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Take Five: New Music by Cécile McLorin Salvant, Brad Mehldau, Tomas Fujiwara, Aaron Parks, Avishai Cohen

Cécile McLorin Salvant, "Until"

Cécile McLorin Salvant - Until (Official Video)

Cécile McLorin Salvant's Ghost Song, which Nonesuch released last Friday, represents more than another superlative effort from the most heralded jazz singer of our age. It's also Exhibit A for a pivotal turn in her artistry, the sign of an opening with respect to her methods and materials. The album begins with Salvant's radical take on "Wuthering Heights," the Kate Bush song (itself a radical take on the Brontë novel). Elsewhere you'll find acerbic originals ("Obligation") and traditional folksong ("Unquiet Grave"), along with a gracious hat tip to a peer (Gregory Porter, via "No Love Dying"). It shouldn't be a surprise that Salvant would find unabashed nourishment in a song from the Sting catalog, but her sensitive treatment of "Until" — a chamber waltz from the 2001 film Kate & Leopold — delivers fresh revelation anyway. The music video above finds her in the studio, ushering the song from its intimate preface (performed as a duo with Sullivan Fortner on piano) toward a riff on Peruvian landó (with Alexa Tarantino on flute, Marvin Sewell on acoustic guitar, and Keita Ogawa on cajón), radiating commitment.

Aaron Parks, Matt Brewer, Eric Harland, "Eleftheria"

Last August, pianist Aaron Parks went into a recording studio with two longtime friends, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Eric Harland. They brought no agenda or premeditation outside the urge to connect musically, after such a long dry spell. The beautifully intuitive music they made that day, now available as Volume One, consisted of originals by all three musicians, along with a standard ("All the Things You Are") and an implied tribute (Frank Kimbrough's "Centering"). Parks brought two tunes himself, including "Eleftheria," which he composed during his early-aughts tenure with Terence Blanchard. In an email, Parks explains: "I’d cite three things that I first encountered back then as prime influences: the motivic clarity of Wayne Shorter’s 'Ana Maria,' which Terence always held up as a golden example of how to make the most out of one musical gesture, the harmonic world and melodic singability of Lionel Loueke’s modern standard 'Benny’s Tune,' and John Fowles’ novel The Magus, in which I first encountered the Greek word Eleftheria, which means liberty or freedom."

Tomas Fujiwara's Triple Double, "Life Only Gets More"

As the name suggests, Triple Double is an ensemble whose personnel could be parsed as three duos: Ralph Alessi and Taylor Ho Bynum on trumpet / cornet, Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook on guitar, and Gerald Cleaver and Tomas Fujiwara on drums. Fujiwara, who composes the music for Triple Double, pursued a spur-of-the-moment feeling in the studio on March, the group's invigorating second album. On "Life Gets Only More," which nudges Halvorson's unmistakable guitar sound into the foreground, Fujiwara and Cleaver trade elaborative ideas, using brushes as well as sticks; one motivation for the piece was the fact that drummers rarely get asked to solo in a ballad tempo. If the ruminative spirit of the song seems to suggest a pandemic inspiration, that's partly the case: while March was recorded at the end of 2019, its title is an allusion to what we've all endured since the following March, and the determination that continues to pull us through.

Brad Mehldau, "Tom Sawyer (feat. Chris Thile)"

Brad Mehldau - Tom Sawyer (Official Video)

I'll admit it: I didn't have "Brad Mehldau slays a Rush cover!" on my 2022 Bingo card. But life is full of surprises. "Tom Sawyer" is, of course, probably the iconic song by the Canadian prog-rock behemoth, and surely the one with the longest reach in pop culture. For his version, Mehldau teamed up with three longtime collaborators: mandolinist and vocalist Chris Thile, his labelmate on Nonesuch; drummer Mark Guiliana, his go-to groove merchant; and saxophonist Joel Frahm, a high school pal. The result is an even gnarlier salute than the one you may recall from The Bad Plus, on a 2007 album titled Prog. In a press statement, Mehldau notes: "Prog — progressive rock — was the music of my childhood, before I discovered jazz. It matched the fantasy and science fiction books I read from C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle and others at that time, aged ten through twelve. It was my gateway to the fusion of Miles Davis, Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra and other groups, which in turn was the gateway to more jazz." Jacob's Ladder, due out on March 18, is Mehldau's nod to this evocative portal.

Avishai Cohen, "Naked Truth (Pt. 2)"

Avishai Cohen - 'Part 2' (from the new album 'Naked Truth') | ECM Records

Free improvisation is all too often typecast as a plunge into some kind of chaos. That's a falsehood, of course, easily refuted with evidence from masters of the form. But there's also the occasional gesture from a fellow traveler like Avishai Cohen, the Israeli trumpeter and composer. His new ECM release Naked Truth is an album-length group improvisation, unfurled as one lyrical arc in the South of France last September. This trust exercise would only have been possible with musicians Cohen knows and trusts deeply — musicians like pianist Yonathan Avishai, bassist Barak Mori and drummer Ziv Ravitz. To the extent there is a melodic theme at the core of the album, it's the one heard clearly on "Naked Truth (Pt. 2)," a haunting lullaby of a tune. This video shows the band recording it in the studio, with a camaraderie that saves room for rumination.

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