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Nicole McCabe


by Ian Mann

June 20, 2024


This is music that bristles with ideas, these finding expression both via the excellent playing and through the intricacies of McCabe’s intelligent and varied writing.

Nicole McCabe


(Ghost Note Records GNR1027)

Nicole McCabe – alto saxophone, Logan Kane – bass, Tim Angulo – drums, Julius Rodriguez – piano & Rhodes.
Jon Hatamiya – trombone, Aaron Janik – trumpet, Jeff Parker – guitar

Saxophonist, composer, improviser and educator Nicole McCabe is based in Los Angeles and has become one of the leading figures on that city’s jazz scene.

She made her recording debut in 2020 with the album “Introducing Nicole McCabe”, a quartet recording that also featured the talents of the experienced pianist George Colligan.

“Landscapes” (2022) was a second quartet album,  but the “Improvisations EP”, another 2022 release demonstrated a different side of McCabe’s music and was a solo recording featuring alto sax and electronics.  It represented an aspect of her work that also finds expression in her membership of Dolphin Hyperspace, an electro-jazz duo featuring McCabe and her life partner, bassist Logan Kane. She has also worked with producers, multi-instrumentalists and beatmakers Vooo and 10.4 Rog, appearing with them on the EP “Orbit”.

“Live at Jamboree” is a 2024 release featuring a standards based live set from 2023 featuring a quartet including Kane.

McCabe has also been a member of pianist and composer Jacob Mann’s Big Band and has also worked prolifically as a sidewoman in numerous LA jazz clubs.

Like her first two releases McCabe’s new album “Mosaic” places the focus on her original compositions. It appears on the LA based label Ghost Note, also the home of Kane’s excellent 2023 release “Floor Plans”, an album favourably reviewed by the Jazzmann here;

For the “Mosaic” recording McCabe deploys a core quartet featuring Kane on bass, Tim Angulo on drums and Julius Rodriguez on piano and Rhodes. Two tracks augment the group with the horns of trombonist Jon Hatamiya and trumpeter Aaron Janik. Hatamiya also appears on Kane’s “Floor Plans”.

The album is produced by Chicago guitarist Jeff Parker, a prolific musician and producer who has recorded some fourteen albums as a leader or co-leader as well as being a former member of Tortoise and of the Chicago Underground Trio / Quartet. Parker is a serial collaborator with numerous collaborative and sideman recordings to his credit. His guitar playing graces one cut on “Mosaic” and McCabe says of his involvement with the album;
“I’m a big fan of Jeff’s music and the way he’s able to push things forward. I was so grateful that he agreed to do this. He did what he does on his music but in a way that fitted my music”.

The eight tracks feature McCabe’s writing exclusively and she describes the first two pieces as “a suite for women that have influenced my life, who shaped me, female mentors specifically”.

The first of these, “Force for Good” sees the core group extended to a sextet with the addition of trombonist Hatamiya and trumpeter Janik. The inclusion of the horns allows for denser orchestration and the use of counterpoint. Based around an insistent rhythmic vamp this piece draws inspiration from the writing of jazz artists such as fellow saxophonists Melissa Aldana and Walter Smith III and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, but also draws on non jazz sources. New York based musicians Rodriguez and Angulo combine with Kane to provide a powerful but supple rhythm track and the three horns also link up to create an assertive but sophisticated urban sound. McCabe’s alto soloing is incisive and fluid, while Kane, who was so impressive as a virtuoso bassist on his own “Floor Plans”, is also featured as a soloist.

“Architect”, the second part of the opening suite, sees the group pared down to the core quartet. An atmospheric, loosely structured intro combines the sound of the leader’s alto with the deep resonances of Kane’s bowed bass, this contrasting with rippling piano arpeggios and the shimmer of cymbals. Kane then establishes a powerful pizzicato bass groove that provides the foundation for McCabe’s probing alto solo, which becomes increasingly impassioned the deeper she delves. Rodriguez takes over at the piano for a solo that follows a similar trajectory, his playing truly torrential at times as bass and drums roil behind him. However it’s not all sound and fury, this multi-faceted composition contains more reflective moments too.

