Two Masterful Jazz Albums
Trumpet/flugelhorn guru Tom Harrell is one of the primary contemporary forces in jazz maintaining continuity with the indomitable tradition of jazz improvisation as a unique (if overlooked) form of composition. That tradition depends no less on an art of composition that aspires to the bravura of immediate creation.
Louis Armstrong's early recordings, recently remastered and repackaged for a generation of listeners raised in the presence of nonmusical banalities, launched that tradition. His Hot Five and Hot Seven masterpieces established not only the centrality of a strong lead instrumental voice among surging, sometimes nearly uncontainable rhythmic energy; they established deeply composed, finely elegant structures within the apparently off-hand incidentals of solo improvisation. After Pops, no jazz musician with serious commitments to plumb the depth of mysteries that define jazz would ever think that this ever-elusive body of music was merely improvisation, solely spontaneous, essentially momentary and ejaculatory.
Armstrong taught musicians and fans alike to understand that a carefully written song demands embellishment, new life, that only in depth performative exploration can accomplish. Tom Harrell no less than Armstrong is committed to the proposition that well made songs are endlessly enticing, purposively elusive, seductive and instructive at once. This marvelous album with Harrell's working quintet caught full flush at work on the legendary Village Vanguard stage attests to the melodic daring of Harrell's composing and playing. Several years ago at Iridium in New York, an earlier version of this unit -- with tenor saxophonists Joe Lovano and Greg Tardy alongside Harrell and with percussionist Leon Parker at his minimal drum kit -- was hard at work to conquer the complexity of tunes here rendered with focused (seemingly effortless) élan. In particular, "Asia Minor," the opening cut here, held traps that threatened to sink anyone newly acquainted with its serpentine angularity.
Leon Parker provides special ballast for many groups, Harrell's late-'90s sextet no exception. But this quintet, caught in the act of breathing fire across seventy minutes culled from four evenings at the Vanguard, suffers nothing from the substitution of the more deliberate time keeping of Quincy Davis and the arch tenor sax attack of Jimmy Greene. At Iridium and on the Vanguard recording, bassist Ugonna Okegwo provided a steady, upswelling force that holds together the flash and daring of individual energies. You should keep yourself alert to Okegwo's intelligent power.
Right out of the gate, "Asia Minor" sets up the aura that defines this strong album. Each twist and turn that Tom Harrell throws his group in this tune appears like a deliberate challenge conquered. This unit is a high-torque Ferrari scooting with ease through the swerves of the LeMans speedway. Listen carefully to the song that Harrell wrote with his wife, Angela, "Where the Rain Begins." Its dirge like trance slowly opens to springtime's radiance. Such nearly ineffable melodic and compositional transformations are characteristic of Harrell's compositional habits -- as if something in his awareness of life is not just hauntingly melodic, but Transcendent, triumphant, courageous... which, of course, it is.
Anyone aware of the unique human gifts that Tom Harrell brings to his playing and writing knows that each and every time he walks onto the bandstand, each and every song he writes, comes from a spiritual delicacy and power that rarely come together. Two performances on this album in particular lead us to Harrell's unique majesty: the brittle, sweet and soaring solo that he takes on his composition, "A Child's Dream" and the stunning reading he gives to Matt Dennis's "Everything Happens To Me" -- a reading made more telling by its stark simplicity, framed only by Xavier Davis's precisely understated piano. It is the emotional highlight of the album.
Tom Harrell heard live anywhere offers a rare glimpse into the deepest place that music resides... that is Harrell's gift and burden, to go boldly, with exquisite tact and humor, where few players and song writers are able to go. If you do not know his compositional output, find the unrivaled version of his splendid (now classic) song, "Sail Away," on the SteepleChase album, Look to the Sky, featuring trumpet/flugel sidekick John McNeil and the irrepressible Kenny Barron on piano. Few sessions are so enchanting as that one. Put alongside this quintet session recorded live at Lorraine Gordon's jazz Mecca, you will have a pair of albums that suggest (but only that) how extraordinary Tom Harrell's value is in sustaining the brilliance and surprise that define the fleeting art of jazz.
