Takaaki, New Kid in Town
Pianist Takaaki Otomo open a fresh page in the book of jazz with New Kid in Town, his 2017 release on Albany Records. Otomi’s fluid keyboard work meshes smoothly with Noreko Ueda’s inventive, melodic bass lines and drummer Jared Schonig’s subtle agility. The combination merges a masterful touch with a youthful shine.
Producer Bernard Hoffer has a strong influence on the album, arranging the covers with respectful pizzazz and contributing a couple of his own tunes. Most remarkable are his effervescent jazzifications of the “Mars” and “Venus” movements from Gustav Holst’s The Planets.
Takaaki’s own originals are just as engaging as the trio’s renditions of John Lewis’s “Django,” Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way,” and a surprisingly charming and more-than-palatable take on the usually hokey “People.” Ueda’s brilliant bass work adds a bright dimension, and Schonig matches her measure for measure. The three are just as convincing in romantic balladry (Thad Jones’s “To You”) as in energetic 5/4-time bebop (“Mars”) and a caffeinated jazz waltz (Hoffer’s “Rush Hour”). I’m glad this disc waltzed up to the top of my pile.
Jane Ira Bloom, Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson
Also in 2017, adventurous soprano sax artist Jane Ira Bloom forayed into spoken-word with Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson. A set of understated jazz compositions inspired by poems by the Belle of Amherst, the release comes in two flavors: the music-only Disc 1, and the same pieces in a different order accompanied by actor Deborah Rush reading the poems on Disc 2.
The riff-rich music, melodic, slinky, and gently fizzy, goes down easy, like a Dave Brubeck or Bill Evans set. But it’s also the work of a virtuoso of that most marvelous of instruments, the listener’s brain. It makes you stop and think.
Flowing under Bloom’s characteristic smoky sound, pianist Dawn Clement, bassist Mark Helias, and Bobby Previte on drums churn out lively beats and motifs with an almost palpable sense of joy, a feast for jazz aficionados and newcomers alike.
Rush’s readings on Disc 2 clarify the music’s inspiration, though they’re too dainty for my taste, too in line with the common and mistaken conception of Dickinson as a fragile, shrinking flower. On the other hand, they are spare and not intrusive; they don’t detract from the music. Lovers of both poetry and jazz may well like these versions even more than the straight instrumentals.
Roy McGrath, Remembranzas
Another breath of fresh jazz air with a poetry tie-in is the new disc from saxophonist Roy McGrath. Remembranzas, a set of innovative but highly accessible mostly-Latin jazz, features the Puerto Rican native with his sextet performing four numbers McGrath wrote as a suite to honor Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos, along with four other tunes. Along with pianist Bill Cessna, bassist Joseph Kitt Lyles, and drummer Jonathon Wenzel, the band includes not one but two percussionists, Ivelisse Diaz and Victor “Junito” González. The tunes thus become rhythm extravaganzas as well as earthy jazz pictures.
Recited excerpts from a poem by de Burgos are interspersed with an eye-opening original poem by Claritza Maldonado to set the tone in the energetic “Canción de la Verdad Sencilla.” The tune opens the album with folk rhythms, straightforward melodies from McGrath, and a mellow bass solo from Lyles. With its chunky blend of Latin rhythms and classic jazz idioms, the track reflects the album as a whole. The set also encompasses easygoing swing and nontraditional time signatures, but Latin beats and tropes are baked into most of it.
By no means do you have to be able to distinguish sicá from salsa from montuno to enjoy the songs. The title track, with its hazy dark energy and odd bar lengths, is a high point I’ve listened to over and over with increasing appreciation. McGrath’s solo on “5/4 Tune (Poema para las Lágrimas)” might take your breath away. The coal-hot rhythmic sequence near the end of “Kyky” might stop you in your tracks. But Remembranzas will keep you moving. It’s an affair to remember.