December 2021 Jazz Record Reviews

The Cookers: Look Out!
David Weiss, trumpet, arrangements; six others
Gear Box GB1571CD (CD, available as download, LP). 2021. David Weiss, prod.; Maureen Sickler, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

In a perfect world, critics would hear a band live then write a review of their new album the following morning. It rarely works out that way, but it just did. The Cookers played Jazz Alley in Seattle last night. This review is underway 12 hours later.

In person, The Cookers, like most jazz bands, are looser and rougher and more expansive than on record. At Jazz Alley, in a two-hour set, they played six tunes. Soloists kept taking one more chorus. The night was aflame. A notable achievement of Look Out! is that, in the sheltered environment of the Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey, it approaches the wild energy of last night in Seattle.

The Cookers was organized in 2010 by trumpeter David Weiss. The luminaries he gathered were present at the creation of hard bop in the '60s: tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Billy Hart. Alto saxophonist Donald Harrison and Weiss are one generation younger. They write their own tunes. They have now made six albums. The second track here, Harper's "Destiny Is Yours"—they played it last night—is representative. It begins with a flourish, a fanfare, a commanding announcement that The Cookers are in town.

Weiss's arrangements combine aggression and sophistication. When these guys solo, they spill their guts. Over seven tracks, your favorite soloist keeps changing. Harper is a monster. Harrison is a virtuoso. But you might decide on Hart, tireless at 80, with his riveting drum ceremonies. The Cookers, defying time, are keepers of the flame.—Thomas Conrad


David Sanford Big Band: A Prayer for Lester Bowie
Sanford, conductor; Hugh Ragin, trumpet; Ted Levine, Anna Webber, sax; 17 others.
Greenleaf Music (CD). Sanford, Tom Lazarus, prods.; Lazarus, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

This is the most adventurous big band album I've heard in some time, combining jazz, avant-garde classical, blues, R&B, and probably other strands that I'll detect after a few more listens. Mingus is a big influence, but also Webern and Sly & the Family Stone. David Sanford, the Guggenheim Prize–winning composer and professor who wrote six of the eight tracks, has written pieces for several orchestras and chamber groups, but A Prayer for Lester Bowie—dedicated to the late trumpeter for the Art Ensemble of Chicago, a musician of a seriously playful bent—is his first album that roughly fits the jazz label.

The title track is composed by Hugh Ragin, a Bowie contemporary—best known as a sideman on many David Murray albums—and it veers from elegiac to raucous and back again in a half-dozen ways. The one standard is Dizzy Gillespie's "Dizzy Atmosphere," which Sanford rearranges with vibrant wit and a rainbow of color. The other pieces are written by Sanford, and the variety, depth, harmonic layers, and rhythmic complexity are extraordinary. Yet the melodic lines burst through with clarity and never stop swinging. The first and final tracks, "Full Immersion" and "V-Reel," fuse heady modernism with dance-floor funk in a new and natural way. They're mind-blowing. The 20-piece band, which includes few musicians I've heard of (my bad), is impressively tight.

Tom Lazarus recorded the session with a mix of tube, ribbon, and FET mikes in Sear Sound Studio C, "a puzzle of angles, columns, and crazy sightlines," as he wrote in an email. Yet the sound is clear, balanced, and spread out on a spacious soundstage, with wide dynamic range.—Fred Kaplan


Orrin Evans: The Magic of Now
Evans, piano; Immanuel Wilkins, alto saxophone; Vicente Archer, bass; Bill Stewart, drums
Smoke Sessions SSR-2103 (CD, available as 24/48 download). 2021. Paul Stache, prod.; Edwin Huet, Tyler McDiarmid, Paul Stache, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ***½

Orrin Evans may be better known for his projects than for his piano playing. His Captain Black Big Band is a respected orchestra. He recently completed a three-year tenure with The Bad Plus, one of the most popular groups in jazz. But he is the real deal on piano, with an appealing, hard-edged, angular concept that's his own. For his 20th album, he assembled a new quartet and recorded in Smoke, the tiny but important New York club at 106th and Broadway, in December 2020—a time, of course, when all clubs were closed and empty.

Evans's playing is a little rough, perhaps because he had rarely performed outside his house since the previous March, when COVID shut the world down. But his playing is also fierce and deep. The revelation here is 23-year-old alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, one of the most exciting talents to enter jazz in the new millennium.

"Mynah/The Eleventh Hour" is a relatively gentle, lilting medley. Wilkins states the opening theme with measured melodicism, then his solo becomes faster and denser and wilder. Only special improvisers can make furious onslaughts of ideas sound musical and logical. Wilkins also writes strong tunes, including ballads like "The Poor Fisherman," included here, where his intensity stays within the rapt atmosphere—barely—and where Evans is inspired to take a stark, passionate solo.

This album was taken from a live stream. The sound is not quite as raw and alive as a real club recording and not quite as clean as a studio recording. Buy it anyway.—Thomas Conrad


Marcin Wasilewski Trio: En Attendant
Wasilewski, piano; Slawomir Kurkiewicz, bass; Michal Miskiewicz, drums.
ECM 2677 (CD, LP, download). 2021. Manfred Eicher, prod.; Gérard de Haro, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****½

When, in 2001, Tomasz Stanko introduced Marcin Wasilewski, Slawomir Kurkiewicz, and Michal Miskiewicz as his new rhythm section, it surprised the jazz world. Stanko was Poland's most important jazz musician, and his three young countrymen were unknown. But Stanko's faith in them has long been justified. They have become one of the great piano trios in jazz.

Wasilewski has more fresh, intriguing ideas in one night than most pianists have in a year. But "ideas" feels like the wrong word. He deals in tides of feeling, in flashes of spiritual truth. When he plays Carla Bley's "Vashkar," the song dissolves and gradually reappears but only in glimpses of its haunting melody. When he plays a selection from the Goldberg Variations, his departures from Bach are bold and free yet the arc of his lyricism is unbroken.

Three of the album's seven tracks are group improvisations. They reveal how Kurkiewicz's voice has become a looming presence in this trio over the years. When Kurkiewicz solos, the rapt ensemble atmosphere is sustained and often deepens. His bass provides a darker embodiment of Wasilewski's piano aesthetic, itself a continuous flickering of light and shadow.

Wasilewski's gift for spontaneous composition leads to some revelatory moments in group improvisations, but the high point is the only cover, "Riders on the Storm." The trio's albums usually contain one venture into the higher reaches of pop culture. In the past they have reimagined pieces by Prince, Björk, and Sting. The Doors song here is hypnotic. Even as it veers far from the form, it stays grounded in the groove.—Thomas Conrad

Allen Fant's picture

Nice selections- FK and TC.
I look forward to adding these releases to my collection.

PeterB's picture

Thanks for the reviews.
I had to register to comment about The Cookers.
Maybe it is just me, but I could not manage to listen more than 1.5 songs. The musicians on the 1st track were out of tune and their timing was terrible too. Unfortunately, I had this exact same feeling when the 2nd track started and had to stop it after about 1 minute.
About a week later I have tried to give that album another shot, but still felt out of tune and time...
I am just wondering whether anyone else noticed this or is it just my ears??