Category Archives: Features

What is it about spiritual jazz?

Following on from the Tony Allen feature with a similar title, this CJ post takes a long hard look at spiritual jazz. As we have noted in a previous CJ, this blanket term seems to be applied to almost any reissue which features a dashiki-wearing tenor saxophonist who recorded in the 1970s for a private press label and has just had his album reissued on Soul Jazz Records, Jazzman or similar labels.

Well – and mentioning no names here – that may or may not be bonafide spiritual jazz. So what are we talking about? We were probably not using the term ‘spiritual jazz’ in 1965 but that’s as good a starting date as any and, of course, we’re talking John Coltrane and A Love Supreme – an album of deliberate transcendence, an entry into the world of musical mysticism and a record that has been lauded as one of the greatest jazz records ever. The thing is, it’s true. A Love Supreme is a work that has been both enjoyed and analysed for over 50 years and the more we investigate, the more there is to explore. For the deepest understanding of this truly awesome record, check out Ashley Kahn’s authoritative study at the book’s website here and for a superb investigation of Coltrane’s sound, read Ben Ratliff’s absorbing book Coltrane: the story of a sound.

In his final years Coltrane was moving forward at a dazzling pace, fusing the intensity of free jazz on such records as Ascension (1966) and Eastern-influenced experimentations like Om (recorded 1965, released 1968). A new world of exploration was opening up in jazz: the African heritage was being explored, Indian time signatures revealed new possibilities. Sound and space was now as important as music. Like-minded artists like Don Cherry, Pharoah Sanders, and Philip Cohran were each in their different ways exploring music both meditative and primal.

So what is spiritual jazz today? You’ve been crate digging for Don Cherry et al and you’ve come up with some great music – some celebrating the ‘trane tradition, and some not. But what of contemporary musicians? This post looks at three artists, each with a debt to Coltrane but with their own unique voices too. We’ll start with UK tenor saxophonist Nat Birchall who has been quietly releasing his own albums over the last few years and gathering acclaim from the jazz press. Best start with the 2011 album Sacred Dimension which superficially creates a Coltrane sound world (that’s Alice and John) with the use of bells, shakers and harp in addition to the more conventional quartet instrumentation. There’s Corey Mwamba on vibes too – and so the result is very definitely influenced by Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner and more. Of course, there are modal bass grooves, rolling drum figures and tenor sax solos that are Coltrane influenced but what come across with all of Birchall’s releases is the sheer confidence of his sound. As reviewer Daniel Spicer noted in his online BBC music review It’s a deeply sincere homage to a master, presented with an open heart, full of passion and love. The lead track is Ancient World – presented here in this alternative take from the Live at Larissa album, recorded in Greece in 2013. Available on a double vinyl release, this album is also a must. In fact, any Birchall album from this point is recommended as are Birchall’s recent excursions into dub reggae – a long held passion that’s fully explained on Birchall’s own website, Sound Soul and Spirit where some of his favourite records includes a list of dub classics, like the glorious Java Plus from Prince Buster. Birchall has now achieved what must have been a long held ambition of recording with reggae masters Al Breadwinner and Vin Gordon on two dub recordings, Sounds Almighty (2018) and the soon to be released Upright Living. You need vinyl copies of both – head to Birchall’s Bandcamp site for more information. And – by the way – Birchall’s new jazz release, Mysticism of Sound, is a lockdown solo recording that’s as much Sun Ra space jazz as Coltrane’s Interstellar Space. All instruments – tenor and soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, Korg Minilogue synth, bass, drums, hand drums, bells, shakers – are played by Birchall. It’s essential listening!

Up next is Vancouver-born pianist Cat Toren, now resident in New York (rather than the UK’s northwest) and soon to release her new album Scintillating Beauty. We’ve championed Toren’s music here before on Cosmic Jazz and with advance notice of the new release here on Bandcamp it’s time to check out her take on the spiritual jazz tradition. Toren’s music is influenced by the free-form, socially conscious jazz of the late 60s but she’s also a passionate advocate of the current (and much needed) civil rights agenda. Indeed, inspiration for the music came from two quotes by Martin Luther King Jr. that Toren includes in the liner notes. The first, from Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, gave the album its title as well as a pointed social imperative: Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty. The second quote, from the sermon Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, begins We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality and that thought provided the title for the second track on the new album, Garment of Destiny.

Toren’s previous album, released in 2017, was an inspirational one for us here at CJ and cuts featured on several shows. Human Kind was the debut of Toren’s band of that name, and the same lineup has recovened for the new album. Toren on keys, saxophonist Xavier Del Castillo, oud player Yoshie Fruchter, bassist Jake Leckie and drummer Matt Honor. Buy here from Toren’s site and the proceeds will go to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). You can check out all tracks before you buy, including the superb Legacy (for A.C.) and right here listen to an excellent live version from the Rockwood Music Hall in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Cat Toren’s music is highly recommended and the new album is highly recommended. Cat assures me that there will be a CD version as well as the download – both available in September from her own site or the ever-reliable Bandcamp.

Finally, we come to Muriel Grossmann, a tenor player now based in Ibiza, but born in Paris and a long time resident in Vienna. Her current quartet is very much international with Radomir Milojkovic (Belgrade) on guitar, Gina Schwarz (Vienna) on double bass and Uros Stamenkovic (Belgrade) on drums and is recently augmented by Llorens Barcelo (Mallorca) on Hammond organ. Grossmann’s quartet/quintet is very much influenced by Coltrane but – as with Toren – the bands have their own sound. You can hear just how different that is when you compare Grossmann’s take on Coltrane’s Traneing In, a track he first recorded with the Red Garland Trio in 1958. The Coltrane original is right here – and Grossmann’s soprano sax take is here on her Bandcamp site. This is intense music and – whatever we want to call it – has a spiritual deepness that truly does inherit the questing, yearning qualities of Coltrane’s unique sound. Traneing In comes from her album Golden Rule and is available from Bandcamp in all three formats – vinyl, CD and download.

