Pianist/Composer/Euro Hero Joachim Kuhn can usually be found sitting alone in his remote hideaway in Ibiza, an island off the coast of Spain, overlooking the Mediterranean, contemplating his ever-continuing musical adventures, playing his piano and composing. Now in his 70s, Kuhn has made a lasting mark both as a leader and a band-mate of Ornette Coleman [1930-2015] from 1996 to 2000. The trio heard on Beauty & Truth (ACT) closes with “Blues For Pablo,” the 1957 Miles Davis track, written by Gil Evans. The trance-like effect of Kuhn’s “Transmitting” perfectly precedes a reimagining of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” that you’re not likely to hear done this way by anyone else ever. Of course, the title track is from Coleman, his main influence, but it’s followed by the freak-out of “The End” by The Doors. Kuhn has the temerity to also tackle “Riders On The Storm,” another Doors classic, and segue into his own “Machineria,” a demented etude wherein his left and right hands become adversaries before falling into lockstep. “Sleep Safe And Warm” is taken from the theme of filmmaker Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. Bassist Chris Jennings and drummer Eric Schafer are kids trying to keep up with the master and they do a fine job.
In contrast to Kuhn’s star turn, MEM3 is a democracy. It’s the same standard piano/bass/drums trio format, but here, on Circles, the follow-up to their Pennsylvania Grey debut, the nine originals and one traditional hymn are spread equally between pianist Michael Cabe from Seattle, Washington, USA, bassist Mark Lau from Sydney, Australia, and drummer Ernesto Cervini from Toronto, Canada. The result is a modernistic take on mainstream jazz, jazz that swings in a never-ending post-bop circle loop. The trio met in 2009 at the Manhattan School of Music while studying for their Masters. Drummer Cervini pushes, prods and pokes the music forward while bassist Lau is almost his second skin. Acting as one as they do, it’s pianist Cabe who gets to stand out. Influenced by the great trios of Oscar Peterson, MEM3 is certainly worth checking out.
Composer Jihye Lee didn’t start out writing for and conducting a 20-piece orchestra. She was a folk singer in her native South Korea. Yet some inner something drew her to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. Then tragedy struck back home. In April of 2014, 476 people, many of them young students, were onboard the ferry Sewol when it capsized and went down, killing 304 of them. Imagine Lee’s sense of helplessness, futility, shock and sadness. In a prophetic piece of happenstance, Lee had already written two pieces of music, “April Wind” and “Deep Blue Sea.” Devastated by the event, she kept writing, and with the assistance of the Berklee faculty and some of Boston’s finest musicians, she completed April by the Jihye Lee Orchestra. It’s a complex work incorporating the flugelhorn of guest soloist Sean Jones on the closing sadness of “You Are Here (Every Time I Think Of You),” written for the families of the victims. Her voice can be heard in wordless vocals. “Lyrics are too specific to convey emotions I can’t express with English words,” she writes in the tear-stained liner notes. Even if you knew not the wherefores of each composition, April still stings with passionate resonance.
When Colors Come Together: The Legacy of Harry Belafonte (Legacy Recordings) is a 19-track look-back at the music of an American hero. The man behind the myth stopped being a worldbeat superstar because there was just too much more important work to be done in the area of America’s abysmal Civil Rights history. To that end, Harold George Bellanfanti, Jr., born in Harlem 90 years ago, was a close confidant of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Ingratiating himself into the struggle for human rights worldwide, he was instrumental in voicing his concerns during the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, sang on “We Are The World” with Michael Jackson, was a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF and is currently aligned with the American Civil Liberties Union for juvenile justice issues. Along the way, he’s garnered three Grammys, an Emmy, a Tony, a Kennedy Center Honor, a National Medal of Arts, a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and an honorary Berklee doctorate.
Son David Belafonte writes in the liner notes that racism “is not a trait with which one is born, but instead an acquired disease that festers with age.”
Musically speaking, the 19 tracks plummet the depths of this man’s worldview from his 1956 international #1 “Banana Boat Song (Day-O),” 1957’s “Island In The Sun” (since covered by 40+ artists), “On Top Of Old Smokey” (the rather dated folk song he performed on NBC-TV’s The Midnight Special in 1962), his 1970 heartfelt cover of Dion’s “Abraham Martin & John,” and such gems as “All My Trials” (1959), “Scarlet Ribbons” and “Brown Skin Girl” (1956) and “Try To Remember” (1966). When he sang live for the first time in 12 years last year, during the inaugural two-day Many Rivers To Cross Festival, put on by his own Sankofa.org social justice organization, it was a moving version of Pete Seeger’s tribute to the three slain activists—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner—that helped kick-start Civil Rights into a national movement. These young college kids were only in Mississippi to help black people register to vote in 1964. The song, “Those Three Are On My Mind,” which he recorded on his 1967 Belafonte On Campus album (included here), never fails to make me cry.
Monk’s Cha Cha (Savant Records) by Bill O’Connell is nine tracks of solo piano wherein O’Connell has the unenviable task of holding your attention by himself. Still, that he does. In spades. Be it the 1932 Jerome Kern chestnut “The Song Is You” or Antonio Carlos Jobim’s bossa-nova standard “Dindi,” this guy swings.