At the rate things are going in the U.S., we may very well be locked down again here soon; as it is, we’re being banned from travel to EU countries, and even recommended to self quarantine for interstate travel to certain places. So I guess the best thing to do is something you enjoy alone, or with a couple of other people with whom you’re close- for me, that means listening to some good music. Stay safe, and do the right thing, people!
This is the second of three articles under the ‘Social Listening’ title; got one more coming in about 7-10 days, spotlighting some newer Pop releases. For this post, got some new Jazz releases, starting with the latest from Norah Jones, then a new project from bassist Michael Olatuja, and lastly, the latest from trumpeter Ambrose Akimusire.
OK… let me say this right off the bat… before someone comments that Pick Me Up Off the Floor, the latest album from Norah Jones isn’t really that jazzy at all… you gotta listen to it… really LISTEN to it! It finds her in typical hybrid Roots/Pop/Country/Jazz/Folk mode, which means the songs have elements of all of them, recording on the legendary jazz label Blue Note. I consider her to be a bookend of fellow hybrid-ist Lizz Wright, who also is based in Jazz, but dabbles all over the place, and records for a traditional Jazz label. This release follows up her mini-album Begin Again from last year.
Essentially, this album picks up where the last one left off- that one was a collection of one-off tracks with somewhat different styles, producers, etc.; this is a set of additional tracks from the sessions that produced that album. The mood here is a little dark, but also soothing and uplifting (hence the album title), with several songs of heartbreak and loneliness, regret, betrayal, and growing apart. “This Life” seems to be the perfect song for a pandemic…”This life as we know it is over…”, while “To Live” which is about being in love, could also be a call for social justice… “To live in this moment / and finally be free / is what I was after…” Among her collaborators is Jeff Tweedy, who’s helped revive and extend the career of Mavis Staples; he appears on “I’m Alive“, a track about the resilience of the female spirit, and the beautifully languid album closer “Heaven Above“. When I said earlier that you have to listen to the music, you come to realize that whether the style is front porch Folk & Country, sophisti-Pop, or loungey and bluesy, it is all kinda filtered through a Jazz lens, and invariably, the Jazz seeps through; the fact that she can combine these elements effortlessly is remarkable.
Pick Me Up from the Floor is everything you would want and expect from Norah, and it doesn’t disappoint – it’s especially impressive given the cohesiveness of what was a bunch of spare parts- ultimately, it’s Norah at her best. Here is the video for “I’m Alive“…
The goal for bassist Michael Olatuja on his third album Lagos Pepper Soup was to fuse Afrobeat with Jazz, and make it sound like the soundtrack to a Hollywood film. After all, he was part of the orchestra for the Broadway adaptation of Disney’s Frozen, and has worked as a sideman for some very high profile artists in the Jazz and Afrobeat worlds. On this album, the London-born, Lagos, Nigeria-raised artist currently based in New York City invited some of the artists he’s previously worked with to contribute to his latest project.
And what an impressive group of guests he assembled, including veteran vocalists Angelique Kidjo, who lends her talents to the title track, and Dianne Reeves on “Soki” (both are joined by Lionel Loueke on their tracks); British vocalist Laura Mvula (“Brighter Day“), and instrumentalists including saxman Joe Lovano (“Leye’s Dance“), harpist Brandee Younger (“Ma Foya“), and violinist extraordinaire Regina Carter (“The Hero’s Journey“). On “Home True“, British pianist Robert Mitchell and vocalist Becca Stevens combine for a splendid odd time signature track, of which I was particularly impressed, and Olatuja opens and closes the album with spiritual pieces, “Even Now Prayer” and “Grace“. As for Olatuja and his bass, he shows off tremendous skill on the five-string electric… bass is still somewhat of an odd instrument for a bandleader, but as Esperanza Spaulding and Christian McBride (still the standard, in my book) can attest, it can be done.
At the very end of Coming to America, one of the barbershop characters played by Eddie Murphy asked if you tasted the soup; I’ll ask anyone hungry for some great music to taste this soup- it’s good for the soul, and it’s filling – Olatuja fulfilled his goal. Here is the video for “The Hero’s Journey“…
The sixth album for 38 year old Oakland native Ambrose Akinmusire (that’s “ah ken MOO sir ee”) is the abstractly-titled on the tender spot of every calloused moment; this is his fifth album for Blue Note, and sixth overall, following up 2018’s Origami Harvest. Outside of the Jazz world, the trumpeter may be best remembered for his appearance on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, on the final track “Mortal Man“.
The first thing you’d want to know about Akinmusire is that he is a student of the avant-garde Jazz outfit The Art Ensemble of Chicago, and what that’ll mean for many is that this ain’t no champagne- sipping Boney James – style Jazz – some of this here is challenging music for some ears to take in, and they may not be ready for it. The pieces that will challenge the most are the set opener “Tide of Hyacinth“, and “Mr. Roscoe (consider the simultaneous)“, which was named for Roscoe Mitchell from TAEC, and “An interlude (that get’ more intense)“, of which the latter two remind me somewhat of Quintet-era Miles. The album title is a subtitle for “Roy“, a tribute to the late Roy Hargrove; elsewhere, he titles a trio of tracks to symbolize the condition of the African-American spirit: “reset (quiet victories & celebrated defeats)“, “Blues (we measure the heart with a fist)“, and the funereal “Hooded procession (read the names aloud)” are all introspective numbers – never heard protest music sound like this before! The rest of Akinmusire’s quartet is a tight ensemble, and it has to be, in order to work as a cohesive unit with its’ leader.
You’ll reward yourself if you take a seat, and take a listen to this project; switch out the champagne, though, for some brown spirit… this is a nice set… No video is available for any of the tracks, but you can enjoy the audio for perhaps the sexy track on the album (or as close as it gets to one), “Yessss“…