Welcome to the sixth volume of Salt Peanuts, a monthly newsletter showcasing the best jazz, funk, soul, afrobeat, and world music! A late post this time around thanks to tons of new music and the NOLA Jazz & Heritage Festival. This month we’re featuring House of Waters and new releases by Christian Scott, Braxton Cook, and Tigran Hamasyan. With heaps of new tracks, I’ve cut out some of the duller ones to make the full Volume 6 playlist less onerous and more cohesive.
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Artist of the Month
(Spotlight on a Salt Peanuts favorite)
House of Waters
Please see and support live music. House of Waters didn’t figure into my initial plans for featured artist, but seeing them live a couple weeks ago led to a quick and easy change of heart. Lauded as “the most original band on the planet” by one music critic and “a sight to behold” by TimeOut NY, House of Waters is as unorthodox a trio as they come, featuring Max ZT on hammered dulcimer, Moto Fukushima on six-string bass, and Ignacio Rivas-Bixio on percussion. They fuse this unique instrumentation with elements of jazz, classical, indie rock, and world music, and then pour on complex West African and South American rhythms for good measure. The offspring of this mad genius is unlike anything you’ve heard before.
The diversity in the musicians’ backgrounds is matched only by their musical range and virtuosity. Let’s go through each of the band members. The hammered dulcimer by nature is a gorgeous-sounding instrument, but Max ZT – whom NPR has called “the Jimi Hendrix of the hammered dulcimer” – creates such rich layers that House of Waters’ compositions are so full-bodied and often feel like more than three instruments. With roots in Irish folk music, experience studying the Griot tradition in Senegal, and mentorship from santoor master Shivkumar Sharma in Mumbai, Max ZT’s fresh multicultural perspective is what shapes House of Waters’ eclectic compositions.
On the bass, Moto Fukushima slays solos across various tunes and is featured on the ballads “Francesco”, “Forming The Emptiness”, and “Sound of Impermanence”. He navigates the frets with the ease of a Victor Wooten, Richard Bona, or Jaco Pastorius. High praise, I know, but the man’s musical talents are of the highest quality. Finally, percussionist Ignacio Rivas-Bixio may be the least featured band member, but his brilliance is undeniable as the engine supporting the complex adventures of the band. While “The Falls” is a percussion-forward track with tribal beats, you’ll usually hear Rivas-Bixio hitting some combination of a modified drum set, cajón, tambourine, cymbals, and maracas across their albums.
So many of House of Waters’ tracks are incomprehensibly good, but “Black Mallard” might be the filthiest. The band’s ability to build and release tension is on full display, with Max ZT’s maniacal solo giving way to Fukushima gliding seamlessly through reharmonizations and flying through scales like a madman. And the band’s ability to compose and perform complex songs is most easily seen on “17”, named for the 17/8 meter the song is written in. For every frenetic “Black Mallard”, “17”, or “Juice”, there are there is a serene “Clean Peace”, “Francesco”, or “Hamza”. Not to mention the more catchy tunes: “Martino”, “In Waves”, and “Zones”.
The full Volume 6 playlist has a curated set of House of Waters tunes, organized with my favorites at the top. Bands that push the boundaries of music are the ones who will define the future of the art and survive as hackneyed content dies out. House of Waters just finished opening for Snarky Puppy on their European tour, so it’s only a matter of time before more audiences awaken to them. If they end up in a city near you, go see them.
(The freshest new singles, EPs, and albums on the scene)
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Ruler Rebel
Grammy-nominated trumpeter Christian Scott – he of the moving Tiny Desk performance – released Ruler Rebel under his alternative moniker Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, a nod to his Afro-native tribal roots. Scott’s previous album, Stretch Music, was all about pushing the boundaries of genres to create a sound wholly and eclectically his own. Ruler Rebel is no different, combining his cavernous ambiances with elements of New Orleans funk, spaghetti-western themes, and trap music (not the EDM trap you may be thinking of, but rather Southern hip-hop with big bass and dark lyrics). The whole album is sonically very cool – exotic melodies and daring solos laid over thumping percussion and drum machine beats – but “Encryption” and “The Coronation of X. aTunde Adjuah” are favorites, mainly due to the incredible soloing from flutist Elena Pinderhughes. Shockingly, she’s just 21 years old and her buoyant solo lines contrast the sinister undertones that lie beneath. For more on Ruler Rebel and Scott’s roots, check out this tight New York Times feature (fake news!!) they did on him in February.
Highlights: “New Orleanian Love Song II”, “Rise Again”, “Encryption”, “The Coronation of X. aTunde Adjuah”
Braxton Cook – Somewhere in Between
If you’ve noticed some smooth sax soloing on some of Christian Scott’s earlier albums, that’d be courtesy of 25-year-old Braxton Cook, who happened to release a solo album of his own,Somewhere in Between. Cook had taken some time off from Scott’s band in 2016-2017 to work on his solo venture and the product is an incredibly mature debut with impressive narrative structure. If anything, Somewhere in Between’s more tepid moments are its vocal tracks (e.g., “I Can’t” and “Never Thought”), which only make the stronger tracks stand out that much more. “You’re the One” brings an energized start, “Hymn (For Trayvon)” illustrates an emotional catharsis over the Trayvon Martin shooting, and “The Gospel” features a catchy chorus amidst the album’s climax. I’m also a big fan of the interlude “Mathis’ Tune”, which brings a peppy, disco-funk vibe to the party. After years of Christian Scott’s tutelage and with his band serving as an incubator, Cook has managed to define a distinctive solo voice in a highly saturated music market – ultra expressive, full-bodied, and wailing. I’ve had the album on repeat since its release.
