February Listening Highlights

I’m often asked by both musicians and non-musicians alike, “what are you listening to these days?” In all honesty, I’m sometimes hesitant to share, because what I enjoy might not be a good entry point for jazz newcomers. Anyways, I’ll go ahead.

Because I’m currently on sabbatical, I have more time than usual to listen to music intentionally. Admittedly, much of the listening I do is on streaming platforms, while running or driving. I’m on the lookout for fresh sounds and new ideas during this time when I am actively composing new music.

For the month of February, I thought it might be fun to list a song per day that impressed me. If time permits, I’ll add a sentence or two describing what captured my imagination.

Feb. 1:

Steve Coleman, The Mystic Rhythm Society – “Song of the Beginnings”
Myths, Modes & Means Live in Paris, 1995

  • I liked the energy created from the looping, 10-note bass line. The funky snare backbeat on 3 and 9 is exciting, as are the ways in which they loosen and stray from the initial groove, before returning to it.

Feb 2:

Señor Blues, by Horace Silver, performed by Wynton Marsalis & Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra
Arranged by bassist, Carlos Henriquez


  • The trombone writing at the beginning is gold! I had forgotten that this band uses only three trombones. It’s nice to hear the soloists have room to stretch on this minor blues. The arrangement is well structured with simple backgrounds on the soloist’s last chorus.

Feb. 3:

Steve Coleman, “Little Drummer Boy” (from A Merry Jazzmas, 1991)

  • I almost hit fast-forward when this came up in my streaming feed, but I became curious about the drum-saxophone duo between Coleman and Marvin Smitty Smith and wondered what might unfold. They didn’t disappoint. Smith provided a consistent, structured solo environment, with subtle interactions by not straying too far from the expected snare drum groove. Coleman approached his solo from a rhythmic angle, initially staying on one pitch and then straying melodically, when it felt necessary and appropriate to do so. I thought that something like this would create an interesting solo environment in a large ensemble piece.

Feb. 4:

Vince Mendoza, “Home Coming” (2017)

  • I’m not sure how I missed this 2017 release!

Feb. 5:

I was curious to hear the new (and final) Lyle Mays recording, Eberhard. It was disappointing to realize that it consisted solely of a single 13-minute piece, I had hoped for more.

Along with this, my streaming service brought up a lot of old Lyle Mays recordings in which I had emerged myself during my youth. Highland Aire is still as moving as I remembered it.

Feb. 8:

I’ve decided to approach these listening sessions from the standpoint of “who would I like to spend an hour with, to get to know them and their music better.” Today I chose Jaki Byard. I don’t know enough about him and his musical output. The sampling I heard today was fantastic! Many of the clips were solo piano, which isn’t usually conducive to running. However, his playing was so swinging, creative, and strong that I didn’t skip a single track. As couple of standout albums were:

  • Jaki Byard – Parisian Solos (1971)
  • Jaki Byard – Family Man (1978)

I’ll be digging much deeper into his work going forward.

Feb. 9:

I’ve been meaning to check out Miguel Zenón in more depth and his “Identities Are Changeable” has aroused my curiosity because of the subject matter and incorporating people’s spoken stories into/over the music. He does it well and thoughtfully; creating space and eliminating business when the vocal recordings are added. I wondered if the music was ever performed live, and if it was done sans speakers.

Feb. 10:

I revisited Miguel Zenón’s music today, and I know I’ll be listening to a lot more. The album “Esta Plena” warrants repeat listening. To say the track “Villa Palmeras” had a lot going on is an understatement. I really liked the flurry of stop-time-like hits in the rhythm section. I may borrow that. 

Feb. 11:

Today I heard a broad cross-selection from Nicholas Payton’s discography. What a gorgeous, full bodied trumpet tone! As someone who’s been dabbling on trumpet as a second instrument over the past few years, I’m totally envious and full of admiration. He sounds great on everything I heard. Two track that I’ll purposefully revisit are:

  • After You’ve Gone – from “Gumbo Nouveau”.
    – I liked the intro, the Tony Williams-esque drum groove, and the reharm
  • #BAMboula – from “Caribbean Mixtape”
    – Lately I’ve been drawn to the use of tambourine, mixed in with the drums and percussion. It evokes thoughts of rattling chains. The bass grooves are varied throughout and there are some stellar moments. At about 10:10 in the track, I love the spaciousness that’s created.

Feb. 12:

Years ago, I remember Jim McNeely mentioning writing for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, directed by Jon Faddis. Today I finally checked it out. Although most of us think of McNeely as a composer, I dig his arranging just as much. There’s often an element of humor that comes through, as I heard today in his tongue-and-cheek renditions of “Sing, Sing, Sing” and “In the Mood.” Most contemporary jazz musicians would pay money NOT to play or hear, these overplayed swing era classics. However, Jim transforms them, with class. As expected, his detailed study of the original version comes through, while he puts his signature, revitalizing stamp on them. Hipness personified.

Feb. 13:

There’s a well known trumpet player who tours and is often reviewed, but to whom I haven’t really listened, other than a few video clips, here and there. Today I decided to find out what he was all about. I’m not using his name because I’m not out to bash anyone; but he “didn’t do it for me.” Sure, he plays the horn well; it’s accurate. But something is missing. There was no fire. There was no personality that came through. On ballads, his tone wasn’t exceptionally warm. The vibrato was narrow. Mostly, I think it was a lack of articulations that turned me off. Compared with Freddie Hubbard, Blue Mitchell, Clark Terry — this was BOR-ING. And I listened to a wide cross-selection.

From there, I moved on to Kenny Wheeler, to cleanse my palate. What a difference! Personality. Depth. Emotion. I hadn’t heard this recording of Gentle Piece before. It is a gorgeous duets with the Canadian pianist, Brian Dickinson, from the 2005 album, “Still Waters.”

Feb. 14:

Today I was on a mission to hear Jim McNeely’s latest, with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, “Rituals,” featuring Chris Potter. It didn’t disappoint.

* I ended up “calling it quits” on this project. As the days passed, I grew increasingly frustrated with Spotify as a listening platform. It’s next to impossible to listen to an album from beginning to end. I found myself exasperated whenever I had specific listening in mind. The platform is only useful for discovering new music, but even then it is sometimes challenging to determine to whom you have just listened. I tried to embrace it, but streaming is a drag.

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