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Chris May’s Best Releases Of 2020


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Not the best year for live gigs in London, but Dele Sosimi's Afrobeat Orchestra just made it under the wire, lighting up the Jazz Cafe in late January. Rather like Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Sosimi's band has form as an incubator of young talent. A recent star in the making was trumpeter Ife Ogunjobi, who has since been picked up by Ezra Collective and by drummer and bandleader Moses Boyd. Tonight's new name to watch was singer Sahra Gure. Topmost among eagerly anticipated events that had to be postponed was reeds player Shabaka Hutchings' Propaganda, a weekend of multi-stage, multi-media performances in and around The Barbican, which should have happened in May. Fortunately, however, 2020 was an outstanding year for recorded jazz. Here are twenty-two stone delights, including two reissues and two collections of previously unreleased material. They are listed in no particular order.

Emma-Jean Thackray
Um Yang
Night Dreamer

London trumpeter Emma-Jean Thackray's music combines electric-era Miles Davis with new millennial electronicism, and free improv with groove. This EP comprises two mirror-image tracks. "Um" starts like an out-take from Davis' In A Silent Way (Columbia, 1969), building dramatically in intensity as Soweto Kinch grows increasingly far out on tenor saxophone. "Yang" opens with thirty seconds of noise that might have been created by saxophonist Albert Ayler and trumpeter Donald Ayler. Kinch, this time on alto, once more leads the ensemble, but now in the opposite direction, towards a "Shhh/Peaceful" conclusion, where "Um" started. When it comes, Thackray's first full-length album ought to be a monster.

King Khan
The Infinite Ones

King Khan (a.k.a. A.A. Khan or The Artist Formerly Known As The Blacksnake) is a composer and multi-instrumentalist based in Berlin, where he operates the Khannibalism label and records and produces at Moon Studio. The Infinite Ones is inspired in part by the moody electric-era musings of Miles Davis and the space music of Sun Ra. Among the fourteen-strong collective personnel are Arkestra reed players Marshall Allen and Knoel Scott, who are featured on two tracks. Socio-politically informed magical realism, immaculately produced.

Josephine Davies
How Can We Wake?

Compared to other premier-league bands on the alternative London jazz scene, tenor saxophonist and composer Josephine Davies' Satori—a semi-free trio which eschews harmonic structures but brims with exalted melodicism—has attracted relatively little noise. There has been high praise from specialist critics, but little social media ballyhoo. This may be because, unlike many of its contemporaries, Satori's style, though rhythmically rich, is not infused with dancefloor-friendly grooves: Davies looks instead to Zen philosophy for part of her inspiration. This is Satori's third album and all of them are highly recommended.

Michel Legrand
LeGrand Jazz
Impex / Columbia

It is almost Christmas and 2021 is limbering up to be a better year all round—so treat yourself to a 45 rpm, 180gm vinyl, audiophile reissue of Parisian film composer Michel Legrand's heavenly all-star big-band album, recorded in New York in 1958. The disc opens with Fats Waller's "The Jitterbug Waltz," featuring solos from Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Bill Evans and with an arrangement which kisses God. The close embrace is sustained over the following ten refreshed jazz standards, ending with a courageously up-tempo reading of Bix Beiderbecke's "In A Mist." Other soloists include Ben Webster, Eddie Costa, Art Farmer, Jimmy Cleveland, Frank Rehak, Ernie Royal, Phil Woods, Donald Byrd, Herbie Mann and Hank Jones. Legrand likely could not have repeated this staggering achievement even if he had tried—and he had the good sense not to try.

Shabaka And The Ancestors
We Are Sent Here By History

London-South African band Shabaka & the Ancestors ' second album is a tradition savvy going on futuristic reinvention of the township jazz pioneered by artists such as trumpeter Hugh Masekela, pianist Chris McGregor and alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana. "It is a meditation on our coming extinction as a species," says leader Shabaka Hutchings. "It is a reflection from the ruins...for those cultures dismantled by centuries of western expansionism, capitalist thought and white supremacist structural hegemony." It is, also, a lot of fun.

Charles Tolliver

Trumpeter Charles Tolliver's first release in over a decade is a stonker. The album finds Tolliver still at the top of his game in a recording career which began in the mid 1960s. He fronts a US quintet which brings with it the grit and groove of a mid-1960s Blue Note hard-bop band while sounding totally 2020. The lineup is augmented on two of the four tracks by tenor saxophonist Binker Golding, one of the young lions of the new London jazz. It is a killer combination.

