April 2023 Jazz Record Reviews

The Art Ensemble Of Chicago: The Sixth Decade: From Paris to Paris
Roscoe Mitchell, saxophones; Famoudou Don Moye, drums, percussion; 18 others
RogueArt ROG-0123 (LP). 2023. Sons d'hiver, prod.; Olivier Gascion, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

It's often said that you can never go home again. Places change, and you won't be the same person you were when you left. The Art Ensemble of Chicago's 1972 album Live at Mandel Hall documented their return home after a two-year stay in Paris, during which the quartet gained a drummer and honed its sound into something completely new. Fluent in what trumpeter Lester Bowie termed "Great Black Music," the band was practiced enough and exploratory enough to switch among open improvisation, Dixieland jazz, African rhythms, field songs, and military marches in the space of a breath. In 2020, they returned to their French home away from home—a revived and rejuvenated 20-piece orchestra—to play the Sons d'hiver festival. Saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, the group's founder, and Famoudou Don Moye, the Afrocentric percussionist enlisted for that European sojourn, are the only members left of the original lineup, but the combo has become an orchestra, an umbrella for its founders' ever-expanding interests.

The Sixth Decade: From Paris to Paris is the second album by the extended lineup and shows refinement of the original broad vision. Orchestral passages that could easily be termed "classical" or "new music" segue seamlessly into percussion ensemble and Senegalese chant. The authoritative spoken word of poet Moor Mother sits easily alongside the operatic voices of soprano Erina Newkirk and bass Roco Córdova. An exhilarating 100 minutes culminates gloriously with inflated arrangements of their 1975 groove "Funky AECO" and their longtime closing theme "Odwalla." Recorded in the 1000-seat Maison des Arts et de la Culture de Créteil, the sound is clean and unfussy, with only a little natural reverb. It's ritual as recital and altogether remarkable.—Kurt Gottschalk

Clovis Nicolas: The Contrapuntist
Nicolas, bass, compositions, arrangements; Jeremy Pelt, trumpet; Sullivan Fortner, piano; Bill Stewart, drums; Ulysses String Quartet
Sunnyside SSC 4119 (CD, also download). 2023. Nicolas, François Zalacain, Daniel Yvinec, prods.; James Farber, Ryan Streber, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****½

Clovis Nicolas has always been a jazz bassist. But in 2009, while attending the Juilliard School, he immersed himself in classical music. He composed a five-part work called "Le Miroir." In April 2022, he recorded it with the Ulysses String Quartet. Five months later, he recorded it again, this time with a jazz quartet. The result is The Contrapuntist.

Rather than attempting to blend jazz and classical, Nicolas places the two genres in illuminating juxtaposition. The structure of "Le Miroir" is an andante (moderately slow) movement at the beginning and end and two scherzo (fast) movements surrounding an adagio (slow) section in the middle. When the highly skilled string quartet performs the two andante pieces, yearning melodies coalesce from intricate counterpoint. It is startling to hear how the jazz versions turn the same material into aggressive expressionism, as Jeremy Pelt's trumpet spits fire and Sullivan Fortner's piano cascades. On the scherzo pieces, the string players execute Nicolas's quickest, most complex patterns with flawless precision. But when the jazz band gets its hands on these songs, they blow them open, transforming them from something fixed in place (through notation) into something born as we hear it (through improvisation). Yet even here, Nicolas finds ways to connect the two worlds. He picks up cello parts from "Le Miroir" for his jazz bass lines.

The two versions of the adagio movement are best. One renders Nicolas's lovely melody with a sonorous richness only achievable by instruments of the violin family. But the other is equally rapt and, as four committed jazz improvisers interact with that melody, more alive in the moment.—Thomas Conrad

Enrico Pieranunzi Trio & Orchestra: Blues & Bach: The Music of John Lewis
Pieranunzi, piano; Luca Bulgarelli, bass; Mauro Beggio, drums; Orchestra Filarmonica Italiana, Michele Corcella, arranger/conductor
Challenge CR 73550 (24/48 WAV, also CD). 2023. Pieranunzi, Corcella, prods.; Carlo Cantini, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

Enrico Pieranunzi, one of Italy's greatest pianists, has added an essential, beautifully realized recording to his large body of work. Blues & Bach is seven John Lewis compositions, plus one that's associated with him, performed by Pieranunzi's trio and a 10-piece classical ensemble.

