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Take Five: Bold New Music by Michael Mayo, Kurt Elling, Gerald Cleaver & Julian Lage

Michael Mayo, "Stolen Moments"

There's a beautifully slippery quality to the musicality of Michael Mayo. I mean that not in genre terms, though it's true that jazz bleeds into R&B, alternative soul and indie-pop on Bones, Mayo's radiant full-length debut. What I'm referring to is a flexibility of vocal expression so evolved that it seems to border on liquidity; like one of his obvious heroes, Bobby McFerrin, Mayo wields a human voice in ingenious and surprising ways. Bones also finds Mayo exploring themes related to his identity, as a Black bisexual jazz artist with few readily available role models; in certain respects, it's a Song of Himself.

Michael Mayo - Stolen Moments (Official Visualizer)

The album, produced by Eli Wolf, often features Mayo at the helm of a band with Andrew Freedman on keyboards, Nick Campbell on bass and Robin Baytas on drums. But at times — as on "Stolen Moments," which bears only a titular relation to the Oliver Nelson tune — Mayo uses overdubs and electronics to create an a cappella canvas.

"I recorded 'Stolen Moments' all at home right after moving into my new apartment," he tells WBGO. "I was having a lot of emotions that were hard to put into words but that still felt important to capture somehow. This song came out of that. It's about zooming in to those little in between moments that slip through our grasp and just existing in them."

Bones is available now on Mack Avenue Records.

Kurt Elling, "Sassy"

Speaking of jazz singers who can't be contained in any frame, Kurt Elling just announced a new album, SuperBlue, made in collaboration with guitarist Charlie Hunter. Due out on Edition Records on Oct. 8, it's a product of the pandemic, in the sense that its creation took place over a distance — with Hunter laying rhythm tracks in Richmond, Va. alongside bassist/keyboardist DJ Harrison and drummer Corey Fonville of Butcher Brown, with Elling's contribution coming later.


The first single is an earthy new take on "Sassy" — a Manhattan Transfer song that won the first Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Performance in 1992. Elling lightly modifies Cheryl Bentyne and Janis Siegel's lyrics, which pay homage to the early talent and determination of Sarah Vaughan. "She became a living legend from songs she redefined," he sings, full-throated, leaning into the groove.

SuperBlue will be released on Oct. 8 on Edition; preorder here.

Julian Lage, "Familiar Flower"

If you've been following the career of guitarist Julian Lage for any length of time, you know him to be an ingenious musical polyglot — at home in seemingly any language, and capable of internalizing endless nuances of tone and syntax while invariably sounding like himself. On Squint, his appealing new Blue Note debut, that yields a bouquet of styles, including the lyrical tang of Ornette Coleman on "Familiar Flower."

Julian Lage - Familiar Flower (Official Video)

Lage's trio on Squint features a longtime compatriot, bassist Jorge Roeder, and a newer associate, drummer Dave King. This same unit released an album on Mack Avenue in 2019, titled Love Hurts. And whereas the first single from the new album — "Saint Rose," which we featured in March — rides an easy backbeat groove, "Familiar Flower" swings with near-abandon, and a freewheeling joy that comes across clearly here.

Squint will be released on June 11; preorder here.

Alex Sipiagin, "Upstream"

The unflappable Russian trumpeter Alex Sipiagin spent three decades on the scene in New York, becoming a first-call sideman and a well-regarded bandleader. He recently left the city, first for Singapore and then Italy, which would seem to make his new album, Upstream, a farewell to an era. Recently released on Posi-Tone Records — and featuring the label's stalwart rhythm section of pianist Art Hirahara, bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Rudy Royston — it finds Sipiagin on the edge but on solid ground.


The title track is a case in point, with its buzzing intensity and plunging 7/8 groove. Sipiagin, whose trumpet solo is a true bravura turn, drew inspiration from a folk song inspired in turn by a famous Russian painting. It's a reminder of the cultural identity that he carries wherever the wind takes him. "Every journey of mine has raised my music to a different level," he writes in his liner notes. "This album is a tribute to this journey."

Upstream is available now on Posi-Tone Records.

Gerald Cleaver, "Virelles (Featuring David Virelles)"

Last year, when drummer Gerald Cleaver released his first solo electronic album, Signs, we featured a track in Take Five. Now Cleaver has dropped a follow-up, Griots, which only deepens his inquiry. Just out on 577 Records, it's a nod to his Detroit roots as well as a statement of community — a fact that becomes clearer when you eye the track list, featuring titles like "Geri Allen" and "William Parker" and "Cooper-Moore."

"Virelles (Featuring David Virelles)" enlists its namesake keyboardist as a fearless improvising partner. (The same is true on a track titled "Akinmusire," after trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire.) Like Cleaver, Virelles has a true understanding of electronic music in an experimental context; their bond together here is sleek and sure.

Griots is available now on 577 Records.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.