Mark Turner

In steady rotation

2013-12-15 12.11.16

As 2013 draws to a close, wellyouneedit celebrates its one-year anniversary. How did that happen? It’s been a bumpy road and I’m still not sure why I bother to put these thoughts out there. Oh well, for writing’s sake, I guess, which is a pretty good reason, isn’t it? Here, I want to thank my handful of faithful readers scattered around France and the globe. You know who you are.

The year-end lists are flooding the Internet. With a jazz-heavy listening and playing schedule to handle, I simply don’t have the time to check out the plethora of good “non-jazz” music released in this day and age. As a music fan, though, I like to think that this thing called jazz is not as insular and monolithic as the naysayers would have you believe. Today’s prominent improvisers tap into all kinds of music and extramusical sources to shape their path in the continuum. The result of that blending process doesn’t always work but it is integral to this art. As the aggressive debates raging on the Internet and the blogosphere show, the term jazz is very restrictive and contentious in many ways. Specifically, it doesn’t acknowledge the shape-shifting qualities at work in spontaneous collective improvisation, and it doesn’t do justice to the musicians who have continuously pushed the envelope to move the music forward. But for lack of a better and all-embracing term, we’re just going to have to stick with it for a while! If there’s anything to change about the presentation of jazz to the neophyte, it might involve defining it not so much as a music style per se as an approach to addressing and appropriating musical content – Duke Ellington or Bjork, it doesn’t matter.  The purists will take issue with that view, but the purists are wrong. Get real, purists! Trying to dictate what an art is and what it is not is a pointless struggle. The following list is a random and unrated selection of albums that played on a regular basis or caught my ear, here at wellyouneedit, in 2013. Inevitably, a lot of it is jazz, but in my book good music transcends category. Enjoy.

Dave King, I’ll Be Ringing you (2012)

With fellow Minnesotans Bill Carrothers and Billy Preston, the drummer revisits the standards with haunting introspection.  A well-tended fire smolders through this quiet record.  Huddle up, make some tea and kill the lights. And swing by the wynit archive for the short album review.

Brad Mehldau Trio, House on Hill (2006)

I finally decided which of Brad Mehldau’s albums I would take on a desert island. Right down to the enlightening liner notes (on Bach, Brahms and Monk), this one is a stellar document of the early trio (with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy). Strong compositions and high-caliber playing for all involved.

Orrin Evans, Flip the script (2012); Blessed ones (2001)

The ability of these tight trios (bassists Eric Revis and Ben Wolfe and drummers Nasheet Waits and Donald Edwards) to bend the swing tradition and honor it at the same time keeps astounding me. The demotion job on Autumn Leaves will have you scratching your head first time around but sound magically obvious after a few listens.

Matana Roberts,  Mississippi Moonchile (2013)

A powerful artistic statement from the great alto saxophonist and multidisciplinary artist. This beautiful suite is Roberts’ personal take on Black American history, specifically through her female lineage. The music is a seamless collage/conflation of the various strands of African-American music. The fascinating story continues.

The Bad Plus, Made Possible (2012)

Epic melancholia, joyful abandon, frantic energy and telepathic cohesion. The trio does make anything possible. In the words of drummer Dave King « this band contains some of the most punk energy I’ve ever seen or heard as a musician ». But make no mistake, this is unquestionably as tight and honest a modern jazz trio as it gets. Watch the EPK for their 2012 record and check out the amazing discography.

Vijay Iver Trio, Accelerando (2012)

The award-winning pianist has the critics divided. Undaunted, I listen to the staccato rhythms of bassist Stephen Crump and Marcus Gilmore and nod to the vibe.

Glenn Gould,  Bach English Suites , Inventions & Sinfonias (1982)

To think that all of Bach’s keyboard music was conceived for the harpsichord is confounding, especially when played by Glenn Gould on piano. Timeless.

Mark Turner, Yam Yam (1994), Dharma Days (2001)

Whether the album cover of Yam Yam was a wise marketing decision is a matter of personal aesthetics but the music shows off Turner’s tasteful lyricism and hugely influential voice on tenor. Dharma Days is the one to get. Features Kurt Rosenwinkel (guitar), Reid Anderson (bass), Nasheet Waits (drums).

Eric Revis, Parallax (2012)

The potent bassist delivers a fine inside/outside jazz offering. Serious chops and burning grooves across the board. Features Nasheet Waits (drums), Jason Moran (piano) and Ken Vandermark (tenor sax and clarinet)

J Dilla, Donuts (2006)

The legendary hip hop producer probably owned a sizable record collection. This album splices together a nice selection of soul and rap cuts from the 60s onward. I usually play the first song and find myself listening through the album.

Geri Allen, The Life of a Song (2004)

In the company of such heavyweights as Dave Holland and Jack de Johnette, Geri Allen found sympathetic support to deliver her groove-packed set of originals and rearranged standards. There isn’t a weak moment in this program. Highly recommended.

Darius Jones & Matthew Shipp, Cosmic Lieder (2010)

Smooth-flowing dialogue between two singular voices of free forms. Shipp’s dark low-end tones take on a welcome brightness against Jones’ honking enthusiasm.

