September 2023 Jazz Record Reviews

Arne Jansen/Stephan Braun: Going Home
Jansen, electric and acoustic guitars; Braun, 5-string cello, bass
Herzog 901101HER (CD). 2023. Jansen, Arne Schumann, Josef Bach, prods.; Schumann, Bach, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****½

If you don't love Dire Straits, either you're too young to remember the '80s or lack good taste. Mark Knopfler was one of the anointed. "Money for Nothing" and "Telegraph Road" are immortal. "Sultans of Swing" is as perfect a song as rock'n'roll ever gave birth to.

Arne Jansen is a German jazz musician who didn't start with jazz. He started with Dire Straits. When he was 9, his father brought home their 1982 album, Love Over Gold. Arne was never the same. He says, "'Telegraph Road' is the reason I started playing guitar."

Jansen does not merely play these 10 Knopfler songs. He is a jazz improviser, and he affirms his reverence by making them the basis for fresh creation. He gives them new shadings and places them in new contexts. Often you don't recognize the songs right away. When you do, it's a rush.

Knopfler wrote vocal stories. Jansen's achievement is to reveal, instrumentally, the beauty of Knopfler's melodies—even, or especially, when he is loose and free with them as on "Telegraph Road." "Money for Nothing," with its suspenseful waltz groove, is unexpectedly dark; it makes you laugh out loud to hear this casually cynical tune transformed into something so foreboding.

Jansen's duo partner, Stephan Braun, is a valuable asset. With his unique percussive approach to the 5-string cello, he is a complete rhythm section. When he sometimes takes the lead, he presents a fascinating alternative sonority and sensibility.

"Sultans of Swing" is the killer. The song is so tight and complete, it would seem to defy jazz interpretation, but Jansen and Braun find a way in. They lavish love on its irresistible melody then give it new bite and twang.

What fun this album is.—Thomas Conrad

Joe Farnsworth: In What Direction Are You Headed?
Farnsworth, drums; Kurt Rosenwinkel, guitar; Immanuel Wilkins, alto saxophone; Julius Rodriguez, keyboards; Robert Hurst, bass
Smoke Sessions SSR-2304 (CD, available as download). 2023. Paul Stache, Damon Smith, prods.; Chris Allen, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Joe Farnsworth is one of the great unsung foot soldiers of jazz. Many established leaders have trusted him to energize and unify their ensembles with his powerful, gut-level–honest drumming. He has been a sideman on more than 100 CDs. In 2020, Smoke Sessions suddenly turned Farnsworth into a leader. He has now made three strong albums for the label.

On the first two, he employed stars like Wynton Marsalis and Kenny Barron. On the third, he has scored two more coups: world-class guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and new alto saxophone monster Immanuel Wilkins. They are not just hired guns. They sound fully committed to Farnsworth's album mission.

Farnsworth played for years with Harold Mabern, who composed the driving, infectious title track in 1971. Rosenwinkel and Wilkins immediately contemporize the song. Rosenwinkel grounds himself in its funk then takes off and flies. Wilkins's wild solo is pure exhilaration and catharsis. Julius Rodriguez, a new player to watch, keens and burns on Fender Rhodes.

Wickedly fast numbers like Rodriguez's "Anyone But You" reveal this band's first instinct, which is to kick your ass. Yet there is breadth here. Wilkins's "Composition 4" is floating and gorgeous, even ethereal, with deep solos from its composer, here playing acoustic piano. Rosenwinkel's "Terra Nova" stays rapt even as it sensuously throbs.

There is only one cover, Donny Hathaway's "Someday We'll All Be Free." It would have been interesting to hear this fearless quintet reimagine more songs that you know. Smoke Sessions no longer records all their albums in the club for which the label is named. This record has nice sound, but you miss the electricity of the live moment.—Thomas Conrad

Darcy James Argue's Secret Society: Dynamic Maximum Tension
Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, Cécile McLorin Salvant (vocals)
Nonesuch 2-725451 (2CD). 2022. Argue, Alan Ferber, Brian Montgomery, prods.; Montgomery, Ben Miller, Michael Hickey, engs.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

Bob Brookmeyer, that most eminent of composer/arrangers, must be smiling down from the jazz club in the sky, observing his charges as they reinvigorate large ensemble jazz.

