Now's The Time

Ḿbókò in December

David Virelles is a young (31 years old), Cuban-Canadian pianist now based in Brooklyn; he’s made a distinct impression as a member of saxophonist Mark Turner’s quartet in recent years. (Have a listen to this 2011 set from the Village Vanguard, broadcast on NPR, and hear for yourself.) Virelles’s new ECM Records release Ḿbókò is a conceptually ambitious album, rigorous in its execution, drawing upon the Afro-Cuban abakuá ritual society. The line-up is unusual: Virelles on piano; two bassists, Thomas Morgan and Robert Hurst, often providing a kind of drone sound foundation; drummer Marcus Gilmore from the Turner quartet on the jazz kit; and Román Díaz on the four-part biankoméko percussion ensemble. Díaz is the key here; he’s an adept of the abakuá tradition. The biankoméko creates sacred sounds for its practitioners, whose chants and terminology are delivered in still-recognizable Yoruba from West Africa. This is deep-down Afro-Cuban music, to be sure, and aficionados of conventionally conceived Latin jazz will recognize much of what they hear. But the experience of listening to Ḿbókò is akin to climbing back down the Latin jazz family tree, back to a common African root, and back up to a different branch in that vast tree, barely visible from the branches better known to Latin jazz listeners. We’ll sample the intense and meditative sounds of this record all through December.

I’m Just Like You: Sly’s Stone Flower 1969-70 anthologizes the surprisingly rich output of the short-lived Stone Flower record label, headed by Sly Stone. The album, released by Light In The Attic (the superb record label that brought us the Rodríguez compilation a couple years back), includes the five singles released on Stone Flower, from three artists signed by Sly: Joe Hicks, 6IX and Little Sister (led, in fact, by Sly’s little sister Vaetta Stewart). The album also gathers a number of unreleased Sly Stone numbers, many featuring the Rhythm King drum machine, which function as a set of sketches for the subsequent masterpiece There's A Riot Goin' On.

Last month our Miles Davis record was On the Corner (1972). Listening to it with you, I realized that here (and on 1970′s Jack Johnson) is Miles’s strong Sly Stone influence most audibly detectable. Given that we will be guided in part by Sly this month, I want to remain in this neighborhood of Miles’s discography. Accordingly, we will listen to a small sampling of the hours of music included on the six-CD box set The Complete On the Corner Sessions, released in 2007. I’ll focus on material released for the first time on that box set, and recorded within a year or so of the June 1972 sessions that were included on the tracklist for On the Corner. Nervous, dark, pensive funk — not unlike Sly’s music from I’m Just Like You.

The Mystery of Mr. Ra

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Alto saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Marshall Allen joined the Sun Ra ensemble – some might say what he joined was more like a mystical-political secret society – in Chicago in the early 1950s. He remained with Ra until the latter’s departure from Earth in 1993, and he continues to lead the Arkestra today, at age 90. In celebration of the centennial of Sun Ra’s arrival day in 1914 (Sonny didn’t like to refer to it as his birth), Allen has compiled a marvelous double-album sampling of Sun Ra recordings spanning more than a quarter century, though revealing only the tip of the iceberg of Ra’s enormous discography. Allen’s collection for Strut Records, In the Orbit of Ra, is one of the featured albums on Now’s the Time this month of November 2014.

I’ve played Sun Ra on the program before, but it wasn’t until this month that I realized just how completely the Ra Gestalt has pervaded the eclectic musical world I feature on the radio program every week. Ra influenced (or resonated with) contemporaneous jazz musicians from John Coltrane to Herbie Hancock. His Afrofuturism is echoed in the work of rap artists like Digable Planets and the Wu-Tang Clan, and in left-field R&B by Parliament-Funkadelic, Erykah Badu and more. He’s explicitly acknowledged as a forbear by Flying Lotus, whose new album You’re Dead is also featured this month. Listen and make the connections with me. This is going to make for great late-night radio.

In preparation for this month’s programs, I read John Szwed‘s revelatory Ra biography, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (1998), and the Ra sections of Graham Lock‘s Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton (2000). Both are highly recommended.

