December 2022 Jazz Record Reviews

Ethan Philion: Meditations on Mingus
Philion, bass; nine others
Sunnyside SSC 1666 (CD). 2022. Philion, prod.; Nick Broste, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

The works of the greatest jazz composers are often neglected today because most current jazz musicians are obsessed with writing their own stuff. Enter Ethan Philion, a Chicago bassist who reveres Charles Mingus and believes, correctly, that Mingus's music is underperformed.

Meditations on Mingus is rich with rewards that only come from accessing a genre's strongest repertoire. It contains 50- and 60-year-old songs that sound newer, riskier, and more relevant than most of the jazz originals written today. It is intriguing to hear these familiar pieces in the fresh contexts of Philion's arrangements. For example, on Mingus's album At UCLA 1965, there is a hair-raising version of "Once Upon a Time, There Was a Holding Corporation Called Old America," full of rough edges and raw passion. Philion's civilized version is a more complete, balanced representation of the original composition, with many more audible inner details (partly because of the superior sound quality). Philion's carefully organized interpretations allow us to hear that Mingus's works, for all their startling twists, were conceived as wholes.

It is difficult for any mere mortal to match Mingus when it comes to explosive spontaneity, but the members of Philion's 10-piece Chicago band, after precisely executing his challenging charts, spill their guts when they solo. "Self-Portrait in Three Colors," one of Mingus's most lyrically exalted songs, is deeply, boldly reimagined by Philion and has a sweeping, soaring trumpet solo by Russ Johnson. "Meditation (For a Pair of Wirecutters)" is an intricate, 15-minute enterprise with a far-reaching bass clarinet solo by Geof Bradfield. On "Prayer for Passive Resistance," alto saxophonist Rajiv Halim kills. If he had been around in 1965, Mingus might have hired him.—Thomas Conrad


Jakob Bro, Joe Lovano: Once Around the Room: A Tribute to Paul Motian
Bro, guitar; Lovano, tenor sax, tarogato; Larry Grenadier, Thomas Morgan, bass; Anders Christensen, bass guitar; Jorge Rossy, Joey Baron, drums
ECM 2747 (CD). 2022. Manfred Eicher, prod.; Thomas Vang, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Although he's more than able to hold his own in a straight-up blowing session, eminent tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano has a tender, introspective side and a talent for free jazz, both of which are brought into sharp focus here, thanks to a pairing with that supreme textualist on guitar, Jakob Bro.

The collaboration is a tribute to the late Paul Motian, with whom Lovano played for many years in a trio with guitarist Bill Frisell. Earlier, after breaking in as part of the Bill Evans Trio, Motian anchored Keith Jarrett's band for a decade. Bro, whose playing has some of the same harmonic shadings as Frisell's, made his ECM debut on Motian's 2005 album Garden of Eden. An engaging, inventive bandmate who never steps on collaborators' toes, Bro is a master at using delay effects to stretch his tones and imaginings.

At the heart of this album, Lovano's long "For the Love of Paul" opens with an extended, untethered rumination by the saxophonist. Bro enters, bending notes and running chords through hornlike delay effects before powerhouse bassists Grenadier and Morgan add their voices to the tune's most effective moments. The group assembled for this recording, which Lovano calls a "mini-orchestra," includes, in addition to Grenadier and Morgan, electric bassist Anders Christensen and drummers Jorge Rossy and Joey Baron.

Both lead players are at their best in Bro's elegiac "Song to an Old Friend," in which both tenderly remember their fallen friend. With Manfred Eicher producing, hence ECM's incomparable sound, Once Around the Room was recorded at Village Recording in Copenhagen 10 years to the day after Motian died in 2011. A tribute fit for a percussive giant.—Robert Baird


Brother Jack McDuff: Moon Rappin'
McDuff, Hammond B3; Richard Davis, bass guitar; Joe Dukes, drums
Blue Note 84334 (LP). 1970/2022. McDuff, prod.; Bob Gallo, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****½

I'm not exactly a fusion fan, but I do love music that evokes past eras, like this 1970 album from Brother Jack McDuff, reissued in Blue Note's excellent, affordable Classic Vinyl series. Moon Rappin' reminds me of other music from the era, including a few albums I loved back in the day that approached a similar place from the rock side. I'm thinking, for example, of Spirit and The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, which, as I've just discovered from Discogs, came out the same year as Moon Rappin'.

