New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: latin jazz

Revisiting a Hot Night in Queens with Supermambo

The sun was a blowtorch defying the Manhattan skyline, blasting from between buildings as it slowly sank the night that Supermambo most recently played Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City.

Bandleader Felipe Fournier is a vibraphonist. Leaping around, his mallets a blur as his volleys of notes rang out and then receded, was the heat going to be too much? He’s from Costa Rica: maybe he built up a tolerance down there, because he didn’t seem the least bit affected. If anything, the summer sun that evening in August of 2018 fanned the flames of what turned out to be a show that was as interesting as it was adrenalizing He’s bringing the band and their high-voltage blend of classic salsa and jazz back to the park on July 20 at 7 PM. There are two ways to get there: take the 7 to Vernon-Jackson and follow 48th Ave. straight to the river, or the G to 21st/Van Alst, take 45th Ave. as far toward the water as you can and then make a left.

Supermambo started out as a Tito Puente cover band: Fournier took his inspiration from the fact that Puente got his start playing vibes before he switched to timbales. Since then they’ve been playing originals as well as imaginative arrangements of classic jazz tunes. The most stunning number of the night was a real unexpected one, Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, reinvented as a long, serpentine jam that seemed to leave the original 5/4 beat behind for the sake of the dancers about midway through. Both Fournier and trombonist Rey David Alejandre had fun working variations on that famous riff, finally bringing the song full circle and ending surprisingly somberly. It’s impossible to remember who was in the band that night: a listing from around that time at Terraza 7, one of the group’s main bases, includes Camilo Molina on congas, Joel Mateo on drums and Dan Martínez on bass.

The Puente material wasn’t all big hits, which was interesting, maybe due to the fact that he didn’t get famous until after he’d left the vibraphone behind. The bass bobbed and weaved, the trombone loomed in and punctuated the songs’ expansive tangents as Fournier rippled up a storm over a river of turbulently undulating beats. May the park be a little cooler or at least breezier this month than it was that night.

A Titanic, Imaginatively Orchestrated Salsa Swing Album From the Iconic Ruben Blades

What an inspiration it is to see the most fearlessly original paradigm-shifter of all the salsa dura pioneers of the 70s still pushing the envelope. Ruben Blades‘ new album Salswing with Roberto Delgado & Orquesta – streaming at Spotify – is aptly titled, a lavishly symphonic latin jazz project. Blades’ voice is a bit more wintry than it was forty years ago, but he tackles the material here – an imaginative mashup of jazz standards and salsa – with his usual soul and gravitas. Listen closely and you discover that he’s overdubbed his own coros. Hearing him hit those high notes on the second track reaffirms his indominable stature as leader of the old school – which in his case makes him just as much a leader of the new school.

Delgado’s Panamanian ensemble and his colorful, edgy charts make a good match. They open with Paula C, the lushness enhanced by the Venezuela Strings Recording Ensemble. Guest Eduardo Pineda’s Rhodes piano bubbles amid the brassy gusts, trumpeter Juan Carlos “Wichy” Lopez reaching for the stratosphere and nailing it.

Blades lands somewhere between Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. in a blazing, ebullient take of Pennies from Heaven, trombone soloist Xito Lovell cascading down out of a sunburst brass break. The textures and exchanges between the reeds and brass in the instrumental Mambo Gil have grit to match their majesty, alto saxophonist Jahaziel Arrocha taking a tantalizingly brief, spiraling solo.

Blades goes into nuanced crooner mode for Ya No Me Duele over the bandleader’s strolling bass pulse, Tom Kubis adding flourishes on alto sax amid the towering brass. The vocals on Watch What Happens are bordering on breathless, effectively driving home the song’s ironclad optimism over the sudden swells of the orchestra. Blades reaches for similar intensity, but with a more imploring feel in Cobarde and its intricate, understated polyrhythms.