With the Modern Jazz Quartet (a beloved band that lasted 45 years), Lewis succeeded in blending two divergent art forms: jazz and classical music. In this tribute album, Pieranunzi, with his formidable chops and his independent creativity as an improviser, could have drastically reshaped Lewis's songs. He chose another path. These pieces, reworked and orchestrated, sound like themselves although richer and deeper, enlarged by the ensemble. "Skating in Central Park" is still an exquisitely delicate waltz that evokes a magical New York winter scene. You imagine the skaters floating and pirouetting, outside of time. Pieranunzi gradually flows away from the melody but the orchestra always returns him to it, even as they bathe it in new light. Throughout, Michele Corcella's airy arrangements sound so organic it is as if these songs had been waiting for them.

Vernon Duke's "Autumn in New York" has never been rendered with more majesty. Pieranunzi has it to himself for two minutes, then the orchestra enters and sweeps it aloft.

The piece that takes fullest advantage of the expressive potential of this project is "Django." Voiced by the orchestra, the introduction is dramatic and suspenseful. Pieranunzi's solo is a joyous celebration. All 13 players come together at the end and linger over the haunting theme of John Lewis's most famous song before "Django" falls away in a whisper.—Thomas Conrad

Chris Potter: Got the Keys to the Kingdom: Live at the Village Vanguard
Potter, tenor saxophone; Craig Taborn, piano; Scott Colley, bass; Marcus Gillmore, drums
Edition EDN1214 (WAV 24/48, also CD, LP). 2023. Potter, prod.; Tyler McDiarmid, Geoff Countryman, engs.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

For each of the last five years, Chris Potter has placed either third or fourth on tenor saxophone in the DownBeat Critics Poll. He is an elite player in jazz, with a large discography. His new album is a departure because it is all covers. But for a jazz fan who has somehow missed Potter, it may be the best place to discover him.

Some of the reasons are the people, the place, and the repertoire. This new band (see above) is made up exclusively of world-class badasses. The Village Vanguard is hallowed ground. Musicians spill their guts there. In its legendary acoustics, two of the best engineers in the business (see above) capture Potter's music alive. As for the tunes, their rich diversity (two spirituals, a classic by Antonio Carlos Jobim, a Charlie Parker bop text, a Billy Strayhorn masterwork) allows Potter to put the breadth of his creative resources on display.

But the main reason is that Potter is in a zone. Perhaps it was all that time to practice during the lockdown. His playing is extraordinary technically, artistically, and spiritually. He is a rare improviser who can build a simple starting point (eg, the spiritual "You Gotta Move") into something vast in complexity and overwhelming in urgency and still shape it into a finished unity. On the 21st century bop of "Klactoveesedstene," Potter, as he hurtles forward, is as fast as Bird but wilder. He is fearless and free with "Blood Count." Three minutes in, he finally plays the heartbreaking melody. (This was Strayhorn's last song, composed in the hospital bed he died in.) Craig Taborn, one of the most decorated jazz pianists of the new millennium and a major leader himself, here devotes himself to surrounding Potter with glittering light. Like Potter, Taborn leaves it all on the well-worn stage of the Vanguard.—Thomas Conrad

MBMax's picture

You guys are gold. Your descriptive musings are such gifts to us jazz fans trying to sort through the vast world of releases, reviews, raves, and pans to find some of the jazz discs truly worth pursuing.

I have long loved AEoC and this disc is in my cart thanks to this review. I've enjoyed C. Potter from his days with Pat Metheny and will be listening still more now.

Well done gents and thank you.

Allen Fant's picture

Great reviews, as always- KG and TC.