Jazz

2016: The Last Word In Jazz

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We critics have spoken, and here’s The 2016 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll : The Record : NPR.

I am happily surprised to see Henry Threadgill hit the top of the poll—it is generally slightly more forward looking than the Downbeat polls, but still skews to the mainstream. While his disc was not my absolute favorite for the year, it’s superb and represents not only his achievements as a unique and formidable composer of modern music (Henry’s idiom goes well beyond jazz) but also as a mark of his stature. He has been at the forefront of contemporary music for decades, but the Pulitzer win seems to have impressed a lot of people, and if he’s become the recipient of some default votes, he more than deserves that.

I’m also happy to see that Wadada Leo Smith’s America’s National Parks turned up. This was not on my list because I have not had the chance to give it the concentrated listening it deserves, but his recent compositions have been hugely ambitious and successful, and his playing is ridiculously strong—again, this is a mark of his stature and he deserves every bit of attention.

Also nice to see Resonance earn so much attention for their excellent run of reissues.

Listening proceeds apace, and before the year came to a close I got to considerably more jazz (thanks to the lull in classical concertizing). My Top 10 list remains the same, but I also want to add these recordings to the list of worthwhile 11s:

You can’t go wrong with anything on my lists, or the one at NPR.

Things To Come

Things will not be great in 2017 if you are an ordinary person, especially if you’re not a man and not white. Things will be great for certain people, those who have the right balance of melanin and money. For example, things will be good for non-punk rock musician/Weimar-ignoramus/privileged emigrant Amanda Palmer. But not everyone can be Amanda Palmer, most of us could never measure up to her level of self-regard and selfishness.

Predicting what will happen in the arts is foolish. For every idea inspired by anger—and there will be many—there will be the corresponding obstacles of lack of money and increased social corrosion. But certainly artists will persist, the first step in resisting the swamping backwash of history. Musicians, ones who emphasize substance over social media skill, are already putting out some invigorating protest music:

Noah Preminger, an excellent jazz musician with a deep, personal commitment to expressing his values through his music, is putting out a new record on January 20 (you know what day that is), Meditations on Freedom. Check out this excellent sample track, and order the album at his website.

Best Reanimations 2016

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The depth and range of 2016 reissues and archival releases was not as great as previous that of previous, years (especially 2015), but there were a small handful of such releases this year that were of rare quality and importance.

The most notable was Decca’s release of their Mozart 225 complete edition of his works. I’ve gone into more detail on this release here, and the short version is that this is the greatest collection of some of the greatest music in human civilization. The choice of performances is superior throughout, and if there is an emphasis on the new thinking that has come out of the Period Performance Practice movement, there is also a generous selection of wonderful performances that are historically important due to their sheer, exalted, quality. Round that out with fragments, works with unclear provenance, a good, short, hard-bound biography, and a new Köchel catalog, and this is a cornerstone collection for a serious classical music lover. But yes, it is expensive, and even with that cost it’s not perfect—my copy has a misprint in the booklet for opera and theater music. At this price, that type of quality control error should not happen, and it’s unclear to me if Decca will replace it, they don’t seem to have anything in the way of customer service.

(Note: Amazon price as of this posting, $340, is the best I’ve seen since it was released, and very close to the best pre-order price that had been available)

(Billboard reports that this is a surprise best-seller, moving more CDs than anything else released this year. This is misleading because they are multiplying the number of boxes sold—6,000 or so out of a total of 13,000 in this limited edition—by the 200 CDs contained within.)

For those sensitive to their budgets, there are still some amazing releases out within a wide price range. My favorites are:

Classical

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There were some good Bruckner boxes out this year too, but I’ll be writing about them in January.

Jazz

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  • Miles Davis Quintet: Freedom Jazz Dance: Bootleg Series Vol. 5. On the surface this might seem to be only for the specialists—the complete tape from the session that produce the great Miles Smiles album. But that means you are there while arguably the greatest ensemble in jazz history puts together a classic recording on the fly. An indispensable look into jazz as process, full of invaluable insights into what made Miles such an unsurpassed band leader. It’s tremendously exciting and makes the original album sound even better.
  • The Complete Savoy Be-Bop Sessions, 1945–49. Savoy is best known as Charlie Parker’s label. But these 10 CDs from the vaults have everything else on the label from that period, vintage early bebop excursions from Dexter Gordon, Milt Jackson, Stan Getz, and many more. One marvelous track after another, complete with alternate takes and the typical excellent documentation from Mosaic.
  • Sun Ra, The Singles Volume 1. Sun Ra’s singles are more than just fodder for condescending hipster lifestyles, they are a Rosetta Stone that decodes American popular music. If you don’t already have the original Evidence collection, absolutely get this. And if you do have it, this new set from Strut has plenty of additional tracks recently unearthed.
  • UPDATED (Can’t believe I forgot this): Peter Erskine Trio: As It Was. This is a 4 CD collection from ECM, everything that this trio produced. Taken together, this series of albums from the 1990s make for a pinnacle of modern piano trio jazz, and the late English pianist John Taylor is simply outstanding on every track.
  • Arthur Blythe: In the Tradition/Lenox Avenue Breakdown/Illusions/Blythe Spirit. Four albums on two CDs, for $20. Lenox and Illusions are two of the greatest albums of the post-fusion era, testaments to the beautifully creative and vital music made on the Loft Jazz scene.
  • Searching for You: The Lost Singles of McVouty (1958–1974). On Resonance, Zev Feldman produced two important archival releases this year, covering Larry Young and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. He had his hand in this one too, and there’s little this year I enjoyed as much.

Everything Else

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  • Harry Bertoia: Complete Sonambient Collection. A marvelous box from Important Records. This beautifully remasters and documents the records sculptor Bertoia made playing his Sonambient sound sculptures. Hours of rich, mysterious, beautiful, and immersive sounds.
  • Machine Gun: Jimi Hendrix: The Filmore East First Show 12/31/1969. The complete first set of Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys. An amazing performance and unintended culmination of Jimi’s musical world: blues, soul, funk, and rock.
  • Led Zepellin, Complete BBC Sessions. While it might be hard to imagine you would want to hear five different performances of “Communications Breakdown” in the same collection, the playing here is so exciting and powerful that you will enjoy every one. Some spectacular moments in Zepellin’s history.
  • Hey Colossus: Dedicated to Uri Klanger. A compilation of fairly recent music that had limited release previously, this should serve as an ideal introduction to this noise band. Their sound is heavy and warm and completely exhilarating. Not a dull moment to be heard.

2016 Notes and Tones

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After listening to what is now close to 500 recordings with a 2016 release date, I feel like I’ve discovered some themes. Some of this is the elusive zeitgeist, what is on the minds of musical artists; some is longer term trends having to do with technology and pop culture; some may just be coincidence. But all were noticeable and satisfied my arbitrary criteria for a sample size.

Jeff Parker

Nothing sub rosa here, Parker has been around for a while and has been one of most interesting guitarists on the scene, creating his own niche in between jazz, rock, neo-soul, and improvised music. He’s living testament that there’s no real line between the popular and the avant-garde in African-American music, it’s all on a spectrum, and a pretty compact one at that.

His album The New Breed (International Anthem) made the most noise this year, and it is solid. I don’t love it though; the intentionally fragmented nature, while interesting, doesn’t really satisfy—the record wants to be both experimental and neatly controlled, and those are contradictory goals.

But there are two other recordings to his credit that are fine. One is a seemingly modest but actually deep solo record, Slight Freedom (Eremite), which has Parker exploring his own fascinating art. The other is drummer Matt Mayhall’s Tropes (Skirl), a tight, strong debut based around the trio of Mayhall, bassist Paul Bryan, and Parker (with various guests). Parker’s contributions are integral to the success of the disc, which is the best jazz debut of the year, and my regrets that I did not get this out of the pile for listening until after the deadline for Francis Davis’ Jazz Critics Poll. Both these are strongly recommended and on my extended list for best new releases.

Guitars

There’s been a longer term trend in the proliferation of terrific guitarists—and please don’t think of just jazz. Many of them play jazz, but they are playing in every sort of style and tradition Some are relatively new on the scene, others are established, and they keep putting out one solid record after another (or, like Parker, are important sidemen on other musicians’ records). Here are recordings from guitarists that I enjoyed this year and recommend:

Ask me on a different day, and any and all of these could be on my list of 52.

Singers

First, I want to express some disappointment. As someone with a man-crush on Kurt Elling, his appearance on Branford Marsalis’ Upward Spiral never captured my attention, and I find his Christmas disc hard going. But there were other fine releases from singers that had the balance of artistry and creativity that I seek—I want my singers to be good musicians! Try these, they are all terrific:

Seriously swinging, musical singing from all the above. Everyone should hear Bertault sing “The Peacocks“ in French.

Labels

This was a strong year for Sunnyside records. I have several of their releases in my top 52, and you’ll find a couple of the vocalists there. Other keepers are Andrew Cyrille and Bill McHenry’s duet album, Proximity, Dan Blake’s tough-as-nails The Digging, and two records with a south of the Trump wall flavor, Edward Simon’s Latin American Songbook, and Argentum from Carlos Franzetti.

ECM is by default one of the major labels, but their output this year took nothing for granted and was impressive even by their consistent standards. I do go against some of the consensus favorites, like Michael Formanek’s The Distance, which I found wan, but they had a run of fine records in that typical ECM style that carved out a space between improvisation and contemporary classical control. Along with the release on my best of list:

ECM also had several excellent classical and new music releases, those you will find in a forthcoming post.

52 Pick-Up: Best NewMusic 2016

52 of the best new releases of the year, 52 out of the the 430 (as of this writing) new releases I listened to. Every year I fiddle with how to make and present these lists, and the idea here is obvious; one record to every week. For this I used the criteria of releases that I would gladly listen to, non-stop, for an entire week. That is, music that not only satisfied critical thinking, but that was a complete pleasure in the way it swamped critical thinking and just occupied the pleasure centers of my mind and body. Each note or sound was like a brick in a marvelous structure, and I wanted to hear it being built, piece by piece, over and over again. I could add an “honorable mentions” list with recordings that could move in an out of my 52, depending on mood, but I’ll that for the comments section, if anyone cares to discuss this.

I’ve placed this in rough genres that should be self-explanatory (“Popular” is any music that can be placed in a popular music category, from metal to hip hop; “New Classical” is music in that classical tradition that was both composed in the last generation or two and newly heard on recording). If you compare the Jazz/Blues below to my best jazz post, you’ll see some differences: the previous post was for Francis Davis’ categories, here I’m using mine, and I differentiate between musicians playing jazz and jazz musicians improvising in non-jazz idioms.

(Note that these are unranked because the criteria gives them equal value. Also note that I will have a separate list of for reissues and archival recordings.)

Ambient/Drone

Classical

Electronic

Improvisation

Jazz/Blues

New Classical

Popular Styles

Again, this list could be longer, but without limits I never would have gotten to the end. There are more worthy releases this year that I’ll get to in an upcoming post on notes and trends of 2016. Happy listening.

Best Jazz Releases of 2016

Let me qualify that header before things get out of control here: this not only snapshot of constantly shifting thoughts, but specifically conforms to the ballot Francis Davis sent out for his 11th annual Jazz Critics Poll. Despite NPR losing interest in jazz, they are still going to host the poll, the results of which will be up sometime in December. So I guess that’s something.

Now, one explanation and one major caveat. My experience with these releases—what led me to choose and rank them—is that, among the bevy of fine new jazz recordings I’ve heard this year (at least 200), these are the ones that completely satisfied me without any critical thought. I mean this in the best way; I listened but gave myself over completely to the music, and trusted each and every moment to bring me musically and logically to the next. The music occupied my mind and body. That’s my highest level of response.

The caveat is that the list goes roughly from Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving. I have not been able to listen through everything I’ve gotten so far this year (there’s at least 96 hours of music still unheard) and due to release dates there are certain things that I trust will be important that have not yet reached me, especially Strut Records new compilation of Sun Ra’s singles, and Mosaic’s Classic Savoy Be-Bop Sessions 1945-49. Look for them in my upcoming full year-end lists, or else in the ballot I fill out for Downbeat next spring. And so, I give you:

10 best new releases (albums released between last Thanksgiving and this, give or take) listed in descending order one-through-ten.

1 Kris Davis, Duopoly (Pyroclastic)

 

2 James Brandon Lewis Trio, No Filter (BNS Sessions)

3 Brian Charette, Once & Future (Posi-Tone)

4 Mary Halvorson Octet, Away With You (Firehouse 12)

 

5 Ches Smith, The Bell (ECM) (No official video or streaming audio available)
6 Eric Revis Trio, Crowded Solitudes (Clean Feed)

7 Henry Threadgill, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi Recordings)

 

8 Ross Hammond and Sameer Gupta, Upward (Big Weezus)

 

9 Robin Eubanks Mass Line Big Band, More Than Meets the Ear (Artist Share)

10 Jaimeo Brown Transcendence, Work Songs (Motema)

 

Top-three Reissues or Historical albums, again listed in descending order.

1  Miles Davis Quintet, Freedom Jazz Dance (Sony)

2  Peter Erskine Trio, As it Was (ECM)

3  Arthur Blythe, Lennox Avenue Breakdown/In the Tradition/Bush Baby/Blythe Spirit (BGO Records)

Year’s best Vocal album.

Camila Meza, Traces (Sunnyside)

 

Best Debut album.

I did not hear a debut album this year that left a strong impression on me.

Best Latin jazz album.

