Gene Seymour’s Ten Favorite Things in 2021

Going to live performances for most of the past year was pretty much out of the question for me (with one notable exception cited down below). And there were so many reasons for this that relatively few of them had to do with the pandemic. (Here, for example, was a big one.) As for the brave not-so-new-anymore world of streams and clouds, one wasn’t always sure where one wanted to dump several hours of one’s life into binge-watching. Most evenings found me staring at the available options, all but completely immobilized by the sheer mass of “content” to the point where I frequently found myself saying, “The hell with all this noise!” and go to sports or Turner Classic Movies – or both. Or neither.

So given the myriad, metric tons of possibilities for my favorite things. of 2021, it’s possible that there may be things I’ve neglected, passed by, haven’t caught up with or entirely forgotten about. It may say something about the sheer glut of “content” that my top pick was a 2020 release, but it took me most of this year’s first half to absorb its content, and even longer to assess its impact. It’s still Up On Top, so to speak, because it’s too important to ignore – even if much of the culture, popular or otherwise, pretty much has:

 

 

 

 

 

 




Turn Me Loose, White Man – Now that “critical race theory” has affected state and local elections, driven school boards up a wall and perplexed a mass media that doesn’t quite grasp the concept (or know exactly what it means), it may be time to consider the possibility that we’re all going about this “racial dialogue” thing the wrong way. Mostly we need to stop worrying about making Black and White people “feel better” about being what they are. “Feelings,” after all, are what got us all into this mess in the first place. Somebody needs to break the news, however gently, that none of us is as “Black” or as “White” as we think we are, thanks in large part to an ongoing cultural transaction that began centuries ago with music created by African slaves, propagated by their descendants, absorbed and, yes, appropriated by Whites only to be reinvigorated and even reinvented into new forms by pink and brown alike.
Fellow Americans and worthy constituents, it’s in all our DNA, whether we like it or not. We’re all different, and always the same.
Few people this side of Ralph Ellison’s ghost care to even consider such concepts, booby-trapped as they are with anachronisms, racial slurs, ribald and sacred outbursts swarming and popping on scratchy old 78-RPM records, archaeologic souvenirs of an earlier, exceedingly weirder America.
But Allen Lowe, saxophonist, composer, historian, educator, and cultural gadfly, has long believed that if you gathered as much aural arcana as can be assembled, you could approach something resembling a unified field theory about what makes up the American soul in all its contradictory restlessness and conflicting exuberance.

 

 

 


It takes 30 compact discs with almost 900 songs and two volumes of hypertext for Lowe to fashion Turn Me Loose, White Man, a survey of the national sound in all its permutations, blues, bluegrass, gospel, jazz, burlesque, C&W, R&B, rock and rockabilly in so many mutant and mongrelized strains that “genre” loses all meaning. As, Lowe implies, it probably should.
Lowe’s archival efforts have been compared in range to those of such intrepid pioneers as Alan Lomax, Paul Oliver, and Harry Smith. But there are far more idiosyncratic and illuminating patterns Lowe draws from and, in some cases, imposes upon his discoveries. You’ll probably need to follow along, as much as possible, with Lowe’s written text (pure pleasure on its own) to gauge how and why on the first volume he chose to follow, say, the great Black vaudeville comedian Bert Williams’ 1906 recording of his deathless “Nobody” with the more obscure May Irwin’s whimsical 1907 sliver of minstrelsy, “If You Aint Got No Money, You Needn’t Come Around.” Note the use of dialect in the title’s first clause and the grammatical precision of the second. Such tensions are played out in big and small ways throughout this cosmic juke box whose selections cover the 20th century’s first sixty years.
From the shuck-&-jive of Irwin’s “coon song” (defined by Lowe as “that odd phenomenon of progressive melody and harmony, advanced white singing, significant black co-optation and racist bait”) through the 1920s emergence of Black blues queens Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters and a panoply of artists from the widely celebrated (Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Rodgers, Al Jolson, Leadbelly, Count Basie, Bill Monroe, Bing Crosby, Kitty Wells, Charlie Parker, Roy Rogers, Little Richard) to just-below-the-radar legends (Geeshie Wiley, Babs Gonzales, Blue Ridge Quartet, Helen Merrill, Jimmy Yancey, Riley Puckett) and many more obscure or little-remembered artists whose contributions glow like searchlights struggling to be seen through twilight mists.

 

 

 

 


The zillions of epiphanies and discoveries along the way are too numerous to adequately summarize. The best I can do for now is to mention the shock of hearing the original bust-out 1911 recording of Sophie Tucker’s “Some of These Days,” composed by Black songwriter Shelton Brooks and thus an early example of appropriation; but one whose impact was galvanic enough to give safe passage to Turner’s stardom well past the 1960s. Another shock: the spare, haunting 1941 recording of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” by the ill-fated blues singer Lil Green that Peggy Lee credited with influencing her own hit version the following year. And on and on…

Whether things should have turned out this way (and artists like Lee are the ones least deserving of blame) shouldn’t be a matter of concern to contemporary listeners anxious to throw as many red “racism” flags at the past as can be flung. (You’re better off blaming the Southern segregationist bloc in Congress for ruining what could have been a nice party for all.) The main point, as Lowe continually asserts, is that such push-pull dynamics, this braiding of cultures on record, as it were, didn’t validate or encourage racial separation. It was very much the opposite, even when the lyrics were far from conciliatory or respectful to Black people earlier in the century.


Lowe’s magnificent treatise comes to us as a gift we’ve needed for a long time, though this era being whatever it is, I don’t know whether the skittish, hopelessly judgmental masses who now dominate social media are prepared to deal with its sheer weight or its propensity for nuance, irony, wit, and surprise. For the moment, I choose to be optimistic enough to speculate that when these masses are ready for Turn Me Loose, White Man, it’ll still be around somewhere to both explain and evoke a world where the Light Crust Doughboys are as “ivey-divey” as the Sun Ra Arkestra.

 


The rest, as usual, are in no particular order:

 

 

 



Rita Moreno – You know how you have those people in your life or in your personal pantheon of whom you always say, “If you don’t like —-, then I don’t want to know you”? Well, Rita Moreno has for most of my life been at or near the top of that list for me and it was as much for what she did when she was Being Herself on talk shows and interviews as for when she exploded on-screen in the original 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story and collected her supporting-actress Oscar the following year. As most of the known universe knows by now, she’s also in the Steven Spielberg-Tony Kushner version and not a few people believe she can win the same Oscar sixty years after she got her last one. It may not matter much either way as she’s practically a charter member of the EGOT sisterhood. What does matter is that this year, at a supernaturally energetic 90 years old, Moreno has been given her proper due and then some; not just with the new West Side Story (of which she is also a producer), but this past year’s release of Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, a PBS documentary about Moreno that gained viewership when it streamed on Netflix. She made being Rita Moreno look easier and much more fun than it likely was, especially when struggling through her dispiriting and (especially) demeaning early years as a studio ingenue. From those experiences, she developed superior emotional intelligence and fervent empathy towards all who struggled as she did. At about the five-minute mark of this interview clip, she talks about how when working as a series regular, she would go out of her way to make guest actors feel more welcome in unfamiliar, and in some cases, less hospitable surroundings. It’s not in the documentary, but it’s yet another reason, as if any more were needed, to cherish her forever.

 

 

 

 



The Beatles: Get Back – As Samuel Johnson didn’t say, but would have, whosoever gets bored from watching four active imaginations pooling their resources to make music in a studio is bored with life. Eight hours of footage didn’t seem an exceptionally long time to get embedded in a handful of hard day’s nights in the studio. Much as they may have wanted to get back, so to speak, to live concerts, their basic instincts turned out right: they were better together in a studio than they would have been on stage in their latter days as a group. (The guess here is that if they’d stayed on the road any longer than they did, one or more of them would have gotten physically, seriously hurt as the decade they helped create began curdling like cream left open too long on the patio.) Even with all the tiffs, tantrums, and tensions sharing the room with them, the guys were in their safe space, as capable of mutually assured generosity (still loving the sequence where George is helping Ringo erect a bridge for the latter’s “Octopus’s Garden.”) as of sticking tiny needles into each other’s self-esteem. All of which happens when you’re just “hanging out” and this may well be for all time the sine qua non of cinematic “hangs.” The sainted Cassavetes couldn’t have pulled it off if he’d staged everything in advance: he could never have drawn up those two “what’s-all-this-then?” constables trying in vain to get the lads to shut down their rooftop concert. Questions for further study: Can we be sure Phil Spector didn’t put the old lady up to calling the cops? And where, in all this footage, was Phil Spector anyway?

 

 

 

 



Passing – With episodic television now firmly in the center of popular storytelling, it’s perhaps inevitable that some of the year’s most critically-lauded feature films tended to leave more of their narrative details to the imagination, much as producers, directors and writers tried to do in the mid-20th century as commercial television squeezed movie houses into tight corners. Jane Campion’s award-winning western noir The Power of the Dog was a revelation to many for its calculated ambiguity. I admired it very much but preferred Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut if only for the daring aesthetic and personal choices she made in adapting a Harlem Renaissance classic and thus proving (a.) that Nella Larson has earned serious reconsideration as a major American novelist and (b.) judging from some of the reactions to the movie, there remain some things about skin color we feel uneasy about.

 

 

 

 

 



Samantha Fish – So let me tell you how this happened: I was wandering around YouTube this past summer in search of vintage fifties black-and-white videos of the great country-rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson to show a friend of mine what she’d been missing. In the process, whatever algorithm mediates such things kicked up more recent live performances from a guitarist/vocalist I’d never heard before.  Among the many things that led me from the Telluride thing was this solo recital above for New Orleans’ fabled WWOZ from a year ago when things were too locked down for live audiences.

Damn! I said to myself. Where’d she come from? I then asked myself.

 

 

 

 

Born 33 years ago this coming January in Kansas City, Fish’s been performing kickass blues, soul, and country rock for more than a decade and has recorded seven albums under her name, the latest of which, Faster, came out this past September on the Rounder label. She plays several different types of guitar at several different speeds and may well be the master of the amplified cigar-box. With composure and conviction, she can belt, purr, growl, and shout like a grizzled juke-joint veteran, a swampland Marilyn Monroe with a surfeit of sang-froid. She’s always on the move from one medium-cool venue to another, her smitten fans following her trail and hanging on her every well-wrought lick and riff. By autumn, I was so enamored that when I found out her tour would land at Philadelphia’s Union Transfer on my birthday night, I gave her concert as a present from me to me as the first live music show I’d attended since lockdown. I keep wondering why this woman isn’t ruling the world. One answer, the best I can come up with for now, is that the world as it is now constituted would need to be at once older and newer to deserve her reign. As things stand now, she already travels the world, finds love wherever she goes, and, as The Fugs would say, is doing all right.

 

 

 




Tear Across the Dotted Line – In a time like ours where narcissism and its toffee-nosed sibling solipsism rule the populace regardless of ideology, anything that chips away at what legendary basketball coach Pat Riley famously labeled “the Disease of Me” is worth your time. I’m certainly glad for the time I spent absorbing this six-episode animated series by the Italo-Franco cartoonist Zerocalcare, who also voices (in the Italian-language version) his cartoon alter-ego Zero, a snarky, self-absorbed, and self-sabotaging professional illustrator whose personality is best expressed by the giant orange armadillo who hangs around as his sardonic Jiminy Cricket: “You’re a black belt at dodging life.” Exhibit A for the armadillo’s diagnosis is Zero’s fraught, constricted relationship with Alice, a shy, enigmatic young woman with whose feelings Zero plays an exasperating game of keep-away, until tragedy forces him to confront his own mangier inhibitions. On this description alone, you may be inclined to take a hard pass. But there is genuine charm, wit, and ingenuity in execution, and it wins your heart, fairly and honestly, at the end, even if you’re left feeling that Zero would still be more annoying without the armadillo tagging along.

 

 

 

 

 



The Love Song of W.E.B. DuBois – “We are the earth, the land. The tongue that speaks and trips on the names of the dead as it dares to tell the story of a woman’s line. Her people and her dirt. Her trees and her water.” If you’re going to try writing a “great American novel,” you better come at it with a killer lead, especially if what follows is almost 800 pages long. Award-winning poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers fulfills this first obligation in her first novel, an audacious, dense-star potpourri of bildungsroman, multi-generational history, socio-political inquiry and, as the title implies, love story. The coming-of-age story belongs to Ailey Pearl Garfield, habitually impertinent, intensely probing, and passionately engaged in the pursuit of her family background with all its upheavals, hardships, duplicities, and hard-won victories. For those who wonder if going so long and deep is worth the trouble, I yield the floor to culture critic Davin Seay who in 1982’s The Catalog of Cool posed the rhetorical question, “Ask yourself…you looking for something to do while the coffee cools or do you want to read a book?”

 

 

 



Lashana Lynch, Ana De Armas & Lea SeydouxNo Time to Die took its sweet time getting its business done, making Daniel Craig’s long goodbye to the James Bond franchise seem even longer than necessary. Still, the movie’s generosity of spirit towards its cast and its audience compensated for any number of longueurs and Craig’s comfort level with the 007 persona was never more evident, or more disarming, than it was on his way out. What also helped was a dazzling trio of what would have once been branded “Bond girls” for convenience’s sake, though somehow, they each seem emblematic of Things to Come rather than What Once Was. We’ll start with Lynch as Agent Nomi of MI-6, who in the wake of Bond’s resignation from the secret service, was granted “license to kill” status and made the most of it with a skill set formidable enough to get her out of any jam the franchise could conceive. Seydoux, reprising her role from SPECTRE as Bond’s enigmatic love interest Madeleine Swann, got to show additional bad-assery in an unexpected place beyond Bond: as the truculent prison guard who doubles as an artist’s nude model in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. Last, and by no means least is Armas, who made perhaps the biggest splash with critics and audiences as Paloma, the callow, but poised CIA agent, whose one action set piece with Craig’s Bond showed she could take command of the screen on her own. When Armas’s Paloma split for Parts Unknown, you felt she’d taken much of the movie’s vitality with her. It’s been whispered that Paloma will be given her own movie as will Lynch’s Nomi. It’d be OK with me and I suspect millions of others if they paired up somehow, if the world could withstand so much magnetism from the same place.

