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Jaga Jazzist, SteelDrivers, Gary Peacock Trio and David Benoit and Jane Monheit

Fusion

Jaga Jazzist

Starfire

[Ninja Tune]

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You move from Norway to Los Angeles, you soak up the culture shock, and spit it back out in the form of one of the most startlingly inventive albums of recent times. If only it was all that simple.

In reality, Lars Horntveth – who, with siblings Martin and Line, forms the core of Jaga Jazzist – arrived in L.A. in 2012, and found himself driving around alone at night rather often. He took the opportunity to soak up the neon atmosphere and begin the composition of the five interconnected pieces that form “Starfire.” The city’s influence on Jaga’s already expansive and ambitious sound is instantly identifiable as a shift away from the orchestral works that comprised “One Armed Bandit” and the breathtaking 2014 release “Live with Britten Sinfonia.”

“Starfire” boasts an experimental bent that welcomes myriad synths, aspects of electronic music, multilayered guitar figures, aspects of ambient music and minimalism, and relentless, propulsive grooves. This is instrumental music, so the vocals that do appear buried in the mix at various points are of the wordless variety, but make no mistake – this is music hellbent on forward motion and the development of thematic material over time. Which is to say, this is about as far from aimless jamming as one is likely to get.

Though the Horntveth siblings are the prime movers throughout “Starfire,” special merit is due guitarist Marcus Forsgren, who masterfully moves from subtle figures within the framework, to positions of prominence in front of the eight-piece ensemble, always adding a new slant to the musical conversation.

“Starfire” is an ambitious and exhilarating work from a band that has created its own niche within the broader world of modern music. We have all heard the common complaint that “There’s no great music being made these days.” If you have someone in your life who is prone to making such claims, send “Starfire” their way.

– Jeff Miers

Bluegrass

The SteelDrivers

The Muscle Shoals

Recordings

[Rounder]

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No one seems to know quite what to do with the The SteelDrivers.

And that’s the good news.

So, in the great pop music tradition, whenever there’s more than a whisper of uncertainty, kick out the jams and hyperbolize. So here’s what Peter Cooper of “East Nashville, Tennessee” has to say about “Long Way Down,” the first cut from The SteelDrivers’ winning new disc “The Muscle Shoals Recordings”: Lead singer Gary Nichols “lets loose something the opposite of righteousness. It’s a howl full of hurt and anger and life. Starts on the highest E-note that 99.9% of male singers can hit, then ascends into a sweet falsetto and then opens up like the gates of hell, into a reeling screech.”

Well.

It’s not quite all of that but you know what he’s getting at with this alt-bluegrass outfit. It is indeed pretty cool, full, as Cooper writes of “grit and groove, blues and bluster” which is why this Nashville-born bunch recorded in Muscle Shoals, Ala., the “Jackson Highway Studio” of Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett and Lynard Skynyrd.

Now that bluegrass is largely a solid IQ music (its best known banjo-picking exponent, remember, is a comedian who wins American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Awards and who used to do comedy routines about Ludwig Wittgenstein), who couldn’t find room for a gutbucket bluegrass outfit like this?

Chris Stapleton, their last lead singer before Nichols, had an even more disreputable sound that reminded some people of Tom Waits. He quit to become a civilian. So then a disc full of Richard Bailey’s banjo and Tammy Rogers’ fiddle is clear evidence, as their poet/salesman Cooper would say, they’re “a damn good band” with a few more anti-social things on its mind than garden variety bluegrass.

If it’s a “Long way down,” it’s not all that long a way from Nashville to Muscle Shoals – not geographically or musically either. The trip was worth making.

– Jeff Simon

Jazz

2 in Love

David Benoit and

Jane Monheit

[Concord Records]

∆∆z

Smooth jazz pianist David Benoit wrote these songs, with lyrics written by his friends, who luckily include Mark Winkler and the great Lorraine Feather. Feather wrote the lyrics to two up-tempo numbers, “Barcelona Nights” and “Too in Love.” I wish she had written more. Jane Monheit wisely plays it straight as she crosses different styles from Latin to frantic bebop to slow ballads. I do have a problem sometimes with her voice. Sometimes she pronounces things unnaturally (“You sit at the piiiiii-a-no...”). She shows little awareness of the words she is singing. You have to giggle as she sings the lines “Go for the best/damn all the rest,” because she shows no trace of impetuousness.

I’ve always thought Benoit is a good pianist, clear and straightforward and with interesting harmonies. His songs sound like light Broadway. “The Songs We Sang,” with lyrics by Winkler, is clever and touching. It’s written from the viewpoint of a lyricist lamenting the end of a love affair with the composer. “The songs we write are out of tune/The words and notes don’t rhyme...” “Fly Away,” a modern jazz/pop number with lyrics by Spencer Day, is a good power pop ballad. I’d like to hear it sung by a better singer than Monheit. On the other hand, “Something’s Gotta Give” sounds like Stephen Sondheim, and many of the other tracks (there are 10) aren’t very distinctive. The CD ends with a New Age-y piano solo of “Send in the Clowns” and Bernstein’s “Candide.”

– Mary Kunz Goldman

Jazz

Gary Peacock Trio

Now This

[ECM]

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Gary Peacock was 80 on May 12.

With that fact – and this beautiful new trio disc – it’s probably time to notice that his jazz history is close to stupendous, and not just because he has spent so many years as the indispensable bassist for Keith Jarrett’s Standards Band. Think of Peacock more as the kind of spectacular jazz bass player who thinks nothing of doing what the rest of us might think of as impossible.

Here is a jazz bassist who was once crucial to avant saxophone demolitionist Albert Ayler in a trio with the freest of all drummers Sunny Murray. Here is also a jazz bass player who fit in perfectly in Bill Evans’ trio with Paul Motian. And who is a longtime musical brother to Paul Bley, too.

Add all that to his indispensable role as the bass chair in Jarrett’s Standards Trio and you’ll still not entirely be able to imagine his trio music with pianist Marc Copand and drummer Joey Baron on this disc.

Put it this way: the music on Peacock’s “Now This” was certainly implicit in everything he did with Bill Evans, crossed with everything he did with Paul Bley. But no small part of it is the solidity demanded of Albert Ayler’s bassist and the songfulness crucial to the bass player in Jarrett’s Standards band.

Copland is a good deal more impressionistic and poetic than Jarrett; certainly he’s less inclined to rock the house with long, trance-like ostinati. His own compositions here – notably “Noh Blues” – sound like close relatives of many by Carla Bley and played famously by her ex-husband Paul. (“Ida Lupino” anyone?) Because it’s Peacock’s group, he gets to define the bassist as soloist far more interestingly than bass players usually do.

Drummer Joey Baron is a free jazz poet fluent in the drum language of Paul Motian.

We should all hit 80 the way Gary Peacock just did on disc.

– J.S.

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