Thursday, December 1, 2016

Best of 2016

I'm honored to have been invited to take part in Francis Davis' 11th Annual Jazz Critics Poll, hosted by NPR Music for the fourth consecutive year. As usual, it's hard to edit a list down to ten new releases. Here are my choices, including reissues and best debut:

New releases:

Michael Formanek Ensemble Kolossus
The Distance

Dan Weiss
Sixteen: Drummer's Suite
Pi Recordings

Mary Halvorson Octet
Away With You
Firehouse 12

Tim Stine Trio 
Tim Stine Trio
Astral Spirits

Christoph Irniger Pilgrim
Big Wheel Live

Bill Charlap Trio
Notes from New York

Illegal Crowns
Illegal Crowns
Rogue Art

Ches Smith
The Bell

Igor Osypov Quartet
Dream Delivery
For Tune

Mark Dresser
Sedimental You
Clean Feed


Jimmy Giuffre 3
Bremen and Stuttgart 1961

Anthony Braxton
Quintet (Basel) 1977

Wadada Leo Smith


Ron Stabinsky
Free for One
Hot Cup

Monday, November 7, 2016

Mark Dresser - Sedimental You

Mark Dresser
Sedimental You
Clean Feed Records

Mark Dresser - bass
Nicole Mitchell - flute
Marty Erlich - clarinet
Michael Dessen - trombone
Joshua White - piano
David Morales Boroff - violin
Jim Black - drums

Recently I acquired an old Columbia 2-record set called Outstanding Jazz Compositions of the 20th Century featuring Third Stream works such as Jazz Suite for Brass (J.J. Johnson), Three Little Feelings (John Lewis) and All About Rosie (George Russell).

Perhaps it's because I listened to Sedimental You shortly after hearing those older works, but I see Mark Dresser in a continuum with the Third Stream composers of the late 50s, who were trying to fuse jazz with classical and concert band music.

In an age where there are countless Free Improv sessions of debatable long-term value being released by small aggregations, it's refreshing to see someone craft adventurous compositions with small group arrangements that skillfully bring together a mix of woodwinds and strings.

Based on the composition titles, there are political points to be made on Sedimental You, but the compositions hold together without that context.

This, along with Dresser's compositions on the DVD Virtual Tour: A Reduced Carbon Footprint Concert Series, provides insight into where modern Jazz-influenced composition is heading.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Tyshawn Sorey - The Inner Spectrum of Variables

Tyshawn Sorey
The Inner Spectrum of Variables
Pi Recordings

Tyshawn Sorey - composer, conductor, drum set
Christopher Tordini - contrabass
Cory Smythe - piano
Chern Hwei Fung - violin
Kyle Armbrust - viola
Rubin Kodheli - cello

I realize that I’m late to the game on this one, even though I’ve been listening to it ever since it came out earlier this year. I’ve hesitated to review it, because I feel ill-equipped to comment on a work that is so informed by the classical music tradition. 

However, on its own merits The Inner Spectrum of Variables is an ambitious work that deftly combines strings, piano and percussion to make an assured, mature statement as a composition. Given that Sorey is one of the best jazz drummers working today, you might expect Variables to be heavy on percussion, but in actuality the accents are subtle. Cory Smyth is wonderful, as he was on Sorey’s trio album from 2014, Alloy.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Illegal Crowns - Illegal Crowns

Illegal Crowns
Illegal Crowns

Mary Halvorson: guitar
Tomas Fujiwara: drums
Benoît Delbecq: piano, prepared piano
Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet, flugelhorn

One of the best albums I’ve heard this year. Illegal Crowns has great writing from all the players, and brings to mind the subtle magic and mystery of Miles’ Second Quintet, even though it’s very different in terms of its language and approach.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Mary Halvorson Octet - Away With You

Mary Halvorson Octet
Away With You

Jonathan Finlayson - trumpet
Jon Irabagon - alto saxophone
Ingrid Laubrock - tenor saxophone
Jacob Garchik - trombone
Mary Halvorson - guitar
Susan Alcorn - pedal steel guitar
John Hébert - bass
Ches Smith - drums

Just got through listening to Mary Halvorson’s amazing new album with her Octet, Away With You (Because of the letterspacing on the cover, at first I thought the title was A Way With You, which is a nice play on words if you think about it!) This recording hit me so hard that I had to come out of my blog retirement to comment on it.

No real dominant voice, everything is very well-balanced throughout, and it’s the ensemble sound that you notice. One unique quality to the arrangements is Susan Alcorn’s pedal steel, an instrument I generally steer clear of even though I was born in the South. Here, however, it blends remarkably well with the woodwinds and brass, as well as Ms. Halvorson’s guitar.

Away With You builds on Ms. Halvorson’s work on her previous Firehouse 12 group recording, Illusionary Sea; in fact, it’s the same group with the addition of Ms. Alcorn. Listening to Away With You brought to mind Michael Formanek’s The Distance, not in the specific sound but in the way each offers a fresh take on arranging for larger groups of instruments.

This is brilliant stuff. It releases on October 28, but you can pre-order at Firehouse 12’s Bandcamp page.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

My favorite things, pt. 4: Balance Point Acoustics

Wrapping up this series of "My favorite things" is bassist Damon Smith and his label, Balance Point Acoustics. Smith was active on the West Coast avant-garde scene, founded the label in 2001 and then relocated to Houston, Texas in 2010. Damon is known for his adventurous playing, an insatiable thirst for listening to new music, and his culinary adventures (which he documents on Facebook). He's also known for his outspoken opinions on other players, something of a rarity among improvising musicians, at least in public. I recall his comparison of MOPDK's Kevin Shea to Jimmy Cobb generated strong reactions when the group's Blue album, a recreation of Kind of Blue, came out.
Smith has played with musicians from all over the world, and is known for long-running collaborations with guitarists Henry Kaiser and Sandy Ewen. Some of the work on Balance Point Acoustics that I've enjoyed recently include:

Sandy Ewen/Damon Smith - Background Information

Fred Van Hove / Peter Jacquemyn / Damon Smith - Burns Longer

Peter Kowald/Damon Smith - Mirrors Broken - But No Dust

One other outstanding album on which he plays is on the Nuscope label:

Magda Mayas / Damon Smith / Tony Buck - Spill Plus