Hi! Here's a nice review the album got from All About Jazz.
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.
In a recent interview with the A.V. Club, Tori Amos brought up a concept that I've sort of known for a long time but haven't actually thought that much about – that artists should, and perhaps need to, find inspiration in artistic mediums other than their own. She specifically talks about her love of visual art, but this can be extended to any other art form, she says – dance, books, stories, film.
If you know me, you might know that I'm a bit of a movie person, but you also might not know that. I've actually kept, going back almost ten years, a document that keeps track of movies that I've watched and how I felt about them. After reading Amos' thoughts, I decided I would share with you a collection, in alphabetical order, of some of my favorite movies, ones that have inspired me in other aspects of my life.
Big Fish (2003)
The eight movies on this list are, or at least are among, my all-time favorite films, and it's possible that Big Fish is at the top of the list. I know that some people don't exactly care for Tim Burton, and I understand that – he can kind of overdo his shtick sometimes (much like Wes Anderson). Big Fish, to me, is Burton's most heartfelt movie, and it exists in this bizarre world of things that are almost, but not quite, believable, which of course is the whole basis for the story. There's just something about this one, the child-like fantasies in the frame of adult skepticism, that gives it a particularly strong appeal. Danny Elfman's score also fits absolutely perfectly – another guy who some people don't always care for but I think works exactly right in this scenario.
Who could possibly have thought that Jim Carrey would make for such a lovable schlub? In 2004, Carrey was one of the most famous actors on Earth, almost exclusively for portraying unbelievably over-the-top characters in films such as Dumb and Dumber, The Mask, and the Ace Ventura films. The closest he had come to playing a character like this had been in 1998's The Truman Show, and that was not really all that much like this at all. He's paired with Kate Winslet, one of this generations greatest actresses, and their chemistry is perfect. An incredibly unique film about relationships that also exists almost entirely in an almost-real dream world. The sparse score by Jon Brion does wonders, also.
Field of Dreams (1989)
Hey guys, another movie that's about fantastical events that are almost, but not quite, real. Don't tell me I don't have a type. Anyway, another thing about me is that I love baseball, and there are a few really great baseball movies (Bull Durham is all-time good, the Sandlot is one of my favorite kids' films, Major League is fun), but this one is still the best. Another great score, too (I'M SENSING A THEME HERE), by James Horner, who is one of those guys that has about 25 movie scores that all sound absolutely the same. This one is a step above, though. The Midwest, James Earl Jones*, and baseball – three American Treasures.
* - As I look back through my archives, it seems that James Earl Jones, more than any other actor, is the key to a great movie. The other movies of his that I've got blurbs about? The Sandlot, Dr. Strangelove (he plays a tiny role) and the Star Wars Trilogy.
I think that Ghostbusters is my favorite comedy ever made. It's peak Bill Murray, with Dan Aykroyd as the perfect, smart-but-dumb sidekick, and funny yet effective special effects, combined with a big-time 'straight' actress (Sigourney Weaver) and brilliant smaller-part players like Rick Moranis and Harold Ramis. But seriously, the one-liners in this movie are better than basically anything else.
House of Flying Daggers (2004)
This was one of the Chinese films that benefitted from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's success in the U.S., and became somewhat popular in its own right (and on the star power of Ziyi Zhang). Like the other films of this style, it succeeds on stunning visuals and contemplative, quiet sounds. House of Flying Daggers, though, is seriously the most beautiful film I have ever seen. Its use of color and landscape are second to none, and the score is outstanding. The story is fairly standard, a love story framed by government corruption and revolution in middle ages China, but the focus is mostly on three main characters and the environment they exist in.
Returning to that dreamworld trope. Inception is one of the best things, I think, for getting your creative juices flowing – the movie actually specifically encourages it to certain characters. On top of that, it's a pretty exciting action film, with a pretty great score (I know, I know, Hans Zimmer can be terrible, but this score really is actually quite unique, and the way the music dominates the movie down the stretch is really interesting – the score does as much to drive the plot as the characters do). Some great actors are here too, Leonardo DiCaprio is obviously awesome, and I love Ellen Page and Marion Cotillard (who is also in Big Fish).
Rear Window (1954)
Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece (he had a few of those, didn't he) is my favorite movie of his mostly for the way he is able to get so much out of a single set. Rear Window would make a great one-act play. While this kind of thing could very easily turn boring, it certainly does not, the way Hitchcock handles it. And Princess Grace Kelly is the greatest. A great lesson on how to do more with less.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Morgan Freeman and Stephen King are everyone's favorite. King's story is really engrossing, following the life of a wrongly-accused murderer in a corrupt prison in mid-century Maine. But the main thing about this film is the atmosphere that Thomas Newman's brilliant (and hugely influential – watch basically any dramatic television show from the last ten years) score is able to create. The music in these movies obviously plays a big part in why I like them, which is a little funny because I was talking about finding inspiration in other mediums, but it is all a lesson about how music can create, when done well, as good a story-telling device as any words can.
I meant for this to be a part of a "what I'm listening to this week" post, but I had more to say than I thought.
Björk – Vulnicura
The latest album put out by Björk is a heartbreak album, and I'm not sure she knows how to feel about that. In a recent interview with Pitchfork, she seems to be self conscious about the cliché aspect of writing an album with such familiar emotional content, but at the same time, it's obvious the material is near and dear to her, as her family has been recently upended by divorce. Personally, I don't think Björk needs to feel self conscious – perhaps this isn't an album about the cosmos, as her last one was, or about much of her other more detached material, but there is nothing cliché about this work. Björk adds her personal spin over the top of a small string orchestra, and I have to say I was mildly surprised at the youthfulness heard in her voice even at the no-longer-tender age of 49. She sounds essentially the same in voice as she did on albums that are now almost twenty years old.
This music is fantastic. I love most everything I've heard form Björk, and as she gets older she's still innovating and evolving with each release. She's a master of sounds – knowing exactly how to combine beats and electronics with the familiar acoustic sound of the strings, and when to affect her voice in a certain way to draw out additional feeling, or how she extract the percussive qualities of the words themselves. “Stonemilker,” the album's first track, is probably my favorite. It sets a mood – reflective, yearningly sad. Much of the lyrical material of the rest of the album is along the same lines, but Björk has done the music in such a way that we are not banged over the head with a particular feeling – the feelings that she has inside of her are complex and evolving, perfectly reflected in a line from the album's closer, “Quicksand”: “When I'm broken I am whole/When I'm whole I am broken.”
The pacing of the album is also outstanding. The greatest example, “Black Lake,” starts out at as a slow, melancholy dirge, and through a series of almost uncomfortably long pedal tones, it moves forward with more and more vigor. One might expect an album full of sad songs about lost love to be ballad heavy, but that wouldn't be her style. There is an incredible amount of variety here, even within the limits of the strings and particular emotions. One of my other favorite tracks, “Family,” features an alarmingly beautiful ending after a long, eerie, slow burn and a pointilistic middle section.
I've listened to this album four or five times in the last few days, and I have to say, I think it's seriously a masterpiece. It might be my favorite Björk album. It's a great accomplishment in the face of personal torment. Certainly, she continues to cement herself as one of the genuine geniuses of pop music. 4 and a half out of 5 stars.
The Greater Madison Jazz Consortium launched a new website this week. This group does some fantastic things for the scene in Madison! www.jazzinmadison.org
They also happened to write a feature about my album as one of their first pieces. See it here: http://www.jazzinmadison.org/paul-dietrich-arrives-with-we-always-get-there/
Ornette Coleman - The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959)
There's a reason that this is a classic, especially considering the climate in which it was introduced. This stuff is amazing! It's been awhile since I've listened to much Don Cherry, and the dude really has great phrasing and a great sound. Ornette glides over these tunes like alternate-world Charlie Parker. Really intriguing stuff, that sounds pretty much in place now, over 50 years later. Not nearly as “out” as its reputation would suggest – the free ideas come mainly through loose forms and loose ideas of time and tempos. They certainly started something, though. The two classics are the most notable things here (“Lonely Woman” and “Peace”), but everything has something to offer – a personal favorite is the interplay on “Congeniality.”
Craig Taborn Trio - Chants (2013)
Craig Taborn is pretty amazing. I'm not sure I can think of a pianist with better hand independence. It's seriously like he has a different brain for each hand. I think that Taborn, beyond that, sounds a lot like Ethan Iverson, in Bad Plus mode, but transplanted into a much freer ensemble. Most of the album is pretty good, but the tune that really stood out to me was track "In Chant", which moves along at a beautiful slow simmer and lets bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Gerald Cleaver really express themselves.
Vijay Iyer - Mutations (2014)
Iyer's first ECM record is really more like a classical release than a jazz one. Joined by a string quartet (and electronics) for the majority of it, Iyer's compositions are thorough and involved, and his own playing doesn't lend a ton of help to a listener trying to discern when he's improvising and when he's not. He says in the liner notes that it's about half and half...so, try to figure it out, I guess. The record opens with two solo piano pieces and ends with one more, but the bulk of the record consists of Iyer's larger ensemble in the ten-part piece “Mutations.” The opening piece, "Spellbound and Sancrosanct, Cowrie Shells, and the Shimmering Sea" is probably the most accessible thing on the whole album – beyond that, the music can get pretty out (even by Iyer's adventurous standards), but there's always something to grab onto. Fans of minimalists like John Adams will find something here, as most of Iyer's string writing has repetitive, percussive elements, often with almost seemingly unrelated melodies floating over the top. Iyer references this in the notes, referring to some of the movements as “minute variations or fluctuations in a recurring figure” that “elicit a structural transformation,” or, you might say, a mutation. Iyer's reputation as a genius is buoyed by this album in all of its intricacy, but those looking for a typical modern jazz record will be left scratching their heads.
Often, when string players cross over into the jazz world, the results are ...uninspiring. Too many times have I heard jazz musicians use the string ensemble as nothing more than a pseudo synthesizer, playing pads underneath whatever old jazz ballad they happen to be playing. I also feel like a lot of the time they're mixed weirdly, and sound too commercialized and impersonal.
This trend, at least as far as I'm aware of it, seems to be changing. The first jazz album with strings that I really loved was Brad Mehdlau's Highway Rider, from 2010, but I will admit that the string writing, while pretty good, is still a little stale at times. It serves more to back up the trio rather than be on equal terms with them. Since then, there have been a few albums with strings that I've really liked, and I'd like to talk a little about them.
Laura Jurd – Landing Ground (2012)
This one isn't quite as recent, but it's worth mentioning. Laura Jurd is a super young (24, 21 when the album was recorded) British trumpeter and composer, turned on to me by a friend a year or two ago. Landing Ground features a typical jazz trumpet quartet, plus a string quartet. Jurd's writing for strings stays away from pads, and features a lot of mixed meter, frenzied playing. The opening track, “Flight Music,” has a perfect title for reflecting the bouncy nature of her string writing. She also demonstrates a knack for writing folksy-sounding counterpoint, such as in “The Lady of Bruntal.” Her decisions in terms of orchestration are also worth noting – when to have the strings backing up, playing secondary lines or playing in unison or harmony with trumpet are fantastic. I have to say that music this mature coming out of this young woman is really staggering, and I can't wait to what else she's got for us in the future.
Matt Ulery – By A Little Light (2012) and In the Ivory (2014)
Matt's music is one of the greatest things I took with me from Chicago. These albums, especially In the Ivory, are definitely toeing a line between jazz and classical chamber music – his interesting and unique approach to harmony (lots and lots of triads, and voice leading that makes you think more of 50s movies than of 40s bebop) give these albums a very different feel. I think Matt would probably admit that these are toeing that line – there's really not a ton of improvisation on either album, even less on the more recent one. In the Ivory carries a lot of Philip Glass-ish vibes: highly repetitive with intriguing interlocking rhythms. There's also some seriously Glass-ian orchestration choices: in “Gave Proof,” In the Ivory's opening track, when the flute and clarinet enter, it's impossible not to think of Glass. I hope that Matt continues to make albums with this larger ensemble.
Billy Childs – Map to the Treasure: Remembering Laura Nyro (2014)
I never knew who Laura Nyro was, but I think it's okay. Childs has arranged ten of her songs for a very wide assortment of guest vocalists: Renee Fleming, Becca Stevens, Susan Tedeschi, Diane Reeves, Shawn Colvin and Alison Kraus, to name a few. Childs' arrangements are huge, traversing enormous landscapes of sound, almost on every track. I will admit that compared to the other albums I mention here, the strings are perhaps a little bit less necessary, but they add a TON to the music - in addition to the extra weight, Childs also creates a great atmosphere with his string parts. Childs' ambitious writing is perfect for the extra oomph that the string playing adds. And though he often is using the strings in a background format, he is using the orchestrational power they give him wisely – they don't play all the time, and when they do play, their impact is felt heavily. The album is also one of the best produced albums I've ever heard, right up there with Herbie Hancock's largest projects – the impeccable production really makes the whole ensemble sound perfect. There are also some heavyweight instrumentalists here: Wayne Shorter, Brian Blade, Scott Colley, Steve Wilson, Chris Potter, Yo-Yo Ma. Just as a side note, Becca Stevens is the best, and her singing on this album is incredible, and she has a new album coming out soon and I'm excited.
Fabian Almazan – Rhizome (2014)
This is the most recent one of these four that I've heard, and I think perhaps this is the one that best combines traditional jazz elements with the strings. For those of you unfamiliar with pianist Almazan, he is probably best known for his work with Terence Blanchard's band in recent years. Right from the album's stunning opening, you can hear that Almazan has thought hard and has a plan for what he wants the strings to do: he didn't just write his own part and add the strings to it to enhance. This is another traditional-ish jazz group with string quartet, similar to Ulery and Jurd's groups. Almazan also incorporates the hauntingly beautiful voice of guitarist Camila Meza into his music expertly (and another observation: four out of the five albums here have voice on them, in some capacity, which, I'm not sure what that means). After we're treated to Almazan's melodic side on the opening title track, we shift gears completely into a percussive tune that routinely throws away its key center – as if Almazan wanted to show us how versatile he can be in two tracks. He manages to expand from there, though, using the strings in a variety of ways, including to lay down some great repeating grooves in “A New Child in a New Place” and as a passacaglia-like chorale in “Hacia del Aire.” He uses them as a mysterious bed for his singular piano line on the album's only standard, “Stormy Weather,” and then as a pizzicato machine on “El Coqui's Dream.” Rhizome is a beautiful album that expertly uses its larger orchestration for maximum effect.
Which is the point – these artists mentioned here have moved the marriage of jazz and strings out of the awkward early phase and turned them into a cohesive unit. Does anyone else have any suggestions of great jazz albums with strings?
Note – I decided to make a list of 50 albums that I really like and influenced me a lot, because, you know, everyone loves lists. Obviously, 50 albums that I really like and are influential to my distinct musical path are very different from 50 albums that YOU really like and were influential to your own distinct musical path. This is a pretty eclectic collection. I'm interested to hear what albums affected you all in similar ways. (Note also – sometimes there are more than one album per number: this just means they are closely linked in my mind, and I discovered them around the same time. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9.)
5. Tigran Hamasyan – Shadow Theater
For those of you unfamiliar with Tigran Hamasyan, an introduction. Tigran is a pianist of Armenian descent who rose to global prominence in 2006 when, at the age of 19, he won first prize in the Thelonious Monk Institute's prestigious jazz competition (a year, by the way, which saw Gerald Clayton finish second and Aaron Parks finish third). His music combines pop music sensibilities with elements of European thrash metal (his childhood ambition was to be a metal guitarist) with modern jazz, all mixed together with a heavy dose of Armenian folk music.
This is one of only two albums on this countdown that was released in the last year. It is Tigran's fifth studio album, and he was just 26 years old at the time of its release, and the most complete combination of the three styles mentioned above. The group on this album features Ben Wendel and Nate Wood, the saxophonist and drummer in Kneebody, as well as the crucial contributions of extraordinary vocalist Areni Agbabian.
What Tigran has perfected is an ability to write unbelievably complex and busy parts that still groove harder than anything you could possibly imagine. There are examples of this on earlier albums – notably the track “Red Hail” from his 2009 album Aratta Rebirth: Red Hail. Examples of this are especially apparent on tracks such as “The Court Jester” and “Road Song.” A unique aspect of Hamasyan's music in general is the tremendously complex rhythmic challenges for the band. Listening to the music and thinking too hard of it can be a bit of headache, but it is rare in the sense that, when NOT trying to figure out exactly what is going on, it's incredibly easy to listen to.
These complex groove machines are juxtaposed with the other side of this album: Tigran's quiet and sensitive side. Tracks like “Lament,” “Seafarer” and “Holy” are relatively simple, through-composed pieces that let the beauty of Areni's voice mix with Tigran's own unique voice – as a pianist and as a vocalist.
In short, Shadow Theater accomplishes, basically, everything that I could have ever dreamed of: the perfect marriage of prog metal and modern jazz. It's truly astounding music and one of the best albums I've heard in years. I've talked about it on this blog before, but I don't mind that I'm tooting its horn a bit as it is really as good as I say it is.
4. Pain of Salvation – The Perfect Element I
Now for the highest ranked non-jazz album on this list, we return to the melodramatically named Pain of Salvation, who had an entry further down the list. The Perfect Element I is the band's third, and in my mind most complete, album. (Full disclosure – I haven't actually heard their last three albums but most people say they're not very good.) The once again heavy theme of The Perfect Element's lyrics are heavily conceptual and have to do with the forming of one's individual self, through various experiences through childhood and adulthood (most of them unpleasant). Once again, I will reiterate that I personally don't much care about the lyrics unless they are stupid enough that they draw away from the musical aspects of the music, and in this case, they often have a tendency to enhance said music.
The album features a lot of different styles within the progressive world. Tracks like “Used” and “Idioglossa” are fairly standard prog metal songs to headbang-in-11/8 to, but other tracks such as “In the Flesh” and “Her Voices” incorporate aspects of jazz, folk music and western classical music.
“King of Loss” (drama) is probably the album's high point for me – a beautiful tune which demonstrates significant musical prowess (it's hard to play and they play it very well) and awareness compositionally (it dramatically brings together several of the albums themes). The album then comes to a satisfying conclusion with three tracks that basically all run together and conclude with the outstanding title track.
I listened to this album probably about 7.2 billion times in high school. I still love it very much (I listened to it in the car like two weeks ago), perhaps not with the fire of that time, but there is no doubt in my mind that many of my compositional ideas and musical aesthetics can be traced directly back to this particular album. My favorite non-jazz album of all time, I think, deserved of the number four spot.
3. Robert Glasper – Canvas
Earlier, when discussing Robert Glasper's In My Element, I gave a lot of background on how I was introduced to Glasper. Well, the first thing I heard by him, other than my friends Nick, Eli and Kyle's worthy recreation of that “Maiden Voyage” arrangement, was this album. (I got it at the same time as Mood, which would be worthy of a place on this list as well, but I kind of think of Canvas as Mood's big brother.)
It gets off to a great start with - ! - a fairly typical modern jazz tune, “Rise and Shine.” This is a favorite tune of mine to play, and I still pull it out now and then if I have a jazz gig of not my music that we have rehearsal time for (so basically never). That first track is a perfect primer for the rest of the album, and shows the trio's (with Damion Reid on drums and Vicente Archer on bass) comfort level with each other. “Rise and Shine” is followed by the title track, which features – outstandingly – a young Mark Turner, who starts his solo on the flat-six, which is totally against the rules, right Dustin? “Canvas” is a long, moody work that had a huge, HUGE effect on how I wrote songs at that time. In fact, shortly after this album came out, I wrote a not-real-good tune called “the House” that basically directly ripped off “Canvas.” I was proud of it at the time.
Canvas continues with varying examples of Glasper's prowess at modern jazz and a view of where his music would head. His unique touch is always apparent - “Portrait of an Angel” features some pretty textbook Glasper piano playing. “Enoch's Meditation” points toward the different influences his music will take on. “Chant,” featuring Bilal's odd and intriguing vocals, sets up an interesting groove. Turner returns for a vibey rendition of Wayne Shorter's “Riot,” the only non-original on the whole album.
One of my favorite things on the whole album is the last track, “I Remember.” It starts with a short recording of Glasper's late mother, who was a blues and gospel singer, and turns into an introspective and beautiful tune. As it reaches the end, it meditates on a short chord progression, with Bilal returning. This track also had a huge effect on me.
I am not sure, but I think that this album more than any other single album in music influenced my own composing.
2. Terence Blanchard – Flow
Terence Blanchard was my favorite jazz artist for some time. When I saw his band play at Lawrence University in early 2007, I was especially blown away by a particular composition, written by Aaron Parks (who was not with the band in Appleton), called “Harvesting Dance.” It was built off an amazing groove that turned out to just be written in four bars of 9/4, but which in my youthful ignorance I transcribed as 7/8 + 5/8 + 5/8 + 10/8 + 9/8. (It wasn't until later that I learned that people don't like reading in time signatures like that, and would much prefer to see it in four bars of 9/4, even if the phrasing is a little weird.) This tune was amazing to me. It was hard and in weird time signatures, which I was used to, it had a great, tricky head, it devolved into a gloomy nothingness from which Terence emerged and played one of the best trumpet solos I can think of, and then it hit the part which clinched it for me – an epic guitar solo section in which one would be perfectly at home holding up devil horns and headbanging.
This was my relationship with Terence Blanchard. On each of his albums for a run of several years, there would be at least one track like this, that I could just really, really get into. It also helps that Terence is one of the most identifiable – and accomplished – trumpet players around. A lot of my trumpet playing language comes from what Terence is doing. I never like, analyzed his language or anything like that, but it just sort of sounds the same.
Flow features other really good tracks, in addition to Harvesting Dance. “Over There,” written by newcomer (and future superstar of Paul's favorite jazz albums) Derrick Hodge, the bassist on this album, appealed to the dramatic side of me. “Wadagbe” written by Lionel Loueke, lets him run wild and put his own personal sound into the band in a big way. In fact, Loueke's presence in general is what makes this band so great – it adds a different kind of spice to the stew that sets it apart. Loueke's influence is also apparent on his other compositional contribution to the album, “Benny's Tune.” In fact, Terence himself only contributes “Wandering Wonder” and the little vignettes, “Flow pt. 1-3.” Again, I believe it is Terence's willingness to let his band members contribute and expand the group's thought process that sets this band apart and makes it so great.
1. Maria Schneider Orchestra – Sky Blue
And now, #1. I gave this a lot of thought, but it really came down to deciding which Maria Schneider record – this or Concert in the Garden – would be the top of the list (Concert came in sixth). Maria's music didn't only inspire me to write big band music, but it had a big effect on how I write for smaller groups as well. To the music...
“The Pretty Road” showcases the other reason why the Maria Schneider Orchestra has been so huge for me: the playing of Ingrid Jensen. I like Ingrid's small group albums just fine, but her big band playing is on another level entirely. This solo is so great, it builds so well, and Ingrid makes it seem like this is the only trumpet solo she'll ever play, it's treated with that much respect. The piece in general is a really great representation of what people love about Maria: earnest, beautiful, nostalgic and perfectly crafted big band music.
The album's next track, “Aires de Lando,” is another throwback to Maria's love of Brazilian music, which was explored in great detail on “Concert in the Garden.” Another intriguing modern jazz piece that uses Scott Robinson's clarinet and Gary Versace's accordion to great effect. “Rich's Piece” is just that – a contemplative, quiet, sometimes dark piece written to feature the more introverted of the band's tenor saxophone soloists, the incredible Rich Perry. “Rich's Piece” is so different from so much other big band music. It quietly rolls along, taking its sweet time, slowly cooking and growing, with much of the piece only hinting at time.
Sky Blue's magnum opus is undoubtedly “Cerulean Skies,” a gigantic work dedicated to Schneider's love of birds and bird watching. She uses the especially creative members of her band as birds themselves near the beginning, ultimately growing into a very nice, pulsating tune featuring the vocal talents of Luciana Souza. As the piece progresses, Donny McCaslin pops in to remind us all why he should be thought of as one of the best tenor saxophonists on Earth, before a quiet middle section leads to an uplifting ending, while alto saxophonist Charles Pillow soars over the top.
The album's greatest piece of music is certainly the title track, the achingly, hauntingly wonderful “Sky Blue.” I don't have much to say about it except that it is shockingly beautiful and Steve Wilson interprets it in a way that is so perfect he must have Vulcan Mind-Melded with Maria. This piece has meant different things to me at different times in my life, but it has always meant something and surely always will. It is, simply, one of the best pieces of music ever written.
Hearing Sky Blue changed my life, and it changed it more when I really started getting into it upon my greater interest in big band music a few years later. With that, it lands at #1 on this list. Thanks for reading, guys and gals.
Here is the complete list:
Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra – Sky Blue
Terence Blanchard – Flow
Robert Glasper – Canvas
Pain of Salvation – The Perfect Element I
Tigran Hamasyan – Shadow Theater
Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra – Concert in the Garden
Kenny Wheeler – Angel Song
Thomas Newman – The Shawshank Redemption (Soundtrack)
Dream Theater – Scenes From a Memory
Kneebody – Kneebody
Darcy James Argue's Secret Society – Infernal Machines
Sufjan Stevens – Seven Swans
Pat Metheny Group – The Way Up
Terence Blanchard – Bounce
Steve Reich & Musicians – Music For 18 Musicians
Ambrose Akinmusire – The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint
Peter Gabriel – Us
Pain of Salvation – Remedy Lane
Robert Glasper – In My Element
Porcupine Tree – In Absentia
Cannonball Adderley – Somethin' Else
Ike Sturm – Spirit
Herbie Hancock – Maiden Voyage
Wayne Shorter – Speak No Evil
Brad Mehldau – Highway Rider
Gretchen Parlato – In A Dream
Miles Davis – E.S.P. And Miles Smiles
Matt Ulery – By A Little Light
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers – Moanin'
Donny McCaslin – Casting For Gravity
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones – Outbound
Aaron Parks – Invisible Cinema
Kenny Garrett – Beyond the Wall
U2 – Joshua Tree
Weather Report – Heavy Weather
Miles Davis – Seven Steps to Heaven
Live – Secret Samadhi and Throwing Copper
Björk – Homogenic
Terence Blanchard – A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem For Katrina)
John Coltrane – Blue Train
Matrix – Harvest and Tale of the Whale
Gretchen Parlato – The Lost and Found
Christian Scott – Anthem
Pat Metheny Group – Still Life (Talking)
John Coltrane – Giant Steps
Spock's Beard – Snow
Miles Davis – Sketches of Spain
London Symphony – Mahler Symphony #2
Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band – Season of Changes
Note – I decided to make a list of 50 albums that I really like and influenced me a lot, because, you know, everyone loves lists. Obviously, 50 albums that I really like and are influential to my distinct musical path are very different from 50 albums that YOU really like and were influential to your own distinct musical path. This is a pretty eclectic collection. I'm interested to hear what albums affected you all in similar ways. (Note also – sometimes there are more than one album per number: this just means they are closely linked in my mind, and I discovered them around the same time. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8.)
Almost there now.
10. Dream Theater – Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory
Dream Theater is one of America's better known prog-metal bands, as far as well-known American prog-metal goes. They've been around for ages (something like 30 years, now) and have released something like 12 albums (I stopped paying attention after 8 or so). The band is made up (or, at least, was when I listened to them, I think they've changed personnel) of a slew of technical freaks – John Petrucci on guitar, Mike Portnoy on drums and John Myung on bass, notably.
I will admit that Scenes From a Memory is laughably cheesy. The story of this album is something about a guy who has flashbacks to a previous life in which he was a woman named Victoria who was murdered by a spurned lover. It's really quite ridiculous. But you know what? I don't care. I still like listening to this album. I was introduced to it by my older brother, probably when I was about 13 – he played me the track “Fatal Tragedy,” which is roughly 6 minutes long – 3 minutes of melodramatic music (with keyboard choir in the background) and then 3 minutes of shred guitar vs. shred keyboard. It's so much fun. It took me awhile to hear the rest of the album, but I really enjoyed that, too.
Now, Dream Theater's singer has a ridiculous theatrical voice (much less pleasant than the theatrical voice of Pain of Salvation's Daniel Gildenlöw, which I spoke of earlier), their band parts can be needlessly show-offish and they too often sacrifice good musical decisions for theatrics. What they did for me, though, was introduce me to an entire world of music that was not in 4/4 all the time and didn't adhere to strict verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus form. I'm not sure I can stress enough how important this was for me. It was the first “complicated” music I ever heard, apart from, like, the Nutcracker Suite. As someone who tries very hard to think critically about form in the music that I create nowadays, I have Dream Theater to thank for getting me into a world that got me thinking.
9. Thomas Newman – Soundtrack for The Shawshank Redemption
This might be the most out-of-place entry on this countdown. I'm going to start by addressing those of you that think that film music isn't artistically valid: I think you're full of shit. BAD film music is not artistically valid, but GOOD film music can add so much to a movie's tone and your feelings about the characters and story that they (the plot, characters and music) become interwoven and are no good without each other. I'm not talking about shameless dramatic crescendos, I'm talking about music that can single-handedly establish a mood.
No one is better at that, in my book, than Thomas Newman. He is probably most famous for The Shawshank Redemption, but he has also contributed well-known soundtracks to movies such as American Beauty, Wall-E, Finding Nemo, Road to Perdition and Skyfall. Those are all great, and they show a surprising range of ability, but I'm going to address The Shawshank Redemption.
This film might be my favorite of all time, and the score has no small part in that. Newman's sparse, moody, sometimes eerie and often achingly beautiful music gives the film a presence that so many others lack. Newman's powers are on display in a heartbreaking sequence featuring the ultimate fate of the prison's old caretaker, Brooks, or through an odd chaconne as we are introduced to the prison itself, or helping Red find an old tin box in a Maine field. The characters and the music and the plot are interwoven, and this happens to be some of the most beautiful music I've ever heard. It establishes an atmosphere that is unbelievably strong, and something that I strive for myself.
8. Kenny Wheeler – Angel Song
Kenny Wheeler, who died last week, made some of the best jazz trumpet albums of the 20th century. He has an entire slew of classics on ECM that were endlessly influential including Double, Double You, Gnu High and Deer Wan, three of my favorites. He also composed a fantastic big band album, Music for Large and Small Ensembles. He was a fantastic composer who was well ahead of his time, and did things with our jazz language that no one else even considered.
To me, his greatest achievement is the incomparable Angel Song, released in 1997 – more than twenty years after Gnu High. There is a rumor about this album, and I don't know whether this is true or not, but the rumor is that Jack DeJohnette was supposed to be on the recording date, but ended up not being able to make it, and the band just decided to record with no drummer. I kind of doubt that that story is true, but it's a good story. Anyway, the lack of a drummer gives this album its incredibly unique, quiet touch – recorded with the remarkable band of Wheeler on trumpet and flugelhorn, Lee Konitz on alto saxophone, Bill Frisell on atmospheres and Dave Holland on time, it's truly one of the most recognizable, signature albums of the 20th century in my book.
Wheeler's unmatched composing skills are on full display. Wheeler and Konitz dance around each other playing sometimes angular, sometimes smooth, always pristine melodies, Frisell adds his trademark mattress of sound and Holland, in what I think is his best playing, keeps everyone together with his rock solid playing. The album is produced impeccably and sounds absolutely perfect. There just isn't much about this album that isn't perfect. We're at that point in the countdown. The highlight of the record for me is Wheeler's “Kind Folk,” which I think is a perfect showcase for Wheeler's identifiable sound and aesthetic, and the performances of the other band members are exactly what was needed. I can't say enough how perfect this album is.
7. Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra – Concert in the Garden
Maria Schneider is, and I don't think this is controversial, the pinnacle of modern big band writing. She's been running her own band for over twenty years now, and they've got a new album coming out next year that will make seven studio albums for them. No big band on Earth supports the vision of its leader as well as the outstanding players of the Maria Schneider Orchestra do.
Concert in the Garden, released in 2004, is another one of those seismic shift albums, like I spoke earlier of in regards to Terence Blanchard's Bounce. This one was easier to see coming, though. In Maria's early albums, she owes a lot to Bob Brookmeyer and Gil Evans. I think it's during Allegresse, her fourth album, that we start seeing her powerful voice emerge. I think, if we're being specific, “Hang Gliding,” from Allegresse, definitely belongs to this distinction, but Concert in the Garden is the first album where the entire thing is such.
This album starts with the title track, beginning with a mysterious emergence out of nowhere, with accordion (!) playing a prominent role. The use of voice and accordion in a prominent role is a nice touch, and in collaboration with Schneider's liberal use of flugelhorns, mutes, and especially woodwind doubles, she – following in the footsteps of Gil Evans – truly uses the full orchestrative possibilities of the group. “Concert in the Garden” slowly and evocatively gears up for a memorable statement of intent.
Once “Concert in the Garden” finishes up, we get to the meat and potatoes of the record, the suite “Three Romances.” The first of these three, “Choro Dançado,” is some of the best writing Schneider has ever done. Starting essentially as a theme and variations, A bouncy, catchy melody is transferred through countless keys with an increasing level of cacophony going on in the background. After several minutes of this dancy theme, we get to Rich Perry. Ah, Rich Perry. This is truly one of my all-time favorite solos on any instrument ever. Perry knows exactly how to fit into the nooks and crannies of Schneider's wonderfully developed solo section, and he knows when to hold back and when to apply the gas. The second of the Three Romances is a beautiful, slow, melancholy dance between Charles Pillow's soprano saxophone and Ingrid Jensen's flugelhorn. “Pas de Deux” is an amazing piece of music, Ingrid Jensen (who was heavily influenced by Kenny Wheeler, by the way) is so great in big bands, which I said before, but I'm reiterating.“Dança Illusória” begins with a contemplative solo from pianist Frank Kimbrough, and ultimately leads to a fitting conclusion for the work as the band rages toward the finish.
