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)



Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Discs for 2015

Yeah, yeah, whatever…

But if all that’s true, then why, I keep asking every year, is there so much good-to-great “product” (a euphemism I loathe, but am stringing along, hoping it’ll take the hint from the diminishing effect of quote marks) that still comes out? Why is it that I made up this year’s list thinking that there were so many discs I could have easily included that didn’t even make the Honorable Mention cut? Why is it that any of the top five on this list could have easily been number one and why could any of the ones below them, even the Honorable Mentions, could have slipped into the top five?

Why? Why ask why?

An answer — not “the” answer — is that whatever infrastructure that used to be in place for promoting and marketing music is in worse shape than some of our bridges, tunnels and highways. In fact, there might not even BE an infrastructure so much as a make-it-up-as-we-go-along system that spreads and circulates the word on artists and “product.”

Or not. I don’t know, really. As with everybody else who still cares, I go with my gut. And what my gut tells me is that jazz, whether God likes it or not, is finding a way to move along on its own power regardless of who’s noticing at this point. And my top five especially give me hope that the music is not just moving along or getting by, but transforming itself into something not even Lisa Simpson or Mayor Quimby will recognize at first. I say it every year at this time and I will find some way of saying it again next year.

And I’m not giving up my compact discs either. Why? Vinyl. That’s why. You all said THAT was dead, too, once.

 

 

 

 

For One to Love

 

1.) Cecile McLorin Salvant, For One to Love (Mack Avenue) – Her debut album two years ago was one of those once-in-a-generation calling cards in which soul, grace, power and intelligence materialize in one implausibly commanding 24-year-old package. She could have easily followed it up with another mélange of classic or out-of-left-field standards and maintained her front-running status as the Next Great Jazz Vocalist without making your jaw drop as she did when introducing herself. But damned if she doesn’t do that to you again, and then some, with a bold concept album whose range and depth are reminiscent of similar innovations from this year’s centennial birthday boy Frank Sinatra during the fifties (“Only the Lonely”) and sixties (“September of My Years”). The songs on this album are connected in some way with what it’s like to for one’s looks to be scrutinized and summarily judged. I’d also be inclined to label her effort here as an attempt to filter The Male Gaze through a prism of her own design. But why limit oneself, or her, to one gender’s glancing assessments? The biggest tip-off is “Look at Me,” one of her five original compositions here, in which self-conscious doubt starts seeping into an otherwise idyllic romance. (“Why don’t you look at me/ the way you look at all the other girls you see?”) along with its companion, “Left Over” (“I wonder if he even knows my name”) Such plaintive, yet pointed inquiries make themselves known in other selections, such as “Stepsister’s Lament” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” and that sweet swinging Bacharach-David tune, “Wives and Lovers,” which she nonchalantly hits over the fence and through the windshield of a neighbor’s car parked four houses away. Her penchant for unearthing early blues (Spencer and Clarence Williams’ “What’s the Matter Now?”) also melds easily with the overall concept, whose poignancy is offset by the ferocious jolts of hope and mother-wit infusing “The Trolley Song” and an especially breathtaking “Something’s Coming.” It almost frightens you to keep listening. Yet you have to. And of course, it all wouldn’t work nearly as well without the pliant and comparably ingenious accompaniment of pianist Aaron Diehl, bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Lawrence Leathers.

 

 

The Epic Cover
2.) Kamasi Washington, The Epic (Brainfeeder) – I suspect this will likely lead most of the lists my peers are assembling for the year’s best jazz albums. If the level of emotional investment shown in the previous entry hadn’t moved me more, I’d have been right along with them. This represents one of those occasions where you’re not only recognizing artistry on these three discs, but what this whole work represents: A heady return to the notion of orchestrated jazz as a source of emphatic, unmediated ecstasy; the difference here from the raw, searching energies summoned by John Coltrane, Su Ra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and generations of “New Thing” acolytes and fellow travelers from the past being a wider accessibility to beat and tone. Because of Washington’s Los Angeles roots, I kept thinking about great bandleaders and mentors from that scene such as Gerald Wilson and Horace Tapscott whose charts roared, stomped and often sprawled the way these pieces do. But because of the conspicuous presence of Washington’s keening, quicksilver tenor sax on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (which, if you were holding my feet to the fire, I’d be ready to declare the Album of the Year among all genres), I also recognize in this Epic’s conception Hip-Hop’s big, avid ears for blending rogue sounds. In this case: tiers of percussion propelling choirs of angels, street-hard horns breaking and merging at will and, once in a while, the familiar sound of a Hammond B-3 organ (summoned by keyboardist Brandon Coleman). It’s an achievement of such conspicuous heft and dimension that it makes you wonder if Washington’s trying to do too much at once. But just when you think those aforementioned energies are flagging, something, maybe a speed run by the bassist known as Thundercat, an extended comp by acoustic pianist Cameron Graves, an incisive lead vocal by Patrice Quinn or a fervent, reasonably straightforward take on “Clair de Lune” comes along to sustain the sense of the ground beneath one’s feet rumbling. It’s not that The Epic  represents anything new under the sun. (It even revives “Cherokee,” for Charlie Ventura’s sake!) But it makes you aware of how long it’s been since jazz music made you want to reach for the sun, much less stare at it without fear.

