Quiver – Ralph Alessi

Following a remarkable ECM debut with 2013’s Baida, trumpeter Ralph Alessi releases Quiver, a thoughtful, immaculate record. Teaming with pianist Gary Versace and Alessi’ longtime rhythm section of choice – bassist Drew Gress and drummer Nasheet Waits – Quiver is an impressive follow-up complete with quick melodies, subtle rhythms, and moody lyricism. The 10-track album is all original Alessi compositions; in particular, his tone is clear and decisive on “I to I” and the title track.

ECM, 2016
Notes by John Gilbreath

Written in the Rocks – Renee Rosnes

DownBeat magazine has already declared Renee Rosnes’ latest album “an exceptional achievement.” With a band of Steve Wilson (saxophones, flute), Steve Nelson (vibraphone), Peter Washington (bass), and Bill Stewart (drums) backing the pianist/composer, Rosnes is at her most fluid, vibrant, and natural musical self on Written in the Rocks. Inspired by the natural surroundings of her native British Columbia, Rosnes composed each track about our planet’s evolution – “a stimulating concept and one brimming with possibilities,” she says.

Smoke Sessions, 2016
Notes by John Gilbreath

New Direction – Herlin Riley

New Orleans native Herlin Riley emerged from a bloodline of drummers during the creative area of all things rhythm in the late 70s and early 80s, to join such ensembles of pianist Ahmad Jamal and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. A musician with an authoritative style of melodic percussion, Riley enhances every creative effort of which he’s a part. With the release of his Mack Avenue debut, the drummer joyously delivers his lifetime of experience into each song, infusing the New Orleans style with Afro-Cuban, jazz, and blues. “Everything on this record is something I’ve lived,” says Riley. “It’s my life.”

Mack Avenue, 2016
Notes by John Gilbreath

Tenderly – Stacey Kent

Vocalist Stacey Kent – a “tender” cross between cabaret and jazz – draws from the Great American Songbook on her debut for Okeh Records. Backed by Jim Tomlinson on tenor sax and flute, Roberto Menescal on guitar, and Jeremy Brown on bass, Kent delivers beautifully languorous, fluid interpretations of songs including “The Very Thought of You,” “If I Had You,” and, of course, the title track. Tenderly is a nice, intimate showcase of Kent’s vocal talents.

Sony, 2015
Notes by John Gilbreath

What Was Said – Tord Gustavsen

Well known for the majestically slow tempos of his early recordings, Norwegian pianist/composer Gustavsen broadens his musical palette on this latest record for ECM. Featuring longtime collaborator Jarle Vespestad, on drums, and introducing German-Afghan vocalist Simin Tander, What was said explores the tradition of Norwegian church music in untraditional ways: “For the repertoire of the new project, Simin and I have been working with Afghan poet B. Hamsaaya, translating and shaping a selection of hymns that I grew up with in Norway into Pashto,” Gustavsen explains. “This process has been challenging and really fruitful.” Tander also sings, in English, verse of Persian mystic Rumi and Beat poet Kenneth Rexroth. What was said is simply a beautiful, lyrical, and introspective, and sure to grab any listener.

ECM, 2016

Livin’ On A High Note – Mavis Staples

Beloved R&B/gospel singer and civil rights activist Mavis Staples has teamed up with an A-list roster of modern songwriters to release Livin’ On a High Note. Opening with “Take Us Back,” Staples proclaims, “I’m working on me…/I’ve got friends and I’ve got family/ I’ve got help from all the people who love me.” And help she certainly does have, from artists like M. Ward, Nick Cave, Justin Vernon, Merrill Garbus, and Neko Case. “I told the writers I was looking for some joyful songs,” the 79-year-old says. “I wanted to stretch out and sing some songs that were new.” The album sees a variety of tunes, from the refreshing, upbeat “High Note” to the more activist-oriented “Action.” Fans of Staples will truly enjoy hearing her stretch her wings on these tracks.

ANTI, 2016
Notes by John Gilbreath

The Distance – Michael Formanek

Bassist/composer Formanek leads an 18-piece band through his adventurous, skilled, and cinematic compositions, each with influences of Ornette Coleman, Henry Threadgill, Charles Mingus, and more. Formanek wrote parts for the specific musicians in this truly colossal ensemble of top-notch artists: Loren Stillman (alto saxophone); Oscar Noriega (alto sax/ clarinet, bass clarinet); Chris Speed (tenor sax, clarinet); Brian Settles (tenor sax, flute); Tim Berne (baritone sax); trumpeters Dave Ballou, Ralph Alessi, Shane Endsley, and Kirk Knuffke (cornet); trombonists Alan Ferber, Jacob Garchik, Ben Gerstein, and Jeff Nelson (bass trombone, contrabass trombone); Patricia Brennan (marimba); Mary Halvorson (guitar); Kris Davis (piano); Tomas Fujiwara (drums); and conductor Mark Helias. If that’s not an ensemble of the 21st century, then what is?

ECM, 2016
Notes by John Gilbreath

Trying To Figure It Out – Grace Kelly

Seven albums and 11 years since she released her debut Dreaming at the age of 12, saxophonist/singer/songwriter Grace Kelly releases Trying to Figure It Out, an album on which she explores, in her words, “the world of jazz and beyond.” Expanding on her longstanding interest in genre-bending, while maintaining a foundation of jazz, Kelly shifts her approach from acoustic, conventional jazz to more contemporary production values on her latest record. The frequent DownBeat critics’ poll winner has collaborated with contemporary “stars” like Jon Batiste, and learned from masters like Frank Morgan, Lee Konitz, and Phil Woods. Not yet 25 here, she showcases the on-going evolution of her restless artistic spirit on this album.

PAZZ, 2016
Notes by John Gilbreath

This Is Not A Miracle – Food

The British/Norwegian duo of Iain Ballamy (saxophones, electronics) and Thomas Strønen (drums, electronics, percussion, Moog, Fender Rhodes) – team up once again with Austrian guitarist/electronics artist Christian Fennesz on this album of powerful grooves, evocative textures, and exploratory improvisation. It’s a hypnotic, exotic recording, with references to the Middle East and Africa, DownBeat magazine notes, the soundscape evoking “a desert wind of synthesized howl and holler, as on the eerie ‘Exposed To Frost’….Food walks a fine line between tension and excitement.”

ECM, 2016
Notes by John Gilbreath

Book of Intuition – Kenny Barron Trio

NEA Jazz Master pianist Kenny Barron teams up with his veteran trio of Kiyoshi Kitagawa on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums on a long-awaited recorded outing that highlights the group’s mastered interplay. Filled with technical chops and high energy, Book of Intuition is a collection of swinging and bopping originals, as well as grooving covers, including two Monk pieces: “Shuffle Boil” and “Light Blue.” Barron’s piano solo on the latter is simply (as one would expect) masterful.

Verve, 2016
Notes by John Gilbreath