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.

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 me 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