s 1964 “Wise One” and the closing 9:02 jam called “Anthem For A New Generation Of Sociopolitical Reactionaries.”
Brilliant West African guitarist Lionel Loueke has undergone many a metamorphosis since he relocated to Paris and then the States. Every project that the 46-year old has ever been associated with in the last 17 years has been of note, from his days with Terence Blanchard and Herbie Hancock to his having a little something to do with the beautiful flowering of singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo. His 11 solo albums and his 37 appearances on albums by artists as far-ranging as Norah Jones to legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette are testament to his status as world music’s go-to guy.
It’s been 12 years since the second album of Loueke’s Gilfema trio with bassist Massimo Biolcati (born in Sweden/raised in Italy) and Hungarian drummer Ferene Nemeth. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait until 2032 for their fourth because Three (Sounderscore) is a masterpiece. Recorded in one marathon 12-hour jam session, then edited in post-production similar to how producer Teo Macero cut and pasted the electric efforts of Miles Davis, the groove-laden, danceable worldbeat takes on a whole ‘nother dimension. Its sole cover, Jimi Hendrix’s 1967 “Little Wing,” is so melodically gorgeous, one has to wonder why the song isn’t a jazz standard by now. “Happiness” melds Afro-Beat with a distinct Weather Report vibe. Bravo!
The third volume of Koko Mojo’s Popcorn Blues Party is out and that’s cause for celebration. Beer isn’t the only thing invented in Belgium. The country has also given the world a genre of music called popcorn. The fact that the rest of the world has yet to catch on to it after over 50 years since its 1960s inception by no means diminishes its appeal. Stemming from a club called The Popcorn, it encompasses a wide range of American styles under its umbrella, everything from R’n’B and Broadway musicals to tango, Phil Spector girl-group productions and lounge instrumentals. The glue that holds these widely-disparate genres together is that they all have to be in a slow or mid-tempo groove and—most importantly—be in a minor key. Thus, swaddled in a popcorn cocoon, these 22 tracks (no duds!) go from Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Louisiana Red, Harmonica Smith, Howlin’ Wolf, Nappy Brown, Magic Sam and Guitar Slim to ZZ Hill, Little Johnny Taylor, Mighty Joe Young and Sugarpie DeSanto.
It’s amazing how many star musicians graduated from the testing grounds of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Chuck Mangione, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Chick Corea, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Horace Silver are only nine of dozens. Add Shunzo Ohno to the list. The distinguished trumpeter/composer has recorded 18 albums as a leader and appeared on 30 more as a sideman. His time with legendary producer/arranger Gil Evans [1912-1988] for four albums is most apparent on his new Runner (Pulsebeats Records) where he seems to have used similar techniques to when Evans transcended the sound of Miles Davis in the ‘50s. The results are sterling.
Ohno is a survivor. His life has been the subject of no less than three biographies and one startling documentary, Never Defeated: The Shunzo Ohno Story wherein his battle to come back after the 1988 car crash that permanently damaged his mouth preceded a 1996 bout with throat cancer.
The Runner highlight has to be the four-part “Epic” suite. Aptly named, it’s symphonic in scope, meticulously arranged for a nonet of his trumpet, drums, clarinet, cello, bassoon, guitar, electric bass, acoustic bass and clavinet. One would think such a monumental effort takes some time to fully appreciate but think again. Runner is instantly catchy, memorable, accessible and wildly entertaining.