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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Orchestrais 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.
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. 1,2,3,4,5. Motian’s transformations of the old warhorses are startling and beautiful. Altogether a major musical accomplishment by one of the most distinctive drummers in jazz.
Don Cherry – Art Deco. After playing a lot of world music, flute and percussion in the 1970s, Don Cherry re-engaged with the jazz tradition in this fine 1988 recording. It’s a reunion of the Ornette Coleman quartet, with James Clay in the sax chair, that ranges from Charlie Haden playing folk tunes on the bass to a respectful take on “Body and Soul.” Clay’s playing is absolutely stellar, as Ethan Iverson emphasizes in his appreciation of this album.
Charlie Haden – The Ballad of the Fallen. The second album by Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra project is much less well known than the 1969 original, but I think it’s even better. The fusion of jazz and Latin American folk music is more assured and convincing, and Carla Bley’s arrangements are gorgeous.
Lee Konitz – The Lee Konitz Duets. A startlingly original and diverse recording that still sounds completely fresh 50 years later. Konitz plays duets with several musicians on different instruments, before combining everyone into a larger group session. A huge variety of sounds and styles.
Myra Melford – Snowy Egret. A quintet featuring the wonderful Ron Miles on cornet plays Melford’s compositions just beautifully–they take many surprising turns while remaining very listenable.
Art Blakey – The Freedom Rider. In honor of Blakey’s centennial I spent some time exploring some of the massive pile of Jazz Messengers recordings I had never got around to listening to before. This one really stood out: all killer, no filler, with Wayne Shorter and Lee Morgan in the front line. As a bonus, the cover is one of the best-ever Blue Note photographs.
It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, so a lot to catch up on:
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. Highlights for me so far are the tracks from John Kirby’s sextet, the jam sessions with Fats Waller, the solo piano tracks by Joe Sullivan (a rare example of extended improvisation from this period), and some sterling performances by Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter. There’s also a lot of live Count Basie, with his band at its peak.
Dr. John – Bluesiana Triangle. I had never heard of this 1990 album until it was mentioned in a few of the obituaries after his passing in June. Of course I grabbed a copy immediately: who could pass up Dr. John playing with David Newman (who was in Ray Charles’ band back in the day) and Art Blakey! People seem to want to call it a jazz album because of the personnel, but it’s not really: as the title indicates, they are playing the blues, and wonderfully well. Rest in peace, Mac.
Allen Toussaint – American Tunes. Continuing on the theme of recordings by now-departed giants of New Orleans music, this posthumously released session is something of a follow-up to Toussaint’s jazz album The Bright Mississippi. This one is more deliberately wide-ranging but also brilliant. Would any other piano player — could any other piano player — move so easily from interpreting Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby” to Professor Longhair’s “Big Chief”? And his takes on two Ellington tunes, with guest vocals by Rhiannon Giddens, fulfill the promise of the title, magnificently pulling together a century of American musical tradition.
Ari Brown – Ultimate Frontier. A stalwart of the Chicago jazz scene who should be better known, and one of very few musicians to play both sax and piano at a high level. I originally encountered his sound in Kahil El’Zabar’s Ritual Trio. This 1995 recording was Brown’s first under his own name, and is a consistently excellent of set of soulful spiritual jazz.
Jacob Miller – Who Say Jah No Dread. One of the keystone recordings of dub reggae is Augustus Pablo’s King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown. Much of the raw material for that masterpiece came from these less well-known sessions that Pablo produced with vocalist Jacob Miller. The vocal tracks are powerful and compelling–it’s no surprise the dubs turned out so great as well.
Eric Dolphy – Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions. A reissue with new material of two of Dolphy’s best albums, Conversations and Iron Man, that hopefully will draw more attention to these somewhat neglected recordings (see this appreciation by Richard Williams for more background). The arrangements for larger groups are quite interesting, but for me the real highlights are the more intimate pieces, especially the duets between Richard Davis on bass and Dolphy on bass clarinet.
Joe Lovano – Trio Tapestry. An unusual, minimalist outing for Lovano, a trio with just Marilyn Crispell on piano and Carmen Castaldi on drums. I first heard Crispell in the 1990s when she was a terror of aggressive free jazz; her recent ECM recordings, like this one, display a much gentler side.
Hearts & Minds – Electroradiance. Another oddball trio, featuring the Chicago-based bass clarinetist Jason Stein along with Paul Giallorenzo on synthesizer and Chad Taylor on drums. The instrumentation is like something Sun Ra would throw together over a weekend, and indeed the combination of avant-garde sounds with a backbeat is a little reminiscent of some of his 1970s experiments. But altogether it’s a completely original sound, and how often do you encounter that?
Matthew Shipp – Pastoral Composure. An excellent and almost-but-not-quite traditional quartet led by pianist Shipp and featuring super-bassist William Parker and Roy Campbell on trumpet. Every tune has a different feel and approach–a kind of variety surprisingly uncommon for jazz albums–making for a very satisfying listen.
Philip Cohran – Armageddon. Though a legend of the 1960s avant-garde, Cohran did not leave behind many recordings. All of them are worth hearing for their Afro-spiritual vibe and the powerful sound of his invented Frankiphone, sort of an amplified thumb piano. If this short concert recorded in 1968 does not quite rise to the level of his masterpiece On The Beach, it definitively has its moments.
Frank Kimbrough – Monk’s Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk. Obviously, a lot of Monk: all 70 compositions are given full and respectful readings by a jazz quartet, for more than five hours of music. Less obviously, it’s also a lot of bass saxophone. Scott Robinson, who occupies the horn chair in the quartet, is almost as promiscuous in his multi-instrumentalism as Anthony Braxton, and like Braxton shares a love for the low-end instruments. Hearing the supposedly cumbersome bass sax lightly dance through the quirky angles of Monk’s tunes is one of the highlights of this tribute.
John Luther Adams – Four Thousand Holes. A gorgeous piece of minimalist composition, which is indeed built from very simple elements: piano, percussion, a bit of electronics. Adams is one of my favorite contemporary composers.
Melba Liston – Melba Liston And Her ‘Bones. The first (perhaps only?) prominent female trombonist in jazz, Liston was also a gifted arranger and in her later career worked extensively with the great Randy Weston. This package collects some of her work from the mid-50s, and her interesting arrangements lift the material above other mainstream jazz of the period.
Keith Hudson – Playing It Cool. An amazing piece of dark, rhythmic dub experimentalism from 1981. Almost everything I’ve heard by Hudson is absolutely essential, funky, compelling and strange in equal measures.
Charlie Haden – Not In Our Name. Haden’s 1968 Liberation Music Orchestrais one of the classics of radical 60s jazz, but (whisper it) I actually like this 2004 follow-up recording even better (the orchestra itself is entirely different, sharing only Haden and pianist/arranger Carla with the original incarnation). Jazz compositions are intermixed with Bley’s transformations of quintessential American musical pieces such as Amazing Grace and bits of Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Dvorak’s New World Symphony.