Reviews and Recommended Jazz by Nick Bewsey

Category: Jose James

Report From The Field: 2016 NYC Winter Jazz Fest

Now an annual tradition in its 12th year, the NYC Winter Jazz Fest rallies with progressive programming, overseen by producers Brice Rosenbloom and Adam Schatz, who set the festival apart by keeping its focus and music modern and forward looking while giving its audience a quintessential New York jazz experience — it’s easily the coolest, hippest and most authentic music fest out there. You have to hoof it to a dozen venues surrounding Washington Square Park to catch as many gigs as you can starting at 6 pm and continuing until early morning.

Expertly curated to appeal to tastes across the jazz spectrum, I darted here and there and left most performances happy and satisfied. These were a few of my favorite experiences.

1. Jazz Legends Concert for Disability Pride — Quaker Friends Meeting Hall

The Meetinghouse served as swing-central for a traditionally-minded but exuberant three hours of music led by top-tier talent. Concert organizer and pianist Mike LeDonne kicked off with “On Green Dolphin Street.” A rare and intimate set by Wynton Marsalis, Christian McBride, Joe Farnsworth and pianist Dan Nimmer sparkled from the trumpeter’s easy charisma on a smooth, laid back version of “Embraceable You.” From Bill Charlap’s trio and sets from Monty Alexander and Harold Mabern to saxophonist Vincent Herring, drummer Jimmy Cobb, and tenor titan Joe Lovano, filling in for an ailing Benny Golson, this mini festival flowed straight-ahead post-bop and quick cast changes. There was a time constraint — the hall had to be emptied and convert to a homeless shelter at 9:30 pm — but LeDonne pushed for the finale. Legendary saxophonist George Coleman, his body feeble and eyesight weakened, was led to and sat on the edge of the stage while his band set up. The lighting guy flashed a spotlight on him as Coleman picked up his horn to play a solo rendition of “But Beautiful.” His sonorous tone was majestic and hushed the room, and in that unexpected, improvised moment, the darkened hall felt alive with a magic realism.

2. ECM @ Winter Jazz Fest —The New School’s Tishman Auditorium

For more than 40 years, the ECM label has fashioned a brand and identifiable sound as vivid and recognizable than any label other than Blue Note of the 50s and 60s. Under the direction of founder and producer Manfred Eicher, the European label’s more recent artist signings have a distinctively American flair — saxophonists Chris Potter, Mark Turner and trumpeter Ralph Alessi are among those representing the current vanguard.

In the state-of-the-art Tishman Auditorium, more than 800 WJF attendees filled seats for two evenings of hour-long sets by fourteen of ECM’s artists and musicians. Out of those, the Mark Turner Quartet, with trumpeter Avishai Cohen, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Marcus Gilmore, dazzled with a fresh and contemporary set list, playing new tunes and tracks off his current album, Lathe Of Heaven. Spirited improvisers all, the group benefitted from a superlative sound mix so you could easily follow precise, individual lines, themes and solos. Gilmore, the grandson of Roy Haynes, is preternatural in his agility and creativity, careening through imaginative time signatures, underscoring the band with dramatic yet subtle rhythms. The tunes remained at once, exploratory, cohesive and gleefully thrilling.

Pianist Craig Taborn delivered an improvised solo that began with a series of delicate measures and evolved into a sequence of sturdy percussive motifs. Taborn was a driver of ideas and his masterful set twisted and swerved before ending in chordal fireworks.

3. Jose James / GoGo Penguin — Le Poisson Rouge

Blue Note Records hosted singer/songwriter Jose James at LPR on Bleecker Street with James trying out new tunes and firing up the sold out crowd with soul-stirring faves. The set was all about the message — the band launched into a cover of Dead Prez’s “Police State,” a pitched protest song with a seething, provocative rap verse. James was at his best in this setting, which was confirmed from the adoring, vocal sold-out crowd. Coming off his smoky, after-hours Billie Holiday tribute record, this electrifying version of James was a welcome return to form. The gig wrapped with GoGo Penguin, a youthful British outfit about to release their first US record, an electrifying trio that fuses The Bad Plus, E.S.T. and Radiohead as the leaping off point for modern jazz tunes with big beats, buzzing bass lines and percussive, deeply rhythmic piano excursions.

Photo courtesy of Brad Gilley.

Photo courtesy of Brad Gilley.

4. Kris Bowers — Judson Church

Pianist Kris Bowers, who had a strong debut on Concord Records a couple of years ago, has worked with Kanye West and Jay Z, just scored the soundtrack to a new documentary on Norman Lear and has recorded with Jose James and various hip artists. The cacophonous set he brought to Judson Church was a rapid-fire, electrified presentation that mixed churning, sampled keyboards over live bass and drums with a music-triggered video screen display. It wasn’t perfect — the space is grand and acoustically appropriate, and the techs did their best to keep up with the electronics and video requirements. Dodgy or not, listening to Bowers you knew you were watching a trendsetter in action.

