As the 2016 Presidential campaign heats up and the field starts to take shape, I’m also reminded that in just a couple weeks journalists and critics the world over will be asked to list their contenders for jazz album of the year. Picking a top 10 will be especially difficult this year, as 2015 has been an especially fruitful year for new jazz records. Albums from Maria Schneider, Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer, Henry Threadgill, Jack DeJohnette, Jose James (it might be impossible to overstate just how good James’ record is), Charles Lloyd, and Rudresh Mahanthappa are just a few of the excellent recordings from the genre’s heavy hitters that are sure to garner end-of-the-year accolades. Hell, add two more records and that’s a pretty solid top 10 list.
But, there’s a whole host of other amazing new albums that have more or less flown under the radar but that deserve to be in the same conversation as albums from the above luminaries. Here are the first two out of my six dark horse albums-the reviews of which are forthcoming. If you haven’t heard them yet, give ’em a shot. And may the odds be ever in their favor.
David Angel – Camshafts and Butterflies (VSOP)
Composer and saxophonist David Angel is one of those musicians whose music everybody has heard, but who carries less name recognition than Lincoln Chafee. But having spent the bulk of his career writing for film and television, one would be hard pressed to find someone who has seen tv and made between the 60s and early 90s who hasn’t heard Angel’s work. In addition to writing for the screen Angel has led a rehearsal band that included a mix of a “who’s who” of West Coast jazz players like Art Pepper, Bud Shank, Conte Condoli, and Bob Brookmeyer, along with first call studio musicians. The first album by his big band, which has been together for over 40 years but has rarely performed in public, Camshafts and Butterflies is taken from a session in 1973 and another in 1975.
Angel’s writing is distinct, and it can be quirky. Having played many of his small group charts, I can attest to the trickiness of the lines and the unexpected directions they take; they can be startling and completely left-handed. His writing is anything but predictable, which makes it so satisfying to listen to. Like many other West Coast composers and arrangers, Angel dips into harmonies, voicings, orchestrations, and techniques from the orchestral world. The title track and “Lady Puttering” are good examples of this, as they feature plenty of oboe, clarinet, and flute writing, nods to twentieth century neo-classicists, and brass choirs. Other tunes take a more straight ahead trajectory: “Perk’s Tune,” a ballad feature for Bill Perkins on alto, is haunting and gorgeous; “For B and D” – presumably Billy and Duke – is based on “Take the A Train” and is full of lines that don’t end up where one would necessarily look to find them; and “One O’Clock Dump” mixes straight ahead big band swing – the sax soli is pretty tasty – with some third stream elements. If this album has one weak spot it is that the mixing and engineering is a little dated. I’m sure it sounded great in 1975, but the album sounds very much of its time.
Camshafts and Butterflies is not only a great album featuring a unique body of work that is previously unheard outside a small group of L.A. players, it provides a look into the less documented aspect of the music being made in Los Angeles at this time by great musicians like David Angel, who although he isn’t a household name, has been heard in countless households throughout America.
Doug Webb – Triple Play (posi-tone)
I sure do love a multi-tenor blowing session, and Triple Play is a damn fine example of the genre. Along with Webb, tenor saxophonists Walt Weiskopf and Joel Frahm, organist Brian Charette, and drummer Rudy Royston swing through eleven effervescently scintillating cuts. The performances are tight, crisp, lively, and full of energy and motion. The title track and “Alligator Boogaloo” – on which Charette’s organ oozes with the blues – are especially delightful. There isn’t a weak spot to be found, although given the album’s style “Giant Steps” seems like an odd tune to call; but no matter, because Webb, Weiskopf, and Frahm crush it. Listening to Triple Play just makes you feel good. Fans of Lockjaw Davis, Arnett Cobb, and Coleman Hawkins’s Very Saxy and the like should snatch this one up without a second thought.
Coming in Dark Horse Albums part 2: It Rolls, by Katharina Weber, Fred Frith, and Fredy Studer, and Live from Kansas City, by Eddie Moore and Outer Circle. Stay tuned.