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Jazz Consumer Guide: A Summer Suite of Harmonic Disorder

Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York
Summer Suite
Libra

With esteemed freethinkers at every position—including Ellery Eskelin and Tony Malaby on tenor sax, and Steven Bernstein and Herb Robertson on trumpet—this big band packs fierce solo power, but Fujii flexes all that muscle masterfully. Her suite runs the loud-quiet, sweet-sour gamut, a model of tight composition and daring arrangement, driven by a rhythm section that hews close enough to the beat and a trio of trombones that do the heavy lifting. A

The Matthew Shipp Trio
Harmonic Disorder
Thirsty Ear

His early records were strictly avant-garde piano, often in improv duos, but when he took command of this experimental rock label’s jazz series, he cranked up the electronics and folded in DJ beats, inventing avant-jazztronica on such releases as Nu Bop and Harmony and Abyss. Lately, he’s reverted to solo and trio albums, less to shore up his jazz-pianist cred than to prove he never really needed electronics to deliver dense harmonics and snappy rhythm. Nods to Monk and Powell recall roots he has moved beyond. A

Arild Andersen
Live at Belleville
ECM

One of the young Norwegians George Russell took under his wing in the late 1960s, bassist Andersen isn’t as well known as Jan Garbarek or Terje Rypdal, with a big chunk of discography under Masqualero, a group now better known for Nils Petter Molvaer. Just a trio here: Andersen’s playing is masterful, but it’s hard to concentrate when tenor saxophonist Tommy Smith gets up a full head of steam. A MINUS

Patricia Barber
The Cole Porter Mix
Blue Note

She takes Porter as a fellow modernist and drags him into a world where modernity’s future has dimmed. The songs are slower, sadder, and hazier, their flippant irony transmuted into ambiguity. The guitar-driven music is, if anything, even more Art Deco and elegant than her singing. Chris Potter’s tenor-sax breaks grab you every time, then fade into the smoke. A MINUS

Jorge Lima Barreto
Zul Zelub
Clean Feed

Impromptu solo-piano constructions over João Marques Carrilho’s ambient electronics: random radio sweeps on the 45:12 “Zul,” four CD players cycling air-earth-water-fire ambience on the 30:10 “Zelub.” It’s never clear whether it’s Barreto or the listener who turns the randomness into meaning and makes conceptual art real. A MINUS

François Carrier/Michel Lambert/Jean-Jacques Avenel
Within
Leo

Canadian alto-saxophonist Carrier started out chasing that old Trane, but with longtime drummer chum Lambert, he finally caught the spirit and found his own sound. Steve Lacy bassist Avenel pushes them even further inside their telepathic free-jazz vein. A MINUS

François Carrier
The Digital Box
Ayler

A scrapbook of the saxophonist’s trek spread out on seven downloadable CD-Rs: one from 1999 with Dewey Redman, plus various 2004-06 sets, including two duos with drummer Michel Lambert, the rest adding bass and sometimes guitar. De trop, you might think, but the introspection keeps drawing me in as he fleshes out his world. A MINUS

Bill Cole’s Untempered Ensemble
Proverbs for Sam [2001]
Boxholder
A belated tribute to alto-saxophonist Sam Furnace, who died in 2004, but who, in this Vision Festival set, holds the musical center with super-bassist William Parker, while the leader’s squeaky Asian double-reeds (soona, shenai, nagaswaram, didgeridoo), Cooper-Moore’s diddly bow, and multiple percussionists swarm in pursuit of their otherworldly avant-exotica. A MINUS

Satoko Fujii Trio
Trace a River
Libra

The pianist plays a jaunty little figure, then the notes descend into a loud crash. She wends her way through meditative quiet, then all hell breaks loose. The often-inscrutable bassist Mark Dresser finds he can push a groove as hard as anyone, and drummer Jim Black relishes every moment. A MINUS

