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Tag: latin jazz

A Lavish Upcoming Album From Salsa Jazz Pianist Dayramir González

Pianist Dayramir González is an incendiary, hard-hitting jazz pianist who could be characterized as the missing link between McCoy Tyner and Eddie Palmieri. He slayed at one of the very last latin jazz concerts at Lincoln Center, at the end of 2019. Gonzalez’s lavishly orchestral new album Tribute to Juan Formell & Los Van Van, which hasn’t hit the web yet. A diverse cast of salsa singers from across the decades take turns in front of the band; the record also comes with a full-length concert video. This album is more testament to Gonzalez’s outside-the-box ambitions than his sizzling chops.

The songs are a turbocharged mix of foundational Cuban salsa hits, awash in strings and sweeping brass. Brenda Navarre intones a brief homage to Formell, their guiding force, over Gonzalez’s bright neoromantic chords, then all of a sudden she shifts to an incantation to the spirits.

Gonzalez completely flips the script with Tu Decision, reinvented as latin P-Funk with a woozy synth organ patch, flute and orchestral strings. He switches back to piano as the orchestra backs away for bright flute and sax solos.

Alain Perez sings Mis Dudas with a gritty intensity over an undulating, symphonic sweep: it’s a mini salsa symphony. Luna Manzanres takes over the mic for Este Amor Que Se Muere, Gonzalez and the strings adding a towering angst before the brass and the groove kick in.

David Blanco provides the vocals on the catchy anthem Anda Ven y Muevete, which Gonzalez and the band reinvent as quasi-rocksteady. Then Teresa Yanet delivers a strikingly raw, plaintive take of Todo Se Acabo over a slinky, plush backdrop.

With Mandy Cantero out in front of the band, Deja la Boberia is both more rustically rhythmic and symphonically cosmopolitan than the original. Later on Hayla Mompie joins Cantero for El Guararey de Pastora, which also has a more rugged groove and a wickedly spiraling Gonzalez solo.

No Te Quieres Tu, a duet between Mayito Rivera and Arlenys Rodriguez, is the most epic, lavish rearrangement here: the surprise ending is killer. Next, Rivera and Telmary Diaz team up for a slyly funky reggaeton remake of Marilu.

Abdel Rasalps, Diaz, Rivera and Rumba Pelladito all join in a serpentine version of Chan Chan to close the record.

A Blissful Return For Arturo O’Farrill’s Paradigm-Shifting Afro-:Latin Jazz at Birdland

The live music meme in New York this summer is bliss. At his relentlessly entertaining show Sunday night at Birdland with his Afro-Latin Jazz Octet, pianist Arturo O’Farrill spoke to the “infinite loop” between musicians and audience, and how crucial that dynamic is for a performer The club wasn’t quite sold out, probably due to the impending storm outside, but you should have heard the thunderous standing ovation at the end of the show. That infinite loop resonated just as powerfully on both ends.

It helps that O’Farrill is a personable guy and loves to engage the crowd, but in a subtly erudite way. Since the 90s, he’s pushed the envelope about as far as anyone can go with what could loosely be called latin jazz, and he dares the listener to think along with him. And the band seemed as amped as he was to interact with everybody who’d come out.

Much as O’Farrill’s music is colorful and picturesque, there’s always a balance between unbridled passion and a zen-like discipline: nobody in this group overplays. At just about any concert, it’s almost inevitable that somebody gets carried away. Not this crew.

They opened with a broodingly Ellingtonian cha-cha and closed with a more exuberant salsa-jazz tune. Right off the bat, O’Farrill was busting loose: he gets all kinds of props as a composer, but we forget what a brilliant pianist he is. Lickety-split spiral staircase elegance, meticulously articulated yet spine-tingling cascades, moonlight sonatas that flashed by in seconds flat, DAMN. He didn’t confine all that to his opening solo, either.

Trumpeter Jim Seeley and trombonist Mariel Bildstein chose their spots, throughout a lot of deceptively sophisticated counterpoint. Whether everybody in the band is consciously aware of it or not, they’re all ultimately part of the rhythm section.

