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Take Five: Solo Gems From Jaleel Shaw, JD Allen, Clovis Nicolas and Theon Cross

Jaleel Shaw, "Breonna"

Alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw is best known as a firecracker soloist, with everyone from Roy Haynes to Somi. (We featured him in Take Five just a couple of weeks ago, with Nate Smith & Kinfolk.) Shaw is also an underrated composer who typically leads quartets or quintets, though his new album, Echoes, is a homebound solo affair.

"I'd recently begun recording myself practice improvised ideas with my phone, which eventually led to me plugging a mic into my computer, hitting record, and seeing where my ideas took me," Shaw writes in the album liner notes. "Eventually I decided to release what you are listening to here."

Loss has been an inescapable part of the pandemic experience, and Echoes includes elegies for Lee Konitz and MF Doom (along with pieces titled "Silence" and "Isolation"). "Breonna," a version of which Shaw originally posted as a performance last October, is Shaw's lament for Breonna Taylor, who was fatally shot in her apartment by law enforcement in Louisville, Ky. The song is plaintive but not heavy, as Shaw moves slowly with a tender, ethereal sound.

JD Allen, "Queen City"

Queen City is another first-time solo album by a deeply commanding saxophonist, this one a tenor man. JD Allen, whose preferred unit is the trio, found the coronavirus pandemic to be a powerful reset, pulling his motivations and methods into clearer focus. "Every musician starts out playing alone in the beginning," he points out in his album notes, "with hopes of one day being able to perform with others." Playing the saxophone, he adds, "started out for me as a way to release feelings that I couldn't express verbally, even in the beginning when all I could make were sounds." The title track perfectly encapsulates that reach for self-expression, with an open, flowing tempo and motivic elements that nod toward both Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins.

Hear JD Allen's interview with Greg Bryant on Let Me Tell You 'Bout It. Queen City is available now on HighNote/Savant.

Clovis Nicolas, "Body and Soul"

The solo bass recording has recently crept from total rarity to something like a rite of passage; consider the recent, redoubtable entries by Larry Grenadier, Jorge Roeder, Michael Formanek and John Patitucci. Now comes Autoportrait, a beautiful example of the form by French-born bassist Clovis Nicolas. Developed over the last year — but in the works, on some level, for much longer than that — it's an impressively well-rounded statement, and often a deeply lyrical one. As others have before him, Nicolas strives to present a different side of his instrument and approach with each track, apprehending Bach in one moment and bebop the next. His "Body and Soul" is not just a fresh take on the songbook standard; it's his transcription of the iconic Coleman Hawkins solo from 1937, and in that sense his subtle reminder that the bass, too, can carry a tune.

Gregg Belisle-Chi, "Huevos"

A guitarist of impeccable technique and broad imagination, Gregg Belisle-Chi came to the Brooklyn scene from Seattle (where he studied first at the Cornish College of the Arts and then the Univ. of Washington, with Cuong Vu). His new album, Koi: Performing the music of Tim Berne, is a remarkable feat of translation — a collection of Berne's famously intricate, mostly long-form compositions on acoustic guitar. Belisle-Chi explains: "I remember hearing forage, Matt Mitchell's breathtaking solo piano record of Tim's music, in 2017 and thinking to myself 'Goddam, wouldn't it be amazing if a guitar player did this too?'" Listen to "Huevos," a piece that originally appeared on the 2002 album Science Friction, and see for yourself.

Theon Cross, "We Go Again"

Theon Cross - We Go Again [Visualiser]

So far, we've focused on solo performances presented without overt sonic manipulation. "We Go Again," the stylish new single from British tuba ace Theon Cross, tacks in another direction. It's a fully produced track, suitable for a DJ set — and almost every sound was made by Cross, who has already demonstrated his prowess as a member of Sons of Kemet and a collaborator of Nubya Garcia and Moses Boyd. "'We Go Again' is about choosing to forgive ourselves from moments of ignorance in our past and making the conscious decision to embrace a new day of reinvention and growth," Cross says in a press statement. "Although lockdown has been challenging, it's also given us time to reflect and think about the changes we wish to see once we return to normalcy."