November 2020 Jazz Record Reviews

Maria Schneider Orchestra: Data Lords
Maria Schneider, composer, conductor; 18-piece orchestra
ArtistShare AS0176 (CD, also available as download). 2020. Brian Camelio, Maria Schneider, Ryan Truesdell, prods.; Brian Montgomery, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

Maria Schneider, the most acclaimed jazz composer of our time, has been an impressionist, devoted to preserving moments of her life when the sensual and the spiritual became indivisible. Her new double album, Data Lords, is different—or rather, half of it is. The title refers to big-data companies whose binary tentacles infiltrate human consciousness. CD 1, The Digital World, is Schneider's revolt against "the dark manifestations of the internet." "A World Lost" is an act of mourning: The way we live now, amid endless demands for our attention from devices, amid ceaseless noise, stifles creativity, which needs space and silence. Guitarist Ben Monder and tenor saxophonist Rich Perry take solos that are like strivings toward liberation. "CQ CQ, Is Anybody There?" is a musical correlative for psychic dislocation and conflict. This music is powerful and disturbing. Schneider's rendering of ugliness is true and therefore beautiful.

CD 2, Our Natural World, affirms that "nature, people, silence, books, poetry, art, earth and sky" are still possible. These six compositions are more representative of Schneider's art and are major additions to the enduring themes of her career. She can still blend light and color like Monet. She can still make an 18-piece ensemble loom and glide with surpassing grace.

Her orchestra includes voices like Frank Kimbrough, Steve Wilson, Jay Anderson, Donny McCaslin, and Marshall Gilkes. Calling out a single performance is dangerous, but here is one: Dave Pietro's triumphant alto proclamation of human connection on "Braided Together."—Thomas Conrad


Coldcut, guitars, electronics; Miles James, guitar; Shabaka Hutchings, sax; Tony Allen, drums; others
Ninja Tunes (CD, LP). 2020. Coldcut, prods.; Al Riley, Eric Lau, et al., engs.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

Jazz albums of music set to protest lyrics generally don't appeal to me. They're often didactic, plodding, or, if the music is lively and the lyrics dull, distracting. But South African protest music is something else. That country's people's long tradition of rebellion, from the anti-Apartheid movement on, has been galvanized by music. A wonderful 2002 documentary film, Amandla, dramatized the point. So does the new recording, Keleketla! (The word means "response" as in "call and response.") Keleketla! is a tight, sweat-soaked joy. It's a mix of jazz, soul, reggae, hip-hop, and techno—and, unlike some multi-culti fusions, the mixers are native and the meshing intimately collaborative.

In 2017, Matt Black and Jon More of the innovative British electronica band Coldcut flew to Johannesburg, met with an array of African musicians brought together by a local collective, and, together, laid down tracks in Soweto's Trackside Creative Studios. Back in London, Coldcut mixed and overdubbed the tracks. They also brought in the late Tony Allen, the drummer who pioneered Afrobeat with Fela Kuti in the 1960s. His syncopated polyrhythms stretch the tension and turbo-fuel the beat. But he plays on just five of the nine tracks. All the other artists are top-notch, too, and Coldcut's electronics lace the music in a sizzling ambience.

The sonics are terrific, except on horns, which sound flat, and keyboards, which are usually vibrant but at times dim. The LP is more airy, percussive, and dynamic than the CD, though the CD sound is satisfying too.—Fred Kaplan


Joel Ross: Who Are You?
Joel Ross, vibraphone; five others (see below)
Blue Note B0032227-02 (CD, also available as LP or download). 2020. Joel Ross, Walter Smith III, prods.; Jason Rostkowski, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

Joel Ross is a rising star. His Blue Note album KingMaker landed with a splash in 2019. Among many accolades, it was "Debut of the Year" in Francis Davis's closely watched NPR critics poll. On vibraphone, Ross has his own angular-yet-extravagant language. He arrays the three octaves of his instrument across vast, diverse sonic landscapes.

You may not know the other names in Ross's quintet, but you will. They are among the most promising new talents in jazz: alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins (whose Blue Note album Omega should win the NPR poll as "Debut of the Year"); pianist Jeremy Corren; bassist Kanoa Mendenhall; drummer Jeremy Dutton.

Yet, a notable achievement of this album is its maturity as a collaborative artistic statement. Solos flow into and out of one another so organically that you don't always notice when the primary source of invention has shifted. Ross's lush tones rain down everywhere. Wilkins's outbreaks are startling, yet they belong. Corren does something intriguing every time he spills sideways from a song. Often, these three make an interactive spontaneous choir. Mendenhall and Dutton are not accompanists: They are out front with their energy and drama. Yet they never crowd the musical space.

Even ballads like Ross's "Waiting on a Solemn Reminiscence" generate incantatory fervor, barely contained. The impression is of volatile lyricism. "After the Rain," Coltrane's great reverential ceremony, is translated to vibraphone. Wilkins takes Trane's saxophone part but stays deep within the ensemble, suspending time in a hovering, collective rubato.—Thomas Conrad


John Zorn and Jesse Harris: Songs for Petra
Petra Haden, vocals; Julian Lage, Harris, guitars; Jorge Roeder, bass; Kenny Wollesen, drums
Tzadik 8374 (CD). 2020. Harris, prod.; Vira Byramji, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ***½

John Zorn is a composer and musician of endless surprises. A longtime impresario of New York's downtown avantgarde, he made a melodic shift in the early 1990s with Masada (hundreds of songs built on the Jewish scales), then to string quartets, operas, soundtracks, and the mellow guitar twangs of the Dreamers series—while reverting, now and then, to his screeching roots with no loss of gusto. Songs for Petra is the closest he's come to outright pop, an album of songs (some written years ago, some for the occasion), set to lyrics by Jesse Harris (a collaborator with Norah Jones, among others) and sung by Petra Haden. Some of the songs zing with Zorn's familiarly Sephardic cadences; others sway like a breeze. The lyrics exude a gentle irony. They would fit well on a Fountains of Wayne album or a Lynn Shelton film soundtrack. This isn't edgy. But it is a delight.

When Zorn started The Song Project, with Harris, in 2012, Haden wasn't part of it, but when Harris brought her to a set, Zorn hired her at once. Daughter of bassist Charlie Haden, a singer-violinist in the Haden Triplets, she's a wondrously witty and versatile artist, best known for her overdubbed a cappella albums where she recreates, with just her voice, all the musical parts of film themes (Petra Goes to the Movies) and, more ambitious, the entire LP of The Who Sell Out. In Songs for Petra, she plays it straight, scaling Zorn's tunes—some simple, some complex and octave-leaping—with a casually luminous clarity.

The session, recorded in Harris's apartment, has an appealing presence except for the drums, which sound flat and papery.—Fred Kaplan

TNtransplant's picture

Updates on older classic albums and how the latest reissues stack up sound wise is valuable, but personally much prefer learning about interesting new releases that may be a bit off the beaten path but are worth checking out -- with the focus on performance rather than hifi show demo potential.

Great to see FK back and hopefully we'll continue seeing regular contributions from him.