 

 

The Thompson Fields
3.) Maria Schneider Orchestra, The Thompson Fields (ArtistShare) – In a year when the overall level of jazz composing, arranging and orchestration challenged the adequacy of one’s supply of superlatives, it altogether figured that the redoubtable Schneider would put forth what, up to this still-relatively-early point in her brilliant career, could well be her masterpiece: An eight-piece suite, a decade or so in the making, evoking the outward graces and cherished epiphanies of the Minnesota prairie where she grew up. The music at first lulls you into thinking this handsomely packaged selection will be nothing but daydreams bathed in twilight pastels. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But Schneider, whose ability to “play” an 18-piece orchestra has never before been as consummate or as confident as it is here, layers her pastoral vision with themes that thicken, recede and recharge with the mercurial impulses of Nature itself. After all, the weather isn’t always sunny and warm in one’s past, or, to be sure, in one’s present either. As with every great bandleader, Schneider allows her soloists near-collaborative space to enhance her vision, as in the cases of pianist Frank Kimbrough and guitarist Lage Lund replicating the tension between memory and reality on the title piece or Rich Perry’s inquisitive tenor sax summoning the persisting lure and unfulfilled yearning of “Home.” Too often, Schneider’s work as a composer-arranger incites comparisons to her inspirations/mentors Bob Brookmeyer and Gil Evans (about whom more later on this list). Now, she stands alone as a musical force capable of inspiring others. And if I were to make any comparisons at this point, it would be less towards other bandleaders than towards poets, to whose influence she has been paying homage on recent discs. In particular, her work on Thompson Fields reminds me of Robert Frost, another pastoralist whose darker, more ambivalent approaches to the passages of time and the seasons are often overlooked at first glance because of the elemental beauty of his tone. In both his case and hers, the subtler sense of unease aroused by their respective visions incline you to be more solicitous to the living things around you – and to treat their mysteries with respect and discretion.

 

 

Juneteenth cover
4.) Stanley Cowell, Juneteenth (Vision Fugitive) – Now 74, Cowell has been among the underappreciated stalwarts – and treasures – of American music. As with generations of jazz masters who found themselves marginalized in the cultural firmament even as they were becoming more autonomous as producers (he was one of the co-founders of the legendary Strata-East independent label in the seventies), Cowell spent most of the last several decades in academia while continuing to write, perform and record in a variety of settings as sideman and leader. He has also been one of the few pianists whose solo work is as textured and broadly realized as any combo’s repertoire. This unaccompanied performance of a work originally written for large ensemble commemorating the 150th anniversary of Emancipation, or at least its informal announcement in Texas in 1865, feels very much like a splendid gift to his abiding fans as well as a moving tribute to Cowell’s resilience. Because he shares a Toledo, Ohio birthplace with the great virtuoso Art Tatum, Cowell lays claim to the same faultless command of time and space that Tatum displayed in his own formidable body of solo recordings. He also weaves references to, and extensions upon, such disparate tunes as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Strange Fruit,” “Dixie” and other Americana redolent of the surging, shape-shifting referencing of Charles Mingus, only with a more probing and nuanced approach. With the issues animating the Civil War gaining more urgency in the years since Cowell was commissioned (in 2012) to compose this suite, “Juneteenth” feels at once both topical and enduring; news that, for better and worse, stays news.

