What I’ve been listening to lately

Been a while since I’ve done one of these–life has been getting in the way.

    • Philip Cohran – On The Beach. May he rest in peace. Although mostly known for his association with Sun Ra, Cohran made wonderful music on his own: I love the gorgeous African Skies, as well as the record with his children, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. But I had missed this classic 1968 recording, with a vigorous large ensemble and a great feature for Cohran’s “Frankiphone.” Random fun fact: the New York Times obituary notes that he picked up the Muslim name Kelan, rather unusually, in China (it’s the Chinese transliteration for the Quran).
    • The Skatalites – Foundation Ska. This was the first recording of Jamaican music I ever purchased, and it sucked me in immediately. I’ve been going back to these tracks recently, and they are still absolutely entrancing and, yes, foundational. Active for only about two years, The Skatalites created their own musical world with a combination of propulsive rhythms and moody, interlocking horn parts.
    • Miles Davis – Bitches Brew Live. The classic Bitches Brew album is a long, sprawling mess, clearly a work of genius but still rather exhausting. These versions of the same tunes, performed by stripped-down ensembles, are tighter, punchier, and may actually be better.
    • Joe Henderson – The Elements. The peaks of the “spiritual jazz” subgenre of the 1970s can be pretty wonderful, but the valleys between those peaks tend to be long and deep. But I’m happy to report the ratio is quite good on this rather obscure album. Henderson has a killer band including Alice Coltrane, Michael White, and Charlie Haden, and their peaks are very high indeed.

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Nicole Mitchell – Awakening. Jazz flute often gets a bad rap, but recently I’ve been appreciating how amazing it is in the hands of a master–Rahsaan of course, and the wonderful James Newton. Nicole Mitchell is right up there in the pantheon, and here performs some spectacular vocalized solos in a tight small group backed with guitar, bass, drums.
  • Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression. Just found out that Iggy Pop put out a new album last year–and surprise, it’s actually good! The backing band is spare and effective, reminiscent of some of his 1970s classics, and Iggy’s mournful baritone is still great.
  • Craig Taborn – Daylight Ghosts. I hadn’t heard Craig Taborn before, but was drawn to this recording because the group includes Chris Speed and Chris Lightcap, who are among my favorites in this generation of jazz musicians. While I haven’t fully digested this unusual, atmospheric and complex recording yet, it’s very worthwhile, evoking minimalism as often as jazz.
  • Steve Lacy Meets The Riccardo Fassi Trio – Dummy. It’s unusual to hear Lacy in the relatively traditional context of a piano-bass-drums backing group, and they do help sand down some of his rougher edges. This is a great, lively recording, often quite lyrical but also with a punchy version of “This Is It,” one of my favorite Lacy tunes.

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Mike Watt & Missingmen. I caught the recent Beijing show by Watt & co which was a revelation. The famously short Minutemen songs were woven together with more recent works in an almost unceasing flow; a kind of improvisational punk-jazz-funk suite with radical shifts in rhythm and tone. Watt is one of the best rock bass players ever, and gave his all in the performance; it inspired me to go back and watch the lovely Minutemen documentary “We Jam Econo.”
  • King Tubby – Shalom Dub. Describing dub is difficult, it’s always some variation of booming bass, clattering drums, spacey horns. So explaining why some dub is good and some isn’t is hard; the good stuff just, well, works. But the difference between the good stuff and the rest is enormous, and it’s immediately obvious this early recording from the legendary King Tubby has plenty of the good stuff.
  • Gil Evans – There Comes A Time. A tragically overlooked large-ensemble masterpiece. On this session, Evans’ typically wonderful horn arrangements incorporate some of the “spiritual jazz” sounds of the 1970s–synthesizers, vibes, electric guitar, heavy percussion–in an inspired synthesis that brings him into Sun Ra territory.
  • Freddie Hubbard – Breaking Point. A very high-quality modernist Blue Note session from 1964, in fact Hubbard’s debut. The compositions are complex and impressive, and the always underrated James Spaulding has great contributions on alto and flute.

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Mary Halvorson – Away With You. The new album from guitar goddess Halvorson does not disappoint, featuring more of her knotty, exploratory compositions for an ever-growing ensemble. Her group is now augmented by another guitarist, Susan Alcorn on pedal steel, and the interplay between the two guitars is a real highlight.
  • Lester Bowie – I Only Have Eyes For You. The first and probably best album by Bowie’s Brass Fantasy group, lively, fresh and inventive.
  • Steve Lacy – Morning Joy. A crackling 1986 live recording from the late, great Lacy, whose quartet was one of the best working jazz bands of the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Maria Schneider Orchestra – Evanescence. Lovely large ensemble work from the present-day heir of Gil Evans.
  • Art Farmer & Benny Golson – Meet The Jazztet. One of the greatest hard bop recordings ever, from a group that is often and unfairly overlooked.