Highlights: “You’re the One”, “FJYD”, “Hymn (For Trayvon)”, “Mathis’ Tune (Interlude)”, “The Gospel”
Tigran Hamasyan – An Ancient Observer
Armenian musician Tigran Hamasyan is easily one of the most talented pianists on the modern jazz scene. If you aren’t familiar, his live performance of “What the Waves Brought” on KUTX’s studio in 2013 is absolutely filthy and a must-watch. His ability to bring a percussive nature to the piano and switch between complex time signatures is simply jaw-dropping. Hamasyan’s new album An Ancient Observer features his typical absurd range of virtuous, scat-featuring tracks and lyrical, evocative ones, all imbued with heaps of Armenian folk influence. “Nairian Odyssey” is this album’s version of “What the Waves Brought”, spanning 11 minutes in length and multiple musical tropes – so, yeah, you’re goddamn right it’s an odyssey. The title track “Ancient Observer” is a little further down on the virtuosity scale, though leaning closer to the jazz side. And “New Baroque 1” and “Egyptian Poet” are slower and more harmonic in nature (the latter with some spacey, trademark vocal chanting).
Highlights: “New Baroque 1”, “Nairian Odyssey”, “Egyptian Poet”, “Ancient Observer”
(One-off miscellaneous favorites)
Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers – “Bustin’ Loose”
A little anthem from my Jazzfest weekend – Chuck Brown was the “Godfather of the Go-Go”, a sub-genre of funk. And that bridge is toooo funky.
Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers – “Dat Dere”
A cheeky tune from one of my favorite jazz drummers, the legendary Art Blakey. Check that Lee Morgan trumpet solo.
Nicholas Payton – “Jazz is a Four-Letter Word”
Grammy award-winning trumpeter Nicholas Payton – known for his social justice activism – intersperses tracks like this on his latest album (Afro-Carribean Mixtape) with spoken word through DJ sampling & scratching.
Richard Spaven – “The Self” feat. Jordan Rakei
British drummer Richard Spaven pairs with Kiwi soul crooner Jordan Rakei for this collaboration of the Commonwealth. Heady, sexy, and viscous.
The Short List
(A space for sometimes relevant, sometimes collaborative, and sometimes unrelated content)
Some Thoughts from The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
I recently went to New Orleans for the famed Jazz & Heritage Festival. Thought I’d share some thoughts – both positive and negative – from my experience.
The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival started in 1970 and has been a live performance hub for some of my favorite artists, including Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, Lauryn Hill, Trombone Shorty, The Meters, Herbie Hancock, Snarky Puppy, The Isley Brothers, Janelle Monae, Arturo Sandoval, and so on, across 12+ different stages. This was only my 2nd year going and I’ll no doubt head back for the incredible music, the deep cultural history of New Orleans, and the FOOD, but, as with any big music festival, there are the inevitable downsides.
1) The cultural exchange pavilion is a brilliant and underused idea. Each year, Jazzfest features a tent devoted solely to the music, art, and culture of a foreign country – last year was Belize and this year was Cuba. With Cuba’s borders now finally open to the U.S. (after, y’know, a little missile crisis, a little Cold War), the osmosis of each nation’s cultures is now a two-way street (though the U.S. seems to be contributing mostly bratty, selfie-taking tourists). The Cuba tent featured some of the crispest salsa my ears and hips have ever been privy to, thanks to ElSepteto Santiaguero. And we were blessed with a rousing live performance by Daymé Arocena, Cuba’s 25-year-old Aretha Franklin, that led to the only encore of Jazzfest I witnessed.
2) The. food. is. to. die. for. Crawfish, catfish po’ boys, gumbo, jambalaya, muffuletta, beignets, boudin balls, soft-shell crab po’ boys, cochon au lait, red beans and rice – you name it, bruh. I’m allergic to shellfish and my mind was still spinning. A cool thing the organizers do is remove the vendors’ names so festivalgoers aren’t biased to one gumbo joint over another.
3) It’s not all jazz, and not even close. Despite the festival’s name, the organizers stretch featured artists in all types of directions, often in puzzling ways. Some of the head-scratching acts of this year included Pitbull, Kings of Leon, and Meghan Trainor while last year saw the likes of Nick Jonas, Flo Rida, and Pearl Jam. And this is not to say these acts don’t deserve to perform; it’s just that they don’t fit in the umbrella of jazz or any of its relatives – not even a little bit. Ok fiiine, I don’t think Flo Rida deserves to perform.
4) Some people are there for New Orleans first, Jazzfest second. As you probably know, New Orleans is debauchery central for many Americans – the way Bali or Bangkok is for Australians, Magaluf for young Britons, or even Vegas or Cancun for other Americans (since one city to trash shall not suffice). Hence, the streets are rowdy at night, the live music can get drowned out, the clientele isn’t always desirable, and if you aren’t prepared (e.g., drunk) or in the mood after a long day at the fest, it might not be too fun. Then again, the spontaneous sunset block parties near the festival venue are one of a kind.
5) The South’s dark roots very much live on. Stevie Wonder started a “racism is unacceptable” chant during his performance and the crowd around me wasn’t exactly screaming its heart out. I had the immense pleasure of crossing paths with a male wearing the MAGA hat-shirt combo. And many restaurant customers and Lyft drivers retained choice words for Hillary. This all comes amidst a tense time in New Orleans, as the city actively removes statues idolizing figures of the Confederacy. Of course, it being the South, the removals have been met with opposition. One hopes that the multicultural display of America’s ties to Africa and Latin America at Jazzfest serves an educational purpose for some.