Top 20 Jazz Albums of 2019
Thursday, November 21, 2019
The ultimate guide to the year's best new jazz albums as voted for by Jazzwise's peerless panel of reviewers – including the complete original Jazzwise reviews
“If this isn’t a candidate for record of the year from many reviewers, I’ll be very surprised…” so began Alyn Shipton’s prescient five-star review of the Branford Marsalis Quartet's The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul in the April issue of Jazzwise, and what do you know, as the scores rolled in, so it proved to be. With star names, newcomers and a few jazz legends, our end-of-year Top 20s demonstrate peak creativity levels among contemporary artists, as well as archival aces aplenty. With 10 points awarded to No.1 and one point awarded to No.10 in each writer’s chart – we’ve done the maths so you can just enjoy the music!
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1 Branford Marsalis Quartet
The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul
Branford Marsalis, (ss, ts), Joey Calderazzo (p), Eric Revis (b) and Justin Faulkner (d). Rec. May 28-30 2018
If this isn’t a candidate for record of the year from many reviewers, I’ll be very surprised. It’s an object lesson in how an established group can dig deeper into musical and emotional resources than many a short-lived ensemble, however starry the personnel. It’s grounded, harks back to the tradition, looks forward to new ideas, yet has a confident perfection that is extremely rare.
The heart of the album is in the ballad playing. ‘Conversation Among The Ruins’ (written by Calderazzo) has not only a dazzling piano solo but some delicately poised playing from Marsalis on soprano that isn’t afraid to explore beauty and melodic richness. ‘Cianna’, also by Calderazzo, is slowish, but has one of those themes you feel you’ve heard before, it so insidiously becomes an earworm, with Branford on tenor this time. The best ballad playing on the album is in Revis’s composition ‘Nilaste’ which seems to evoke heartbreak and beauty at the same time. Not all the meters or rhythms are straightforward, but so assured is the playing that even the most complex settings sound entirely natural. And just a few bars of the quartet’s version of Keith Jarrett’s ‘The Windup’ is enough to put a smile on one’s face and relive the visceral experience of this band playing live. And within its catchy, funky setting, this track manages to combine moments of improvisational freedom, perfectly demonstrating why this is one of the most compelling live bands on the planet. Alyn Shipton
2 Chick Corea Trio
Chick Corea (p), Christian McBride (b) and Brian Blade (d). Rec. 2010-2016
As the 78-year-old Chick Corea reminded UK audiences at this summer’s Love Supreme festival, wear and tear doesn’t touch the relish, grace and inventiveness with which he has performed in a multiplicity of styles all his life. But, as an early admirer of Bud Powell and Bill Evans, Corea has regularly returned to trio line-ups, and this one (with bass maestro Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade) deservedly brought him two Grammys in 2014 for the first of its Trilogy sessions.
Now comes the much-requested second, a double-album which discreetly sidesteps mentioning recording dates but which appears to have been drawn from various performances with the same partners in the US and Europe since late 2010. But whether recent or current, nothing stops Corea’s irrepressible musicality and pleasure in jamming with kindred spirits from exerting its melodiously laidback charm. ‘How Deep Is The Ocean’ kicks the collection off with a glossy masterclass in fresh lyrical invention and canny accompaniment, an eagerly impulsive ‘Work’ and a languid ‘Crepuscule With Nellie’ celebrate Corea’s affection for Thelonious Monk (and also his partners’ adroitness at the rhythm-juggling it invites), favourite Corea originals like ‘500 Miles High’, ‘La Fiesta’ and ‘Now He Sings, Now He Sobs’ are given freewheeling makeovers, and a throbbing and increasingly urgent account of ‘All Blues’ typically develops a high-stepping, dancelike feel that distinguishes it from its brooding source. Maybe Trilogy 2 is for Chick Corea completists, but it’s premier-league spontaneous music-making for all that. John Fordham
3 = SEED Ensemble
Cassie Kinoshi (as), Miguel Gorodi, Sheila Maurice-Grey (t), Chelsea Carmichael (ts, f), Joe Bristow (tb), Theon Cross (tba), Joe Armon-Jones, Sarah Tandy (p, Fender Rhodes), Shirley Tetteh (g), Xana, Cherise Adams-Burnett, Mr. Ekow (v), Rio Kai (b) and Patrick Boyle (d). Rec. October 2017
Though Cassie Kinoshi is fully aware of 1960s American civil rights suites such as her alto icon Jackie McLean’s It’s Time!, they didn’t directly influence this debut, with its distinctly British roots and concerns. Perhaps the most concerted attempt so far at a major album from a generation of young London players more attuned to performing, Driftglass draws on Afrofuturism for its hopeful scope, our musical melting-pot for its sound, and Kinoshi’s classical studies for its structure.
