Four jazz record with more than a touch of rock, with the bass pretty much at the center of the action, and two much-hyped recent "indie" records, one I like plenty, the other one is trash.
- Ben Allison: Action-Refraction (Palmetto) - Ben Allison is a refreshing character in jazz in many ways -- just listen to his recent interview on The Jazz Session with Jason Crane and you'll hear a modest, intelligent and thoughtful man with many interests and passions outside of the jazz norm. Musically, he has increasingly been incorporating elements of rock into his writing and playing, emphasizing on group interplay with subtle grooves, steady beats, and expanding upon simple melodic lines over flash and complex solos. So it makes sense that he would eventually take it upon himself to record an album with rock and r&b covers, which four out of the seven tunes here are, the other three Monk'a "Jacky-ing", a Samuel Barber song, and an Allison original. Action-Refraction reunites Allison guitaris Steve Cardenas, who has played with Allison since 2006' Cowboy Justice, and with the frim backbeat of Rudy Royston, JD Allen's drummer who also played on Allison's previous record, Think Free. Additional musicians are Brandon Seabrook on guitar, Michael Blake on tenor sax and bass clarinet, and Jason Lindner on keyboards. The Carpenter's tune "We've Only Just Begun" is given an interesting and successful arrangement, starting with Allison's jogging bass line circling the careful steps of the band, and then joining in at the bridge, lifting the song to a new level. Neil Young's "Philadelphia" and Donny Hathaway's "Some Day We'll All Be Free" are both beautiful, while PJ Harvey's "Missed", albeit played with a firmer groove, is played pretty much straight. Allison's sense of space and rhythm makes his Monk cover a success, too. 7/10*
- Jim Black, Trevor Dunn, Oscar Noriega & Chris Speed: Endagnered Blood (Skirl) - Speaking of rock informed jazz, Trevor Dunn's solid bass lines here boom and rumble like few others', and pushes the double saxophone attack of Oscar Noriega and Chris Speed forward. Jim Black drumming floats over and under, as well as providing propulsion in conjunction with Dunn. Ben Ratliff of NYTimes recently wrote with Dunn in particular in mind "You were wondering where a rock aesthetic has improved jazz rather than compromising it? Here." Although I can certainly think of a few other jazzmen deserving of similar praise, particularly Adam Lane, it certainly fits Endangered Blood too. They also do one of the best Monk re-workings I've heard in quite a while. Powerful and exciting stuff. 8/10*
- Honey Ear Trio: Steampunk Serenade (Foxhaven Records) - Several of my favorite jazz records of recent years have been sax, bass & drum trios. HET follow a similar path to one of those, The Fully Celebrated Orchestra, in taking a fairly minimalist approach, with saxophonist Eric Lawrence the most expressive, his full and rough sound at the front of most things HET do. That said, both drummer Allison Miller and bassist Rene Hart bring a lot to the table, informed by varied musical backgrounds -- Miller, for example, have played with people like Ani DiFranco and Marty Ehrlich. Hart focuses on the low end, at one point filtering his bass through a fuzz box. Miller's playing is flexible in terms of time, but can suddenly locks into grooves for propulsion, sometimes with the aid of electronics. But this isn't all heavy duty: the soft ebb and flow of the opener "Matter of Time" as well as a lovely cover of "Over the Rainbow" show they have a softer side to them. 8/10*
- Jim Lundbom & Big Five Chord (Hot Cup) - Appropriately named, this band plays a lot of big chords. Produced by Mostly Other People Do the Killing master mind MAtthew "Moppa" Elliott, this is Lundbom's fourth record as a leader, as far as I kow, and only the second I've heard. Groovy, heavy swinging, rock infused jazz is the order of the day, the starting point is riffs from which altoist Jon Irabagon (also of MOPDtK fame) and tenor player Bryan Murray play swirling and skronking melodies. Mr. Elliott's relative restraint exemplifies BFC's approach, where in MOPDtK he alternatively plucks, slaps, walks and grooves, here he mostly sticks to the latter, laying down deep and heavy notes that underscore Lundbom's riffs. This is tough and headlong stuff, albeit perhaps at times a bit too chunky for it's own good.
- Tune-Yards: W H O K I L L (4AD) - I won't bother with the typography of the band name, even if it in some way exemplifies Merrill Gerbus and her cohorts' music: sort of cut and paste. This is augmented by some guitar plucking here, sampled beats there, and the addition of new band member Nate Brenner's funky bass lines gives this record a fuller sound than the previous record, Bird Brains. Gerbus also has an impressive voice, but her vocal gymnastics and shrieks at times distract me from the lyrics, which is a shame. Still, there is a lot of playfulness resulting in some original and arresting music here. 7/10*
- Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop) - There's a lot of talk about how this is an ambitious record by main fox Robin Pecknold & co, but don't be fooled: this is basically made with the same template as their first: simple strum-strum folk tunes and harmonic vocals -- albeit cold rather than warm harmonies -- just with the added saxophone here and some strings there. It is style over substance, but a style which symbolizes "back to basics" or "back to nature", not to be confused with profound. Pecknold's dismissal in the title track of the uniqueness of the individual in place of being part of some big superstructure has been interpreted as both a fascist statement as well as a Christian one, but above all else it is just bad writing. As one who is not big on self-pity in art or life in general, I dreaded what the refrain would be. I was somewhat appeased when he had the sense to ask "what good is it to sing "Helplessness Blues?"" Sadly, he fails to convince me he has an answer, at lest on worth listening to. 4/10*
* Grades are tentative, based on three or four listens, though quite often a few more. Much of the writing is done during listens, and should be considered notes more than final reviews.