New musics from Omer Avital, Lakecia Benjamin and Curtis Stigers: Videos, Photos, Sounds

- in New CD's Review, VIDEOS

Hear some new music that speaks clearly of human connection.

Bassist and composer Omer Avital arrived in New York in 1992, and within a few years he was causing a big stir with a series of groove-minded, pianoless bands that held court at Smalls. Ben Ratliff, writing about an Avital sextet in an admiring profile for The New York Times, observed that “the band has become a local favorite within the confines of that room and it feeds off the cheery feeling particular to the club.”

Smalls is among the many jazz clubs recently compelled to go dark, its collegial hum silenced for the foreseeable future. But those social energies are worth keeping alive and close at hand, through its  show archive or other means. Those energies also continue to reside in Avital’s music, which has evolved since the ‘90s, bending toward the Middle Eastern music of his heritage. (He is of Moroccan and Yemeni descent, but was born and raised in Israel.)

A new album, New York Paradox — just out on Avital’s label, Zamzama Records, in partnership with jazz&people — features the all-Israeli quintet he calls Qantar. One of the album’s standout tracks is “Just Like the River Flows,” a suite-like composition featured here in performance at Wilson Live!, Avital’s performance space and recording studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

The video, premiering here, highlights the effortless camaraderie in Qantar’s rhythm section, with Avital, pianist Eden Ladin and drummer Ofri Nehemya. The melody is scored in octaves for the band’s two saxophonists, who follow Ladin’s solo with their own: first Asaf Yuria, keening brightly on soprano, and then Alexander Levin, husky and imploring on tenor.

Lakecia Benjamin, Om Shanti” (feat. Georgia Anne Muldrow and Meshell Ndegeocello)

Speaking of keening and imploring saxophonists: Lakecia Benjamin has been working for years toward a statement as powerfully self-assured as Pursuance: The Coltranes. Releasing this Friday on Ropeadope, it’s the fulfillment of a dream, as Benjamin told WBGO recently for The Pulse. And along with her mentor and co-producer Reggie Workman — the bassist, Coltrane alumnus and NEA Jazz Master — the album features dozens of guests, from Brandee Younger to Gary Bartz.

For Alice Coltrane’s “Om Shanti” — a chant long circulated on cassette for the members of her ashram, and finally issued in 2017 on The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane (Luaka Bop) — Benjamin drew from personal history. It was Georgia Anne Muldrow who first introduced her to Alice Coltrane’s music, and even connected her with the ashram. Muldrow’s deeply soulful vocal melds perfectly with Meshell Ndegeocello’s serpentine electric bass, as Benjamin’s alto weaves through the mix. “Om Shanti,” of course, invokes peace for humankind. To which I say: Hear, hear.

MAE.SUN, “Awaken”

The calming power of “Om Shanti” can also be located in “Awaken,” the opening track of MAE.SUN’s 2019 album Vol. 2: Into the Flow. A band led by saxophonist, flutist and composer Hailey Niswanger, MAE.SUN puts a contemporary gloss on the spiritualism of 1970s soul-jazz, with contributions by vibraphonist Nikara Warren, guitarist Andrew Renfroe, keyboardist Axel Laugart and others.

The video for “Awaken,” which premieres here, was directed by Manut Buapet; it depicts Niswanger and a handful of others, including Jelani Bauman and Britta Rae, in a series of picturesque natural landscapes. (At one point, Niswanger takes an electric razor to her scalp, in what appears to be a nod to monastic asceticism.) In the end, each individual in the video joins the others on a rugged beach; the culmination is a communion.

Liberty Ellman, “Doppler”

Guitarist and composer Liberty Ellman favors both crisp precision and malleability in his music; he’d probably be the first to acknowledge the composerly influence of Henry Threadgill, who has been a mentor on the bandstand for nearly 20 years. Ellman’s new album — Last Desertdue on Pi Recordings this Friday — extends the purview of Radiate, from 2015. Once again it features his intricate designs for a sextet with Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Steve Lehman on alto saxophone, Jose Davila on tuba, Stephan Crump on bass and Damion Reid on drums.

“Doppler,” which premieres here, deftly incorporates a staccato melody over a pointillist, asymmetrical groove; it’s no wonder where Ellman got the title. The improvisations unfold as a round-robin: first Finlayson, then Ellman, then Lehman, and so on. And without making it obvious, the soloists carry an idea forward, giving the impression of a single mind at work.

Curtis Stigers with Larry Goldings, “Shut-Ins”

Vocalist, saxophonist and songwriter Curtis Stigers — the pride of Boise, Idaho — has a new album due on Emarcy next month. Along with songs by the likes of Nick Lowe and John Fullbright, the album, Gentleman, features a couple of new tunes by Bill DeMain and Larry Goldings. Here is yet another one by that team: a twinkly love song that proposes the most romantic version of self-quarantine. “Let the fever and the folly play out / I’d rather be a shut-in with you.”

“I fell in love with this song the first time I heard it,” says Stigers, who recorded the song with Goldings earlier this month. “It’s so romantic. Then, as social distancing and self-quarantining became a reality, I realized it isn’t just a love song, it’s also a public service announcement, a lovers’ guide to staying healthy and smart in a pandemic.” As the saying goes: love will save the day.

Bassist Omer Avital is the leader of Qantar, which has a new album, 'New York Paradox'

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