Thoughts

  • Downbeat Readers' Poll 2017

    Again, a yearly tradition, who I voted for in the Downbeat Readers' Poll, and with some brief explanations.

    Hall of Fame: Bob Brookmeyer

    Also considered: Benny Golson, Oliver Nelson, Sam Rivers, Cedar Walton. Any of these guys would have been great, of course, but it just kind of seems like Brookmeyer had more to do with the way modern big band is than anyone else in the last sixty years.

    Jazz Artist: Ambrose Akinmusire

    Also considered: Maria Schneider, Brad Mehldau. I don't know how to do this question, it's kind of overwhelming, and I cant say there was any one person who stuck out to me too much this year, so I'll go with Ambrose, the undisputed champ of jazz trumpet.

    Jazz Group: Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet

    Also considered: Donny McCaslin group, Brad Mehldau Trio. Yeah, I don't know. Just not that many albums by BANDS that I was huge on this year. This answer of course doesn't even make sense, since the last Ambrose album was a QUARTET. But whatever.

    Big Band: Darcy James Argue's Secret Society

    Also considered: Maria Schneider Orchestra. The only reason I'll give it to Darcy over Maria is because they actually released an album this year.

    Jazz Album: Jakob Bro/Thomas Morgan/Joey Baron, Streams (ECM)

    Also considered: Wolfgang Muthspiel, Rising Grace; Tillery, Tillery; Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau, Nearness. Streams was the album that hit me hardest this year - it's really beautiful, check it out!

    Historical Album: Lee Konitz and Kenny Wheeler Quartet, Live at Birdland Neuburg

    Also considered: Steve Reich, the ECM Recordings. I'm psyched whenever new Kenny Wheeler is made available.

    Trumpet: Ambrose Akinmusire

    Also considered: Avishai Cohen, Terence Blanchard. Avishai is playing some shit, and Terence is still at the top of the game, but this isn't even close.

    Trombone: Ryan Keberle

    Also considered: Marshall Gilkes

    Soprano Saxophone: Steve Wilson

    Also considered: Joshua Redman. I maintain that I like Redman's soprano playing more than his tenor playing. This was close, but Wilson basically clinches it for his playing on the title track of Maria Schneider's "The Thompson Fields."

    Alto Saxophone: Greg Ward

    Also considered: Jon Irabagon. Greg is one of the best things about Chicago right now. His tone is other-worldly, and he's an incredibly sensitve player. He's the man.

    Tenor Saxophone: Mark Turner

    Also considered: Joshua Redman, Walter Smith III, Donny McCaslin, Ben Wendel. I liked but didn't love Wendel's last album. I wasn't a huge fan of McCaslin's last album. Walter and Joshua are, like, legacy options. But as no one else REALLY stood out to me this year, I'll keep it with Mark Turner. Shoutout to Dustin Laurenzi, too.

    Bari Saxophone: Scott Robinson

    I feel bad but... I don't actually listen to Bari players. Sorry, Mark Hiebert.

    Clarinet: Anat Cohen

    Flute: N/A

    Piano: Tigran Hamasyan

    Also considered: Fabian Almazan, Brad Mehldau. Brad is always around, and I'm a huge fan of the things Fabian is doing. But Tigran (WHO I HAD TO WRITE IN WTF DOWNBEAT) is still, just, the man. I quite liked his latest solo album, even if I was a little bit disappointed by his album "Atmospheres" with Arve Henriksen.

    Keyboard: Adam Benjamin

    Also considered: Jason Lindner. Kneebody's guy is doing good stuff for them.

    Organ: N/A

    Guitar: Jakob Bro

    Also considered: Bill Frisell, Lionel Loueke, Gilad Hekselman. Frisell and Loueke are always around, but Streams was so good I have to give it to Bro.

    Bass: Thomas Morgan

    Also considered: Linda Oh, Larry Grenadier. Linda Oh, who was here in Madison for a week this spring, is the shit. But Morgan's playing makes me rethink what I think about the bass.

    Electric Bass: Tim Lefebvre

    Also considered: Derrick Hodge, Ike Sturm. Hodge's latest album was fine, but not particularly memorable. Lefebvre's work with McCaslin's group has, I think, really made a big impact on modern electric jazz bass playing. (At least for me.) Check out Ike and Jesse Lewis' new album, Endless Field.

    Violin: Zach Brock

    Drums: Brian Blade

    Also considered, Eric Harland, Kendrick Scott, Jim Black. Again here, no one really stuck out, so I kind of just picked some of my favorites.

    Vibraphone: Chris Dingman

    Also considered: Justin Thomas

    Percussion: N/A

    Miscellaneous Instrument: Gary Versace, organ

    Male Vocalist: Gregory Porter

    Also considered: Theo Bleckmann, Jacob Collier

    Female Vocalist: Camila Meza

    Also considered: Becca Stevens, Gretchen Parlato. Can't go wrong with any of em.

    Composer: Maria Schneider

    Who I don't believe has much competition.

    Arranger: N/A

    This is a weird category; I bet Maria wins this one, too. But she's not really arranging anything. Honestly, I don't really know anyone who does new arrangements. Joe Clark, maybe!

