July 2023 Jazz Record Reviews

Sasha Matson: Molto Molto
Matson, composer, conductor; 20-piece orchestra
Stereophile STPH 023-2 (auditioned as CD; 24/96 available on Qobuz; CD, 2 LP set, MP3, and streaming available from Amazon). 2023. John Atkinson, Joe Harley, prods.; Ryan Streber, eng.; Nicholas Prout, mix eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Sasha Matson is a unique thinker. Among the things he thinks about are jazz, rock, classical music, blues, film scores, and opera, to name just six of the genres he frequents. Sometimes he visits several genres in the same composition. His pivots can be jarring. Styles transform in the moment, and so do tempos, tonalities, moods, amplitudes, and clear distinctions between notation and improvisation.

The title track incorporates a hard-charging full band with a tuba blasting out front, a graceful, gliding piano/bass duet, some 1937 Count Basie swing, an interlude of somber atmospheric quietude, a wild piano outbreak over slamming band riffs, and echoes of Rachmaninoff—all this and more in under nine minutes.

The 20 players are from New York's elite. The emphasis of this album is on the totality of ensemble form, not solos, but there are two notable solo achievements: Adam Birnbaum's dramatic piano surges, in wave upon wave, on Concerto for Piano and Jazz Orchestra, and Steve Cardenas's rapt guitar elegy on "Capt. Trips," dedicated to Jerry Garcia. It is touching how Cardenas's high notes sound like the raindrops for which Jerry Garcia was famous. In a liner note, Matson says that in high school in Berkeley, California, in the 1960s, he regarded the Grateful Dead as "role models." A risky idea, but Matson lived to tell the tale.

At first listen, you think this recording was made with minimal miking. In fact, engineer Ryan Streber put a microphone on each instrument. But the recorded level of the album is low. Until you turn up the volume, the orchestra sounds distant. Then, at higher gain, the wide dynamic range of the recording sometimes causes the perspective to shift between distant and close-up. The sound is like Matson's music: variable, surprising, challenging, often exhilarating.—Thomas Conrad

Dan Rosenboom: Polarity
Rosenboom, trumpets; Gavin Templeton, saxophones; John Escreet, keyboards; Billy Mohler, bass; Damion Reid, drums
Orenda 0101 (auditioned as CD). 2023. Justin Stanley, prod., eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

If he were in New York, Dan Rosenboom would be famous as a wildly talented, take-no-prisoners trumpet badass. But he is in Los Angeles, so his name may be new to you. Only two of the people in Rosenboom's quintet are well known, John Escreet and Damion Reid. That is because they are a) monsters and b) recent L.A. transplants from New York.

Polarity opens with one of the most riveting tracks that any jazz trumpet player has released in recent years: the 20-minute dark ceremony called "The Age of Snakes." The title's meaning is uncertain. But with long, menacing unison calls from Rosenboom and alto saxophonist Gavin Templeton, and with bassist Billy Mohler and drummer Reid seething and thundering, the snakes sound lethal, the age on the edge of apocalypse. Rosenboom's solo keeps ascending to new peaks of emotional catharsis, from which he spits fire. Escreet's piano interlude is stark and cryptic. Templeton's solo is a series of flurries of increasing intensity, eventually overtaken by Reid's drum eruptions. When Rosenboom returns, he comes in screaming. The piece ends where it began, with Rosenboom and Templeton brooding darkly in unison.

From the first notes of this opening track, the larger-than-life sound makes you wonder if you are hearing effects from live electronics or overdubs. The answer is no. Polarity was recorded in the studio of Justin Stanley, who produced, engineered, and mixed it. His resumé includes Prince and Beck. The expansive sonic landscape comes from Stanley's creative post-production with reverbs, delays, and spatialization.

The rest of Polarity is brilliant, from the furious, intimidating aggression of "War Money" to the lyrical, edgy tenderness of "On Summoning the Will."—Thomas Conrad

Billy Childs: The Winds of Change
Childs, piano; Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet; Scott Colley, bass; Brian Blade, drums
Mack Avenue MAC1200 (auditioned as CD). 2023. Childs, prod.; Rich Breen, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Today, most jazz musicians imagine that they are composers. Billy Childs really is one. He writes wonderful melodies and offers them to the world in elegantly proportioned, complete musical forms. Another interesting thing about Childs is that, whereas many current jazz musicians cross over into classical music and some classical players dabble in jazz, Childs is fully established in both genres. He receives commissions from organizations like the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In jazz, he wins Grammy awards (five) and nominations (16).

For his new album, Childs had two goals: "to get back to being a jazz pianist," and to portray his home town, Los Angeles, through music inspired by film noir. When he recruited his sidemen, he hit it out of the park. When he wrote the music, he visited the melancholy decadence of Los Angeles as immortalized in films like Chinatown. The title track and "The End of Innocence" are lonely, bittersweet, and deeply noir.