The new album Reverence takes a different direction. The African influence is stronger and as Grossmann says, What jazz and African music have in common and what makes it so unique is that at its very core, as the strongest part of its foundation, each musician is dealing with a particular rhythm that contributes to the whole, therefore generating multidirectional rhythms also known as polyrhythms. The addition of Llorens Barcelo allows interplay between guitar and organ and the churning percussion maintains the kinds of locked groove over which Grossmann’s solos twist and turn. Check out this live take on Light, the final reflective track from Golden Rule.

So that’s three exploratory musicians and their bands: firmly embedded in a jazz tradition, but consciously searching for new sounds and influences from around the world to extend and develop their sound. Please support each of these artists by listening to and buying their music in whatever format you choose. Our preference remains vinyl: that symbiotic relationship in which the medium influences how the message is perceived (McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’) is never more true than when the disc is on the turntable, visibly in contact with the stylus and the listener is checking out the gatefold images or liner notes while listening to the music. As always, we promote Bandcamp whose heritage of supporting and paying artists is exemplary. It’s a service that values ownership, connects listeners directly to the artists and even rewards you with a message if someone buys music after finding it through you. Make lockdown more bearable and support those jazz musicians creatively enhancing your life.

Music is the healing force of the universe…

Five from five: CJ favourites 01

This week, Derek has chosen five tunes from five countries that are essential listening for any lover of Cosmic Jazz. First up is a bonafide classic from the USA – and one that will be no surprise if you have followed us here on the show over the years. Black Renaissance is the ultimate jam session and a cult record that has achieved legendary status. With a group led by the then 26 year old pianist Harry Whitaker, the two track album was recorded in New York in 1976. It is free, expressive, wild at and noted for an early proto-rap element too. The record features Woody Shaw, Azar Lawrence, Buster Williams, Billy Hart and Mtume amongst others. Listen here – and and then listen for ever…

No surprises either with our second choice. We love the work of Polish trumpeter Piotr Wojtasik and this track has the bonus of two vocalists – Anna Maria Mbayo and Magdalena Zawartko – as well as a large ensemble of instrumentalists. Stay in Time of Freedom is an uplifting and celebratory ode to freedom and both deep spiritual rejoicing and some likely physical movement will be your inevitable response. The full album Tribute to Akwarium is worthy of your attention too – find it at Steve’s Jazz Sounds along with other great Wojtasik music (and enjoy Steve’s excellent updated site too!).

Our third selection is from revered label Blue Note, but it’s not one of the classic Rudy van Gelder engineered masterpieces from the 1960s. Instead, we head to France and the music of Erik Truffaz. Born in Switzerland, this trumpeter is an innovative minimalist with a desire to search for new contexts for his spaced-out clean sound. The album Bending New Corners contains three tunes featuring a rap from guest Nya, including the masterpiece that is Siegfried. For an idea of where Truffaz is right now, listen to the rich, dark textures of the album Being Human, recorded in collaboration with Mexican electronica artist Murcof – check it out here on Bandcamp.

Our fourth choice is the extraordinary tune Watarase by Japanese pianist and composer Fumio Itabashi. The song is a variation on a traditional Japanese folk melody and is named after the Watarase river in Japan’s Kanto region and showcases Itabashi’s Don Pullen-influenced style. This solo piano album includes three other Itabashi originals and his takes on Someday My Prince Will Come and I Can’t Get Started. Watarase has been reworked by Itabashi over the years, sometimes featuring a full band or vocal accompaniment, though it has never sounded quite as thoughtful or serene as it does here. For the full effect of its mindblowing power though you need to get hold of the double CD album that contains eight versions of this one tune, including this live one with the Kanagawa Symphony Orchestra and vocalist Yuki Kaneko. Be amazed, be truly amazed…

Derek’s final selection is from Jamaica and stretches the boundaries of jazz – but that’s just how we like it on Cosmic Jazz. Jackie Mittoo was a keyboard virtuoso, musical director at the legendary Studio One and a founding member of The Skatalites. An undoubted reggae great but, like many of his Jamaican contemporaries, with considerable jazz influences too. Hear them on Ghetto Organ – a tune derived from a blues standard by Willie Cobbs that can be found on the excellent Macka Fat album.

Three new Polish jazz releases

Here on Cosmic Jazz we welcome new music from all over the world but – thanks to Steve’s Jazz Sounds – we seem to have a special affinity with new jazz from Poland. We have marvelled before at the amount of excellent new music that emerges from this east European country but it’s really a reflection of a long jazz tradition. O.N.E. Quintet are a group of young musicians with a debut album called – unsurprisingly – One. There are seven tunes on this release: three by sax player Monica Muc, two by pianist Paulina Almanska, one traditional tune and one composition by Krzysztof Komeda – one of the founding fathers of jazz in Poland.

The quintet includes violinist Dominika Rusinowski, who is prominent on the up-tempo number Drozina. So often, Polish jazz appears to attract a melancholy tag – in much the same way as music on the German label ECM. But this is very much not the case with O.N.E Quintet – the sounds are warm and embracing, but there is still the opportunity for soloists to take off. Checkout, for example, sax player Monica Muc here on As Close As Light.