Melanie De Biasio, No Deal (2013).

With the pared-down instrumentation of flute, drums and keyboard, Melanie De Biasio’s enveloping vocals push through the ether with grace and a sense of subdued drama.

Drew Gress, Black Butterflies  (2005)

Lush writing, infectious grooves and free blowing make up this alluring album.For Craig Taborn’s solo on the song Bright Idea alone, this one is worth a good listen. Features Tim Berne (alto sax), Ralph Alessi (Trumpet), Craig Taborn (piano), Tom Rainey (drums).

John Coltrane  The Classic Quartet – the complete Impulse studio recordings (1961-1965)

Immortal. What would jazz have sounded like if that quartet hadn’t existed? Eternally inspiring.

Thelonious Monk

Do I really have to drum the point home? You have to get with Monk. Period.

Craig Taborn Light Made Lighter (2001)

Taborn’s debut album amply demonstrates his versatility in the classic piano trio format. A good place to start.

Butcher Brown – A sides B sides

On their self-released and generously free (cop it on their website) debut, Butcher Brown make instrumental groove music that sounds oddly new despite the overt references to 70s funk. An ideal moodsetter that doesn’t sacrifice musicianship for chilling’s sake. Check it out.

Elmo Hope, Complete Studio Recordings

What a tragic life his was. It’s time to restore Hope’s profound contribution to modern jazz piano music. No less than Monk’s best friend and favorite player.

Julia Holter  Loud City Song (2013)

Wow. This one almost didn’t make my list. There is definitely more than ambient and pop to this music. But for now I’ll settle for uncategorizable.

And countless more to satisfy the music junkie’s appetite but that I’m too lazy to write a single word about.

When Will The Blues Leave

© Elise Fimbel

© Elise Fimbel

If jazz is America’s distinctively homegrown art form, blues is probably its most sustainable foundation. The dramatic evolution of this so simple 12-bar form from the black laborer’s work song to modern-day jazz deconstructions never ceases to fascinate me. There is just something indestructible about the blues, probably because it developed out of resistance to one of the most disgraceful chapters in the history of humanity. But hey, I’m no music scholar, and to gain some theoretical insights into why jazz came to be what it is – a music style that consistently refuses to be categorized– a good place to start is to read Leroi Jones’ Blues People, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

But what I’d like to share today is a video of the Billy Hart quartet delivering their own personal take on the blues. The handful of loyal readers out there will surely notice that I’m lavishing praise on the usual suspects here, pianist Ethan Iverson (of The Bad Plus fame), saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Ben Street and of course the veteran drummer Billy Hart. But what can I say? This is a stellar cast and they are just killing! I guess what made me want to squander away precious time on Youtube is to hear how each musician appropriates the idiom with their signature chops while somehow summoning its 100-plus history off the well-trodden path. I have to admit I first didn’t identify the song as a blues until Iverson’s solo kicks in. The opening theme’s convoluted line played in unison by Turner and Iverson over Street and Hart’s spacious time doesn’t really give any hint either. Soon enough though, the essence of the blues shines through in all its fascinating beauty, each musician appropriating the lineage with casual resolve. What I find particularly engaging here is that despite the well-known adventurous nature of these improvisers, this is a pretty straight-ahead take on the blues! I don’t detect any major reharmonization or complex time signatures, or any kind of “device” usually required to avoid clichés and hackneyed licks. So, what’s going on here? What is it about this rendition that does justice to the blues in the refreshing context of modern jazz?

Let’s try to break it down a little bit. The song begins with an intro played in unison by Iverson, Street and Hart. This sets the mood very nicely and allows Hart and Street to lock in and build up the ensuing drama. The slow-burn groove these two establish is one reason the song works so well, Hart’s subtle ride and crash shadings wrapping seamlessly around Street’s roving line. And in comes Turner, stating a darkly sinuous theme totally in sync with his lyrical tone. By this time, things are still fairly open-ended as to what kind of improvisation will follow. Psyched, I grab my bass and listen for the bass. Well, I’ll be damned, they’re playing a blues in G7! Of course, they would choose a relatively common key, stupid. It’s what they do with the obvious that commands respect.  So, Iverson’s solo starts, his spare line building out of little fragmented dabs and leaving huge chunks of space to devastating effect. It feels so good to hear Monk, Wynton Kelly or Paul Bley lurking in there, melded into Iversonian mode. As the piano solo gathers steam, bass and drums switch into 4/4 swing, the music takes off, swinging hard but softly, if you know what I mean.  I love the way Turner comes in, four bars into the form, taking his own sweet time but just nailing it. Everybody seems relaxed but dedicated to celebrating the mysterious appeal of this simple form. But that does it for my tentative shot at the jazz concert review (I wasn’t there anyway!). Though this is an all-star band, there are no heroic displays of virtuosity here.   But somehow, in the way they put their modernist vibe on the blues, these musicians are showing tremendous respect for its vital contribution to jazz.  From the Mississippi Delta to the Village Vanguard, the blues has come a long way. There’s comfort in knowing that jazz musicians today still believe in its undying power. But don’t take my word for it. Check it out: