Thursday, March 17, 2022

Best Of 2021: Jazz, Latin, and Global

Most of what I covered in these categories ended up on my Top 25 - for global, Raoul Vignal (France) and Arooj Aftab (Brooklyn via Pakistan), and for Latin, Mallu Magalhaes and Domenico Lancellotti (both Brazil), while for jazz the closest thing was Pharoah Sanders' beautiful blowing on his collaboration with Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra. But several favorites in contemporary jazz returned and delivered as did some new discoveries - their excellent albums are below, along with two others from the realms of Latin and global. 

Listen to tracks from most everything (a couple are Bandcamp only and believe me, I get it!) in this playlist or below.

Irreversible Entanglements - Open The Gates Hard on the heels of their 2020 masterpiece, Who Sent You?, and foregrounded by the declarations of the tireless Camae Aweya (aka Moor Mother), this expansive quintet returns with another hard-swinging set. Even as they churn in constant motion, the rhythm section of Luke Stewart (bass) and Tcheser Holmes (drums) sets up a rock-solid foundation for the sax and trumpet of Keir Neuringer and Aquiles Navarro, who engage in duets reminiscent of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, creating a conversation that communicates as powerfully as Aweya's words. Even when they slow things down on Water Meditation, every note crackles with energy.

Artifacts - ...And Then There's This I became an admirer of the "ancient to the future" ethos of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians back in the 80s, digging on albums by the Art Ensemble of Chicago among others. But never did I imagine that some 40 years later along would come such a perfect exemplar of that ethos. A supergroup consisting of Tomeka Reid (cello), Nicole Mitchell (flute), and Mike Reed (drums), Artifacts create an interplay so engaging that you can practically hear them listening to each other as they play. Reid's dexterity and creativity on the cello, beautifully captured by the exquisitely alive recording, is astonishing on its own. But combine it with Mitchell's songful flute and Reed's precise and funky percussion and the results are sublime. 

Sylvie Courvoisier & Mary Halvorson - Searching For The Disappeared Hour Informed as much by jazz as by modernist chamber music, this is a wildly imaginative collaboration between pianist Courvoisier, who can go from swinging to knotty on a dime, and guitarist Halvorson, who can both pick delicately or generate webs of sound. Each track uses a combination of repetitive sections and sharp left turns, either in dynamics or density - from quiet and spare to loud and busy - to keep you on your toes. 

Sylvie Courvoisier/Ned Rothenberg/Julian Sartorius - Lockdown Courvoisier finds more playmates on this very different album, which only occasionally showcases Rothenberg's more self-indulgent side on reeds and shakuhachi. Usually what seems wayward snaps into focus, especially when percussionist Sartorius gets more involved. Courvoisier is content at times to lay back and gently comp, but then she'll take command - sometimes from the inside of the piano. Not surprisingly, over half the album is made up of group compositions - a sign of the democratic nature of the sessions, a moment in time brought to us by the pandemic.

Tyshawn Sorey & King Britt - Tyshawn / King  Even before this came out in October, drummer/composer/conductor Sorey was having quite a year both on the stage and on record. But this series of improvisations between him and producer/DJ/synth-whiz Britt is far more than icing on the cake. Drums, cymbals, and electronic sounds intersect and diverge in a series of playful and groovy explorations, made only more scintillating by Sorey's absolute control over every touch of a stick to skin or metal.

Tim Chernikoff - Pieces Of Sanity Working with drummer Kenneth Salters and bassist Jakob Dreyer, it's not that Chernikoff takes the piano trio anywhere radically new, rather it's that he is so damned good at what the form does best. For sheer beauty, I'm not sure if any recent jazz record betters it, although its not just about being pretty. There's a striking emotional honesty to the chord sequences and melodies that reminds me of Steely Dan at their most reflective. Chernikoff has been at it as a leader, accompanist, composer, and educator for over 15 years - it's about time he put all that experience, skill, and love onto a record. This one captures his confidence and mastery perfectly.

William Parker - Mayan Space Station I'm overwhelmed by this bassist-composer's output, which includes at least three other albums from 2021 with which I still need to catch up. But that's partially his fault for making this one so crushingly GREAT that I have yet to move on from it. And part of that is due to the towering performance of Ava Mendoza on guitar. Her searing tone and alternately soaring and jagged structures take us on a thrill ride extraordinaire, with Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver her willing co-conspirators. The recording is earthy and rich, too, with a physicality to Parker's bass that makes every buzz a thing of beauty. Stunning - and when I need more Mendoza I can turn to New Spells, her exploratory album of solo guitar.

fluke-mogul / Liberatore / Mattrey / Mendoza - Death In The Gilded Age And when I need EVEN more Mendoza, I can buckle in for this fabulously fractured collective, which also includes the great Matteo Liberatore, who can do the unthinkable with an acoustic guitar, along with gabby fluke-mogul on violin, and Joanna Mattrey on viola. Another completely original release from Tripticks Tapes, who also gave us the Tak Ensemble/Brandon Lopez collaboration among many others, this one is a celebration of texture above all. Strings are bowed, plucked, and strummed to their very limits, in an almost unrelenting - and wonderful - cacophony, which can take abrupt turns into something adjacent to folk music. While it was the unique stressors and opportunities of the pandemic that brought these four together, let's hope that rising vaccination rates and the coming endemic don't prevent them from gathering again. 

Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber - Angels Over Oakanda Greg Tate was such a force of nature as a music critic and journalist - someone I had been reading way back when you had to pay for the Village Voice (when there was a Village Voice) - that it's hard to believe he was taken from us by a heart attack last December. He was also one of the few writers to put his critical beliefs into action by co-founding the Black Rock Coalition and, later, Burnt Sugar. This, their first album in four years, is conceived as a suite about Oakland, CA, where "Black Culture is appreciated and nurtured," but I think I will be forgiven for hearing it now as a eulogy for Tate. A sprawling epic in the mode of Miles Davis circa 1969-75, it accomplishes both tasks with all of his flair, sense of drama, and intellectual integrity. Conducted by Tate and anchored by the bass of Jared Michael Nickerson, these are jams with focus, insistent rhythms carrying you along while the solos - on flute, sax, synth, etc. - hurl splashes of color on the canvas. I will not be surprised if there is more where this came from in the vault, but this is plenty to chew on while we wait.

Antonio Neves - A Pegada Agora É Essa (The Sway Now) Neves was the arranger responsible for some of the quicksilver turns on Ana Frango Elétrico's wonderful Little Electric Chicken Heart from 2019. On this, his second solo album, he acts as a ringleader for a cast of nearly two dozen of Brazil's finest, including Eléctrico, who lends her voice to the expansive and slinky Luz Negra. I used the word "ringleader" intentionally as the album opener sounds like a circus, with people shouting unintelligible exhortations and Neves' trombone making some comical noises. There are also hard-driving tracks like the cinematic Fort Apache, which somehow gets away with having Hamilton de Holanda solo on mandolin over the churning rhythm. There are plenty of other highlights, like the sparkling piano of Eduardo Farias, the atmospheric guitar of Gus Levy, or the questing bass clarinet of Joana Queiroz, but there's a strong sense of a collective at work to realize Neves' vision. His sense of play and feel for funk across a variety of Brazilian forms is such that if I ever get to Rio I'm going to find out where he's playing - it's sure to be the best party in town.

Mdou Moctar - Afrique Victime Everything I said about Moctar's previous album remains true here, in bigger, bolder fashion. His electric guitar gets ever closer to touching the sky, the rhythms find new invention in Tuareg traditions, and the songs draw from an ever deeper well of emotion, whether the romantic desire and longing of songs like Ya Habibti (O My Love) and Tala Tannam or the political rage of the title track. A true epic with searing guitar that seems to teeter at the edge of control, it sets a new standard not only for Moctar but Nigerian music in general.

There's more from these genres in the archived playlist and you can follow along with what I discover in 2022 here

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