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Chris May's Best Releases of 2019

Chris May By

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The world may be going to hell in a handcart, but the year has been full of uplifting jazz. Here are ten of the best albums—the first seven newly recorded, the final three reissued or recently unearthed. Each one is the coyote's cojones.

Yazz Ahmed
Polyhymnia
Ropeadope

The eagerly awaited follow-up to 2017's La Saboteuse (Naim) from the trumpeter, composer and "high priestess of psychedelic Arabic jazz." Conceptually more ambitious than its predecessor—it is a six-part suite inspired by six courageous and influential women—the album finds Ahmed ranging wide and deep on trumpet, flugelhorn and Kaoss Pad. Like the next three albums on this list, a landmark disc out of London's happening underground jazz scene, of which the 26-piece collective line-up reads like a who's who.

SEED Ensemble
Driftglass
Jazz Refreshed

Nominated for Britain's prestigious Mercury Music Prize, alto saxophonist and composer Cassie Kinoshi's SEED Ensemble's album, like Yazz Ahmed's, delivers soulful, inventively arranged jazz while also addressing social issues. There is joy and there is pain. On "W A K E (for Grenfell)," featuring guest vocalist Cherise Adams-Burnett , Kinoshi adds lyrics to address the scandal of a fire which swept through a poorly maintained public-housing high-rise in London in 2017, killing 72 people.

Binker Golding
Abstractions Of Reality Past & Incredible Feathers
Gearbox

The saxophone colossus puts on one side futuristic adventures such as those with drummer Moses Boyd and keyboard player Elliot Galvin, temporarily we can be sure, to deliver a timeline rewind which serves notice that his wilder trajectories are, to borrow the words of The New Yorker's art critic Harold Rosenberg, "emblazoned with the authority of the past." Alongside Golding on tenor are young-lions pianist Joe Armon-Jones, bassist Daniel Casimir and drummer Sam Jones.

Theon Cross
Fyah
Gearbox

Essentially a trio album featuring tuba player Cross, drummer Moses Boyd and tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia, Fyah is as unleashed and visceral as jazz gets. Cross was previously best known as a member of reed player Shabaka Hutchings' Sons Of Kemet, whose Your Queen Is A Reptile (Impulse) was a highlight of 2018. (Hutchings' 2019 Impulse album, Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery, made with The Comet Is Coming, is good, but it works better live than on disc. TCIC's follow-up, The Afterlife, was due out shortly after this article was written). Where, meanwhile, is Garcia's long overdue second album?

Piotr Damasiewicz & Power Of The Horns
Polska
Astigmatic

Polish jazz began in part as a declaration of protest against slavery and repression, as did that of its American parent, and this has given it a special quality. Trumpeter Damasiewicz's nonet—five horns, two basses, drums, piano—essays powerful, expansive music which salutes Polish pioneers Krzysztof Komeda, Tomasz Stanko, Tomasz Szukalski and Piotr Wojtasik, who between them proved that the USSR's fears that jazz was a subversive force were totally on-point. Damasiewicz does his heroes proud.

Tribe
Hometown: Detroit Sessions 1990 -2014
Art Yard / Strut

Late-flowering blooms from trombonist Phil Ranelin's and tenor saxophonist Wendell Harrison's Tribe collective, featuring pianists Harold McKinney and Pamela Wise and the trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, four decades on from Ranelin's chef d'oeuvre, Vibes From The Tribe (Tribe, 1976). Passionate, funk-infused spiritual jazz with occasional free-improv breakouts, heavy on bass ostinatos, strong tunes and unfussy but thoughtful arrangements.

Nat Birchall
The Storyteller: A Musical Tribute To Yusef Lateef
Jazzman

The centennial of Lateef's birth falls in 2020 and Britain's Jazzman label had the inspired idea of asking reeds player and astral-jazz champion Birchall to mark the event with a tribute album. It is a beauty. Over half the tracks are Birchall originals and it is as much his album as it is Lateef's. There are sure to be other tributes in the pipeline, but The Storyteller has set the benchmark high.

Pharoah Sanders
Live At Antibes Jazz Festival Juan-Les-Pins July 21, 1968
Alternative Fox

The first official release for a blazing performance which captures Sanders transitioning from his tumultuous period with John Coltrane towards his generally balmier 1970s direction. But that destination was still some way off: side two's "The Creator Has A Master Plan," a studio recording of which would appear on 1969's Karma (Impulse), will rip your nose clean off your face. Sanders' quartet comprises pianist Lonnie Liston Smith , bassist Sirone and drummer Najeed Shabazz, and the congenitally mellifluous Smith more than holds his own in fast company.

Charles Lloyd Quartet
Montreux Jazz Festival 1967
TCB

The first release for the best live recording by a country mile yet to surface of Lloyd's classic quartet. Recorded the year after the breakout albums Dream Weaver and Forest Flower: Charles Lloyd at Monterey (both Atlantic), with pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Ron McClure (who had just replaced Cecil McBee) and drummer Jack DeJohnette, this double CD captures the group at its creative peak. Every track is a winner and the absolute crème de la crème is the closer, a 27-minute version of "Forest Flower."

Donald Byrd
Ethiopian Knights
Blue Note

Reissued on vinyl as part of the Blue Note 80 anniversary series, this 1972 album set a standard for jazz funk which has rarely, if ever, been bettered. It opens with an extended deep-strata jam, "The Emperor," and closes with another, "The Little Rasti." The band includes vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, tenor saxophonist Harold Land, electric bassist Wilton Felder, three (count 'em) guitarists and William Henderson and Joe Sample on Fender Rhodes and organ respectively.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS: Sarah Tandy Infection In The Sentence (Jazz Refreshed); Levitation Orchestra Inexpressible Infinity (Astigmatic); Joe Armon-Jones Turn To Clear View (Brownswood); Nerija Blume (Domino); Dwight Trible Mothership (Gearbox); Mark Kavuma The Banger Factory (Ubuntu); Ezra Collective You Can't Steal My Joy (Enter The Jungle).

WE-CAN'T-WAIT AWARD: This year's winner is alto saxophonist and composer Camilla George, whose profound and healing second album, The People Could Fly (Ubuntu), was released in 2018 and so falls outside the scope of the above list. After appearing in concert with George, Dee Dee Bridgewater said: "The world is safe because we have Camilla" (no pressure then). We can't wait for George's next album.

P.S. GOT LIVE IF YOU WANT IT: There have been some memorable gigs in London during 2019. Top of the bill was the Barbican Centre-production Electronic Explorations of Afro-Cuban and UK Jazz , not least for the sensational contributions of Sarah Tandy, the most exciting new keyboard player in London.

Close behind was a Jazz Cafe gig co-headlined by tenor saxophonists Binker Golding and Denys Baptiste , a killer combination further lifted by Tandy's presence in the Golding band, and by the Baptiste band's rocket-fuelled keyboard player Nikki Yeoh and drummer Rod Youngs.

Then it is off to the Barbican Art Gallery and trumpeter Mark Kavuma's quintet's celebration of Abstract Expressionist painter Lee Krasner and her beloved contemporary Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners (Riverside, 1957). Presented on the floor of one of the galleries, surrounded by Krasner's work, it was an intimate and evocative event.

One way and another it was a good year for jazz at the Barbican Centre. Among other events, the main auditorium also presented a package-show styled Aretha Franklin tribute, hosted by New York's premier Afrobeat band , Antibalas, which included a roof-raising turn from Nona Hendryx, and a 50th anniversary performance by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which found the group still breaking new ground.

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