Recent Recordings by Area Artists

This month’s batch of new recordings is typically eclectic, reminding us once again of the broad range of approaches that is so characteristic of the Detroit area music scene, ever respectful of the tradition but also willing to push the art into new directions into the future.

The Planet D Nonet in its various incarnations is exemplary in this respect, surveying much of jazz history, from Kansas City big bands to the galactic investigations of Sun Ra. Now it continues its exploration of the jazz and related African American music traditions with Planet D Nonet Live at the Scarab Club: Tribute to Buddy Johnson, recorded in performance in 2018 in Detroit. The band, co-led by James O’Donnell and RJ Spangler, consists of Justin Jozwiak, lead alto sax; Jim Holden, tenor sax, musical director; Goode Wyche III, baritone sax; O’Donnell, Charlie Miller, trumpet; Tbone Paxton, trombone, vocals; Michael Zaporski, piano; Matt LoRusso, guitar; Shannon Wade, bass; and Spangler on drums, joined on some tracks by singers Camille Price and Leonard King (mention should be made of the fine liner notes contributed by the great guitarist Duke Robillard).

A pianist and singer as well as a saxophone player, Buddy Johnson, whose first names were actually Woodrow Wilson, was one of the creators of the jump blues, and the R&B strain that became popular during WWII and the following years, recording almost 200 tunes over a thirty-year period. This was music for dancing—Johnson at the time led a band at the Savoy Ballroom in New York—and after 1941 found success with his group that featured two vocalists, his sister Ella Johnson and after 1944, the baritone Arthur Prysock.

The Planet D gang was obviously made for this project—here they take on sixteen of Johnson’s recorded tunes, including what may be his best-known hit, “Since I Fell for You,” from 1945 that originally featured Buddy’s sister Ella Johnson, here done by Camille Price, who makes it her own, while staying within the idiomatic boundaries. Many of the original recordings were performed by full big bands but the clever arrangements used here manage to recreate the general feeling using a smaller number of musicians. The opening swinger “South Main” sets the pace, with a lilting walking pace, and fine recreations of the original solos, including pianist Zaporski doing Johnson and tenor man Holden taking on the role of Jimmy Stanford. The selection covers much of Johnson’s long career, including such numbers as “Crazy ‘Bout a Saxophone” from 1954 with Paxton singing Johnson’s vocal and Wyche rockin’ on the bari. The latter has a fine outing on the next piece, “Lil Dog,” where he reprises a role originally played by Teddy Conyers. By the time we reach the end with Leonard King’s ballad feature “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” we have fully experienced the variety and scope of Johnson’s musical accomplishments.

A year after his first Detroit Composers Collective release, Mark Lipson is back with a different lineup and a distinctive vibe. The new CD is Springwells, with Vincent Chandler, trombone; Cary Kocher, vibraphone; Rafael Statin, contra-alto clarinet, tenor, alto, soprano, and sopranino saxophones, C and bass flutes; Gary Schunk, piano; Jeff Pedraz, bass; Nate Winn, drums; Larry Fratangelo and Mark Lipson, percussion. While the personnel are different, two compositions by the late Brad Felt provide a common link between the two sessions, while the rest of the tunes were written by Chandler (3) and Statin (2).

Chandler is properly featured here: the album is bookended by two very different works from his pen, the opening “Springwells” (the street name) and the closing “I Remember Joe,” dedicated to Joe Henderson, who spent four years in Detroit studying at Wayne State University, where the trombonist now teaches. The first, a lively Afro-Cuban inspired romp, puts you in a dancing mood; Statin on alto gets the fires burning, passing it off to the composer, who shows off his rapid-fire chops, and then the late Gary Schunk lays down a succinct fluent solo that reminds us just how much he is missed. Both percussionists mix it up nicely on this one. By contrast, the short “Leafar Village” goes off into spiritual Pharaoh Sanders territory, with brooding sounds made dense by Statin overlaying his various instruments in a complex tapestry, beginning with the low and moving on high. A medium paced Latin-tinged Felt piece follows, moving on to Chandler’s “Copycat,” which turns up the heat in the same general vein. The mood switches to whimsical and lyrical with Felt’s ballad “You Walked Away,” arranged by Lipson. Schunk sets the mood perfectly a capella, and then after the theme follow solos by Statin, who provides an apposite statement on the rarely heard contra-alto clarinet, and then by Chandler and Kocher. The contrast between dissimilar instruments is exploited here in a lovely manner and while the compact solos are strongly individual, they combine to create a seven minute fully-realized work. The final track roars, with Statin taking a tenor solo that begins in post-bop territory, with oblique reference to Henderson, only to take it out far off with a scream, followed by more traditional but no less effective solos by Kocher and Schunk, and a long extended restatement of the theme. Chandler does not solo here, putting focus on his compositional and arranging talents.

As albums go these days, this one is short, at 35 minutes taking us back to the time of the long-play record. This appears to be deliberate: the emphasis is very much on composition and arrangement, with relatively brief solos that reflect the mood and rhythm of the tunes rather than just a run of the harmonies as is so often done. These condensed, focused statements highlight the brilliance and virtuosity of all the participants, each well versed in a wide range of musical idioms but, no matter the setting, retain a pronounced individuality. Chandler, as intended, stands out, with a powerful deep trombone sound and a wonderful melodic sense, but the other musicians are equally impressive: Statin with his amazing command of multiple horns and adventurous spirit, Cocher with his fine sense of drama, Schunk with his versatile commentary, Pedraz unobtrusive and impeccably steady, and Winn driving it all with his usual power and energy. Lipson and his friends have created a wonderful well-paced album that celebrates the past and the future of Detroit jazz.

Pianist Andy Milne, who studied in his native Canada with Oscar Peterson, eventually moved to New York and has been working with some of the finest artists among the more progressive trends in jazz, including Steve Coleman and Ravi Coltrane and is currently teaching at the School of Music, Theatre and Dance at the University of Michigan. His latest recording is Fragile (Intakt 379) in duo with tenor and soprano saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, one of the more adventuresome instrumentalists/composers of the New York “downtown” scene. Laubrock has been making albums with familiar pianists Aki Takase and Kris Davis, but for her third in this series she turned to Milne, who usually works in somewhat different areas of music.

The compositions, all by Laubrock, explore a full range musical potential of the saxophone/ piano format, with carefully controlled emotional explorations. The opening “Equanimity” begins in a delicate lyrical fashion only to turn somewhat ominous before relaxing again, with Laubrock on tenor with a pure singing tone. Then “Fragment” begins in a startlingly different manner, with the composer on soprano sounding more like a wooden flute and Milne using prepared piano somewhat reminiscent of a mbira; nothing is certain here—we are in some imaginary folk context that might be in Africa or much further east…. On the next track, the soprano begins in high register as if calling us back to New York, only to return to the complex tonal landscape of extreme sounds on other compositions, albeit quite different each time, returning to the flutelike timbres on the final track. Laubrock explores the full range of saxophone soundscapes on both her horns and Milne, who can be a garrulous pianist in other contexts uses his robust technique sparingly, choosing notes and chords carefully working so that one would think they have been playing with each other for ages. This is their ballad album even if the lyricism is rife with inventive tensions -- deep listening at its best.