I never have enough time to cover every worthy release that comes my way, and quite a few got past me in 2014. Over the holidays, though, I had a chance to dive into a few of them, and so I’ll start the new year with a quick look at four 2014 releases that caught my fancy, from the Jon Armstrong Jazz Orchestra, the Fred Hersch Trio, Holly Muñoz, and Matt Ulery.
Jon Armstrong Jazz Orchestra, Farewell (Orenda Records)
As a member of the forward-looking California quartet Slumgum, saxophonist Jon Armstrong has dedicated himself to producing creative music that invites listeners, whatever their level of sophistication, to explore music that leaves the everyday in the dust. In a 2012 interview, he told me that the quartet feels it is important to earn the trust of listeners, because once you have that, they will willingly follow you anywhere. On Farewell, Armstrong and his orchestra put that concept to work on a much larger canvas, creating adventurous, playful music that carries a strong emotional charge. Composer/arranger Armstrong delights in rubbing the orchestral
textures against one another, and he gives his soloists—musicians of the first water—great
latitude. Each of the five tunes begins simply, and once Armstrong has ascertained that the
listener’s seatbelt is securely fastened, the flight begins. It is a thrilling ride, passing through
exuberant harmonies and changes in direction and altitude that are as unexpected as they are inevitable. From the Scots march of the opener, “Ardnave,” to the ghostly “Dream Has No Friend,” which sounds like program music for a psychic adventure, to the elegiac finale of the
title track, Armstrong and friends carry the listener through five satisfying musical narratives that quicken the heart and brain.
Fred Hersch Trio, Floating (Palmetto Records)
Bill Evans + Thelonious Monk = Fred Hersch, which is to say that this luminous pianist has found his voice in a synthesis of seemingly contradictory concepts—Evans’ diaphanous lyricism and Monk’s angular funk and physicality. The award-winning trio’s first studio album in four years, Floating finds Hersch, bassist John Hébert, and drummer Eric McPherson in perfect sync. The opening track, “You and the Night and the Music,” finds Hersch’s prodigious technique and left/right independence on display in a rigorous and intoxicating counterpoint that suggests a sojourn in Cuba by J. S. Bach. The dreamy title track contrasts sharply with the Appalachian
contours of “West Virginia Rose,” the boogie of “Home Fries,” the easygoing swing of “Autumn Haze,” and the trio’s upbeat, breezy take on Monk’s “Let’s Cool One.” All three gentlemen are in top form, and their preternatural communication with one another floats this album into the upper echelon of the piano trio library.
Holly Muñoz, Maps and Lists (indie)
Singer/songwriter Holly Muñoz passed through Albuquerque last fall on her 45-city tour to
promote Maps and Lists, her debut album, financed by an incredibly successful crowd-funding project. At a small house concert, accompanying herself on guitar, she sang songs of love’s sweetness and bitterness, from the incredulous rapture of a new romance to the disbelief and disorientation of a dying relationship. When it comes to love gone cold, Muñoz has no time for blame, shame, or self-pity. She focuses, instead, on the hollowed heart, the failure of words
unsaid, and the inevitable slo-mo decline, and in doing so, she captures the gnawing ache.
Try to remember
All the words I never said to you
Make maps and lists
Of everything we were going to do
Draw a simple line
When I was yours and you were mine
To the moment
We started telling ourselves it would be just fine
And that’s where it just flew apart
It just flew apart
Producer John Vanderslice has meticulously built layers of sound over, under, and around Muñoz’ sturdy songs, which, by the way, work just fine with a single acoustic guitar and her
intimate alto. The indie rock treatment gives them a splendid heft, urgency, and resonance, though at times the production threatens to capsize the proceedings, as in “A Song for Collin and Jaclyn,” a wedding song written in return for a contribution to the crowd-funding campaign. That aside, Maps and Lists debuts a singer/songwriter to watch, and there’s a follow-up album already in the works.
Matt Ulery, In the Ivory (Greenleaf Music)
Bassist Matt Ulery’s In the Ivory, 80 minutes of music spread over two CDs, feels like an
extended, lucid dream lighted by luscious harmony and mesmeric melody. At the center of the dream is Ulery’s jazz trio, with Rob Clearfield on piano and Jon Deitemyer on drums. They’re supported by violinist Zach Brock, vocalists Grazyna Auguscik and Sarah Marie Young, and members of the Grammy-winning contemporary music ensemble eighth blackbird. The 14
fanciful compositions blend elements from indie classical, jazz, minimalism, Eastern European folk traditions, and songcraft, with composed and improvised music trading time in the
spotlight, and together unspooling emotional reveries. Clearfield’s piano constitutes the music’s center of gravity on most of the pieces, whether laying down a minimalist substratum or
exercising its improvisational freedom. Lisa Kaplan’s muscular piano appears on two tracks, and the piano is switched out for Brock’s violin on the restless “Sweet Bitter.” Three through-
composed and tightly focused compositions—“Innocent,” the deeply emotional “Longing,” and the sacred, light-seeking “Viscous,” which closes the album—are stripped down to strings only. Despite the shifting personnel and the multiple influences, the music maintains a singular,
robust identity that invites the listener to an alternative consciousness.
© 2015 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.