New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: protest jazz

A Shimmering, Potently Relevant New Album From Fearless Composer Susie Ibarra

Percussionist and composer Susie Ibarra‘s rapturous, starkly orchestrated new album Walking on Water touches on the two most deadly ecological crises of our time: the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and global warming. Inspired by a breathtaking series of paintings by Mako Fujimura dedicated to the victims of the March 11, 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear explosions, Ibarra also addresses a familiar theme in her work, the perils of climate change. With the Japanese government threatening to dump millions of gallons of lethal radioactive water from the still-unstable Fukushima site into the Pacific, Ibarra could not have picked a more appropriate time to release this record of what she terms as “spirituals” at Bandcamp.

Ibarra’s DreamTime Ensemble here includes Jennifer Choi on violin, Yves Dharambaj on cello, Claudia Acuna on vocals, Jake Landau on guitar and keys, with Yuka C. Honda adding electronic elements. The music is much more dynamic than you would expect from such troubling central themes and includes many field recordings of water, from melting ice in the Himalayas to water tanks in Washington State.

The first track is Elegy in Azurite, a shimmery, circling theme, part terse, lush classical atmosphere aloft with Acuna’s vocalese, and part pointillistic Filipino kulintang music. Landau’s spiky acoustic guitar pierces the mist in the bouncy Light East of Sendai. His organ falls away, leaving Ibarra’s cymbals and gongs to mingle with melting ice sonics in Waterfalling.

Assertive, flamenco-tinged guitar chords anchor resonant, shivering phrases from violin and cello over Ibarra’s rustles in Coastal Birds The next track is High Wave, a mashup of found sounds of water amid nebulous acoustic and electronic ambience. Acuna sails soulfully above a syncopated organ groove and Ibarra’s slinky drums in the aptly titled Natural Lightness.

Night Rain sounds like exactly that, a field recording with birds chattering away as they take cover. Violin and cello rise warily over Landau’s lush arpeggios in Divine Forgiveness, followed by a fluttery tone poem, Celestial Migration. Floating Azurite makes a good segue, somber atmosphere contrasting with the mandolin-like delicacy of Landau’s guitars.

The bossa-tinged swing of New York With Grace comes as a real surprise, Landau’s spiny textures and the strings adding a surreal, disquieted edge. The album’s big epic is aptly titled Listening at Himalayan Waterfalls, a found-sound pastiche which Ibarra captured with underwater microphones. The group close with Floating Along Banares, a summery field recording of a boat trip mashed up with distantly Indian-flavored melodies. The implication seems to be that this kind of natural camaraderie is just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended) of what we stand to lose if we don’t stop burning things to power the world. The apocalypse never sounded so dreamy. Count this as one of the best and most captivating albums of 2021.

Angela’s Ring: A Witheringly Funny, Unexpectedly Prophetic Satire of EU Political Skulduggery

One of the most original and savagely insightful new albums to come out since the fateful days of March, 2020 is Angela’s Ring, a large-ensemble jazz opera written by bassist Kabir Sehgal and pianist Marie Incontrera, streaming at Spotify. Premiered before the lockdown, it’s a meticulously researched, venomously satirical look at the inner workings of the European Union, focusing on the admission of Greece and the nation’s precipitous decline afterward. As context for the lockdowners’ almost complete takedown of democracy around the world, it’s eye-opening to the extreme.

It’s more a story of political corruption gone haywire than any kind of examination of the sinister International Monetary Fund scheme to cripple the Greek economy with debt and devastate its citizenry. And it’s ridiculously funny. EU heads of state come across as decadent fratboys and sorority girls who never grew up and live in a bubble. If there’s anything that’s missing here – Sehgal has obviously done his homework – it’s the point of view of the average European. For instance, we only get a single number about the Greeks who’ve lost their property, their jobs and in some cases, their lives, to satisfy speculator greed.

The Leveraged Jazz Orchestra spoof Beethoven right off the bat in the suspiciously blithe overture, launching a Western European alternative to nationalist strife that left “a hundred million dead” over the centuries, as German dictator Angela Merkel (Lucy Schaufer) puts it. She is, after all, prone to exaggeration. And then she seduces the wary but bibulous George Papandreou (David Gordon) on a waterbed over a sultry, altered tango groove. Meanwhile, he frets how long it’s going to take the rest of the EU to find out that he’s cooked the books.