    Record Label: ECM

    Blues Artist/Album: N/A

    Beyond Artist: Björk

    Beyond Album: A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service

  • Score Analysis: "Settle"

    Settle is on the Paul Dietrich Quintet's new album, Focus, which will be released on May 19, 2017. You can hear this track at pauldietrich.bandcamp.com/album/focus, where you can also pre-order the album!

    Settle PDF

    "Settle" was one of the first tunes that was written for the new album, but it didn't exist in this form originally. It existed first as a big band chart that I wrote about three years ago.

    Now, I need to talk for a minute about big band writing vs. small group writing. I'm typically actually against using the same tunes for big band and small group. One of the things that bugs me the most is lazy big band arrangements of small group tunes in which the arranger simply takes a small group tune, orchestrates the melody for three horns, adds some hits at the end of every phrase, maybe a 32-bar ensemble section, and calls it a day. Seriously - it drives me nuts. There is so much at your disposal when writing for large ensemble, to use it as a glorified combo insults me. So, a long time ago, I determined that I would avoid doing that; when I write for small group I write for small group, and when I write for big band, I write for big band. 

    (A side note, here, so people don't get mad: I'm not saying that there aren't worthwhile arrangements of small group tunes for big band. Many of them are very creatively done, and I'm sure any of you reading this could come up with a thousand examples to throw in my face. I mostly only mean this in reference to my own original tunes.)

    So, I wrote settle in 2014 for big band. And I liked it! (You can see the score for the big band version over on my scores page.) The solo on that chart is in Alto Sax, but I had the opportunity to play it once as a guest soloist and had such a good time doing it that I wanted to do it more often. So, I went about adapting the piece for small group. IN MY OPINION, this is a much better direction to work in this regard, from big band to small group. Instead of trying to make something small sound big, you are making something big sound smaller, and the result is much more satisfying.

    Anyway, to the music. I gave Dustin a bit more of the lead in this tune; the original melody is carried by alto sax. I actually really like the result - this melody is in a higher range on tenor than it is on alto, and that higher, delicate tenor sound really worked. It's also a nice break from the fact that trumpet carries the melody throughout most of album.

    The place where "Settle" started was the four-chord progression that takes place first at m. 13. You'll notice that the beginning of the tune (which is a sort of odd 12+6 measure form) is built off of that four-chord progression, but instead of resolving to the G minor chord, pivots to Db major.

    (A quick, nerdy aside: I knew that I had heard the original D - Gmi/Bb - C - Gmi progression somewhere, but for months, I couldn't remember where. Honestly, I thought that it had come from some random atmospheric music from the video game Skyrim, but eventually I did discover that the place I must have gotten it from was a spot from an Arve Henriksen song - 1:09 in this link, which is not quite the same progression but is very similar.)

    From there, we stay in Db for a bit, with a superimposed 3/4 over 4/4 (I've considered, many times, actually changing this to 4 bars of 3/4 instead of 3 of 4/4, and I still might in the big band version), before pivoting again to move back to the D major we started in (that comes back in m. 13). 

    The A/C# and Amaj7 chords in m. 10-11 and, more specifically, 32-33 were one of the bigger struggles I had with the transition from big band to small group. You can see why when you look at the big band score - there's a lot going on right there:

    I decided to cut back on most of the busier stuff happening in the head, which was, definitely, the right decision. It gives it a little bit of a different mood than the big band chart, but there's nothing happening that seemed forced in their from the big band version. The two part counterpoint thing, at 19, also worked really well in the smaller group.

    The solo section is actually more or less the same, minus, obviously, most of the backgrounds, with a simple saxophone background in the small group version. How the section comes to a close is quite a bit different, though. In the big band version, the solo keeps building and the band builds steadily louder, before hitting the loudest point in the piece, at measure 68-69. The small group version follows the same path, but as you can hear on the recording, doesn't exactly build to quite the same frenzy, which is totally understandable from an orchestrational standpoint.

    The final major difference here is the end A-major section. The general feel remains the same; the idea is for it to be a big wash of A major. I always imagined it like a feather bed, which the piece just kind of falls into. The big band version has a bunch of repeated, out of rhythm notes, followed by a thickly-harmonized line that all the saxes and trumpets play together:

    (That's trumpets 1 and 2, a half step apart on the first note.)

    The small group version obviously didn't have the whole group to deal with, and since I trust the members of the band to understand what I meant, I just gave general instructions to everyone:

    All in all, I'm really pleased with how BOTH versions turned out, and how they are similar and different. The small group version is undoubtedly more chill, and that manifests itself in tempo - the small group version on the record is quite a bit slower than we usually play the big band version. The big version, while still pretty low-key, definitely gets pretty amped up for a minute, so the vibe is a bit different.

    "Settle" is one of my favorite tunes off the new record - I hope you enjoyed it! Let me know if you have any further questions.

  • Score Analysis: "12:48"

    In advance of the next Paul Dietrich Quintet album, due in 2017, I'll be going through and doing a compositional analysis of all the tunes on the first album. Third is "12:48." Audio is available by clicking play above. You may download the PDF to follow along by clicking on this link:

    12:48 PDF

    “12:48” is a time on a clock. If I were being more thorough, the tune would have been called “12:48 AM,” and then there wouldn't have been questions. But I get it, since 12:48 is a ratio that actually makes sense, from a clean math standpoint. So the questions persist. Now that that's cleared up, let's talk about the song!

