BEST OF 2019: Women in Jazz2K

I’m a natural obsessive, which usually manifests itself in ignoring the big things while giving the teeny tiny stuff my full attention. Then again, it’s all about perspective: what’s Teeny Tiny for some may be Towering for me. For instance, one Towering issue I’ve been focusing on has been the pushback given to Keychange, an initiative started in the EU in 2017 but has since gone worldwide.

In essence, Keychange wants to address the elephant in the room that is (to my mind, anyway) hindering one of the most culturally inclusive musical forms on the planet: the minimization of women jazz musicians, both onstage and in the studio. In order for this genre to survive in the age of #MeToo, this attitude cannot stand. For their part, Keychange PRS has spent the last three years pushing jazz festivals & concert series to adopt a 50-50 booking policy by 2022.

I wrote about this last year, and I’m happy to report that 150 festivals and venues, including NYC’s Winter Jazz festival and Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, and the EFG London Jazz Festival, have signed on to the initiative. That’s a nice number until you realize how many other festivals there are in the world, and how the list doesn’t include major players like Monterey, Newport, North Sea, and Montreal.  The bottom line is there are still promoters and organizations who are clinging to the fiction that “There just aren’t enough quality women artists to force that kind of mandate on us!”

Sadly, this is nothing new. I’ve attended festivals where women artists are cornered off into one-off “supergroups” when every band member could have put on her monster own set with no problem whatsoever.  But I guess that would only happen if Keychange wrapped their terrible, terrifying albatross around the necks of poor, downtrodden, corporate-sponsored jazz festivals, many of whom would book Earth Wind & Fire and (what’s left of) the Temptations before they’d book a female jazzer who’s on the way up.

Since I don’t have a festival of my own (at least, not yet), I came up with “Women in Jazz2K,” a special program featuring tracks from some of the female artists I’d been playing on “Jazz2K @ The Saint” over the course of 2018. Considering I only had a couple of days to put the show together (snap decisions are like that), I think it came out well, incorporating tracks from natural born killers like Anat Cohen, Roxy Coss, Renee Rosnes, Jamie Baum, and other stalwarts.

I liked the results so much that I announced at the end of the show that “Women in Jazz2K” would be an annual part of what’s become the “Jazz2K Holiday Spectacular,” a series of year-end programs showcasing the best of Jazz2K for the year. I was able to take my time with “Women in Jazz2K 2019,” although like all the other shows I’m doing, there were last-minute arrivals that kept sending me back to the drawing board. Hey, I wanted this mission, and those are the conditions that prevail.

In any case, here are a few of the releases I’ll be sampling from:

ANAT COHEN TENTET
Triple Helix(Anzic)

One of only three returnees from “Women in Jazz2K 2018”, the Tentet remains Anat Cohen’s most interesting (and most intricate) project to date. Arranged & ramrodded by old schoolmate / musical director Oded Lev-Ari, Cohen launches fresh attacks on both sterling originals and brilliant covers of Astor Piazzola’s “Milonga Del Angel” and Stan Kenton’s “Lonesome Train.” The title “track” is a 3-part “song cycle” composed by Lev-Ari that occasionally threatens to send the listener off down a winding alley with no way out. In the end, though, it’s Cohen’s unparalleled talent on clarinet that keeps this package together. I still prefer Anat in her standard quartet format, but as a modern-day big-band project, Triple Helixgets high marks for daring and originality.

CAMILA MEZA & THE NECTAR ORCHESTRA
Ambar(Sony Masterworks)

There’s no question that I’m a Camila Meza fanboy from way back. However, Ambar forced me to confront my usually negative signal reaction when strings are applied to jazz. Just as Meza won over the audience at this year’s “Jazz at The Lake”, the guitarist / vocalist won me over with this beautiful, passionate date, where strings & rhythm section get equal billing but never tread on each other; props go to the arrangers in Meza’s band, keyboardist Eden Ladin and bassist Noam Wiesenberg. While Meza’s outstanding songwriting skills haven’t dimmed a bit, we also get to experience her interpretive powers on “Elliot Smith’s “Waltz #1” and the David Bowie / Pat Metheny collaboration “This is Not America.” Fanboy I may be, but Ambaris a home run by any objective standard.

ESPERANZA SPALDING
12 Little Spells(Concord Jazz)

In the relatively short time Esperanza Spalding has been on the scene, the former child prodigy has consistently proven that your reach should exceed your grasp. She’s done this by never standing still, never being predictable, and almost never doing the same thing twice. On 12 Little Spells, the bassist / vocalist / educator takes the old saw “Music heals” and run like Allyson Felix, creating a series of mind-blowing originals dedicated to various parts of the body – from the abdominal portal to the “solar portal”, and everywhere in between. Spalding mixes free jazz, prog rock, and Prince-quality funk to get every point across in her own special way. This isn’t my favorite Spalding date (That’s still 2016’s Emily’s D+Evolution, the home of Esperanza’s personal Ziggy Stardust), but 12 Little Spells stands on its own as yet another provocative example of the unique gifts Esperanza Spalding keeps giving us all.

LIONESS
Pride & Joy(Positone)

Before there was Artemis – the all-female, all-star band that wowed the festival circuit and just got signed to Blue Note – there was Lioness, a rocking sextet from a label that’s one of the best in advancing women players. Anchored by monster drummer Allison Miller and souped up by Hammond B3 wizard Akiko Tsuruga, Lioness is a band full of leaders with a front line that can swing with anyone on the menu. In addition to bringing their own powerful compositions to the party, the group also pays tribute to their elders with knockout covers of Aretha Franklin’s “Think”, Carla Bley’s “Ida Lupino”, and Melba Liston’s “You Don’t Say.” Maybe Lioness doesn’t have one of the 21stcentury’s biggest divas belting out the tunes, but Pride & Joyshows how powerful one single unit can be when it stays on mission.

JENNY SCHEINMAN & ALLISON MILLER
Parlour Game (Royal Potato Family)

Between this date, Lioness, Artemis, and her own group Boom Tic Boom (More on them in a future column), Allison Miller has had quite a year, and this marvelously understated effort is a consistent smile-maker. Scheinman has been a part of Boom Tic Boom from the beginning, so the chemistry between the drummer and the violinist is as adamantine as it comes and is just one outstanding aspect of this superior collection of originals that wins you over without bowling you over. Tony Scherr’s talent for laying foundations is well documented, and he gives every piece the room to dance. However, the X Factor here is pianist carmen Staaf, who contributes a second solo voice with her own history-steeped sense of lyric. The holidays should be filled with games, so adding Parlour Gameto your Christmas / Hannukah / Festivus party is definitely recommended.

BRIA SKONBERG
Nothing Never Happens (Self-released)

Maybe my tinfoil hat is on a little too tight (again), but I have a sneaking suspicion that the reason trumpeter / vocalist Bria Skonberg had to self-fund, and self-release her latest project is because the music is just so far afield from the Hot Jazz sub-genre that made her a star. We saw glimpses of Skonberg’s “new direction” when she played Zankel Music Center back in May, and Nothing Never Happensgives us the blues-soaked, sharp-edged Skonberg in all her dizzying glory. There isn’t anything “Hot” about Skonberg’s originals “Blackout” and “So Is The day”, or her covers of Queen’s “I Want to Break Free” or Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang” – but they do burn, as does the rest of the disc. It’s hard for jazz fans to see their prodigies grow up, but that’s what happened with Bria Skonberg, and I couldn’t be happier.

Here are the other releases appearing on “Women in Jazz2K 2019”:

  • AMINA FIGAROVA – Road to The Sun(AmFi Records)
  • BRANDEE YOUNGER – Soul Awakening(Self-released)
  • CARMEN LUNDY – Modern Ancestors(Afrasia Productions)
  • IRIS ORNIG – Storyteller(Self-released)
  • JANE BUNNETT & MAQUEQUE – On Firm Ground / Terra Firme(Linus Entertainment)
  • JAZZMEIA HORN – Love & Liberation(Concord Jazz)
  • MICHELE ROSEWOMAN’S NEW YOR-UBA – Hallowed(Advance Dance Disques)
  • MYRA MELFORD’S SNOWY EGRET – The Other Side of Air(Firehouse 12)
  • ROXY COSS – Quintet(Outside In Music)
  • YELENA ECKEMOFF & MANU KATCHE – Colors(L & H Production)
  • NEXT WEEK: The 2019 Jazz2K Awards, and “The Rest of The Best!” Be there. Aloha.

Women in Jazz2K 2019” will be broadcast Saturday night, December 7that 12 Midnight on WVCR 88.3 /Albany, NY – streaming live at wvcr.com and on the iHeartRadio app!

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