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Year in Review

John Sharpe's Best Releases Of 2019


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There's sometimes a backlash against picking the year's best albums. Understandably so when it entails pitting one honest artistic endeavour against another. Best to view the selections as a chance to pick up on something that you might otherwise have missed. As a listener I always look forward to the annual year end lists for precisely that reason. If you share the same taste (that's the key bit) then you might well discover some unforeseen gems. In that spirit, if you like some of the same things as me, then these ten new issues which stood out among the 200 or so discs that I heard this year, could be for you!

DKV Trio
The Fire Each Time
Not Two

The resilient spirit of author James Baldwin pervades the DKV Trio with Joe McPhee's incendiary six-CD box set. All the virtues of the DKV Trio stand present and correct: quintessential free grooves; hard driving cadences, extemporized vamps; and freewheeling improvising. To that you can add the heady and infectious pleasure of a second horn, either doubling up on the riffs or braiding contrapuntal lines. McPhee also brings more overt lyricism, as well as to his own predilection for juxtaposing melody and mayhem in close proximity. Any one of these discs would be a dynamite release in its own right. Taken as a box set, the cumulative effect is overwhelming. If six discs is too much then McPhee's A Night In Alchemia (NotTwo, 2019), with bassist John Edwards and drummer Klaus Kugel is also outstanding.

Dave Rempis

Chicago-based saxophonist Dave Rempis' openness to collaboration yields new units at an astounding rate. With guitarist Tashi Dorji and drummer Tyler Damon under the banner Kuzu, he unveils a distinctive slant on the power trio. While the amalgam of power and purpose will blow away any cobwebs, perhaps more surprisingly it will also stimulate and engage in equal measure. It was a toss up whether to include this or Rempis' Strandwal (Aerophonic, 2019), a more classic free jazz cooperative with trumpeter Nate Wooley, bassist Pascal Niggenkemper and drummer Chris Corsano.

Kris Davis
Diatom Ribbons

Canadian pianist Kris Davis refuses to recognize boundaries, so she has found a way to incorporate the diverse backgrounds an ever-expanding list of associates on Diatom Ribbons, the third release on her own Pyroclastic imprint, without diluting her exploratory spirit. It manages to be simultaneously more traditional and more radical than both Duopoly (Pyroclastic, 2016) and Octopus (Pyroclastic, 2017). The former derives from the funk finesse of drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, while the latter is a result of the electronics of Val Jeanty on turntables. Although a startling departure from previous work on first listen, repeated spins bring out some continuities: Davis' minimalist tendencies, piano preparations, and key inspirations, not least Cecil Taylor.

Sylvie Courvoisier – Mark Feldman Quartet
Time Gone Out

Brooklyn-based Swiss-born pianist Sylvie Courvoisier can make a strong claim to be the complete creative musician. Time Gone Out constitutes the sixth release by one of her most enduring partnerships with violinist Mark Feldman. Although the instrumentation suggests a chamber duet, the reality goes far beyond and defies easy categorization in a mix of joint creations and charts. This is one of the settings where Courvoisier makes the most extensive use of piano preparations. She mingles the resultant resonant rattles and spectral shimmering from the instrument's interior with the conventional keyboard sonorities in countless unexpected combinations.

James Brandon Lewis
An UnRuly Manifesto
Relative Pitch

This feels like the album tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis has been working towards since his relocation to New York in 2012. His quintet's standout set at the 2019 Vision Festival was based around this program, no surprise given that this is such a formidable disc. It's always refreshing to find a young artist who professes keen links back to the tradition, but is determinedly taking it to new places. With his blend of adventurous funk, electric free jazz, and indomitable spirit, Lewis seems set fair for the future.

Stephen Gauci
Studio Sessions Volume 1

Tenor saxophonist Stephen Gauci gets his own label off to a flying start with the release of this tremendous duet with storied pianist Cooper-Moore. Unlike previous reedmen Cooper-Moore has partnered, David S. Ware and Assif Tsahar come to mind, Gauci carves a rather more abstract path through the post-Ayler saxophone continuum. Both are deeply idiosyncratic players who reach an accommodation in which their two separate parts combine to create a breathtakingly astringent whole. Gauci has maintained the excellence of issues from his label, and his Quartet's Live At The Bushwick Series also merits serious attention.

Jones Jones
A Jones In Time Saves Nine

Over a decade in existence and the free jazz trio Jones Jones has just dropped its third album. That's not exactly prolific, but the wait has been worth it with A Jones In Nine Saves Time ranking as their finest work so far in terms of emotional intensity and focus. Each of the mature talents involved boasts an impressive history but as noteworthy as their illustrious track records is the fact that they still nurture an audacious streak. All the nous gained from their various groundbreaking escapades finds its expression in their work together. Vladimir Tarasov's role is particularly important. He does just what's needed without a desire to grandstand. His taut percussive patterns add to the richness but not the density, sustaining a transparent and open vibe which allows Mark Dresser and Larry Ochs to shine.

Matthew Shipp

Since his sojourn with the great David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp has emerged as one of the pre-eminent pianists of his generation. On the third release under his name for the revitalized ESP imprint, Shipp reconvenes his stellar trio with bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker. Like Shipp, the trio's approach is both unique and firmly grounded within the piano trio tradition. But there's a different feel to this outing, almost as if Shipp is making a conscious effort to sidestep accustomed tropes. The final "This Matrix" could act as a summation of the threesome's desirable attributes: crisp, emphatic and animated, but always avoiding the obvious.

Evan Parker
Clean Feed

Veteran reedman Evan Parker links up with three younger Danes who go under the banner Kinetics on Chiasm. While originally a vehicle for the exploration of pianist Jacob Anderskov's compositions, since its debut back in 2015 the band has developed into a free jazz outfit of the first order. The addition of Parker to the amen players does nothing to upset a balance in which there's something of interest happening wherever you listen on the four collectively birthed tracks. The empathy is clear from the start of the high speed exchange. There's an organic quality to the interaction, manifest in how the spotlight constantly shifts, but the unit's strong suit remains the thickened staccato interplay that recurs throughout the program.

Rodrigo Amado / Chris Corsano
No Place To Fall
Astral Spirits

Portuguese saxophonist Rodrigo Amado shows himself more than capable of holding center stage, alongside drummer Chris Corsano. Across five off-the-wall conceptions, the source of their success lies in the pacing, even if the final destination is often a glorious full spate explosion. But whatever the metaphysical weather, they clear out the ears in a varied yet gripping style, all the while signaling Amado as a major voice.

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