All That Jazz

A playfully turbulent quartet keeps getting better. Some postmod wiseacres drop their major-label debut. And the first family of jazz unfurls a riveting, albeit somewhat predictable, masterpiece. Barely two months into 2003, it looks like a banner year for invigorating jazz. Here's a look at three recent and noteworthy releases.

Matt Wilson Quartet
Humidity
Palmetto

Sometimes the title of Humidity seems apt, especially when the quartet and two or three guests fill the air with dense sonorities--a phalanx of horns, violin, and handbells, and the peripatetic drum patterns of Matt Wilson (not to be confused with the local pop vocalist of the same name). But the most beguiling material here exploits the space created by the absence of piano, allowing the bandmembers to cavort and caterwaul to their heart's content. "Thank You Billy Higgins!" does justice to Wilson's late, ever-smiling mentor with ebullient march rhythms from the snare drums and a parade-like swagger by the alto and tenor saxophonists. "Swimming in the Trees" likewise taps into childlike glee, featuring a melody that tumbles and prances with a circus sensibility reminiscent of Henry Threadgill. My favorite track, "Raga," is a cultural olio of Chinese gongs, Brazilian tamberim, and a sinuous East Indian melody capped by Jeff Lederer's bop alto.

Feeling the gravity of the situation: The Matt Wilson Quartet leans into the groove
Jimmy Katz
Feeling the gravity of the situation: The Matt Wilson Quartet leans into the groove

For better or worse, the quartet occasionally leaves you wanting more, particularly on the shorter pieces of a disc that dispatches a dozen tunes in less than an hour. "Wall Shadows" (inspired by the poetry of Carl Sandburg and highlighted by the electric and acoustic bass of Yosuke Inoue), the elliptical, Steve Lacy-esque "Code Yellow," and the crescendo-heavy "All My Children" feel short-circuited as premise-only, impressionistic snippets. And after a marvelous opening harmony of bass clarinet and bowed bass, "Cooperation" deserves a more thorough denouement. But maybe Wilson has the right idea. This occasionally thorny, "outside" jazz is mostly free of self-indulgence, and its short attention span jibes with its youthful vigor and pervasive desire to have fun.

 

The Matt Wilson Quartet plays Friday, March 7 and Saturday, March 8 at Brilliant Corners ; 651.224.8642

 

The Bad Plus
These Are the Vistas
Columbia

With the cheeky kitsch of a vacuum cleaner salesman, the Bad Plus get their foot in the door with ingeniously de- and reconstructed versions of songs by Nirvana and Blondie, then cinch the transaction with their genre-subverting originals. Sometimes the concepts become too top-heavy: It actually helps when, in concert, drummer Dave King asks you to envision the beefy protagonist of "1972 Bronze Medalist" running down the beach with the amulet thumping against his chest. But more often, the group's postmodern irreverence is superseded by the more timeless jazz verity of empathetic interplay. King and pianist Ethan Iverson are the virtuoso crowd-pleasers, but bassist Reid Anderson is the ace composer and fulcrum of the ensemble. The abiding riff in Anderson's "Big Eater" provides a perfect beanpole for King's daft, headstrong, rhythmic rumbles. The bassist's "Everywhere You Turn" manages to be ominous and relaxing at the same time, while his "Silence Is the Question," the appropriate final song, rustles peacefully like a Buddhist satori--a nirvana cleansed of the smell of teen spirit. (They'll play the Dakota in early April; check back for updates.)

 

The Marsalis Family
A Jazz Celebration
Marsalis Music/Rounder

Reunite a family of master craftsmen to honor the sage of the clan, and the joviality inevitably yields to a purposefully rigorous, structurally immaculate series of musical constructions. I'd describe many of the high points of this gig, which celebrates papa Ellis Marsalis's retirement from the University of New Orleans faculty, as transcendent if their splendor weren't so tangibly rooted in the moment. This is music that buffs details (the three-part horn harmony on the head arrangement for "Nostalgic Impressions" couldn't be brighter or deeper) and eschews ego in all the right places (on "Cain and Abel," the dialogue between Wynton and Branford is profoundly respectful and wise). Jason's drum solo on "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" and Delfaeyo's trombone turns on both "Sultry Serenade" and "Twelve's It" provide evidence of some embedded, freakishly creative genetic code. That impression is reinforced when Harry Connick Jr. wanders into the fray like some addled foster child and vocally strains for favor on "Saint James Infirmary." Thankfully, Connick is backstage on the closer, "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," a 10-minute paean to the family's patron saint, Louis Armstrong. After Wynton summons Satchmo's ghost with an opening solo, the family falls in with such taut syncopation and rakish solos that the great trumpeter must have been daubing his brow and waving his handkerchief up in heaven. Wynton has deservedly gotten his karmic payback in recent years for arrogantly anointing himself the godhead of jazz (check out David Hajdu's revealing story in the March Atlantic Monthly), but A Family Celebration demonstrates that when the chips are down, his kin have got his back.

 
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