Marcus Miller, “Renaissance” (CD review)

(recently published in JazzTimes; direct link)

Marcus Miller, “Renaissance” (Concord Jazz)

Fastest, most melodic thumb in jazz-funk or not—and on many days, he deserves that title—bassist-producer-composer Marcus Miller wields that digit in a manner that’s impossible to ignore. He does that instantly identifiable thing he does with great panache and high musicality from the get-go on Renaissance, his first studio recording since 2008’s Marcus.

Title aside, Miller’s latest is more about the new old-school than the new new-school. That is, he nods to the ’70s, starting with the deep funk of “Detroit,” a bass-out-front piece that often has the leader playing in unison with guitarist Adam Agati and two horn players, alto saxophonist Alex Han and trumpeter Maurice Brown. The music of the aforementioned decade is also alive on “CEE-TEE-EYE,” a partial homage to the jazz-rock crossover of Creed Taylor’s CTI label; a lively take on War’s “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” bolstered by the percussion of Ramon Yslas, Kris Bowers’ creatively rambling piano and snatches of reggae anthem “Get Up, Stand Up”; and the album closer, an unaccompanied version of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.”

While hardly a variety show, the disc handily shows off Miller’s agility, as he skates from the bottom-thrusting “Redemption,” with keys/horn lines reminiscent of Joe Zawinul, to “Setembro (Brazilian Wedding Song),” featuring rubbery fretless bass à la Jaco, breathy vocals courtesy of Gretchen Parlato and Rubén Blades, and a rhythmic riff hinting at “Manteca.” “February,” featuring an extended solo by Han, is one of Miller’s most affecting ballads, while he amps up the hard rock, led by guitarist Adam Rogers, on “Jekyll & Hyde,” and uses his bass clarinet to lead “Gorée (Go-ray),” a tender-to-raucous piece inspired by a visit to the titular island, once a departure point for Africans forced into slavery. Dr. John even stops by for the bumping and thumping “Tightrope.” Nice catch.

Forget Elvis, MONK is everywhere: Eric Reed; Organ Monk; Melodious Thunk; Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition; Laurent De Wilde’s “Monk”

Planet Jazz: Notes From All Over

Thelonious Sphere Monk, who would have turned 95 on Oct. 10, isn’t quite everywhere, exactly.

But the man, his playing and his compositions continue to loom large as an influence on and living presence in the work of jazz musicians all over the world.

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Monk is celebrated on at least two recent discs, both of which offer fresh approaches to familiar gems.

“The Baddest Monk” (Savant Records) has pianist Eric Reed joined by saxophonist Seamus Blake, trumpeter Etienne Charles, bassist Matt Clohesy and (on ” ‘Round Midnight”) guest singer Jose James for seven Monk tunes and two originals in that vein — the solo-piano title track, and the New Orleans-grooving “Monk Beurre Rouge.” Light funk rhythms drive opener “Rhythm-A-Ning”; creative use of space, harmony figures and bolero/tango flavors characterize “Monk’s Mood,” one of two trio pieces, along with “Green Chimneys,” done without horns; and “Bright Mississippi” is refried in 7/4.

“We had our way with Monk,” Reed writes in the liner notes. “To some degree, this is almost an un-Monk endeavor, but that was his whole point: individualism no matter what the cost.” (Check out Reed live at Smoke Jazz and Supper Club, courtesy of The Pace Report)

Individualism is also the modus operandi of  Greg Lewis‘s “Organ Monk: Uwo in the Black” (Greg Lewis), a sort-of sequel to the B3 specialist’s “Organ Monk,” released in 2010. For the latter CD, Lewis was joined by guitarist Ron Jackson and drummer Cindy Blackman; this time, the organist takes on Monk favorites and originals with the help of Jackson, drummer Nasheet Waits (replacing Blackman) and tenor saxophonist Reginald R. Woods.

The broader sonic canvas is refreshing, and so are several tracks — “Little Rootie Tootie,” with its call-and-response structure; “Skippy,” equipped with a rising-and-falling intro; a hard-grooving “Bright Mississippi”; and a version of “Crepuscule with Nellie” amplifying its inner quirkiness.  A third volume is in order, I say. (One quibble: Howard Mandel’s thoughtful liner notes are in tiny, tiny font, not at all easily readable for over-40 eyes).

