At WSJ on Ambrose Akinmusire and Jonathan Finlayson

Really great new work from leading young trumpeters

‘Origami Harvest’ by Ambrose Akinmusire and ‘3 Times Round’ by Jonathan Finlayson

They are trumpeters with similar backgrounds, yet their career paths and new recordings are striking contrasts.

Jonathan Finlayson

Trumpeters Ambrose Akinmusire and Jonathan Finlayson have a lot in common. Both are 36 years old, grew up in the Bay Area, were mentored by alto saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman, and are widely hailed for their virtuosity and composing acumen. Yet, their career paths and new recordings are striking contrasts. On “Origami Harvest” (Blue Note), Mr. Akinmusire offers a sprawling set of music that features spoken word and a string quartet. Mr. Finlayson’s “3 Times Round” (Pi Recordings) features his sextet and suggests a postmillennial updating of the riveting and ambitious small-combo straight-ahead jazz from the ’60s. Both albums are out now.

“3 Times Round” is Mr. Finlayson’s third recording as a leader and his first with this band. Most of his work as a sideman has been in bands that are often commended for the rhythmic complexity of their music: several ensembles led by Mr. Coleman, an octet led by alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, and various groups led by guitarist Mary Halvorson.\ Yet on his first recordings, which were with his quintet Sicilian Defense, the music was frequently elegant and lyrical. “3 Times” opens with “Feints,” a track reminiscent of his usual employers. There’s an urgency to the tempo and stuttering beats. The frontline, Messrs. Finlayson and Lehman and tenor saxophonist Brian Settles, engage in furious interplay building the tension further. It is reminiscent of ’60s classics like Andrew Hill’s “Point of Departure” or Lee Morgan’s “Search for the New Land” (both Blue Note). The recording’s highlight is a more ruminative composition, “The Moon is New,” which occurs toward the middle of the program; it features dazzling solos from Mr. Lehman and pianist Matt Mitchell. From there the music builds steadily toward the intensity it had at the album’s start, creating a sense of overall narrative abetted by stellar solos and compositions.

With the music on “Origami Harvest,” Mr Akinmusire joins a growing number of young jazz musicians who are successfully melding the string-quartet format with intimate jazz settings. As is true for the work of the bassist Linda May Han Oh, the vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jen Shyu, and the saxophonist Miguel Zenon, the strings function both individually and as a unit providing counterpoint to the lead instruments and cornerstone parts of the harmonies.

Ambrose Akinmusire

Mr. Akinmusire also excels in weaving the hip-hop-inspired cadences of spoken word artists into the music without making the blend seem forced. The titles of Mr. Akinmusire’s pieces such as “Blooming Bloodfruit in a Hoodie” and “The Lingering Velocity of the Dead’s Ambitions” convey his dismay with the social conditions in America today, yet the presentation is not a polemic. The highlight of the recording is “Particle/Spectra,” a cinematic work with gorgeous textures and delicate vocals by LmbrJck_t.

Messrs. Akinmusire and Finlayson, who have been friends since grade school, met Mr. Coleman when they were in high school. The esteemed saxophonist first encountered them at a jazz festival where they were part of a student band and then when he was in the Bay Area to conduct workshops. Mr. Finlayson joined Five Elements, Mr. Coleman’s primary band, when he was 18 years old, and he has remained an integral part of the group. Mr. Akinmusire joined Mr. Coleman’s band, too, but he left to study first at the Manhattan School of Music then at the University of Southern California. He won the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Trumpet competition. He moved back to Oakland, Calif., last year after a decade as a first-call trumpeter on the New York scene.