Social engagement has again inspired ambitious black American music in these fractious, urgent times, but local racial oppression and liberation animate these songs. ‘The Darkies’ suggests post-war British films’ seedy, street-level jazz noir even as Debussy’s ‘The Golliwog’s Cakewalk’ threads through the tune, trailing both beauty and its title’s archaic presumptions. Poet Xana adds transcendent tower-block dreams in which, “my heart bursts out of my chest like a rocket/As I gather stars in my pocket”. Grenfell Tower’s stubborn symbol of murderous social schism stands accusingly at the record’s heart, as ‘Wake (for Grenfell)’ turns a Langston Hughes line into a mournful work-song chant, pointedly soured by Kinoshi’s tart alto tone.
The SEED Ensemble is another permutation of the London scene’s currently omnipresent players, and their individuality is crucially encouraged. Sarah Tandy splits keyboard duties with Joe Armon-Jones, but it’s her Rhodes’ glistening, slow flow which adds impressionistic colour, on ‘Mirrors’ especially. Lacking the obvious thematic baggage elsewhere, that tune floats free into its own atmosphere. Both the songs’ rigid overall structures and occasionally slack development hold Driftglass back from greatness. But Kinoshi’s debut bursts with often achieved ambition, and time is on her side. Nick Hasted
➜ Read our Cassie Kinoshi interview: 'I feel like, in Britain, we don’t like to acknowledge the problems we have'
3 = Michael Janisch
Michael Janisch (b, el b), George Crowley (ts), John O’Gallagher (as), Jason Palmer (t), Rez Abassi (g), John Escreet (p, ky), Andrew Bain and Clarence Penn (d). Rec. 2018
Janisch enjoys considerable kudos as the founder and head of the dynamic independent record label Whirlwind Recordings, but that should not overshadow his skill as a leader, composer and soloist. This new album is a worthy follow-up to 2015’s Paradigm Shift, and while it tackles similar themes of social and political regression, especially in an online world, the writing and arranging have gone up a notch.
Janisch has long been a gifted player whose command of electric and acoustic bass has seen him work in a wide variety of settings, but this new songbook draws a coherent line through groove, swing and avant-garde sensibilities without sounding stilted. All the virtuosity of a formidable transatlantic horn and rhythm section comprising Jason Palmer, Rez Abassi, John O’Gallagher, George Crowley and John Escreet, among others, is well channelled into music that, often in odd meters, maintains a distinct quality of dance. As exemplified on the fine opening track, ‘Another London’, Janisch’s band also fashions ear-catching textures by drawing on vocabulary that may have been once decried but could be creeping back into fashion, such as the string-like synthesizer pads of late 1970s/80s fusion. The sound is highly effective when cast against combinations of upright bass, guitar, brass and reeds. There are some fine solos on offer, particularly from Abassi and O’Gallagher, but this is first and foremost an ensemble offering impressively helmed by a bandleader who is in the ascendant. Kevin Le Gendre
➜ Read our Michael Janisch interview: “People have become so tribal, which is what humans do anyway. It’s quite scary at times, and that’s what Worlds Collide is about”
5 Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell (g), Luke Bergman (g, b), Hank Roberts (clo, v) and Petra Haden (v). Rec. date not stated
Look no further than the title. Harmony in music, harmony of the soul, harmony in community: Frisell evokes it all on his Blue Note debut. Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised that Frisell takes this fresh start as an opportunity to bring together his love of American folk and the Great American Songbook, but rarely has even he harmonised them so profoundly. Naturally, it helps to have Petra Haden on board. Her very DNA combines both jazz and country heritages. Her grandparents hosted the Korn’s A Krackin’ radio show which meant the Carter family or Chet Atkins could be found chilling and strumming in the family front room. And then dad Charlie of course, who sung on that show as a nipper, went on to become an iconic figure in jazz. No wonder that this band can move seamlessly between country classics like ‘Hard Times’ to the gold standard of Strayhorn’s ‘Lush Life’ (done as a duo with Haden).