Bassist Bam Bam Rodriguez ranged from undulating grooves, to hazy uneasy, to a ridiculously comedic exchange with the bandleader late in the set. Drummer Vince Cherico is the secret timbalero in this project, particularly with his hypnotic rimshots, woodblock and bell. Conguero Keisel Jimenez had fun taking a turn on the mic for a singalong, clapalong take of the old salsa classic Manteca. His fellow percussionist Carlos Maldonado fueled several upward trajectories with his boomy cajon while tenor saxophonist Ivan Renta ranged from incisive to balmy to taking a carefree turn on flute.

And the compositions were as wide-ranging as anyone could hope for. There was the shapeshifting, chuffing La Llorona, from one of many of O’Farrill’s ballet suites, scheduled for release on album this winter (if there isn’t lockdowner interference). He drew some laughs when he introduced a restless, lustrous jazz waltz arrangement of the old Scottish air She Moves Through the Fair as a shout-out to his heritage (check the last name for validation).

He explained the matter-of-factly crescendoing Compa’Doug as a portrait of two guys out at night raising hell, although the group took their time with the song’s careful, saturnine development before a rather sober evening rolled into the wee hours. El Sur, a Gabriel Alegria tune, wound out expansively from a Peruvian festejo beat to a hypnotically circular, almost qawwali-ish 6/8 groove with punchy incisions from the horns. And O’Farrill warned that his tune Tanguanco – a mashup of tango and a slinky Cuban rhythm – was dangerously sexy, the percussion section anchoring it with a turbulent undercurrent.

O’Farrill and the octet continue their renewed weekly residency at Birdland every Sunday night at 7 PM; cover s $20.

Revisiting a Legendary New York Band From the 90s at Drom’s Summer Jazz Festival

It’s Saturday night in the East Village. Drom isn’t packed wall to wall like it was Thursday night for the Mingus Big Band, but there’s a healthy crowd, and it’s growing. Co-owner Serdar Ilhan takes a moment to reflect underneath the gorgeous sepia profile of the Galata Tower in Istanbul just to the right of the stage that greets customers as they walk in.

It’s the most metaphorically loaded, timely visual in any New York club these days: a fifteenth-century edifice, with a synagogue, a mosque and a church visible faintly in the background. Next year, Drom will be celebrating fifteen years of more US debuts of artists and bands from around the world than any other New York club can boast over that time. When did the club open? April of 2007? “I can’t remember,” Ilhan laughs. Then he goes over to the stage and gooses the smoke machine.

That seems a play to signal the band that it’s showtime. On one hand, it’s weird to see Groove Collective onstage, and a room full of people sitting at tables. But this isn’t the Groove Collective that used to pack the Mercury Lounge back in the mid-90s. Frontman and irrepressible freestylist Gordon, a.k.a. Nappy G flew the coop long ago. Not all of the core of the original band remain, and they aren’t the ubiquitous presence they were on the New York club circuit twenty-five years ago. But they’re just as original, and uncategorizable, and over the years have grown closer to being a straight-up jazz band. Which makes sense, considering that this show is part of Drom’s ongoing summer jazz festival.

And it’s date night, and maybe 90s nostalgia night too. There are a group of dancers gathered by the bar as well. The band find new ways to make two-chord vamps interesting, usually involving rhythm. The turbulent river thrown off by a sometimes four-person percussion section: drummer Genji Siraisi, conguero Chris Ifatoye Theberge, multi-percussionist Nina Creese and guest Peter Apfelbaum – contrasts with the often hypnotic insistence from Marcio Garcia’s piano and organ, and the looming ambience of trombonist Josh Roseman and saxophonist Jay Rodriguez.

What becomes clearest is how much the latin influence has come to the forefront in the band’s music. The clave goes doublespeed or halfspeed, Creese often serving as mistress of suspense. Apfelbaum teases the audience with a keyboard solo, running through a bunch of electric piano and organ patches, then switches to melodica for a deep dub breakdown before the groove is relaunched.

Rodriguez shifts between alto, tenor and flute while Roseman serves as co-anchor along with a new bassist, who has the circling riffs in his fingers. Meanwhile, the beat morphs from salsa to funk to trip-hop, a current-day dancefloor thud, and then a shuffling oldschool disco beat at the end of the night. Rodriguez ends up opting to cut loose with his most interesting, energetic riffage of the night early; Roseman, and eventually Apfelbaum on his usual tenor sax, do the opposite.

