Friday, December 9, 2016

Best of 2016, Part One

It's an honor being asked to participate in a Critics Poll, fun going back and listening to albums that you really enjoyed writing about, and downright nerve-wracking trying to pick 10, especially in a year where so many good recordings crossed my desk.

2016 was a very busy year in my life and a quick glance at the number of posts over the past 12 months is evidence that I did not have as much time to sit, to listen, to contemplate, and to write.  Connecticut is a small state with a decent amount of venues for live music but, due to numerous obligations, I rarely took the opportunity to just bask in the glory of watching and listening to musicians create, interact, to give of themselves, to transport listeners beyond the mundane and into worlds of endless possibilities.  The albums listed below (and in subsequent posts) are the ones that made days special, that made me think, helped me see the "real" world in a different light, and gave me great joy.

As one gets older, it's often tough to find joy when the world is in such upheaval.  Music not only gives us a haven from the daily insanity but, like poetry, theater, books, film, sports and more, also sheds light on the issues we should not, cannot, and often ignore.

Here's Part One:

Camila Meza - "Traces" (Sunnyside Records) - This recording, issued in late Winter, is utterly delightful. Not only is Ms. Meza a fine vocalist but this recording illustrates what a good guitarist, arranger, and band member she can be.  Her group - Shai Maestro (keyboards), Matt Penman (bass), Kendrick Scott (drums), Bashiri Johnson (percussion), Jody Redhage (cello) and guest vocalist Sachal Vasandani - creates sounds that make each one of these songs stand out. In February, I wrote "Chances are good you will not hear a better CD this year." That statement, for me, still stands. (Ms. Meza is also a member of trombonist Ryan Keberle's group Catharsis whose 2016 album appears in Part Two of this list).

For more information, go to

Enjoy this live version of the title song:

Billy Hart & The WDR Big Band - The Broader Picture (ENJA/Yellowbird) - Arranged and conducted by Christopher Schweizer, this album is a knockout from beginning to end.  Mr. Hart, who is most often heard in quartets ands quintets, is right at home pushing and prodding a large ensemble, especially one as talented as the WDR Big Band.  This album gives us the opportunity to hear the drummer's compositions in a different light and, golly, do they ever sound good.  Great drumming, impressive compositions, sparkling arrangements, and powerful solos, all add to a splendid album.

Here's a nice long track to enjoy:

Anthony Branker & Imagine - Beauty Within (Origin Records) - Dr. Branker is a composer and arranger who has been involved with music as a musician, conductor, and educator for over three decades.  His CV is deeply impressive (read it here) and his music keeps getting stronger. It's political and topical in the manner of Charles Mingus and Max Roach and this particular quintet of musicians - Fabian Almazan (piano, Pete McCann (guitars), Ralph Bowen (tenor and soprano saxophones), Linda Oh (bass), and Rudy Royston (drums) - play with such fire and finesse that this music is alive and powerful, lovely and emotionally strong.

For more information, go to

Here's a track to chew on:

Greg Ward & 10 Tongues - Touch My Beloved's Thoughts (Greenleaf Music) - The story of how this music came to life is quite fascinating (read it here); suffice to say, it's origins lay in saxophonist and composer Ward listening to Charles Mingus's "The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady" (1963).  Ward's work for 10 musicians, created for a concert of music and dance, is filled with blues, sparkling solos, and intelligent arrangements that spark comparison to Mingus's work in its scope but does not imitate it.  Especially impressive is the piano playing of Dennis Luxion and the rhythm section of Jason Roebke (bass) and Marcus Evans.

For more information, go to

Here's a live reading of one of the album's cuts:

Patrick Cornelius Octet - While We're Still Young (Whirlwind Recordings) - Saxophonist, flutist, composer, and arranger Cornelius created this fine recording as a musical response to the stories of A.A. Milne that he was reading to his children at bedtime.   With an impressive band -  John Ellis (tenor sax, bass clarinet), Jason Palmer (trumpet), Nick Vayenas (trombone), Miles Okazaki (guitars), Gerald Clayton (piano), Peter Slavov (bass), and Kendrick Scott (drums) - and a smart group of compositions, this album features music that is contemplative yet swings, with musicians telling "stories" that flow thanks to the fine ensemble arrangements and individual solos.  My review (read it here) includes quotes from both Cornelius and co-producer Kyle Saulnier.  

For more information, go to

Here's one of the delightful tracks:

These are just five of my favorites - more to come in the next several weeks.  Enjoy!

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