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Glenn Siegel’s Jazz Ruminations

The jazz world has plenty of working bands, but only a few work hard enough and are talented enough to achieve true lift off. We saw one of them at the Community Music School of Springfield on January 6. Led by guitarist and composer Miles Okazaki, Trickster is a five-year-old ensemble that ranks among today’s finest. They made their western Massachusetts debut on Friday.

With three studio CDs and a soon to be released double live album, Trickster is the real thing: a band that can play impossibly complicated music with straightforward immediacy. Their set combined complex harmonies and counterpoint with a healthy dose of funk.

The band: Matt Mitchell, piano, Anthony Tidd, electric bass, Sean Rickman, drums and Okazaki on guitar, owes their sound to Steve Coleman. Coleman’s mid-1980s recordings on JMT, and his later work on RCA Novus, BMG, Label Bleu and Pi Recordings, are hugely influential and define the looping, free funk of the so-called M-Base movement. Tidd and Rickman have worked with Coleman since the late 1990s. I first met Okazaki when he appeared with Coleman at a Magic Triangle Jazz Series concert in 2012.

But Trickster’s sound covers more sonic territory. Unlike Coleman’s approach, which is compelling but can be unrelenting, Trickster’s repertoire includes pools of introspection and subdued tempos. Friday’s set even included a version of “Lush Life”, played first by Okazaki before the rest of the band joined in to taffy pull Billy Strayhorn’s beautiful composition. The night unfurled like a suite, with themes drawn from the band’s three Pi Recordings releases. The uninterrupted flow mirrored the format of their latest recording, Thisness, where they create grooves and themes that slowly transform over time.

“The borderlands are where the Trickster hangs out,” Okazaki wrote in the liner notes, “the undefined space where logic dissolves and creativity thrives. My hope was that the listener would enjoy the experience of passing through these boundaries of contrasting episodes.”

Guitar, piano, bass and drums are all rhythm section instruments, but Tidd and Rickman kept the pulse that provided the evenings through line. Tidd’s bass lines were thick and propulsive, sometimes subverting the groove with altered rhythms to produce a layered, disorienting effect. I was seeing him for the first time, and I wished for a Jazz Shares reception or another opportunity to chat with him. Born in London, Tidd came to the U.S. in 1997 and has toured all over the globe with Common, Greg Osby, Bhekki Mseleku, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Ursula Rucker, while producing records for Jill Scott, Macy Gray, Zap Mama, Lady Gaga, Pink, The Black Eyed Peas and The Roots. He has a career composing scores for major film and television projects, most recently Jay Z’s Paramount/BET docuseries Rest in Power – The Trayvon Martin Story, and he has been a major teaching force in Philadelphia at Jazz Camp, the Kimmel Center and now at Ars Nova.

This was also my first chance to hear Rickman live. He cut quite the figure, exuding the cool demeanor of someone who grew up in the performing arts. His father is the legendary guitarist Phil Upchurch, and his mother, Renee Morris, sang the role of Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar. His stick grip, which seemed out of the ordinary to me, was taught to him by an uncle, while another uncle was a dj who opened up his musical world. Like Tidd, Rickman has lots of experience with artists in the popular music world. Angela Bofill, Maxwell and Meshell Ndegeocello are all past employers of Rickman, who has also worked with Dapp Theory and spent four years with the fusion group Garaj Mahal. He often played in double-time, creating an energy that felt sped up, but not loud. His control was brilliant, and everything he played on the snare drum was special.

Meanwhile, Mitchell and Okazaki played impossibly fast unison lines, then completed each other’s thoughts with traded phrases. Mitchell is one of today’s premier pianists, someone with a ridiculous amount of technique and an equal measure of creative juice. He also records for Pi, producing five releases since 2013, including his latest, a six-CD box set, Snark Horse. Previous Jazz Shares appearances include dates with Anna Webber’s Simple Trio and Jon Iragabon’s Quartet. It’s time for him to lead a date in western Mass.

Okazaki’s last Valley appearance was a hypnotic, 2021 duo with drummer Dan Weiss. The guitarist has a light touch as a leader, directing the group through eye contact and by advancing thematic material on his guitar. Having responsive musicians helps. Although they hadn’t played together in a month, Trickster’s three-week June residency at Seeds in Brooklyn undoubtedly helped solidify their sound.

Speaking of sound, the Quartet marveled at the acoustics in the space. Because of the immense stone walls, they were dubious when they first arrived. But the halls walls are soapstone, not marble, and their porosity provided a warm, nuanced feel. The musicians, relaxed and accomplished, gave a marvelous performance.

Marty Ehrlich, extraordinary reed player, music scholar, storyteller and friend, returned to the Connecticut River Valley on December 16 to perform with his trio at the Blue Room in Easthampton, MA. This Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares event was a homecoming of sorts for Ehrlich, who taught at Hampshire College and lived part time in the Valley for 15 years, before retiring in 2019.

Although they have played together over the years, Ehrlich’s Friday performance with Trio Expanse: Matt Pavolka, bass and Mark Ferber, drums, was their first as a threesome. With one rehearsal under their belts, the musicians nailed a program of Ehrlich originals and one Julius Hemphill tune , with precision and élan.

Since producing the Marty Ehrlich Quintet (Tony Malaby, Michael Cain, Michael Formanek, Bobby Previte) in 1997 as part of the Magic Triangle Jazz Series, I’ve had the honor of presenting his large ensemble (“A Trumpet in the Morning”) in 2014, and his Philosophy of a Groove Quartet (with James Weidman, Jerome Harris, Chris Beck) and Duende Winds (with Nicole Mitchell, Tomeka Reid, Sara Shoenbeck), both in 2018. The breath of his imagination as a composer, instrumentalist and bandleader, is impressive. We discussed having his next western Mass visit be a duo, a context in which he also excels. In May, he’s playing with pianist Kris Davis as part of his week at The Stone. Hmmm.

Speaking of The Stone, Ehrlich introduced his piece “Stone”, with a beautiful story about Irving Stone, who befriended musicians like William Parker, Mark Feldman and Roy Campbell, and with his wife, attended thousands of jazz concerts in New York from the 1970s until his passing in 2003. A retired City employee, Irving once rented Town Hall for his friend Ornette Coleman, who complained that he wanted to be recognized for being more than a jazz artist. Part of the concert, featuring a new trio and a string quartet, was released as Town Hall, 1962 (ESP-Disk). John Zorn named his club after him.

Many years ago, Marianne Faithfull, for whom Ehrlich worked briefly, told him he should do stand-up. Indeed, his comedic timing and his storytelling skills are well above average. His musical phrasing, primarily on alto saxophone and clarinet, were also outstanding, producing streams of mini-melodies in voice-like patterns that went on for minutes on end. Ehrlich played flute and soprano saxophone on one tune each, but left his bass clarinet home.

I love hearing Ehrlich in trio format. It allows his compositions to shine, while providing a showcase for his considerable chops. For it to work, of course, you need a strong rhythm section. Ehrlich’s Trio Exaltation, with John Hébert and Nasheet Waits, might have a higher profile, but his new Trio Expanse is strong and supple.

Bassist Matt Pavolka deserved all the solo space he got, and then some. I was flabbergasted to learn that although he dabbled in high school, he only got serious about the bass while at Berklee; he entered college on a trombone scholarship. Growing up in Bloomington, Indiana, Pavolka had a solid music education at home (his father was a professional trombonist) and in school (he studied with David Baker). His facility on his instrument, his easy navigation of the material, and the wealth of his ideas, proved he was well prepared for the moment. I have him on records by Ohad Talmor, Noah Preminger, Guillermo Klein and Alan Ferber, and was glad to hear him live for the first time.

I first met Alan Ferber’s twin brother Mark when he performed with Linda May Han Oh in Miro Sprague’s Trio in Greenfield in 2014, and it was great to spend some quality time with him. Ferber was looking at the 25th anniversary Magic Triangle Series book we produced and saw Alex Snydman in a crowd photo. He taught Alex in LA many years ago and didn’t know he grew up in western Massachusetts. I love those points of coincidence. Ferber was completely comfortable with the material, hitting every signpost with precision and understated flourish.

I had the sense that both Ferber and Pavolka, a generation younger than Ehrlich, relished the opportunity to work with a veteran whose career involves the best musicians of our time. Hearing him share jazz lore and personal stories about Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams and Julius Hemphill were precious.

Since retiring from Hampshire, Ehrlich has immersed himself in preserving the legacy of the great alto saxophonist, composer and conceptualist, Julius Hemphill. Both have a connection to St. Louis; Ehrlich was born there, and Hemphill moved there in 1968, where he helped launch the Black Artists Group. Ehrlich worked with Hemphill from 1978 until his passing in 1995, and spent a good part of the pandemic organizing Hemphill’s archives, now housed at NYU’s Fales Library. In 2021, Ehrlich curated, supervised and wrote extensive liner notes for The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony (New World Records), a critically acclaimed 7-CD box set of previously unreleased Hemphill material.

