The next five albums in our Best of 2015 include a second album from a singer-songwriter who lays waste to the sophomore jinx; a couple of albums from saxophonists demonstrating that hip-hop influenced jazz is coming into its own and in impressive fashion; another in a long line of excellent albums from one of the best under 40 jazz pianists around, and a striking second album from a veteran trumpeter, coming 15 years after his first.
In that overcrowded arena known as “female jazz singers”, Seattle-based Eugenie Jones manages to stand apart from the crowd. Where many will make a passing nod to jazz and then run to the relative safety of R&B and Pop; Ms. Jones has planted herself firmly as a jazz singer. While most will also stick to the safety of covering well-worn standards, Ms. Jones has filled both of her outstanding albums with her own engaging compositions. This fact alone differs differentiates Eugenie, as she is one of the very few African-American women singer-songwriters in jazz today. And finally, the lady can sing as well as she can write, which makes the deeply personal Come Out Swingin’, a refreshing slice of adult oriented mind candy. Eugenie Jones has released two first-rate albums in the last three years and she is an intelligent, thoughtful composer in the tradition of Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone. Fans of true jazz singing, it’s time for you to sit up and take notice.
Let me start by stating that this album is “funky like nine cans of shaving powder” (with much respect to the Ohio Players).
On this, his third album, tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis delivers copious doses of pure groove. Like his previous acclaimed disk, Divine Travels, Days of FreeMan is a trio date; and oh what a trio it is! Lewis is joined by Rudy Royston on drums (he seems to be everywhere these days) and an unappreciated “free funk” master, the great Jamaaladeen Tacuma, on bass. To prep for this project, Mr. Lewis spent hours shedding with the albums of KRS-One, Tribe Called Quest, Don Cherry and Medeski, Martin & Wood, among others. His concept was to have his sax act not as a singer but in the role of a hip-hop MC, while Tacuma and Royston dropped killer beats behind him. And it works! The album is in parts jazz, funk, hip-hop, avant-garde and so much more. Mr. Lewis takes what was Miles striving to accomplish with On The Corner and updates it for the 21st century. Days of FreeMan is wondrously creative and stankingly funky, at the same time.
- The Epic – Kamasi Washington (Brainfeeder)
Kamasi Washington has had quite a year. His saxophone work on hip-hop star Kendrick Lamar’s groundbreaking album To Pimp a Butterfly, has led to Washington being hailed as “The John Coltrane of Hip-Hop”. He followed that triumph with the release of his own debut album, a 3 CD set, appropriately titled The Epic. It has achieved the rare feat of captivating traditional jazz fans and hip-hop fans alike. What makes this music spectacular is the wide musical palette it touches. Washington uses multiple bassists and drummers on some tracks as well as a 32 piece orchestra and a 20 voice choir. The sound is understandably big at times, reminding me of Max Roach’s and Donald Byrd’s acclaimed voice choir albums of the sixties. It is also beautifully intimate, especially when Washington or trumpeter Ingmar Thomas take the lead on some of the ballads. And despite the album’s length, it rarely feels like excess. It sounds like an extremely talented young cat, laying down the ideas that he has been storing up for years. The Epic is raw, soulful, beautiful and well worth your time.
Orrin Evans seems to have staked out an annual spot (or two) on our Best Of list. The reason is simple – he is one of the best jazz pianists around, under the age of 40. Whether in big band, small group or trio settings like this one, Mr. Evans swings hard and makes you listen when he solos. Evans is also continuing to grow as a composer, with a triumvirate of his pieces, the reflective, “Ruby Red”, the angular, breathless “Tsagli’s Lean” and the soulfully cool “Professor Farworthy”, standing apart as highlights of this album. There’s also the welcome presence of guitarist Marvin Sewell on a couple of tracks, including a fine take on “A Secret Place” that does justice to the late Grover Washington, Jr. The Evolution of Oneself is another strong addition to the discography of an artist who has never made an album that was not worth repeated listening.
Full disclosure – Larry Young’s Unity is one of my “desert island” discs. So although I wasn’t very familiar with trumpeter Alex Norris and his work before Extension Deadline, he and his group had my attention from the opening notes of the title track. A Maryland native, Mr. Norris has been on the scene for a couple of decades, working mostly in the Latin Jazz field. His work as a leader has been fairly limited. His last album under his own name, A New Beginning, was released in 2000. On this album, he is joined by saxophonist Gary Thomas, George Colligan on the organ and Rudy Royston (yes, him again!) on the drums. Don’t be confused by the group’s name. This is not an organ blowing session, out of the Earland/McDuff school but some damn fine post bop. There are seven hard-driving originals, including “What Happened Here?” which sounds like a lost track from Unity and one cover, a pretty version of Bobby Hutcherson’s “Little B’s Poem”, which gives Norris a chance to display his lyrical side. This excellent album caught me by surprise but I’m glad I noticed. I just hope that Alex Norris won’t wait another 15 years before fronting a session.
Tracks from these and all of the other albums in our Best of 2015 list can be heard on our 24/7 streaming station, Curt’s Cafe Noir, from now through most of January 2016. Click HERE to listen now.