November 2023 Jazz Record Reviews

John Scofield: Uncle John's Band
Scofield, guitar; Vicente Archer, bass; Bill Stewart, drums
ECM 2796/97 (reviewed in 16/44.1 WAV; also available as 2 LPs). 2023. ECM. Tyler McDiarmid, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

John Scofield is, by broad consensus, one of the three or four most important guitarists in jazz. Unlike so many of today's jazz musicians, he has the humility to play songs written by others.

In the liner notes to this double album, he says that he was 13 when the Byrds's version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" was a hit. It has been in his musical subconscious ever since. So have Neil Young's "Old Man" and the Grateful Dead's "Uncle John's Band." It is revelatory to hear him render "Mr. Tambourine Man" in his 21st century jazz-guitar language. He gives it his own hovering, atmospheric introduction. When, almost two minutes in, his inventions coalesce into Bob Dylan's famous melody, it is an exhilarating release. As with many of the familiar pieces here, Scofield's new extemporaneous details gradually take over and become their own form.

Scofield says he was about 11 when he saw the film West Side Story and was captivated by "Somewhere." Remarkably, in this dead-slow, heartfelt, rapt version, Scofield's improvisation is as beautiful as Leonard Bernstein's song. Bassist Vicente Archer, the newest member of Scofield's trio, is the beating heart of "Somewhere." Whenever he solos, Archer never calls attention to himself but instead reveals new dimensions of the story. Long-time Scofield associate Bill Stewart is one of the most intuitively supportive drummers in jazz.

Half the 14 tunes are Scofield originals. They variously demonstrate that, for all their rarefied musicianship, these guys swing their butts off—sometimes in a casual funk gait ("Mask," "Mo Green"), sometimes in a powerful forward drive ("How Deep," "TV Band").

Then there is "Stairway to the Stars." Scofield lingers over it, as if in a dream. He says, "I've always somehow known it." Haven't we all.—Thomas Conrad

Mort Garson: Journey To The Moon And Beyond
Sacred Bones Records SBR3042 (LP). 2023. Josh Bonati, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ***½

Is it possible to convey in music the emotions those watching felt on July 20, 1969, during the first moon landing? Undaunted by the task, keyboardist Mort Garson composed "Moon Journey" under commission for the CBS broadcast of that landmark event. It also happened to be his birthday.

Opening with an electronic swish and the sound of a rocket igniting, Garson uses heraldic tones, arpeggios, and flashes of noise before stopping and transforming into space jazz, a perky puppet-show dance, and a faster clattering section that sounds like the death rattle of a drum machine. The finale has a triumphal sweep appropriate to man's first step off Earth. One of the earliest converts to Moog synths, Garson arranged Glenn Campbell's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and composed his own takes on The Wizard of Oz (The Wizard of Iz) and the musical Hair (Electronic Hair Pieces). He wrote "Our Day Will Come," which has been covered by James Brown and Amy Winehouse among others.

Garson died in 2008. He's having a renaissance thanks to Brooklyn's Sacred Bones label, which has issued several of Garson's works, including Mother Earth's Plantasia, Warm Earth Music for Plants and the People Who Love Them.

This wide-ranging collection of works written mostly for TV and film, released on a red-vinyl 160gm LP with a die-cut sleeve, is consistent despite the plethora of sources. His "Main Theme" to the blaxploitation film Black Eye is convincing '70s funk that owes its bounce to Super Fly. "Captain DJ Disco UFO (Pt. III)" is electronic proto-dance music. The evocatively titled "Western Dragon (Pt 1)" mixes Asian influences with a Native American flute ambiance. The mark of a great film music composer, someone who composes in partnership with an image, is that the music they make is listenable, or in Garson's case even wonderful, apart from the visual.—Robert Baird

James Brandon Lewis/Red Lily Quintet: For Mahalia, With Love
Lewis, tenor saxophone; four others
TAO Forms TAO 13 (reviewed on CD, available as LP). 2023. Lewis, prod.; Paul Wickliffe, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

In 2021, Jesup Wagon, by James Brandon Lewis's Red Lily Quintet, was voted Album of the Year in both the DownBeat and JazzTimes critics' polls. Even jazz insiders who knew about Lewis did not expect this debut album by an ensemble containing no household names to be so honored.

The Red Lily Quintet has now released its second project. Like Jesup Wagon (which was a homage to George Washington Carver), it is a concept album. There are nine songs associated with beloved gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. The first editions of the CD and LP pressings will also include a suite, These Are Soulful Days, commissioned by the Jazztopad Festival in Wroclaw, Poland, performed by Lewis and the Lutoslawski String Quartet.

Lewis's achievement on For Mahalia, With Love is to remain faithful to the deep spiritual resonance of songs like "Were You There" and "Wade in the Water" yet to use them as inspiration for bold creative expansion. When Lewis's clarion tenor saxophone first announces "Swing Low," it is moving because this old Negro spiritual is embedded in American historical memory. It is exhilarating when the band celebrates this sacred text by setting it free. Lewis and cornetist Kirk Knuffke are fearless, powerful, passionate improvisers. "Go Down, Moses" is a foundation of hope and aspiration from which Lewis, Knuff ke, and bassist William Parker rise up and testify, individually and collectively, for 10 minutes. This band's sublime cacophony is grounded in its calling.

The second CD reveals another, more overtly scholarly dimension of Lewis's art. The two dimensions come together when, at the end of the concert in Poland with strings, he plays a solo saxophone encore, a soaring version of the spiritual "Take Me to the Water."—Thomas Conrad

Alan Ferber Nonet: Up High, Down Low
Ferber, trombone, arrangements; others
Sunnyside 1694 (reviewed from CD). 2023. Ferber, prod.; Chris Benham, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics *****

For those of us who love nonets, Alan Ferber is The Man. He keeps making nonet records (five to date), with flair.

