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The Wu-Tang Clan in Take Five? We Have Michael Leonhart to Thank For That

Also: new music by Al Foster, Jeremy Udden, Aaron Novik and Keiko Matsui.

Michael Leonhart Orchestra, “Shimmy Shimmy Ya/Glaciers of Ice”

Almost precisely one year ago, the Michael Leonhart Orchestra played a two-nighter at the Jazz Standard in Manhattan to celebrate the release of The Painted Lady Suite. But that beautifully evocative album provided just one frame of reference for the gig. At one point Leonhart, trumpet pressed to his lips, paraded members of the band around the room — an instant joy-bomb. It was no surprise (not to me, at least) when I included the show on my best of 2018.

Elsewhere in the set, Leonhart announced what he called “our Wu-Tang Suite.” What followed was a punchy medley of hits by members of the Wu-Tang Clan, the indomitable Staten Island hip-hop crew. Among them: “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” and “Glaciers of Ice,” conjoined just as they are in this exclusive premiere. It’s the first single from the Michael Leonhart Orchestra’s Suite Extracts Vol. I, an album of covers due on Sunnyside on Aug. 30.

This medley isn’t just a case in point; it’s also a love letter to RZA, the first among equals in the Wu-Tang Clan, who produced the original tracks. Leonhart evokes the swagger of those singles while delving back to RZA’s source material. For example, “https://youtu.be/WQJ2_T24JqY">Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” a single from Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s 1995 solo debut, was built around a sample of “I Like It,” by The Emotions. “https://youtu.be/EwakmiKoGUo">Glaciers of Ice” — from Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, also released in ’95 — incorporates samples of tracks by Booker T. & the M.G.s, KGB, and Patti LaBelle.

Suite Extracts Vol. I also has versions of two more RZA productions: GZA’s “Liquid Swords” and the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Da Mystery of Chessboxin.” But the album — which features guest turns by guitarists Nels Cline and saxophonists Chris Potter and Donny McCaslin, among others — isn’t just a Wu-Tang affair. Leonhart also offers his take on songs by blues legend Howlin’ Wolf, Afrobeat king Fela Kuti, and free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman. Also, yes, Spinal Tap. (Conoisseurs will not want to miss his medley of “Jazz Odyssey” and “Lick My Love Pump.”)

I wasn’t the only person impressed by the MLO at the Jazz Standard that evening last summer; the club immediately offered Leonhart a monthly residency. The next appearance will be Tuesday, July 16, and you’d best make your reservations now.

Al Foster, “Ooh, What You Do to Me”

As its title suggests, Inspirations & Dedications, the robust new album by Al Foster, is a collection of musical tributes — songs for family members, band members, former mentors and peers. Foster, at 76, has amassed a lot of those over the course of his distinguished career. He’s still in top form as a drummer and bandleader, as he demonstrates here with a quintet that features trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, saxophonist Dayna Stephens, pianist Adam Birnbaum and bassist Doug Weiss.

Among the Foster originals on the album are songs he dedicates to his wife, his late son, Miles Davis and Doug Weiss. “Ooh, What You Do to Me” is one of the few tracks that doesn’t make its inspiration explicit. The song — no relation to Mary J. Blige’s “Ooh!” (in case you were wondering) — first appeared on a 2012 album called Three of a Mind, with Foster, Birnbaum and Weiss. Its reappearance here is a winning turn, and not just for the spirited solos by an A-list front line.

Inspirations & Dedications is available now on Smoke Sessions Records.

Aaron Novik, “Part 2 (O+O+)”

Aaron Novik is a clarinetist originally from San Francisco Bay Area, where he worked in a busy range of settings. Now based in Queens, he’s a regular collaborator of guitarist Fred Frith, and part of the experimental community that records for Tzadik Records. His forthcoming album, The Fallow Curve of the Planosphere, will be released on July 19.

A portion of the album features Novik’s Rotterdam suite, composed during a visit to that city. “The piano in the Rotterdam apartment I stayed in inspired the sad, Satie-like calm of that music,” he says. You can hear what he means on “Part 2 (O+O+),” which has an air of introspection even as it accumulates layers of complex ensemble interplay. The personnel of O+O+ (pronounced “ought-ought”) includes Matt Nelson on tenor saxophone, Evan Francis on flute, Michael Coleman on piano, Mark Clifford on vibraphone, Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Tim Bulkley on drums.

Novik will be in residence at The Stone next week, July 16 through 20; a modified O+O+ lineup performs on July 18.

Jeremy Udden, “Azure”

The saxophonist Jeremy Udden has always balanced contemporary flair with a studious footing in the jazz tradition — and that balance finds elegant expression on his new album, Three in Paris. Recorded last summer with Nicolas Moreaux on bass and veteran John Betsch on drums, it serves as a tribute to the late soprano saxophone guru Steve Lacy, one of Udden’s mentors. Several of the tunes on the album are Lacy originals, including “The Crust” and “Prayer.”

“Azure” is a striking Duke Ellington composition, best known not only for its original 1937 recording but also for multiple versions made with Ella Fitzgerald. It was also a regular part of Lacy’s repertory with pianist Mal Waldron. (They recorded it on the 1987 Soul Note album Sempre Amore.) Betsch sets the stage for this version, which moves in a jaunty cadence but with plenty of room for Udden to evoke the lurking melancholy in the melody.

Three in Paris is available from Sunnyside and on Udden’s Bandcamp page.

Keiko Matsui, “Casablanca”

Keiko Matsui, the contemporary-jazz stalwart, has lately been on tour in support of Echo, an album well laden with featured guests. Her set lists, of course, also draw from earlier releases — like Journey to the Heart, which included a flamenco-tinged piece titled “Casablanca,” seen here in footage from an intimate session.


The ensemble includes JP Mourāo on acoustic guitar, Rico Belled on acoustic bass guitar and Jimmy Branly on cajón. Matsui begins the tune on melodica, and solos first on that instrument before switching to electric piano. (Listen for flickers of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in both solos.) There’s an admirable cohesion in the band, especially after a dynamic guitar solo by Mourão, as the intricacies in the arrangement spiral to a climax.

Keiko Matsui performs at the Elmira Jazz Festival on Aug. 9, and at Sony Hall in New York City on Aug. 10; for more tour dates, visit her website.

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