March 2022 Jazz Record Reviews

Isaiah J. Thompson: Composed in Color

Thompson, piano; Philip Norris, bass; TJ Reddick, drums; 3 others.

Red Records RR-123330-2 (CD, available as download). 2021. Marco Pennisi, Enzo Capua, prods.; David Stoller, eng.

Performance ****

Sonics ****

Isaiah J. Thompson is a new pianist of exceptional promise. He is 24 and has already acquired two degrees from Juilliard and released two impressive records. He is not your typical wunderkind. He has qualities that most young badasses acquire later in life if at all, like concision, control, taste, and humility.

The first track here is “Take the ‘A’ Train.” It has been done to death, but Thompson’s version is totally personal. His arrangement keeps interrupting and withholding Ellington’s most famous song. Whenever he turns it loose, his single-note runs, as they fly by, suggest the theme only in fragments and flashes. It is an original, comprehensive Ellington-based tour de force, in under three minutes.

His humility is implicit in his repertoire. Most young jazz musicians today think they are composers. But Thompson assures himself great material by choosing tunes written by others—the best others. He unleashes his own creativity upon them. “Chelsea Bridge” contains a throb not often heard in Billy Strayhorn’s most ethereal song. Thompson’s interpretations of Horace Silver’s “Señor Blues,” Randy Weston’s “Hi-Fly,” and Monk’s “Raise Four” all sound like historically respectful fresh starts. His improvisations reveal an overarching sense of form. His precise fingering does not keep him from swinging his ass off.

Thompson’s sidemen, bassist Philip Norris and drummer TJ Reddick, are sharp. Someone had the cool idea to bring in three distinguished veterans on four tracks. Bassist Christian McBride and drummers Kenny Washington and Joe Farnsworth show the kid a trick or two.

Composed in Color relaunches a once-important but long-dormant Italian label, Red Records.—Thomas Conrad


Oscar Peterson: A Time for Love: The Oscar Peterson Quartet—Live in Helsinki, 1987

Peterson, piano; Joe Pass, guitar; Dave Young, bass; Martin Drew, drums

Mack Avenue MAC1151 (2 CDs, available as 3 LPs, download). 2021. Kelly Peterson, prod.; Heikki Hölttä, Pentti Männikkö, engs.

Performance ****½

Sonics ****

Italy’s best pianist, Stefano Bollani, says he was given an Oscar Peterson album when he was a teenager. He thought it was by Oscar and Peterson. When he found out it was one piano player, he knew he had to practice more.

Such stories of Peterson’s superhuman chops abound. But if you haven’t listened to your old Peterson albums in a while, this previously unreleased music will blow your mind all over again. His command of the keyboard was breathtaking and absolute. He embodied the entire history of jazz piano up to Cecil Taylor.

A Time for Love is a complete unedited concert in Helsinki. Peterson was 62 in 1987. If he was past his prime he was still a monster. Joe Pass was beyond a badass, approximately the Oscar Peterson of the guitar. The first CD is all Peterson originals. “Sushi” and “Cakewalk” are insanely, impossibly fast.

Reservations regarding Peterson’s achievement are few. But he sometimes overindulged in virtuosity for its own sake, and his genius was interpretation, not composition. The second CD, all tunes by major composers, is best. Johnny Mandel’s “A Time for Love” is a rarefied encounter between a great pianist and a great song. The lushness is immersive. Every sweeping flourish, every ringing melodic variant, serves the story. The six-part Ellington medley is epic.

On Joe Pass’s solo feature, he arrays a whole night sky of glittering lights containing, like a constellation, one specific song. It is a rush when “When You Wish Upon a Star” is suddenly there.

The recorded sound is surprising. In a crowded concert hall, you can feel all those Finns breathing.—Thomas Conrad


John Zorn: New Masada Quartet

Zorn, alto sax; Julian Lage, guitar; Jorge Roeder, bass; Kenny Wollesen, drums

Tzadik (CD). 2021. Zorn, prod.; James Dellacatoma, eng.

Performance ****½

Sonics ****

Almost 30 years ago, alto saxophonist John Zorn started writing his Masada songbook—hundreds of heads in the two “Jewish scales” (a major scale with the 2nd note flat or a minor scale with the 4th sharp)—and formed a quartet to play and improvise on them. Through 20 albums (10 studio, 10 live) and countless concerts, the Masada quartet was one of the zestiest jazz bands of the ’90s, launching stellar careers for its members (trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen, and drummer Joey Baron) and inspiring Zorn to form myriad other ensembles—featuring guitarists or singers or pianists, from solo to big band—to play these compositions.

Just before the pandemic, he formed the New Masada Quartet, with an electric guitar replacing trumpet on the frontline, and it’s nearly as exhilarating as the original—more so compared with the old quartet’s earliest performances. The interplay between Zorn’s festive excursions, Julian Lage’s twangy pick-and-strums, Roeder’s anchoring bass walks, and Wollesen’s time swirls is tight yet free.

As with other Masada albums, the tracks shift from uptempo rouser to mournful ballad to avant-garde screecher, always swinging and bluesy in its novel way, which some have likened to Ornette Coleman crossed with klezmer (though, unlike Ornette, who was definitely an influence, chord changes drive Zorn’s music). As always, Zorn often interrupts his lilting tone with wild howls that go beyond the horn’s natural range, but they’re teeming with joyful wit, not the anger he spewed 40 years ago. He’s still got that rebellious spirit, but it stirs deeper, infused with frenzied wit and beauty.

The session, recorded in Bill Laswell’s home studio, has a clear, lively, upfront sound. There might be a little too much reverb, and the drumkit comes off a bit paper-y, but otherwise it’s fine.—Fred Kaplan


Andrew Cyrille, William Parker, And Enrico Rava: 2 Blues for Cecil

Cyrille, drums; Parker, bass; Rava, trumpet

TUM Records (CD). 2022. Petri Haussila, prod.; Ludovic Lanen, eng.

Performance ****½

Sonics ****½

The “Cecil” in this album’s title is the late avant-garde pianist-composer Cecil Taylor, though at first hearing the music doesn’t sound much like Taylor’s: It’s less disruptive, more melodic. But listen closely, and his influence comes into focus.

All three musicians played in Taylor’s bands—Cyrille and Parker for years—and the spirit rubbed off. The immersive zest of their interplay stems from Taylor’s style and philosophy of music, even if the results are different. Four of the album’s 10 tracks are collective improvisations, and what’s remarkable about them—and rare—is the apparent ease with which the three artists carve their own paths even as each path weaves in and out of the others, all together. The same is true of the five tracks composed by one or another of the trio mates. Ornette Coleman described his own, similar approach to music as “harmolodics” defining the term as “harmony, melody, speed, rhythm, time and phrases all [having] equal position.” This is hard to imagine, let alone to play, but, like Ornette at his best, though in a different way,

the trio achieves this fine, fragile balance routinely and grippingly. The finale, “My Funny Valentine,” far from a departure, fits perfectly with what comes before: It’s a song—the players seem to be singing their parts—following a fresh, oddly swerving, but entirely natural path.

Rava has a fine, burnished tone. Parker proves himself yet again one of the most agile, innovative bassists on the scene. Cyrille, at age 82, remains the ultimate protean drummer; he met Taylor at 18 but also played with Coleman Hawkins, Carla Bley, and David Murray, as well as dozens in between, and integrated ideas from all of them with inventions of his own.

The sound quality is excellent, each instrument distinct and dynamic, the ambience coherent and whole.—Fred Kaplan

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