by: Hobart Taylor
Heads of State - Four in One - (Smokestack Records)
300 + years of jazz experience are unleashed on this release by Gary Bartz (Sax), Larry Willis (Piano), David Williams (bass), and Al Foster (drums).
Playing with supreme verve and grace, they make it seem so easy... So the problem with jazz, a music built on surprise and variation through improvisation, is that once artists master,I mean, really master the form, they lock in with precision to changes and structures that become pleasing and identifying... and then we say things like they make it seem so easy. Then we move on. In a very few cases this mastery is transcended, and the artists reconnect with whatever it was they had when they started; they have that certain energy and willingness to take risks... Bartz at 77 is famous for keeping it fresh, but the other folks on this record, especially Willis, also 77, play with a sense of joy and exploration that make this a vibrant and engaging set of tunes.
Jeff "Tain" Watts - Blue Vol. 2 - (Dark Key Music)
A follow up to 2015's Blue Vol. 1, this recording features all originals except a reinterpretation of "Wade in the Water". The record focuses on this super in demand drummer's compositional skills. These new blues tunes slip and slide into funk, avant garde, and straight ahead jazz changes. Highlights for me include "uh-UH", "Waltz for Marvin (Gaye)", "Cleo" (with Kevin Eubanks on guitar), and "Blackzilla vs, Yo' Mothra". This is an example of contemporary jazz that sonically is so in our times that folks who don't 'hear' jazz, will hear this. Very cool jams.
Howard Johnson and Gravity - Testimony - (Tuscarora Records)
Howard Johnson has had tuba bands for decades now, orchestrating jazz, blues, and pop in new and revelatory ways by expanding the range of the low brass and emphasizing its potential as a vehicle for solos. He supercharged Taj Mahal's "The Real Thing", and played with everyone from Archie Sherpp to John Lennon, Charles Mingus to the Saturday Night Live orchestra. With piano and drums and an occasional bass for accent, this ensemble helps us re-imagine what jazz and blues sound like. A stand out cut is "Little Black Lucille" which features pennywhistle in the forefront.
Kevin Eubanks - East West Time Line - (Mack Avenue Records)
Eubanks, formerly the guitarist/leader of the Tonight Show Orchestra has taken his shucking and jiving big bucks and spent them on making a record that sounds unconstrained by any commercial considerations. No compromises here, no holding back. This is a schizo release however , as the title hints. Tracks 1 through 5, recorded in New York, are brave, hard driving bop tunes or meditative explorations full of grace featuring the tip top of New York based talent, Orrin Evans, Keyboards, Dave Holland, bass, the incomparable Nicholas Payton, trumpet (this is almost his record!),and Jeff 'Tain' Watts, drums. Tracks 6-10 are L.A. based and are more mainstream and percussion driven with strong Latin influences, with Bill Pierce, sax, Marvin "Smitty" Smith, drums (both Tonight Show alums with Eubanks), Rene Camacho, bass and Mino Cinelu, percussion, setting the scene. These tunes are not quite as strong, it seems to me, except for "Take the Coltrane", and a nice rendition of "My One and Only Love". The first half of this record, however, is 40 minutes of the purest music I've heard this year with Eubanks weaving gracefully between lead and supporting roles in each tune with humility and wisdom.
Joey DeFrancesco + The People - Project Freedom - (Mack Avenue Music)
Joey DeFrancesco is among the most respected Hammond B3 (organ) players around. Often known as a rollicking jump blues player or a soulful moaner on his instrument, he chooses to put his talents to work on an overtly political set of tunes. Whether they are originals like "Project Freedom" or "Stand Up", or covers like "A Change is Gonna Come" or what is often called 'The Negro National Anthem', ( an old and familiar sobriquet),"Lift Every Voice and Sing". This is a heartfelt and authentic release, and damn fine music as well. Oh yeah, check out Troy Roberts on sax, a new star rising in the east.