If many long-term, old school jazz fans are to be believed, the only thing we can – or should – do is celebrate what has come before from masters like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and (the pre-electric) Miles Davis. After all, that was when “the really great jazz” was made, and nothing new could ever measure up to those legendary recordings. If you’re of that opinion, then this ain’t your column! If you’d like to see what vibrant, exciting things are happening in the music that spawned the Freihofer Jazz Festival, then strap in and let’s light this candle!
SHANE ENDSLEY AND THE MUSIC BAND: “Then the Other” (Low Electrical Records, 2011)
Endsley is one-fifth of the miraculous neo-fusion band Kneebody, which is one of the reasons I have hope for this genre’s future. But Endsley’s also made great acoustic music with Ben Allison and Jenny Scheinmann, and “Then the Other” is Endsley’s chance to step out on the acoustic side as a leader. Fronting a tight quartet featuring keyboardist Craig Taborn, drummer Ted Poor and bassist Matt Brewer, Endsley’s music runs parallel to Kneebody’s catalog, in that it’s chock-full of intriguing twists and turns, and takes its cues from nobody else. Endsley’s trumpet is wide open, but he never tries to blow the house down, preferring to stick and move rather than throw haymakers. Taborn’s electric fans may be unhappy he left his Fender Rhodes in the garage, but his electrifying solos on “House” and “King’s County Ramble” should please anyone. That future I mentioned? “Then the Other” makes it even brighter.
NILSON MATTA & RONI BEN-HUR: “Mojave: Jazz Therapy, Vol. 3” (Motema, 2011)
This one’s cool on a couple of levels. Financially, a portion of the proceeds goes to the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund, which provides health care for veteran musicians at New Jersey’s Engelwood Hospital and Medical Center. Musically, trad-jazz stalwarts Roni Ben-Hur and Victor Lewis collaborate with Latin sparkplugs Nilson Matta and Café on a luxurious mix of samba and be-bop: Cracking originals like Matta’s “Baden” and Ben-Hur’s “Canal Street” easily share space with lyrical classics by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Burt Bacharach and Brazilian choro legend Pixinguinha. “Mojave” literally sneaks up on you; you won’t think anything’s going on until you discover you’ve been dancing around the living room for the better part of an hour!
DELFEAYO MARSALIS: “Sweet Thunder” (Troubador Jazz Records, 2011)
Jazz icon Gunther Schuller asserts that re-working Duke Ellington compositions in any way “diminishes” the music’s true greatness, making it lose “its Ellingtonian essence.” I do hope Schuller’s got broadband in his ivory tower. Meanwhile, down where we mortals live, the least-publicized Marsalis brother has crafted a phenomenal re-boot of Duke’s late-career Shakespeare suite “Such Sweet Thunder.” The arrangements have shrunk from an orchestra to an octet, but Ellington’s interpretations of Lear, Puck, Henry V, Othello, and the “star-crossed lovers” Romeo & Juliet retain their remarkable depth and striking color. At the same time, the music is now delightfully contemporary, thanks to riveting performances by – among others – Mulgrew Miller, Tiger Okoshi, Mark Shim, Marsalis himself, and Delfeayo’s brothers Branford & Jason. (No Wynton, though. Maybe he and Schuller were playing Angry Birds with Stanley Crouch…)
BANN (BLAKE ANDERSON NOY NUSSBAUM): “As You Like” (Jazz Eyes, 2011)
As if it didn’t already have better cars, better food, and a better energy policy than we do (“Groundwater? Who needs it?”), here’s another reason why Europe beats America hands down: Saxman Seamus Blake, bassist Jay Anderson, guitarist Oz Noy and drummer Adam Nussbaum are only known individually over here; but as the volcanic fusion group BANN, they’ve been microwaving the other side of the Atlantic for nearly five years. What they do to Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are” will blow minds (and the heads they’re living in). Joe Henderson’s “Isotope” is literally radioactive. And “Guinnevere” is more psychedelic than David Crosby ever made it. The originals are rock-solid, well-crafted, and force you to pay attention, while the performances – both individually and collectively – are off the scale. Tres bien!
THE COOKERS: “Cast the First Stone” (Plus Loin Music, 2011)
The (Not Quite) Over the Hill Gang is back, and they’re primed to disprove the theory that the sequel is never better than the original. Their 2010 Jazz Legacy release “Warriors” was one of last year’s best discs, and “Cast” makes it eminently clear that was no fluke. Billy Harper wrote half of the new material, including the declarative title track, but the Cookers is no star turn: The sense of unity in this band of all-stars is monumental, and you know the final product wouldn’t be this amazing if everyone hadn’t put in their two cents. George Cables’ “Think of Me” has a lovely Horace Silver sheen, Cecil McBee’s “Peacemaker” doubles down on the vibe Harper’s title track established, and the band polishes us off with a nasty take on Harold Mabern’s “The Chief.” Unlike many of their contemporaries, the Cookers are more interested in making history than they are in re-living it, and that is a kick in the ass.
Reviews by J Hunter