CD review

Artemis – “Artemis”

Artemis – Artemis
(Blue Note 00602508937385. CD review by Alison Bentley)

Seven award-winning bandleaders, who also compose/arrange, make up Artemis – and they all just happen to be women. They were brought together by their musical director, US pianist Renee Rosnes, for a European tour, and they found their music had a “natural chemistry.” The women are of all ages and from all over the world (US, Canada, France, Chile, Israel and Japan) and the blend of individual styles has a distinctive band sound.

Drummer Allison Miller’s piece Goddess Of The Hunt (“a sonic exploration of what I believe are the powerful traits of women”) features everyone. The goddess in question is Artemis the hunter herself, and the driving bassline (Noriko Ueda) keeps everyone on the alert and propels them forward. The theme diverges into harmony and bursts of counter-rhythms as the sections run together. The groove loosens for the solos but keeps its energy: Ingrid Jensen’s trumpet sparks fire against the liquid sinuousness of Anat Cohen’s clarinet as they hunt for the triumphant funky coda. Frida is young saxophonist Melissa Aldana’s contribution. (Her album Visions is a tribute to artist Frida Kahlo.) The Latin feel is rooted in bass pedals that create continual suspense. Her tenor is warmly tough, fluid and cliché-free: she ends her intense explorations with high, clear notes. Jensen has arranged Lennon/McCartney’s The Fool on the Hill – she calls it a “pointed political statement.” It opens with sombre billowing piano and a few bars of free improv for everyone, which recur throughout. It’s a surprise when the melody appears with darker harmonies. The trumpet solo is as clear as a line drawing, while the piano’s skipping bluesy phrases dust the horn backings, and a striking drum solo ends the piece.

Rosnes’ Big Top refers to “past perception of women in jazz as novelties.” She uses classic circus music, humour and virtuosity to subvert the idea. A drum roll leads into whooping sounds and a plate-spinning drum solo; twirling horn sounds juggle behind; the piano solo balances acrobatically on cantering swing; Cohen’s complex solo leads into a funky gallop. Cécile McLorin Salvant sings on two tracks. She keeps close to the melody of If It’s Magic as her startlingly lovely voice unfolds the ballad with a deceptively artless purr, framed by Rosnes’ elegant horn arrangement. Cry Buttercup Cry, a rarely-sung Maxine Sullivan piece from the 40s, could be tragic, but Salvant interprets it ruefully and playfully with subtle swing. (“have no regrets and just learn to forget.”) A harmon mute can’t hide Jensen’s fire over Ueda’s earthy bass.

The slow Latin minor mood of Cohen’s Nocturno has a pensive theme influenced by Chopin, with cymbal washes and delicate piano fills. Her clarinet solo is introspective, conjuring feelings from the depths of her range, while Ueda’s rich-toned bass solo leaves you wanting more. Ueda’s Step Forward has scurrying phrases leading to a bright, optimistic 6/8 groove; the call and response between horn lines is uplifting. The clarinet is impassioned; the trumpet grows into quarter tones hovering round the notes as if fascinated by them. The bass is muscly and inventive; the piano sparkles. The album ends with a surprise: a Sidewinder that’s smoochy rather than slinky, with smooth Gil Evans-ish muted harmonies. The high point has clarinet, trumpet and sax trading 4s over drifting piano: it’s a perfect example of how individual everyone’s sound is – and how they listen and respond to each other to create something new.

A band of seven strong female musicians is still noteworthy, but “I’m hoping for a future when people don’t look at it like a novelty act,” says Rosnes. The writing and arranging is superb, and the contrast in timbre and style of the individual instruments is endlessly fascinating.

LINK: Artemis website

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