 

 

 



The Underground RailroadI’ve had my say and then some about Barry Jenkins’s masterly, unsparingly corrosive adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s antebellum magical-realist picaresque. The only thing I can add is that I still believe there’s been nothing like it on television before. If it weren’t so tough to watch the first time, I might be able to say for sure after a return viewing. And I don’t know if those faint whispers about a second season are or should be for real. It’d be intriguing to see Jenkins, or somebody else, try.

 

 

 


Succession – For those who haven’t watched the third season, or for that matter, its two predecessors (and what are you all waiting for anyway?), I’ll try hard not to spoil anything for you by being of no real help whatsoever. Moving stuff around without changing anything about their miserable selves: that’s what being a member of the Roy family is all about, beginning with Mister “Fuck Off “himself, his satanic majesty Logan Roy (Brian Cox). Part of the reason Season 3 reached a new peak in dialogue was its many cogent deployments of the f-word as verb, adjective, noun, and adverb. beginning with what retains pole position as Snap of the Decade: not-as-smart-as-she-thinks sister Shiv (Sarah Snook) telling her not-as-hep-to-the-jive-as-he-thinks-younger bro Roman (Kieran Culkin): “Oh, you love showing your pee-pee to everybody, but sooner or later, you’re actually going to have to fuck something!” Then there’s Shiv’s not-as-pliant-as-he-seems husband Tom (Matthew Macfayden) telling nowhere-near-as-cool-as he-thinks renegade son Kendall (Jeremy Strong) why he can’t join the latter’s uprising against Big Daddy: “I don’t mean to be insulting, but having been around a bit, my hunch is you’re going to get fucked. Because I’ve seen you get fucked a lot. And I’ve never seen Logan get fucked once.” In the end, there’s Logan (and, as Tom says, this shouldn’t be a spoiler to those of us who’ve “been around” these jackals since 2018) proclaiming “I! Fucking! Win!” closely followed by Shiv’s doleful last words till next season, “Mom fucked us.” That’s more than enough fucking “fucks” for you to begin piecing together where things go from here. And you can count on so much more — and potentially worse — fuckery to come.

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Albums for 2021

 

 

I’m not altogether sure what it says about this year – or, rather, my year – in jazz that for the first time since I started putting these things together, a single artist dominates my annual list as William Parker does this one. It’s not as though he’s an overnight sensation; he’s been a redoubtable and influential fixture on the progressive jazz scene since the 1970s when the music’s cutting edge could be found working through its experiments in big-city lofts. But his impulse to outwork, out-produce and out-gig his peers both within and outside the (so-called) avant-garde has been especially apparent this year, not just with the significance of the ten-disc omnibus that leads the list (see below), but in the appearance during the past 12 months of at least six albums bearing his name, including three that are also on the list. (5, 6 and 10) It helps that Parker is something of a polymath: a grandmaster of the upright bass with a formidable body-of-work as a composer along with an ability to express himself on many other instruments and an accomplished, if relatively unsung poet. From reading Cisco Bradley’s Universal Tonality: The Life and Work of William Parker (Duke University Press), also published this year, one gets the impression that irrepressible curiosity and a multiplicity of interests are among the things that drive Parker forward. I’m sort of thinking that most of us who have struggled throughout 2021 to recuperate in various ways from 2020 while still feeling wary and uneasy about what’s happening now and whatever’s ahead could profit from the example set by somebody like William Parker, who at 70 has cultivated and honed his craft to a glistening edge while retaining an active abhorrence of injustice, a profound sense of cultural history and a steadfast, self-effacing core of spiritual equilibrium.

Most of the other artists on this year’s list have in different ways released albums that convey those same values. Some are declarative in expression, others more contemplative. They engage the prevailing disquiet, not (necessarily) in anger, but with a determination to face turbulence and dread with clarity and understanding. (I almost said “correctness.” I refuse to say “woke.” Never mind why.)

Also: if you’d somehow found my 20-something self under siege in the seventies and told me that more than a half-century later, albums headlined by both Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp would be included among my personal top-ten list, I’d have said you were either daft or irrationally optimistic. Their octogenarian triumphs make me wonder whether, “irrational optimism” is a legitimate and necessary response to whatever’s now threatening us all, whether from nature or from humans. It may well be that both Sanders and Shepp persist because they’re both still somehow necessary to fight the power in their different ways. Feel free to suggest that in another few decades, four of Wynton Marsalis’ albums will find their way to the upper half of such lists, assuming we’ll still have albums, or lists, or…

No. Let’s not go to there. We’re going to try “irrational optimism” for a while longer. At least, I am.

 





1.) The Music of William Parker, Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World, Volumes 1-10 (AUM) – On its own, this imposing gallery-without-walls is a Top-10 list. And not just for jazz, but also for world music, art songs, soundscapes and “spoken poetry.” Think of it also as a ginormous prism that, when held to natural light, emits wildly varying arrays of color and echo. The first volume, “Blue Limelight,” sets the table for its successors as Parker’s musical autobiography suffused with childhood memories and dreams (“Cosmic Funk,” “A Great Day to Be Dead”) and reminiscences of such colleagues as Cecil Taylor and lesser-know-but-still-legendary Hoboken trumpeter Bennie Bishop. The remaining volumes comprise a portable universe of possibility – and of orchestration: a whole disc of solo piano pieces played by Eri Yamamoto taking off from some of the composer’s personal iconography (Malachi Favors, Malcolm X) and his abiding engagement with Native American history and culture; another volume, “Cheops,” whose title track is named after an Egyptian pyramid, places in its foreground the startling range and pyrotechnics of vocalist Kyoko Kitamura with Parker not only playing bass, but also a bass dudek (an ancient Armenian double-reed instrument) and fujara (a “fipple flute,” tall enough to stare down a bassoon). The composer provides plenty of space for voices to lay out, notably on a volume where Lisa Sokolov does a stunning a capella recital of Parker’s “Afternoon Poem.” Parker throughout is less of a presence on bass than he is on other such exotic instruments whose deployment emerges in all manner of settings whether they are reveries of Harlem, Mexico or the films of Fellini, Visconti, Antonioni, and other Italian filmmakers (“Lights in the Rain.”) To find the best encapsulation of this ambitious collection, you need to go all the way back to the first volume’s third track, “I’d Rather Be” in which this titan of what is still regarded as jazz’s “avant-garde” has a character from one his “tone poems” declare that she “would rather be a human being than be avant-garde [because] the most avant-garde thing you can be is a human being.”


 

 



2.) Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet with Wynton Marsalis,The Democracy! Suite (Blue Engine) – The leanest, tightest, toughest-minded music released under Wynton Marsalis’ name in decades made its public debut in the Appel Room of J@LC’s Frederick C. Rose Hall in September 2020, just about the time when the shattering events of that year were propelling the nation towards its Election Day rendezvous with destiny. There was no live audience because of the COVID-19 lockdown. But there’s urgency, momentum and focus merging together in Marsalis’ eight-part composition in ways not often encountered in his previous work. The first track, “Be Present,” is as declamatory as its title, throwing punches at the prevailing chaos without flailing. Once this group has your attention, it keeps up the pace with “Sloganize, Patronize, Realize, Revolutionize (Black Lives Matter),” a piquant rouser upon which Marsalis’ old boss Art Blakey would have pounced with polychordal brio. Of the ensemble’s soloists, J@LC mainstay Walter Blanding makes his tenor sax growl deep and dissonant on this track, in case there’s any doubt that Marsalis and his men are out to kick Trumpism in the teeth. But it’s not all grievance and exasperation. Things perk up with “Ballot Box Bounce” anchored by reed master Ted Nash’s breezy rendering on flute of Marsalis’ witty melody and “That Dance We Do (That You Love),” with Blanding, Nash, trombonist Elliot Mason, pianist Dan Nimmer, drummer Obed Calvaire, and bassist Carlos Henriquez helping their leader here and elsewhere make his most emphatic case yet for jazz being the consummate expression of, and metaphor for the democratic process: individual freedom flourishing within the collective imperative. And if the resilience of that paradox isn’t clear to all, or even some, Marsalis composes a movement for that, too: “It Come ‘Round ‘Gin.” As everything, good, bad, and indifferent, always does in America.

 

 

 

 

 


3.) Veronica Swift, This Bitter Earth (Mack Avenue)— For Swift, the classic pop song repertoire is more than an arena for her fearsome vocal agility. It is also a mode of interrogation, an agency of dissent. Think of how her sister Millennial phenom Cecile McLorin Salvant assembled a concept album of standards, 2015’s For One to Love, illuminating the often-casually toxic quirks of the male gaze. The title track of Swift’s latest album, which until now seemed the sole property of Dinah Washington, signals thoughtful and passionate engagement with the anxious present. She applies shading and intensity to the Clyde Otis dirge, which at once contains its majesty while maximizing its power. It’s an exquisite balancing act that sets the table for the creative and virtuosic renditions of stage musical standards and such Brill Building oddities as “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss),” Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s disquieting dissection of abusive love, which she sings to the stark accompaniment of Armand Hirsch’s guitar. She carries this inquiry into questionable behavior between the sexes to such grand old war horses as “As Long as He Needs Me” from “Oliver!” and “How Lovely to Be a Woman,” from “Bye Bye Birdie,” whose effervescent interpretation barely conceals the gimlet-eyed contempt for its implicit sexism. She trains her sights on racism with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” which is immediately, but no less trenchantly (or imaginatively) countered with that same duo’s “Getting To Know You.” Her range of concerns is as deep and wide as her vocal resources, taking in Bob Dorough’s bopping “You’re the Dangerous Type” and Dave Frishberg’s “The Sports Page,” cheekily summing up why so many of us seek refuge in scores and highlights from the exasperations of whatever “hard news” delivers. The present spreads all over This Bitter Earth. But Swift’s mesmerizing chops remain Beautiful and True in any time frame.

 

 

 

 

 



4.) Floating Points & Pharoah Sanders featuring the London Symphony Orchestra, Promises (Luaka Bop) – OK. John Coltrane’s Ascension, right? Pharoah Sanders was one of the eleven musicians who played on that landmark 1965 album that drew a line in the sand between those who were totally onboard for the Free Jazz rocket flight and those who wanted no part of it. After a six-decade career which he began as an avatar for “outside” saxophone inventions, Sanders, now 81, aligned himself with British electronic music artisan Sam Shepherd, alias Floating Points, who composed a nine-part suite he and Sanders recorded with the LSO not long before everything locked down. So, what does the tempestuous Ascension, which I’ve routinely characterized (in a good way) as a “sonic maelstrom” or a “polyphonic orchestrated abstraction” have in common with a sequence of suggestive, near-pastoral impressions? (A glibly convenient, if not terribly useful shorthand description might be, “trance music with soul.”) For one thing, both works take off from a simple progression of notes that become an ongoing riff: Ascension takes off from five while Promises sets sail from seven. Each work also wears its own brand of inscrutability, daring you to poke around its layers, resisting any effort towards “understanding” what makes each of them tick. With Promises, there are tensions winnowing throughout between space and time, declaration and insinuation, abandonment and resolve. Sanders’ voice, downier, warmer, but every bit as probing and incantatory as it was when he was in his mid-twenties, is what carries you along the contours laid out by Shepherd’s keyboards and the LSO’s strings. (At various points, you hear the saxophonist’s gentle singing voice seeping into the mixture with his own non-verbal lyrics.) On the whole, the album delivers nowhere near the same kind of intensity associated with Ascension. It is a far subtler, more enchanting, and comparably provocative experience that coerces repeated listening in search of more secrets, not resolutions necessarily, just more secrets.

 

 

 


5.) William Parker, Painter’s Winter (AUM)

 

 

 



6.) William Parker, Mayan Space Station (AUM) – Two very different trios make the case for Parker’s mastery of both his principal instrument and of guiding small bands of any size towards expansive and productive interplay. With electric guitarist Ava Mendoza setting off harmonic firestorms propelled by the equally combustible drummer Gerald Cleaver, Mayan Space Station is redolent of the riveting mosaics of amplified sound forged in trios led by the late Sonny Sharrock. Parker’s bass playing does as much breakaway running as his two partners, though most of the time he’s content to drive this vehicle forward and let their younger people go off. The acoustic trio on Painter’s Window that includes multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter and drummer Hamid Drake seems a lot more composed. But their collaboration is just as intense and deeply committed with Carter’s solos on trumpet, saxophones and flute unfurling intricate patterns as Drake’s percussive momentum shifty enough to keep up with the indefatigable bassist. Besides Parker, the only quality these two discs share is narrative drive that’s both refined and rugged.

 

 

 

 



7.) Kimbrough (Newvelle) – Frank Kimbrough died just before last New Year’s Eve at 64, setting off a still-resounding wave of shock and grief from generations of jazz musicians who played with or studied under him. Among these artists, Kimbrough was beloved as a “pianist’s pianist,” a droll and ubiquitous presence on the New York City scene, an archivist tending diligently to the legacies of Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk, a crucial member of the critically acclaimed Maria Schneider Orchestra, a devoted teacher who mentored aspiring musicians at NYU and Julliard, and a gifted, uncompromising, and prolific composer. It is mostly to that latter aspect of Kimbrough’s life and work that this extensive, ambitious tribute album was recorded almost six months after his death. There are 61 tracks featuring 67musicians in 55 different combinations. Any random sample of the players involved – Ben Allison, Fred Hersch, Michael Blake, Dave Douglas, Craig Taborn, Joe Lovano, Matt Wilson, Helen Sung, Noah Preminger, among many others – is enough to suggest the breadth and depth of Kimbrough’s influence on his peers and ex-pupils alike. The compositions they play, sometimes on one take and in different versions (“Reluctance” is rendered in solo and quartet form) offer so many revelations as to suggest decades to come of workshops, repertory orchestrations and ensemble performances of Kimbrough’s mostly unsung work spreading out to concert halls and colleges here and abroad. In the immediate aftermath of Kimbrough’s passing, one of his heartbroken friends wondered whether it marked the end of an era or the beginning of a new one. This album’s release reinforces my belief that it’s more the latter. I’m sure Frank would agree.

