The best mainstream jazz has thrived on a dynamic balance between old and new – tradition invigorated by innovation. That’s the defining concept of several new releases.
▪ Danya Stephens, a new-generation saxophonist with a warm vintage sound, has made a decidedly old-school album with his latest release “Peace” (Sunnyside Records, $12.98 CD, $9 digital). The 11-tune collection by the former Bay Area resident now based in New York consists of what was once called a “ballad session.”
Greats such as Lester Young, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane all have such albums in their discographies. It’s a confident throwback gesture from someone who over the past 10 years has made his name on the front edge of contemporary jazz. Leading with Horace Silver’s contemplative title, Stephens takes a low-key contemplative approach to melodic classics such as “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” and Dave Brubeck’s “The Duke.”
Stephens plays several different saxophones, but his main instrument is the baritone, and it’s impossible not to think of the great Gerry Mulligan. who often featured himself in minimal settings as Stephens does here in a duet with bassist Larry Grenadier on a restrained “Body and Soul.” Other sympathetic supporting musicians are pianist Brad Mehldau, brilliant young guitarist Julian Lage and drummer Eric Harland.
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Compositions include Henry Mancini’s “Two for the Road,” Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Zingaro” and two Ennio Morricone compositions first recorded for film soundtracks: “Brothers” from the film “The Mission,” for which Stephens brings out his soprano sax; and “Deborah’s Theme” from “Once Upon a Time in America,” where he plays tenor. The record is particularly skillful in diversifying the makeup of players on the tunes often stripping down to duos and trios of varying instrumentation.
▪ Pianist Jason Moran’s “All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller” (Blue Note, $10.19 CD, $9.49 digital) is the always-inventive pianist’s tribute to the great pianist, singer and composer. Waller died in 1943 at 39, but admiration for him and his influence have always been huge in jazz. Waller had a comic’s timing, sly vocal chops and accomplishments as a keyboardist, and his compositions have never gone out of favor with musicians. One can find progressive artists from Chick Corea to Greg Osby still playing his music.
Moran is too relentlessly creative to take on a project like this head-on, and as he collaborates with vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello, who also co-produced the record with Don Was, Waller’s music becomes transformed. The most famous songs are all here, including “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Jitterbug Waltz,” “Your Feet’s Too Big” and “Two Sleepy People” though sometimes just as distant, familiar echoes.
True to Moran’s usual methods, Waller’s music is just the starting point for numerous rhythmic episodes and radically deconstructed departures so that a song such as “This Joint Is Jumping” retains some of its original bounce, but in the end is easily as much Moran’s reflective groove and Ndegeocello’s trademark noir vocals as Waller’s jubilation. Moran has large mutable cast of musicians on hand including his regular trio, The Bandwagon, with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits. Other notables include drummer Charles Haynes, trumpeter Leron Thomas, trombonist Josh Roseman, and vocalist Lisa Harris, who often teams with Ndegeocello.
▪ Annie Lennox’s “Nostalgia” (Island, $13.98 CD, $11.98 digital), her first album in four years and third album of non-original tunes, takes her into the Great Songbook. Though the album hit No. 1 on the Billboard Jazz charts after its September release, Lennox isn’t trying to sing jazz. She’s always been a soul singer in pop clothing, and here the production doesn’t so much open up for her as her voice cleaves through it.
There are songs associated with the distinctive voices such as Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, including “I Cover the Waterfront,” “Strange Fruit,” “God Bless the Child,” “September in the Rain” and “Mood Indigo,” but Lennox has no trouble making them her own in both the supple arrangements and her original performances. One of Lennox’s strengths has been the sincerity of emotion in her powerful voice, and the other is her judicious restraint. There are few voices as glorious as hers.
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120.