Abdullah Ibrahim Strikes a Balance and Linda May Han Oh Polishes a Gem, in Take Five

Apr 22, 2019

Along with Wadada Leo Smith’s salute to Rosa Parks, Wynton Marsalis’ soundtrack to Bolden, and Tom McDermott’s take on a Joplin rag.

Linda May Han Oh, “Aventurine”

Aventurine — the fourth album by bassist Linda May Han Oh, due out on May 17 on Biophilia Records — borrows its title from the name of a translucent quartz, prized for its sparkling mineral reflections. 

It’s an apt metaphor for Oh’s latest musical turn — and not just because the tenets of crystalology hold that aventurine, typically green in color, symbolizes creativity and luck. The album marks her most ambitious foray into orchestration, with a suite of new compositions for a chamber-esque double quartet. Oh enlisted four top-tier string players, including violinist Sara Caswell and cellist Jeremy Harman; the other half of the ensemble features saxophonist Greg Ward, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer and vibraphonist Ches Smith.


The title track, an overture for the album, conveys both a shimmering beauty and a spirit of effervescent play. It’s almost a suite unto itself, with a few distinct sections that flow one into the next. A few minutes in, the musicians are joined by Invenio, a vocal ensemble based in Melbourne, Australia. (Its leader is Gian Slater, who has also appeared on albums by Ben Monder and Kate McGarry.)

Aventurine will be featured in a forthcoming episode of Jazz Night in America. Oh is now on tour in Europe; she’ll bring her quintet to The Village Vanguard July 2-7.

Abdullah Ibrahim, “Jabula”

Last week, when pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim was inducted as a 2019 NEA Jazz Master, he dedicated his award to his mother and grandmother — two of the formative influences of his childhood, in Cape Town, South Africa. Ibrahim, formerly known as Dollar Brand, has long been among the most eloquent ambassadors of his homeland, and he continues in that tradition on Balance, an album due out on Gearbox Records on June 28.

The first single from the album is “Jabula,” which means “Rejoice” — a prompt well conveyed by the Cape Town rhythm of the tune. As on the rest of the album, Ibrahim leads his longtime group Ekaya; this track features Cleave Guyton, Jr. on alto saxophone, Lance Bryant on tenor saxophone, Andrae Murchison on trombone, Marshall McDonald on baritone saxophone, Noah Jackson on cello, Alec Dankworth on bass and Will Terrill on drums. The piano playing is restrained, favoring a terse staccato. Ibrahim stretches out elsewhere on Balance, but his playing here amounts to a form of hospitality: he’s looking to create a mood, and serve the tune.

Wadada Leo Smith, “Rosa Parks: Mercy, Music for Double Quartet”

The sweep of African-American cultural history has been a deep resource for Wadada Leo Smith, especially over the past decade. A trumpeter and composer with a fierce commitment to originality, much like his esteemed peers in the AACM, Smith was widely heralded for his 2012 album Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform), a charged reflection on the civil rights movement of the 1960s. (Two years ago, a film crew from Jazz Night in America traveled with Smith to Mississippi, where he performed a piece from that suite, “Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless,” on the Little Tallahatchie River.) A similar impulse undergirds Rosa Parks: Pure Love, Smith’s visionary new long-form piece, released in album form on TUM Records.

Smith designed Rosa Parks: Pure Love as an oratorio, with musicians working both with a classical vocabulary and with his own notational language of Ankhrasmation. The piece above features the RedKoral Quartet and the BlueTrumpet Quartet, with Shalini Vijayan as a violin soloist. These and other collaborators — including Diamond Voices , the Janus Duo, and the butoh dancer Oguri — will join Smith for three performances of Rosa Parks: Pure Love at The Kitchen, April 26-28.

Wynton Marsalis, “Phantasmagoric Bordello Ballet”

Bolden, the Dan Pritzker film opening in theaters on May 3, is a mythopoetic portrait of New Orleans cornetist Buddy Bolden, who famously survives only in folklore, with nary a recording to his name. A work-in-progress for over a decade, it has a prominent executive producer in Wynton Marsalis, who also wrote and performed the music. His soundtrack was just released on Blue Engine Records, and there are reasons to hear it beyond the central function it serves in the film.

“Phantasmagoric Bordello Ballet” is one of the more evocative themes on the album, with a stalking minor mood intended to capture the sensuous, unsavory atmosphere of a house of ill repute. Sherman Irby oozes charm on alto saxophone, and Marsalis delivers a litany of plunger-muted squawks and snarls on his trumpet. The track also enlists the talents of trumpeter Marcus Printup, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding, pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson, Jr.

Bolden: Music From the Original Soundtrack is available now on Blue Engine Records.

Tom McDermott, “The Strenuous Life”

Speaking of New Orleans: that city has always had a mess of fabulous piano players, so it’s really saying something that everyone seems to agree on Tom McDermott. The consensus, such as it is, puts McDermott at the head of a pack of traditionalists, drawing from a legacy that includes Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller and Professor Longhair. There’s a formative place in that pantheon for Scott Joplin, who forms the subject of McDermott’s new album on Arbors Records.

Tom McDermott Meets Scott Joplin is a crackerjack tribute — a byproduct of personal immersion that exudes vibrant wit and joie de vivre. The rags on the album are played with expressive feeling, often period-appropriate but occasionally infused with later elixirs. Consider “The Strenuous Life,” above. In his liner notes, McDermott writes that this performance is “influenced by Jelly Roll Morton and his Afro-Cuban Tinge.” But isn’t there also a bit of Longhair in the tune’s rollicking feel?

A few weeks ago I saw McDermott play material from the album on his weekly gig at Buffa’s. (He’ll also be at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on April 27.)