 

 

 

 



8.) Archie Shepp & Jason Moran, Let My People Go (Archieball) – There was always something of the old-time spiritual revivalist in Shepp, even as far back as the mid-1960s when he emerged as one of the more stridently political of the emerging tenor saxophonists inspired and nurtured by John Coltrane. At 83, Shepp doesn’t let his phrasings wail with the sustained force he exerted on such classics as 1966s Mama Too Tight, 1972’s Attica Blues or (my all-time favorite) 1975’s A Sea of Faces. His mature style relies more on space and timing, the vocalizing more contained, but no less intense. In this collaboration with the mighty, simpatico pianist Jason Moran, Shepp sings with and without the tenor or (mostly) soprano sax with a depth of feeling that releases itself in bursts, especially in the “sorrow songs” such as “Go Down, Moses” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Shepp’s stark, weathered vocals allow you to hear each line and word with a deeper sense of desolation and yearning on these spirituals and Moran’s own spare and impeccably timed comping provides an elegant frame for Shepp’s arias. On the other tracks, Shepp and Moran are more conversational, their measured, lively exchange of themes and ideas inspiring fresh ways of engaging such familiar standards as Ellington’s and Strayhorn’s “Isfahan,” Monk’s “Round Midnight,” Coltrane’s “Wise One,” Shepp’s own “Ujamaa,” and, in an especially multi-layered rendering, Moran’s own “He Cares.” Shepp’s patented blurts, bleats and squawks flare up over the cushions of chords Moran sets loose or holds back whenever the occasion demands. It often sounds as though both are collaborating on separate dramas with their synchronistical dialogue weaving seamlessly into place. One remembers that back in those 1960s, Shepp was, among other things, a playwright.

 

 

 

 

 

 


9.) Julian Lage, Squint (Blue Note) – Anyone whose curriculum vitae includes gigs with Nels Cline, Charles Lloyd, John Zorn, Bela Fleck, Gary Burton, David Grisman and Yoko Ono should have your attention from the jump. And Lage (pronounced “lahzh,” as in “lozenge”) goes all out on his first release with the fabled Blue Note label to show he can do anything and everything he wants to with a guitar, whether it’s a neoclassical a cappella solo (“Etude”), straight-ahead swing (“Boo Blues,” the title track), classic covers (Johnny Mandel’s “Emily,” Gene Autry’s “Call of the Canyon”), country-rock (“Day and Age,” “Twilight Surfer”). Clearly Lage knows more than a little about a lot of different genres. But he makes his best impression as a player not by leading with his learning or virtuosity, but by gently asserting and maneuvering his own sensibility into each piece. It helps to have a rhythm section of bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Dave King as smart and attentive to his needs as any great piano trio. Indeed, Lage’s trio has drawn comparisons to Bill Evans’ deathless 1961 Village Vanguard threesome both for the seamless interaction between the principals and the insinuating lyricism. Other influences raise their hands for attention in Lage’s style from Chet Atkins to Pat Martino. But Lage, who first gained notice as an eight-year-old prodigy, is still just getting started and with greater name recognition an all-but-inevitable result from Squint , one gets a little tingly over what he’ll be able to do with even broader resources available to him.

 

 

 

 

10.) William Parker & Matthew Shipp, Re-Union 2021 (Rogue Art) – Though Parker and Shipp have worked together on several projects with larger groups, this Re-Union marks only the third time they’ve played together as a duo. Their respective personalities blend so well together that it’s surprising they haven’t “re-unioned” more often. As with most friends’ conversations, one of them starts out with something small: a thread, a fragment, a half-baked suggestion, the punch line of a joke neither knows about (yet), any of which could make the other either carry the thought towards a tentative conclusion or veer off into another topic entirely. Which is how I’d best characterize the 22-minute title track that kicks things off. If you’re able to keep up with the exchange, you can start taking measure of the two personalities and how they are or aren’t alike. Shipp’s eccentric, enigmatic combinations of chord clusters follow their own logic while Parker’s austere, but fluid bass lines follow him along when they’re not shoving him in an altogether different direction. Neither seems particularly worried about whether the other lands, though the unwary listener should always be alert for shifts in direction, temperament, maybe an impromptu lull in their transaction before picking up the previous thread or finding a new one. They’re both free spirits in different ways – but not so free-spirited that they forget you’re listening. So be ready when Parker decides to pick up his bow to assert himself more or Shipp re-doubles his efforts to deepen his attack. Think of it as just another afternoon of eavesdropping at the coffee house when voices are raised without warning, but nobody’s mad at anybody.
In this spirit, we leave the last words to both these gentlemen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



HONORABLE MENTION: Kenny Garrett, Sounds from the Ancestors (Mack Avenue); Vijay Iyer, Uneasy (ECM); Henry Threadgill Zooid, Poof (PI); Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trios, Songs from My Father (Whaling City Sound); Bill Charlap Trio, Street of Dreams (Blue Note) Artifacts (Tomeka Reid, Nicole Mitchell, Mike Reed)…and then there’s this (Astral Spirits)

 

 

 

 

REISSUE OR HISTORICAL RELEASE: 1.) Hasaan Ibn Ali, Metaphysics: The Lost Atlantic Album (Omnivore) 2.) Roy Hargrove & Mulgrew Miller, In Harmony (Resonance) 3.) Hasaan Ibn Ali, Retrospect in Retirement of Delay: The Solo Recordings (Omnivore)

 

 

 

 


LATIN: Eliane Elias, Chick Corea & Chucho Valdes, Mirror, Mirror (Candid)

VOCAL: Swift, This Bitter Earth
HONORABLE MENTION: Mary LaRose, Out There (Little Music)

 

 

 


DEBUT: Patricia Brennan, Maquishti (Valley of Search)

Winners and Losers in the Race for the Future

November 3, 2021

 

 



Reading J.W. McCormack’s overview in the latest Baffler magazine of Donald Barthelme’s life and work while watching the sixth and final game of this year’s World Series added a thin, but pliable layer of poignancy to a bittersweet evening. I had by then finally decided after days of back-and-forth that I wanted the Astros, Don B’s hometown team, to at least take the Braves to a seventh game, if not (necessarily) Win It All. Part of it was about redemption for the Space Cowboys’ dismal and now apparently embedded reputation for cheating their way to a 2017 championship.

 

 



Mostly I was rooting hard for their manager Dusty Baker, who at 72 may be past hope of smelling the metaphoric roses but will likely be remembered as the kind of manager who took unruly, star-crossed and/or degraded franchises and got them to stand upright enough to move forthrightly towards Ultimate Victory. He likewise fell short with the Giants, Cubs and Nationals, all of whom would, in time, reach the promised land without him. While I wasn’t altogether sorry to see the Braves bathing in champagne (paternal family ties to the state of Georgia, plus which they ended up being my late mother’s favorite baseball team) their triumph left a taste of melancholy; an altogether suitable context when reading about Barthelme’s Houston roots, since as his old pal Thomas Pynchon once wrote of him, melancholy was at the core of Don B’s exotic, eccentric body-of-work. Quoth Tom P:

“As any Elizabethan could tell you if they all weren’t dead, melancholy is a far richer and more complex ailment than simple depression. There is a generous amplitude of possibility, chances for productive behavior, even what may be identified as a sense of humor. Barthelme’s was a specifically urban melancholy, related to that look of immunity to joy or even surprise seen in the faces of cab drivers, bartenders, street dealers, city editors, a wearily taken vow to persist beneath the burdens of the day and the terrors of the night. Humor in these conditions leans toward the anti-transcendent — like jail humor and military and rodeo humor, it finds high amusement in failure and loss, and it celebrates survival one day, one disaster, to the next.”

Put another way, it’s the kind of melancholy that accommodates conflicted emotions, whether they come through winning while losing, loving while hating, or resisting while enduring: a natural progression (a musical analogy that Barthelme the jazz hound would appreciate) to the off-off-year election results that yielded a Democratic loss of the Virginia gubernatorial election and an apparent stand-off in the New Jersey gubernatorial race. I knew last night that it was a mistake to switch from the Series’ postgame festivities to CNN for the latest vote tallies, further eroding my mood and devastating prospects for a good night’s sleep. What depressed me weren’t the results so much as the exasperating inevitability of “post-game assessments” by the punditocracy: “Uh-oh. Looks like BIIIIG trouble for President Biden, Nancy!” “How right you are, Cliff! This is clearly a referendum on the administration and the early returns look pretty bad for Biden and the Democrats!” “Yes, they should take a page out of Ronald Reagan’s winning formula and reach out to the disaffected white middle-and-lower-middle classes and blather-cliché-platitude-placate-pander-pander-pander …”



Nobody asked me, but (thanks once again, Jimmy Cannon) I don’t think any of this is Joe Biden’s fault. Or at least it’s not entirely Joe Biden’s fault. In fact, the president seemed to have had, despite some mishaps along the way, a pretty good week in Europe, patching up leaks, reasserting leadership in the climate crisis and generally staying upbeat as is and has been Joe’s way, whatever the situation or the odds. But however pugnaciously he keeps insisting otherwise, #46 isn’t close to getting “moderate” and “progressive” members of his own party on the same page with what seems to any rational human being his vitally needed package of economic-recovery expenditures. Placating those who holler “Socialism!” or (a euphemism I’ve decided I hate now more than any other) “Critical Race Theory!” at them seems to be the Democratic game plan, along with giving the billionaire senator from West Virginia a far bigger public profile than he or anybody else requires.

White Guys, in other words, are The Solution as far as the political establishment and their media enablers are concerned. And yet, candidates-of-color (including one woman) triumphed in mayoral races in Pittsburgh, Boston, and New York City. Cities are cities (especially in the northeast) and states are states. But did anybody in Virginia bother to consider what a candidate-of-color could have done in what experts insist is an increasingly blue state against a Trumpian mediocrity like Glenn Youngkin? Instead, the Democrats ran Terry McAuliffe, who was, besides being Another White Guy, a retainer from the Clinton years. Old news, as even the dimmest bulb in the political press corps could and should have suspected.


Some people think I lean too much on the wisdom of my late fellow worker Murray Kempton. But among his many wise observations was (and I paraphrase) that political success is most attainable by those who ally themselves to the future while bearing little to no responsibility to the past. “The past,” Murray once said in this context, “already has a job.” And yes, I know who’s president (for the time being). But Biden was smart enough back when the primaries were seemingly happening a million years ago to understand that his best chance to get nominated was to leapfrog his way to Black power brokers like Jim Clyburn and make them see that his years with Barack Obama allowed  him to perceive as others didn’t the possibilities #44’s presence, of not his policies, signified for the party’s future. Whatever their respective ideologies, Eric Adams (basically as “moderate” as they come), Michelle Wu and Ed Gainey represent, at the very least, the chance for Something Different in their party than whatever came before, including, maybe especially, the Clinton era.

I’m willing to bet whatever pittance I’m carrying in my wallet that you’re not going to hear any Political Insider hired by television say such things. I refuse to take whatever these talking heads say seriously unless they are in any way familiar with the aggregate works of Albert Murray AND James Baldwin, Toni Morrison AND Grace Paley – and, of course, the aforementioned Donald Barthelme (had to get back to him), whose short fiction was once regarded as surreal, but I’ve lately come to believe was farsighted enough in the sixties, seventies and eighties to now comprise hyper-explicit accounts of our present-day reality. Writes McCormack: “[Barthelme] dwelt in the fissures of the conscious mind and made work that was neither one thing nor the other because it was both and neither…a trickster spirit…who took nonsense so seriously it congealed into wisdom, the effect of staring so deeply into the void that not only does it stare back, it becomes cross-eyed.”

Don’t take his word for it, or mine.  You’ve got time. Look into him – and don’t be surprised if those stories we’re talking about look into you.


In Which I Get My New Aortic Valve & Take it Out For Walks

 

 

 

 

 

So…

On the very (very) hot afternoon of June 30, I was walking the four blocks it took to get from the 47th Street and Walnut bus stop to my West Philadelphia condo between Spruce and Pine Streets. My son was striding ahead of me as I struggled to catch my breath. When I got to the corner of Spruce, I suppose I must have been in bad enough shape for my son to ask, “You OK, Dad?”

And that’s when I blacked out and, from what I was later told, fell face first on the sidewalk.

I had come to shortly afterwards, my face covered with flecks of concrete, my left eye oozing and burning. Apparently it was my son, whose home is about 2,900 miles west of us but,, fortunately, happened to be visiting us that week, who called 911 and was instructed to turn me over on my back so I could breathe. The only pain I was feeling was from my eye; there was no chest pain whatsoever even though the immediate diagnosis was that I had suffered a heart attack.

I spent whatever was left of the afternoon and evening in Penn Presbyterian Hospital’s emergency room as all kinds of tests were administered (EKGs, EEGs, ultra-sound and bloodwork, bloodwork, bloodwork). By the following afternoon, a cardiologist came in to tell me that I didn’t have a heart attack, but that I was laid low by something called aortic valve stenosis.

It was not entirely unexpected. I was warned some years back that there was… something going on with my aortic valve. As recently as a year ago, I found myself short of breath on my morning walks but preferred to think it had something to do with having to wear a mask outside because of COVID-19. Except that when I didn’t have to wear a mask, I still needed to take breaks if I walked more than, say, four blocks back and forth from home.

Whatever the case, things had gotten serious enough to consider one of two procedures for dealing with this. The first was an all-out replacement of the valve through open-heart surgery, which the cardiologist believed would be both painful and drastic. The second was the less invasive transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR), in which, as the name implies, a catheter is inserted through the leg or chest and implants a replacement valve into the damaged valve. This was considered the option with the least possible hospitalization time and, as such, sounded preferable. At first.

