What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Lee Perry – Dub Treasures From The Black Ark: Rare Dubs 1976-1978. There are a lot of compilations in the late Lee Perry’s vast and confusing discography, of widely varying quality. This one is the real deal: the material is excellent and as best I can tell not available elsewhere. It’s mostly instrumental, and the sounds are heavy on the weird: lots of swooshes and bleeps over the rattling dub beats. In other words, wonderful.
  • Freddie Redd – Shades of Redd. There is a certain variety of jazz fan for whom the hard bop released on the Blue Note label in the 1950s and 1960s is the pinnacle of the art; these are the people to whom all those endless vinyl reissues are marketed. I am not that type of jazz fan, but the best hard bop can pretty great. Mark Stryker’s appreciation turned me on to this Freddie Redd album, which is one of the peaks of the style. The compositions are particularly excellent: they were endorsed by no one less than John Zorn, who covered many of them in his great News For Lulu project from the mid-80s.
  • Hailu Mergia – Tezeta. A newly unearthed treasure from the golden age of Ethiopian jazz. That sound is instantly recognizable and totally entrancing: the shuffling, gently funky drums, the spacey keyboards, and the incantations of the horns on top of it all. There’s just not enough of this stuff out there and more is always welcome.
  • Daniel Carter – Welcome Adventure! Vol. 1. A stellar session by what I am tempted to call a supergroup: the multi-instrumentalist Carter, heard here on trumpet, saxes and flute, genius pianist Matthew Shipp, and the unbeatable team of William Parker on bass and Hamid Drake on drums. The music continuously evolves in the manner of free jazz, but lacks the cathartic or chaotic vibe typical of that genre; the clarity of the themes and the musical logic is impeccable. Can’t wait for Vol. 2.
  • Ben Goldberg – Unfold Ordinary Mind. Clarinetist Goldberg changed roles with this project, choosing to lead the band from the low end with the rumbling sounds of the contra-alto clarinet. His melodic bass lines meld with contributions from two strong tenor players and guitar hero Nels Cline to create high-energy counterpoint.

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Alice Coltrane – Ptah, the El Daoud. A real classic. Joe Henderson and Pharoah Sanders are not an obvious combination of players, but they are surprisingly complementary here, delivering dark and complex lines over Coltrane’s driving piano. Still, the centerpiece of the album for me is the moody, bluesy “Turiya and Ramakrishna,” on which the horns lay out; it’s one of my favorite pieces of jazz piano trio.
  • Susan Alcorn – Pedernal. I’ve been catching up on various best-of-2020 lists, many of which featured this album. It has one of the more distinctive sounds of recent jazz bands: an all-string lineup of pedal steel guitar, guitar, violin, bass, drums. The complex tunes pay homage to the pedal steel’s country heritage while still exploring outer space. A truly unique musician, Alcorn is starting to get more of the recognition she deserves.
  • Webber/Morris Big Band – Both Are True. Another widely praised release of 2020, this is complex and up-to-the-minute contemporary ensemble work. The compositions by Anna Webber and Angela Morris deploy an amazing range of instrumental sounds in carefully chosen combinations, mixing minimalist repetition and improvisational climaxes to excellent effect.
  • Carla Bley – Andando El Tiempo. Bley has had a long and distinguished career (ably documented by Ethan Iverson), but for my money her recent recordings are among her very best. This is the second in a series documenting an intimate trio with bassist/husband Steve Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard. Although Bley is more known for her large ensemble arrangements, the small-group interplay here is wonderful.
  • Alice Coltrane – Journey In Satchidananda. Alice gets two, as there’s been a strong need for spiritual jazz lately in my house. The monster bass lines from Cecil McBee tie the whole thing together, and Pharoah Sanders is mostly restrained and even pretty on soprano sax throughout. The interplay between Rashied Ali’s drums and Vishnu Wood’s oud on the closing “Isis and Osiris” is one of many highlights.

