What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Marc Ribot – Plays Solo Guitar Works of Frantz Casseus. Ribot wrote movingly about Casseus, a family friend and his first guitar teacher, in his quasi-memoir Unstrung. The self-described noise guitarist plays these pieces straight, in support of Casseus’ ambition to make a distinctive Haitian contribution to the classical guitar repertoire. They are lovely, rhythmic miniatures.
  • The Temptations – Psychedelic Soul. Obituaries are a sad way to discover new music. In this case Richard Williams’ appreciation of Barrett Strong, who passed in January, led me to the 1968-1972 era of The Temptations and their collaborations with Strong and Norman Whitfield. This work is both extraordinarily creative and sublimely funky; everyone knows “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” but there is so much more great stuff on this collection.
  • Tyshawn Sorey – The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism. This epic live recording topped many best-of-2022 lists, and deservedly so. Drummer Sorey here takes off his avant-composer hat to back his piano trio, and invites elder Greg Osby along for the ride to play standards and modern jazz classics. It’s all absolutely fresh and in the moment.
  • New Kingdom – Paradise Don’t Come Cheap. The golden age of hip-hop in the early 90s was a historic flowering of a new art form: a hundred flowers bloomed, though not all of them lasted. The unique sound of this album had few precedents (their previous album was pretty weak and inconsistent), and was not followed up. But the growled, hallucinatory lyrics atop echoey, bluesy beats still sound intense and compelling.
  • Muhal Richard Abrams – The Hearinga Suite. A sterling example of modern big band music, complex and interesting but not nearly as forbidding as some of Abrams’ earlier, more avant-garde excursions. Abrams deploys the full power of the massed ensemble sparingly, mostly preferring to string together different smaller combinations of instruments. The 1980s-vintage synthesizers now sound a bit dated, but otherwise this music is still remarkably cliché-free.

The best music I heard in 2022

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.

Previous lists: 2021 | 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Evan Ziporyn – Philip Glass: Best Out of Three. Apparently this is the first recording of this 1968 work by Glass, a quite pretty piece of interlocking lines for three clarinets. I still like these earlier works by Glass the most. Ziporyn presents two versions, the second played at a tempo one-third faster than the first, and notes: “I know of very few pieces of music that can work at such markedly different speeds, and pretty much all of them are either by Philip Glass or J.S. Bach.” He has also recorded another classic minimalist work played entirely on overdubbed clarinets: Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint.
  • Lucky Thompson – Complete Parisian Small Group Sessions 1956-1959. Thompson had one of the most beautiful sounds on tenor saxophone of any jazz player, but never got recorded as much as he deserved. Somewhat like Don Byas, who was a decade older, his playing combined swing and bebop in a way that now sounds timeless. This generous 4CD package collects a bunch of otherwise obscure sessions from his sojourn in France, all of which are just classic jazz.
  • Ornette Coleman – Sound Museum: Hidden Man. Coleman famously blew up traditional jazz orchestration with his pianoless quartets of the 1960s, so it’s surprising and pleasing to hear just how good he sounds here with the traditional backing of piano, bass, drums. The difference is that by 1996, when these sessions were recorded, jazz piano playing had had a generation to absorb Coleman’s innovations: Geri Allen proves to be a perfect foil for him.
  • Wadada Leo Smith – Ten Freedom Summers. Fair warning, this massive collection is over four hours of music, and for me probably only about half of it will be a repeat listen. The combination of jazz quartet with a classical chamber ensemble is a mixed bag. Smith’s trumpet playing is gorgeous, and in his use of space and silence he is the true heir of Miles Davis. But I find it hard to love his writing for strings, although it’s clearly an important part of his art; maybe I just don’t have the background for it. Still, your mileage may wary, and the quartet tracks are undeniably brilliant.
  • Freddie Hubbard – Hub Cap. One of the absolute classic 1960s Blue Note sessions of sophisticated hard bop, which I had somehow missed hearing until recently. The lineup is fantastic, with Julian Priester and Jimmy Heath joining Hubbard in the front line, and the writing is particularly good, including Hubbard’s own arrangements and one by the great Melba Liston.