5. Dave King with Adam Schatz — The New School Fifth Floor Theater

Perhaps my favorite moment was the smallest event — an interview by NY musician Adam Schatz with The Bad Plus and Happy Apple drummer Dave King. A natural raconteur and storyteller, King was utterly uninhibited and candid about his musical career. In a small music room with a dozen of us gathered, King combined intimate accounts about his highly successful YouTube channel (Rational Funk, where he lectures abut music and proselytizes about life, playing an alternate version of himself), with whimsical stories of his family, growing up in Minneapolis, Prince and Husker Du. Better than being a fly on the wall, King conversed without a filter and despite being enthralling, hilarious and entertaining, it was as fitting and musically-minded as the rest of 2016 Winter Jazz Fest.

Photo of Wynton Marsalis courtesy of Bart Babinski.

Best of Jazz 2015

1. Kamasi Washington, The Epic

My choice for best jazz record of the year is also the most significant release of 2015. Kamasi Washington’s madly entertaining The Epic (Brainfeeder) is a 3-disc multilayered triumph that features a 10-piece band with two drummers two bass players, a choir and orchestra. It’s audacious, over the top and sizzling with in-the-pocket grooves, anchored by the leader’s intoxicating saxophone solos. It’s mostly accessible, but it also doesn’t hesitate to roar like late-era spiritualized Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders. The 45 songs are packaged and presented with Sun Ra-style fervor, yet it’s pulse and rhythms are rooted in the present. The 45 songs are packaged and presented as a Sun Ra style narrative, yet it’s pulse and rhythms are rooted in the present. Better still was the accompanying national tour that landed at the Blue Note for a few nights last fall. It was loudest, most thrilling jazz concert I’ve experienced in a long while and the sold-out room was full of younger music fans who saw Washington and his band as superstars. Proof of Washington’s greatness is resoundingly evident on The Epic.

2. Maria Schneider Orchestra, The Thompson Fields (artistShare)

The most beautiful jazz compositions for orchestra come from the pen and passion of Maria Schneider. Her recordings are astonishing in their capacity to connect emotionally with the listener. The vivid music on The Thompson Fields (artistShare) was written during Schneider’s extended sojourn to a family farm in Minnesota where she grew up and she navigates her 18-piece ensemble with authority and sensitivity. Replete with deft improvised solos, the natural beauty of the midwest landscape is captured and plays out — the hallmarks of nature are by turns lyrical, melodic and turbulent — and the effect is grandly cinematic and on the cutting edge where jazz meets classical. A spectacular and deservedly Grammy-nominated achievement.

3. Ben Williams, Coming of Age

The originals on Coming of Age (Concord Jazz) wed fresh jazz to pop and R&B, and its a rush of pleasure from beginning to end. Bassist Ben Williams, Julliard trained and winner of the 2009 Monk Institute competition, makes sure that the record will satisfy on multiple spins — it’s the keyed up guitar solos, funky electric piano, sonorous sax and wicked beats that give Coming of Age its more-than-jazz appeal. On either acoustic or electric bass, Williams keeps the flow modern and grounded, fueled by virtuosity and vision along with his canny sense of crossover appeal.

4. Jose James, Yesterday I Had The Blues: The Music Of Billie Holiday

My choice for vocal album of the year is the best of this year’s tribute albums to Blllie Holiday on the 100th anniversary of her birth. On nine tracks, mostly ballads, James simplifies classic standards, closely collaborating with pianist Jason Moran, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Eric Harland. His fluid baritone has a honeyed quality and he lets songs like “Good Morning Heartache” breathe and take gentle flight. His voice patient and shimmering, James digs into the blues (“Fine and Mellow”) and croons “Lover Man” as a sensual soul singer. He smolders and seduces, capturing the essence of Ms. Holiday’s charm and vulnerability. (Blue Note)

5. Nick Finzer, The Chase

The Chase (Origin) is a sturdy and beautifully arranged program of melodic originals by Finzer who hits all the right notes on his sophomore recording. It’s as warmly compelling as it is masterfully swinging, without a false step or throwaway tune in the bunch. His first-rate band of up-and-comers, anchored by pianist Glenn Zeleski, bassist Dave Baron and drummer Jimmy MacBride, are particularly adept at underscoring the small band harmonics on upbeat songs. Together they give this sonically impressive date of a loose, open-collar feel — the blended grooves and interlocking rhythms give The Chase a jolt of traditional hipness and modern cool.