It takes IMF honcho Christine Lagarde (a hair-raising Marnie Breckinridge) to rescue him…but this deus ex machina comes with a hefty pricetag. A shady, crude Silvio Berlusconi (Brandon Snook) tells him not to worry, that Italy is in over its head even deeper, so…party time! With a monumental Napoleon complex, France’s subservient Nicolas Sarkozy (Erik Bagger) gets skewered just as deliciously. “Democracy isn’t your natural state,” he tells Merkel at a pivotal moment.

A hedge fund manager suggests a joust between Merkel and Papandreou, with Lagarde as referee. Who wins? No spoilers.

The music is inventive and imaginative, a mashup of styles from across the Continent, from folk to classical to jazz. Who would have ever imagined a celebratory Greek ballad played on Edmar Castaneda’s harp? That’s one of the more cynical interludes here. There’s also a slinky, smoky baritone sax break after Greece’s debt gets downgraded to junk by traders hell-bent on shorting it. Tenor sax player Grace Kelly adds suspicious exuberance; trombonist Papo Vazquez takes a moody break in a salsa-jazz number where Merkel’s treachery finally comes out into the open. Clarinetist Oran Etkin’s agitatedly sailing solo in an even darker latin-tinged number is one of the record’s high points, as is pianist Aaron Diehl’s similar interlude a couple of tracks later.

Ultimately, this is a cautionary tale. If you think this is outrageous and revealing – and it is – just wait til the collapse of the lockdown, the Nuremberg trials afterward, and the likely dissolution of the EU. Maybe Sehgal can write a sequel.

A Provocatively Philosophical, Deeply Articulate New Album From Alexa Tarantino

Alexa Tarantino’s new album Firefly – streaming at Bandcamp – could be interpreted as a protest jazz record. It came together during the lockdown, and the tech oligarchs’ relentless quest to destroy the arts and reduce all surviving humanity to cogs in a soulless machine has without a doubt impacted much of the material on it.

But it’s more of a philosophical than political statement, and ultimately an optimistic one. In her liner notes, Tarantino provides context to the album’s central suite, A Moment in Time: “It’s a raw and personal snapshot of a day in a creative’s life, and the responsibilities that come with this lifestyle which, to most of society, appears ethereal, idyllic, novel, and curious. Today’s fast-paced world of technology and instant gratification has centered the human priority on money, material items, flashy success, and social media following. Essentially, it’s ‘How can I get, produce, or be the next best thing, right now?’ While we’ve seen how this has skyrocketed us forward in the realms of technology and science, it has undoubtedly impacted human thought, attention, and connection, forever.”

Tarantino obviously has her eye on the sinister implications. It begins with Daybreak, a moody latin soul groove anchored by drummer Rudy Royston’s spare, loose-limbed boom and bassist Boris Kozlov’s lithe pulse, pianist Art Hirahara and vibraphonist Behn Gillece providing a spare gleam behind Tarantino’s airy, wary alto sax. Essentially, it’s the cradle of the day’s artistic inspiration.

Tarantino switches to alto flute for Surge Fughetta, a warmly baroque-tinged miniature by Kozlov. She goes back to sax and chooses her spots to soar and spiral in Surge Capacity, a bustling, anthemic, purist minor-key romp that explores the magic moment when creative inspiration strikes, with briskly prowling solos by Hirahara and Royston. Then she picks up the alto flute again for Le Donna Nel Giardino, a balmy, verdantly swaying portrait of a playful female garden spirit, Hirahara’s sparse, allusive lines offering subtle contrast to the calm cheer overhead.

Next is Rootless Ruthlessness, a gritty, tightly clustering picture of inner turmoil, self-doubt and self-sabotage, and the struggle for an artist to get their inner critic to shut up. Hirahara switches to Rhodes as Royston charges onward, the bandleader leading a morose, tormented descent where everything falls apart before pulling it back to a triumphant drive out.