Another debut album – but this time from a squad no less – is Elements, the latest release from the Wojciech Jachna Squad. Jachna is a trumpet player who has been active on the Polish scene for a decade now and has appeared on many albums, mixing the mainstream with the avant-garde. This album is neither. The guitarist Malek Malinowski helps give the album a deep, intense, electric sound. On the tune Checkers 11 the guitar seems to ping off all over the placeuntilthe more becalming and lyrical sounds of Jachna’s trumpet appear. It’s an album full of dark mystery, accentuated by Jachna’s trumpet. Listen to the tune Philosopher’s Waltz and – if you are a philosopher (practising or aspiring) you can dance your own version of a waltz.

The new release Nada is led by guitarist Daniel Popialkiewicz. He’s a composer, lecturer and graduate of the Academy of Music at Katowice with a doctoral dissertation titled Articulation techniques of rock guitarists based on jazz music. Alongside him on these new tracks are Paweł Tomaszewski on piano and keyboards, Robert Kubiszyn on bass and Paweł Dobrowolski on drums.

This is the third album by Polish Jazz guitarist/composer Daniel Popiałkiewicz, recorded in a quartet setting with a stellar lineup consisting of keyboardist Paweł Tomaszewski, bassist Robert Kubiszyn and drummer Paweł Dobrowolski. The ten original compositions on the album are all by Popiałkiewicz and the music is melodic, quirky, and unpredictable. We wonder whether the guitarist is familiar with East London too, given the title of the tune Lea Bridge Road. For more Polish jazz – and music from many other European destinations – head to Steve’s Jazz Sounds and explore.

Jazz photos No.3 – Miles Davis 1970

Miles Davis, lounging on a bed of skins with an unidentified woman, wearing suede-patched, zip-front vest from Hernando’s New York, and canvas built-up-heel, slip-on shoes by Franco Pachetti.

This photo heads an excellent feature on the interesting Burning Ambulance website. It dates from a few back – in fact, 2014 when the Complete Live at the Fillmore box set was released – but it’s a good introduction to this most fertile of periods in the vast Davis chronology. You can read the whole thing right here – and if you’re new to the music of Miles in the 1970s then this is one place to start. The sheer volume of music from that first year of the decade is now staggering. Thanks to box sets, official reissues, lost concert recordings and a bunch of bootlegs you could listen to music from this most fertile period for hours. And you should. We should now recognise that 1970 was a creative peak for Miles – but where to start with this music?

Let’s begin with the albums released in the two years before – 1968 and 1969. July 1968 gave us Miles in the Sky, a stepping stone into a new era for for the trumpeter. There’s a new interest in electric instruments and the two recording dates take us from the twisted modality of Paraphernalia to Stuff, recorded five months later. The former track includes a guest slot from guitarist George Benson who sets the tone of the track with a defining riff right at the start. It sound like bebop but it’s been turned inside out. Drummer Tony Williams (then just 23) is all over this track and the elliptical Wayne Shorter (writer of this piece) even references his own Footprints at one point. The remaining three tracks are more typical of this quintet’s zenith of collective improvisation – perhaps some of the most ‘together’ music ever recorded. This is rightly regarded as an epitome of small group jazz: often termed the Second Great Quintet, the interplay between this group over six studio albums and one live box set (The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel) is extraordinary. The music is always about the group and never just Miles. There’s a telepathic fluidity about this music – and never more so than on the Plugged Nickel sets – that is unique in jazz. Perhaps paradoxically, you should start with the last of these records – the aforementioned Filles de Kilimanjaro. The new Mrs Davis, Betty Mabry, appears on the cover and Miles apparently titled the record after his recent investment in the Kilimanjaro African Coffee company. All track titles are in French and the music forms a kind of organic suite in the key of F. It’s an album to listen to as one continuous piece: some of the music is more chilled with Ron Carter on electric bass and Herbie Hancock’s Fender Rhodes being responsible for some of this, but it’s also that Miles’s trumpet is also more restrained throughout. Less well known is that Miles’ old collaborator Gil Evans had a hand in two of the tracks – Petit Machins is his composition and the introduction to Madamoiselle Mabry owes something to Jimi Hendrix’s The Wind Cries Mary which had been recorded the previous year. Perhaps it was all an indication of what was to come on the truly ground breaking It’s a Silent Way album from the following year.

This is as essential as Kind of Blue: it’s a record that anyone interested in contemporary music of whatever genre needs to hear – again and again. But the reason isn’t Miles Davis – it’s Teo Macero, Miles’ longtime producer who here creates an indefinable magic from a pile of studio recordings from one day – 18 February 1969. Macero created a kind of electric sonata from hours of tape, splicing together music from one three hour long session. The result was entirely unique at the time – two long tracks, each with three ‘movements’ containing repeated musical elements synthesised into something magnificent. Rolling Stone writer Lester Bangs described In A Silent Way as “the kind of album that gives you faith in the future of music. It is not rock and roll, but it’s nothing stereotyped as jazz either. All at once, it owes almost as much to the techniques developed by rock improvisors in the last four years as to Davis’ jazz background. It is part of a transcendental new music which flushes categories away and, while using musical devices from all styles and cultures, is defined mainly by its deep emotion and unaffected originality”. Listen to the groove on It’s About That Time around nine minutes into the track – a sound that will stay with you long after the music has ended. This version is from the Complete In A Silent Way Sessions, one of the Legacy box sets that are now so collectable.

So what could possibly follow that? The answer this time is Bitches Brew, the 1970 double album – and the very first Miles record I bought. Davis assembled an even bigger group of musicians than on It’s A Silent Way and Teo Macero spliced and edited with yet more aplomb than before. Recorded across three days in September 1969, the music takes giant steps towards a rock idiom without ever becoming rock. The core band of Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, Chick Corea and Jack DeJohnette was augmented by Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin, Larry Young, Lenny White, Juma Santos and Bennie Maupin. Miles had written simple chord charts but he told the musicians to play anything that came to mind as long as they used his chosen chord. The musicians were confused – but this very loose structure certainly inspired Davis: his trumpet playing is aggressive and explosive across much of the double album and the closing solo on Miles Runs the Voodoo Down is simply breathtaking.

