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.

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Charlie Parker – A Studio Chronicle 1940-1948. My first loves in jazz were 1930s swing and 1960s avant-garde, so it took me a while to get around to really listening to 1940s bebop and 1950s mainstream. Guess what, Parker is a genius; I know that’s not an original opinion, but I didn’t really appreciate how true it was before.
  • Bud Powell – The Complete Bud Powell On Verve. More bebop immersion. Five CDs worth of piano trios is not normally the kind of listening experience I would seek out, as there’s a big risk of stuff just sounding the same. But Powell’s vigorous, forceful playing stands out.
  • Bobby Hutcherson – Patterns. In honor of his passing I have been listening to a lot of his stuff again; I love the vibes and Hutcherson is one of the great masters. That said, his recordings under his own name tend to be a little soft-edged for my taste; he is responsible for one undisputed jazz classic, Dialogue, but it really sounds more like an Andrew Hill record. But Patterns is a good and often overlooked session, with lovely flute from James Spaulding.
  • Prince Buster – Fabulous Greatest Hits. The King of Ska is dead, long live the king; too many obituaries of late. This greatest hits record is in fact the only readily available recording by Prince Buster; to hear much, much more, don’t miss Steve Barker‘s great four-part radio tribute.

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Sun Ra – Monorails and Satellites, Vol. 1. After so many years of accumulating Sun Ra records, there aren’t too many that I haven’t heard before, but this one had escaped me until now. Thanks to the efforts of the Sun Ra Arkive, this brief solo piano recording has doubled in size with the addition of several unreleased tracks. I still like Sun Ra better with the band, but there are some good moments with his distinctive, blocky piano style. Serious fans will want it, for more casual listeners it’s optional.
  • Food – This Is Not A Miracle. I really enjoyed this group’s two previous albums, being a sucker for their combination of searching saxophone, guitar skronk and spacey electronics/drums. The latest recording is also very satisfying, atmospheric listening. It seems like there should be more people mining this particular intersection of jazz and electronic music, but maybe I just don’t know about them yet.
  • Prince Lasha – Inside Story. Prince Lasha is a multi-instrumentalist best known for his album Firebirds, a classic “freebop” recording from 1967 featuring Bobby Hutcherson. This lesser-known 1965 session is also very good, with Herbie Hancock on piano and a good rhythm section.
  • 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. It’s interesting to compare these very sympathetic arrangements of Monk’s tunes to some of the very earliest, from Cootie Williams’ big band in the early 1940s. Williams’ championing of Monk helped get him exposure, but the arrangements tend to hide Monk’s weirdness within a conventional framework rather than celebrating it.
  • Yusef Lateef. Best known for helping introduce “exotic” sounds into jazz with his Asian-influenced tunes and use of the oboe and flute, Lateef is also a gentle and surprisingly traditional tenor sax player. I have been listening to two compilations of his late 50s-early 60s recordings. If you don’t want to go through all of them, Eastern Sounds is probably the single best example of his approach, but I also liked The Centaur And The Phoenix, a more distinctive session with a larger ensemble.

The return of the random Sun Ra title generator

Since it’s the summer, I’ve been indulging myself a bit. On my very first website, back in 1996, I wrote a goofy piece of software to generate song titles in the distinctive, cosmic style of Sun Ra–an attempt to imitate the inimitable, of course, but still entertaining (to me, anyway). I forgot about it for a long time, but it popped back to mind recently on a long bus ride, and I decided to recreate it. Random generator technology has advanced some since then, so it was not too hard to do. And the result is still a source of nearly endless amusement for this Sun Ra fan. Here it is, press the More button as many times as you want:

The Random Sun Ra Title Generator

One of the fun little things about life in Beijing is that you can see Sun Ra almost everyday–it’s part of the logo of a major brand of electric bikes. I still get a kick out of this.