Keep It Cool in Take Five, with Sara Gazarek, Steve Lehman, Kenyatta Beasley and Ben Wolfe

Jul 21, 2019

And introducing SPAGA, a new trio led by pianist Aron Magner of The Disco Biscuits.

Sara Gazarek, “Never Will I Marry”

There has always been a bright, springlike air to Sara Gazarek’s singing, along with an unerring sense of phrase. On her self-released sixth album, Thirsty Ghost, due out on Aug. 23, Gazarek brings in some other qualities new to her music: a deeper current of introspection; a darker shade of emotional color; songs by the likes of Sam Smith, Dolly Parton and Björk.

Gazarek, now in her mid-30s, experienced some hardship in her personal life — most notably, the dissolution of her marriage — before arriving at this openhearted place. (One of her jazz-vocal mentors, Kurt Elling, provided feedback at a pivotal moment; he penned the album’s liner notes, and appears on a track.) Crucially, though, Thirsty Ghost marks not only a new mode of candor for Gazarek but also a new tier of ambition on the musical front.

That much is evident in a video of Gazarek and her band performing the Frank Loesser tune “Never Will I Marry,” which has its exclusive premiere here.

The song — an insouciant declaration of independence, at least in matrimonial terms — is best known for an iconic performance on the 1962 album Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley. (In recent seasons, it has entered the repertory of Cécile McLorin Salvant.) The version heard here, and on Thirsty Ghost, has a rhythm indebted to the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, with tidy annotation by a horn section. The Fender Rhodes solo is by Stu Mindeman, one of the album’s core collaborators.

But of course, the main attraction is Gazarek’s easeful way with the song’s melody. (Listen for the unexpected modulation she slips into the first verse, on the word “wed.”) The tune calls for a sunny disposition, but there’s a faint ironic distance in the way Gazarek sings it — a sense that she has been there and back again.

Sara Gazarek will begin her album-release tour on Aug. 10 at the Jazz Standard in New York; for more dates, and more information about the album, visit her website.

Steve Lehman Trio + Craig Taborn, “Chance”

Alto saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman has proven, over the last 15 years, that he’s nothing if not an original. That’s no less true on his fine forthcoming album, The People I Love, which Pi Recordings will release on Aug. 30. It features Lehman’s longtime trio, with bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damion Reid, as well as a special guest: Craig Taborn, on piano. And while it retools a few vintage Lehman compositions, the album is mainly a showcase for songs by musicians in his modern pantheon, like guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts.


True to form, the album has a few sharp edges — but it also contains moments of elegant poise and unassuming grace. One such moment is the group’s treatment of “Chance,” a post-bop waltz by the late pianist Kenny Kirkland, off his self-titled 1991 debut. Lehman dials back the tempo considerably, beginning the song as a meditative duo with Brewer, before the full ensemble enters just over a minute in. Anyone accustomed to visualizing Lehman’s alto as a switchblade will want to listen closely to his sensitive delivery here. (Taborn, of course, does Kirkland proud, while sounding only and entirely like himself.)

Ben Wolfe, “Blind Seven” (Featuring Joel Ross and Immanuel Wilkins)

Ben Wolfe, the ever-tasteful, always swinging bassist, lost his father last year. As a tribute (and no doubt as part of his grieving process), he decided to make an album, calling it Fatherhood. Due out on Aug. 30, it’s an earnest and often beautifully crafted statement, featuring longtime colleagues as well as shining up-and-comers. The album opens with a refurbished Wolfe classic titled “Blind Seven,” loosely built on the harmonic framework of “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm.”

This version of the song, which Wolfe has recorded before, opens with a vibraphone solo by Joel Ross, as the rhythm section (with Donald Edwards on drums) swings behind him. Then Ross hands the solo baton to alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, who takes a turn before handing it back again. As this action unfolds, a string quartet bubbles up from the background. The full band — horns and strings both — hit the melody just before the two-minute mark, with boppish flair.

The contributions of the string quartet help enact the album’s homage: Dan Wolfe, Ben’s father, was a violinist. “The string quartet parts are written in a way where at times they know when to enter,” Wolfe writes, “but the tempo they are playing is up to them as a quartet — the string part creates a fabric for the tune.”

The Ben Wolfe Quintet, featuring trumpeter Randy Brecker and vibraphonist Warren Wolf, will appear at Dizzy’s Club from Aug. 1-4.

Aron Magner’s SPAGA, “Marionette in the Snow”

Aron Magner has an ironclad reputation on the jam-band circuit, as a founding member of The Disco Biscuits. He uses an array of synths and effects in that band, which wrapped up its popular Camp Bisco festival over the weekend, in Scranton, Penn. He pares down and focuses his sound in SPAGA, a new trio that harks back to his early training as a jazz pianist. (Full disclosure: I often played with Magner in college, before he dropped out to join the Biscuits on the road.)

SPAGA, with Jason Fraticelli on bass and Matt Scarano on drums, has a self-titled album releasing this Friday, on Magner’s own AM Records. Its digressive but questing style is well captured on “Marionette in the Snow,” which premieres here; there are ethereal moments in the song that recall a contemporary-jazz stalwart like Keiko Matsui, though Magner always has one foot planted in an earthy groove.

SPAGA is on tour, and will appear at (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York on Sept. 7.

Kenyatta Beasley Septet, “Katherine the Great (Featuring Wynton Marsalis)”

An awful lot has happened in the world since trumpeter Kenyatta Beasley recorded Frank Foster Songbook, over two nights at Jazz 966 in Brooklyn back in 2013. But the salient fact of the album — Foster’s towering influence on Beasley, and his enduring place in the jazz pantheon — is no less true today. Which makes the album, releasing this Friday, at once a testimonial time capsule and a timeless testimonial.

Beasley decided to pay his homage with a septet, stocking the front line with Eric Wyatt and Mark Gross on saxophones and Vincent Gardner on trombone. There are special guests on a handful of tracks — including “Katherine the Great,” one of the tunes Foster brought to the Count Basie Orchestra, during his time at the helm.

The guest is Wynton Marsalis, one of Beasley’s trumpet idols, and (as he points out) a product of the same arts high school in New Orleans. One way of enjoying the track is as a Tale of Two Trumpeters: Marsalis begins his solo just after 2:15, and Beasley takes over (following turns by Wyatt, Gross and Gardner) at 11:05.