DAVID AKE, Green Thumb (Posi-Tone Records) — Open spaces and song titles point to an Americana-esque vibe informing the seventh Posi-Tone release from pianist David Ake, who chairs the University of Miami’s musicology department. Green Thumb, something of a musical sibling to 2022’s Slingshot — the two share bassist Boris Koslov and three tunes — opens with the pastoral, decidedly relaxed “Good Afternoon,” one of several pieces benefiting from saxophonist Tony Malaby‘s luxuriant tenor tone. The moody title track, a 16-bar blues with a swiveling melody, is followed by such gems as the unhurried, folk-ish “John Prine,” written by the leader after hearing of the 2020 death of the late singer-songwriter; the Ornette Coleman-inspired “Stu’s News”; the impressionistic “Walker Evans,” named for the noted Depression-era photographer; and solo-piano “Kendee,” for Ake’s wife. I hear strains of Keith Jarrett and George Winston in some of these compositions. For good measure, the quartet, with drummer Rudy Royston ably driving the grooves, also takes on two standards — a reharmonized “All the Things You Are” and a lush “But Beautiful.”
DAVE ASKREN/JEFF BENEDICT, Denver Sessions (Tapestry Records) — For their fourth album as co-leaders, guitarist Dave Askren and saxophonist Jeff Benedict, longtime L.A.-based collaborators, head to Denver and add New York vibraphonist Ted Piltzecker to the mix. The sax-guitar-vibes front line — rare but not unprecedented — makes for a fine and mellow sound applied to an appealing set of modern mainstream music penned by the three aforementioned players. The quintet, driven by the Denver rhythm section of bassist Patrick McDevitt and drummer Paul Romaine, mostly leans into various shades of smartly arranged swing, along with slow minor blues “Ennui, Anyone?” and the Latin tinges of “Marie Adele,” samba “Poised,” bossa “Resilience” and “Rumba Liam.” A mixed-metered, Afro-Latin take on “Stompin’ at the Savoy” — the Benny Goodman version of which was built on a clarinet-vibes-guitar lead — caps the enjoyable affair.
ANTHONY BRANKER & IMAGINE, What Place Can Be For Us? (Origin Records) — Anthony Branker’s 10-movement suite, initially written in response to the forced migration of Syrians during their country’s civil war, also points to the open racism, bigotry and cultural erasure on the rise in America, circa 2023. The ambitious, sprawling song cycle opens with the fusion-edged “The Door of No Return,” its title a reference to the Senegalese site where Africans were captured and forced onto slave ships bound to the New World; the piece is enhanced by Alison Crockett‘s spoken word segments and a repetitive riff that builds in intensity. And the album closes with the turbulent “Placeless,” centered on fiery exchanges between saxophonists Walter Smith III and Remy Le Boeuf and fueled by drummer Donald Edwards‘ creative, jagged-edged propulsion. The long journey from there to here encompasses the melancholy strains of “Sundown Town,” led by trumpeter Philip Dizack and the saxophonists; “I, Too, Sing America,” based on a Langston Hughes poem and again featuring Crockett; the frantic, swirling “Indivisible,” launched by guitarist Pete McCann‘s air-hanging intro; the laidback “We Went Where the Wind Took Us,” enhanced by solos from bassist Linda May Han Oh and pianist Fabian Almazan; and the cycling “Sunken Place,” its title nodding to the themes in Jordan Peele‘s social-conscience horror film “Get Out.” Branker, a Rutgers University jazz prof, has delivered a set of bracing, challenging music that’s simultaneously disturbing and inspiring.
JIM SNIDERO, Far Far Away (Savant Records) — The estimable alto saxophonist and composer reunites with his blue-chip Live at the Deer Head (2021) rhythm section for a fruitful collaboration with a new creative partner, the celebrated guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. The eight tunes, all but two of which penned by Snidero, showcase both players, with the latter turning in a gorgeous unaccompanied intro and typically brilliant solo on a reharmonized “It Might As Well Be Spring.” Throughout, on compositions including twisty, surprising opener “Far Far Away” and the blues-based “Pat,” a tribute to the late, great Pat Martino, the guitarist’s liquid lines intertwine effectively with Snidero’s horn, in a manner a bit reminiscent of Rosenwinkel’s many recordings with tenorist Mark Turner. The group, with pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Joe Farnsworth, also offers a laidback, funk-ish “Obsession,” a beautiful take on McCoy Tyner ballad “Search for Peace” replete with Washington’s exploratory improvisation and a sweetly swinging closer, “Little Falls.”
KENNY BARON, The Source (Artwork Records/[PIAS] — Pianist Kenny Barron, a virtuosic instrumentalist and masterful trio leader, goes it alone — for the first time since 1982’s “At The Piano” — with impressive results on a mix of originals and familiar gems. He aptly taps into the humor and bluesy roots of Thelonious Monk’s “Teo” and a tricked-out “Well You Needn’t,” turns to the Ellington/Strayhorn book for flavorful takes on the swinging “Isfahan” and stately ballad “Daydream,” and offers a jaunty “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You),” first recorded by Fats Waller nearly a century ago. Barron’s own originals are here, too — inventively designed approachs to the dizzying “What If,” pretty “Dolores Street, SF,” moody “Sunshower” and enigmatic “Phantoms.”
Philip Booth writes about music for JazzTimes, Jazziz and Relix. His byline has also appeared in The Washington Post, DownBeat, Variety, Billboard, Rolling Stone, Salon.com, Boston Globe, CMJ New Music Monthly, the Tampa Tribune, St. Petersburg Times/Tampa Bay Times and many other publications.