Lopez’s balmy, straightforward trumpet solo flies over an elegant midtempo swing beat in Do I Hear Four?, the group’s counterpoint rising toward inferno levels. There’s a little more drama and mystery in Blades’ voice in Canto Niche, Juan Berna switching between piano and echoey Rhodes. The Way You Look Tonight is the closest thing to a coyly seductive, straight-up fifties Sinatra swing tune here,

Blades winds up the record with a couple of slinky barn-burners. Ricky Rodriguez’s low-key, tumbling piano and Alejandro “Chichisin” Castillo’s smoky baritone sax anchor the dynamically-shifting, colorful Contrabando, Raul Aparicio’s accordion popping in unexpectedly. Similarly, Tambó rises from a streetcorner intro from the percussion section to an insistent, driving oldschool salsa groove. A titanic achievement from a huge, semi-rotating ensemble that also includes percussionists Ademir Berrocal, Raul Rivera, Carlos Perez Bido, Jose Ramon Guerra and Luis Mitil; Francisco Delvecchio and Avenicio Nunez on trombones; Carlos Ubarte, Ivan Navarro and Luis Carlos Perez on saxes; Milton Salcedo, Dino Nugent, Ceferino Caban and Dario Boente on piano; Carlos Quiros on bass; Carlos Camacho on vibes; and Abraham Dubarron on guitar.

A Subtly Powerful Album of Protest Jazz From Afro-Peruvian Bandleader Gabriel Alegria

“Social distancing.”

Ewwwwww.

Of all the oxymorons in lockdowner newspeak, that’s the most odious. In terms of being self-contradictory, it’s second only to “remote learning” – a very, very, very, very remote approximation of the real thing.

Trumpeter Gabriel Alegría‘s new album of protest jazz – streaming at Spotify – is titled Social Distancing. It’s almost all-instrumental, and the few moments that are not speak to healing, or are cached in metaphorical terms rather than leveling any specific accusation. Yet as a parable of and reaction to the fascist horror of 2020, it’s unsurpassed.

The centerpiece is The Mask, a stark urban noir soul tableau which is almost all bass and percussion until horns and violin join in shivering terror behind a metaphorically loaded spoken word passage by percussionist Freddy Lobaton. No names are mentioned, but there is a devil involved.

Kitty O’Meara reads her lockdown poem And the People Stayed Home in the opening track, And the People, which is balmy yet somber, Alegria terse and resonant alongside Alex Gonzalez’s violin, backed by Jocho Velasquez’s acoustic guitar, Mario Cuba’s bass, and Hugo Alcázar’s drums. The group reprise it in Spanish at the end of the album: its message of hope and transformation (but not in a bastardized New Abnormal way) went viral a year ago.

The rest of the album explores a wide range of dynamics, with both optimism and some searing critiques. In Mirando El Shingo, a catchy tropical anthem, the percussion section work a gusty groove as the bass dances, Alegria and then saxophonist Laura Andrea Leguía sail overhead. The next track, titled COVID-19, has both a boisterous New Orleans-flavored rhythm but also acidic twelve-tone harmony grounded in Russell Ferrante’s piano and the guitar. Leguía’s modal solo has an aptly distant ominousness: five out of six people had natural immunity, but the fake news media kept the fear blaring 24/7.

George and Breonna, a shout-out to the late George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, is built around a festive exchange of trumpet and sax riffs over a cantering 12/8 groove, in the Mingus tradition: exuberant song, grimly relevant title. The New Normal turns out to be a slinky organ tune with Monklike blues phantasmagoria from Yuri Juarez’s guitar and an increasingly dissociative raveup from the rest of the band.

Leguía switches to soprano sax for Any Day Now, whose initial, jaunty brightness grows more enigmatic as the harmonies get more complex and the percussion kick up a storm: she delivers another killer, modally-spiced solo midway through. Amaranta is an uneasy, airy take on late 50s Miles Davis and the best song on the album. The false start into a waltz, Alegria’s sobering, crystalline solo over crashing cymbals, and Leguía’s spine-tingling legato are just a few highlights.

Driven by energetic trumpet and sax over a churning groove, Octavio y Natalia was inspired by Alegria’s and Juarez’s kids playing together. Both dads want to make sure their kids get to enjoy a normal childhood, but knowing that their lives could be imperiled by racist hate is part of the picture. This one’s on the shortlist for best jazz albums of 2021.

