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Hosted by Fritz Byers, Jazz Spectrum is designed as an anthology, a loose and flowing tour through the history of the music, showcasing the wondrous diversity of jazz and the virtuosity of the musicians who play it.
Anthony Braxton, 19 Standards 2003, “Body and Soul”
Anthony Braxton, Wildflowers – The New York Loft Sessions, “73-S Degrees Kelvin”
Anthony Braxton, Complete Arista Recordings, “Opus 23C”
Paquito D’Rivera, The Lost Sessions, “I Want to Talk About You”
Pete Jolly, Pete Jolly Trio and Friends, “Alone Together”
Same, “Blues Two Ways”
Same, “A Sleepin’ Bee”
Lena Bloch, Feathery, “Rubato”
Edmond Hall, Petite Fleur, “Off the Road”
Sarah Vaughan, Chronological Classics 1949-50, “You’re Mine, You”
Duke Ellington, The 1954 Los Angeles Concert, “How High the Moon”
George Cables, Why Not, “Think of Me”
Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble, Mandorla Awakening II – Emerging Worlds, “Listening Embrace”
Nicholas Payton, Into the Blue, “Triptych”
Rudresh Mahanthappa, Bird Calls, “Maybe Later”
Frank Sinatra, The Columbia Years, “Stella by Starlight”
Bud Powell, Complete Blue Note and Roost Recordings, “Stella by Starlight”
Billy Eckstine, Billy’s Best, “Stella by Starlight,”
Dizzy Gillespie, Birk’s Works, “Stella by Starlight”
Chris Connor, Sings Lullabys of Birdland, “Stella by Starlight”
Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (Legacy Edition), “Stella by Starlight”
Ella Fitzgerald, “Stella by Starlight”
Robert Glasper, Covered, “Stella by Starlight”
Tomeka Reid Quartet, Old New, “Peripatetic”
Tomasz Stanko Quintet, Dark Eyes, “The Dark Eyes of Martha Hirsch”
Abbey Lincoln, That’s Him!, “Porgy”
Ambrose Akinmusire, A Rift in Decorum, “Moment in between the rest (to curve an ache)”
Oliver Nelson, Stolen Moments, “Three Seconds”
Jimmy Rowles & George Mraz, Music’s the Only Thing on My Mind, “Tom Thumb”
Muhal Richard Abrams, Blues Forever, “Ancient and Future Reflections”
Thelonious Monk, The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall, “Monk’s Mood”
Jimmy Knepper, 1st Place, “Distress Dismay”
Michael Formanek Elusion Quartet, Time Like This, “Down 8 Up 5”
Mary Stallings, Manhattan Moods, “Sweet and Lovely”
Rob McConnell & the Boss Brass, Present Perfect, “Everything Happens to Me”
Best of 2020
For the entirety of its 100-plus years, jazz has represented a dialectic between commentary on the real world and the arching aspirations of the imagination. In giving expression to this fraught and fertile counterpoint, of course, jazz is not alone among the arts. Indeed, this soul-drenched conversation is perhaps the heart of all Art. But there is something unique about music; about its hold on the spirit; about its power to agitate and soothe, to challenge and comfort, to hold us tight and to help us soar. From the earliest days of its rising, jazz has consistently displayed a capacity for mordant commentary about the full range of our downbeat worldly experiences, from laughable society foibles through rampant hypocrisies to pervasive injustice. At the same time, the music has expressed our most ethereal aspirations. Which form of the music is which is itself an imponderable: I may hear Louis Armstrong’s clarion trumpet as the musical counterpart to his verbal laceration of President Eisenhower for his dithering on civil rights, and you may hear the same solo as some sort of overture to a romance.
If music did not have these mysteries around it, I wonder if it would be able to captivate us as it does. I don’t know. But I do know I am not alone in having found in jazz this year not just an antidote to global gloom or an escape from pervasive anxieties, but an affirmation of the permanence of so much we value and cling to. I should say “I,” not “we,” because one of the many sobering things to take from this vexed and vexing year is how little “we” have in common, at least in our civic selves.
Still, I return to this truth: jazz, despite its grounding in social realms of oppression, disdain, poverty, and legalized violence, is a music of boundless joy, warmth, spontaneity, openness, virtuosity, individual vision and collective sympathy, hope, possibility, and transcendence. And it has been all of that this year, from the late-career starbursts of a life-long traditionalist (Jimmy Heath in his 90s) and a life-long innovator (Carla Bley, mid 80s) to the innovations of the latest new wave from London (Nubya Garcia, to name one among many). For personal reasons, I found myself drawn this year to the music’s quieter side. But that is not to say museum pieces or staid melodies. One of the year’s surprises was the graceful, haunting collaboration between two of the music’s most restless inventors: the pianist Kris Davis and the saxophonist Ingrid Laubrick on their stunning work, Blood Moon.
You doubtless found your own way through the year with jazz of your own choosing. Kim Kleinman, whose piece is right beneath this one, responded to other music, and I commend to you his typically insightful year-end summing up. If I’ve a point to make, it’s this: for the 50 years I’ve listened to jazz, it has been the sound track of the world I wanted to live in, sometimes by reflecting the world as it is, other times by limning an invisible world I longed for. So, it’s no surprise, in this year unlike any other, that jazz in 2020 did its customary work, more proficiently than ever.
Here are 38 releases from the year (35 new and 3 recovered), recordings that time and again helped me stay in this world and another, here, there, and everywhere.
(* denotes a special favorite)
Rez Abbassi, Django-shift
Ambrose Akinmusire, On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment
* Susan Alcorn Quintet, Pedernal
JD Allen - Toys/Die Dreaming
Callum Au & Claire Martin, Songs and Stories
John Beaseley, MONK'estra Plays John Beasley
Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, Just Coolin'
* Carla Bley, Life Goes On
Alan Braufman, The Fire Still Burns
Chick Corea, Plays
Aaron Diehl, The Vagabond
* Bill Frisell, Valentine
Elliot Galvin, Live in Paris
Nubya Garcia, Source
Jimmy Greene, While Looking Up
Jimmy Heath, Love Letter
* Fred Hersch, Songs from Home
* Brian Landrus, For Now
* Ingrid Laubrock & Kris Davis, Blood Moon
Charles Lloyd, 8: Kindred Spirits
* Rudresh Mahanthappa, Hero Trio
Gregoire Maret, Roman Collin, Bill Frisell, Americana
Brad Mehldau, Suite: April 2020
* Ron Miles, Rainbow Sign
Thelonious Monk, Palo Alto
Aaron Parks, Little Big II: Dreams of a Mechanical Man
Enrico Pieranunzi, Common View
Joshua Redman, RoundAgain
Sonny Rollins, Rollins in Holland
* Maria Schneider, Data Lords
John Scofield, Swallow Tales
Walter Smith III, In Common 2
Kevin Sun, The Sustain of Memory
Tani Tabbal Trio, Now Then
* Marcin Wasilewski Trio with Joe Lovano, Arctic Riff
Webber/Morris Big Band, Both are Tru
Immanuel Wilkins, Omega
By Kim Kleinman, Contributing Writer
Comes December and once again I have the chance to wrap up the year with reflections on what I heard. Even after another year of happy immersion in the music, I don’t have sufficient awareness of what specifically has come out in 2020 to make a list of essential exciting music. There's no list to check twice. I’m better connected to the scene—and even have a couple of favorites—but my historian genes kick in and I listen for trends and antecedents rather than being focused solely on this moment.
So, herewith my reflections on two albums whose release I anticipated affectionately, but also the impact of streaming during the pandemic and a paean to the alto saxophone.
I looked forward and absorbed the Artemis album. There are some nifty tunes—Allison Miller’s “Goddess of the Hunt,” Anat Cohen’s “Nocturno,” Renee Rosnes’s “Big Top,” and her arrangement of Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” serving as a reference point to show what the band’s capable of. I recognize that all-star ensembles mesh in varying ways and Artemis is nicely cohesive and collaborative but unevenness is inevitable, maybe making it not quite an album-of-the-year candidate. But these are mighty players whose work I’ve enjoyed in person and on record. Miller is an exemplar of the drummers whose every strike is carefully calculated for both rhythmic and sonic impact. I can think of no one more joyous in her playing than Cohen. Melissa Aldana has a grasp of her horn’s history and has an innovative approach to the tenor/bass/drums trio. Ingrid Jensen’s tribute to Kenny Wheeler with Steve Tressler opened my ears to that giant of the music. Rosnes has the veteran’s insider/outsider savvy to lead this entourage. They’ve made a great start that will grow as they have more experience together.
Fred Hersch’s “Songs from Home” also stands out for me. I followed closely his Facebook Live “Tune of the Day” series in April and May and therefore I feel like I got to see the album in development. It had to have been a daunting task for him to have something daily for 6 or 7 weeks, but it was the two-way gift of music. He got to play and we got to listen; together we tried to figure out how to maintain audience when we couldn’t/shouldn’t breathe the same air, literally. Songs from Home is a very homemade project—literally from his living room, probably from a smart phone/tablet as the images were as in a mirror. The relatively low-tech makes it heartfelt and intimate, including articulate explanations of why those tunes stood out. We (Hersch, Fritz, and I) are of an age, so what he does with the radio songs of our youth is homey and comforting —“When I’m Sixty-Four” (there but new), “All I Want” (getting inside Joni Mitchell’s poignancy), and “Wichita Lineman” (no kitsch and full recognition of just what Jimmy Webb could do). His choices from the canon (a Kenny Wheeler composition, show tunes (“Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” emerges from its components with close listening, and one of his own) are fresh and revealing.
