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Jazz critic Will Layman has been listening to classical piano and Afro-Cuban music in various forms. The best new jazz this month is also strong and extensive.
In the past month, my listening has been dominated by classical piano and Afro-Cuban music in various forms. Two more disparate styles would be hard to conjure (though Jelly Roll Morton might have begged to differ). The rush of new music this month is also strong and long.
Listening to Terry Gross interview classical pianist Jeremy Denk (who has a new book called Every Good Boy Does Fine), I was riveted by his admission that, before college, he did not like any contemporary composed music, preferring Brahams to even Prokofiev. Dissonance put off his young, conservative ears. I know so many music fans who feel the same way about jazz (having no use for jazz after 1960, say) or popular music (preferring bright melodies to blues or hip-hop, perhaps), and I am equally aware of the way that I have developed a taste for dissonance over the years, finding lots of older styles insufficiently “edgy” for my jaded, overloaded musical taste.
Denk was cured of his conservatism by joining a modern music ensemble during his time at the conservatory at Oberlin. His 2018 recording for Nonesuch, c.1300-c.2000 is a dazzling travelogue through the history of Western “classical” music that traces the transformation of music from relatively simple tonality to Bach’s brilliantly controlled chromaticism to more modern styles in the 20th century. The playing is warm and wonderful, and the short pieces (the early ones not written for piano, of course, but adapted) were chosen ingeniously. I can’t stop listening.
Denk’s touch is musical at every turn, dancing and delightful whether the music is airy or dense with dissonance. As he explained on Fresh Air, he delights in Bach’s “Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor” by making it sound as if it is being improvised in the moment. This composer was a brilliant and joyful “spontaneous composer”—an 18th century Charlie Parker of the late baroque. And it is nearly impossibly to listen to this performance without hearing it as a thrilling rush of chords and scales that are searching for ways to encounter and resolve a set of harmonic puzzles. Bebop of another age, just without the rhythmic genius.
The pre-Bach material is terrific, too, with a folk-like simplicity that sounds wide open like it could be described the American plains are well as Aaron Copland (“Franc cuer Gentil” by Guillaume Dufay). When Denk gets to Schoenberg (“Drei Klavierstucke, Op. 11, No. 1”) he finds plenty of beauty and logic in it. Stravinsky’s “Piano-Rag-Music” has never sounded particularly “ragtimey” to my ears, but Denk gives it a delicious bounce. The most “out” piece is by Stockhausen—”Klavierstuck I”, a set of sound moments that avoid tonality but are nonetheless utterly musical and serve to remind a listener like me that the creative music grown from African-American roots, in its 100 years of growth, has traveled an arc of harmonic development toward liberation much like the one traced by Denk.
Pianist Cecil Taylor had prefigured the New Jazz by at least 40 years, finding an overlay between 20th-century classical music and improvised African-American music long before cool Brooklyn performance spaces would serve IPAs.
In February, Oblivion Records went back to the original tapes and released the full recording of Taylor’s “comeback concert” from 1973, where he reunited with bandmates Andrew Cyrille (drums) and Jimmy Lyons (alto saxophone) and rounded out a quartet with bassist Sirone. Taylor studied seriously at the New England Conservatory of Music and had a working knowledge of Bird and Bach, Stockhausen and Monk—and from the very start of his recording career in the 1950s, he was already breaking ranks with “jazz” convention.
The previously unheard portion of the concert, “Autumn/Parade”, is a flying thing of beauty, with Lyons and Taylor whirling like two coordinated streamers in crisp, light-shot air. A solo piano interlude at the center prefigures the first half of “Spring of Two Blue-Js”, where Taylor does something just a bit like Denk: starting controlled and tonal, “classical” in either the Western sense or sometimes sounding a bit like Ellington or Monk or Bud Powell.
This performance (and all of the concert, truly) is precise and virtuosic. Taylor’s hands are the opposite of slapdash or random—he plays exact repetitions of motifs in call-and-response with other motifs, tossing exact figures back-and-forth just as if they were notated. His band communicates using imitation, variation, motivic development, and tonal clarity. It is the reminder we all need, once in a while, that the stuff we all came to call “free jazz” may have broken certain harmonic and rhythmic rules, but in hands like Taylor’s, it was disciplined, intentional, and deeply artful.
