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)



My Own Private Top-Ten or Wonder Women of 2017

To repeat: I don’t do Top-Ten lists of movies or television or even books, mostly because none of them need my help as much as jazz does. What I’ve done instead over the past few years is assemble potpourri of popular culture items that I’ve found especially meaningful, ennobling and distinctive over the previous 12 months. I chose this year’s theme for many reasons, some of which you may infer from recent headlines. But primarily because it’s been clear to me for some time now that women have achieved prominence and glory disproportionate to the overall respect, economic or otherwise, they receive from society-at-large. Besides: Women have been doing some remarkable stuff in The Culture this year, as you’ll see below. So yeah, we’re so doing this. Here and now. And I apologize in advance for anybody I may have forgotten about or omitted. There’s always next year, yes?

tracee ellis ross freeze ray

Blackish kitchen

1.) The women of black-ish – There are few things more satisfying to a couch potato emeritus than watching a sitcom hit full stride. By my own reckoning, black-ish, now in the middle of a how-can-they-possibly-top-this Season 4, is striding so confidently ahead of the analog TV pack that it’s hard to imagine anything else in the genre catching up to it, which is saying a lot given how strong that competition is, even on its own network (ABC). Creator-producer Kenya Barris, his collaborators and the whole cast deserve serial Emmys, most especially for its hyper-magnetic women. Begin with the routinely magnificent Tracee Ellis Ross who, as Mama Doc Rainbow, is the post-Millennial master of the “freeze-ray” stare deployed throughout sitcom history against bombastic, self-deluded husbands. (See Alice Kramden nod, scowling at Ralph.) It’s probably working since husband Dre (Anthony Anderson) has gotten less delusional over time, especially about his mother Ruby (the National Treasure that is Jenifer Lewis), at once the grand dame, caffeinated diva and galloping id of Family Johnson. I’ve missed the languid graces of big sister Zoey (Yara Shahidi) now that she’s in college most of the time. But kid sister Diane (Marsai Martin) more than makes up for her absence. She’s poker-faced anti-matter to terminally cute Rudy Huxtable, throwing shade on everybody else’s pretenses with a neurosurgeon’s icy precision. Of course, she’s my favorite – but don’t tell the rest of them. Everybody in this household is special in her (and his) own way.

 

 

greta-directing
2.) Greta Gerwig & Laurie Metcalf – All I’m going to mention about Lady Bird is one scene. Just one. Laurie Metcalf is alone in a car, driving around in a circle, saying nothing. That’s all that happens – or at least that’s all I’m disclosing here. Yet when you see it, you’ll realize once again how such moments make a small picture gigantic. Alone, that scene reveals three bankable, self-evident truths: You will be talking about this movie well past New Year’s, Laurie Metcalf will win an Oscar and Greta Gerwig has the potential to make a masterwork. This isn’t it, despite what you’ve heard. But it’s within her reach. Wait.

 

 

Tiffany Haddish
3.) Tiffany HaddishGirls Trip was the year’s springiest jack-in-the-box-office coup. Directed with unassuming charm by the habitually underrated Malcolm L. Lee, the movie carries a set-up that could have been too sudsy by half if it weren’t for its gently timed raunchiness and, most especially, Haddish’s explosive presence. Not since a young Michael Keaton ate Henry Winkler’s lunch, along with most of the scenery, in 1982’s Night Shift has anybody burst forward on the big screen with such lets-get-this-party-started swagger. The only thing that’s been more fun to watch than her performance (which has already won a New York Film Critics Circle Award) is the smart and jaunty manner with which she’s been carrying her triumph throughout the Global Village. Take ten minutes off from a hard day to listen as she tells tell Jimmy Kimmel how she took Mr. and Mrs. Fresh Prince on a road trip. Guaranteed, you will come away thinking: Now this is how you’re supposed to treat a power couple!