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The Monk compilations continue rolling out. So far this year: The six-disc “The Thelonious Monk Quartet: The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection” (Columbia/Legacy); “The Very Best of Thelonious Monk” (Concord Jazz/Riverside); “Pride” (jazz2jazz); and “Beyond Patina Jazz Masters: Thelonious Monk” (Beyond Patina

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More Monk doings:

+ Melodious Thunk, with singer Teri Roiger, bassist John Menegon, pianist Francesca Tanksley, drummer Tani Tabbal, and saxophonist Dan Faulk, celebrated Monk’s music with a show held in Woodstock, NY on his birthday; he was born in 1917 in Rocky Mount, N.C.

+ New Orleans drummer Jamison Ross, 24, a native of Jacksonville, FL, won the 25th annual Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, Sept. 23 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Yusuke Nakamura, of Japan, was the winner of the affiliated Composers Competition. The long-running Jazz Competition (thoughtful coverage by Nate Chinen of the New York Times) has become a springboard to greater success for past winners, including bassist Ben Williams (2009), trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire (2007), singers Gretchen Parlato (2004) and Teri Thornton (1998), saxophonist Seamus Blake (2002), percussionist Pedro Martinez, and pianists Eric Lewis (1999) and Jacky Terrasson (1993), among others. Recently, on NPR’s “A Blog Supreme,” several winners and finalists weighed in on the advantages and disadvantages of musical competition. The discussion was something of a follow-up to one pianist Ethan Iverson (The Bad Plus) posted on his blog, Do the Math.  Iverson jumped into the fray again with another post several days later, and the blogosphere lit up with some back and forth, including a thoughtful dialogue between Iverson and Lewis.

+ The competition’s sponsor, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, continues an ambitious program of education and performances via offices in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and New Orleans. The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance opened at the UCLA campus this past summer, and the first class of graduate students started in the fall.

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And finally …

Recently re-reading Laurent De Wilde‘s brief but substantial bio, Monk (Marlowe & Company), originally published in 1996, I came across a particularly elegant and insightful description of how bass and drums work together to create a foundation for a jazz group, particularly applicable to a composer whose melodies and improvising are so heavily rhythmic.

Here it is:

“The bass sketches out time with a primordial pulsation, and the drums draw it in India ink. The crystalline precision of the ride cymbal. The shrewd and solid comments of the snare and bass drums. Depth, contour, innuendo, doors that open and close as the drumskin is struck. And if the drummer decides to play “Summertime” as a tango, you can always curse him out afterward, but there in concert, you just have to go along with him. It’s the opposite of the lemming phenomenon — when you don’t follow the drummer, that’s when you’re in trouble. The bass and the drums are the instruments which keep us in contact with the ancient beauty of rhythm. The gut string you pluck, and the stretched skin you strike  — what could be more carnal, more animal, than that?” 

Click here for more info on Monk.

Vijay Iyer Trio Tops Village Voice 2009 Jazz Poll

Acclaimed pianist Vijay Iyer‘s Historicity, a forward-thinking trio outing, has been named Album of the Year in the 4th annual Village Voice Jazz Critics Poll.

I reviewed the CD earlier this year for Down Beat. Here’s what I wrote: “A kind of dialogue — ever in flux, constantly probing, frequently morphing, informed by disparate traditions but pushing toward new paradigms — is at the heart of the performances on pianist Vijay Iyer’s trio outing with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore. In the liner notes, Iyer describes that dialogue, on the cover tunes, as ‘a conversation between the original work and something else entirely.’ But there are also conversations here between form and freedom, light and dark tonalities, and, as the title suggests, jazz history and future jazz.”

Also among the winners in the poll, surveying the best jazz releases of the year, as chosen by 99 jazz critics from around the world (including me) are the following:

Vocal: Gretchen Parlato, In a Dream (ObliqSound)
Debut: Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam)
Latin: Miguel Zenon, Esta Plena (Marsalis Music)
Reissue: Louis Armstrong, The Complete Decca Recordings, 1935-1946 (Mosaic)

Full poll results will be published in the Voice’s Dec. 30 issue, and will be available online as early as Tuesday night. I’ll follow up with a subsequent post, and include links to the results along with a link to my list.