    12:48 is different from every other tune on We Always Get There in that I didn't write it at the piano. I almost entirely write my tunes at the piano, but this one is different. The opening trumpet line (which ends up being played by the other members of the band) was something I came up with while playing long tones one day while practicing. That line is the common thread through the entire piece.

    (On a personal note, as a performer: this opening line has always scared the crap out of me. It's not exactly difficult, but there are a lot of big leaps in there, and it's obviously very exposed. The less I thought about it, the easier it was to play – but it's really easy to think too much about it when you're the only one playing at the start of the tune! It's been awhile since I've played it live, and I think I've gotten a lot better at trumpet in the meantime, so I'd like to think I'd be less scared, now.)

    Anyway, back to the common thread. Trumpet plays the line the first two times, and tenor comes in at m. 9 with the “melody,” if you'd like to think of it that way. I imagine it's not the easiest thing in the world to come in, soft, on an altissimo F on a tenor saxophone, but Dustin has always nailed it. Thanks Dustin! At m. 17, the line continues, but in piano now, and trumpet and tenor have pieces of the line, but in harmony with it. At m. 25, trumpet and tenor play the “melody” together, which ends what you could refer to, I guess, as the “head in.”

    So, a quick word on how the head is constructed: this was still in the time where, much like with House on Willard, I was kind of exploring different, slightly more unusual ways of orchestrating a jazz quintet. Bass and drums function very regularly in this tune, but I was kind of looking for different things in the way that the parts intertwined – this led to the melodies and the line getting passed off between instruments like they were.

    The piano solo, starting in m. 33, is simply a free solo section in Ab. The recorded version is fairly tame, but by the end of our run of playing this song regularly live, Paul, Tim and Andrew would sometimes get very adventurous. The re-entry of Dustin and I with our 'background' line served not only to get the band to move on, but to re-establish the time and tonal center.

    The line, then, continues at m. 49, but in a squashed form – all the rests and long notes have been purged. This necessitates a time change to 6/4. Also, you probably noticed that there is harmony here, other than the pedal Ab that has been present (depending on where the piano solo went) for the entire tune. I'm not sure where I got this chord progression from, it was just sort of a fun thing – Dustin used to refer to the D/F# leading to Eb/G in m. 51 as the “gospel chord.”

    And now here's a quick shout to another song that definitely inspired this one, whether I knew it at the time or not: “Over There,” written by Derrick Hodge, from Terence Blanchard's album Flow. (It was also recorded on A Tale of God's Will but I've always preferred the other version.) I have to admit, if there was one song on this album that I wish I could had Terence's chops for, this is the one! (Terence, if you're reading this and ever want to play my tune, I'd be honored.)

    After the trumpet solo hits a fever pitch and then ebbs, we're back to the Ab pedal. One little change from the score – the Ab chord that lasts, as written, from 58-61 was actually just open Ab until Dustin started playing again in m. 62. At this point in the recording, Paul does some really amazing stuff in the piano, some of my favorite music from the entire record. Dustin's line feels like it's in space. Everyone locks back in at m. 70 to play the melody one last time out.

    I think, of all the songs on the album, this may have been my favorite.

  • Score Analysis - "House on Willard"

    1. Score Analysis - "House on Willard"

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    In advance of the next Paul Dietrich Quintet album, due in 2017, I'll be going through and doing a compositional analysis of all the tunes on the first album. Second is "House on Willard." Audio is available by clicking play above. You may download the PDF to follow along by clicking on this link:

    House on Willard PDF

    First: what is the House on Willard? I used to walk dogs in Chicago's west loop – the part of downtown covering from, basically, south from Jackson St. up to Washington, and west from a little past Willis Tower across the highway to Racine. Within this little section of the city there was a little street that was only a block called Willard Court, in between Racine and Elizabeth.

    This part of Chicago is fairly recently developed – lots of hip restaurants and old warehouses that were converted into lofts for young professionals, dotted with the occasional high-rise apartment building. What there are not a lot of are houses. There is a very odd exception on Willard Court. A large, three story red-brick house that just didn't fit. It was covered in ivy. It had these like Tuscan-style windows that would be open in the summertime. Open porches. And, most remarkably of all – a big, fenced in backyard garden. It was incredible! It was a high fence so you had to kind of be at the right angle to see it, but it was this kind of magical place – kind of overgrown, with a firepit and old wooden lawn furniture. This place was in the middle of the one of downtown Chicago's nicer new neighborhoods!

    Anyway. That's where the title came from. And I would always imagine it as this sort magical place that existed in it's own world, apart from the bustle of the what was going on around it, and that was sort of the place that the tune House on Willard came from.

    On a technical level, I was trying to do something different with this piece. I sat down and had a couple beers with Chicago's wonderful composer Matt Ulery, and this song was kind of the result of what we talked about that night. The main takeaway: I was consciously trying to find ways to reorchestrate a jazz quintet. To try to get away from the idea of the two horns leading the line and the rhythm section accompanying.

    So – the ostinato figure at the beginning, which would normally probably be in piano, isn't – it's in trumpet and saxophone. Then the melody comes in in measure 3 – in the left hand of the piano, joined for moments by bass.

