July 2022 Jazz Record Reviews

Tigran Hamasyan: StandArt
Hamasyan, piano; Matt Brewer, bass; Justin Brown, drums; three guests
Nonesuch 075597911473 (CD, available as download, LP). 2022. Hamasyan, prod.; Pete Min, eng.
Performance ***
Sonics ****

On paper, StandArt looks promising. Tigran Hamasyan has been an exceptional pianist his whole life. (He started at three and made his first record, World Passion, at 17, in 2005.) Most of his music has been dedicated to bringing the traditional music of his native Armenia, with its distinctive scales and modalities, into jazz. StandArt is his first album of American standards. It looks even more promising when you see the list of A-list guests: tenor saxophonists Joshua Redman and Mark Turner and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire.

But this album is not an unqualified success. Especially on the trio tunes, Hamasyan often gets caught up in the cleverness of his own chops. Only an accomplished pianist would be capable of reshaping "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," by Rodgers and Hart, into something as vast and complicated as the version here. But Hamasyan's high-velocity embellishments sound more technical than aesthetic. "Laura" (as written by David Raksin and Johnny Mercer) is a love song that floats in free air, as if in a dream. Hamasyan inundates it with frantic, extraneous detail. "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise" is a lilting tune by Romberg and Hammerstein. Hamasyan, lurching and slamming, turns it into melodrama and bombast. His skill is undeniable, but his taste is variable.

The pieces with guests are best, because Hamasyan is more focused and less flamboyant. Redman and Hamasyan, two speed demons joined at the hip, scorch Charlie Parker's "Big Foot." "I Should Care" is a duo with Akinmusire, who draws out the famous melody in long trumpet calls as Hamasyan chords. Akinmusire's tone gradually turns guttural, which changes the wistfulness of Sammy Cahn's song into something dark and ambiguous. This inspired interpretation suggests what the album might have been.—Thomas Conrad


Rebecca Martin/Larry Grenadier/Orquestra Jazz De Matosinhos: After Midnight
Martin, vocals, guitar; Grenadier, bass; 16-piece orchestra
CARA 003 (CD, available as download, LP). 2022. Pedro Guedes, Rebecca Martin, prods.; Mário Barreiros, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ***½

Rebecca Martin is a singer/songwriter with a small but devoted following. After Midnight is a unique project for her, a collaboration with a well-established orchestra from Portugal. Martin's husband, bassist Larry Grenadier, is a featured soloist.

Martin is a rarity among jazz singers: a true composer. But her songs are performed infrequently by others, perhaps because they are so specific to her. They are real-time dispatches from the front lines of life in the 21st century. They document the circumstances of her soul. They deal with common subjects like love, with uncommon insights into love's ongoing paradoxes ("In the Nick of Time"). Often she writes about the fragile dynamics of the creative process itself ("Don't Mean a Thing at All," "All Day Long She Wrote"). Her language never concedes the obvious.

The orchestra is a continuous source of beauty on this album. It surrounds Martin with an envelope of complementary impressionism. Its lush textures and rich colors deepen the rapt atmosphere that is Martin's natural habitat.

Martin's vocal instrument is very fine, but sometimes what a singer can do with her voice is less important than who she is. Martin sings from the heart with plainspoken humanity. When she takes on well-worn standards like "Willow Weep for Me," she gives witness, without self-pity, to heartbreak. "Lush Life" is perfect for her. It is a song as stream of consciousness. Martin thinks it aloud, like a diary entry.

If there is a reservation about this lovely record, it is the mix. There seems to be a recent fashion for placing singers deep within ensembles. Martin's gifts as a communicator would be more effectively presented in a mix that provided greater discrimination between her voice and the band.—Thomas Conrad


Walter Smith III & Matthew Stevens: In Common III
Smith, tenor saxophone; Stevens, guitar; Kris Davis, piano; Dave Holland, bass; Terri Lyne Carrington, drums
Whirlwind WR4783 (CD, available as download, LP). 2022. Smith, Stevens, prods.; Paul Antonell, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

In Common is an uncommon project. Tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and guitarist Matthew Stevens co-lead this quintet, and they change the rest of the personnel for every album. Their collaborators started strong and keep getting more distinguished. Their first two records had badasses like Joel Ross, Marcus Gilmore, and Linda May Han Oh. Their third release has two NEA Jazz Masters—bassist Dave Holland and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington—and a rising star, Kris Davis, on piano.

In Common never feels like an all-star band. Smith and Stevens are less interested in showing off their assembled firepower and more interested in using the exceptional talent on hand to maximize the ensemble realizations of their own compositions.

Both write strong, varied tunes. Stevens's "Loping" is a graceful glide across powerful undercurrents created by Holland and Carrington. "Orange Crush" is an intricate, convoluted form. "Miserere" is a slow, yearning line, solemn as a hymn. Smith composes his own slow songs, like "After," with a haunting melody that rises and falls, although Holland and Carrington soon accelerate this ballad and give it a wicked throb. Smith can also assemble a pastiche, like "Variable," with all five instruments playing a different song, challenging the listener to hear how it makes a whole.

This 55-minute program has 15 tracks. Solos are focused and concise. Smith and Stevens get in, make cogent, fresh statements, and get out. Davis does something strangely beautiful with every moment she is given.

The only weak tracks are four trio improvisations without bass and drums. They noodle randomly and wander vaguely, rare lapses into self-indulgence on an otherwise astute, attractive album.—Thomas Conrad