Entries Tagged 'jazz reviews' ↓

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Albums for 2023

There’s been so much wonderful music out and about this year that I could have easily plucked a few more from my runners-up without losing any sleep. (A motif to which, as with others baked into this year’s blog, we shall, in roundabout manner, return.) And not to sound like a broken record, as it were, but you wonder why with so much talent and achievement coming from so many directions and from so many generations, jazz remains an afterthought, a marginal presence in the global marketplace. Unless I’m mistaken, nobody’s yet asked Esperanza Spalding – sorry, esperanza spalding – to headline a Super Bowl halftime show. Or even an NBA All-Star Weekend. At least, she headlines this list, or, more accurately, shares top billing.
But then, I often wonder whether music, any music, has much of a place in people’s lives these days. If whatever I’ve been seeing lately on Saturday Night Live’s musical guest shots are any indication, presentation and fashion are what matter more than whatever sounds are being made. (I know, I know, whatever the hell am I doing watching Saturday Night Live lately in the first place? Can’t blame COVID anymore, even if it doesn’t seem to have gone away after all…) So maybe it’s no longer just jazz –whatever people believe it to be – that’s getting hit in the face; it’s all the other genres that are now all merely boutiques. There are now college curricula in Hip-Hop History in case you haven’t heard.


Maybe this explains why lately I’ve been thinking about the way past generations, including mine, used to buy records. Briefly: you went to whatever outlet or department store had people you could trust, and you hung out, browsed, and maybe something was playing in the background that made you go, “What’s that?” The people you trusted were happy to not only tell you, but bring out a fresh copy of the thing that turned our head and you decided you needed to take this “ride” home. And then you shared it with other people who trusted you and maybe if there were little people in your house, they would hear it and start getting ideas…


My origin story. If you’re reading this, it’s probably yours, too.


I don’t know what the equivalent of this process is today unless you count tweets and Bandcamp messages in whatever in-box you reserve for such intelligence. I only know it’s not the same and neither is the world that make those earlier, more haphazard encounters possible.


All I know is that the Good Stuff still somehow makes it out and about. Think of me, then, as that guy in the department store or record outlet – whatever that is – tilting his head at the turntable in the corner. Like that? There’s some more over here…

 

 




1.) Fred Hersch & esperanza spalding, Alive at the Village Vanguard (Palmetto) – You need to give this one to the wisenheimers in your life demanding to know what’s so special about jazz, or even what jazz is. It’s possible these people at least remember hearing Barack Obama profess affection for Spalding while he was still president; maybe they’ve heard or even seen live performances of her varied bands showcasing her upright bass, acrobatic vocals, and varied ensembles. For this bare-bones live set at jazz’s Holy Dive with the redoubtable pianist Hersch, Spalding left her bass at home and what results from their collaboration – which I’ve been labeling “Herschsperanza,” and try and stop me from obtaining a copyright! – may be the grandest, most insurgent act of her still-ascendant career. Traditional pop standards are blown up, rewoven, and all-but terraformed into audacious counter-narratives through the interaction of Hersch’s polymorphic variations and Spalding’s serpentine, uproarious digressions. From Ira Gershwin’s lines of “But Not For Me” (“I was a fool to fall and get that way/Hi-ho, alas, and also lack-a-day”), Spalding extrapolates the following strain of vocalese: “Oh, me. Oh, my. What a sad case I seem to be. It’s my fault, letting love to lead the way. I should know that there’ll be skies of gray. I can’t say I’ve seen too many, but they say that Russian plays do boast of many gray skies, all right – and then some words I don’t really understand because it’s, like, old English – hi-ho, alas, and lackaday. That’s how I feel, confused about the whole situation…” She carries this willed ingenuity into smart-alecky battle against Bobby Troup’s ring-a-ding lyrics on Neal Hefti’s “Girl Talk, which in her hands becomes a twelve-minute proto-feminist interrogation of male presumptiveness, at one point, veering into issues of “economic sustainability. Reduce, Reuse. Recycle…Am I lying?” while still riding the song’s theme and changes as if she were on a thoroughbred leading the Preakness by a length-and-a-half. Charlie Parker’s “Little Suede Shoes,” in like fashion, weaves a dream of dancing in suede shoes just as Hersch’s “Dream of Monk” becomes, with Spalding’s vocals, a clarion call for diligent, if circumspect weirdness. These tracks were culled from a three-night engagement, and I bet those in attendance felt as you will when this album ends: wishing these two crazy kids never stop.

 

 

 

 

 

 



2.) Matthew Shipp, The Intrinsic Nature of Shipp (Mahakala) –Three years ago, Shipp wrote an intriguing essay/manifesto, “Black Mystery School Pianists” (Monk, Herbie Nichols, Mal Waldron, Andrew Hill, Hassan Ibn Ali, to name a few examples) who each cultivated willfully idiosyncratic styles constituting “the subconscious of the jazz idiom…a secret code, passed through an underground way of passage, a language outside the mainstream.” Shipp’s own body-of-work over the last quarter-century so exemplifies this subversive counter-tradition he’s defined that it’s tempting to think of him as its apotheosis, especially when weighing the considerable assets of this latest solo album, which could be a kind of hypertext to his essay. The performances here feel at once more expansive and more challenging than usual. While he can still pile on the tone clusters with his customary intensity, as on the aptly named “Crystal Structures,” Shipp here lets more air and space flow and settle in his thematic extensions as with the graceful and intricate “That Vibration” and in his enigmatic montage of fugitive riffs on “The” – yes, that’s what it’s called and whatever mood he’s in, there abides in Shipp a punkish “what’s-it-to-you” impertinence hat, oddly and appropriately, makes him more endearing, whether he’s throwing down the sledgehammer on “The Bulldozer Poetics” or letting his ruminative side reach for deeper, wider tonal combinations on “Tune Into It.” Shipp cherishes his “Mystery School” progenitors for giving him permission to be as mad, bad, glad, and unpredictable as he wants, and needs, to be. However far he continues to expand on this tradition (and there’s a lot about this album that suggests a transition, even a breakthrough), this school won’t close with him. And times being what they are, I think the school will only increase its enrollment because there’ll always be outliers in America’s backyards and basements searching, as Shipp once did, for affirmation that it’s not only O.K. to be as weird as Thelonious, Herbie, and the rest, it’s necessary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



3.) Jason Moran, From the Dancehall to the Battlefield (Yes) – Visionary badass James Reese Europe (1881-1919) helped make the American Century possible, though you likely never heard of him. He journeyed from his native Alabama to New York in his early 20s to write and conduct show music, then organized the Clef Club, an ambitious collective of Black musicians, whose dance orchestra, 125 members strong, performed a significant recital at Carnegie Hall. His ensembles bent the angularities of ragtime closer towards the looser, more propulsive syncopations shaping the jazz to come. He fought in World War I and organized the 369th Infantry Band, better known as the “Hellfighters.” He hadn’t been back home in Harlem for very long before he was stabbed to death, at just 38, by a drummer incensed with the boss’s criticisms of his on-stage deportment. You would think that a legend of this magnitude yielded dozens of contemporary tribute albums by now, if not a whole Netflix series. But you would also figure that Moran, an artist of comparable vision, would leap to the forefront of an eclectic parade in Europe’s honor, carrying the Hellfighter’s legacy across the century by seamlessly fusing Europe’s arrangement of “Ballin’ the Jack” with the late Geri Allen’s rousing standard “Feed the Fire.” A similar, even greater melding of different eras is executed with Europe’s paean to fallen soldiers, “Flee as a Bird to Your Mountain” transitioning to Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts” with solicitousness and intelligence towards both forms of 20th century modernism. Throughout, Moran’s wide-ranging pianistic gifts and crafty showmanship honors tradition and extends its possibilities with neither undue solemnity nor gratuitous flourish and his various ensembles, anchored by longtime trio mates bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits and including David Adewumi on trumpet, Reginald Cyntje and Chris Bates on trombones, Logan Richardson on alto sax, Brian Settles on tenor sax, Darryl Harper on clarinet, José Davila (about whom more later) on tuba, acquit themselves on “Clef Club March,” “Castle House Rag,” “St. Louis Blues” and “That Moaning Trombone” with discipline and energy that would have mightily pleased the demanding Europe. (Available on vinyl and from Bandcamp.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



4.) Henry Threadgill Ensemble, The Other One (PI) – The best jazz book I read this past year is Easily Slip Into Another World (Knopf), Threadgill’s autobiography, written with Brett Hayes Edwards. If you only knew Threadgill’s music, for which he’s already received the Pulitzer Prize, you could have surmised he had an extraordinary life. But…wow! Growing up musical in Chicago and helping create the seminal Association for the advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) before touring with an evangelical preacher in the mid-1960s and then heading off to Vietnam, hoping to survive jungle combat and racism…And even these experiences, however vividly rendered, are no less significant than all his spellbinding insights into modernism, improvisation, and using time and space to extend harmonic possibilities. Not that you couldn’t retrieve some of those same insights from listening to this three-movement composition, “On Valence,” conducted by Threadgill, rendered by an arresting 12-member combination of musicians, including pianist Davis Virelles, violinist Sara Caswell (about whom more later), violist Stephanie Griffin, cellists Christopher Hoffman and Mariel Roberts, and Threadgill’s longtime tuba player Jose Davilo. Even bassoonists Sara Schoenbeck and Adam Cordero are given opportunities to break off into their own intricate, elegantly woven musings. The 16-minute “Movement II” is a tour-de-force of roiling, extemporaneous interplay of the string section with saxophonists Alfredo Colón, Noah Becker, and Peyton Pleninger Each movement and subsection can be heard as episodes in an edge-of-the-seat pursuit thriller and its myriad arcane pleasures may be more accessible. But then, even at its most abstract and inscrutable, Threadgill’s music, in any configuration, finds a way of inviting you in. At the precipice of 80, Threadgill’s compositional powers seem, if anything, more formidable than ever. And as both his book and this album prove, he’s a helluva storyteller, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 


5.) Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Dynamic Maximum Tension (Nonesuch) – So let’s see: Buckminster Fuller, Levon Helm, Mae West, Bob Brookmeyer, Alan Turing…The far-flung subject matter for this wild and, yes, somewhat wooly program of inspirational big-band adventures comes across like a code waiting to be deciphered. Indeed, the first track on the second disc, a tribute to Turing, whose genius helped break down the Nazis, is entitled “Codebreaker” and its opening bars dare you to write out whatever combination of words and numbers its beat is tapping out – except you’ll be too busy digging that beat to care whether it means anything or not. The pleasures are constant, the inventions surprise. “Dymaxion,” a portmanteau of the album title, was coined by Fuller the merry futurist and the rhythmic mischief makes you alert to possibility and transfiguration throughout from “All In,” a tribute to charter Secret Society member Laurie Frank, to “Last Waltz for Levon,” which honors the memory of the late drummer for The Band to “Wingèd Beasts,” whose silky, tendril-like design is reminiscent of Brookmeyer’s arrangements for Gerry Mulligan’s big bands. Elsewhere, Cecile McLorin Salvant (about whom more later) drops by for “Mae West: Advice,” to have her impudent fun with Paisley Rekdal’s dada-like lyrics mimicking La West’s saucy bon mots (“…date a cad and canoodle/be éclat on a cot…”) As brainy as Argue’s music is, thematically and conceptually, it never fails to hit and sustain a solid groove, even on the epic, near-35-minute “Tensile Curves,” an anthology of tension-release motifs, time signatures, and riff extensions inspired by Duke Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” Once again, you’ll be tempted to take the track apart, shove its fragments beneath an ontological microscope, and probe for methodology by virtue of its sheer dimension. But as with everything else in this bountiful, sunny exhibition of relentless virtuosity and cheeky intelligence, you’re better off just letting the orchestrations wash over and carry you along with its most of its mysteries intact and undisturbed. Not for nothing, after all, does Argue’s 18-piece aggregation roam the Earth as a “Secret Society.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


6.) Cecile McLorin Salvant, Mélusine (Nonesuch) – She keeps raising the stakes on her range of expression, her repertoire, and her conceptual prowess, both as a vocalist and as a maker of albums. Once again, she shows her fearlessness in not doing the same thing twice with this daring, almost imposing array of French chanson and other music woven around the record’s eponymous half-woman-half-serpent mythic figure from the 14th century. (The short version: she turned into a dragon and flew away after her duplicitous lover came upon her snake-like part.) The song cycle fashioned to tell her story begins with “Est-Ce Ainsi Que Les Hommes Vivent” (“Is This the Way Men Live?”) with lyrics by Louis Aragon and music by Leo Ferre, which is followed closely by Charles Trenet’s “La Route Enchantée” and eventually to Mélusine posing the musical question, “Dites Moi Que Je Suis Belle” (“Tell Me I’m Beautiful”), carrying echoes of Salvant’s “Look at Me” from her 2015 For One to Love. Which is as good a prompt as any to how the singer’s gifts as a composer meld so seamlessly with those of the French composers she honors here, most especially in the startlingly gorgeous title song, which she performs bilingually with only Daniel Swenberg’s acoustic guitar as backup. It would be tempting to say that Salvant, like her heroine here, has taken flight it weren’t for the fact – yes, an irrefutable fact – that she is already her own mighty legend, majestically soaring several hundred miles above any vocalist in any medium you can name.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


