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Rob Shepherd

06 Jan 2020 1:59 PM | Rob Shepherd

Perhaps the most interesting takeaway from 2019 is the number of artists adapting music from the past into something new. Many of the past year’s releases have attempted to apply fresh approaches to a number of older musical forms including gypsy jazz, big band, electronic music, folk music, third stream, and world music. -Rob Shepherd

10. James Carter – Organ Trio: Live from Newport Jazz (Blue Note)

Since the 1990's, James Carter has been among the best when it comes to saxophone technique and technical prowess. Additionally, he has a distinct and recognizable sound that is full of vitality and excitement. On this most recent album, recorded live from the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival, Carter and his organ trio – Alex White on drums and Gerard Gibbs on the Hammond B3 – bring this vigor to covering six pieces by guitarist Django Reinhardt. The pure energy of their performance renders pieces written over seventy years ago to sound like new. In full disclosure, I attended the performance which ultimately became this recording. Blue Note did a stellar job in capturing the saxophonist bandleader’s electric set from that afternoon.

9. Joel Ross – KingMaker (Blue Note)

Speaking of Newport, vibraphonist Joel Ross was omnipresent at this past summer’s festival by the sea, performing in at multiple sets. These included one with Makaya McCraven’s band, another with In Common, and a third as part of a late-night show with Nate Smith’s Kinfolk. The fourth was with his “Good Vibes” group – the group featured here – with saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, bassist Benjamin Tiberio, pianist Jeremy Corren, and drummer Jeremy Dutton. To those who had been following his trajectory, Ross’ fantastic range and talent came as no surprise. Despite this, the brilliance of his debut was still unexpected to even the most attentive of fans. With 11 of its 12 tracks original compositions, one might anticipate Ross to take the spotlight but Kingmaker is truly a team effort with the other members of “Good Vibes”. It is reverent towards music that has come before, including Blue Note’s long history of stellar vibraphonists, while paving a new way forward.

8. Resavoir – Resavoir (International Anthem)

International Anthem has showcased some of the most interesting artists over the last five years. Many of these have been by “beat scientists” like Makaya McCraven, or Jeff Parker who splice live recordings with studio beats and sounds. On Resavoir, producer/arranger Will Miller adopts similar processes to turn big band music on its ear. Influenced as much by indie rock, hip hop, pop, soul and R&B as jazz, the Chicago based large ensemble is not subject to easy categorization. “Taking Flight” featuring guest Brandee Younger on harp is particularly awe-inspiring.

7. The Comet is Coming – Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery / The Afterlife (Impulse!)

This selection technically consists of two releases, the former from March and the latter from September, but should be viewed as a single work. Addressing the fleetingness of life and the afterlife, both can also be seen as follow-ups to The Comet is Coming’s first album, 2016’s Channel the Spirits’ depiction of Armageddon. The two also further cement the London based trio as a spiritual successor to Sun Ra. Just as Sun Ra would draw upon many different musical strains – electronic and acoustic – to create something not heard anywhere else, these recordings forge through a wide variety of genres including rock, EDM, psychedelic rock, soul, funk, and jazz to forge a distinctive sound that is highly original and futuristic.

6. Kendrick Scott Oracle – A Wall Becomes a Bridge (Blue Note)

There are many ways to interpret the title of this 12-song cycle by drummer Kendrick Scott and his Oracle band, namely pianist Taylor Eigsti, guitarist Mike Moreno, woodwind player John Ellis, bassist Joe Sanders, and special guest turntablist DJ Jahi Sundance. One could interpret it as political commentary or also as Scott’s overcoming of creative block in forming its pieces. While there is truth to both viewpoints, it is perhaps best seen as a crossing point between electronic music and acoustic jazz. While the mixing of the two genres is a heavily treaded ground, such efforts generally lean more towards one direction or the other. A Wall Becomes a Bridge, by contrast, pulls from the history of both to find a new path across. The music is organic, profound, and powerful.

5. Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis (Constellation)

Folk music in its strictest sense is the traditional works of a people in a given country or region. This definition does not easily apply to the United States, a nation in which many cultures maintain their core while also acquiring concepts from other traditions. Instead, a true American folk musician should amalgamate various influences. Viewed properly, “sound quilter”/woodwind player/vocalist Matana Roberts is the quintessential American folk musician. As on the preceding three Coin Coin volumes, Memphis weaves various threads of other American music – spirituals, bluegrass, blues, spoken word, and jazz – to tell a cohesive story. In the process, she employs nontraditional jazz instrumentation including fiddle, accordion, electric guitar, oud, and jaw harp to craft music that is haunting, beautiful, and memorable.

4. Jan Garbarek and The Hilliard Ensemble – Remember Me, My Dear (ECM)

In 1994, Norweigan saxophonist Garbarek and early music vocalists from the Hilliard Ensemble released Officium , fusing jazz with Gregorian chant to produce an ethereal sound not previously heard elsewhere. Writer Marius Gabriel described it as “what Coltrane hears in heaven” and it remains one of ECM’s finest. Remember Me, My Dearcaptures the same group, this time on the final tour before the Hilliard Ensemble’s disbanding in 2014. Although hardly the only follow-up, it is the one closest to capturing the magic of the original. It is a fitting celebration of both Officium’s 25th anniversary and the label’s 50th. The otherworldly sonic qualities of this release are simultaneously ancient and contemporary, timely and timeless.

3. Linda May Han Oh – Aventurine (Biophilia)

Like the shimmering translucent mineral from which Aventurine’s name is derived, bassist Linda May Han Oh’s latest adds a new sparkle to the longstanding Third Stream blend of classical and jazz. Combining three different types of quartets – jazz (May Han Oh, saxophonist Greg Ward, pianist Matt Mitchell, and drummer/vibraphonist Ches Smith), string, and vocal, the bandleader is able to extract and synthesize the finest parts of all three groups. Aventurine does not force either jazz or classical together, but rather creates a middle ground.

2. Noah Preminger – Zigsaw: The Music of Steve Lampert (Self Release)

Dreams are a strange thing. Sometimes they reflect normal occurrences from our lives. Far more frequently, however, they consist of a union of the usual and the unusual in which the line between the two is blurred or even nonexistent. On Zigsaw, criminally underrated composer Lampert produced a singular 49-minute piece focused on dreams which similarly intersperses familiar and foreign sounds. Even the title, a portmanteau of zigzag and jigsaw, evokes this view of pieces being placed together but not in a traditional straight or coherent line. Bringing this artistic vision to life is a top-caliber group of Noah Preminger on tenor sax, trumpeter Jason Palmer, pianist Kris Davis, drummer Rudy Royston, alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher, bassist Kim Cass, and Rob Schwimmer on the clavinet and Haken Continuum synthesizer. The end result is a music of paradoxes: electric and acoustic, avant-garde and highly listenable, revolutionary and traditional.

1. Mark de Clive-Lowe – Heritage I and II (Ropeadope)

Over the past decade, there have been two major trends in jazz. One has combined the music with more “popular” music, most notably electronic, hip hop, or R&B. The other has been to merge it with world music, particularly that of non-Western cultures. It is very rare for the two approaches to meet together with jazz in a unified work. With Heritage, Mark de Clive-Lowe obliterates this imaginary divide. The New Zealand based pianist/composer/producer utilizes his background as an electronic and jazz musician and the traditional music of his mother’s homeland, Japan, to develop a gorgeous two album masterpiece. The synthesis of such diverse styles at the hands of the wrong artist could result in a muddled mess. Instead, with assistance from woodwind players Josh Johnson and Teodross Avery, bassist Brandon Eugene Owens, and percussionists Carlos Nino and Brandon Combs, de Clive Lowe’s music is personal and touching. Despite its name, Heritage is not solely focused on the past. It is a deep exploration of not just where the artist comes from, but also who he is. Sincere, heartfelt, and joyous, Heritage sends a clear message that although our background influences who we are, it does not define us.

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