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Hear the Latest From Miles Okazaki's Trickster, The Bad Plus, Junius Paul & More, in Take Five

Miles Okazaki’s Trickster, “Lighthouse”

Trickster, a four-piece band led by guitarist Miles Okazaki, is best understood in both cerebral and visceral terms. On the one hand, it’s a delivery system for some proudly intricate and idiosyncratic compositions, the byproduct of a deeply rigorous mind. On the other hand, it’s a go-for-broke quartet, capable of shifting the ground underfoot without ever losing its balance.

After making its formal debut with a self-titled album in 2017, Trickster has a new album called The Sky Below, releasing on Pi Recordings this Friday. The group’s engine is still a deep rhythmic bond between Okazaki, drummer Sean Rickman and electric bassist Anthony Tidd. Matt Mitchell is now in on piano, Fender Rhodes and Prophet-6 synth, replacing Craig Taborn — a change that registers more in the particulars than on the whole.

Okazaki conceived this project with mythology in mind, drawing on trickster figures in ancient literature and lore. On this album he presents a loose narrative arc, drawing especially from seafaring tales. “The Lighthouse” arrives late in this sequence, as a beacon; it’s the track that follows “The Castaway.”

The tune follows a 12/8 rhythmic underlay, with a melody moving trippingly above. In his liner notes, Okazaki dedicates the song to John Coltrane — a telling clue for anyone inclined to hear echoes of the harmonic progression from “Giant Steps.” The notes also include an inscription from playwright Samuel Beckett: “Unfathomable mind, now beacon, now sea.”

Trickster will play an album-release show on Nov. 23, at The Owl in Brooklyn.

The Bad Plus, “The Red Door”

The last time we greeted a studio album by The Bad Plus, continuity was the main item on the agenda. The album, Never Stop II, marked a new chapter for the band, as Orrin Evans took over the piano chair originated by Ethan Iverson.

A little over two years later, things have settled more into a groove. Evans has logged thousands of miles with the band, not only plugging into its matrix but also bringing more of his own personality. These are the conditions under which The Bad Plus created Activate Infinity, which arrives on Edition Records this Friday.

“The Red Door” is a perfect illustration of the distinct personality Evans has brought into the equation. The song doesn’t sound much like anything The Bad Plus recorded in its first iteration; there’s more of an Ahmad Jamal character to its light, staccato melody and jaunty rhythm. But the storm of melodic abstraction that descends, after about a minute and a half, is perfectly true to the band. And if my suspicions are correct, the door in question belongs to The Village Vanguard, where the band has logged countless hours.

The Bad Plus performs on Tuesday and Wednesday at South Jazz Kitchen in Philadelphia; Thursday at Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, N.Y.; and Friday and Saturday at Scullers in Boston.

Junius Paul, “Asé”

Chicago bassist Junius Paul has been a load-bearing pillar for a lot of different bands over the last decade: earlier this month I saw him at the Mondriaan Jazz Festival with The Art Ensemble of Chicago, and I’ve caught him elsewhere with drummer Makaya McCraven, among others. His forthcoming debut, Ism, was produced by McCraven — who applied some of his trademark editing techniques at times, though always in the service of a bandstand sound. It’s an extremely vibrant album that evokes the spirit of hometown haunts like The Velvet Lounge.

“Asé,” the first single from the album, was recorded a few years ago at the Polish Triangle in Chicago’s Wicker Park. Beginning with an unaccompanied bass solo, evoking both a folkloric West African style and the depths of a jazz anchor like Jimmy Garrison, the track moves into ensemble territory with breezy style, before an abrupt ending, as if the needle were being lifted on a record. The trumpeter is a Corey Wilkes, who has often relied on Paul in his own band; on piano is Justin Dillard, and on drums is Vincent Davis. 

Ism will be released on Nov. 22 on International Anthem.

Carmen Sandim, “Waiting For Art”

A lot of jazz listeners are still just getting to know Carmen Sandim, a pianist who originally hails from Brazil but has made her home in Boulder, CO. She released her debut album, Brand New, in 2011 — so she was more than due for a sequel. Titled Play Doh, it arrives on Ropeadope this Friday, and seems certain to raise her profile.

The album was produced by veteran pianist Art Lande, one of Sandim’s mentors — and probably the person alluded to in the title of this tune. Sandim gives the tune an engaging contour, with an ostinato in 7/4 meter and a springlike melodic line, played in close coordination with her guitarist, Khabu Doug Young. Bill McCrossen holds down the groove on bass, and Dru Heller takes an assured drum solo.

Elsewhere on Play Doh, there are cameos by trumpeter Shane Endsley, saxophonist Bruce Williamson and trombonist Alex Heitlinger, among others. Some of these musicians will join Sandim for a release show at Dazzle in Denver, on Thursday.

Najee, “Alfie”

The crossover format that now goes by contemporary jazz — having mostly shed “smooth jazz” except among diehards and holdouts — has long had an exemplar in Najee. At 61, he’s one of the most assured saxophonists on that scene, as well as an impeccable flutist. His new album, Center of the Heart, due out on Shanachie on Nov. 15, presents a varied menu, including a Maxwell cover and several originals. Here is his take on “Alfie,” the Burt Bacharach-Hal David movie theme.

The tune is known in jazz circles, of course, for https://youtu.be/b6BAN0zM0X4">a heroic version by Sonny Rollins — whom Najee, as a product of the Jazzmobile program in New York, met as a kid. There’s hardly a resemblance, though, between that recording and this one. Suave and soulful, it’s a fine showcase for Najee’s arranging for strings, to say nothing of his flute playing, notably in the cadenzas toward the middle and the homestretch. 

Najee performs on Nov. 3 at Santander Performing Arts Centerin Reading, Penn.

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