Nor is this all Frisell: ‘Red River Valley’ is done a capella; some treatments are straightahead, and are the more emotionally direct for that: ‘God’s Wing’ed Horse’ is breathtakingly beautiful, while others, like the climactic ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ is re-visioned deep, dead and blue, with no escape from the minimalist chording. Andy Robson
6 = Avishai Cohen & Yonathan Avishai
Playing The Room
Avishai Cohen (t) and Yonathan Avishai (p). Rec. September 2018
This is a gorgeous set – another delicate exploration of brass tonality, restrained improv eloquence and quiet empathy from the New York-based Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen and his long-time piano partner Yonathan Avishai – the latter also an inspired foil for Cohen’s lyricism and flawless control on the trumpeter’s recent ECM triumphs, Into The Silence, and Cross My Palm With Silver.
As this duo session’s title implies, the warm acoustic of the studio in Lugano in which it was recorded is an active participant too. The players contribute an original each, the other seven tracks visit jazz sources from Coltrane and Ellington to Ornette, Stevie Wonder’s ‘Sir Duke’, and Israeli composer Alexander Argov’s pretty lullaby ‘Shir Eres’ – so this is a set rooted in orthodox song-forms, but the imaginativeness of the playing transforms them all.
Avishai Cohen’s ballad ‘The Opening’ has a Bill-Evans-meets-Abdullah-Ibrahim piano intro and a wistful, tone-shifting melody, and Coltrane’s ‘Crescent’ is a trumpet soliloquy of soft ascents, octave-hopping strides and airy top notes. Duke Ellington’s ‘Azalea’ is a standard-song stroll sprung off Yonathan Avishai’s inventive comping, Abdullah Ibrahim’s ‘Kofifi Blue’ gets some Armstrong-like end-note shakes, while ‘Sir Duke’ has its famous melody burnished with an almost baroque courtliness. This is a quietly intimate dialogue of course, but almost everything in it glows. John Fordham
6 = Gwilym Simcock
Near and Now
Gwilym Simcock (p). Rec. November 2018
This follow-up to Simcock’s Mercury Prize-shortlisted 2011 ACT debut, the brilliant Good Days At Schloss Elmau, was penned primarily on the road while the pianist was touring the world as part of the Pat Metheny Quartet. Recorded by Simcock at his home in Berlin on a beautifully rich Steinway Model B Grand Piano, the album pays tribute to five of Simcock’s piano heroes who have had an especial impact on his music.
Dedicated to Billy Childs, the three-movement album opener ‘Beautiful Is Our Moment’ features some of Simcock’s most exuberant, joyous writing, with its elegiac coda providing the final surprise. If ‘Before The Elegant Hour’ (for Brad Mehldau) possesses a rough-hewn grandeur, the brief ‘You’re My You’ (dedicated to Simcock’s first jazz piano teacher, Les Chisnall) is a touching jazz chorale, while ‘Inveraray Air’ (for Russell Ferrante) is marked by a profound lyricism and a dramatic textural stripping away at the close. Dedicated to Egberto Gismonti, the concluding three-movement, ‘Many Worlds Away’, ranges from the hieratic to the rhapsodic to the ecstatic. What binds all of the music together is Simcock’s fulsome tone, clarity of line and the way in which his seemingly effortless pianism carves out hugely satisfying harmonic journeys. Peter Quinn
➜ Read our Gwilym Simcock interview: “I want to have an emotional experience when I listen to music. I want it to move me”
8 Abdullah Ibrahim
Abdullah Ibrahim (p), Andrae Murchison (tb), Cleave Guyton, Lance Bryant, Marshall McDonald (reeds), Adam Glasser (hca), Noah Jackson, (v, b), Alec Dankworth (b) and Will Terrill (d). Rec. November 2018
If your back catalogue with Ekaya includes such essential albums as The Mountain and Water From An Ancient Well, then the excellence of your own work makes you a hard act to follow. After a five-year absence from the studio, following his last records for the Intuition label, and now aged 84, would Abdullah Ibrahim’s new venture with Gearbox Records match up to the high standards that he set years ago with this band of African and (mainly) American musicians? The answer is a resounding yes. And the record is in some ways more satisfying than the band can occasionally be in concert, where Ibrahim sometimes cuts off tunes too soon, or if there’s not enough feedback from the crowd, seem slightly sterile.
