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Saturday, September 15, 2018

Kidd Jordan, Joel Futterman, Alvin Fielder, Steve Swell – Masters of Improvisation (Valid Records, 2018) ****

By Nick Ostrum

I know of Kidd Jordan because of his work with musicians from Chicago and New York (at whose Vision Festival he made one of his few public performances this year), in scenes far away from his home city of New Orleans. Because of this, I have always considered him more of a musical denizen of the Lower East Side or its Third Coast counterpart (whatever that may be) than of Frenchman Street. And this is not just my own bias. Spending time at bars and other venues in New Orleans will expose one to many types of music, free jazz largely excluded.

Masters of Improvisation, recorded live at the Old US Mint in 2017, is a notable and welcome exception. The music contained on this disc is deeply satisfying, deeply emotive free jazz produced by four immensely talented practitioners. Accompanying Jordan are Joel Futterman on piano, Alvin Fielder on drums, and Steve Swell on trombone. Both Futterman and Fielder have a long, fruitful history of collaboration with Jordan. Fielder and Jordan have been playing together since the 1970s and have performed with Futterman in various configurations since the mid-1990s. For his part, Swell has worked with Jordan in several larger ensembles in the past, but, it seems, never in so intimate a setting. Still, as one might rightfully expect, this group is masterful.

The album’s first track, aptly titled “Expansion,” begins with a disjointed back-and-forth between musicians that almost naturally evolves into a spirited and cacophonous improvisational fanfare. After this climax, Fielder slows the tempo in a grooving two-minute drum solo that concludes the piece. The next song, “Residue,” begins with a spacious dialogue between trombone and percussion. Futterman, whose first few notes are sparse and easily missed, slowly steals his way in and soon fills the air with his characteristic frenetic piano flourishes. Then, Jordan breaks in and swings the music into the type of free, soulful groove that only he and a handful of his contemporaries (Coltrane, Noah Howard, and Sonny Simmons come to mind) could pull off so convincingly. The intensity wells and fades several times, as the musicians abandon linearity in favor of more fractured and inquisitive, though inspired explorations. The final track, “Sawdust on the Floor,” is the catchiest and, in a fitting homage to New Orleans itself, tempers its underlying joie de vivre with a cathartic rendition of “Summertime” that carries the piece to its end.

Jordan admittedly sounds older than he has in previous performances and recordings. That, however, is more of an observation than a criticism. On Masters of Improvisation, he has sacrificed some of the energy of his earlier days for an unvarnished, at times gravelly tenderness that only the wisdom and wounds of age can produce. Even with all the sheer talent surrounding him – Fielder’s resourceful and measured drumming; Futterman’s balance of horror vacui with an intricate, fractured melodicism; Swell’s controlled power and boundless creativity – Jordan nevertheless stands front and center. He clearly still has much to say, and the skills to articulate it beautifully. This recording is testament to that.