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Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Capital Times > A bumper crop of excellent jazz recordings has arisen in recent months

The Capital Times Moran tops new jazz releases

By Kevin Lynch
July 29, 2005

A bumper crop of excellent jazz recordings has arisen in recent months, and here's the pick of the harvest:

• Jason Moran. "Same Mother" (Blue Note). At my age (54) I agree with controversial jazz critic Stanley Crouch that jazz is adult music. That doesn't mean it shouldn't deal with issues of youth.

Pianist Jason Moran, in his late 20s, deals out mature, tough-minded stuff in the CD-opening "Gangsterism on the Rise." He frames the subject with a larger cultural perspective -- the blues-jazz tradition as a mother lode of minority expression ("all from the same mother"). The opening and closing tracks prod gangsterism in a high-spirited way that I read as valuing its youthful defiance rather than its stupid, misogynist aggression.

Yet Moran, already our most important young jazz pianist, has learned capably from elders such as Andrew Hill. On "Jump Up" -- a very muscular, contemporary boogie-woogie -- guitarist Martin Sewell adds searing blues riffs to Moran's powerful piano work.

This is red-meat music that I'm eating up these days. It's leavened by beautiful and rather profound stuff: the wistful "Aubade," the snappy cubist dance of Mal Waldron's "Fire Waltz" and the crystalline yet cloudy "Field of the Dead," from Prokofiev's "Alexander Nevsky," with Sewell's mournful slide guitar.

This opens a three-tune sequence of similarly moving thematics. "Restin' " is utterly haunted. Like Wayne Shorter, Moran is admirably influenced by film music, transmitting depth and dimension with efficient artfulness. Moran rarely wastes notes, sculpting ideas into poetic percussion and unsentimental expressiveness. Moran sounds as if he understands what it means to have lived several lifetimes.

• Fred Hersch Ensemble. "Leaves of Grass." (Palmetto). One of the more ambitious jazz records of recent years is a labor of love. These are not all complete poems of Whitman's masterwork. Hersch often plucks and weaves passages with the help of literary consultant Herschel Garfein.

The performed text is included, but I recommend you listen with Whitman's Deathbed Edition. Hersch's lyrical piano accompaniment is judicious but could've used a little more dissonance, given Whitman's often gutsy twists of imagery.

Vocalists Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry are among the most creative and sensitive singers in jazz. Elling's sweet, ardent baritone and tender falsetto find the perfect text for his apt background as a divinity student. He often imbues the words with spiritual longing that never loses touch with earthliness. Accordingly, Whitman's sometimes heady sentiments embrace humanity's deepest connections and contradictions.

In "The Mystic Trumpeter" McGarry's voice mixes Ralph Allessi's horn with a smiling knowingness. Several passages caught me unawares and teary-voiced, music and verse melding in a vortex of inspiration.

Here and elsewhere, McGarry's jazz-folk singer sensibility captures the text's exultation of nature's mysteries, wondering how to answer a child who asks, what is grass? "Fetching it to me with full hands; how could I answer the child? I did not know what it is any more than he ... I guess it must be the flag of my disposition. Or I guess the grass is itself a child, and now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves."

• Roberto Magris Europlane. "Check-In" (Soul Note). Most European jazz remains undiscovered by many American listeners, and this Italian pianist's CD invites you to experience an Italian sensibility that reaches back to the Renaissance with its sense of craft and muscular beauty while dwelling in the depths of classic modern jazz. It's especially apparent in the conversational brilliance of saxophonists Tony Lakotos and Michael Erian, who both play soprano and tenor.

Right from a deliciously swinging "I Remember You," the tenors trade fours like Coltrane and Rollins on "Tenor Madness." The pianist's originals are imaginative and moving, especially "Blues From My Sleeping Baby," 12-plus minutes of a sauntering melody gorgeously harmonized and extemporized by the saxes and the pianist's Cecil Taylorish cluster harmonies and bounding runs across the keyboard. Available at

• Dave Douglas. "Mountain Passages" (Green Leaf Music). Another musical adventure of sorts from jazz's most ingenious all-around musical artist.

Dave Douglas hauled his band and instruments (including a tuba) up a mountainside to record this music in the elevated realm his father once communed with. Douglas' playing recalls the splattered notes of Don Cherry, and clarinetist-saxophonist Michael Moore adds folk-dancing ethnic color. As with much excellent music, "Mountain Passages" traverses technical challenges that lead to a fresh sense of space and time, a discovery of unusual forms with their own inherent beauty. This is the first release from Douglas' own new label and available from

• Charles Lloyd. "Jumping the Creek." (ECM). Saxophonist and flutist Lloyd is a sort of jazz guru, having turned many onto spiritualized modern jazz at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1966 (also the national debut of Keith Jarrett). A discriminating musician friend of mine once referred to him as "Coltrane lite."

Today, Lloyd is celebrated as a modern master. But at times he betrays a precious sweetness, a quality that some trace to Lester Young. Occasionally on this recording he sounds like a man rapt in his own musical presence. Other times, he attains cascading ecstasies that justify Coltrane comparisons.

But the real cargo puller on this train is pianist Geri Allen. Each time she emerges, the music surges with her fluent, sharply sculpted phrases that sometimes recall Herbie Hancock's stunning accents and dramatic swells. Now she's a master worth following.


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