The night after their Easthampton performance, Trio Expanse played at Brooklyn’s Bar Bayeux. “The two gigs were a great shot in the arm for me,” Ehrlich wrote. “Great to play in front of the Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares family.” Ehrlich is now off to Poland, where he is recording with Michael Bates Acrobat and the Lutoslawski String Quartet. Hopefully, now that his scholarly labor of love is complete, Ehrlich can turn his attention back to the stage, where he continues to dazzle.

Although artists like Duke Ellington and Mary Lou Williams had incorporated religious themes into their music for decades, the concept of “spiritual jazz” gained steam after 1965 when John Coltrane released his epic, A Love Supreme. At the same time, artists like Albert Ayler, Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders were reaching for the ecstatic in their quest to imbue the music with spiritual uplift.

Tenor saxophonist Andrew Lamb is cut from that same cloth. The 64 year old tenor player follows in the hallowed footsteps of those ancestors, as well as musicians like Lonnie Liston Smith, Azar Lawrence and Don Cherry. Lamb’s performance with drummer Newman Taylor Baker on Saturday, December 3 gave us new insight into the power of sound to cleanse and renew the soul.

Their hour long flight at CitySpace’s Blue Room in Easthampton was an unvarnished, unbridled and unapologetic foray into the free jazz universe; days later, the vibrations still reverberate. The unleashed energy had a cleansing effect on this listener; it was catharsis by fire music.

Baker began the evening in a low patter that built towards Lamb’s entrance, which was rough and full-bodied. That pattern held throughout the performance: a solo statement on drums, then the saxophone would join. Perhaps it was a stamina thing. Lamb moved slowly and sat down when not playing.

When he was playing, the music bounced off the room’s tin ceiling and swirled around the space with no need for on-stage amplification. A fusillade of notes, covering the entire range of the horn, came with little mooring to mode or melody until well into the concert, when Lamb started to testify with the blues at his back.

But within the gale force was a softness, expressed especially by Baker, who used nuance and subtlety during much of his alone time. He played the drums by hand for an extended period, creating swing patterns at modest volume. He slapped his thighs, arms and chest, a technique called “hambone”, at an even lower volume. At a whisper, he made his cymbals ring celestially. We listened.

Baker, who turns 80 next year, has led a full life in music. He has recorded extensively with Billy Harper, Matthew Shipp, Henry Grimes and Billy Bang, and has history in music theater, having collaborated with Diedre Murray on multiple projects, including the Obie Award winning, “Running Man”. Other theater credits include work with Ntozake Shange, Leroy Jenkins, Jeanne Lee and Henry Threadgill.

Baker was in Threadgill’s Sextett in the late 1980s. He told me that after getting off the road with Threadgill, his chops would be noticeably better. Reading down complicated drum parts, learning patterns he wouldn’t necessarily have come up with on his own, expanded his vocabulary, which he brought to other situations.

Until he discovered the washboard in 2010, Baker was the quintessential side man. His deep dive into this 19thcentury tool of drudgery gave him an opportunity to organize his own concept. Using expended shotgun shells on four fingers of each hand, customizing the physical instrument and adding microphones, effects pedals, and amplifiers, Baker has extended the washboard language, which he’s used in all manner of jazz, world, blues and new music contexts.

Andrew Lamb is a special individual. He is soft spoken and full of love. His spiritual essence is unassuming, but palpable. His playing felt like a quest, a search for attainment. Tracing a lineage through saxophonists like Charles Gayle, David S. Ware, Frank Lowe and back to Coltrane, Lamb intoned cascading lines of psalm-like notes, playing with energy and feeling.

Growing up in Chicago and Jamaica, Queens, he alluded to being different than most children, and being bullied repeatedly for it. He told me that one of the reasons he loved to play football, was it provided a socially sanctioned way of exacting pay back to his tormentors. Lamb is quick to credit the Creator in liner notes and in conversation, and although he is by no means ascetic, he has a religious air about him that fits him naturally. Now residing in Nyack, NY with his wife, Lamb has forged his spiritual stance through plenty of real world experience.

He has worked steadily, if quietly over the years. He first came to my attention in the mid-1990s with the release of Portrait in the Mist, a wonderful Delmark recording featuring Warren Smith (on vibes), along with Wilber Morris and Andrei Strobert. Subsequent recordings on Engine and NoBusiness Records kept him on my radar. He had a critical reputation but was only peripherally in the public eye, making him a perfect candidate for inclusion on the Jazz Shares schedule.

The joy of being able to provide an appreciative audience, some money and respect to artists like Andrew Lamb and Newman Taylor Baker, is why we do what we do.

Jazz Shares Thanks Its Business Sponsors for this Season
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