Love songs seem to come easy to singer/songwriter and cellist Marika Hughes who freely admits her heart has been broken far too often and those are the emotions that fuel her beguiling compositions. The timbre of her voice – you’ll be reminded of Roberta Flack and Phoebe Snow – is what resonates, along with her soulful cello on New York Nostalgia, a sometimes bittersweet love letter to the city she remembers when she was growing up (her parents once owned a jazz club on the Upper West Side.) Gil Scott-Heron, pianist Don Pullen and Abbey Lincoln are among her diverse inspirations. Amidst the heartache and happiness are songs with dreamy melodies (“Chapter 4”) and hand-clapping soul (“Click Three Times”), while the flirtatious “No Dancing” slyly blends saucy lyrics (“put me on your to do list”) with slide guitar and low down dirty bass. The polished production captures the album’s innovative sonic textures, but it’s Hughes solid song craft that seduces – her tunes have enough staying power to wonder why other artists aren’t singing them, too. (11 tracks; 47 minutes)
Gregory Porter’s popularity as a singer/songwriter sets him apart within genres and categories – as of press time, Take Me To The Alley (Blue Note) is the first jazz record in the UK in 10 years to break into the top five album list, placing just behind Drake. It’s easy to become infatuated with his booming baritone voice, sweet soul jazz crooning and musical grooves. Porter has the same ability as Bill Withers to charm and comfort you, and get you to sing along. Alley is the follow-up to his Grammy-winning Liquid Spirit, a gorgeously crafted jazz album with pop leanings, and on it Porter strikes that unique balance again, leading with a stripped down yet more heartfelt version of “Holding On,” a tune first released as a DJ remix by electronica group, Disclosure. The songs have a stylistic malleability that easily crossover, whether as glorious ballads (“Consequence of Love”) or bluesy showstoppers like “Don’t Lose Your Steam.” Working again with producer Kamau Kenyatta and his terrific band – pianist Chip Crawford, bassist Aaron James, drummer Emanuel Harrold and saxophonist Tivon Pennicott, among them — Porter’s musical stories, particularly the blissfully percussive “In Heaven, “ which features a divine solo by trumpeter Keyon Harrold, is catchy enough to be your ear worm, but the tunes that ground the album and make it truly soar are the stirring title track, a smooth, silky “Insanity” and the lushly romantic “Don’t Be A Fool,” each of which illustrate Porter’s skill to mix poignancy with inspiration. That other voice you hear paired with Porter on these tracks is the angelic singer, Alicia Olatuja, a standout talent in her own right. (14 tracks; 60 minutes)
JD Allen, an authoritative saxophonist who plays with a distinct Coltrane vibe, makes consistently great albums, most in a trio setting. Americana: Musings On Jazz and Blues (Savant) is a passion project that’s rich and affecting, and it’s likely Allen’s best. His seven originals (and two others) are steeped in tradition yet filtered through Allen’s progressive interpretation of the form. His horn sports a vintage sound on “Tell The Truth, Shame The Devil,” testifying over a loping, walking bass line and the kind of busy, talking-book percussion Elvin Jones used to back Trane with. Having worked on previous records with bassist Gregg August and the jubilant drummer Rudy Royston, the trio plays as a tight, free-flowing unit with endlessly inventive phrasing. Allen’s stories are a mix of hard truths (a sobering 1930s standard “Another Man Done Gone”) and good times –“Lightnin” swings brightly, as persuasive a blues dance track as it can be. Notably, this deftly engineered album is recorded up-close and personal, which gives the music a warm, vivid intimacy. (9 tracks; 45 minutes)
Speaking of buried musical treasures, most of the tunes on pianist Roberta Piket’s sterling tribute album, One For Marian (Thirteenth Note Records), should be more familiar since the legendary Marian McPartland wrote many charming songs with delicate, memorable melodies. As a close friend of McPartland, Piket often commiserated with her over why her music wasn’t played more by other musicians, a situation the pianist intends to correct on this fulfilling record. Working with a sextet highlighted by saxophonists Steve Wilson and Virginia Mayhew, Piket’s arrangements expand essential McPartland tunes like “Ambiance” and “In The Days of Our Love.” Enhanced by her soloists – the band brings both dignity and swing to the compositions – these songs have an ingrained elegance and allow for plenty of musical interplay and cool intensity. Piket’s solos have a warm melodic flow that connects with the sentiment at the core of McPartland’s music. She’s a gifted improviser, especially compelling on her two originals, and masterful bandleader — witness jazz singer Karrin Allyson, who delivers a knockout rendition of “Twilight Time.” “Kaleidoscope” is the closer and a lovely coda, recognizable as the theme music to McPartland’s public radio show, Piano Jazz. Along with One For Marian, it seems appropriate to recommend these recordings by Marian McPartland since all of them are superb – Twilight World (2008), Silent Pool (1997), Live At Shanghai Jazz (2002). (8 tracks; 45 minutes)
The imaginative bassist Alexis Cuadrado revives spoken word jazz with modernist glee, enriching bebop forms, beat generation poetry and multi-lingual storytelling on the lively, compelling Poètica (Sunnyside). His musicians (keyboardist Andy Milne, guitarist Miles Okazaki and drummer Tyshawn Storey) and deeply invested vocalists turn words into rhythms that clamor, protest and even swing, much like Gil Scott-Heron did, while Cuadrado’s lucid bass ties it together by expertly fusing syncopation with emotive, improvisational flourishes. (13 tracks; 54 minutes)