There’s no sterility here, and no sense of anything being curtailed. With Terrill’s drums and special British guest Alec Dankworth’s bass setting out the introductory pattern for ‘Jabula’, followed by piano interjections and then a conversation with the horns, this is music as joyous and extrovert as anything in Ibrahim’s long list of recordings. That outgoing mood is sustained in Monk’s ‘Skippy’ with Guyton’s piccolo making the running. There’s a contrast with the slightly otherworldly ‘Tuang Guru’, where Jackson (who played cello on ‘Jabula’) resumes his regular place on bass and underpins the movement of this work from the back catalogue with nimble rapid-fire bass-lines. Ibrahim sits out much of this track – just as he might do on stage – but he comes back in exactly where it matters, ushering back the scalar head arrangement. His three solo improvisations offer a very different level of emotional depth, being introvert and involving. And the high point is a return to another piece from the earlier days of Ekaya, ‘Song for Sathima’. On this, Lance Bryant catches exactly the timing and phrasing of the South African masters, and turns in a really outstanding performance on tenor saxophone, genuinely, as Ibrahim puts it, ‘singing a song’. Alyn Shipton
➜ Read our Abdullah Ibrahim interview: "In our music there’s no such thing as a mistake and, actually, maybe in life itself there’s no such thing as a mistake either "
9 = Quentin Collins Sextet
Quentin Collins (t, flhn), Meilana Gillard (as), Leo Richardson, Jean Toussaint (ts), Dan Nimmer (p, ky), Joe Sanders (b) and Willie Jones III (d). Rec. 30-31 October 2018
Trumpeter Collins assembled a spectacular line-up for this very impressive album, balancing an all-American rhythm section with a strong UK frontline. Many of the pieces are his; others are by saxophonist Tom Harrison, a frequent associate who was unable to make the session, Gillard being his replacement. The mood is post-bop, with an augmented Messengers feel, the writing compact and the execution consistently rewarding. The title-track would fit the Silver-Blakey template exactly and has their kind of momentum, trumpet at the front, crisp and clear, before the impressive Richardson pushes in and Nimmer opens up, bassist Sanders swinging hard.
Harrison’s ‘Float, Flitter, Flutter’ allows Collins to show his Hubbard-like inclinations and Gillard to solo affectingly, the hauntingly, hymn-like ‘Look Ahead’ written by Collins for his son quite sublime. Producer Toussaint adds his sinuous tenor to two tracks. Each piece has its own pleasures: above all, there’s a sense of a fine project properly realised and accomplished. Peter Vacher
9 = Art Ensemble of Chicago
We Are On The Edge
Roscoe Mitchell (as, ss), Famoudou Don Moye (d, perc), Hugh Ragin, Fred Berry (t), Jaribu Shahid, Junius Paul, Silvia Bolognesi (b), plus guests incl. Nicole Mitchell (f, piccolo, b f), Tomeka Reid (c), Dudu Kouaté, Enoch Williams, Tito Sompa (perc), Moor Mother, Christina Wheeler (v, poetry) and Stephen Rush (cond). Rec. 2018
As the subtitle makes clear this is a celebration of a grand milestone for the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The 50th anniversary of one of the seminal groups to have emerged from post-war America is a timely reminder of its epic journey of daring experimentation and collaboration. On this 2-CD release (one studio set and one live) revered founder, multi-reedist and composer Roscoe Mitchell and his trusty co-leader, drummer-percussionist Famoudou Don Moye, are joined by a brilliant cast of guests that provides the adequate resources to build an intricate, kaleidoscopic orchestral work that is a logical, coherent outgrowth of the original small group with its vast array of instruments.
There is a distinctively plaintive, sometimes mournful beauty in many of the scores in which grainy, often low register strings are woven into folds of brass that have a kind of heraldic, if not mystic, character. Then again the AEC motto, ‘Great black music: ancient to future’, has never been better applied than here, where the grand coalition of generations, disciplines and cultures is thrilling. In real terms, that means bursts of thought-provoking, contemporary spoken word and additional tonal density through the rumble and gurgle of percussion ignited by Senegalese djembe drummer Dudu Kouaté, who brings a fiercely sustained drive to the rhythm section. While a grand scale of ideas has become one of AEC’s signes particuliers the group also excels on folk-like laments, such as the popular ‘Odwalla’, the reprise of which is as affecting as ever.
