Tuesday, December 21, 2021

2021 - Music that Moved, Soothed, Educated, and Inspired (Part 1)

 One gets to a certain point in life, especially if one has been reviewing albums for over five decades, that you realize what it is that really moves you. 2021, and all the craziness that has occurred, the anger, the apathy, the bullshit, the miracles, the possibilities, has been filled with a ton of great music.  Impossible to pick one favorite, never mind 10.  This list is split into two parts: the first list contains the 10+ I chose for the Critics Poll. 

James Brandon Lewis/ Red Lily Quintet – "Jesup Wagon" (Tao Forms) – Great story, great playing, important message, JBL and cohorts (drummer Chad Taylor, bassist William Parker, cornettist Kirk Knuffke, and cellist Chris Hoffman) create sounds soaked in blues and country folk, post-bop and more, into one of the freshest programs of this or any year. 
JBL's new Intakt release, "Code of Being", is also worth your close attention but start here!

Various Artists – "Kimbrough" (Newvelle Records Digital only) –– It's been almost a year since pianist/ composer/ educator Frank Kimbrough passed on and the effects of his passing continue to reverberate through the music. To honor Kimbrough's accomplishments as a composer and educator, producer and Newvelle Records co-owner Evan Mehler (also a former student) gathered 65 musicians, many of whom had played and/or studied with FK. The producer and the musicians spent four days in May in the studio in various formations recording 60 of Kimbrough's composition (one song is recorded twice, one with a vocalist, the other time as an instrumental). Two months, Newvelle released the 61 tracks as a digital download and at a reduced price –– the music is well worth exploring, painting multiple portraits of a composer always looking to create new ways of expressing melody and emotion.

Ches Smith and We All Break – Path of Seven Colors (Pyroclastic Records) - Percussionist, composer, and experimenter Ches Smith first got involved playing Haitian Vodou music over two decades, first as an accompanist for dancers before forming his group and creating new music for a quartet (drums, percussion, and piano) he formed.  That group recorded in 2015 on a small label.  For his second album, We All Break has expanded to an octet, adding a female vocalist, a fourth percussionist, and the evocative alto saxophone of Miguel Zenón. The music is fascinating, hypnotic, the rhythms pouring out of the speakers pushed by the small army of percussionists and pianist Matt Mitchell. Great package (if you buy the CD), so colorful plus informative and you get the quartet album as well!

Kate McGarry & Keith Ganz Ensemble – "
What To Wear in the Dark" (Resilience Music) - Just what one needs in the midst of a dark year is music that teaches us about love, resilience, friendship, creativity, and more.  Ms. McGarry and Mr. Ganz reimagine a number of songs from artists such as The Beatles, Steely Dan, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, and others, creating a program that often lads the listener back to the possibility of hope. Not only is Ms. McGarry's voice in splendid shape but also the arrangements by Mr. Ganz stand out for their creativity and musicianship.

Go to https://katemcgarry.com/music/ for more information.

Julius Hemphill – "The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony: Archival Recordings 1977-2007" (New World Records) – As Historical Recordings/ Reissues go, this seven CD set of live and studio recordings from the late composer, saxophonist, and conceptualist Hemphill (1938-1995) is akin to finding a vein of gold running through your backyard.  Kudos to producer/ curator Marty Ehrlich for his tireless work going through Mr. Hemphill's archives of papers and tapes housed at the Fales Library & Special Collections of New York University.  If you're a fan of Mr. Hemphill's adventurous music, this collection is a must. If you don't know how important he was to Black American Music in the last 25 years of the 20th Century, this set is essential learning.

Steve Coleman and Five Elements – "Live at The Village Vanguard (MDW NTR)" (Pi Recordings) – This two-CD set from MacArthur Genius grant recipient and innovator Coleman's May 2018 three nights at the legendary New York City music venue continues an incredible of amazing music that the Chicago native has produced over the past three+ decades.  Mr. Coleman is his usual fiery self on alto saxophone surrounded by the stunning rhythm section of Anthony Tidd (bass) and Sean Rickman (drums) with the exploratory trumpet of Jonathan Finlayson and the brilliant vocal poetry of Kokayi. This music is relentless and once you start listening, you do not want to stop. 

Henry Threadgill ZOOID – "Poof" (Pi Recordings) - Mr. Threadgill is deep into his sixth decade of stretching the boundaries of Creative Music; ZOOID celebrated its 20th Anniversary this year showing no end to the creative adventures that the composer/ alto saxophonist/ flutist designs for them.  Some people call this music jazz, some classical, but it's so much more than that. This music is storytelling that reaches into both your brain and soul, exposing one to possibilities of melody, sound, interaction, and ideas that seem radical but once absorbed, become part of one's DNA.  And, it's always a treat when Mr. Threadgill plays with his band!

