Four years ago I heard Cincinnati-bred drummer Jeremy Cunningham for the first time at the Chicago Jazz Festival, playing behind young alto saxophonist Caroline Davis, who was just beginning to make a big splash locally. I was impressed by his concision, his time, and his restraint; he was doing more than merely swinging, but he never got in the way. He conveyed his personality subtly and with purpose. Cunningham moved here in 2009, and I’ve since seen him play in many other contexts, most notably in groups with saxophonist Nick Mazzarella and guitarist Tim Stine; he brings the same qualities to every setting.
Today Ears & Eyes Records releases Cunningham’s first album as a leader, the awkwardly titled Re: Dawn (From Far). His superb quartet from this record has only managed to perform sporadically around town, because guitarist Jeff Parker has settled in Los Angeles—and he’s been touring lately with Tortoise, whose local dates have been his only Chicago gigs all year. He won’t be present Sunday, when Cunningham’s band plays an album-release show at the Hungry Brain, but given the strength of the compositions, the leader’s vision, and the rest of the band, I don’t think it will matter too much. The quartet also includes singular bassist Matt Ulery—one Chicago’s most accomplished bandleaders in his own right—and alto saxophonist Josh Johnson, another former Chicagoan now based in LA. Local guitarist Matt Gold will sub for Parker, and tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi (of Twin Talk) will guest with the band. Laurenzi appears on the album’s halting, brooding ballad “Leaves Rain,” which he wrote with Cunningham; it deploys gentle hocketing by the horn players.
Cunningham collaborated with colleagues on a couple of other tunes, as well as covering Ulery’s “Constituent” and Bobby Hutcherson’s “Visions,” the latter in a nifty arrangement by Parker—Cunningham and Ulery bring a cool dragging feel to the performance without weighing down the vibist’s ethereal melody. But my favorite piece on the album is the opening track, “Bembé,” written by Cunningham and Doug McDiarmid of oddball Bay Area hip-hop/rock band Why? The recording features keyboardist Andrew Toombs, who brings a nice springy warmth to the bubbling groove. The song takes its name from a ritual celebration of saints in Santeria, and the Bembe are also an ethnic group in the Congo; the stuttering rhythms definitely reflect music from Africa and the Caribbean, though not directly. As strong a guitarist as Gold is, if the band plays this piece on Sunday, Parker will certainly be missed—on the recording of this piece, he plays one of my all-time favorites in his massive catalog of solos. You can check it out below.
Frank Denyer, Whispers (Another Timbre)
António Zambujo, Rua da Emenda (World Village)
Bruce Levingston, Heavy Sleep (Sono Luminus)
Joe Zawinul, Money in the Pocket (Atlantic)
Emily Portman, Coracle (Furrow)