 

 

 

Bird Calls cover
5.) Rudresh Mahanthappa, Bird Calls (ACT) – Modernism meets post-modernism and the former gets a “fly” face-lift it can grow with. Bird Calls is (far) less a “tribute album” to Charlie Parker than a young alto-sax daredevil’s attempt to connect with the divinities that made Parker soar into uncharted changes more than 70 years ago. Mahanthappa borrows or, more appropriately, “samples” themes, licks and riffs from the Parker canon and uses them as propellant for his own fire-breathing inventions. The familiar fanfare from the “Parker’s Mood,” for instance, is transfigured on “Talin is Thinking” into a incantation setting the table for a dirge drastically different, yet no less resonant or far-reaching than the original while “Maybe Later” cheekily elbows tropes from “Now’s the Time,” Parker’s slow-hand blues that midwifed both bebop and post-war rhythm-and-blues, and creates a bouncy number that swings more like an uptown rave than a downtown slide. The only thing that strongly evokes Parker throughout is the insurgent, turbo-charged drive to Make It New; and, in the process, to expand the possibilities for jazz to emerge from the chrysalis of its established traditions into something resembling full, unrestrained flight. Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Rudy Royston robustly share their leader’s commitment to this process and, you hope, other attempts at homage to past masters will take the hint.

 

Synovial Joints cover
6.) Steve Coleman, Synovial Joints (PI) – “Doctor” Coleman continues the inquiry into the human body he commenced two years before with Functional Arrythmias (also on PI) and expands his bag of implements beyond those of his customary quintet of trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, bassist Anthony Tidd, guitarist Miles Okasaki and, this time, drummer Marcus Gilmore to include a few more horns, a flute and piccolo, a string quartet, a pianist (David Bryant) and a singer (Jen Shyu) who join him on the eponymous four-part exploration/appreciation of, as Coleman writes in the liner notes, “the joints that bind the human musculoskeletal system [that] function as a means of connecting bones, binding tissue and provid[ing] various degrees of movement for our bodies.” Yes, I had the exact same thought: What a fine dance performance routine this music would serve. And the pull-pull interplay between strings and horns, bass lines and modes encourage one to imagine knees, elbows, legs and shoulders accommodating themselves to whatever groove gets transmitted as permission to ambulate. This disc doesn’t just go inside on “Acupuncture Openings” and “Celtic Cells” (not those in the body, but in medieval clusters of otherwise scattered visionaries. They also spend time in the Sahara desert on “Harmattan” and “Nomadic.” Wherever they go, Coleman’s ad-hoc musical aggregation sustains an engaging blend of the spontaneous and the deliberate that keeps mind and body in constant motion at delightfully varied speeds. It’s even fun if you’re just walking at a normal pace and this quirky music’s somehow playing – in more ways than one – through your ears.

 

 

Lines of Color cover
7.) ) Ryan Truesdell Gil Evans Project, Lines of Color (ArtistShare) – Despite several albums of live performances by his big band released during the last 15 years of his life, so much of the reputation of arranger-bandleader-composer-enabler-of-the-cool Gil Evans (1912-1988) remains tethered to studio work, most especially whenever Miles Davis was involved. Thus, Ryan Truesdell, to whom so much is already owed for his Evans project’s award-winning 2012 debut. Centennial (also on ArtistShare), continues to restore Evans’ body of work and its myriad possibilities for revision. Here, he  also helps re-establish  the exuberant interaction of big band music with its audience — even if it’s sitting and drinking along, as opposed to dancing, which for all I know happened, too, at midtown Manhattan’s Jazz Standard, where these sessions were recorded. Take, just as an example, the project’s reiteration of Evans’ arrangement of Bix Biederbecke’s “Davenport Blues.” On the 1959 Pacific Jazz album, Great Jazz Standards, the piece is carried along by the late trumpeter Johnny Coles’ soft, cool and dry solo, this version’s rhythmic pulse is amplified by drummer Lewis Nash’s down-and-dirty beat and trumpeter Mat Jodrell’s flamboyantly vertical solo. I thought Evans’ 1965 version of “Greensleeves” would be a non-starter without Kenny Burrell’s guitar up front, but trombonist Marshall Gilkes busts the arrangement wide open. Because Truesdell is as much curator as orchestrator, he also uses such occasions for lesser-known or previously unrecorded Evans, notably “Avalon Town,” which he’d written during his mid-1940s apprenticeship with Claude Thornhill, during which he began tinkering with impressionism and modulated brass.