Drawing on material old and new, the group makes a strong, uplifting statement for artistic conviction as well as social and political justice, as made explicitly clear by Moor Mother’s impassioned, rabble-rousing call for resistance and victory on the title-track. The music, as well as the struggle, continues. Kevin Le Gendre
11 Brad Mehldau
Brad Mehldau (p, OB-6 Polyphonic syn, Therevox, Moog little Phatty syn, v, d, celeste, mellotron, B-3, perc), Mark Guiliana (d, el d), Becca Stevens, Gabriel Kahane, Kurt Elling (v), Ambrose Akinmusire (t), Michael Thomas (fl, as), Charles Pillow (ss, as, bcl), Joel Frahm (ts), Chris Cheek (ts, bs), Sara Caswell (vn), Lois Martin (vla, d, glock, prog), Noah Hoffeld (clo) and Aaron Nevezie (Korg Kaoss pad). Rec. March 2017-October 2018
Finding Gabriel signals a radical departure from Mehldau’s very recent recording projects, namely his stellar acoustic trio’s Seymour Reads the Constitution and solo piano investigations of JS Bach on After Bach. Firstly, because it’s an out-and-out ‘concept’ album with extramusical motivations: Mehldau attempts to make sense of socio-political culture in the Trump era by consulting sacred literature, and citing a selection of texts from the Old Testament books of Prophets and Writings. It’s an ambitious proposition and it’s not that everyone’s not knocking Trump. But Mehldau tackles it from an interesting alternative perspective, honed from several years absorbing religious texts. So he avoids facile problem-solving or jumping on knee-jerk political bandwagons. The ensemble instrumental palette is an eclectic one, and the soundscape is agitated and ominous in places but for the most part is dream-like, kaleidoscopic, and a bit trippy. Though electro-jazz drummer Mark Guiliana powers the set, Finding Gabriel isn’t Mark II Mehliana, their retro-to-future synth-driven duo of 2014’s Taming the Dragon. This is more about composition and Mehldau’s analogue synth sounds, which this time largely take on a more understated, ambient role. Both the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and underrated tenorist Joel Frahm make their mark with superb solo cameos, the latter’s charged up with fiery menace. But Finding Gabriel revolves around the human ‘voice’: whether sampled, spoken usually by Mehldau, or as wordless vocal, in which the chorus effect is haunting, ethereal but also from a lighter, easy-listening background, informed by Metheny and Bacharach.
A highlight is ‘Make It All Go Away’, an evocative nod to rock psychedelia and dominated by two exceptional guest vocalists: Kurt Elling improvises gliding horn-like lines and in-demand singer-songwriter Becca Stevens’ soaring vocal is not unlike Cocteau Twins’ Liz Frazer. A more aggressive ‘voice’ of the mob chants ‘Build That Wall!’ on ‘The Prophet is a Fool’, Mehldau’s most direct resistance to Trump-ism. On the closing title-track Mehldau’s speaking voice asks the Archangel Gabriel for a sign, a way out of the bedlam. Mehldau, who plays all instruments including drums and vocal on the track, instead offers a comforting musical salvation. Selwyn Harris
➜ Read our Brad Mehldau interview: “Playing written music, even my own, is completely not in my comfort zone, and might never be”
12 = Claire Martin
Claire Martin (v), Martin Sjöstedt (p), Niklas Fernqvist (b) and Daniel Fredriksson (d). Rec. date not stated
From the super-fine musicianship to the beautiful recorded sound, Claire Martin’s first album with her new all-Swedish trio is a towering success. Featuring new lyrics by Imogen Ryall to an Andy Bey scat solo, the title-track, ‘Believin’ It’, crystallises all of Martin’s outstanding qualities: infallible pocket, dazzling technique, lustrous timbre and phrasing to die for. If anything, Martin’s reworking of Pat Metheny’s ‘Timeline’, for which she has penned new lyrics, is even more spectacular, with her control of the rapid-fire melodic line a thing of wonder.
As well as singularly beautiful versions of the Ivan Lins classic, ‘Love Dance’, vibist Joe Locke’s Bobby Hutcherson tribute ‘A Little More Each Day’ and the Gordon Jenkins/Johnny Mercer standard, ‘P.S I Love You’, there are deeply swinging takes on Curtis Lewis’s ‘The Great City’ and Roc Hillman’s ‘Come Runnin’ (Martin’s own homages to Shirley Horn and Lena Horne respectively), there are stellar re-imaginings of Joni Mitchell’s ‘You Dream Flat Tires’, Michael Franks’ ‘Rainy Night in Tokyo’, plus John Surman and Karin Krog’s enchantingly folk-like ‘Cherry Tree Song’.
Elsewhere, to hear Martin’s fine re-workings of 1970s and 1980s UK/US pop rock, head straight for ‘I’m Not In Love’ and ‘Broken Wings’, the latter lit up by a coruscating solo from Sjöstedt. An album that unfailingly touches the heart and lifts the soul. Peter Quinn
12 = Enrico Rava/Joe Lovano
Enrico Rava (t), Joe Lovano (ts, tarogato), Giovanni Guidi (p), Dezron Douglas (b) and Gerald Cleaver (d). Rec. November 2018
Enrico Rava, the 80-year-old Italian trumpet star whose expeditions include Miles-infused post-bop, free-jazz with Steve Lacy, and a few personal takes on Italian opera besides, toured with Joe Lovano in November 2018 – this terrific live recording catches their Rome concert. Given Rava’s Miles allegiances (but maybe also a Lacy and Don Cherry-inspired inclination toward looser jazz forms), it’s perhaps not surprising that quite a lot of this music sounds like the almost-free leanings of Miles’ and Wayne Shorter’s 1960s Second Great Quintet pushed further out.
Rava’s ‘Interiors’ is a slowly swaying, film-noirish opener in which the trumpeter accelerates from a pure-toned theme to fast improv ascents paced by long turning notes – shadowed by Lovano’s plaintively eloquent tenor – before the band begins veering between punchy grooves and free-floating passages. Lovano plays a shapely tenor break of soft split-tones and rumbling bell-notes on Rava’s steady-swinging ‘Secrets’, and the latter accompanies Giovanni Guidi’s superb Hancock-to-Jarrett solo in deep exhalations, like a trombone.
Lovano’s ‘Fort Worth’ (a nod to Ornette) is exhilaratingly and free-jazzily polyphonic and conversational, ‘Divine Timing’ a haunting two-horns dirge that turns to effortless grooveswitching, and the closing segue embraces a Coltrane-quartet feel (on Coltrane’s ‘Spiritual’) and a disguised and almost-ambient visit to ‘Over the Rainbow’ by Guidi. The heads-playing is occasionally a little ragged (though in an Ornette/Cherry good way), but this is a meeting of hearts and minds. It should have happened a long time ago, but much better late than never. John Fordham
14 = RYMDEN
Reflections & Odysseys
Bugge Wesseltoft (p, ky), Dan Berglund (b) and Magnus Öström (d). Rec. 2018
Calling Rymden a Scandi-jazz ‘supergroup’ might not be very useful, but neither is it overstating the pivotal role these three musicians had in reshaping Nordic jazz from the mid-1990s. Bugge Wesseltoft, for his jazztronica innovations with his New Conception of Jazz and Berglund and Öström for their contribution to the highly influential EST, the piano trio that gave birth to a million other contemporary Euro-jazz piano trios.
With the untimely passing of Esbjörn Svensson in 2008, Öström and Berglund have buried their head in their own solo projects. As with those projects, Rymden also takes its cue more from rock than jazz, even though it retains a jazz sensibility. Wesseltoft is really at home here, creatively shifting around sci-fi like synth-centred soundscapes, tastefully funky Fender Rhodes and meditative acoustic piano.
The tunes are well-crafted with ‘Råk’ a highlight, switching from a hammering metal riff to Miles-like funk-rock with Wesseltoft excelling on a raw Fender sound. ‘Pitter Patter’ has echoes of Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, but with none of the pyrotechnics, while the farewell ballad ‘Homegrown’ flickers out with a melancholic earworm worthy of EST. Selwyn Harris
14 = Yazz Ahmed
Yazz Ahmed (t, flhn, v, Kaoss pad, perc), Noel Langley (t, flhn, ky, v), Camilla George, Tori Freestone, Helena Kay, Josie Simons (s, v), Gemma Moore, Nubya Garcia (s), Becca Toft (t, v), Alex Ridout, Chloe Abbott (t), Carol Jarvis, Rosie Turton (tb, v), George Crowley (bcl), Alcyona Mick, Nadia Sherrif (ky), Sarah Tandy (ky, v), Sam Halkvist (g), Shirley Teteh (g, v), Johanna Burnheart (vn, v), Charlie Pyne (b, v), Ralph Wyld (vib), Sophie Alloway (d, v), Tom Jenkins (d), Corrina Silverster (perc, v) and Sheila Maurice-Grey (v). Rec. 2016-2019
A slow cook of a release, its roots deep in a 2015 concert piece commissioned by Tomorrow’s Warriors with support from PRS Women Make Music, Polyhymnia is a celebratory paean to the brave, the gentle, those that won’t back down. We’ll all tip our hat to that: but what’s the music like? Well, as you ask, it’s rich, sonorous, big, melodic, puts a kick in your heels and a smile on your face. Worthily dull it’s not.