These recordings reveal one important similarity. Messrs. Akinmusire and Finlayson prefer to explore the textures of their instrument’s sound rather than reach for its peaks. That’s characteristic of several other trumpeters and cornetists on the scene, including Taylor Ho Bynum, Adam O’Farrill and Nate Wooley. The trumpet was once the most flamboyant instrument in jazz; it is now becoming one of the most introspective.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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From Way Downtown 01: Stop Laughing at The Kings


dfox_0.jpgNBA fans, you don’t need me to tell you that the Thunder’s slow start is a problem or that the 76ers lack of outside shooting should disqualify them from the championship conversation for now.  But there is off the radar stuff that I think is really interesting.  That’s what I’ll write about in From Way Downtown.

Check it out at Medium

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At WSJ on Turner/Iverson Temporary Kings

‘Temporary Kings’ Review: Alluringly Reserved

Ethan Iverson and Mark Turner team up on an austere and elegant album that belongs to a growing field known as chamber jazz.

Ethan Iverson and Mark Turner in 2017
Ethan Iverson and Mark Turner in 2017 PHOTO: ROBERT LEWIS/ECM RECORDS

At long last, Ethan Iverson is no longer leading a double life. For most of this century he has had conflicting musical identities. For one, he was a member of the Bad Plus, one of the most popular groups in jazz; the rambunctious group was sometimes promoted as a power piano trio and often did its best to act as if subtlety were an enemy. For another, he created ambitious and abstract works for intimate ensembles, and he blogged enthusiastically about jazz, often highlighting underappreciated elements of the genre’s history. Late last year, the Bad Plus announced that Mr. Iverson would be leaving. Since playing his final gig with the trio on New Year’s Eve (pianist Orrin Evans has succeeded him), he has increased his individual recording and gigging as well as his blogging, and he has begun writing about music for the New Yorker. He has gone from one of jazz’s leading popularizers to one of its leading geeks.

“Temporary Kings” (ECM), a duet session with the outstanding saxophonist Mark Turner, is Mr. Iverson’s first release since his departure from the Bad Plus, and it reflects the gulf between his independent activities and the sound of his erstwhile band. The music is austere and elegant and belongs to the growing field of chamber jazz. The sounds draw you with their reserve; the spaces between the notes often have as much impact as the notes themselves. Some of the recording is reminiscent of the subdued complexities of the Lennie Tristano/Warne Marsh “Cool School” approach to jazz, developed in the ’50s.

The nine performances on the 54-minute recording—six composed by Mr. Iverson, two by Mr. Turner, plus a cover of Marsh’s “Dixie’s Dilemma”—seem to divide into three segments. The first third of the recording, which features three Iverson works, is contemplative. The Cool School influence is apparent in the restraint and gentle abstractions, but there’s a litheness to the players’ interactions. Each musician responds to the other and tugs the music in striking directions.

The second third is less opaque. The pace picks up and the tone lightens for “Dixie’s Dilemma,” which echoes the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II standard “All the Things You Are.” Mr. Iverson performs solo on his “Yesterday’s Bouquet,” a wistful ballad. “Unclaimed Freight” borders on playful.

The recording’s final three pieces are clear and precise, with both ruminative and straight-ahead aspects. Mr. Turner’s composition “Myron’s World” flows gracefully, his saxophone lines augmented by Mr. Iverson’s impressionistic piano. The pianist’s “Third Familiar” is haunting, and the recording comes full circle at the conclusion with Mr. Turner’s “Seven Points,” a slow, tender meditation.

Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson in 2017
Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson in 2017 PHOTO: ROBERT LEWIS/ECM RECORDS

Mr. Turner, who is 52 years old, and Mr. Iverson, who is 45, met in the early ’90s when they were frequent participants in jam sessions in New York. They are half of the Billy Hart Quartet, which has released three widely acclaimed recordings, and they write for each other. Mr. Iverson’s “Turner’s Chamber of Unlikely Delights” appears on this album. Mr. Turner’s “Iverson’s Odyssey” appears on the first release by the Billy Hart Quartet. Their rapport highlights the new recording.

