Sunday, December 22, 2019

Best Of 2019: Jazz, Latin, and Global

This is undoubtedly my most conflicted category. When it comes to jazz, I can be very contrary even about the most highly rated albums, noting, “that sounds a lot like jazz,” which in my world is not really a compliment - unless I’m referring to a record from the 20th century. I don’t claim to know where this quest for newness comes from and can only say that I know what I like. As for “Latin,” it’s far too a reductive term for music that originates in traditions as disparate as Mexico, Brazil, and Portugal. Also, I continually feel like I’m missing the best stuff. Feel free to share if you know of a good source for any type of Latin music. Then there’s “Global,” which is my attempt to corral music with roots from everywhere but the US, UK, and the places associated with Latin music, while avoiding the much-abused term, “World Music.” But the point isn’t so much of what things are called but how they sound and that’s what makes this group work. With that in mind, the playlist is organized not by region or style but for maximum listening pleasure - at least I think so!

Note: As always, if I’ve covered something previously just click the link to find out more.


Mark de Clive-Lowe - Heritage and Heritage II

Producer, arranger, and keyboard whiz Mark de Clive Lowe had a banner year, with no less than five albums bearing his name and/or critical involvement. Besides the Heritage albums, there were these gems. 

Mark de Clive-Lowe - Church Sessions Even more collaborative than the two albums above, this album arose out of club nights of the same name. MdCL invites rappers and vocalists to the party, but the musical personality is all his. Synth swoops, dubbed out production, flashes of drum’n’bass. Heads were made to nod to music like this. And keep an eye on Todd Simon - his trumpet solo on Esss (Love The Space) is a supercharged flight of fancy. 

Ronin Arkestra - First Meeting and Sonkei These two albums find MdCL leading the cream of Tokyo’s jazz crop, including Shinpei Ruike, Kohei Ando, and Wataru Hamasaki (horns), Hikaru Arata and Nobuaki Fuji (drums), Tsuyoshi Kosuga (guitar), Sauce81 (electronics), and  Shinju Kobayashi (bass). The result is not unlike an update on the riff-based soul jazz of the late sixties, with bold themes, energetic soloing, and deep grooves. The keyboard playing is spectacular but MdCL gives everyone a chance to shine. First Meeting was their first recording and the confidence level must have been high as they even assay a credible take on A Love Supreme. Sonkei feels a little more lighthearted, even shading into a flavor of pop-jazz at times. But it all comes across as an authentic expression of brilliantly skilled and inventive musicians.

Mark de Clive-Lowe will be making a fairly rare NYC appearance on January 12th at Drom - I'm going to try to get there. 

Sylvie Courvoisier and Alfred Vogel - Pulse Last year, Courvoisier made a record with her trio called D’Agala that put her firmly on my list of jazz people to whom attention must be paid. This year, I was rewarded with this knotty series of duets with percussionist Vogel, who seems to match Courvoisier’s every twist and turn at the keyboard with a few of his own. Besides making for an invigorating listen, Vogel’s inventive and incredibly detailed work at the kit has put him on the list as well. Courvoisier also released Time Goes Out, more duets, this time with violinist Mark Feldman. It’s an album more to admire than to love, but expecting more than one of those per year would be greedy!

Resavoir - Resavoir After London and Los Angeles, Chicago is probably the place people are looking to for evidence of a jazz renaissance. Maybe it should be first, because this wonderful album hits my sweet spot more firmly than The Comet Is Coming or Kamasi Washington, two avatars of those respective scenes. Led by composer, producer, and arranger Will Miller (also responsible for sampler, trumpets, and keys), this sparkling collective creates an organic soundscape that grabs you without seeming to try too hard. Call it ambient jazz if you want, or just wonder at how rich an atmosphere they create whether or not you’re paying close attention.

Jaimie Branch - Fly Or Die II: Bird Dogs Of Paradise This sprawling, often pissed-off epic is equally defined by the spidery cello of Lester St. Louis as it is by Branch's trumpet, which gleams as much when muted as when screaming to the sky. Chad Taylor's work on mbira and xylophone also adds enough texture to be almost tactile, with Jason Ajemian's bass keeping things from floating into the ether. "We got a bunch of wide-eyed racists!" Branch shouts as the refrain for Prayer For Amerikkka Parts 1 and 2 and, as satisfying as it it to yell along with her, you also get the idea that she's just as confused about how we got here. As always, I'll seek answers in the music, such as the busy staccato of Nuevo Roquero Estéreo, which puts me in the same mood as one of those shambling latter-day epics by Charles Mingus. I think he'd want to sit in.


Carwyn Ellis & Rio 18 - Joia! Careful observers might wonder how many people of Welsh descent live in Brazil. That’s unclear, but you would be correct if you assumed Carwyn Ellis came from those foggy environs west of England. He also founded a band called Colorama and has worked with St. Etienne, Edwyn Collins, and The Pretenders. It was Chrissie Hynde, in fact, who spotted Ellis's affinity for Brazilian sounds and introduced him to Kassin, the legendary producer and multi-instrumentalist, who then connected him to some of the finest musicians in the country. The big surprise is not how nimbly they navigate cumbia, bossa nova, tropicalia, etc., but in how seamlessly Ellis’s Welsh language vocals blend with the breezy sounds. If you didn't listen too closely, you might just think it's Portuguese. Whatever the lyrics, this is just a delightful album with enough variety to serve as a party mix. Put it on at your New Year's Eve shindig and see if you agree!

Sessa - Grandeza Then again, if it's Portuguese you desire, sung in a warm tenor full of character, Sessa is your man. The settings are organic, too, a blend of samba, bossa, tropicalia, and folk, making for a lush canvas of a record. Sink in.

Ana Frango Elétrico - Little Electric Chicken Heart Elétrico (not her real name, I assume) is another poly-stylistic Brazilian adventurer, with an urban sophistication that is utterly captivating. There are some angles to this brief collection that are almost cubist - your head will be spinning in the best way - but always couched in a wistful tunefulness that makes it all sound so easy.


Elito Revé y su Charangón - UEA! Founded by Elio Revé in 1956, and led by his son Elito since 1997, this band is an icon of Cuban salsa and they are in very good form here, with an exuberance that would be almost cartoonish if the clavé rhythms weren't so tight. Translation: fun. There are a number of guests, most notably Telmary, who sounds like she's having a blast on La Guagua - you will be, too.

Telmary y Omara - Puras Palabras This single puts Telmary, a legend in the making, alongside Omara Portuondo, a true legend of Cuban music, who will be 90 years old next year. She's semi-retired now and most of the precision and power is gone from her voice, but the way she floats it out over the updated groove is brave enough to move the stoniest heart.


Mdou Moctar - Ilana (The Creator) "Desert blues" has become shorthand for guitar-driven music from West Africa, and once in a while I think the musicians themselves have taken that shorthand too much to heart. Yes, a certain hypnotic repetition is part of what makes the music feel so good, but that shouldn't be accompanied by complacency. On his latest album (and first with a live band) Moctar is the antithesis of complacency, pulling each fiery guitar line seemingly directly from his soul and often ending songs in a furious swirl of sound. His sheer shreddability and inspired use of power chords has also broadened the base of interest in Tuareg music - at least if the classic rock Facebook group I'm in is any measure. If the "double denim" crowd is getting the memo, you might want to climb on board, too.

Tinariwen - Amadjar One way this venerable Tuareg band has dealt with a tendency towards sameness in their sound is by mixing up where they record - and with whom. Their latest, most of which was recorded on the road through the Western Sahara, adds Noura Mint Seymali, a Mauritanian griotte, into the mix, along with westerners Cass McCombs and Warren Ellis. Recording in the wild, so to speak, has leant a welcome campfire warmth to the texture of the album, with the group vocals arising from the grooves with real spontaneity. Just like the nomads who were their ancestors, Tinariwen just keep moving along. We're lucky to be along for the journey.


Alogte Oho & His Sounds Of Joy - Mam Yinne Wa Arising from the same Frafra tradition as Guy One - and also working with producer/impresario Max Weissenfeldt - Oho very nearly didn't get to make this breakthrough album after his motorcycle collided with a car. Recuperation became a creative wellspring and every song here bursts with the sheer appreciation of being alive. Weissenfeldt's canny production adds rich analog synths to the soundworld, adding a touch of swirling surrealism to the horn and percussion-driven grooves. Reggae and Latin rhythms also come naturally to all involved and only add to the delight. Between this and Guy One, I would keep a close eye on the Philophon label as they don't seem to put a foot wrong.

The Polyversal Souls - Singles Case in point about Philophon are the string of singles by this multi-generational band of highlife and Frafra all-stars. Horns blare, drums stay deep in the crease, vocals chant mesmerizing lines of melody, while guitars and saxophone vie for dominance. In short, we're talking about all the things that make Ghanaian music so fantastic all in a few neat little packages. East also meets west when they team of up Ethiopia's Alemayehu Eshete on a few songs, finding common ground even with thousands of kilometers separating Accra from Addis.


BLK JKS feat. Morena Leraba - Harare After putting a toe in the water of new music with last year's tribute to Hugh Masekela, the genre-busting Johannesburg band is now threatening their first new album since 2009's After Robots. This single, with its acoustic textures, hip hop beats, and haunting melody, has anticipation running high among those in the know, which should now include you. The delay continues, however, with a new release date for Abantu/Before Humans now set for February 2020. What's another few months after a decade??


Elaha Sooror & Kefaya - Songs Of Our Mothers After winning Afghan Star, Sooror got the heck out of Dodge (or, in her case, Kabul) and landed in London, where she connected with Kefaya. This duo of Giuliano Modarelli, an Italian guitarist, and Al MacSween, an English keyboard player, has a preternatural skill with combining various traditions with contemporary production techniques in a way that seems authentic, likely due to their deep collaborations with other musicians. The backing they construct for Sooror pulls against her sweet, flowing vocals in all the right ways, adding synths to the sitars and somehow never sounding cheesy. The songs are all adaptations of Farsi folk songs so they've likely been through more dramatic changes than whatever these guys can throw at them. The result is a deeply involving album that's obviously a passion project for all involved. Let's imagine a future where they could take this music back to Afghanistan and play it for all who wanted to hear it without retribution.

For more listening in these areas, check out the Of Note In 2019: Jazz, Latin & Global (Archive) playlist and follow this one to see what 2020 will bring.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2019: The Top 25
Best Of 2019: Jazz, Latin, and Global

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