Nubya Garcia

Tenor saxophonist and composer Nubya Garcia's first full-length album took an age to land but it is a cracker, recorded with an all-star band and shot through with Garcia's gloriously big, rich tenor sound and venturesome soloing. The material is a sophisticated take on London's alternative jazz scene's gumbo of American, European, Caribbean and West African musical ingredients. Garcia is a stylist unto herself but one can still hear traces of her formative influence, Joe Henderson.

Jon Hassell
Seeing Through Sound: Pentimento Volume Two

Trumpeter, electronicist and composer Jon Hassell, a collaborator with Terry Riley and La Monte Young in the 1960s, remains as radical and venturesome as ever. Seeing Through Sound: Pentimento Volume Two was recorded during the sessions for Listening To Pictures: Pentimento Volume One (Ndeya, 2018), and is a development of the earlier release, with the ambiance at times roughed up and distressed. Welcome to Hassell's post-acid universe, where a picture looks like music and music sounds like a picture.

Rob Luft
Life Is The Dancer

British guitarist Rob Luft's debut album, Riser (Edition, 2017), was greeted with huge acclaim. Observers likened his arrival to the emergence of Wes Montgomery or Pat Metheny. The enthusiasm was justified. For anyone yet to hear Luft, a useful yardstick is the pianist Bill Evans: Luft conjures up degrees of seraphic beauty akin to those created by Evans during his purple period with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. Every aspect of Life Is The Dancer is sublime. It is, truly, balm for the soul. Luft also crops up elswhere in this list, with his collaborative album with the singer Elina Duni.

Charles Mingus
At Bremen 1964 & 1975

Four hours of previously unreleased high-grade Charles Mingus is something to shout about. The four CDs in this box set were recorded live in Germany by Radio Bremen. The 1964 band is pianist Jaki Byard, tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, trumpeter Johnny Coles, multi-reedist Eric Dolphy, on what was his last engagement with Mingus, and drummer Dannie Richmond, who appears on all four discs. But the Koh-i-Noor diamond is the two hour set by the 1975 band: tenor saxophonist George Adams, trumpeter Jack Walrath and pianist Don Pullen. The lineup was shortlived yet it recorded two albums which are among Mingus' most exalted legacies, Changes One and Changes Two (both Atlantic, 1975), which form the basis of the Bremen performance. Pullen and Adams are utterly transporting and Walrath is out of this world, too. So is Mingus. So is Richmond. Essential listening even if you have the studio albums.

Matthew Halsall
Salute To The Sun

The British trumpeter and composer Matthew Halsall's first album of newly recorded material since 2015's Into Forever (Gondwana) was worth the wait. Halsall fronts a fresh new band which slots seamlessly into his take on the spiritual jazz of pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders together with the less-is-more modalism and lustrous sound of trumpeter Miles Davis circa Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959).

Joanna Burnheart

German-born violinist Johanna Burnheart is a rising star on the London scene through her work on spiritual-jazz band Maisha's There Is A Place (Brownswood, 2018), trombonist Rosie Turton's 5ive (Jazz Re:freshed, 2019) and trumpeter Yazz Ahmed's Polyhymnia (Ropeadope, 2019). Burnheart's own-name debut is an electro-acoustic affair which is sonically related to Polyhymnia and was co-produced by Ahmed's producer, Noel Langley. The music is characterised by deep grooves, spacey Wurlizter and synthesizer lines, and Burnheart's sinewy violin.

Makaya McCraven
Universal Beings E&F Sides
International Anthem

Universal Beings E&F Sides is an addendum to Chicago-based drummer and producer Makaya McCraven's underground hit Universal Beings (International Anthem, 2018). The cast includes young London lions Shabaka Hutchings and Nubya Garcia, keyboard player Kamaal Williams and bassist Daniel Casimir, along with US fellow travellers harpist Brandee Younger, cellist Tomeka Reid, vibraphonist Joel Ross and guitarist Jeff Parker. The Orange Malevolence would hate everything this project stands for: race and gender equality and an internationalist world view.

Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids
Strut Records

California-based tenor saxophonist and composer Idris Ackamoor has one foot in magical realism and the other in the politicised school of spiritual jazz. Shaman! is the most ambitious album in Ackamoor's six-decade recording career: a seventy-five minute suite which is brilliantly realised by an electro-acoustic septet and recorded with a minimum of overdubbing. It is epic on a scale only hinted at by the younger West Coast spiritual-jazz tenor saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington on The Epic (Brainfeeder, 2015), despite Washington being aided by a cast of thousands and a 3xCD format.