 

 

 

Conduct of Jazz cover
8.) Matthew Shipp Trio, The Conduct of Jazz (Thirsty Ear) –This is the small group album many of us have been waiting for from Wilmington’s Excitable Renegade. His knotty, multi-clustered attack on the piano is as relentless as ever with his themes and motifs rolling, tumbling and shifting direction with seemingly inexhaustible inventiveness. The first few bars of “Instinctive Touch” (along with the title itself) announces to the uninitiated how insistently he’s willing to stress test a motif until it breaks apart to reveal some promising new form of life. Yet it’s the title track that discloses something new to the mix; an exuberant drive that somehow seems more contained and yet more fluid and expansive. I’m going out on a limb by saying that it’s the addition of drummer Newton Taylor Baker to the tandem of Shipp and bassist Michael Bisio, whose solos likewise seem to have gained greater breadth and openness. Baker’s playing, both with the others and on its own, stretches and spreads out along with Shipp’s and Bisio’s, establishing keener interaction within the trip and helping Shipp’s compositions, whether as crypto-funky as “Blue Abyss,” or as discursive as “Primary Form” reach trajectories that challenge listeners without leaving them stranded or shortchanged. Mostly, it’s fun. Which is how jazz at whatever level of ambition or comprehension is supposed to “conduct” itself.

 

 

 

Intents and Purposes cover
9.) Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet, Intents and Purposes (Enja) – The year’s notable contribution to the file marked, Discs-I-Couldn’t-Keep-Out-Of-My-Player-Without-Knowing-Exactly-Why is a disarming and surprisingly illuminating inquiry into the oft-discredited realm of what we used to know in the 1970s as jazz-rock fusion. Because so much of the music associated with that genre leaned on synthesizers, wah-wah pedals and other plug-in accessories, purists of all persuasions suspected both its players and its repertoire of coasting on waves of bombast and white noise. Abbasi’s guitars, assisted by Bill Ware’s vibes, Stephan Crump’s upright bass and Eric McPherson’s trap set, excise the bubbles and fuzz from one’s memories of Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly,” Billy Cobham’s “Red Baron,” Chick Corea’s “Medieval Overture” and Pat Martino’s “Joyous Lake,” among others, to reveal their sinewy lyricism without muting their sounds or constricting their energies. These guys come on strong enough to make you check the cover again to make sure nobody’s packing a concealed amplifier.

 

 

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10.) Heads of State, Search for Peace (Smoke Sessions) – This gathering of gray eminences – saxophonist Gary Bartz, pianist Larry Willis, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Al Foster – isn’t out to re-invent the wheel, or anything else. This is about as unassuming as “straight ahead” jazz gets these days, given its selection of standards, both familiar (“Impressions,” “Lotus Blossom,” “I Wish I Knew”) and not quite as well known that you don’t need to mention their composers’ names (Benny Carter’s “Summer Serenade,” Jackie McLean’s “Capuchin Swing”). There are also two pieces, “Soulstice” and “Uncle Bubba,” written by Bartz – and as masterly as the other esteemed “heads” are, it is Bartz to whom this album truly belongs and whose playing throughout is a clinic in lyricism, timing and tone. At 75, he is a living exemplar of the alto saxophone and all you have to do is listen to him lay out on something like “Crazy She Calls Me” to bask in the reflected glory of someone who knows exactly what to say, how to say it and where each bend and curve in a variation needs to go. Jazz doesn’t always have to change the world, or even rearrange the furniture in your head, to be great. Sometimes, all it needs is a rich, ripe and still evolving gift such as Bartz’s to remind you why you don’t really care what anybody else says about jazz music’s alleged “deterioration” or “demise.” If Bartz still believes, you should, too

HONORABLE MENTION

 

 

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Fred Hersch, Solo (Palmetto)

Myra Melford, Snowy Egret (Enja)
Chris Potter Underground Orchestra, Imaginary Cities (ECM)
Erik Friedlander, Oscalypso (Skipstone)
Tigran Hamasyan, Luys I Luso (ECM)
Romain Collin, Press Enter (ACT)
Albert “Tootie” Heath, Ethan Iverson, Ben Street, Philadelphia Beat (Sunnyside)
Vijay Iyer Trio, Break Stuff (ECM)
Liberty Elfman, Radiate (PI)

BEST VOCAL: For One to Love HONORABLE MENTION:  Cassandra Wilson, Coming Forth By Day (Legacy)

