Complete Communion: Jazz For June Reviewed By Peter Margasak

Peter Margasak has plenty to tantalise you, including new releases from Hedvig Mollestad, Asher Gamedze and Moor Mother/Nicole Mitchell

Hedvig Mollestad portrait by Julia Naglestad

As an American living abroad, the world feels like a different place than it did just two months ago. While the pandemic continues to keep a lid on live music and the joyful social interactions that accompany it, the explosive protests against police brutality and racism sparked by the horrific murder of George Floyd — which started in the US and rapidly spread around the globe — have brought stark injustices and crippling economic disparities into stark relief. Passionate, fed-up activism has achieved an undeniable moral heft in the US and I can only hope the progress that’s been accomplished in just weeks will carry on well into the future without people returning to their routines and forgetting about the fight.

Because jazz is usually an instrumental art form its role as protest music has often felt subtle, expressed through song titles and album art, or evinced through creative practice — although there have been plenty of pointed exceptions, like Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’, Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues or Max Roach’s We Insist!. I started assembling this latest rundown of new recordings before Floyd’s death, and in the last couple of weeks the sense of socio-political righteousness in many of these selections leapt out — from Ambrose Akinmusire writing yet another homage to Black lives snuffed out by police violence or the anti-colonial inspiration for Sara Serpa’s latest project. That political intent is actually present in jazz much of the time, it’s just that our current moment is providing the illumination we need to see it.

Hedvig Mollestad – Ekhidna
(Rune Grammofon)

Norway’s Hedvig Mollestad assembled this sextet for the 2019 edition of the Vossajazz Festival, dispatching her lean working trio in favour of twinned percussionists and electric keyboardists, the sublime Portuguese trumpeter Susana Santos Silva, and her own riff-driven guitar playing. The album opens with ‘No Friends But The Mountains’, an atmospheric meditation that portentously sets the stage for the onslaught that follows with the leader’s post-Motörhead riffing on ‘A Stone’s Throw’, deftly toggling between hard rock and pastoral fusion. Silva’s sweet-toned blowing provides a wonderful balance to the aggression around her, whether playing unison lines with Mollestad or uncorking her own forceful countermelodies. There are clear hints of the fury once embraced by her countryman Terje Rypdal, but the charged interaction between drummer Torstein Lofthus and percussionist Ole Mofjell and keyboardists Erlend Slettevoll and Marte Eberson offer a different complexion that eschews a potentially monolithic dynamic. That’s not to suggest that the music, with its pungent echoes of John McLaughlin-era Miles Davis, doesn’t pummel the listener into submission, but there’s so much buoyant propulsion and unexpected flashes of lyricism—such as the downright pretty exposition that follows the pile driver opening of ‘Antilone’ – that Mollestad has plainly arrived at the fullest expression of her talents yet.

Ambrose Akinmusire – On The Tender Spot Of Every Calloused Moment
(Blue Note)

On his fifth album trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire has never sounded more self-possessed. Supported by his long-term working quartet—pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Justin Brown — he implants expressions of rage, sorrow, and hope within pieces that maintain composure even when the band pushes hard against his compositional frameworks. The trumpeter has called this a “blues album”, even though that form is rarely apparent, but he employs the music as a meticulously considered conduit for the ineffable. His searing explorations on the album’s opener, ‘Tide Of Hyacinth’, remain grounded, even as his band seems ready to explode during the tune’s first two minutes. There’s a brief pause and the band returns with a darkly cycling groove, generating heat without screaming until conguero Jesús Díaz dips in to change the tone with Yoruban chants, preceding a fiery, intensely focused denouement. His ballad ‘Yessss’, with Harris laying down pads of electric organ and delicate piano adornment, threatens to erupt in violence near its conclusion, but the leader pulls back from the precipice with stunning control. ‘Roy’ is no less intense, offering a processional tribute to fellow trumpeter Roy Hargrove where the emotional impact deploys unalloyed beauty. Akinmusire has featured pieces on several albums that function as memorials for young American Black men murdered by the police — ‘Rollcall For Those Absent’ named the depressing list of such victims—and the new album, illustrating the ongoing racist violence, ends with ‘Hooded Procession (Read The Names Aloud)’, in which no names are actually articulated. Only a set of melancholy Fender Rhodes chords cascade into silence, imploring all of us to speak those names.

Whit Dickey Trio – Expanding Light
(Tao Forms)

Drummer Whit Dickey has been a steady if overlooked fixture on New York’s free jazz scene for decades, celebrated for his locked-in partnerships with players like saxophonist David S. Ware, pianist Matthew Shipp, and guitarist Joe Morris. On this bracing new improvised session for a new imprint he recently launched, he’s joined by one of his oldest collaborators, alto saxophonist Rob Brown, and one of his newest, bassist Brandon Lopez. As with so much free improvisation, the music trundles through ecstatic peaks and measured contemplation, but there’s no missing its roots in post-bop. Brown, in particular, applies his bright, biting tone to imperturbably buoyant phrasing that swings and swerves even as it boils over into ecstasy. Dickey’s fierce drive is marked by the sort of sizzling cymbal presence pioneered by Sunny Murray with a thudding, polymetric dose of Milford Graves — with whom he once studied — and those qualities merge beautifully with the knotty, fat-toned, muscular push of Lopez, although the latter is constructed largely from thick, gut-punching tangles that spill out like the wake of a tugboat. Despite the furious energy, the entire session is guided by an impressive clarity that indicates careful listening and a shared sense of vision.

