Recent Recordings by Area Jazz Artists

This month’s review column will focus on ambitious releases by two artists whose diverse musical approaches symbolize the rich variety of musical artistry that characterizes our area.

The first is take me by the hand of darkness by the trio of Eliot Cardinaux, piano, voice, Will McEvoy, bass, and Max Goldman, drums. Cardinaux is a well-published poet as well as a pianist, and many of the tunes feature his dense and sonorous poems set to music, some composed, some improvised. McEvoy, who has been prominent on the Ann Arbor/Detroit scene since moving here a few years ago, is not only an instrumentalist but also a composer, and his two pieces on this album, “Muz ‘n’ P” and “Song for Charlie,” are impressive. The latter is particularly memorable: a heartfelt goodbye to Charlie Haden that tips a hat to his bass playing and elegiac compositional style before slowly morphing into tense melodic improvisations in what is the longest, most developed track of the album.

This is not a traditional piano trio in which the bass and drums provide background rhythm, but the more modern version in which all three instruments play an equal role, fully interacting on melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic grounds. All the participants are versatile musicians with wide-ranging musical knowledge so that you can hear various influences rising and falling, from Billy Strayhorn to Carla Bley or Keith Jarrett, but they are not imitators in the contemporary jazz education fashion, but rather draw on tradition to create new palates. This is made possible by the artistry of McEvoy and Goldman, who are able to play simply or in complex fashion whenever required, with great ears that elevate the collective improvisations, and Goldman’s equal command of poetry and music. This is less common than one would imagine — it is hard to think of many artists whose skills in different genres are so well matched. Larry Rivers made his mark as a painter but his saxophone playing was hardly on the same level; Sun Ra wrote music and poetry, but unlike what could be termed his song lyrics, he rarely set his poems to music.

As a fully interactive trio they obviously strive to create not just melody and rhythm but also the kind of intangible atmospheric soundscape that is beyond category — this is the kind of music that one would expect from the ECM label; indeed they really would fit perfectly into the aesthetic espoused there.

Pianist, composer, and educator Ellen Rowe has gathered an all-star group of women musicians for her album Momentum: Portraits Of Women In Motion (Smokin’ Sleddog Records 1158ER-1-SSR): Tia Fuller, alto saxophone; Virginia Mayhew, tenor saxophone; Lisa Parrott, baritone saxophone; Janelle Reichman, clarinet; Ingrid Jensen, trumpet; Melissa Gardiner, trombone; Marion Hayden or Marlene Rosenberg, bass; and Allison Miller, drums. Not everyone plays on all tunes: one track is a piano solo, and the instrumentation varies from quintet to octet. The compositions are dedicated to women from all walks of life that have inspired the composer, from Michele Obama (“The First Lady [No, Not You, Melania]”) to her former colleague and friend, the late Geri Allen (“The Soul Keepers”), with tributes to women civil rights activists, runners, tennis players, wildlife activists, and even to folk singer-pianists Carole King and Joni Mitchell.

In a concept album like this it is not always easy to discern the relationship between the music and dedication, but sometimes the link is easily recognizable as in the gospel and funky tinge of the opening “Ain’t I a Woman,” which celebrates “unsung heroines of the civil right movement,” featuring a wonderful declamatory bluesy solos by Gardiner on trombone, Fuller on alto, and Hayden on bass. The same can be said of the musical tributes: “The Soul Keepers” addresses Geri Allen by way of her celebration of the music of Mary Lou Williams, with Rowe getting down with the blues on the piano, complete with smidgens of boogie. The piano playing is quite different on the subdued and nostalgic “Anthem,” reflecting the composer’s early infatuation with King and Mitchell, which features a lovely clarinet solo by Reichman, her only feature on the album. The funkiest tune, complete with strong backbeat and prominent baritone sax in the ensemble is “Game, Set and Match,” for tennis masters Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, which provides a good environment for lively succinct solos by Mayhew on tenor, Jensen on trumpet, and Parrot on deep voiced baritone sax. The recital ends, literally, with the gentle reflective “Song of the Meadowlark,” done solo by the leader, complete with opening bird song, providing a bookend of sorts, contrasting with the bluesy yet also reflective piano part that opened the first track.

As can be readily observed from this brief description, Momentum provides a perfect showcase for Rowe’s musically varied compositional and arranging skills and provides diverse settings for her improvisational artistry. She has surrounded herself with exceptional instrumentalists who more than do the material justice in ensemble and solo outings.