Kamasi Washington

Last Summer, an album seemed to spring out of the musical ether and arrest our ears with its gripping presence and magnificent sound. It was huge, and some would even call it sprawling. At almost three hours long, it demanded the listener’s full attention. It was the kind of album that you made an event out of; either you could kick off your shoes after work and drown in the musical cosmos or invite your friends over and muse together.

In a word, the album was just… epic. No wonder saxophonist Kamasi Washington chose it as the title for his album.

What made The Epic so notable was its ability to bridge listeners from all over the musical spectrum. Kamasi Washington’s major label debut came hot on the heels of 2015’s consensus darling, Kendrick Lamar’s  To Pimp A Butterfly. Many hip-hop listeners were taken by the album’s unobscured jazz influences and arrangements, and blogs started publishing lists that guided hardcore hip-hop fans through Lamar’s gateway into the intricate world of jazz both past and present.

For someone who really enjoyed Butterfly, giving The Epic a chance was next to a no-brainer. Washington lent his tenor skills to the rapper’s album, and took responsibility for the sound that some listeners felt was so infectious. Keeping with the bridges analogy, it’s also fitting that The Epic was released on Brainfeeder Records. The label is headed by electronic musician Flying Lotus, another Lamar collaborator and the grandnephew of John and Alice Coltrane.

To other critics, Kamasi Washington’s presence isn’t something that should be lauded with praise and palm branches. He’s a fine saxophonist, sure, but his latest release isn’t something that’s utterly and completely new sounding. And that’s fine in a way, because you can argue that it only needs to be “new sounding” for enough new listeners. It gets them to explore and appreciate an area of music previously unknown to them.

And who wouldn’t want that?

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Tomeka Reid

NPR’s Kevin Whitehead expresses brow-furrowing confusion when he hears someone peg jazz cello as a novel idea. It’s not— there have been cellists experimenting on the jazz scene since the better part of the 1950’s. But just because the concept of a cellist ripping through some  standards isn’t new, doesn’t mean that you need to dismiss it as same old, same old. Ever heard of Tomeka Reid?

The D.C.-born musician has been active since her high school days, and after she graduated from the University of Maryland she taught middle- and high-school orchestra. As a cellist, many would assume she had a readymade career in classical music— she herself did, too! But she was so attracted to jazz and the freedoms of improvisation that she couldn’t help but throw herself  headlong into the collaborative spirit that highlights the twentieth century’s greatest musical innovation.

Since 2012 she has been involved with three main projects: Hear in Now (2012), Tomeka Reid Quartet (2015), and Artifacts (2015). Her second album really put her on the map, and was profiled in the NPR program Fresh Air. Quartet provided something that was fresh without coming off as novelty music. Remember that Reid is a seriously talented cellist and that cellos aren’t new to jazz. This combination means that as she crafts her soundscape with her harmonic interplay with her bandmates, she’s paying an homage to a forgotten cellic past— and doing it well.

Her work takes on a very exploratory quality. The bandmates are all feverishly searching for their next rhythmic groove. But they sail into these uncharted waters with such bravery and technical skill that the listener never needs to worry about being completely lost. They’ll always come back to find you and bring your that much closer to paradise.

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Takuya Kuroda

From Kobe, Japan comes Takuya Kuroda, a trumpeter who arrived with a splash a few years ago with Jose James’s band. He’s quickly shaping up as a creator of some of the most accessible yet complex jazz music of the time.

In his native Japan, Kuroda played with his older brother and in several big bands. He then moved to the United States in order to study at Berklee College of Music, where he met Jose James. The vocalist was taken by the trumpeter’s sound and asked him to record with him on his upcoming album, Blackmagic. They maintained a steady partnership, and James eventually  had Kuroda write the horn arrangements for his 2013 album No Beginning No End. The album was a critical success, and during the tour James agreed to produce Kuroda’s first album with Blue Note Records. The result, Rising Son (2014), is an interesting listen because Kuroda is actually leading James’s band; the latter steps down— he only appears on one track— and lets his trumpeting protegé shine.

The album itself is a worthy first outing on the legendary label. At James’s urging, Kuroda moves away from the straight ahead sound that dominated his earlier playing, and embraces a fuller, funky vibe. The strains of soul are also evident— the rhythm section’s introduction on “Piri Piri” sounds like it could have been taken from an extended solo break during a lost Erykah Badu session.

Listening to his album, you’d be comfortable calling it an Afrobeat-Jazz fusion record; the musical influences from Nigeria pervade the album’s groove, and Kuroda and his band don’t fumble the opportunity to deliver their take on the West African sound.

Jose James does manage to step away from the soundboard and grace the mic on their arrangement of the Roy Ayers classic “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”. The Ayers original remains iconic, but James and Kuroda slow it down just enough to give it an almost mystical quality. Kuroda’s solo is effortlessly cool but deceivingly calming. At points he’ll riff on a series of notes with a rising tension, only to bring it back home every time, ultimately easing us back into James unmistakable baritone.

