New Jazz Releases – 12/11/2023

Darcy James Argue

2023 is coming to an end and still terrific music keeps coming.  The debut release from an international ensemble led by Armando Luongo is a revelation as is the debut from Viennese drummer Xaver Hellmeier.  Veterans Ron Horton and Gregory Tardy (both formerly with Andrew Hill) are out with new material.  We are catching up with releases from earlier this year that we missed, included several from ECM and Jason Moran’s tribute to James Reese Europe.  AND a tour-de-force from one of my favorite composers / bandleaders Darcy James Argue!  Holiday presents abound.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Dynamic Maximum Tension (Nonesuch, released 09/08/2023).  Seneca Black, Liesl Whitaker, Matt Holman, Nadje Noordhuis, Ingrid Jensen, Brandon Lee – trumpet / flugelhorn, Mike Fahie, Ryan Keberle, Jacob Garchik – trombone, Jennifer Wharton – bass trombone / tuba, Dave Pietro, Rob Wilkerson, Sam Sadigursky, John Ellis, Carl Maraghi – reeds, Adam Birnbaum – piano, Sebastian Noelle – guitar, Sara Caswell – violin / Hardanger d’amore, Matt Clohesy – bass, Jon Wikan – drums / cajon, Cecile McLorin Salvant – vocals.

I eagerly await each new release from Darcy James Argue, who is, with Maria Schneider, consistently the most interesting composer today for large jazz ensembles.  After a wait of seven years since his last (Real Enemies) he has done it again – I could listen to this all day … and just might.  The eleven tunes on the double CD set are from various times in Argue’s career (mostly) tied together by homage to great twentieth-century thinkers.  Katchie Cartwright wrote on All About Jazz, “Tensile Curves, for one, is a response to Ellington’s Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, in which Argue uses decreasing tempo as an analog to the diminishing dynamics of the Ellington work. Beginning at the snappy Diminuendo in Blue tempo, it moves through a series of metric modulations, ending as a slow blues. Argue admires how Ellington sets up and foils expectations, doing things one doesn’t anticipate, like taking an unexpected detour on a blues form, but that ‘make sense retrospectively’ … The album ends with Mae West: Advice, a bright ping featuring the brilliant singer, songwriter, and visual artist Cecile McLorin Salvant … Salvant’s fabulous instrumental foil on the cut is Ingrid Jensen, her former band mate in Artemis. The lyric is a sonnet by Paisley Rekdal, who quotes West in some lines, inventing others. The concluding line, ‘Don’t be a noodle; be cool and collect,’ which Salvant sings to purring perfection, is true West.”  I love this disc from start to finish.  Time to hit “repeat.”

Armando Luongo – New Lands (Hypnote, releases 12/15/2023).  Jean-Paul Estievenart – trumpet, Matt Chalk – saxophone, Wajdi Riahi – piano, Giovanni Di Carlo – guitar, Basile Rahola – bass, Armando Luonongo – drums.

Previewing fifteen to twenty new releases a week leads to many moments of surprise and discovery, none more so than this new release by an international ensemble from Italy, Belgium, US, Tunisia, France and Syria.  This debut by the drummer-led sextet is a program of eight original compositions.  New Moon has a call-and-response head with piano, trumpet, sax and guitar leading to a moving solo by Tunisian pianist Wajdi Riahi and a lyrical contribution by US saxophonist Matt Chalk.  Chalk is outstanding again on the knotty New Lands.  The tour-de-force is the finale Illusion, which starts as a rubato rumination by Italian guitarist Giovanni Di Carlo, then a brief vocal recitation leading to a lovely ballad lead by the horns over a spare accompaniment from Riahi.  Four minutes in Riahi begins a sweet unaccompanied passage that gradually builds through a drum interval to a crescendo including two vocalists in a wordless contribution.  A complex composition with much to offer.  Stay tuned, hopefully more ahead from this talented bunch.