In his superb book Miles Beyond, the Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991, Paul Tingen paved the way for a critical re-assessment of the prolific 1970-75 era prior to Miles’ five year retirement from music. Tingen notes that “Bitches Brew also pioneered the application of the studio as a musical instrument, featuring stacks of edits and studio effects that were an integral part of the music.” Tape loops, delays, reverb and echo were all used along with intensive tape editing, Pharaoh’s Dance, for example, contains 19 edits – its famous stop-start opening is entirely constructed in the studio, using repeat loops of certain sections. As Tingen notes, the editing is amazingly precise – “a one-second-long fragment that first appears at 8:39 is repeated five times between 8:54 and 8:59… Bitches Brew not only became a controversial classic of musical innovation, it also became renowned for its pioneering use of studio technology.” It’s a gateway to the increasingly challenging music that Miles Davis was to make over the next five years – there’s always more to explore…

Jazz photos No.2 – Sun Ra

Sun Ra and the Arkestra at South Street Seaport, New York – probably 1972

You can just see him. He’s to the right of this of this photo in the centre of the group of circling musicians. Yes, this is Sun Ra and the Arkestra circa 1972 at the South Street Seaport, New York. The photo heads an excellent recent feature from Marcus J Moore in the New York Times on Fifteen Essential Black Liberation tracks – including an excellent live version of Sun Ra’s Space is the Place. There are other delights to be found in this list too: Mtume’s Baba Hengates from the the Strata East album Alkebu-Lan: Land of the Blacks (1972) and Malika from the Ensemble Al-Salaam’s 1974 album, The Sojourner. Follow the links and discover some great music that may be new to you. If Mtume means Juicy Fruit, then have a listen to the whole of his Strata East album – now reissued on vinyl – and hear something very different. Mtume continued with his Umoja Ensemble on the Rebirth Cycle album from 1977 – but you will be lucky to find an original pressing in good condition for less than £150. For a taste of this excellent record, which gives an indication of the direction Mtume would be travelling in, try Yebo. I’ve recently been enjoying the music of Buddy Terry and there is a fine, extended version of Baba Hengates to be heard on his Pure Dynamite album for Mainstream Records (1972). Read the NYT Marcus J Moore feature and check out much more black liberation music.

Jazz photos No.1 – Reggie Workman

Former Coltrane bassist Reggie Workman, New York – 2020

Bass player Reggie Workman is now 83 and living in Harlem, New York. In an interview for the Vulture online magazine he reminisced about his time with John Coltrane, the recent deaths of some jazz greats (and his friends) and what he thinks about life right now. Through all of this, and while stuck at home, Workman has tried to maintain his cosmic outlook. “Our bodies are on the planet for a longer time or a shorter time depending on how we live, what things that we’ve done through our life,” he says. “Whatever that is, whatever time that is, our contributions are significant, their contributions are significant. And we have to be thankful for what they give.”  And here’s one of Workman’s stellar contributions to the Complete Live at the Village Vanguard set – John Coltrane’s classic Spiritual with John Coltrane on soprano and tenor sax, Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, McCoy Tyner on piano, Garvin Bushell on contrabass bassoon, Workman on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. This twenty one minute take on Spiritual was recorded on the last of four nights on 05 November 1961.

Week ending 06 June 2020: Time Out With Bandcamp

The worldwide lockdown has given many of us more time out. That’s time to reflect at greater length – on all those we love, on Black Lives Matter, on the management of Covid-19, on our personal priorities and whatever else is important to us. For many, we can add to the list time out listening to more music – revisiting old favourites, discovering new artists and checking out new sources for our listening pleasure.

So, this week’s Cosmic Jazz is a special feature on one of those sources – Bandcamp. Founded 11 years ago in Oakland, California, Bandcamp offered a different kind of business model: artists and labels upload music to the site but control how they sell it – setting their own prices and offering the opportunity for buyers to pay more if they wish. Readers may remember the band Radiohead experimenting with a similar approach on the release of the In Rainbows album in 2007. Unlike Spotify and other streaming sites where the majority of artists receive paltry sums for their musical labours, Bandcamp offers both control and a genuine revenue. The contrasts are stark – for a musician to earn 1US$ takes 229 Spotify streams. Youtube, incidentally, is even worse – 1449 streams are required there. [Source: visualcapitalist.com].

Uploading music to the site is free, with Bandcamp taking a 15% cut of the sales (which drops to 10% if the artist’s sales surpass $5000). There are no format restrictions and downloaders can choose from lossy MP3 all the way up to lossless formats like FLAC and WAV. In addition, physical media formats are also available – vinyl and CD (with sometimes cassette too). Moreover, viewers can usually listen to a full album of music before committing to purchase. In 2016 they extended the opportunities for deeper exploration with Bandcamp Daily, an online music publication that was soon followed by Bandcamp Radio. The result is almost overwhelming – but invigorating and exciting as a huge range of new musical horizons stretch out before you.

A makeshift memorial for George Floyd includes mural, cards and flowers near the spot where he died while in police custody in Minneapolis.

The site first experimented with a charity initiative in March this year. In the mist of the coronavirus pandemic and with record stores around the world closed, Bandcamp announced a waiving of their revenue on all sales – artists would receive 100% from any sales. Following the success of this initial event, the one day initiative has been repeated each subsequent month and then – in response to the protest following the death of George Floyd and the many other African Americans killed by police violence – Bandcamp announced a 24 hour 100% donation to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund on 19 June 2020.

