June 2023 Jazz Record Reviews

Ingrid Laubrock: The Last Quiet Place

Laubrock, tenor and soprano saxophones; Mazz Swift, violin; Tomeka Reid, cello; Brandon Seabrook, guitar; Michael Formanek, bass; Tom Rainey, drums

Pyroclastic PR24 (auditioned on CD). 2023. Laubrock, prod.; Nick Lloyd, eng.

Performance ***½

Sonics ½

Ingrid Laubrock is representative of what might be called the New Jazz Avant-garde. What is new is that, unlike the older version (Coleman, Ayler, late Coltrane, etc.), it is less noisy and more analytical. But it is no less challenging. Laubrock’s imagination is radical.

The Last Quiet Place is a rare thing, a record led by a saxophonist that is not dominated by saxophone: Four of the six musicians (see above) play stringed instruments. They are well suited to Laubrock’s purposes, especially the bowed ones, with their capacity to generate sustained notes. Laubrock is interested in layered textures and arcane (dis)harmonies. She wants to conjure startling soundscapes. She loves contrast, the more jarring the better. On “Anticipation,” the violin and cello shift between sweetness and abrasive harshness. “Afterglow” is initiated by the strings, in the careful counterpoint of classical chamber music. By the end, all six players are improvising jazz together, wildly.

But Laubrock’s wildness is structured. She takes calculated risks by meticulously assembling grossly dissimilar elements. She rethinks what is possible for ensemble forms.

Laubrock’s own two woodwind instruments are aurally distinct from the strings. She does not often use their timbres in saxophone solos as such, but as a source of jaggedness, intensity, and visceral impact within the dense patterns of her music. In a band full of sharp edges, Laubrock’s voice cuts deepest. When she gives herself some solo space, as on “Grammy Season,” she deals mostly in ideas you have never heard before.

The Last Quiet Place is for creative, active listeners, not for people who use music to relax after a hard day’s work.—Thomas Conrad

Wayne Escoffery: Like Minds

Escoffery, tenor and soprano saxophones; seven others

Smoke Sessions SSR-2303 (auditioned as 16/44.1 WAV). 2023. Paul Stache, Damon Smith, prods.; Chris Allen, eng.

Performance ****

Sonics ****

The album title refers to the fact that most of the players here are Escoffery’s long-term associates. The core quartet has pianist David Kikoski, bassist Ugonna Okegwo, and drummer Mark Whitfield. There are four guests: trumpeter Tom Harrell, singer Gregory Porter, guitarist Mike Moreno, and percussionist Daniel Sadownick. Jazz musicians place huge importance on likemindedness because jazz is the most communal of art forms, in its creation and its consumption.

These guys do sound like they were meant for each other. Escoffery and Moreno take the tight corners of the quick-on-quick opening title track as if bonded at the hip. The next piece is Charles Mingus’s “Nostalgia in Times Square.” Escoffery is a musical director of the Mingus Big Band and has served in its saxophone section for 23 years. He is willing to be irreverent with a Mingus classic. Aided and abetted by Whitfield, he gives “Nostalgia in Times Square” a new, snaky hip-hop beat. Harrell responds to the juicy groove like a kid in a candy store. He eats the song alive.

The remaining seven tracks are solid. The two with Porter (a Grammy winner with crossover appeal) will get the most airplay. Escoffery wrote the music and lyrics for “My Truth,” which deals with the duality of living in modern society (“My truth is love … my truth is pain”). Porter’s huge, warm, commanding, vulnerable, human voice powerfully portrays that familiar contemporary polarity. On “Rivers of Babylon,” Escoffery and Porter interweave their thoughts and feelings in a compelling joint statement.

This album is more than a showcase for the leader’s talent as a saxophone soloist. Like Minds could go in a time capsule as a quintessential example of what highly creative straight-ahead American jazz bands were up to in 2023.—Thomas Conrad

Tony Kadleck Big Band: Sides

Kadleck, trumpet, arrangements; various combinations of 41 others

Alternate Side ASR#014 (auditioned as CD). 2023. John Fedchock, prod.; Roy Hendrickson, eng.

Performance ****½

Sonics ****½

For more than 30 years, Tony Kadleck has been one of the first-call trumpet players in American music. His resumé is a name-dropper’s dream: Frank Sinatra. Ella Fitzgerald. Barbra Streisand. Tony Bennett. Stevie Wonder. But even in the inner circles of the New York jazz scene, where he is entrenched, Kadleck’s arranging chops are not common knowledge. Sides is only his third album as a leader and his second featuring his big band charts.

This record is modern mainstream large ensemble jazz in its highest state of evolution. A repertoire of popular and jazz standards is presented in immaculate, creative arrangements, performed by the best big band players in New York.

Take Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance.” As the collective power of 17 instruments gathers, it looms majestically into the foreground. Jennifer Wharton’s bass trombone and David Finck’s bass create a layer of deep counterpoint, then Mike Rodriguez takes a flaming trumpet solo.

Kadleck turns Bill Withers’s “Use Me” and Lennon and McCartney’s “Can’t Buy Me Love” into swinging, headlong, hard-hitting big band juggernauts. His fresh orchestral details—introductions, interludes, backgrounds, calls and responses—create new, larger-than-life personalities for his chosen tunes. The soloists kill, especially the trumpet players: Kadleck, Mike Rodriguez, Greg Gisbert, Marvin Stamm.

On “Both Sides Now,” Kadleck goes symphonic. Shifting configurations of stringed instruments, alto flutes, and a French horn come back to the melody again and again as if they can’t bear to let it go. It ends with a passionate outpouring from Kadleck’s trumpet as distant strings whisper. It is the boldest, most complete, most moving instrumental version on record of Joni Mitchell’s best-loved song.—Thomas Conrad

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