Ron Horton – Prayer For Andrew (Newell Records, releases 12/14/2023).  Ron Horton – trumpet / flugelhorn, Marty Ehrlich – alto saxophone / bass clarinet, John O’Gallagher – alto saxophone, Marc Mommaas – tenor saxophone, Frank Kimbrough – piano, Dean Johnson – bass, Tim Horner – drums.

Trumpeter Ron Horton performed in some of pianist Andrew Hill’s final ensembles, appearing in the sextet on 1999’s Dusk (Hill’s “comeback” release) and in the big band on 2002’s A Beautiful Day.  Horton’s new release is an homage to Hill featuring six of Hill’s compositions and seven from the leader.  The release derives from Horton and pianist Frank Kimbrough’s fascination with Hill’s music dating back decades.  Hill’s pieces are strong and the sextet’s version of Dusk with Marty Erlich on alto is a favorite, but Horton’s own compositions should not be overlooked.  Horton’s Home, with a strong gospel feel from Kimbrough, features a beautiful melody rendered by the leader on flugelhorn.  This disc was recorded in 2016 and is just now seeing release.  In the meanwhile, Frank Kimbrough passed in 2020 and his lovely playing is missed.  Recommended.

Gregory Tardy – In His Timing (WJ3 Records, released 11/24/2023). Gregory Tardy – clarinet, Regina Carter – violin, Taber Gable – piano, Matthew Parrish – bass, Alvester Garnett – drums.

Gregory Tardy’s career to date has included recordings with Andrew Hill, Bill Frisell, Chris Potter, Brian Lynch, Michael Dease and many many other A-list artists, split between tenor and clarinet.  This is a clarinet affair with the woody tone of his instrument blending beautifully with Regina Carter’s violin.  I am coming up empty in looking for precedents to this fabulous combination.  I don’t know pianist Taber Gable’s work, but he is a bright anchoring force throughout.  The program has six originals and four covers, including Tom Harrell’s Cloud Dance, a showcase for all the players.

Palle Mikkelborg, Jakob Bro, Marilyn Mazur – Strands-Live at the Danish Radio Concert Hall(ECM, released 11/24/2023). Palle Mikkelborg – trumpet / flugelhorn, Jakob Bro – guitar, Marilyn Mazur – percussion.

Stately and atmospheric, this new release captures the legendary ECM sound from a concert hall in a rare live release from the fifty-plus-year-old label.  This trio of Danish improvisers (Mazur is US-born but a Danish resident since age 6) represents three generations of players – trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg born 1941, percussionist Marilyn Mazur born 1955, and guitarist Jakob Bro born 1978.  Each has a storied discography (much on ECM) and they have played together in pairs but not as a trio.  Karl Ackerman wrote on All About Jazz, “Opening with Gefion and Oktober the trio establishes an Intimate setting under brooding skies. Mikkelborg’s searching flugelhorn conveys boldness without breathing fire. The Mikkelborg & Bro piece, Returnings, breaks the mood with a piercing trumpet, electric guitar, and Mazur’s exotic rhythms. A forceful, hard-edged attack suddenly dissolves, quietly buzzing to a near silence. The title track resumes the initial atmospherics, closing, almost twelve minutes later with faint detachment from the theme. The ethereal Youth is a gem of slightly distorted melancholy with Bro’s excellent acoustic guitar and the muted haunting of Mikkelborg’s brass. The plaintive closing piece, Lyskaster, is an elegant, if too brief, conclusion to the program.”

Myra Melford’s Fire and Water Quintet – Hear The Light Singing (Rogue Art, released 11/17/2023).  Ingrid Laubrock – tenor saxophone / soprano saxophone, Myra Meflord – piano, Mary Halvorson – guitar, Tomeka Reid – cello, Lesley Mok – drums.

Hear the Light Singing is a  follow up to pianist Myra Melford’s critically acclaimed 2022 release For the Love Of Fire and Water, with four of the same players and Lesley Mok in for Susie Ibarra on drums.  These are world-class improvisors and with a couple of years now playing together; the compositions are even more tuned to the sounds of these specific players.  Each piece features one of the musicians in a solo format within the context of the quintet.  Cellist Tomeka Reid, for example, is tender and melodic on Insertion Two.  This isn’t going to be for everyone, with some very challenging parts, but it will reward close listening.