Brian Lynch, Madera Latino, (Holistic MusicWorks)

Thread(ing) the Words, the World

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As a reader interested in the state of contemporary music, you’ve likely already seen that Henry Threadgill won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in music, specifically for his 2015 album on Pi, In For a Penny, In for a Pound.

Personally, I’m overjoyed. I’ve been following Threadgill since I first heard one of his records with his group Air, which was probably around 1980-81. He’s one of those musicians who’s work gives me immediate pleasure while at the same time I often can’t completely comprehend it, and so I follow with persistent fascination. There are many examples of his music that deserve this kind of recognition, and the award feels to me like an honor for his complete career. But the Pulitzer is interested in the idea of composition, and In for a Penny, In for a Pound is just that.

I interviewed Threadgill and Jason Moran, in the company of Raymond Foye, for the December 2014/January 2015 Rail (I have something of a history of writing about Thread for the Rail, and without his existence probably would not be editing the music section). We talked about the work, which was about to premiere at Roulette (UPDATED: Liberty Ellman has told me the recordings were made in the studio, the Roulette performances were recorded but not for release), and he described it as a concerto highlighting the members of his excellent band, Zooid. He plays, but he’s not featured—he’s the composer, which likely made it easy for the committee to see what this piece is.

Musically, it’s the culmination of a long, developing concept of organizing what is best described as contemporary chamber music along the historic principles of jazz. From Air, through the Sextett, and even the electric bands Very Very Circus and Make a Move, Threadgill has been looking for a new structural method on top of the foundation of African-American music: marches, rags, the blues. You can hear a march, whether up-tempo or a dirge, a rag, a blues, or all three, on every single record he’s produced.

What he’s been doing with Zooid, and encapsulates on In for a Penny, is combine those roots with a means to tightly organize harmony and modulation while also allowing for improvised solos and free group interplay and accompaniment in the manner of traditional jazz. (I discussed this with him a few years ago, and don’t want to try and get too deep into it in case I misremember, but Threadgill uses a central chord, then lists the allowable intervals from the notes in the chord, and the musicians are free to use those intervals to modulate, but they must remain within those limits.) With his trademark recursive themes and hip, funky pulse, you get music that has immediate physical impact, that is firmly tonal (though complex), and tremendously sophisticated. Great art, in other words.

(His newest release is also another composition, in an appreciably different style: Old Locks and Irregular Verbs. This is a very beautiful record, a tribute to his dear, departed, much-missed friend Butch Morris—the music carries a deep, elegiac quality underneath a compelling, almost diffident, surface.)

And great African-American art, I want to point out. Threadgill’s work is the fulfillment of the AACM motto, the one Joseph Jarman would announce at the end of every Art Ensemble of Chicago concert, “Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future!” As Henry said during our interview, “What a lot of people forget about is that historically black people in America are the latest things on the planet!” They are, and they have been giving us all sorts of the latest thinking in serious music for more than a century. Occasionally, people hear this.

*

For more Threadgill listening pleasure, here’s a recommended discography:

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Henry Threadgill: The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint & Soul Note: a great bargain, and although not the most comprehensive collection, this is where you get Spirit of Nuff…Nuff, one of his most important records, the compositional ideas of Song Out of My Trees, and some decent (if not the best) Air, including a guest appearance from Cassandra Wilson.

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Novus & Columbia Recordings of Henry Threadgill & Air: expensive, but worth every penny and pound. This has some, altough not all, of the Air records, the absolutely essential run of Sextett albums (You Know the Number, Easily Slip Into Another World, Rag, Bush, and All), the early X-75 compositional experiment, two Very Very Circus recordings, and Where’s Your Cup with Make a Move. That last band lasted all of two records, and is something of a sidebar, but Where’s Your Cup kicks ass all up and down the sidewalk. Get this if you can at all afford it, and even if you can’t (limited edition of 5,000 total copies, marked as running low as of the beginning of September 2016).

Pi Recordings: Henry’s label for the 21st century, with seven releases so far and, if the whispers I’ve been hearing are true, something else to come this year that is supposed to be crushingly great. This is where the Zooid band has been thriving. If you don’t need EVERYTHING Henry has made (why not?), and taking into account that Zooid has gotten better at Henry’s concept through the years, the records to get here are This Brings Us To, Vol. 2 through Old Locks and Irregular Verbs.

A Month of Listening: March 2016

First, the stats:

  • 32 new releases in 31 days
  • 147 new releases for the year

UPDATED: With embedded document to see if it solve downloading problems.

Current pace is for me to get through 588 recordings this year, which is holding pretty steady from the 2015 mark.

