September 2021 Jazz Record Reviews

Alice Coltrane: Kirtan: Turiya Sings
Alice Coltrane: vocals; organ
Impulse! B003370502 (CD). 2021. Ravi Coltrane, Ed Michel, prods.; Baker Bigsby, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

Luaka Bop's 2017 release of the compilation The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda renewed interest in the singular work of the harpist/ pianist. Reissues of her self-produced cassettes have largely replaced the previous narrative—jazz widow who faded into irrelevance—with a new one: vital voice who followed her faith without faltering in her art.

The loss of husband and collaborator John Coltrane in 1967 had a devastating impact, resulting, reportedly, in weight loss, insomnia, and hallucinations. She found solace in Indian philosophy, which found its way into her music, gradually pulling her away from the fiery jazz she'd become known for. She founded the Vedantic Center in the San Fernando Valley, and her practice became the focal point of her art and life. Her music from that point on was available only through the center and garnered little attention.

With wider availability and with the benefit of hindsight, it has become clear that Coltrane Turiyasangitananda's later music should not be dismissed as proto–New Age meditation tapes. That much is evident on the newly reissued Kirtan: Turiya Sings. Some of those records seem dated or (worse) naively charming to some listeners, but here we have her alone at the organ in prayer, meditation, and chant in a set of solo mixes uncovered by her son (and reissue producer) Ravi Coltrane. The nine tracks are of a stark and staggering beauty, ancient verses sung in Sanskrit but transcending form. The warm recordings are subtly informed by her knowledge of jazz and gospel but deeply intimate and reverent. There are worlds within these songs.—Kurt Gottschalk


James Brandon Lewis/Red Lily Quintet: Jesup Wagon
Lewis, tenor saxophone; four others
TAO Forms TAO 05 (CD). 2021. Lewis, prod.; Jim Clouse, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

These days, a new tenor badass appears monthly, but not like James Brandon Lewis. His passion and chops are on their own level. Lewis is fast enough to play saxophone duets with himself.

He is in the avant-garde camp, but what sets him apart is his breadth and erudition. Not many outcats are interested in programmatic jazz. Jesup Wagon is a fully researched homage to George Washington Carver, the great African-American man of science and art. The title comes from an "agricultural wagon" Carver designed in 1906 to bring knowledge and new techniques to poor Southern farmers. In the liner notes, the stories behind these seven songs are told well by distinguished historian (and Thelonious Monk biographer) Robin D. G. Kelley.

This juxtaposition of a vintage country blues vibe (from cellist Chris Hoffman, bassist William Parker, and drummer Chad Taylor) and postmodern free soloing (from Lewis and cornetist Kirk Knuffke) is stunning. Lewis has never played on record with such concentration. He spills his guts on Jesup Wagon, but his hoarse summoning calls and his wild outbreaks serve a narrative. On "Lowlands of Sorrow," he portrays the suffering of the downtrodden while crying out against it in testimony of burning power.

Matching Lewis's ferocity is a tough assignment, so Knuffke does not try. Instead, in piercing cornet staccatos, he offers vivid alternative perspectives on shared history. On "Seer," Lewis and Knuffke draw out the plaintive, dignified melody then adorn it together.

Visceral and profound, Jesup Wagon should ride high in the 2021 jazz polls.—Thomas Conrad


William Parker: Painters Winter
Parker, bass, trombonium, etc.; Daniel Carter, winds; Hamid Drake, drums
AUM Fidelity AUM116 (CD). 2021. Parker, prod.; Jim Clouse, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

More than any other bassist-composer working today, William Parker echoes the spirit, range, and protean sensibility of Charles Mingus. As a young man (he's now 69), Parker studied with Mingus contemporaries Jimmy Garrison and Richard Davis (Coltrane's and Dolphy's bassists, respectively). Like Mingus, his music sometimes merges with politics but can also bathe in romantic balladry. Whatever the style, pace, or mood of the music, Parker—again, like Mingus—plucks and strums his bass with supreme surefootedness, hitting the center of the notes, infusing each bar with deep blues, and swaying each line with indelible swing. His frequent drummer, Hamid Drake, a product of the Chicago avant-garde who later immersed himself in African and Caribbean rhythms, possesses the versatility to wend in and out of all those influences, on the spot, as he chooses. Daniel Carter, another veteran avant-gardist who defies all categories, can blow a gorgeous tune with the best of them.

Parker writes, in the liner notes, "The music on this album is a tribute to the flow of rhythm as melody and pulsation. Laced with the joy and the bounce, the dance and the heartbeat. Giving a nod to all the music that has ever passed through us." Sounds corny, but it's on the button. Each player weaves his lines in and out of the others' path with a spirited insouciance, yet they're locked in to some common pulse. The music is cool, hot, insistent, and wistful all at once. Minimally miked and recorded at Clouse's Park West Studios in Brooklyn in 24/48 digital then mixed on an analog console, it sounds close-up, dynamic, and tonally true.—Fred Kaplan


Todd Cochran TC3: Then and Again, Here and Now
Todd Cochran, piano; John Leftwich, bass; Michael Carvin, drums
Sunnyside SSC 1608 (CD). 2021. Todd Cochran, prod.; Michael Aarvold, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

The re-emergence of Todd Cochran is one of the intriguing jazz stories of 2021: Then and Again, Here and Now is his first album in nearly half a century. His previous recordings, regarded in some quarters as underground classics, were released in 1972 and 1973 on the Prestige label. (Since then, Cochran has been busy with collaborative endeavors, some with famous names, in fields like art rock, progressive pop, record production, and filmmaking.)

Cochran's new album is an acoustic piano trio session with highly capable sidemen and a repertoire of standards. Surprisingly for an artist who has often strayed far from jazz, Cochran sounds embedded in the great jazz tradition. But he has his own voice within it. Every one of these well-known tunes is freshly reimagined. He likes to attach his own prologues to songs. "You Must Believe in Spring" opens with chiming notes arrayed in space that gradually coalesce into Michel Legrand's seductive melody. "A Foggy Day" also begins as something else, then turns Gershwin's song into a solemn meditation, then accelerates it into an ecstatic groove containing many enhancements including funky backbeats. "The Duke" has a dramatic formal introduction that flows directly into a slow, stately, graceful version of Dave Brubeck's Ellington tribute. Ellington's own composition, "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," is wrapped in lavish embroidery.

Cochran is historically grounded, extravagantly pianistic, and instinctively lyrical. His sense of style is so personal and deep it becomes art in itself. You would like to hear Cochran play every song you ever liked. Hopefully he is back to jazz for good.—Thomas Conrad

Herb Reichert's picture

What a well-done piece. I've done a lot of deep listening with Alice C. but this album takes her to the next level.

in gratitude


JoeE SP9's picture

The last Alice Coltrane recording I heard was Journey In Satchidananda years ago. I was completely underwhelmed. Talk about boring drivel. As long as her spiritual views dominate her music it goes in the same category I put any religiously based music. That is, pretty much unlistenable and boring.

AaronGarrett's picture

These are all great recordings. James Brandon Lewis has just released another new recording which is IMHO the equal of Jesup Wagon: . He is really something else!

For those near NYC the amazing William Parker rhythm section will be playing with Lewis (and a lot of other great musicians) @ Dizzy's Club @ Lincoln Center 9/23-24: