Barry Altschul, The 3Dom Factor (TUM)
The first solo release in twenty-five years from this perpetually spry septuagenarian drummer finds the onetime Anthony Braxton/Dave Holland/Chick Corea/Sam Rivers/Paul Bley/Billy Bang/etc. associate holding true to the philosophy first espoused back in the heady and fearsome days of Circle - “from ragtime to no time”. With Joe Fonda on bass and MVP Jon Irabagon on tenor sax, the trio hurtles through free bop and balladry, touching on all aspects of Altschul’s long career via the leader’s own compositions plus one frenetic 2.29 Carla Bley sprint. The sense of jazz history is deeply felt yet irrepressibly goofy when need be (as witness the Looney Tune whistles cavorting across “Martin’s Stew” or the funky attention given over to the backbeat on “Papa’s Funkish Dance”). I hear Monk, I hear Ornette, I hear a little Rollins, but I also hear Air - not the French aural wallpaper act, the important Henry Threadgill one. There’s that same devotion to pulse, open space, uproarious swing, high/low, inside/out, fragility juxtaposed against full-throated roar. Consider “Natal Chant,” plucked from the dust of 1977’s You Can’t Name Your Own Tune, here reconfigured as an under-five-minute grand tour of post-New Thing jazz that joyously swings and honks between quick detours into head-down free interplay. It’s positively infectious.
Dave Douglas, Time Travel (Green Leaf Music)
Utilizing the same quintet from last year’s Be Still, minus the vocals of Aoife O’Donova and that album’s country/folk atmospherics (neither of which are particularly missed), the peerless trumpeter here makes no bones about his mid-60s Miles Davis obsession. Seven strong originals introduce the perfect backdrop for an understated rhythm section to criss cross between repetitive pulse and deftly shifting tempos. Linda Oh’s careful bass lines and pianist Matt Mitchell’s ethereal chords help anchor “Law Of Historical Memory” for eight hypnotic minutes; drummer Rudy Royston’s fluctuations on “Little Feet” propel a stunning arrangement that leaps between lullaby refrain and quasi-Ayler marching band thematics. And it’s tenor sax second mate Jon Irabagon who proves the standout performer, willing to self-censor his woolier tendencies in the name of straight-ahead virtuosity, a trait he shares with Douglas himself, who would seem at his happiest when slyly updating jazz’s back pages: slowing old bop themes down the better to flip them over each other (“Bridge To Nowhere”), lacing Hank Mobley funk with darker undercurrents and vaguely Latin rhythms (“Garden State”), or simply indulging in big boogie woogie humor throughout the Mingus antics of “Beware Of Doug”. He keeps you on your toes, this Douglas guy.
Anthony Branker & Word Play, Uppity (Origin)
That’s Dr. Branker, current Director of Jazz Studies at Princeton, and a once-gifted trumpet player forced to set his horn down after a 1999 aneurysm. Now comfortably ensconced as composer and musical director for this sprawling sextet, Branker helps guide three horns (trumpet, trombone, tenor sax) plus piano/keyboards, electric/acoustic bass, and drums through six relatively brief dispatches. Things begin funky with an all-electric opener hopefully entitled “Let’s Conversate!” before slowly swapping out slap bass for acoustic, and eventually fender rhodes for piano. Thematic concerns include resilience and uplift in the face of bigotry, which might be one reason Trayvon Martin is honored with a smooth (some might say goopy) ballad rather than a funeral pyre or outraged ensemble blow-out. Or perhaps it has nothing to do with uplift - maybe Branker just feels Martin deserves the chance to be remembered as something more than a symbol or martyr.
Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet, In A World Of Mallets (Basin Street Records)
It’s admittedly hard to keep all these Marsalis characters straight, but this is the youngest one, the drummer who only recently switched over to vibraphone (and glockenspiel and marimba and xylophone), and that shift from keeping time to stating melody has proven less of a strain than one might suppose. “Blues For The 29%ers” swings hard, “Ballet Class” impishly quotes Prokofiev, and “The Nice Mailman’s Happy Song To Ann” is everything you’d hope for from the title. Yet this is all so very strategic - detached and cerebral like Milt Jackson at his most removed or Bobby Hutcherson at his most stentorian. And although by now the Marsalis predilection for tilting at windmills should be unsurprising, I’m still trying to unpack what he’s getting at with a song entitled “Blues Can Be Abstract, Too”. Is his target Oliver Nelson or noted Marsalis-baiter Allen Lowe? Truth be told, I prefer either to any generation of Marsalis.
John Medeski, A Different Time (Masterworks / Okeh)
Solo piano debut from the keyboard linchpin of every Phish fan’s favorite organ trio, this is conceptual from the get go, recorded simply via two microphones picking up plenty of background noise and, most importantly, every squeaky pedal and bodily quiver of the 1925 French Gaveau Medeski swapped his trusty Steinway out for. Nor should prospective listeners seek improvisational flights of fancy - despite the presence of a few on-the-spot creations, these performances more often conjure the mood of a highbrow parlor recital. True, there’s the broad melody of spiritual knock-off “Waiting At The Gate” or the hardly glossed-over chorus in a Willie Nelson cover. Those two numbers are fun, but only twice does Medeski find the perfect balance between severity and serenity, first within the gorgeous and shimmering chords of Charles Gabriel’s “His Eye Is On The Sparrow,” then on the dark and lovely “Luz Marina”. But his concept remains the condition of the piano he plays upon.
Tommy Flanagan & Jaki Byard, The Magic of 2: Live At Keystone Korner (Resonance)
This lovingly produced, meticulously documented, previously unreleased recording of two undeniable piano legends with 176 keys at their disposal represents the limits of overkill. Two drummers layer polyrhythms, two bassists bob and weave, two guitarists tussle and tangle, and two or more horns is simply jazz de rigueur. Only those bursting-at-the-seams tenor summits of the 1950s haven’t aged well, either, and two pianists fighting each other for solo space is an activity designed for spectators, not listeners. No doubt much fun was had in the club that night. But don’t look for the magic promised by the album title.