So what’s been the focus of my time out with Bandcamp this week? Well, with more labels and artists donating to black charities, here was a chance to check out some new jazz and jazz related music. This week’s Cosmic Jazz includes just a selection of the music I downloaded. Links are to the Bandcamp pages – no Youtube clips this week (except in our usual listening choices)!

First up is a Cosmic Jazz favourite, British-Bahraini saxophonist Yaz Ahmed. She’s released two extended live performances this week on the release When We Were Live – you can check it out right here. Only available to download for one weekend (05-07 June), When We Were Live is very much a limited edition recording and features five tracks from Ahmed’s quintet that were captured on tour in France during 2018. Ahmed writes “These last few months spent at home have made me realise just how much I love performing. I’m desperately missing sharing my music, the personal contact with my audience and the thrill of playing live with my band. I know many people had been hoping to catch one of my live shows in Europe or North America this summer, and so I thought I’d share this recording with you.” The tracks come from the La Saboteuse and Polyhymnia albums – both still available on Ahmed’s Bandcamp site.

Next is London based flautist Tenderlonious, aka Ed Cawthorne. In recent years, we’ve featured and played much of Cawthorne’s music and out this week on his 22a label is the result of a visit to Lahore where he got to play with Pakistani musicians – a long held ambition that links to his father’s experience as a Gurkha officer seconded to Asia. A chance meeting in a London pub with the Polish-based group Pakistani group Jaubi led to this new project. After the challenge of obtaining visas, Tenderlonious and his band finally arrived in Lahore in April 2109: “Lahore is something special; full of positivity, care and hope. It was, thankfully, all a stark contrast to the negativity we heard about Pakistan before arriving. It was not long into the first day and that first studio session that we realised this trip would be a real awakening. Nothing whatsoever was written down during the recording sessions – no sheet music, no song titles. It was sincere. All egos were left behind and hearts and souls were open and poured into the music.” You can find this and other Tenderlonious releases on his Bandcamp site here and there will be more music from Tenderlonious and Jaubi later in the year.

Third up is a new selection of tracks from Joe Davis’s Far Out Recordings. We’ve long been a champion of the largely Brazilian music that emanates from this long running UK-based label – whether it’s Marcos Valle or Milton Nascimento; Ana Mazzotti or Azymuth – and their latest is a Saudade-influenced collection, available via their Bandcamp site.

Saudade is a word with no direct English translation. In the Portuguese language it describes a sense of nostalgia for something that may never return. But in longing for that certain something, whether it’s a person, a place or a time gone by, saudade holds the thing you miss close, and keeps it present despite its absence. Portuguese author Manuel de Mello calls it “A pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.” As a nation steeped in slavery, the vibrance of African culture in Brazil amplified saudade, and it became something even more painful, but at the same time a little more rhythmic, perhaps even upbeat. This new collection, O Aperto da Saudade (the grip of saudade), attempts to translate the word through the music itself. Reaching deep into the Far Out back catalogue, the music ranges from 1965 to the present day, and spans psychedelic folk, samba jazz, bossa nova and MPB, featuring some of the nation’s musical icons alongside archival releases from lesser known artists, as well as some of the label’s more contemporary output. As the press release notes: “In times of loss and loneliness, recorded music has a magical power to lift the spirits, soothe the soul and serves as a great reminder that you are not alone.”

We’d certainly second that here at Cosmic Jazz. Enjoy the music – and stay safe.

Neil is listening to…

Derek is listening to…

Derek notes: I have chosen two tracks by Don Weller, the British tenor sax player, in remembrance as he died recently after a long illness. There is nothing like seeing jazz live for getting you into the music and many years ago I often saw Weller playing at the Bull’s Head in Barnes Bridge, South-West London. He was a big man, and made a big presence on stage; when he blew that saxophone it was intense, moving and soulful. He never said a lot, but often what he said revealed a very dry Croydon-style sense of humour. Weller was never highly fashionable, either in appearance or possibly even in terms of the recognition he received. Yet he was chosen to stand in for Michael Brecker in a Gil Evans tour of the UK. Weller was a stalwart of the British scene for many years and he never disappointed – you always left his gigs feeling totally uplifted and enthused. Respect is due.

Week ending 30 May: Chicago jazz now

Another week of the ‘circuit breaker’ as we call lockdown here in Singapore. It’s going well: everyone wears face masks when outside or in stores as they are required to, most stores remain closed but hawker centres and many restaurants are open for take away food and drinks. Shopping malls require a temperature check and ID before entry and so do major supermarkets. The TraceTogether app was launched in March and has been running successfully ever since. The recent surge in infections among the migrant community has been checked and daily local cases are in single or double figures. All Covid-19 cases are published and the recent locations of those infected is made public too. Erosion of public liberty? Sure. But no one complains. Why? Number of Covid-19 cases to date 34,884. Number of deaths 23. As they say – it’s not rocket science.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago in characteristic pose

But there are other issues to address on Cosmic Jazz this week. We draw attention to recent events in America and reflect on how little has changed. Chicago’s riots of 1919 began with the death of Eugene Williams, a black man, and the current US-wide riots began with the death of George Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis on 25 May, 2020. Chicago has once more experienced the pain of racial conflict and – as this post is being compiled – the situation continues to worsen.