Statistically speaking, you fall into one of two camps. Some of you know more about Sun Ra than I do – way more – and will find my observations on his mysterious and magnificent work to be ill-informed and jejune. The rest are likely to be weirded out by the whole Ra phenomenon. But somewhere in between, there is a sliver of open-hearted music lovers who will discover this unusual musical oeuvre through this little text. (Indeed, I am increasingly persuaded that the whole Now’s the Time venture is aimed at that sliver, wherever it may be.)

What have I learned about Sun Ra? Here are, pell mell, four characteristics of the Ra musical universe. Along with lots of music from the new Ra compilation, we’ll listen to expressions of these four axes by plenty of other artists in the broadcasts this month.

space-place-sun-ta-egypt11. Egypt/Africa. Lock’s book argues that Ra sought to create a new mythic past for African-Americans, rejecting their identification with the Biblical Exodus story, and rooted instead in an identification with the grandeur of ancient Egypt. These themes are often musically expressed in a kind of pan-African obsession with rhythm (little of it explicitly linked to contemporary Egyptian music).

fletcherhenderson2. The Big Bands. Another element of Ra’s creation of a new mythic past, one that affirms African-American beauty, is his love of the music of the big bands, particularly Fletcher Henderson (for whom Ra worked in Chicago for about a year in the mid-40s, long past Henderson’s prime) and Duke Ellington, and also including a host of lesser-known groups from the 1930s (like the Cotton Pickers). In his later years, the Arkestra included generous doses of classic big-band swing material in their concerts. Ra saw in these groups a demonstration of the profound things African-American men could achieve if they acted collectively and with discipline, an inspiration for the communal ethos of his Arkestra. He also claimed that the beauty of this music acts as a shield protecting Earth from potentially malevolent forces. This I believe.

secondstopjupiter3. Space. Alongside the construction of new mythic pasts, Ra charted a new mythic future, based on the promise of space travel and technology. There are strong elements of kitschy 1950s-era science fiction in his work, matched with a genuine hope in the transcendent possibilities of intergalactic space. Szwed and Lock make connections between Ra’s space optimism and older traditions of Baptist oratory.

4. Free Jazz. What a difficult phrase, “free jazz.” The first problem here is that Ra repeatedly spoke out against freedom: “There is no freedom in the universe. If you were to be free you could just play no matter what and it doesn’t come back to you. But you see, it always does come back to you.” He preferred to encourage discipline as a guiding aesthetic principle. Nevertheless the Arkestra was an innovative contributor to what is often called, as a convenient shorthand, free jazz: collective improvisation that moves away from conventional practices of harmony and rhythm. sunrasynthRa’s notion of freedom – and indeed the idea of freedom encoded in free jazz – must be distinguished from right-wing, libertarian notions of freedom. (On this, read Scott Saul‘s Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties, 2001).

There’s so much more. Electronics, for example, and unusual instrumental sounds. Theater, costumes, whimsy. His poetry! Let’s see just how much we can listen to!

November in the Orbit of Ra

Every month on this program I highlight two new records and one disc from the Miles Davis catalogue. This allows me to listen intensively, in your company, to a few new releases that have captured my interest. Any given month’s selection inspires other musical choices, old and new, and gives a particular character to the episodes. When we’re really lucky, the combination of the three featured albums creates a musical world all its own, with its own customs and character. Such is the case this November.

The centerpiece of our offerings is a magnificent new collection of the music of Sun Ra (1914-1993), compiled by his longtime collaborator and the current leader of his Arkestra, saxophonist Marshall Allen. Entitled In the Orbit of Ra, it is a marvelous introduction to Ra’s extraordinary musical universe.

You’re Dead! A new record by Flying Lotus featuring guest spots by Herbie Hancock and Kendrick Lamar seems almost, but not quite, too good to be true. And this rhythmic and atmospheric suite of short musical soundscapes turns out to be a worthy complement to Sun Ra. It is furthermore a reflection on what death means – a fascination for artists for centuries, but in particular a concern of Sun Ra, who implored us not to give up our lives for a cause, but to give up our deaths. We’ll talk more about all this on the program this month!

What Miles Davis disc would furnish the perfect third vertex of this musical triangle? It’s not immediately obvious. I’ve opted for the much-maligned but ultimately magisterial On the Corner (1972): it highlights the collective improvisation and the funk present in the other two discs.