In the last five years, I have taught undergraduates in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, a class called “Jazz as Diplomacy”. We would talk a great deal about the intersection of creative music, politics, and culture crossing borders. What a treat it always was to play them music by Abdullah Ibrahim and talk about the connections between West African drum music, American jazz, and Ibrahim’s blend of township music and other sounds, particularly as a soundtrack to South Africa’s fight against Apartheid.
Now 87 years old, Ibrahim is still releasing music, and his Solotude slipped past me when it was first released. Keenly melodic and typically channeling a form of homegrown simplicity, it still seems of a piece with Taylor and Denk because it takes very seriously the importance of the sound of a musician’s fingers striking the keys, making the strings ring. Many of the pieces are brief, but they are subtle gems of sound.
Hearing Ibrahim, once again, play the psalm-like “Blues for a Hip King” is meditative joy, but he steers his fingers directly into “District 6”, where the piano becomes a tuned drum. Like both Taylor and Denk, Abdullah Ibrahim shows us how the piano makes the air resonate artfully. All the other business about “inside” or “outside” harmonies is beside the point. These artists all make the piano a voice.
At the other end of the spectrum, my ears have been grooving. Pianist Josean Jacobo and trumpeter Kali Rodriguez-Pena both put out strong recordings last month, and they are on repeat in my study. Jacobo’s trio (Daroll Mendez on acoustic bass, Otoniel Nicolas on drums) play sparkling music on Herencia Criolla that draws on folk and popular sources from their home in the Dominican Republic. Many tracks on this recording (made in Santo Domingo) are preceded by bits of field recordings that demonstrate the link, but the performances in no way rely on this bit of historical instruction.
If you happen to know the source (US audiences ought to know the classic “Bachata Rosa” by Juan Luis Guerra, if only from his duet version with Natalie Cole), the transformations are even more remarkable. But the only requirement for loving this set is an appreciation of potent, modern piano trio playing. Guests are a plus (alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon, Ramon Vazquez on bass, Magic Mejia, and Feliz Garcia on hand percussion), but the trio is the star. There are two Jacobo originals as well as the transformations of the heritage material.
This is music that would be inconceivable without the glorious polyrhythmic sounds of the Caribbean—but it also brings to mind trio recordings by Chick Corea and Brad Mehldau as well. No one in improvised music since Jelly Roll Morton has escaped the influence of “the Spanish tinge” (better thought of as Afro-Cuban rhythms and forms), but it can’t be a coincidence that so many of the best pianists today have roots in Latin America. Jacobo can play next to Danilo Perez or Luis Perdomo, say my ears. I missed this release as a highlight of March, but I’m digging it right now.
Also out last month is a debut from a young Cuban trumpeter and bandleader based in New York—Rodriguez-Pena. His sextet sounds like a bigger band, with Zack O’Farrill’s drums and percussion from Victor Pablo Garcia filling the space with rubbery joy. The front line on Melange is filled out by tenor saxophonist Kazemde George, and the brassy sound is rich on seven originals, and two standards. Wayne Shorter’s “Yes or No” is a great opener—the kind of transformation that was done so well by Jerry Gonzalez (another trumpeter) and the Fort Apache Band. “Like Someone in Love” gets a hip electric bass introduction and chattering rhumba groove, and the arrangement gives each horn a bit alone and then a bit together.
Casual listeners can be hooked by these known melodies, but the original tunes are terrific as well. Gina D’Soto and Aruan Ortiz create a spare trio with vocals and piano on “Drume Mobila”, a dramatic ballad. And the full band backs Jeremy Bosch’s vocal at the fully salsa-fied ending of “Se Acabo”. But the center of Melange is just the sextet, doing its thing without guests or known tunes. While Cuban influence creeps into every part of the date, it is a mixture like the title suggests. The Rhodes piano and echoplex on the trumpet on “Las Memorias de Las Calles”, for example, is a slice of Christian Scott amidst this band’s joy. It all works.