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Take Five: Jen Shyu, Damon Locks, James Brandon Lewis, Alexa Tarantino, Roxana Amed

Jen Shyu, "Living's a Gift | Part 3: My Unsolved Regrets"

Zero Grasses: Ritual For the Losses is the latest artistic statement from Jen Shyu, a vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and composer with the blazing heart of an artist and the curious mind of an ethnographer. It seems unlikely that we'll encounter another album this year with a more striking balance of formal invention and personal revelation.

One of the losses ritualized in Shyu's album title refers to her father, who died in 2019. Another is poignantly realized on "Lament for Breonna Taylor." And on a suite in four parts titled "Living's a Gift," Shyu incorporates lyrics composed by middle school students, describing the surreal privations of their pandemic experience.

The band on 'Zero Grasses: Ritual For the Losses': Dan Weiss, Jen Shyu, Thomas Morgan, Mat Maneri, Ambrose Akinmusire.
Pi Recordings
The band on 'Zero Grasses: Ritual For the Losses': Dan Weiss, Jen Shyu, Thomas Morgan, Mat Maneri, Ambrose Akinmusire.

The third movement, bearing the subtitle "My Unsolved Regrets," captures the relatable agitation of lockdown: "Cooped up in this cement cage / Fills me with deep-seated rage / I miss natural sunlight / And going outside at midnight."

Shyu sings these lines — and others, both heartbreaking and humorous —  with clear projection, in a multi-tracked chorus. Her ensemble is composed of some of our most attentive improvising artists: Mat Maneri on viola, Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Thomas Morgan on bass and Dan Weiss on drums. Together they probe this shifting emotional landscape, always careful to follow Shyu's dauntless lead.

Zero Grasses: Ritual For the Losses releases on April 23 on Pi Recordings, preorder here.

James Brandon Lewis' Red Lily Quartet, "Chemurgy"

Chemurgy, an early-20th century innovation, was the concept of repurposing raw agricultural materials in industrial products — perhaps best exemplified by the Ford Motor Company's use of soybeans and hemp in its automotive line. Henry Ford developed this initiative in close consultation with the Father of Chemurgy: George Washington Carver, an agricultural inventor at the Tuskegee Institute, and the most prominent African American scientist of the age.

Tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis pays homage to Carver's pioneering legacy on Jesup Wagon, an album due out on TAO Forms on May 7. "Chemurgy," one of two tracks released in advance, captures the organic quality of the album and its resident all-star band: the Red Lily Quintet, featuring Lewis alongside cornetist Kirk Knuffke, with cellist Christopher Hoffman, bassist William Parker and drummer Chad Taylor. Note how the song's plaintive folk melody, an Ornette Coleman-esque theme played in unison by the horns, yields to calmly exploratory improvisations, solo and in tandem.

Jesup Wagon will be released on May 7 on TAO Forms; preorder here.

Damon Locks - Black Monument Ensemble, "NOW (Forever Momentary Space)"

NOW is the simply stated title of the new album by Chicago creative polymath Damon Locks and his Black Monument Ensemble. It's a small word, but rendered in all caps, and rigged with powerful implications. Locks created the album last summer, during a rolling wave of protests against racial violence and injustice; any distant resemblance to an antecedent like Max Roach's We Insist! Freedom Now Suite feels fully intentional.

Damon Locks - Black Monument Ensemble - "NOW (Forever Momentary Space)"

The album's opener and title track gathers a handful of sonic elements — Angel Bat Dawid's clarinet, Arif Smith's African hand percussion, Smith's collage of ambient samples, a harmonizing vocal choir — to present a layered vision of utopian uplift amidst the chaos. Near the end of the track, you hear the massed chirping of cicadas, from a backyard recording session seen in photographs in the video above. Those natural sounds are understood to be far from an intrusion, on an album as concerned with connection, and with the truth of the moment, as this one.

NOW is out now on the International Anthem label.

Alexa Tarantino, "Rootless Ruthlessness"

Saxophonist Alexa Tarantino has been a clear talent on the rise in the New York jazz mainstream for a while now — but especially since 2019, when she appeared on several albums from Posi-Tone Records, notably her own effort Winds of Change. Her new album for the label is Firefly, and it will only hasten her ascent.

Featuring Tarantino not only on alto and soprano saxophones but also flute, alto flute and clarinet, the album also enlists a first-rate supporting cast: vibraphonist Behn Gillece, pianist Art Hirahara, bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Rudy Royston. The character of Tarantino's compositions ranges from cool contemplation to boppish élan — and, on a standout track called "Rootless Ruthlessness," pure, headlong overdrive. (Pay attention to the way Tarantino rechannels the intensity during her alto solo, smartly abstracting the tempo before revving up again.)

Firefly will be released on Posi-Tone Records on Friday.

Roxana Amed, "Tumbleweed"

A surefooted vocalist born in Buenos Aires and now based in Miami, Roxana Amed has a sterling reputation in Argentine jazz and folk circles — and a burgeoning presence on the American jazz scene. Her new album on Sony Music Latin, Ontology, is geared toward the latter, and it seems likely to find her some traction there. The album finds Amed in fine company, with jazz musicians like pianist Martin Bejerano, bassist Edward Perez and saxophonist Mark Small, who composed the music for "Tumbleweed."

Roxana Amed - Tumbleweed (Official Video) ft. Mark Small

This video captures Amed and the band at the legendary Criteria Recording Studios in Miami, recording a version of the song, for which she wrote lyrics in English. It's a brooding, crepuscular theme, and Amed inhabits it with total authority; listen for the way she delivers the line "Like a flower of stars," as if claiming a space in the night sky.

Ontology is available now on Sony Music Latin.

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