We seem to be going through a big-band renaissance. In recent months, I've hailed the latest albums by Maria Schneider's Orchestra, Steve Coleman's Council of Balance, Ryan Truesdell's Gil Evans Project, and nowin some ways, the most adventurousJohn Hollenbeck's Songs We Like a Lot (on the Sunnyside label).
John Surman, a saxophonist of jazz, folk, church, and avant-garde influences, has been a longtime denizen in the ECM stable without gaining much renown. When he recently played at a New York club, leading a rhythm section of guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Jack DeJohnette, he acknowledged to the crowd that he was the only player who needed introducing.
John Zorn’s rep as the angry bad boy of the downtown avant-garde has always been a bit of a caricature. His music has long stressed wit and beauty as much as squeals and hollers. But in the last few years, he’s tapped into a buoyant, almost gentle lyricism while still sounding distinctively Zorn.
Has John Zorn gone mellow? His two new CDs, The Dreamers and Lucifer (both on his self-owned label, Tzadik), are swaying, swinging, crazy with catchy hooks, occasionally downright mellifluous. I don’t mean to overstate the contrast with the preceding Zorn oeuvre (which entails over a hundred albums, at least a thousand compositions). The time has long passed when Zorn—whose name is, almost novelistically, German for “anger”—gained notoriety for squealing on the alto sax like a banshee and cutting up compositions into surreal collage. The stereotype was never right: from the start of his career, in the mid-‘70s, he could play be-bop, Hammond-based soul, and Morricone movie-themes at a high level. But in the ‘80s, he delved more avidly into ear-ripping shards-of-sound (with fitting titles like Torture Garden and Grind Crusher). When he turned to exploring chords and melodies in the ‘90s, he didn’t abandon “noise” entirely; several of his great Masada albums alternate between blues or ballads and rippers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Up to a point, I liked that stuff, too. But these two new CDs have almost none of it. They’re jammed with buoyant, playful, joyous music—and I mean that in a good way.
It ranks among the most astounding turnarounds in American music. John Zornerstwhile bad-boy impresario of the downtown New York jazz scenespent last month touted as a modern master, and Manhattan's pride, by the city's most venerable institutions of high culture: the Metropolitan Museum, the Guggenheim, Lincoln Center, Columbia University, and NYU.
I’ve listened to Herbie Hancock’s new CD, River: The Joni Letters (on Verve), three times now, and it gets better with each spin. This is a Joni Mitchell tribute album, with Hancock on acoustic piano heading a straight-ahead jazz quintet (including Wayne Shorter on soprano sax and Dave Holland on bass), fronted on six of the 10 tracks by various singers.
I'm usually not a fan of male baritone jazz singers, not even Johnny Hartman (except, of course, on his album with Coltrane): they tend too much toward the operatic, and they're usually too smooth, too eyebrow-arched suave, for my taste anyway. But Jose James is something else, and his new album, Yesterday I Had the Blues (Blue Note), goes down like a rare vintage port on a chilly night.
Thursday night, I took the F train to Manhattan's Blue Note, the 8pm set, to see Trio 3the longstanding improv band, consisting of Oliver Lake on alto sax, Reggie Workman on bass, and Andrew Cyrille on drumsjoined by Jason Moran on piano . . . Moran, the most inventive pianist on the scene today, can play anything with anybody.
There’s been much hand-wringing among the aficionadi over reports that George Wein may call off his JVC Jazz Festival this year, leaving New York City bereft of such an event for the first time in decades. I’m not so bothered.
Let’s put the main point up front. The new duet album by Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden, Jasmine (on ECM), is a gorgeous piece of work: all standards, mainly ballads, nothing fancy (not overtly anyway), but such poignance and quiet passion; it’s a glimpse into the intimacy of the act of making art.