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

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • 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.

What I’ve been listening to lately

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.

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • 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.

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • 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 Orchestra is 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. 

What I’ve been listening to lately

    • Paul Motian – On Broadway Vol. 1,2,3,4,5A staggering musical accomplishment by the late, great Motian, one of the most distinctive drummers in jazz. His transformations of the old warhorses are startling and beautiful. My favorites so far are Vol. 3, where the addition of Lee Konitz to the group elevates it to a new level, and Vol. 4, where Rebecca Martin’s vocals manage to make the standards sound less rather than more traditional.
    • Andrew Cyrille – The Declaration of Musical Independence. Another drummer-led recording, and a surprisingly laid-back one for Cyrille. The real delight here is the rare appearance of Richard Teitelbaum, one of the only true master synthesizer players in jazz (along with, of course, Sun Ra).
    • Wayne Shorter – EmanonThe quartet tracks are vibrant and excellent, but I wanted to like the large-ensemble bits more than I actually did. Even before this won a Grammy, it was amusing to watch jazz reviewers try to avoid saying anything critical about the graphic novel that accompanies the music, since Shorter is after all a living legend. Indeed, the less said about it the better.
    • Exploding Star Orchestra – Galactic Parables Vol. 1. A powerful concert recording by Rob Mazurek’s great free-jazz big band. The space references are an obvious homage to Sun Ra, and his use of electronically manipulated voices achieves a similar effect to Ra’s chants and exhortations. But the band’s sound is all its own.
    • New Zion Trio – Fight Against Babylon. This piano trio led by Jamie Saft makes a serious and sustained attempt to combine jazz improvisation with Jamaican rhythms. The bass and drums indeed do an amazing job of channeling the minimal, trancelike repetitions of reggae. It’s not completely successful, but there are some transcendent moments here.

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Bill Dixon – Intents and PurposesThis 1967 recording by trumpeter Dixon is easily lumped together with the free jazz of the era, but in fact it was mostly through-composed. And it really does not sound like much from that time, or since: a moody and often delicate piece of orchestral jazz.
  • Lucky Thompson – Tricotism. Thompson has one of the most gorgeous tones of any tenor saxophonist. In these 1956 sessions, his beautiful sound is displayed to full advantage in a drummerless trio.
  • 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 has more excellent and intriguing work.
  • Nat Birchall – Sounds Almighty. Birchall is a British tenor saxophonist who usually plays jazz, but he is also a devotee of Jamaican music. For this 2018 session he joined up with trombone great Vin Gordon to record some instrumental reggae in the classic style.
  • Cannonball Adderley & Milt Jackson – Things Are Getting Better. A classic straightahead jazz session from two masters of blues feeling. Also available as part of this compilation.