7.) Sara Caswell, The Way to You (Anzic) – One of those cases where a seasoned, resourceful instrumentalist is matched with a first-rate supporting cast (vibraphonist Chris Dingman as special guest star!) and a far-flung itinerary of genres and styles. And what you get is an album that refuses to sit quietly on the shelf all year long. Caswell’s clear tone, fluid dynamics, and agile phrasing on the violin are what you needed all year round, whether to paint sonic landscapes you can imagine drifting by your car window (“South Shore”), pull your coat in frisky, breathless give-and-take on a crowded dance floor (“7 Anéis”), tear off an aromatic slice of classic hard bop (“Voyage” by Kenny Barron – about whom more later), or bathe the senses in balladry, by turns probing (”Stillness”), impassioned (“O Que Tinha De Ser,” “On the Way to You”), and pastoral (“Warren’s Way”). Caswell led her working quartet of bassist Ike Sturm, drummer Jared Schonig, and guitarist Jesse Lewis for a project that, if the album notes are to be believed, took 17 years to put together. She’s very busy; her dance card has names like the aforementioned Threadgill, Spalding and Argue, and prominent jazz bandleaders crowded all along the genre waterfront in pursuit of her services. I speak here only for myself, but I hope it doesn’t take as long for a follow-up to materialize, even though I don’t expect to get tired of this one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


8.) Kenny Barron, The Source (Artwork) – The first thing to mention is the gorgeous acoustics. I’ve never actually been to the Théâtre d’Athenéé in Paris, but after diving deep into this solo recital countless times over the past year, the place is as familiar to me as my family’s basement rec room (where, by the way, I first heard Barron’s piano comping on Joe Henderson’s 1967 album, The Kicker.) As with his immediate surroundings, Professor Barron conveys an imposing, but expansive familiarity in his playing. And yet, as much as you think you may already know about the Strayhorn-Ellington standards, “Daydream” and “Isfahan,” Barron burrows deep within the contours of their melodies rather than spin into virtuosic inventions. The corners, this approach insists, is where you find the gold. He also reasserts his primacy as an interpreter of Monk’s music, speaking fluent Thelonious (while remaining his elegant. dryly romantic self) on “Teo” and “Well, You Needn’t.” But it’s in Barron’s own beautiful and haunting compositions where what once seems familiar is transformed into something you never heard before. “Dolores Street, SF”is a fog-shrouded dawn over a landscape huge enough to contain both possibility and loss and he has you on the edge of your seat wondering how, or if, it reaches resolution. The Brazilian-inflected “Sunshower” has a different, downward trajectory that puts forth its own bittersweet lyricism while the jocular “What If?” and the eerie “Phantoms” are reinvigorated by Barron’s authoritative progressions. The master, all told, is in wondrously durable voice and leaves you waiting for more surprises, alone or with others.

 

 

 

 

 

 



9.) Anat Fort Trio, The Berlin Sessions (Sunnyside) – The world as we know it has been all too much with Israeli pianist Fort, who was forced by the 2020 lockdown to be separated from bassist Gary Lang and drummer Roland Schneider after two decades of working together. Two-and-a-half years later, they reunited in Munich for a one-time gig and then headed for Berlin’s Hansa Studios to release what was apparently a metric ton of pent-up energy. In these sessions, you hear the joy, relief, and exuberance in being able to let chance take its course and play freely with whatever ideas and phrases materialize in their shared space. “First Dance” sets off a four-part, 16-minute suite of reacquaintance that gives the group a chance to loosen up, pitch, catch, and spin off each other’s ideas and, as the cliché goes, it’s as though they’ve never been away from each other. Once they’re settled in, the trio settles in for another series of pieces written by Fort and inspired by pieces of eastern art at New York’s Rubin Museum, making “The Jain Suite” its own gallery of insinuating harmonic and tonal designs. The reunion spills over into another disc with a rollicking blend of Fort originals (“Wish Cloud,” “Fire Drill Blues”), a matched set of old (“All the Things You Are”) and (relatively) new (“Just The Way You Are”) pop standards delivered with conviction and affection, and even a little something from Level 42 (“The Sun Goes Down”) What made this trio session stand out so starkly from others released this year are two meditative pieces that seemed especially affecting given the violent upheavals in Fort’s homeland: “Oseh Shalom,” a rendition of composer Nurit Hirsh’s prayer for peace, and “The World as a Human Being,” which comes across as both a somber lament for squandered opportunities and a defiant plea for renewal and resolution. At least, that’s what I heard. But, as a listener, I’m part of this collaborative process, too.

 

 

 

 

 



10.) Allen Lowe & the Constant Sorrow Orchestra, In the Dark (ESP) – These three discs celebrate (if that’s the right word) a more arduous recovery process. Lowe, a protean composite of saxophonist, bandleader, archivist, producer, composer, sound engineer, musicologist, cultural historian, and gadfly (still not sure whether he altogether approves of my using that last one) has had to somehow persevere through these myriad vocations while undergoing more than a dozen operations for cancer, including surgery for removal of a tumor from his sinus. This left Lowe with a debilitating case of insomnia in which he was at best able to doze for minutes at a time, said times being as early at 5 a.m. or as late as, well, 5 a.m. Throughout this harrowing time, Lowe somehow kept writing and composing music and, with the help of his faithful and highly adaptable musician friends – pianist (and fellow musicologist) Lewis Porter, clarinetist Ken Peplowski, altoist Aaron Johnson, drummer Rob Landis, bassist Kyle Colina, trombonist Brian Simontacchi, trumpeter Kellin Hannas, and baritone saxist Lisa Parrott – assembled a formidably eclectic bounty of recordings that manage to evoke several traditions of jazz and blues in ways that sound both cutting edge and mischievously retro in the manner of Lowe’s previous projects. (In case you need it, there’s even a tango called “Velasco’s Revenge.”) Scattered throughout are compositions prefaced by “In the Dark” suggesting they were written at those midnight-or-later hours when he couldn’t sleep. The rest of those titles suggest his moods of those moments; on the one hand, there are “Night Terrors,” “Tears,” and “; on the other, there’s “Dance of the Apparitions” and “Elvis Don’t you Weep.” Along with the tributes to Eric Dolphy, Barry Harris, Jelly Roll Morton, and Duke Ellington, there are other crafty gnomish tunes with such crafty gnomish titles as “Kickin’ the Bucket,” “Innuendo in Blue,” “Blues for Old Jews,” and “Do You Know What It Means to Leave New Orleans,” the latter of which could be a teaser for his long-awaited Louis Armstrong project. Yes, he’s working as you read this, despite the ongoing physical challenges and, lest one forget, he sounds pretty good on his tenor saxophone for somebody who’s been through as much as he has.

 

 

 

 



HONORABLE MENTION: Tyshawn Sorey Trio, Continuing (PI), Myra Melford’s Fire & Water Quintet, Hear the Light Singing (RogueArt), Christian McBride’s New Jawn, Prime (Mack Avenue), Brad Mehldau, Your Mother Should Know: Brad Mehldau Plays the Beatles (Nonesuch), Kris Davis’s Diatom Ribbons, Live at the Village Vanguard (Pyroclastic), Orrin Davis, The Red Door (Smoke Sessions) Craig Taborn, Joëlle Léandre, Mat Maneri, hEARoes (RogueArt).


VOCAL
Fred Hersch & esperanza spalding, Alive at the Village Vanguard (Palmetto)
Cecile McLorin Salvant, Mélusine (Nonesuch)
Luciana Sousa & Trio Corrente, Cometa (Sunnyside)

 

 


LATIN
Miguel Zenon & Luis Perdomo, El Arte del Bolero, Vol. 2 (Miel Music)
Luciana Sousa & Trio Corrente, Cometa (Sunnyside)
Arturo O’Farrill, Legacies (Blue Note)

 

 

 

 



HISTORIC
Geri Allen & Kurt Rosenwinkel, A Lovesome Thing (Motema)
Ahmad Jamal, Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse 1966-1968 (Jazz Detective)
Sun Ra & His Arkestra, Jazz in Silhouette: Expanded Edition (Cosmic Myth) 

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Albums for 2022

Not one of the better years for recorded jazz, I’ve decided, though what’s listed below is still, as Spencer Tracy once put it, “cherce.” I’ve spent more than three decades insisting that jazz’s yearly yield of recordings showed that its energy and quality was surging despite the relative and not-so-benign neglect of what used to be called the music industry. But I now think we may have finally hit, if not a wall, maybe a bump, or a dip in the road.

Then again, I wasn’t expecting much from this past year since everybody and everything is still recovering from the last couple years of lockdown and loathing. With a couple of exceptions, most of what I heard last year sounded tentative and restrained, as if jazz were feeling its way through the emotional wreckage of the previous six years (or so) to get its bearings; just like you, me, and everybody we know.

Which I wouldn’t have minded so much if 2022 hadn’t also been Charles Mingus’s centennial, reminding me of a time when jazz was ALL affirmation, thrust, and drive. Even the best jazz music I heard on record this year seemed to make its way hesitantly, even diffidently from the edges of space while Mingus, the prototype of whatever’s meant by “force of nature,” went all out, coming at and for you, whether you were amenable to what he was laying down or not. When reacquainting myself with the polyphonic momentum and high drama of “Black Saint and the Sinner Lady,” “Pithecanthropus Erectus,” “Fables of Faubus” and other Mingus landmarks, I found myself wandering further back to Fletcher Henderson’s deco-dynamics of the twenties and thirties and wondering where all that hotfoot urgency and furious invention had gone – and whether it’ll every come back.

Why wonder? The founder of Rolling Stone was quoted this past year saying rock-and-roll had declined so much that it’s never coming back. “It’ll end up,” Jann Wenner said, “like jazz.” Burn! From wherever he’s calling home, Wenner likely hasn’t even heard of Cecile McLorin Salvant or Maria Schneider or (maybe) even Robert Glasper, no matter how much their work engages the present moment. What I suppose he’s really saying is that rock-and-roll, as with jazz, blues, or even, I’ve been hearing lately, hip-hop no longer own or compel the present moment as they once did. (What does? Podcasts? Hulu? The noises in Elon Musk’s head?)

But as much as it hurts to admit it, Wenner’s right. The dual queens of pop, Beyoncé Knowles and Taylor Swift, now preside over the music zeitgeist without much of a challenge. We could do worse. We could do better. In the meantime, we tend to our gardens and fend off negativity. And it’s hard not to be negative given the losses in the past year of people like Creed Taylor, Ronnie Cuber, Sue Mingus, Ramsey Lewis, jamie branch, Joey De Francesco, Ron Miles, Charnett Moffett, Grachan Moncur III, and Pharoah Sanders. When one or more of them leave, we cast about for replacements until we accept that there are no replacements for any of them. There’s just us, the originals who remain, and those whose names we don’t know yet, but can’t wait to get into the action. Zeitgeist or no zeitgeist, these folks go on, no matter how messed up or constricted the rest of the world is.

 

 



1.) Cecile McLorin Salvant, Ghost Song (Nonesuch) – We have a right to expect our best artists to make deep, hard connections to the present from whatever angles they choose. This latest act of insurgency from the finest, shrewdest, most adventurous jazz vocalist of her generation didn’t only connect (as it were); it seemed to be inventing the emotional whirlwind of the entire year as it spun wildly into being, anticipating hope and dread at every shaded turn. Remember that song from The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy, Toto, and their shabby retinue have escaped the toxic poppy fields and are skipping towards the gates of Oz? The ditty that goes: “You’re out of the woods/ You’re out of the dark/You’re out of the niiight…” Tell me something like that didn’t pop into your head the morning after this year’s midterms and in exactly the wifty, pop-eyed, kewpie-doll fashion Salvant’s rendition does here before it gives way to Gregory Porter’s more ruminative “No Love Dying,” whose lyrics are far less credulous towards life’s possibilities, but instead encourage abiding faith in love’s persistence however many “broken wings” materialize in rebuttal. Salvant has from the beginning of her meteoric rise to the pinnacle of her profession displayed rapier-like smarts towards relevance and applicability of song, which comes through in blending not just Porter and Harold Arlen, but also Kurt Weill (“The World is Mean”), and Sting (“Until”) along with orchestrating, in “Dead Poplar,” a letter Alfred Stieglitz once wrote to Georgia O’Keefe. She’s not just showing off her erudition…OK, maybe she is, a little. But this formidable sound collage is enhanced by her own compositions, some of which play along the edges of introspective passion, if there is such a paradox. (From “Obligation”: “Promises Lead to Resentment/ I could Love You if only it would stop your weeping, and start your smiling/ But is that Love?” Your move, Taylor Swift.) She closes her recital, unexpectedly, yet impeccably, with the old English folk ballad, “Unquiet Grave,” which at once recognizes the pain and depth of loss, while imploring for the necessity of letting go and moving on. It all sounds a lot like what we’ve been thinking lately – and a lot more like what we’ll be feeling forever after.