“Bulería, Soléa y Rumba” is a massive piece of music that again addresses Schneider's love of Brazilian music. Starting with a powerful cajón presence, the piece works through a stately opening theme before settling into a slower version of the melody and a haunting alto flute solo before Donny McCaslin emerges from the quagmire with his soaring saxophone sound. McCaslin leads the band on a journey through a mysterious few minutes, and especially the end of his solo is just beautiful. After McCaslin is finished, the band kicks back in and leads on to the end, again with Luciana Souza's voice prominent, and a fine solo by Greg Gisbert. Concert in the Garden was my introduction to Maria Schneider, and perhaps no artist has had a bigger effect on helping me to discover my own musical identity. Stay tuned.
6. Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
You all know Kind of Blue – it's probably the most famous jazz album ever made. As a trumpet player, it was one of the first things that my dad (also a jazz musician) gave me to listen to when I started to show an interest in jazz. Coming at it as a young person without any historic perspective, it's easy to not grasp the historical importance of the album and the impact on jazz style that it had. What isn't hard to grasp, though, is the comfort level of the band, the confident playing by its outstanding soloists, and the milky-smoothness of pianist Bill Evans.
Another one of those albums where everyone still plays all the songs, with the exception of the underrated “Flamenco Sketches,” despite the fact that 40% of the album is blues. Yes, Kind of Blue only has 5 tracks, and two of them are blues (what's the plural of blues? Blues or blueses?).
Who can forget, though, the opening of Kind of Blue? “So What” is so famous nowadays for its use of modal structures instead of traditional 2-5-1 chord progressions, and everyone knows the tune, but no one pays much heed to the astounding introduction to this song played by Paul Chambers and Bill Evans. They set the mood for this landscape-altering album before getting started with the famous tune. It's so great to me that this album, the most famous jazz trumpet album of all time, features four total different notes for the horns in its opening head. Miles' playing, of course, throughout the whole album, is the best example of his first-quintet style. Miles plays more patiently, tunefully and accessibly than just about anyone else in the history of jazz.
I don't need to describe the music to you all, as I'm sure you all know it. I will just say that I still think that “Blue in Green” is the best small group jazz ballad performance in the history of jazz, and John Coltrane is spectacular there, starting his solo with unspeakable beauty and then playing his increasingly chaotic style against off of the graceful artistry going on behind him.
Probably any jazz trumpet player will have Kind of Blue far up his list, and part of that is because jazz history tells them to. But there is no denying that it's an incredible achievement, probably Miles Davis best album, and it was an immensely important gateway for me into jazz.
Note – I decided to make a list of 50 albums that I really like and influenced me a lot, because, you know, everyone loves lists. Obviously, 50 albums that I really like and are influential to my distinct musical path are very different from 50 albums that YOU really like and were influential to your own distinct musical path. This is a pretty eclectic collection. I'm interested to hear what albums affected you all in similar ways. (Note also – sometimes there are more than one album per number: this just means they are closely linked in my mind, and I discovered them around the same time. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7.)
15. Terence Blanchard – Bounce
I spoke of Terence Blanchard earlier in this countdown, and how I was introduced to him while a freshman at Lawrence. The first of his music that I ever heard, very close to the time I heard him live, came in the form of this album. Blanchard's 2003 release was his second-most-recent at the time, and also the only one which WLFM, the LU radio station, had in its stores.
Listening back, after having a better grasp of the scope of Blanchard's work, Bounce marks a huge shift in the band's work. The earlier Blanchard records, such as 1994's Romantic Defiance and 2000's Wandering Moon, showed promise but didn't really catch my ear as more than fairly interesting post-bop. 2001's Let's Get Lost, featuring a slew of vocalists, is moving a little more in a different direction but it wasn't there yet for me. Bounce feels different. I think that this can be traced to Blanchard's infusion of young and, at the time, unknown talent into the group. Eric Harland is back after playing on Wandering Moon, but he sounds more secure and confident. Brice Winston, Blanchard's long-time saxophonist, is also a holdover. But there are new faces everywhere else, and Blanchard has proven to be a Blakey-esque judge of young talent. Right from the first track, we hear a composition by the unique and fresh then-20-year-old pianist Aaron Parks. On the next track, we're introduced to another young and then unknown heavyweight, guitarist Lionel Loueke. Loueke's incredibly distinctive sound would prove to be a game changer for Blanchard's band, adding a more world-influenced tone. Also appearing, often alongside Parks, is another young, relatively unknown keyboardist – Robert Glasper.
As is typical of Blanchard's albums, there is a good mix of compositions from several members of the band. Blanchard's writing itself is more interesting to me here – this is the album for me when his jazz training fused with his other work as a film composer and gave him a unique compositional voice. Following in that vibe are Parks' offering, plus outstanding compositions by Harland and bassist Brandon Owens. Owens' tune, “Innocence,” was the piece that really drew me into this album. “Innocence” is a quiet, measured and patient piece that works toward something through multiple sections. Aaron Parks solo on this tune is so good, so smooth, that it caught my attention at a time where I had a hard time latching onto anything other than trumpet playing in music, and after that, Parks was (and still is) one of my favorite musicians.
The other thing that makes Bounce different is its willingness to move away from standards. There are only two non-originals on this album – a more-or-less unknown tune by Brazilian songwriting duo Ivan Lins and Vitor Martins, and a popular hip-hop-ish reinterpretation of Wayne Shorter's “Footprints.” It is my opinion that Blanchard's increasing moves toward letting his young bandmates voices be heard was the best thing he could possibly have done.