William Parker Quartet
Petit Oiseau
AUM Fidelity

Two freewheeling horns backed by the hardest-working rhythm section in avant-jazz (the leader on bass and Hamid Drake on drums), this has been a glorious group ever since O’Neal’s Porch dropped in 2000. Here, surprisingly, the horns hew to the heads, and the pulse conjures hard bop. That’s what happens when the leader’s writing evolves from scenarios into full-blown songs. A MINUS

Brad Shepik

Songlines

The liner notes lecture on anthropogenic climate change and name-drop a reading list I can vouch for as some of the best nonfiction of the last decade-plus. The music is a different sort of human activity. Shepik’s guitar, sax, and tambura skitter across a world of rhythms, most obviously from the Balkans, where Ralph Alessi’s trumpet and Gary Versace’s accordion converge. A MINUS

Cedar Walton
Seasoned Wood
High Note

The 74-year-old pianist does a lot of little things he rarely gets credit for, like writing for horns—Vincent Herring and Jeremy Pelt never enter a song here unless they have something cogent to say, which isn’t always the case on their own albums. The pianist is in top form, too, maybe because Peter Washington and Al Foster leave him no slack. A MINUS

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Honorable Mentions

Count Basie Orchestra
Mustermesse Basel 1956 Part 1 [1956]
TCB

Early New Testament band, the arrangements just barely subatomic, but with Old Testament virtues, like soloists who aren’t just cogs in the machine.

Jimmy Rushing
The Scene [1965]
High Note

His blues touched by grace, charm, and swing, a singer who could bring out the old-time religion in brothers Sims and Cohn.

Raoul Björkenheim/William Parker/Hamid Drake
DMG @ the Stone: Volume 2
DMG/ARC

Slash-and-grind guitar supported by the rhythm section, with a snake-charming shawm bonus.

Diana Krall
Quiet Nights
Verve

Warmed by soft Claus Ogerman strings, melting the heartbreak of the cold North with nice little samba songs.

Bebo Valdés & Javier Colina
Live at the Village Vanguard
Calle 54/Norte

Cuban classics made simple, just bass supporting the 86-year-old master.

Ahmad Jamal
It’s Magic
Dreyfus

An old pianist with a light touch, his trio fluffed up with extra percussion, his catchy melodies undiminished.

Bridge Quartet
Night
Origin

Saxman Phil Dwyer cooks up some Rollins, Parker, and Monk with an intriguing spice from “Isfahan.”

Andy Middleton
The European Quartet Live
Q-rious

A saxophonist with patient poise on the slow ones and fierce resolve on the fast ones.

Michael Bates
Clockwise
Greenleaf Music

Bassist-led pianoless quartet, the tight writing neatly binding a dense, complex thrash of trumpet and sax.

Evan Parker/The Transatlantic Art Ensemble
Boustrophedon
ECM

Roscoe Mitchell leads a feisty American contingent to this avant-garde summit, but Parker prevails, his soprano sax rising above it all.

Gato Libre
Kuro
Libra

Natsuki Tamura’s avant-folk quartet, with Kazuhiko Tsumura’s tart guitar and Satoko Fujii’s swaying accordion.

Luis Lopes
Humanization 4Tet
Clean Feed

Guitarist-composer’s date, but all the choice spots go to heavyweight tenor-saxophonist Rodrigo Amado.

Brad Leali-Claus Raible Quartet
D.A.’s Time
TCB

Swing saxophonist in a bebop quartet brings out the Bird—but also the funk.

Todd Coolman
Perfect Strangers
ArtistShare

A quintet of hard-bop all-stars play seven compositions mailed in by strangers.

Donald Bailey
Blueprints of Jazz, Vol. 3
Talking House

Jimmy Smith’s old drummer gets the call and flares out to Odean Pope, who crashes upfield and lets Charles Tolliver kick the extra point.

Craig Enright
La Belleza
CDBaby

Straightforward Omaha saxophonist leads Afro-Cuban group, transposing “Iowa Folk Song” and “Bata Boogie.”

Roger Davidson & Raúl Jaurena
Pasión por la Vida
Soundbrush

Pianist Davidson writes a batch of tangos; Jaurena’s bandoneón renders his fascination classic.

