November 2021 Jazz Record Reviews

Johnathan Blake: Homeward Bound
Johnathan Blake, drums; Immanuel Wilkins, alto saxophone; Joel Ross, vibraphone; David Virelles, piano; Dezron Douglas, bass
Blue Note B0034215-02 (auditioned in WAV, available as CD, 24/96 download). 2021. Johnathan Blake, Jimmy Katz, prods.; Tom Tedesco, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

It seems like Johnathan Blake is everywhere these days. He is the drummer of choice for a wide range of bandleaders. Since 2012, he has made four albums under his own name.

The third, Trion, was one of the strongest jazz records of 2019. The fourth, Homeward Bound, is his Blue Note debut, which proves that Blake has arrived as a leader. The personnel listing also proves that, when he chooses sidemen, Blake knows who the badasses are.

On his own albums, Blake's drums are more prominent. The musical environment here is defined by his intricate kinetic energy. He generates vast quantities of percussion information, yet he never crowds the ensemble space. He says that on Homeward Bound he sought "a fuller, more explicit chordal sound." It is his most "inside" album to date. There are actual songs, like the moving title track, which celebrates the short life of a child who perished in the Sandy Hook tragedy.

But "inside" is relative. Joel Ross, David Virelles, and Immanuel Wilkins expand upon Blake's rich material with wildly creative solos. No other vibraphonist conceives the instrument like Ross. He builds angular, tall structures of strange beauty in the air. Wilkins is one of the most exciting talents to enter jazz in the new millennium. Ideas flood from his alto saxophone. Speaking of actual songs, Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out" begins with Virelles's cryptic free intro. When the band kicks in, it becomes "Steppin' Out" on steroids. Wilkins's solo never quite spins out of control as he unleashes maniacal lyricism.—Thomas Conrad


Bill Charlap Trio: Street of Dreams
Bill Charlap, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Kenny Washington, drums
Blue Note B0033903-02 (CD), B0033904-01 (LP). (Available as CD, LP, 24/96 download). 2021. Bill Charlap, prod.; James Farber, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

With the demise of Keith Jarrett's trio, Bill Charlap, Peter Washington, and Kenny Washington may now be the longest-standing major piano trio in jazz. They have been practicing their distinctive, refined, collaborative art for 25 years.

Like Jarrett's trio, they play creatively chosen standards. Charlap has said, "I am not a composer. My calling is to be an improvising jazz musician." Jazz would be even more interesting than it currently is if more players accepted that they were not composers and dedicated themselves to interpreting great songs written by people who are.

Charlap is a special interpreter. When he addresses a classic like Victor Young's "Street of Dreams," he celebrates it and then claims it for himself. Subtly, he rephrases it melodically and recolors it harmonically. He appends fresh adornments and meaningful asides as they occur to him. When he meditates upon ballads like "Day Dream," by Ellington/Strayhorn, and "I'll Know," by Frank Loesser, a rapt hush descends. Michel Legrand's "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life," so slow it sometimes stops, is a passionate unfolding upon silence.

The other thing this trio does, besides break your heart, is raise your spirits aloft with the truth of their swing. On Dave Brubeck's "The Duke," the Washingtons whip up their signature supple-yet-insistent energy, and Charlap glides over their air currents. Street of Dreams is Charlap's return to the Blue Note label after a 10-year absence. No wonder Blue Note wanted him back. This trio, in its continuous elegance, elevates style to the level of art.—Thomas Conrad


Renee Rosnes: Kinds of Love
Renee Rosnes, piano, Fender Rhodes; Chris Potter, reeds; Christian McBride, bass; Carl Allen, drums; Rogério Boccato, percussion
Smoke Sessions SSR-2104 (CD). 2021. Paul Stache, prod.; Christopher Allen, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Every year, there are many jazz albums that, from their opening bars, demonstrate admirable creativity. Every year, there are a few jazz albums that, from their opening bars, engulf your listening room in flames. Kinds of Love is the latter. Renee Rosnes assembled a world-class band and wrote nine new tunes especially for them. The risk of bringing in heavy hitters like Chris Potter and Christian McBride is that they will eclipse the leader, but Rosnes is the star of her own show. Her compositions are striking, and her piano improvisations kill.

The opener, "Silk," is an ass-kicker, but Kinds of Love contains many varied forms of intensity. The title track and "Evermore" are quieter but no less passionate. There is hardcore postmodern bop like "Swoop." There are several pieces like "The Golden Circle" where interwoven intricacies of melody, harmony, and counterpoint challenge the band, and it responds by spilling its guts, individually and collectively.

Rosnes has played with many of the important jazz artists of her time and made 17 albums of her own. Yet she is not quite famous. As a pianist, she is capable of addressing emotionally complex subjects like "Blessings in a Year of Exile," where the angular lyricism of her stunning solo touches both the traumas and the hopeful discoveries of 2020. Here, Rosnes joins the increasing number of women who rank among jazz's most important composers: Toshiko Akiyoshi; Maria Schneider; Carla Bley.

The vivid sound, by Christopher Allen at Sear Sound in New York, is 95th percentile.—Thomas Conrad


Oliver Nelson: The Blues and the Abstract Truth
Impulse AS-5/UMe B0033428-01 (LP), 1961/2021. Creed Taylor, prod.; Rudy Van Gelder, Ryan K. Smith, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

Oliver Nelson's masterpiece gets a beautiful vinyl restoration from Verve/Acoustic Sounds. The fifth release on Impulse Records, Blues... spawned the jazz standard "Stolen Moments" and launched Nelson into prominence as a composer and arranger.

Using blues idioms as a starting point, Nelson collected a band of upstarts who came to dominate jazz: Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans, along with Nelson and a rhythm section of Paul Chambers, George Barrow (gluing the reeds together on baritone sax), and Louis Haynes.

Simultaneously traditional and new, Nelson's compositions start and end with tightly arranged ensemble playing. In between, the new springs forth in the solos. Dolphy and Hubbard had already hit their strides, but Nelson had just found his voice, a bold tone, and phrasing on the hard-bop side of things. Hubbard took command each time he started blowing, and Dolphy flew around the room with his wild runs and off-kilter timing. Evans was more accompanist than the featured voice, but his solos and fills are studies in saying the most in the fewest notes.

Despite Nelson's liner notes, which are heavy on music theory, this album is accessible. It holds up to many listens and invites in the jazz-curious via the familiar chord structures of blues and toe-tapping rhythm.

This reissue sounds lifelike, and the pressing I received is near-perfect. It buries the original Impulse platter and stands up against all digital versions. It's recorded Blue Note style, close-miked and in yo' face—the better to hear the textures of Nelson's arrangements and the intensity of the solos. Soundwise and musicwise, a home run.—Tom Fine

Allen Fant's picture

Excellent coverage- TC and TF.

Anton's picture

I won't say which, but I will buy 2 of those 3!

jond's picture

I listened to the Bill Charlap Trio last night it was excellent. Great reviews the jazz review section of Stereophile is on fire lately.

partain's picture

That Johnathan Blake album cover art is striking .