Take Five: Esperanza Spalding Forges a New Formwela, and Nate Smith Delivers a Groove
Nate Smith, "Square Wheel (feat. Kokayi and Michael Mayo)"
Before he was a groove linchpin for everyone from Brittany Howard to Pat Metheny, drummer Nate Smith was one of the band geeks in his high school in Chesapeake, Va., honing his skills one rudiment at a time. It's an experience he summons on "Square Wheel," the exuberant first single from his new album Kinfolk 2: See the Birds. "The square wheel was me," Smith explains in a statement, "the kid in the back of the lunchroom with his manuscript pad open, writing snare drum parts for marching band."
Riding a funky 15/8 meter, the tune features rapped verses by Kokayi and a melodic chorus by Michael Mayo. "Wise kid," sings Mayo. "Find the feeling / Don't give / You will find the meaning." (Both he and Kokayi are credited with the lyrics.) Smith holds down the groove with a strong assist from guitarist Brad Allen Williams, pianist Jon Cowherd and bassist Fima Ephron. And after a bridge of sorts — in a tempo set up by clever metric modulation, at the two-minute mark — Jaleel Shaw steps up with a totally assured alto saxophone solo. The whole track exudes casual mastery, delivering an exhortation not only to Smith's younger self but also, by extension, to anyone yearning for a time when they might fit in (or be valued for the ways in which they don't).
Kinfolk 2: See the Birds will be released on Edition Records on Sept. 17; preorder here.
Esperanza Spalding, "Formwela 5 (feat. Corey King)"
Last Friday I had the pleasure and privilege of sharing space with Esperanza Spalding and members of her Songwrights Apothecary Lab, in a Lower Manhattan residency organized in conjunction with the River to River Festival. (That 90-minute performance and talkback was offered as a livestream, and can still be seen here.) Hours before the event, Spalding released "Formwela 5," created last month in Portland, her hometown.
The song, a collaboration with Corey King, takes the form of an affirmation over a strobing, Philip Glass-style piano part. Spalding, who imbues each of her "Formwela" creations with talismanic energies, describes this one as a message of tender disarmament for an older brother "who has survived by means you don’t understand." Singing in octaves, she and King muse: "I'm still a lonely child in my survival mode too / But promise while I'm working at it / I love you I love you I love you I love you."
For more Formwelas and information, visit the Songwrights Apothecary Lab.
Joel Frahm Trio, "The Bright Side"
Tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm has acres of experience in pianoless settings — mainly a series of cozy, subterranean Greenwich Village rooms like Bar Next Door, 55 Bar and Smalls. His new album, The Bright Side, brings the format into the light, with an agile working trio that has Dan Loomis on bass and Ernesto Cervini on drums.
The album showcases Frahm's harmonic and rhythmic surefootedness, calling up precursors from Sonny Rollins through Joshua Redman. And along with swinging ease (as on a tune called "Thinking of Benny") there's a smart allowance for straight-eighth groove: see the title track, which has a hummable melody and a terrific tenor solo.
The Bright Side will be released on Anzic Records on Friday.
Lauren Henderson, "Forget Me"
The cool smolder of Lauren Henderson's vocal style can call a handful of references to mind — the visual language of film noir, say, or the image of a sleeping cat curled on a windowsill. A more direct antecedent, as you can hear in this track, might be the musical example of Shirley Horn, who recorded her version of "Forget Me" in 2003.
Henderson doesn't have the subtle, flinty edge that Horn brought to the tune. But she knows how to create an atmosphere of come-hither intrigue, and then spike the punch with ambivalence. Her expert accompaniment includes Marquis Hill on Harmon-muted trumpet, Sullivan Fortner on piano, Eric Wheeler on bass and Joe Dyson on drums.
Lauren Henderson's Musa is available now on Brontosaurus Records.
Dave Rempis, "On Green Dolphin Street"
By now we've seen many musical byproducts of pandemic resilience, from albums made in lockdown to collaborations across the ether. The COVID Tapes is a worthy new addition to this catalog: a compilation of performances that Chicago saxophonist Dave Rempis streamed from a practice space at Unity Lutheran Church, and others that he organized outdoors in Margate Park, with partners like cellist Tomeka Reid.
"On Green Dolphin Street" is one of the solo pieces, played on alto saxophone in abstract time but with a firm command of bebop phraseologies. It has a self-contained intensity that speaks to its moment in time, but it also recalls a formative influence: saxophonist and Chicago jazz legend Von Freeman. "One of the first times I saw Von play in the 90’s, he opened with it, cut the band out after the head, and did a 10-minute unaccompanied solo before bringing them back for the outhead," Rempis recalls in his liner notes. "My young mind was blown away by his singular sound and approach."
The COVID Tapes is available now on Aerophonic Records.