There is no possibility of keeping up with the flow of albums pouring out of what is often described, absurdly, as a declining jazz scene, but it can be interesting to try. Here are brief observations on a few more or less recent CDs.
Sam Boshnack, Exploding Syndrome (Shnack Music)
Sam Boshnack is an aggressive, rowdy, uneven trumpeter who heads a quintet of adventurers from Seattle’s avant jazz community. She (Samantha) contains her and her band mates’ wildness within carefully balanced compositions supported by tight harmonies and demanding rhythms. Lyricism and sardonic wit coexist in the title track with its floating Dawn Clement piano solo, a howling Beth Fleenor vocal like something from the sound track of a Rob Zombie movie, and a Moussorgskian fanfare. In her primary role, Fleenor solos smoothly on clarinet and bass clarinet. Boshnack’s “Suite for Seattle’s Royal Court,” particularly in the final movement, has moments of majesty. It has others of whimsy. The suite encompasses further impressive piano playing by Clement, pastoral Fleenor clarinet and a nicely sculpted Isaac Castillo bass solo. In all tracks, Castillo and the young drummer Max Wood are an effective rhythm team. Boshnack’s writing and her energy make her progress worth tracking.
Bud Powell, Birdland 1953 (ESP)
Listeners coming to Powell for the first time by way of this three-CD set may be intrigued that so much seems familiar. The familiarity is because there is a significant component of Powell DNA in virtually every pianist in the modern jazz idiom. His influence is pervasive. When Powell was at his peak, as he often is in these recordings, no pianist but his idol Art Tatum could match his keyboard virtuosity, energy and ability to improvise lines that moved with uninterrupted flows of creative intensity. Powell’s 20-week engagement at Birdland came as he emerged from nearly two years of crisis in mental and emotional problems that would plague him until his death thirteen years later at the age of 41. For details of his health and tragic life, see Peter Pullman’s invaluable 2012 biography Wail: The Life of Bud Powell.
The ESP box set collects most, if not all, of Powell’s Birdland recordings. His bass/drum accompanists were Oscar Pettiford/Roy Haynes, Charles Mingus/Haynes, Franklin Skeete/Sonny Payne, Mingus/Art Taylor, George Duvivier/Taylor, Curley Russell/Taylor— an elite of young New York bebop rhythm teams. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Powell’s fellow founding fathers of bop, sit in. Gillespie is on two tracks, Parker on three, one of which includes an amazing solo on “Cheryl” into which he inserts Louis Armstrong’s epoch-making “West End Blues” introduction. Powell, brilliant throughout, reaches an apogee in the September sessions that contain some of his best compositions, among them “Parisian Thoroughfare,” “Un Poco Loco,” “Oblivion” and “Glass Enclosure,” as well as remarkable performances of “Embraceable You” and “My Heart Stood Still.” An announcer’s voice and snatches of Powell playing “Lullaby of Birdland” pop up half a dozen times. It was the theme song of a radio program that originated in the club. Sound reproduction is hardly high fidelity, but skillful remastering has substantially improved the quality of the tape recordings over previous releases, some of them bootlegs.
Ambrose Akinmusire, The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint (Blue Note)
The tracks with singers in this haunting album will receive the most attention. That’s how things work in this pop-oriented culture, and if the vocals bring attention to the trumpeter’s engrossing album, so much the better. On an emotional scale, the music ranges from peaceful tracks with strings (“The Beauty of Dissolving Portraits,” “Inflated By Spinning”) to an insistent quintet voyage of discovery called “Richard (conduit).” In his 2011 Blue Note debut, When The Heart Emerges Glistening, Akinmusire’s playing was so complete in terms of technique, tone and content that it seemed unreasonable to expect improvement. There is improvement, however—increased intensity that pulsates beneath the surface of this music.
The vocals are by Becca Stevens, Theo Bleckman, the British soul singer known as Cold Specks, and a child who in “Rollcall for Those Absent” reads the names of young murder victims including Trayvon Martin. They are so integrated with the music that the pieces with singing would be ineffective without it. Akinmusire’s closely knit quintet has tenor saxophonist Walter Smith, pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Justin Brown. The impressive young guitarist Charles Altura is a guest on several pieces. The pieces, all by Akinmusire except for Ms. Stevens’s “Our Basement,” are 21st century successors to art songs by Schubert and Wolf and works of miniaturists like Chopin, Schumann, Satie, Prokoviev and Schuller. Like its title, the album’s music is a sort of poetry.
Scott Hamilton, Swedish Ballads…& More (Charleston Square)
The American tenor saxophonist and an all-star Scandinavian rhythm section explore pieces that are classics in Sweden and, in a couple of cases, around the world. After Stan Getz learned the traditional song “Ack Värmeland Du Sköna,” from pianist Bengt Hallberg in 1951, their Swedish recording of it migrated to the US. It acquired a new name, “Dear Old Stockholm,” and became a jazz standard. Hamilton takes it at a relaxed tempo. His and pianist Jan Lundgren’s four-chorus solos allow leisurely exploration of the piece’s major-minor harmonic scheme and the unusual structure that incorporates a four-bar bridge section. On full display are Hamilton’s big sound and easy-going wit, Lundgren’s harmonic inventiveness and the pianist’s touch reminiscent of Hallberg’s.
The only non-Swedish song on the album is its second best known. Quincy Jones wrote “Stockholm Sweetnin’” for a 1953 recording of American and Swedish all-stars including Hallberg, Clifford Brown, Art Farmer, Lars Gullin and Arne Domnerus. Its ingenious melody line is constructed on the chords of “You Leave Me Breathless.” The song’s harmonic transitions in and out of the bridge present improvisational challenges that don’t phase Hamilton, Lundgren and bassist Jesper Lundgaard. The Danish drummer Kristian Leth uses brushes throughout and solos sparingly but is notably effective in his breaks on the Swedish piano hero Jan Johansson’s “Blues i oktaver,” a highlight of the collection. Leth produced the album. Lundgren wrote the informative liner notes about the songs. Olle Adolphson’s “Trubbel,” the World War Two hit “Min soldat” (“My Soldier”), Ulf Sandtrom’s “You Can’t Be in Love With a Dream” and Ove Lind’s “Swing in F” round out the CD. All are tunes that other players might profitably adopt. Hamilton is one of the most prolific recording artists in jazz, with dozens of albums in his discography. This is one of his best.