Music that’s so studio based, so long in the pot, can grow fussy, over-egged: but, helped by partner and producer Noel Langley, Ahmed has kept a light touch, mixing large ensemble themes with threads of electronics, a little anarchy from her Kaoss Pad, and an array of soloists, notably women, who contribute spark and edge. There’s also a diversity of styles that keeps the listener curious and surprised. ‘Lahan al-Mansour’, dedicated to Saudi’s first female film director, most obviously draws upon Ahmed’s Gulf roots, but her full-toned flugelhorn also echoes Kenny Wheeler’s contributions to Rabih Abou-Khalil’s great albums like Blue Camel. But on ‘Barbara’, dedicated to Barbara Thompson’s ongoing creativity despite her chronic illness, there are jazz rock themes, a playing with tempo and rhythms that echo yet develop Thompson’s work over the decades.
Other surprises abound: bet you don’t see ‘Men of Harlech’ coming on the Suffragette-inspired ‘Deeds Not Words,’ or the brass spikes that crunch against the Mardi Gras piano rolls of ‘Ruby Bridges’. If you want an album that can make you dance and think, explore and exult, sing and sigh then look no further than Polyhymnia. Andy Robson
➜ Read our Yazz Ahmed interview: “Music has helped me identify who I am”
16 = Matana Roberts
Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis
Matana Roberts (as, cl, v), Hannah Marcus (g, acc, fiddle, v), Sam Shalabi (g, oud, v), Nicholas Coloia (b, v), Ryan Sawyer (d, vib, jaw harp, bells, v), Steve Swell (tb, v), Ryan White (vib), Thierry Amar, Nadia Moss, Jessica Moss and Ian Haysksy (v). Rec. 2018
The fourth installment in Matana Roberts’ ambitious meditation on African-American history and folklore focuses on the city of Memphis “unlike a place I have yet 2 know”, according to the artist. Regardless of the inspiration that Roberts has drawn from the location, her treatment of the subject maintains the high standards set by the previous work. Firstly, her meshing of sung vocal and spoken word is compelling, primarily because the stories, detailing anything from family testimony to the black church experience, are so vivid. When Roberts confides that “memory is a most unusual thing”, she is really homing in on the heart and soul of the project, and it is to her credit that the complexity of the subject matter has been matched by the intricacy of the composing and arranging.
The strikingly wide timbral spectrum features the ecstatic ricochet of a jaw harp, rabble-rousing country-blues fiddle riffs, occasional Ornetteish breakdowns and instrumental interludes that are consistently imaginative, none more so than during an utterly haunting movement of vibraphone and percussion that sounds like wind chimes running backwards. Yet, for all the moments of gripping abstraction, it is the heart-stirring a capella gospel staples, ‘Her Mighty Waters Run’ (‘Roll The Old Chariot’) and ‘This Little Light Of Mine’, which also prove to be hugely impactful. Roberts’ ability to treat such demanding, multi-layered material with a clear focus is a testament to the strength of her original vision and skill as a narrator.
With her core quintet, in which guitarist-fiddler Hannah Marcus stands out, being joined by an array of guests that also includes four vocalists, the music, in lesser hands, could easily have become overblown if not diffuse. Roberts has kept her conceptual focus and creative engine finely tuned to deliver work that has structural invention and a deep poignancy that should move anybody interested in real lives. Kevin Le Gendre
16 = Theo Croker
Star People Nation
Theo Croker (t, elec, v), Irwin Hall (as, f, bcl), Kassa Overall, Eric Harland (d), Eric Wheeler (b, eb), Michael King, Eric Lewis (p, org, keys), Rose Gold, and Chronixx (v). Rec. 2018
Trumpeter Croker has always been vocal about the substantial influence the late Roy Hargrove exerted on him, and this interesting new offering takes him close to his spirit in ways that are obvious and not so obvious. There is a similarly intelligent blend of soulful melodies and hard-edged rhythms, finessed by the engineering of Bob Power, who worked with Hargrove’s star collaborators, Erykah Badu and D’Angelo.
Yet Croker also has a more marked Afro-house sensibility in some of his writing and arranging, which puts the onus as much on soaring unison lines with saxophonist Irwin Hall as it does on the leader’s solos, which blend radiant timbres with spinning phrases. Moreover, he is in the producer’s chair and his programming and effects bring additional nuance to the mix, filtering and thinning out a vocal to make it a touch more wistful, or drawing a sensual digital muffle over some of the synthesizer parts. Perhaps most impressively, Croker has also edited performances so that the 10 tracks make a running time under 45 minutes – one side of a trusty C-90 – so the material is well paced towards the climactic closer ‘Understand Yourself’, which has an imperious, strikingly conscious vocal from Jamaican reggae sensation Chronixx. Kevin Le Gendre
16 = Alice Zawadzki
Within You Is A World of Spring
Alice Zawadzki (v, vn, p, ky), Fred Thomas (p, d, ky, perc, clo, db), Rob Luft (g), Misha Mullov-Abbado (db), Hyelim Kim (taegum), Simmy Singh (vn), Laura Senior, Lucy Nolan (vla) and Peggy Nolan (clo). Rec. 2019
London-based singer, violinist and pianist Alice Zawadzki gifts us a second album both tender in spirit and defiantly anti-genre, hooking her all-embracing vision to a questing musical curiosity and the freedom inherent in jazz. Ten original, wildly different tunes are buoyed by a band of young London Turks including guitarist Rob Luft and double-bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado, who play, tease and solo their way through the likes of the eponymous opener, in which Zawadzki’s clarion voice tells of regeneration and rebirth; a bittersweet, time-bending ballad, ‘Keeper’, and a long psychedelic instrumental suitably titled ‘Twisty Moon’.