 

 

 

 

4.) Nicole Kidman

 

nicole kidman big little lies

 

With all the chatter over the last decade about J-Law, Emma Stone and other emerging young stars, we somehow forgot that Kidman was still very much in the game. We won’t make that mistake again any time soon. Being the droll, commanding backbone bracing Sofia Coppola’s gossamer remake of The Beguiled would have been enough to renew our curiosity. But what truly realigned Kidman with our over-extended attention spans was her riveting portrayal in HBO’s Big Little Lies of an affluent, formidable attorney who carries the ongoing trauma of her husband’s physical abuse with barely-sustained composure. I can’t say it any better than The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum who wrote, “While other actors specialize in transparency, Kidman has a different gift: She can wear a mask and simultaneously let you feel what it’s like to hide behind it.”

 

 

rhiannon-giddens-freedom-highway-450sq
5.) Rhiannon Giddens – She gets slammed in some quarters as just another smarty-pants “dabbler” in Americana and, contrarily, by those who believe she taints her aspirations towards authenticity (or “authenticity”) by slipping some modern pop covers into her playbook. Sure, I wouldn’t mind seeing her exclusively with the Carolina Chocolate Drops because as a unit they schooled you as emphatically as they kicked ass. But I prefer to think she sees everything and anything she tries out as authentic and, in doing so, dares to reshape whatever we mean by the “traditional music” that defines our troubled, fractured land. In another better time than ours, Freedom Highway (Nonesuch), released earlier this year, could have been one of those crossover albums that encourages, if not creates widespread cultural consensus. Also, I know I don’t get out much, but when I saw her live this year at WXPN’s World Café in Philadelphia, she made me dream again of retrieving lost or distant possibilities. When you hear her cover of “I Wont Back Down,” conceived originally by one of the souls who Went Home in 2017, you may know what I mean. Or not. Don’t care. Love her.

 

 

 

 

6.) Jemele Hill, Jessica Mendoza & Rachel Nichols on ESPN

 

Bristol, CT - April 20, 2017 - Studio X: Jemele Hill on the set of SC6 with Michael and Jemele (Photo by Allen Kee / ESPN Images)

Sep 17, 2014; Anaheim, CA, USA; ESPN reporter Jessica Mendoza during the MLB game between the Seattle Mariners and the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports usp ORG XMIT: USATSI-169850 [Via MerlinFTP Drop]

rachel nichols jumpThe Worldwide Leader in Sports has gone/is going through a rough patch, losing many of its best-known employees through layoffs, defections, retirement and overall attrition. What keeps me dropping by, mostly, are dauntless worker bees such as Nichols, a crafty veteran of the sports media wars who presides over the daily NBA forum, The Jump, with such easygoing authority and knowledgeable wit that the show’s become one of the major factors in luring me (almost) all the back to the Church of Professional Basketball. On the other hand, I’ve never left baseball and Mendoza’s game analysis on the Worldwide Leader’s Sunday Night Baseball is both bright AND smart without coming on too hard with attitude or being too soft on the players. With play-by-play stalwart Dan Shulman stepping away from the booth and tag-team partner Aaron Boone heading for the Yankees dugout to put his managerial presumptions to the ultimate test, Mendoza is now the Last One Sitting for the 2018 season. My choice for a partner would be the redoubtable Ron Darling (who admires her work), but that would break up the Gary-Keith-Ronnie rock-and-roll band that makes Mets fans like me smile through our tears and sorrow. Last, but by no means least is Hill, who’s shown both class and resilience during two high-profile dust-ups over inopportune (but to this reporter, not altogether inappropriate) tweeting. There’s not much she or anybody else can do about Donald Trump or Jerry Jones. Nor is there much to be done about varied harpers and carpers who don’t believe she and her co-host Michael Smith should helm the Worldwide Leader’s plum weekdays-at-6p.m. edition of SportsCenter. All she can do is what she’s been doing: Trading fours with Smith at the dinner hour the way Bird and Diz used to after midnight on 52nd Street during the Truman era and deploying her sportswriter’s street wisdom on every knotty sports-related controversy the Digital Age can set off.

