British modern jazz ensembles like Sons of Kemet and Black Midi have brought back the heady days of Sun Ra-style free jazz, but it’s been missing women’s lush touch of funk, in the manner of Alice Coltrane. Unexpectedly, Leeds-based bandleader Emma-Jean Thackray arrives with her debut Yellow (Movement/Warp Records), which launches with an Art Ensemble of Chicago flourish before she adds a warm voice promising possible worlds in space, suggestive of mid-1970s funk ensembles.
Right behind Thackray is the latest from Esperanza Spalding, the bassist who veers between complex instrumental work and her own sci-fi-spiced lyricism. Songwrights Apothecary Lab (Concord Jazz), features Spalding’s collaborator Ganavya Doraiswamy on vocals, and aims at nothing less than healing through Carnatic teaching, mindful music and neuroscience. The three-part “Theme” (formwela 1/2/3) sets the tone, which is whimsical and gentle, proving that modern jazz can be as soothing as it is startling.
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The Stranglers, Dark Matters (Course-good/BFD) – The Stranglers have spent years trying to overcome a reputation of misogyny from punk’s earliest days. Their work since the 1990s has been more subtle and politically astute, but they haven’t released a new studio album in a decade. This new work serves as a memorial to keyboardist Dave Greenfield, who died of COVID in May 2020 (and who also got a limited-edition tribute album of his own). The central “And If You Should See Dave” has a heavy-harmony, almost Moody Blues feel but tracks like “This Song” and “The Last Men on the Moon” could pass for Stranglers songs from their late 1970s heyday.
Heartless Bastards, A Beautiful Life (Sweet Unknown/Thirty Tigers) – Erika Wennerstrom always has fancied being a guitar goddess first, but each successive solo album and release with Heartless Bastards shows she is an accomplished arranger and lyricist as well. This 11-part suite is designed to instill hope in a post-pandemic era. Tracks like “Revolution” may veer into sloganeering in a time when no one retains common definitions for words, but that’s a minor quibble to make about a solid album of devotion for humanity.