    As a side note, you can clearly see a little bit of Matt's influence in the construction of this ostinato, too, I think. We didn't talk about this, but I think it's pretty obvious that there's a lot of Philip Glass in Matt's music, and also a lot of what I call 'machinery' – parts that move like gears or clockwork throughout a tune. That's obviously here, with the ostinato horn figure that will sit for a long time and then move just a little bit.

    At B we get a little bit of a solid hit for a couple beats, where the whole band comes together, foreshadowing the more aggressive section that will come. But for now we're returning to the mysterious left hand piano line. The other thing that happens here: piano joins in on the ostinato, but the horns are also broken up – they are filling in all the notes of the line but not always at the same time. This took a lot of rehearsing to make it feel comfortable. Measure 24 gives us the first long note in either horn, when trumpet holds the line. I kind of liked how that sounded when it came out, especially with the cup mute.

    We get our first big harmonic shift a couple measures later, at 28. This is also where bass and left hand piano start to fulfill their traditional roles a little more, playing what is definitely a “bass line” in mm. 31-36 and into the next “rockin” section at C.

    A lot of this tune is a little weird in that the harmony is kind of acting as melody – the melody that happens in the low voices early on is fairly stagnant and a little strange. Here at C, we don't really have a melody – it's just a baseline that's being accented by hits in the horns. In mm. 44-45, the line is clearly building to something...but we're not there yet, instead going back to the material from the beginning, but this time with piano playing the ostinato and bass playing the melody. I think when people hear this tune, they're not always totally aware of the fact that what the bass player is playing here (and the piano is playing at the beginning) is supposed to be the actual melody. Which is fine, I guess, as long as it fits into the whole thing. I don't know – I kind of purposely pushed myself out of my comfort zone for this song.

    Tenor and trumpet come back in with parts of this line again, but in a smoother, more lyrical way (and trumpet is open now) so it sounds a little different. E starts similarly to B from earlier, but a section of this is cut and after just five bars we get to F, which is the same as C, only this time we do get to the release of all of this buildup at G.

    Now – this solo section was not originally like this. I think I tried several different things for solos on this tune and never ended up liking any of them. I think that even as late as the day we recorded it in the studio, I had something else for a trumpet solo, decided I didn't like it, and we both just played the changes that I had written for the saxophone solo. So, sax and trumpet both play on the same solo form: a set of chord changes I came up with that actually isn't related to anything in the song other than I thought it sort of captured the feel. I thought the Andrew, Tim and Paul did a really great job kind of doing some different things behind Dustin and I that gave this solo section a lot of life. After repeating the changes, the soloist then plays over the figure from C and G (m. 98) with backgrounds from the other horn player. (The image below is the actual part I still use for this tune, with the last aborted solo section. I had built this letter I below off of the chords at G that lead into the solo, but it never felt quite right, so I just went back and played where the sax solo was.)

    After the last solo, we go from I to the end – the same melody from the beginning, but now with the ostinato in piano and the 'melody' in the horns. I really liked the way this ending worked, with sort of a deceptive thing regarding the key. We got a hint earlier (at m. 19) that we were actually in G minor, but if all you were listening to was the ostinato and the melody, I think it absolutely sounds like some mysterious mode of D, with a minor and major third and a flat 2. But, the end of this song gives it away obviously, resolving to a G minor (er, G power chord at least) for the last note.

    "House on Willard" is kind of unlike anything I've written before. I've struggled with it at times for that reason – I think it's cool and interesting but it's not the most comfortable thing to play. It's also probably the most difficult of the tunes that we play to actually execute, so we also have played it live less than the other tunes from this album. But! It was a valuable lesson for me in terms of treating the band differently and functioning outside my comfort zone, and I'm really glad it worked out and was on the album.

  • Score Analysis - "Dunes"

    In advance of the next Paul Dietrich Quintet album, due in 2017, I'll be going through and doing a compositional analysis of all the tunes on the first album. First up is "Dunes." Audio is available by clicking play above. You may download the PDF to follow along by clicking on this link:

    Dunes (With Solo Changes).pdf

    “Dunes” is an interesting tune, for me. For one – it's the only “head chart” on the entire first album. Something I have gravitated toward over the last several years in my own composition is the use of distinct sections of music: sections will be related, musically, but two soloists will rarely play over the same chord changes in the same tune, or the 'head out' will often happen in a different way than it did on the head in. I'll show examples of this as I get to the other tunes.

    “Dunes” is not like that. It's a relatively simple form: if you stretch out the 3x repeat at measure 21, it's a 33 bar form. Not normal, by any means, and the phrasing of it is not at all AABA or anything like that, but it's 33 bars that repeat over and over again until the song is over. I mention the internal repeat at m. 21 – this functions as a tag at the end of the piece. A tune I was really into for a long time (and I still like to play when I find a chance) is Robert Glasper's “Rise and Shine.” I played that on my Master's recital, which was only a couple of months before I wrote this song, so it was obviously in my mind – that tune, by Glasper, is a sort of ABAB form with a tag on the end of it (first heard at :32), and shares some things in common with this tune.

    Another thing that makes “Dunes” a little odd for me is that it actually has difficult to play chord changes. I really like harmony, but a lot of the harmony I use is diatonic, or at least kind of diatonic – diatonic in a way that makes sense to me, I guess (meaning – it might embrace more than one scale at a time, but it's all kind of the same key – shifting between, say, G major and Eb major, but not going outside of that). This tune actually has some kind of tricky changes (if you want to avoid a lengthy and technical discussion of chord changes, please skip ahead a couple of paragraphs). It is generally in the key of F major, I'd say. That's the second chord (first being D minor, which is modally related to F major), and is definitely the key at the end of the head. We pivot pretty quickly, however, on the Ebsus in bar four. This puts the tune into a weird sort of trip around the circle of fourths for a little bit (F#ma7 – Bma7 – Ema7 – Ama7#11) before resolving to Db/F on the pickup to m. 10.

    This Db/F is sort of a murky moment, in terms of where the key is: to me, when we land there, it sounds like Db is the new key. The Gb at the end of m. 10 sounds like a four chord, which supports that theory. However, the next chord – Bma7 – definitely functions as a four chord for the Gbma7 that follows. It doesn't necessarily sound like that when it happens, though: at the time, that Bma7 could just as easily have resolved to Db, and been a flat 7 chord. But, when it goes to Gb, that's the first place where we're firmly in a key in quite awhile. We stay generally in the key of Gb until the sudden pivot back to G that happens on the pickup to measure 19.

    The tag is a cool kind of sound that I've used in other tunes – it's a little ambiguous about whether it's F major or minor, since it has both F major in this tag (pickup to measure 22) and F minor (pickup to measure 23). How I recently explained this to someone – think of it as F minor with a major 3rd. The bass line gives it more of a minor-scale feel (flat six, flat seven, flat two, flat three, definitely minor, a phrygian sound), but the harmony above that bass-line includes the A natural in the first and third chords. Playing a scale of F-Gb-Ab-A-Bb-C-Db-Eb will basically cover this whole section. I'm not sure what you'd call that scale.

    Finally, after the 3x repeat, the pattern changes slightly and puts us firmly back in F major.

    I believe the reason that this tune is a little bit different is that I did it backwards to how I write most of my music. I would say that 90% of the time, I come up with chord changes first and melodies second. A lot of people work in the reverse of that, but I think a lot of people do it my way, too. This leads to a couple of things that I always need to be aware of in my writing – first, I'm generally bad at writing melodies so I sometimes have to take pains to work on that. Second, my tunes can be a little rhythmically bland if I'm not careful. Usually I'll come up with chords, then put a melody over that and depending on how that melody develops, I'll adjust the harmonic rhythm accordingly.

    This tune was different. This is a pretty odd an unexpected place, but the inspiration for this tune actually came from this tiny excerpt from Maurice Ravel's “Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte”:

    It might be hard to see at first, but you can see some similarities in the first four bars of "Dunes":

    The main thing that I took from Ravel was the movement of a chord shape in thirds in a single key. My chord shape changes a little (so does Ravel's), but all four of those chords are diatonic to F major, and the first and last chords are similar 'voicings' to what Ravel used. That was where this tune started – from there, I just came up with this sort of snaky melody, while simultaneously trying out chords to hear whether they worked or not. It's not a very scientific process.

    Finally, a note about how this tune is performed. The first time we tried this with my quintet, it was a little rough – the chords change in really weird places and the phrasing is all over the place. It's really hard to feel comfortable. So, what we ultimately decided to do, was this: during the solos, we shifted all the chords to the beginning, or the middle, of the measure that they occur in. So, for example, the Bb6/9 chord in measure three takes up that whole measure in the solos – then the Fma7/A takes up all of bar 4 – then the Ebsus takes up all of bar 5, etc. You can compare between the solo changes at the end of this score and the way the chord changes go by during the head. We did retain a couple of the hits: the Abma7 sequence in mm. 13-15 is something we usually play during the solos, and the same with the last two bars before the tag, mm. 19-20 in the head. This is notated in the solo changes.

    All in all, “Dunes” ended up being a big success from the first album, I thought. Corbin Andrick, our producer on the first record, had the great suggestion of creating a slightly shorter version of this tune for the album – when we play it live, we often will do four solos, open it up for awhile and go 10+ minutes. Corbin's suggestion was to just do three solos, two choruses each, for a more compact tune to lead off the album. The “radio edit,” so to speak. I really like the way that turned out, and we still play this tune regularly on gigs that we have the extra time to do it. I get the feeling it's one of the band's favorite tunes to play. I like having longer forms, but a simpler form can definitely be refreshing every now and then, and gives the group some room to expand.

    Dunes” is available on the first Paul Dietrich Quintet album, “We Always Get There,” which is available for purchase on iTunes and CDBaby. Keep your eyes open for the next album, due out in 2017.

  • THINGS I'VE BEEN LISTENING TO LATELY

    It's been a really long time since I've done this. Here are some things I've been listening to the last few weeks (It's September 9, 2016):

    Tillery – Tillery

    A pretty delightful vocal trio consisting of Becca Stevens, Gretchen Parlato and Rebecca Martin, they create some really wonderful vibes, joined by light accompaniments by things like Stevens' mandolin or Martin's acoustic guitar, and for a couple tracks percussion by Mark Guiliana (Parlato's husband) or bass by Larry Grenadier (Martin's husband). The coolest thing about it is hearing the contrast in compositional style – basically immediately recognizable – between the members of the group, on display on the album's combination of originals and creative arrangements of things like Prince's “Take Me With U.”