Thanks to ongoing enlightened governance, Chicago may have escaped the worst of the USA’s racial tensions over the years, but the jazz scene in the windy city has continued to cast a light on what’s happening stateside. The current Chicago scene has some key players who reflect the social activism espoused by perhaps the city’s most famous crusading musician, Curtis Mayfield. From People Get Ready to Right On for the Darkness, Mayfield knew exactly how to capture the mood of the time, and the axis of jazz musicians around the latest incarnation of the Art Ensemble of Chicago have their own stories to tell. We’ll start with current bass player Junius Paul whose own album Ism reflects some of the current tensions through its own sizeable canvas of influences. “It’s just bringing more awareness of those things, so blacks can know their past, and history and that everybody can know, not just us”, he told Jazzwise while in London to play with Shabaka Hutchings. “Obviously, we have to know because it’s ours, but everybody needs to know what’s going on… black, white and in between.”  There’s a fascinating Bandcamp interview here which allows you to access all the music on the album. Listen to the featured tracks Baker’s Dozen and Ase before exploring the whole album and you’ll get an idea of the breadth of this record.

Trumpeter Marquis Hill features on Ism but his own releases are just as strong. His 2018 album Modern Flows II is an excellent example of his recent work. Prayer for the People begins with afrobeat drumming before introducing rapper M’Reid Green, along with rising Blue Note talent Joel Ross on vibes. It Takes a Village is equally powerful and this time features Brandon Alexander Williams on rap vocals. It’s all an excellent example of how jazz has embraced the current rap scene – and to powerful effect. Modern Flows II is highly recommended and available on download here on Bandcamp. Whilst Joel Ross may have gone more mainstream for his first Blue Note release, his music is equally interesting. Yana from the album captures the way that Blue Note has with vibes players – think of Bobby Hutcherson – ethereal and deep. It’s a fine debut.

Self proclaimed beat scientist Makaya McCraven’s drums have driven much of the music of the current Chicago scene, some of it centred on famed venue The Velvet Lounge where Junius Paul cut his teeth as the resident bassist. Owned by Chicago saxophonist Fred Anderson, the venue closed in 2109 although its jazz credentials really ended on Anderson’s death in 2010. Anderson is another musician who really should be better known – listen to him here on Saxoon from his 1979 album Dark Day featuring Chicagoan Hamid Drake on drums. McCraven has been responsible for a number of projects on both sides of the Atlantic and he’s been featured with several of the current crop of British jazz musicians on recordings in London. Perhaps the best place to start with his music is the excellent In the Moment album, now available in a deluxe 3CD/vinyl set – check it out here on Bandcamp. This new version include another 40 minutes of music from the initial 48 hours of live, improvised performance recorded at 1 venue over 12 months and 28 shows. Mostly short tracks at under three minutes, each has something to recommend but, for a longer groove try, Finances from the deluxe edition. In the Moment features an honorary Chicagoan currently making waves with his solo records, guitarist Jeff Parker. He first came to fame with the post rock group Tortoise – and specifically their 1998 album TNT, a more jazz-inflected than most of their output. The title track is a clear indication of this new direction with Parker’s guitar very much to the fore. Currently riding high with his new album for the label, Parker’s music continues to evolve.

His new record on Chicago’s International Anthem label, Suite for Max Brown, is a good example of his deployment of the same studio cutup styles loved by both Tortoise and Makaya McCraven – an exploration of the intersection of live improvisation and modern digital recording techniques of loops, samples and beats. But the record has a more organic heart too – listen to how the kalimba cuts into the groove on the short track Gnarciss.

Parker’s recording method is much like McCraven’s. Beginning with a digital bed of beats and samples, he lays down tracks of guitar, keyboards, bass and percussion before inviting musicians to play and improvise over his melodies. There’s no classic studio arrangement though: each musician usually works alone with Parker before he layers and assembles the individual parts into final tracks. The results feel like in-the-moment jams with the improvisational human spirit that characterises a real live recording.

Which brings us full circle to one of the sources of this current creative river of Chicago jazz – the AACM, or Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians – the collective that gave us the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Founded back in 1965 by Muhal Richard Abrams and Phil Cohran numerous influential jazz musicians have passed through the ranks of the AACM. Percussion Kahil El’Zabar, for example, became their chairman in 1975 – and I’m currently really enjoying his What It Is! album from 2012 on Delmark Records. Here’s the lead off track The Nature Of, featuring Kevin Nabors on tenor sax and on Justin Dillard on Hammond B3 organ and – yes – Junius Paul on bass. This record really does swing! For more El’Zabar try his Ritual Trio and a tune from the excellent African N’da Blues album, featuring the great Pharoah Sanders. Here is the delightful Africanos/Latinos with Susana Sandoval on vocals and Malachi Favors from the Art Ensemble of Chicago on bass.

So where to start with the AEC themselves? Let’s begin at the beginning. The initial Roscoe Mitchell Sextet included Mitchell on tenor sax, trumpeter Lester Bowie, bassist Malachi Favors and the great Phillip Wilson on drums. All of musicians were multi-instrumentalists and played a huge range of conventional and what they called ‘small instruments’ – from conch shells to whistles. In 1968 they decamped to Paris where they released some of their first records under the AEC banner. Film soundtrack Le Stances a Sophie was recorded at this time – here’s the famous Theme de Yoyo with vocals by Fontella Bass. On returning to the US in 1972 the AEC recorded more than 20 albums through to 2004 – really their period of peak creativity.

Take this example of their extraordinary live performances – complete with face paints (and Lester Bowie in his characteristic doctor’s coat) at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1991. They were very much still on fine form here with their original lineup before Lester Bowie’s death in 1999. The tune is the signature Ohnedaruth which appeared first on the excellent Phase One album from 1971. If you’re looking for a good quality live recording, Urban Bushmen on the ECM label captures the group on tour in 1980 or – for a more chaotic, but inspired, live recording – try the famous Bap-tizum from 1972 on Atlantic. This also features a lengthy take on Ohnedaruth – compare the two!

