Alto saxophonist and composer Jon Gordon’s terrific new album is a modern-day exploration of age-old questions about reality. True to the cyclical, winding nature of today’s real and fake news, Gordon leads a crackerjack nonet through twisting, turning, and surprising pathways of sound. The music’s delightful unpredictability is apparent right from the first track, “Pointillism,” as the horns converse bouncily before Gordon’s alto sax and Fabio Ragnelli’s drumming take over with a more urgent engagement. The pieces that follow are diverse and wide ranging, from the relaxed yet searching title track to the intricate “Counterpoint” and the enigmatic allure of “Sunyasin” with its wordless vocals by Juno Award-winning vocalist Jocelyn Gould. Stranger Than Fiction once again proves Gordon’s mettle as an instrumentalist and a composer. An album of awesome gems played with precision and panache, it’s a splendid listen.
Trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith has worked extensively with Jack DeJohnette and Vijay Iyer, but this exceptional new recording marks the first time the three creative giants have worked together. The remarkable collaborative effort features compositions by all three, including the title track, the latest in a series of pieces by Smith dedicated to the late, great Holiday. DeJohnette’s “Song for World Forgiveness” has been done several times before but never quite like this as Iyer and Smith render a potent delivery of DeJohnette’s plea for peace. Iyer’s contribution, “Deep Time No. 1,” which uses electronics and excerpts from Malcolm X, reveals his fearless and inquisitive compositional spirit. As if we needed any, the album’s closer, “Rocket,” is ample evidence of the far-ranging genius of these three artists. Created collectively in the studio, it’s a wild, spectacular, and joyful sonic gift. Extraordinary and sublime, A Love Sonnet for Billie Holiday is a work of genius and heart.
Saxophonist Kevin Sun immersed himself in all things Charlie Parker during 2020. The fruits of his intensive study can be heard on his new recording, a love letter to Bird that functions as both a tribute album and a new, forward-looking work. On a dozen original compositions and three arrangements, Sun and an outstanding band—including trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, guitarist Max Light, pianist Christian Li, bassist Walter Stinson, and drummer Matt Honor—reimagine Parker for the 21st century, taking Bird’s music in refreshing and breathtaking new directions. “Onomatopoeia” is a frenetic, up-tempo tour de force, while “Adroitness (I + II)” transforms Parker’s “Dexterity” into a two-part wonder. Sun’s fine playing on tenor saxophone as well as clarinet is evident, especially on “Dovetail,” his avant-garde vision of “Yardbird Suite.” With <3 Bird, Kevin Sun not only creates a Charlie Parker tribute that ranks with the best of them but he cements his place as one of the finest and most inspired jazz saxophonists on the scene today.
A little bit jazz, a little bit Americana, and a whole lot of heart—that’s the recipe for this altogether engaging new album by two superb guitarists. Like so many other musicians during the pandemic, Mizell and Rauh recorded the album’s ten tracks remotely, which makes the music’s intricate intimacy all the more remarkable. The songs, inspired by the musicians’ close relationships with various people, emanate subtlety, depth, and warmth. Some, like “Jed’s Theme” and “Rita’s Theme,” are affecting musical portraits of people, while others, like “Old Sardis Road” and “Arolen,” pay homage to memory and place. All are ably and lovingly rendered by Mizell and Rauh, whose seamless artistic rapport is a joy to hear. While their individual instrumental voices remain distinct and strong, they also convey an unwavering unity of sound and purpose. Local Folklore is a rare album, one that tells stories of people and places with beautiful music that, like soulful echoes of memory, ring in the mind long after the last note is played.
Vocalist and composer Sara Serpa continually earns a place as one of the most creative and original artists working today. Her new album with Nigerian author Emmanuel Iduma is yet another testament to her unique and uncompromising vision. Drawing from Iduma’s 2018 book, A Stranger’s Pose, which recounts his travels across Africa, Serpa crafts a daring piece of work exploring themes of migration, displacement, and the intractability of borders. With sparse instrumentation rendered by pianist Matt Mitchell and modular synth player Qasim Naqvi, along with breathtaking vocal harmonies by Serpa, Sofia Rei, and Aubrey Johnson, Serpa distills the essence of Iduma’s powerful narration. Essential as air, solid as earth, and cleansing as water, Serpa’s resonant musical world teems with beauty, grief, love, and humanity. Intimate Strangers is a towering achievement by an artist whose gifts seem to know no bounds.