In the right hands, a nonet offers the best of both worlds: the impact of a big band and the agility of a small group. As an arranger, Ferber sounds born to the format. With nine instruments, he creates deep densities of detail and assembles diverse elements into elegant designs.

The opening title track of his new album sets the rules of engagement. Fine threads of counterpoint interweave. Riffs within riffs fly by. Seemingly autonomous fragments of melody coexist in musical space. Then the full ensemble combines those fragments into one aggregated melody and shouts it, triumphantly. The risk of a style as sophisticated as Ferber's is that it can feel overwrought. But this music never sounds fussy. It hits too hard.

Ferber wrote five of the nine tunes. He also made some interesting external song choices. "Cherokee Louise" is a dark, disturbing Joni Mitchell piece about sexual abuse, with an unsettling melody. "The More I See You" is a minor standard ballad by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon. Ferber turns it into a headlong anthem, to unleash soloists.

Speaking of soloists, Ferber the bandleader has one of the world's best trombonists in his nonet: himself. Throughout, his eloquent, intrepid proclamations establish the extroverted personality of the album. The other players are not quite famous but deserve to be. Everyone makes the most of their solo space. Charles Pillow (flute) and Scott Wendholt (trumpet) are wonderfully down-and-dirty on the minor blues "Brimstone Boogaloo." On "Violet Soul," Jon Gordon (alto sax) vividly portrays passion barely contained. Chris Cheek (baritone) and Nir Felder (guitar) spill their guts on "Ice Fall."—Thomas Conrad

Greg Foat & Gigi Masin: Dolphin
Strut Strut311LP (LP). 2023. Dave Granshaw, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Born and raised on the Isle of Wight, pianist Greg Foat, whose playing loosely falls in the genre of jazz, is a dedicated musical explorer. In a variety of contexts including the duo Hampshire & Foat and the 8-piece Greg Foat Group, the pianist floats inside and between genres, resisting any fixed labels for his music.

Here, with the help of Italian composer/keyboard player Gigi Masin, he toggles between large-scale, almost symphonic pieces like the opening "Lee" before sitting down in front of the Fender Rhodes and tucking into the drum-backed groove of "London Nights," which feels uncannily like a Bob James outtake from the late '70s. Masin has been an experimentalist in electronic music since the '70s. He is the creator of Wind, a long-lost classic from 1986. Also appearing on certain tracks are drummer Moses Boyd, bassist Tom Herbert, and flautist/clarinetist Siobhan Cosgrove.With Foat on grand piano, vibraphone, and vintage synths and Masin on electric piano, sounds culled from a digital library and an "old" Pad2, Dolphin is a mashup of jazz and ambient music seasoned with library music and a touch of Krautrock. (The term "library" denotes music of all genres created for stock music libraries that license it out to TV, radio, and film companies.)

Foat is supremely sound conscious and dedicated to analog recording, which adds rounder tones to his timbres and textures. And creating textures is Foat's most pointed bag; he is even credited here with "bottle-blowing." On "Love Theme" (with its library-like title), the pair mix acoustic piano with synth textures as the piece rhythmically inhales and exhales, a motion repeated throughout Dolphin. In "Viento Calido," a push-pull ghostly vocal synth sound embodies the rhythm. Mixing acoustic instruments with electronics is all the rage today, but few do it with the kind of style and respect for old and new found on Dolphin.—Robert Baird

Avishai Cohen & Abraham Rodriguez Jr.: Iroko
Cohen, bass, vocals; Rodriguez, congas, vocals; Virginia Alves, vocals
Naïve 8080, 8081 (CD, LP). 2023. Cohen, Javier Limón, prods.; Garret De Block, Ryan Phillips, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****½

After a 30-year musical acquaintance, Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen and Nuyorican congero Abraham Rodriguez Jr. have recorded a novel duet album with material ranging from Afro-Cuban chants to American pop and R&B oldies. Rodriguez's expertly played congas furnish even

the unlikeliest tunes with vibrant Latin rhythms, while Cohen's robust bass is sonorous enough to buoy percussion and vocals with no other instruments present.

The album was Cohen's initiative, but the tracks reflect the eclectic repertoire of Rodriguez, who provides throaty lead vocals in Spanish, English, and African languages with vocal harmonies by Cohen and Spanish singer Virginia Alves. Santería chants "The Healer" and "Thunder Drum" were recorded nearly 50 years ago under different titles by the Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino, an ensemble that included the late trumpeter-percussionist Jerry González and his bassist brother Andy; Iroko is dedicated to both.

The duo also cover such well-known Cuban classics as "Tintorera Ya Llego," by Arsenio Rodriguez; "Fania" (retitled "Fahina"), by Reinaldo Bolaños; and "A la Loma de Belen" by Ignacio Piñeiro. They pay tribute to Abraham Rodriguez's Puerto Rican roots with Rafael Cortijo's "A Bailar Mi Bomba" and nod to Cohen's Israeli heritage with the theme from the movie Exodus, whose lyrics have a chauvinistic ring today.

The percussionist's wide-ranging tastes are displayed on the remaining English-language songs—Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon," Frankie Avalon's "Venus," and James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" (the last two with added Spanish lyrics)—which Rodriguez sings huskily while the bass plays ringing vamps and the congas snap, crackle, and pop.—Larry Birnbaum

ChrisS's picture

Greg Foat instead of "Preg..."

John Atkinson's picture
ChrisS wrote:
Greg Foat instead of "Preg..."

Fixed. Thanks.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile