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

Sunday, April 3, 2016

My favorite things, pt. 3: Setola Di Maiale

I've sung the praises of drummer Stefano Giust's label before on this blog. Founded in 1993, Setola Di Maiale continues to put out a steady stream of releases that combine some names you know with some you don't, and are always challenging and worthwhile.

These CR-Rs are well-recorded and come housed in contemporary, eye-catching graphics, most of them designed by Giust himself, who trained as a graphic designer. Setola Di Maiale illustrates how vibrant an improvised music scene there is in Italy, in the same way For Tune highlights Polish musicians.

Some recent Setola Di Maiale releases I've enjoyed are:

One Lip 5 - Apro il Silenzio (I open the silence); with Guido Mazzon, Nicola Catteneo, Franco Cortellessa, Alberto Mandarini, Stefano Giust, etc.

Sabir Mateen (sax), Gianni Lenoci (piano), Giacomo Mongelli (drums) - Testing the System

Guido Mazzon (trumpet), Marta Sacchi (clarinets), Stefano Giust (percussion) - Neu Musik Projekt

The site is down temporarily, but you can see most of the catalog at Discogs.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

My favorite things, pt. 2: Pi Recordings

Some labels put out a plethora of releases each year, and of course we should all be grateful that they do. Others, like Pi, issue a handful of what feel like carefully curated albums that cause you to really focus your attention. The most recent, save one, is drummer Dan Weiss’ Sixteen: Drummer’s Suite, which pays indirect tribute to famous drummers who have influenced him in one way or another. I say indirect because the suite doesn’t mimic any past styles but makes a very comprehensive statement of its own. 

I wasn’t a fan of Weiss’ previous Pi release, Fourteen, because it felt like a pastiche, with styles grafted onto each other. He’s taken a major step forward with Sixteen, displaying complete mastery in combining acoustic instruments, electronics, voice and percussion. Some themes remind me of the open, endless blue sky style of John Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble, but Weiss is his own man, and he has birthed a masterwork. 

The most recent Pi Recordings release ,which I haven’t yet heard, is Henry Threadgill’s Old Locks and Irregular Verbs.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

My favorite things pt. 1: Leo Records

Leo Records puts out an amazingly diverse group of recordings, and has done so for an astonishing 37 years now. I always see names that are new to me, even though I follow the music closely. Not everything is to my taste, but I’m indebted to the label for their Anthony Braxton recordings alone. Leo Feigin, the founder, also has great taste in pianists: Simon Nabatov, Achim Kaufmann, and more recently, Uwe Oberg. Here are some recently releases that I’ve really enjoyed:

Simon Nabatov / Mark Dresser / Dominik Mahnig - Equal Poise

Sarah Bernstein Quartet (with Kris Davis) - Still/free

Kaufmann, Gratkowski, de Joode - Oblengths

Uwe Oberg / Silke Eberhardt - Turns

Taking a pause

It’s time for me to say goodbye to reviews, at least for the foreseeable future. As I mentioned in a previous post, early last year I accepted a challenging new job that has left little time for listening to music, never mind writing about it. The stack of CDs that I’ve not yet heard, or heard only once, is daunting. 

Before I stop down for good, I’m going to do a series of posts around the theme of “My Favorite Things”, the labels and recordings that I’ve really gravitated to over the past few months, and for whose existence I’m grateful. Hopefully this will help bring a little more attention to deserving artists and the labels which support them, and help ease my guilt about all those CDs that never got written about.

To the label owners, PR professionals, and artists, thanks for your passion, and for your friendship that has developed online as a result of this blog. You can stop sending me CDs now, but know I’ll continue to support you as I always have by purchasing your recordings and following you on social media.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Some thoughts about Paul Bley

When I read that Paul Bley had passed, I realized I had some holes in my collection in regards to his output. In particular, I hadn't really kept up with him from the 90's on, apart from his infrequent collaborations with Evan Parker on ECM.

One of the recordings I acquired to correct this deficiency was Play Blue, his solo Oslo concert from 2008, also on ECM.

From the beginning of this CD you know you’re going on a journey. That’s what I love about jazz, the fact that the music takes you – “let the music take you” – from where you are to somewhere. Sometimes you come all the way back, and sometimes a part of you is left out there, at some point where your consciousness meets that of the artist, at some intersection of your experiences. 

And wherever the journey takes you, you’re left with the memory of that journey, as real as any physical trip you’ve taken. You remember those special moments when you first listen to that album that changes your life. You can recall the experience of taking the shrink wrap off the album, smelling the vinyl and the printed sleeve, and placing it on the turntable. At Beethoven Hall, New York Fall 1974, Tribute, One for One , Involution, the list is forever in your memory.

Thank you to Paul Bley, and to all the artists who are willing to take us along on their journeys.