March 2023 Jazz Record Reviews

The Necks: Travel

Chris Abrahams, piano, organ; Tony Buck, drums; Lloyd Swanton, bass

Northern Spy NS158 (CD; also available on LP, download). 2023. Tim Whitten, prod., eng.

Performance ****

Sonics ****

The Necks are an acoustic product of the digital age. The longstanding Australian piano trio has worked, with rare exception, in hour-long spans of gradual development that would make Miles Davis and Gil Evans green with envy. On stage or in studio, they execute their warm yet machine-like repetitions with great precision. In 2017, they broke with formula to meet the demands of the vinyl revival, limiting their group improvisations to roughly 20-minute chunks for the double LP Unfold. That exercise became a regular practice during the pandemic, resulting in Travel, another 80 minutes of relatively bite-size pieces.

The last two records make clear how well they traverse the space between heart and mind suggested by their name, making distinctive, varied music without breaking their mold. At times they’ve added synthesizer, organ, even electric guitar, but they remain recognizable. Travel is a great introduction to their terrain: steeped in theme and variation, even if the themes are less hummable than emotionally evocative. The first two sides on Travel are among the jazziest they’ve released in their 30+ years. “Signal” and “Forming” are bright and upbeat, suited for either background or foreground listening. The third, “Imprinting,” is more cerebral, with subdued playing, a slow build, and a trickier count.

The set culminates with “Bloodstream,” a dramatic 18 minutes built around Chris Abrahams’s extended electric organ tones and delicate piano lines. Drummer Tony Buck plays in taut waves, not so much keeping time as marking distance. Bassist Lloyd Swanton’s arco melts into the organ with a deep foundation and unexpected harmonics. It’s a dark and beautiful piece. Longtime producer/engineer Tim Whitten captured these morning sessions; the recordings are deep, rich, and warm.—Kurt Gottschalk

Arild Andersen Group: Affirmation

Andersen, bass; Marius Neset, tenor saxophone; Helge Lien, piano; H&@229;kon Mjåset Johansen, drums

ECM 2763 (CD, available as download). 2022. Manfred Eicher, exec. prod.; Martin Abrahamsen, eng.

Performance ***½

Sonics ****½

Jazz musicians sometimes assume that, since improvisation is good, albums that are totally improvised must be best of all. But it is not that simple. Improvisations are departures whose deepest revelations are usually achieved in relation to what they depart from. Painting outside the lines requires lines.

Affirmation arrives with great promise. Arild Andersen’s previous ensemble, a trio with Tommy Smith on tenor saxophone, was one of the great bands of Europe. His new quartet has an even more acclaimed tenor player, rising star Marius Neset, and a poetic pianist, Helge Lien. Andersen remains that rare phenomenon, a bassist in whose hands the instrument becomes not only fully articulate but uniquely capable of touching otherwise sublimated emotions.

Andersen’s original plan had been to record some of his own pieces, but he changed his mind in the studio. This album is one 38-minute collective improvisation in seven parts, plus an Andersen composition, “Short Story.”

The result is a mixed bag. Much of this music sounds like the fourth movement: For too long, Neset trills and fidgets and oscillates unproductively and inconclusively while the other players respond randomly. The energy stirred up in the fifth movement sounds nervous rather than purposeful.

There are some lovely moments, like the concentrated lyricism of Andersen’s and Lien’s calls and responses in the second movement, and Neset’s dramatic entrance, in fervent cries, that opens the third movement.

But only the last track, “Short Story,” reveals the beauty these four special improvisers can create when they have been provided a strong melody to focus and inspire them.—Thomas Conrad

Ahmad Jamal: Emerald City Nights: Live at The Penthouse 1963–1964

Jazz Detective (2 LPs). 2022. Zev Feldman, Andrew Stayman, prods.; Jim Wilke, Sheldon Zaharko, engs.

Performance *****

Sonics ****

The often-underrated jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal is a gifted artist whose technique relies on both speed and space. Like Art Tatum, one of his heroes, he can command a keyboard, making several trips up and down the 88 keys in the time it takes mere mortals to take a breath. Few jazz musicians knew how to use space and make it such a crucial part of his playing in the ways Jamal did. Jamal also had a marvelous sense of rhythm.

Here, in a 1964 performance of “Squatty Roo,” by Ellington alto legend Johnny Hodges, he displays all those gifts and adds a lyrical solo and several lightning runs up and down the keyboard before laying back, intermittently adding emphatic chords and allowing the rhythm section—bassist Jamil Nasser and drummer Chuck Lampkin—to shine.

