January 2024 Jazz Record Reviews

Adam Birnbaum: Preludes
Birnbaum, piano; Matt Clohesy, bass; Keita Ogawa, drums
Chelsea Music Festival CMF-L2301 (CD). 2023. Birnbaum, prod.; David Stoller, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

The best way to encounter this record is to come upon it unawares, perhaps online or on the radio. Start grooving to its infectious beat, then you say, "Wait! Isn't that The Well-Tempered Clavier? Is this Bach or is it jazz?"

It is exactly both. Bach has long exercised a pull on jazz musicians. John Lewis, Brad Mehldau, Uri Caine, Leszek Możdżer, Jacques Loussier, and Dan Tepfer are among the jazz pianists who have taken swings at Bach. Add Adam Birnbaum to the list. Preludes contains selections from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1. It just might be the best Bach/jazz album yet. It is definitely the most fun. Birnbaum's achievement is to deeply embed the spirit of Bach in a high-flying jazz trio without compromising either.

It is paradoxical but true that Baroque music and jazz are compatible. It is known that Bach embraced improvisation. His elemental forms contain spaces that invite interpretation. Birnbaum takes varied approaches to these opportunities. Sometimes, as on "Prelude in E major," his arrangement is close to the basic jazz format of head-solos-head. The gorgeous theme is released into an improvised solo of surprisingly commensurate lyricism, then is restated at the end. On "Prelude in C minor" he retains Bach's left-hand part but invents an alternative melody with his right. Bach's chord progressions often set up Birnbaum to get his bebop on. "Prelude in C major" is the simplest and most famous of these iconic pieces. Birnbaum, dancing across the changes, turns it into cool, quick jazz and sounds natural doing it.

Speaking of dancing, Birnbaum's collaborators, bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Keita Ogawa, are pure grace. With their light but insistent touch, they swing Bach like crazy. The overriding impression of Preludes, even more than its competence and creativity, is its joy.—Thomas Conrad

Simón Willson: Good Company
Willson, bass; Jacob Shulman, tenor saxophone; Isaac Wilson, piano; Jonas Esser, drums
Fresh Sound New Talent FSNT 659 (CD). 2023. Jacob Shulman, prod.; David Stoller, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

The back story for this album is unremarkable. Simón Willson is one of the countless jazz musicians in New York who is from somewhere far away. He came to the United States from Chile in 2011 to attend the New England Conservatory and stayed. He is not well-known outside the inner circles of the New York scene, but he is a respected sideman and has played bass with Dave Douglas, Ethan Iverson, and Jason Palmer.

Talented sidemen eventually make their own records. If Willson's history is typical, his debut album is not. Good Company is exceptional. The other members of Willson's band (listed above) are, at this moment, even less famous than he is. But each is a creative free thinker who practices discipline.

Ten varied, engaging Willson compositions showcase the breadth of artistic aptitudes contained within this ensemble. On "Being on Time," the quartet collectively, vividly renders a plaintive melody. Then pianist Isaac Wilson and tenor saxophonist Jacob Shulman trade it back and forth, intensifying the emotion with each pass. "No More X" is a beautifully spilling, sprawling piano feature that Shulman and drummer Jonas Esser crash into and ignite. "Gracious" is a rapt ballad with hard edges. So is "Calma." It barely contains Shulman's passion.

On every track, you feel the shaping influence of Willson. He leads this band from within. His rich, deep bass lines are woven all through the music, as unifying threads. His group of volatile improvisers creates within his organized arrangements, plays with concision, and wastes few notes. The most concentrated track is "My Respects," a three-minute, through-composed "elegy for victims of injustice." No one solos, but within its tight structure, everyone discovers and conveys his own empathy.—Thomas Conrad

Joshua Redman: Where Are We
Redman, tenor saxophone; eight others
Blue Note B003766502 (CD, available as LP). 2023. Redman, prod.; Chris Allen, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics *****

In jazz, when someone signs with the Blue Note label, it means that artist has arrived. Joshua Redman's Blue Note debut is billed as "his first-ever vocal project." The singer here, Gabrielle Cavassa, is a star-in-waiting. The rest of Redman's new, badass band is pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Joe Sanders, and drummer Brian Blade.

Cavassa's presence puts Redman in an unfamiliar role: accompanist and interlocutor. His powerful, articulate tenor saxophone still gets prime time, but the need to support a singer imposes a new concentration and economy on his playing. He makes every note count. He has never sounded more focused.

The songs touch down on places that span the United States, in a meditation on our society's current moment. Tunes are often reimagined as blends. "Stars Fell on Alabama" is interwoven with "Alabama," John Coltrane's dark, brooding ballad. Redman's own "After Minneapolis" contains a saxophone solo that is a searing, shrieking protest and lament for the atrocities committed in that city. The song's meaning is enlarged by combining it with Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." Tony Bennett's sentimental hit about "the city by the bay" has Monk's "San Francisco Holiday" embedded in it, which hardens it.

Redman brings in four prominent guests, one for each track. Kurt Rosenwinkel, Peter Epstein, Joel Ross, and Nicholas Payton all sound inspired on tunes associated with their native cities.

For many, the revelation of this album will be Cavassa. Her voice gets under your skin. It is idiosyncratic, but it is trustworthy in its clarity and almost physical in its intimacy. Even on relatively straightforward pieces like "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," her intuitive interpretations and riveting voice make you sit very still in your chair.—Thomas Conrad