I was sent home for a while with orders to avoid heavy lifting and other exertions. (“Can you be sedentary?” the cardiologist asked. Like a fiend! I replied.) I had to wait for Penn’s cardio-surgery team to fully inspect my portfolio of scans and X-Rays to determine which of the two options was the best. When the team captain, as it were, told me of “severe calcification” around the exhausted valve I sensed where this was going and by the time they told me they were going to break my chest open and do a full-bore valve replacement, I was OK with it, even at (a kind of) peace.

“You’re young enough,” I was told, “to withstand whatever rigors will happen with the surgery.” Which was the first time I was ever aware that being sixty-eight was “young enough” for any “rigors,” physical or otherwise. Fine, whatever.

Surgery took place August 27 and took several hours. (Or so I was told later.) All went well, except for what I was later told was a helluva time trying to “intubate” me to help with breathing or eating or maybe both. I can’t say which, for sure. The day was kind of a blur for me. As was the day after and part of the day after, which, if memory serves, was a Sunday.

I remained more or less out-of-it for the following 24 hours or so, during which time the chief surgeon and some of his team dropped by and noted how good my incisions looked. That was cute of them, because they felt like hell, all swollen and very sore. To his credit, the chief surgeon did tell me at the outset that open-heart surgery was going to hurt. So no one can say I wasn’t warned.

Oh…I almost forgot…

 



One of the assurances my procedure offers is that my replacement valve will be totally organic (if that’s the right word) and that it would either be a “porcine” or “bovine” valve. Since my surgeon prefers the latter, there was no chance I was going to get pork instead of beef. So my new valve comes by way of the cow…or, maybe even a bull. I don’t know for sure and neither does anybody else. At least, nobody’s told me.

So, in the absence of such information, I have resolved to do what an old friend of mine did and give my new valve a name: Ferdinand.

Now before any accusations of gender preference are heaved in my direction (I’m still kind of an invalid, people, so cool it), let me remind you who Ferdinand is: the hero of a 1936 children’s book by Munro Leaf (1905-1976) about a nonconformist bull who prefers lying under trees and smelling flowers to charging matadors. It’s proven so popular that it’s inspired more than one animated film and lulled several generations of small children to sleep. It’s also been banned in some libraries for being subversive, accused, by turns, of being anarchist, pacifist, communist and (even) fascist. Mostly, I think of him as the ultimate passive resistor, Gandhi with hooves, horns and a tail. I don’t think I’m the only one.

So Ferdinand and I left hospital five days after surgery and we seem to be getting along just fine even with the residual soreness that logically ensues from having one’s chest bone sawed open and sewn together again. I’ve taken my new bovine pal out for short walks at least twice daily now and am already anticipating our first party, road trip, ball game and live concert.

But not all at once. If there is anything this now receding summer has given me, it is the impulse to take one’s time on everything. And by “everything,” I mean…everything: walking, talking, bathing, eating, even picking stuff off the floor. Is “re-behave” a word? If so, that’s what I’ve been doing these last three weeks and expected to be doing more of the same for the weeks and months to come. Quite likely, it was about time anyway.

Now if you’ll excuse us. The bovine and I have some flowers to smell.









Seymour Movies: Seymour’s Movies

If blame is necessary, then it goes to my good friend, humane observer and fellow professional spectator Tim Page, who was inspired by this year’s recently completed Academy Awards to come up with his own entirely subjective Best Picture list for every year he’s been alive. He posted this list on Facebook and the heroism of his effort so inspired me that I was compelled to come up with one of my own.

I had fun with it while I was picking and choosing. But as soon as I was finished, I was all but overcome by a profound sadness. Because as I surveyed this list, it came across more like a melancholy relic of an era of moviegoing that is all but swept away by the streams and clouds of the digital age, along with the countervailing bombast of spectaculars and star-packages contrived to keep whatever’s left of the multiplexes alive and upright, post-pandemic. 

Whatever you want to say about my choices, which are presented with little more than random illustrations and no explanations (or, at this point, equivocations), they each came from discoveries I made either at the time they were released or, mostly, long afterwards.  They are not commodities to be assessed like IPAs or yoga mats, which seems pretty much how most “consumers” assess filmed “product” these days; these films were means of stretching my senses, deepening memories, sharpening the landscape around me. They are all places to which I am always happy and eager to return so I can re-encounter the arcane joys they gave me and, maybe, find something new to like about them as an older, if not always wiser viewer. 

“Viewer.” I like that word so much better than “consumer.” Don’t you? 

A couple things before we begin: 1.) It’s entirely possible that some of the things on this list could change over time. They did in at least a few places as I prepared to post this version. 2.) These are in no way intended to be a definitive, all-time-great, etc. or whatever other euphemism you wish to use. They are parts of myself that I and I alone declare as a personal best for each year. You will have your own. I shall be as forbearing towards those as I hope you can manage to be for mine own. 

 

So…

 

 

 

1952: Singin’ in the Rain
1953: Tokyo Story

 

 

 

1954: Rear Window
1955: The Night of the Hunter
1956: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

 

 

 


1957: Sweet Smell of Success
1958: Vertigo
1959: Rio Bravo
1960: Shoot the Piano Player

 

 

 


1961: Yojimbo
1962: The Manchurian Candidate

 

 

 


1963: Charade
1964: A Hard Day’s Night
1965: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
1966: Persona

 

 

 


1967: Bonnie & Clyde
1968: 2001: A Space Odyssey
1969: The Wild Bunch
1970: The Landlord

 

 


1971: McCabe & Mrs. Miller
1972: The Godfather
1973: Amarcord
1974: The Godfather II

 

 


1975: Jaws
1976: All the President’s Men
1977: Annie Hall
1978: Blue Collar

 

 


1979: Being There
1980: Raging Bull
1981: Diva/My Dinner With Andre

 

 


1982: Blade Runner
1983: The Right Stuff
1984: Repo Man
1985: Lost in America

 

 

 


1986: Blue Velvet
1987:  The Princess Bride 

 

 

 


1988: Bull Durham
1989: Do the Right Thing
1990: GoodFellas
1991: Daughters of the Dust

 


1992: One False Move
1993: Groundhog Day

 

 

 

 


1994: Pulp Fiction
1995: Toy Story
1996: Jerry Maguire

1997: L.A. Confidential
1998: Babe: Pig in the City

 

 

 


1999: All About My Mother
2000: Yi-Yi

 

 

2001: Y Tu Mama Tambien 
2002: The 25th Hour/Talk To Her

 

 


2003: Lost in Translation
2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind 

 

 

 

2005: A History of Violence
2006: Children of Men

 

 

 

 

 


2007: Zodiac
2008: WALL-E

 

 


2009: A Serious Man

 

 


2010: The Social Network
2011: Margin Call
2012: Moonrise Kingdom

 

 

 

 

2013: Only Lovers Left Alive

 

 


2014: Inherent Vice
2015: Mad Max: Fury Road
2016: Moonlight

 


2017:  The Florida Project 
2018: The Sisters Brothers

2019: The Last Black Man in San Francisco

 

 

2020: First Cow

2021: Passing

 

Seymour Movies Asks: If We’re Not Sure What A Movie Is Any More, Then What’s An Oscar?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just so we’re clear, movies aren’t dead, though multiplexes are likely dying. And that process was well underway before COVID-19 locked down the world.

We keep hearing that there’s light at the end of this tunnel we’ve been trudging through for a year. But keep in mind, whether immunized or not, that we’re still in a tunnel, even as I’m writing this. And whenever we all can safely stagger into this light-at-the-end, it’s going to take a while for us to get our cloistered senses re-adjusted. Things will at the very least look a lot different at the outset from how they did a year ago, the movie business being among the familiar institutions most conspicuously affected by a year of closures and strictly enforced re-openings here and there.

Of course, I too have missed going to movie theaters, even the ugliest, most utilitarian of them. No matter how big an HDTV screen you’re able to squeeze into your kitchen or bathroom, the experience of watching any moving picture, whether as intimate as Persona or as populated as Rear Window is nowhere near as immersive as sitting with strangers in even the narrowest darkened room. As with any other self-respecting cinephile, I regret what seems an irreversible decline in a kind of romantic, near-heroic age of moviegoing commemorated by Martin Scorsese during the past year. Streams and clouds are no longer alternatives to theater-going. They are now, pretty much, The Ball Game.  Given the choice between figuring out logistics for going out to see a blockbuster or watch that blockbuster at your own convenience as soon as it “drops,” how many would rather pony up the baby-sitting money, root around for gas and parking expenses and line up single file for whatever dubiously packaged snack will adequately meet their needs and those of the kids tagging along? 

But we’ll still have movie houses; better yet, all those repertory houses that were devoured by the multiplex could come back to life and restore the romance and adventure celebrated by Scorsese. If whatever’s left of the multiplexes still think they can make a go of it by including all kinds of other distractions – arcade games, dining, aerial acts, whatever – they’ll carry on and some may even thrive in such reinvention.

And the really good news, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that the Age of Clouds and Streams will better enable greater diversity of both product and producers. Studios will no longer have to wonder about whether certain scripts and stories are too “niche-ey” to reap theatrical profits worldwide. In other words, Black and other minority filmmakers will have more and better outlets to tell their stories and, through such exposure, may eventually be empowered enough to carry those stories into wider marketplaces.

But that’s all for later. For now, the movies are still trying to pick their way through a bewildering, anxious and altogether strange year that may someday be regarded as a transformative one. Whether the transformations are for better or worse won’t be settled or even suggested by this year’s Oscars that, whatever else you want to say about them, don’t look a whole lot like the Oscars of a decade or even a half-decade before

As always, projected winners are in bold face and, whenever necessary, a FWIW (For Whatever It’s Worth) disclaimer/appendix will follow.

Oh…and one more thing: if you’ve been annually wagering on my picks, please don’t do that this year because this year, as opposed to its predecessors, I expect to be wrong about most, if not all of these. 



Best Picture

 

 

 

 

 

Judas and the Black Messiah
Mank
Minari
Nomadland
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Father
The Trial of the Chicago 7

After all those serial film festival triumphs, rapturous reviews and probing inquiries into its up-to-the-minute-neo-Grapes-of-Wrath relevance (or lack thereof), Nomadland has become this season’s catch-all for smarty-pants revisionism. Critics and civilians alike seem to be groping for reasons to dislike or dismiss it, many of them insisting on greater detail or added socio-political content that the movie’s structure was never built to contain in the first place. Why? Who’s that helping? And aren’t we supposed to be smart enough to tease out such inferences on our own? What happened to the idea of making the audiences work even a little bit instead of the story doing all the work for them?

I still believe in Nomadland, even if I’m no longer certain the Academy does. But what kind of Academy vote will matter here? If it’s the same Academy that punched Green Book’s ticket two years ago, then Mank, The Father or Chicago 7, the closest things to “traditional” Oscar bait, will get this one. If it’s the Academy that gave Parasite its unprecedented near-sweep of a year ago, then Minari, Judas and, yes, Nomadland lead the pack. This leaves Sound of Metal and Promising Young Woman, both very dark in very different ways. If you think the Best Picture vote is the best reflection of an overall industry mood, then I’m going to presume here that the overall industry is both anxious and angry over what’s happened over the last twelve months, or four years, or whatever index you choose to use. The mordant humor of Promising Young Woman is, from this vantage point, best suited to ride that wave. If on the other hand events since January 20th are making Hollywood feel more hopeful than not, then any of the others could take this one home. As with just about every category on the board this year, nothing’s set in granite.

UPDATE (4/8/21): Is it plausible to imagine a world in which the in-your-face storytelling of The Trial of the Chicago 7  vanquishes the sublimities of Nomadland or even Minari (which would be my personal choice)? Doesn’t take much imagining,  because that world has been with us for as far back as the 1940s when issue-oriented melodramas such as Gentlemen’s Agreement could prevail over David Lean’s Great Expectations. (A greater, if not necessarily bigger movie than either Lean’s Bridge Over the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia. ) It’s still anybody’s ballgame as far as I’m concerned. But somehow Aaron Sorkin’s look-back-in-anger over what happened to Fred Hampton in 1969 seems more of an industry crowd-pleaser (and prototypical Oscar-winning Best Picture) than, say, Shaka King’s angrier one. 

Best Director

Chloe Zhao, Nomadland
David Fincher, Mank
Emerald Fennel, Promising Young Woman
Lee Issac Chung, Minari
Thomas Vinterberg, Another Round

Zhao’s ascension is as compelling and inspiring a story as her movie’s. Besides which, it’s past time for a woman-of-color to win one of these

Best Actor

 

 



Anthony Hopkins, The Father
Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Gary Oldman, Mank
Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
Steven Yeun, Minari

There’s been some chatter, as the NSA likes to put it, over how Hopkins’ portrayal of an Alzheimer’s victim is so consummately good that voters may decide he deserves another one of these after all. But Old and New Hollywood, in whatever post-Millennium forms they assume, were deeply shaken by Boseman’s passing last August and his widow’s acceptance speech at the Globes was so startlingly beautiful and moving that voters would love a reprise.


FWIW: Since we’re here, would it be OK if we take a brief tour of Boseman’s (brief) life’s work to determine which of his roles would or should have gotten this award beforehand? We can eliminate Black Panther ‘s title role, even though he evinced a lot of star power in all the MCU movies where his character appeared. Of the historical figures Boseman brought to life, his portrayal of James Brown in 2014’s Get On Up is the one that was at once the most electrifying and credible, though the Jackie Robinson he played in 2013’s 42 was more complex and cogent than was generally acknowledged at the time. A few words, but no more than a few, should be submitted on behalf of his impressive star turn in the 2019 NYPD thriller, 21 Bridges. But what in many ways represented Boseman at his most magnetic was his scene-stealing performance in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods as the charismatic, doomed patrol leader for which he richly deserved a Supporting Actor nomination – and, for that matter, the Oscar. Have I mentioned yet that this particular nomination is only his first? How could I have forgotten to mention that? Oh, and about 5 Bloods? Delroy Lindo was screwed. 

