December 2023 Jazz Record Reviews

Johnathan Blake: Passage

Blake, drums; Immanuel Wilkins, alto saxophone; Joel Ross, vibraphone; David Virelles, piano, Fender Rhodes, Minimoog; Dezron Douglas, bass

Blue Note B003706102 (CD). 2023. Blake, prod.; Tom Tedesco, eng.

Performance ****

Sonics ****

It is fitting that Johnathan Blake, an elite drummer, records on the best labels with major musicians. His last two albums, both critically acclaimed, were Trion, on Giant Step Arts, in 2019, and Homeward Bound, his debut on Blue Note, in 2021. Trion included Chris Potter and Linda May Han Oh. Homeward Bound had the same personnel featured here.

Immanuel Wilkins and Joel Ross are the most important musicians to enter jazz in the new millennium on their respective instruments. On the title track here, Wilkins announces himself with the kind of devastating solo that earned him first place on alto saxophone in the 2023 DownBeat Critics Poll. His outpouring of startling ideas threatens to overwhelm the ensemble. But when Wilkins improvises, even when he flirts with chaos, he is spontaneously shaping a meaningful form.

On “Muna and Johna’s Playtime,” Ross has the unenviable assignment of following Wilkins. He excels. The piece is based on a powerful vamp generated by Blake, keyboardist David Virelles, and bassist Dezron Douglas. Ross spills free of their throbbing momentum and floats in his own domain, out of time. His solo is a long, ascending exploration that climbs the sky before it softly falls away. Virelles is another rising star in Blake’s band. His concise, vivid contributions on Fender Rhodes and Minimoog enhance the color palette of this album.

While the sidemen here are exceptional, there is never any doubt about who is in charge. Passage can be understood as a case study in what it means for a drummer to function as bandleader. Blake produces surging, shifting rhythmic forces. He infuses the whole musical space with vital energy and inspires his four collaborators to reach beyond themselves.—Thomas Conrad

Mark Turner Quartet: Live at the Village Vanguard

Turner, tenor saxophone; Jason Palmer, trumpet; Joe Martin, bass; Jonathan Pinson, drums

Giant Step Arts GSA 009 (2 CDs). 2023. Jimmy Katz, Turner, prods.; Katz, James Kogan, engs.

Performance ****½

Sonics ****½

Giant Step Arts was founded in 2018 by renowned photographer and recording engineer Jimmy Katz. The output of this nonprofit label has been small (10 titles to date) but distinguished musically, sonically, and graphically.

Katz believes in live recordings. This new Mark Turner double album, by one of the major small ensembles in current jazz (see above), was recorded live on hallowed ground: the Village Vanguard.

It is fascinating to compare it to Turner’s previous release, Return from the Stars, on ECM, recorded at Sear Sound Studio in New York. The musicians are the same, and all eight Turner compositions on Return from the Stars are repeated at the Vanguard. On the earlier album, when Turner’s quartet played a convoluted, fast piece called “Nigeria II,” they nailed it, in a taut under-five-minute version. The Vanguard rendition goes for 10 relentless minutes. Turner’s solo speeds over the ground he covered in Sear Sound then keeps hurtling forward, discovering myriad melodies on the fly, all newly derived from “Nigeria II.”

On all eight tunes, the Vanguard versions spike the intensity and sustain it longer. In Sear Sound, “It’s Not Alright with Me” was beautifully performed, for over 10 minutes. In the Vanguard it is turned loose and set on fire, for almost 19 minutes. Joe Martin takes a four-minute bass solo like a dark ritual. Turner, an extraordinary improviser, has time to bare his heart and tell his story, unabridged. Palmer, one of the most exciting trumpet players in jazz, intellectually and emotionally, has time to insert his own song within the song.

Remarkably, Katz’s live recording is as high in resolution as the ECM studio recording. He puts you in the electric air of the Village Vanguard on a hot night.—Thomas Conrad

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society: Dynamic Maximum Tension

Argue, compositions, arrangements; 21 others

Nonesuch 075597903508 (2 CDs). 2023. Argue, Alan Ferber, Brian Montgomery, prods.; Montgomery, eng.

Performance ****½

Sonics ****½

The strong reputation of Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society is based on only three albums, released 2009–2016. Now there is a fourth. It is a lavish production with a 32-panel fold-out poster, extraordinary sound, and 112 minutes of incandescent music composed by Argue and executed by 21 of the best musicians in New York.

Argue’s concept of big band jazz is extroverted, intricate, historically grounded, and forward-looking. He loves to unleash explosive forces. His band roars. Yet the many moving parts of his charts—the themes, counter-themes, shifting riffs, provocative backgrounds, striking harmonies, and fluid meters—are assembled with precision.

Dynamic Maximum Tension is both the album’s title and a description of its contents. Argue intends this music as an antidote to the “dystopian direction” of our times. Tunes are dedicated to people from “more optimistic” eras whose legacies “rekindle” his faith. Pieces like “Dymaxion” (for Buckminster Fuller) and “Wingèd Beasts” (for Bob Brookmeyer) are passionate celebrations of positive energy. “Tensile Curves” (for Duke Ellington), the album’s 35-minute centerpiece, is an in-depth reinterpretation of an Ellington masterpiece, “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” It is a sweeping arc, rich in ensemble details and riveting solos. (The band’s arsenal of killing soloists includes trumpeters Nadje Noordhuis and Ingrid Jensen, trombonist Jacob Garchik, and saxophonists Carl Maraghi and Dave Pietro.)

An orchestra that begs comparison to the Secret Society is Snarky Puppy, which incorporates pop cultural elements into big band jazz and plays large arenas. The Secret Society has just done something even harder. It has made one of the essential large ensemble jazz recordings of the new millennium.—Thomas Conrad

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