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Sha – Monbijou. One of the most obvious cultural trends of what we might call the high pandemic era of 2020-21 was a boom in solo recordings, as musicians tried to find ways to stay active and creative despite isolation. Maybe someone will write a book about it one day. This is a gorgeous recording of solo bass clarinet, recorded in early 2020 under the Monbijou bridge in Bern, Switzerland. The style is influenced by minimalist repetition, with loops and drones, and takes full advantage of the natural echo.
  • King Sunny Adé – The Best Of The Classic Years. The huge, spacy sound of juju music, featuring the talking drum and echoing guitars, is one of the great Nigerian cultural creations. Adé had international success with his albums in the 1980s, but having now listened to most of his output, this compilation of his earlier material from the late 1960s and early 1970s is where I would start. Although I’m not really an audio snob, I have to say this sounds amazing on decent speakers.
  • Rail Band – Belle Epoque Vol. 2: Mansa. While Mali’s Rail Band was the launching point for many great careers in African pop music, for me these recordings are mostly a showcase for the guitar genius Djelimady Tounkara. It’s easy to get delightfully lost in his long, spiraling lines.
  • Bill Frisell – Valentine. The valentine of the title is a (very faithful) tribute to Thelonious Monk, but this record is a thoroughly personal statement from Frisell. He plays all the things he likes, from Burt Bacharach to country standards to his own compositions, in his own inimitable style (there’s even a Malian tune). The stripped-down trio, with long-time partners Thomas Morgan on bass and Rudy Royston on drums, is marvelously responsive.
  • Steve Lugerner – It Takes One To Know One. An absolutely charming recording in which two younger musicians enlist jazz elder Albert Heath for a series of interpretations of classic modern jazz tunes, including two by his brother Jimmy Heath. The unusual format — bass clarinet, bass, drums — is one more associated with the avant-garde, and helps keep this take on the tradition fresh.

Lessons from Hall Overton

I knew the name Hall Overton from Thelonious Monk records: he was the arranger on Monk’s two large-ensemble recordings, At Town Hall and Big Band and Quartet In Concert. But I didn’t know anything else about him when I next came across his name, in Steve Reich’s new book Conversations, which transcribes chats with various friends and collaborators.

It turns out that Overton was an important music teacher and figure in the cross-pollination of musical worlds that was happening in the 1950s and 1960s. It makes sense that Reich, whose minimalism was in part an effort to recreate some of the dynamism of jazz and other musics in formal composition, would have studied with Overton, who was one of the first musicians to engage seriously and on equal terms with both jazz and the European tradition.

Reich thought very highly of Overton as a human being and a musician, and I particularly liked this anecdote about his lessons:

Steve Reich: I remember the very first day Hall gave me a compositional exercise to do. He said, “I want you to write some melodies,” and he went into my music notebook and drew it in pencil: “Write a melody that goes like this, down, another that goes up, and a third that goes straight.”

I looked at him, because this was the very, very beginning, and I said, “Hall, I don’t think I have enough technique.” And he looked me right in the eye and said, “You’ll never have enough technique. Get to work.”

David Lang: (laughs) Oh, that’s such a great lesson.

SR: Isn’t that wonderful? I mean, it’s still true.

DL: It’s still true.

SR: I’m gonna die and think, “Ugh, I was just getting started.”

DL: That’s like every composer’s great fear, you know? “There are things I wish I could do, but I’ll never be good enough to be able to do them.”

SR: So, best to do what you can do and get on with it. Because you’ll do that well, and who knows, you could get better.

DL: Yes.

That strikes me as pretty good advice for everyone, not just composers.

Ethan Iverson has also written a typically interesting and in-depth appreciation of Overton’s own compositions; he doesn’t claim that they are lost masterpieces but judges that he “successfully harnessed some of the jazz scene’s incandescent energy for the realm of fully notated formal composition.”

