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.
With Jazz Batá 2 (Mack Avenue), Cuban pianist/bandleader Chucho Valdés returns to the small-group format that he used for his 1972 album Jazz Batá (Agrem). That album—recorded with just piano, bass, and batá drums—heralded the later success of Valdés’ group Irakere, an Afro-Cuban big band that forwarded the evolution of Latin jazz by an order of magnitude.
The graceful, fleeting original “Even The Sun Sets”—the penultimate track on Anne Sajdera’s latest album, New Year (Bijuri Records)—gives listeners a hint of the jazz pianist’s strongly classical orientation. You can hear the decades of training in her well-practiced touch, her smooth legato, her confident attack on the keys. What Sajdera builds with this masterful technique, though, is sturdy post-bop constructs, accentuated with razor-sharp rhythms and commanding horn syncronizations. The new album showcases nine such tunes, each a cleanly delineated musical idea in its own right.
Earlier this year jazz pianist Harold Mabern faced the considerable challenge of compressing almost 60 years of playing and recording into a three-week run at the New York jazz club Smoke. A complete retrospective of Mabern’s storied career would have to include all of the albums he’s recorded to date (25+ as a leader and 80+ as a sideman) and then some—most notably his gigging with too many jazz greats to list here and his contributions to hard bop, soul jazz, and post-bop. For all of this heavy lifting Mabern has been dubbed the Iron Man, the moniker that crowns his latest release for Smoke Sessions Records, The Iron Man: Live at Smoke. By the end of the two-disc set listeners will likely agree that Mabern just might be some kind of a jazz superhero.
Scandinavian jazz is its own thing. Affective, free-spirited, and daringly improvisational. Finnish jazz, a vibrant constituent of the Nordic scene, pushes this individualism to an uncommon degree. Producer Matti Nives champions the effort through We Jazz, a music collective whose wingspan covers a magazine, an annual jazz fest, and a record label. This fall three new releases on the Helsinki-based We Jazz Records affirm the ascendancy of the Finnish small group approach to new jazz.
Saxophonist Houston Person and bassist Ron Carter first played together as a duo on their 1990 standards album Something In Common (Muse). What these two distinguished players had in common then was a diehard appreciation for the musical alchemy behind well-crafted songbook tunes. What they have in common now is six albums and nearly 30 years of collaboration on this voluptuous material. This year’s Remember Love (High Note) marks the next installment in their noteworthy oeuvre.
In January 2017, drummer Sanah Kadoura fell in her New York apartment and hit her head on the sharp corner of a windowsill. Three days later she was on her way to a gig when she became disoriented and unable to breathe, and by the next day she’d lost her vision, speech, and ability to walk. At the hospital she was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, a condition that can cause permanent neurological damage and is sometimes fatal. This chilling diagnosis threatened to sideswipe Kadoura’s budding career: She was forced to cancel the session for the album that she was just two days away from recording—her debut release, Hawk Eyes.
To appreciate the experimental nature of Weaver (PEOPLE), the third album of the trio Twin Talk, compare the short track “Miniature I” with its counterpart, “Miniature II.” Same disarming melody in two starkly contrasting arrangements. The first, the electronic version, uses a drum track behind the voice in unison with the sax, both reverb-laden, repeating the hook. The second, the acoustic version, uses hollowly ringing gankogui bells behind an upright bass and unadorned sax, also repeating the hook. These two tracks alone are a study in creative musicianship.
In the fall of 2019, Juilliard will launch a new master’s degree program in vocal jazz. It’s an impressive list of singers’ names on the advisory committee: Carla Cook, Kurt Elling, Hilary Gardner, Lenora Helm, Carmen Lundy, Dianne Reeves, and Charenée Wade. And there’s a tough audition to get in—singers must perform from the same categories of required roots tunes as the instrumentalists (gospel/country, swing/songbook, jazz standard, and Afro-Hispanic/Latin) and improvise in each category, and the skill of all instrumentalist and vocal applicants will be judged by the same yardstick. (For what it’s worth, once they’re in, instrumentalists might have to sing as part of their juries, so that yardstick clearly has two sides.)
When Juilliard-trained trombonist Nick Finzer was ready to release his first album he didn’t want to wait for a label to take notice. So he debuted the record, Exposition, on his own newly minted jazz imprint, Outside In Music, in 2013. Post-launch, the record label took on a life of its own (and the album did well, too: two tracks snagged ASCAP Herb Alpert Awards for Young Composers). Today Outside In Music represents approximately 25 artists and offers them a full suite of creative services—album and video production, media outreach, branding, content creation, artist management—to help them bring their artistic visions to the world. In keeping with the ever-morphing music business, Finzer continues to experiment with new formats for music promotion. “I want to…be ready for what’s coming next,” he says. For the up-and-coming Outside In artists below, that’s good news.
For his third album as a leader for ECM, Where The River Goes, Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel reconvened most of the personnel from Rising Grace, his second album for the label (Eric Harland replaces Brian Blade on drums). The quintet met up in February of this year at the same picturesque studio in the Alpes-de-Hautes-Provence region of southern France where they’d recorded the earlier release, in many ways continuing the creative discussion that started then.
Anwar Robinson has the kind of voice that could stop traffic—rich, soulful, and reverberant. Beyond his innately spectacular instrument, Anwar is well-schooled in just about all vocal styles—jazz, blues, R&B, pop, musical theater, spirituals. So it’s no wonder that in 2004, he moved quickly into the winners’ circle on the fourth season of American Idol, one of the most popular shows in television history. What’s surprising is his return to community-based service after reaching such a personal and professional peak. Today, Anwar acts as the Artistic Music Director at the United Palace, a stunning, early 20th century performance space in Washington Heights, arguably one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Manhattan. Recently, All About Jazz caught up with Anwar to discuss how music continues to lead him to take on new challenges. And yup—that voice still stops folks in their tracks.
For the last decade, free-bop legend Jay Clayton has been conducting regular “scat labs” out of the Manhattan teaching space that she shares with NEA Jazz Master Sheila Jordan. In ScatLab, jazz singers of all levels of experience meet up to trade twos and fours, riff on traditional blues heads, and improvise on well-known songbook tunes. The purpose here is to practice spontaneous composition in a safe space, away from the microphone and the audience.
Canadian-born singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell, ninth on Rolling Stone’s list of The 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time, turns 75 this month. Though best known as a 1970s folk-pop musician, Mitchell’s jazz influences run deep: She’s collaborated with the likes of Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, and, most notably, Charles Mingus. Jazz singers love interpreting Joni Mitchell material because of this jazz influence—the innately singable melodies, the deeply colored harmonies, the poetic lyrics.
Multi-instrumentalist Camille Thurman kept her singing under wraps all throughout her time at the famed LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts in New York City. And in college at SUNY-Binghamton, she wasn’t even a music major—she earned a bachelor’s degree in geological science. But in less than a decade as a professional singer and woodwinds player, she’s made her mark as one of the most promising—and intriguing—young musicians around.