I was so happy to see my first jazz show in two years last Friday at Firehouse 12 in New Haven. It was Bill Lowe’s Signifyin’ Natives, effectively a post-colonial jazz group on people of color speaking the truths. This is a large band format–currently seven players. It includes Bill Lowe (tuba, bass trombone), Hafez Modirzadeh (saxophones), Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet), Kevin Harris (piano), Ken Filiano (acoustic bass), Luther Gray (drums), and Naledi Masilo (vocals). What a fantastic band. I only knew Lowe’s work in passing, but am very familar with Bynum and at least somewhat with Modirzadeh and Filiano. Who I was not familiar with at all was the vocalist, who is South African. The music, which was a combination of originals, covers, and adaptations of a trio of poems from Jean Toomer’s Cane into music, was a way for Lowe to explore different paths to how these stories sounded with a variety of people, races, and nationalities playing them. Probably the highlight was the poem adaptations, taking the experimental work of an African-American author of the Harlem Renaissance and having a South African woman interpret them for the present. Overall, just a great show. And my excitement to see this music again was palpable. I think I had a huge smile on my face the entire show, under my mask of course. That was probably good as I would have looked pretty goofy otherwise.
A couple of musicians left us in recent weeks that I didn’t mention last week. One was Terence Wilson, the rapper in UB40. I never really found this band interesting and they weren’t the smartest of groups, for instance not even knowing that “Red Red Wine” was a Neil Diamond song when they recorded it. But there’s one thing I remember from that song and it is Wilson’s catchy and arresting rap bit. We also lost the guitarist Pat Martino, who is perhaps most notable for his bout with amnesia after a brain aneurysm, which required him to learn guitar again.
I don’t have a lot positive to say about The Tokens, which is a horrible name, but “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” certainly is a famous song and Philip Margo, one of its members, died the other day.
Also, Young Dolph was shot and killed in Memphis. Sad stuff there.
Remembering The Eurythmics in the era of gender noncomformity and queerness.
Turkey has arrested the globally popular Syrian singer Omar Soulyeman for supposedly supporting the Kurds. There’s nothing too awful for Erdogan.
It’s utterly revolting that rap lyrics can be used against musicians when they are on trial. In New York, a new bill has been proposed to ban this practice.
Midnight Oil, The Makarrata Project
Midnight Oil decided to get back together and make another album after years off with Peter Garrett in Parliament and other members pursuing different work. I like this album OK, but it’s hardly a Midnight Oil album in some ways. That’s because at least half the album is different artists taking over various songs with political messaging about the genocide and racism of Australia. I except little less from these pioneering political rockers. I think it works pretty well. Perhaps it’s laid on a bit thick, even for this terminally underrated band. At its best it is a good rock album. The better part of the political lyrics are a bonus.
A quiet, but also just boring, release of songs about moving across the country (Canada in this case) and reflecting upon your life. That’s fine, but the inherent problem with this sort of project with its very limited sonic possibilities is that you really have to rely on the songs. For me at least, the songs don’t keep up with the ambition. Mostly, I just found myself tuning out. As a general rule, I find the pastoral folk of the present generation of singer-songwriters to often fall into this trap. Quiet is not necessarily profound, nor is it better that a noisy or heavily-produced album. It only works if the songs are really that great. Here, they aren’t.
Aya, im hole
Let’s fuck the void out of each other, to quote this fascinating deconstructed club album from this London artist. Probably to a different album though, as while this album may spark all sorts of emotions, this is the antithesis of an album that one thinks of as a soundtrack for the sack. But hey, whatever. This is a very fine, perhaps great album. Aya is a fairly new producer (I think) on the London club scene and this is just taking club sounds and turning them into undanceable but compelling art. In fact, the lyrics are so good they’ve been published separately as a book of poetry. It might take a few listens to comprehend all those lyrics, just because of the electronic club effects around them. But from the very beginning, this is one of those albums, like the best of hip-hop, where the combination of the lyrics and the effects not only grab your attention but keep it for the entire album, making it impossible to do anything but listen carefully. Even the electronic instrumentals keep the project moving forward and that’s saying something coming from me and my impatience for so much electronic music.
One of the most compelling albums I’ve heard in 2021.
Matthew Shipp, Codebreaker
Another unbelievably brilliant solo piano album from the modern master and one of the greatest artists in jazz history. As I’ve said before when discussing Shipp’s work, I don’t even particularly like solo piano albums (or solo instrument albums of any kind). But Shipp is if anything more compelling without anyone else working with him. As much as I love his group work, I think his solo work is even better and I don’t think there’s a single pianist in jazz history I would say that about–not Herbie Hancock, not Keith Jarrett, not anyone. That’s how I feel about this album. It is brilliance personified.
For whatever reason, none of this is on YouTube. So here is some solo Shipp live.
Webber/Morris Big Band, Both are True
I could only stream about 25 minutes of this album as the rest is unavailable. So consider this a half review of a very promising group. The way I have traditionally expanded my jazz world is to find artists I like and then start learning about other artists by who those artists play with. It’s worked pretty well over the years but it still leaves some big gaps. I was completely unfamiliar with everyone on this large group album. Anna Webber and Angela Morris (both saxophonists) are the co-leaders of it and it includes an additional 17 players. At first, I was expecting a somewhat more traditional big band sound or at least nods to it. But this is a quieter project for the number of powerful players here. And yet, it constantly pushes the compositional envelope, creating some fantastic sounds within a melodic core. Part of what many of you might find appealing is that it maintains a strong centering in mainstream jazz while pushing the music forward at the same time in ways that nod to the avant-garde. This doesn’t sound like Sun Ra’s big band albums, but it has a similar attitude on this. Some have compared it more to Dave Holland’s big band groups and while I am have only passing familiarity with that side of Holland’s career, it makes sense from what I do know. The main thing I’d say here is that it is very much worth your time, even given I could only here half the album.
Creeper, American Noir
Do you miss the overwrought days of 70s big classic rock? Do you think, wow, I could really use a new Meatloaf or Queen? If so, the new EP from Creeper may well be the ticket for you. It’s pure cheese. I’ve always been pretty allergic to theatrical bands. Arcade Fire is about as close I as could ever get to it and that can grow old real fast. This is not as good as that. Evidently this is an EP that builds on the story from their previous album. I’m not going to go back to hear that. In part, I don’t care and in part, any album needs to stand on its own. This is more an aesthetic judgement. Again, if you actually like Queen (god knows why, but people do), then you might very well think this is great. I do not, therefore I do not. At least it is 19 minutes, even if it feels like 45.
Marika Hackman, I’m Not Your Man
Hackman’s Any Human Friend is one of my very favorite album of the last few years. An open ode to lesbian sexuality with a thumping set of dance tracks and incredibly smart lyrics, this turns gender norms in music on their head as she takes over the masculine voice, telling people to suck her dick and other such things. So I wanted to check out her previous album, which is from 2017. It’s a great example of a growing artist. It’s not where she would get in 2019. It’s a little long and there are a few songs that don’t really signify much. She’s still getting used to moving away from folkie guitar stuff into electronic pop. But there are real highlights here, especially the opener “Boyfriend,” where she steals a guy’s girlfriend for a night and brags about it.
Adia Victoria, A Southern Gothic
The new Adia Victoria is another strong if not great entry from this South Carolina-raised, Nashville-based songwriter, one of the modern pioneers of combining traditional Black music with the often white roots-country music that has had strong appeal to many for the last three decades. Overall, I find Victoria a much needed voice in this scene (her podcast is great by the way). She is insistent on making the Black story as core a part of southern literature as the white stories that Faulkner or Welty told. I don’t know that this ambition entirely succeeds on every song. Some of the songs really hit and others are a little bit whatever. Oddly, the collaboration song with Jason Isbell and Margo Price might be the least successful song on the album, though given how often collaborations fall a bit flat, maybe we shouldn’t be shocked. But overall, this is a valuable, welcome, and listenable album from a serious talent.
Leon Bridges, Gold-Diggers Sound
I like Bridges. He has a hell of a great voice. I enjoy his neo-soul sound. But he’s also deeply musically conservative and in the end, that trips him up. When his first album came out, I thought, well, this is a fun voice doing great retro-soul, let’s see where he goes. He advanced significantly on his second album, Good Things, which brought a more psychedelic approach. But here he moves back toward wanting to be Sam Cooke. That’s OK, but like jazz that wishes it was 1959 or rock that thinks everything peaked in 1975 so let’s just sound like that, it can’t get over the hump of being reactionary nostalgia. It’s still a good record. But the choices Bridges make also seriously limit its potential to be anything more than a nice listen.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music and art and none things politics or disease.