Few contemporary pianists embrace stride, swing and trad jazz with the creative spark of Aki Takase, who unerringly finds common ground between rambunctious traditionalism and freewheeling modernism. Gathering a group of her longtime regulars on New Blues—bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall, trombonist Nils Wogram, drummer Paul Lovens and guitarist/banjoist/vocalist Eugene Chadbourne—she continues in the vein of 2001’s St. Louis Blues, which focused on W.C. Handy, and 2006’s Plays Fats Waller.
New Blues is distinguished by the strain of mournful emotion that runs through it, not only in laments like Takase’s gorgeous “So Long Knut,” but also in her pensive introduction to Waller’s “Wild Cat Blues” and her dark, symphony-like lead-in to Handy’s “Memphis Blues.” In the great New Orleans tradition, she hears regret and joy as part of the same life-affirming process.
The album offers a cunning reworking of Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz,” which, with Chadbourne on banjo, radiates a disarming sense of calm. (That can’t be said of his robust everyman’s vocals on Waller’s “The Joint Is Jumping” and King Oliver’s “Dr. Jazz.”) Akase’s three-part suite “Home Sweet Home” incorporates free-association chatter, toy-piano effects and e.e. cummings’ poem “May My Heart Always Be Open.” A stirring reading of Morton’s “Dead Man’s Blues” features Takase’s husband, Alex von Schlippenbach, on trumpet. Though recorded in the studio, New Blues has an agreeably unpolished live feel, the better to capture both the raunch and melodic finery of the songs.