She takes a break from the suite with an unhurried, expansive take of Wayne Shorter’s Lady Day, Kozlov bowing a soulful solo to echo Tarantino’s expressiveness. The suite returns as she switches to soprano for Violet Sky, a seaside sunset bossa groove with some very cleverly orchestrated echoes between Hirahara’s Rhodes and Gillece’s vibes, Royston adding the occasional wry flicker or turnaround.

The finale, The Firefly Code challenges us to find our souls amidst this awful mess, basically. Tarantino articulates her thought: “Our individual lights perhaps are not shining as bright as they were a year ago. But the bottom line is that we shine brighter together than we do apart. We, especially artists and creatives, are resilient. My hope is that after a time of ‘darkness,’ we as a society will re-emerge brighter than ever – with a renewed appreciation for the little things – an extended embrace with someone we love, the sound of the birds chirping while sipping our morning latte, or the way that staring at a painting, listening to a composition, or reading a poem makes us pause, think, and feel…in a way that no amount of Instagram likes or followers ever could.”

She opens it on alto flute, the band shifting from a brooding, allusively Ellingtonian sway to more of a bounce as she picks up steam and spins around, matched by Gillece’s pirouetting solo. Royston’s emphatic drum break signals a very unsettled return: the choice is up to us, Tarantino seems to say.

There’s more: the suite doesn’t begin until five tracks in. To kick off the album, we get Spider’s Dance, a low-key, catchy Hirahara tune meant to illustrate an arachnid mating ritual: in this particular universe, these creatures are more romantic than sinister.

Tarantino’s alto flute wafts purposefully but enigmatically in Mindful Moments, a clave tune by by Gillece where Royston has all kinds of subtle fun with on his rims and toms.

Move of the Spirit, an acerbically upbeat Royston swing anthem has a deviously amusing Tarantino quote and rippling solos from Gillece and Hirahara. A second Shorter number, Iris is a long platform for a thoughtfully constructed alto sax solo. This is one of the best and most important jazz albums of the year.

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.

Dan Blake Offers Hope in the Midst of Terror on His Powerfully Relevant New Album

Saxophonist Dan Blake‘s new album Da Fé – streaming at Bandcamp – isn’t just a brilliant, darkly picturesque, tuneful record: it’s an important one. Blake has gone to great lengths to capture much of the perilous state of the world, 2021. And as grim as so many of the themes here are, with plenty of gallows humor, ultimately this is optimistic. We’re going to get through this, even if it takes us a lot of work, Blake seems to say. He’s got a fantastic band: Carmen Staaf on piano, Dmitry Ishenko on bass, and Jeff Williams on drums with Leo Genovese adding both piano and multi-keys. The ensemble seem much larger than they are in places since Blake overdubs himself frequently for extra intensity.

Staaf builds an increasingly bewildering, creepy belltone ambience in her solo introduction, A New Normal: clearly Blake is wise to the inhumanity of the lockdowners’ totalitarian schemes.

Cry of the East, dedicated to the Palestinian people, begins as an edgily modal Coltrane-inspired jazz waltz, Blake multitracking a sax chorus overhead, Staaf following with a sagacious blues-infused solo setting up the bandleader’s angst-fueled, trilling crescendo. Blake sticks with the soprano sax in Like Fish in Puddles, at first flurrying if not actually flappping around, over a hypnotically energetic backdrop. Staaf signals the first cautious moves out of the trap, Blake an insistent voice of reason overhead; the squall and surreal synth flickers as tension mounts aptly captures the past year’s relentless anxiety.

The next number is simply titled Pain, Genovese building an increasingly macabre, echoey pool beneath Blake’s circles and cries. The band rise to a dissociative, grimly bluesy sway from there, part somber Coltrane, part menacing Messiaen. The Grifter is a brilliantly constructed portrait of a guy who seems like a real blithe spirit, but as Staaf and the rest of the band quickly make clear, that orange wig can’t conceal what’s lurking underneath. Blake’s solo at the end is too good to give away.

