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Year in Review

Ian Patterson's Best Releases Of 2020


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A year like no other produced a terrific amount of great music, much of inspired by—or in spite of—the surreal circumstances. Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorite releases of the year. A huge thank you to all the musicians, record labels, studios, agents, promotors and virtual technicians who helped keep us relatively sane and uplifted.

Carole Nelson
Black Stairs Records

The growing threats to the environment provide the grist to pianist Carole Nelson's mill on her second trio outing with bassist Cormac O'Brien and drummer Dominic Mullan. The London-born, Ireland-based Nelson pens sensitive tunes of emotive heft, her less-is-more approach fostering quietly beguiling trio interplay that is never showy. Standout tunes include the delicately wrought "Hope in the Dark," the waltz-like "Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Medicine)" and the ever so tender "Canopy." Heartfelt musical conversations.

Bill Frisell
Blue Note Records

A rare trio album as leader, Valentine pitches Bill Frisell with long-time compadre Rudy Royston and his bassist of choice in recent years, Thomas Morgan on a beguiling set of reworked songs, folksy anthems and the odd curio. Frisell frequently returns to old musical flames, and here the Malian- influenced "Baba Drame" and the lovely "Keep Your Eyes Open" are stripped down to their essentials.

Delta blues and shades of Monk and Ellington rub shoulders with more contemporary fare, of which "Electricity," originally written for a Bill Morrison film and "Hour Glass," featuring Frisell's trademark spacious twang and pedal atmospherics are standouts. So too, Hal David/Burt Bacharach's "What The World Needs Now" and an achingly pretty reading of "We Shall Overcome," evergreen and ever-relevant both.

As the years roll by, Frisell seems more invested in the guitar's sounds, with the result that his music has become more painterly. Valentine is one of his finest collection of musical portraits.

Mere Nation
Diatribe Records

The third outing from ReDiviDeR, the two-horn, no-chord Dublin-based quartet founded by drummer Matthew Jacobson in 2007, is arguably the best yet. Jacobson's mazy compositions are built upon sketches that invite collective improvisation from alto saxophonist Nick Roth, trombonist Colm O'Hara and bassist Derek Whyte. The two horns weave in and out of unison as Jacobson and Whyte ply rhythmically intriguing courses, though lead and comping duties overlap constantly.

There is a lot going on rhythmically, harmonically and melodically, but whilst complex, the music is still accessible. Standout tracks include the visceral "Tricky," the tone poem "Grove Park" and the episodic "Haiku," which closes a fascinating album on a powerful note.

Yuri Honing Acoustic Quartet
Challenge Records

In the past decade Dutch saxophonist Yuri Honing has pursued a hauntingly spare sound, one characterized by its meditative quality and pronounced lyricism. With Bluebeard, the fourth release from the Yuri Honing Acoustic Quartet, the leader comes close to perfection. Talk Talk's masterpiece Spirit of Eden (Parlophone, 1988) provided the atmospheric inspiration for Honing's beautifully brooding music, heard notably in drummer Joost Lijbaart's curiously deceptive, hypnotic rhythms.

It is a hard task to pick out highlights as the music is uniformly outstanding from start to finish, but the Dylan Thomas-inspired "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" burns with a poetic intensity that is particularly hard to resist.

John Scofield
Swallow Tales
ECM Records

For his debut as leader on ECM John Scofield pays tribute to his great friend, long-time collaborator and one-time teacher, Steve Swallow. Nine of Swallow's compositions—all chosen by Scofield—cover more than half a century of the electric bassist's brilliant career going back to the mid-1960s. Scofield and Swallow have been playing together since the late 1970s, while drummer Bill Stewart's history with Scofield goes back thirty plus years; little wonder then that the music here was recorded in less than a day.

Harmonically and melodically bright, these are also tunes that really swing. The sparks fly on "She Was Young," but some of the finest moments come at slower tempi, particularly on the gorgeous ballad "Away." One of Scofield's best straight-ahead outings.

To The Earth
Edition Records

The UK jazz scene has arguably never been more vibrant, and Dinosaur, the quartet that started life as the Laura Jurd Quartet in 2010, is one of the scene's brightest lights. To The Earth, the fourth release from Jurd, keyboardist Elliot Galvin, bassist Conor Chaplin and drummer Corrie Dick, is bursting with memorable melodies, catchy rhythmic hooks and individual bravura. But it is the band's chemistry that really calls the attention. There is a subtle nod to Thelonious Monk on the wonderfully eccentric "Slow Loris," and overt tribute to Billy Strayhorn/Duke Ellington on a very singular reading of "Absinthe," but make no mistake, Dinosaur is a forward-looking outfit that loves to spring the sound of surprise.

Verneri Pohjola
The Dead Don't Dream
Edition Records

Finnish trumpeter Verneri Pohjola goes from strength to strength. The Dead Don't Dream is his third outstanding album in a row for Edition Records, following Bullhorn (2015) and Pekka (2017). Joined by bassist Antti Lotjonen, drummer Mika Kallioand pianist Tuomo Prattala, there is perhaps less emphasis on soloing than previously, with more attention paid to atmosphere—something that Pohjola excels at, particularly on the title track, which smoulders like the soundtrack to a noirish spaghetti western.

Additional textures are brought into play by saxophonist Pauli Lyytinen, Mikka Paatelainen on ghostly pedal steel guitar and by Prattala's subtly employed electronics. Beautiful and stark in turn, The Dead Don't Dream is the sort of album that, once heard, is not easily forgotten.