The best music I heard in 2016

As with my books list, this is music that I listened to for the first time in 2016, not stuff that was necessarily released in 2016. But I’ve put them in approximate order by release date so the more recent stuff is at the top. A lot of promising stuff has come out just in the last few months that I haven’t listened to yet; I’m particularly looking forward to the new Mary Halvorson album. This year was a bit more jazz-centric than 2015:

    • Sun Ra – The Intergalactic Thing. A release of never-before-heard Sun Ra tapes from the crucial year of 1969, and it’s not going straight to the top of my list? Please. A rewarding dose of clattering percussion and spacey keyboards in the master’s inimitable style.
    • Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth – Epicenter. An excellent combination of smart compositions and groove; Craig Taborn mostly plays electric piano, providing a cool backdrop to the interplay between tenor saxophonists Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek.
    • Tomeka Reid — Tomeka Reid Quartet. A fresh, lively and generally fantastic recording. The lineup of cello, guitar, bass, drums is unique, but this is not just an avant-garde workout: the compositions are strong and tuneful and the group is swinging.
    • Food – This Is Not A Miracle. I’m a sucker for this group’s combination of searching saxophone, guitar skronk and spacey electronics. The latest recording is also very satisfying, atmospheric listening.
    • Icebreaker — Philip Glass: Music With Changing Parts. A powerful contemporary recording of a classic early Glass piece that is otherwise hard to hear.
    • Ran Blake – Short Life Of Barbara Monk. An overlooked classic from the unheralded year of 1986. The lineup is solidly traditional jazz–tenor sax, piano, bass, drums–but the approach is fascinatingly untraditional.
    • Yusef Lateef – The Centaur And The Phoenix. The soulful multi-instrumentalist fronts a larger ensemble with complex arrangements; a lovely session.
    • Curtis Fuller – Blues-ette. A near-perfect masterpiece of hard bop from 1959, featuring the great tenor saxophonist Benny Golson along with trombonist Fuller.
    • Thelonious Monk – Orchestra At Town Hall. The first of only two large-ensemble recordings Monk would make in his lifetime, this 1959 album is a stone-cold classic, every track is gold.
    • Charlie Parker – Charlier Parker. After immersing myself in a lot of Parker this year, I concluded that this is possibly his single finest set of recordings–great sound, and startlingly vibrant performances.
    • The Carter Family – Volume 2: 1935-1941. The Carter Family’s 1928-29 recordings are officially legendary. But these later ones are often more listener-friendly, with better sound quality and more assured performances. An amazing wealth of classic songs.
    • Duke Ellington – The Complete 1936-1940 Variety, Vocalion And Okeh Small Group Sessions. Not just a best of the year, a best of all time–some of the most wonderful jazz ever recorded, at least for my taste. These small-group sessions have the unmistakable Ellington flair for arrangement and color, but often feel looser and more laid-back than the full orchestra. Truly a near-endless supply of casually tossed-off genius.

What I’ve been listening to lately

The last installment before I do my best-of-2016 list:

  • Lightnin’ Hopkins – All The Classics 1946-1951Some of my favorite blues. The main criticism of the Hopkins style of free-associating lyrics and loose solo guitar ramblings is that after a while they all sound like the same song. This criticism is not wrong; however, it is a very good song, and Hopkins has few equals in expressing that deep lonesome blues feel.
  • Adrian Younge & Ali Shaheed Muhammad – Luke Cage Original Soundtrack AlbumThe TV series has a guilty pleasure of late; I enjoyed the musical interludes and the black culture references a lot more than the silly bad guys. It is definitely one of the best soundtracks of recent times, though it does not hold up quite as well when listened to on its own.
  • Sam Rivers – A New ConceptionThe great avant-gardist does standards, and does them extraordinarily well. Every track is brilliant, as good as the much better known (and more readily obtainable) Fuchsia Swing Song, recorded a couple of years earlier.
  • Stan Getz – DynastyAre there any bad Stan Getz albums? I haven’t found one yet. This is an unusual recording for Getz, featuring him with a European organ-guitar-drums trio. But it is an unusual recording all around: one of the very few jazz organ recordings without even a whiff of soul jazz, only extended moody explorations.

What I’ve been listening to lately

A double helping of old country:

  • The Carter Family – Volume 2: 1935-1941. Commentary on roots music tends to favor the old–the earlier and scratchier the recording the better, the closer it is to the mythological source. The Carter Family’s 1928-29 recordings, featured on the Anthology of American Folk Music, are officially legendary. But these later ones are often more listener-friendly, with better sound quality and more assured performances. An amazing wealth of songs.
  • The Delmore Brothers – Classic Cuts 1933-41. Another treasury of classic country tunes, sometimes a bit bluesy, sometimes almost a proto-bluegrass. The very pure, clear and uninflected vocals actually take some getting used to, so far is their style from the extroverted emotionalism that has been the norm in more recent decades of popular music.

Plus the usual jazz miscellany:

  • Jimmy Giuffre – The Life Of A Trio: Sunday. Jimmy Giuffre has been developing his particular version of jazz minimalism since the late 1950s, and always getting better along the way. These 1989 recordings reconvene his famous 1961 trio with Paul Bley on piano and Steve Swallow on bass; the result is strong and fresh and not at all a nostalgia session.
  • Ran Blake – Short Life Of Barbara Monk. An overlooked classic from the unheralded year of 1986. The lineup is solidly traditional–tenor sax, piano, bass drums–but the approach is fascinatingly untraditional and melodic.
  • Lee Morgan – The Procrastinator. A standout 1967 Blue Note session with an unbeatable lineup–Wayne Shorter and Bobby Hutcherson–and great tunes. This brand of advanced hard bop is for many people the absolute pinnacle of jazz. I’m not one of them–for me, Duke Ellington and Sun Ra will always be the top–but it’s recordings like this that make that taste an understandable one.