6. Joe Locke, Love Is A Pendulum

Jazz vibraphone has come a long way since the glory days of Lionel Hampton. Locke is an individualist who bridges the divide between past and perfect. His best recording to date, Love (Motema Records) has strong romantic melodies that give the album an unsinkable musicality. He’s got a swoon-worthy band with juggernaut precision by drummer (and co-producer) Terreon Gully. This is Locke’s masterwork — it heaves and flows with a modern beat that’s consistently appealing.

7. Revive Records Presents: Supreme Sonancy, Vol 1.

A visionary producer and taste maker, Revive Music CEO Meghan Stabile is the most important person currently on the New York jazz scene who’s not actually a musician. For her first record, Supreme Sonancy Vol. 1, she pairs cutting edge artists connected to the hip hop scene (Raydar Ellis) with progressive jazz musicians. The record smartly zeroes in on the fluidity of jazz to hip hop and rap, such as cleverly reworking Wayne Shorter’s “Pinocchio” by folding in deep bass and staccato beats as if to say this isn’t your pop’s Blue Note music.

8. Jamison Ross, Jamison (Concord Jazz)

This exuberant debut release opens with Technicolor fireworks on a vivid Muddy Waters cover, “Deep Down in Florida” that pops and shimmies on evocative soul and blues rhythms. Like singer Gregory Porter, Ross has a big, deep voice that’s operatic in its storytelling style, yet peaks and dips fluidly with an emotionally tangible vibe. He’s a savvy instrumentalist. The album is propelled on Ross’ talent and he saves the best for last — the closer “Bye, Bye Blues” is a rousing, church revival-like number that soars on Ross’ star-making charisma and natural enthusiasm. (Concord Jazz)

9. Tom Harrell, First Impressions (HighNote)

The lyrical trumpeter Tom Harrell has often integrated jazz and strings on his projects to great effect. He establishes a quiet brilliance on First Impressions (HighNote) an album that folds jazz improvisation into classical tunes by Modernist composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. It’s a magnificent record that resonates with superior interplay and diverse arrangements where Harrell’s warm liquid tone reminds one of Art Farmer. There’s some fire, too, on the electrifying title track, which has soaring Miles Davis-like moments. As a whole, this nine-piece chamber ensemble album oscillates between jazz and the European classical tradition while superbly detouring through other musical styles.

10. Orrin Evans, The Evolution of Oneself (Smoke Sessions)

Evans is a Philadelphia original. With 25 solo records and essential sideman duties in trumpeter Sean Jones Quartet and bassist Ben Wolfe’s band, Evans recorded Evolution (Smoke Sessions) during the year he turned 40 and the album is a reflection on everything that jazz and family means to the pianist. It’s flavored with gorgeous standards, angular originals, a brilliant Grover Washington, Jr. cover and buzzy, hip-hop interludes made in collaboration with his son. Overall, it’s profoundly expressive and the best introduction to this respected player, producer, bandleader and educator.


A TOP JAZZ RECORD OF 2014. An emerging artist with a deliberative edginess, the promising young pianist Kris Bowers is full of surprises on his debut disc, Heroes + Misfits, an eclectic thrill ride through amped-up electronic keyboards, soaring saxophones and acoustic piano played over lush soundscapes. Continue reading


A TOP 10 JAZZ RECORD OF 2014: For listeners who want to put the usual standards and post bebop swing on pause, the 33 year-old trumpeter Takuya Kuroda stands tall on his Blue Note debut, Rising Son, a polished set of jazz tunes with retro R&B riffs and de rigueur hip hop sonics. Produced by singer/songwriter José James whose own records, particularly 2013’s No Beginning, No End (Blue Note), smartly braid jazz with pop-glazed rhythm and blues, Kuroda’s album sets an after-hours party mood that starts with the rousing title track and flows throughout. Kuroda’s compositions fuse infectious urban rhythms with in the pocket Afro-centric grooves inflated by keyboardist Kris Bowers (an artist blowing up on the national scene with his Concord Jazz debut CD, Heroes + Misfits), electric bassist Solomon Dorsey, drummer Nate Smith and the satiny tones of trombonist Corey King. Kuroda and King redefine the classic two-horn frontline architecture that Blue Note built their reputation on. As a player, the trumpeter falls somewhere between Lee Morgan’s sound and Art Farmer’s supple capacity for storytelling, especially on the closing track, “Call,” an opus of sorts characterized by a classic CTI-style arrangement melded with a Prince-like jam coda.

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The Blue Note debut of the pop and jazz singer José James, No Beginning, No End, so resolutely taps into the vein of classic American soul music that he invites impulsive comparison to artists like Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers and Al Green.

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