Miguel Zenón and Luis Perdomo Put Out a Gorgeous, Bittersweetly Intimate Album of Boleros

Alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón has released some of the most exhilarating and forward-looking jazz in recent years, from his exploration of his Puerto Rican roots, to a string quartet collaboration. His latest album El Arte Del Bolero – streaming at Bandcamp – is much more straightforward but no less dynamic. Recorded live for a webcast last September, it’s a mix of classic boleros played as an intimate duo show with his longtime pianist collaborator Luis Perdomo, the guy who’s probably the ideal candidate for this kind of material.

Both artists had already played many of these tunes together over the years, although not typically in a duo setting. And much as boleros – on this side of the Atlantic, anyway – tend to be melancholy or mysterious, the duo span a huge range of emotion with them here. They also don’t constrain the songs to a bolero rhythm.

They take their time to open the album with an expansive take of Benny More’s Como Fue, Zenon playing the vocal line solo with a surprising mistiness before Perdomo enters the picture. Zenon rises to a gracefully leaping optimism as Perdomo lowlights his chords, then channels his usual gravitas in his own solo. At the end, they bring the song full circle.

They follow with a practically ten-minute, hauntingly spacious version of Alma Adentro. the Sylvia Rexach classic and title cut from Zenon’s 2012 album. Zenon nails the song’s searching, practically desperate quality, Perdomo echoing the theme with his judicious, emphatic chordal work and variations. And yet, as Zenon does occasionally through the set, he offers hope with a crystalline, melodica-like tone in the upper registers.

He rises to a more insistent drive in the third track, Ese Hastío, a remake of the Ray Barreto hit Piensa En Mi. Again, Perdomo anchors it with his lingering, soberly glistening lines. Zenon takes inspiration from how the great tres player and songwriter Arsenio Rodriguez reputedly wrote La Vida Es Un Sueño after discovered that the eyesight he’d lost in childhood couldn’t be restored. There’s hope against hope in Zenon’s balmy, cautiously sailing phrasing over Perdomo’s bittersweetly regal backdrop and quiet hailstorm of a solo.

The two hit as much of a peak as there is here with their version of singer La Lupe’s famous 1960s hit Que Te Pedí, from Zenon’s bounding solo intro, through a somberly unembellished couple of verses, to a trick ending – no spoilers! They bring the set full circle with a somewhat subdued yet animated version of crooner Cheo Feliciano’s Juguete, Zenon finally cutting loose with a long, flurrying solo, as he’s been threatening to do all along. Two of the most lyrical players in jazz, or any other kind of music, at the top of their game…quietly.

A Kinetic, Ambitiously Orchestrated Album From Trumpeter Emily Kuhn

“Some things are meant to go wrong, forever,” Mercedes Inez Martinez sings, cool and dispassionate, as Roses, the first track on trumpeter Emily Kuhn‘s new album Sky Stories – streaming at Bandcamp – gets underway. But that intro is a red herring. From there the group leap into a joyous, soul-inspired jazz waltz and then a brisk bossa, alto saxophonist Max Bessesen choosing his spots over Ben Cruz’s spare guitar and the exuberant rhythm section of bassist Evan Levine and colorful drummer Gustavo Cortiñas. The bandleader solos, steady and triumphant and then turns the song over to a tantalizing break from a string quartet – Myra Hinrichs and Erendira Izguerra on violins, Christine Fliginger on viola and Danny Hoppe on cello.

That’s just the first number.

Things stay just as eclectic and interesting after that. The rhythm sections here (two separate ones) really kill: Kuhn keeps bass and drums out front for extra bounce and boom. With the second track, Horizon, she sticks with a tropical pulse, paring a hypnotically circling, syncopated series of riffs down with a quartet of Joe Suihkonen on second trumpet, Katie Ernst on bass and Nate Friedman on drums.

Kuhn brings back the large ensemble for the lushly orchestrated, pulsing epic Queen for an Hour, Martinez delivering a carpe-diem message with a precise enthusiasm. Cortiñas’ flamenco rhythms about halfway through this mini-suite are a neat touch. Their take of Body and Soul has a slow, steady stroll, lavish, baroque-influenced counterpoint and a spaciously warm solo from the bandleader.

