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Universal Truths and Heated Dialogue From Marquis Hill, Rez Abbasi, Eric Alexander, More

Sarah Escarraz
Marquis Hill

Marquis Hill, “Coming Out Of The Universe”

Marquis Hill emerged as a clarion new voice on trumpet several years ago, and then proved himself a great bandleader besides, at the helm of a group he calls the Blacktet. Originally from Chicago and now an adopted New Yorker, Hill has just announced a new EP, Meditation Tape, due out on Dec. 1. Featuring regular partners like drummer Makaya McCraven and bassist Junius Paul, the new music coasts on a cosmic-Afrocentric plane. Consider the lead single, which premieres here — a blissed-out groove odyssey that turns out to be the framework for some wisdom from an elder, the drummer Marvin “Bugalu” Smith. “I believe that the universe is reading your emotional content, and it responds to that,” he says. “The universe and us are the same.”

Rez Abbasi, “Disagree to Agree”

Guitarist Rez Abbasi, born in Pakistan and raised in Southern California, brings an open-border fluidity to his music without forsaking any aspect of his roots. You may have heard him on Agrima, the excellent recent album by Indo-Pak Coalition, which otherwise consists of Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto saxophone and Dan Weiss on drumset and tabla. Abbasi’s new solo album, Unfiltered Universe, features those insightful partners along with bassist Johannes Weidenmueller and pianist Vijay Iyer. The album is the third in a trilogy that explores South Asian musical traditions, and this time the focus falls on the Carnatic systems of South India, a driving preoccupation for Mahanthappa and Iyer. Listen to the sweep of “Disagree to Agree,” a track whose title refers to our current cultural moment, and you’ll understand how deep those traditions flow — and how deftly they can yet be remade, with the proper foundation of respect.

Eric Alexander, “But Here’s the Thing”


You probably know tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander as a hard-bop hero, most at home swinging down the center lane in impeccable form. His new album on HighNote, Song of No Regrets, doesn’t radically alter that calculus. But it’s notable for the enthusiastic embrace of Afro-Latin rhythm, and the related role played by percussionist Alex Díaz. The album’s opening track, “But Here’s the Thing,” also features guest trumpeter Jon Faddis, over a theme that suggests the midcentury jazz mambos of Tito Puente. Besides Díaz, the rhythm section comprises the David Hazeltine Trio, and there’s nothing lacking in its execution.

Deanna Witkowski, “Hyfrydol (Love Divine, All Loves Excelling)”

Sacred music has been a deep wellspring for pianist Deanna Witkowski. Her new album, Makes the Heart to Sing: Jazz Hymns, is an elegant and thoughtful exploration of Protestant church music, arranged for jazz trio.


There’s a certain frisson in hearing these themes reinvented, for anyone who knows them well: I grew up singing the Charles Wesley hymn “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” in Episcopal school, never knowing that the melody originates with “Hyfrydol,” by the Welsh composer Rowland Prichard. But even someone with no formative history in a straight-backed pew should be able to appreciate the sparkle of Witkowski’s playing, and her chemistry with drummer Scott Latzky and bassist Daniel Foose. (She’ll perform a solo piano Jazz Vespers service on Nov. 19, at First Presbyterian Church in Rahway, N.J.)

Butcher Brown, “Cairo”

Groove is more than a priority for Butcher Brown, a five-piece band out of Richmond, Va. — it’s the raison d’être, the Alpha and Omega, the question and the answer. I’ve heard the band on record and in person, taking away the conviction that it never sounds better than in the presence of a clamoring crowd. 

“Cairo” gives us those exact conditions. It’s one of the early singles from Live at Vagabond, due out on Gearbox Records this Friday, and it captures the band in a good steroidal-funk flow. Don’t miss the sly nod to Headhunters’ “Chameleon,” just before the minute mark — and don’t sleep on the beat science dropped by drummer Corey Fonville, who’s also known for his gig with Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah. As for the synth solo, by Devonne Harris, and the guitar solo, by Morgan Burrs? To borrow a term from the musicological lexicon: totally sick.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.