Mr. Turner is a cerebral saxophonist and an excellent duet partner; he also appears on the stunning “Faroe” (Sunnyside), an August release with Danish guitarist Mikkel Ploug. In the press release for “Temporary Kings,” Mr. Iverson says that Mr. Turner’s playing makes him listen harder, which is an apt comment about what both men do for their audience. The duo will tour the Midwest and Northeast Sept. 13-20, including an appearance at the Jazz Standard in New York on Sept. 18. They will tour the West Coast in October.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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At WSJ on Kandace Springs Indigo

‘Indigo’ by Kandace Springs Review: Adding Emotion Through Precision

On her new release, the soulful jazz pianist and vocalist is self-assured, distinctive and strikingly contemporary.

Kandace Springs
Kandace Springs PHOTO: JEFF FORNEY

Pianist and vocalist Kandace Springs is a practitioner of soulful jazz, a hybrid genre whose exemplars include Anita Baker, Andy Bey, Angela Bofill, Roberta Flack, Phyllis Hyman, Mica Paris, Sade, Gil Scott-Heron and Nina Simone. Most of those artists—as well as Ella Fitzgerald and Luther Vandross—influence the music on her stellar new release, “Indigo” (Blue Note), out this week. Yet the 29-year-old sounds self-assured, distinctive and strikingly contemporary, mostly free of the long shadows of her idols.

Ms. Springs’s father is the Nashville-based session singer Scat Springs, who performed with Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and many other greats. Prince saw a YouTube clip of hers in 2014, and he invited Ms. Springs to participate in the concert celebrating the 30th anniversary of “Purple Rain.” That same year she collaborated with Ghostface Killah on two tracks from his album “36 Seasons.” Her full-length debut, “Soul Eyes,” was released in 2016.

“Indigo” is her second full-length recording and an impressive showcase for her range and interests. There’s very little gospel-inspired thunder in Ms. Springs’s lithe alto. Instead, she attracts the listener with her precision. She enunciates meticulously and creates miniature narratives within many of her songs—minutely altering the inflections on each vowel, which adds emotional depth.

The recording moves deftly from midtempo songs like the first track, “Don’t Need the Real Thing,” into slower-paced material that highlights her vocal prowess. A cover of Gabriel Garzón-Montano’s glacially paced “6 8” offers more delicate inflections to the lyrics than the original, plus exceptional atmospheric backing from flutist Elena Pinderhughes.

“Unsophisticated,” a song written by Ms. Springs, Evan Rogers and Carl Sturken, reads like an extension of the Hoagy Carmichael/Ned Washington standard “The Nearness of You.” At a gentle, loping tempo, Ms. Springs’s voice grows softer and raspier as Roy Hargrove’s trumpet percolates behind her singing. Many of the songs on the recording celebrate the bliss of romance, but “Love Sucks” offers an effective retort. Another Springs/Rogers/Sturken track, the song is a uptempo lament on the insatiable power of attraction in which the vocalist alternates between seductively welling her voice into one verse and then tersely recoiling into the next.

Two vintage covers provide the biggest highlights of the recording. Ms. Springs’s spin on the Thom Bell/Linda Creed soul classic “People Make the World Go ’Round” features nimble scat singing, and Nicholas Payton, best known as a leading trumpeter, responds with spry variations on the bass. Her take on “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” follows in the rather large footsteps of Ms. Flack’s version of the Ewan MacColl torch song yet succeeds. Ms. Springs’s subtle modulations of her voice and Jesse Harris’s guitar deepen the emotion. It’s the tune that Prince asked her to play at the anniversary concert.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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Life on Aisle 2: This is What Plan C Looks Like. Episode 16, The Big Picture

In which, I begin to envision a life outside of working all the time.

It’s at Medium

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Life on Aisle 2: This is What Plan C Looks Like, Episode 15. Friday Night Lights

Aisle 2, Episode 15.  Sometimes I think work is my religion.  Sometimes I think determination is.
Here is it at Medium
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Life on Aisle 2: This is What Plan C Looks Like. Episode 14 My Body My Self

Ah, the vagaries of aging, resisting it, and toxic workplaces.  All of it contained here.

Yes, at Medium

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