Burnt Sugar/The Arkestra Chamber
Making Love to the Dark Ages
Live Wired

Embracing the real dark side: furtive, resilient, and so clever it could pass harmlessly as mood music.

Natsuki Tamura/Satoko Fujii
Chun
Libra

Husband-wife duets, his trumpet warm and supportive, her piano stark and brash.

Satoko Fujii/Myra Melford
Under the Water
Libra

Two avant-pianists square off for three duets and a solo apiece, rumbling and waxing eloquent.

Scotty Barnhart
Say It Plain
Unity Music

Basie ghost trumpeter runs rings around the post-Marsalis neo-trad playpen.

John Ettinger/Pete Forbes
Inquatica
Ettinger Music

Violinist and drummer, switching on keyboards and setting up loops—compellingly fast and intriguingly slow, lovely when they tune in “Stardust.”

Steve Herberman Trio
Ideals
Reach Music

Subtly hinting at Wes Montgomery groove and Joe Pass craftsmanship.

Wolfert Brederode
Currents
ECM

Another gray world, the palette thinned down to acoustic piano and clarinet.

Jamie Davis
Vibe Over Perfection
Unity Music

Forty years ago, he would have been a terrific soul singer, but the moment passed, so he looks back to Basie.

Michel Sajrawy
Writings on the Wall
Ozella

Israeli guitarist who feels Palestinian plays Montgomery lines with Arabesque fillips.

Bo’s Art Trio
Live: Jazz Is Free and So Are We!
Icdisc

The poet’s sane revolution is just for fun, like Bo van de Graaf’s sax.

Billy Harper
Blueprints of Jazz, Vol. 2
Talking House

Amiri Baraka’s blues people, from Africa to be-bop and hip-hop, atop churchly sax vamps and big-band breaks.

Junk Box
Sunny Then Cloudy
Libra

More Satoko Fujii–Natsuki Tamura jousts, with John Hollenbeck’s fractured martial drums stirring up trouble.

Satoko Fujii Orchestra Nagoya
Sanrei
Bamako

An exhilarating blast of sci-fi fusion with occasional squawkfests and crashes.

Anthony Braxton/Kyle Brenders
Toronto (Duets) 2007
Barnyard

Tight sax dialogues, mostly soprano/sopranino, depend on little things signifying.

DUDS

Tim Ries
Stones World: The Rolling Stones Project II
Sunnyside

A worldwide tour promoting the Stones’ great idea: miscegenation. B

The Blue Note 7:
Mosaic
Blue Note

Too mod for the Bill Charlap trio; too congested for the extra horns and guitar. B

East West Quintet
Vast
Native Language Music

Not only do they not know how to fuse jazz and rock, but this Brooklyn group is even confused about its name. C PLUS

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No, Not Those Fugees

Back in the ’80s, I got a rise out of the eternally genial Dr. Billy Taylor by asking him—no disrespect, one culture worker to another—if it was a drag coming up with an unusual biographical angle when pitching a story to his producers at CBS News Sunday Morning. Stellar musicianship was all that mattered to him and his bosses, he protested. So I guess it was just coincidence that everyone he profiled was under 20 or over 80, a Soviet or Cuban émigré, schizophrenic, or a recovering addict or suffering from a rare bone disease and standing only three feet high. Jazz has fallen so far off the public radar since then, the ’80s feel like the good old days—the tail end of the era when Toshiko Akiyoshi, on arriving in the U.S. to enroll at Berklee in the 1950s, charmed nightclub audiences by playing bebop wearing a kimono. We’re more enlightened now, of course. A woman instrumentalist no longer stops the presses, and foreign-born players who transcend the derivative have become so commonplace no one regards them as a phenomenon anymore (except maybe scuffling and prejudiced natives decrying outsourced labor). The downside is that with these doors to feature stories closed, there’s almost no way for a relative newcomer as talented as the Japan-born pianist and composer Satoko Fujii to get herself discovered, even by the jazz press.

