All this music was new to me this year, if not necessarily to the rest of the world. I’ve listed my favorites by release date to highlight the more recent ones:
- Sun Ra Arkestra – The Living Sky (2022). The latest release by the posthumous Arkestra is one of the gentlest and most purely beautiful albums in the Sun Ra canon. Even Marshall Allen’s squealing alto playing, which never seems to land straight on a note, fits into the mellow grooves. 2022 also saw new reissues of two of the best Sun Ra albums from the 1970s, Omniverse and Universe in Blue.
- Steven Lugerner – It Takes One To Know One (2022). A charming trio recording — bass clarinet, bass, drums — in which two younger musicians enlist jazz elder Albert Heath to deliver fresh interpretations of modern jazz tunes.
- Matthew Shipp Quartet with Jason Hao Kwang – Vision Festival Wednesday June 22 (2022). Now that I’ve started going to concerts again, I’m including live music in this list. This was without doubt the best performance I saw this year — a stunning hour-long improvisation driven by Shipp’s powerfully thematic piano and extraordinary sounds from Kwang’s violin and viola. The performance is archived online but honestly I haven’t dared listen to it again for fear the initial impact would be lost.
- Dave Easley – Byways of the Moon (2021). Fellow practitioner Susan Alcorn has called the pedal steel guitar “the last musical instrument borne of the mechanical age,” and Easley’s recital shows how its potential in a jazz context has still been barely tapped.
- Bill Frisell – Valentine (2020). Frisell’s stripped-down guitar trio, with long-time partners Thomas Morgan on bass and Rudy Royston on drums, is marvelously responsive and delivers a distinctive and very personal sound. I saw this group in concert this year and their interplay had advanced even beyond where it was on this excellent record.
- Lucky Thompson – Complete Parisian Small Group Sessions 1956-1959 (2017). Thompson had one of the most beautiful tones on tenor saxophone of any jazz player, but never got recorded as much as he deserved. This collection of sessions from his sojourn in France is just classic jazz.
- Jason Roebke – Cinema Spiral (2016). Bassist Roebke leads an octet of top-notch players from the Chicago scene through pleasingly complex tunes. To me the vibe was reminiscent in the best way of the more avant-garde Blue Note recordings of the 1960s.
- William Parker – O’Neal’s Porch (2002). An incredible record that reworks the “freebop” of Ornette Coleman’s quartet (sax, trumpet, bass, drums) with a radically different and funkier rhythmic approach (this 20th anniversary appreciation has good context). I also enjoyed this year’s Universal Tonality, a release of some of Parker’s large-ensemble recordings from the same period; it’s less consistent but the high points are very high.
- Ornette Coleman – Sound Museum: Hidden Man (1996). Coleman famously blew up traditional jazz ensembles with his pianoless quartets of the 1960s, so it’s surprising and pleasing to hear just how good he sounds here with the “standard” backing of piano, bass, drums.
- Julius Hemphill – Fat Man and the Hard Blues (1991). Composer and alto saxophonist Hemphill is generally acknowledged as the guiding spirit behind the World Saxophone Quartet, one of the essential groups of the 1980s. After leaving the WSQ he started recording with an all-saxophone sextet which, for me, is even better.
- Scientist – Meets The Space Invaders, Heavyweight Dub Champion, Rids The World Of The Evil Curse Of The Vampires, Encounters Pac Man, Wins The World Cup, Big Showdown At King Tubby’s, Dub Landing, Dub Landing Vol. 2 (1980-82). This run of albums on the Greensleeves label was perhaps the last gasp of classic dub reggae before electronics changed its sound forever. I listened to them all this year and there’s not much to choose among them: every one is killer (perhaps the albums with sports metaphors slightly edge the video-game-themed ones). Starting in 2016, these were reissued, for unclear reasons, under the names of other musicians, but the Scientist sound is consistent.
- Art Pepper – Winter Moon (1981). I’d always heard this was a good record but didn’t quite believe that jazz-with-strings could escape boring middlebrow tastelessness. Once I listened to it I had to admit it’s wonderful, with some of Pepper’s most gorgeous ballad playing.
- Marvin Gaye – Here, My Dear (1978). Much of what has been written about this classic album focuses on the lyrics rather than the music; Gaye was going through a divorce at the time. It’s not the subject matter that makes it great, though, but the music, a novel soundscape of complex, subtle funk. Stanley Crouch wrote a fascinating essay in 1979 on how it cut across boundaries of jazz and funk in new ways.
- Enrico Rava – Enrico Rava Quartet (1978). This session pairs Rava’s lyrical trumpet playing with the earthier style of the legendary trombonist Roswell Rudd; the tunes are lovely and the interplay is top-notch. Reportedly Rava’s favorite of his own albums.
- Burning Spear – Man in the Hills (1976), Dry & Heavy (1977). In preparation for seeing Burning Spear in concert this year, I filled in some of the gaps in my previous listening. His run of albums in the 1970s was just great, with horn ensembles that make for a deeper, more complex reggae sound. And he still puts on a great show at age 77.
- Pepper Adams – Plays The Compositions of Charlie Mingus (1963). One of the first and best Mingus tribute albums, recorded with input from the composer himself. Adams’ powerful baritone works wonderfully as the lead voice.
- Sonny Stitt – Sonny Stitt / Bud Powell / J.J. Johnson (1957). It’s easy to overlook all those unhelpfully titled jazz jam session records from the 1950s, but don’t skip this one: it’s pure, fierce bebop, recorded when the style was still fresh. Thanks to Ethan Iverson for the tip.
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