Earth (Dave Liebman) by Ken Dryden

Saxophonist Dave Liebman has long been one of the most adventurous and unpredictable jazz musicians, his discography touching on nearly every jazz style known. Liebman is always working simultaneously on multiple projects; some are one-offs but in many of them he finds fertile enough ground to return. Several of his best recordings over the past decade have featured his quintet Expansions with saxophonist Matt Vashlishan, keyboard player Bobby Avey, bassist Tony Marino and drummer Alex Ritz. Expansions has explored both original acoustic and electronic compositions by the group’s members, in addition to reinterpreting standards and timeless jazz works, breaking new ground with each performance.

The new CD Earth is the concluding chapter to Liebman’s nature series (proceeded by Water, Air and Fire, though these were all recorded by other Liebman bands) and features Vashlishan exclusively on wind synthesizer. Liebman’s music ranges from composed passages to freewheeling group improvisations, including turbulent images of nature, busy urban settings and spacious musical landscapes. Liebman helps the listener adjust from one track to the next via brief improvised interludes that feature different instruments in the foreground.

As with his earlier recordings with Expansions, there is plenty of surprise in store for the listener. It is a bit of a change not hearing Vashlishan on his usual instruments (alto saxophone, clarinet and flute), but wind synthesizer is one of the facets that makes the music unique. The explosive blend of it and soprano saxophone in “Volcano/Avalanche” is intense, though its sudden ending adds a whimsical touch. The contrast with “Grand Canyon/Mt. Everest” is striking, as its deliberate pacing and alternating between the full group and showcasing each instrument conveys a sense of wonder.

Liebman’s demanding music always requires top- notch musicians and his band understood his vision and helped him bring this outstanding project to life.

Fatherhood (Ben Wolfe) by Elliott Simon

This offering from bassist Ben Wolfe is a personal reflection on his father’s recent passing and a paean to fatherhood in general. Wolfe and drummer Donald Edwards are at the helm of this session, which, save for a beautifully scored reworking of Bob Haggart’s “What’s New”, is all originals. Vibraphonist Joel Ross is exquisite and Wolfe could have expeditiously chosen a vibraphone trio to interpret these varied tunes. Instead, his ambitious decision to score 8 of these 10 compositions for strings and selectively include other musicians transforms this release into a career-defining work. It is a wise move that ties this recording to his previous output and connects it to a time when composition drove group structure and string sections were viewed as integral as opposed to augmentative.

Reworked opener “Blind Seven” features slashing runs from alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and a touching violin solo from Jesse Mills. All of Wolfe’s compositions are fresh and the strings are fundamental. Pianists Luis Perdomo and Orrin Evans showcase their distinct chemistry with Ross and each appears individually on five of the cuts. Perdomo artfully supports and leads whereas Evans flows and blends.

Such is the case with Perdomo at the center of the bouncy and slightly dissonant “Edged” and Evans imparting his consummate feel to “Opener” with tenor saxophonist JD Allen and trumpeter Giveton Gelin.

The culmination of Wolfe’s approach, however, is “The Kora La”, a symphonic history lesson through an amalgamation of sounds encapsulating diverse styles and cultures. While Fatherhood may be the motivation for this musical palimpsest, which retains traces of Wolfe’s earlier approaches, it is not its most significant aspect. Wolfe’s creative meshing of distinctive forms and genres, mature alteration of previously released material, elegant arrangements of difficult music and strong leadership of this large ensemble are its more noteworthy characteristics.

The Omni-American Book Club (Brian Lynch) by George Kanzler

Trumpeter Brian Lynch has kept his hand in two distinct genres for most of his four-decade career, equally adept at straightahead hardbop and AfroLatin jazz. He’s also become a first-class composer-arranger for big bands (winning a Grammy with Eddie Palmieri for Best Latin Jazz Album in 2007) and, in fact, this album just won the award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble at last month’s Grammys. Lynch uses a variety of AfroLatin rhythms, but this is a wide-ranging album, with loads of swinging 4/4 as well. The title is drawn from a book by the African-American cultural critic Albert Murray, one of many authors Lynch cites in his subtitles (two for each composition). Most of the books in his “club” are socio-political or cultural, dealing with existential problems of race and identity. Reading Lynch’s comments about them is a good primer for embarking on a literary voyage of discovery but that’s not necessary to appreciate the music.

This is music full of flair and brio, played with sharp precision and packed with inspiring solos as well as exciting, full-tilt ensemble passages. Lynch has certain stylistic tropes and gestures that carry from

track to track, like themes overlapping in round or fugue fashion or chase choruses, and often expands his palette with woodwinds where one would expect saxophones. His love of AfroLatin rhythms is also liable to break out at unexpected times: at least three pieces that start out as straightahead swing acquire a montuño rhythm along the way.

The AfroLatin beat is there at the get-go on opener “Crucible for Crisis”, guest Orlando ‘Maraca’ Valle’s flute prominently in the ensemble lead as well as soloing and trading fours with Lynch over rhythms enlivened by guest drummer Dafnis Prieto. Other standout tracks include “Affective Affinities”, a bolero- like ballad with guest Regina Carter’s violin sharing the theme and solos with Lynch; “The Trouble with Elysium”, a swinger with fierce exchanges between tenor saxophonist Gary Keller and guest soprano saxophonist Dave Leibman (one of those that spins off into montuño with Lynch and pianist Alex Brown’s solos); and “Africa My Land”, full of subtly shifting, contrasting passages over a Highlife-inflected 6/8. The project has nine separate compositions, but to fill out two CDs, two are presented in “extended” versions on the second CD along with the last three. “The Struggle Is In Your Name” and “Woody Shaw” are worth hearing both times. The former has distinctly different solos from Lynch and guest alto saxophonist Donald Harrison on each. The latter is expanded with a second trumpeter, Jean Caze, whose solo rivals the leader’s.

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