The Tomeka Reid Quartet’s new album Old New – streaming at Cuneiform Records – is the rare jazz album you can play for people who hate jazz, and they’ll end up transfixed. It’s also the rare studio recording that burns, and seethes, and threatens to go off the rails just like a live show. It’s catchy, and ferocious, and bursting with tunes. What an amazing time it seems this band had making it.
In this era where jazz artists leap from one project to the next with barely enough time for it to coalesce, there’s a rare chemistry here, reflecting the group’s longtime associations. Drummer Tomas Fujiwara and guitarist Mary Halvorson play together in Halvorson’s Code Girl band,, while cellist Reid and bassist Jason Roebke share early roots in the Chicago scene.
The band scamper and swing hard over Roebke’s chugging bass on the increasingly jagged, noisy title track, Halvorson and Reid trading scrapes, wry trainwhistle lines, eerie jangle and stark, emphatic riffage. Reid says it’s a hymn at the core, but it also seems to draw on early 80s proto-hip-hop like Midnight Starr. Gotta love that Fujiwara rumble on the way out!
Wabash Blues is a Romany swing tune with Reid’s careening cello in the Stephane Grappelli role, at least until it switches to 12/8 time for a bracing, acidic verse, an allusively grim Halvorson pitch-pedal solo and some adenalizing tumbles from Fujiwara.
Niki’s Bop is a shuffling shout-out to Reid mentor Nicole Mitchell, with echoes of both New Orleans and Stevie Wonder, cello and guitar pogoing joyously in their respective channels until Halvorson goes off in a trail of whippit bubbles. Reid and Roebke bubble around a joyously circling Afrobeat riff as Aug 6 gets underway, Halvorson kicking sharp-fanged chords until the group take it out together as a catchy anthem.
The simply titled Ballad is the group’s White Rabbit, a relentlessly uneasy shuffle, Reid’s ominous low-register flutters and shards contrasting with Halvorson’s steady incisions over an increasingly agitated, murky groove. Sadie, a swing tune dedicated to Reid’s grandmother, is the most trad number here, Reid alternating between a second bassline and wryly muted horn voicings, with an unexpectedly hypnotic bounce out.
The album’s most epic and adrenalizing track is Edelin, opening as a misterioso tone poem with flickers and washes from the strings and suspenseful cymbals, eventually coming together as a twisted road theme to rival anything Big Lazy ever put out, all the strings taking turns fanning the flames as the pyre explodes into a conflagration. Peripatetic makes a good segue, a series of increasingly savage climbs that eventually go completely haywire: Halvorson brings in a little funk, but this beast can’t be controlled. The album winds up with RN, which is Reid’s Watching the Detectives, a steadily swaying, broodingly plucked modal theme and variations that unexectedly drift toward sunnier, more psychedelic terrain. It’s one of the best albums of the year in any style of music.
Fun fact: according to the record’s press release, Reid was voted “Violinist/Violist/Cellist of the Year for the second consecutive time by the Jazz Journalists Association.” Does this mean we can vote for JD Allen as trumpeter/clarinetist/saxophonist of the year? Maybe Brian Charette can be pianist/harpsichordist/organist of the year too! Googling for jazz harpsichordists doesn’t get you much, but Brian would no doubt be amped to contend for the award. Or maybe the JJA is just trying to save paper…or precious hard disc space on that old Commodore from the 80s.