Looking for Brilliant, Fresh, Yet Traditional Jazz? Try Black Diamond on for Size

We had gotten ourselves settled at the inaugural Backwoods Fam Jam in May near St. Augustine and had just enjoyed the opening band, Custard Pie from Valdosta. I went back to the tent to take care of a few things, but suddenly sounds — amazing sounds — were pouring out of the sound system on the main stage. I had no option; I had to go find out what this glorious sound was.

At the time, I wrote:

Next up was a set so stunning, so unexpected, that you will excuse the hyperbole, except that it isn’t. Black Diamond was on tour from Chicago, and their set sent me into orbit. And I was not the only one. After their set, Yral ‘datdudeondrums’ Morris of Come Back Alice saw me and said, “That’s my new favorite band!” Sound man Dillon Reeder concurred.

The best analogy I can provide is that the quartet reminded me of Ornette Coleman’s band, although this band featured two tenor saxophones — Hunter Diamond and Artie Black — rather than alto sax and pocket trumpet. I cannot overstate the magnificence of the hour of music they provided. Neil Hemphill’s time on kit was perfection, but it was Matt Ulery who set the weekend bar really high with his incredible work on double bass. They played songs from their upcoming August release Mandala and others as well. You can count on hearing more about Mandala when it is released.

It was that impressive. Between then and now, I have proudly played cuts from the album (they graciously gave me a copy in advance of the release) on the jazz show I program on WMNF 88.5 in Tampa. This is one of the most impressive albums I’ve heard in a lot of years. The music is at the same time wonderfully fresh and yet could easily have been recorded 60 years ago.

I have to tell you that I am obtuse enough that a friend, who is equally impressed with the album, had to point out to me that the name of the band combines the last names of the two tenor players. Well, DUH!

Black Diamond – "Mandala" trailer

Our new record "Mandala" will be officially released August 11th on Shifting Paradigm Records! Join us that night for a special show: Black Diamond Record Release, Rachele Eve at ConstellationPreorder a copy at: https://shiftingparadigmrecords.bandcamp.com/album/mandalaOfficial trailer by Sydney O'Haire

Posted by Black Diamond – CHI on Saturday, July 22, 2017

Mandala contains nine compositions, three by Hunter Diamond, three by Artie Black, and the last three by both of them. Jazz aficionado Muhsin, who hails from the Chicago area, observed that Black Diamond plays with a Chicago sensibility, “The horns dancing with each other rather than battling eahttps://www.facebook.com/BlackDiamondChicago/videos/1934500546822054/ch other.” That is so evident here, as the two tenors work primarily in unison or in harmony, with sonically spectacular results.

The quartet uses “Jim Jam on the Veranda” (Black and Diamond composed) to ease us into the album. The tenors are in unison, with Ulery playing a simple bass line. It has an easy-going lilt. The tenors play together, one working out front, the other vamping, joining together at the end. Hemphill’s drumming starts out fairly straightforward, but by the end the complexity has increased, with some nice rolls near the coda.

Jim Jam live at Heartwood

From the last show of our 2017 Florida Tour, at Heartwood Soundstage in Gainesville, FL. 5/7/17.Big thanks to Dave Melosh and his crew for capturing and producing this video

Posted by Black Diamond – CHI on Tuesday, August 8, 2017

“The Middle Way” (Black and Diamond) is a tender ballad. Again, the bass supports here, as do the drums. They are active but not intrusive to the ballad setting. The difference here is that Hemphill also plays bells, and it is impossible for those familiar not to think about the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the entire AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). Diamond solos first here, then Black.

Middle Way (Comp. Black/Diamond)

Recorded during the Chicago Composer's Collective at the Green Mill Lounge on 4.24.16.

Posted by Black Diamond – CHI on Saturday, November 19, 2016

The album’s showcase tune is “Rudy’s Mood” (Diamond). First, I hear Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry wrangling on “Blues Connotation,” but there is layer upon layer here. This particular track demands repeated listens, one to hear Ulery’s spectacular walking bass strutting all over Chicago, then Hemphill’s perfect drums (Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins come to mind). His touch on cymbals is sublime. Another list is required to listen to the two of them together. And then there are the tenors. You can find many influences, but both coax Coltrane tones in their solos (Black, then Diamond). Stunning.

The intro to “Eleanor & Rufus” (Black) features just bass and drums for the first 1:16 before the tenors join in on this ballad. The drums drop out near the 3-minute mark for about 30 seconds as tenor and bass work together. When he rejoins, Hemphill’s drums are incredibly powerful and yet not loud.

“Jacunda” (Diamond) also features a shorter bass-and-drums intro before the tenors enter in harmony. This tune is more uptempo, with lots of room for space. There are hints and notes of Pharoah Sanders and Charles Lloyd.

Ulery gets a deserved minute-and-a-half solo to open “Mandala” (Black). His tone is wonderful, and this is so superbly recorded you can feel every note. Cymbals fall in, then Black, then Diamond. Black sets up a repetitive figure along with Ulery, and Diamond solos on top of that. Hemphill uses his brushes for the first time to great effect on this beautiful mid-tempo song. At the 5-minute mark, the song changes to a slower tempo, Hemphill to sticks, and Black solos.

“Village Within the City” (Diamond) is another mid-tempo composition. Diamond has a fine solo here, but Ulery and Hemphill steal it, or very nearly, with more amazing work. Hemphill’s cymbals are again remarkable, and Ulery is featured as the tune winds down.

Two tenors in unison begin “Clay Feet” (Black) without accompaniment for almost 40 seconds. Then they drop out as bass and drums take over the next 30. Eventually, the tenors play in harmony, then bounce ideas back and forth. The song adopts an ethereal feel, and Hemphill’s cymbals bring it to a close.

Finally, there is “Little Melody” (Black and Diamond). Ulery sets up a bass figure, then the drum beat matches it in a mechanical, staccato pulse. Black and Diamond layer their playing on top of the figure, so close you can hear them breathing. The figure stops and then begins again, and bass and cymbals make the album’s final statement.

Fresh. Traditional. And pure Chicago.

The album cover appears to be “modern” with its mixed-media collage style, designed and created by Marine Tempels, but it too harkens back to some great jazz albums covers from the ’50s and ’60s, including Coltrane’s Sound (a photograph with paint applied by palette knife by Marvin Israel) and Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz (with a cutout on the cover revealing a portion of a larger Jackson Pollock painting inside the gatefold).

Black Diamond, released on Shifting Paradigm Records out of Minneapolis-St. Paul, was recorded at Minbal in Chicago, engineered and mixed by Nick Broste, and mastered by Brian Schwab.

Do yourself a favor. Pick this one up. It will NOT gather dust.

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