Skimming the cream

By JON GARELICK  |  December 17, 2007

Herbie Hancock
River: The Joni Letters (Verve) purports to be pianist Herbie Hancock’s tribute to the music of Joni Mitchell. But jazz fans may regard it as one of the best Herbie/Wayne Shorter albums in the careers of these long-time collaborators. Yes, there are Joni songs, and various singers (including Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Rae, Tina Turner, and Joni herself), but the vocals are of a piece with meditative instrumental improvisations, which include non-Joni material like Ellington’s “Solitude” and Shorter’s “Nefertiti.” It could have been slick pop crossover, but this time out Herbie was hearing some deep jazz.

Musillami and Scofield
Could there have been a better night of jazz guitar than what we got October 4? First up was the Michael Musillami Trio with guest violinist Mark Feldman at MIT’s Killian Hall, working from their new Playscape release The Treatment. Musillami’s playing is effects-and-feedback-free, but his clean, dry, aggressive attack is almost rockist. He and Feldman spun free-flying improvs over tricky arrangements that made plenty of space for collective improv with bassist Joe Fonda and drummer George Schuller. John Scofield, Musillami’s conceptual opposite, loves his effects and is also capable of free-form outbursts, but he likes to start with familiar pop and R&B forms. At the Regattabar, he supplemented his trio with a three-man horn section, re-creating the fractured funk, pop, and country from his This Meets That (Emarcy).

Gypsy Schaeffer
The quartet Gypsy Schaeffer (named for a New Orleans sportin’-house proprietor) — trombonist Joel Yennior, saxophonist Andy Voelker, bassist Jef Charland, and drummer Chris Punis — suggest the sound of some of Mingus’s “pianoless” groups. There’s the free interplay of the lead horns, subtle tempo and meter shifts, and also, most surprising of all, great original tunes (not as common in jazz as you might think). A truly collective enterprise, Gypsy Schaeffer are riding on two albums, a homonymous debut and Portamental, both on the band’s own Peace Time Records.

Erik Friedlander
Friedlander is a mainstay with avant-jazz folks like Dave Douglas and John Zorn as well as rockers in need of a spare cello, like Courtney Love. The pieces on his solo album Block Ice & Propane (Skipstone) recall the American landscapes he saw on cross-country trips as a child with his parents (his father is the photographer Lee Friedlander) and his sister. He plays mostly pizzicato here, but this isn’t folk guitar transposed to cello — these far-reaching pieces draw on a variety of styles and techniques, from folk and jazz to contemporary classical. A show at the tiny Lily Pad, with Friedlander playing unamplified, was one of the year’s special treats.

Mili Bermejo
Bermejo has been an essential member of the Boston jazz community for more than 20 years. At Scullers Jazz Club in May 2006, she and her husband, bassist Dan Greenspan, and their excellent band recorded the performance that became De Tierra (Ediciones Pentagrama). It has all the Bermejo hallmarks: an uncanny ability to combine folkloric pan-American music with a jazz sensibility in her arrangements and original compositions and her dusky, powerful vocals. The material ranges from personal (ballad elegies for her father and brother) to the political (“Bendiciones,” a comment on the plight of migrant workers). But for Bermejo, a child of several nations, there’s never been much difference. She and the band performed the material in February at Berklee and returned to Scullers in May.

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