The two-trumpet quartet return for Fit, a study in contrasts between resonant horns and the frenetically growling rhythm section. Their final number here, Anthem is 180 degrees the opposite – this time the drums tumble more spaciously.

The rest of the album is orchestral. Catch Me, a fond jazz waltz, dips for a starkly soaring violin solo and rises with gusts from the strings. Beanstalk has a tense, rhythmic anticipation and divergent voices, sometimes with tightly pinballing polyrhythms, sometimes more loosely improvisational.

Cortiñas’ hip-hop influenced beats underpin a balmy, nocturnal take of Milton Nascimento’s Ponta de Areia spiced with contrapuntal strings, playful drum breaks and an Asian-tinged outro. The group wind up the record with the catchy ballad Jet Trails and Shooting Stars, Levine’s gravelly, circling bass anchoring windswept strings and resonant, lyrical solos from sax and trumpet.

Gregg August’s Shattering, Epic New Album Confronts Racist Evil

Bassist Gregg August has somehow found the time to put out one of the most powerful, relevant albums in any style of music over the last several months. Dialogues on Race – streaming at Bandcamp – is a haunting, majestic, anguished large-ensemble suite that reflects on how Americans have been divided and conquered in the name of an archaic concept invented about five hundred years ago by psychotic slave traders as a justification for genocide.

Historically speaking, racism is a relatively recent construct. In the middle ages, if you were going around kidnapping and murdering people, you probably would have been hanged or beheaded. So the slavers came up with the novel proposition that lighter-skinned people are somehow superior to people of color.

There was money to be made in that murderous trade, and the fiction of civilized Europeans versus African savages was well marketed. They got enough Europeans to buy it, to the point that it lasted another three hundred fifty-plus years. Today we are seeing how the lockdowners are using that same dynamic, desperately trying to create an army of clueless maskers to demonize and attack the unmasked.

In his liner notes, August is quick to acknowledge the irony of being a white man tackling a subject that’s usually treated as “the Jew under the kitchen floor,’” that nobody talks about, as one friend of this blog recently put it. And as a jazz musician, August is keenly aware of issues of cultural appropriation. But ultimately, we need to lift every voice and sing truth to power as August does with this majestic, dynamically rich theme and variations for jazz nonet, string quartet and narrator.

August’s central theme is the 1955 murder of Emmitt Till. Interspersed among and often woven into the suite’s diverse movements are several smartly chosen poems exploring racism’s many ugly legacies, along with narrator Wayne Smith reading Till’s mother chillingly straightforward account of the aftermath of the murder.

The album’s first number, Sherbet introduces a broodingly bluesy central motive, up to a Mingus-esque bustle. Letter to America is a strolling, determindedly brassy, marching tune set to a tumbling, implied clave. The horns build a circling, harried intensity, down to pianist Luis Perdomo’s skeletal, ominous incisions. “We served you as a mirror, a lamp, a toy,” Smith intones. It’s a great poem. “Our bodies are your insides…we reflect your future.” Ken Thomson follows with a soulful bass clarinet solo, setting up trombonist Rafi Malkiel scatting through his horn.

Lacy sings Your Only Child, its blustery horn cadences matching the lyrics, Mamie Till asking “How could he have died so undignified? ”The epic I Rise follows an awakening trajectory with conversational, rhythmless horns, a Braxton-esque, massed swell and hauntingly pulsing waves that look straight back to Mingus. John  Bailey’s trumpet is the focal point, whether in a brooding Miles vein or jubilantly swinging; Thomson’s reedy bass clarinet delivers a moment of triumph.

Malkiel’s trombone and JD Allen’s tenor sax open Sky, a real throwback to the withering modal power that characterized August’s tenure in Allen’s trio. The majesty but also the ache as the group soar but also struggle against an overhanging presence is visceral. Allen’s saturnine spirals, shadowed by Perdomo, might be the most starkly insightful notes anybody’s played this year. Malkiel’s spacious solo afterward, over Perdomo’s icy accents, is no less impactful.

August bows broodingly as he revisits Your Only Child’s theme. I Sang in the Sun, a somber, spacious setting of a Carolyn Kizer poem, is an sobering reflection on white wilingness to embrace the bravery of being out of range when it comes to the murder of black people. The sarcasm of Perdomo’s loungey, easygoing solo is crushing.

