JAM, XIII: Liner Notes to Curtis Nowosad's "Dialectics" (Or "On Neo-Hard Bop")

Every weekday this month I'll be posting new content in observance of Jazz Appreciation Month (J.A.M.), so-designated by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History beginning in 2001. International Jazz Day, so-designated by UNESCO in partnership with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, is on the last day of April, the 30th; it was first celebrated in 2012. Debating the relative merits of designating specific days or months for celebrating heritages, traditions, and the like aside, Jazz Appreciation Month is at the very least an excuse to dig into some material that I've been interested in for a while on the blog. 

Yesterday's installment featured some thoughts on the original '45 recording of "Ko-Ko." Monday's features thoughts on Andrew White III's treatise on Coltrane from the early '80s.

†If you enjoy the content on this blog, please consider supporting my band's homegrown effort to get our record through the final stages of mastering and production. It's all recorded—you can listen to it now!—but we just need a bit more help to get to the finish line. We appreciate it. </self-promotion over>

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As I mentioned in a post last month, my dear friend Curtis Nowosad just released his second album, entitled "Dialectics," on Cellar Live Records. I met Curtis back at the 2012 Banff Workshop, and we've kept in touch ever since (he ultimately made the move from Winnipeg to NYC and is graduating from the Masters Program at Manhattan School of Music next month). It's a happening band and pretty much the same one on his début, "The Skeptic and the Cynic": Jimmy Greene on tenor, Derrick Gardner on trumpet, Will Bonness on piano, and Steve Kirby on bass. In addition to receiving good reviews (including 4 1/2 stars in DownBeat), "Dialectics" has also attracted some attention to the phrase "Neo-Hard Bop" in the liner notes, which has been gratifying and amusing, my being a liner note weenie and all:

While it may be tempting to simply call Dialectics a straight-ahead session, Kevin Sun's liner notes set the record straight: According to Sun, "neo-hard bop" is a more accurate term for this music. What's most important to note, however, is that the music is pretty irresistible, regardless of what you call it. (All About Jazz) 
Drummer Curtis Nowosad made a discerning choice in having critic Kevin Sun pen the liner notes to Dialectics in the sort of thoughtful and highly opinionated short essay we hard-core music aficionados lament will soon be lost in this idiotic industry-wide move to go download-only, a sortie I see as nigh doomed to failure across the boards. That, however, ahem!, is a subject for another day. (Folk and Acoustic Music Exchange) 
In choosing Dialectics as the title of his quintet’s latest album, drummer Curtis Nowosad must have had something in mind; the question is what. He doesn’t say, at least as far as Kevin Sun’s fairly extensive liner notes are concerned. Sun talks about concepts like “straight-ahead” jazz and something called “neo-hard bop,” but says nothing about dialectics. Nowosad, like many a serious musician, leaves the music to speak for itself. (Blogcritics Magazine) 
The liner notes by Kevin Sun debate whether to label the music "straight-ahead" or something called "neo-hard bop," but for certain this album would have fit nicely into the Blue Note catalog of the '60's. These talented musicians surely know what they're about, and leave nothing in doubt in terms of passion, artistry, and quality. (Amazon) 
The album liner notes describe Nowosad's sound as "neo-hard bop", and there's a pleasing variety of tones here. (New Canadian Music)
The term's short of a joke, a clunky descriptor that doesn't really say much but gives something to say about music that's familiar but new. Check out the record if it's to your taste; liner notes below:

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Liner Notes to "Dialectics" (2015, Cellar Live Records): Does "Straight-Ahead" Mean Anything to You?

Like most generic labels, “straight-ahead jazz” is a bit mystifying.

            According to one definition, “straight-ahead” emerged as a generic label to differentiate mainstream improvised Black American music from “fusion,” “avant-garde,” and other equally unwieldy subgenres. “Straight-ahead” was jazz that preserved conventional forms like chorus-by-chorus chord changes and was supposedly what the mainstream returned to in the 80s after benighted forays into electric experimentation and other digressions; it was the path forward.
            But jazz history isn’t a through-line or a single prevailing sensibility plus tangents, nor is it a series of decade-by-decade evolutionary stages. Jazz is communities of artists with differing but related sensibilities from which streams of influence emanate and move through time concurrently. The through-line is an illusion just as most labels and genre designations are, too.
            If we’re going to put a name on it for convenience’s sake, much of what I hear labeled as “straight-ahead” today might be slightly better labeled as “neo-hard bop,” to use a friend’s clunky but strangely memorable coinage. “Neo-hard bop” retains the driving, synchronized horn line as its focal point as well as the tightly arranged format and extended soloing that we associate with stacks of 50s and 60s Blue Note records, but takes these elements even further: more hits, more vamps and interludes with bass and piano ostinati, more pyrotechnical blowing.

            The Achilles Heel of many “neo-hard bop” records, however, is that they don’t offer much more than the nostalgic texture of that sound. They feel like a 50s Blue Note record, but they’re missing the iconic players—Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Jackie McLean, Lee Morgan, etc.—and, more importantly, the compelling dialogue, both within the band and with you, anonymous listener.

            Curtis Nowosad’s quintet has the sound of a working band that’s been steadily pursuing its own mode of collective communication. All Winnipeggers at one point or another, the band played on a weekly basis on and off for three years when saxophonist Jimmy Greene was teaching at the University of Manitoba, Nowosad’s alma mater, whfere bassist Steve Kirby is currently the Director of Jazz Studies and both trumpeter Derrick Gardner and pianist Will Bonness are also professors. The quartet minus Greene has been playing together in various configurations since 2009 and recently toured across the Canadian club and festival circuit.

            New records disappoint most when the arrangements promise so much more than what’s delivered. Rest assured: that isn’t the case here.

Notes on the Music:

“Speak No Evil” is a familiar Wayne Shorter composition that speaks for itself.

“Empirically Speaking” is based on the changes of a certain Duke Pearson composition that’s been making a comeback at New York jam sessions as of late.

“Dialectics” is a hexatonically-inspired funk groove that practically shouts, “Modern jazz!”

“159 & St. Nick” is where Curtis stayed and composed this composition during his last visit to the Big Apple before moving there for good (also based on more familiar changes).

“A Casual Test” is a product of a self-imposed challenge: “A couple of years ago, I set out to compose a blues in every key, major and minor (24 in total),” Curtis says. “This one, incidentally one of the simplest, is still my favorite.”

“Reconciliation” is an original Nowosad ballad with echoes of Horace Silver’s “Peace.”

“Bye-Ya” is Curtis’s elegantly spacious Afro-Cuban take on Monk, which has been influenced by Curtis’s recent studies with Bobby Sanabria at the Manhattan School of Music.

“Gleaning & Dreaming” is a waltz oscillating between five and three, whose title “refers to a large part of what jazz musicians and other creative people do,” Curtis says, “which is glean information from various sources and dream about how to use it to express themselves.”

“I Remember You” features one of Curtis’s trademark “neo-hard bop” interludes, but is otherwise left intact, just as you remembered it.

—Kevin Sun, August 2014