july 2020 critique
Photo by Rahav Segev
Dayna Stephens Trio Liberty

Dayna Stephens Trio Liberty

The leader/tenor saxophonist, bassist Ben Street, and MVP jazz drummer ERIC HARLAND succeed brilliantly in a challenging chord-less format.

Eric Harland is frequently praised for his inventive orchestrations and interplay, among other myriad talents; this beautifully recorded minimal setting of sax, bass, and drums offers an exposed clarity that brings those virtues to the foreground. Approaching the kit as a balanced single instrument, Harland exhibits a pulse that’s firm but subtle, while also avoiding ride cymbal dependency. On “Kwooked Stweet,” his canvas of fluid, swirling swing conveys the sweep of a larger ensemble. In contrast, “The Lost and Found” is colored by his slow, slinky, hip-hop-ish backbeat, threaded with 16ths that alternate between snare ghosting, varied hi-hat attacks, and rim taps, all buttered with rolling dynamics. Harland is utterly without cliché, using the music’s wide spaces for promoting collaborative ideas rather than filler. It’s jazz drumming in the truest sense: artfully embracing liberty.

(Contagious Music) Jeff Potter

Rudresh Mahanthappa Hero Trio

Rudresh Mahanthappa Hero Trio

With his vast expressive palette, jazz drummer RUDY ROYSTON responds unpredictably to whatever comes his way. If you prefer the full-throttle side of his drumming, this is the disc for you.

On Hero Trio, alto sax star Rudresh Mahanthappa admirably tackles the challenging sax/bass/drums format and—in a first—focuses on cover tunes in a tribute to his musical heroes. Some of those influences are obvious, including Charlie Parker and Coltrane. Others are not, notably his childhood introduction to Stevie Wonder and Johnny Cash via Sesame Street. The fierce saxophonist fascinates with his improvisatory jags, rapid cascading runs, and edgy pressure cooker sound. Joined by bassist François Moutin, drummer Rudy Royston responds in kind with his own fearless, across-the-kit propulsive flurries. There are gentler moments, as in “Sadness,” when the drummer tempers the mood with time-stretching textural comment. But such catch-your-breath moments are brief within this potent scorcher.

(Whirlwind Recordings) Jeff Potter


Jonathan Barber & Vision Ahead  Legacy Holder

Jonathan Barber & Vision Ahead Legacy Holder

Thirty-year-old drummer/composer Jonathan Barber’s previous album, Vision Ahead, was noticeable for its solid compositions and mature drumming. Legacy Holder strides further, with Barber’s fusion-leaning compositions and arrangements equaling his kinetic drumming.

Multiple listens are required to grasp Legacy Holder’s scope. Throughout, Barber’s drumming pops and scalds, swings and stings, in a personal style with a nod to Tony Williams. Though his touch on the drums and cymbals is light and dance-like, Barber consistently burns at low simmer.

Barber’s full-set soloing concept and well-developed technique fills “Major”; he propels through-composed “29” with low-level, machine gun-like sticking (including a blistering, meter-twisting solo); apes heavy metal with the 4/4 swagger of “Son of Hartford”; and reveals compositional gifts with the Brazil-tinted “The Call.” An album of subtlety and fire—more cerebral than stoner, more an inner world journey than an outward performance display—Legacy Holder retains its hypnotic spell for repeated plays.

(Vision Ahead Music) Ken Micallef

Brian Andres Trio Latino Mayan Suite

Brian Andres Trio Latino Mayan Suite

A high-energy set of progressive Afro-Caribbean rhythms, jazz, and shades of funk.

Brian Andres has led the Afro-Cuban Jazz Cartel since 2007, a fiery unit featuring some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s finest Latin-jazz instrumentalists. Here the drummer enlists the Cartel’s core, bassist Aaron Germain and pianist Christian Tumalan, for a trio setting offering greater stretching room. The trio finds influence from Chick Corea, as acknowledged by two cover selections including an arrangement of “Got a Match?” that’s slyly peppered with quotes from the pianist’s classics. Andres excels when things get aggressive, attacking the oft-complex tunes with staccato accuracy while integrating his vigorous kit grooves with cowbell and woodblock. He also wields his impressive technique with a lighter, breathing touch when needed, as on “Higashi Nakano,” and shows minimal restraint in the brushwork of “Si Tu Vez.” A bronco ride of dazzling chops, uplifting melodies, and zestful groove.

(Bacalao Records) Jeff Potter

Sunny Jain Wild Wild East

Sunny Jain Wild Wild East

The son of Punjabi parents who emigrated to the U.S. in 1970, drummer-composer Sunny Jain is himself a global traveler, his forward-looking music grafted from many musical strains, with rhythm at its heart. Whether signaling Bollywood beats, hip-hop raps, or the soundtracks of Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, Jain makes everything fire and flow, roll and combust. His drumming is never static or simply “in the pocket”; it’s in constant go mode: rolls rattling, beats careening, grooves always pressing, pushing for ecstatic release. The swelling movements and near tidal shifts of Indian classical permeate Wild Wild East, even when psychedelic electric guitar (“Bhaagi”), 3/4 jazz waltz (“Hai Apna Dil to Aawara”), or funky floor tom beats (“Brooklyn Dhamal”) imply a specific direction. It can all get a bit campy and dayglow colored, but Jain’s overarching view to create a true pan-global music supported by native Indian music and colored with cowboy allusions is unique.

(Smithsonian Folkways) Ken Micallef

Other Drummer-Leds to Check Out

Jay Rosen and Brian Willson The Mystery Brothers /// Jason Tiemann T-Man /// Giuseppe Paradiso Meridian 71 Metropolitan Sketches /// Rob Silverman Drumology /// Paul Shaw Quintet Moment of Clarity /// Greg Essig Numb /// Sammy Miller and the Congregation Leaving Egypt /// Mark Segger Sextet Lift Off /// Jacek Kochan & musiConspiracy Occupational Hazard


Levon by Sandra B. Tooze

Levon: From Down in the Delta to the Birth of the Band and Beyond by Sandra B. Tooze

A measured, satisfying portrait of a musician with a complex relationship with his own legacy.

Refreshingly, Levon: From Down in the Delta to the Birth of the Band and Beyond does not take sides in the battle royal between the competing narratives surrounding the dissolution of the Band. Unlike Levon Helm’s gripping 1993 memoir, This Wheel’s on Fire, author Sandra B. Tooze succeeds in reinforcing all the threads that make up the tapestry of the late drummer’s creative life, even adding some previously unknown and forgotten periods to the record. One in particular is a fascinating reconstruction of Helm’s late-’90s career low ebb, when he toured widely with a Poughkeepsie bar band. At the same time, his triumphs are rendered with a sensitivity and detail rare in rock biographies. Levon receives the attention here that his profound contribution to American-roots music deserves. Tooze pays particular attention to the technical side of Helm’s playing, and her insights into Levon’s approaches to tuning and muffling can be carried away from the book into your own studio. This is an essential read for fans of the Band and beyond.

($28.79, Diversion Books) John Colpitts