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Floating Points & Pharaoh Sanders – Promises. This unusual collaboration has been almost universally hailed as a late-career masterpiece for Sanders, the one-time terror of the 60s avant-garde who has mellowed into something like elder-statesman status (see reviews in the New Yorker, Pitchfork, and the New York Times). Richard Williams’ review calls it less challenging than some earlier jazz-meets-ambient work, such as the great John Tchicai With Strings, which is fair enough. But it’s still strikingly lovely.
  • Morwell Unlimited – Dub Me. Somehow this didn’t grab when I first listened to it a decade or so ago–whoops, mistake. Perhaps that’s because it’s quieter and more pared-down than an a lot of dub. In fact it is a masterpiece of minimalism, one of King Tubby’s finest efforts. I picked this up back when the Blood & Fire reggae reissue label was still going strong and its CDs were still in circulation; it’s harder to find now (the link is to Deezer).
  • Sonic Youth – Simon Werner a Disparu. These instrumental jams are the last studio recordings Sonic Youth made before they broke up in 2011. They were my favorite band back when I was a Young Alternative Dude, and the chime of their detuned guitars can still bring a smile to my face. There’s nothing too groundbreaking here, but if you like the spacey bits of other SY albums then this will also be enjoyable.
  • Stan Getz – Captain Marvel. Chick Corea, may he rest in peace, played electric piano on this 1972 date, and his fusion-y Return To Forever band made up with the rest of the sidemen. But the resulting sound bears little resemblance to other offspring of Miles Davis’ electric period: it’s a rare example of electric jazz without rock gestures, just that gorgeous Getz tone throughout.
  • Edgard Varèse – “Density 21.5.” Originally composed in 1936, this solo flute piece has had a strange afterlife as a symbol of the potential for cross-pollination between jazz and classical music. A copy of the score with a signed dedication from the composer was found among Eric Dolphy’s papers in the Library of Congress, and Dolphy reportedly performed it at a 1962 concert. Among the many losses from Dolphy’s tragic early death in 1964 is the fact that we will never hear his take on it. The original 1950 recording of the piece is spooky, but actually does not sound too radical compared to the vocalized sounds Dolphy would develop in his own flute playing.

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Django Reinhardt – Renown And Resistance 1937-1943. Django’s recordings with his string-band group the Quintette du Hot Club de France are legendary, and rightly so. But he played in many different contexts, and this collection brings together a mass of recordings of him with other swing-era musicians. One of the highlights is a session with Rex Stewart and Barney Bigard from the Ellington band; together they make some of the best small-group swing on record.
  • John Zorn – More News For Lulu. The original News For Lulu album was a landmark of the 1980s avant-garde, taking on traditional hard-bop tunes with a very untraditional lineup: Zorn on alto, George Lewis on trombone, Bill Frisell on guitar. This live recording is even better, the players more assured and adventurous.
  • Duke Ellington – Piano In The Background. A somewhat obscure session that delivers the opposite of what the title promises: it’s a feature for Ellington’s often-underrated piano playing. The repertoire is largely familiar territory for the band but Ellington’s solos lift the playing out of the ordinary. The 1960s were a great decade for Ellington: two years after this he would record the stunning piano-trio masterpiece Money Jungle.
  • Steve Lacy – Blinks. A terrific, exciting live recording from a great working band. The rhythm section of Jean-Jacques Avenel and Oliver Johnson push the horn players (Lacy and his longtime partner Steve Potts) to startling heights.
  • Archie Shepp – Blasé. Of most interest on this 1969 Paris session are the first two tracks, in which Shepp brings in two harmonica players and the adventurous vocalist Jeanne Lee to improvise alongside his rough-edged tenor. The result feels like a glimpse of a possible new musical genre, a sort of free blues.
Rex Stewart, Django Reinhardt, Duke Ellington: Paris 1939

The best music I heard in 2020

I listened to something around 350 albums for the first time in 2020; these are the ones that stand out most in my memory. Most of them were not newly issued this year, but I’ve listed them in reverse chronological order by original release date to highlight the more recent stuff:

