BEST OF 2019: Top 10 Jazz2K Discs
Okay, now that the prelims are out of the way, it’s time for the Main Event. LET’S COUNT ‘EM DOWN!
400: An African American Musical Portrait (JKNM Records)
This isn’t the first time that bassist/educator Avery Sharpe has taken a musical swing at African-American history: His 2013 disc Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I a Woman was one of the best discs of that year. With 400, Sharpe takes a deep, wide look at Africans and their descendants’ experience in America – from their arrival on slave ships in 1619 through the Jazz Age and into the Civil Rights era, with a thought to the future thrown in on the post-bop coda “500.” Kevin & Duane Eubanks, Don Braden, Ronnie Burrage, Zaccai Curtis and Davis Whitfield contribute to the muscular, glorious sounds Sharpe has created to put a spotlight on the past, as well as to remind us that even though we’re in the 21stcentury, the struggle still goes on.
Carnival: The Sound of a People, Vol. 1 (Culture Shock Music)
Trumpeter/percussionist Etienne Charles has picked up the torch as jazz’ foremost musicologist and run like Usain Bolt, this time focusing on the musical & social traditions of Carnival and how the performers pass on the sounds, sights, and stories of their ancestors to spectators and listeners. In addition to knockout studio takes with kindred spirits like Brian Hogans, Luques Curtis, Jacques Schwarz-Bart, James Francies and Obed Calvaire, Charles also incorporates recordings with local musicians & groups using traditional bamboo, iron, and steel instruments, bringing the listener to the side of the road where s/he can dig the centuries-old vibe and wonder, “How is Volume 2 going to top THIS?”
Diatom Ribbons (Pyroclastic Records)
My letter-carrier may not think so, but I don’t get every jazz release that hits the market. That’s why I’m so happy Arch Stanton Quartet drummer James Ketterer clued me in about this death-defying release from Canadian pianist Kris Davis. Inspiration can – and does – come from anywhere & everywhere, and Davis’ observations of diatoms (which are unicellular microalgae that live in the oceans, freshwater, and soils) helped her make the connection between the composing process and her experience of nature. Collaborating with mammoth talents like Terri Lyne Carrington, Esperanza Spalding, JD Allen and Nels Cline, the result is a dynamic, multifaceted set of originals that surprises, delights, and (occasionally) confounds… but in a way that makes you want to join Davis and do some more exploring.
KENDRICK SCOTT ORACLE
A Wall Becomes a Bridge (Blue Note)
From his early days with Terence Blanchard to the creation of his own label World Culture Music, drummer Kendrick Scott has approached everything he does with a keen sense of original thought and intellectual curiosity. As Scott explained during his recent appearance at Skidmore’s Zankel Music Center, the concept for A Wall Becomes a Bridge came from a discussion with producer / fellow Blanchard alum Derrick Hodge about the roadblocks and boundaries we all deal with in life, and how using those setbacks as motivation to make breakthroughs can give your life both energy and purpose – and, ultimately, victory. Mike Moreno, John Ellis, Taylor Eigsti and Joe Sanders contribute performances and compositions that help Scott illuminate the process from beginning to end, preparing the listener for the next time someone drops a wall in his/her path.
Circuits (Edition Records)
One of the bands that’s always inspired “Jazz2K @ The Saint” is Chris Potter Underground, the bodacious jam band that’s allowed the renowned saxman to let his freak flag fly without let or hindrance. Circuitsisn’t a reinvention of the Underground model, but it is an advancement of some of its electric themes. For that, you can thank Potter’s spot-on decision to hook up with two original thinkers: Keyboardist James Francies and drummer Eric Harland. Bassist Linley Marthe does join in for four tunes, but he’s a cherry on top of an already tasty, multi-tiered cake that has Potter throwing down on guitar, keyboards and percussion on top of his usual brilliant woodwind work. Circuitswashes over you in waves of brilliant, ever-rising sound, and the sensations they cause make you call out for more, and more, and even more than that.
REMY LE BOEUF
Light as a Word (Outside In Music)
Santa Cruz, CA native Remy Le Boeuf has been a busy little bee this year, and the altoist is finishing off 2019 with a roaring contribution to 21st-century big-band jazz on the towering self-released date Remy Le Boeuf’s Assembly of Shadows. For me, though, Light as a Wordis just as thoughtful and well-constructed while maintaining a sense of intimacy and nuance that lifts it above many other items on the menu. Mind you, it helps when you cook with good food, and Le Boeuf’s stellar compositions are elevated by the likes of Aaron Parks, Walter Smith III, Charles Altura, Matt Brewer and Peter Kronreif. Remy’s work with his brother Pascal in Le Boeuf Brothers may have put him on the musical map, but Light as a Word puts Remy Le Boeuf in his own personal spotlight – and if that disc and Assembly of Shadows are any indication, he’s just started to flesh out an exciting musical identity all his own.
On top of getting signed to Blue Note, the all-female all-star band Artemis just scored a headlining gig at NYC Winter Jazz Fest next month. But here’s the thing: Artemis is also a band of leaders, and I’m afraid that the members’ individual efforts are getting lost in all the hype about the group. For instance, Visions is Artemis tenor player Melissa Aldana’s best release to date, featuring tremendous originals inspired by the work of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Melissa’s musical brushwork is just as striking as Kahlo’s, as is Aldana’s interaction with pianist Sam Harris and young vibes master Joel Ross. Since Visions, Aldana has changed management and band personnel, so this disc should also be noted as a career milepost. It’s a tossup where Aldana goes next, both physically and creatively – but I’ll guarantee you whatever comes will continue to be interesting.
ALLISON MILLER’S BOOM TIC BOOM
Glitter Wolf (Royal Potato Family)
Allison Miller is the other Artemis member on this list, and I talked about the rest of this extraordinary drummer’s year in an earlier column. Being in a band full of leaders is no big whoop for Miller, since the expanded Boom Tic Boom has a longtime leader at every position including bassist / recent Tony Award winner Todd Sickafoose. That said, this group has always been about supporting Miller’s riveting compositions, even as the members add their own individual personalities to the final product, and Glitter Wolf is no exception. Once again, the volatility inherent in most of these players is focused like a laser on the task at hand. There is no group that sounds like BTB anywhere – the writing, the instrumentation, and (most importantly) the energy has always been unique ever since the group was a quartet. While Artemis gets all the pub, I’m hoping it will bring new ears to Miller and Glitter Wolf, because both need to be experienced in depth.
I think I’m one of the few people who didn’t like JD Allen’s last Savant release Love Stone. There was never a question of whether the monster tenorman had the ability to do a disc of nothing but ballads, but as beautiful as the end product was, it just seemed like a waste of time and talent. Allen is at his best when he he’s out there where the buses don’t run, breathing fire in midair because he’s not interested in staying on the edge. That’s where we find him on Barracoon, another musical essay on African-American history – except where Avery Sharpe takes long detailed looks on 400, Allen hits you with lightning-fast montages that spin your head around and don’t really care if your skull is where it’s supposed to be when it stops. While the disc’s name is the title of a Zora Neale Hurston book, it’s also the label for a lean-to used to confine slaves. That’s the tone-setter for this disc, and Allen makes it very clear in the liner notes that he’s drawing parallels between those times and these times. Barracoon is brutal, uncompromising, unapologetic, and is a perfect example of Allen in his flame-throwing element.
…and the NUMBER ONE JAZZ2K DISC OF 2019 is…
RYAN KEBERLE & CATHARSIS
The Hope I Hold (Greenleaf Music)
I hear it all the time: “I don’t like politics with my jazz!” Well, guess what, snowflake: Politics has been part of jazz since Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” and Dizzy Gillespie “integrated the pool” at an Indiana resort back in the ‘50s. Only the times and the delivery systems have changed, and trombonist Ryan Keberle is definitely a creature of these times. The Hope I Hold is protest music on a Bob Dylan / Woody Guthrie level, except the protests are expressed in Keberle’s 21st-century approach to Latin jazz and accented by Camila Meza’s singular voice & Scott Robinson’s smoke-filled tenor sax. Keberle also brings an aspirational vibe to the proceedings, insisting that “America Will Be” better than it is now if we access the humanity that’s inside us all. That might be a big ask going into 2020, but as has been pointed out previously, your reach should exceed your grasp.
And that’s that. As always, your results for 2019 may vary widely and wildly. Either way, thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next year!
“The Jazz2K Holiday Spectacular” will play tracks from the Top 10 Jazz2K Discs of 2019, and the 2019 Jazz2K Awards winners, on Saturday, December 21stAND Saturday, December 28that Midnight on WVCR 88.3 / Albany, NY – streaming live at wvcr.com and on the iHeartRadio app!