Saturday, December 19, 2020

Twenty Recordings for 2020 (Part 1)

 At the beginning of this year, many of us knew that we would have to suffer through the Presidential Election cycle, that the amount of money spent on Federal and State elections would reach epic heights, and the possibility of lies and half-truths flying through the air might rent this country asunder.  We did, it did, but hardly anyone predicted that a deadly virus would kill so many people, close up so many businesses, turn cities into deserts, and touch so many families around the country and the world.  

Here at the cusp of 2021, there are now vaccines to fight the virus beginning to be distributed around the world, there will be a new administration in Washington, D.C., and we will soon be able to venture outdoors to begin the process of healing our communities. On a personal note, my older sister passed in April and my wife's brother in September; like many older people, our family is spread around the country and we only see them on FaceTime or via ZOOM. Our friends suffer in the hospital and we cannot visit to help buoy their spirits. Even worse, unless we can go outside, there's no breaking of bread, no sharing of wine and desserts, no going to plays or concerts or galleries.  

Yet, music remains a constant and 2020 was a sparkling time for Black American Music. Whereas many of the albums that topped the "Critics List" were recorded in 2019 or before, by the end of the year we were hearing music produced in the pandemic months. The spirit of creativity has not suffered even as so many musicians, who depend on live performances to pay the rent and feed their families, often have to apply for grants and gifts to stay afloat. As a reviewer, I am blessed with plenty of promotional CDs and audio files; artists appreciate reviews but the only money they will see form that are the royalties when the album is sold.  Many of them have turned to Bandcamp, perhaps the fairest of all the music sellers in the world (the website's "First Fridays", a day when over 90% of the money paid for a music file or album goes directly to the artist)––you'll see links to the artist's Bandcamp page at the bottom of nearly all the albums in Step Tempest.  Listen when you can, purchase what you can.  Music brings hope, solace, awakens our senses and emotions, and makes our blood flow.  

Below are albums that I reviewed this year and that stand out from the rest.

Chad Taylor Trio - The Daily Biological (Cuneiform Records) –  This album arrived several weeks after my sister's passing. The energy and beauty in the music reminded me that music has the power to cut through grief, to amplify emotions, and to soothe us in times of loss. Listening to the music created by drummer and composer Chad Taylor, tenor saxophonist Brian Settles, and pianist Neil Podgurski wafting through our house as the Spring breezes danced through now-open windows shook me from my lethargy and mourning to confront and savor how these three musicians tackled diversity, melody, and rhythm over the course of nine songs in 61 minutes. Sounds fresh each time I listen and it remains a "go-to" recording.  To listen and purchase, go to

(Honorable mention: "Live in Willisau" – James Brandon Lewis and Chad Taylor - (Intakt Records)

Eric Revis - "Slipknots Through a Looking Glass" - (Pyroclastic Records) -  Bassist and composer Revis, a mainstay of the Branford Marsalis Quartet, releases the most interesting albums as a leader and this one is no exception.  With a band that includes Chad Taylor (drums, mbira), label head Kris Davis (piano, prepared piano), Darius Jones (alto saxophone), Bill McHenry (tenor saxophone), and Justin Faulkner (drums on two tracks), this music is experimental, funky, fiery, loud, and soothing, an album that makes you sit up and dig in.  Taylor and Revis together could light up the night sky; mix in the piano and reeds and the music takes off in so many fascinating directions.  To listen and purchase, go to  

Aubrey Johnson - "Unraveled" - (Outside In Music) - It took three years for this album to reach the public but Ms. Johnson's performance, her song choices, and the delightfully simpatico quintet of musicians was well worth. Her voice is supple, emotionally full, and she sounds so invested in the material that you believe ebery word she sings.  Her ability to take a piece like Jimmy Rowles oft-recorded "The Peacocks" and make it her own (kudos to the bass clarinet of Michael Sachs for her fine counterpoint) or the opening "No More I Love Yous" (made a hit by Annie Lennox) which brings the lyrics into focus is a listener's delight.  The pandemic cut off the "Album Release Tour"––let's hope she gets to bring this impressive group and music to the public soon.  To listen to more and purchase the album, go to.

Doxas Brothers - "The Circle" - (Justin Time Records) - This recording snuck up on me, quietly but stealthily invading my brain and my heart. Brothers Chet (tenor saxophone) and Jim (drums), along with Adrian Vedady (drums) and the magnificent Marc Copland (piano) present a nine-song program (eight originals, one standard––Gordon Jenkin's "Goodbye") that is rich in melody, inventiveness, and, when called for, great fire.  Copland's solos and support are fascinating to listen to throughout, eschewing cliches for thoughtful interaction and melody.  The Brothers, who play with Dave Douglas and Steve Swallow in Riverside, are mighty impressive players who do not overplay.  For more information and to purchase the recording, go to

Matthew Shipp Trio – "The Unidentifiable" - (ESP-Disk) – Pianist and composer Shipp turned 60 a few weeks ago (December 7) but shows no signs of slowing down.  He's on a slew of albums again that were releases in 2020 including this delightful Trio recording on ESP.  With his tremendous rhythm section of Michael Bisio (bass) and Newman Taylor Baker (drums), the pianist pounds, darts, dashes, swings, and sings a splendid 11-song program.  Over the last few Trio recordings, Shipp has embraced melody in a way that is adventurous and not cloying, thoughtful without technical histrionics. He can still wail on piano but his music is concerned with texture, interplay, and finding the links between darkness and light.  To listen and to purchase, go to

(Honorable mention goes to "The Piano Equation", Shipp's solo piano recording for drummer Whit Dickey's TaoForms label––check it out at

Max Bessesen - "Trouble" - (Ropeadope Records) – There were a number of debut albums this year (Aubrey Johnson, for instance) but none that captured my imagination more than young Mr. Bessesen's recording. The Denver, CO, native began playing alto saxophone as a teenager and mentored by great cornettist Ron Miles. He attended Oberlin Conservatory and, after traveling the world through a Fellowship, he settled in Chicago and started his own band. The death of one of the band members––guitarist Zac Nunnery––spurred the saxophonist to bring the his (now) quartet into the studio. The resulting album is quite exciting, musical, and well worth exploring.  An added bonus is the presence of Mr. Miles on six of the 10 tracks!
To listen to and purchase the album, go to

(Honorable mention––Ron Miles 2020 Blue Note release "Rainbow Sign". For more information, go to

The first half of this list of 20 also includes four of the Large Ensemble albums I posted about the other day. They include Felipe Salles Interconnections Ensemble "The New Immigrant Experience: Music Inspired by Conversations with Dreamers", Maria Schneider Orchestra "Data Lords", Gregg August "Dialogues on Race, Vol. I", and Arturo O'Farrill Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra "The Four Questions". 

Second half will be posted next week!

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