The third reprise of Your Only Child, sung by Shelley Washington, opens with Middle Eastern gravitas from the string quartet, Allen’s sagacious spare lines over their swells. The juxtaposition between the otherworldly strings and the low horns could be the album’s most darkly gorgeous interlude; August follows with solo bass that echoes the Bach cello suites.

Sweet Words on Race is a jaunty, tightly undulating latin jazz number in the same vein that August has mined so often throughout his previous work. Thomson and saxophonist John Ellis spar animatedly to introduce The Bird Leaps, an altered, playfully voiced take on 30s Basie swing. August’s Blues Finale offers a glimpse of hope with its determined New Orleans shuffle groove and Frank Lacy’s gruff vocalese. The number of levels this music exists on is stunning: this could easily be the best jazz album of 2020.

And while we’re on the topic of the Emmitt Till murder, the most evil person in the whole group responsible wasn’t one of the men who lynched him. It was Carolyn Bryant, the woman who lied to her husband – one of the actual murderers – that Till had whistled at her, setting off the deadly mob..

Pianist Carolina Calvache Takes Her Lyrical, Individualistic Style to New Depths

It’s always validating to see an artist follow his or her muse and take their art to the next level. Pianist Carolina Calvache‘s 2014 debut album Sotareño was an ambitious mix of classically-inspired lyricism, postbop jazz and rhythms from her native Colombia. But Calvache is also a songwriter. On her new album Vida Profunda – streaming at Bandcamp -, she backs a murderer’s row of vocal talent in a collection of originals plus new settings of poems from across the ages. Calvache’s style is distinctly her own: 19th century art-song, classical music, jazz and diverse sounds from south of the border all figure in. Most of the lyrics on the album are in Spanish.

Marta Gomez sings the album’s title track, an anthemic neoromantic art-song awash in lush strings, with an understated intensity. Based on a poem by Porfirio Barba Jacob, it’s an uneasy coming to terms with extremes, emotional or otherwise. As Calvache sees it, an unfelt life is not worth living.

Sofia Ribeiro takes over the mic for El Pájaro Yo (The Bird Is Me), a darkly lilting setting of the famous Pablo Neruda poem. Hadar Noiberg’s flute soaring as fearlessly as the lyric. Ruben Blades delivers Te Conocí de Nuevo (I Met You Again), a reunited-for-good ballad, with hope and tenderness over Calvache’s bright, emphatic melody.

Claudia Acuña gives an aching, imploring angst to Sin un Despido (unpoetic translation: We Never Got to Say Goodbye), a glistening, symphonic requiem for the 2015 LaMia Flight 2933 crash whose victims included the Brazilian soccer team Chapecoens. Sara Serpa provides her signature, crystalline vocalese gravitas to Hope, a optimistically clustering number propelled by Jonathan Blake’s drums, Samuel Torres’ djembe and Peter Slavov’s bass, Calvache introducing it with a reference to Lift Every Voice and Sing.

Aubrey Johnson brings a bracing, unsettled energy to Childhood Retreat, a poignant setting of a Robert Duncan poem capped off by Michael Rodriguez’s soaring trumpet. Haydee Milanes offers warm and reflection in the Horace Silver-inspired Stella, a tribute to Calvache’s mom, with the composer on twinkling Rhodes and then incisive acoustic piano as harmonica player Gregoire Maret spirals overhead.

Serpa takes over on vocals again for the album’s most stunning song, The Trail, based on the Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow. Calvache ripples and cascades over sweeping string orchestration: at a time when the lockdowners are insisting on increasingly sinister levels of surveillance, this song couldn’t be more timely.

Lara Bello lends a warmly reflective tone to No Te Vi Crecer (I Didn’t See You Grow Up) over Calvache’s glistening lines: as lullabies go, this is a particularly enegetic one. The album’s only dud is a pop song that smacks of label mismanagement and doesn’t take advantage of Calvache’s many talents. This is a quiet triumph of outside-the-box playing from a rotating cast that also includes drummer Keita Ogawa; bassists Petros Klampanis and Ricky Rodriguez; violinists Tomoko Omura, Leonor Falcon, Ben Russell, Annaliesa Place and Adda Kridler; violists Allysin Clare and Jocelin Pan; cellists Brian Sanders and Diego Garcia; oboist Katie Scheele; trombonist Achilles Liarmakopoulous and bass clarinetist Paul Won Jin Cho.