Xavier Hellmeier – X-Man In New York(Cellar Music, released 11/17/2023).  Jeremy Pelt – trumpet, Eric Alexander – tenor saxophone, David Hazeltine – piano, Peter Washington – bass, Xaver Hellmeier – drums.

The great drummer Joe Farnsworth is one of the keepers of the flame, a player rooted in an intimate knowledge of the giants of the past and on the look-out for serious young players.  He has taken young Vienna-based drummer Xaver Hellmeier under his wing, helped him connect with the cream of New York players and produced his first record.  So check out the lineup of first-call mainstream players – Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, Eric Alexander on tenor, David Hazeltine on piano, Peter Washington on bass.  And to emphasize the seriousness of this endeavor, the set was recorded at the legendary Rudy Van Gelder studio.  Expect tight, driving hard bop with tunes from folks like Hank Mobley and Cedar Walton, excellent soloing and propulsive rhythm section work.  This can’t miss.

Yuhan Su – Liberated Gesture (Sunnyside Communications, released 11/10/2023).  Caroline Davis – alto saxophone / poetry reading, Matt Mitchell – piano, Yuhan Su – vibraphone, Marty Kenney – acoustic bass / electric bass, Dan Weiss – drums.

Vibraphonist Yuhan Su (Anna Webber, Amir ElSaffar) has assembled quite a band:  Carolyn Davis on alto (Alula: Captivity previewed 08/28/2023), Matt Mitchell on piano (Sara Serpa, Anna Webber, Ches Smith, Jon Irabagon), Dan Weiss on drums (recently in town with Charlie Ballentine).  Given the outside proclivities of the band members, this set is surprisingly centered.  Michael Toland wrote on The Big Takeover, “[T]he bandleader, Su … doesn’t feature herself nearly as often as one might think, preferring to shift the spotlight to Davis and Mitchell. On the shimmering Didion (named after author Joan Didion), the funky Hassan’s Fashion Magazine, the thoughtful She Goes To a Silent War, or the energetic Character, Su sets up the song structure and uses her ax to maintain it, letting her bandmates add decorations and furniture. She does allow herself time on the pedestal for Liberated Gesture II.Arc, which is practically a vibes solo with tasteful accompaniment from her pals. But in the main Su uses Liberated Gesture as a showcase for her talents as a composer and bandleader more than as a player, and she scores big on both counts.”

Dan Balmer – When The Night(PJCE Records, released 11/10/2023).  Dan Balmer – guitar, Gary Versace – organ, Rudy Royston – drums.

Portland Oregon guitarist Dan Balmer has recruited two prolific New York players – organist Gary Vesace and drummer Rudy Royston for a set of nine original compositions.  The leader has a light and delicate touch and more than a little influence from Pat Metheny.

Luo Ning – Rhapsody In Blue (Decca, released 11/08/2023).  Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra, Li Bo – trumpet, Qian Shaohui – clarinet, Luo Ning – piano, Zhang Tianyi – bass, Yang Chen – drums, Gao Xing – conga drums, bongo drums, percussion.

The centerpiece of Chinese pianist Luo Ning’s latest is a rousing 30-minute take on Gershwin’s magnum opus Rhapsody In Blue which moves through a number of stages from a full presentation by the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra to a piano trio to a percussive Latin take.  It is sweet to hear an artist take such liberties with this work while still showing it great affection.  The final track is a lovely solo version of Gershwin’s I Loves You, Porgy.  I don’t know this artist, but this is an ambitious recording, well played.

Trio Grande – Urban Myth (Whirlwind Recordings, released 11/03/2023).  Will Vinson – alto saxophone, Gilad Hekselman – guitar, Nate Wood – bass.

