February 2024 Jazz Record Reviews

Chien Chien Lu: Built In System
Lu, vibraphone; three others
Giant Step Arts GSA 010 (CD). 2023. Lu, Jimmy Katz, prods.; Katz, James Kogan, engs.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

In jazz, it is rare for a label to become a reason in itself to buy an album. At various points in history, there have been such imprints: Blue Note, Riverside, ECM. Giant Step Arts is much smaller but belongs in this distinguished company, artistically, sonically, and graphically.

Chien Chien Lu, originally from Taiwan, is an imaginative, complete, original vibraphonist. Her early professional experience has mostly been in a band led by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, who appears on Built In System. It is the most "straight-ahead" of GSA's 10 releases to date, but it feels vital and fresh. The eight tracks are Lu originals, all different, all meticulously assembled, all intriguing in themselves and more intriguing as foundations for improvisation.

Lu is quick, fluent, and instinctively lyrical on her instrument. When she solos, she thinks in long lines and graceful, flowing forms. She is less interested in calling attention to her chops than in celebrating the unique, resonant beauty of the vibraphone. The impression of selflessness extends to Pelt, who creates with focus and feeling within Lu's songs. Like Lu, he serves the music. Lu writes melodies that linger in the mind ("Träumerei" is a special example) and often lets Pelt define them first while she fills in a landscape of meaningful details, all around him. Her comping is as distinctive as her soloing.

Lu's arrangements exploit the rich sonorities made possible by her band's unusual vibraphone/trumpet front line. But the best track may be one without Pelt, "Full Moonlight." Alone with intuitive bassist Richie Goods and sensitive drummer Allan Mednard, Lu unfolds a quiet, deep, fervent personal testament.

Joel Ross, Sasha Berliner, Patricia Brennan, and Simon Moullier are leading a vibraphone revival in jazz. Add Chien Chien Lu's name to that list.—Thomas Conrad

Mareike Wiening: Reveal
Wiening, drums; five others
Greenleaf GRE-CD-1106 (CD). 2023. Wiening, prod.; Aaron Nevezie, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****½

To date, the career of Mareike Wiening has been fairly typical for a European jazz musician. She trained in classical music in Germany, switched to jazz, came west to pursue a master's degree at NYU, gigged on the New York scene for six years, and moved back to Germany. What is less typical is that she has kept a quintet together for nine years, with three Americans and a countryman. This band has now made three strong albums.

Wiening is on the growing list of impactful female jazz drummers. As a drummer, she is nuanced, clean and selective. As a composer, she crafts careful, complete, well-proportioned designs. As a bandleader, she conceives ensemble environments that are rich in themselves and that urge her collaborators into creative motion.

"Encore" and "The Girl by the Window" are representative. Both are rapt melodic moods, the first introduced by Felscher's darkly brooding bass, the second developed by Glenn Zaleski's elegiac piano. Then Wiening gives each piece to a second soloist. On "Encore," it is Rich Perry, one of the great unsung tenor saxophonists in jazz. Quietly, passionately, he rewrites Wiening's song but stays true to its spirit. On "The Girl by the Window," A-list trumpeter Dave Douglas, a guest on the album, beautifully blends Wiening's ideas with his own.

The only song not written by Wiening is an unexpected but inspired choice: "Balada," from 19th century Romanian classical composer Ciprian Porumbescu. But it belongs to Wiening as much as the other tracks here, because her arrangement reimagines it in the language of her band. Wiening initiates the subtle rhythmic energy. Then she allows Perry, Felscher, and guitarist Alex Goodman to present their responses to Porumbescu's solemn, mysterious melody as Zaleski threads fine strands of piano through it all.—Thomas Conrad

Billy Mohler: Ultraviolet
Mohler, bass; Shane Endsley, trumpet; Chris Speed, tenor saxophone, clarinet; Nate Wood, drums
Contagious Music CGM008 (CD, available as LP). 2023. Dan Seeff, prod.; Pete Min, eng.
Performance ***½
Sonics ***½

Some of the information in the press release for Ultraviolet may cause trepidation among purists. Bassist Billy Mohler is said to have "pop sensibilities." (He has played with Macy Gray, Dolly Parton, and Ringo Starr.) Mohler and producer Dan Seeff employed "unique post-production techniques to layer shifting sounds in each song."

But purists can relax. Ultraviolet is something valuable and hard to find: real jazz for the masses. If you have ever wished for a record that could be used to indoctrinate friends with "pop sensibilities" into jazz, Mohler is your man.

His tunes are exuberant, catchy, and all about the groove. His bass lines set their hooks deep. Those post-production techniques create subtle effects that expand the sonic landscape of the music. Mohler's 20-year involvement with the Los Angeles studio scene has not dulled the jazz chops he originally honed at the Berklee College of Music. Another reason why this approachable music is real jazz is the sidemen. Chris Speed, Shane Endsley, and Nate Wood possess unassailable jazz credentials. Speed is a fearless, free-thinking tenor saxophone improviser. Endsley is a take-no-prisoners trumpeter. They do not simplify their work to play with Mohler, but they do offer less diffuse, more on-point solos, and they participate fully in this album's celebration of groove.

Take "Evolution." Speed and Endsley sound like themselves, which is edgy. But Mohler incorporates their daring into his overarching purpose. His relentless bass ostinato and Wood's crashing, hissing cymbals generate something rare in hardcore jazz: a beat you can dance to. There is one concession to the short attention spans associated with contemporary "pop sensibilities": Ultraviolet is only 32 minutes long.—Thomas Conrad

Ambrose Akinmusire: Owl Song
Akinmusire, trumpet; Bill Frisell, guitar; Herlin Riley, drums
Nonesuch (WAV). 2023. Akinmusire, prod.; Adam Muñoz, Dave Darlington, engs.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

Ambrose Akinmusire continues to expand his musical palette. After scoring a film (Blindspotting), writing for strings and voice (The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint), and appearing on a hip hop landmark (To Pimp a Butterfly), the gifted trumpeter returns here to jazz exploration.

Akinmusire, who's been playing professionally since high school, is a man of many moods and textures. Here, in a spare trio setting recorded at 25th Street Recording Studio in his hometown Oakland, California, he showcases the reflective side of his inquisitive conception, one that's often more expansive than "jazz" implies.

Drummer Herlin Riley and the great guitarist Bill Frisell, both accomplished texturalists, are perfect collaborators for Akinmusire's angular, plaintive statements. "There was something wonderful about paring everything back to just this one space, with three people playing live, and us creating within its limits," he has said about the album. "When there are only a few instruments, you realize that moods are fragile and things can come apart quickly." The title ballad appears in two versions. The first states the rising melody with Frisell adding near-perfect stringed accompaniment to Akinmusire's musings. "Owl Song 2" is slower, with Riley's hushed, subtle rhythms, Akinmusire stretching lines, Frisell mirroring his tones and pace.

In the darkly melodic "Flux Fuelings," the trumpeter's pure tone stays in its upper range as Frisell explores the low end of his instrument. Tonal choices sway back and forth on "Mr. Frisell," where the guitarist sensitively duets with the leader. The session's most upbeat number, "Mr. Riley" swings as Akinmusire solos to Riley's imaginative progressions. Another worthy chapter in the life of a multidimensional artist.—Robert Baird

jtshaw's picture

I truly think that Thomas Conrad and Robert Baird at Stereophile may be the best writers about jazz these days. How often does one pause while reading a review just to admire how well it is written? Even better, neither Mr. Conrad nor Mr. Baird have ever steered me wrong in directing me to music that deserves listening.