Elina Duni / Rob Luft
Lost Ships

British guitarist Rob Luft (lauded under his own name elsewhere in this list) here collaborates on another 2020 masterpiece, which is a kind of sequel to Albanian-Swiss singer Elina Duni's beautiful and moving Partir (ECM, 2018). Lost Ships, half of which is jointly written by Duni and Luft, deals in part with the humanitarian crisis of desperate people migrating from Africa and the Middle East in search of better lives in Europe. Passionate and grave, serene and desolate, the album is an emotionally complex, full-spectrum words and music masterpiece from two of the most distinctive talents on the European scene. Pianist and drummer Fred Thomas and flugelhornist Matthieu Michel add to the magic.

Ambrose Akinmusire
On The Tender Spot Of Every Calloused Moment
Blue Note

American trumpeter and composer Ambrose Akinmusire's On The Tender Spot Of Every Calloused Moment is the fifth and most stripped down of his albums on Blue Note: it is made with a quartet, there is no second horn and the sound is ECM-like in its monastic simplicity. The album is, however, every bit as socially and emotionally engaged as its predecessors. This time out, Akinmusire's focus is the blues, albeit expressed in a modern, abstract framework: the blues as a feeling rather than a format.

Ted Poor
You Already Know

American drummer Ted Poor's first own-name project since 2003's All Around (Trier) is a duo outing with alto saxophonist Andrew D'Angelo, subtly embellished with a little sweetening. Each of the nine tracks plays with a rhythmic motif and a melodic one. The sweetening was added by Poor's co-producer, Blake Mills, who plays guitar, acoustic bass, piano and harmonium on the album. Two bassists and two violinists are also on call. The sort of album which gives minimalist jazz a good name.

Binker and Moses
Escape The Flames

Tenor saxophonist Binker Golding and drummer Moses Boyd's semi-free duo Binker and Moses is still, five years after its launch in 2015, the most viscerally exciting sound to come out of London's alternative jazz scene. Escape The Flames, the duo's fourth album, is a sequel to its sophomore set, Journey To The Mountain Of Forever (Gearbox, 2017). It is a live performance of the first disc which made up that double album. The tunes are intact and in the same order, but except for closer "Leaving The Now Behind," the extemporised passages are longer than the studio versions, in most cases around twice as (deliciously) long. Shamanistic and interstellar.

Sarathy Korwar & Upaj Collective
Night Dreamer Direct To Disc Sessions
Night Dreamer

Drummer and percussionist Sarathy Korwar's second album with the Upaj Collective ploughs much the same furrow as the ensemble's modern day Indo-Jazz classic My East Is Your West (Gearbox, 2018). That album was recorded by an eleven piece, this one by a quintet. The returnees are Korwar, baritone saxophonist Tamar Osborn, guitarist Giuliano Modarelli and keyboardist Alistair MacSween, who are joined by new member, violinist Achuthan Sripadmanathan.

John Coltrane
Giant Steps: Remastered & Super Deluxe Editions

The double CD and vinyl Remastered Edition and digital-only Super Deluxe Edition consist of material which has been remastered by John Webber at Air Studios in London. Both editions include saxophonist John Coltrane's original album plus eight alternate takes from the sessions. The Super Deluxe Edition includes another twenty alternate takes, breakdowns and false starts, many of which were previously issued on Atlantic / Rhino's 1995 boxset, The Heavyweight Champion: The Complete Atlantic Recordings. The main event here is significantly improved audio—not transformed as it is on Impulse!'s A Love Supreme: Deluxe Edition (2003), but improved enough to splash out on.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet
Time OutTakes
Brubeck Editions

Few albums in jazz history are as giant as the Dave Brubeck Quartet's Time Out (Columbia, 1959). So an album of out-takes would be of interest even if every track was a dog. The fantastic news, however, is that the three most important tracks on Time OutTakes—"Take Five," "Blue Rondo A La Turk" and "Cathy's Waltz"—are within a whisker or two of the brilliance of the originals. The other alternates from the 1959 album, "Strange Meadowlark" and "Three To Get Ready," are no slouches either. There are for your further delectation two previously unissued tunes from the original sessions, "I'm In A Dancing Mood" and "Watusi Jam" and a five minute compilation of inconsequential but fun-to-have studio banter.

To The Earth

Dinosaur is led by London-based trumpeter and composer Laura Jurd. Its first two albums were plugged-in affairs using plenty of through-composition, but To The Earth has a deep acoustic vibe and is more in-the-moment. Simultaneously intimate and expansive, sometimes edgy but mostly playful, it is a lovely and absorbing album which, like most of the best jazz, combines knowledge of the tradition with the breaking of new ground.



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