This record is all over the map.  It starts with Urban Myth a backbeat-heavy, synth-loaded, guitar-shredding slab of fusion and then goes right into Ministry of Love and then Navanad, two soft alto ballads with gentle comping and soloing from guitarist Gilad Hekselman.  I don’t know altoist / keyboardist Will Vinson, but this kind of range is typical for Hekselman and drummer / bassist Nate Wood (see also Billy Mohler’s Ultraviolet, below.) Wood is playing bass and drums concurrently (find a video and see for yourself), which may explain the lack of finesse to the bass work, while the drumming is still strong.  Michael Toland wrote on The Big Takeover, “Vinson’s moody Ministry of Love translates hard bop to the twenty-first century, while his winsome Olive Tree pitches itself somewhere between the ballad styles of Jim Hall and Pat Metheny… It might all seem a little too eclectic if not for the consistent personalities of each player and the delicious chemistry with which they work – you could hand this triad the gooiest of smooth jazz and they’d make something chewy out of it.”

Russ Spiegel – Caribbean Blue (RuzzTone Music, released 10/23/2023).  Brian Lynch – trumpet, Javier Nero – trombone, Tim Armacost – tenor saxophone / flute, Hendrik Meurkens – harmonica, Jim Gaslor – organ, Russ Spiegel – guitar, Lucas Apostoleris – drum.

Florida-based guitarist Russ Spiegel has released a new disc featuring an organ – guitar – drums trio with a range of guests.  Mostly the project is a quiet affair as when the trio is joined by Hendrik Meurkens on chromatic harp on the lilting title tune.  On the other hand, Brian Lynch joins on trumpet, Javier Nero on trombone and Tim Armacost on tenor with a dancing Miami-after-hours vibe on Island Song.  My favorite is the Retribution Blues with Armacost’s tenor joining the trio for a very Jimmy Smith sounding slow blues.

Simon Moullier Trio – Inception (Fresh Sound New Talent, released 10/20/2023).  Simon Moullier – vibraphone, Luca Alemanno – bass, Jongkuk Kim – drums.

I read that this is vibraphonist Simon Moullier’s fourth release although this is the first I have heard.  He has a characteristic approach to the instrument, relying heavily on single note runs (he says he thinks like a horn player) and using almost no vibrato.  This is a trio project so there is lots of space and, with few solo spots for his trio mates, this is vibes-heavy adventure.  The material is excellent as he has chosen from a who’s who of modern jazz – Tyler, Shorter, Mingus, Strayhorn, Miles, Jobim, Silver.

Billy Mohler – Ultraviolet (Contagious Music, released 10/13/2023).  Shane Endlsey – trumpet, Chris Speed – tenor saxophone / clarinet, Billy Mohler – bass, Nate Wood – drums.

Bassist Bily Mohler comes from a pop and alt-rock background, but possesses some hefty jazz chops.  He has joined forces with trumpeter Shane Endsley and drummer Nate Wood from the uncategorizable band Kneebody plus clarinetist Chris Speed with deep avant-garde chops (currently with The Bad Plus). So how could this possibly make a compelling “jazz” record? Give it a listen – it works, in a very dramatic, sometimes cinematic way. Jim Hynes wrote on Making A Scene, “Mohler’s basslines are the fulcrum point of most of these pieces, with each quartet member revolving around those ideas. The unison low register tones of Endsley and Speed begin The Wait before Speed builds a deliberate, fervent solo over bubbling bass and drums. The two front liners reprise the theme, with Endsley delivering his own melancholic statement. The dynamics and momentum build, reflecting growing anxiety with horns now reaching upwards, until Speed’s emphatic low end note closes this standout dramatic piece.”  This is a bass-forward chordless trio of very talented players, working out on nine often groovy originals by the bandleader.

As the year comes to an end, various critics and publications issue their “Best of 2023” lists giving us a chance to see what we might have missed throughout the year.  In all cases, these are releases that were not sent to WTJU until we asked and I’m glad we did.

Ralph Towner – At First Light (ECM, released 03/17/2023).  Ralph Towner – solo guitar.

Soon after beginning to record with Oregon on Vanguard in 1972, guitarist Ralph Towner began, what became, a fifty-year relationship with ECM.  In 1974, his second ECM release was a solo effort, Diary.  He has returned to the format from time-to-time and now has released At First Light.  This is everything you would expect from Towner – gentle, melodic, stately, soothing.  Quite enjoyable.