Fiercely Relevant, Epic Grandeur From Pianist Arturo O’Farrill’s Mighty Big Band

Pianist Arturo O’Farrill has made a career out of writing witheringly insightful, relevant, politically fearlesss jazz. His brilliantly symphonic 2014 album The Offense of the Drum, with his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra addressed issues spanning from the blight of gentrification, to the arrest quotas the New York City police were using at the time to target innocent people of color, to the the slavers in the British colonies who outlawed music in an attempt to keep kidnapped Africans in submission. At a moment where band performances are illegal in New York, there’s never been a more appropriate time for a new record from this mighty crew. Their latest one, Four Questions – streaming at Spotify – Is O’Farrill’s most musically ambitious and classically-oriented album in a career full of taking chances.

The centerpiece is the title suite, featuring firebrand theorist, author and hip-hop artist Cornel West. The stairstepping brass intro is a lot closer to John Zorn than, say, Machito; the bluster and slink afterward alludes to the Middle East, among many shifting idioms, with triumphant call-and-response riffage throughout the ensemble. This isn’t just a backing track for West’s characteristically polymath broadside, which draws from W.E.B. DuBois’ thoughts on building community to combat repression from all sides. In sixteen minutes plus, West makes the connection between DuBois’ vision of a society based on compassion and Jane Austen’s concept of “constancy,” rails against Wall Street scammers who go unpunished and sends fervent shouts out to a long legacy of American artists of color whose work and philosophy in the face of murderous tyranny have never been more relevant than they are now. “Folks can’t ride your back unless it’s bent,” he reminds. Along the way, O’Farrill brings the music down to a streetcorner descarga, throws in a little jaunty ragtime, a rustic oldtime gospel trumpet interlude, and references from James P. Johnson to Geri Allen.

The album’s second suite is A Still, Small Voice, O’Farrill’s reflection on the 2008 financial collapse engineered by the Bush regime and Goldman Sachs to take the profits private and the losses public (and potentially cripple the incoming Obama administration). A forlorn trumpet solo opens the first movement, Elijah – 1 Kings 19:13. A choir of disembodied voices conducted by Jana Ballard coalesces, punctuated by orchestral swells, portentous percussion and a cantering qawaali-flavored rhythm.

Uneasy close harmonies from the choir fuel the fleeting second movement, Amidst the Fire and Whirlwind. The third, aptly titled Cacophonous has a rising, terrorized counterpoint anchored by the bandleader’s eerie boogie-woogie lefthand, interrupted by a suspiciously blithe soprano sax solo. The orchestra and choir work ethereal chromatic descents over a tense pulse in the concluding title movement, eventually ceding to a somberly catchy sway and a calm, gospel-infused outro. O’Farrill always likes to leave a window for hope to get in.

Not everything here is this heavy. The opening track, Baby Jack, is essentially a soprano sax concerto. It’s a playful, telling portrait of a very mercurial infant, complete with peevish trombones, moments of wonderous calm contrasting with unexpected, lush sagacity: this is one precocious child!

Jazz Twins has a sweeping, Darcy James Argue-ish bittersweetness and waves of counterpoint. O’Farrill takes a rippling solo, followed by gritty, clustering tenor sax and soaring trumpet over more of that Punjabi-inflected rhythm. And Clump, Unclump, a circling study in divergence, convergence and triumph over an evil system, manages to be both the album’s most avant garde and yet most traditionally postbop number.

Pianist Yoko Miwa Brings Her Purist Retro Sounds to Birdland

Artists who come from outside an idiom often have some catching up to do. In the process, some of them surpass others who grew up in that style. Yoko Miwa embodies a gritty, purist, 1960s take on jazz: the Japanese-born pianist’s music is a lot more about entertainment and tunes than insider snarkiness – or whatever it is that Snarky Puppy do. Her new trio album Keep Talkin’ is streaming at her music page. She’s playing Birdland on Jan 30 at 7 PM; you can get in for $20.