 

 


2.) Matthew Shipp Trio, World Construct (ESP) – This version of Shipp’s trio – with bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker – has lasted the longest and the fruitfulness of their collaboration becomes wildly, emphatically apparent on their fourth – and best – album. Shipp’s virtuosity on the piano is as spiky and as spiny as ever. There’s even a track titled “Spine,” followed by one called “Jazz Posture” and both evoke painstaking, but undaunted ascent to full upright position and forward motion. What compels your attention throughout is the easy-does-it flow of layered motifs between Shipp, Bisio, and Baker. On “Beyond Understanding,” a whisper from the drummer ‘s hi-hat can stir both the bassist and the pianist to reply with their own streams of color and insinuation. Their shared comfort level is infectious, and you get swept up in the momentum of, say, “Abandoned” in the same way you’re riveted by a Hitchcock set piece. The climactic title track, also the album’s longest, has this unit coalescing into one shape-shifting organism insisting on the prerogative to change minds and break through the clouds without holding back or hugging corners. Shipp sustains the spirit of go-for-broke assertion in jazz music and, especially with this unit, has made his progressive vision more accessible without compromise. More than ever, you can’t wait for their next one, and with these guys, you don’t have to wait very long.

 

 

 

 

 



3.) Ryan Keberle’s Collectiv Do Brazil, Sonhos Da Esquina (Alternate Side) – In a handful of innovative ensembles, Keberle has transformed the slide trombone into a nimble, dulcet, near-crystalline singing voice, perfectly suited for, among other things, Brazilian music. The story behind this gorgeous panoply of sonhos (dreams) begins in 2017 when Keberle took time off from directing the jazz studies program at Hunter College to travel to Brazil and get cozy with the nation’s tradition of soft beats and intricate melodies. In the process, he hooked up with the working trio of pianist Felipe Silveira, bassist Thiago Alves and drummer Paulinho Vincente, finding communion and transcendence in live performances throughout Sao Paulo. They recorded these tracks about a year later and you can feel both the air-tight seamlessness of their interaction and how each of them stands out in their soloing. The compositions of both Milton Nascimento (“Cio Da Terra,” “Clube Da Esquina”) and Tonino Horta (“Aqui, Oh!,” “Francisca”) dominate the proceedings and are given fresh reinvention through arrangements by Keberle and Silveira. The intricacy of Brazilian song tradition infuses Keberle’s originals, including the bold, sinuous title track and “Carbon Neutral,” as haunting (ominous?)  an anthem for confronting climate change as one can imagine.

 

 

 

 


4.) Samara Joy, Linger Awhile (Verve) – Working within tradition still delivers decisive shocks to the system. Case in point: this Bronx-born, 22-year-old prodigy whose second album delivers on the bright promise of the first with startling dividends. Her prize-winning vocal chops show both exuberance and intelligence in near-perfect equipoise and their lively reanimation of familiar standards makes those warhorses seem frisky, airy, and ripe for discovery by a new century of listeners. She unravels the unadulterated melodrama of “Guess Who I Saw Today” with plenty of glissando flourishes. But by keeping clear of cocktail lounge mannerisms and gratuitous histrionics, she lets the story tell itself and sticks the landing without wobble or excess. She also knows her way around vocalese and the lyrics she applies to Fats Navarro’s “Nostalgia” (which could have been the title track) displays her own adroitness with delivering an absorbing narrative all her own. If you think you’ve heard enough versions to last a lifetime of “Misty,” “Round Midnight,” and “Someone to Watch Over Me,” you’ll reconsider, especially after hearing her duet with guitarist Pasquale Grasso on the Gershwin tune. The greats of an earlier time, from Ella to Sarah to Carmen to Dinah, are evoked, but she arrives in the here-and-now in early triumph as her own person with rich tones and inventive agility belonging to nobody else but her. Of all the sundry delights that come with this album, the most tantalizing is the prospect of watching her already considerable talent grow with greater refinement, broader resources, and more formidable challenges.

 

 

 

 

 


5.) Marta Sanchez, SAAM (Spanish American Art Museum) (Whirlwind) – At once forbidding and enrapturing, Sanchez’s music confronts the sense of loss endemic (so to speak) to these times with grounded resolve and melancholy rumination. From the opening track,” The Unconquered Vulnerable Areas,” through the keening, wailing harmonies of “The Eternal Stillness” title track to the incendiary closer, “When Dreaming is the Only,” Sanchez’s piano lays down a tempestuous swirl of motifs to galvanize her crack ensemble of saxophonists Alex LoRe and Roman Filiu, bassist Rashaan Carter and drummer Allan Mednard. She dedicates this album to her mother Marivi, who died in December 2020 in Spain while Sanchez was moored in New York because of COVID-19-travel restrictions and the two pieces written in her memory, “December 11th (the day she died) and “Marivi” carry added poignance, especially the latter, which is buttressed by Ambrose Akinmusire’s plaintive trumpet and Camila Meza’s limpid vocals.

 

 


6.) Keith Jarrett, Bordeaux Concert (ECM) – He always gave you everything but the kitchen sink at these solo recitals. But in what is now supposed to be his absolute last such recording that will ever be released (which is what they said about 2020’s Budapest Concert, performed three days before this one in July 2016 during his valedictory tour, so I withhold concurrence), that “everything” means something different than it used to. Where he once kept you on the edge of your seat wondering whether he’d stroll, stomp, or bear down on his next steep curve into the next sonic weather system, here he teases out his motifs into mostly (and understandably) elegiac patterns, giving you wave upon wave of lyricism, whether blues-, or folk-based. The pastoral and wistful elements of his solos were always close by, with or without his trios. The first, and longest, of his numbered installments warns of tangled, wayward emotions at the outset, struggling for a calm place where he can lay out and reflect. No splinters or raw edges are in evidence from tracks II to XIII. But you’re still on the edge of your seat in anticipation of some fresh bloom or shaft of sunlight. The way he trails off at the very end may be the one discomfiting moment of the whole performance. This irresolution could be his idea of an appropriate farewell, an ambiguous flight into fading sunlight. Or you could choose to believe it’s a sign that there may well be yet another Absolutely Positively Last Solo Recording after this one. If I were prone to betting, I’d push.

 

 

 

 


7.) Tyshawn Sorey Trio, Mesmerism (Yeros7) – Any trio with Aaron Diehl at the keyboards is a force to be reckoned with. But there’s an excellent reason why this ensemble carries the drummer’s name. Sorey has been widely acclaimed and decorated (with a 2017 MacArthur grant, for instance) not just for his percussive work, but for his compositions in classical and jazz idioms. So, in seizing the reins of a traditional acoustic jazz trio, it’s to be expected that Sorey brings his formidable gifts as a conductor, arranger, and conceptualizer to such standards as “Detour Ahead,” with a sidelong approach to the melody that spurs breathtaking, epochal solos from Diehl and bassist Matt Brewer. The group’s dynamic and, at times, riveting interplay channels the spirit of the late drummer Paul Motian and, appropriately, Motian’s “From Time to Time” is included on the playlist and its thematic essence is lovingly contained, even as it is transformed here into a landscape so impressionistic as to be close to surreal. Each piece, whether it’s Horace Silver’s “Enchantment” or Muhal Richard Abrams’ “Two Over One,” maintains a center of gravity around which each member can either roam freely within the harmonies or stay in his zone and decorate the changes at will. Some suggest that in putting out a “conventional” trio recording, the protean Sorey is taking a breather between more ambitious work. But that point-of-view makes Mesmerism sound like a relative trifle that any trio can toss off. By the time you get to this trio’s version of Duke Ellington’s “Rem Blues,” you’ll be convinced that any group that swings as smartly and as impeccably as this is hardly anybody’s idea of a day at the beach – except for the lucky listener.

 

 


8.) Steve Cardenas, Ben Allison, Ted Nash, Healing Power: The Music of Carla Bley (Sunnyside) – Another trio, this one without a drum or piano, strongly redolent of the groundbreaking chamber sessions of the late 1950s featuring Jimmy Giuffre and Jim Hall. The arresting, resourceful interplay of guitarist Cardenas, bassist Allison, and reedman Nash were last heard working within and around the score of West Side Story on 2019’s Something Else. They now wander into Carla Bley’s comparably fabled precinct of American music and their elemental, lyrical approach to her varied oeuvre gives it plenty of space to breathe and circulate. The album opens with Bley’s best-known work, “Ida Lupino,” whose near-incantatory melody allows each musician to invent their own countermelodies branching off the main theme. When hearing such lithe, witty, and buoyant classics as “Donkey,” “Ictus,” and “And Now, The Queen,” all of which are more than sixty years old, you’re blown away at how up-to-the-minute they still sound. Then there’s “Lawns,” a ballad whose deceptively simple melody barely cloaks the song’s implications of disappointment and heartbreak, much of which are dislodged by Cardenas’s and Nash’s probing, revelatory solos. The case has been made many times over for Bley, now 86, as one of the greatest living jazz composers. We still need to talk about why, whether amongst ourselves or with others. Healing Power is such a fresh addition to this conversation that it makes you feel that it’s only just started.

 

 

 

 


9.) Melissa Aldana, 12 Stars (Blue Note) – The Chilean-born Aldana, who turned 34 this week, seemed to arrive on the scene more than a decade ago fully-formed and already at the top of her game as a master of the tenor saxophone. (One frequently hears the word “athletic” in describing Aldana’s performances.) All she needed was a suitable framework for her expressive gifts and her much-anticipated Blue Note label debut delivers a mature artist with her own style and an insistent, but contemplative point-of-view. Her tenor carries a fluted, at times plaintive tone, cruising the middle and upper registers with fluidity and elegance. She gets the support she needs from bassist Pablo Menares, drummer Kush Abaday, pianist Sullivan Fortner, and guitarist Lage Lund, who also collaborates with Aldana on her mosaic-like compositions, including “The Bluest Eye,” inspired by the Toni Morrison novel of the same name, where she supply knits together an arresting pattern of deep-toned, meditative phrases suggesting what it felt like for her – and, possibly, you, too – to edge up to Morrison’s complex prose. Even when her themes are more direct, as in “Los Ojos de Chile,” inspired by the recent political upheaval in her native country, you can hear her thinking her way towards affirmation and resolve.

 

 


10.) Mark Turner, Return from the Stars (ECM) – As with its predecessor, 2014’s Lathe of Heaven (yeah, it’s been a minute), Turner’s latest borrows its title and, to some extent, its vibe from a modern science fiction classic. In this case, the book is Stanislaus Lem’s novel about an astronaut returning to Earth after what he thought was a ten-year mission only to find that it’s been closer to 130 years. The resulting dislocation, upheaval, trauma, and general unease are all within reach of Turner’s dry-guy aesthetics, as titles like “Terminus,” “Waste Land,” and “Unacceptable” suggest. “It’s Not All Right With Me” is a cheeky reply to Cole Porter’s standard whose thematic reversals arouse pretzel-logic modal mischief that, one suspects, Porter would appreciate for its rambunctious cleverness alone. This edition of his quartet – trumpeter Jason Palmer, bassist Joe Martin, and drummer Jonathan Pinson – seem especially attuned to wherever Turner’s radar happens to be pointed. Do we have to wait another 10 years to find out how their interchange evolves? Or is there a way for – what’s it called again? – “time dilation” to make the years fly by?



HONORABLE MENTION

 

 

Avram Fefer Quartet, Juba Lee (Clean Feed)

Mary Halvorson, Belladonna (Nonesuch)

Miles Okasaki, Thisness (PI)

Kirk Knuffke Trio, Gravity Without Airs (Tao Forms)

Al Foster, Reflections (Smoke Sessions)

Javon Jackson, The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni (Solid Jackson)


BEST LATIN JAZZ

 



Ryan Keberle’s Collectiv do Brasil, Sonhos da Esquina
HONORABLE MENTION: Miguel Zenón, Música De Las Americas (Miel)


BEST VOCAL

Cecile McLorin Salvant, Ghost Song.
HONORABLE MENTION: Samara Joy, Linger Awhile


ARCHIVAL

 

 

Ahmad Jamal, Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse 1963-1964, 1965-1966 (Jazz Detective)

Mal Waldron, Searching in Grenoble: The 1978 Solo Piano Concert (Tompkins Square)

Charles Mingus, Mingus The Lost Album From Ronnie Scott’s (Resonance)

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)

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 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)



Our 100 Year Inheritance from Charlie Parker

 

 

Jimmy Cannon used the phrase “an American heirloom” to describe Babe Ruth. I like to think the same could be said for Charlie Parker, even if most Americans, know relatively little about him when compared with the “Sultan of Swat.” Both seemed supernatural phenomena who seemingly came out of nowhere, capable of leaving witnesses spellbound in the very different ways their profound sense of swing reshaped the air around them. Both had massive, seemingly insatiable appetites, living fast, playing hard, dying too soon, making indelible history in their respective art forms.