With these three guideposts in place, expect to be transported: Earth, Wind & Fire, Digable Planets, Erykah Badu, Albert Ayler, Pyramids, Alice Coltrane, Souljazz Orchestra, GZA… just some of the artists that can fill in the interstices, the void between the stars.

October Music for the Radio

Ah, autumn begins in earnest. Which means even sunnier days and hotter weather here on California’s Central Coast. Penning these little updates for you, the listener, every month or so provides a tick-tock reminder of the passing of the seasons and the inexorable march of time. The Monterey Jazz Festival, moreover, has come and gone, and with it one of KUSP’s most joyous annual rituals. We’re on our way to winter now.

But not before the Fall Membership Drive! Beat the rush – if you love vibrant, community-engaged, culturally literate public radio on the Central Coast – join or renew your membership now by clicking the tasteful red donate button at the bottom of this post. It’s safe, easy and the right thing to do!

This month we’ll be listening to Lathe of Heaven (ECM), the first new album led by tenor saxophonist Mark Turner since Dharma Days (2001). Some will tell you that Turner is the latest in the line of truly significant jazz saxophonists that starts with Coleman Hawkins and extends through John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. In part that’s because his inventive style, his distinctive tone have been widely imitated and admired in the insular world of jazz musicians. Little by little, he’s getting the audience recognition that his talent merits. His group on the new album includes Avishai Cohen on trumpet, Joe Martin on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums. Join the Mark Turner Movement by listening with me to his new record all this month. And check out this review of the album by All About Jazz‘s John Kelman.

A couple months back we listened to the new record by the Seattle hip hop duo Shabazz Palaces. This month we’ll focus on a record by Chimurenga Renaissance, which is essentially one half of SP, Tendai “Baba” Maraire. Maraire is joined here and there by his Shabazz Palaces partner Ishmael “Palaceer Lazaro” Butler, as well as by other participants in the Seattle hip hop scene aptly described by the title of a recent compilation: “Black Weirdos.” Maraire draws upon the Shona beats and instrumentation he mastered at the feet of his father, Zimbabwean musician Dumisani Maraire. The rapping decries social ills at home and in Africa, the melange of African and American rhythms is exhilarating. And it’s a vinyl release!

Finally, still mourning the passing of another Monterey Jazz Festival, I’ve selected Live at the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival (Monterey Jazz Festival Records) as our Miles Davis record for the month. It’s a strong set from that period when Miles was putting together his great Second Quintet, including Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass) and Tony Williams (drums). George Coleman occupies the saxophone chair; he tends to be underappreciated, overshadowed by the mighty Wayne Shorter, who would replace him. But Coleman was a fine tenor and this is a great group in a good Monterey performance. Check out Samuel Chell‘s fine piece on this record in All About Jazz.

MJF 57

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Our 18 September broadcast will be packed wall-to-wall with highlights from artists who will appear at the 57th Monterey Jazz Festival next weekend – Friday 19 September through Sunday 21 September – at the Monterey County Fairgrounds. This is a focal point of the annual jazz calendar in KUSP‘s listening area, and always worth your attention. But this year’s programming by the redoubtable Tim Jackson and his MJF colleagues seems tailor-made for the Now’s the Time listener: music for people who love jazz and not only jazz. Ambrose Akinmusire. The Roots. Marcus Miller. Robert Glasper. Cécile McLorin Salvant. Charles Lloyd. Eric Harland. The Philadelphia Experiment. Jason Moran. And Herbie Hancock.

Let me just say that if I were to sit in the Arena and hear Hancock’s Friday night set, and then I were compelled to watch an empty Arena stage all day Saturday and all day Sunday, I would likely regard this as one of the greatest festivals imaginable. Hancock is in the most élite tier of jazz musicians, and there are few in that select group whose music – all of it – I admire as fervently. Hancock has the capacity to reinvent himself and absorb the sounds that swirl around him into his astonishing musical intelligence time and again. He was first heard playing a mix of Ravel and Bud Powell in Donald Byrd‘s group on Blue Note in the early 60s; next month the underground electronic artist Flying Lotus will release an album on which Hancock appears on one track. And in between Byrd and Flying Lotus: Miles Davis, the Head Hunters, the neo-Miles V.S.O.P., the remarkable collaborations with Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea, the invention of hip hop (according to Snoop Dogg) with producer Bill Laswell, and throughout, the dizzying avalanche of technological joy. (The Flying Lotus cut was previewed by Gilles Peterson on his BBC music show; the album also features Kendrick Lamar.)

I direct your attention to KUSP’s Monterey Jazz Festival blog site: you’ll already find some posts about MJF 57, which will be feverishly updated in real time as the festival proceeds. In the meantime, you’ll find a wealth of archived material from festivals past: Steve Laufer‘s incredible photos; Brett Taylor and Geo Warner‘s interviews with Joe Lovano, Linda Oh, Dave Douglas, Kevin Eubanks, Esperanza Spalding, Tony Bennett, Geri Allen and, well, that’s just the beginning. I did a bunch of posts (and a handful of interviews) in 2012 and 2013 and look forward to doing a bunch more this year. MFJ will be on the airwaves of 88.9 FM and streaming (video!) at kusp.org. All the details at the blog site. I hope to see you at the festival! For now, listen to the smokin’ radio show…

September songs

Like they say, it’s a long, long while from May to December. But the days grow short when you reach September. When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame, one hasn’t got time for the waiting game.

The September selections on Now’s the Time aren’t as elegiac as the lyrics of that old song. But they’re at least as deep.

First up is the second album by drummer Eric Harland‘s group Voyager. Harland is known for his high-profile drumming prowess in super groups ranging from bassist Dave Holland‘s Prism (see our reporting on these guys at last year’s Monterey Jazz Festival), James Farm with pianist Aaron Parks and saxophonist Joshua Redman, and his regular gig with two groups led by lion-in-winter saxophonist Charles Lloyd: the quartet featuring pianist Jason Moran, and the fantastic Sangam trio rounded out by percussionist Zakir Hussain. (A lot of information in that last sentence, I know; the point is to illustrate Harland’s extraordinary industriousness and the calibre of the company he keeps.) Given Harland’s high-quality sideman gigs, it’s nice to see him in the driver’s seat. The new Voyager disc features tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist Taylor Eigsti, guitarists Julian Lage and Nir Felder, bassist Harish Raghavan, and, on a few of the tracks, Chris Turner singing. (Smith and Raghavan were last seen in Santa Cruz with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire in June at Kuumbwa.) Voyager’s new record, Vipassana, may surprise some listeners, with its nod toward Robert Glasper‘s commercially successful but controversial hip-hop- and neosoul-inflected jazz (which we love at Now’s the Time). Have a listen and you be the judge. While you’re at it, check out my interview with Harland, conducted while he was in Monterey in March for the Next Generation Jazz Festival.

(Harland will be the Artist-in-Residence at this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, together with many of the fellow travelers mentioned in the paragraph. Stay tuned to KUSP and kusp.org for more details.)

Next, it’s Ibibio Sound Machine, the début album from the London-based Nigerian-Ghanaian electropop dance outfit. Marked by the vocals of Anglo-Nigerian Eno Williams and the guitar of Anglo-Ghanaian Alfred Bannerman, atop a funky brew of electronic keyboards and dance beats, the distinctive mash-up fits perfectly on this radio program. The songs, sung by Williams in the Ibibio language, appear to be parables and moral lessons; all good.

Our Miles Davis record for September is Filles de Kilimanjaro, recorded with the legendary “Second Quintet” – Wayne Shorter on sax, Herbie Hancock on electric keyboards, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums – in June 1968, and in a follow-up September session at which Chick Corea replaced Hancock and Dave Holland replaced Carter. Memorable themes and rhythms – in which you’ll hear echoes of Jimi Hendrix and James Brown – are stated powerfully, while the soloing plows through boundaries the Second Quintet had only brushed up against up to this point.

Miles Davis on Blue Note

Miles Davis recorded three sessions for Blue Note Records in 1952, 1953 and 1954; the label released three ten-inch vinyls from those sessions at the time: Young Man With A Horn, Miles Davis Vol. 2 and Miles Davis Vol. 3. The recordings – plus a handful of alternate takes – have been reissued in several forms in the years since.

