Jazz Album of the Week: A Triumph of Style and Substance from the International Supergroup Artemis

Oct 9, 2020

October 5, 2020. Artemis is a band comprising seven of the world’s finest jazz musicians, six of whom are instrumentalists, all of whom are female. Group founder and musical director, the acclaimed pianist Renee Rosnes, foresees a time where the period comes after the preceding sentence’s first clause, where calling Artemis an “all-female” jazz septet will feel superfluous, where the only thing to comment on will be the music.

That time may come sooner rather than later if younger musicians are watching and listening—because, at the end of the day, the thing more relevant than this supergroup’s demography (which speaks just as, if not more, profoundly to the merits of multigenerational and multicultural collaboration) is that, musically, they rip.

Their self-titled debut on the legendary Blue Note label consists of nine cuts, a nearly even split between originals and reimagined covers, all of which are either composed or arranged by the group’s six instrumentalists.

And how about those instrumentalists?

There’s Anat Cohen, the prolific and versatile clarinetist from New York City, by way of Tel Aviv, and Melissa Aldana, a New Yorker by way of Santiago, Chile, who’s one of saxophone’s rising stars—she stood out on La Lucha’s Everybody Wants to Rule the World, where I remarked that she displayed a Joshua Redman-like sensibility.

What you'll find with Artemis is not a recording defined by the gender of the musicians, but by the emotional and intellectual force of its music.

There’s trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, a DIVA Jazz Orchestra alum and the one responsible for perfectly naming the band after the “the torch bringer” of Greek goddesses, the one who lights the way. And drummer Allison Miller, known for being the leader of Boom Tic Boom, is an indefatigable force, the real deal; while bassist Noriko Ueda, a New Yorker by way of Japan and another DIVA alum, has composed one of the most playful and sophisticated tunes on the entire album with “Step Forward,” an energetic yet light-footed waltz with a mesmerizing, spiraling introduction.

And then there’s Rosnes on piano. It’s her ideas, from a writing standpoint, that are most prominent here; she’s composed an original and arranged three more, including two showcasing Cecile McLorin Salvant, one of the three or four most distinctive voices in jazz, and recently named a 2020 Macarthur Fellow.

Miller’s “Goddess of the Hunt,” opens things up with a hip piece of moody minimalism redolent of Radiohead and GoGo Penguin. It’s Miller and the various pieces that tag-team to play the piece’s bass line that carry the tune. First it’s Rosnes bringing up the low end; then, seamlessly, it’s Anat Cohen on bass clarinet. Only the most astute listener would be able to discern where Rosnes ended and Cohen began, which is remarkable. Rosnes later tags back into the bottom to play in unison with Ueda, while, with the other hand, she and Cohen riff in unison above the fray adding a charged dissonance. Cohen then, again subtly, slips right in with Aldana and Jensen for expository section playing that sets the table for a hugely athletic but not belabored tenor solo from Aldana.

Now if you want to hear Aldana stretch out a little more, take a listen to the next track, “Frida,” a tune the young saxophonist wrote in honor of one her artistic heroes, the proudly browed painter Frida Kahlo.

Jensen’s arrangement of the Beatles’ “Fool on a Hill” isn’t your typical “jazzy” arrangement of a pop tune haphazardly thrown on the record to generate crossover appeal. Only the song’s head really reveals its provenance. Otherwise, the band does with this one what groups like The Bad Plus do so effectively; they take a recognizable form and create a new musical context for it.

Rosnes’ “Big Top,” a contemporary piece of almost surrealist musical satire, is unadulterated fun, all while poking fun of the notion that an all-female jazz band should be treated as some sort of circus novelty act. Artemis couldn’t be more successful here in completely repackaging that tired, old theme on their own terms. Aldana and Rosnes, the carnival barker, shine as soloists, but it’s so clear that Miller and Ueda, so rocksteady rhythmically, allow everyone to hit their spots.

Stevie Wonder’s “If it’s Magic” and a slightly obscure tune dating back to the ’40s, “Cry Buttercup Cry,” are McLorin Salvant’s; of the two ballads, there’s just something about the latter that’s a little sexier. Perhaps it’s the smoky quality or Jensen’s muted trumpet. Or, better yet, Cohen’s clarinet solo that communicates a frisson of chill before blanketing you with the warmth you might experience from a top-shelf whisky on a really cold night.

Cohen’s “Nocturno” speaks to the experience of spending that really cold night alone; it’s a meditation on solitude inspired by Frederic Chopin. Cohen, like Chopin, makes the loneliest state beautiful but also somehow empowering. When Cohen plays with Jensen and Aldana, whether in unison or layered harmonies, it speaks to the multitudes within each of us and the desire for connection. Later, her solo clarinet elucidates a sobering truth: sometimes we’ve got to play our melodies alone.

The closer, a reimagining of Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder,” is jarring, especially if you’re familiar with the original. A slowed tempo lends it an alien feeling, as though it were the original’s bizarro universe equivalent. But it’s consistent thematically with the writing and arranging that make “Fool on a Hill” and “Big Top” so effective, subverting old tropes and having us approach recognizable concepts from an altered perspective.

And so what you’ll find with Artemis is not a recording defined by the gender of the musicians but by the emotional and intellectual force of its music.