Trio Da Paz is one of those special groups that defies category. Malandro Records lists their joyful new album, Café, as "jazz/Brazillian" -- fine as far as it goes in making a slot for the bleary-eyed consumer in our rubric-sodden world. But the thrust of these twelve tracks and 63-plus minutes of lighthearted happiness soars beyond category.
Duke Ellington used to say that the greatest art was "beyond category." He was right and this album suggests how right he was. The third track, "Arioso," was composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, that hip Brazilian jazz writer from a few centuries back: a writer who intuited the suave melodic delicacy of Antonio Carlos Jobim, a man with prescient insight mustering up the simplicity and daring of the late Laurindo Almeida's guitar work, no less.
Such is the force of music that utters unspeakable cheer that we cannot meet its humane if inhuman buoyancy on its own terms: we must succumb, wordless but proud to be in its company... and that is precisely what the majority of this extraordinary album gives us -- reasons to succumb, without self-consciousness, to the lyrical breeze of an almost cosmic awareness.
If you do not think that is likely, put this disc on a good sound system at night; turn out the lights. Calm yourself and hit track four, "Baden," bassist Nilson Matta's effortless, sinuous line that weaves three voices into one gust of surging knowledge. What does this song "know?" you ask. Nothing you can name. Something akin to the body's inner rhythm. With these three players -- percussionist Daduka Da Fonseca always precise with nervous calm; guitarist Romero Lubambo invoking the angelic Brazillian guitar master Bola Sete; Matta inside (ahead, behind, beneath) the fleeting center of improbable throbbing perfection -- less is inevitably more.
I read with irony Howard Mandel's opening gambit in his generous liner notes. "Wouldn't it be great," he writes, "if the café down the street regularly hosted a combo of musicians who played expert yet evidently casual, sweet, soft and hot, sophisticated, spontaneous, sometimes wistful and always subtly swinging melodies, harmonies and rhythms?" Well, yes... that gig would literally define the neighborhood. Such a café would be the hippest spot within easy access. And there is such a café, in fact, at the top of Greenwich Village, where Daduka Da Fonseca and Nilson Matta sometimes play on Saturdays, at noon, often in the company of the glorious singer Maucha Adnet. The generically named "The Coffee Shop," right on Union Square, a short two blocks from Bleeker Street, hosts those hip occasions. Pianist Kenny Barron sometimes drops by to listen, which may be the inspiration for the weeklong collaboration between Barron and Trio Da Paz now concluding (as I write this) at The Blue Note jazz club.
Mandel's point is well taken. The sort of music found among these three unpretentious masters needs to be put out in the open where it can be stumbled upon by accident or visited deliberately on a regular basis. The very notion of "culture" embraces precisely such joyous accidents and revitalizing repetitions... but where is such joy and revitalization when you need it at your fingertips?
Here it is in Café, exploring a variety of moods and tempos. Guest Joe Lovano has seldom sounded so authoritative as he does on "48th Street Baiao." Cesar Camargo Mariano's Hammond B3 work haunts a gliding treatment of Luiz Bonfa's "Gentle Rain." And Diane Reeves sits in on two jazz standards with nice results.
But, at its heart, this album continues the quiet odyssey of a group that deserves adulation and steadfast attention. If Billy Strayhorn was the often-unnoticed muse who kept Duke Ellington's oeuvre on course through confusing years of social and commercial upheaval (and he was), then Trio Da Paz is a not yet fully acknowledged force in the saga of contemporary musical survival. It should be apparent that an onslaught of non-melodic bombast has gained full ascendance in our corrupted culture. One might note the long odds faced by musicians of the calibre of these three. Those odds derail many who aspire to keep beautiful melodies, subtle harmonies, and most of all the spirit of human warmth and gentleness alive and somehow thriving.
Thus, one might visit "The Coffee Shop" in New York some Saturday when such warmth and gentleness is at work... or snatch this glorious album up and let it linger where you listen. Either way, this is music for the long haul. In performance or in the quiet of your room, you'll find reason to celebrate Trio Da Paz.