Best Actress

Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman
Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman

In any other year, this might have been the occasion for yet another win for Academy fave McDormand. But this a formidable quintet competing in what is almost, but not quite, as wide open a contest as this year’s Supporting Actress race (see below). Early on, Day’s Golden Globe victory took so many by surprise that it compelled several hundred eyes to gaze upon her  intuitively intelligent rendering of Billie Holiday. The rest of her movie, however, can’t keep up with her and, in some ways, drags her down. She could still take it. But Mulligan’s been poised for some time towards Oscar’s embrace the same way that a heat-seeking missile is poised to take down an enemy compound. And this all-out performance of a fierce, wounded feminist avenger, especially when juxtaposed with her un-nominated, but noteworthy turn as an emotionally-tough-yet-physically-fragile aristocrat in The Dig, seals Mulligan’s reputation for range and raw nerve.


Best Supporting Actor

 



Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
LaKeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah
Leslie Odom Jr., One Night in Miami
Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
Sacha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7

Yet another example of what should have been acknowledged as a lead performance that’s (kind of) a ringer in the supporting category. Some think having Stanfield in the mix make a cancelling-out effect, or even a tie, inevitable. Ties are not unprecedented, but it won’t happen here. And I’ve been hearing about “cancelling-out effects” for most of my adult life and now believe them to be as mythological as sports teams getting a championship for no other reason except that they’re “due.” Gambling tip: next time you hear somebody make a pronouncement like that, hook them immediately for whatever hard cash you can risk. And thank me later.

FWIW: If I had a vote, it’d go to Raci, without a second thought.


Best Supporting Actress

 

 

Amanda Seyfried, Mank
Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy
Olivia Coleman, The Father
Youn Yuh-jung, Minari

So wide open, as noted earlier, that there’s no such thing as a dumb guess here. Coleman’s recent win for The Favourite makes her the least likely winner. But as I’d warned the year she got that Best Actress prize, quite a lot of people love her and as noted above, The Father’s been picking up some momentum on the home stretch. Close’s work was, by common consent, the best thing about her movie and the Academy seems to be searching for some way, any way, to give her a win after eight tries. Bakalova’s turn as apprentice Kazakh journalist and would-be-sex-partner to Rudy Giuliani may have been the century’s most audacious comedic impersonation and she’s been getting considerable buzz for it. Seyfried already has amassed a great deal of industry-wide affection, and it’s hard to imagine an Oscar contender going away empty-handed after picking Gary Oldman’s pocket in a black-and-white movie in which Orson Welles is more of a supporting character than hers is. Except..in situations such as this, dark horses always have a chance. And since the marvelously bawdy and winsome Youn Yuh-jung has won the SAG, she’s no longer a dark horse. Nevertheless I insist it’s still wide-open. 

 

 

 



Best Adapted Screenplay

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Nomadland

One Night in Miami

The Father

The White Tiger



Usually I go with the Writers. Guild on these, but I’m having trouble picturing the same crowd who put their heads together on Borat Subsequent Moviefilm converging here as one big winner, though it’d certainly be my preference. Kemp Powers is already assured of a win for co-directing Soul (see below). But he’s been such a conspicuously entertaining media presence throughout the Oscar campaign season that it isn’t hard to see him scoring a rare double here. Of course, if Nomadland gets a monster surge of momentum towards the home stretch, I’m an idiot once again.


Best Original Screenplay

Judas and the Black Messiah
Minari
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Trial of the Chicago 7

Definitely going along with WGA on this one for its serrated edges and willful ingenuity. Dark as hell, almost literally speaking, but in its weird, deterministic way, the most fun of these assembled nominees. (I mean, not that “fun” has anything to do with it, but…)

 

 

 



Best International Feature

Another Round (Druk)
Better Days (Shaonian de ni)
Collective
Quo Vadis, Adia?
The Man Who Sold His Skin

Thomas Vinterberg’s Best Director nomination was about as big a “tell” as you can expect as to how this one’s going to go. But it’s also the closest Vinterberg has come to a “feel-good” movie and that will count for a great deal with the general consensus. 

 

Best Documentary Feature

 

 


Collective
Crip Camp
My Octopus Teacher
The Mole Agent
Time

I took Crip Camp to my heart for how authoritative and touching it was in rendering the rise of the handicapped-rights movement. And this grizzled old newspaperman greatly appreciated Collective’s intricate, rousing examination of how investigative journalism can effect change, even in a government as corrupt as Romania’s. But Garrett Bradley’s multi-layered chronicle of a Black woman entrepreneur’s efforts to overcome heavily stacked odds in freeing her husband out from under an egregiously lengthy prison stretch is the most innovative picture among this year’s entire slate of feature films, fiction or nonfiction. This doesn’t necessarily mean it will win. But for those who still appreciate how movies can still catch you by surprise in the things they do (or don’t), it’s, so to speak, Time.

 

UPDATE (4/23/21): Way too late to take my hand off this piece, but the New York Times this morning has My Octopus Teacher the overwhelming favorite and I should’ve known it carried even more of a feel-good vibe than Time. I’m prepared to concede defeat on this one. My only comfort is that it won’t be the only one.




Best Animated Feature

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
Onward
Over the Moon
Soul
WolfWalkers

 

 



A lay-up, of course. All the same, it’s a drag that Pixar releases one of its finest features the same year that the Ireland-based Cartoon Saloon gives cel painted animation a gratifying jolt with the enrapturing WolfWalkers. The jazz beaux and the romantic folklorist living within me are deeply divided — though I doubt either of them will grieve all that much if the Saloon scores the (unlikely) upset.



Best Cinematography

Judas and the Black Messiah (Sean Bobbitt)
Mank (Erik Messerschmidt)
News of the World (Darius Wolski)
Nomadland (Joshua James Richards)
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Phedon Papamichael)

I don’t know who has the edge here, so I’m going to presume that what Messerschmidt does with shadows and light emit dazzle sufficient enough to carry the day.
 

FWIW: Of course, if Nomadland runs the table, etc etc.

Best Original Score 

Da 5 Bloods (Terence Blanchard)
Mank (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross)
Minari (Emile Mosseri)
News of the World (James Newton Howard)
Soul (Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross & Jon Baptiste)

Reznor and Ross’ only real competition here is with themselves and Stephen Colbert’s unflappable bandleader pushes this one over the hump with the kind of acoustic jazz charts the movies have hitherto forsaken.


Best Song

“Husavik” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
“Fight for You” from Judas and the Black Messiah
“Speak Now” from One Night in Miami
“Io Se (Seen)” from The Life Ahead
“Hear My Voice” from The Trial of the Chicago 7

Leslie Odum Jr., the song’s co-writer and performer is compensated for not getting the Supporting Actor prize for re-enacting Sam Cooke. It must be nice….


Two Cheers for “WandaVision”

 

 

 

 

If I read the reviews of WandaVision correctly, those who didn’t like the latest, just-completed manifestation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe came in two categories: those who hate on sight whatever the MCU manifests and those who think the situation comedy parodies are the only possible reason for the series’ existence and (therefore) believe them to have made a flimsy (at best) premise for a full-fledged series. There’s little you can do about the MCU haters because they made up their minds long ago that those absorbed in Marvel’s mythology are all hyperventilating, arrogant, sub-human adolescent males of varying ages who have it in for cinema-as-we-know-it. An understandable simplification, but wrong on at least a couple levels if the teenaged girls materializing in bunches at MCU movies since the century began are any indication. They’re the ones who grew up with all those Avengers and Mutants and were likely far ahead of the critics, even the non-haters among them, in grasping what WandaVision was up to from the beginning.

[SPOILERS AHEAD, SO STOP RIGHT HERE IF YOU STILL HAVEN’T WATCHED ANY WANDAVISION ON THE DISNEY CHANNEL. JUST SAYING…]

For those who don’t know and/or are in any way curious, WandaVision is an eight-episode sequel-of-sorts to the 2019 MCU epic, Avengers: Endgame in which Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) a.k.a. The Scarlet Witch was compelled by the apocalypse beast-man-alien Thanos (I really don’t have the time here) to sacrifice her lover Vision (Paul Bettany), a.k.a. The Vision, an android who (that?) somehow acquired a soul with his human persona. Though the world-as-we-or-they-knew-it is essentially restored, Vision is not and the grieving Scarlet Witch decides to remake a nondescript town in the middle of New Jersey into a simulacrum of the dream life Wanda’s always wanted, with Vision able to hide his identity behind an avuncular horn-rimmed façade and a pair of sons who are both cute and mischievous. There’s even a Wacky Next-Door Neighbor who, because she’s played by Kathryn Hahn, cannot possibly be what she seems – and isn’t, but we’ll talk about her later.

 

 

 


The gimmick that drew viewers and even MCU haters at first was the sitcom angle, where each week depicted Wanda and Vision’s simulated home life in the style and trappings of various eras of half-hour TV family comedies: from black-and-white kinescopes with canned laughter, wide lapels and bulky circa-1950s gas guzzlers through the gaudy “living color” mid-to-late-1960s sheen all the way to the fake-reality motifs of the Modern Family type. As with most gimmicks, the parodies were smart enough to arouse early buzz. But as noted earlier, critics thought the joke was going to wear thin. This was before they and the rest of us began realizing Something Else was going on. And it was far more than an extension and elaboration of a comic-book mythology.

Briefly: outside of Wanda’s dreamy-creamy cocoon, officials of the U.S. government agency S.W.O.R.D. (again, I really don’t have the time) have formed a cordon monitoring the show. A rogue agency head (Josh Stamberg) is ready to move in and wipe out Wanda, her dream life and, if necessary, the townspeople playing their parts under her spell. Standing in his way are FBI special agent Jimmy Wu (Randall Park), data analyst Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and S.W.O.R.D. operative Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), the latter of whom is also not quite what she seems, only we’re not yet sure what that is, so we probably won’t talk about that here.

 

 

 

 

The latter trio are quicker to understand, in ways not even the show’s audience did at first, that Wanda is mostly acting out of a wrenching grief whose depths she isn’t able to completely gauge or totally understand. Hence the infrequent bursts of conscience and second-guessing emerging through the simulated Vision and the way the whole landscape of her dream wobbles and phases in and out like a vintage picture tube struggling to stay in focus. It was at this point that WandaVision shape-shifted from a MAD-like parody into something with a deeper, more profound ingenuity and intent: an inquiry into a damaged soul in conflict with itself. For most of its middle-and-later episodes, this series seemed poised to do something that nothing before exhibited by a comic-book franchise had ever dared; the kind of genre-warping humanism most of us adolescents of a certain age remember going to Marvel Comics for in the first place.

 

 

 


Then suddenly…as comic book panels habitually proclaim, the series seemed to snap out of its more thoughtful intervals to remember what it was there to do all along. And so, the latter two episodes transfigured Hahn’s Wacky Neighbor (or was it “Nosy Neighbor”?) into Agatha Harkness, a supporting character in the Marvel Universe who in this quadrant is a really wicked witch prepared to do to both Wanda and her dream life what the government was about to. There is, as Marvel’s True Believers are conditioned to expect, a noisy and protracted climactic battle, actually two of them: one with Agatha and Wanda firing red and purple hexes t each other, the other with Wanda’s Dream Vision duking it out with a newly—rebuilt Vision sent by S.W.O.R.D.’s spoilsports to devastate Wanda and the whole town. Scarlet beats Violet, New Vision flies away, Old Vision fades away with the rest of Wanda’s fantasy. All done – with of course a few of the customary Easter eggs True Believers count on at the end of every Marvel production for whatever’s happening in the future.

It was, in short, an ending that was sometimes touching, but also felt somehow desultory, a conclusion that, whatever else it provided in visceral catharsis, was unworthy of the emotional complexities and internal conflicts that led up to it. Which is not untypical of these limited-run steaming series. The third season of Star Trek: Discovery likewise showed promise throughout its run of shedding some of its more lugubrious tendencies and developing its own agile identity in relief from the franchise’s past. But it too resolved its many plot elements in the manner of a rush-hour traffic maelstrom that barely avoided irreparable damage.

For those of us who seek out genre works that don’t just satisfy expectations, but dare to transcend them, a show like WandaVision, however modest in scale and intent, offers tremendous promise in its process, but always threatens to disappoint in its execution. One can’t blame the actors for this. Bettany was, as he often is, exemplary and persuasive in his own displays of imagination and grace, even in the most absurd situations. It was also nice to know that Olsen can be as genuinely funny as she is intense. Hahn, one of our best and subtlest comic actors, took full advantage of her opportunity to soar way over the top here and while I’m not sure I’m ready for her to do so again, or often, she, along with everybody else in the cast, seemed to be enjoying herself.

This isn’t the time or place to ask me what I think happens next with these characters or, for that matter, the rest of the MCU from here on. But the way things are right now with the entertainment industry, I’m suspecting the screens exhibiting Our Heroes’ future endeavors will be somewhat smaller than the ones that first showed Avengers: Endgame. This would be fine with me as I’ve often believed that the quality of comic-book films increases in direct proportion to how the delivery of their images diminishes. Whatever misgivings I had about how it wound down, WandaVision for the most part proved my (admittedly unwieldy) hypothesis.

 

Herbie Nichols: A Study in Frustration

 

 

 

 

So this is what happens when you’re double-sequestered by piles of snow from a big, beautiful nor’easter along with the ongoing threat of pandemic – and NO damn vaccines available and accessible within miles of where you are. You hear a Herbie Nichols record and think to yourself: this is exactly what makes sense right now.

It wasn’t the music itself that brought me back to Nichols so much as a YouTube video posted by Jason Moran a few weeks ago featuring a rare WBAI radio interview with Nichols from 1962, which meant it took place on Mait Eady’s “The Scope of Jazz” show when the nonpareil pianist-composer had months left to live before dying, at 44, in April, 1963 from leukemia.

The conversation is, therefore, a blessed gift from the universe. It retains Nichols’ lovely and lucid speaking voice and affirms what writers like A.B. Spellman have attested about his warmth and wide-ranging intelligence. One also infers that if Nichols was getting interviews like these, then the relative obscurity he’d faced after his mid-1950s run of albums for Blue Note and Bethlehem may have shown signs of dissipating at last and that listeners were ready to engage what once seemed even to the adventurous an eccentric body-of-work.