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Byard Lancaster – It’s Not Up To Us. The star of this piece of free-jazz marginalia from 1968 is the criminally under-recorded electric guitar innovator Sonny Sharrock, delivering an early example of his extraordinarily forceful attack. When I saw Sharrock live in the early 1990s, he kept a stack of guitar picks on his amp, and wore them out at a furious pace–a physical approach to guitar noise that no one has matched. The theme “John’s Children” from this album was later reprised in more epic fashion as “Many Mansions” on Sharrock’s late-career masterpiece Ask The Ages. For more on his career, see this 1989 interview.
  • Sonny Rollins & Coleman Hawkins – Sonny Meets Hawk. The Jazz Great Meets Jazz Great formula beloved of midcentury record producers was not very reliable at actually generating good albums, though a few classics did result. Among them are Coltrane’s session with Ellington, and this one from 1963. I had not sought it out before because I just assumed it would be a courteous, traditional blowing session. Nothing could be further from the truth: it’s actually one of Rollins’ more adventurous recordings, featuring young avant-gardists like Paul Bley and Henry Grimes. Hawkins, whose own avant-garde credentials go back to his “Picasso” of 1948, meets them on that territory and plays wonderfully.
  • Dave Easley – Byways Of The Moon. Fellow practitioner Susan Alcorn has called the pedal steel guitar “the last musical instrument borne of the mechanical age” and its potential in a jazz context has still been barely tapped. In this recording, the Louisiana-based Easley demonstrates the fiendishly complex instrument’s capabilities in a recital of tunes by Monk, Miles, Coltrane and Carla Bley, also throwing in a couple of transformed pieces from the rock repertoire (Led Zeppelin, Brian Wilson). It sounds great.
  • William Parker – O’Neal’s Porch. Recorded in the opening months of this century but unheard by me until recently, this is a stunningly good session. It’s recognizably in the “freebop” mode of Ornette Coleman’s quartet (sax, trumpet, bass, drums) but with a radically different and funkier rhythmic approach from Parker and longtime comrade Hamid Drake on drums. Right now, I can think of few recordings that better mine the tension between rhythmic drive and vertiginous improvisation that is one of the singular pleasures of jazz. This 20th anniversary appreciation has good context on how the album fits into Parker’s impressive career.
  • Ben Goldberg – Everything Happens To Be. Improvisational counterpoint is one of my favorite things and there’s plenty of it on this new-ish session from an unusual quintet. The woody tone of Goldberg’s clarinet mixes wonderfully with the dry, breathy sounds from Ellery Eskelin’s tenor sax and Mary Halvorson’s guitar. And the rhythm section of Michael Formanek on bass and Tomas Fujiwara on drums is one of the best in jazz right now, one of the few rivals to the Parker-Drake combo.

The best music I heard in 2021

I listened to somewhere around 250 recordings for the first time this year; these are the ones that stood out the most. The list is by release date to highlight the more recent ones:

  • Floating Points & Pharaoh Sanders – Promises (2021). A gorgeous and unclassifiable sound; after decades of searching, Sanders’ tone on tenor sax has become something unearthly. Also on many best of 2021 lists.
  • Andrew Cyrille – The News (2021). Cyrille is another jazz elder (he is a year older than Sanders) making stellar work as he enters his ninth decade. This is the latest in a series of excellent, spacey recordings for ECM that have featured the guitarist Bill Frisell.
  • Hailu Mergia – Tezeta (2021). A rediscovered treasure dating from 1975, during the golden age of Ethiopian jazz.
  • Daniel Carter – Welcome Adventure! Vol. 1 (2020). The multi-instrumentalist Carter leads a free-jazz supergroup through understated yet complex improvisations. Carter and bassist William Parker played together again on Painter’s Winter, another record on a lot of this year’s best-of lists.
  • Joshua Abrams – Simultonality (2020). The quasi-minimalist drones of Abrams’ Natural Information Society are some of the most interesting sounds in contemporary jazz.
  • Fretwork – The Art Of Fugue (2010). Currently my favorite version of this great Bach work. The six viols create a gorgeous overlapping sound while keeping the different voices distinct. I also appreciated Angela Hewitt‘s 2014 version for piano.
  • Lee Perry – Dub Treasures From The Black Ark: Rare Dubs 1976-1978 (2010). Rest in peace, Scratch. This collection of mostly instrumental pieces is perhaps not the place to start exploring Perry’s huge oeuvre, but it is of very high quality. Another excellent reggae compilation I enjoyed this year is Kingston Allstars Meet Downtown At King Tubby’s 1972-1975 (2004).
  • Anthony Braxton – Charlie Parker Project (1995). Braxton’s work is easier to admire than enjoy; it’s usually too cerebral for me. But this project documents a truly hot jazz band ripping their way through the bebop repertoire with a ferocity that recalls the original radicalism of Parker and his cohort. For the truly devoted, an 11-CD box set of this material was released in 2018.
  • John Coltrane – Live In Seattle (1994). The release of A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle got lots of hype this year but honestly I was underwhelmed. This phase of Coltrane’s group was a transitional and experimental one, and the experiments were often unsuccessful. But it did make me dig out this previous set of recordings from the 1965 Seattle shows, which has lots of unlistenable longueurs but also two wild masterpieces, the standards “Out of This World” and “Body and Soul.”
  • John Zorn – More News For Lulu (1992). A landmark reinterpretation of the jazz tradition that finds fresh things to say about traditional hard-bop tunes. And they are great tunes: many of the originals can be heard on Freddie Redd’s 1960 Shades of Redd, one of the best records in this style. 
  • The Jazz Passengers – Live at the Knitting Factory (1991). Not actually something I heard for the first time this year, but it had been so long that it sounded fresh: virtuosic, humorous, thoroughly enjoyable. This was actually one of the first jazz CDs I ever bought, for no real reason other than the Knitting Factory was famous at the time; in hindsight not a bad choice.
  • Andrew Hill – Eternal Spirit (1989). Perennially under-rated and under-recorded, Hill was one of the greats. Somehow I had missed this one until now, which marked his return to ensemble work after a string of mostly trio and solo records. If it does not quite rise to the heights of his classic 1960s records, or the great ones he made in the early 2000s, it is still very very good.
  • King Tubby – Dub From The Roots (1975). Turns out that a pretty good way to explore dub reggae is just to go through King Tubby’s discography in chronological order. That process led to me to this fine early example of the genre; another good one from the same year is King Tubby Meets Jacob Miller In A Tenement Yard which throws some unusual synth sounds into the mix.
  • Stan Getz – Captain Marvel (1972). The gorgeous Getz tone blends surprisingly well with a cool 70s electric jazz sound.
  • Paul Gonsalves – Meets Earl Hines (1970). A startling late-career masterpiece by these two giants of swing, the furthest thing imaginable from a safe reading of familiar repertoire. I got turned on to this one by Ethan Iverson’s review under its alternate title, It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing. Another excellent Ellington-adjacent item from the same time period is Roland Kirk & Al Hibbler’s A Meeting Of The Times

