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Reviews of Recent Media

Rudy Royston Flatbed Buggy
Greenleaf GRE-CD-1100

Drummer Rudy Royston has worked as a sideman with Dave Douglas, Bill Frisell, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and others, but his most influential relationship was with the late Ron Miles (1963-2022). Royston’s writing often evokes the “big sky country” Americana heard in Miles’ music, who was also based in Colorado. Day is Royston’s fifth release for Greenleaf Music and the second from Flatbed Buggy, the sonically unique quintet that Royston introduced on the group’s eponymous 2018 album. Featuring the resonant sonorities of John Ellis’ bass clarinet and Hank Roberts’ cello, the reedy textures of Gary Versace’s accordion, and the harmonic grounding of Joe Martin’s bass, the band’s debut sketched a bucolic musical portrait of Royston’s youth in rural Texas.

With its unusual instrumentation and spacious arrangements, Flatbed Buggy conveyed the feeling of a chamber music ensemble playing folk-based jazz with a subtle Americana vibe. Day offers more of the same rootsy warmth with a bit more swing. For this album, Royston sonically conveys a day spent under quarantine with a narrative arc based on varied moods. Royston’s playing on this date is a little more aggressive than on the group’s debut; the first record was inspired by the great outdoors, whereas this set was conceived inside during lockdown. Yet the combination of cello and reeds, along with Royston’s use of mallets and percussion, lends the proceedings a lush quality. Royston explores his wide-ranging musical influences, weaving harmonically nuanced jazz, gospel, folk, and country into a distinctive whole.

Royston skillfully directs the band from behind the kit. His seamless alternation of looseness and tightness drives the music, although his compositional sensibility is apparent when he eases back, allowing the group’s collective strength to shine. Each of Royston’s pieces on this concept album are based on a specific time of day, from the opener, “Morning,” to the straightforwardly named “Five Thirty Strut” and the penultimate “It’s Time to Sleep.”

Diversity is the order of the day. “Morning” introduces the set with a twangy cello refrain that recalls the symphonic Americana of Aaron Copland, while the relaxed “Look to the Hills,” with its languid phrases and wheezy accordion, sounds more like an Eastern European folk ballad. Plucked cello imbues “Thank You For the Day” with a modern folk-jazz air, before a bass pedal point and scintillating cymbals introduce a collective, bluegrass-themed raga highlighting the lyrical beauty of Ellis’ singing horn. The drum fills featured in Martin’s “Limeni Village” are similarly delightful, and Royston stretches out during the final vamp, after a conversational dialogue between Versace and Ellis. “The Mokes” exudes a tango feel, whereas the catchy, abstract country-funk of “Five Thirty Strut” ends swinging. Less effusive is “Missing You” (for Royston’s brother Ritchie, and his mentor, Miles), a melancholy ballad in waltz-time, easily the most beautiful piece on the album.

Throughout Day Royston deftly pushes Flatbed Buggy forward without ever distracting from the communal group vibe. It’s a swinging ensemble record, where Royston’s subtle and often understated contributions eschew flashy pyrotechnics in favor of melodic interplay. The quintet’s unconventional instrumentation allows Royston to take the group from chamber jazz to bluesy, countrified funk, united by a folky sensibility. Bolstered by his sidemen’s versatility, Day is a keen example of his artistic vision.
–Troy Collins


Tyshawn Sorey Trio
Pi Recordings PI98

Continuing is Tyshawn Sorey’s follow-up to Mesmerism (Yeros 7) and The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism (Pi Recordings), his two critically acclaimed releases from 2022 that featured the avant-garde composer’s surprising forays into traditional jazz. Admirers of his earlier Pi recordings, The Inner Spectrum of Variables (2016), Verisimilitude (2017), and Pillars (2018), may have been somewhat unprepared for the gently swinging Mesmerism, with Sorey on drums, Matt Brewer on bass, and Aaron Diehl on piano. Later that year, the trio issued The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism, a raucous live recording that added saxophonist Greg Osby and substituted Russell Hall for Brewer. Those releases were voted among the best albums of 2022 by numerous jazz critics. On Continuing, Sorey returns with Diehl and Brewer, taking an extended approach to the interpretation of standards.