More inspirational music next week on Cosmic Jazz. Until then – enjoy!

Neil is listening to…

Week ending 23 May 2020: Pitchfork, PopMatters and Lee

More from the online treasure trove of jazz music, films and writing this week on Cosmic Jazz. It’s not all TikToks and Tweets out there – there’s a wealth of great writing to start with. Pitchfork and PopMatters are two go-to sites for in-depth reviews – take this recent post from Pitchfork, for example. It’s a beautifully written piece by Andy Beta on one of my favourite records in any genre – Clube da Esquina by Lo Borges and Milton Nascimento. That iconic album cover says it all – two young Brazilian playmates (whom most people might assume are Borges and Nascimento when young) who turn out to be boys captured in an ‘image a la sauvette’ moment by Carlos da Silva Assunção Filho (better known as Cafi), a local photographer. The Pitchfork feature has some lovely stuff about the back story behind this image as well as a focus on the extraordinary lyricism of the record. Thanks to hauntingly beautiful arrangements by Eumir Deodato, the tracks are themselves burnished snapshots of moments in the lives of two central figures in Brazilian music. My favourite song from the many on this double album? Without doubt, it’s the extraordinary wordless Clube da Esquina No. 2 – listen and be moved. Trust me – you’ll come back to this song again and again.

Just 19 at the time of recording Clube da Esquina, Lo Borges was supported by his mother – affectionately known as Dona Maricota – who founded the corner cafe in Belo Horizonte where teenagers would meet to test out their new songs. Nascimento would go on to become one of the most famous of Brazil’s singer songwriters, performing with a host of the world’s best jazz artists including Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Jack deJohnette and Wayne Shorter, whose 1974 album Native Dancer was a collaboration between the two. Here’s Miracle of the Fishes, composed by Nascimento and Fernando Brant, one of the Clube da Esquina songwriters and featuring a spirited tenor solo from Shorter.

Original Clube da Esquina members – including Milton Nascimento, Lô Borges, Wagner Tiso, Fernando Brant and Toninho Horta.

PopMatters‘ name may suggest that it has nothing to offer jazz lovers – but far from it. This recent piece on Joseph Bowie and his band Defunkt by Imran Khan includes an interview which has more interesting revelations about Bowie’s musical sources and his current situation. If his surname has a jazz familiarity it’s because his elder brother was Lester Bowie from the Art Ensemble of Chicago – but Joseph pursued a different path, emerging as part of the New York punk/’no wave‘ movement in the late 1970s. The result was two albums – the self-titled Defunkt from 1980 and the explosive Thermonuclear Sweat which appeared two years later. Both albums are worth searching out – look for the Rykodisc set which includes both along with some additional tracks. Standouts include Illusion and their take on the O’Jays’ For the Love of Money, both from Thermonuclear Sweat (the better release). Bowie had also played with John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards around this time, and those who remember the NME’s cassette tapes from the 1980s might recall a Lounge Lizards track (Stomping at the Corona) on the Dancing Master compilation.

It was at this point that I moved on and lost track of Defunkt and Bowie – his elder brother’s music holding a more powerful appeal. Indeed, Lester Bowie’s The Great Pretender album for ECM in 1981 included Rios Negroes – the subject of a Cosmic Jazz feature from back in the day. Whether with the Art Ensemble or his Brass Fantasy project, Lester Bowie was responsible for some of the most innovative jazz recordings in the history of this art form. He referenced the history of both jazz and popular music – listen to this take on Night Life – more usually associated with Elvis Presley – from the excellent live album The Fire This Time (1992).

So what’s Joseph Bowie up to now? The PopMatters feature and interview revealed an interesting more recent project that I’d missed – Defunkt’s One World album from 1995 which featured a version of the Art Ensemble’s People in Sorrow, written by Joseph Bowie and with vocals by Kellie Sae. Recorded in the Netherlands where Bowie now lives, this is much more of a soul record (unfortunately with a slew of unconvincing lyrics) but the band is tight and it’s good to know that after decades of drug addiction and turbulence Bowie is still making music. For the full 40 minute threnody of the AEC’s People in Sorrow, listen right here.

We also have a run of jazz filmographies to check out at the moment: portraits- as dramatisations or documentaries of trumpeters Lee Morgan, Miles Davis and Chet Baker along with a new bio of the mysterious founder of jazz, cornetist Buddy Bolden. We have written of the excellent Birth of the Cool previously on CJ and you can now download it from BBC’s iPlayer. You should – there are memorable interviews – particularly with Frances Taylor Davis – and the story of Miles Davis remains compelling. Netflix delivers I Called Him Morgan and, while it isn’t as glossy as Birth of the Cool, it has its moments too. The story is rather less well known: trumpeter Lee Morgan was just 33 when he was shot and killed by his wife Helen Morgan while playing at Slug’s Saloon in New York in 1972. Initially, Morgan modelled himself on another trumpeter who met an early death, Clifford Brown. Both supremely talented on trumpet, Morgan went on to have the longer career, recording prolifically for Blue Note in the 1960-70s and netting the label a genuine chart hit with The Sidewinder from 1963. But there was much more to Morgan than this and, at the time of his death, the music was moving in new directions. In fact, his next release – 1966’s Search for The New Land – is a taste of where his music was heading. It was actually recorded before The Sidewinder but perhaps was shelved until Blue Note and/or his audience could catch up with him. Highlight is the 15 minute title track which features over both and closing of the film. Wayne Shorter is interviewed for I Called Him Morgan and says of this music: He was actually digging back into his roots in history – and what could be achieved with freedom. This is a favourite Lee Morgan album for many jazz fans – including myself. The sextet lineup is perfect with Wayne Shorter on tenor, Grant Green on guitar, Herbie Hancock on piano, Reggie Workman on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. All tracks are standouts but Mr Kenyatta (a tribute to the now rather forgotten alto player Robin Kenyatta) is another classic.

