Allison Miller and Boom Tic Boom Otis Was a Polar Bear (Royal Potato Family, April 8): Drummer and bandleader Allison Miller speaks her mind clearly and with no apologies. Such was the case in a Huffington Post essay a few years ago in which she wrote: “I am a woman. I am a dyke. I am a tomboy. I play jazz.” She’s just as confident and forthright behind her drum kit at the helm of her Boom Tic Boom ensemble, which boasts an impressive personnel of wide-ranging and distinguished players: Myra Melford (piano), Jenny Scheinman (violin), Kirk Knuffke (cornet), Ben Goldberg (clarinet), Todd Sickafoose (bass).
Miller began writing Otis Was a Polar Bear during the summer of 2014 while touring with singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant. The birth of Miller’s (and her partner, Rachel’s) first child Josie inspired the music on this latest CD. Miller began writing the music while on tour with singer Natalie Merchant and completed the project through a Chamber Music American grant. The 10 original compositions featured on Otis Was a Polar Bear chart an inspirited soundtrack to the beginnings of a new life chapter for Miller and her family.
We’ve reached a moment when it’s far from remarkable that a jazz band is led by a female drummer and is half-populated by stirring women instrumentalists (Melford should be on anyone’s list of essential pianist). When motherhood inspires good jazz. When drummers who compose stirring jazz, about far more than groove, abound. Miller’s Boom-Tic-Boom is proof of all that, and yet it sounds singular, smart, cool and with just the right amount of weirdness. Sort of like how you’d wish your child to turn out.
Adam O’Farrill Stranger Days (Sunnyside, April 29): I can’t wait to dig into this debut recording from trumpeter Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days quartet. Adam’s dad, pianist Arturo O’Farrill, just won another (his third?) Grammy with his Afro Latin Orchestra. His grandfather, the late Chico O’Farrill, is a Cuban composer of great renown. His older brother, Zack, is the drummer in this band.
I’ll never forget traveling to Cuba with Arturo’s orchestra in 2010. At one point Adam, then 16, stood onstage at the sprawling Mella Theater, alongside some of the island’s finest young trumpeters, all conservatory trained and bringing fire. Adam was not just their equal; he brought something distinct, hints of fresh ideas. Now 21, Adam has since distinguished himself as both player and composer in his father’s sextet and playing alongside some of New York’s most innovative musicians. Those ideas have blossomed into stirring solos and wittily unusual compositions.
Like his father, Arturo, Adam seems poised to inherit the family tradition and then tramp off on a path all his own.
Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double Up Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi, April 1): Here is Threadgill’s heartfelt tribute to an old friend, the composer-conductor Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris, one of modern music’s true originals, who passed away in 2013, and with whom Threadgill enjoyed a close, four-decade relationship. This piece was commissioned by and premiered at New York’s Winter Jazz Fest in January 2014, where it was performed twice in front of rapt, overflowing audiences at the historical Judson Memorial Church. Here’s some of what I wrote in the Wall Street Journal prior to that performance:
Mr. Threadgill, who was among the earliest members of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in the 1960s and remains among New York’s creative lodestars, met Mr. Morris in Manhattan in the mid-1970s after relocating from Chicago. He was taken by Mr. Morris’s sound.
“Butch had an extremely personal way of playing the cornet,” he said. Mr. Threadgill was distinctly expressive himself on alto saxophone and flute. The two were captured in early communion within tenor saxophonist David Murray’s octet on three albums beginning with 1980’s “Ming.”
“I could talk to him about musical concepts, and the details of how to do things,” Mr. Threadgill said. “The depth of that exchange was a rare and big thing.”
Soon Mr. Morris mostly forsook his cornet for a baton. He focused on devising a language of signals and gestures to communicate what he needed from musicians for what he termed “conductions”—the “improvised duets for ensemble and conductor” with which he eventually made a lasting mark at both jazz clubs and symphony halls.
“He’d show me the latest draft of his system,” Mr. Threadgill said, “just to have another set of eyes—the right eyes.” (A published version was included in the 10-CD 1995 set “Testament: A Conduction Collection.”)
In his own way, Mr. Threadgill also crafted an unconventional language through which to communicate with musicians, with startling results. Any understanding of modern composition requires serious attention to his works, as realized with several ensembles through the past three decades.
That 2014 performance was a highlight of my musical year. Ensemble Double Up, Threadgill’s first new band to record in fifteen years extends his own recent fascination with pianists (here, Jason Moran and David Virelles) and is customarily unorthodox: Curtis Macdonald and Roman Filiu on alto saxophones, Jose Davila on tuba, Christopher Hoffman on cello, and Craig Weinrib on drums. It makes sense that, in honoring Morris, Threadgill chose to conduct yet not to play alto saxophone or flute as he usually does—to sculpt the music from out front, not precisely in the way Morris did it, yet very much channeling his spirit.
At Judson church, the music was by turns joyous and solemn. In the audience, some tears were shed, some private dances happened. I’m curious to feel and hear the effect of this studio recording.
William Parker (feat. Lisa Sokolov & Cooper-Moore) Stan’s Hat Flapping in the Wind (Aum Fidelity, April 1): Here’s another towering figure of creative music, another father of avant-garde spirit and tradition whose influence grows with each decade, and another master player (Parker is a bassist) who has set his instrument aside for a project.
These 19 songs drawn from the 60 Parker has composed so far for a musical he’s long been envisioning but has yet to stage. When I interviewed him last year, he explained that the musical follows its principal character through tribulations and exposure to the magic of all life around them, and begin to learn the art of living and the systems of sacred music. Which, to me, sounds pretty much like Parker’s own story, and his path to arrival at the point now where he stands as a leading exemplar of both what it means to be a standard-bearer among creative musicians and what it takes to maintain an attitude or openness and childlike wonder. Here Parker is credited as simply composer; these are performed, save for one track, as a duet of singer Lisa Sokolov and Cooper-Moore, a musician of wide-ranging abilities who plays piano here.
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