Bobo Stenson – Sphere (ECM, released 3/17/2023).  Bobo Stenson – piano, Anders Jormin – bass, Jon Fait – drums.

If you like your jazz cool, measured, thoughtful and at peace, pianist Bobo Stenson and his trio of 15 years deliver again.  To ECM’s continuing credit, Stenson is one of those artists who have grown and developed with the label over the long haul.  Stenson’s ECM debut and their 12th release was 52 years ago.  Of Sphere, Alyn Shipton wrote on Jazzwise, “…thematic and harmonic ideas are mainly drawn from the works of various Scandinavian classical composers, including (from across the Baltic) a very abstract reworking of Sibelius’ Valsette (opus 40, no. 1). The eventual arrival of the full theme is ushered in by arco bass harmonics, a scattering of percussion, and ghostly, delicate fragments of the familiar melody passing between the piano and bass. This typifies a powerful introspective album that draws us into a world of intense mutual concentration, with many moments of astonishing lyrical beauty.”

Mette Henriette – Drifting (ECM, released 01/20/2023)Mette Henriette – tenor saxophone, Johan Lindvall – piano, Judith Hamann – cello.

In her sophomore release, tenor saxophonist Mette Henriette picks up where her self-titled debut left off.  Again with a tenor – piano – cello trio, Henriette mines a contemplative vein within the trademark sonority of the ECM sound.  Mike Jurkovic wrote on All About Jazz, “Dreamlike in construction and execution, Norwegian saxophonist Mette Henriette’s second distinctive statement for ECM exudes a warm, innate ability to imbue the everyday and the invisible with a sense of calm that neither sedates nor fatigues. A quiet triumph, Drifting fashions fifteen soft, safe places for her wandering kin to take their rest.”  I tend to prefer more fire and less ice (one tune here is entitled ), but ECM fans are likely find this just what they are looking for.

Jason Moran – From The Dancehall To the Battlefield(released 01/01/2023).  David Adewumi – trumpet, Reginald Cyntje – trombone, Chris Bates – trombone, Jose Davila – tuba / helicon, Logan Richardson – alto saxophone, Brian Settles – tenor saxophone, Darryl Harper – clarinet, Jason Moran – piano / voice, Tarus Mateen – bass, Nasheet Waits – drums. 

Composer / pianist Jason Moran is a student of this music and a fervent archivist.  For his latest release he has undertaken the reintroduction of James Reese Europe, a fascinating and important bandleader whose career was almost entirely spent before recorded jazz, so he risks disappearing from this history.  Europe formed one of the first African-American large (proto-jazz) ensembles, formed the first black musicians society (an early union), played Carnegie Hall with 125 players in 1912, and enlisted and led the Harlem Hellfighters to WWI and back, insisting that they fight as well as act as the regimental band.  His death in 1919, three months after his return from the war, came before he could participate in the explosion of recorded jazz.  Marlbank wrote, “Because Moran is a modernist this is far more interesting than if he wasn’t and yet do these labels really matter? When a tune interpreted as a solo piano piece such as Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s All of No Man’s Land is Ours hangs in the air it’s just a bloody good melody no matter what your tribe might be, tradster, modernist – neither.  Russian Rag and Darktown Strutters Ball with the ensemble whose members include the Bandwagon’s Tarus Mateen (the bassist is especially good on Castle House Rag) and Nasheet Waits, altoist Logan Richardson (featuring on WC Handy classic St Louis Blues) tenorist Brian Settles and tuba player Jose Davila among others, make no mistake, however can sound and probably were designed to be like period pieces.”  Historically-important, well-played, greatly-varied and mentioned as one of the best records of the year.  Give it a listen.

Next week, we’ll be back with a survey of new releases from Central Virginia jazz artists.  If you are aware of releases that we may have missed, please drop us a line.

I hope these previews connect you to music that will be meaningful to you.

Russell Perry, Jazz at 100 Now!



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