Wadada Leo Smith's Great Lakes Quartet – "The Chicago Symphonies" (TUM Records) – Wadada Leo Smith's music was ubiquitous in 2021 and believe me when I tell you it's hard to pick just one (in fact, all four of his TUM releases make my extended list (the entire list will be posted soon).  While the trumpeter/ composer/ conceptualist is not a Chicago native, his amazing musical vision began to find its shapes while working with various members of the AACM, coming to life as he played alongside Anthony Braxton, the late violinist Leroy Jenkins, and late drummer Steve McCall.  His Great Lake Quartet includes two Chicago stalwarts, Henry Threadgill and drummer Jack DeJohnette, plus long-time ally, bassist John Lindberg (saxophonist Jonathon Haffner replaces Mr. Threadgill on disk 4).  These four "Symphonies" focus on the people and ideas that Mr. Smith encountered in Chicago and the AACM people he encountered later in Paris, France, and New Haven, CT.  I spent the better part of two weeks almost exclusively listening to these disks and still hear new ideas and make new connections when I return to the albums.

Sonny Rollins – "Rollins in Holland: the 1967 Studio & Live Recordings" (Resonance Records) – As the psychedelic era of rock music enveloped the United States in its smoky haze, jazz masters were beginning to lose their places on the Hot 100 albums and many clubs were revising their music policy. Tenor sax master Sonny Rollins was about to on another sabbatical but before he did, he honored a number of outstanding performances. He landed in Holland in May of 1967, met his rhythm section, bassist Ruud Jacobs and drummer Han Bennink, played a radio show and a couple of club dates, then moved on.  The music on this two CD set features shorter pieces recorded for the noontime radio show plus a generous helping of longer cuts from the "live" dates.  The sound quality of the broadcasts are top-notch but the relative brevity of the tracks does not give the leader music room to stretch; he's also quite generous in giving solo time to his rhythm section. The longer live cuts have poorer sound quality but Mr. Rollins shines throughout! 

Chet Doxas - "You Can't Take It With You" (Whirlwind Recordings) – Tenor saxophonist Doxas in a trio setting with pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Thomas Morgan playing a delightful and heartfelt program of standards and originals.  The intimacy of this trio sans drums pulls the listener in, seducing one with melodic interplay, thoughtful interpretations, intelligent solos, and a sense of calm.  Doxas can "blow" with the best but here he chooses melody over facility/ technique. It's music for early morning and long nights when one can soak in the sounds without engaging the rest of the world.  

Mario Pavone Dialects Trio + 1 – "Blue Vertical" (Out of Your Head Records) –  In my original list, I posted "Isabella", the album Mr Pavone recorded with his Tampa Quartet in late February of this year but, after going back and listening to both posthumous albums, this one stood out a bit more. Recorded four weeks later (and six weeks before cancer claimed his life), one is amazed by the depth of the compositions (plus the brilliant of trumpeter Dave Ballou) and Mr. Pavone's stellar musicianship. Pianist Matt Mitchell and Tyshawn Sorey fill out the band – this ensemble's  history with the bassist explains why the music feels so urgent but not rushed.  Though I knew Mario Pavone for almost five decades, heard him play countless times, this is not a sentimental favorite.  This album shines brightly!

Roy Brooks – "Understanding" (Reel-to-Real Records) – For a time in the late 1960s and 70s, Roy Brooks was the "drummer" from Detroit. Not only did he lead his own ensembles but he also played alongside Horace Silver, Yusef Lateef, Chet Baker, and in Max Roach's percussion ensemble  M'Boom. This "buried" treasure was recorded live in Baltimore, MD, on November 1, 1970 and features the amazing trumpet work of Woody Shaw, tenor saxophonist Carlos Garnett, pianist Harold Mabern, and bassist Cecil McBee.  The intensity level this quintet creates leaps out of the speakers (the interactions between Shaw and Brooks are reminiscent of those of John Coltrane and Elvin Jones – no prisoners!) Roy Brooks, who passed in 2005, had a tough life yet his flame shone brightly until his illnesses got the best of him.  

Glenn Close & Ted Nash – "Transformation" (Tiger Turn) – Ms. Close and Mr. Nash decided to work together after the actress hosted the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (of which Mr. Nash is a charter member) after a concert near her summer home in Maine. They threw ideas around for a collaboration and settled on telling stories about people who have made life-changing decisions and the people those decisions affect.  The blend of Mr. Nash's original music with the stories of people such as the saxophonist's son Eli, actor/ comedian Wayne Brady, convicted murderer Judith Clarke, activist Matthew Stevenson, E.O Wilson, playwright Tony Kushner, and others, remind us how complex the world can be and how the simple acts of paying attention and acceptance can make such a difference.  

Go to https://tednash.com/.  

More to follow!  Everyone, be safe!

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