  • Sun Ra Arkestra – Swirling (2020). A loving and lovable repertory recording that takes Sun Ra’s instrumental miniatures and expands them in new directions. What stands out is how full of joy and good cheer the Arkestra is, so unlike the po-faced seriousness of much of the jazz avant-garde.
  • Vin Gordon – African Shores (2019). A new recording by the great Jamaican trombonist, who played on many classic 70s sessions with Lee Perry and others, is an event. He’s ably assisted by the reggae-loving British saxophonist Nat Birchall, and together they deliver classic spacey rhythms.
  • Junius Paul – Ism (2019). A sprawling, glorious mess. The music spans the gamut from free bop to funk, all grounded by Paul’s monstrously rhythmic bass playing.
  • Kim Kashkashian – J.S. Bach: Six Suites For Viola Solo (2018). This adaption of Bach’s cello suites for the viola is beautifully played, and succeeded in making me hear these classic pieces differently.
  • Coleman Hawkins – The Middle Years: Essential Cuts 1939-1949 (2018). The inventor of jazz saxophone displays unceasing daring and invention on this huge trove of classic recordings. Probably Hawkins’ best period.
  • Tony Allen – The Source and Tribute to Art Blakey (2017). On these late-career albums for Blue Note, Allen’s music is more compact in length and instrumentation than the long jams he played with Fela Kuti. His drumming is masterful, subtle and propulsive at once. Allen led a band from behind the drum kit as well as anyone since Blakey; he was one of our many losses of 2020.
  • Matthew Shipp – Not Bound (2017). Free jazz that simmers rather than boils. Shipp is one of the most consistently interesting and listenable pianists in the avant-garde.
  • John Tchicai – Tribal Ghost (2013). The Danish saxophonist, an elder of the 60s avant-garde, convenes a sympathetic group with fellow elders Cecil McBee and Billy Hart along with saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase and guitarist Garrison Fewell from a somewhat younger generation. The Free Jazz Collective rated it the seventh-best album of the 2010s.
  • Bill Dixon – With Exploding Star Orchestra (2008) and Papyrus Vol. I & Vol. II (1998). Maximalist and minimalist contexts for Dixon’s extraordinary trumpet sounds, which are equally gorgeous in front of Rob Mazurek’s large ensemble, or playing duets with drummer Tony Oxley.
  • Steve Lacy & Roswell Rudd – Early and Late (2007). Rudd’s New Orleans-inspired growls and smears on trombone are the perfect foil for Lacy’s tart, angular lines on soprano sax; together they make for one of the best front lines in jazz.
  • Bennie Maupin – Penumbra (2006). Perhaps the finest single example of Maupin’s bass clarinet playing, which was made famous on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew but has been recorded too seldom since. He also plays flute, tenor, soprano and a bit of piano, all backed by much loose, delicate percussion.
  • Roland Kirk – Kirk in Copenhagen (1991). You’re best off seeking out the full concert recording, released as discs 5 and 6 of the Complete Mercury Recordings and readily available on streaming platforms. Kirk’s sustained exuberance is a marvel; you can hear the audience laughing in delight, the only appropriate reaction to this music.
  • Dr. John – Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack: The Legendary Sessions Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 (1981). These mostly solo piano tracks, with a few vocals, highlight the late Doctor’s artistry and deep connection with the New Orleans tradition.
  • Gregory Isaacs – Slum In Dub (1978). A classic piece of dark dubbing goodness, every track is a gem. Thanks to my local reggae DJ for turning me on to this one.
  • Funkadelic – Funkadelic (1970). The rule of thumb for rock bands is that the first album is always the best, and that rule holds for George Clinton’s experiment with using a guitar-heavy rock lineup to play his soul and funk tunes. Funkadelic delivered occasional great tracks after this, but their debut is the most consistently enjoyable.
  • Gigi Gryce – Nica’s Tempo (1955). A somewhat obscure but nearly perfect piece of modernist 50s jazz. Gryce’s arrangements are the highlight, there are a couple of wonderful vocal numbers by Ernestine Anderson, and some surprising quartet tracks with Thelonious Monk. Another excellent Monk-adjacent recording is Introducing Johnny Griffin (1956); Griffin played on some of Monk’s best albums and his virtuoso chops are on full display here.

Previous lists: 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Briano Eno, Dieter Moebius, Hans-Joachim Roedelius – Cluster & Eno. The product of an extended collaboration in a rural German retreat, this 1977 album still stands as one of the better things any of these electronic-music luminaries have done. It’s more melodic and interesting than the pure background of the ambient music Eno would develop a few years later, and more consistently beautiful than much of Cluster’s previous work. These delicate miniatures are more attractive to me than the more rock-like songs on their follow-up effort, After The Heat.
  • Andrew Hill – Smokestack. Although Andrew Hill’s run of mid-60s albums on Blue Note is some of my favorite jazz ever recorded, I did not really appreciate this one the first few times I encountered it. It’s an oddball lineup — piano, two basses, drums — and the compositions are dark and twisty. Listening to it again recently, I abandoned all previous reservations; it’s great stuff, a distillation of Hill’s inimitable style.
  • Geri Allen – Etudes. Another pinnacle of modern jazz piano, with brilliant accompaniment from Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. Her version of “Lonely Woman” sounds perfectly natural on piano, a real accomplishment; Ethan Iverson calls it “the first truly acceptable version of Ornette Coleman’s most famous ballad with piano in the lead.”
  • Vin Gordon – African Shores. The British saxophonist Nat Birchall is not the only jazz musician to have fallen in love with reggae music. But he may be unmatched in his commitment to playing reggae in a respectful idiomatic style, without letting jazz preoccupations with individual virtuosity get in the way of the music. He produced and played on this new late-career album by the great Jamaican trombonist Gordon, who delivers indisputably excellent instrumental reggae throughout.
  • Pete Rock – Center Of Attention and The Original Baby Pa. A time capsule from the golden age of hip-hop: these albums were recorded in 1995 but went bafflingly unreleased at the time. Pete Rock’s beats are excellent, and provide many fine headnodding moments in his classic style, even if the rapping is not always as interesting as the production.
  • Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings E&F Sides. The sequel to one of the best jazz recordings of 2018, and very much more of a good thing. The casual vibe and accessible rhythms of this project disguise McCraven’s radical rejection of the usual strategies of the jazz avant-garde: there are few extended solos or complex compositions here. Instead he favors a collective groove, atmosphere and interlocking parts.

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Coleman Hawkins – The Middle Years: Essential Cuts 1939-1949. Out of all the classic tenor players, Hawkins has been the slowest to grow on me. His bluff, aggressive tone didn’t initially appeal, and I have to say Lester Young is still my president. But the unceasing daring and invention on display in these classic recordings finally won me over.
  • Curlew – Bee. One of the gateway drugs that first got me into jazz; I saw one of their shows in the early 1990s, when I was still an alternative-rock kid, and it really expanded my horizons. That era of the band is captured well on this 1992 album, which I hadn’t heard in a long time. Now that my ears have been trained by a couple more decades of jazz listening, Curlew is actually too rocky and aggressive for me. But Davey Williams’ guitar pyrotechnics and Tom Cora’s amplified cello playing are still a blast.
  • Gigi Gryce – Nica’s Tempo. I did not come to this obscure mid-50s jazz record with particularly high expectations, but it blew me away. In fact it’s one of very best recordings of this era of modernist jazz. Gryce’s arrangements are the highlight, there are a couple of wonderful vocal numbers by Ernestine Anderson, and some surprising quartet tracks with Thelonious Monk.
  • Bill Dixon & Tony Oxley – Papyrus Vol. I & Vol. II. Two hours of improvised trumpet and drum duets is not the kind of thing I usually go in for: a bit too close to avant-garde self-punishment. But this music is not punishing and is often outright gorgeous: Dixon extracts an unbelievable range of sounds from his trumpet.
  • Tony Allen – A Tribute to Art Blakey. I found out about this little session for Blue Note from Tony Allen’s obituary, which is always a sad way to come to appreciate an artist. I didn’t know much about his post-Fela Kuti work, but this is pretty damn good. Allen’s drumming is just amazing, entrancing without being overbearing.
  • Gregory Isaacs – Slum In Dub. A classic piece of dub from 1978, every track is a gem. Isaacs’ name is on the cover, and some of the rhythms come from his Cool Ruler album, but there is almost none of his singing to be heard. It’s mostly a fine piece of echoey rhythm work by Prince Jammy and King Tubby.
  • Junius Paul – Ism. Certainly one of best jazz recordings of 2019 (it dropped in November). A sprawling, glorious mess, whose long jams and eclecticism are reminiscent of one of those double albums from the 1970s. The music spans the gamut from free bop to funk, all grounded by Paul’s monstrously rhythmic bass playing.

