New Jazz Vocabularies, a Bit of Elegance and Big Ideas
By BEN RATLIFF
Published: March 1, 2013
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A trio including the drummer and singer Guillermo E. Brown (he played in David S. Ware’s quartet for most of the oughts), the bassist Keith Witty and the French saxophonist Christophe Panzani, collectively called Thiefs, is looking for new ways to extend jazz sound and, to some extent, jazz vocabulary. It combines the sound of trap-set and digital percussion; R&B vocals and squelchy voice-related samples; splintered dance music; and contemporary, calm, serious melodic improvisation.
This record, the band’s first, on the Melamine Harmonique label, is cooperatively made, but it bears some connections to what Mr. Brown has been doing recently with his band Pegasus Warning. It is a promisingly strange album: broad enough that it can’t be described as X plus Y. The best you can do is X plus Y plus Z: a collision of the jazz trio Fly, the hip-hop group Antipop Consortium and Frank Ocean. It keeps changing the frame, making a startling mash of natural and synthetic, resonant and fractured.
Self-produced and self-released by the jazz pianist Shamie Royston, “Portraits,” available on cdbaby.com, is a first album that probably would have been a second or third one 10 years ago. (I’m coming to it late. It slipped out last year with minimal recognition.) From Colorado, now living in the New York City area, Ms. Royston comes from a musical family. Her sister is the saxophonist Tia Fuller, and her husband is the drummer Rudy Royston, who plays on the album, alongside the bassist Ivan Taylor.
This is confident and elegant piano-trio music that’s sometimes rhythmically vanguardist and sometimes spare or balladlike, organized into hymns and fantasias, channeled through some of the key pianists in jazz during the early 1990s. Ultimately this is music inspired by Kenny Kirkland and Geri Allen, and descended from Ahmad Jamal and McCoy Tyner. In a moment when traditions in jazz mean less and less, this is of squarely from one, and strong because of it.
The trombonist and guitarist Curtis Hasselbring’s new album, “Number Stations” (Cuneiform), is inspired by the system of anonymous shortwave radio transmissions — typically strings of numbers, read by a female voice — that have existed without proper explanation since the cold war and are thought to be coded messages used for espionage. According to information provided by the record label there is some codelike logic going on in this bright, complex music: group members sending messages to one another through repeated strings of notes. (The band is Mr. Hasselbring’s septet, the New Mellow Edwards, with Mary Halvorson on guitar, Chris Speed on tenor saxophone and clarinet, Matt Moran on vibraphone, Trevor Dunn on bass, and Ches Smith and Satoshi Takeishi both on drums.) But I’m glad it doesn’t sound only or explicitly like that.
This is one of the best extensions of ’90s downtown New York jazz I’ve heard in a while, done partly with musicians from that time and partly with younger ones who have hungrily absorbed their lessons. The tunes burst with character even when their melodic content approaches code. They suggest rough and rocking reflections on film music (Mancini and Herrman), the Mothers of Invention and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, among other things.
‘Bottom of the World’ “Bottom of the World” (TLA), the first album in 14 years by the Texas-raised, New Mexico-resident visual artist and singer-songwriter Terry Allen, isn’t nearly as self-contained as his concept album “Juarez,” from 1975, and his character-sketch album “Lubbock (On Everything),” from 1979, the standards he’ll likely be held to. Those are poetic manifestoes of perception and history told through country music. This one holds together mostly by virtue of the fact that Mr. Allen wrote everything, but that’s still valuable. He’s pretty close to a master lyricist.
The group sound, as usual, is spare, almost demo quality. Mr. Allen plays a mellow electric keyboard as he sings; Lloyd Maines (a producer not only of Mr. Allen’s extremely coltish, small-release records but also of the Dixie Chicks’ six-times-platinum “Home”) sometimes chimes in with acoustic or pedal-steel guitar, and that’s generally about it.
But Mr. Allen’s magic strength is that he can keep two or more big ideas in the air at once, juxtaposing them without explicitly merging them until they kind of belong together: sex and real estate, love and colonization, greed and guilt, or as in “Wake of the Red Witch,” film history and personal consciousness. I tell you this, and it sounds tidy, but this is how he tells it:
Jesus Christ hangs a naked cameo in space
the camera avoids his face
while Roman soldiers shoot dice for his clothes in the biblical epic
John Wayne’s dead.