Here’s what I’ve been listening to over the past several weeks.
Ravi Coltrane, Blending Times (Savoy Records) and Joshua Redman, Compass (Nonesuch): Coincidental near-simultaneous releases by two saxophonists whose life stories have intriguing surface similarities: Each is the son of a ’60s saxophone hero (John Coltrane, whom you know, and Dewey Redman, whom you should; start with Ornette Coleman’s New York is Now! sessions and many dates by Keith Jarrett’s 1970s “American Quartet”). Each was raised by his mother, Ravi because Trane died before he turned 3, Josh because Dewey Redman wasn’t always around. Each reveres his father’s work (and the other guy’s father’s work too) but both have grown up at a healthy objective distance from the weight of their fathers’ legacy.
With their latest CDs, both have turned in what are easily career-best performances. Josh can be glib (indeed, infuriating), but it’s always been obvious he’s an exceedingly clever improviser with a relaxed, vernacular approach to interaction with a rhythm section. Here his central victory is simply that he’s no longer trying so hard to please. For years he’s affected all sorts of, well, affectations to demonstrate he’s With The People: pop drum beats at times, timid use of notice-me electronics at others, endless screaming high notes at the end of too many solos. There’s none of that in this stripped-down but satisfying set of originals with two bassists and two drummers, deployed in a variety of combinations from trio to chordless quintet. Redman plays inward, toward his colleagues (who include Brian Blade and Larry Grenadier) instead of outward toward an audience he’s tempted to talk down to. The results are still witty, bluesy and joyful, but in their understated elegance they leave all his worst habits far behind.
Coltrane’s own occasional weakness can be a tendency to abstract much of the heart out of his playing. Here, I think largely because he’s surrounded by a true working quartet that he’s grown comfortable with, he shows more heart than before. The opening track owes a lot to that ’70s Keith Jarrett quartet in its flowing, allusive lyricism. The rest nods to John Coltrane and to Branford Marsalis’s quartets, but only incidentally. Mostly it sounds like Ravi and his musicians have been listening to one another and following the implication of their styles to logical, but deeply felt, conclusions. The album’s closer, For Turiya, features harp — the instrument his mother, Alice Coltrane, played — and is a lovely, showstopping tribute to the other parent Ravi Coltrane won’t forget.
Roberto Occhipinti, A Bend in the River (Alma Records Modica Music): The Toronto bassist, a stalwart in Jane Bunnett’s band, emailed me in September and asked whether I’d like to write the liner notes for his new CD. Of course I would (I’m a fan) but there was an election on, and time got away from us, and so he just put the album out. What I’d have written is that Occhipinti continues to stand so far out from the Toronto pack that he is in his own category. Not because there aren’t jazz musicians as fine as him, of course there are, but because I know of none who put so much care and ambition into every record they make. Here Occhipinti uses a lush but smartly-deployed string orchestra to back a band of Cubans (David Virelles on piano, Dafnis Prieto on drums, and Luis Deniz, who is new to me but very strong on alto sax) on a set of tunes with very few references to Cuban music. Instead there’s confident, tuneful straight-ahead jazz, thoroughly conceived and impeccably organized without losing any of its spontaneity.
David Lang, Pierced (Naxos). The Manhattan composer won the Pulitzer for music last year for his eerie little vocal work The Little Match Girl Passion (a CD will be released in the spring, but in the meantime you can hear its Carnegie Hall debut in its entirety here). Naxos spotted an occasion to release some of Lang’s other recent works, which are solidly in the New York City “Downtown” tradition — a mix of (mostly tonal and indeed tuneful) classical traditions with (mostly punk and alternative) pop influences. A less regimented Philip Glass, or a more sombre Nico Muhly, perhaps. Pierced doesn’t really hang together as an album but it’s a nice quick survey of the facets of a distinctive musical personality. And one track has fascinated me for two weeks now: a setting of Lou Reed’s lyrics to “Heroin,” with a new melody and structure, sung by Theo Bleckmann over a lone woozy cello. Lou Reed fans will be disoriented — there’s no trace of the original song, except the lyrics — but the result is haunting.
U2, No Line on the Horizon (Universal/Island): This is Larry Mullen’s album the way The Joshua Tree was the Edge’s, which means it’s only sort of Larry Mulen’s album but I think that view from the drum kit is a handy perspective: No Line is concerned with rhythm and texture more than with ringing guitar arpeggios or with some of the weakest lyrics on any U2 album. If I say its swirling electronic undercurrents make it a little like Pop, will you believe I mean that as a compliment? At least this isn’t a repeat of the grand-gesture pop craftsmanship of the last two records, which were wonderful, but a third like them would have made it seem the band was giving up on surprise. This is no revolution, but it’s worthy.