Mike Greenblatt’s Rant ‘N’ Roll

Jazz Album Of The Year?

Long Waves (Unit Records), by the Franco Ambrosetti Quintet, has it all. It has the legendary Jack DeJohnette on drums who interacts, pushes, pokes, and prods his bandmates into rhythmic spirals of pure inspiration far above the compositions themselves. It has, arguably, one of the greatest guitarists on the planet, John Scofield, adding not only signature licks and tasty asides during solos by amazing pianist Uri Caine, as well as the leader on trumpet and flugelhorn, but adding his own flights of fancy when he steps out in front. Bassist Scott Colley rounds out this exquisite all-star assemblage with dramatic pop and flair.

Ambrosetti made his debut on the scene in 1965 and has had the kind of career most men dream of. The Switzerland native’s father was a sax man who played opposite Charlie Parker at the 1949 Paris Jazz Festival before starting a multi-million-dollar company. In his Two Roads Both Taken autobiography, Ambrosetti writes of juggling careers as an industrialist and musician.

Recorded in New York City earlier this year, the seven elongated tracks run the gamut from swing, post-bop, and tango to waltz and ballad. Highlight has to be the closing 9:05 of “On Green Dolphin Street,” written in 1947 but popularized in 1958 by Miles Davis.

Totally Unique

Seattle singer-songwriter Noah Gunderson’s Lover (Cooking Vinyl) sounds like nothing else ever. It took him two years to write and record these 13 dream-like songs about failure, drugs, sex, age, and regret. With intricate, almost hip-hop-styled beats juxtaposed against the warmth of acoustic instruments, the former hardcore and indie rock exemplar has set new pop standards for himself. (He admits to crying a lot in the studio.) As produced by Andy D (Death Cab For Cutie), the swirling bubbles and sound-montages accentuate Gunderson’s whispered vocals to create an atmosphere of brooding introspection. 

Japanese Neo-Soul

In 2016, The Truth was a left-field hit by singer-songwriter Nao Yoshioka. Now, with the release of her fourth album, the aptly-named Undeniable (Sweet Soul Records), the singer inhabits a Philly soul style but with digital beats and a different producer for each song. Recorded in Philadelphia with Khari Mateen (The Roots) and Vidal Davis (Usher) amongst its various sound scientists, she’s shooting for superstardom on such irresistible slices of sweet ear candy like “Liberation” (a soaring epiphany on how she survived success without succumbing to its residual pitfalls) and “All In Me” (a funky dancer with semi-profound lyrics).

From Brooklyn With Love

Stay Good (Dorado records), by Brooklyn Funk Essentials, is a 12-song party that doesn’t try to be hip or alternative. In fact, they’re more like prime Earth, Wind & Fire, only with an international flavor. They’ve been through various lineups over the last 25 years and four albums. Swedish bassist Lati Kronlund wrote “Whatcha Want From Me” back in the day for the late Frankie “Godfather of House Music” Knuckles, only now it has new words inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Its eighties boogie disco vibe offsets the seriousness of the lyrics. Then there’s Jamaican guitarist Desmond Foster’s “Ain’t Nothing,” complete with its cool chant patois. British saxophonist Anna Brooks adds immeasurably to the syncopated surprises as does New Yorker Iwan VanHetten on trumpet and keyboards. Recorded in Stockholm, Stay Good bristles with attitude and flair and, yes, they bring home the funk.

A Different Kind of Coltrane Tribute

Trane’s Delight (Concord Picante Records) by Poncho Sanchez is one legend’s tribute to another. For his first album in seven years, the revered conguero pounds his congas with enthusiastic aplomb. Released on what would have been John Coltrane’s 93rd birthday, he and his longtime crack band—trombone, trumpet, flugelhorn, sax, piano, two bassists, two drummers, and two wild percussionists—really get down to reimagine “Liberia” (from 1964’s Coltrane’s Sound) with a Latin spin, “Blue Train” (from the 1958 album of the same name, done as a cha-cha) and what is now a standard:  “Giant Steps,” the title tune from the 1960 classic, done as a rumba. “The Feeling Of Jazz” is the calm between all of the aforementioned storms. It was first heard on the one collaboration between two titans: 1963’s Duke Ellington & John Coltrane album. Add a few originals and a few left-field pleasures (like “Soul Bourgeoisie” from a 1965 Jazz Crusaders album) and it all adds up to a hipper than hip hour. 

A High-Wire Act…. With No Net

It’s a daring and dangerous debut. These three Canadians have balls. There are no chords on There From Here (Slammin Media/Believe Distribution) by TuneTown. Saxophonist Kelly Jefferson, acoustic bassist Artie Roth, and drummer Ernesto Cervini could’ve very easily crashed and burned without the glue of either piano or guitar that supplies the chords that holds the improvisations together. But no. They’d rather walk a tightrope through strenuous exercises of avant-garde wildness wherein each musician seemingly solos continuously, simultaneously, and righteously. Amazingly enough, it works. “The Monks of Oka” was inspired by and dedicated to Thelonious Monk, a piano player who used plenty of off-kilter chords. I almost didn’t recognize Duke Ellington’s 1932 “Sophisticated Lady.” There was a point once when I thought if I ever heard Cole Porter’s 1954 “All Of You” again, I’d throw up, but damn if TuneTown hasn’t reinvented this overdone chestnut in an invigorating, challenging, and—most importantly—totally entertaining way. It all ends with the brilliant 8:54 original, the highlight of the set, “A Transient Space.” Bravo!

Surefire Sweat

This Canadian octet—drums, flute, tenor sax, baritone sax, trumpet, guitar, bass, organ—called Surefire Sweat is led by drummer/composer Larry Graves. Their self-titled debut is a freewheeling all-original joy-ride of multi-dimensional proportions that approximates the experiences of its leader. Highlights? Opener “Threshold” is the sound of Graves hustling to commute through busy Toronto streets on his bicycle. “Number Nine” is a tribute to one of his biggest influences, Nigerian percussionist Tony Allen. Similarly, “Scoffle Strut” is for American guitarist John Scofield. It’s self-released yet totally funded by The Canada Council For The Arts. Think about that.