That Hersch’s album arose from a streaming “Tune of the Day” and then was showcased on a streaming show from the Village Vanguard in November highlights what I think is the most exciting development in jazz—that through streaming platforms the music is getting out to the world in ways it never has. A welcome swallow of lemonade from the bushels and bushels that have come our way. Put simply, from St. Louis, I can be the footloose jazz fan I have dreamed of being since beginning to read the front section of the New Yorker or the New York Times Arts and Leisure section nearly fifty years ago. I’m seeing three or more sets a week and having to choose among options. I am seeing players who I could only hope would make it to Jazz St Louis or the Sheldon Concert Hall (Omer Avital, Jon Irabagon, Dave Holland, Mark Turner) or discovering people whose music I should know better (Kenny Werner, Chris Potter, Miguel Zenon) or new artists I feel like I’m getting in on the ground floor with (Miki Yamanaka). There are folks whom I know I wouldn’t see without this opportunity (Trio 3, George Coleman) and others who I check up regularly on just because I can (Cyrus Chestnut, Melissa Aldana). And Fritz and I can see shows “together” in real time, share our reactions, and enrich our nearly fifty-year shared exploration of the music.
There is a welcome de-romanticization too. The rooms, though large in legend, are cozy (the Vanguard seats 120, Mezzrow’s—evocative of Bradley’s where we saw Jimmy Rowles in the late 1970s—30. Jazz St. Louis with 200 is big; the Blue Note is now 250 and is a part of a chain and has a Times Square web presence but still good, adventurous music). The musicians are craftsmen in both senses—highly skilled members of the guild, but also jobbers. When they make it to St. Louis, it is special and planned; in New York it can be “hey, can you make a gig?” As a budding regular, I too am often enough just at a favorite haunt catching whatever is offered because I trust the curation of the club.
Each club has its niche. The Vanguard is The Vanguard, a pinnacle and, now, technically easy with its streams. Small’s is for up and comers, but it has a deep archive, for one can see big names when they were coming up or just looking for a little gig to try things out. The Blue Note is top drawer but slightly garish compared to the staid Vanguard. Smoke is less adventurous but reliably swinging, familiar like a cheeseburger. The Jazz Gallery has a nice edge while serving the community with jams and showcases. I participated in a conversation between Miguel Zenon and Melissa Aldana and got to be a fan with a chat stream exchange with Aldana wherein I got to ask her about playing in sax/bass/drum trios.
When we come out the other end, I suspect and hope that shows will stream even when the punters are back in the room. I miss live music, but this is almost as good and much more accessible through these streams.
2020 was centenary of Charlie Parker's birth and the year that Lee Konitz died. Both events warranted attention and reflection, but they also forced me to confront a prejudice I have against the alto saxophone. Sure, Johnny Hodges, Eric Dolphy, and Arthur Blythe are longstanding parts of my musical vocabulary. But I’ve also been in agreement with young Melissa Aldana who got her parents to replace the starter alto with a real horn, a tenor.
That was oh so wrong of me. We spent several Jazz Spectrum shows looking forward and back from Parker to see what he did to the alto and the music in general. Lee Konitz rose mightily in my estimation (“Motion,” the gigantic “The Song is You” on “Lone-lee”) as endlessly inventive in a way that didn’t require bebop, a contrafactual of the highest order.
Here’s an alternate history to consider—Charlie Parker doesn’t happen and jazz becomes modern with Lee Konitz as the beacon. Miles Davis who wanted Konitz on Birth of the Cool comes to New York from East St. Louis to play with Konitz. How does that play out?
Still I could have come out of 2020 without recognizing the alto as a wonderful vehicle for making jazz. It has a full middle range that doesn’t need to growl and can go high without a tenor’s falsetto. Together those qualities open up a fluid middle that makes for nimble dances.
Streaming too has made it possible to find and appreciate those who are doing the work.
Miguel Zenon is at the top of the list. I saw him with Fred Hersch from the Vanguard and a Facebook stream shot at the Jazz Gallery playing Puerto Rican boleros with Luis Perdomo. The boleros are endlessly varied, mid- tempo dances (do not think Ravel, though there’s a connection) with a meditative mournfulness. I bet when Miles Davis heard Spanish music for the first time, he appreciated similar possibilities that he—and not I—could act on and synthesize. Zenon, particularly there, has a wonderful tone and unrushed fluidity.
I saw Jaleel Shaw in his own band and later with Dave Holland and he too is a favorite for reasons similar to Zenon. Vincent Herring is a Smoke type whom I saw in a Cannonball tribute with Louis Hayes and then with his own swinging band, again showing the advantages of the nimbleness. Immanuel Wilkins is young and promising; I saw him with Kenny Barron in mid-December. He’s not yet polished and elegant enough, but Barron’s influence will pay off and Barron's tutelage is warranted. I am combing the Small’s archive for these players and others.
Another bit of provincialism falls away and I have bigger ears. If I am a member of the New York club scene in this streaming way, then maybe I’ll be enough ahead of the curve to have some 2021 albums to recommend. I don’t have Fritz’s weekly challenge of putting together shows, but I’m glad to help and continue to see where the music takes us.