 

 

 



With the Bird, I think the legacy is even subtler than what you find on his recordings, which still can astound new listeners on first contact.

 

 



The tone is what shocks you before the tempest of invention all but overpowers your resistance. It is a bright, hard tone, shiny and serrated like sheet metal edgy enough to scratch any surface, supple enough to shape into any form, whether terrifyingly new or dreamily familiar.

 


The things that remarkable-on-its-own voice could do within the cramped space of a two-to-three-minute recording are what made its owner a near-divinity even in his brief lifetime. At any speed, in any context, Charlie Parker could fold into the narrowest blank space stream upon stream of inferences, wisecracks, mimicry, thematic variations and nonverbal poetry. I can imagine all those ex-servicemen who left for war at the end of the swing era and returned to hear this coming out of their 78-RPM players and thinking, as Parker and his combo created a whole new front end for “Cherokee” (“Ko-Ko”)  or “Embraceable You”, “He can do that? He can actually do all that?”

 

 

 

 

 

 


Springing outward like weeds from such questions were others that asked, “Should he do all that?” Critics as different from each other as Ralph Ellison and Phillip Larkin were adamant that he shouldn’t have. Sharing their corner were moldy figs of varied ages who echoed Emperor Joseph II’s sentiments in Amadeus when he told an astonished and infuriated Mozart that there were “too many notes” in his otherwise “ingenious” compositions. Louis Armstrong dissed what he famously labeled “Chinese music” a.k.a. bebop and many still blame jazz’s precipitous decline in widespread popularity on boppers like Bird, his “worthy constituent” Dizzy Gillespie and others for making music that made social dancing difficult, if not impossible. (My parents and their friends thought differently, and I know this because I saw them dancing to a Parker record as if it were just another of what were once labeled “pop platters.”)

 

 

 

 


Nevertheless, for true believers in the primacy – and the imperative — of improvisation, Charlie Parker was and is a secular god. Every virtuosic barrage of notes he emptied into space has been chased down, contained and examined on both masters and outtakes by obsessives of all ages and temperaments. The irrepressible Phil Schaap has for almost 30 years used morning airtime on New York’s WCKR-FM to provide detailed exegeses of every note Bird blew, even the wrong ones, if, in the minds of Parker cultists, there were such things.

 

 

 



Guys like Schaap existed even when Parker was alive and blowing, the most fanatical of these being Dean Benedetti, a saxophonist who followed Bird around with a wire recorder and stuck a microphone in front of Parker whenever he soloed. Those solos, and only those solos, were recorded and transcribed by Benedetti, who died in 1957 at 34, the same age as Parker did two years earlier. (The Benedetti recordings were released in 1988 and, even with the hi-tech production wizardry of Mosaic Records at work, they’re a strain to hear, but worth the trouble if you’re a true believer at the altar labeled “Bird Lives!”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


That Parker died so young and packed his brief life with as much density and turbulence as one of his solos (the coroner’s report put his age at 53, or so legend has it) is part of his everlasting mystery and magnetism. He did all that? you think when hearing his work. He actually did all that? Wave upon wave of surviving colleagues, younger acolytes, historians, musicologists and poets have struggled to explain how he did “all that.” Sooner or later, however perceptive or intuitive their engagement might be, all of them end up doing little more than projecting their own version of Bird to the point that there are many different Birds flying around the world. Early in my own such engagement, I always thought it was interesting to wander through Robert Reisner’s 1962 “oral biography” Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker and note how there seemed to be no two photos of him that looked exactly alike.

 

 

 


Stanley Crouch does plenty of his own projecting in 2013’s Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker mostly because there is so very little verifiable data on Parker’s early life that can be found despite Crouch’s valiant research. Still, this first of what is intended to be a two-volume biography rides towards its conclusion with as vivid and as persuasive an assessment of the Artist as a Young Man on the precipice of discovery as James Joyce’s own:


“Wherever he was in whatever room playing whatever horn whether owned by him or not, Charlie Parker was in a condition of confrontation. That was inevitable. By now he knew, deeper than his marrow, what all serious artists realize: that no matter how great and perfect a major creator is at a moment of sublime delivery, there are always limitations. No one person is perfect enough to conjure what another person feels as he tries to express what is inside. Parker…was beginning to realize that no established genius, however rough, tough, and dreamily hypnotic, could hear what he was hearing. Perhaps what he heard was actually his and his alone.”

If Charlie Parker is an heirloom, his inheritance encompasses  not only musicians but all who yearn to Play What They Hear, whether with paints and brushes, pencils and word processors, ballet slippers and soft floors, turntables and microphones. William Blake aside, the idea was never to Go to Extremes – and Parker would be the first to tell anybody who tried to follow his example that there were places he went that weren’t necessary to perform his miracles. Life, not Art made all that mess. Learning to negotiate the distinctions is part of the process and at some point, you are left with the beautiful mystery of his speed, power and lyricism. It’s enough.




 

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Discs for 2019

I’m not going to say this past year in jazz was stranger than any other. But my list is sure a surprise, at least to me.

I mean…just look at the top five…not just one, but two organ albums? Yes…and not only that, they were both different approaches to jazz organ, having little in common except some righteous tenor sax interaction and all-out commitment from their respective leaders. More on them later.

It makes me remember something told to me back in the 1980s by a very wise man named Jerry Gordon, founder and manager of Philadelphia’s hallowed and still much lamented Third Street Jazz: “There’s no middle ground on organs. People either love them or they don’t.” Jerry would know since Philadelphia has a legitimate claim to being “the jazz organ capital of the world” and indeed, one of the organists on this list has deep Philly roots, deeper even than those of Sun Ra, another organ player who called Philadelphia home and whose massive, unparalleled body of work Jerry would later help curate for Evidence Records.

If anybody occupied Jerry’s nonexistent middle, I was sure it was me, even if I could never avoid such music because as far as my dad was concerned, organ jazz was Dah Joint. This was especially true in the 1960s when he was looking for something to make the rec room jump at odd hours of the night. Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Groove Holmes, Charles Earland, Shirley Scott…those were all his peeps, his boon pals and drinking buddies. Not that I didn’t jump up and down to Jimmy Smith by my own self in those years, but I had so many more outlets for musical comfort and joy. So “love,” as Jerry characterized it, had little to do with it.

Still, as much as Dad would find the basic trappings cozy and familiar, I can’t say for sure whether he’d be able to hang long with these two organ albums. They swing hard, but they also aim high. As much as he liked to jump, Dad likely wouldn’t want to go as high as these two albums. As I say, more on them later.

I suppose that having jazz organ front center aligned somehow with a need I had from jazz and from culture in general to go hard and aim directly at the heart of things. The music that grabbed me the most this past year didn’t dwell on stuff too much, but showed commitment, energy and drive. In plain terms, these albums all followed the ancient bandleader’s imperative to “Hit It!” And that was enough for me.

There was too much else to think about this past year – and also not a whole lot of thinking to go with it. So, if passion was there to be had, my sense of things was that it had better be engaged, tough and above all smart to know where it was going and how it wanted things said and done.

So, let’s hit this!

 

 

 

1.) Etienne Charles, Carnival: The Sound of a People, Vol. 1 (Culture Shock) – I like gumbo. No, I don’t. I love gumbo. I especially love it when its ingredients are scraped, plucked, dug up, mashed, dashed and liberally strewn into the pot with seeming abandon, but also – and always – with instincts homed in on what combinations will at once surprise, awaken and enchant the senses. Charles, a trumpet tyro from Trinidad, has made it his business to collect musical seasonings and spices from all over the Caribbean to create mind-body release music redolent of their cultural origins while intent on illuminating the region’s complex history. His previous work, including 2013’s Creole Soul and 2017’s San Jose Suite, gave off rushes and thrills while disclosing the calculation and intelligence behind them. On Charles’ full-bore inquiry into the festival music of his native land, the erudition isn’t as conspicuous, but the eclecticism is. And the rush invigorates from the jump as an on-site recording of Trinidadian street musicians laying down a rollicking, swiveling beat is amped up by some slash-and-burn post-bop inventions of Charles, also saxophonist Brian Hogans pianist James Francies, guitarist Alex Wintz, percussionist D’Achee and drummer Obed Calvaire and others. David Sanchez adds his agile tenor sax to the simmering pot on other tracks and the leader himself kicks in some percussive support, even a cowbell, to the proceedings. This is the enrapturing and beautiful album one long suspected Charles is capable of delivering and maybe the best part of the whole deal is that this is only “Vol. 1.” Here’s my bowl. More, please.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2.) James Carter Organ Trio, Live from Newport Jazz (Blue Note) – It’s been almost twenty years since Carter, a fire-breathing, bottom-voiced avatar of croon-and-holler saxophone, last took a deep dive into the repertoire of gypsy guitar legend Django Reinhardt. And it’s been almost ten years since he’s released an album of any kind. As if to remind us of what we’ve been missing, Carter audaciously re-engages with Reinhardt’s music and brings along his power backup of organist Gerald Gibbs and drummer Alex White. Thus, two raucous traditions – the red-hot “jazz manouche” of 1930s-1940s Parisian bars and the smoky-blue hardbop of 1950s-1960s uptown nightclubs – were in each other’s arms at Carter’s 2018 Newport Jazz Festival appearance and the clinch proved intoxicating, even transformative. Unlike 2000’s Chasin’ the Gypsy, Carter’s not here to pay homage, but to revitalize such Reinhardt chestnuts as “Le Manoir De Mes Reves,” “Anouman” and “Melodie Au Crepuscule” with soulful strutting and hard-rock shouting. The trio opens “Crepuscule” with a grinding vamp borrowed from Bill Withers’ “Use Me,” drawing the crowd to their side and keeping it in their pocket with Gibbs’ spirited riffing and Carter’s bait-and-switch inventions. While Carter can still blow the doors off any nearby building with his sky-scraping honks, bleats and wails, his deep tone on tenor, alto and soprano sax is supple and lustrous at any tempo or altitude. The smoldering, bewitching variations he makes on “Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure” induce both terror and awe and apply a diamond-hard exclamation point to this triumph for Carter, for Newport and for tradition, wherever it can be salvaged and recombined.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3.) Branford Marsalis Quartet, The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul (Marsalis Music) – Through the years, nay, decades he and his family have held presumptive dominion over the national jazz discourse, Branford has always been my favorite Marsalis grumpy-pants: testy, feisty, dryly funny and brazenly confrontational with his peers over what jazz music really is and what the public really wants from it. Whether in dispute or agreement with his tirades, I’ve often found them livelier than his music, however solidly crafted and polished in presentation. There’s been no doubt that he and his bandmates – pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner – have as keen a rapport with each other and with their audience as any working combo. But there hasn’t been a full-blown album that evokes what this rapport can achieve at its best. Until now. Something about this one pulls hard on your coat and ramps up the unit’s commitment and drive. Every member brought their A-game for this session to the point where it’s hard to single out, say, Calderazzo’s sweet, steady-rolling changes on his pieces “Cianna” and “Conversations Among The Ruins,” or Revis’ combustible compositions, “Dance of the Evil Toys” and “Nilaste.” Faulkner, the relative newbie in the group, contains and advances the apparatus with a fiercely applied command of weight and balance belying his youth. And the leader seems more locked in than usual, playing with blazing verve and urgency that enhance his habitual ingenuity. To get the full impact of this group’s high-spirited interaction, you need only listen to its exuberant rendition of Keith Jarrett’s “Windup” that, appropriately, brings this set home. Many moons ago, Marsalis showed his drolly churlish side speaking of Jarrett’s own prickly-pear personality, insisting even then that he had nothing whatsoever against Jarrett’s music, proving that even the hardest-shelled curmudgeons can call upon their generosity when properly inspired.

