Recent Listening: Joel Miller, Wallace Roney

Al Cohn EhThe story goes that a friend who hadn’t seen the great tenor saxophonist Al Cohn in a long time encountered him on the street in New York and said, “Hey, Al, where are you living these days?”

“Oh,” Al said, “I’m living in the past.”

Looking over a string of recent posts, it is clear that Rifftides has been living in the past, too. For the most part, our retro residency has been dictated by events. For one thing—as James Moody told me his grandmother once said—“Folks is dyin’ what ain’t never died before.” Attention must be paid.

Now it’s time to visit the present. Let’s catch up with a few of the jazz releases flooding the allegedly shrinking jazz marketplace, starting with these two:

Joel Miller, Swim (Origin)

In his sixth album, his first for Origin, Montreal tenor saxophonist Joel Miller again makes music that melds intricacy and accessibility. This time out, he is aided greatly by pianist Geoffrey Keezer, asJoel Miller Swim virtuosic as Miller in bringing relaxation to the complex lines in many of the leader’s compositions. The young veteran bassist Fraser Hollins and drummer Greg Ritchie provide Miller and Keezer strength and flexibility necessary to keep some of the challenging pieces afloat. In Gil Evans’s “Time of the Barracudas,” Hollins and Ritchie are also impressive as soloists. It is the album’s only composition not written by Miller.

The pieces range from the rhythmic convolutions of “MarkAdamDrum” and “Step Into My Office” to the Caribbean flavor of “This and That” and the relaxed balladry of “Afternoon Off.” Miller presents “Nos étoiles” in two parts, a brief introduction with the character of an elegy and a section with an insistent beat that inspires Keezer and Miller to short solos of controlled daring. I found myself rewinding to the perfection of their unison line in the penultimate chorus. “Jobim,” two minutes long, ends the album with lyricism, passion and a sense that its composition and performance may have taken place simultaneously.

Randy Cole’s short film Grounded, screened in a 2011 Rifftides post, was largely about the making of this album. For Swim, Miller won Canada’s 2013 Juno and East Coast Music awards for best jazz recording.

Wallace Roney, Understanding (High Note)

Roney continues to base his trumpet playing on mid-to-late-period Miles Davis. He has been channeling Davis for so many years now that speculation about the real Wallace Roney doesn’t matter; the real Roney Wallace Roney Understandingis a brilliant student of Davis. Questioning Roney’s modeling himself on Davis is as pointless as it was in the 1940s to question Paul Quinichette’s having created himself in the image of Lester Young. Quinichette did Young, Sol Yaged did Benny Goodman, Roney does Davis—and does him well. There is no better example in this album than his solo on McCoy Tyner’s “Search For Peace,” a perfectly executed evocation of Davis at his most lyrical in the period of his last great quintet.

Roney’s “Understanding,” a fast blues with free touches, is his compositional contribution to the album. Arnold Lee, who plays alto saxophone with Roney, wrote “Red Lantern.” “Kotra” is from the vigorous tenor saxophonist Ben Solomon, another member of the band’s young front line. Otherwise, the tunes are by Tyner, Duke Pearson and, in the case of “Understanding,” drummer Roy Brooks (1938-2005) from his 1970 album The Free Slave. Bassist Daryl Johns, drummer Kush Abadey and pianists Victor Gould and Eden Ladin, alternating tracks, are Roney discoveries worth keeping an ear on. Gould’s work on Tyner’s “You Taught My Heart to Sing” is a highlight of the album, reflective of the mood Roney sets with his muted evocation of the melody.

Barring the unexpected, we’ll have further reviews of recent albums as the week progresses.

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