The next concert in Drom’s ongoing summer jazz festival is August 19 at 7 PM with a killer twinbill of double-threat Camille Thurman – who’s equally dazzling on the mic and the tenor sax – with the Darrell Green Trio, and also trombonist Conrad Herwig with his Quintet. Cover is $30; there’s also an absurdly cheap five-day festival pass for $100 available.

One of the World’s Mightiest Latin Jazz Orchestras Gets Back to Business at Birdland

When a bunch of oligarchs and their puppets in politics tried to take over the world in 2020, musicians were left out in the cold. In the liner notes to his new album Virtual Birdland, pianist Arturo O’Farrill, longtime leader of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra takes care to mention how people who play music for a living are no less essential than any other workers. Empowered by that knowledge, he kept the band going through a long series of webcasts, possibly the most labor-intensive of all the innumerable online collaborations of the past sixteen months or so. The great news is that the big band’s home base, Birdland, is open again, and the group have resumed the Sunday night residency they were banished from in March of last year. Showtime these days is 7 PM. If you feel like celebrating, it couldn’t hurt to reserve a spot now since these shows are very likely to sell out. Cover is $20; your best deal is a seat at the bar.

Considering that individual parts on the record – streaming at Spotify – were recorded remotely in innumerable different sonic environments, the fact that it sounds as contiguous as it does reflects the herculean work of the engineers involved.

Big trombone fanfares interweave with lushly swirling reeds over a bubbling Punjabi-inflected groove in the cuisine-inspired opening number, Gulab Jamon. O’Farrill takes a cascading, brightly neoromantic solo with Bam Bam Rodriguez’s bass growling minimalistically behind him while the rhythm straightens into an emphatic clave. Tenor saxophonist Jasper Dutz summons a return to a web of triumphant counterpoint and a devious false ending.

Guest Malika Zarra sings her composition Pouvoir, a slinky, brassy Moroccan-flavored tune with solos from trombonist Mariel Bildstein and conguero Keisel Jimenez. This band have always slayed with Arabic and Jewish themes, underscored by their version of trombonist Rafi Malkiel’s brooding Desert, its uneasily undulating chromatics giving way to a serpentine solo by the composer and then a muted, soulful one from lead trumpeter Seneca Black.

With its nocturnal, Dizzy Gillespie-style suspense and bluster, Larry Willis’ Nightfall makes a great segue, trumpeter Rachel Therrien and tenor saxophonist Ivan Renta cutting loose hauntingly between the orchestra’s chromatic gusts. The bandleader spirals elegantly; Jimenez goes deep down the well as the storm hovers.

Guest guitarist Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi sings his methodical, bittersweet ballad Ana Mashoof, adding a starry solo in tandem with O’Farrill before Alejandro Aviles spins in on soprano sax. Alto saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera soars and weaves through a tightly turbulent take of his Samba For Carmen, echoed by O’Farrill’s trumpeter son Adam.

Alafia, by Letieres Leite – the Brazilian Arturo O’Farrill – gets a jubilant, percussion-fueled workout, part elegantly orchestral candomble theme, part feral frevo brass-band romp with a tantalizingly brief, smoky Larry Bustamante baritone sax solo.

O’Farrill first performed Rafael Solano’s En La Oscuridad with his big band legend father Chico O’Farrill alongside the great tenor saxophonist Mario Rivera, so playing this suave, balmy ballad again with Renta, a Rivera protege, brings the song full circle.

They close the album with a couple of salutes to transgression, something the world is rising to embrace like never before. The epic take of Papo Vazquez’s relentlessly anthemic Cimarron first features calm triumph from trombonist Abdulrahman Amer, Aviles turning up the heat on alto, then percussionist Carly Maldonado fueling a charge out. The final number is a towering, cinematic take of Tito Puente’s Para Los Rumberos: Renta, Malkiel, Maldonado, Jimenez and drummer Vince Cherico all get to cut loose. How beautiful it is that we can hear musicians of this caliber take material like this to the next level onstage again.

And if you’re around the East Village on the 29th, O’Farrill is leading a much smaller group at St. Marks Park at 2nd Ave. and 10th St. at half past noon.

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..