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Angola, Spare Standards And A Zooid: New Jazz Albums

Jazz musicians today find profound inspiration in a lot of different places -- and a few of them might surprise you. Plenty of folks thrive in the tight-knit Chicago scene, but some go much further afield, like the Louisiana State Penitentiary, for ideas. And while many find joy in interpreting jazz standards, there are others for whom biological classifications structure new compositions.

Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz recently invited me on the program to talk about jazz. I brought him four new releases from Howard Wiley, Rebecca Martin, Henry Threadgill and the band Herculaneum.

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Howard Wiley

A few years ago, saxophonist Howard Wiley toured the Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola prison. It's a massive complex in the middle of nowhere, on the grounds of four former slave-holding plantations, and it continues to house a disproportionately African-American population stripped of its freedoms. He was so struck by it all that he made a jazz record of some of the old spirituals and other songs he heard there. And now he's written a set of original compositions based on his experience. It's called 12 Gates to the City, and features a cast of musicians he calls The Angola Project: three singers, three bassists, two violinists, plus trumpet, trombone, piano, drums and even a rapper. Somehow, he pulls it all together to create a rich, poignant, black-church-influenced, comfortingly Southern flavor.

Rebecca Martin

Here's a disc of spare music from a vocalist named Rebecca Martin. In the past, she's recorded original songs with her guitar and a larger ensemble, half in a singer-songwriter vein. But this album features only old standards, and only two other musicians: saxophonist Bill McHenry, he of the burnished sound, and acoustic bassist Larry Grenadier, who has a knack for picking out the perfect notes. (Also, Martin's husband.) It's deceivingly difficult, what she's up to here; she's dedicated only to giving this material a great "read," of getting every breath and syllable and pitch and phrase just so. She doesn't scat or improvise, and she doesn't have to. A melody can be a marvel. And when she gets it right -- which she does pretty frequently -- it's exquisite.

Henry Threadgill

A zooid is a single cell that can move independently within a larger organism -- think of a sperm cell, for instance. It's the name of composer Henry Threadgill's band, and it's also an apt descriptor for what its soloists do: They move around on their own trajectories, but collide with the rest of the band frequently enough that the whole thing coheres, somehow. Zooid, the band, features a tuba player who doubles on trombone, a bass guitarist (that's two bass instruments), a guitar player and a drummer. And there's Threadgill, 66, who plays alto saxophone and flute. The jazz world is coming to realize that he's a true idiosyncratic great -- two different box sets of his earlier records came out this year -- and he's still quite active. This is the second album from Zooid in as many years, due out Oct. 26. It staggers and lurches and creates dissonances, and it still brings the mad-scientist funk.


There's always been a happening and innovative jazz scene in Chicago. The young band Herculaneum is based there; some of its members play in rock bands, but they also commit to their "jazz project," too. Happily, it's a good one: perhaps a bit harmonically limited, but full of interesting horn arrangements, happening grooves and freaky improvisation. (Think of Charles Mingus, if he lived in the 21st century and listened to weird rock and Balkan brass bands, too.) Chicago is one of the few places where a band like this might bubble up organically, where its members can cut their teeth in both the tight-knit experimental rock and free-jazz scenes. On Oct. 26, Herculaneum will be four solid albums deep into mining this territory.

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