The album is a mix of originals and inventive covers, with a remarkable freshness and road-tested camaraderie: these expansive tracks really nail what she sounds like live. Miwa opens with the title cut, a vampy latin soul groove where she weaves in some uneasy Monkish harmonies toward the end. She’s a hard hitter, as she reaffirms in a dynamic, leaping take of In Walked Bud, focusing on Monk’s wary passing tones. Bassist Will Slater shifts between dancing melody and walking the changes hard as drummer Scott Goulding swings it toward New Orleans and then back.

Secret Rendezvous, a straightforward, syncopated clave tune is next, Goulding subtly pushing the beat with his tropical rimshots and a purposeful drum solo out. The Bill Evans-influenced, lyrical Sunset Lane manages to be ripplingly kinetic and bittersweet all at once. Miwa reinvents Charles Mingus’ Boogie Stop Shuffle as a stripped-down but no less turbulently bluesy showstopper.

She makes a diptych out of the Beatles’ Golden Slumbers and You Never Give Me Your Money, sticking close to the originals while adding an unexpectedly starry solo, picking up with a rather crushing attack on the second tune. The trio work a spring-loaded pulse in the understatedly brooding, modally-charged, intensely crescendoing Tone Portrait: it’s the album’s darkest track.

Miwa draws on singer Maria Rita’s waltzing version of the Brazilian ballad Casa Pre-Fabricada for a striking, emotionally direct sparkle. The pianist reinvents Joni Mitchell’s Conversation as a dynamically bristling, absolutely exhilarating gospel anthem that brings to mind Fairport Convention as much as, say, Mulgrew Miller. It’s one of the finest things Miwa has ever recorded: if only she could have given it a proper ending instead of a fade out!

If You’re Blue is a cleverly bluesy, straight-up swinging paraphrase of Puttin’ on the Ritz with bracing Monk references. Miwa closes the album with the epic, wistful ballad Sunshine Follows the Rain, guest bassist Brad Barrett adding moody washes and subtly sinuous melody, Miwa drifting into stern gospel territory once again.

Transcendence and Trials at Winter Jazzfest 2020

One of the high points of Winter Jazzfest 2020 was a rock song.

Don’t read that the wrong way. Firing off clanging, reverb-fanged minor chords from her white Fender Jaguar, Becca Stevens sang her steadily crescendoing anthem I Will Avenge You with just enough distance to make the inevitable all the more grim. Connections to a famous hippie songwriter and steampunk Broadway show aside, it was validating to see her pack the Poisson Rouge to open last night’s Manhattan marathon of shows.

She’s lost none of the livewire intensity she had in the days when she used to front a surrealistically entertaining cover band, the Bjorkestra, ten-odd years ago. Her own material is just as artsy and outside-the-box: it’s what would have been called art-rock back in the 70s, but with a 90s trip-hop influence (Portishead at their most orchestral) instead of, say, Genesis. Drummer Jordan Perlson and bassist Chris Tordini gave a snap to the songs’ tricky metrics, lead guitarist Jan Esbra adding terse colors, keyboardist Michelle Willis bubbling and rippling and soaring with her vocal harmonies. The songs ranged from an uneasily dancing setting of a Shakespeare text from Romeo and Juliet, to a dizzyingly circling ukulele tune, to Tillery, the subtly soukous-inflected anthem that Stevens typically opens with. “Without love there is nothing,” was the singalong chorus. True enough: that’s why we do this stuff.

A few blocks east at the Zurcher Gallery, singer Sara Serpa raised the bar impossibly high for the rest of the night, or so it seemed at the moment. With barely a pause between songs, she led a tightly focused lustrous quartet – longtime partner and saturnine influence Andre Matos on guitar, Dov Manski on piano and analog synth, and Jesse Simpson on drums – through a glistening, sometimes pointillistic, sometimes shatteringly plaintive set of songs without words.