14. Pat Metheny Group – The Way Up
The Way Up is, seriously, an incredible piece of music. The crowning achievement of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays' work together. Another band that was talked about lower in this countdown, I mentioned that Pat Metheny Group was big for me in my high school years, through my transition from prog rock to jazz. Well, The Way Up came out when I was a junior in high school, so at the exact right time, and I would say that it has a lot of similarities with the kind of music I was already into. Broad, formally not unlike a symphony, technically dazzling. It also has a few brief outstanding trumpet moments from Cuong Vu, so there's even that. Pat Metheny has lost some of his shine for me in the last few years, but there is no denying that the guy understands melody.
If there were one word I would use to describe The Way Up, it would be “ambitious.” I am serious when I say that The Way Up is more like a symphony than anything else, from the four-movement format to its dedication to thematic development.. It's a smallish group, but it covers a lot of bases – trumpet, marimba, vibes, harmonica, various electronics. Seeing the band play this piece live (there's a DVD of the band performing this piece) is an entirely different kind of amazing – everybody is pulling double duty. It just seems like a logistical nightmare. I will also tie this into our countdown's #16 album: I once wrote a paper that included, among other things, a lengthy explanation of how the beginning of The Way Up was not unlike Steve Reich's Music For 18 Musicians.
In the end, The Way Up is a well-constructed journey that got me, and I'm sure a lot of other people, imagining what the possibilities of small group jazz were. Metheny's guitar playing is fantastic and the composing, structure and build of the album are really great. Like I said, this group's crowning achievement.
13. Sufjan Stevens – Seven Swans
Wait, something doesn't fit here!
Okay, Sufjan Stevens is super college. Yes, I bought this album as a freshman in college. Yes, he's a mediocre musician. I know I know I know. He's also an amazing songwriter, and his particular style of indie-folk, especially on this album (which is far and away my favorite of his) is able to evoke strong emotions. Sufjan's truly unique voice and imagination give his music a really specific identity, and he does have ability as a lyricist. Another album that puts me in a specific time and place (Bjorklunden in late fall!), I don't actually have a whole lot to say about this one, except that it's always been a go to album for me in quiet and reflective times. Simplicity is the word, here, and I can dig that.
12. Darcy James Argue's Secret Society – Infernal Machines
A few years ago a friend of mine told me to check out Darcy James Argue, a writer who I knew nothing about. In fact, I didn't know a single person in his band, other than Ingrid Jensen (and Ingrid Jensen's husband, Jon Wikan). This band sports a name that is not exactly typical of jazz outfits, and I really wasn't sure what to expect. This friend had seen them in New York, and the only word I remember him using to describe them was “rockstinato.”
When I finally did hear the music, I was floored. Argue's music is like nothing else I can think of – big band jazz, yes, but there's a level of punk in there that is truly unique. Additionally, Argue is willing to embrace so many things that you don't see much of in jazz big band music, including electronics (the tune “Red Eye” is built off a guitar loop, and the first sound you hear on the album is cajón – with delay), minimalist tendencies, and a mastery of rhythm that is difficult even on much smaller scales. Argue comes out of the same Bob Brookmeyer school that Maria Schneider does – I believe Darcy was Brookmeyer's copyist for awhile – but the two are kind of different ends of the spectrum. Argue's music is jagged and raw, yet still often beautiful, but in an entirely different way to how Maria's music is. Both composers have mastered the slow build and the art of solo construction. Admittedly, to compare the two is not exactly productive as they are quite different, but they are intrinsically linked in my mind.
Some of the album's highlights include the opening “Phobos,” which sets the mood perfectly for what we're about to hear with it's almost ethereal opening and long simmer. “Transit” is a personal favorite, in large part due to the extensive feature of one of my biggest trumpet heroes, Ingrid Jensen, another link to Maria's band. I can't say that I believe there is a better big band soloist active today. “Habeas Corpus” is moody and different, and the album's most obvious shout to Reich and other minimalists. “Obsidian Flow” sets a left-handed groove and builds steadily into an explosive ending, the only fitting way to finish off Darcy James Argue's first record. He has since released his second effort, a multi-media experience called "Brooklyn Babylon," which is way different from this album. That one is really great, too, in a very different way. Check it out.
11. Kneebody – Kneebody
There are a few albums that come along, seemingly out of nowhere, and change the way how you think about things. Kneebody's first, self-titled album was like that for me. First of all, Kneebody? What kind of name is that for a jazz band? Secondly, I had never heard of any of the guys in the band, which is weird for a someone who listens to jazz primarily. Third, the improvisatory aspect of this band, while still present, is significantly less extensive than in traditional jazz.
What Kneebody concocted was a shocking mix of jazz idioms and rock music. Right from the beginning, on “Break Me,” we're treated to an odd, syncopated horn line, strange keyboard sounds, distorted guitar, and rock drumming, before entering into an ostinato figure, all within the first 30 seconds or so of the first track. More tracks feature similar, very non-jazz sounding aspects. “Never Remember” is built off a pedal riff that is ripe for headbanging. “The Comedian” sounds like something from an Aphex Twin album. “I'm Your General” is another hardcore tune that features some great playing by Ben Wendel on tenor saxophone and some trumpet with effects (a not uncommon occurrence throughout the disc). “Victory Lap” is pretty in its own way, showcasing Shane Endsley's silky smooth trumpet sound. “Halfway to Scranton” works its way through a moody couple of minutes before hitting a comfortable walking groove. “Perfect Compromise” is another nice, pretty short tune. There really isn't a tune that misses on the whole thing.
Kneebody changed the conception I had about the things you could do with a quintet. The sounds this band created for this record were unimaginable to me at the time that I heard them, and this is still one of my all-time favorites. When I need to think differently, or just search for inspiration, I go back here.