Saturdays 9 p.m. - 12 a.m.
Hosted by Fritz Byers, "Jazz Spectrum 91" is designed as an anthology, a loose and flowing tour through the history of the music, showcasing the wondrous diversity of jazz and the virtuosity of the musicians who play it.
Courtney Pine, After Midnight, “In a Mellow Tone”
Diane Hubka, Look No Further, “Baltimore Oriole”
Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian, Self-Titled, “Misterioso”
Joe Locke, Mutual Admiration Society 2, “What’s Not to Love”
Rich Halley 5, The Outlier, “Green Needles”
RIck Margitza, This Is New, “On Green Dolphin Street”
Lee Konitz, Frescalalto, “Out of Nowhere”
Kenny Burrell & Illinois Jacquet, Columbia Small Group Sessions, “A Tune for the Tutor”
Noel Coward, The Master, “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To”
Coleman Hawkins & Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster, “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To”
Sarah Vaughan, The Complete Sarah Vaughan on Mercury, “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To”
Cecil Taylor, The Complete Collection, “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To”
Helen Merrill, Brownie- The COmplete EmArchy Recordings, “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To”
Paul Chambers, Bass on Top, ‘You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To”
Nina Simone, Live At Newport, “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To”
Sonny Stitt, Personal Appearance, “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To”
Walt Weiskopf, The Way You Say It, “Inntoence”
Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Loafer’s Hollow, “Bloomsburg”
Keith Oxman, East of the Village, “The Shorter Route”
Julian Priester, Spiritsville, “It Might As Well be Spring”
Mark Masters Ensemble, Blue Skylight, “So Long Eric”
Patrice Williamson + Jon Wheatley, Comes Love, “I Want to Talk About You”
Modern Jazz Quartet, Concorde, “All of You”
Julia Hullsman, Sooner or Later, “JJ”
Carmell Jones, The Remarkable Carmell Jones, “Stellisa”
JD Allen Trio, Victory!, “Mr. Steepy”
Miguel Zenon, Tipico, “Corteza”
Julie London, Julie Is Her Name, “I’m Glad There Is You”
Tamuz Nissim & George Nazos, Liquid Melodies, “Liquid Melodies”
Fritz Byers, Host of Jazz Spectrum
This is almost too good to believe . . .
That could sum up the year in jazz - particularly the recordings that, to my ears, resonate above a wide and deep stream of jazz releases. I’m still shaking my head in grateful wonder at what we were given in 2016. My thoughts on the year as a whole appear elsewhere, accompanying my listing of forty releases that held my attention long after I first listened to them.
But here’s the story I refer to. In 1969, the pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams, a founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and a Promethean force in the music for sixty years, conceived a pair of extended pieces and set about selecting the musicians he wanted to play them. He chose to record one of the tunes as an exercise in sustained pianistic invention, running to nearly half-an-hour; the other tune he shared with a rhythm section of the bassist, Lester Lashley, and the drummer, Thurman Baker. For horns, he chose two fledgling inventors in their late 20s: Henry Threadgill for alto saxophone and Leo Smith for trumpet and flugelhorn. (As best I can tell, it was Henry’s first studio recording; Leo had had a cup of coffee with Anthony Braxton a year or so earlier, but that’s about it.)
I suspect in his prescience Muhal Richard Abrams imagined this might have been the start of something big. Indeed. Six years later, Henry founded the pioneering trio, Air, and with that band and other wide-ranging collectives he has made an overflowing handful of the most significant innovative jazz records of the last thirty years. He is incapable of making music that is expected, routine, or boring. Henry won a deserved Pulitzer this year for In for a Penny, In For a Pound, (a consensus choice on 2015 Best-of-Year lists, with his quintet Zooid), and his latest release, out this year, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (an extended four-part composition on which, I believe for the first time in his forty-five years of recording, he does not play a lick), is a mind-bending discovery of tonalities he’s somehow missed up till now. Maybe the Pulitzer committee should make a habit of sending garlands Henry’s way.
So you’d think that for this work Henry would be the artist of the year. But no. So, back to that 1969 pairing Muhal Richard Abrams conceived. Some 15 years or so later, Leo Smith became a Rastafarian and took on the first name Wadada. And since 1969, with an astonishing drive that combines visionary fervor with an artistic purpose that is tolerant, disciplined, and encompassing, the artist we now know as Wadada Leo Smith has spent 45 years or so making dozens of records, in a seemingly limitless diversity of settings, that seem to me to suggest the indelible heart of jazz - what we love to think of, thanks to Whitney Balliett, as the sound of surprise.
