Matt Ulery: Sifting Stars (Woolgathering Records)
Bassist Matt Ulery’s a proud ambassador for Chicago’s ever-vital jazz scene, yet Sifting Stars, his eighth as a bandleader since his 2008 debut, is hardly a jazz recording in the conventional sense of the word; in fact, a listener coming to his music for the first time might be shocked by how dramatically it departs from standard jazz practice. Issued on his own Woolgathering Records, Sifting Stars presents two works, the first a gorgeous quartet of chamber orchestra art songs, three of them vocal-based, and the second a suite performed by the Chicago-based quintet Axiom Brass. Ulery’s gifts as a composer, melodicist, and arranger are clearly evidenced by this magnificent recording.
Jonathan Barber: Vision Ahead (Vision Ahead Music)
We expect debut albums to show promise, but we don’t necessarily expect them to be fully realized and mature statements. A rare example of the latter, Jonathan Barber’s Vision Ahead presents a twelve-track collection of modern jazz by the Hartford, Connecticut native that dazzles on performance, writing, arranging, and sequencing grounds. Eight out of the twelve pieces on the release were composed by the drummer, and the material is performed with conviction by the leader, pianist Taber Gable, guitarist Andrew Renfroe, saxophonist Godwin Louis, bassist Matt Dwonszyk, and vocalists Denise Renee and Sasha Foster.
Meg Okura & The Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble: Ima Ima (Meg Okura & The Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble)
Though IMA IMA‘s a studio date, violinist Meg Okura’s wonderful fourth album with her Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble exudes the energy and effervescence of a live performance; furthermore, all seven settings were laid down on a single December day in 2015, suggesting that the participants came to the session with a number of run-throughs under their collective belt. Comfortably transitioning between composed and solo sequences, the musicians navigate the intricate pathways of the leader’s writing with seeming ease, and woodwinds, strings, harp, and percussion work together to create the impression of an ensemble considerably larger than a tenet.
Scott Petito: Rainbow Gravity (Planet Arts Records)
Scanning the names of musicians included on Scott Petito’s Rainbow Gravity, jazz-fusion listeners might understandably think they’ve died and gone to heaven: the drum chair alone’s occupied by no less than Jack DeJohnette, Peter Erskine, Simon Phillips, and Omar Hakim. Though the material Petito’s crafted for his musicians harks back to the classic ‘70s period when Return To Forever, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, and The Mahavishnu Orchestra built on the foundation Miles established with Bitches Brew, Rainbow Gravity never feels like some stale retrograde exercise or nostalgia trip.