Trumpeter, vocalist and composer Sarah Wilson has spent significant time in the jazz and new music scenes on both the East and West coasts of the US. This is reflected in the personnel on "Trapeze Project," which features outstanding players from the Bay Area (Goldberg, Amendola) and NYC (Melford, Harris). "Trapeze Project" is Wilson's second recording as a leader, the first being "Music for an Imaginary Play," which came out in 2006. Wilson has a really interesting resumè that doesn't quite hew to the normal expectations one might have of a jazz musician. The recipient of several high-profile composing commissions, awards, and grants, Wilson has also served as a music director for a puppet theater. Clearly, Sarah Wilson is the sort of musician who makes her own way in the world – finding opportunities where others might not. The music on "Trapeze Project" is similarly bold and individualistic – yet it's full of subtleties and sweetness.
Reflections on the meaning and significance of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, typically do not inspire a rockin' good time. That's precisely what's going on with Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes, the sophomore CD from guitarist Yoshie Fruchter's great New York-based band Pitom. Fruchter and Pitom play a sort of advanced poly-stylistic instrumental rock that contains elements of jazz, traditional Hebraic music, metal, old-school prog rock, thrash, sludge and about a half-dozen other distinct musical sub-sub-genres that seem to be popping up at an alarming rate these days. So, while Fruchter's music is definitely a sort of fusion, it's definitely not "fusion-as-we-know it." Compared to the band's stellar debut CD (also on Tzadik), Blasphemy... is more measured, more focused, and yet the band seems to be heading in several new and interesting directions. Best of all, they've developed a signature sound that doesn't box them into narrow stylistic parameters. In fact, Pitom may well be the most innovative and exciting band working in the Yiddish fusion idiom aside from Greg Wall and Frank London's group, Hasidic New Wave.
"Foxy," Jon Irabagon's fourth recording as a leader is – as the whimsical cover art parody suggests – a tribute to the great Sonny Rollins. Like Rollins' "Way Out West" (compare Rollins' empty-holstered cowboy on the cover of that LP with Irabagon's similar pose on the reverse side of the CD), “Foxy” is a piano-less trio consisting of tenor saxophone, bass and drums. Here's another thing “Foxy” has in common with Rollins' historic recording - it is a genuine tour de force. Known for his abundant technique, unending improvisational resourcefulness, and boundless sense of the absurd through his work with the notoriously iconoclastic quartet Mostly Other People Do The Killing, Irabagon ups the ante even further on “Foxy,” which – despite the dozen creatively-titled track divisions - is basically a single continuous 78+ minute tenor sax solo. Irabagon is supported every step of the way by an absolutely wailing rhythm section consisting of bassist Peter Brendler and veteran avant-jazz drummer Barry Altschul. I, for one, was overjoyed to hear Altschul here, as I fondly remember his always-worthwhile playing with Braxton, Chick Corea and Paul Bley back in the 70s.
Anyone with a yen for well-played, hard-swinging, original hard-bop is going to love Alexander McCabe's "Quiz." McCabe, a young alto saxophonist who's spent time backing Ray Charles and Chico O'Farrill, is accompanied by an all-star band that includes the fantastically creative Philly native Uri Caine on piano, the rock-solid bass of Ugonna Okegwo, and either of two dynamic drummers – Rudy Royston (known for his sterling work with Ron Miles, he's Jon Irabagon's drummer of choice these days), and ex-Joshua Redman and Joanne Brackeen skinsman Greg Hutchinson.
Jazz vocalists are, by and large, not an adventurous lot. Most prefer to stick to standards and re-interpretations of contemporary pop songs. While this is a totally valid form of musical expression, I rarely seek out recordings made by vocalists when I want to hear risky, modern, cutting-edge music. With her second recording, "Mobile," the Portugese vocalist Sara Serpa boldly grabs this stereotype by the scruff of the neck and shows it out the door. "Mobile" is a startlingly individualistic collection of beautifully developed and arranged original compositions for voice and a four-piece ensemble. Serpa's clearly not afraid of words – each piece is inspired by books she's read over an 18-month period preceding this recording. Yet, on "Mobile," she functions largely as an instrumentalist, singing wordlessly. What I really like about Serpa's approach is that – contrary to the jazz tradition of scat singing – she does not try to mimic a saxophone or trumpet. Sure, she has a great sense of jazz phrasing, but what you hear is her voice. And what a voice it is! Clear, unaffected, and vibrato-less, with a crystalline purity that seems both fragile and diamond-hard.
Musical iconoclasts Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Kaiser were way ahead of the popular consciousness when it came to paying tribute to Miles Davis' pioneering electric bands of the early-to-mid 1970s. Kaiser's involvement in this project is no surprise. He's an avowed long-term fan of Davis' mid-1970s recordings and cites Pete Cosey's work on these recordings as a seminal influence on his own playing. At first, I found Wadada Leo Smith's involvement a complete surprise, if not a little perplexing. Affiliated with the AACM since the early 70s, Smith has worked extensively with avant-garde musicians such as Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams and Anthony Davis to name just a few. His work as a leader, while incredibly diverse, showed few, if any, tendencies towards electric jazz-rock fusion. Yet, from the first note he plays, Wadada's profound understanding of Davis' groundbreaking 70s oeuvre is palpable. As a trumpeter, he is able to evoke the spirit of Miles without ever imitating him. As a composer, he has the artistic integrity and musical guts to honor the past while extending some of Miles' most important concepts into a 21st Century musical setting.
In the music press, much (perhaps too much) has been made of the need for American jazz musicians to preserve traditional jazz sounds. Never mind that the truest tradition of jazz is one of constant change and rebirth, many use this historical preservation imperative as an excuse to simply regurgitate the past over and over until the listening public is inundated with CDs titled 'So-And-So Plays The Standards.' In fact, what jazz really needs to remain relevant in the 21st Century is original compositions, and a deeper, cross-cutting understanding of the myriad ways that contemporary musical styles relate to jazz and blues. Bay-Area saxophonist and composer Howard Wiley accomplishes this and then some on "12 Gates To The City," where he explores musical traditions – both past and present - with a suite of extended, poly-stylistic compositions that draw inspiration from myriad facets of the vast African American artistic legacy.
Agogic is, in some ways, a musical homecoming celebration for Seattle natives Vu and D'Angelo (whose work with Matt Wilson, Human Feel and Kurt Rosenwinkel is nothing short of remarkable) following extended stays in Boston and New York City. Agogic's other two members – bassist Luke Bergman and drummer Evan Woodle – are products of Seattle's very fertile jazz and experimental music scene. With this young and extremely capable rhythm section in tow, Vu and D'Angelo are free to explore all sorts of stylistic variations and intersections, unfettered by big city music politics and the ensuing creative burnout.