Traditionally, and with clear exceptions, the success of a jazz performance depends on the three musicians at the fulcrum of the sound—the pianist, bassist, and drummer. Whether as a standalone group or a rhythm section for a larger band, this unit conveys the values that the composing mind holds dear.
There’s a lot to learn from San Francisco-based vocalist Mary Stallings. The nuanced phrasing. The unswerving feel. The emotional connection to the text. And that voice—as buttery as ever, 60 years into her career.
In May 2018 drummer Antonio Sánchez was performing with pianist/composer Arturo O’Farrill at the Fandango Fronterizo, a trans-border festival at the 18-foot-high fence that separates San Diego, California from Tijuana, Mexico. What impressed him was how people on both sides of the divide were singing and dancing together to son jarocho. For an instant the fence had disappeared.
The day before guitarist/composer Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen and her six-person band headlined at the 46th annual Vossa Jazz Festival (April 12-14), the group went hang-gliding in the mountains surrounding Voss, Norway. Voss, a small village on the train line between Bergen and Oslo, is a popular center for extreme sports—longboarding, dirt biking, BASE jumping—and the local delicacy is half a roasted sheep’s head, eye intact. Not a place for the faint of heart.
Linda May Han Oh has gotten used to carrying her double bass up the four flights of stairs to the Harlem walk-up that she shares with her husband, pianist Fabian Almazan. No doubt she’s had lots of practice of late.
In his intro to McCoy Tyner and Charles McPherson at 80, a tribute concert honoring these two jazz giants at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater April 5-6, saxophonist Sherman Irby summed up pianist/composer Tyner’s distinguished career in one sentence. “McCoy Tyner has presented the world with almost six decades of pure excellence,” he began.
Singer/pianist Bob Dorough (1923 to 2018) is best known for his work as musical director and composer for the children’s TV show, Schoolhouse Rock!, which aired from 1973 to 1985. Under his direction, millions of children learned about conjunctions, the magic number three, how a law becomes a bill, and the preamble to the Constitution (my personal favorite). But few know that Dorough collaborated with many jazz greats like trumpeter Miles Davis, singer Blossom Dearie, and pianist composer Dave Frishberg, and that he recorded for various labels, even turning out three (magic) albums for Blue Note Records in the late 1990s.
In December 2017, singer/composer Claudia Villela was all set to catch a return flight to California from her native Brazil when a fire broke out in her Rio de Janeiro apartment. She sustained several severe injuries that day, and the computer that held years’ worth of her unreleased recordings—including some tracks of compositions that she’d written in 2008 under commission from New York University—were destroyed. The catastrophe prompted Villela to reassess her career path.
Pianist Giovanni Guidi’s new album for ECM, Avec le temps, opens with a penetrating take on the title cut, a somber French chanson by composer/lyricist Léo Ferré. But Guidi’s touch on the keys is so light, and his interplay with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer João Lobo so thoughtful, that a quiet optimism subsumes the tune’s doleful message (“In time, all love fades...”).
Seattle-based trumpeter Samantha Boshnack draws creative inspiration from the Earth’s most dramatic displays of power on Seismic Belt: Live in Santa Monica (Orenda Records), her latest release and fifth album as a composer. Fascinated by the Ring of Fire, the span of volcanoes that hem the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, Boshnack set out to compose musical allegories for the grand seismic movements that have sculpted the Earth’s surface into landscapes of astonishing—and at times terrifying—beauty.
On “Alone Together”, the title cut from Catherine Russell’s new release, available Mar 1, the singer/bandleader sticks close to the melody, in tight formation with her band—a rhythm section and a panoply of horns. Her vocal tone is resonant and buttery, and her delivery hits the sweet spot between passion and detachment. Perfect.
Five-time Juno-winning pianist/composer, Renee Rosnes leads an elite quintet in “Singin’ and Swingin’: A Jazz Summit” at second annual Oscar Peterson International Jazz Festival in St. Catherine, Ontario.
With Love Hurts, Julian Lage’s third trio album of Americana for Mack Avenue Records, the Grammy-nominated guitarist completes a trilogy. The two previous trio recordings, Modern Lore (2018) and Arclight (2016), dug deep into the pre-bop and rock-and-roll eras respectively; the subject of the new release is the unfettered musical milieu of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when free jazz was reaching toward its zenith.
On the first track of her new album, From Untruth (Northern Spy), composer Amirtha Kidambi leaps into her takedown of income inequality without preamble. “Eat the rich or die starving,” she sings to the wheezing drone of her harmonium on “Eat the Rich.” But boldly confrontational vocals are only one of the many pointed arrows in Kidambi’s quiver. She has a lot to say—and many musical devices through which to speak.
With her latest record, Move On: A Sondheim Adventure, French-born singer Cyrille Aimée takes on the Stephen Sondheim canon, a departure from her usual gypsy-jazz-driven material. Aimée’s expertise lies in laser-precise improvisations and lightly voiced phrasings—neither of which usually comports with Sondheim, whose vocally demanding musical theater compositions leave little room for experimentation or subtlety. So what’s a jazz singer to do with his sumptuous syncopation, extended harmonies, and whip-smart lyrics? Aimée has a few good ideas.
Every moment of Miho Hazama’s third recording Dancer In Nowhere (Sunnyside) seems intended for full emotional impact—there isn’t one throw-away on this meticulously crafted recording. As a composer, she maximizes the sound and scope of each of the 13 instruments in her experimental ensemble—a standard rhythm section, a cluster of horns, an array of strings—collectively called m_unit. (She didn’t want to call them an “orchestra,” she says.) And as a conductor she makes sure that each sound gets its own hearing as it cycles into prominence through the kaleidoscopic changes in her compositions. This said, there’s nothing overblown about this recording. Hazama’s compositions are as economical as they are lush—a tricky balance to achieve.
Much of drummer Allison Miller’s life is about juxtapositions these days. She’s the creative force behind two related but different bands. She’s managing an active musical career while co-parenting her two preschoolers. And she gives voice to her activism through her art. All of this creative tension finds an outlet in Miller’s new album, Glitter Wolf (Royal Potato Family), the fifth album with her experimental jazz sextet Boom Tic Boom.
What would jazz without patriarchy sound like? It’s a provocative question—and one that drummer Terri Lyne Carrington seeks to answer. To this end she recently founded the Jazz and Gender Justice Institute at Berklee College of Music, inaugurated at an open house at the Boston campus on October 30. Through the Institute, Carrington, who serves as Artistic Director, and her board of prominent thought leaders will help to guide select groups of music students across the rocky terrain that lies at the intersection of jazz, gender, and our modern culture. No small undertaking.
As the title of Merje Kägu’s debut as a leader and composer, When Silence Falls (Losen Records), suggests, the Sweden-based guitarist deals in subtlety. On the seven compositions on this album, even when the pulse is true and the melodic line active, the mood is one of introspection, as if the players are deep in musical meditation.
While students at Bard College, pianist Ran Blake and vocalist Jeanne Lee (1939-2000) formed an experimental jazz duo that took top prize at the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night once in 1961. Blake brought to their collaboration an open, spontaneous comping style; Lee brought a poet’s sensibility to her interpretation of a vocal line. From that auspicious beginning, the two went on to become one of the 20th century’s most influential pairings in modern vocal jazz.