As part of Blue Note’s 75th anniversary, the legendary label has released a series of commemorative reissues, including Take Off: The Complete Blue Note Albums from trumpeter Davis. It’s an attractively packaged set, with iconic Francis Wolff photographs, a nice booklet featuring notes from Kirk Silsbee, and complete discographical information. The novelty of the set is that for the first time since the original releases, it sequences the cuts in the order of the old ten-inch records (with alternate takes tacked on at the end of the second compact disc). A minor quibble: this is not really the “complete” Miles Blue Notes: the label also released a recording of a 1951 Birdland live performance, not included here, featuring J.J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey. That set would have complemented these studio recordings nicely and made for a more definitive collection.

We will be listening to Take Off during August as our Miles Davis record for the month. It’s a great pretext to focus on this era in Miles’s career. The early fifties were a time of personal troubles and uneven artistry for Miles, largely fueled by drug addiction. Framed at either end by the artistic heights of the Birth of the Cool Nonet (1949-50) and bebop mastery of the Miles Davis-Tadd Dameron group, on the one hand, and the formation of the First Great Quintet in the mid-50s, featuring John Coltrane, Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones, on the other, early-50s Miles requires a more selective ear. The relatively sparse Blue Note material is perhaps better than contemporaneous recordings Miles made for Prestige and in other musicians’ groups, perhaps because the label paid for rehearsal time, unlike its competitors. Miles’s Blue Note recordings reflect the musical concerns that were on his mind: the crazed harmonic architecture of bebop, and whether it should be embraced or rejected; the crystallization of the post-harmonic, post-song modal jazz, already hinted at in the Nonet recordings, that would flower in Kind of Blue (1959); and the blues, in which Miles saw a way forward away from bop and toward the modal sound.

The three sessions represented on this disc occurred in three Spring dates, each about a year after the previous one. The 1952 date highlights ballad playing (“Yesterdays”); the 1953 grapples with fast-paced bebop numbers (“Tempus Fugit”); and the 1954 date, the first with pianist Horace Silver, debuts the blues-inflected hard-bop sound that would prove so influential on many a Blue Note artist in the mid-50s. 1954, in fact, proved to be one of the greatest in Miles’s career, with fantastic sessions that have mostly been released on Prestige; the year marked his definitive return to form.

Now’s the Time August Records

In August, we’ll delve into two new releases by Now’s the Time favorites Shabazz Palaces and Meshell Ndegeocello. Our Miles Davis album is a new two-CD compilation of (most of) the trumpeter’s releases on the legendary Blue Note records label, with sessions from the early 1950s.

Shabazz Palaces, featuring Palaceer Lazaro – once known as Butterfly (a.k.a. Ishmael Butler), in the canonical hip-hop brother- and sisterhood Digable Planets – has taken hip hop underground. Deep, DEEP underground. Early sneak previews of Lèse Majesty, their second full-length release on Sub Pop Records, suggests that they have gone further down. It’s well-suited to the post-midnight time slot of this, your faithful radio program. As is our custom, we’ll dip into the Shabazz Palaces – and why not, the Digable Planets – back catalogs.

If that were not enough, singer-bassist-songwriter-force of nature Meshell Ndegeocello has a new record, Comet Come To Me. It’s a “light” album: light, in that it is not as baroquely layered as her keyboard-entrenched 1990s masterpieces, given instead to folk-inflected, guitar-led songs of heartbreak; light, also, in that it’s not clear there are any one-ton masterpieces like on the earlier albums. But then again, the more I listen to this new record, the more the songs grow on me. Let’s listen together and make our minds up. And, oh yes, let’s generously sample Meshell’s back catalog and sideman (sic) credits while we’re at it. I’m thinking Joshua Redman and Joe Henry, to start. Deep grooves are guaranteed. Two hours will not be enough to contain each episode’s mixtape eclecticity.

Finally, Miles’s early-50s Blue Note dates are like the starting point of a scavenger hunt that takes us backward and forwards in the trumpeter’s musical career.

And, yeah, I know, “eclecticity” is not a word.