Standouts are many: more poetry recital than spoken word, ‘The Woods’ is a crisp but warmly annunciated ode to feeling at one with nature, augmented by on-the-fly-melodies from Hyelim Kim on the taegum (a large wooden Japanese flute) and textures gleaned from flourishes on prepared piano (variously sparked by the effects of a hand-fan on paper tacked to strings). Zawadzki’s violin-playing is flowing, fluttering, generous, but it’s her jazz-honed vocals that really impress, free-falling through ‘God’s Children’, a song she wrote after working in the refugee camps of Calais, and finding new depth and resonance in the Spanish and Italian lyrics of ‘Es Verdad’ and ‘O Mio Amore’. A cornucopia of delights. Jane Cornwell
➜ Read our Alice Zawadzki interview: “This pain of Spring often comes from the way we lay ourselves on the line again and again, especially in love”
19 = Bill Frisell/Thomas Morgan
Bill Frisell (g) and Thomas Morgan (b). Rec. March 2016
Epistrophy picks up from the equally intimate Small Town; recorded live at the Village Vanguard, these are classic standards presented at a classic venue in, well, a most classic performance. This is Frisell in his purest, Johnny Smith mode: a tone to die for and a collaborator in Morgan who is mindful of each and every Frisellian twist, turn and harmonic finesse.
The programming is well thought through, with a sumptuously romantic ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’, followed by the freest cut of the set, a gnarly but not alienating ‘Mumbo Jumbo’, before we revel in the dramatics of ‘You Only Live Twice’ and a melancholic but life-affirming ‘Lush Life’. The pair are particularly fine Monk masters, notably on the title-track; unlike so many they don’t play up the ‘quirkiness’, but revel in the damn fine tune: Frisell even squeezes in a rock’n’roll flavour which would’ve had Monk doing one of his little dances. Classic indeed: but nary a note of nostalgia. Andy Robson
➜ Read our Thomas Morgan interview: “For me music has always been the most natural and the deepest way to share something with people”
19 = Joe Lovano
Joe Lovano (ts, tarogato, perc), Marilyn Crispell (p) and Carmen Castaldi (d, perc). Rec. June/July 2016
If you played this spaciously exploratory album without investigating its origins, you might disrespectfully ponder if Joe Lovano had moved into sound-of-silence ECM territory as an audience-building variant on his more familiar avant-bop and world-musical agendas. But this captivating project has been smouldering for a long time – Lovano has known and admired adventurous pianist and Anthony Braxton collaborator Marilyn Crispell since the mid-1980s, and versatile percussionist Carmen Castaldi since they played together as Ohio teenagers. The three of them (plus producer Manfred Eicher) have boldly adopted a repertoire rooted in 12-tone serial forms, to produce what the saxophonist calls, “some of the most intimate and personal music I’ve recorded so far”.
Castaldi’s bells-and-gongs soundscape for Lovano’s echoing first tenor entry on ‘One Time In’ presents the saxophonist with a wealth of tonal temptations. Lovano’s dialogue with Crispell’s piano on ‘Seeds of Change’ eerily invoke Bobby Wellins’ and Stan Tracey’s ‘Starless and Bible Black’ for this listener, the brief unison melodies in ‘Razzle Dazzle’ and ‘Sparkle Lights’ invite quietly scintillating piano/sax conversations, and Lovano on the Hungarian tarogato dreamily and then urgently reacts to Castaldi’s intensifying snaps and clangs on ‘Mystic’. There are almost motionless reveries for Crispell and Castaldi, a ghostly, tone-bending passage for solo gongs, and a headlong free-jazz charge for a finale. Free-improv-meets-serialism it may be, but these three constantly unveil their diverse but devoted jazz roots. John Fordham