Previous lists: 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014

Duke Ellington eating ice cream

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Roland Kirk & Al Hibbler – A Meeting Of The Times. This curious item seems gimmicky in its teaming of the legendary avant-garde showman Kirk with the much older blues vocalist Hibbler; the only apparent commonality is that they were both blind. In fact they work very well together: Kirk was a deep student of the jazz tradition and loved Ellington, and Hibbler sang with the Ellington orchestra in the 1940s. It’s a spectacular record, and one of the better Ellington tributes out there. Hibbler reprises his old hit “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (whose lyrics were written for him) and some other Ellington tunes. On “Carney and Bigard Place,” Kirk pays homage to those two key Ellington sidemen as only he could, playing clarinet and baritone sax, successively and then, of course, simultaneously.
  • Nat Birchall – Mysticism Of Sound. A beautiful piece of spiritual jazz, produced during the isolation of the pandemic year by British saxophonist Birchall, who accompanies himself on all the instruments: drums, bass, keyboards. Birchall wears his influences on his sleeve: the titles sound like results from the Sun Ra Random Title Generator and the vibe recalls the mellower moments of Pharoah Sanders. Perfect solitary headphone listening.
  • Mat Walerian – Every Dog Has Its Day But It Doesn’t Matter Because Fat Cat Is Getting Fatter. A long title for a long recording: this is nearly two hours of lengthy jams from Polish multi-instrumentalist Walerian’s ongoing collaboration with pianist Matthew Shipp. The extended explorations feel pretty appropriate for the revived ESP-Disk label, but these are much more listenable than a lot of the noisy messes from the 1960s. Walerian is in excellent excellent form throughout, and his bass clarinet playing is particularly evocative.
  • William Parker – Painter’s Winter. The legendary bassist teams up again with multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter and drummer Hamid Drake for a sequel to their 2001 trio record Painter’s Spring. That was a good session but this one is even better, with all the players showing the benefit of two decades’ more experience and wisdom. No one combines propulsive grooves with complex improvisation better than Parker.
  • Art Ensemble of Chicago – Les Stances à Sophie. The opening track of the 1970 Paris session, “Thème De Yoyo,” is legendary and rightfully so; no one before or since has so convincingly combined hard funk and free jazz. It’s one of those pieces of music that holds within itself the promise of an entire unexplored genre. But having demonstrated convincingly that they could make a better funk record than almost anyone, the Art Ensemble characteristically changes tack and plays little avant-garde miniatures for the rest of the album, one of their best.

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.