Monday, June 1, 2015

Jazz au naturel still stirs and sings: New CDs from Aaron Diehl, Marshall Gilkes, Anat Cohen, and Mark Guiliana

It's sometimes possible to wonder why jazz-rock fusion, and a general takeover of jazz instrumentation by electronic instruments, was ever thought to be a likely successor to acoustic jazz. The bandwagon probably started rolling in pursuit of a will-o'-the-wisp: recapturing the jazz audience lost when the big bands went into eclipse after World War II.

Technology will forever suggest new directions for art, and who can object to that? The problem comes when technology seems to be mandating the changes. Fortunately, though that large audience remains elusive, this particular mandate lost force over the decades since big hair and bell bottoms.

Love for instruments that naturally send sound waves in motion into the atmosphere with humans as direct agents has never receded from creative young minds. And these four releases are solid proof of  the attraction of staying relatively unplugged-in.

Anat Cohen is the foremost new voice of jazz clarinet.
Foremost among recent recordings I've paid attention to is Anat Cohen's "Luminosa" (Anzic).  The Israeli-American clarinetist has represented that somewhat neglected instrument for jazz in the 21st century. Her sound is both emotionally informed and technically nimble.

"Luminosa" is heavily oriented toward Cohen's exposure to Brazilian music, from such traditions as the choro (in which genre she performs with a separate band), the samba, and the bossa nova. She's a veteran bandleader by now — this is her seventh CD under her own name — and she has a sturdy sense of how to forge artistic unity across an hour of music.

Aaron Diehl is good at matching sidemen to his compositions.
Keyboardist Jason Lindner turns to electronics now and then, but there is a healthy emphasis on the unadorned sound of Cohen's clarinet and other accompanying instruments, chiefly guitars and percussion. Her lyricism is front and center in the opener, Milton Nascimento's "Lilia," particularly through extensive concentration on her ethereal, but always well-supported, upper register.

She has an instinctive sense of the applicability of bass clarinet to Nascimento's Southern Hemisphere soul, so she turns to that instrument capably for "Cais" and "Beatriz."

Lindner introduced to the band "Putty Boy Strut," which showcases the hopping symbiosis of clarinet and piano. Cohen achieves similar rapport with guitarist Romero Lubambo on "Bachiao," a tribute to J.S. Bach that, perhaps surprisingly, owes nothing to Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Her affectionate, lilting tribute to her mother, "Ima," is one of a near-handful of Cohen originals, the last one of which is the disc's finale, a hearty salute to the patriarch of jazz festivals, George Wein, with the leader taking the album's sole outing on tenor sax. As a clarinetist, her range seems more personal and adaptable: She is characteristically bluesy but ever-buoyant in another original, "Happy Song." 

Aaron Diehl's "Space, Time, Continuum (Mack Avenue Records) is the latest free exercise of a composer-pianist's creative imagination, not only in the pieces he composes or selects, but also in how he chooses to supplement his trio (with David Wong, bass, and Quincy Davis, drums). Diehl
was the 2011 Cole Porter Fellow of the American Pianists Association, and his trio performances then were so competition-canny I was worried he would settle into being more like an A-plus student of jazz piano than an original artist.

But in the new disc, he chooses his solo notes as carefully as he does his sidemen. He welcomes the ageless Benny Golson in two numbers, takes into account the feathery stylings of a young tenor saxophonist, Stephen Riley, on two other tracks. Shrewdly, he pairs Golson's time-tested experience with the youthful sass of trumpeter Bruce Harris, most significantly on the ambitious title track. That number features a vocal by Charenee Wade to lyrics by Wynton Marsalis protegee Cecile McLorin Savant; I never grasped Savant's poetry, but Wade sings it well and ends her appearance with some deft scatting.

It can't escape notice that a man old enough to be his grandfather, Scottish baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley, is the focus of a handsome Diehl original totally suited to his style, aptly titled "The Steadfast Titan." 

Mark Guiliana reaches into more compositional complexity than one normally expects from
Mark Guiliana drives a tight quartet in original compositions.
drummers. He leads a super-compatible ensemble in ""Family First" (Beat Music Productions), each piece built up from the trap set, but not focused on percussion showcasing. His tunes often have contrasting sections in an almost suite-like setting.

The disc-opener, "One Month," has such an infectious rhythmic structure that it captivated me in repeated listenings. Guiliana's quartet is hand-in-glove with his compositional inspiration. No one takes extensive solos; the pieces are built around contrasts in tempo and texture, and everyone participates as equals.

I found that the disc lagged in interest between the middle and the end, but the hymnlike originality of "Family First," which ends the CD to which it lends its title, made for a finale that somehow managed to be both humble and grand in a unified way. And that's how we feel, isn't it?, when family life is going well and comes in first in our lives, comprising feelings of both humility and grandeur.

The intercontinental face of contemporary acoustic jazz is well-represented on "Köln" (Alternate Side Records) with Marshall Gilkes  contributing repertoire and trombone-playing to the first-class WDR Big Band in Cologne, Germany (a city whose German name supplies the album title). The American musician was a member of the band for four years.

In program notes, Gilkes praises his former adoptive city as having "an incredible music scene for such a small town."  As of 2011, Cologne had an estimated population of 1,017,000; its cathedral, in front of which Gilkes is pictured on the CD cover, is one of the monuments of central European church architecture. Some small town!

The music within is much more sophisticated and solidly based than Gilkes' words. There's a lovely, high-flying arrangement of "My Shining Hour" to start things off. From there the originals are effervescent ("4711 Special") or stately ("Edenderry") or gently propelled, with some gorgeous big-band writing ("Mary Louise" and "Downtime").

Gilkes rarely puts himself as a player in the spotlight on "Köln," preferring to let the WDR ensemble do wonders with his compositions and arrangements.  But he is well worth savoring as a trombonist on "Edenderry" and "Downtime."

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