Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Swing, lo! — Looking across the jazz landscape through three new recordings

Young jazz players may hone their improvisational skills on tunes known to their predecessors and teachers, but when it comes to stepping out on their own, many newcomers these days are founding their artistry almost solely on their own compositions. Given their compositional serioiusness, they are reaching instrumentally and sometimes formally in the direction of the classical genre, while remaining jazz musicians.

This is a new wrinkle in jazz history, something a little more fluid and less awkward than the "Third Stream" music of four decades ago. Respect for the current developments has been extended from the classical direction, too; after all, Charles Mingus never received a commissioning grant from Chamber Music America.

This practice unites extensive musical forethought with spontaneity to raise the creative profile of musicians trying to make their mark. Here are three whose new recordings will stand or fall on perceptions of what kind of bandleaders and original thinkers they are perceived to be.

Israeli reed player Oran Etkin casts a wide net.
Oran Etkin is a clarinetist-saxophonist from Israel. "Gathering Light" (Motema Music) reflects his quirky gift for absorption, not only from the jazz world but from his heritage along with glimmers of world music. Several of his compositions slyly explore aspects of the blues, with exotic coloring, like "Der Gasn Nign (Street Song)" and "Takeda (Homesick Blues)."

The band he leads is flexibly deployed, from a catchy pairing with bassist Ben Allison forthrightly titled "All I Really Want to Do is Dance" to such raucous full-band numbers as "Guangzhou Taxi," which also involves guitarist Lionel Loueke, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, and drummer Nasheet Waits.

Etkin's manner as a player of clarinet, bass clarinet and tenor saxophone is ingratiating and  wide-ranging. His composing gifts are exercised with more mixed results, usually high-spirited but sometimes aimless.  He favors rangy melodies with wide interval leaps; he is not above showing off, but musically he's a likable fellow. He chooses simpatico sidemen, particularly Waits and Allison. Loueke is one of the more interesting guitarists to have emerged in the past decade, and his low-key West African lilt suits Etkin's folk-derived muse.

Anne Mette Iversen wants you to listen from the beginning, and go straight through.
Today's jazzers are a self-conscious lot, if the words they provide for news releases and booklet notes are any indication. If the high intentionality comes across as engaging music, that's all well and good. Fortunately, that's mostly the case with bassist Anne Mette Iversen whose Double Life quintet is joined with a string quartet called 4Corners in "So Many Roads" (BJU Records).

So insistent is Iversen on the unity of this work that she figures its 36-and-a-half minutes are adequate for a CD. Moreover, the work's segments — from Prologue through Epilogue, with four Chapters in between — are not given individual timings. Instead, the listed timings are cumulative; the track list tells you how much time has elapsed from the first note.

You are supposed to listen to "So Many Roads" from start to finish, in order — don't press "shuffle" or "random"! — and fortunately it is worth hearing as the composer intends. The string quartet (in contrast to some pieces written with a jazz perspective) is used as more than an atmospheric supplement to the work of the quintet. Besides Iversen, Double Life consists of John Ellis, saxophones; Peter Dahlgren, trombone; Danny Grissett, piano, and Otis Brown III, drums. The two ensembles are complementary and well-integrated into textures used to delineate moods that are sometimes lively and devil-may-care, sometimes brooding and reflective.

Tom Guarna takes care of business — with guitar and charts.
One of the most refreshing guitar styles that have come to my attention recently is that of Tom Guarna.  He can stretch out with imagination, stringing together garlands of sound that rarely seem to be just taking up space. He's a cogent improviser, with a compositional gift that never wastes a phrase.

On "Rush" (BJU Records), he leads a fine band, with particularly enthralling work from saxophonist Joel Frahm, another thrifty player who never forgets to "tell a story" in his solos. Also on hand is the estimable keyboard player Danny Grissett, heading a rhythm section smoothly filled out by bassist Orlando Le Fleming and drummer Johnathan Blake. In the arrangements, the guitar-sax partnership displays admirable variety and resourcefulness. One hopes this personnel stays intact for a while, because "Rush" bodes well for Guarna's future as a bandleader who knows who he's writing for and what they're capable of.

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