Max Johnson Trio, The Invisible Trio (Fresh Sounds Records)
Trumpet/bass/drum trios are a hard sell for the unconverted, since received wisdom suggests brass delivers mere flurries while reeds can tear roofs off the sucker. But the aim here isn’t to tear off any roofs. Among other things, including a greater adherence to composition than was obvious on Johnson’s 2012 Elevated Vegetation, there seems to be an interest in accessing the chilly unconventionality of Ornette Coleman’s Golden Circle trio, a comparison heightened by Johnson’s resplendent bass tones, at times suggestive of Ornette compatriots David Izenzon and Charlie Haden. The Haden connection goes deeper, though, especially given the leader’s catholic tastes: a player in both the NYC avant-garde and uptown bluegrass scene, he claims stints with talents as disparate as Henry Grimes and the Butthole Surfers. Don’t let such contacts scare you off, though - cornetist Kirk Knuffke and drummer Ziv Ravitz swing hard when they need to (check out the percolating “Bizza”). While Johnson notes vamps aren’t the point this time out, I hear enough of a steady pulse at the heart of his solo excursion within “Bizza” to think he vamps plenty, and love the way he takes a long walk over Ravitz’s slowly burning propulsion on freebop standout “Moving Vehicle”. The final moments get a little avant. But if you like the idea of an exploratory melody-loving acoustic trio that names one of its hardest swingers “Don Wrinkles,” this is the trumpet/bass/drums project for you.
Billy Hart Quartet, One Is The Other (ECM)
There’s something deeply moving about Billy Hart’s long journey towards leadership, the way decades of sidework and stints in academia finally gave way to the master drummer’s name splashed across the marquee. Not that the DC native has been laboring away in obscurity - you think Herbie Hancock’s Sextet and On The Corner were low profile gigs? Still, as this democratic and deeply communicative quartet enters its second decade, it’s clear Hart has found the perfect ensemble with which to explore the elliptic possibilities of pulse, mood, color, and tone. Mark Turner’s glorious high range and dry martini cool melds effortlessly with Ethan Iverson’s dense phrasing and blues abstractions, especially on the series of numbers paying explicit tribute to a wide panoply of fellow musicians, jazz and otherwise: Lennie Tristano (Turner’s increasingly-legendary workout “Lennie Groove”), Stevie Wonder (a swinging “Sonnet For Stevie”), Charlie Parker (funky vamp “Yard”). The homages are undeniably abstract, although note how Iverson opens the Tristano cut with his own descent into the maelstrom before making way for Turner the Warne Marsh disciple. And the attention to production detail pays off: Hart’s skittering cymbals on “Tuele’s Redemption” and expert brushwork on “Maraschino” could win over any ECM agnostic. As this famously Eurocentric label makes more room for North American talent with each quarter, their roster grows equally idiosyncratic. Long live the cool.
Matt Bauder And Day In Pictures, Nightshades (Clean Feed)
Bauder’s a youngish tenor sax player from Chicago who can play way out or well within the tradition, and that versatility has paid off - dude studied with Braxton and sits in with His Name Is Alive. This here is mostly in-the-pocket stuff, his quintet Day In Pictures reconvened with Nate Wooley returning on trumpet and Kris Davis added as pianist. Both paint just outside the lines a bit more than the boss, especially an always-intriguing Davis who veers off nicely at times into atonality. But even with Wooley spitting out his solos and Davis rumbling away on hers, the vibe remains edgy Blue Note circa 1966 in all its various manifestations: Joe Henderson groove (“Octavia Minor”), Tony Williams boogaloo (“Rule Of Thirds”), New Thing dirge (“August And Counting”). The dirge impacts the flow. But stick around for the lengthy closer, a jaunty quasi-New Orleans second line strut in which Bauder leaps into full-on Black Arthur mode around the 4:40 mark.