One of my top ten favorite jazz records in 2015 was the modern hybrid, Supreme Sonancy Vol. 1, a beguiling jazz-centric blend of soul music and hip hop. The highlight of that release was saxophonist Marcus Strickland’s chill-out remake of Janet Jackson’s “Let’s Wait Awhile,” and that vibe is layered through much of his illustrious Blue Note/Revive debut, Nihil Novi (Blue Note/Revive) which is Latin for “nothing new.” That self-effacing title isn’t entirely truthful since Strickland artfully traffics in aerodynamic samples and loops that underscore his laid back improvisational licks. While this very hip release, produced and steered by the multi-talented bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, has the kind of overt style and beats that makes the Revive label thrive, Ndegeocello and Strickland smartly feature the shimmering vocals of Jean Baylor on pop/soul charmers like “Talking Loud” — she’s a surefire VIP who, along with the rising star trumpeter Keyon Harrold, gives the album a notable flair. Strickland has crafted a consummate soul-jazz record with heartfelt songs, smooth harmonics and edgy sonic textures. (14 tracks; 50 minutes)
The oft-repeated description of Larry Young — that he’s the John Coltrane of the organ — mostly coheres with the inventive, undeniably classic post-bop records he made with Blue Note in the 60s. The never-before released two-disc live and in-studio recordings packaged as In Paris were originally made for French radio (ORTF) in 1964 and ’65. Young fronts his own trio and plays in a session led by Coltrane-inspired tenor saxophonist Nathan Davis that includes trumpeter Woody Shaw, as well as a deft French-led band. These long form post bop tracks are delightfully swinging, bursting with in the pocket grooves and absorbing, sustained solos. Young was only 23 and 24 at the time, already a gifted and consummate musician with a lyrical, tuneful sound. Every cut rates as essential, but there’s special commendation for the blistering version of Wayne Shorter’s “Black Nile,” Young’s rhythmical “Talkin’ About J.C.” and Shaw’s 20 minute live improv extravaganza, “Zoltan,” a track that appeared on Young’s defining Unity album. Thanks to the excellent work by Resonance Records, the restored sonics are first-rate, as is the 68-page book of essays, interviews and photos, but just listening to this significant musical discovery of prime Larry Young is a gift of unyielding pleasure. (10 tracks total; 52 minutes, each disc)
The Songbook Sessions (Emerald City Records) is the kind of project thought up to jump start careers, and even though a singer as lovely and talented as Jane Monheit has nothing to prove. Still, in collaboration with producer and trumpeter Nicholas Payton, her voice and range is as lush as a full-bodied cabernet on songs that Ella may have sung, but never like this. Sophisticated and embracing, Monheit shimmies through “All Too Soon,” arranged with a post-modern rhumba beat, a sweet trumpet solo and bling-y electric piano. She dazzles and swings through “Where Or When” and seduces on a brilliant version of “I Got You Under My Skin” that’s as much a feature for Payton as Monheit. Payton says he set out to make the quintessential Jane Monheit record, declaring that standards sung 60 years ago are no longer sexy or as romantic as they were at the time they were written. Doubtless, this is the best Monheit has ever sounded and together they’ve flipped the script to create a new — and sexy — standards album. (12 tracks; 57 minutes)
There’s just something right about the way pianist Bill Charlap interprets a song. He’s revered among musicians and singers alike as someone who understands and plays the lyric as much as the melody. Charlap carries on in the tradition of Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones, masters of playing the Great American Songbook, swinging and squeezing perfect notes out of every tune. The trio never play songs the same way twice and if there’s even the smallest reason to catch Charlap in person, you must not deny yourself the reward of that experience. Until then, the superb Notes From New York (impulse!) is the best thing to being there.
Charlap shares a telepathic connection with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, they’ve been playing together since 1997. “I’ll Remember April” speeds along at a spirited clip, with the trio swinging with an effortless groove, stopping on a dime and a pause, before dipping back into the fast lane. On the fleet tempos, the trio has an elastic quality. You can hear them playing together, then apart before moving back toward the center and picking up again as one voice. This is a fast, meaty recording and it’s over before you realize it. Sublime ballads (“Too Late Now”) mix with joyful swingers (“Tiny’s Tempo” was popularized by Charlie Parker) and a surprise or two (John William’s “Make Me Rainbows”). The album closes with an elegant Charlap solo, “On The Sunny Side Of The Street.” (9 tracks; 52 minutes)
A beautifully composed ensemble album from the pen and imagination of pianist Julian Shore, Which Way Now? (Tone Rogue) celebrates the act of discovery, of going places and experiencing life. Shore made a splash with his 2012 debut, Filaments, which demonstrated the quality and depth of his compositional talent, along with his skills as a leader. “Our Story Begins On The Mountain” is cinematically rendered and stocked with sweeping strings, and Shore’s warm touch at the keys makes for a welcome overture to the songs that follow.
The record is resolutely pretty, yet Shore invests in a degree of depth and unifying interplay that binds the stories together with a dazzling sense of rhythm and flow. His core band – guitarist Gilad Hekselman, bassist Aidan Carroll, tenor Dayna Stephens and drummer Colin Stranahan – achieves a remarkable coherence on tracks like “Back Home” and “Across The Ice.”. Sinuous horn playing, shuffling tempos, the beautiful vocals on “Alpine,” and the angular percussion of Dizzy Gillespie’s beguiling “Con Alma are just parts of the sonic adventure that Shore takes us on. In full, this is a luminous album from start to finish. With saxophonist Noah Preminger and percussionist Samuel Torres. (10 tracks; 59 minutes)