Dark Nights (Anzic Records)
This is a pretty perfect record, with highly improvised trio, quartet, and quintet arrangements led by young trumpeter/composer Avishai Cohen. Bassist Omer Avital and drummer Naishee Waits, like Cohen, have minds as open to undefined structure as they do to polyharmony and shifting tempos. On “Dark Days, Darker Nights,” Cohen’s trumpet is often accompanied by a trippy twin that’s being processed electronically. It’s a splendid effect that allows listener—and maybe band—to feel both adventurous and safe. A fine outing, full of fresh and interesting sounds, including a few well-chosen standards (Styne and Cahn’s “I Fall In Love Too Easily,” Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” and Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”) treated neither irreverently nor sycophantically.
Darius Jones and Matthew Shipp
Cosmic Lieder (AUM Fidelity)
This 2011 set of duets forms a conversation that’s a treat to overhear. Shipp’s piano is bright as ever, and he favors the right-hand side of the keyboard. Alto saxophonist Jones is both nimble and unpredictable. The sax asks questions of the piano. The piano ponders and occasionally retorts. “Jonesy” is a sweet change-up, and a seldom-heard side of Shipp’s thinking, evoking shades of Ellington.
Nels Cline and Julian Lage
Room (Mack Avenue)
Instrumental virtuosity with nowhere to go gets old fast. This record of guitar duets goes many places, all of them interesting, some surprising. More than a particular sound, Cline’s indie-rock pedigree seems to give him great confidence in and awareness of the power of quietness. Lage alternates between hushing himself to match and filling the space that Cline allows him. There’s a lot of pointillistic pizzicato, so when both players somehow find themselves strumming complementary major chords in unison on “The Scent of Light,” there is an air of stumbled-upon jubilation.
The Budos Band
Burnt Offering (Daptone Records)
This record was made for the teenager who wants to play metal but whose parents insist that he join the marching band. The two musics need not be mutually exclusive, and, when thoughtfully combined, can kick some serious butt. Behold the evolution of afrobeat.
Modern Jazz Quartet
Lost Tapes: Germany 1956-1958 (Jazzhaus)
A fabulous record by any measure but most notable, perhaps, as documentation that MJQ nailed that lush, chamber-jazz sound while the ensemble was in its infancy. The disc is mostly studio tracks; the most fascinating of the lot is probably “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” Vibraphonist Milt Jackson and pianist John Lewis tell the same story together but in completely different languages. Having them work out on such a familiar melody offers a terrific glimpse of how great musical minds work.
Hill Street Blues
In the era of CGI, it’s a challenge to recall a time when innovation relied upon content and presentation. Hill Street Blues aired from 1981 through ’87. It was among the first prime-time dramas to shoot documentary-style, using handheld cameras. It was among the first mainstream media to make reference to urban squalor, homelessness, and AIDS. And it was among the first TV shows to present the same characters both at work and at home. Hair and wardrobe notwithstanding, it has aged well—primarily thanks to the way above-average writing and acting.
Sanford and Son
It’s difficult to cipher whether Redd Foxx’s Fred Sanford character was made necessary by Archie Bunker or Bill Cosby, who had been miscast as a black-but-not-ethnic secret agent in the mid-’60s series I Spy. Fred Sanford did more to pave the way for comic contemporaries like Flip Wilson and Richard Pryor, along with successors like Dave Chappelle and Cedric the Entertainer. The situation comedy and junkyard moralizing of the Sanford cast was not terribly original, but the inner-city setting and subjects were new to TV.
The Woodwright’s Shop
Carolina carpenter Roy Underhill has been hosting this show since 1979. A likely explanation for its longevity is that people don’t tune in to see what’s new; they tune in to see what’s not. Underhill whips out functional furniture using awesome-looking antique adzes and drawknives and mallets and handsaws that he sharpens himself. A lot of current how-to TV is engineered more to dazzle than instruct. This show is actually empowering for a lot of viewers. With some practice and patience, most people can do what Underhill demonstrates.
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