Sunday, February 12, 2023

Best Of 2022: Jazz, Latin, And Global

Seeing L'Rain, Sons Of Kemet, and Makaya McCraven in a spectacular concert last summer was a powerful reminder of the ability of jazz to electrify a crowd and unite them in a journey though the unknown. On a record, the trajectory is more intimate but can be equally thrilling. Latin music, in the form of pop crossover from the likes of Bad Bunny, is more popular than ever but true fascination may be found more in the niches. As for music made beyond the US/UK hegemony, Africa is still a strong source, but Europe - especially when cultures blend, as on Topical Dancer - can still bring much to the table. Beyond Charlotte Dos Santos, who has at least as much jazz in her musical DNA as anything else, and Jimmy Delgado, I didn't find as much of the many Latin varieties as I have in other years. That will likely change in 2023, but in the meantime  discover some of the best recent releases in these genres below, beginning with those few albums I previously covered. Give a listen to tracks from each in this playlist or below.

22 For 22 (Part Two)
Jimmy Delgado - A Mis Mentores...To My Mentors
Charlotte Adigery & Bolis Pupul - Topical Dancer

Autumn Flood (Part 3)
Charlotte Dos Santos - Morfo


Amanda Whiting - Lost In Abstraction It takes a certain boldness as well as a light touch to traverse ground trod by such greats as Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane, both avatars of the jazz harp, not to mention stunning contemporary talents like Brandee Younger. Whiting, a classically-trained player from Wales, rides that line perfectly on her second album. Whether sweeping the strings with a seductive flamboyance in Venus Fly Trap or plucking delicately around the groove of Suspended, she seems to always know just what's required by a song. Sensitive and engaged backing from Aidan Thorne (bass) and Jon Reynolds (drums) is enhanced by Chip Wickham's flute and sax and Baldo Verdú's percussion for a blend of lush and spare textures that is very satisfying indeed.

Chip Wickham - Cloud 10 Wickham himself is in fine form on this swinging set of soulful spiritual jazz - or is that spiritual soul jazz? - with an expansive sound courtesy of his compatriots, including Whiting on harp, Ton Risco (vibes), Sneaky (bass), Jon Scott (drums), Jack McCarthy (percussion) and  Eoin Grace (trumpet and flugelhorn). Informed by the past but not indebted to it, Wickham is keeping jazz moving forward in a fashion that is accessible and full of integrity.

Makaya McCraven - In These Times I'm still buzzing from that explosive Central Park show so I have trouble seeing this finely wrought if a bit too chill album as mostly a placeholder for the next time. What a huge talent, though, and an essential part of the story of jazz in our time.

Tyshawn Sorey Trio with Greg Osby - The Off-Off Broadway Guide To Synergism I remember watching these Jazz Gallery gigs take place from afar - i.e. Instagram - in March 2022 and wishing I could be there. This triple album is a damned good consolation prize, however, with the energy of Sorey's drums, Aaron Diehl's piano, Russell Hall's bass, and Osby's sax fairly leaping out of the speakers. The sets are filled mostly with standards from the likes of Cole Porter and Billy Strayhorn, but there are also two killer takes on Ornette Coleman's Mob Job and a fine version of Miles Davis's Solar, both of which should be considered standards by this point anyway. Sorey is fully in command throughout, conducting the band with drum hits and cymbal crashes rather than a baton. Next time I hope to get there in person! 

Timuçin Şahin's Flow State - Funk Poems For Bird Spiky, fractured, and often witty, this Charlie Parker-inspired collection is a perfect showcase for Şahin's unique guitar playing, with plenty of push and pull from Cory Smythe (piano), Reggie Washington (bass), and Sean Rickman (drums). Şahin uses a custom-built double-neck guitar with one fretless neck, which gives him an infinite palette of colors and textures to deploy. Must be fun to watch live, too. And what a delight to hear Smythe, who I'm mostly familiar with from his work with the International Contemporary Ensemble, let his fingers fly in an improvised setting!

Brandon Lopez - Ingrid Laubrock - Tom Rainey - No es la Playa Just as he collaborated so well with Tak Ensemble in 2021, bassist/composer Lopez inserts himself seamlessly into the duo of Laubrock (saxes) and Rainey (drums). The word "seamlessly," however, doesn't convey the excitement the trio generates, a swirling interaction built from deep listening and the vast array of experiences the three bring to the studio, from free jazz to contemporary chamber music. More fun can be had in the latest from Laubrock and Rainey, Counterfeit Mars, with the drummer pushing her to be her wittiest while still full of sharp angles. Laubrock also shines on Fragile, another duo album, traversing between poles spiky and contemplative with pianist Andy Milne, who even injects a bit of blues into the mix. What a year for Laubrock, who continually proves herself to be one of the most exciting players in jazz and classical music today.

Nate Wooley - Ancient Songs Of Burlap Heroes As he put on full display in 2021's Mutual Aid Music, trumpeter/composer Wooley has the gift for assembling a sound world out of perfectly chosen groups of players. In this case, an impressionistic, almost cinematic world arises from Mary Halvorson's electric guitar, Susan Alcorn's pedal steel guitar, and Ryan Sawyer's drums, with an occasional assist from Mat Maneri's viola and Trevor Dunn's electric bass. The group roils and retreats, like the stormy tide heard in the four interludes, making for a deeply absorbing experiences. Wooley is great thinker, too, and as he explains it, "A burlap hero is one who marches—consciously or not—back to the sea in hopes of making no splash, who understands and embraces the imperfection of being, and in that way, stretches the definition of sainthood to fit." So wear your burlap proudly and let this be the soundtrack to wherever you march.

Sam Gendel - BlueBlue I was recently chatting with an old friend of mine and we got to talking about Gendel, remarking on how he can play just about anything and find his way in a staggering variety of musical settings. In this case, he's putting guitar to the foreground and duetting with himself on breathy woodwinds and synths for a quietly radical set of pieces based on ashiko, a traditional style of Japanese embroidery. The relationship is mostly in his own mind, as pieces like Amime (網目, fishing nets) bear no obvious relation to that particular pattern. But no matter - whatever it takes to get him going! He also invited percussionist Craig Weinrib into the fold, who virtually jams with Gendel, adding a stylish, if still restrained, swagger to the album.


Etran de L'Air - Agadez While this Saharan family band shares some of the hallmarks of other Tuareg artists such as Tinariwen, Tamikrest, or Mdou Moctar, there is an overall air of celebration that sets them apart. It came as no surprise to learn they're the most popular wedding band in Agadez, their home city in Niger. The percussion also feels a bit more progressive than on other "desert blues" releases, with touches of arty disco (think Dennis Davis on Bowie's Fashion) and dance-rock underscoring the high-flying guitars. Bring the party to your house, wherever that may be.

Vieux Farka Touré - Les Racines Somehow I lost track of this Malian guitarist and singer after putting his superb sophomore album, Fondo, on my top ten in 2009. Correcting that record starts here, with his first solo album since 2017. Hypnotic, meditative, and deeply engaged in the sound world of his legendary father, Ali, it's both a beautiful tribute to, and a continuation of, that legacy. While on Fondo, he had to be deliberate about escaping his father's shadow, here he can confidently embrace all that that shadow encompassed. Between Ali and Vieux, the Touré name is synonymous with Malian music and all it has to offer, which you can find here in abundance. If you use a streaming service, don't be fooled by the algorithm that wants to serve you with Ali, Vieux's unfortunate collaboration with milquetoast try-hards Khruangbin, which has, on average, more than 100 times the streams as Les Racines. That's a goddamned shame and hopefully a few of those listeners will find their way to the real thing.

Various Artists - A Guide To The Birdsong of Western Africa In a testament to the power and importance of going to record stores, I only discovered this series, which has been going since 2015, when my daughter spotted the cover on one of our trips to Rough Trade. The color, variety, and sheer artistry of the illustration is an accurate reflection of what can be found within. Each artist was given the birdsong of an endangered species from their country and asked to incorporate it into a new song. Vieux Farka Touré is here, jamming with the call of the Black Crowned Crane, alongside nine other less familiar names. The collection opens with the airy delight of Les Mamans du Congo & Rrobin paying tribute to the Loango Weaver with a synth-based groove and plenty of call and response. Another highlight is the charming Nimba Flycatcher by Ruth Tafébé, propelled by delicate acoustic guitar, clicking percussion, and her bittersweet voice, but there are no weak tracks. Ask your local store to stock it!

Black Sherif - The Villain I Never Was Here's one case where the algorithm worked in my favor, as the one track that has a guest (Burna Boy) landed this Ghanaian singer-songwriter in my Release Radar. And I'm glad it did, as the album is sleek and canny combination of the deeply rooted genre of Highlife and contemporary Afrobeats with touches of reggae and hip hop. In a further quest for universality, Black Sherif sings in English, offering his reflections on his life, country, and status in a strong tenor, occasionally distorted with autotune. While there is a mournful, haunting quality to many of the songs, he never falls victim to cloying sentimentality, which can sometimes mar music from the region. Give a listen and raise a hand in welcome to an important new voice in the music of Western Africa.

Burna Boy - Love Damini In 2019, I praised this Nigerian Afrobeats pioneer's African Giant for being "suave, smooth, and funky," elements that are still in place on several songs here. On a whopping 19 tracks, the best stuff is front-loaded, with tracks like Science, with ticky-tack drums, brooding horns, and sensual vocals, Cloak and Dagger, with its sharp feature from J. Hus, and Kilometre, a choppy slice of dancehall, as strong as anything from his catalog. But things go awry on the back half, where nearly every song has a guest, including regrettable appearances from bards of bland like Ed Sheeran and J. Balvin. In his quest for ubiquity, Burna Boy is in danger of leaving behind what made him so popular in the first place. Hopefully next time, he'll leave the grabs for Pepsi-commercial pop stardom on the cutting room floor because when he's at his best, as on at least half the tracks here, he's a special artist indeed.

Florence Adooni - Yinne I've written before about the joyful, intricate sounds of Ghanaian Frafra before, as presented by the German label Philophon. On the first song on this latest single from the label, "Gospel Queen" Adooni sails her lighter-than-air voice over a delightfully busy arrangement, all blaring horns, swirling guitars and synths, burbling bass, and precise percussion, barely breaking a sweat as she sings in praise of Yinne, the Creator. For Yelle is more contemplative, with an almost folky melody and arpeggiated guitars. Here's hope for an album from Adooni - as well as a follow up to #1, Guy One's extraordinary album from 2018.

There's more from these genres in the archived playlist and you can follow along with what I discover in 2023 here.

You may also enjoy:

Best of 2021: Jazz, Latin, and Global
Best Of 2020: Jazz, Latin, and Global
Best Of 2019: Jazz, Latin, and Global 
Best Of 2018: Jazz, Latin, and Global

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