 

Attica Locke Bluebird Bluebird

 

New-People_Danzy-Senna_cover
7.) Danzy Senna & Attica Locke – It’s been another stellar year for women-of-color in the Lit Biz. Leading the parade, and not just in my opinion, is Jesmyn Ward’s haunting Sing, Unburied, Sing, which has already been short-listed for almost as many awards as Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was a year ago. I’m going to use this space, however, to celebrate two relatively unsung achievements: Senna’s New People, a rom-com about interracial love in 21st century New York City, which is, quoting brazenly from Newsday’s review, “a martini-dry, espresso-dark comedy of contemporary manners” with a “compound of caustic observations and shrewd characterizations [that] could only have emerged from a writer as finely tuned to her social milieu as [Jane] Austen was to hers.” Locke, who also writes scripts for Empire, has spent this decade ascending to the front rank of America’s crime novelists, many of whom have sung her praises for such novels as 2009’s Black Water Rising and 2015’s Pleasantville. This year’s Bluebird, Bluebird, about a black Texas Ranger who has to both tread delicately and act decisively in two racially-charged murder cases, displays leaner, tighter sinew in her storytelling and deeper, more controlled lyricism in her style. And are we all agreed that Locke has one of the coolest bylines ever, regardless of genre or place-of-origin?

8.) Maria Bamford —

 

 

I have not yet seen the new season of Lady Dynamite, but I think she belongs on this list anyway because she remains a galvanizing  inspiration to humanity, which quite likely doesn’t deserve her, just as it didn’t deserve Jonathan Winters in whose company among great stand-up surrealists she surely belongs. If I didn’t think it would slow her roll, I’d insist Duluth’s pride-and-joy (she gave the commencement this year at the University of Minnesota) take over regular hosting duties at Prairie Home Companion. This recent clip from the show suggests, at least to me, how prominently she stands out in this crowd.

9.) Gal Gadot 

Gal Godot

Yes, she was the best reason to see Wonder Woman and, really, the ONLY reason to see Justice League. If you miss her whenever she’s not on-screen, that opens up the working definition of a movie star and Gadot may well be the closest we’ve come in recent years to seeing somebody completely inhabit that enchanted aura. Not yet, though. We still need to see her prominently placed in something besides Diana Prince’s battle armor. Off-screen, she’s also thrown some superhuman muscle against Hollywood sex predators. But if there’s a single moment from last year that makes us thankful that she’s in our world, it didn’t come from her Saturday Night Live hosting gig or any of her talk-show appearances. It was this moment at San Diego Comic-Con where she connected most tenderly with a young fan. After seeing this, I didn’t want to hear from anybody with a real or imagined gripe against her. To borrow and bend a phrase associated with both Walter Brennan and Elliot Gould, she’s OK with me.

 

 

 

 

10.) President Laura Montez from HBO’s Veep – At concluding points of Veep’s last two seasons, Montez (Andrea Savage) came across mostly as a plot device, an immaculately coifed sharp stone jutting out in the spiraling trajectories of Selena Meyer’s (Julia-Louis Dreyfus) political career and self-esteem. But when she gets sustained on-camera time, Savage’s character displays hints of a powerful motor humming beneath her decorous surface. That engine roars during an Oval Office encounter with the clueless one-term congressman and “sentient enema” (not my phrase) Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) with whom the president wearily negotiates terms for settling a government shutdown almost as meaningless as the ones carried out in real-life. Watching this scene, you somehow find communion with Montez as she reacts to every stupid thing that spews out of Jonah’s mouth the way we’ve been reacting to whatever our — um — “real” president’s been tweeting and blustering about every morning. Even Veep can’t altogether compete with the actual absurdities of the Trump administration, which may be one of the reasons it’s set to close shop after next season. Right now, I would be up for a whole new series with Laura Montez’s White House struggling to clean up the messes left behind by its predecessors. Who’s with me on this? Don’t answer until you check The Real Donald Trump’s tweet page…wait! What did he do? What did he do NOW?

 

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)

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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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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.