Morgan went to release another sixteen albums in the nine years before his death and everyone is worth investigating. Of the lesser known releases, The Rajah is a personal favourite along with his intriguing final album, The Last Session and the wonderful In What Direction Are You Heading? My original double disc vinyl pressing is now rare but the CD can be tracked down for a reasonable price.

More lock down virtual crate digging revelations next week… In the meantime, this is some of the music Neil has been listening to over the last week:

Neil is listening to…

Week ending 16 May 2020: jazz vloggers and YouTubers

Another week, another Cosmic Jazz. For those of us who like some jazz in our lives, these seem like particularly rich times. Of course, there is no real substitute for live music, but if you’re confined to home then this seems like the ideal time to explore the numerous jazz blogs, websites and Youtube videos out there. So – not really a virtual show this week but instead music inspired by my internet exploration of two of these vlogs.

We’re trawling that deep space online where you never know what you’ll find. Let’s begin with a virtual record store and review site – The ‘In’ Groove is a record store in Phoenix, Arizona that also supplies online, with owner Mike Esposito also taking time out to do video reviews – like this one about his favourite jazz records. Mike is a hifi retailer too and so his focus is on records that sound good – I like the anecdote of the listener who thought that Take Five sounded “too good.” Of course, all of Mike’s choices are of the audiophile variety but there’s some music here that all jazz fans should have. One interesting choice is from saxophonist Nathan Davis on the French Sam label – here’s a promo video for the 3LP live recording. Davis was one of those African-American jazz artists who found himself more accepted and respected in the postwar jazz scene in Paris. Woody Shaw and Kenny Clarke were also part of this set, and you can hear them with Davis on this lovely version of Sconsolato that didn’t make it onto Davis’ 1965 record Peace Treaty, an excellent album and now about to be reissued on the Sam label with that bonus track.

Mike also includes a Three Blind Mice record – a rare label to find in the UK but one revered here in Singapore. It hails from Japan and majors on incredible recording quality – one of my go-to stores here, The Analog Vault, has the Impex re-release box set available for SGD$330 – but it is a 6 record set… For a taste of audiophile nirvana, strap on your best headphones and listen to Aqua Marine from the Isao Suzuki Quartet. Also included in this Best of… list is (predictably) Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (1959) and Thelonious Monk’s 1963 album Monk’s Dream. You can find both regular and audiophile titles at The Analog Vault and my favourite store here in Singapore, The Jazz Loft.

Ken Micallef reviews jazz records for Downbeat and Jazz Times magazines and also writes for Stereophile magazine. But perhaps he’s best known for his quirky, opinionated Youtube channel posts. His love of jazz is deep and knowledgable and the vlogs from his New York apartment are a great listen. Here he is extolling the virtues of some ‘jazz through the cracks‘ – records that are not well known but well worth a listen. There’s so many records here that are worth looking out for if you’re able to go crate digging. How about this lovely version of Chick Corea’s Litha on the first record Micallef mentions – Stan Getz’s Sweet Rain from 1967… Getz is with Corea on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Grady Tate on drums – what’s not to like? Micallef also features new jazz artists, in this instance flautist Nicole Mitchell. Her Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds album from 2017 is new jazz to explore. Recorded live at the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Chicago in 2015, there’s an Art Ensemble of Chicago feel to the complex instrumentation, dominant percussion and attendant freedoms given to the players. Check out the opening track Egoes War for a taste of this brilliant, if challenging, record. Easier listening comes from another Micallef recommendation – pianist Tommy Flanagan’s Overseas album, recorded in Stockholm in 1957 and reissued thirty years later (with extra tracks) in 1987 on the Japanese DIW label. Flanagan’s take on Charlie Parker’s Relaxin’ at Camarillo just swings – and that’s Elvin Jones you can hear on brushes. Spend time with Macallef – you’ll learn a lot and come away with some great record recommendations.

Stereophile magazine itself is – of course – available in print and digital versions and there’s much in the latter to entertain any music lover. I particularly like the annual R2D4 (Records to Die For) lists with mini-reviews that encourage you to explore further – and often well outside your genre comfort zone. The best music writing is the kind that persuades you to listen and/or buy, and Stereophile writer do this – often rather too frequently for comfort…

As a New Yorker article from 2018 made clear, “vinyl offers the joys of possessorship: if you go to a store, talk to other music lovers, and buy a record, you are committing to your taste, to your favorite group, to your friends” – and I think that’s any record store buyer’s experience. It is not the same as the simple internet click to secure your latest download. Can you remember where you were when you bought a favourite download? It’s unlikely. In contrast, most vinyl lovers can remember clearly when and where they purchased their most treasured records. The New Yorker piece indicated that those young people buying vinyl now have joined up with two sets of people who never really gave up on the black wax: “the scratchmaster d.j.s deploying vinyl on twin turntables, making music with their hands, and the audiophiles hoarding their LPs from decades ago”. The result is a resurgent vinyl market that has been hit hard by the Covid-19 outbreak, but will hopefully bounce back so that more of us can enjoy that unique crate digging experience – perhaps best captured by this now iconic image from DJ Shadow’s essential 1996 album Endtroducing, which features two of his co-diggers and DJ associates in a record store in Sacramento, California. More great music next week here on Cosmic Jazz – and we leave you with a track from the magnificence that is Endtroducing – Building Steam with a Grain of Salt. Until next week, enjoy!

Neil is listening to…

Derek is listening to…