    Derrick Hodge – The Second

    There is some really, really nice stuff here, and I think that Hodge's solo electric bass playing does a better job of imitating R&B style vocals than any other instrumentalist I've ever heard. A lot of this kind of adds up to a groove record, always pleasant but sometimes getting repetitive. Wonderful sounds all around, though. Hodge plays most of the album entirely by himself, but is joined for short times by guys like Mark Colenburg and Keyon Harrold.

    Tomasz Stanko Quartet – Suspended Night

    This is an older album (2004) that I've listened to kind of a lot and always enjoyed but never got way into, but it has stuck with me through the years in a way that many other albums have not. Featuring all Polish guys on the album (including pianist Marcin Wasilewski – I have one of his albums), they create a beautiful feel throughout the entire thing, soft and gentle for most of it but not in the way that some ECM albums feel held back. I'm admittedly not entirely sure what the compositional structure of this album is, but it starts with a beautiful ballad-like “Song for Sarah,” and the rest of the album is made up of “Suspended Variations” numbering I-X. I'm not as familiar as I should be with the broader context of Stanko's career, but I will likely start checking it out. This album is wonderful.

    Greg Ward & 10 Tongues – Touch My Beloved's Thought

    Greg Ward is doing a lot of wonderful things since moving back to Chicago, and I'm really excited to hear them all. “Touch My Beloved's Thought” is his first album on Greenleaf, a live recording of music that was written in conjunction with a choreographer (and featured dancers). Referred to as a response to the music of Charles Mingus' The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Ward's music here clearly has its roots in that music but is kind of a modernized version, a successful, current reaction to it. The arrangements do a really good job of making the 11-piece ensemble sound larger than it actually is. Ward's playing is great, too.

  • Down Beat Readers Poll 2015

    This has become a tradition. Here we go.

    HALL OF FAME: Benny Golson. ALSO CONSIDERED: Jan Garbarek, Bob Brookmeyer.

    I've been voting for him for a few years, so I kind of feel like I can't change. His career is maybe too narrow, but he's written some true classics and plays on some really important stuff.

    JAZZ ARTIST: Ambrose Akinmusire. ALSO CONSIDERED: Vijay Iyer, Maria Schneider.

    I am surprised at this pick, but I guess I didn't think anything else was better. I know Iyer is the critical darling but I can't say I'm quite familiar enough with everything he's done lately (which has been a lot) to make that decision.

    JAZZ GROUP: Vijay Iyer Trio. ALSO CONSIDERED: Brad Mehldau Trio, Kneebody, The Bad Plus.

    I will say, though, that I'm more impressed with Iyer's trio as a trio, at least this year, than anybody else.

    BIG BAND: Darcy James Argue's Secret Society. ALSO CONSIDERED: Maria Schneider Orchestra.

    I'll give Darcy the edge. Although, I guess Maria's band actually released an album this year. I think the only reason is because Maria's latest album doesn't have Ingrid Jensen on it and Darcy's does!

    JAZZ ALBUM: Billy Childs - Map to the Treasure. ALSO CONSIDERED: Mark Turner - Lathe of Heaven, Tigran Hamasyan - Mockroot, Walter Smith III - Still Casual.

    Doing this every year makes me realize I need to listen to more new music. I liked a lot of things this year (the cutoff is May 31), but didn't LOVE any of them, I don't think. Billy Childs' album came very, very close though - so many amazing guests, great string writing, good songs.

    HISTORICAL ALBUM: I did not hear any of these. Whoops.

    TRUMPET: Ambrose Akinmusire. ALSO CONSIDERED: Avishai Cohen.

    Ambrose is untouchable right now, man. Sorry Avishai I didn't really consider you. You're great, but, you know.

    TROMBONE: Ryan Keberle. ALSO CONSIDERED: Marshall Gilkes.

    Not to say that I've been buying up jazz trombone records, but Keberle is really great. I liked what I heard of his solo album, and he does great things for both Darcy and Maria.

    SOPRANO SAXOPHONE: Wayne Shorter. ALSO CONSIDERED: Joshua Redman.

    I really like when Redman plays Soprano, but I think that Wayne is probably the king.

    ALTO SAXOPHONE: Kenny Garrett. ALSO CONSIDERED: Jon Irabagon, Loren Stillman.

    Kenny plays so amazingly I can overlook the fact that his music tends to always be smashing me in the face.

    TENOR SAXOPHONE: Ben Wendel (WHO I HAD TO WRITE IN WTF). ALSO CONSIDERED: Mark Turner, Donny McCaslin.

    Seriously I can't believe I have to write in Ben Wendel.

    BARITONE SAXOPHONE: Scott Robinson.

    I don't really know any bari players. Mark Hiebert should get votes.

    CLARINET: Anat Cohen.

    FLUTE: Erica von Kleist.

    PIANO: Brad Mehldau. ALSO CONSIDERED: Vijay Iyer, Aaron Parks, Robert Glasper, Fabian Almazan, Craig Taborn, Tigran Hamasyan.

    Brad is still the man for me, despite the fact that Iyer is obviously more prolific, and probably ambitious, currently. Parks and Glasper are still my favorites, and Almazan made some GREAT music this year. Tigran is always around. Taborn is a freak. Man, lots of very good jazz pianists.

    KEYBOARD: Robert Glasper. ALSO CONSIDERED: Craig Taborn, Jason Lindner, Adam Benjamin.

    ORGAN: I don't really feel solid voting for anyone in this category.

    GUITAR: Lionel Loueke. ALSO CONSIDERED: Lage Lund, Bill Frisell.

    I love Lionel and can't wait until he has new music out.

    BASS: Linda Oh. ALSO CONSIDERED: Omer Avital, Larry Grenadier, Matt Brewer.

    Linda Oh just keeps turning up on albums I love.

    ELECTRIC BASS: Derrick Hodge.

    VIOLIN: Pass.

    DRUMS: Brian Blade. ALSO CONSIDERED: Kendrick Scott, Eric Harland.

    Brian Blade wins, but how is Kendrick Scott not an option? Huge oversight.

    VIBES: Chris Dingman.

    His new album is great look it up on Bandcamp it's called The Subliminal and the Sublime.

    PERCUSSION: Pass.

    MISCELLANEOUS INSTRUMENT: Ben Wendel (Bassoon). ALSO CONSIDERED: Gary Versace (Accordion), Chris Thile (Mandolin).

    Once again, Ben Wendel gets left off...

    MALE VOCALIST: Theo Bleckmann. ALSO CONSIDERED: Bobby McFerrin.

    FEMALE VOCALIST: Gretchen Parlato. ALSO CONSIDERED: Is Becca Stevens a jazz vocalist?

    COMPOSER: Tigran Hamasyan. ALSO CONSIDERED: Darcy James Argue, Maria Schneider, Ben Wendel.

    Tigran, his music has been informing me the most the past year or two.

    ARRANGER: I always feel weird voting for this because the winner is always a composer and not really an arranger in that sense. I'll vote for Maria, because she did that one song for Toots Thielmans and that other one for David Bowie.

    I skipped the Blues things.

    BEYOND ARTIST: Björk. ALSO CONSIDERED: Robert Glasper Experiment, D'Angelo, Is Becca Stevens Band a Beyond Artist?

    BEYOND ALBUM: Björk - Vulnicura (which I wrote a review about here).

  • Album Review: Maria Schneider Orchestra - "The Thompson Fields"

    Maria Schneider hasn't released a big band album in eight years. Sky Blue, which came out in 2007, was not only one of the best big band albums ever made, it ensured the notion that everything that Maria puts out, likely for the rest of her life, will be met with unique anticipation.

    The Thompson Fields does not disappoint. An album covered in nostalgia – the composer essentially admits as much in the liner notes – it continues a remarkable string of successes that goes back 15 years to 2000's Allegresse, an album that signaled major change in the world of large jazz ensemble writing. The Thompson Fields perhaps doesn't make the immense leaps forward that were evident on her previous three albums, but the care and beauty that Schneider has put into this music is nearly unmatched in the jazz world today.

    The album starts off with the only piece here that you may have heard before - “Walking by Flashlight,” which was a movement from a collaborative project Maria did with the famous singer Dawn Upshaw and the Australian Chamber Orchestra in 2012, Winter Morning Walks. This version presents very much like the other, with Scott Robinson, who played a secondary role on that album, taking over the melody on his clarinet. “Walking by Flashlight” sets the tone for this entire album: it is lush, understated, simplistically beautiful.

    What follows is one of the album's more ambitious works, “The Monarch and the Milkweed.” Schneider, who is a passionate naturalist and environmentalist, states that this piece is a question about beauty: “What is it exactly, and why does it exist?” As Maria is responsible for some of the most beautiful music of the 21st century, it's intriguing to hear what she has to say. “The Monarch and the Milkweed” features a melancholy melody, a fiery solo from trombonist Marshall Gilkes, and ultimately one of this album's important aspects: a very personal solo from trumpeter Greg Gisbert.

    The idea of “personal” big band music is an interesting one to me. Schneider has always entrusted her music to her soloists, something that I have always had great respect for. On this album, Maria does this just as much as ever, and actually incorporates a large amount of timeless space into her music – something that big band writers (myself included) seem afraid of. We got glimpses of this on past albums: the large piano transition in the “Three Romances” from Concert in the Garden and the middle sections of “The Pretty Road” and “Cerulean Skies” on Sky Blue. She takes this concept further on this album.

    The title track, my personal favorite from this album, begins with a breathtaking guitar introduction by new guitarist Lage Lund, who brings a similar vibe but a slightly different sound than his predecessor Ben Monder. “The Thompson Fields” continues through several repetitions of a simple chorale theme – guitar, then piano, then full band, with Steve Wilson leading the chorale in a way that only he can. Here we see perhaps Schneider's greatest ability as a bandleader: to get the eighteen members of this band on an almost extrasensory level with each other. The band moves together through the pushes and pulls of these rubato sections so perfectly it's almost unbelievable. After another loose middle section featuring piano solo with waves of low chords from the band and another chorale, the piece settles into a new slow groove with Lage Lund playing a great solo, reminiscent of some of my favorite work of his with Eric Harland's Voyager. Here again is a sign of Schneider's trust in her band: after the trumpets fade out their long note, nobody other than the rhythm section plays for the last 2:45 of the track.

