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Dan McClenaghan's Best Releases Of 2020


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In a year that will be remembered for the coming of the COVID-19 pandemic, the music survived, thrived even, not on the bandstand playing for live audiences, but in the studio, socially distanced, in many cases collaborating from afar with swapped sound files. Musicians with time on their hands were especially inspired. These are the 2020 recordings that grabbed me the most, presented in the order in which they came through the door.

Maria Schneider Orchestra—Data LordsMaria Schneider Orchestra
Data Lords
Artist Share

Maria Schneider takes her long-standing orchestra into new territory with Data Lords. Her fifth recording on the groundbreaking, crowdfunding Artist Share label digs deep into Schneider's love of the timeless natural world juxtaposed with her well-founded concerns with the modern digital direction in which art—and everything else—is moving. The music includes Schneider's always beautiful, pastoral approach—disc 2 of the two CD set—and the more adventurously avant-garde leaning of disc 1's digital world worries. A challenging and beautiful work of art from the Grammy Award-winning orchestrator / composer.

Pat Metheny— From This PlacePat Metheny
From this Place

By the time 2020 rolled around, guitarist Pat Metheny seemed to have abandoned the studio. But after a six year studio hiatus, he offered up From This Place , a lush and elegant master work embellished, in part, by the teaming of Metheny's quartet with the Hollywood Symphony Orchestra, featuring charts by Gil Goldstein and Alan Broadbent. In a career that spans more than four decades, this is Metheny's finest hour—or more precisely, his finest seventy-seven minutes.

Gary Husband & Markus Reuter—Music Of Our TimesGary Husband & Markus Reuter
Music Of Our Times
Moonjune Records

Here is a COVID-19 recording if there ever was one. Multi-instrumentalist (on piano here) Gary Husband and guitarist Markus Reuter were on tour in Japan with the Stickmen in March 2020 when the virus swirled in and mucked things up. The tour was canceled, but Husband and Reuter found some time before the departure of their flight across the Pacific to hit the studio. They came up with an impromptu set of a subdued yet stunning beauty, a sort of ethereal ambient sound with more melodic input than is usually found in that genre.

Denny Zeitlin— Live At MezzrowDenny Zeitlin
Live At Mezzrow
Sunnyside Records

Pianist Denny Zeitlin is sprinting through his late career, releasing an album a year, beginning with his debut on Sunnyside Records in 2009, and ending (for now) with his Live At Mezzrow for the label in 2020. It would be hard to find a more consistently successful artistic discography over the past decade, but Zeitlin keeps the bar high with this disc, recorded live in New York City. It is a mix of standards—laid down with a characteristic Zeilin-esque verve—and top notch originals brimming with a sparkling energy and a goodtime cerebral panache.

Matthew Shipp— The Piano EquationMatthew Shipp
The Piano Equation
Tao Forms

Only a handful of musicians can keep up with the intensity of pianist Matthew Shipp—saxophonists Rich Halley and Ivo Perelman and a small handful of others. This may be why he goes it alone with regularity, with his piano solo sets. The Piano Equation is Shipp's celebration of his sixtieth year on Earth, with a pushing of his musical mathematics ever forward. By turns introspective, ebullient, angular, swinging and striding, it is a perfect example of an artist sharpening his focus as he elbows it into another dimension.

Satoko Fuji Orchestra New York—EntitySatoko Fujii Orchestra New York
Libra Records

The big bands of pianist / composer / bandleader Satoko Fujii—and there are many—are vehicles for some of her most "out there" music, like Entity, by her long standing Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York. The orchestra's music can sound like a street riot involving musical instruments (the thirteen—minute title tune), or a blustery squall blowing in off a cold ocean "(Flashback'), or like a soundtrack to mysterious sub-atomic shenanigans ("Elementary Particle"). Guitarist Nels Cline gets his share of moments in the spotlight. He cranked up the level of intrepid abstract expressionism in the orchestra's sound when he joined the ranks on 2017's Fukushima (Libra Records). He keeps that going here.

Tim Berne's Snakeoil—The Fantastic Mrs.10Tim Berne's Snakeoil
The Fantastic Mrs. 10
Intakt Records

One reviewer described saxophonist / bandleader Tim Berne's artistry as "[the] making of madcap tapestries with various ensemble configurations, forming a collective voice full of piss and vinegar." Indeed. With his Snakeoil group—featuring album releases on ECM Records and now Intakt Records—he keeps the intensity level up there and out there, barrelling down the same road he's rolled on for years, sounding like a jalopy with a tank of high octane juice sloshing in its belly, as it navigates a winding mountain road, tires screaming, fenders loose and clattering, windows a-rattle.

Alexander Von Schlippenbach—Slow Pieces For AkiAlexander Von Schlippenbach
Slow Pieces For Aki
Intakt Records

German pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach turned the approach down at the query from his life partner, Aki Takase, concerning the necessity of speed, volume and intensity in the realm of free improvisation. His Slow Pieces For Aki answers her with a set of gorgeous, introspective tunes, twenty-one concise, perfect little gems of solo piano.

Chad McCullough—ForwardChad McCullough
Outside In Music

Chad McCullough's Forward finds the Chicago-based trumpeter in his familiar horn-and-rhythm-section format. This set brings McCullough's customary artistic focus into crystal clarity. A plus is the addition of some deft and modernistic enhancements from producer Ryan Cohen's subtle electronic backdrops that nudge the effort to the highest level.

David Friesen- -TestimonyDavid Friesen
Origin Records

David Friesen's Hemage Bass is usually found in front of small ensembles, its sharp, distinctive sound giving the music of his duo and trio outings a futuristic flair. Testimony is Friesen's first effort with a large ensemble—in this case with the National Academic Symphonic Band of Ukraine. The music is light and delicate, floating, wafting in like clouds riding a gentle breeze. The beautiful, understated harmonies bring Gil Evans's to mind, and make a follow-up large group offering from Friesen sound like a grand idea.

LP And the Viny—Heard And SeenLP And The Vinyl
Heard And Seen
OA2 Records

The "LP" of LP and the Vinyl is San Diego-based vocalist Leonard Patton. The Vinyl is, presumably, the Danny Green Trio that backs him here. Green's group is one of the top piano trios to have emerged in the new millennium. Patton is one of our most emotive, joyful, bursting-with-life vocalists. They make a great match, presenting covers of Tears For Fears "Everybody Wants To Rule The World," David Bowie's "Life On Mars," some Quincy Jones, The Beatles, a gold nugget from the Great American Songbook, "Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise," all in an original, right-now fashion.

Dave Storrs /Sila Shaman—Brief West Coast TourDave Storrs / Sila Shaman
Brief West Coast Tour
Louie Records

The last selection—because it was the last one that spun in the door—is an oddity. Brief West Coast tour was recorded on a short tour involving pianist/composer Sila Shaman and percussionist/mad sound scientist Dave Storrs in the Corvallis, Oregon area, during Shaman's stopover from her home base in New York, on her way to Singapore with her family. A two-day recording session went down in Storrs' "Sound Shack," his garage converted to a ready-to-roll-anytime recording studio. Storrs released a rough copy of the set on a limited edition CD. This more produced version—curated by Shaman, in a deft manipulation of the sounds via electronics embellishments, sometimes covertly, sometimes overtly—turned a fine set of avant-garde music into one of the year's most alluring and adventurously beautiful albums.

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