But Is It Jazz? (Five recent examples of suite sounds.)

I haven’t written much recently about jazz, for many reasons, one of which was the illness and passing of David Fraser, a music publicist – also, in time, a friend – who introduced me to a great deal of marvellous music (and not just jazz). David’s speciality, as far as I was concerned, was ECM (regular readers will know of my admiration for that label), which suited my somewhat broad definitions of jazz, classical and ‘new music’. And it’s genre-busting music I’ll write about about now.

Long before I heard of ECM, I was attracted to music which combined jazz, rock, classical and other forms; my first close encounters with ‘jazz’ had been with the music of Graham Collier and Mike Westbrook; Miles Davis and Gil Evans; John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman; Carla Bley and Mike Mantler. Jazz isn’t solely about improvisation; as Duke Ellington demonstrated, it may also involve complex composition. I love the interplay between structure and spontaneity – an interplay pleasingly in evidence on a several recent releases, all conceived as ‘suites’ but all quite different from one another. 

American composer Jim McNeely’s Rituals (Challenge) takes Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring as its inspirational starting point, with saxophonist Chris Potter as soloist and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band providing excellent accompaniment. Fittingly it’s full of orchestral jazz of enormous energy and invention; the album also finds room for McNeely’s big-band arrangements of four Potter tunes, including the infectiously upbeat The Wheel. You can find the first movement of Rituals here.

American trumpeter Dave Douglas’s Secular Psalms (Greenleaf) also occasionally references earlier music – in this instance renaissance composer Guillaume Dufay – as Douglas and a band of five European musicians perform a ten-part suite commissioned by the city of Ghent to mark the 600th anniversary of Jan Van Eyck’s famous altarpiece. Slightly uneven, it’s nevertheless an undeniably intriguing and interesting piece, notable for its unusual combination of instruments (trumpet, piano, percussion and electronics, but also cello, lute, tuba, pump organ and, here and there, voice). Here is the opening movement, Arrival

A rather different trumpet sound can be heard on Avishai Cohen’s Naked Truth (ECM), a nine-part suite for trumpet, piano, bass and drums. The Tel Aviv-born, New York-based leader (not to be confused with the double bassist of the same name) composed the suite during the first Covid  lockdown, and the results are appropriately spare, haunting and contemplative, at once abstract and lyrical – the kind of ‘chamber jazz’ ECM is famous for, in fact, with excellent contributions from Yonathan Avishai, Barak Mori and Ziv Ravitz. The final movement, in which, to unobtrusive musical accompaniment, Cohen recites a poem, had me wondering whether it wasn’t over-egging the cake a little, since the preceding pieces – part 2, for example – had been so eloquently expressive.

Two other ECM releases are altogether different again. Norwegian pianist Jon Balke has worked in many different formats; one of the most rewarding has been his band Siwan. Halfa is the third album to feature the outfit, and as before Balke’s compositions combine a beautifully imaginative  blend of musical influences, including European baroque music, North African, Middle Eastern and Persian music, and polyrhythmic percussion. The 15-strong international outfit includes Algerian singer Mona Boutchebak – the songs in the suite are settings of poems by Wallada bint al-Mustakfi and Ibn Zaydun, lovers in 11th-century al-Andalus – but what really distinguishes this album are the rich, sensuous, sumptuously detailed and constantly shifting orchestral colours. You can sample a couple of numbers here and here.

Finally – though this won’t be released until 13 May – there is Isabela by another Tel Aviv-born musician living in New York, the saxophonist Ozed Tzur. I listed Tzur’s first ECM release, Here Be Dragons, among my top jazz albums of 2020, and Isabela is equally fine. Tzur studied jazz, Western classical music and Indian classical music, and the last is crucial, since he conceives of his compositions as ragas in terms of structure and harmony; all five tracks on Isabela are developed from the elements that form the musical core of the brief opener, Invocation. Moreover, Tzur not only has a highly distinctive tone but plays microtonally, blurring and bending notes to engaging effect, which renders his sound instantly recognisable. As on Here Be Dragons his quartet consist of pianist Nitai Hershkovits, bassist Petros Klampanis and drummer Johnathan Blake; all impressive in their own right, their interplay is always everything it should be. Indeed, the new album feels, if anything, both more idiosyncratic and more confident than its predecessor, which was marked mostly by slow tempi and a certain restraint; this time out, you feel the band is loosening up, often to exhilarating effect. Here’s one track, The Lion Turtle, to give you some idea of what to expect when the album is released in a few weeks’ time.

But are these albums ‘jazz’? I’d say yes, but who cares anyway. They all proffer terrific music, and the last two, particularly, I strongly recommend. Oh and here is another little clip of the Tzur quartet as an extra treat.

The photograph of the Oded Tzur Quartet at the top is by Caterina di Perri.

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