 

 

 

 

 

 

4.) Abdullah Ibrahim, The Balance (Gearbox) – At 85, South Africa’s greatest living jazz artist finds himself deep in the winter of…not discontent exactly, but of wistfulness that stops just short of melancholy. His piano still dances with as much command of space and time as it ever did. But it now takes its time, forsaking much of the whirling-dervish momentum of Ibrahim’s youth with a more deliberate pace that nonetheless resolutely forsakes caution. The sepulchral mood of “Dreamtime” at first throws you off. But as soon as his seven-piece band Ekaya kicks in full gear on “Jabula”, Ibrahim gets frisky enough with the beat to let you know he’s nowhere near ready to slip into the shadows. He remains as open to riding the rugged and unfamiliar in rhythmic combinations as he ever was and as moving as his performance is of “Song for Sathima,” the paean he wrote for his late wife, vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin, there’s a grand and open-hearted spirit to the recital that envelops multitudes. Now more than ever, it’s possible to hear — and feel — what got Duke Ellington all het up when he first heard the Artist Formerly Known as Dollar Brand (a name he still uses on the cover of this one, though not as prominently).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5.) Joey DeFrancesco, In the Key of the Universe (Mack Avenue) – When I first saw him as a student at Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School, he was still “Joe DeFrancesco” pounding the hell out of an acoustic piano as if his life depended on it. (The kid playing electric bass behind him was then known as “Chris McBride.” As you’ve heard, his grown-up self is likewise better known under another first name.) Joey went on to follow in his dad’s footsteps on the Hammond B-3 and became keeper of the jazz-organ tradition. This album takes his talents to an unexpected direction and, as much as I’d detected way back in his prodigy period, he seems to be going all-out on this one, using all his considerable resources to probe the mystical and spiritual realms explored by African American jazz artists of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He even brought along Pharaoh Sanders, one of the key figures of that movement, to sit in on a couple of tracks, and damned if the 79-year-old Sanders doesn’t sound here as nimble and propulsive as he did in his “Karma” period. (He even takes the late Leon Thomas’ role in singing the lyrics to “The Creator Has a Master Plan.”) DeFrancesco’s regular saxophonist Troy Roberts plays with similar force and grace and it’s always a treat to hear Billy Hart on drums with Sammy Figueroa ably in support on percussion. But as usual, it’s the leader you can’t wait to hear whether he’s vamping and swinging with deceptive ease, comping with dexterity or surging through the changes with near-demonic energy – though on second thought, “near-demonic” (a compound I think I used when I first wrote about him in his middle school days) is an inappropriate characterization for such a spiritually-based enterprise. Bright moments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

6.) Miguel Zenón, Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera (Miel) –– Rivera (1931-1987), also known as “Maelo” or “El Sonero Mayor,” was a genius of salsa singing, a master of antiphonal improvisations spinning choruses within, through and above choruses with such groups as Los Cachimbos and Cortijo y su Combo, table-setters for bomba and plena genres. This makes him an inevitable and fertile subject of inquiry for Zenón, who has dedicated himself to framing and extending the motifs to his native land’s pop music with modern jazz motifs. Once again, Zenon, pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole find fresh, ingenious and uplifting possibilities from their source material without in any way mitigating its subtle graces. Their effervescent interaction is bracing at any pace, whether in the somber dirge “Las Tumbas” or in the rough-and-tumble “El Negro Bembón” with its rapid-fire quintuplets. As effectively as the rhythm section tamps down each eccentric shift in tempo throughout the album, it’s Zenón’s alto saxophone, by turns fiery and elegiac, that most enraptures in conspicuously, appropriately assuming lead vocals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7.) Steve Lehman Trio with Craig Taborn, The People I Love (PI) – Put an intense maximalist like alto saxophonist Lehman together with a dedicated minimalist like pianist Taborn and you get…well, is “harmony” the word we’re aiming for here? Probably not since the word assumes they meld with their personalities fully intact. Their give-and-take on “In Calam & Ynnus” suggests at the very least a mutual affinity for ripping stuff apart and slamming the distended shapes back together into odd, but logical coherence. Lehman’s facility for rapid-fire riffing is taken up by Taborn, who is willing to fade their discourse out and let Taborn carry the rest of their colloquy home. Here, even more than on his previous albums, Lehman’s bright, bristly tone proves adaptable to a variety of contexts, whether it’s Autechre (“qPlay”) or Kenny Kirkland (“Chance”). He seems most empowered by a burner like Kurt Rosenwinkel’s “A Shifting Design,” where he, Taborn, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damion Reid weave into each other’s embroideries so well that you can’t always tell who’s keeping time. (All of them. likely.) This, to me, is the warmest, sunniest album yet from Lehman and, for that matter, from Taborn. Once again, I’m hoping for seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8.) Nicholas Payton, Relaxin’ with Nick (Smoke Sessions) – As a colleague said to me the other day, Payton may not appreciate being on this list at all, given his contempt for the word “jazz.” He prefers the acronym, “BAM” for “Black American Music” to define what he does. As if to drive the point home, the album includes his composition, “Jazz is a Four-Letter Word,” inspired by the title of Max Roach’s unpublished autobiography and if you want to know what he and Payton mean, the late drummer’s recorded voice is there to explain, both in full and in sampled bits. It’s one of the highlights of this two-disc live trio recording, an unvarnished triumph of multi-tasking as the one-time trumpet prodigy proves himself to be a master of acoustic and electronic keyboards, capable of even comping his horn solos, which are as powerful, vibrant and pulsing with narrative energy as ever. (His singing of “Othello” and “When I Fall In Love” isn’t as masterly, but his downy phrasing suggests he’s on to something nonetheless.) One suspects he’d try being his own rhythm section someday. But at least for this laid-back marathon session, he is fortunate to have bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington at his back. They’re not related to each other, but share years of veteran savvy, impeccable timing and implacable focus. As with the Marsalises, Payton isn’t shy about courting controversy and he has in like fashion used whatever rancor he arouses as fuel for his forward progress. However you feel about his pugnacity, he’s at peace with it – and you should be, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

9.) Wadada Leo Smith, Rosa Parks: Pure Love (TUM) – The peerless and, at 77, apparently tireless Smith previously paid tribute to Rosa Parks and the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott seven years earlier in his epochal opus Ten Freedom Summers. He takes what he characterizes as the boycott’s “381 Days of Fire” and unfurls from its core an oratorio in Parks’ honor with seven songs, three singers (Min Xiao-Fen, Carmina Escobar, Karen Parks), a string quartet, a brass trio (including Smith’s trumpet), two percussionists and some electronic sound mixing. Smith also augments this blend with excerpts from recordings he made about fifty years before with fellow “creative music” insurrectionists Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins and Steve McCall. The music may not be “easy,” but its message is elemental: a plea for simple justice in the face of fear and loathing. Not to put too fine a point on this, but given the imperatives of the present day, such a testament would be worth the investment of those who are closest to you – and especially those who aren’t.

 

 

 

 

 

 

10.) Paolo Fresu, Richard Galliano, Jan Lundgren, Mare Nostrum III (ACT) – One of the treasures of European jazz has put out three gorgeous albums in more than a decade and still aren’t as famous as they should be on these shores for emitting some of the most transfixing sounds on the planet. The great Galliano (as I’ve come to call him, mostly because it sounds cool) remains a formidable paragon on the accordion and related gadgets. But what’s become apparent over time is how he’s made his virtuosity merge so seamlessly with Fresu’s plangent horn and Lundgren’s dulcet keyboard. They collectively merge their distinctive voices so as to now seem to speak as one delicate, riveting entity. Both the familiar (“Windmills of Your Mind,” “Love Theme from ‘The Getaway’”) and the not-so-familiar (Lundgren’s “Ronneby,” Galliano’s “Letter to My Mother,” and Fresu’s “Human Requiem”) are rendered in short takes, densely packed with rich melodic invention and tightly contained passion. Some might dismiss it all as “pretty,” but you can pass by “pretty” with ease. These guys make the kind of terrifyingly beautiful music that stops you in your tracks if you’re not careful.

 

 

 

 

HONORABLE MENTION : Steve Davis, Correlations (Smoke Sessions), Anat Fort Trio, Colour (Sunnyside), Matthew Shipp Trio, Signature (ESP)
Ed Palermo Big Band, A Lousy Day in Harlem (Sky Cat), Anat Cohen Tentet, Triple Helix (Anzic)Toni Freestone Trio, El Mar de Nubes (Whirlwind)
Fabian Almazan Trio, This Land Abounds with Life (Biophilia)

 

 

 

 

 

BEST VOCAL ALBUM
Catherine Russell, Alone Together (Dot Time)

HONORABLE MENTION; Annie Addington, “In a Midnight Wind” (Annie Addington) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BEST LATIN ALBUM: Miguel Zenón, Sonero

HONORABLE MENTION: Guillermo Klein & Los Guachos, Cristal (Sunnyside)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BEST HISTORIC ALBUM
Eric Dolphy, Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions (Resonance)
Stan Getz, Getz at the Gate: The Stan Getz Quartet Live at the Village Gate, Nov. 26, 1961 (Verve)
Gerald Cleaver & Violet Hour, Live at F1rehouse 12 (Sunnyside)

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Discs for 2018

It was the kind of year when the biggest, most-talked-about release in recorded jazz was a compilation of takes and outtakes from fifty-five years ago. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Both Directions At Once at or near the top of some reviewers’ lists for best new album since its 1963 sessions by the John Coltrane Quartet had never before seen the proverbial light of day. The album doesn’t appear on this list, and I’ve already suggested why it won’t. Still it was the kind of marketing triumph rarely seen in jazz music, pulling in a big, broad spectrum of listeners. Some older jazz heads told me Both Directions drew bigger crowds than Coltrane did when he was still alive – which sounds more than plausible.

Even with my misgivings, it was hard not to be caught up in the excitement Both Directions At Once aroused among listeners, especially those who weren’t yet born when Coltrane died in 1967. Yet along with the excitement there was also a melancholy acknowledgment that Back Then aint the same as the Here & Now. Hearing the Coltrane quartet at a time when some of its greatest breakthroughs were just ahead reminded you that those early-to-mid-1960s were an era of expanding horizons and greater possibility.

And now? To paraphrase something one of my peers told me earlier in the year, we once lived in a time of transcendent, boundary-breaching improvisers. Now we live in an era awash in very-good-to-great players working well and even nobly within the standards set by giants. Every once in a while, one of them spins you around by making a sound you never heard before. (Number 4 on this list has been doing this since she emerged only a few years ago.) But maybe Gary Giddins was right when he wrote back in 1983 about the emergence of the Marsalis brothers and their contemporaries, “My intuition is that innovation isn’t this generation’s fate.”

After almost forty years have passed and at least a couple more of waves of musicians have emerged, Giddins’ assessment still sounds prescient, at least as far as improvisers are concerned. But there are other ways to be innovative. Throughout this period of revision and retrenchment, some of our most interesting jazz artists have devoted their energies to creating or, in Wynton Marsalis’s case, refreshing contexts for jazz’s presentation, whether by expanding the music’s canon through jazz repertory or providing broader frameworks for presenting the music. Maybe you bring choirs along as part of your equipment, as Kamasi Washington does, or revise conventional horns-rhythm-section stagecraft as the late Max Roach once suggested – and as artists such as Esperanza Spaulding have been doing. It’s the same kind of musical nation-building that Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Art Blakey and Betty Carter used to do with their outfits and I’d like to believe that from these revised contexts, more than a few musicians will emerge and make all our heads spin the way John Coltrane once did, and still does.

Or…I could be wrong. Anyway, here’s my list and I’m sticking with it:

 

 

 

 

1.) Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (The Embedded Sets) (PI) – In Coleman’s previous appearances on this list, I’ve described what he and his band are doing as an ongoing quasi-scientific inquiry into what he characterizes as biological processes, but are in reality groove dynamics and harmonic montage. The studio work has yielded encouraging and often earth-shaking results. But in a live setting, especially within the concave confines of jazz music’s Holy Dive, everything the band does seems ramped up in intensity as if having live witnesses to its experiments goads Coleman, Jonathan Finlayson, Miles Okazaki, Anthony Tidd and Sean Rickman to raise their respective games. The overlapping dialogue between Coleman’s scorching alto sax and Finlayson’s slashing trumpet seems more colorfully serpentine on stage while the worlds-within-worlds polyrhythmic drive provided by bassist Tidd and drummer Rickman yanks you into the music’s molten core and Okasaki’s guitar sets off well-timed compression bombs. If your head can move to this group’s percolating dramatic tension – and it should – your body will eventually follow.

 

 

 

 

 

2.) Wayne Shorter, Emanon (Blue Note) – This just in: THE MULTIVERSE EXISTS! If you doubt this, and you do so at your peril, you need to find the nearest available copy of The 3 Marias, a “prestigious publication” dominating a “one world reality” known as Logokrisia. Failing that, you’ll just have to trust this one-of-a-kind artifact springing from the teeming brain of a comic-book nerd from Newark who grew up to become, among (many) other things, one of this year’s Kennedy Center honorees. This combination of graphic novel and three-disc collection is a multiverse you can carry around the house or, if invited to do so, somebody else’s. The title, which is “no name” spelled backwards , owes its origins to a Dizzy Gillespie tune and is given to the novel’s mystical superhero. Described by Shorter and co-author Monica Sly as a “rogue philosopher,” this Emanon travels from dimension to dimension to subdue fear and oppression in all its forms and replace them with knowledge and wisdom. The real mystery and suspense come with the music performed on the three discs by Shorter and his comparably intrepid sidekicks, pianist Danilo Perez, drummer Brian Blade and bassist John Pattitucci, spinning off motifs, ideas and even characters from the comic book (“Pegasus,” “The 3 Marias,” “Prometheus Unbound” etc.) The first installment has the quartet deploying its customary allusive interplay in tandem with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. At times the combination sounds like the soundtrack to a cryptic SF movie spectacular. But then, almost all of Shorter’s compositions, going as far back as such grandly-conceived classics as 1965’s The All-Seeing Eye and ahead towards such underrated pastels as 1985’s Atlantis (where “The 3 Marias” first appeared) and 1995’s High Life, are soundtracks to movies whose stories would be too inscrutable for Hollywood to attempt. The quartet carries on its sporadic, probing conversations on the other two discs, whose content is culled from a live London concert. Some listeners have complained that the music seems more tentative than they expected as a definitive statement from the greatest living jazz composer. (We’ll argue that latter clause some other time.) But it all sounds pretty definitive to me, coming as it does from somebody whose teenage nicknames were “Mr. Gone” and “Mr. Weird.” Listen to this music often enough and you’ll find that its secrets aren’t meant to be deciphered; only appreciated on their own slippery, shadowy terms.