This year, Wadada released two recordings – A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke, duets with the pianist Vijay Iyer; and America’s National Parks, an expansive and enterprising suite inspired by the beauties and complications Smith sees as he looks out across our graceful, bedeviled land.
On the former, Smith and Iyer achieve numerous moments of beauty, now ravishing, now jarring, and sustain throughout a level of virtuosic creativity that would be unbelievable if it hadn’t been recorded. Smith has a special propensity for duets, going back to his brilliant 1986 work with the drummer Ed Blackwell, The Blue Mountain’s Sun Drummer. And he has found a particularly worthy constituent in Iyer, who played keys to fine effect on Smith’s 2009 ensemble date, Spiritual Dimensions. But pared down to this pairing, Wadada and Vijay have produced one of the masterworks of the era. Were it to stand alone, the opening track, “Passage,” would seem like a nearly magical tour-de-force from Wadada, whose limitless technique is forever in the service of expressions that are, at once personal and deeply affecting. But then we get to the centerpiece of the recording: an elaborate suite, stretching across seven distinct but interwoven parts, inspired by the Indian visual artist, Nasreen Mohamedi. I’m still trying to understand how state-of-the-art electronics, organized (or should I say synthesized) through laptops, can abet jazz without getting in its way. But Iyer’s digital contributions to parts of the suite are a sort of masterclass primer in the subject, and I’m thankful for it. Thankful for the whole recording, really, which runs from gentle minimalism that showcases each musician’s deep lyrical instincts to strident clashing and swearing between two titanic creators. You have to hear this.
On America’s National Parks, Wadada leads his Golden Quintet, all stalwarts of creative music: the pianist Anthony Davis, the bassist (and his constant inspiring companion) John Lindberg, the precise and creative drummer Pheeroan akLaff, and the cellist Ashley Walters, who appears capable of anything Wadada’s scores suggest. I have listened to this recording dozens of times, and the words that come to mind would be, in a saner time, suitable for an inaugural address: majestic, epic, splendor, salvation, transcendent.
Wadada does not want for ambition. Scan just the titles of his recent recordings - America, Ten Freedom Summers, Ancestors, Occupy the World, The Great Lakes Suite, and now this one – and you’ll get a flavor of how encompassing his vision is. He seems to be about a sort of aural revisionist history, and, while he’s at it, he’s telling us important things about our country - its landscape, its burdened histories, its erosion, and its promise. The musical moods Wadada conjures over these ninety minutes range from delicate pastiches to nearly violent declamations that are somewhere between dissonance and whatever is past that. Each of Wadada’s bandmates adds to the penetrating appeal of this panorama. John Lindberg is, by now, an indispensable partner to Wadada, and he supplies a rhythmic foundation that seems both orchestrated and intuitive. Often freed from rhythmic duties, the drummer Pheeroan akLaff is by turns musical and explosive. Anthony Davis’s piano plays with fire and feeling, and fills a couple of spaces with runs no one has heretofore imagined. And I’m still trying to hear exactly how the cellist Ashley Walters accomplishes her constant blend of tonal majesty and hard-scrabble grating with just one bow and four strings.
Although ascribing a single meaning to music is perilous, as I listen I can envision the rugged city- and land-scapes that Wadada wants us to see as national parks (New Orleans, the Mississippi River, and a literary park honoring Eileen Jackson Southern). But, leaving that aside, and taking the music on its own musical terms, Wadada and his cohort have given us a colossally significant work. Find your own meaning in it, but find it.
In the last eight years, Smith has released at least 17 recordings that warrant attention. And he says he has many more in the bin, ready for release. Of course he does. Wadada played the Edgegest at Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor in October, accompanied by John Lindberg, performing selections from their great 2015 release, Celestial Weather. You can listen to my conversation with him here.
So an astonishingly inventive, creative, surprising, and, well, new year in jazz was presided over by two veterans who got their first break in the music, from a visionary inventor, 45 years ago, when I was in ninth grade.
Oh, I almost forgot: the two tunes Abrams wrote for the 1969 date? You won’t believe it, but, as they say, you can look it up: “Young at Heart” and “Wise in Time.”
That’s Wadada Leo Smith, the artist of the year, still young, and ever wiser, after all these years.