Miles’s chromatic funk

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During July, our Miles Davis album is Star People. Recorded live and in the studio in 1982 and 1983, the Columbia release features a couple of bands that included, among others, guitarists John Scofield and Mike Stern, bassist Marcus Miller, saxophonist Bill Evans and drummer Al Foster. Eighties Miles is not everyone’s cup of tea, but even if you feel that way, this disc merits a close listen. In the indispensable Penguin Guide to Jazz, Richard Cook and Brian Morton write:

Star People has long been a favourite of ours. Though never a big critical or commercial success, it stands out in this period as one of the first unambiguous signs that Miles was trying to re-inscribe himself in a jazz tradition. Punctuated by pre-recorded organ interludes, it mixes swing-era choruses over Motown riffs, dark blues shapes and passages that seem to hark all the way back to Buddy Bolden. An astonishing performance, marred by cluttered arrangements and a fuzzy mix.

As for looking back at his jazz past, it’s interesting that Star People is produced by Teo Macero and features arrangements by Gil Evans and liner notes by Leonard Feather, all of which might make you think we’re describing an album from 1957.

About those Evans arrangements: for this record, Evans would transcribe elements of the sidemen’s solos – typically guitarist Scofield’s — that were particularly tasty, and build them up into a composition. Thus during the 10 July broadcast, we listened to “Speak,” based upon a Scofield riff. We also heard “That’s What Happened,” from the 1984 recording Decoy, which was arranged by Evans from a Scofield riff on “Speak”… We’ll hear more such compositions all this month. The technique of creating a melody from a transcribed solo was employed famously by George Russell, who subjected Davis’s canonical solo from “So What” (1959) into a a big-band arrangement for his 1983 album of the same name. (Now’s the Time listeners heard the Russell piece, picked out of KUSP’s vast vinyl vault, during a May broadcast.)

Paul Tingen, the author of Miles Beyond, an authoritative analysis of the trumpeter’s electric years, calls this composition-arrangement technique “chromatic funk”. Check out Tingen’s website for a wealth of electric Miles material.

Hot fun in the summertime: July records

It’s a new month, and there’s a new set of featured albums for the radio program.

First up this month: the first record by France’s National Jazz Orchestra under the leadership of its new musical director, Olivier Benoît, entitled Europa Paris. Benoît, a guitarist from Lille, has assembled a great band and with this album and has established a coherent sound, melding elements of rock (the electric guitars! the energy! the drums!), jazz (the arrangements, the collective enterprise) and contemporary classical (violins and texture). The double-CD is a six-part suite, most of which we will listen to during the July programs. We’ll also probably dip into the back catalogue of the Orchestre National de Jazz under previous musical directors, including bassist Daniel Yvinec and vibraphonist Franck Tortiller.

(Why France? you ask. Why so much French music on the program? Well, while your host has deep roots in the Monterey Bay area, extending back to his early childhood, he has also wandered in the wildnerness. He has also apparently picked up the habit of referring to himself in the third person. Anyhoo, he lived in Paris for seven years before returning to Santa Cruz and established a deep love for the jazz scene, new and old, in that city, which he still follows. And it’s his joy to bring you highlights on this radio program.)

Second new record is NY/LA-based Japanese-New Zealander pianist Mark de Clive-Lowe‘s CHURCH. The record is named after the amalgam of musicians and co-conspirators convened by de Clive-Lowe and heard on the record. The pianist describes the musical project as “equal parts jazz club, electronic remix experiment and dance party.” Which most definitely belongs on this radio program.

And, as every month, there’s a Miles Davis record. This month, it’s Star People, recorded in concert and in the studio in Summer 1982 and early in 1983. This is a strong record from early in Miles’s return from his five-year sabbatical in the late 1970s. It features the loud electronic sound that Miles would seek during this last decade of his artistic output, influenced by the 80s pop sounds he was hearing (including Prince). But it’s also very much a jazz album, with strong blues throughout. It’s the last of the trumpeter’s records to be produced by Teo Macero, and arranger Gil Evans played an important role in the arrangements. The band, finally, is solid: saxophonist Bill Evans, guitarists John Scofield and Mike Stern, bassist Marcus Miller and the great drummer Al Foster among them.