 

 

 

 

3.) Charlie Haden & Brad Mehldau, Long Ago and Far Away (Impulse!) – Up until his death in 2014, bassist Haden was always up for melding minds with other individual seekers of beauty and truth. This colloquy, recorded in 2007 at a jazz festival in Mannheim, Germany, may not be perfect (since nothing is), but it is gorgeous in the affecting manner of an early winter sunset or a lingering over-the-shoulder pivot towards a onetime lover you’re certain of never seeing again. Haden knew a fellow romantic sensibility when he met one and Mehldau found in Haden’s generosity of spirit a warm, safe haven for his vagabond lyricism and bold phraseology. The playlist is pure classic standard, from “Au Private” to “Everything Happens to Me,” both of whose steady-as-she-goes renditions here would have made Charlie Parker smile. But what would have caused Bird to sit up straight with wide eyes are Mehldau’s variations within each chord change; sometimes they swirl and tumble onto a different path while at other times they imperturbably ride with whatever tangent Haden discovers along the melody’s surface. These collaborators bring out each other’s richest conceptual contours in such ballads as “What’ll I Do” and a Haden favorite, “My Love and I,” David Raksin’s love theme from the 1954 movie “Apache,” within whose bridge Mehldau shakes loose some of his most stunning inventions, expansive yet firmly tethered to the song’s pulse. Haden has always shown a special watchfulness in piano duets. This one is most remarkable for disclosing many things we either didn’t know, or merely suspected, about Mehldau’s resourcefulness. And, as another entry on this list will attest, we’ve come to know a lot more by now.

 

 

 

 

 

4.) Cecile McLoren Salvant, The Window (Mack Avenue) – She can neither be stopped nor contained by anybody’s marketplace; nor is she in any way daunted by having to immediately follow the most breathtaking and ambitious jazz vocal album of this century. She takes a heady gamble on this one by relying mostly on a single accompanist: pianist Sullivan Fortner, who is as formidable a dramatist with his instrument as she is with hers. Her inflections provide well-timed cues for his embellishments and fusillades. Granted, there are times when their respective strengths almost collide, most notably on that Bernstein-Sondheim rouser, “Somewhere,” when their attacks at different ends of the song threaten to shortchange its impact and even confuse their listeners. But even when they threaten to go too far, they end up creating something you haven’t heard before – and won’t mind hearing again. She’s still at the top of her game and, more definitively, her profession. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I’m talking about her again in this space a year from now. I expect to be surprised by what she chooses to do next.

 

 

 

 

 

5.) Charles Lloyd & The Marvels + Lucinda Williams, Vanished Gardens (Blue Note) – “We all play folk music,” Thelonious Monk once told Bob Dylan. Accordingly, this smoke-cured aggregation of laments, dirges and secular prayers lofted towards what we cringe to regard as Present Day Reality feels very much like the album Dylan would release if he believed now was the time to try more jazz with his blues. Led by tenor saxophonist Lloyd, who at 80 seems to be (in Dylan-speak) a lot younger than he was in his Forest Flower period of the 1960s, guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Eric Harland and steel guitarist Greg Leisz concoct a spectral blend of American musical java that soothes and jolts at odd hours of the day. Williams, in my judgment, has never had more suitable backup for her leathery vocals, whether on original songs such as “Ventura” or “Unsuffer Me” or on Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel” on which you’re tempted to imagine an alternate reality where he lived long enough to accompany her. (Maybe Wayne Shorter, or Emanon, can find one.) Still wondering why “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” is an instrumental, but they (whichever [sic] “they” are) may know something I don’t.

 

 

 

 

6.) Joshua Redman, Still Dreaming (Nonesuch) – Jazz needs another tribute album the way I need another Bush, Clinton or Trump to run for president. But this feels far more like an urgent personal testament than yet another solemn salaam to a past master. It’s a tribute, perhaps foremost, to Redman’s father, which also makes it a homage to the Old and New Dreams band that featured Dewey Redman on tenor, Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums. And because that group was formed as a kind of early exemplar of an Ornette Coleman repertory band, the younger Redman, Ron Miles, Scott Colley and Brian Blade are taking on the respective roles of the aforementioned (now departed) players, but in their own voices and on their own terms. Thus, these four guys aren’t paying homage so much as paying renewed attention to a state of mind, a manner of behaving well under pressure and a means of stretching the collective unconscious. There is one piece each by Haden (“Playing”) and Coleman (“Comme Il Faut”). Yet most of the compositions are originals by Colley and Redman, the latter of whom, despite the fearsome range displayed in his previous recordings, shows sweet affinity with the serrated rhythmic patterns and riff extensions of the older band. It’s hardly a secret that all was not well between the elder Redman and his son in the former’s lifetime. But the peaceful feeling one gets listening to these tracks suggests a more intimate, profoundly deeper peace fully achieved within a tumultuous heritage of undaunted dream weavers.

 

 

 

 

 

7.) Brad Mehldau Trio, Seymour Reads the Constitution (Nonesuch) – To get the obvious out of the way, yes, I was intrigued, though mildly disappointed to find out that the title tune refers to a dream Mehldau had wherein the thirsty-grizzly voice of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman was reading the Constitution to him. But it wasn’t the only reason I couldn’t keep this disc out of my player for most of the calendar year. By now, the things Mehldau has done to stretch possibilities of the piano trio format have become part of the music’s turn-of-the-century heroic folklore. But what keeps us attentive to Mehldau and his longtime partners Larry Grenadier (on bass) and Jeff Ballard (on drums) is their expansion of jazz’s repertoire, either by broadening the definition of “classic pop” (Brian Wilson’s “Friends,” Paul McCartney’s “Great Day”) or by prying open fresh approaches to modernist standards, especially Sam Rivers’ evergreen “Beatrice,” whose natural bounce is refreshed here with insouciance and ingenuity. To his own compositions, Spiral” and “Ten Tune,” Mehldau brings deeper harmonic invention and tonal progressions that reflect the abiding influences of both Bach and Brahms. Somehow, Mehldau has softened his intensity without losing his edge and still stands out among a prodigious — and increasingly crowded — pack of great jazz pianists.

 

 

 

 

8.) Christian McBride’s New Jawn (Mack Avenue) – “Jawn” is Philly-speak for…well, I suppose if a definition of a noun is person, place or thing, then “jawn” is another word for “noun,” though I always took it as a Del-Val variant of “joint.” In any event, I don’t think McBride’s piano-less quartet necessarily qualifies as a “new thing,” which for jazz heads of earlier generations was a euphemism for what was considered avant-garde from roughly 1959 till 1971. In fact, there’s something bracingly familiar in this joint’s blend of freewheeling neo-bop and nimble rhythm machinery. Trumpeter Josh Evans and saxophonist Marcus Strickland let fly with seeming abandon while staying grounded to the shifting pocket of percussion lad down by drummer Nasheet Watts and the bassist-leader, who despite his growing reputation as an eminence-gris on his instrument still comes across as the young tyro breaking loose from Philadelphia’s storied Settlement Music School. And perhaps what’s most gratifying about a small ensemble such as this is that it provides an ideal showcase for hearing what McBride has learned and can teach as a musician and a leader.

 

 

 

 

9.) Eddie Henderson, Be Cool (Smoke Sessions) – Let me tell you about Eddie Henderson because his is one of the most remarkable jazz-life stories you probably never heard. First of all, it’s Doctor Eddie Henderson, having earned a medical degree from Howard University in 1968 four years after earning a B.S. in zoology from Cal-Berkeley in 1964. His general practice came in pretty handy in the years after he’d recorded with Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi electro-boogie band in the early 1970s. Oh, and before all that happened, he took his first trumpet lesson with Louis Armstrong at age nine. This was in large part because he came from Harlem entertainment royalty since his mother was a Cotton Club dancer and his father was a singer whose 1957 cover of “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” was a million-seller. If that sounds like too much to take in at once, then we’ll make this long story short by saying that Dr. Henderson continued to practice general medicine while playing, recording and touring all over the world. This latest album of polished hard bop, backed by solid gold players such as pianist Kenny Barron, alto saxophonist Donald “Big Chief” Harrison, bassist Essiet Essiet and drummer Mike Clark, comes across as the closest thing to a musical autobiography Henderson has put forth so far. Its selections pay homage to players who have inspired and nurtured him throughout his long career whether it’s Hancock (“Toys”), Coltrane (“Naima”), and fellow trumpeters Woody Shaw (“The Moontrane”) and Miles Davis (his take on “Fran Dance” just misses equaling Davis’ dry-witted studio rendition from 1958, but that’s OK because Miles never quite matched it either and Henderson’s comes closer than he did). But what boosts this testament towards rare air is its approach to that stout old warhorse, “After You’ve Gone.” Most interpretations play that Tin Pan Alley ditty as a briskly paced taunt. Henderson, however, goes against the grain and slows the tempo, turning what’s popularly recognized as a jolly anthem of comeuppance into a wistful rumination on loss. I forgot to mention: Henderson turned 78 last October and is still gigging, recording, broadening his musical horizons and, for all I know, available for consultation.

 

 

 

 

10.) Noah Baerman Resonance Ensemble, The Rock & The Redemption (RMI) – The notion of a jazz suite devoted to the myth of Sisyphus seems so obvious that you wonder why it hasn’t happened before now. (Albert Murray, the late philosopher king of swing, had to have at least sketched out an idea of Sisyphus as the first blues hero…somewhere.) It’s likely that the idea was waiting to land on someone like Baerman, a keyboardist-composer who teaches at Wesleyan University and has struggled his entire life with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, an incurable malady that affects connective tissue. As one can imagine, the disorder has tempted Baerman to walk away from playing music, but he has gone on and in doing so, found communion with the dogged Sisyphus, whose labors to roll a boulder up a slippery slope are duly honored with an 11-part piece blending funk, gospel, hard bop and (of course) blues. Baerman’s Resonance Ensemble provides formidable support for this tribute to perseverance: Kris Allen on reeds, Chris Dingman on vibraphone, Henry Lugo on bass, Bill Carbone on drums and vocal support from cellist Melanie Hsu, Garth Taylor, Latanya Farrell and the late Claire Randall, whose murder at age 26 a year after this 2015 recording session became yet another painful marker on the slippery, treacherous slope of day-to-day existence. Her presence here is part of the bittersweet gift this enterprise bestows on those of us who wake up every day with a boulder in front of us, still standing wherever we left it the day before. The way I see it – and maybe Noah does, too – the rock mocks us, but in doing so, its presence reminds us that we’re still alive. And pushing.

 

 

 

 

 

HONORABLE MENTION: Orrin Evans and the Captain Black Big Band (Smoke Sessions) Andrew Cyrille, Lebroba (ECM); Luciana Souza, The Book of Longing (Sunnyside); Renee Rosnes, Beloved of the Sky (Smoke Sessions); Jeremy Pelt, Live in Paris (High Note); Fred Hersch Trio, Live in Europe (Palmetto); Don Byron & Aruán Ortiz, Random Dances and (A)tonalties (Intakt); Ambrose Akinmusire, Original Harvest (Blue Note); Dave Holland, Uncharted Territories (Dare2); Matthew Shipp Quartet Featuring Mat Walerian, Sonic Fiction (ESP Disk); Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth (Young Turk)

 

 

 

 

HISTORICAL/ARCHIVAL/REISSUE, ETC.
1.) Frank Sinatra, Only The Lonely (Capitol)
2.) Keith Jarrett, La Fenice (ECM)
3.) Miles Davis & John Coltrane, The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6 (Columbia/Legacy)

 

 

 

 

LATIN ALBUM

David Virelles, Igbó Alákoran (The Singer’s Grove) Vol. I & II (PI)

HONORABLE MENTION: Ruben Blades, Wynton Marsalis & Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Una Noche Con Ruben Blades (Blue Engine)

 

 

 

 

 

VOCAL
Cecile McLorin Salvant, The Window
HONORABLE MENTION: Luciana Souza, The Book of Longing

DEBUT
Arianna Neikrug, Changes (Concord)

“Both Directions At Once”: A Window, A Pathway or Just Another Day at the Office?