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Biopics! “Miles Ahead” and “Born to Be Blue”

Musicians today, and jazz performers especially, have something to look forward to this coming spring— at least if you consider sharing great music and stories worth anticipating. In theaters, moviegoers may be exposed for the first time to two of jazz music’s most legendary trumpet players: Chet Baker and Miles Davis.

Born to Be Blue, which stars Training Day and Before Sunrise actor Ethan Hawke, traces the story of Chet Baker during his journey back to the spotlight. Baker, who in his late twenties became infamously addicted to heroin, was grievously injured in a drug-transaction that went horribly awry. He was beaten, and lost several of his teeth, leaving him unable to produce an effective sound on his instrument. After dental reconstruction and surgery, Baker regained control of his embouchure and began his comeback.

Obviously, Ethan Hawke is an actor first and foremost. But while most musical biopics involve the actor doing just that— acting out the musical technique without actually committing to a sound— Hawke forgoes the lip syncing and instead sings in Baker’s wispy gossamer of a voice. You can actually listen to his interpretation of “My Funny Valentine” in one of the official trailers for the film.

After you watch the subdued introspection of Blue, indulge in the effortless cool of Miles Davis by checking out Miles Ahead, the long awaited biopic by Don Cheadle. He conceived the project several years ago, and it is practically the product of a prank by fellow actor and friend George Clooney.

Cheadle, like Hawke, took his acting to the next level when he spent four years learning the trumpet. But his film isn’t for those who are looking for conventions of traditional cinema. The movie itself is nonlinear, and at first pass may not seem to follow any coherent path. He also takes several liberties with Davis’s life, liberally blending factual anecdotes with episodes of pure fiction. But if you are familiar with Davis’s life and music, there should be no reason you won’t enjoy this new film.

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Terence Blanchard

One can argue there are two camps of jazz musicians— those who are enjoying success by engaging with popular music, specifically hip-hop; and those who are cast in the conservative mold à la Wynton Marsalis. The latter may come off as dry and uninteresting to younger listeners, but a welcome return to the bygone days of predictable structure that older jazz musicians may miss. So, what happens when you get that traditional background and put it in front of a wide audience?

You get Terence Blanchard.

emmanuel-garcia-uvm-Terence_BlanchardHe’s perhaps the most fitting of this example because he actually grew up alongside the Marsalis family, playing with Wynton in youth camps and taking classes under his father, Ellis. Before he was 20, Blanchard was touring with Lionel Hampton, and in 1982 Wynton recommended his childhood friend replace him in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. With Blakey’s legendary group, Blanchard performed as lead soloist and worked as the musical director. Before long, Blanchard was leading his own groups.

His major entrance into the popular conscious came through his work with film. Spike Lee Joints are as known for their music as they are for their stories, and the acclaimed director featured Blanchard in the music of almost every one of his films, including his critical-darling of a debut, Do the Right Thing. Mr. Blanchard not only performed on Lee’s early work, but he actually composed the scores for each of his films since 1991’s Jungle Fever. His work in film has persisted well into the 21st century, too; in 2012 he wrote the soundtrack for the movie Red Tails.

He has also been nominated for four Grammys, notching four wins off of 11 nominations.

Throughout his career, Blanchard has performed and recorded with a number of influential legends, including Abbey Lincoln and J.J. Johnson. Most recently, he has injected his music with a distinctly electric vibe. This is evident on his most recent release, Breathless (Blue Note, 2015), which features a new outfit called the E-Collective.

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Ambrose Akinmusire

There are a number of musicians out there who are positively impacting jazz music. Their very presence reminds listeners that America’s music is far from dead, and their sonic creativity is pushing the bounds of the music into places it never dreamed of being.emmanuel-garcia-uvm-Ambrose_Akinmusire_2011

In the next few posts, we’ll be introducing readers to contemporary musicians they ought to know. Of course, there may be some bias towards trumpeters, but we’ll get to other players, too!

First up is Ambrose Akinmusire. The Oakland native has been recognized as one of the most talented and promising trumpeters of his generation. Among his accolades are being the winner of the Thelonious Monk Int’l Jazz Competition and the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition.

Akinmusire’s professional experience dates back to his days in high school, when he was hired as a band member for saxophonist Steve Coleman. Akinmusire also studied at the Manhattan School of Music and earned a Master’s Degree from USC.

After his schooling, his career really took off. He moved to New York, and began playing with a number of notable musicians including Esperanza Spalding, Vijay Iyer, and most recently, Kendrick Lamar.

In his three studio albums (not counting those where he is a sideman), you can easily pick out Akinmusire’s contemplative tone. It’s not what you’d describe as “angry”, but it is absent the bright tone many have come to expect from popular trumpeters. During his solos, it sometimes sounds as if he is playing just beneath a glass ceiling. He’ll take you to the edge, but rarely breakthrough. This is particularly evident on “The Beauty of Dissolving Portraits”, from his most recent studio album The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint.

In this particular piece, the band creates a tension that only amplifies this feeling.

Other times, he’ll delight in manipulating sound and allow it to lapse into frantic dialogue between bandmates, like in “The Walls of Lechuguilla” from When the Heart Emerges

He’s only in his mid-30’s, and will be sticking around for some time!

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