Ingrid Laubrock & Kris Davis – Blood Moon

Saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and pianist Kris Davis have been steady collaborators over the last decade, playing together in the collective Paradoxical Frog with drummer Tyshawn Sorey, and playing behind one another in each of their own projects. That experience lends a deep understanding of one another’s compositional imperatives on their first duo outing, where the musicians routinely adapt to shifting ideas on each pieces—not counting a pair of telepathic improvisations. The pianist’s tightly structured ‘Snakes And Ladders’, for example, unleashes a series of fast-moving glissandos locking into fixed pitches, like a pair of kids sliding around on ice and finding traction together. Just as gripping is the saxophonist’s title track, a ballad where her pretty, microtonal swerves smear and wobble like a severely warped vinyl record. A similarly distorted perception distinguishes ‘Flying Embers’, where Davis uses multiple e-bows directly on some piano strings to generate a steady humming drone of chordal overtones against Laubrock’s breathy, subtly striated long tones for some woozy psychoacoustic washes, as each player shapes delicate, increasingly complex note constellations over that fixed, ringing object. ‘Whistlings’ is a dizzying exploration of acceleration and deceleration over a fixed pulse — in unison patterns, traded phrases, and multilinear improvisation — performed with remarkable exactitude and clarity, given its heightened spontaneity. The album is a knockout and its stripped-down format allows the listener to focus on the kinds of motives these musicians usually purvey, albeit within a much denser matrix of activity.

Sara Serpa – Recognition

It took moving to the US for singer Sara Serpa to fully grapple with the colonialist legacy of her native Portugal — a topic rarely discussed back at home — even though her family was directly involved in its waning days. Her parents were born in Angola, where they saw the mistreatment of the native population, an injustice they protested after moving to Lisbon. Her stunning multi-media project Recognition confronts that dark heritage. Working with director Bruno Soares, she created a silent video from her grandfather’s home movies of Angola and Lisbon, interleaved with quotations from African anti-colonialist Amílcar Cabral, and the dazzling chamber jazz heard on this recording serves as its soundtrack. On most of the pieces she lets the images do the heavy lifting, complementing them with wordless vocals marked by a characteristic precision and purity free of vibrato and empty ornamentation. Her superb collaborators —saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist David Virelles, and harpist Zeena Parkins — interact in shifting combinations, through composed and improvised material. While the timbre often feels weightless, there’s a ruminative atmosphere to these gauzy vignettes, as charged unison lines and prickly counterpoint float more often than they resolve. Three pieces feature settings of riveting texts by Cabral, scholar Linda Heywood and fiction writer José Luandino that highlight the atrocities and resistance.

Cory Smythe –Accelerate Every Voice

Pianist Cory Smythe continues to braid concepts and approaches from once-disparate practices with increasing confidence and skill, and his latest project raises that bar further. Working with a shape-shifting choir of five versatile vocalists, Accelerate Every Voice takes its prime inspiration from the 1969 album Lift Every Voice by fellow pianist Andrew Hill, which deployed a similarly adventurous array of voices alongside his fiery quintet, including an interpolation of James Weldon Johnson’s ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing’ — known as the Black national anthem — on the title track. He digs further into race and privilege by also addressing the American a cappella tradition of the Yale Whippenpoofs, deploying fragments of its paradigm-setting ‘The Whippenpoof Song’ and its lyrical predecessor, Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Gentleman’s Rankers’. His choir updates those traditions with human percussion, liquid bass tones, and microtonality, toggling between composed counterpoint harmony and high-wire improvisation while his own playing uses neck-snapping chord and jagged lines—further accented by a sampling keyboard that translates input a quarter step down, for additional microtonal effect—to sketch out his elusive forms. Following eight pieces marked by jaw-dropping rigour and invention, Smythe concludes the album with ‘Piano And Ocean Waves For Deep Relaxation’, a cheekily titled, unsettling ambient homage to Annea Lockwood’s ‘Southern Exposure’ part of her Piano Transplant series, in which the titular instrument is installed on a shoreline to be swallowed by a rising tide. Smythe mirrors that effect with sound, as electronically treated piano passages become engulfed in an aqueous shimmer, both serene and turbulent — a bracing statement on the fast-rising effects of climate change.

