May 29, 2024

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Esperanza Spalding conjures 4 New Spells, and Mary Stallings pours a Little Sugar: Photos, Videos

Along with new music by Ralph Peterson & The Messenger Legacy, the Mark Dresser Seven, and a supertrio of Dave Douglas, Uri Caine and Andrew Cyrille. 

Last year Esperanza Spalding again carved her own path as a recording artist, with 12 Little Spells — an album that initially unfurled as a series of online videos, one day at a time. Taken as a whole, the album stretches Spalding’s purview as a singer-songwriter, a bandleader and a conceptualist. Offering idiosyncratic insights on human physiology and the pathways of the spirit, it appeared on some year-end lists, including mine, where it landed at No. 13. (I was too coy to put it at 12.)

Now 12 Little Spells has been released in physical form, with four additional songs (or as Spalding calls them, song-spells) — meaning that the math no longer works, but the message has only been deepened. Spalding released a beautifully shot music video for the first of these bonus tracks, “Lest We Forget (Blood).” That’s one of the best of the bunch, with a multitracked vocal part bracketing a kind of secular hymn, steeped in sun-warped synths and slow-chiming guitar. There’s also a spoken-word gem called “How To (Hair)” and a syncopated-funk workout called “Move Many (Joints).”

But the song that stands out among this windfall is “Ways Together (Shoulders),” one of the prettiest, most generous and most unguarded Spalding has ever made.

It begins with what might be a touch of autobiography, as Spalding seems to recall being raised by a single mother. She goes on to express her awestruck gratitude for a romantic partner who’s truly supportive, as well as sensual. “Now you run your hand along my shoulder,” she sings, “And all I feel is lightness.”

The song gathers texture and density as it moves, though Spalding is careful to keep the feeling airy. Even as the harmonic contours grow more complex, she keeps her line and message simple. “Carrying the world between us,” goes a refrain in the song’s final stretch, and that phrase could imply a weight being shouldered. But Spalding sounds entirely unburdened.

The Mark Dresser Seven, “Ain’t Nothing But a Cyber Coup & You”

It’s possible you will never find a less complacent musician than bassist Mark Dresser, who has spent an entire career straining against the limitations of both his instrument and his idiom. That rebellious spirit extends to Dresser’s ambitions as a composer-bandleader. The latest evidence is his new album on Clean Feed, Ain’t Nothing But a Cyber Coup & You.

This is the second release by the Mark Dresser Seven, which has a front line of Nicole Mitchell on flute, Marty Ehrlich on reeds and Michael Dessen on trombone. Pianist Joshua White provides a turbulent introduction, and later one of several full-tilt solos. Also feeding the intensity are drummer Jim Black and violinist Keir GoGwilt — along with a title that, as Dresser puts it, is about the “reality-horror-show of corruption, malice, xenophobia and class warfare” in our cultural moment. Still, there’s élan as well as alarm in this music; at the very least, it conveys the message that these artists aren’t about to go down without a fight.

Ralph Peterson & The Messenger Legacy, “Children of the Night”

Art Blakey was a mentor and role model to drummer Ralph Peterson, who has devoted the last 35 years to meeting his high musical standard. The Messenger Legacy is Peterson’s most direct gesture: a repertory band featuring alumni of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, with the underlying conviction that its music is eternal. The band’s new double album, Legacy: Alive Vol. 6 at the Side Door, will release on May 20 — Peterson’s 57th birthday, as it happens — on the Onyx Productions label.

Dave Douglas/Uri Caine/Andrew Cyrille, “Curly”

Devotion, the latest Greenleaf Music release, is credited to three brilliant musicians: trumpeter Dave Douglas, pianist Uri Caine, and drummer Andrew Cyrille. Whether on the sanctified title track or a piece like “Miljøsang,” their efforts as an improvising trio strive toward an indivisible whole. But the album’s opener stakes out different territory, with just Caine and Cyrille in a playful push-pull exchange.

Caine begins the track in a pugilistic 12/8 polyrhythm, before shifting into a steadier gear. But with Cyrille for a conversational partner, he knows he can duck out of the pocket without losing a step. There’s a great deal of kinetic energy in the track — even when, at around 2:30, the tempo opens up and relaxes for a spell. It’s not hard to picture Douglas in the control room, nodding and smiling at this summit, as he waits his turn.

Mary Stallings, “Sugar”

The estimable Bay Area jazz singer Mary Stallings will turn 80 this year — a startling fact, not least because of the vibrancy that still resides in her voice, a welcoming alto that can either toll like a bell or settle into a purr. Her new album, Songs Were Made to Sing, is a fine vehicle for that voice, as well as a reminder of her priorities, not just as a jazz singer but also as a song stylist.

The first available track from the album is “Sugar,” which of course was the title track of a 1970 CTI album by tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. In her version, Stallings takes a laid-back approach to phrasing the melody, singing lyrics by Ted Daryll. As on the rest of the album, she has expert backing from pianist David Hazeltine, saxophonist Vincent Herring, bassist David “Happy” Williams, and drummer Joe Farnsworth. That rhythm section will be fully intact for an album-release engagement at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club, this Thursday through Saturday.

Esperanza Spalding during her tour for '12 Little Spells' last fall

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