‘Multi-faceted’ is a term that can be applied to all of the compositions on this album. All of the pieces are more than six minutes in duration, allowing for the creation of dynamic contrasts and a strong narrative arc, whilst also providing the soloists with the opportunity to stretch out at length. “Times Apart” offers suitable evidence as it builds from a lyrical introduction to embrace powerful solos from McCabe on alto and Rodriguez at the piano, both fuelled by the dynamic rhythmic partnership of Kane and Angulo and with the drummer also featuring strongly in the tune’s latter stages.

Angulo introduces “Human Cycles”, which features another stunning piano solo from Rodriguez, of whom McCabe says; Julius is just incredible, he brings so many things to life in the music that I hadn’t written, different feels over things”. She’s similarly generous in her praise for Angulo; “Tim really pushes me to play beyond what I’m putting out”. Her words are borne out via an impassioned alto solo propelled by Angulo’s furious drumming, with Angulo subsequently stretching out even further with a volcanic drum feature.

“End of Spring” finds Rodriguez switching to Rhodes and features an astonishingly dexterous bass solo from Logan Kane. McCabe follows on alto, with Rodriguez subsequently taking over on Rhodes. It’s slightly ironic that the first track to feature electric instrumentation should be one of the album’s more reflective pieces, although with Angulo once more featuring strongly in the closing stages it’s hardly lacking in terms of energy. That old phrase ‘multi-faceted’ once more.

The next two pieces developed out of McCabe’s time at the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead residency programme at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., where she studied with pianist Jason Moran.

The first of these, “Tight Grip”, is particularly personal piece for McCabe. The composition is dedicated to the memory of her late uncle, a fellow musician who was lost to drug addiction shortly before McCabe embarked on the Kennedy Center programme. The performance sees the core group augmented by Parker on guitar and begins in a suitably solemn manner with Angulo deploying brushes behind Rodriguez’s sombre piano chording and the plaintive sound of McCabe’s alto. As the music gathers momentum guest Parker delivers a thoughtful electric guitar solo followed by a more impassioned and incisive alto solo from McCabe that embraces elements of free playing. McCabe comments; “The dramatic crescendo and transition to all-out free playing towards the end is maybe me venting my anger about the cards my uncle was dealt and about the things I wish I’d done or said”.
The tune concludes with a gently lyrical coda, about which the composer says;
“At the end the tune enters a kind of peace. So the section before it is about struggle, and at the end it’s peace”. She also thanks her band mates for helping her convey her emotions, including Parker in his joint roles as musician and producer.

The second of the Kennedy Center compositions is “Walking Statue”, which McCabe describes as being about; “preserving history and also moving things forward, which to me is what the Jazz Ahead programme is doing”.
Following a thoughtful and lyrical opening section, a kind of ‘curtain raiser’ if you will, this is a buoyant and upbeat piece that reflects the positivity of McCabe’s remarks. Rodriguez delivers a typically dazzling piano solo, followed by McCabe on swooping and soaring alto.

The album closes with “Derecske”, a piece that reflects McCabe’s Hungarian heritage. The piece is dedicated to McCabe’s grandmother, her only surviving grandparent, and is named after the town that Grandma grew up in. “It means ‘little dew’ in Hungarian”, McCabe explains.
The performance sees Hatamiya and Janik returning to the fold to combine with the leader on a celebratory piece with more of an orthodox jazz feel about it. A punchy arrangement incorporates expansive solos from the leader on alto and Rodriguez on piano, with Angulo also featured towards the close. 

Despite her bebop and hard bop roots, with Cannonball Adderley a significant early influence, McCabe has developed a far more contemporary playing and writing style that owes something to fellow alto player David Binney, an inspirational figure for both her and Kane.

With “Mosaic” McCabe was trying to capture something of the energy of her live performances and she praises the New York aggression and attitude that Angulo and Rodriguez bring to this West Coast project. This is music that bristles with ideas, these finding expression both via the excellent playing and through the intricacies of McCabe’s intelligent and varied writing. It’s mainly about the core quartet, although Hatamiya and Janik do bring additional colour to the tracks on which they appear, while Parker plays a vital role in the success of the album as both producer and musician.

“Mosaic” has garnered a compelling amount of critical acclaim and is generally regarded as being McCabe’s strongest release thus far. She and Kane are both names to look out for.

“Mosaic” is available via the Ghost Note Records Bandcamp page;


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