After three albums on New Amsterdam (which should be lauded for supporting his vision), Darcy James Argue moves to Nonesuch, another label whose mission is diversifying the musical landscape. Dynamic Maximum Tension shows how esteemed Argue has become: Eight of the 11 pieces are commissions by international orchestras and institutions. Dedications abound, to Brookmeyer and Ellington and the Ukrainian people; to deceased Secret Society trumpeter Laurie Frink. There's a pair of dedications to Buckminster Fuller. Of the 21 musicians involved, 12 have been with Argue since the beginning and five more appeared on earlier recordings. Like Ellington, Argue has the advantage of being surrounded by familiar musicians.

The two-hour album is not cohesive. The foreboding groove of "Dymaxion" (for Fuller) has little in common with the loping country swing of "Last Waltz for Levon" (for The Band's Levon Helm) or the jittery "Codebreaker" (for Alan Turing). The rippling jazz rock of "Ferromagnetic" stands in stark contrast with the playful swagger of "Mae West Advice" (with Cécile McLorin Salvant). "Tensile Curves," first performed at the 2014 Newport Jazz Festival, which takes up nearly a third of the album, features Sara Caswell on the 10-stringed Hardanger d'amore. It was written as an homage to Ellington.

This is unmistakably Argue, lush but not saccharine, complex but not pretentious, expansiveness and succinctness held in ideal balance.—Andrey Henkin

Dave McMurray: Grateful Deadication 2
Dave McMurray (saxophone), five band members, and six guests including Bob James on piano and Blue Note President and Detroit native Don Was on bass
. Blue Note B003760802 (CD). 2023. McMurray, Was, DeAnn Forbes, Hershel Boone, prods.; Elliot Scheiner, Mat Scheiner, Gillian Pelkonen, Carlos Gunn, Salar Ansari, Brian Charles, David Marchione, engs.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Tenor saxophonist Dave McMurray's Grateful Dead tribute project, now with its second volume, was expertly timed. Not since the heady days when Jerry Garcia was still alive has the band been so popular. Both Phil Lesh and Friends and Dead & Company, both featuring Grateful Dead alums, continue to fête one of America's most iconic bands.

Grateful Deadication 2, like its predecessor, was performed by a core of Detroit-based musicians and guests ranging from bizarre to expected. Country music star Jamey Johnson is featured on "To Lay Me Down" in quiet acoustic segments sandwiched between saxophone solos; the take is pretty if far too long, though Johnson's singing lacks Garcia's yearning fragility, a crucial part of the Grateful Dead's sound. Avant-gardiste–turned–smooth jazzer Bob James is in tow for "The Other One" and "If I Had the World to Give," the former trading its pounding rhythm for a floating jazz-club feel before yielding to the original and McMurray's most enthusiastic performance, a pastoral saxophone/piano duet. Oteil Burbridge (vocals), a veteran of the Dead-spawned jam band scene, stays faithful to the "Scarlet Begonias" generations of spinners came to love. In a press release, McMurray calls the album "a dark, sparse, emotional ride into the minds of Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and the Grateful Dead ... Detroit style."

The Grateful Dead were more a jazz ensemble than a rock band, and McMurray, who possesses the strong tone and exploratory vibe of saxophonists like David Murray and Branford Marsalis, both of whom were Grateful Dead guests, demonstrates this well. Engineered by the great Elliot Scheiner.—Andrey Henkin

jimtavegia's picture

It is available at only that I can find.

Jim Austin's picture

Are you referring to the Arne Jansen & Stephan Braun recording? It's on Bandcamp: LP, CD, or download. We need to do a better job indicating where these recordings can be found. Usually it's not a problem, but occasionally it is.

Jim Austin, Editor

PS. It's a great-sounding album. Listening to the 16/44.1 file. I ordered the vinyl.

jimtavegia's picture

I will buy it today. Usually I look at Amazon for free shipping with my Prime, but I was surprised to see it offered in the UK, but not here.

jimtavegia's picture

Looking forward to hearing this. Keep the good recommendations coming.