The Cliff comes across as a sardonic mashup of Monk and modal Miles: well, you needn’t go over the edge, Blake seems to say with his multitracks over the rhythm section’s terse syncopation and bracing scrambles. Dr. Armchair is the album’s most cynical track: this guy keeps flogging the same dead horse even as his logic doesn’t stand up, Staaf taking charge of the demolition with relish. This person could just as easily be someone you know, or someone on tv.

The album’s title track is not a bossa or a samba but instead begins as a surreal, sci-fi tableau of sax and synthy squiggles, answered by the band’s ruggedly Monkish melodicism, up to a long, sharp-fanged Blake alto solo. The album’s epilogue is It Heals Itself, a disquieted tone poem of sorts. Blake’s soprano sax still channels a persistent pain, but his layers of melody seems to offer a very guarded hope as the group sway patiently behind him. One of the most relevant and musically rich albums of 2021 in any style of music.

A Haunting, Hard-Hitting New Protest Jazz Suite From Trumpeter Alonzo Demetrius

As grassroots resistance against the lockdown gains momentum and more parts of the country declare themselves free territory, we will soon have unprecedented opportunities to remake our world. As lockdowner governors are voted out and driven from office, we will have plenty of chances to give force of law to the hope kindled by the pro-freedom, Black Lives Matter and Metoo movements. On his powerful, purposeful, evocative new concert recording Live From the Prison Nation – streaming at Bandcamp – trumpeter Alonzo Demetrius addresses the ongoing need to put an end to the New Jim Crow.

This is a suite in the Ellington tradition, with stern echoes of Mingus and also the shadowy intensity of Darcy James Argue at his most concise. The opening track, Expectations begins with a troubled, suspenseful pedalpoint behind narrator’s Angela Davis’ commentary on what to do with prisons: she wants to abolish them. From there the group rise to an anthemic descending riff and then allusive variations, the bandleader shifting from somber to triumphantly fluttering, echoed by tenor saxophonist Yesseh Furaha-Ali. Pianist Daniel Abraham Jr. and bassist Benjamin Jephta maintain a low-key, mysterious presence as drummer Brian Richburg subtly raises the ante. The sudden shift to Abraham’s moody solo as the horns drop out is stunning.

Likewise, the group waft and simmer through The Principle, a haunting, allusively modal tone poem of sorts, the bandleader’s trumpet awash in reverb and digital sustain until he finally cuts loose. There’s a fade up and then out of Yesseh’s Interlude, a brief, thoughtful Furaha-Ali solo.

“It is only movements that bring change…movements work,” author and wrongfully convicted death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal reminds in his voiceover for Mumia’s Guidance, a similarly brooding backdrop with soulful, low-key trumpet and sax solos. “We live in an era where the very notion of a movement sems strange or oddly out of time. That is so because over the last half century, the state has worked hard to disappear the memory of the movements of the 60s or for that matter any other time in us history. It has utilized the the media, the academy and public schools to present a false and misleading historical narrative to confuse people so they cannot see how movements grow, interact, swell and finally present such position unto the public square..”

Demetrius closes the album with his most epic composition, the anti-police brutality tableau F.O.O. Shit. The group rises ominously over sounds of community-building in the streets; Jephta’s pensive four-chord electric bass riffs anchor and then launch a tightly clustering, expansive sax solo. A sinister tritone flourish from Abraham signals that there’s plenty of trouble ahead and work to do as Jephta booms in the distance, Demetrius shifting from grim, Middle Eastern-tinged allusions to spacious, reflective, Wadada Leo Smith-like motives. The slow upward drive backs away just short of a conflagration

This isn’t just one of the best and most relevant jazz albums of the year; it’s one of the best and most relevant albums of the past several years, period. And if Demetrius hadn’t had the presence of mind to record this show, today he and the band would have to make the long trip to Florida, or South Dakota, or Council, Idaho to make the album. That’s how twisted this country became in 2020.

Prime, Incendiary, Epically Relevant Live Mingus Rescued From the Archives

Even if he was just walking the changes to an otherwise pedestrian blues, Charles Mingus would inevitably infuse it with the irony, and dark humor, and quite possibly righteous rage that characterized his compositions. On April 16, 1964, in a modest auditorium attached to the local radio station in Bremen, Germany, Mingus didn’t reach for the rage immediately, but he channeled everything else, an icon always searching to find new ways to articulate himself. In doing that, he elevated the hall-of-fame lineup alongside him to rare levels of intensity and wild, reckless fun. The recording of the simulcast has been out there for awhile, as The Complete Bremen Concert. It’s  been newly digitized, and most of it is  available on a mammoth quadruple album along with a second performance in the same city from more than ten years later. These often withering historical performances, titled Charles Mingus @ Bremen 1964 & 1975, are streaming at Sunnyside Records.

Two concerts, two completely different contexts. 1964: in America, Jim Crow is still de jure rather than de facto, Mingus focused intently on civil rights themes. 1975, post-Attica massacre, the composer turns his attention to prisoners’ rights while not neglecting general issues of equality. Either way, his fiercely populist vision never wavered.

The sound for the first show is broadcast-quality mono awash in generous reverb. The second one has a a far more dynamic stereo mix. Together they total more than four hours of the legendary bassist with two almost completely different but equally incendiary bands.

The first show features a dream team of players, many of them as revered as the bandleader. Eric Dolphy, in one of his last recordings here, plays alto sax, bass clarinet and flute, along with tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, trumpeter Johnny Coles, Jaki Byard on a piano in, um, saloon tuning, and colorful, underrated, longtime Mingus drummer Dannie Richmond.

How do you keep a crowd engaged in a 26-minute blues? Get these guys involved; the bandleader’s terse irony is a big part of it, as is Dolphy’s irrepressible outsider sensibility. Their 34-minute take of Fables of Faubus, the lone holdover that would reappear in the 1975 setlist, has plenty of cruelly cartoonish mockery of the little Hitler governor of Arkansas, but also a venomous duet between Mingus and Byard, vindictive blaze and chilling noir swing, Coles’ mournful lines backlit by Dolphy’s bass clarinet – which emerges as voice of both horror and reason.

Byard teases the audience with phantasmagorical stride one step beyond Monk to introduce a delicate bass/piano take of Sophisticated Lady. The group indulge the crowd as much as themselves in Mingus’ Parkeriana, a careening mashup of Bird themes, Dolphy hitting those high harmonics like probably only their composer could have. In Meditations on Integration, they take an immersive roller-coaster ride from poignancy to haphazardly floating swing and for awhile, more optimistic terrain. The brooding triangulation between Byard’s crushing chords, Dolphy’s ominous airiness and Mingus’ severe, bowed lines at the end is one of the album’s most shattering interludes.

The July 9, 1975 concert at a larger venue, Post Aula, features a quintet including George Adams on tenor sax, trumpeter Jack Walrath and pianist Don Pullen, with Richmond on drums again. This time the songs are more succinct, in contrast with the sheer wildness of the solos. Their first number here is the epically bustling ballad Sue’s Changes (Mingus’ beloved wife Sue was editor of Changes magazine), with expansive, explosive solos all around. Mingus’ bass is far grittier and dynamic on this recording, probably due to close-miking. Pullen’s turbulence against his long chromatic vamp paints an aptly formidable portrait.

A broodingly bluesy, angst-fueled take of Sy Johnson’s tribute For Harry Carney is next, Adams whirling and punching, mostly in the lows, over a catchy, modally shamanic pulse. Mingus’ aching microtonal solo as Pullen runs the hook is tantalizingly brief. Free Cell Block F, ‘Tis Nazi USA – a protest piece against grim conditions in southern prisons’ death row blocks – is surprisingly, scamperingly bright, all the soloists in determined, seemingly defiant mode as this swing shuffle takes on more of a latin feel.

The group scramble and pulse insistently through Walrath’s Black Bats and Poles, anchored by Mingus’ vamping octaves and lickety-split variations. The version of Fables of Faubus this time around clocks in at a comparatively modest fifteen-plus minutes, much more contiguously and solo-centric after the band careen their way in.

Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love, Mingus’ fond elegy for his big influence, provides a calm platform for tender Adams and Walrath solos, and gentle lyricism from piano and bass. They indulge in a brief bit of Ray Noble’s Cherokee to pick up the pace and end the set.

The first of the encores is the catchy, briskly swinging Remember Rockefeller at Attica, with bright, crescendoing trumpet and piano solos, Adams’ rapidfire attack leading the band out. He takes a similarly impassioned turn on vocals to close the night with Devil’s Blues after a sagacious Mingus solo intro. Is it unfair to compare new material by contemporary artists to the transcendence on this album? Wait and see when – and if – we reach the moment where there’s a best albums of 2020 list here.

The Data Lords Are No Match For the Rest of Us in Maria Schneider’s Visionary Magnum Opus

Imagine what Hitler could have done if Facebook and Instagram had existed in 1938. There wouldn’t have been a single Jew or Romany person left alive in Europe. Or any musicians, artists, writers, or member of the intelligentsia.

All genuine art is transgressive. And fascists don’t like people who disobey.

There are a lot of little Hitlers working for the Trace and Track Corps right now who are datamining Facebook, Instagram, and every other digital platform including private phones.

You do the math.

So it’s kind of a miracle that Maria Schneider has been able to release her new album Data Lords in the year of the lockdown. In a career where she’s been widely acknowledged as the foremost jazz composer since the 1990s, this is a magnum opus, her bravest and most musically ambitious release yet. And it ends optimistically. As Schneider sees it, the people – and the animals, and the lakes and the trees – are going to win this war.

It’s a double album, the first titled The Digital World, the second Our Natural World. Schneider grew up in Minnesota, an outdoorsy kid whose love and advocacy for nature remains a persistent theme throughout her work. That resonates more strongly than ever on the second disc.

The first is protest music on the highest level of artistic expression, with Shostakovian irony and defiant Mingus humor. Improvisation seems to play an even greater role than ever in Schneider’s work here, and her brilliant ensemble attack it with reckless abandon and attention to the most minute details. It would take a book to dissect each of these pieces.

The opening number is A World Lost. Reduced to lowest terms, it’s basically a one-chord jam. From Frank Kimbrough’s elegaic, modally circling piano and Jay Anderson’s somber bowed bass, drummer Johnathan Blake adds mutedly shamanistic color. The orchestra develops a chromatic menace anchored by the low reeds, Rich Perry’s hopeful, defiant tenor sax pulsing through what could be groupthink. Anderson signals a rise to a fullscale conflagration; Perry’s tumble out of the sky, shadowed by guitarist Ben Monder’s atmospheric lines, is one of the most stunning moments on the album. Is this a portrait of the innate feebleness of the data lords, whose machines have not liberated but disempowered them? Or is this the failure of the world to realize the sinister implications of digital media?

The sarcasm in Don’t Be Evil – you know, the Google motto – is savage to the extreme. The quirky intro hints that these dorks couldn’t hurt a fly – but wait! A folksy caricature grows more macabre, with stabbing horns and a spastic, tormented guitar solo as a marching lockstep develops. Trombonist Ryan Keberle plays momentary voice of reason, Kimbrough the gleefully evil architect of an empire of spies with his phantasmagorical ripples. This might be the best song Schneider ever wrote.

Although CQ CQ Is There Anybody There predates the lockdown, it could be a portrait of what Del Bigtree calls the “illuminati of clowns” behind it. This one’s particularly creepy. There’s a persistent rubato feel to a large proportion of this disc, and this song is a prime example, from acidically swooping atmospherics and a descent into the murk with guitar lurking just overhead. Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin provides ebullient contrast over the growl as Blake builds wave motion, then trumpeter Greg Gisbert and his pedal become a one-man cheer section for impending doom as the orchestra fall in and out of sync, until his shriek signals complete control. Those masks will never come off again.

Scott Robinson channels a vast range of emotions on baritone sax, from burbling contentedness to valve-ripping extended technique throughout Sputnik. Kimbrough introduces it somberly, then it becomes a contented deep-space theme. The way Schneider weaves the initial disquiet back in is nothing short of brilliant; the group bring it full circle. A 5G parable, maybe?

The album’s title track and centerpiece has a cold vindictiveness, from the glitchy electronic sarcasm of the intro, through an anxious flutter of individual voices as Blake circles his kit. Trumpeter Mike Rodriguez chooses his spots over a grim vamp, offers a guarded optimism but finally grows frantic. Could alto saxophonist Dave Pietro’s menacing chromatics and wobbly microtones over Kimbrough’s tinkle be a cartoonish take on a Bill Gates type?  When everything completely and abruptly falls apart, leaving only glitches behind, Schneider leaves no doubt that the data lords are doomed – and as the rest of the record attests, there are better things ahead.

Our Natural World begins with Sanzenin, a steady, calmly pulsing anthem which could be a largescale Claudia Quintet piece with Gary Versace’s terse accordion at the center. Steve Wilson’s coy blippy soprano sax is joined by warmly rippling piano, followed by whimsical conversation between accordion and sax in the carefree Stone Song, a rubato samba with lots of quick staccato bursts from everybody

Kimbrough’s glistening, incisive chords introduce Look Up, trombonist Marshall Gilkes echoing that bright lyricism throughout several solos. Gospel allusions from the piano filter through the orchestra’s lustre: Schneider’s signature colors shine especially in the inventive harmonies between low and high brass. There’s a jaunty son jarocho bounce as it moves along, Versace’s accordion coming to the forefront once more.

Braided Together, the album’s shortest number, is a lustrously triumphant, anthemically pulsing pastoral jazz vehicle for fondly soaring alto from Pietro. Bluebird, the most epic track here, is a throwback to Schneider’s Concert in the Garden days, with Gil Evans sweep and expanse, a muscular rhythmic drive, Kimbrough fueling the upward climb. The rhythm section channel the Meters behind Wilson’s jubilant, blues-tinged alto sax; Versace leaps and spins like a seal in the water. The orchestra reach a blazing peak and then shuffle down to a fadeout

The Sun Waited For Me makes a benedictory coda, glistening highs mingling with burnished lows. Eventually, a soulful, increasingly funky ballad emerges,  McCaslin’s tenor ratcheting up the energy. A career highlight from a group that also includes trumpeters Tony Kadleck and Nadje Nordhuis, trombonist Keith O’Quinn, and George Flynn on the bass trombone.

As you would expect, the web abounds with live performances from Schneider’s rich catalog; at present, this is not one of them. Schneider has had a long-running beef with youtube, and considering what’s happened this year, who can blame her. This is a treasure worth waiting for when it comes out on vinyl. 

A Triumphant Protest Jazz Suite Celebrates a Landmark Arkansas Victory on the Long Road Toward Equality

Pianist Christopher Parker and singer Kelley Hurt initially conceived of their epic No Tears Suite  – streaming at Bandcamp – to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Little Rock Nine’s landmark victory over racism in public education. Taking their title from Melba Pattillo Beals’ memoir of the standoff, Warriors Don’t Cry, it blends spoken word, darkly lyrical jazz, some fascinating and troubling history, and a lavish Rufus Reid orchestral score.

The album comprises both the original septet arrangement, followed by a live large-ensemble version of the suite featuring the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. The initial overture begins with a series of wavelike variations, trumpeter Marc Franklin’s ambered lines over Parker’s ripples and foreshadowing: Wadada Leo Smith’s large-ensemble themes on the Ten Freedom Summers album are an obvious point of comparison.

Hurt enters over Parker’s darkly glittering phrases as the rhythm picks up, offering some historical background: the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the infamous deployment of the National Guard by racist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, and President Eisenhower’s final decision to provide a US Army escort so the students could finally start high school, almost a month late.

Parker opens To Be a Kid solo, rather somberly. As a jazz waltz develops, the music grows more carefree, with rather wistful horns over bassist Bill Huntington and drummer Brian Blade’s light-fingered groove, Franklin joined by Bobby LaVell on tenor sax and Chad Fowler on alto. The stark, rustic gospel quotes at the end leave no doubt that trouble is looming,

The band build slow, somber, rubato atmosphere as Roll Call gets underway, Hurt providing biographical background on each of the Little Rock Nine along with some of those who fought alongside them. The struggles these kids faced getting into the school were far from over: most of them soon moved away after Little Rock Central High closed down the following school year.

