CDs reveal the myriad moods of jazz
Jason Moran, “Same Mother” produced by Moran (Blue Note)It may be true – is true – that jazz is producing an awful lot of sound-alikes these days. Keyboardist Jason Moran is certainly not one of them, as he has proved on a series of albums that put him in the handful of today’s most significant jazz players.
“Same Mother” might be the most emphatic statement yet of Moran’s ability to satisfy hard-core enthusiasts while making room for a wide audience. The album – featuring his regular rhythm section of bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits – is Moran’s exploration of the blues. The title refers to an observation made by Moran’s wife that jazz and the blues comes from the same mother.The blues is another genre than often sounds run-of-the-mill, but not in these hands. Moran’s idea of the blues – and of jazz – is expansive. There’s room for the aggressive, stomping evocation of New Orleans in “Jump Up,” featuring the electric guitar of Marvin Sewell, whose licks veer from hard rock to jazz in an instant. Sewell is likewise a presence on a gritty cover of Albert King’s “I’ll Play the Blues for You.” But in Moran’s interpretation of the blues, there’s also space for the atmospheric piano exploration “G Suit Saltation” and the bookend tunes “Gangsterism on the Rise” and “Gangsterism on the Set,” in which Moran showcases the range of tones of the piano.John Ellis, “One Foot in the Swamp” produced by Ellis (Hyena Records)On “One Foot in the Swamp,” his debut as a bandleader, saxophonist and clarinetist, John Ellis explores funk-laced, bluesy jazz. It may not immediately strike the ears as the most original sound; the echoes reach back to such funk originators as Jimmy Smith and the Meters. But Ellis, best known for his contributions to guitarist Charlie Hunter’s combos, carves out his own little niche with this thoroughly enjoyable album.”One Foot in the Swamp” is an apt description for the music. The funk comes in touches: Ellis’ finger-snapping sax licks over Jason Marsalis’ tambourine on “Happy,” which could have come out of the Maceo Parker songbook; the New Orleans flourishes on “Sippin’ Cider.”
Ellis – who is joined here by a great cast that includes guitarist John Scofield, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and keyboardist Aaron Goldberg – generally keeps the other foot in more traditional jazz. When the two feet intertwine, as on the sparse “Work in Progress,” Ellis finds some original ground to stand on. Aiding him is the palette of sound he uses: Rhodes electric keyboard, harmonica, Marsalis’ gun-fire drumming.Does it come as any surprise to learn that Ellis splits his time between New Orleans and New York?Pat Metheny Group, “The Way Up” produced by Metheny (Nonesuch)Guitarist Pat Metheny’s last album, “One Quiet Night,” was solo acoustic guitar pieces recorded on lo-fi equipment, with no overdubs, in his basement studio. It was wonderful.It would be a good guess that Metheny would do something far less rustic for his next album. Metheny takes that bet to the extreme on “The Way Up.” The four-movement suite, composed by Metheny and keyboardist Lyle Mays, is heavily produced fusion, as electric as it is acoustic. The theme behind it – Metheny writes on his website that “The Way Up” is meant as a protest against the way fear is being used as a weapon – is as grandiose as the sound. It’s hard not to respect the playing on “The Way Up” or the ambition behind the album. But for those, like me, who put “One Quiet Night” in the CD player more than any Metheny record, it’s hard to warm up to “The Way Up.”
Branford Marsalis Quartet, “Eternal” produced by Marsalis (Marsalis Music)Intently focused on his quartet for some five years now, saxophonist Branford Marsalis is forging a real identity for the combo. The quartet – pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts – has been making exceptional albums from the get-go, but hits a high mark on its fifth CD.”Eternal” is the quartet’s ballads CD. The essence of a ballad is emotion, all kinds of emotion. And throughout this album – featuring one composition by each member of the quartet, plus three cover tunes – it is a treat to hear such a mix of emotions all pouring through at once. Marsalis’ patient playing, the way he lingers and stretches the notes, allows all the feelings, bitter and sweet, to reach their fullness. On “Gloomy Sunday,” taken from the Billie Holiday songbook, you can envision the dark clouds gathering overhead. The CD ends with the title track, Marsalis’ complex, lovely 17-minute dedication to his wife.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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