 

 



It’s only towards the end of this fascinating interview, with plenty of his compositions and recordings weaved into the mix, that you hear Nichols’ frustration with being marginalized in comparison with fellow modernists such as Thelonious Monk, who was by the Kennedy years enjoying a burgeoning nationwide vogue thanks to his contract with Columbia Records. Nichols aims his irritation, ever so gently, at jazz critics, who he wishes had more grounding in formal musical education and could therefore better appreciate, or at least begin to understand what he’d been trying to do. Eady, sounding somewhat flustered, confesses to Nichols that he has no musical training, prompting Nichols to suggest, with all the geniality at his disposal, that he should consider getting some.

In my time as a jazz journalist, I used to hear this a lot from musicians who believed, not entirely without justification, that we were getting in the way of their transactions with the audience by not being able to satisfactorily explain the technical nuances of what they’re doing. Once, early in my jazz reporting tenure at New York Newsday, I was taking notes at a Carnegie Hall concert when I glanced across the aisle at a competitor for another daily who seemed to be scribbling harder than I was. I tried to match his intensity before leaning close enough to see what he was writing: not words, impressions and titles (as I was), but actual musical notation! Like…notes, key signatures, clefs, man!

I slunk into my chair, despondent, believing myself to be an imposter and wondering what the hell I thought I was doing here. But I still had a deadline to meet and went back to whatever it was I was doing.

In time, I got over this by eventually reminding myself that my job, in the end, wasn’t to deconstruct technical information well enough to satisfy the demands of those I was writing about. My job was to report back to readers how it sounded to me and, in doing so, convey to those who weren’t at Carnegie Hall that night or any other venue on any other engagement what it felt like to be there. My readers and, for that matter, the musicians on stage were just going to have to trust that I’d listened to enough jazz, done enough background research and cultivated my instincts sufficiently enough to tell my story to others who, to varying degrees, were as familiar with, or more to the point, as interested in the subject as I was.

That was all. Maybe it wasn’t enough for some. But my readers trusted me for a long enough time to put up with my reporting. So I must have done something right.

And while I understand the frustration of musicians like Herbie Nichols, I now believe that having critics with the keenest first-hand musical knowledge try to mediate their art with the public doesn’t necessarily guarantee a bigger, more receptive audience. Even scholarly musicologists, I submit, can be overly influenced by conventional wisdom and they can be just as oblivious to Something Totally New as whatever musicians imagine to be the clueless masses. It’s as true with all art: movies, books, paintings, dance and fashion. There are whole eras where it’s hip to be square, or at least, safe. Even “square” can catch people off-guard when they’re expecting something more rhomboid or triangular. If that makes any sense…

Whatever. It’s just a pleasure to be able to argue with a long-lost master in absentia. And as long as we’re here, in case you aren’t aware of who Herbie Nichols was and why he mattered to so many of us who still exult in modernism’s resilient wonders, here’s an entry I wrote for a long-defunct biographical jazz site. It also places before the court an example of how a relative “amateur” in formal musicology tries explaining genius to whomever shows up to listen. Consider this, also, a sideways homage to Frank Kimbrough, a keeper of Nichols’ flame and a great pianist in his own right, whom we lost sometime close to the start of this new, presumably better, year.

 

 




NICHOLS, HERBIE (HERBERT HORATIO) Jan. 3, 1919-April 12, 1963

Herbie Nichols’ compulsively inquisitive spirit lives within every session player struggling to cultivate an individual sound within the din of the marketplace. Nichols spent most of his career working in bands whose music wasn’t nearly as idiosyncratic or progressive as his was. If the stars had been better aligned in his favor (or, as some of his friends have suggested, he was less self-effacing), Nichols would have been regarded in his lifetime as a modern jazz pianist as innovative as Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. Yet it is only in the years since his death, at 44, from leukemia that Nichols has slowly achieved the stature he deserves. He has seduced subsequent generations of listeners and musicians with his angular melodies and rhythmically-sculpted harmonies.


The son of emigrants from Trinidad and St. Kitts, Herbie Nichols was born Jan. 3, 1919 in New York City’s San Juan Hill section in the West 60s. At age 7, he moved with his family further uptown to Harlem where, two years later, he began studying piano with a teacher who stressed classical training. As a youth, Nichols was said to be introspective and fun-loving, good at checkers and chess, steeped in books (a favorite author, according to his friend, trombonist Roswell Rudd, was the Russian Nikolai Gogol) and attracted enough to the popular music of his teen years to play jazz with a high school combo.

 

 


His first professional gig came in 1937 with the Royal Baron Orchestra, led by saxophonist Freddie Williams and featuring bassist George Duvivier. A year later, Nichols began working regularly at Monroe’s Uptown House which, along with another Harlem venue, Minton’s Playhouse, would become legendary in jazz lore as an incubator for the modernist upheaval in jazz music. In later interviews, Nichols would say he was both stimulated and put off by the hothouse competitive atmosphere generated by the virtuosi who would invent bebop and other post-swing genres. He was unhappy with what he later characterized as a clique mentality among the musicians who worked at Monroe’s and Minton’s. The critic Leonard Feather, in liner notes written for one of Nichols’ 1955 Blue Note albums, recalled Nichols being “pushed off the piano stool” at after-hours jam sessions by less-talented players.


He was drafted in 1941 and served 18 months in the Infantry with little opportunity to either take part in battle or play music. When he returned to New York in 1943, Nichols was unable to connect with the burgeoning bebop movement, playing mostly with rhythm-and-blues or New Orleans-style bands. Among his more prominent employers from the mid-1940s through the early 1950s were Danny Barker, Hal Singer, Illinois Jacquet, Snub Mosely, Arnett Cobb, Edgar Sampson and John Kirby. Through it all, Nichols was also struggling to find his way as a composer, sending off musical pieces that were either neglected or rejected by publishers.

 

 

 


Then in 1951, Nichols met Mary Lou Williams, a pianist attracted to the kind of quirky, insurgent music being written by Monk and his contemporaries. After hearing Nichols play some of his compositions, Williams recorded three of his tunes, “The Bebop Waltz” (which she re-titled “Mary’s Waltz”), “Stennell,” which she dubbed “Opus 2” and “At Da Function.” (Nichols’ flair with titling his own work would become apparent as he recorded as a leader, though his most famous piece, “Lady Sings the Blues” was originally dubbed “Serenade,” until Billie Holiday heard it and was so taken with the melody that she wrote her own lyrics to the tune, whose new name was also the title of her 1955 autobiography.)
Nichols continued to work mostly for traditional jazz and swing bands throughout the northeastern United States while auditioning for his own club dates and recording sessions. Blue Note Records co-owner Alfred Lion remembers Nichols being especially persistent for more than a decade in asking for a chance to record his own music. Lion gave Nichols his shot. In May and August, 1955, Nichols recorded with bassist Al McKibbon and drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach. He recorded another session the following August with Roach and bassist Teddy Kotick. Two 10-inch albums were released by Blue Note from those sessions and were immediately hailed by critics, though relatively neglected by the public. The same outcome greeted his only other album as a leader, Love, Gloom, Cash, Love, released in 1957 by Bethlehem to glowing reviews and anemic sales.

 

 

 


Nichols went back to playing Dixieland music for dough, though in his latter years, his recordings had acquired cult status among an emergent generation of progressive musicians, including Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Buell Neidlinger and Roswell Rudd. Nichols’ reputation as a composer and innovator was still a well-kept secret and his frustration only deepened with every throwaway gig, every indifferent audience he faced. “He seemed to be dying of disillusionment,” wrote A.B. Spellman, the critic and historian whose 1966 book, Four Lives in the Bebop Business, helped set in motion Nichols’ posthumous restoration. “He knew his worth, but it seemed as if nobody else did.”


Perhaps only a sensibility as independent, contemplative, wistful and tenacious as Nichols could have forged such alluring, yet provocative music. As with his friend and rival Monk, Nichols plays and writes with calculated indifference to melodic and harmonic convention. His main themes, as with the aforementioned “Lady Sings the Blues”, are accessible and even “hum-able.” Yet his variations often spread themselves in eccentric patterns within, around and through the song’s intervals. Listen, for instance, to his rendition of “The Gig” on his Blue Note collection and you’ll hear phrases repeated, stretched, smashed and re-shaped along a seeming riot of tempo shifts that never veer too far from the rhythmic core. You sometimes wonder whether the piano is bracing up the rhythm section or vice-versa. Either is plausible, given Nichols’ affinity for harmonies that keep time as much as they play with it.


The title track from Love Gloom Cash Love   is as melancholy as acerbic as its title  would lead you to believe. Yet its progression owes as much to classical music as it does to Tin Pan Alley song structure. Nichols’ sense of mood, drama and narrative timing can be found in just about any one of his compositions, such as “House Party Starting,” which trumps the sense of anticipation aroused at the start for the eponymous party with what Nichols, in liner notes he’d written for one of the Blue Note albums, “grave and silent doubts as to whether there is really going to be a parry, whether there is going to be lots of fun.” Contrasts stalk a Herbie Nichols composition as disappointment often trailed his life’s achievements.

 

 

 


After Nichols’ death, a host of musicians from Rudd, Neidlinger and Shepp to John Coltrane, Steve Lacy and Misha Mengleberg performed and enhanced his work in order to help fix his name in the global jazz repertoire. One can also hear Nichols’ influence in an eclectic assortment of younger piano talents, notably Geri Allen, Jason Moran and Frank Kimbrough, who in the 1990s helped spearhead the Herbie Nichols Project, an ensemble of musicians dedicated to performing Nichols’ compositions, including those never before performed, though ensconced in the Library of Congress.


RECORDINGS
Herbie Nichols: The Complete Blue Note Recordings (1955-6) (Blue Note), 3 Discs.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Spellman, A.B., Four Lives in the Bebop Business, 1966, Limelight paperback
Davis, Francis, “The Mystery of Herbie Nichols” from Outcats: Jazz Composers, Instrumentalists and Singers, 1990, Oxford University Press.

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Favorite Things from 2020

Just so you all know: I had a tougher time than usual with my annual everything-but-jazz list and not for the reasons you think. There was an awful lot that gave me comfort and joy in the past year because what else did I or anybody else have to do in 2020 but seek such things whenever they could be found. So I left a lot of things I could have included to the side. But I don’t regret anything I retained because the main point for me is to let you know that I recognized and embraced the same things you did and also found out stuff that you may not know about, but need to. So here we go and sorry if I missed something. Chances are I didn’t. But because I once again reside in the global capital of It Is What It Is (a.k.a. Philadelphia), I’m in no position to regret anything here. Next year? That’s next year. For now…in no particular order…

 

 

American Utopia – I saw it live in January on one of its last pre-lockdown Broadway performances and again this fall as a Spike Lee movie. The whole bouncy, juicy enterprise is just as you’ve heard: an invigorating, beautifully staged tonic for nerves frayed and hopes stressed by the previous four years (if not longer). Yet for all the show’s ecumenical uplift and big-tent benevolence, I couldn’t help but think back to its producer-writer -star’s early life as a Talking Head. And by “early,” I mean all the way back to Talking Heads ’77 and such lines from that long-ago breakthrough as: “Other people’s problems/They overwhelm my mind/They say compassion is a virtue/But I don’t have the time.” Of course, David Byrne’s a different person from whatever or whoever he was back then, as am I. And I’d like to think he now wonders sometimes, as I do, whether the spirit animating that chorus from “No Compassion” is in any way partly responsible for whatever culminated over the intervening decades into a Donald Trump administration (especially given how some of you kids, at whatever age, may not be as fluent in irony as you think you are). But while there’s plenty of Heads music to sing along with here (and you invariably will), you’ll never hear a song like that in this show. And you don’t see even a trace of Byrne’s I’m-smarter-than-you glower from those late-seventies days when CBGBs was the place to go for the Next Big Thing. You do hear a lot from Byrne’s gnomic side; the part of him that can’t stop bringing up potato chips even as he’s urgently decrying injustice in all its domestic and foreign manifestations. Only now it doesn’t register as smart-assery so much as cozy schtick and, as such, it enhances Byrne’s bright-beaming avuncularity and, yes, compassion. He’s evolved from not-having-the-time-for-empathy to: “As a people, we’re a work in progress. Who we are extends beyond ourselves.” Just another way of saying “Happy New Year.”

 

 

 

Lovers Rock – Taken together, the films that make up Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s multi-tiered chroniclie of the West Indian experience in London from the 1960s to the 1980s, are a revelation, sweeping and intimate in their depiction of tribulation, perseverance and resistance in the face of white bigotry. The eruption of militant Black protest is given the same respect as the determination of a young Jamaican to protect his community by becoming a patrolman. The harsh coming-of-age of a celebrated YA writer illuminates an era as powerfully as the account of promising, but misunderstood Black children systemically funneled into subpar educational facilities. At times, McQueen can be overly emphatic. In Education, for instance, he piles on the soul-killing drudgery imposed upon warehoused children, making you, at one point, resent the movie almost as much as the clueless white teacher mangling “House of the Rising Sun.” But you don’t in the least mind the way McQueen goes all out in Lovers Rock, a one-of-a-kind depiction of a 1980 reggae house party in which two young people (Micheal Ward, Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) manage to go through a full courtship during a tightly wound night of music, food and dance. You’re spellbound by the way these smart, resilient and beautiful kids inject their own martial arts movies into “Kung Fu Fighting.” And you give in to rapture as the young women keep swaying to and singing the lyrics of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” after the record stops playing, in key and keeping the beat. You fall in love with the movie in the same way that the movie – and McQueen’s series — loves its people.

