Around the Globe with Take Five: Monty Alexander, Eliane Elias, Dayme Arocena & More

Aug 19, 2019

Artists from five continents make up this week's playlist.

Monty Alexander, “Nutty”

Monty Alexander was in his teens, working as a sideman at Federal Studios in Kingston, Jamaica, when he first encountered the music of Thelonious Monk. That was a long time ago; Alexander is now 75, and has traveled far and wide. But when he decided to make his own Monk tribute, he found himself returning to that formative time and place.

“Maybe it was just my childhood memories connecting the two,” the pianist says in press materials for his new album, Wareika Hill (Rasta-Monk Vibrations), “but I was left with a deep impression that the world of Monk and Rasta were one spirit. The way Rasta men would walk, talk and express themselves was a world within itself and so it was with Monk.”

The album, out this Friday on MACD Records, features about a dozen Monk tunes rendered with a Jamaican accent; here is an exclusive premiere of “Nutty.”

After Alexander’s prefatory statement of the theme, his rhythm section — including J.J. Shakur and Leon Duncan on bass, and Jason Brown and Karl Wright on drums — kick into a summery reggae beat. The tenor saxophonist is Wayne Escoffery, and he expertly melds modern jazz and a Jamaican vibe.

Monty Alexander performs with Harlem-Kingston Express on Saturday at the Lewiston Jazz Festival. He will appear on WBGO in advance of his album-release engagement at the Blue Note, Sept. 3-8. For more information, visit his website.

Eliane Elias, “A Man and a Woman”

Eliane Elias is no stranger to love songs, as a pianist and singer well versed in the bossa nova traditions of her native Brazil. Her new album, Love Stories, which arrives on Concord Jazz on Aug. 30, gives her a luxurious setting for such concerns: recorded in São Paolo, it features top Brazilian musicians like guitarist Marcus Teixeira and drummer Paulo Braga, along with her partner, Marc Johnson, on bass.

“A Man and a Woman,” which has its premiere here, is the title song to the 1966 Claude Lelouch film, composed by Francis Lai. (The lyrcs are by Pierre Barouh and Jerry Keller.) Elias delivers the song as a confection, in a bossa nova arrangement that recalls the classic album Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim. The orchestral strings were recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London, and they beautifully frame Elias’ singing, with its balance of sincerity and nonchalance.

Eliane Elias will perform music from Love Stories at Birdland from Sept. 17-21.

Daymé Arocena, “Yemayá”

The spectacular Afro-Cuban vocalist Daymé Arocena is hardly a best-kept-secret by now; perhaps you saw her Tiny Desk Concert, or heard her on this episode of Jazz Night in America. But there’s something about Arocena’s ongoing ascent that retains a quality of mystery, a sense that even if you know about her, there’s a lot about her that you still don’t know. A case in point would be this song, from her album Sonocardiogram, which releases on Brownswood Recordings on Sept. 6.

Arocena is devoted to the practice and worship of Santería, and her orisha is Yemayá, the goddess of the sea. (The cover of Sonocardiogram depicts her in the sea with a beatific expression, as if to embody this orisha herself.)

As for the musical character of “Yemayá,” it’s a soulfully imploring song with a floaty rhythm, and a melody that Arocena can really deliver. (Listen closely and there are moments when her vocal projection might remind you of a jazz singer, specifically Dianne Reeves.) “Yemayá” is out now as part of an EP, Trilogía; order it here.

Gard Nilssen Acoustic Unity, “Broken Beauty”

Ask me to name a killer working band that most American jazz listeners still don’t know, and there’s a good chance I’d land on Gard Nilssen Acoustic Unity. Based in Oslo, Norway and led by Nilssen, an excellent drummer on that scene, it’s an acoustic trio that can veer from abstract expressionism to hard, barreling swing. You can hear the full spectrum on its third album, To Whom Who Buys A Record.


The album, whose title invokes Ornette Coleman’s To Whom Who Keeps a Record, is a clear illustration of growth. Nilssen, multi-reedist André Roligheten and bassist Petter Eldh have deepened their rapport, while exploring a continuum that includes not only Coleman but open-ended trios led by Sonny Rollins and Albert Ayler. I hear an imploring, Ayleresque lyricism in the track above, a haunting ballad titled “Broken Beauty.” 

Skyjack, “The Hunter”

Skyjack is a multinational collective with a sound that captures the flux of modern jazz in our hyperconnected age. The group’s rhythm section hails from South Africa, consisting of Kyle Shepherd on piano, Shane Cooper on bass and Kesivan Naidoo on drums. The front line, meanwhile, comprises two Swiss players, tenor saxophonist Marc Stucki and trombonist Andreas Tschopp. Last year Skyjack released its second album, The Hunter, on Yellowbird/Enja; for some reason it slipped under my radar.

Here is footage from Skyjack performing the album’s title track at The Orbit in Johannesburg. Opening with a horn part that evokes the churn of heavy machinery, it’s a tune that puts all of the ensemble’s considerable strengths on display.

Makoto Terashita Meets Harold Land, “Dragon Dance”

Finally, a bonus cut, from J Jazz: deep modern jazz from Japan 1969-1984, which releases on BBE Records on Sept. 6. The album opens with “Dragon Dance,” which pianist Makoto Terashita recorded in the early '80s for his album Topology, with veteran American tenor saxophonist Harold Land.

Terashita is an eminence of Japanese jazz, but he was still an up-and-comer at the time of this session, which also features bassist Yasushi Yoneki, drummer Mike Reznikoff and percussionist Takayuki Koizumi. “Dragon Dance” rides an Afro-Latin groove, with piano and bass doubling an ostinato; Land takes the melody, which adheres to a modal scale. (His solo arrives just before the seven-minute mark.)

Topology has been a cult object for record collectors over the years, but the curators behind J Jazz, Tony Higgins and Mike Peden, are producing a first-ever reissue on CD and 180-gram vinyl, as well as streaming formats. BBE Music will release this album on Sept. 13; order it here.