1/ ALBUM OF THE MONTH: James Brandon Lewis
There is a voice in the wilderness appeal to James Brandon Lewis. Here with the core group of cellist Chris Hoffman and drummer Max Jaffe on an album largely made up of originals of the American's plus a version of Cecil Taylor's 'Womb Water' and the very moving 'Fear Not' with The Messthetics. Superlatives are inadequate on this latest spiritual jazz statement of statements all of which are concise and more focused curatorially than some of his work for the Intakt label.
Eye of I crucially includes a very passionate, convincing, treatment of the Donny Hathaway classic 'Someday We'll All Be Free' (Extension of a Man, Atco, 1973). Over the last few years few have come close to what Lewis is achieving - he is the voice of freedom on the saxophone today and above all has something startlingly vital even punk to say when words are simply not enough and the anarchy of humane uncensored expression is all.
''The ever changing weather suits my restlessness:'' Dark and at times radical the first thing that sends shivers down the spine on a first record in far too long from Ireland's greatest jazz singer is the uilleann pipes of David Power on 'Loch Glinne,' a piece that later returns equally evocatively further on in this 9-track album. Later its droning soulfulness is set against wordless vocalising. ''Fish in the barrel'' is the first metaphorical conceit in words to roll from the mouth of Christine Tobin as a conversational response returns from Power against the lapping piano accompaniment of Steve Hamilton and viola for the lower tonal resonance of Cora Venus Lunny.
Tobin specialises in the poetic whether in the past inspired by the work of Leonard Cohen, Brian Wilson or most meaningfully her own Paul Muldoon-esque erudite sense of a lyric. Completing the line-up here is guitarist Phil Robson who takes a back seat in early passages of the album but makes his presence felt later more.
Tobin has been back living in Ireland since the disaster of the pandemic when she and Robson left America for Roscommon. Panoramic with a huge wisdom to both the lyrical expansionism and the sense of song within an instrumental vista the album is full of delightful artifice and a turn down the lamp storytelling sense of song outdoors in the landscape of Ireland. 'Mullach na Sí' is the most moving of the traditional pieces (this piece isn't jazz at all) harnessing the glide and pitch bending shamanism of the pipes that sees Power once again stealing the show as the pipes often do in Irish traditional music when the power of the dirge and a heartfelt lament that stops being a lament is most needed and when the hope of Tobin's eidily-eidily vocalese by the end adds light and life.
Tobin knows how to harness traditional Irish music and jazz better than most and it is a natural fit no matter how differently arrived at. Recorded last August at a residential recording studio at Moate in County Westmeath, Tobin sings about the natural world, its hares and crows, sedges and heather where on the song named for the former coupling the creaking of a clock and brutal woodlands are captured on the most avant garde track of all these blissfully challenging songs. Into the art of the unknowable witchcraft of song venture there dear reader. Robson plays a Frisellian dreamscape to perfection in the introduction to 'Sedges and Heather' before veering off stylistically. 'July' at the end is a rolling pastoral and a hymn to the evening sky. Pick of the trad tracks is 'Callow.' Nothing short of a masterwork - Tobin's best original work in a long and distinguished career inspired all over again.
Christian McBride's New Jawn
Mack Avenue/Brother Mister
A mind blowingly virtuosic blend of sax and trumpet with Marcus Strickland and Josh Evans respectively as a team within a team - bass don Christian McBride and drummer Nasheet Waits operating in a self sealed dug out beneath them like coaches of a football team who then decide to ditch the headsets and instead jump on to the pitch because they can.
The New Jawn keep it very tight and so precise soloing. There is very little fat on the bone and an easy visceral edge to all the pieces prevails. Sonny Rollins' 'East Broadway Run Down' from the 1967 released album of the same name that had Newk on the title track with Freddie Hubbard and Trane's bassist and drummer Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones no less on board is a peach of a thing. McBride who has memorably performed with Rollins himself contributes the excitement of a riotous metropolitan night to the piece and the judiciously jagged resonance again of trumpet and sax plus McBride's prodigiously engaging pedal note insistence and energy laden heat underneath before he walks the line with great swagger is manifold. Textbook 21st century hard bop and at no point do you crave a pianist.
Got the Keys to the Kingdom: Live at the Village Vanguard
We would have been shocked if Got the Keys… was a let down. Vintage Potter? Yes. The purple patch continues and it's even better when it's all done live. There is a new or more properly novel side to the American's playing revealed more clearly here and that is the almost growling gospelly blues coming through more overtly, certainly more rolling than Rowling in the deep. That element in Potter, C. (not H)'s artistry has been there in the heat of battle for ages. But when it's rammed home as on 'You Gotta Move' streaming ahead of release or the gospel title track you think differently. It's probably an easier album for newcomers to his music to grasp. But there are highwire passages as well as the gutsier moments. And bebop pyrotechnics are factored in fear not. The pick of the whole thing in terms of sheer artistry is the version of Billy Strayhorn's 'Blood Count' where acres of space are opened up and Craig Taborn on piano plays his part brilliantly perhaps going far more trad than you'd expect. Scott Colley comes over like Dave Holland in certain passages and drummer Marcus Gilmore knows when to crank up the heat as easily as lay completely back.
The middle is always the best part in any novel where all the detail and plot are played around with by the novelist and you get to know the characters. The phatic communion and niceties that have gone before by then are gone in the air. The how-do-you-do's and thoughts on the dismal drizzle and dreary light of the day and the gloom of the remains of the night to come and the long goodbye of parting are irrelevant and so far absent. And so it proves picking up the story from last week's track of the week, which was the first track here - yes - fans of the literal - 'The Beginning'.
The twist is that each part of this beginning, middle, end is a very open peroration to the power of five. Dave Liebman has vital things to say on 'The Middle' which is even more of a conversation where pianist Leo Genovese asks questions the sax machine finds answers to. But there is a simultaneous to and fro so you can't be linear where trumpeter Peter Evans and drummer Tyshawn Sorey are concerned.
Solo lines interrupt each other, these finish one another's sentences, these take bits, give things away, ''talk'' over each other, then come up with spontaneous ideas that nobody is stupid enough to throw away but acknowledge validity to and more to the point place their own meaning within.
'The Middle' is a remarkable more than half hour improvisation and because it was captured live it lacks the falseness of a studio recreation of the same feeling which producers do much to encourage and finesse and which is always a different kind of artefact.
You can't really hear bassist John Hébert too much at some points on the album, the only irritation, the miking favours Genovese most among the rhythm section and even there the piano could be higher definition upping its level in the mix. But sonic quibbling is anally subjective tricoteuse. Guillotine that thought.
Maximalist 'The End' is also long form and personal but bathed in quietude more. Liebman has an incredible discography - surely this is one of his greatest recent achievements because the band seem so as one with him. And there is an escapism in the freedom they all know how to describe via the best modernistic methods without deliberately being obtusely avant-garde which a lot of hipsters never get when they go way out. And here in such a room, a shrine of shrines for lovers of jazz clubs in New York City, is an instrument in itself: No one can fake a lived-in sound which ends up giving back to the musicians something from the fabric of the place as if everyone is communing with everyone who ever played in Smalls. Cory Weeds' Canadian label Cellar Live excels itself once again as a world class curatorial proposition choosing to release this Spike Wilner produced affair.
James Brandon Lewis, top. Photo: press