A Lee Konitz memorial playlist

It’s been hard to keep up with all the losses that the pandemic has dealt us. But I had a particular admiration for Lee Konitz, who died this week at 92 from complications of Covid-19.

What’s really impressive about Konitz is not just the length of his career–he was born only seven years after Charlie Parker, who has now been dead for 65 years–but its remarkable diversity and creativity. He played with everyone and in every context, and always sounded like himself and almost always found something new to say.

Many great Konitz recordings are not mentioned in the obituaries (the best ones are David Adler’s for WBGO and John Fordham’s for The Guardian), which is more an indication of the incredible depth of his discography than anything else. His most recent album–Old Songs New–just came out in November. Ethan Iverson’s deeply personal appreciation of Konitz rightly highlights his playing in Paul Motian’s On Broadway project, which is one of my favorites as well.

Here are a few of the other Konitz recordings that have particularly stayed with me:

  • The Lee Konitz Duets (1967). A radically diverse and surprising jazz album, offering an early taste of the range of partnerships his career would encompass.
  • I Concentrate On You: A Tribute To Cole Porter (1974). Gorgeous, intimate duets with bassist Red Mitchell.
  • We Thought About Duke (1994). One of the most interesting Ellington tributes ever recorded; a collaboration with Franz Koglmann and other European avant-gardists.
  • Some New Stuff (2000). A characteristically modest title for an outing that uncharacteristically focuses on Konitz’s original compositions rather than standards. The high-energy rhythm section of Greg Cohen and Joey Baron push his playing to new heights.
  • Jugendstil II (2005). A masterpiece of improvisational counterpoint. Konitz shines in this darkly minimalist trio with tenor saxophonist Chris Cheek and French bassist-composer Stephane Furic Leibovici.
  • Owls Talk (2010). Konitz and the saxophonist Alexandra Grimal entwine complex, moody lines, backed by elders Gary Peacock on bass and Paul Motian on drums.

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Kim Kashkashian – J.S. Bach: Six Suites For Viola Solo. This adaption of Bach’s cello suites for the viola is beautifully played, and succeeded in making me hear these classic pieces differently.
  • Art Ensemble of Chicago – We Are On The Edge. Like basically every Art Ensemble album, their 50th anniversary celebration is a pretty mixed bag–but the high points are indeed very high, and the recording is gorgeously clear. The two surviving founding members have gathered a huge cast of Chicago jazz stars around them, making for a very different sound than their past recordings (the string players in particular stand out).
  • Jackie McLean – Action. One of a series of outstanding albums the great vibes player Bobby Hutcherson (RIP) made for Blue Note in the 1960s, in groups variously led by himself, the trombonist Grachan Moncur III, and alto player McLean. All of the albums are worth hearing, this one is especially fine.
  • Espen Aalberg – Basement Sessions Vol. 4 (The Bali Tapes). These joyful jam sessions, led by the Norwegian drummer Aalberg, hark back to the enthusiasm for world music that swept the jazz world in the 1960 and 70s. A worthy addition to the very short list of attempts at jazz-gamelan fusion.
  • Masada String Trio – The Circle Maker. John Zorn’s decades-long Masada project produced both a distinctive set of themes for jazz improvisation, and distinctive ensembles to play them. The unique sound of the Masada String Trio–violin, cello, bass–is perhaps the best match of ensemble with this “radical Jewish” repertory. I’ve been listening to all of their recordings again recently, and this may be the most consistent.

