About three years ago I went out on a limb and called my shots on up-and-coming female jazz performers — players, not singers — who are destined for bigger and better things in this formally male-dominated province. Part of the point of this exercise was to show that there are now so many talented women making their mark as virtuosic instrumentalists in this most challenging of music forms that we should soon move from marveling that someone of that gender can do those things to marveling that anybody is doing those things so well.
Included in that list were Anat Cohen, Linda Oh, Sharel Cassity, Kait Dunton, Hiromi, Hailey Niswanger, Mantana Roberts, Anne Matte Iversen and Ada Rovatti. Since then, I’ve been guilty of tracking the progress on these pages of only some of these performers, but I think it’s fair to state that all have clearly progressed further since that piece first appeared. However, this article is only about what one of those woemn has been up to lately, and her name is Iris Ornig.
This bassist, composer and arranger ten years removed from her native Germany to live and thrive in the jazz epicenter of New York had one album out when she was included in that Terrific Ten, New Ground (2009). Today, Ornig is preparing to unleash the follow-up effort, No Restrictions.
The first place where one notices where she lives up to the album title is the personnel used to make this album. Helen Sung (piano), Michael Rodriguez (trumpet), Marcus Gilmore (drums) and Kurt Rosenwinkel (guitar) are all forces in their own right, with their own sharply defined musical personalities. Like her, they’re part of a generation of jazz musicians that are in the process of taking over from the old guard.
The reason these are fine choices for musicians go beyond just that, though. Rodriguez, Sung and Rosenwinkel can bring out a good harmony from smart utilization of tone and cadence alone, never having to lean heavily upon flashy technique. That makes this both an easy album to listen to, and also easier to gain an appreciation of Ornig’s compositions, since they are so clearly carried out.
Notably, these songs showed a marked progression in listenability and tightness from her first album, things she was already pretty good at doing. There’s no better evidence of this than the title song. “No Restrictions” is first presented as a bouncy samba, a chord progression that’s hard to shake and seems made to be a Brazilian tune. But then she plays it again, five tracks later, as a ballad, and it works just as well in that setting. The secret could be her arrangements; on the former version, Sung and Rodriguez carry the tune, while Rosenwinkel does the chore for the slower version. It seems to play to the strengths and unique tonality of each of these players.
Bjork’s songs have become fodder for fertile cover material in recent years for the savvier musicians looking beyond the same, tired old songs to freshen up. Ornig is no exception; she finds the assertive melody churning beneath the “Venus As A Boy”‘s original quirky glistening production, and it becomes a terrific vehicle for both Sung’s accompanying and soloing abilities (video of live performance below). Ornig cleverly re-arranges Michael Jackson’s #1 hit “The Way You Make Me Feel” (video of live performance below) as a snappy jazz walk and a chord progression at times similar to “Old Devil Moon.” To top it off, she delivers a crisp, head-swaying bass solo.
Not only can Ornig swing, but she can also get funky on the syncopated rhythms driving “Gate 29.” The final cut is a smooth, blues nightcap called “Uptight” (not the Stevie Wonder tune), accentuated by Ornig’s assured bass walking that both anchors down the tune and forms the basis for her nimble improvising.
No Restrictions is a confident statement from a young talent who showed much promise during my survey of special women jazz instrumentalists three years ago. Iris Ornig is delivering on her promise.
No Restrictions goes on sale September 19. Look for the CD to go on sale soon at CD Baby.