The Spirit album is wild and psychedelic, with horns on several tracks; Moon Rappin' is a laid-back, relaxing listen, enjoyable at low volume, with just bass, drums, and organ. The bass is electric, played by the great Richard Davis. Drummer Joe Dukes (or rather, his kit) spreads across the soundstage, snare articulate, bass drum tight, pushing out a tight bolus of energy that hits you in the eardrums and the chest. Tenor sax and flute are played by Bill Phillips, whose excellent work makes me wonder why we didn't hear from him more; Discogs lists just 11 credits including several with Gill Mellé. (So, after listening to this LP, I pulled out Gil Mellé Quartet Plays Primitive Modern, on the Prestige label. Hadn't listened to that LP in years. Also excellent.)

Blue Note has earned much praise for its Tone Poet reissues, but its value-focused Classic Vinyl series is almost as good, in simpler packaging, for considerably less money. On this record, the original engineering is by Bob Gallo, a noted producer for Atlantic (Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, etc.), whose sparse engineering credits range from Patty LaBelle to the Nylons. This reissue was mastered from analog tape and cut by Kevin Gray, like the Tone Poets, but pressed at Optimal, not RTI. The pressing quality is good.—Jim Austin


Miles Davis: That's What Happened 1982–1985 (The Bootleg Series, Vol.7)
Columbia Legacy 19439863841 (3 CD or 2 LP). 2022. Teo Macero, Miles Davis, Michael Cuscuna, Richard Seidel, Steve Berkowitz, prods.; Mark Wilder, eng. Davis, bass; many others
Performance ****
Sonics ***

After pausing in 2018, Columbia Legacy has again reached into the Miles Davis vaults to issue this 3-CD box set, released alongside a hi-rez digital package with the same material and a 2-LP "highlights from" pressing, covering the years 1982–85. During this period, Miles released the final three albums in his storied Columbia Records run before moving over to Warner Bros. That sequence of albums included Star People (1983), Decoy (1984), and You're Under Arrest (1985). This period and this trio followed Miles's well-documented early retirement, a period during which he did not perform or record, which ran from 1975 through 1980.

The booklet features liner notes by Marcus J. Moore and interviews with drummer Vince Wilburn, Jr., guitarists John Scofield and Mike Stern, and bassists Darryl Jones and Marcus Miller.

The 2-LP set contains 12 studio tracks. The 3-CD and hi-rez download versions include 28 studio cuts and a complete 90-minute live set from the 1983 Montreal Jazz Festival. The sound quality of the studio recordings varies; it includes a recording to cassette tape from the personal collection of guitarist John Scofield. Dave Arlington and Steve Berkowitz share credit for "new mixes." There were numerous original studio recording engineers—too numerous to list here. The sound quality of the live Montreal set is excellent.

One of Davis's great skills was assembling bands. He had his pick: Like watching an eagle circling in the sky, other bandleaders could only look on as Miles walked into their gigs and snatched their best players, like a wolf culling sheep.

One key player from this period was guitarist John Scofield. Another, a new arrival, was keyboardist Robert Irving III, who shared some producing, arranging, and writing credits on these albums. There are also key contributions from Miles Davis veterans—in particular drummer Al Foster, who recorded and performed with Miles from 1972 to 1985, a longer stay with Davis than any other single musician. An earlier graduate from the Miles Davis School of Music, guitarist John McLaughlin drops by for a guest lecture on one cut; "Katia" is my favorite here of the studio tracks.

There was a passing of the baton during the period covered by this new Bootleg Vol. 7. Teo Macero had been Miles's producer for a quarter of a century. The sessions for Star People were Macero's last with Miles.

The music from the sessions leading to these three albums is a varied bag. Previously unreleased "session mix" cuts for Star People, like "Minor Ninths, Parts 1 & 2," find Miles on keyboards, not trumpet, dueting with trombonist J.J. Johnson. The only studio cut included here from the Decoy sessions is "Freaky Deaky," presented in two parts in the full box and as a single "vinyl edit" track on one of the LPs. On that tune, Miles plays both trumpet and keyboards.

Much of this new "bootleg" collection consists of recordings from the sessions for You're Under Arrest. A lot of material was recorded before that album was released; the dates of the sessions span more than a year.

Along with originals, Miles decided to cover several current pop tunes. If I hear "Time After Time" one more time, it will be one time too many. Miles also covered "Human Nature," a Michael Jackson hit. Miles made a point of performing both of these songs right up to the end.

The hands-down winner here is the live set from Montreal, not the studio dates. July 7, 1983, found Miles and his band in peak form in Montreal; that performance is captured here, on CD 3, and it's the best thing in the set. Fully recovered from his early retirement, Miles sounds like a cobra prowling the stage, in his patented crouch. When he glisses up hard (shades of Bitches Brew), it's like a ball player slamming a line drive up the middle: The crowd roars. This smokin' live set was released separately earlier in 2022 as a stand-alone 2-LP set for Record Store Day titled Miles Davis What It Is: Montreal 7/7/83 (Sony Legacy 194399557617).