 

 

 

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BEST LATIN ALBUM: Arturo O’ Farrill & the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, Cuba: The Conversation Continues (Motema)

 

 

 

Complete Concert by the sea

 

 

 

BEST REISSUE: Erroll Garner, The Complete Concert by the Sea (Legacy)

Some Old & New Business for the New Year

If you heard my annual song-and-dance on the Dec. 26 edition of  “The Colin McEnroe Show” on Hartford’s WNPR-FM, you’re aware of at least one of my “oopsie” omissions from my Best-of-2013 jazz recordings list. And since that particular omission gets more embarrassing every time I listen to it, I am obliged to start 2014 by elaborating upon my mea culpa – and mention at least one other omission at length. And since we don’t want to be too negative with a clean slate, I’ll add some spare change on the first new disc of the year that’s got my (mostly appreciative) attention.

 

Cecile McLorin Savant

 

Cecile McLorin Salvant, “WomanChild” (Mack Avenue)— Whenever a vocalist catches fire on the jazz scene, it often happens after he or she has been out in the world for some time. In the nineties, as in the case of Shirley Horn or even Abbey Lincoln, there was the phenomenon of rediscovering artists who’ve found a glorious second wind carrying them late in life to unexpectedly fresh levels of expression and power. Rarely do young jazz singers make your head turn at Jump Street the way Willie Mays raised heart rates with his first-at-bat. Which makes Cecile McLorin Salvant, at just 24 years old, an especially rare talent. To repeat what I said on Colin’s show, she is simply the most exciting young jazz vocalist I’ve heard in at least a quarter-century, which I suppose constitutes a generation. To move down the checklist: Tone: Check; Dynamics: Check; Phrasing: Check – and she has the ineffable qualities that in their rawest form we recognize as “soulfulness.” But even with all those attributes in her tool kit, Salvant makes her biggest impression on “WomanChild” with the intelligence and breadth of her repertoire. She makes a couple of customary stops on the standards tour (“I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”). But she also reaches waaaaay back to the less-travelled, but venerated pathways cleared by Bessie Smith (“St. Louis Woman”), Clarence Williams (“Baby Have Pity On Me”), Fats Waller (“Jitterbug Waltz”) and, most stirring of all, Bert Williams (“Nobody”). When someone so young can do so much at once, the immediate worry is that she’ll spread herself too broadly before she Finds Herself (whatever that means). I prefer to enjoy the rush of potential and possibility as she steps to the plate for another cut at history. I also want to shout-out to her comparably promising pianist Aaron Diehl, who flashes his own bright-burning composite of lyricism, eclecticism and dynamism.

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Jane Ira Bloom “Sixteen Sunsets” (Outline) – You could more accurately title it, “Sixteen Ballads,” but “Sunsets” sounds more appropriate, metaphorically. And as with reach sunsets, each of these ballads enraptures in different ways. She uses what she loves about the classic melodists, including Gershwin (“But Not For Me”), Arlen (“Out of this World”) Waldron (“Left Alone”), Kern (“The Way You Look Tonight”) and Weill (“My Ship”) and brings their deceptively simple designs to her own compositions, including “Primary Colors,” “Too Many Reasons”, “Ice Dancing” and my own favorite, “What She Wanted.” Her soprano saxophone can make your skin tingle as few others on her instrument ever have. If this disc, as with Salvant’s, had arrived in my mailbox before I turned in my ballot to the NPR Jazz Critics Poll, my Top Ten List would have been very different.

 

 

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Matt Wilson Quartet with John Medeski, “Gathering Call” (Palmetto) – What an pleasurable way to start the New Year: Hard bop, late-1960s/early 1970s vintage, played without apologies and with an open-hearted joie de vivre that can make even the hardest of hard-core progressives wonder why they ever thought the genre was old news. I suppose some would still think it old news, even if they liked it. But there’s nothing musty or creaky about Wilson’s easygoing command of the trap set in all situations or his group’s saucy renditions of such Ellingtonia as “Main Stem” or “You Dirty Dog.” The quartet also pays homage to the recently departed bassist Butch Warren by playing the latter’s “Barack Obama” with the delicacy, wonder and cautious optimism you suspect the composer had in mind as he wrote it. You’re happy for the leader, one of the perennial Good Guys in the jazz business, which in turn makes you happy – and hopeful – for the business itself.