The trio interprets Matt Dennis’ popular chestnut, “Angel Eyes,” and three lesser-known works by Wayne Shorter, Ahmad Jamal, and Harold Mabern (Sorey’s mentor). While Continuing features the same musicians as on Mesmerism, the result is considerably different. The trio’s largely unrehearsed debut was comprised of a half dozen concise covers. This sophomore effort expresses a confidence gained playing live. The sprawling set’s four long tracks allow these musicians to engage in imaginative ensemble communication, playing masterful renditions of standard tunes that emphasize melody, swing, and the blues.

The date opens with Shorter’s “Reincarnation Blues,” a back-to-basics number first recorded on Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ Buhaina’s Delight (Blue Note, 1963) that gradually reveals the trio’s fascinating three-way interplay. Diehl initiates a slow, swinging blues with dark, minor chord voicings that Brewer expertly punctuates, and Sorey embellishes with scintillating accents. Following Brewer’s elegant solo, Diehl engages him in dissonant call-and-response, before the pianist modulates the tempo with convoluted cascades near the conclusion.

Jamal’s “Seleritus” originally appeared on the live album, Portfolio of Ahmad Jamal (Argo, 1958). This version is upbeat yet abstract, spotlighting the trio’s playful sense of groove. Elegantly structured around a bass pedal point, dreamy pianism, and refined cymbal flourishes, the interplay between these three is infectious, and their enthusiasm palpable. The trio’s affinity for tradition is implicit, but Sorey augments the tune’s alluring modality with assertive tom-tom work, increasing the tempo, while Diehl forgoes Jamal’s delicate touch, favoring bold, forceful chord voicings that encourage Sorey to drive the number home with Latin-infused carnival rhythms.

A glacially paced “Angel Eyes” unfolds over a quarter of an hour; Diehl initiates a procession that Brewer accents with single notes before Sorey enters slowly, subtly punctuating the mood. Written in 1946, this Songbook Standard gets a spacious, rubato treatment, eventually gaining a feel in three, ornamented by grace notes and crystalline brush work.

The trio then tackles Mabern’s “In What Direction Are You Headed?,” a lesser known tune by the late pianist that was composed for Lee Morgan’s final album, The Last Session (Blue Note, 1971). Closing the set with near telepathic flair, this soulful excursion showcases the trio’s ability to listen and respond in real-time. From the outset, Diehl and Brewer flirt with the blues, while Sorey gets funky. Frenetic interplay yields a propulsive, circular vamp, as Diehl contributes percussive, upper register accents. By the end, the trio is grounded by Sorey’s second-line beats, recasting Mabern’s gospel, blues, and soul roots as post-modern post-bop.

Reviving old tunes both well-known and unsung, Continuing is even more accessible than Mesmerism, although together the two make a complementary pair. This lineup is of fairly recent vintage, which is notable, because while Sorey’s artistry defies classification, Diehl and Brewer’s credentials are far more traditional: Diehl has worked with Branford Marsalis and Cecile McLorin Salvant; Brewer with Terence Blanchard and Aaron Parks. This detail alone makes it all the more remarkable how far this rarefied partnership goes to advance the jazz piano trio language.
–Troy Collins


Chris Speed Trio
Despite Obstacles
Intakt CD 404

Los Angeles-based saxophonist and clarinetist Chris Speed (a native of Seattle) was a mainstay of the New York scene for years. Besides recording under his own name and co-leading several projects (Human Feel, Pachora, Endangered Blood, etc.) he has also contributed to such groups as Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, Jim Black’s AlasNoAxis, and John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet. Speed has also led a trio for a number of years, featuring drummer Dave King and bassist Chris Tordini. Speed and King first met in 2000, well before Speed was recruited for the Dave King Trucking Company (the Bad Plus drummer’s side project), but more recently, Speed joined a revamped quartet version of The Bad Plus. Speed later met Tordini through Jim Black in 2006.

Despite Obstacles is the trio’s fourth outing, following Really OK (Skirl, 2014), Platinum On Tap (Intakt, 2017), and Respect For Your Toughness (Intakt, 2019). The trio’s three previous albums each included cover tunes, but here the songs are all originals. Speed’s writing is memorable and to the point; only one tune exceeds five minutes, and six of the eight tracks begin with the theme. The written material is concise, and the improvisations are brief.

While Speed’s melodic writing is accessible, odd meters abound, with more than one tune in five (“Wrangled,” “In the Wild,” and “Lone Satellite”) as well as in 11, like “Despite Obstacles,” where the time signature shifts from 11/8 to 11/4. “I think all those years trying to learn Bulgarian music rubbed off,” Speed says wryly in the liner notes. Nevertheless, it takes a virtuosic rhythm section to make asymmetrical rhythms sound so natural.