 

 

 

John Coltrane will have been with the ancestors for fifty-one years this month. Yet he remains jazz’s toughest act to follow. Many people, not all of them fans, insist that jazz history stopped moving when Coltrane’s heart stopped beating in a Long Island hospital on July 17, 1967. Even those who were mystified, if not altogether alienated by Coltrane’s headlong voyages beyond the stratospheric boundaries of tone and invention acknowledged him as a bellwether for whatever would happen next for the music. His death at just 40 years old seemed to signal that there would be no more “next,” only whatever happened before.

So it’s hardly a wonder that a large crowd gathers whenever somebody uncovers Coltrane music that nobody’s heard on record before. They all swarmed four years before when a 1966 concert of Coltrane’s second, most experimental quartet was packaged and released to the public as Offering: Live at Temple University (Impulse!/Resonance). Though it was unavailable for digital downloads, Offering was at or near the top of the Billboard jazz charts for several weeks. My guess is that a majority of those purchasers were just as confounded by the music at that concert as they were by such late-period Coltrane LPs as Kulu Sé Mama, Expression, Meditations and Interstellar Space (about which more later). But its success affirmed what now seems an everlasting attraction to John Coltrane as karmic messenger; it’s as though we’ve all agreed that somewhere in Trane’s legacy there’s something we’re missing and we need only pay close attention when another such discovery is made.

Hence the buzz and jubilation surrounding this month’s release of Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album (Impulse!). These are never-before-released recordings of a March 6, 1963 studio session with Coltrane and his “classic quartet” of pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison. The set, recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s legendary studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., includes several takes of Coltrane’s “Impressions,” the standard he’d built using the same harmonic baseline as Miles Davis’ “So What” on 1959’s epoch-making Kind of Blue. (Ashley Kahn’s typically informative liner notes mention that Trane himself wrote “So What” on the box holding the “Impressions” tapes.) There’s also a three-minute-plus take on “Nature Boy” and a couple of versions of “One Up, One Down” (not to be confused with “One Down, One Up,” which the quartet delivered with stunning abandon in a February1965 live broadcast at the Half Note previously released as part of a 2005 bootleg).

To me, the most fascinating of this “found” album’s storylines involves “Untitled Original 11386” (again, not to be confused with “Untitled Original 11383,” a hard-driving blues piece that opens the two-disc package and isn’t heard from again, even though you wish you could). It’s one of the quartet’s more buoyant riff extensions and it exemplifies the principal pleasure offered by this release: Listening to each member of this exemplary group interact, enhance and add to each other’s contribution whether it’s Jones’ loping and rolling combinations (especially when it’s just his trap set and Trane’s soprano doing a pas de deux), Tyner’s unobtrusive, yet bracing comps and Garrison’s sleek, powerful lines. Not that anybody needed to be reminded of this quartet’s pre-eminence above all others in its time, but even the minor glories of this session seem especially portentous given what would from this point on prove to be the group’s most productive and illuminating period (the Johnny Hartman sessions were a day away, the Birdland performances would be recorded in just seven months and the following year would yield the near-blinding sunburst that was A Love Supreme.)

 

 

 

 

Sonny Rollins’ vivid encomium for this package, “This is like finding a new room in the great pyramid,” encapsulates every fan’s enthusiasm for Both Directions At Once. Still, while it’s only proper to have Rollins’ benediction on such an auspicious occasion and though I yield to no human in my devotion to the Colossus, I don’t think there are any startling discoveries to be found here regarding Coltrane’s genius. Beyond the renewed appreciation for the workaday brilliance of the quartet, of which there can never be enough examples (and is, by itself, no small virtue), I think the revelations of this disc have less to do with Trane and more to do with how jazz music used to produce both accessibility and adventure with both assurance and fortitude. The modal innovations pioneered and expanded by Coltrane have become so commonplace in jazz that it becomes easy to forget how exhilarating and easy to love its themes were.

Moreover, I think that when many listeners, whether jazz aficionados or not, embrace this music, they are consciously or not cleaving to a moment in time just before Coltrane decided to accelerate his inquiries into deeper, wider possibilities. Put less charitably, it’s at or near the spot where even the most devoted and forbearing listeners said “Adios” to Trane as he soared headlong into what they believed were impenetrable regions of tonal and rhythmic chaos.

 

 

 

So while I’m hoping that this “lost album” re-galvanizes the faithful while indoctrinating new generations to this quartet’s glories, I’d also commend all these listeners to use this occasion to slide over to where Coltrane began to press the edges of the envelope. I’m referring to 1965’s Ascension, the polyphonic freeform ensemble piece that joins Coltrane, Jones, Tyner and Garrison with such avatars of what used to be called “The New Thing” as saxophonists Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Marion Brown, John Tchicai and the enigmatic trumpeter Dewey Johnson, who played alongside Freddie Hubbard here and never recorded again. Those non-indoctrinated or hostile to free jazz hear nothing but random chaos in this piece. But if you pay attention from the start, you find that the whole sprawling, intermittently surging work can be viewed as the picaresque adventures of a five-note phrase – well, four notes actually since one of them is repeated. But try to keep up with that phrase throughout and you may find that while the whole apparatus seems to take you all over the place, it can also keep you centered in surprising ways. Which I’ve always suspected were Coltrane’s intentions all along.

 

 

 

 

If that trip seems in any way fruitful, then I’d recommend you jump ahead several albums and two more years to Interstellar Space, released by Impulse a year after Coltrane’s death and which has thus been called “the final masterpiece” by The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings. This is by no means a consensus opinion, given the many listeners who can’t get past the wailing, keening tone of Coltrane’s tenor in the first few bars of “Mars” as he and drummer Rashid Ali detonate their five-piece cosmic duet. But what some view as run-amuck obscurity, I prefer to accept as an act of willed ecstasy, a release from any obvious constraints of space and time (in the musical sense) and a daring leap towards a more organic means of fashioning unity in sound and meaning.

Some believe that “getting” such music requires sticking your head as close to the speakers as you can until its “meaning” materializes in front of you. That’s almost the right idea, but as I’ve suggested before in other contexts, I think you’re better off carrying the music with you and allow it to blend in with the other more inchoate sounds in your life. That’s how I “got” it – or more to the point, appreciated it.

Another suggestion: After letting these “Interstellar” sounds live in you for a while, go back to Both Directions At Once. And yes: there’s a hint of an explanation to All Things Trane in that title, but you’ll have to finish the rest of the course on your own.

 

 

 

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Discs for 2017

 

Don’t know whether you’ve heard or not, but as of this year, professional basketball has become the Number One Sport in America. Many can, and likely will argue with me on this and we can do so another time. But I know that with this prominence has come some chatter among the philosophically inclined (or challenged) about how basketball is such a prototypically American team game where everybody plays together as a unit while allowing individual brilliance to come forth in dramatic ways while playing within the rules and blah-de-blah-blah…

I mean…I know that ALL team sports allow for that to varying degrees, right? But the basketball cognoscenti contends that it’s the grand, freewheeling and often explosive manner in which players express themselves spontaneously within the confines of the game that solidifies its global appeal. (Once again, blah-de-blah-blah-and again we can fight about this later.)

The only reason I’m bringing it up here is that there was a time  — and not all that long ago — when people spoke in this manner about jazz music, another American-born enterprise allowing for, even compelling individual spontaneity within a collective endeavor. Both basketball and jazz have deployed “jam” and even “jam sessions” in their argot, though they technically mean different things. And, as is especially the case with the pro game, basketball depends heavily on stars drawing fans’ wayward attention spans into the not-always-conspicuous-but-deeply-satisfying graces within the sport. Jazz likewise searches far and wide for first-magnitude stars and doesn’t lack for hot young “phenoms” of its own. (Number 1 on this list.) It also has ageless wonders who can still “ball” with eye-popping agility (Numbers 2 and 7), slammers who aren’t afraid to go hard and inside (Numbers 4, 5 and 10) and sharpshooters with wide wingspans (Numbers 3, 6, 8, 4 and 1, again).

I just wish I knew the secret to jazz drawing in, at the very least, the savants who care so much about whether the “Dubs” (look it up) repeat again as champs or whether the Celtics-Sixers rivalry is really going back to where it used to be in the 1980s/1960s or whether LeBron James is gunning hard for a third MVP award or whether the Thunder has too many shooters, etc. Why can’t jazz get buzz like that?

Because, as with everything else in the recording industry (whatever the hell THAT is these days), jazz’s future is locked in a chrysalis forged by changes in distribution, marketing and even packaging. (How long and deep is the vinyl resurgence anyway?) And when the chrysalis bursts, then what? Or, more to the point, so what? Jazz isn’t in a position to lead change, but it will, or should adapt to the changes overtaking the American psyche in matters of gender, economics and, as always, race, defined here a mythic construct that nonetheless holds American minds hostage.

(We can table that discussion for another time, too.)

Through it all, the music abides. And, for anybody bothering to listen, it’s stronger, livelier and more vibrant than ever. Case in point:

 

 

dreamsanddaggers

 

1.) Cecile McLorin Salvant, Dreams and Daggers (Mack Avenue) – As of this album, her third (or maybe fourth), it is no longer enough to say she’s the most talented young vocalist to appear in decades. Nor is enough to say that she’s the best jazz singer of her (Millennial) generation. This double disc package, composed mostly of sets gathered from a September, 2016 Village Vanguard engagement, proclaims Cecile McLorin Salvant as a star of such near-blinding magnitude that if I could have given the first five spots on the list to this album, I would. Put another way (and I apologize if I’m repeating myself): I cannot remember ever hearing a singer achieving before the age of 30 such a formidable command of rhythm, tone, nuance, articulation and idiom. Prodigies before her have come and, often, gone with her abundance of resources. But among many other things, she can bend, without undue distortions, any phrase in any standard, allowing the familiar lyrics in such chestnuts as “You’re My Thrill,” “The Best Thing For You”(with its challenging chord and line shifts), “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” to lope around, lag behind and leap ahead of their assigned tempos with a veteran’s imperturbable authority. As she has in her previous albums, she pounds hard-core blues tunes such as “Sam Jones’ Blues” and “You Got To Give Me Some” as if born and bred in brawling roadhouses. But she treats the words of these raw-boned songs with same solicitude and care that she applies to the suave cheekiness of Bob Dorough’s “Nothing Like You” and “Devil May Care” or to the ruminative pathos of the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill plaint, “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty.” She is a skilled dramatist, probing and engaging the character behind each song – though I wish another dramatist would someday fashion a vehicle that could showcase her brilliance on stage or screen the way Funny Girl delivered Barbra Streisand to the center of the universe. She’s also playful, but she aint playing. Nor is she a dilettante wandering aimlessly, from show tunes to primordial funk and back to her own original musings (“More,” “Red Instead.”) She’s probing for connections, linkages, overlapping characteristics of each tune with the kind of fortitude that over time could reinforce the foundations of American music for new generations of players, poets and lovers. And, as I may or may not have mentioned earlier, she’s only 28 years old. I did neglect to mention the comparably dynamic support of her rhythm section, especially pianist Aaron Diehl, who’s becoming a first-magnitude star on his own. I can’t tell you any more. There are some things you’re going to have to see and hear for your own selves.

 

 

 

Marseille

 

2.) Ahmad Jamal, Marseille (Jazzbook/Jazz Village)—Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the age spectrum, Ahmad Jamal is 87 years old, which means he’s three years away from being a nonagenarian. Paradoxically, he has in recent years sounded younger with age; more energetic and adventurous than he did back in the 1950s when he was wowing Chicago’s Pershing nightclub with his variations on “Poinciana.” His late-winter resurgence continues on this session with drummer Herlin Riley, bassist James Cammack and percussionist Manolo Badrena. His cleverness, whose flamboyance at one time annoyed the purists, has acquired keener, rougher edges on such tunes as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Autumn Leaves,” the latter of which is a clinic on how a pianist and a rhythm session contain and release tension like dancers working within a narrow space. His timing and poise as leader and soloist have likewise sharpened, especially on his original compositions, “Pots En Verre,” “Baalbeck” and the title tune, given three variations here; first as a straight-ahead instrumental, then with a spoken version (by Abd Al Malik) and a ballad rendering (Mina Agossi) of Jamal’s French-language lyrics – which, by the way, are also pretty deft for a man of his advanced years. But who’s counting anyway? I’m going to predict that, by his 90th birthday in 2020, he’ll still be playing keep-away games with space and time on his piano and keeping his bass-drum tandems on their toes. Anybody want to bet against me? Or him?

