January 2022 Jazz Record Reviews

Joe Farnsworth: City of Sounds

Farnsworth, drums; Kenny Barron, piano; Peter Washington, bass

Smoke Sessions SSR-2105 (CD). 2021. Paul Stache, Damon Smith, prods.; Edwin Huet, Paul Stache, engs.

Performance ****

Sonics ****

We are at a point in time when most new jazz releases were recorded during the pandemic. Many are direct artistic responses to the crisis. The response of drummer Joe Farnsworth is bound up with the city where he has lived for 30 years.

In New York, the center of the jazz universe, the music stopped in early 2020. Farnsworth says, “I’ve learned so much from this city. Then New York got rocked, so I wanted to give back … by staying here and playing whenever and wherever I could to keep the sounds alive.”

When he makes a rare record as a leader, Farnsworth brings in big hitters, like pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Peter Washington. The opening track, “New York Attitude,” hurtles into motion. It is remarkable that Barron can connect ideas that are flying by so fast. “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” is ecstatic. Farnsworth, using brushes, could not swing harder. Another ass-kicker is Barron’s “Bud-Like,” a tribute to Bud Powell, who is part of New York’s cultural history.

The tunes on City of Sounds are mostly burners because New York is synonymous with energy and because energy and tenacity are now enabling the city to emerge from COVID darkness. The only ballad is “Moonlight in Vermont.” What it has to do with New York isn’t clear, but who cares? Barron renders Sigmund Romberg’s melody beautifully, longingly, and then improvises alternative melodies, also lovely. Vermont is close, after all.

The Smoke Sessions label started in 2014 as a means to document live performances at Smoke, on 106th and Broadway. In February of 2021, City of Sounds had to be recorded in an empty club, with musicians in masks, separated by plastic barriers. It did not stop them from spilling their guts.—Thomas Conrad


Julian Lage: Squint

Julian Lage, guitar; Jorge Roeder, bass; Dave King, drums

Blue Note (CD, LP). 2021. Margaret Glaspy, Armand Hirsch, prods.; Mark Goodell, eng.

Performance ****½

Sonics ****

I’ve been late in catching on to Julian Lage, the 33-year-old jazz guitarist who’s been raising a lot of eyebrows. After recently seeing him play twice in three days at the Village Vanguard, where he displayed extraordinary virtuosity, swing, blues, and range, I’m now listening to his albums. (The two gigs were with John Zorn’s New Masada Quartet and in duets with pianist Fred Hersch.)

Count me among the eyebrow-raisers. Lage is a phenom, and not the sort who flashes technique for its own sake. Everything he does is in service to the music. (On a few albums as a sideman, he has graced the music with special lighting but otherwise vanished into it.) Squint is his Blue Note debut, his second album with this trio, and his first to feature mainly his own compositions.

On his last album with this group, Love Hurts, he covered tunes by Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, Jimmy Giuffre, and Roy Orbison—which gives you a sense of his eclectic taste. This album’s two covers, Johnny Mandel’s “Emily” and “Call of the Canyon,” made famous by Gene Autry, shimmer with beauty. His playing reveals a still wider array of influences: Jim Hall, Grant Green, Charlie Christian, Pat Metheny, and the various twangy, headstrong guitarists in Zorn’s downtown orbit. Yet, he’s not derivative: He has his own sound. His bandmates—bassist extraordinaire Jorge Roeder and propulsive drummer Dave King, from The Bad Plus—add a layer of hardcore insistence, even a strut and a backbeat, which sometimes keeps the music from basking too warmly in its own glow.

The recording, laid down at Sound Emporium in Nashville, sharpens this edge of grittiness just enough to keep things from sounding too pretty. There’s presence, dynamics, and deep beauty galore. The LP is airier, the CD more dynamic.—Fred Kaplan


Enrico Rava: Edizione Speciale

Rava, flugelhorn; five others

ECM 2672 (CD, available as download). 2021. Manfred Eicher, exec. prod.; Peter Préal, Maarten Heynderickx, engs.

Performance ****

Sonics ***½

Enrico Rava rolls on. He was 80 when this album was recorded at the Jazz Middelheim festival in Antwerp, Belgium, in August 2019.

Rava likes to surround himself with players 40 or 50 years younger. Pianist Giovanni Guidi, bassist Gabriele Evangelista, and drummer Enrico Morello are the best Italians of their generation on their respective instruments. Six years ago, Rava brought in Francesco Diodati, a visionary guitarist. This new band, the Edizione Speciale, adds badass tenor saxophonist Francesco Bearzatti.

The solo firepower here is extreme, but Rava is most interested in collective-improvised interaction within ensemble form. His originals, like “Infant” and “The Fearless Five,” at 13 minutes each, document the sextet’s ability to integrate structural elements (such as embedded recurrent motifs) with audacious blowing.

Moment to moment, Rava’s music is utterly unpredictable, and the causal relationships among those moments are counterintuitive. Take “Wild Dance”: Guidi opens it with hovering, swirling forms. Then Rava’s flugelhorn (on which he has a sound like the innermost voice of the human soul) repeats spare, haunting phrases, which are echoed by Bearzatti. Then Diodati’s guitar enters, not with notes but with electronic rasps and distorted cries. Then Rava returns with long, mournful calls. Only Rava assembles such soundscapes.

Or take “Once Upon a Summertime,” perhaps Michel Legrand’s most perfect song. Rava dares to reimagine its beauty in lines that first imply the melody, then linger on it, guarding then releasing its sadness. Then Rava gives it to Guidi, whose delicate strand of rapt single notes completes the process of breaking your heart.—Thomas Conrad

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