Rant ‘N’ Roll: Jazz Festival

Arguably the greatest jazz album of 2011 was When The Heart Emerges Glistening, a masterful debut from composer/trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, born and raised in Oakland, California. It had everything and was everything jazz is supposed to evolve into. For his follow-up, this winner of the prestigious 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition has broadened his palette…but has he broadened it too much?

On “the imagined savior is far easier to paint,” he adds three vocalists, a guitarist and a string quartet to his longtime quintet of trumpet, sax, piano, bass, drums. Even the Blue Note press material says, “This music is not for chickens—it’s heady, intense and demanding.” Akinmusire wrote 12 of 13 and produced himself, and that, right there, although impressive, might be why this sophomore effort is a bit of a disappointment. Or maybe it’s me. Deadlines force me to do one—and one only—concentrated listen. It’s still a keeper and I have a hunch its rewards are to be assimilated in repeat listening, but, well, after such a blockbuster debut…

There are, though, some sublime moments that leap out upon introduction. “asiam (Joan)” goes back to the same introspective stylistic wonder that Joni Mitchell created in her Blue period. It was inspired by Michelle Mercer’s 2009 biography of Mitchell, Will You Take Me As I Am. “Ceaseless Inexhaustible Child (cyntoia brown)” is dedicated to the teenager who impulsively committed the unthinkable to a 43-year-old man looking for what we can only surmise as sex. It’s a fascinating case and there’s a documentary called The 16-Year Old Killer to be seen. Leave it to Akinmusire to write a jazz piece about it featuring the dramatic “doom soul” vocals of Canadian Cold Specks, an alternative singer/songwriter now based in London.

Then there’s “my name is OSCAR” about the fear in the U.S. of black men “that causes a lot of sad stories,” as the trumpeter explains. It features—of all things—a roll call of young black men killed by the police or vigilantes in this country, including Trayvon Martin.

But is this jazz?


It’s called the “Smoke Sessions” ‘cause, yeah, they’re hot. On fire, even. Well, to tell the truth, it’s actually the name of a very cool Upper West Side club called Smoke on Broadway off 106th Street in New York City. But it’s also the sound of where hipsters have gone all over this town for the last 40 or 50 years late at night in the Jazz Capital Of The World. Live jazz! You can practically hear the ice in the Dewar’s on cubes. The latest in a series of recorded shows there include two legendary drummers, Jimmy Cobb and Louis Hayes, whose credits would fill a phone book.

Return Of The Great Communicators by the Louis Hayes Quintet is an update on the band he co-founded with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard [1938-2008] and tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson [1937-2001] in the late ‘60s. Here, though, he takes his original piano/bass pair and aligns them with a new vibraphone/tenor sax frontline. The result is a swinging—if old-school—set of ballads and standards.

The Original Mob by the Jimmy Cobb Quartet has a guitar/piano/bass/drums attack (no horns) for a more mellow evening on material by the band as well as George Coleman’s “Amsterdam After Dark” (if you’ve never experienced the town of Amsterdam after dark, put it on your bucket list) and Jerome Kern’s “Nobody Else But Me” from the Broadway musical Showboat. So sweet. So nice. For its first listen, I had to play it twice.

Other titles in the series so far include The Uptown Shuffle of alto man Vincent Herring featuring Cyrus Chestnut on piano, For All We Know by pianist David Hazeltine with Seamus Blake on tenor, and, my favorite, Right On Time, an unerring Harold Mabern on piano with just bass/drums tastefully licking his every twitch.


On Pyramid (Hate Laugh Music), Pete Robbins gets to turn “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses inside-out. You should hear what he does with Nirvana’s “Lithium,” Stevie Wonder’s “Too High,” Jeff Buckley’s, oops, I mean Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and the old Glenn Campbell “Wichita Lineman” cornball. Now that’s jazz, right? Robbins, who serves as Managing Director of the Brooklyn Conservatory Of Music, has stylistically linked these heretofore diametrically opposed tracks into a cohesive jazz whole. Add his four fascinating originals and you’ve got a rather stunning experience in store. It’s his seventh and best album as a leader.

Born in Massachusetts 36 years ago, he writes the kind of originals that beg to be considered in different ways. For instance, the title-track is all harmony without a melody. Utilizing such revolutionary progressives as pianist Vijay Iyer, bassist Eivind Opsvik and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, Robbins blows a mean alto sax and even chips in with some cool clarinet (like Benny Goodman on acid).