 

 

 

 


The Queen’s Gambit – Its worldwide popularity has set off the inevitable backlash for any number of perceived sins, e.g. too slick, too soapy, too pulpy, whatever. But I was all in with this Netflix adaptation of Walter Tevis’ novel, if for no other reason that I preferred living a world in which America’s leading contender for global supremacy in chess dead center in the American century was a moody, pill-popping orphan girl from Kentucky instead of the bombastic, deranged Bobby Fischer. In the lead role of Beth Harmon, the winsome Anya Taylor-Joy grabbed and sustained your attention with the way her complicated, not-always-admirable character grew from gangly teenaged social awkwardness to demure grownup self-possession, even when, near the crest of triumph, she’s still barely holding it together. Verisimilitude is always valuable when it comes to such period melodrama and the series kept excellent time with its sense of detail from the fifties showroom nature of the furniture to the sixties chic of its fashions and, most especially, the soundtrack that took in the Vogues’ “You’re the One,” the Association’s “Along Comes Mary,” Quincy Jones’ chrome-plated arrangement of “Comin’ Home Baby,” Gillian Hills’ “Tut Tut Tut Tut,” and Shocking Blue’s “Venus.” The supporting cast was uniformly excellent; in particular Marielle Heller as Beth’s thwarted dreamer of a stepmother and Moses Ingram in a best-friend-from-childhood role that she almost single-handedly rescues from hackneyed “magical negro” convention. But it’s Taylor-Joy’s star-making show all the way through. And her total magnetism was more than enough to get most of us to dust off our old chess sets and figure out how her character’s huge, espresso eyes are able to see everything happen before it happens – as useful a skill in art as it is in chess.

 

 

 


Glynn Turman – In a world that makes much more sense than this one, Glynn Turman would be nationally renowned as a generational icon of his profession. It’s enough to say that, at 73, he is a living, breathing retrospective of Black cultural advancement from the civil rights era to the present day. At 12 years old, he played Sidney Poitier’s son on Broadway in the original production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Less than a decade later, at 21, he helped integrate TV’s Peyton Place and was to the 1975 coming-of-age comedy Cooley High what fellow child actor Ron Howard was to its 1973 counterpart American Graffiti. Over the succeeding decades, he became as much of a cult hero for the parts he got (the spit-and-polish Army colonel on A Different World; the sleazoid Baltimore mayor in The Wire) as for the one he didn’t (he auditioned for Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie, but George Lucas reportedly backed away from the idea of a Black Han playing approach-avoidance games with White Princess Leia). Plus which, he was once married to Aretha Franklin. This year found people sitting up and taking full notice of Turman’s contained intensity and mastery of space. In Netflix’s production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom he was Toledo, the circumspect piano player for Ma’s band trying to retain composure and dignity amidst the tempest of resentment and rage in the recording studio. And in the fourth season of FX’s Fargo, he was Black mob consigliore Doctor Senator, who displays so much shrewdness, gravitas and diplomacy among the short fuses going off like fireworks throughout circa 1950 Kansas City that you wish he were in charge of all the city’s warring mobsters, Afro- and Italo-American alike. The attention Turman’s been getting for these turns is as gratifying as the grace with which he’s greeted the renewed acclaim. He seems more than happy to be regarded at this stage in his long and illustrious career as an “actor’s actor.” And while some of us still wish he were regarded as so much more, if he’s cool with that status, we should be, too.

 

 


Soul Ethan Iverson has declared this latest Disney Pixar project to be the best jazz movie in a long time. And as I’ve written elsewhere, I’m with him on this — with the caveat that one of the things that disquieted me a little was its implication that the jazz calling and the dedication it requires so obsessed Joe the protagonist that it kept him from appreciating everything in his life that had meaning and resonance. Most of us who love music (and I’m not just talking about “the music,” but all music) believe it to be one of the gateways towards embracing life in all its outward and inward graces. Maybe Pete Docter’s movie was saying the same thing ultimately. But I fear it will nonetheless give haters more ammunition for disdaining or dismissing “the music.” As soon as the closing credits started rolling, there was also the melancholy suspicion that Soul wasn’t going to find as much love out there as other Disney/Pixar inquiries into the metaphysical such as Coco or Inside/Out. It left more questions open than answers, which makes it my favorite DizPix movie since WALL-E – and 2008 now seems a long time ago. Meanwhile, the jazz head in me was more caught up with the movie’s digressions and diversion e.g. the rat dragging the pizza slice in one direction while the cat is dragging another one in the other; the offhand little jibe by the afterlife’s gatekeepers over how too many new souls were being herded into the hovel set aside for self-absorption; the modernist depiction of those gate-keepers that tipped its cap to the UPA and Terrytoons shorts of the 1950s; and. most of all, the characterizations of all its Black supporting characters from the older ladies rocking with Joe’s mom in the tailoring shop to the brothers at the barber shop simultaneously keeping it real and cool. When Oscar time rolls around, I’ll be rooting for Wolfwalkers to win the best animated feature prize because those guys at Cartoon Saloon deserve the love for keeping hand-painted animation alive and kicking in the digital age. But as Ethan says, if there’s an envelope somewhere for Best Jazz Movie of this year (if not the last 10-to-30), this is what it’ll say on the card inside.

 

 



Quarter Life Crisis – I’ve watched enough Netflix stand-up comedy specials over the now-all-but-completed decade to know that the raunchiest, most incisive and most double-dog-daring of these comics have been women. I’ve found something to like and/or admire in most, if not all their provocations. But for whatever reason, none of their specials have kept me coming back for seconds this past year like this recital by Taylor Tomlinson. The title refers to her up-front fatigue with being in her twenties. “I am done with this shit!” she declares. “They are ten years of asking yourself, ‘Is this a phase or is it a demon? Am I fun or should I go to a meeting?’” She’s had a fairly conventional rise through the talk-show circuit and Last Comic Standing duels, but has somehow pulled together a fascinating self-portrait of a Millennial caught squarely in a conflict between her nice-girl upbringing and her nascent yearnings to be a bona-fide mean girl. (And she probably would be, if she didn’t find mean girls to be lame as well.) Watching this tension play out is what keeps you strapped in her passenger seat, along with her gift for the seemingly offhand, Day-Glo zinger. (“[If] love is blind, lust is Helen Keller.”) She’s got so much figured out at such an early age, even with her white-bread religious upbringing, that you can’t wait to see what’s spilling out of her next. And even if she doesn’t figure all of it out (and who does?), it’s still going to be fun watching her try well into her thirties.

 

 

 



James McBride – If this country has a Poet Laureate, then why shouldn’t there be, officially or otherwise, an office for “America’s Storyteller”? McBride has been a rock-solid contender for the title ever since his canonical 1995 memoir of his mother, The Color of Water, endeared itself to generations of readers. He has since demonstrated his chops as a screenwriter (Miracle at St. Ann’s), socio-cultural history (Kill ‘Em And Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul) and short-story writer (Five-Carat Soul). This year provided a double-jolt of added luster to McBride’s reputation: his critically acclaimed novel, Deacon King Kong, an effervescent, humane comedy of errors set in and around a circa-1969 Brooklyn housing project and Showtime’s multi-part adaptation of his award-winning 2013 historical novel, The Good Lord Bird, a boisterous picaresque about a young Black boy’s adventures in Antebellum America with the insurrectionary abolitionist John Brown, played with bravado and poignancy by Ethan Hawke. An accomplished jazz saxophonist, McBride not only knows the secret to holding an audience, but to reaching into its core for shared trauma, yearning and faith. He is capable of making everybody laugh at the same joke at once, which doesn’t seem possible in a time as polarized as ours. If you wonder where to go next, I’d suggest both Five-Carat Soul and the James Brown book, the latter as indispensable in its rock-pop-critical-bio subgenre as Chet Flippo’s Your Cheatin’ Heart, Nick Tosches’ Hellfire and Peter Guralnik’s Feel Like Going Home.

 




First Cow — I’ve heard Kelly Reichardt’s latest exemplar of sneaky-great filmmaking described as both an “anti-western” and a “near-western.” It’s almost as if she were working beyond John Ford’s vision, except I suspect Ford would  appreciate exactly where First Cow was coming from, even if it is set all the way back to 1820s Oregon and carrying an implicit anti-capitalist message that Depression-era insurgents could identify with. (Two ill-fated wanderers, one Jewish, the other Asian, struggle to make a business for themselves by using milk from a rich man’s cow to make ambrosial desert cakes.) It’s a movie that’s both beyond and steeped in its genre conventions and as somebody cheering for the western, in any form, to carry on however it’s able, I’m delighted to see both her and her movie get their props.


Julie Nolke – Not that we’ll ever be nostalgic about 2020. But should the (albeit unlikely) occasion arise to retrieve a taste of what it felt like to be alive in that near-unprecedented maelstrom, the YouTube series of videos by this Canadian comic actress will bring it all back alive. And, just as they did during the past nine months, her videos will continue to offer solace and commiseration for our shared bemusement and exasperation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Stephen Wright & Steven Wright –Just before Everything Changed earlier this year, I came across two very different and eerily relevant novels written by two very different authors with almost the same name. (Neither of whom, to be clear, are stand-up comedians, though each is very funny in a grim, caustic way.) Looking back, I’m a little startled by how effectively both books nailed down deeply rooted illnesses in the American psyche that explained a lot of messed-up behavior over the succeeding months in the face of mass disease and systemic racism.

 



First there was Stephen Wright’s Processed Cheese, a surrealistic pillow stuffed with sharp objects. It’s set in a funhouse version of present-day America whose largest, wealthiest metropolis is called Mammoth City, whose wealthiest and most powerful resident, Mister Menu, lives in a penthouse apartment of a very shiny skyscraper. One day, Mister Menu’s supermodel wife (Her name? Missus Menu, of course) hurls a canvas bag loaded with cash at her husband. The bag sails past him, off their terrace and fifty-two stories to the street where it lands smack dab in front of an unemployed-and-desperate citizen named Graveyard. Not knowing where the million-dollar sack came from or to whom it belongs, Graveyard takes it home to his wife Ambience and, once they’re convinced no one’s looking for their money, they proceed to Live Larger than they ever have before, buying everything and anything they want. You name it: sex, drugs and other commodities with brand names like Walleyed Monkeys champagne, DominationDonuts, the HoochieCoochie flatscreen TV and, inevitably, guns like the Gibe & Cloister 418 firearm or “The Last Judgment” (with a) “silver barrel engraved with lifelike drawings of people in sexual positions most of us couldn’t even imagine.” All this and more sounds as over-the-top as that canvas bag’s trajectory and yet this Stephen Wright, a meta-novelist highly recommended by the seemingly incongruent likes of Toni Morrison and Stephen King, applies a thick Buster Keaton-esque sheen on all this slapstick avarice. You can think all you want that it’s way too outrageously conceived to have anything to do with you– until the next time you walk out of your house and see all those empty Amazon boxes spilling out of the nearest available dumpster.

 



Unlike Processed Cheese, The Coyotes of Carthage by (the other, differently spelled) Steven Wright is set in this plane of reality. But it’s no less trenchant or unsettling. Its protagonist (not at all the hero) is Dre, a jaded young Black operative for a K Street consulting firm who’s assigned by his bosses to supervise a ballot initiative enabling a metals conglomerate to strip mine an Appalachian rain forest in South Carolina. Saying the least, an African American smarty-pants seems the least likely person to galvanize a predominantly white and right-leaning constituency into parting with such fertile land. So he pulls hidden levers and disperses dark money to enable a local bar owner to become the face of the initiative. Eventually, the trickery and duplicity involved in making people vote against their own interests take their toll on Dre, whose self-loathing reaches red-zone levels. “Aren’t elections about getting people to like you?” the bar owner’s God-fearing wife asks Dre. “That’s a common misconception,” he answers. “Elections are about getting voters to hate others.” Whatever happens over the next 12 months and beyond, both these novels are neon-lit arrows pointing to the pile of crap we’re going to have to clean up if we want to survive as a democratic republic.

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Albums for 2020

With a couple of (qualified) exceptions, there’s not a whole lot on this year’s list that will wake the neighbors or set off cowbells and car alarms. This, somehow, didn’t feel like the year for that kind of noise, though there sure was a whole lot of unwelcome noise pounding on the walls of wherever we hunkered down to Stay Safe. I would like to think that for every two or three people shut in by the pandemic who could do nothing but keep some form of broadcast news on in every room of their houses, there were one or two others determined to find in music, or any other art, some deliverance from the relentless meanness of this year. Maybe that explains why most of the items listed below emit vibes owing to the ruminative, the elegiac, even, at times, the shadowy and ethereal. If you needed swinging, swaying and rocking, you could find all that, too and I wish all three were more conspicuous than they appear to be on this list. My own impulse for breadth and adventure is otherwise mostly indulged here with the hope that you all will do likewise.

One question for further study, and by now it’s a familiar one: Just what the heck is an album these days? And is that really how you all still listen to music these days? I know that’s two questions and I’m not going to go too deep into the weeds on either of them. Discuss. We’ll talk later.

 

 




1.) Jimmy Heath, Love Letter (Verve) – Even before he began recording this gleaming array of ballads two days before his 93rd birthday and polished it to a fine gloss weeks before his death this past January, Jimmy Heath seemed infused with a magical elixir whose ingredients were known only to him. I remember watching him conduct a concert of the Queens Jazz Orchestra en route to his 90th year and his compact, five-foot-three-inch frame seemed as agile as ever; plus he was blowing his tenor saxophone with as much force (if not velocity, but you can’t have everything) as he did when he was a badass young composer, arranger and leader in the 1950s. In each of these tracks, the power of Heath’s playing emerges in its conceptual energy, the soft glow and austere intricacy of his thematic variations, whether on Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain” and “Left Alone,” whose lyrics, written by Holiday for Mal Waldron’s melody, are tenderly, fastidiously enacted by Cecile McLorin Salvant; or on Heath’s own pieces, including “Inside Your Heart,” “Fashion or Passion” and “Ballad From Upper Neighbors Suite.” The formidable supporting cast comprises Salvant, pianist Kenny Barron, vibraphonist Monte Croft, bassist David Wong, guitarist Russell Malone, drummer Lewis Nash, vocalist Gregory Porter (featured on “Don’t Misunderstand,” a tune Gordon Parks wrote for his 1972 feature, Shaft’s Big Score) and Wynton Marsalis, appropriately bringing his trumpet along for “La Mesha”, composed by Heath’s onetime confrere Kenny Dorham. Though properly regarded, to quote Gary Giddins’ liner notes, as a “stunningly elegant last testament,” Love Letter sure doesn’t feel final; rather as though its leader is summoning a hard jolt of giddy-yap for the next album. Which is the kind of monument we’d all like to leave behind.