Rudy Royston
Greenleaf Music

Solo drum albums are rare enough in jazz, so comparisons are inevitable. And whilst Rudy Royston's PaNOptic can stand proudly alongside ground- breaking exemplars by the likes of Max Roach and Art Blakey it is also highly original. Recorded in 2013, the twenty-three tracks were assembled from over three hours of improvisations and pay homage to Royston's music heroes—Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk and Bill Frisell.

The blues, the gospel influence of the Pentecostal Church and the Harlem Renaissance poets all feed into Royston's rootsy rhythms and melodic lines, but there is also room for a Bad Company riff on The Beatle's-inspired "Black-Bad CoMPAny-BiRd." A couple of the tracks have related videos; one presenting a collage of Royston's photography, the other a film of an incredible dance routine by the Nicholas Brothers to which Royston provides an improvised soundtrack. A master musician and storyteller at work.

Tineke Postma
Edition Records

A six-year hiatus from her solo career due to motherhood hasn't blunted Tineke Postma's writing or her playing chops as this fine album attests. Formidable women, both historical and mythical, provide the inspiration for these original tunes. Postma shines on soprano and alto saxophones, but it says much for her arrangements that pianist Kris Davis, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, double bassist Matthew Brewer and drummer Dan Weiss are all equally prominent.

Standout tracks include the slow-grooving "Geri's Print" (a tribute to Geri Allen), "In The Light of Reverence," which features the leader in scintillating form on soprano, and "Juno Lucina," whose taut rhythms and fiery solos gel exhilaratingly. Postma's debut for Edition Records is another little gem in its increasingly impressive catalog.

Lafayette Gilchrist
Lafayette Music

Lafayette Gilchrist's first trio album in thirteen years is a double-disc behemoth that runs to two-and-a-half hours. To some, it may seem like overkill, but Gilchrist is one of the few pianists with the breadth of vocabulary and a rhythmic well deep enough to pull it off, and he does so magnificently. Rock-solid bassist Herman Burnie and the blisteringly good drummer Eric Kennedy have to be on their toes as Gilchrist leads a mazy dance.

An original pianist, Gilchrist's language draws from old piano styles, blues, bebop, free-jazz and go-go funk. It's a heady mix, but endlessly absorbing. Gilchrist's signature tune "Assume the Position" has never sounded more potent, or indeed pertinent, but there are numerous other high points. The thrilling "Bmore careful," the brilliant storm that is "On Your Belly Like A Snake" and the rhapsodic "Waiting Now (Sharon's Song)" all deliver knockout punches. There is another side to Gilchrist, however, and these two platters contain some delightful balladry to boot. One of the most impressive piano trio releases for some time.

Ron Miles
Rainbow Sign
Blue Note Records

After thirty years recording on a variety of labels, Denver cornetist Ron Miles signed to Blue Note Records;Rainbow Sign is his debut for the storied label. This is Miles' second quartet offering with Bill Frisell, Brian Blade, Thomas Morgan and Jason Moran following I Am A Man (Yellowbird, 2017), and broadly speaking it follows the same understated, though arresting furrow.

The sixteen-minute opener "Like Those Who Dream" sees the band at its most empathetic and intuitive, with solos and unison lines drifting in and out, but no less appealing is the gorgeous, jaunty melody of "Queen Of the South" or the gentle ballad "Rumours." The spirit of Thelonious Monk suggests itself on the title track, while the blues is a constant companion throughout. Elegant, emotive and uplifting.

Jeff Cosgrove, John Medeski, Jeff Lederer
History Gets Ahead Of The Story
Grizzley Music

A tribute to William Parker without a bass? Jeff Cosgrove, John Medeski and Jeff Lederer are nothing if not adventurous. Their tribute to Parker's music focuses on his post-2000 small ensemble output, particularly that of his quartet with Louis Barnes, Rob Brown and Hamid Drake. Shorter versions of Parker's sometimes epic forays accentuate the melodic beauty and infectious grooves that are as big a part of his make-up as his more freely improvised ventures.

The soulful "Cornmeal Dance," the bluesy "Gospel Flowers" and the quirky "Wood Flute Song" are especially fine, but in truth, every song here boasts a little individual and collective magic.

It's about Time
Intakt Records

The first studio album from Swiss jazz-rock luminaries OM in forty years shows that Christy Doran, Fredy Studer, Urs Leimgruber and Bobby Burri have lost neither the fire in their bellies nor their experimental edge. 21st century technology meets the spirit of free jazz but this anything but an uncontrolled blow-out. From barely perceptible stirrings to full-on skronk, and with many shadings of tone, volume and rhythmic compass in between, OM's is a music of contrast and extremes. Outstanding, Doran and Leimgruber's shred-fest on "Like A Lake," the collective storm of "Perpetual-Motion Food" and the bristling "Fragments," but there is great seduction too, in the more abstract musical sculptures.

Beyond Jazz/Fringes of...

John McLaughlin, Shankar Mahadevan, Zakir Hussain
Is That So?
Abstract Logix

Lina Andonovska
A Way A Lone A Last
Diatribe Records

Agile Experiments
Alive In The Empire
Dave de Rose Records

Signs of Life
Howlin' Werewolf Records

Daniel Herskedal
Call For Winter
Edition Records

Joost Lijbaart
Challenge Records

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