The best music I heard in 2019

I listened to over 250 new recordings this year–new to me, that is, not necessarily newly released in 2019. This is a highly subjective list of the ones that really stood out, in alphabetical order:

  • Joshua Abrams – Mandatory Reality. Long, gorgeous, slow pieces from a large ensemble, mixing jazz improvisation with African drones and minimalist patterns.
  • Don Byas – Giants of the Tenor Sax. Byas bridged the swing and bop eras, and his style on tenor sax marries the best of both eras: a gorgeous tone and great invention. This out-of-print CD is the only place I have found all of Byas’ legendary 1945 duets with bassist Slam Stewart; his other work is available on various anthologies.
  • Bill Dixon – Intents and Purposes and Tapestries For Small Orchestra. These two suites, from 1967 and 2009, bookend Dixon’s long career. Although he gets amazing sounds out of his trumpet, Dixon is also a composer of genius, creating complex moody soundscapes that are like nothing else in jazz.
  • Gamelan Pacifica – Nourishment. The Seattle-based gamelan ensemble’s 1994 recording Trance Gong was a landmark in combining Indonesian modernism with American new music; this 2015 disc has more excellent and intriguing work.
  • Charlie Haden – The Ballad of the Fallen and Not In Our Name. Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra is a famous piece of radical 1960s jazz, but these two follow-up albums are even better: true classics of large-ensemble writing. Carla Bley’s arrangements and clever transformations of classical and Latin American sources are the highlight.
  • Keith Hudson – Playing It Cool. Dark, rhythmic dub experiments from 1981. Almost everything I’ve heard by Hudson is essential: funky and strange in equal measures. 
  • Frank Kimbrough – Monk’s Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk. All 70 Monk compositions are given full and respectful readings by a jazz quartet. Kimbrough’s clever arrangements and Scott Robinson’s promiscuous multi-instrumentalism ensure variety.
  • Lee Konitz – The Lee Konitz Duets. A startlingly original and diverse recording that matches Konitz up with several different partners. It still sounds completely fresh 50 years later.
  • Warne Marsh – Ne Plus Ultra. A masterpiece of jazz counterpoint. I’ve always loved Marsh’s ability to play off other horn players, and this pianoless quartet recording from 1969 has beautiful interaction between Marsh and altoist Gary Foster.
  • Myra Melford – Snowy Egret. Melford’s compositions take many surprising turns while remaining very listenable. Another great bunch of contemporary jazz compositions is played by a similar lineup of trumpet, guitar, piano, bass and drums on Jonathan Finlayson’s Moving Still.
  • Paul Motian – On Broadway Vol. 1,2,3,4,5Motian’s transformations of the old warhorses are startling and beautiful. Altogether a major musical accomplishment by one of the most distinctive drummers in jazz.
  • Herbie Nichols – Herbie Nichols Trio and Love, Gloom, Cash, Love. I am late in discovering these classics, but not too late, thankfully. Every one of Nichols’ tunes is a gem. All of Nichols’ too-scarce recordings are also available on this compilation, and Ethan Iverson’s appreciation is a good listeners’ guide.
  • The Savory Collection 1935-1940 – A huge pile of great jazz from the swing era, most of it unheard since it was first broadcast on the radio.

Previous lists: 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014