The group sounds relaxed on the opener, “Advil,” which combines emotive power and rhythmic finesse. Straight out of the gate, the trio balances Speed’s velvety tenor tone and lean vibrato with the energy of King’s flinty grooves. Tordini holds down the low-end, as Speed gradually works variations from the elegant theme. Whether fragmented or fluid, Speed’s incisive phrases are lyrically captivating.

Recalling a pre-war ballad, “Wrangled” is even more enigmatic. Navigating a beat in five, Speed’s tone is warm and his slow, simmering solo contrasts with the theme’s displaced rhythms, as King and Tordini work their way through surprising twists and turns. A poised approach to rhythm and harmony is also displayed on “Uncomfortable Truths,” which starts tranquil, but as King expands the groove, embellishing cymbals and toms with metallic and muted tones, Speed unveils one new plaintive motif after another. The titular cut has Speed probing inside and outside a locked rhythm and “Lone Satellite” sounds similarly spontaneous.

There are also two traditional-sounding numbers in “Sunset Park in July,” a luminous ballad, and “Amos,” which features Speed swinging sweetly on clarinet. The lyrical tenderness that characterizes the former finds Speed exploring breathy tonal variations, while Tordini’s rich tone and the drummer’s mischievous accents impart an elegant modesty.

As Kevin Whitehead astutely points out in the liner notes, “Some saxophonists use trios to stretch way out. Chris Speed has other ideas. ‘I gravitate to getting to the point – featuring the song.’” Emblematic of this balanced approach, Speed’s playing has seemingly become more focused over the years. Although in truth, he still sounds like the same adventurous player who arrived on the scene three decades ago.
–Troy Collins


Sarah-Jane Summers
Echo Stane
Another Timbre at211

“Did you hear that out-of-tune 32nd note?” This was the joke often repeated at Emerson Quartet concerts in the 1990s, a nod-and-wink celebration of their exemplary intonation. Violinist Sarah-Jane Summers exhibits a similar trait on Echo Stane, her new album of Hardanger fiddle improvisations, but in the service of a very different aesthetic and to somewhat different ends.

To cite the beauty in Summers’ playing actually offers nothing concerning the myriad traditions underpinning and fostering it. Summers is often characterized as a folk musician, but such an appellation seems adjacent to her music making in this context, despite its obviously multivalent roots. Like Simon Reynell, as he states in his website interview with Summers, I was new to her work, and the first gesture of “Airtan” was a revelation. It’s just a drone with pitches overtop, but the subtlety of manipulation as tone in motion achieves its poetical momentum brings a lump to the throat. Listen as the second note slides gently to the third! From what tradition such a poignant moment springs is beyond me and at least partially subservient to its effect, and there’s plenty! Each tone and interval opens a world of feeling into which immersion seems the most welcoming course of action. Of course, Summers’ absolute control over intonation is only one variable. The fleeting vibrato at 0:51 portends many such subtleties to come, like the slowly detuned and returning unisons pervading “Upsun.” Alvin Lucier would be thrilled with the beats whose tempo fluctuations provide much of the piece’s impetus, but again, intervals in flux do just as much to guide the music forward.

What unifies the disparate excursions might be summed up as depth, an equally unsatisfactory but apt descriptor. It unites “Mirk Monanday”’s varied and haunting phrases with a vocal quality, each exquisitely shaped note an utterance in the most fundamental sense, arising from a source as unfathomable as the room acoustic is vast. Each sound on the disc is captured with that obvious depth of intent. The diverse and Protean susurration of bow on string is as important to “Mirrie Dancers” as the inflected endings of notes and the way Summers shapes, elongates, and truncates phrases. Each piece captures that continuously changing intensity via a different technique, giving the instrument an altered voice. Through it all, that intensity nurtures and carries the music, whether painfully beautiful, quietly exuberant, or wistfully whimsical, as on the percolating titular track, where the changing overtones provide as much melodic activity as the fundamentals. Summers’ hours of dedication to the instrument inhabit each bow-stroke, repetition, and modification, but it’s the music’s fundamental power to amaze and move that carries the day and gives the repeat button the workout it’s been getting!
–Marc Medwin


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