    Schneider continues her habit of having songs to feature her favorite soloists: “Home” for Rich Perry, which, honestly, has a pretty similar vibe to his previous feature, “Rich's Piece” from Sky Blue. “Nimbus,” after a predictably stormy start, features some great playing from Steve Wilson, in a style far different from his big solo on the title track of Sky Blue. Gary Versace, whose accordion is quietly present throughout the whole album, which is a really unique sound for this band, takes the lead on the touching “A Potter's Song,” dedicated to trumpet player Laurie Frink, a former member of the band, who passed away last year. Ryan Keberle plays a fantastic trombone solo on “Lembrança," an entertaining piece with elements of Samba, reminding us of Maria's heavy Brazilian influences.

    The last piece I'll mention is "Arbiters of Evolution," the longest track on the album, which really stands out from the rest. This tune is really like nothing else on this album, or her last two albums, for that matter. An aggressive yet playful almost-swing/shuffle groove propels this thing all the way through, minus another big open, free middle section. Donny McCaslin gets his big feature on this one, and he's the perfect guy to blow over something in this style. He and Scott Robinson have a great time impersonating the birds that the song is about (specifically, Schneider was thinking of Birds of Paradise when writing this, according to the liner notes). Hearing McCaslin and Robinson shriek as the band kicks up near the end really gives you an appreciation for the unique things that this band does.

    The last thing I'll mention actually has nothing to do with the music - the packaging for this album is the best that I've ever seen. A beautiful booklet style CD case, with 50 or so pages of notes, photographs, and nature drawings. Seriously, spend the extra ten dollars or whatever to get a physical copy.

    The Thompson Fields is very good - to me, it comes in just behind Sky Blue and Concert in the Garden, simply because of the massive leaps forward that those two albums made for big band music in general. The Thompson Fields doesn't quite have those massive leaps, and I do miss Ingrid Jensen, but it is Maria honing her craft and making all of us midwesterners feel nostalgic. 4-and-a-half out of 5 stars.

  • Album Review: Terence Blanchard - "Breathless"

    Terence Blanchard's new album, Breathless, featuring the group he calls the E-Collective, is a bit of a turn in a different direction for the trumpeter. For awhile, Blanchard's music hasn't been afraid of electronic sounds – as far back as 2003's Bounce he's had electronic elements involved with parts of his albums. He didn't really start affecting his own sound, however, until his last album: 2013's Magnetic, on which he used some effects for a few tracks.

    Breathless takes the more electronic elements of Blanchard's previous work and expands them far beyond where they've been in the past. The members of the band themselves signal a shift: the only holdover from Blanchard's previous work is the pianist Fabian Almazan. Bassist Donald Ramsey and drummer Oscar Seaton are based much more in funk and groove music, having appeared on albums with such artists as Dr. John and Ramsey Lewis. They're joined on guitar by relative newcomer Charles Altura, who did some nice work on some very good recent jazz albums such as Ambrose Akinmusire's The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint and albums by Dayna Stephens and Tigran Hamasyan. Supplying guest vocals on a few tracks on the album are Maroon 5's PJ Morton and Blanchard's own son, hip-hop artist JRei Oliver.

    This album is very long, but it doesn't cover that much ground. Too many of these songs are groove machines that sound like half-finished songs. I'm not especially convinced by many of them. The band performs them well, and Blanchard's playing is as accomplished as ever, but these groove based things don't seem to go much of anywhere, and Blanchard himself seems hesitant to commit to playing full solos on many of them, instead just kind of dancing over the top and letting the rhythm section take center stage. Songs like “Talk to Me,” “Soldiers,” and “See Me As I Am” all kind of blend together. I'm especially unconvinced by “Cosmic Warrior,” a weird sort of heavy metal/R&B crossover song.

    Some of the R&B aspects of the album are pretty good, but I hesitate to say they are great. The opening track, a cover of the Les McCann song “Compared to What,” comes off pretty well, and Morton and Blanchard give the song a good energy. A somewhat strange cover of Hank Williams' “I Ain't Got Nothin' but Time” and an original by JRei, “Shutting Down,” both kind of sound the same, and aren't executed as well as some other jazz/R&B crossovers like, for instance, Robert Glasper's Black Radio albums.

    All of that being said, the album has some high points. The more personal songs on the album are very, very good. Almazan's only compositional contribution to this album, the fourteen minuted “Everglades,” is the one place on the album where I feel the artists stretch as far as they want. It also feels like a more complete composition, and I'm a noted fan of Almazan's work.

    The title track, “Breathless,” is outstanding. JRei contributes a moving, relevant vocal (with references to Eric Garner), and this is a place where the groove itself is very interesting. Blanchard's out-of-the-spotlight trumpet playing is a lot more appropriate here, and he really nails it here.

    The other two tracks under this more personal persona are also great – “Samadhi” and the especially the beautiful closer, “Midnight.” Blanchard in my opinion has always been at his best when he really let his personality and his big heart come through his music, and in these four tracks (these two, “Breathless” and “Everglades”) that absolutely happens. The lack of that feeling was why I wasn't a huge fan of Magnetic, and it's why I don't particularly like a lot of this album. However, these four tracks are moving in the way that made me love Bounce, Flow, and Choices so much, and that makes this album worth it. There are definitely things I like less than what's on Magnetic, but these four tracks soar higher than anything on that album. 3 out of 5 stars.