Jazz trios depend on chemistry, and in a sprightly, swinging version of “Lollipops and Roses,” Nasser turns in an idea-filled solo before all three join to drive the tune to conclusion.

The first volume of three two-LP sets on 180gm vinyl, covering six Jamal appearances at the Seattle club between 1963 and 1966, these wonderful recordings, originally recorded by engineer Jim Wilke, were discovered by the ever-intrepid Zev Feldman for the inaugural release of his own Jazz Detective label. All three sets were mastered for LP by Bernie Grundman from the original ¼” mono tapes and pressed at Optimal in Germany. The sound is clear and well-mixed but flat and one-dimensional.

While not chock full of fresh revelations, this volume of Live at The Penthouse is a fabulous snapshot of where he was as an artist, displaying his blazing technique, respect for space, and most of all his ability to improvise and compose in the moment.—Robert Baird

Benjamin Lackner: Last Decade

Lackner, piano; Mathias Eick, trumpet; Jérôme Regard, bass; Manu Katché, drums

ECM 2736 (CD, available as download, LP). 2022. Manfred Eicher, prod.; Gérard de Haro, eng.

Performance ****½

Sonics ****½

One of Manfred Eicher’s skills as a producer is to find the right new voices for his ECM label. Pianist Benjamin Lackner is not new to the international scene (he has 14 albums in his discography), but Last Decade is his ECM debut.

Many ECM adherents deny that there is an “ECM sound.” They are wrong. While the label’s vast output over half a century is diverse, its overarching identity encompasses distilled lyricism and an atmosphere of inwardness. What is noteworthy about Lackner is how his iteration of the ECM aesthetic sounds so natural and instinctive. His eight compositions here all feel like bare frameworks, yet their gestures of melody resonate with and inspire the four members of his quartet.

Mathias Eick is present in a rare sideman role. He is one of the most gifted trumpet players to enter jazz in the new millennium. He has many records of his own on ECM, but even Eicher’s power to create reputations has not quite made him famous. Last Decade contains song after luminous song in which Lackner postulates a crystalline idea and a rapt mood and Eick deepens both. The title track and “Open Minds Lost” are especially strong examples of this band’s pure, searching lyricism. Lackner sounds so patient, waiting to place each note until its moment arrives. Eick’s trumpet sound is a revelation of golden light. He respects Lackner’s melodies even as he finds new implications within them.

Of the other players, one is well established and one will be a new name to many. Drummer Manu Katché, a leader in his own right, enlivens this music from within. Jérôme Regard’s solo bass track “Émile” is a haunting two-minute interlude in the flow of the album.

ECM released some fine albums in 2022, but few are more beautiful.—Thomas Conrad

Simona Premazzi: Wave in Gravity

PRE 1174 (CD, available as download). 2023. Premazzi, prod.; Chris Allen, eng.

Performance ****½

Sonics ****

It is surprising that Simona Premazzi is not better known. She is the real deal on piano and has now made six albums. Wave in Gravity, her first solo recording, is a highly individual and creative response to the challenges of playing jazz piano without accompaniment, or rather, while serving as one’s own accompanist. The first track is, unmistakably, “In the Still of the Night,” but it is broken in strange places. With the need to supply her own bass line and rhythm, Premazzi’s hands become notably independent. Her dynamism and impulsiveness are exhilarating. She releases the song in intermittent eruptions. It is startling when the fragments coalesce and Cole Porter’s melody rings out resoundingly.

The other American Songbook pieces here are blocky and powerful. “My Heart Stood Still,” by Rodgers and Hart, may never have received a more percussive treatment, Premazzi’s left hand jabbing harmony and her right hand flailing melody. “On a Slow Boat to China” is an extravagance of decoration; Frank Loesser’s song is only one of the patterns in a vast design.

There are also jazz standards. “Monk’s Mood” is one of Thelonious Monk’s most hesitant, hovering, ambiguous ballads. Premazzi is not into hesitance. Her interpretation is aggressive and lush. Her version of Andrew Hill’s “Smoke Stack” has as much thrust as the composer’s (on his 1966 Blue Note album of that name). But Hill had two bassists and a drummer with him. Premazzi has only herself.

Premazzi’s own songs, like “Back Seat,” tend to bring out her pensive side—or would, if she had one.

This album is a case study in how to record piano. Chris Allen, working in one of the last remaining great Manhattan studios, Sear Sound, captures all the attack of Premazzi striking the keys of a great Steinway B.—Thomas Conrad

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