Serpa didn’t sing any actual lyrics until the unexpectedly playful final song, relying instead on her signature vocalese. While she’s best known as a purveyor of misty, airy, frequently noir sonics, she’s developed stunning new power, especially on the low end – although she used that very judiciously. The most haunting song of the night came across as a mashup of Chano Dominguez and Procol Harum at their most quietly brooding, with a ghostly avenger out front. Matos’ steady, purposeful, meticulously nuanced chords and fills anchored Manski’s often otherworldly textures and eerie belltones as Simpson maintained a steady, suspenseful flutter with his bundles.

Over at Zinc Bar, trumpeter Samantha Boshnack led a New York version of her Seismic Belt septet, playing shapeshiftingly emphatic, anthemic, eco-disaster themed material from her fantastic 2019 album of the same name. The music seemed to still be coalescing, but that observation might be colored by the situation where the bar wasn’t letting people stand in the inner room close to the band, as they had in the past, and what was being piped into the front area through a couple of tinny speakers wasn’t enough to compete with a chatty crowd. The bandleader’s soulful, cantabile tone rose and fell gracefully and mingled with the sometimes stark, occasionally lush textures of violinist Sarah Bernstein, violist Jessica Pavone, bassist Lisa Hoppe, expansively dynamic baritone saxophonist Chris Credit, pianist Kai Ono and drummer Jacob Shandling. Boshnack’s voice is full of color and sparkle, just like her horn: she should sing more. Chet Baker may have left us, but Boshnack would be a welcome addition to the trumpeter/singer demimonde.

That there would be such a packed house in the basement of a snooty new Lafayette Street tourist bar, gathered to see the debut of pedal steel paradigm-shifter Susan Alcorn‘s new quintet, speaks to the exponential increase in interest in improvisation at the highest level. That the band had such potent material to work with didn’t hurt. Alcorn’s tunesmithing can be as devastatingly sad as her stage presence and banter is devastatingly funny.

Drummer Ryan Sawyer – most recently witnessed swinging the hell out of a set by Rev. Vince Anderson a couple of weeks ago – sank his sticks into a diving bell of a press roll that Alcorn pulled shivering to the surface in a trail of sparks. Violinist Mark Feldman’s searingly precise downward cadenza out of a long, matter-of-factly circling Michael Formanek bass crescendo was just as much of a thrill. Guitarist Mary Halvorson echoed the bandleader’s sudden swells and sharply disappearing vistas with her volume pedal.

There was a lot of sublime new material in the set. They began with a poignant, 19th century gospel-infused minor-key number that disintegrated into a surreal reflecting pool before returning, austere and darkly ambered. An even more angst-fueled, lingering diptych began as a refection on a battle with food poisoning, Alcorn deadpanned: from the sound of that, it could have killed her. Later portraits of New Mexico mountain terrain and a Utah “circular ruin” gave the band plenty of room to expand on similarly stark themes. The coyly galloping romp out at the end of the catchy, concluding pastoral jazz number offered irresistibly amusing relief.

Winter Jazzfest has expanded to the point where it seems it’s now a lot easier to get in to see pretty much whoever you want to see – at least this year, from this point of view. Even so, there’s always triage. Matthew Shipp at the Nuyorican, what a serendipitous match…but the Nuyorican is a good fifteen-minute shlep from the Bleecker Street strip, just on the cusp of where a taxi driver would think you’re really lame for not hoofing it over to Alphabet City.

Cuban-born pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa and his irrepressible quartet at Subculture were much closer. There’s always been a fine line between salsa and jazz and for this show, this crew – with Mayquel Gonzalez on trumpet, Gaston Joya on five-string bass and the bandleader’s brother Ruy on drums – sided with bringing the first kind of party. In a spirited duet, it turned out that the bandleader’s bro is a more than competent and equally extrovert pianist, when he wasn’t riffing expertly on his snare like a timbalero. The group shifted from long, vampy, percussive cascades to classically-flavored interludes, including a catchy Leo Brouwer ballad that Lopez-Nussa used as a rollercoaster to engage the crowd. What a beautiful, sonically pristine venue, and what a shame that, beyond a weekly Sunday morning classical concert series, the space isn’t used for music anymore. They probably couldn’t put the Poisson Rouge out of business – who would want that bar’s cheesy Jersey cover bands, anyway – but they could steal all their classical and jazz acts.