The Recording of the Week series continues to look at what I feel are the best new releases, but that still leaves only 52 for the year, when it is always easy to recommend more. So here are the other recordings from the past month that are my favorites, and are recommended:

    • R. Andrew Lee, Adrian Knight: Obsessions. The best review I can give is the one from Lee’s concert that opened the month. TL;DR, a beguiling and extremely well-made, one-hour piano piece, ambient-level dynamics but compelling all the way through. One of the best of the year.
    • Craig Taborn/Christian McBride/Tyshawn Sorey, Flaga: Book of Angels 27. This feels like the debut of the next great jazz piano trio, playing some of Zorn’s best recent material. The balance between the group’s fly-away energy and Zorn’s control is visceral.
    • Henry Threadgill Double Up, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs. The debut of this ensemble and Threadgill’s composition at the NYC Winter JazzFest in 2014 was notable enough. Now both the group and the music have become both more refined and deeper. Immersive and accomplished.
    • Chihei Hatakeyama, You’re Still In It. I listened to so much ambient music in 2015 that the style has lost a lot of its attraction for me, but this is a captivating release.
    • Les Arts Florissants and William Christie, Bien que l’amour…airs sérieux et à boire. Available as of today, this is the first of what will be a series of new recordings from this great group on Harmonia Mundi. This is an anthology of songs and instrumental music heard, in the past, in both intimate and public settings. The dramatic and musical freedom and expression heard here is remarkable. (Note that the Harmonia Mundi back catalogue of recordings from Les Arts is being reissued at attractive prices.)
    • Brian Groder Trio, R Train on the D Line. Tough, smart, tight music making on the border of jazz and free. An excellent trio, and Groder plays the trumpet with particular verve and a big sound. Terrific in every way.
    • Hanami, The Only Way to Float Free. Jazz groups that play like rock groups, or play instrumental rock, are not a new thing anymore. But this new group has a refreshing take on the style, with compositions and arrangements that are marked by refreshing idiosyncrasies, and impressive ensemble playing from reedist Mai Sugimoto. (Release date April 22.)

Recording of the Week: Melissa Aldana, Back Home

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Melissa Aldana, Back Home

Aldana, tenor saxophone; Pablo Menares, bass; Jochen Rueckert, drums

 

Let’s get the labels out of the way first: saxophonist Aldana won the 2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, making her the first (non-singer) woman to earn the award. Now is the time to acknowledge the generations of sexism on the jazz scene and also point out how there are an increasing number of female instrumentalists in jazz who are helping lead the music into the future (Mary Halvorson, Kris Davis, Ingrid Jensen, et al). Now, to the music.

This is a subtle and strong album, one that lingers in the memory and rewards repeated listening. Aldana is one of the growing number of saxophonists—most notably Noah Preminger—who come out of the warm, introverted sound of Joe Lovano. To that, she adds a particular taste for long, winding improvisational lines, which have a motion and an internal anchor that touch on the quality that made Tina Brooks so special.

The material is a mix of her originals, some tunes by Menares, two by Rueckert, and Weill’s “My Ship.” Outside of the Weill, which is a classic, the material is solid—Menares in particular has a way with tasty riffs and strong harmonic rhythm. But what mainly sticks in the memory is the effect of Aldana’s playing. Back Home is an advance on her previous release in that she’s found a way to play more subtlety while digging deeper.

There’s nothing here designed to knock your socks off, nothing to act as a hit or a hook for the rest of the album. It’s just fine trio playing, Menares and Rueckert are both strong as accompanists and soloists, and it’s the details of the ensemble that makes this rewarding. Aldana’s lyrical invention is sensitive to what is happening rhythmically underneath her, and Menares and Rueckert constantly respond to her and with sensitivity and creativity. An unexpected accent, a turn in a phrase that seems out of place but is then resolved through later logic, these are meant for attentive listening, because they offer up depths. The compelling charms have had me coming back to this one again and again.

Aldana will be playing music from Back Home at Birdland, March 30 & 31

A Month of Listening: February 2016

A short month perhaps, but no concessions the number of days: in this year’s leap-month of February, I listened to 38 recordings, making a total of 94 for the year so far. My current pace will have me covering 564 records that are new/recent releases for this year, a little under what I heard last year.

That pace will change, of course. In February, I spent considerable time listening to Beethoven symphonies and string quartets in my collection, and also spent some time with Sibelius and Bruckner and Thelonious Monk. Of the new music, and along with the Recordings of the Week series, my favorites for the month were:

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Here’s the February 2016 Listening I use for details, for the curious. I encourage you to check out any and all of the above releases, and happy listening.