 

 

 

 

 

 



2.) Ron Miles, Rainbow Sign (Blue Note) – The title track immediately conjures up references to the biblical admonition cited at the conclusion of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. (I’ll just let you look it up, if you don’t already know it.) But while such a connection seems especially timely this year, especially for a follow-up to cornetist Miles’ 2017 album I Am a Man given that title’s reference to the signs carried by striking Memphis garbage workers when Martin Luther King Jr. made his ill-fated stand with their picket lines, the polychromatic music on this Blue Note debut is more contemplative and probing than its immediate predecessor. The gorgeous mosaics forged by Miles’ crystalline musings, guitarist Bill Frisell’s laser-light interjections, pianist Jason Moran’s stealthy adornments, bassist Thomas Morgan’s vertically inclined strumming and drummer Brian Blade’s sandman grinding make for a graceful, variegated sound that is deceptive in its seeming calm. The music may secretly wish to cry out, but mostly unravels in a kind of sang-froid wariness for whatever’s ahead. The presence of spirits, including those who have departed this very year, are sensed more than heard outright. As much as Miles’ music fixes your attention overall, tracks like “The Rumor,” “Custodian of the New,” “A Kind Word” and “Like Those Who Dream” also makes you restless with the known world’s prevailing dread. You’re ready to move somewhere, anywhere away from Fear Itself, even if you’re not entirely sure where and when you’re due to arrive.

 

 

 

 




3.) Aaron Diehl, The Vagabond (Mack Avenue) – The fifth album featuring Cecile McLorin Salvant’s onetime/sometime accompianist displays what may well be his most comprehensive immersion in musical tradition, whether modernist or post-modernist . Thus, both Prokofiev (“March from Ten Pieces for Piano, Op. 12”) and Philip Glass (“Piano Etude No. 16”) are in the house for interpretive tweaking. But so are Sir Roland Hanna (“A Story Often Told, Seldom Heard ”) and John Lewis (“Milano”), whose rhythmic poise and lissome riffing find in Diehl a stunningly worthy exponent. With his own compositions, Diehl makes his own way through the motifs and dynamics of jazz piano history. Hence the deft negotiation of space and time on “Park Slope” and “Kaleidoscope Road,” reminiscent of both Lewis and Ahmad Jamal in the latter’s latter-day period. His years of comping behind Salvant have bestowed upon him ears big enough to listen, respond and gently steer his conversations with bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. The whole enterprise emits a soft glow of intimacy braced by a subtle urgency for wider vistas. It leaves you with no doubt whatsoever that Diehl, in whatever context, has more of those in store.

 

 

 

 

 

 





4.) Maria Schneider Orchestra, Data Lords (Artists Share) — Within every tender lament for a lost time, there is rage at whatever’s shoving it aside. Most times, that anger is implied. But Schneider, on her first album since the masterly 2015 tone poem, The Thompson Fields , takes her regular patrons aback somewhat with this Janus-faced inquiry into what we once only hypothetically regarded as “cyberspace” has done to our collective minds and hearts. The first disc, “The Digital World,” leans hard on the foreboding, the invasive and the insidious in evoking what the composer-arranger-conductor characterizes as concurrent erosions of public and private space. “Don’t Be Evil” piquantly appropriates its title from one of Google’s maxims to its employees and weaves into its thematic progressions the familiar melody of “Taps.” One isn’t used to this kind of acid spurting out from Schneider’s orchestrated tapestries and at first it seems as if she’s swinging too wildly at her digitized demons.. But what makes this particular recording stand out, both in the first volume and in the second, more typically Schneider-esque volume, “The Natural World,” is the considerable room she’s giving to her musicians to run wild and unfettered on both acoustic and electronic instruments. One could cite as examples tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s shape-shifting wails and trumpeter Greg Gisbert’s electronically enhanced narratives making their way through “CQ, CQ, Is Anybody There?” or how, on the subsequent “Sputnik,” Scott Robinson’s baritone sax climbs the registers in tandem with the rest of the horns to replicate both the relative barrenness of outer space (towards which the orchestra likewise urges you, later on, to “Look Up”) and the lengthening chain of satellites playing pitch-and-catch with our unending data streams. Or how guitarist Ben Monder, pianist Frank Kimbrough, accordionist Gary Versace, reed player Steve Wilson and all the others contribute so distinctively to their leader’s vision of awe, terror and hope in the ongoing percussive shock of the new in conflict with whatever remains of biology, oxygen, water and blood. The more you listen to the whole thing, the less certain you are about where those two worlds it explores begin, end…or, even, merge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



5.) Liberty Ellman, Last Desert (PI) – Maybe the best way to walk into Ellman’s fifth album as a leader is to imagine the guitarist sitting with friends at a table on the first track — conveniently labeled “The Sip” for the purposes of our analogy – and just to make the afternoon lively, opens up a conversation with a few random phrases, each reaching around for some connection with one of the others hanging out: trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, saxophonist Steve Lehman, bassist Stephan Crump, drummer Damion Reed and tuba player (tubaist?) Jose Davila. Since none of these guys are strangers to each other (one or all of them has at some point played with each other on other PI albums), it’s easy enough for outsiders to follow along, even if there doesn’t always seem to be a steady beat to hang on to. So you listen to what each of them contributes and what continually impresses is how lucidly the “talk” seems to flow, sometimes with Ellman augmenting Lehman’s ideas by either sliding alongside in harmony or hanging back with Reed as Lehman elaborates with mounting intensity. Davila’s tuba steps out of the background because it can’t keep quiet for long and Finlayson, now barely able to contain himself, completes somebody else’s premise with sparkly ingenuity. This is all a bone-simple way of saying that this album is mostly and ultimately about group interaction and however you want to listen, talk back or even dance along can only carry the conversation to another level, or tangent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



6.) Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, The Music of Wayne Shorter (Blue Engine) – I can remember a time, maybe a decade-and-a-half before this landmark 2015 concert, when things were nowhere near as collegial between the mercurial, enigmatic Mr. Shorter and the “uptown” jazz classicists of Lincoln Center. The details of this impasse are now blurry to me and, I suppose, everybody involved. All I knew, even then. was that sooner or later there had to be some rapprochement between the Imperial City’s dominant jazz institution and the music’s greatest living composer. Still, going in, one wondered whether Shorter’s oeuvre, most of which was configured for small combos, would be adequately retrofitted for the demands of a 15-piece band. David Weiss pulled it off nicely with his tribute ensemble two years earlier. But Weiss didn’t have The Man Himself playing alongside them the way Wynton’s outfit did that night. The possibilities seemed rife for tension between J@LCO’s imperative to swing and Shorter’s impulse towards introspection. And from the jump – a Victor Goines arrangement of “Yes or No” from Shorter’s 1964 album, Juju — there was a possibility that Shorter would be overpowered by the band’s might. But the deeper their dialogue progressed, the more invigorated Shorter and the band seemed by the exchange. After a while, it became apparent that the tension between these sensibilities wasn’t something to be resolved or overcome during the show; the tension was the show. And through their smart, measured and diligent exchanges of ideas and invention, Shorter and the orchestra managed to make each of these works – “Lost,” “Teru”, “The Three Marias,” even the knotty “Contemplation” sound staggeringly fresh and (very much) alive.

 

 

 

 



7.) Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride & Brian Blade, Round Again (Nonesuch) – Hard to believe that this is only the second album recorded by this celestial body and that its predecessor (Mood Swing) was released way back in 1994. Somehow you’d like to believe in a world where this band of Super Friends could have hung together for that whole 26 years while continuing to veer off occasionally for their respective projects. But that deprives us of the illuminating perspective of their cumulative growth between those albums – and the attendant revelation that they now sound fresher and more inventive, individually and together, than they did when they were daring young tyros. Redman is the nominal leader here, as he was back in Bill Clinton’s first term. But, having just edged past 50, the erstwhile swashbuckling prodigy from Harvard here sounds more authoritative and more relaxed, giving his bandmates plenty of room on the marquee and on these sessions to share with the class everything they’ve learned since they first played with fireworks together. In pianist Mehldau’s case, it’s the spherical sense-of-play on “Moe Honk” that gives his still-frequent cohort Redman another opportunity to light up the sky with his own ballistic spinoffs while McBride, now as prodigious a bandleader as he is a bassist, flashes both his virtuosity and ingenuity on his “Floppy Diss.” Perhaps the most surprising contributions come from Blade, whose trap-set back in the day emitted enough rumbustious flash and bravado to compete with Redman’s own magnetism. Here Blade sounds relatively circumspect and cagey, having figured out as the canniest veterans eventually do, that what you don’t fill in is as important as what you do. Redman’s party favor for the gathering is “Silly Little Love Song,” a soulful romp that gives all four guys a case of the grins as it also seems to be waiting for someone not named Sir Paul McCartney to write lyrics for it. (No knock intended. He’d probably suggest someone else to do it anyway.)

 

 

 



8.) Matthew Shipp Trio, The Unidentifiable (ESP-Disk) – It’s tough to stay an angry young man of progressive jazz piano when you’ve turned 60. But age will never deter Shipp’s impetus to color outside the lines. The older he gets, the more apparent it becomes that few people now living can lay down as many dense clusters of chords in as many combinations as he can. With bassist Michael Bislo and drummer Newman Taylor Baker (I think this is their fifth year together, but one is never totally sure of such things), Shipp is expanding the possibilities for jazz piano trio while at the same time allowing his more lyrical side to gradually emerge from behind his polychromatic walls of sound. The title track provides the best vantage point for where Shipp is right now: a Tyner-esque roller-and-tumbler propelling Shipp’s hands back and forth across his keyboard, shagging and snapping eccentric, oblong riffs that Bislo and Baker field with grace and idiosyncrasy. Baker, by the way, figures prominently on a series of tracks labeled, “Virgin Psych Space,” which I am taking to mean exactly what it says it means. There is even (merciful heavens!) a samba, “Regeneration,” that should someday be a global dance phenomenon when the world figures out how to colonize Venus. That this is among the more satisfying albums of Shipp’s prolific career won’t slow his roll. He’s never satisfied. Besides, angry young men can often evolve into valuable curmudgeons. Shipp, trust me, is already there.

 

 

 






9.) Artemis, Artemis (Blue Note) — Conventional wisdom insists that supergroups never work for the simple – or simplistic — reason that star players can’t, by definition, be team players. Maybe that’s true most of the time. And maybe that’s why the seamless interplay of this septet’s members – pianist Renee Rosnes, clarinetist Anat Cohen, saxophonist Melissa Aldana, trumpeter Ingrid Jenson, bassist Noriko Ueda, drummer Allison Miller and vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant – is a surprise large enough to grab your lapels at the outset. What keeps you involved are the different ways each track hugs and tugs at the core of its respective composition, economy without restraint, minimalism with soul. They all play so well with each other that it’s difficult to single any of them out. But as quarterback for this all-star all-woman team, Rosnes also does most of the arrangements and her bold, slow-hand reimagining of Lee Morgan’s four-on-the-floor burner “The Sidewinder” along with her incisive collaboration with Cohen on arranging the latter’s “Nocturno” provide sufficient evidence that this contingent has far more on its mind, and in its quiver, than Making A Point to male supremacists. She and the rest of the band give Salvant a sultry, multi-dimensional frame for Rocco Accetta’s “Cry, Buttercup, Cry.” Jensen applies unexpectedly deeper shadows in her arrangement of “The Fool on The Hill” while Miller (“Goddess of the Hunt”), Aldana (“Frida”) and Ueda (“Step Forward”) make their own striking contributions to the repertoire of this road-tested murderer’s row.

 

 

 

 




10.) Fred Hersch, Songs From Home (Palmetto) – Not long after the Black Swan of pandemic first locked us out of our schools, churches, gyms, theaters and interstates, Hersch, sheltering in his rural Pennsylvania home, brought some added light into his Facebook followers’ afternoons with his “Tune of the Day’ live piano recitals from his living room. Call this then, “Tune of the Day: The Album,” a ten-track compilation of classic standards (“After You’ve Gone,” “Get Out of Town,”) “contemporary pop” hits (“Wichita Lineman, “All I Want”), originals (“Sarabande,” “West Virginia Rose”) and even a folk tune (“The Water Is Wide”). You are transfixed and startled throughout by the stark intimacy and the quiet intensity of Hersch’s variations and ruminations. The wistfulness lurking within the presumptive gaiety of Lerner and Loewe’s “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” is gently, resolutely funneled to the forefront of Hersch’s interpretation while Ellington’s “Solitude,” as familiar to a jazz lover as a tender old robe, becomes something far eerier and more profound given both the immediate present-day context and the implied long-term uncertainties towards whatever happens when the coronavirus is finally subdued. There’s not a single piece of this album – whatever albums are supposed to be right now – that we don’t badly need for solace, commiseration and grace. It wishes nothing more than that we stay safe, be well and hang on for dear life.

 

 

 




ARCHIVAL
1.) Edward Simon, 25 Years (Ridgeway)
2.) Ella Fitzgerald, The Lost Berlin Tapes (Verve)
3.) Frank Sinatra, Nice n’ Easy (Capitol)

 

 



VOCAL
Allegra Levy, Lose My Number (SteepleChase)
HONORABLE MENTION: Kurt Elling, Secrets are the Best Stories (Edition)

 

 




LATIN

Arturo O’Farrill & the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, Four Questions (Zoho Music)


 

 





HONORABLE MENTION

Rudresh Manhanthappa, Hero Trio (Whirlwind), Charles Tolliver, Connect (Gearbox), Joe Farnsworth, Time To Swing (Smoke Sessions), Ambrose Akinmusire, On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment (Blue Note), Orrin Evans and the Captain Black Big Band, The Intangible Between (Smoke Sessions)