Noteworthy: A roundup of recent jazz releases
Former Coltrane pianist McCoy Tyner returns for an elegant romp, Bill Dixon's all-star orchestra explodes, and Nicole Mitchell does the unthinkable: make flute-led jazz a force to be reckoned with.
Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra
This eponymous big-band extravaganza opens with a subdued rumble sustained by drums and timpani. It suspensefully builds until a dozen highly developed jazz improvisers join forces at full throttle. The dominant soloists on this thickly cerebral experimental session are a 40-something cornetist, Rob Mazurek, leader of Chicago's Exploding Star Orchestra, and the 80-something trumpeter Bill Dixon. Both are brass masters as well as accomplished visual artists. Their complementary soloing on this rousing album of stormy symphonic squalls suggests telepathically inspired abstract painters working on the same canvas.
McCoy Tyner – Afro Blue
The noted pianist is showcased by eight tracks culled from five albums. The strongest numbers are Latin big-band outings (like the title track, which showcases a solo by Steve Turre on seashell!) and Tyner by himself, tenderly mining the wistful drama of Gershwin's "Summertime." The trio and quartet settings reveal the formulaic shortcomings of his accompanists. Maybe the quartet format establishes too instant a comparison to his heyday during the 1960s as John Coltrane's pianist. Nevertheless, this is a distinguished elder's elegant romp through many styles, performed with panache.
Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble – Black Unstoppable
Hail Nicole Mitchell, our greatest jazz flutist. Mitchell and her band of eight exploratory Chicago musicians might just finally establish the flute-led band as a force in modern music. Mixing jazz seamlessly with R&B and Soul while blending Tomeka Reid's piquant cello into a saucy mix, Mitchell plays her flute with such spirited gusto that her saxophonist and trumpeter, no slackers, barely keep up with her trilling storytelling. Her song lyrics can border on the cosmically trite ("Love Has No Boundaries" is one unfortunate example). But when Mitchell and her enthusiastic band soulfully cohere instrumentally, they sound unstoppable.
Cuong Vu – Vu-Tet
Vu, a young Vietnamese-American trumpeter and composer, has extraordinary technique that allows him to easily transition from a stately, golden-tone lyricism to a raspy stutter. His quartet includes an electrifying, electric bassist with a molasses-thick, sinewy sound, an inventive saxophonist not always on Vu's wavelength, and a splashy drummer comfortable equally with rock and jazz. Vu's original compositions don't yet match his chops. The slow numbers sound like Pat Metheny at his most mawkish. But "Accelerated Thoughts," a daredevil roller-coaster ride of heavy-metal rock motifs careening into spooky jazz dreamscapes, makes Vu sound like a future titan.
Arturo Stable – Notes on Canvas
Dear Mr. Mussorgsky: How difficult was it to write "Pictures at an Exhibition"? I'd like you to hear this likewise ambitious project by a Cuban-American percussionist who gathered a group of fellow Cuban expatriates and other jazz pros together to transform Picasso, Salvador Dali, Monet, and Van Gogh paintings into an art-museum soundtrack. How often does this succeed? It depends upon whether you judge it on the basis of how well the paintings align with the music – or how memorable the music is alone. You and Stable both pass my blindfold test.