There are many great vintages and bottlings of Chateau Miles. That's What Happened (The Bootleg Series, Vol.7) is not premier cru classé. Even so, no other musician can give you such a visceral energy jolt, like a transfusion, with just a couple of notes. If, like me, you are a Miles completist, you are going to want this.—Sasha Matson


Marshall Gilkes: Cyclic Journey
Gilkes, trombone; Aaron Parks, piano; Linda May Han Oh, bass; Johnathan Blake, drums; eight-piece brass ensemble
Alternate Side ASR013 (CD). 2022. Gilkes, prod.; Aaron Nevezie, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Marshall Gilkes is one of the two or three best trombonists to enter jazz in the new millennium. He is also something rare for a world-class instrumentalist: an accomplished big band composer/arranger. Of his seven recordings to date as a leader, three feature his impeccable orchestral writing. The configuration on his new album is unusual: Gilkes expands his quartet with an eight-piece brass ensemble.

Cyclic Journey is based on complex relationships between jazz and classical forms. The octet includes high-profile classical players. The core dynamic is contrast, with a quick-on-quick jazz quartet playing against the formal backdrops of the classical brass section. But there are synergies as well as contrasts. The octet, with its sophisticated harmonies and deep textures, gives the music scale and makes the quartet sound momentous.

The album is a nine-part autobiographical suite. It portrays a day in the life of Marshall Gilkes as it ebbs and flows. Based on this evidence, Gilkes is not a brooder. His day contains more energy and affirmation than pensiveness—much more. While most Gilkes compositions hit and move, they possess a melodic grace enhanced by the lush blends of the octet. Gilkes gives himself most of the solo space. His arsenal of ideas is vast, and his rich tone glows. His rhythm section includes exceptional soloists. When pianist Aaron Parks and bassist Linda May Han Oh get their moments, they excel.

Cyclic Journey was recorded by Aaron Nevezie, at Bunker Studio in Brooklyn, the town where so many of the best-sounding jazz albums are recorded these days. Nevezie discriminates clearly among the individual instruments but also captures the weight and impact of 12 voices when they all shout at once.—Thomas Conrad


Noah Garabedian: Consider the Stars Beneath Us
Garabedian, bass; Dayna Stephens, tenor and soprano saxophones; Carmen Staaf, piano; Jimmy Macbride, drums; Samuel Adams, electronics
Outside In OiM2227 (CD). 2022. Samuel Adams, prod.; David Stoller, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****½

Noah Garabedian is not well known outside the inner circles of leading-edge jazz, but he is a favored bassist of important leaders like Kris Davis and Ravi Coltrane. Consider the Stars Beneath Us, his second album under his own name, deserves attention on its merits. It is a distinctive, deeply probing, creatively conceived, beautifully executed work.

It is also interesting for ancillary reasons. First, it can be understood as a test case in how a bassist can lead an ensemble from within the rhythm section. On the opening track, "RR," tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens and pianist Carmen Staaf hover together and set an ambivalent, suspenseful atmosphere. When Garabedian enters, his first shuddering low note is a game changer. Instantly, he becomes the focal point of the ensemble, the most compelling voice in the mix. But at the right moment, he steps back into a supporting role.

Whether leading or accompanying, Garabedian's bass is always a defining presence, which raises a second interesting question. Engineer David Stoller gets the rich, powerful bottom of Garabedian's instrument but also the articulation at the top. On the evidence of thousands of jazz albums, the acoustic bass is difficult to record. What does Stoller know that so many of his colleagues don't?

A third intriguing aspect of this album is its use of electronics. Garabedian brings in Samuel Adams and his "effects, programming, additional recording, Moog Minitaur and Juno JU-06A," as the credits note. It is a long list, but Adams applies his electronic tools with rare discretion and taste. Quietly, he expands the landscape of Garabedian's music and pushes out the horizon. His whisperings sound like hushed calls of the subconscious.—Thomas Conrad

Jonti's picture

I wanted to like this - the concept is great and Mingus is my all-time favourite jazz figure - but ultimately I think it just sounds too... polite? It could partly be to do with the squeaky clean recording, but I think there's also a weird restraint to a lot of the playing. To my ear, it doesn't have even a smidgen of the sheer gravitas of actual Mingus recordings from way back when.

7/10 for effort, though!