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2020 and Me

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This was a difficult, terrifying year, and the arts did a lot to sustain us, both as creators and audience.
As I type this, it is December 8, 2020, the fortieth anniversary of John Lennon's murder. I was then a newly-minted barband guitarist, fifteen years old and thinking how the world —via the election of Ronald Reagan —and music had just suffered the worst season that could ever be.

2020 has been an ongoing parade of American horrors. No matter what city you're in, the town is paused. I live in Hollywood, three blocks from the former site of Amoeba Music, the biggest independent record store in the Flat 48. It closed this year, as did the very excellent Atomic Records, in nearby Burbank. Both are slated for reopening, but no hard dates have been offered up. The tiny, packed to the hilt Boyle Heights shop Sonidos Del Valle has become where the record nerds congregate, masked, as their wives and girlfriends look on alternately bored and bemused.

Aside from Sonidos, my favorite place to browse is now Bandcamp. Unfortunately, so much of what is available on this rightfully beloved site is strictly download, and like most jazz fans of my generation, I'm a hardcopy person. One label who sells vinyl and cassettes (but not compact discs) is Death Is Not The End, who specialize in international roots music. Their rebetika (Depression Era Greek street music) comp The Sun Is Setting On This World is maybe my favorite thing this year, otherworldly, soulful vocal music that sounds like for all the world like interplanetary delta blues. In addition, DINTE has a (thus far) three volume series of Jamaican doo wop called If I Had A Pair Of Wings that shines a light on the pre-ska music scene, with compelling early performances by future stars like Jimmy Cliff, Owen Gray, Prince Buster, and the incredible, inestimable Millie ("My Boy Lollipop") Small, who died this year of a stroke. I've played all three volumes a lot. Lion Productions' Beat Club Vol 4: Sinn Sisamouth was arguably the reissue of the year —an in-depth anthology of Cambodia's (pre-Khmer Rouge) most significant vocalist. Those who collect Cambodian will tell you (at length, I warn you) how difficult it is to collect the nation's vintage popular music, so to have a literally perfect collection like this is truly a major event.



Of course, the most remarked-upon release of 2020 was Bob Dylan's My Rough And Rowdy Ways (Columbia), his first album of new original songs in eight years. After 2012's wonderful Tempest, he embarked on a series of standards albums that gave lesser rock critics a chance to call the Great American Songbook "Sinatra covers." Ways did much to assure the faithful (of which I am very much one) that Dylan's remain undiminished. Similarly, power pop elder statesman Nick Lowe, since hooking up seamlessly with the celebrated outfit Los Straitjackets, has become prolific, and his output for this year—the full-length Walkabout and two digital-only singles—are sparkling, rocking, joyous ear candy of the first water. These are also available from Bandcamp.



Thundercat's long-awaited It Is What It Is (Brainfeeder) was the jazz(ish) record of the year around me and my friends, and it was kind of assumed that this release would be the thing that pushed him into the next stardom bracket, but the inability to tour this year put that great leap forward on hold.



Speaking of frontman bassists releasing great new albums, the inextinguishable Bootsy Collins released his rollicking The Power Of The One (Bootzilla), which featured guests ranging from George Benson to Larry Graham, Bela Fleck, Christian McBride, and Cornel West (among others). If just about anyone else stuntcasted like this, it would be gratuitous, but Bootsy just likes to invite cool people to his party. Also noted: the rising young giant Brennan Johns wrote some glorious, funky and sophisticated arrangements for this one. Bootsy might be an elder statesman, but neither he nor his new record sound old.

Saxophonist Benjamin Boone's The Poets Are Gathering (Origin) was maybe the most interesting new disc this year. Ever since Ken Nordine crossed swords with Chico Hamilton sideman Fred Katz to spawn the long-loved Word Jazz albums, the two disciplines have had mutual respect but an uneasy coexistence. Boone thrives on the uneasy, and here he is joined by eleven of the finest Central/Northern California poets for a truly intense and compelling program of music and spoken word. Poets ranks with Don Byron's forays into similar spoken/music areas, which is no mean feat.



As for the written word, Ricky Riccardi's Heart Full of Rhythm (Oxford) was my big jazz read of the year. Ricky—who I like a great deal personally—is not only a fine writer, but his research is exemplary. He seems to be working his way backwards though Pop's life (his last book, What A Wonderful World, covered the later recordings), which brings the hope that his next book will cover the Hot Five's and Seven's. It is fair to say Ricky is quickly becoming the Robert Caro of Louis Armstrong.

Probably as a result of shopping at Sonidos, I got re-addicted to 45's, those seven inch slices of music that quickly become a compulsion, especially if you came up on punk rock. Yes, labels still release these, some exclusively. One such label, The Giving Groove, did a limited edition red vinyl release of Philadelphia's still-incredible Dead Milkmen covering the Heaven 17 classic "(We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang." This was as timely as it gets. As it was during the rise of Reaganism, it was exactly the right song at exactly the right time, and the Milkmen—who had revived it brilliantly a couple years ago as a call to resistance in the time of Trump —put it over with angry relish that served to remind us that punk rock still means it, man. This, for me, was the record of the year.



(My other favorite Philadelphia music indulgence this year was Gretchen Elise's "Wawa," a grooving and addictive jawn singing the justified praises of the Delaware Valley's favorite convenient store, which nearly brought me to tears with homesickness for coffee and hoagies.)



The Latin/ska label Steadybeat, located in Wilmington CA, which is a very tough local pocket, has been putting out several cool singles every year since 1995. King Steadybeat (another pal) and the Royal Palms' Supasonico / Coco Cookie was a typical example of the label, whose releases I have collected nearly all of.



This was a difficult, terrifying year, and the arts did a lot to sustain us, both as creators and audience. Ultimately, we seem to have found the light at the end of the tunnel, which is a conditional thing, as anyone who has ever exited the Holland Tunnel with his windows open will tell you. Yes, you're out of the tunnel, but it smells and there's someone cleaning your windshield whether or not you asked.

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