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Year in Review

Friedrich Kunzmann's Best releases of 2019


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The past couple of years unveiled a whirlwind of political confusion that seems to have finally slopped over into the world of jazz music. Like many individuals, in 2019 artists felt the need to speak out across the mainstream social media platforms and use their somewhat wider reaching voices to animate a like-minded community as well as to question various actions taken and decisions made. But even beyond that, musicians have started to introduce prominent vocal passages in otherwise exclusively instrumental music—making their voices literally heard. While Jazz—like most musical genres and arguably to an even greater degree—has always been a haven for musicians and adepts to express and act out a sense of freedom, the vocally extroverted trend wasn't ever as prominent as it has been this year. Of course such a development is met with mixed opinions by the audience. But from a purely musical point of view there are at least as many treasures to be found in this year as in any other. People keep creating, they continue to strive for something new, something good, something original and they excel. there is no stopping them. The following list is in no particular order nor is it—or could ever be—complete. All of these albums were able to make a lasting impression and deserve your attention. The honorable mentions at the bottom of the page are merely my way of sneaking a second and third collection of excellent albums into what was supposed to be one compact list.

Jonathan Kreisberg
Capturing Spirits
New For Now Music

True to its title, this album documents magic happening in real time. The guitarist/composer Jonathan Kreisberg has been an acclaimed player in the scene for a couple of decades now and continues to inspire jazz guitarists with his unique hand for mending jazz tradition with a modern and original approach. Here he does it live and at his most engaging.

Melissa Aldana
Motéma Music

Chilean sax-prodigy Melissa Aldana has been getting much overwhelmingly positive press as of late. Deservedly so. With visions she not only lives up to the very high expectations but emphasizes her individualistic approach to composition with an equally skilled group of musicians. If you didn't come for here saxophone playing you'll be sure to stay for Sam Harris' exciting chord stabs on piano or vibesman Joel Ross' sensitive ear for melody.

Dominic Miller

Due to health issues, Sting-associated Dominic Miller had to cancel a large number of tour dates in 2019. But the guitarist/composer is back on his feet and ready to make up for the missed dates with a full schedule in 2020. On Absinthe—his second release under the ECM banner— Miller creates nostalgic acoustic soundscapes in interplay with sidemen, who's minimal interjections couldn't be more serving and emphatic. Manu Katche's groove is understated and at the same time very present throughout. A gem.

The Bad Plus
Activate Infinity
Edition Records

Short, compact, imaginative and superlative. No matter how you take your jazz, this record is highly entertaining and presents a nice balance between swinging bop-lines and pop/rock-sensibilities. One of the very tasty mainstream records this year and among the trio's best work.

We Jazz Records

This outing by the Finnish trio 3TM fuses electronic music with an acoustic trio in a coherent fashion, so that the boundaries between the two slowly evaporate. The compositions are fairly simple, the sonic landscape however is vast and sucks the listener into a deep void that no one ever knew existed. Highly recommended.

The Hunter

An unexpected tour de force from a South-African/Swiss combo that has created very original music by binding together different traditions. Kyle Shepherd's inventive piano play stands out in an exciting pool of ostinato-based tracks and rhythmically driven jams. The term "jam" however might be misleading: A fair share of highly sophisticated composed sections is in constant exchange with tasteful improvisations, demonstrating the very special chemistry between these players. An extraordinary display of how much room there remains in jazz to invent and create. At the same time this is just a very joyful endeavor.

Elliot Galvin
Modern Times
Edition Records

The title of the young British pianist's fourth album for Edition records is somewhat deceiving. Recorded entirely live and direct to Vinyl, the nature of this undertaking is everything other than modern—by today's standards. Then again on the other hand, the music is. Sound plays an important role on here and finds a prominent counterpoint in the tight rhythmical division of the meters and measures. All the while Galvin's piano work is very minimally ornamented and triad based. Slight dissonances with Monkish phrasings allude to a more traditional world of music, mostly however, Galvin is doing his own thing and he does it with an impressive amount of conviction and drive.

Terkel Noergaard
With Ralph Alessi
We Jazz Records

The second We Jazz release on this list. While you're at it you may as well check out their entire catalogue—it's filled with lovely surprises. This was one of their more prominent releases this year. As the title suggests the album features the renowned American trumpeter Ralph Alessi. Terkel Noergaard's compositions are constructed around fields of impulses, reactions and co-dependencies. Acoustic nuance as well as melodic correspondence play important roles and transport the music to a place of implicit understanding. At times blissful, at others devastating.

Avishai Cohen & Yonathan Avishai
Playing The Room

A record focused on the very essence of sound, harmony and melody. Two instruments in conversation with each other and their careful and elegant sentences are reflected by the space that surrounds them, creating some of the most ethereal moments. Of course, something so acoustically challenging just had to come from the hands of ECM's Manfred Eicher. A new standard for how a duet can sound?

Dave Holland, Chris Potter & Zakir Hussain
Good Hope
Edition Records

The third Edition Records release on this list captures three world-class improvisers in collective search for unison and harmony. This trio date couldn't have bore better fruit. The compositions are cleverly wrought and serve as the ideal foundation for some of Chris Potter's tightest saxophone playing to date. The melodic immediacy and round groove found in Dave Holland's basslines are contrasted by the intricate rhythmic tablas-exercises performed by Zakir Hussain. Truly mesmerizing.

Honorable Mentions

  1. Seamus Blake: Guardians Of The Heart Machine
  2. Jeff Denson: Between Two Worlds
  3. Frode Kjerkstad: In Essence
  4. JC Sanford: Keratoconus
  5. Nguyen Le Quartet: Streams
  6. Scopes: Scopes
  7. Julia Hülsmann Quartett: Not Far From Here
  8. Marc Copland: And I Love Her
  9. The Vampires: Pacifica
  10. Ralph Alessi: Imaginary Friends

Beyond Jazz

  1. Wilco: Ode To Joy
  2. The Tea Club: If / When
  3. Thom Yorke: Anima
  4. Bon Iver: i,i
  5. Mandolin Orange: Tides Of A Teardrop
  6. Big Thief: U.F.O.F
  7. The Flower Kings: Waiting For Miracles
  8. Jeff Tweedy: Warmer
  9. Dylan Leblanc: Renegade
  10. Big Thief: Two Hands

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