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Discs: Jazz, hot and cold, by Sun Ra’s Orchestra; Dave Douglas; Chant for Peace


Dave Douglas Quintet

Brazen Heart



When you know that Dave Douglas has been hanging out with Wayne Shorter a lot recently, your excitement and expectation for this disc rises considerably. In the publicity notes, Douglas says, “Wayne has said some things that are really profound and it’s really influenced the way I think about writing for this band and the way we play.” When you listen to the disc, your pulse will settle quick back into its normal rate – if not slow down a bit. The two spirituals on the disc – “Deep River” and “There Is a Balm in Gilead” – are reminiscent of Douglas’ terrific answer to his mother’s request that he play hymns called “Be Still.” He has a way of bringing hymns to jazz,

The rest of the disc is more than a little off-putting despite the human fact that his group is composed of Jon Irabagon on tenor, Matt Mitchell on piano, Linda Oh on bass and Rudy Royston on drums.

Douglas says the disc is a tribute to his older brother who died of cancer in June. It’s the courage he manifested, the kind required of all who “go through these things.” That, he says, “is the passion we put into our art.”

The trouble is that his crackling neo-Clifford Brown sound and his compositions can so often be more admirable than engaging.

There’s nothing new about Douglas being a critic’s dandy among jazz musicians but despite his frequently stellar company, his music is often – as here – difficult to warm up to.

– Jeff Simon


Sun Ra Arkestra

Babylon Live

[InandOut Records, plus DVD]


One of the legendary tales about jazz in Buffalo is the one about the appearance of Sun Ra at Buffalo State College that was bumped because the band had trouble at the U.S, border on the way back from a major gig in Toronto.

It was widely assumed by jazz fans (most notably WBFO’s late John Hunt), that some old-fashioned customs official had gone back to the old way of doing border business and asked him “where were you born?” only to be told, as Sun Ra was accustomed to do, “Saturn.”

It turned out that the band’s van full of costumes led customs officials to think his band was smuggling costumes across the border from the mythical Sun Ra place where ancient Egypt met Saturn.

This is, hands down, one of the joyous jazz discs of the season. In fact, it may be conclusive proof that the Sun Ra Arkestra is the most hilarious “ghost band” in jazz history.

Sun Ra died in 1993. This utterly rollicking approximation of the Sun Ra way comes from a gig in, yes, Istanbul, performed on Sun Ra’s birthday in 2014 and led by his longtime alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, a musician as schooled in Sun Ra ways as anyone who ever lived.

Nothing can quite substitute for those costumes and the extraterrestrial revival meeting of a live Sun Ra Arkestra performance (at Artpark, under the master himself, the band wandered up and down the aisles of the hall playing and chanting “space is the place”) but this record of a live performance is full of the screaming extraterrestrial version of swing band riffs over which multiphonic saxophone solos sound as at home as playing by Lester Young.

This is Sun Ra’s music and manner continued by people who know it backward and forward.

Anyone looking for unswerving accuracy and ultra-tight bandsmanship from the Sun Ra band is in the wrong solar system altogether. It is, nevertheless, about as much fun as a large band jazz record can be in this century – and that’s even before you get a gander at the DVD of the performance that comes with it,

Truly delightful. If we’re lucky the sun will never set on Sun Ra’s music.

– Jeff Simon


Chant For Peace

The Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz

Timna Brauer & Elias Meiri Ensemble

[Deutsche Grammophon]


Catholic parishes should get with the program and switch from “Be Not Afraid” to Gregorian chant. Everywhere else in the world, chant is all the rage. The Monks of Norcia have dominated the classical charts for months now, setting records. And in Austria, the million-selling Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz have been chalking up their own timeless hits, including “Into the Light.” This new disc explores new horizons.

In “Chant For Peace,” the monks collaborate with contemporary Austrian-Israeli singer/songwriter Timna Brauer to explore the ancient bonds between Christianity and Judaism. The move is not as bold as you would think – Christianity grew out of Judaism, and the traditional Catholic Mass is full of verses from Jewish scriptures. But to many people this concept is new, and there is no better time to bring it out than now, with international news reflecting ancient religions on a daily basis.

Because of the nobility of the venture, I wish it worked out a little better. The disc’s premise is simple. The monks sing their seamless Gregorian chant. Brauer, joined by the ensemble led by her husband, pianist Elias Meiri, sings her own versions of Hebrew scripture. The problem is that Brauer’s style is too contemporary for it to fuse well with the chant. At times it sounds too much like pop music. World music fans might take to this mix more than I do. But I thought something was lacking. Maybe we would be better off juxtaposing Gregorian chant with ancient Hebrew chant. Perhaps another disc is in order? The audience for this music does not seem to be going away.

– Mary Kunz Goldman


Gary Clark Jr.

The Story of Sonny Boy Slim



Gary Clark Jr. is not the next Jimi Hendrix, no matter how much people want him to be.

The 31-year-old guitar virtuoso from Austin is also not going to be the next Stevie Ray Vaughan. Or Buddy Guy. Or Prince, for that matter.

On his second studio album, “The Story of Sonny Boy Slim,” Clark uses elements from all those greats, but he is clearly building something all his own.

“Hold On” shows how brilliant that vision can be. He moves from a sweet falsetto to a more definitive one to declare, “I’m not out to steal your money. I don’t want to take your time. I do deserve a little respect so I’m gonna get what is mine.” Clark builds an uplifting, old-school soul song – a lot like D’Angelo’s recent album in sound, a lot like Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” in sentiment – and adds his own special signature, a searing guitar solo that echoes the combination of anger and determination that he outlines in his lyrics.

While Clark offers the blues rock we’ve grown to expect from him in “Stay,” and adds a bit more of the Delta influence in “Shake,” there are plenty of surprises here as well. “Star” is a Prince-ly slow burn of guitar funk, while “The Healing” drops in bits of gospel as well as hip-hop. And the nearly-eight-minute epic “Down to Ride” is a groove-driven experiment that combines some ’70s-styled soulful vocals and the kind of unexpected rhythms that Frank Ocean or Miguel would pull out in their work, though Clark’s scratchy, funk guitar is never too far from the focus.

“The Story of Sonny Boy Slim” converts all the potential Clark has shown since his flashy debut into confident, stylish pieces of soul and rock. With this, he has clearly arrived.

– Newsday

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