But pensive moods don't last. Childs's band is consumed with creative urgency. Poignant melodies are always accelerated then get set on fire. Childs's pianistic style tends toward ornate decoration. He is the first to flood his own songs with digressions, extravagant flourishes, and resounding crescendos. Akinmusire may never have played better on record. His brilliant, brassy tone vividly renders Childs's themes, then flies away with them. His most astonishing moments come on "Master of the Game," which he detonates in lurching intervals and wild atonal abstractions.

Chick Corea's "Crystal Silence" is the one song here that never speeds up. It is dead slow, rapt, and crystalline. Yet you feel its heat somewhere near, as if from an underground fire.—Thomas Conrad

Taj Mahal: Savoy
Stony Plain Records (auditioned as CD). 2023. John Simon, Manny Moreira, prods., Gabriel Shepard, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Henry St. Claire Fredericks, Jr.'s adopted surname should be Marvel, not Mahal, because marvelous is what the man is. At 81, having put out God-knows-how-many albums (a rough tally yields upward of 40), Taj shows no signs of slowing down. Given his readiness to explore and synthesize genres, from acoustic blues to reggae to Indian classical music, it's odd that Taj has never before made a jazz album.

It turns out that he was to the idiom born. Taj's father, a gifted jazz pianist and arranger, met his mother in 1938 at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. Four years later, Taj was born, not many blocks from that renowned nitery. Savoy, in other words, is the long-delayed first volume of Taj's musical autobiography. Be happy that he got around to it.

Taj strolls in breezily on "Stompin' at the Savoy," the first of a generous 14 tracks, filling us in on his and the club's intertwined histories. We're treated to his delightfully nimble, previously unexhibited (to these ears at least) scat singing on four tracks, and to the novel effect of a honking blues harp—Taj's—soloing over jazz horns on the Benny Golson composition "Killer Joe." A growly Maria Muldaur joins Taj on Frank Loesser's 1944 "Baby, It's Cold Outside." On hand as co-producer and pianist is major producer John Simon (The Band, Leonard Cohen, Blood, Sweat & Tears, etc.), also 81, whose arrangements for the four-piece horn section are punchy and precise.

Hearing Taj Mahal sing Ellington's "Mood Indigo" and "Do Nothing 'Til You Hear From Me," the Gershwins' "Lady Be Good" and "Summertime" (jauntily uptempo), Mercer and Arlen's closing-time rumination "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)," and nine other reimagined classics is an unalloyed pleasure, just one more from an endlessly creative master. Auditioned with headphones.—Tony Scherman

jimtavegia's picture

I am on my 4th complete listen and on the 4th I took notes. Since I am not a composer or classically trained take my comments for what they are worth as a pedestrian.

I have found this a mixed bag, with disconnections between the band and the piano parts. There is no doubt this is a complex piece and if you are looking at simplistic themes you many not find any that will last any length of time. That may not be a bad thing if you are a fan of complex compositions.

Unlike "Kind of Blue" that has the tracks start with simple themes, the complexity in "Blue" comes from the solos of Adderley and Coltrane. In Molto the complexity is from the get-go yet the tempos are firm and the band is very tight and I often felt that there were two roads taken but the players could still see and hear each other as they developed the music.

It may take a few more listens for me to fully understand each track, but I, as just a listener, and not a real musician, may not get there; Which is OK. This music for probably for a sophisticated musical mind.

The recording is superb, clear, and full range and you will feel like you are in the room with good gear. I have found I have enjoyed it more on headphones to keep the left and right channel perspectives totally intact.

Having to work to get a piece is not a bad thing, it just means I have to work harder. No one said ever that music has to be easy. The better the sound and recording engineering is, I am will to take on that task. This is closer to 5 out of 5 engineering wise than 4 out of 5. That means a lot these days.

MBMax's picture

1) I love these monthly installments. Conrad and friends are dependable, insightful bringers of good, good goings on in jazz. My wallet can't quite keep up, but, oh well...

2) I assume from your comments, Thomas, that the recording quality of the Rosenboom is quite a bit better than 1/2*?

3) OK - bonus comment. I want the Taj Mahal based on the cover alone.

Jim Austin's picture

>>2) I assume from your comments, Thomas, that the recording quality of the Rosenboom is quite a bit better than 1/2*?

Indeed, that was a posting error. Fixed now. Thanks for pointing it out.

Jim Austin, Editor

jond's picture

Thanks guys I have all 4 of these queued up for listening tonight on Qobuz! And I haven't listened to Taj Mahal in some time excited to hear a jazz album from him.

rschryer's picture

...looks cool, but JA1 looks just a bit cooler than everyone else.