April 2021 Jazz Record Reviews

Archie Shepp, Jason Moran: Let My People Go
Archie Shepp, saxophone; Jason Moran, piano.
Archieball ARCH2101 (16/44.1 download). 2021. Clément Gerbault, Martin Sarrazac, prods.; Raphaël Alain, Raphaël Jonin, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ***

Sometimes you just need to have your heart broken. Sometimes you need to be devastated in a way that only Billie Holiday or Rev. Gary Davis or a perfectly executed Schubert sonata can do.

Now 83, saxophonist Archie Shepp has made a reputation for political fury informed by the greats of the form (Ellington, Gershwin, Monk, Waller), generally impassioned or jubilant. The blues as a form, of course, is familiar to the master. With pianist Jason Moran, Shepp dives deeper than form to find bleak resonance.

Moran, not much more than half Shepp's age, is a fantastically adept player and the perfect partner for this album of heartbreaking excursions. The seven tracks draw from Ellington, Monk, and spirituals, opening with a devastating take on "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." Shepp's breathy saxophone teeters without stumbling, his vocals weary and knowing. Some might have trouble with Shepp's vocal delivery on Billy Strayhorn's demanding "Lush Life"—but the emotion is there if the pitch isn't quite.

Sonically, the first three tracks, recorded at the 2017 Jazz à la Villette Festival, are near perfection. The others, from the 2018 Enjoy Jazz Festival in Mannheim, are less so.

Shepp dominatesCthebmix on those, Cand the low end of the piano recedes at times, giving the album an uneven, bonus-disc feel, as if it were a gem in the deep end of a box set. If it weren't the only record we have (as yet) by this remarkably sensitive duo, there might be grounds for complaint. As it is, we take it with hope as a promise for more.—Kurt Gottschalk


Jakob Bro: Uma Elmo
Jakob Bro, guitar; Arve Henriksen, trumpet, piccolo trumpet; Jorge Rossy, drums.
ECM 2702 (CD, also available as download, LP). 2021. Manfred Eicher, prod.; Stefano Amerio, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

In its sonic texture and spiritual aura, Uma Elmo is a continuation of the important body of work Danish guitarist Jakob Bro has been compiling since 2005. But the ensemble here, with trumpeter Arve Henriksen and drummer Jorge Rossy, is new.

Bro is a shaman. He deals in hypnotic atmospheres and enveloping soundscapes. His fresh melodies are elusively familiar as if they were dormant in your subconscious, waiting for Bro to resurrect them. Even with new collaborators, Bro makes records that sound only like himself. From the opening track, "Reconstructing a Dream," Uma Elmo is unmistakably Bro in the purity of its forms and the depth of its moods. Yet this album has its own solemnity and melancholy. It was recorded in the late summer of 2020 in an acoustically excellent empty auditorium in Lugano, Switzerland. Bro says he was uncertain until the last moment whether the sessions could occur in the midst of the pandemic. Uma Elmo is a soundtrack to its unique, dark time, a defiant act of hope.

At first it is surprising that Henriksen so often takes the lead. But his lines flow directly from Bro's songs and then depart and veer into revelations that, once found, feel inevitable. Bro provides the ideal setting. The glow of his quietly intense guitar is like a dawn sky.

Other pieces that sustain this album's unbroken reverie—while also extending its emotional awareness—are "Morning Song" and "To Stanko," a rapt, moving eulogy for the great Polish trumpet player Tomasz Stanko.

Five stars should not be given out lightly, but Uma Elmo is unalloyed beauty.—Thomas Conrad


Ethan Iverson: Bud Powell in the 21st Century
Ethan Iverson, piano, arrangements, compositions; 16 others.
Sunnyside SSC 1619 (CD, download). 2021. Umbria Jazz, prod.; Marco Melchior, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ***½

In 2018, Carlo Pagnotta and Enzo Capua, directors of the Umbria Jazz winter festival in Orvieto, Italy, commissioned Ethan Iverson to arrange seven Bud Powell compositions, add new, relevant material, and perform everything with an Italian big band with American guests.

The guests are tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, bassist Ben Street, and drummer Lewis Nash. With Iverson on piano, they constitute a quintet within the big band. Powell made a famous quintet record with Sonny Rollins and Fats Navarro in 1949. Iverson includes Powell's 1949 repertoire, plus other classics like "Celia."

Iverson's charts are tight and clean and work closely with Powell's originals. For example, on "Bouncing with Bud," Iverson keeps everything: the fanfare intro, the notated bridge, and the solo order. It is not easy to follow Rollins and Navarro, even 69 years later, but Stephens and Jensen excel. Following Bud Powell is even harder. Iverson's solo sings.

The big band versions magnify Powell pieces like "Tempus Fugit" onto large canvases. Iverson interweaves his own material among the Powell compositions. The new tunes reference Powell's melodic and harmonic modes of thought and characteristic solo lines. It's like a suite, an Iverson/Powell collaboration across seven decades.

Powell's music often expressed the exhilaration of spiritual liberation, yet he suffered from mental illness. Iverson's compositions acknowledge this duality. The title track gets Powell's joy. The short interludes, called "Spells," get the darkness.—Thomas Conrad