Don’t Cry (Warrior’s Song) blends a stern, Mingus-influenced swing with allusively gospel-inflected insistence and a regal, hard-hitting Parker solo, Hurt’s expressive mezzo-soprano resolute and understated. 

The September, 1957 crisis is over in two minutes of frantic bustle: Parker and Hurt can’t wait to Jubilate, reprising the waltz theme with gruffly joyous tenor sax, circling trumpet, bitingly modal piano and a summery, vampy, latin-tinged conclusion.

The orchestral version of the suite –  also available with the DVD and cd as a a digital-only component – is as titanic as you could hope for, yet remarkably subtle. Often it seems to be more of a piano concerto where the orchestra are engaged in frequent and unusually interesting ways. Some solos get switched out for dynamically shifting, artfully textured strings and brass. Delicious details abound: menacing bowed basses in the overture; Fowler jumping out of his shoes in To Be a Kid; LaVell closely shadowing Hurt’s narration in Roll Call. And Hurt goes off script for one of the suite’s most telling moments: “Bodies can be buried, but not the past,” she advises.

This album has special resonance this year as public education in many parts of the country continues to melt down. On one hand, tens of millions of students are celebrating. More often than not, compulsory education in this country was a waiting room for the prison-industrial complex, plagued by violence, sadistic regimentation and a curriculum built around conformist propaganda.

On the other, what’s going to happen to the motivated minority of students whose interest in learning hasn’t been crushed by the system? And where are those who inspired them going to teach? Even in the worst public schools, there were always a handful of heroes whose classrooms were an oasis of inspiration, a refuge from the battle raging outside. Anybody who thinks that American kids are going to put in ten hours of screen time, five days a week to watch some robot teach the test is living in an alternate universe.

A Cinematic, Impactful, Insightfully Catchy New Album by Saxophonist Dave Pietro

Before the lockdown, music fans in New York had innumerable opportunities to see some of the best players in town work up their new albums in front of an audience. Watching the Dave Pietro Group run through a considerable portion of the picturesque, Ravel-inspired material on the saxophonist’s new record Hypersphere at a relatively intimate theatre show last year was a good omen – for the album at least. Fast forward to more than a year later: it’s out, it’s excellent and streaming at Bandcamp..and it’s illegal for the band to play that venue now. Feel like you’re living in communist China?

Pietro may be best known as a lyrical soloist and a first-call player for big bands, but he’s also a strong tunesmith with a sharp political awareness and a great sense of humor. He wrote the album’s opening track, Kakistocracy before the lockdown – yet, at a time when the corporate media have nothing but shrill masker paranoia on loop 24/7, it resonates even more potently. Over a brooding Gary Versace piano figure, he orchestrates a tense triangulation with trumpeter Alex Sipiagin and trombonist Ryan Keberle, the latter subtly ushering in a serpentine groove. Johnathan Blake’s insistent flurries behind the drum kit are another highlight; the final conversation between the horns is irresistibly funny.

Likewise, the early part of Pietro’s solo early on in Boulder Snowfall, which is more lustrously wary than wintry, Blake and bassist Johannes Weidenmueller adding bounce as the scene warms up to some triumphant flourishes from Versace.

Versace switches to organ for Gina, a lush, pillowy, catchy ballad which Pietro dedicates to his wife. The album’s title track, with its echo phrases and incisive Versace piano chords, makes a good segue. Sipiagin takes a flurrying first solo; Pietro bounces around at the top of his range; Blake’s colorful volleys drive it home.

Incandescent is exactly that, a triumphantly soaring and glimmering jazz pastorale of sorts. Pietro’s carefree but slightly smoky solo is matched by the other two horns in turn, exploratory and lyrical. Quantum Entanglement, a cha-cha with Versace opening on blippy electric piano, is a carefree platform for dancing sax and piano solos.

The understatedly moody, modally-tinged Tales of Mendacity has steadily wafting, distantly ominous harmonies and Pietro’s edgiest, most incisive solo here. The jaunty disco crescendo is suspiciously blithe: this would fit well in the Darcy James Argue catalog. Pietro closes the record with Orison: the pensively dancing bass solo is an unexpectedly cool way to open this bright chorale with its increasingly animated French Late Romantic-inspired atmosphere.