Reviewing New Jazz Now

The organizing principle behind this batch of records: They’re recent releases by NYC-based talents, recommended for originality and freshness. They’re all worth hearing more than once, and constitute discoveries. You don’t need to be told you’ll like Keith Jarrett’s solo Rio, right?

Roots Before Branches, by drummer Henry Cole and the Afrobeat Collective is a proud showing of current Nuyorican culture. His beats, solid even while shifty, are matched by bold yet detailed arrangements for ten or eleven players, different on each track. Repertoire shout-outs to Santana, Fela Kuti, poetry slams and late night space jams; spotlit saxophonists Miguel Zenón, David Sanchez, John Ellis and guitarist Adam Rogers don’t steal the thunder but add to the aura. “Uncovered Fear” is a mournful recitative (all vocals are in Spanish) with strings. The album, Cole’s first, is more ambitious than party music, but it’s that, too.

Steve Lehman is one smart, probing, distinctive alto saxophonist in our town full of them. His trio project Dialect Fluorescent, featuring bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damion Reid, has warmth and bite, dynamic pace and confident if sometimes deceptively modest flourishes. Amid his own compositions, he imaginatively reconceives Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” and burns on “Pure Imagination” (from the original Willie Wonka movie). Lehman is a Columbia grad student whose brilliance enhances his music rather than making it obscure or arrogant; he’s ensuring jazz’s future.

Less Magnetic, debuting with Trickology, comprises six new faces cohesively creating fast, furious, chopsy and loud neo-fusion with titles like “Civilized Decline” and “Terran Up Da Clubz.” Guitarist Gabriel Marin may be the standout soloist, but there are no slouches: alto saxist Jeremy Shaskus, tenor saxist Ben Cohen, keyboards player Campbell Charshee, electric bassist John Merritt and drummer Daniel Kurfirst fully share responsibilities and sense of purpose, like brainstorming teammates at an internet startup. Their charts are unconventionally synchronized, with depth and quiet thought adding substance to the flash. Listen and be wowed.

Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society will turn-on young fans as Norah Jones’ Come Away with Me did, though Esperanza’s a rangier, more daring singer and the orchestrations around her more overtly “jazzy”. She’s sexy in an empowered yet girlish way — to my older guy ears — and she may even strike boomers as an updated, lighter-hearted Joni Mitchell circa Court and Spark. An all-star ensemble successfully keeps the instrumental backgrounds (including Ms. Spalding’s bass-playing) interesting, but her charismatic voice and bright-burning persona is front and center throughout.

Anyone for jazzing Shostakovich? Yes: bassist Michael Bates with Chris Speed, reeds; Russ Johnson, trumpet; Russ Lossing, piano and Tom Rainey, drums, on Acrobat: Music For, and By Dimitri Shostakovich, the wry, elusive, paradoxical Russian composer (1906 – 75). Bate’s artful orchestration unfolds into his bandmembers’ sensitive improvisations; dissonances, vocalizations, collective interplay and staggered rhythms take the starch out of what might otherwise pass for chamber music. Even the irony is lyrical. Excellent musicianship, serious fun.

Wayne Escoffery is a tenor and occasionally soprano saxophonist often heard with trumpeter Tom Harrell. In The Only Son of One, he digs into his own adult-oriented, post-Coltrane compositions which, according to liner notes by author James McBride, relate a backstory based on Escoffrey’s hardscrabble childhood and mature determination to lead a moral life. Ignore the narrative, though, and the man’s big, supple sound simply delivers excitement and beauty. Pianist Orrin Evans and synthesizer-keyboardist Adam Holzman contribute sparkling sound beds and glinting washes; drummer Jason Brown drives subtly or hard, as appropriate; bassists Ricky Rodrigues and Hans Glawischnig are unobtrusively fine. There’s no mistaking the style for anything but what it is: American jazz now.

Read More Howard Mandel at jazzmandel@gmail.com