 

Morphogenesis

 

 

3.) Steve Coleman’s Natal Eclipse, Morphogenesis (PI) – I’m resisting the temptation to label what Coleman’s been doing these last few years as an ongoing biological experiment. That would make it sound clinical and the music he and his various ensembles have recorded is anything but. Functional Arrythmias (2013) dealt with cardiovascular matters while Synovial Joints (2015) dared you to imagine knees, elbows, shoulders and legs accommodating themselves to whatever the music, organically conceived and arranged into being, was willing them to do. This time, the shape-shifting dynamics of Coleman’s approach is geared towards movement, core, tactics, kinesis and thrust; in other words, martial arts, specifically boxing. (You heard.) Thus the orchestrations have more density and drive, which makes this album at once more inscrutable and more accessible than its immediate predecessors. Jonathan Finlayson’s trumpet shows greater range of expression even when flying in close formation with Coleman’s alto saxophone. Jen Shyu’s voice returns to the mix while pianist Matt Mitchell, drummer Greg Chudzik, tenor saxophonist Maria Grand, violinist Kristin Lee and percussionist Neeraj Mehta all work together to create an collective entity of sound and rhythm you could use to prepare for any bout you have on the schedule, metaphorical or otherwise. Since these releases seem timed for every two years, I’m guessing Coleman and crew have another inquiry due in 2019. Is it possible, doctor, that…the human brain could be next on his agenda? (Egad!)

 

 

 

far from over_vijay iyer sextet

 

 

4.) Vijay Iyer Sextet, Far From Over (ECM) – “Down to the Wire,” “Into Action,” “Wake,” “End of the Tunnel”…The titles alone are challenges hurled into the Whirlwind of Now, especially the title track, which pulses throughout like a urgent telegraph message seeking a way out of the whatever it is we’ve been going through for (at least) the last year. Iyer, having done everything with the piano trio short of equipping it with double jet packs and a hood ornament, takes the wheel of this super-powered ensemble and comes perilously close to redefining the horns-rhythm-section paradigm. Pianist Iyer, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey lay down a sweet, spongy groove for “Nope” that gives the front line of alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, tenor saxophonist Mark Shim and horn master Graham Haynes lots of room to leap with controlled abandon. Electronics are deployed with discretion and purpose on the aforementioned “End of the Tunnel” while “Down to the Wire’s” overlapping riffs and steel-mesh polyrhythms exemplify the band’s breakneck intensity as does the lyrical fire shooting out of that elite horn section. Even when in relative reflection (“For Amiri Baraka”), the album seethes and goads its listeners to lean in and press forward into whatever trials lay ahead. We should probably take a hint from the way these guys go all out on these tracks: That our only way out of this mess may be us.

 

 

 

JLCO_Batiste_LewisCover_3000x3000_600_600_80 (1)

 

 

5.) Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, The Music of John Lewis (Blue Engine) — Wynton Marsalis wasn’t the first musician to merge classical aspirations with jazz performance. Neither was John Lewis. But Lewis (1920-2001), who led the epochal Modern Jazz Quartet for roughly half his life, helped define by the middle of the last century a useable tradition within jazz music that could draw extensively upon its own heritage (blues, bop, swing and such) while establishing communion with baroque, romantic, impressionist and other genres linked to Europe. This legacy is vast and enduring enough to affect most of the jazz music written today, including most, if not all of the music represented on this list. Marsalis, especially, knows how much the very notion of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and jazz repertory in general, owes to Lewis and this tribute, recorded four years ago at Rose Hall, is an institution’s deeply-felt and elegantly-framed expression of gratitude. Marsalis, as ever, is the emcee-impresario as well an occasional soloist. But at center stage for this show is pianist Jon Batiste, a couple years before becoming nationally known as Steven Colbert’s “Late Show” bandleader-collaborator-egger-on. He proves an insightful surrogate for Lewis’ own inventions on such timeless pieces as “2 Degrees West, 3 Degrees East,” “Two Bass Hit” and (of course) “Django.” The concert’s revelations come in the orchestra’s renditions of themes taken from MJQ’s 1962 masterwork, The Comedy. That suite sustained the most knocks at the time from jazz peeps who believed Lewis was bowing too low to the European masters. But the orchestra, using a score adapted for big band by David Berger, makes the whole apparatus swing hard without in any way mitigating its surging romanticism. If I may partake of a quibble: The lovely “La Cantatrice” is rendered in these settings without a vocal proxy for the young Diahann Carroll, who sang this aria with the quartet on the Atlantic album. If the LCJO repeats this segment of the MJQ experiment, I know just the singer for the job. (Again, see Number 1 on this list).

 

 

 

Honey & Salt

 

 

 

6.) Matt Wilson, Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg (Palmetto) – Coming across this homage to the First Jazz Poet  is like wandering into a neglected corner of one’s attic and stumbling into these motley contraptions that, with a little oil in their wheels and cleaning fluid in their cogs, can still whirr, hum and beguile. Drummer-bandleader-composer Wilson comes by his devotion legitimately, having hailed from the same Knox County, Illinois birthplace as Sandburg and been distantly related to boot. He’s been touring with his Carl Sandburg project for a few years now and has now yielded a cozy, colorful quilt of Sandburg-related instrumentals, songs and readings that constitute one of the precious few times that a jazz-poetry synthesis has worked so well. (Hell, worked. Period.) With Ron Miles on trumpet, Jeff Lederer on reeds, Martin Wind on bass and Dawn Thomson on guitar and lead vocals, Wilson provides deceptively simple frameworks, rhythmically and otherwise, for a Sandburg cornucopia (never has the word seemed more appropriate): A loping shuffle for “Soup”; an indigo-blue slow jam for “Night Stuff” (with Miles in top form) and a moody prairie lament for “Bringers” (“…of dawn and dusk and dreams…”). Even more intriguing is the interplay of the music with the poems as read by such notables as Jack Black (“Snatch of Slipshod Jazz”), Carla Bley (“To Know Silence Perfectly”), Rufus Reid (“Trafficker”), John Scofield (“We Must Be Polite”) and Sandburg himself, whose recital of “Fog,” where most of us first learned about metaphor in grade school, is stretched and elaborated upon by Wilson’s trap set. Is it possible for a jazz album to restore a literary reputation? I can’t say, but I do know when I hear the group join their voices on Sandburg’s “Choose” – “The single clenched fist lifted and ready/Or the open asking hand held out and waiting/Choose/For we meet by one or the other” – it feels very much as though these poems, their author and this project have arrived in our midst exactly when we need them most.

 

Solo Relections Monk

 

 

 

7.) Wadada Leo Smith, Solo: Reflections & Meditations on Monk (TUM) I’ll repeat here what I said two months ago: At age 75, Smith is enjoying a bountiful winter of recognition for his life’s work as trumpeter, composer and bandleader, creating fresh contexts for orchestrated jazz and delivering plaintive, ruminative yet remarkably agile narratives on his horn. His liner notes acknowledge his considerable debt to Monk, “an inspiration that arcs straight across the structured invisible world.” Smith’s own art, whether alone or in groups, uses intervals as nimbly as the master. In his own renditions of “Ruby, My Dear,” “Reflections,” “Crepuscule with Nellie” and “Round Midnight” (all of which dare the bold and the thoughtful to bring their “A” Game), Smith seems to know precisely how to sustain spaces between phrases and, more important, when to come in hard, when to use stealth – and, in the case with “Nellie,” when to let its essential form do most of the work. He rounds out the album with original pieces, a couple of them stimulated by visual depictions of the pianist at work (“Monk and his Five-Point Ring at the Five Spot Café,” “Adagio Monk, the Composer in Sepia – A Second Vision”) and another, intriguingly speculative narrative (“Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium – A Mystery”). Generations of jazz musicians have brought their adorations of Monk to his legacy’s front door. I doubt there is any other musician alive who could have presented anything as austere, adventurous and challenging as Smith’s recital.

 

 

Tipico

 

 

8.) Miguel Zenon, Tipico (Miel Music) – The title of the first track, “Academia” sounds vaguely like a threat, especially since it was apparently inspired by Zenon’s interaction with his students at the New England Conservatory of Music. But it’s a buoyant, effervescent take, setting you up for similarly joyful interactions to come. Zenon has in the past organized his albums around specific themes and narratives connected to his Puerto Rican heritage. But this time, he intends nothing more than a celebration of his 15-year affiliation with the rest of his quartet (pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawisching and drummer Henry Cole). What results is hardly academic, but you could learn a lot from the way Zenon’s alto sax communicates with the other instrumentalists. On “Cantor,” for instance, Glawisching and Perdomo lay down a spectral path for Zenon to soar, hover and gradually to create spiraling patterns whose intricacies sneak up on you. The title track evokes a whole subcontinent of rhythmic and melodic influences, galvanized by the quartet’s collective sway and swagger. Zenon’s intelligence and authority are asserted as definitively as on his previous albums. But this time, there’s a relaxed open-heartedness shared by all the musicians, whose only imperative is to make it all move at different tempos (tempi?) in beauty and mystery. Zenon’s playing, at least to these ears, has never sounded as frisky or as limpid as it does here.

 

 

Weiss Wake Up Call

 

 

9.) David Weiss & Point of Departure, Wake Up Call (Ropeadope) – Weiss, as he’s proven with all his varied ensembles (including this one), knows his way around the repertoire of the 1960s. He also is unapologetically drawn to the possibilities opened up by jazz-fusion of the 1970s and he’s apparently determined to help finish, or resolve, what those fusion artists started. The Point of Departure outfit is heard here in the kind of transition that jazz itself was a half-century ago as electronics seeped into hard bop’s domain. Only the album’s midsection, “Unfinished Business,” retains tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen and guitarist Nir Felder from the ensemble’s previous incarnation. For the rest, trumpeter-leader Weiss ups the ante by using two guitarists: Travis Reuter and Ben Eunson while Myron Walden assumes the tenor sax chair. The combination jars at first, but only for a while. And the ensemble shows its tight-knit cohesion when it dives into amplified renderings of John McLaughlin’s “Sanctuary,” Joe Henderson’s “Gazelle” and Tony Williams’ “Pee Wee.” On “The Mystic Knights of The Sea,” drawn from Williams’ early 70s band, Lifetime, Weiss’ group shows that piece to be not too far removed conceptually from the Williams who played with Miles Davis’ legendary mid-60s quintet. Everybody involved is focused and engaged, but if this album has an emerging star, it’s drummer Kush Abadey, who powers this edition of “POD” with a ferocity that seems ballistic in execution. He must be destined for greater things because Han Solo, who knows a little something about hyper-drive, made what’s known as the “jazz face” when he saw Abedey flash leather not so long ago at Small’s jazz club. He wouldn’t be the first star Weiss helped propel into greater prominence. And he won’t be the last.

 

 

Christian-McBride-Bringin-It

 

 

10.) Christian McBride Big Band, Bringin’ It (Mack Avenue) – I’ve always suspected that there have been two identities in pitched battle for bassist McBride’s Philly-forged soul, one side embodied by Ray Brown, the other by Bootsy Collins. In this setting, and likely in others yet to come, the two sides aren’t in conflict so much as in spirited negotiations for a workable, lasting truce. The first track, a backyard-party rouser titled “Gettin’ To It,” loosens your bow tie and gives your head a reason to do its version of the Madison, or maybe the Funky Chicken. The immediate follow-up, Freddie Hubbard’s “Thermo,” is a steady-rolling swinger that has little in common with the opener besides the airtight rhythm section (McBride, pianist Xavier Davis, drummer Quincy Phillips and guitarist Rodney Jones) along with fleet-footed soloing by trumpeter Freddie Hendrix and tenor saxophonist Ron Blake. McBride’s wide-screen arrangement of “I Thought About You” discloses his higher-ground ambitions for his large ensemble and the band, with trumpeter Brandon Lee’s solo leading the way, comes through impressively enough for you to hope McBride aims even higher. Talks will likely continue between the Brown and Bootsy sides and McBride is a wicked-smart mediator, though part of me wishes he’d let his Famous Flames side cut loose for just one more album. If it happens, I’m all for him. If it doesn’t, I still am.

 

Daylight Ghosts

 

 

HONORABLE MENTION: Craig Taborn, Daylight Ghosts, (ECM) Tyshawn Sorey, Verisimilitude (PI); Heads of State, Four in One (Smoke Sessions); Matthew Shipp Trio, Piano Song (Thirsty Ear); Fred Hersch, Open Book (Palmetto); Jane Ira Bloom, Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson (Outline); Ron Miles, I Am A Man (Yellowbird); Joey Alexander, Monk. Live. Trio! (Motema); Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, Handful of Keys (Blue Engine)

BEST REISSUE/ARCHIVAL

 

 

Another Time

 

1.) Thelonious Monk, Les Liasons Dangereuses 1960 (SAM)
2.) Bill Evans, Another Time: The Hilversum Concert with Eddie Gomez & Jack DeJohnette (Resonance)
3.) Ornette Coleman, Ornette at 12 & Crisis (Real Gone)

BEST DEBUT ALBUM

 

Fly or Die

 

 

Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die (International Anthem LLC)

BEST LATIN ALBUM

Miguel Zenon, Tipico
HONORABLE MENTION: Baptiste Trotignon & Yosvany Terry, Ancestral Memories (Okeh)

BEST VOCAL
Cecile McLorin Salvant, Dreams and Daggers
HONORABLE MENTION: Dominique Eade & Ran Blake, Town and Country (Sunnyside); Sarah Partridge, Bright Lights & Promises: Redefining Janis Ian (Origin)