From Roots to Branches in Take Five: Rhiannon Giddens, David Berkman, Betty Carter & More

Mar 25, 2019

Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi, “I’m On My Way”

The Big Ears Festival, which wrapped up its 2019 edition over the weekend, is a feast of sound and spirit, with the promise of discovery around every corner. I heard a fantastic array of music — everything from breakout British electro-jazz trio The Comet is Coming to a solo bass recital by Larry Grenadier. Jazz Night in America will devote a forthcoming episode to Big Ears, with an emphasis on the ECM Records artists convened to celebrate the label’s 50th anniversary. (The Jazz Night video team also shot a couple of concerts; I won’t spoil the surprise.)

But the very first thing I saw at Big Ears this year was a special highlight, and a perfect way to hit the ground running. Lucy Negro, Redux — an acclaimed new collaboration between the Nashville Ballet, poet Caroline Randall Williams, and composer-instrumentalists Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi — explores the idea that Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady of the Sonnets” was in fact a black woman. With brilliant choreography (by Paul Vasterling) and spectacular dancing (especially by Kayla Rowser), the performance is a balletic tour de force and a cultural provocation. It’s also a contemplative musical experience, featuring a “folk score” performed onstage.

Giddens, a MacArthur Fellow and acclaimed singer-songwriter, plays an assortment of stringed instruments in the piece (including minstrel banjo and octave violin). Turrisi attends to a frame drum, lute and piano, to name just a few. The music, so intimate in scale for such a grand kinetic production, has the effect of further personalizing Williams’ narrative, and underscoring the folk traditions that flow through our history like a stream underground.

A few of the songs in Lucy Negro, Redux were familiar to me, as traditional folk material or previously recorded work by Giddens. One, “I’m On My Way,” was just released as the first single from there is no Other, which Nonesuch will release on May 3. Produced by Joe Henry, it’s a spare yet fully fleshed showcase for Giddens and Turrisi, whose musical rapport feels as natural as breath.

Giddens and Turrisi will be on tour in the fall; they’ll also appear with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra from April 25-27, as part of a celebration for Ken Burns’ upcoming series Country Music.

David Berkman Sextet, “Cynical Episode”

An alert pianist and a resourceful composer, David Berkman has long been drawn to the dimensions of a midsize combo. His new album features a number of longtime associates, with saxophonists Tim Armacost, Adam Kolker, Dayna Stephens and Billy Drewes in a knockout front line. Holding down the engine room are Chris Lightcap on bass, Kenneth Salters on drums and a guest, Rogerio Boccato, on percussion.

The punchier side of this band’s rapport is a central attraction of “Cynical Episode,” which has its premiere here. (That far-out synth solo is by Stephens, playing an EWI; he’s followed by Berkman and then Kolker, on bass clarinet.)

The David Berkman Sextet appears this Wednesday and Thursday at Smalls Jazz Club.

Lage Lund, “Brasilia”

Terrible Animals is the excellent new album by guitarist Lage Lund, recently released on the Criss Cross label. An assured outing that pushes against the constraints of post-bop, it features Lund’s compositions for an ace band with pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. The album’s mood ranges from introspective to explosive, but always with a firm sense of control.  

You can hear that restraint on a piece like “Brasilia,” which rides a strong current in an irregular meter (5/4, with an occasional bar of 6). Lund’s solo is characteristically fluid, and Fortner’s, which begins just after two minutes into the track, strikes an appealing tone of quizzical grace. This quartet, with Justin Faulkner filling in for Sorey, will appear at the Jazz Standard on Tuesday night.

Stephan Crump, Ingrid Laubrock, Cory Smythe, “Medium”

Bassist Stephan Crump, tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and pianist Cory Smythe each inhabit slightly different coordinates on the avant-garde landscape, but with enough overlap that they can easily find common ground. 

That’s certainly the case on Channels, a concert recording made at a European festival in 2017. Recently released on Intakt Records, the album is divided into four longish tracks, the third of which is “Medium,” a freely improvised piece that’s especially worth hearing for the delicate yet probing interplay between Laubrock and Smythe.

Betty Carter, “Social Call”

Finally, a second helping of some good stuff. Perhaps you saw our album announcement for Betty Carter’s The Music Never Stops, a dazzling live album that will be released this Friday on Blue Engine Records. When we published that post, in late January, it came with an exclusive premiere of “Tight!” — one of Carter’s signature tunes. WBGO now has another track premiere from the album, featuring another calling card.

“Social Call,” composed by Gigi Gryce with lyrics by Jon Hendricks, is a tune that Carter recorded with a Gryce-led big band in the mid-1950s. Decades later it provided the title for an album of archival material, and made a big impression; Carter did as much as anyone to turn the song into a jazz standard. Here, backed by a guest-laden iteration of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, she sings it with the windborne insouciance of a kite pulling at the end of a string.