Moor Mother & Nicole Mitchell –Offering—Live At Le Guess Who
(Don Giovani)

This live recording from the 2018 edition of Le Guess Who? captures this duo’s first-ever performance, an all-improvised session rooted in turbulent ambience and ominous portent. While Moor Mother (aka Camae Aweya) offers dark vocal incantations here and there, repeating “Up out of the ugly” on the first section, and asking “See the vultures laughing? See the hawk circling? Have you been walking around with open eyes?” in the second, she largely eschews the more confrontational delivery she’s mastered on her solo recordings and with Irreversible Entanglements. Instead, she settles into a richly environmental vibe, with birdsong, pitch-shifted chimes, harrowing electronic squelches, wobbly organ stabs, piercing drones, whooshing tonal manipulations, and the exploratory flute lines of Nicole Mitchell—she also contributes much of the electronic element. But it’s hardly a soothing soundscape, fomenting a shimmering atmosphere that perpetually teeters on the verge of collapse. There’s an impressive degree of mutual intuition between Ayewa and Mitchell, spontaneously forging a new path and adapting to each shift and collision with quicksilver grace, and I can only imagine where they’ll go as their rapport develops.

JAF Trio –JAF Trio
(We Jazz)

This young Finnish-Danish trio played gigs and developed its aesthetic for several years prior to cutting its eponymous debut album, and it’s plain that time allowed them to crystallise a sturdy, unfussy group sound. While many new outfits try to wedge a surfeit of ideas, techniques and virtuosity into their first recording, JAF Trio sounds utterly comfortable in plying their post-bop trade with concision and clarity, letting its attractive melodies and a full-bodied sound take centre stage. Tenor saxophonist Adele Sauros (Superposition), bassist Joonas Tuuri (Bowman Trio), and drummer Frederik Emil Bülow reveal a compact attack, opting for sly rhythmic jujitsu over harmonic trickery. ‘Ninth Row Of The Fifth Floor’ is larded with tempo shifts, synchronised accents and stutter steps, but they clear space and veer into a bluesy swing to for Sauros’ rangy solo—which suggests a vintage Sonny Rollins influence — while following an appealingly woody, thrumming intro from Tuuri ‘Something New’ finds the saxophonist dropping tart, pointillistic blurts first in an uncomplicated descending melody before locking in with the rest of the trio for a wildly zigzagging theme, all served with a decidedly nasal, duck call-like tone. The trio isn’t concerned with revolution, but rather finding its place within a hallowed tradition. The pleasure is direct and unadulterated.

Asher Gamedze –Dialectic Soul
(On the Corner)

South African drummer Asher Gamedze was a new name to most of the world when he dueted with Angel Bat Dawid’s ‘Capetown’, from her 2018 debut album The Oracle, but his first effort as a bandleader makes clear he’s been developing his own art for years. This knockout recording is constructed as a musical act of resistance against colonialism and capitalism, where the leader defines the motion of his drumming as a symbol for the necessary and constant movement of Black people faced with oppression. Gamedze leads a deeply resourceful quartet — Thembinkosi Mavimbela on bass, Buddy Wells on tenor saxophone, and Robin Fassie-Kock on trumpet — that has absorbed lessons from the Art Ensemble Of Chicago while tapping deep into spiritual music of its homeland to forge something sublimely soulful and exploratory. Wells summons the spirit of John Coltrane on ‘Thesis’, the opening movement of the coolly probing ‘Emergence Suite’, in a charged duet with the drummer, before the rest of the band joins to build hydroplaning tension on ‘Antithesis’, with free playing spilling from its stately theme. The group is enhanced by the gorgeous singing of Nono Nkoane on ‘Siyabuela’, a sparkling arrangement of the South African hymn ‘Hallelujah, Amen’ that veers from meditative serenity to soaring triumph. A candidate for best jazz debut of 2020!

Elias Stemeseder & Max Andrzejewski – light/tied
(Why Play Jazz)

Pianist Elias Stemeseder, a frequent collaborator of Jim Black, and drummer Max Andrzejewski are active figures in Berlin’s polyglot music community where genres don’t so much collide as they’re ignored. They put together this terrific sextet as a compositional endeavour, with each musician writing individual pieces and then hammering them out and reshaping them together in post-production to achieve stunning cohesion. If only Third Stream music had turned out this way. The chamber-like ensemble features cellist Lucy Railton, violinist Biliana Voutchkova, clarinetist Joris Rühl, and alto saxophonist Christian Weidner, all adepts in contemporary music. I can’t say how these pieces were transformed during the entire process, but the end result is stunning, deftly weaving extended techniques into neatly plotted frameworks, whether it’s sibilant unpitched breaths, scratch tones, or electronically manipulated string sounds. The melodic schemes and general attack convey the sobriety of 20th century classical music, but the close-up details tell another story, such as the bass clarinet pops of Rühl mesh with brittle percussive accents from Andrzejewski in ‘Cinque’, or the striated, harmonically glistening strings that open ‘Tied Light III—Gamut’. Every spin reveals new sonic discoveries, with a mutually beneficial play of form and sound.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today