You’d think that putting out something like two dozen CDs in half as many years might do the trick, but no—the writers for Downbeat and its competitors are content to let advertisers make their discoveries for them, so Fujii’s many releases on her own label and European and Asian independents—which range from interesting to outstanding, but which you have to browse Downtown Music Gallery on the right day to find—haven’t had the impact of a heavily promoted debut for Blue Note or Concord Jazz. She also loses points for resisting the new stereotypes lazy writers fall back on in attempting to come to grips with what the British provocateur Stuart Nicholson, borrowing a page from Tom Friedman and sociologist Roland Robertson, calls the glocalization of jazz—in this case meaning that musicians from other countries are revitalizing jazz by blending elements from their own ethnic traditions. In an interview posted on her and her trumpeter husband Natsuki Tamura’s website, Fujii—who was born in 1958 and now divides her time between Tokyo and New York—explains that since the end of World War II, Japanese children have been exposed mostly to Western pop and classics, so when she first heard traditional Japanese music, it sounded as strange to her as it does to most Westerners.

Unless you judge pieces by their titles and define minor scales as Asian by definition, the only clues to Fujii’s ethnic identity offered by her voluminous discography are in the samurai chants toward the end of Tamura’s “Ochai,” from her 2003 big band album Blueprint (Natsat), and in her delicate accompaniments to the Japanese art-folk singer Koh Yamabuki on Koh (Libra, 2005). Listening blindfolded to Blueprint or The Future of the Past (Enja, 2001)—both recorded in New York and featuring an assemblage of downtown’s finest, including Tamura, Herb Robertson, Joe Fiedler, Ellery Eskelin, Tony Malaby, Andy Laster, Oscar Noriega, and Briggan Krauss—I might guess I was hearing a European orchestra. This may be a reflection of Fujii’s past as a classical piano prodigy, but it also seems an inevitable consequence of the emphasis on formal composition in avant-garde jazz the world over since the bottoming-out of free in the 1970s.

In jazz from Ellington on, composition has entailed predetermining solo sequences—knowing in advance not just whom to call on to sustain an established mood, but who can be trusted to anticipate what comes next. This is where Fujii excels, and why my list of recommendations begins with these two CDs by her New York orchestra. Even Fujii’s simplest scores are miniature suites, and the solos serve as relay points between themes. On a piece like the restless and intricately detailed “Pakonya,” from The Future of the Past, the solos are like cinematic close-ups or privileged moments: An improvisation might begin a cappella; another horn will join in for counterpoint, gradually followed by the rhythm section and then the full orchestra introducing a secondary theme over which the two horns squabble until . . . one solo yields to another, with no downtime between. Blueprint has more muscle and swagger because it has more unison passages, though for lyrical suspense nothing quite matches the orchestral pedal point beneath Noriega’s screams and Joey Sellers’s Rudd-y trombone on the other CD’s “Incompleted,” a performance that recalls ’70s Carla Bley without suffering from the comparison.

There isn’t much piano on either CD, presumably because Fujii is up on her feet conducting. For proof of her range as a soloist—by turns ruminative and darting, a personal composite of Paul Bley (her former teacher) and Cecil Taylor—try “Ninepin,” a rondo from Live in Japan 2004 (PJL), which adds Tamura’s tart, speechlike trumpet to her American trio with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black. Harmony is on the prowl in Fujii’s compositions, and on last year’s Angelona (Libra), by her Japanese quartet (again featuring Tamura), Takeharu Hayakawa’s electric bass covers sonic territory an acoustic couldn’t—likewise true of Stomu Takeishi on Blueprint and The Future of the Past. The drummer on Angelona is Tatsuya Yoshida, from the Japanese noise band the Ruins, but this isn’t fusion—that would be Vulcan (Libra, 2001), featuring Fujii on synthesizer. She’s protean as well as prolific, and there are about a dozen other CDs I could name, beginning with April Shower (Eastwind, 2001), duets on which she and violinist Mark Feldman take turns as the classicist and the troublemaker. Beginning with the jazz cognoscenti, the world has an awful lot of catching up to do. I just hope nobody calls her the new Toshiko Akiyoshi.