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John Sharpe's Best Releases of 2015


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Here in no special order are ten new releases, reviewed in All About Jazz, which stood out among those I heard this year.

Mats Gustafsson
Hidros 6 Knockin'
(Not Two Records)

An avant-garde jazz composition based on the songs of '50s rocker Little Richard. Really? Yep, that's the premise behind Swedish reedman Mats Gustafsson's large scale work recorded at the Krakow Jazz Autumn in 2013. A significant part of the achievement is down to the amazing tour de force by Norwegian experimental vocalist Stine Janvind Motland who brings an affecting mix of vulnerability, sexuality and sheer prowess to the party. Gustafsson selected a line from each of 20 favorite Little Richard songs to serve as the basic text for Motland to embroider. Via a graphic score Gustafsson also ensures ample solo space for his illustrious cast, as well as composed sections peppered throughout the performance.

Universal Indians
(Clean Feed Records)

Throughout his career multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee has always appeared remarkably open to collaborations with musicians from different scenes. To this roster can be added Universal Indians: an Amsterdam-based collective comprising American saxophonist John Dikeman and the Norwegian rhythm pairing of bassist Jon Rune Strøm and drummer Tollef Østvang. Dikeman is inspired, but not constrained, by the fire music legacy of Albert Ayler, and this chimes well with McPhee, himself an avowed follower in his early years. Exciting interaction between the horns forms just one of the strong points of this meeting of minds.

Martin Küchen
Melted Snow
(NoBusiness Records)

Not Quite All Included or Some Included might be suitable names for the trio of Swedish saxophonist Martin Küchen, and Norwegian bassist Jon Rune Strøm and drummer Tollef Østvang. Reason being that the repertoire on Melted Snow partially replicates that on Satan in Plain Clothes (Clean Feed, 2015) by All Included. Unsurprisingly the seven cuts on this limited edition LP boast the same mixture of boisterous free jazz and touching minor key tunes, with if anything even looser arrangements. Typically Küchen's raw, emotion drenched tenor saxophone rails against roiling bass and drums in an outstanding recital.

Barry Guy
Five Fizzles for Samuel Beckett
(NoBusiness Records)

Not to be confused with Fizzles (Maya, 1993), which contains the first documented version of the titular work along with other pieces for solo bass, Five Fizzles for Samuel Beckett is a 14 minute limited edition EP which does what it says on the tin. Virtuoso British bassist Barry Guy has long drawn inspiration from other art forms, especially writings and visual works. Presenting the music in such bite size chunks encourages intense awareness without the risk of it ever becoming a daunting task. It's time well spent.

Matthew Shipp
The Conduct Of Jazz
(Thirsty Ear Records)

A glance at pianist Matthew Shipp's discography shows that small group work has long been a focus. Indeed in recent times one of the prime outlets for his artistry is his classic piano trio, which ranks among the pre-eminent outfits in modern jazz. The Conduct Of Jazz represents Shipp's twelfth release in the format. Although Newman Taylor Baker makes his debut on the drum stool alongside monster bassist Michael Bisio, the familiar strengths are still evident: near telepathic interplay; ability to turn on a dime; robustly independent thought; instrumental virtuosity; and a willingness to subsume ego for the communal benefit.

Decoy with Joe McPhee
Spontaneous Combustion

By way of follow up to Oto (Bo' Weavil, 2010), the celebrated first contact between Joe McPhee and British improvising trio Decoy numbering Alexander Hawkins on Hammond organ, bassist John Edwards and drummer Steve Noble, Spontaneous Combustion documents the second and third concerts by the band during a two night residency at Cafe Oto in October 2011. It's not too fanciful to call them a band. Even though Decoy has an autonomous existence, the empathy between the threesome and McPhee is nothing less than stunning.

Casa Futuro
Casa Futuro
(Clean Feed Records)

At the juncture of free jazz and free improv sits the eponymous debut of Casa Futuro. In a truly co-operative trio, saxophonist Pedro Sousa joins forces with bassist Johan Berthling and drummer Gabriel Ferrandini. Over three slow burning tracks they convey a fierce concentration on the pace, texture and overall shape of long form improvisation. Attentive listening leads to well judged variations in dynamics from near silence broken only by indeterminate sounds to wailing tumult.

Dave Burrell
Turning Point
(NoBusiness Records)

Although firmly associated with the avant-garde, pianist Dave Burrell often harkens back to pre-bop styles in his execution. On Turning Point he explicitly acknowledges such sources in his writing too. Perhaps that's appropriate in a sequence inspired by the American Civil War -what Burrell terms a war to end slavery. In spite of the weighty subject matter, the music sometimes sounds playful and even at times humorous. Burrell, together with accomplice trombonist Steve Swell, has fashioned an extraordinary presentation notable for its widescreen filmic sweep which manages to be at the same time controlled but also achingly exuberant.

Ingrid Laubrock
Roulette of the Cradle

The fact that Ingrid Laubrock's Anti-house is an established working band is borne out by the degree of trust the German saxophonist places in her world class cast of collaborators. But even though she doesn't put in an appearance until part way through the second track, her imprint is all over the outfit's third release, which builds confidently on the success of its predecessors. There is delight to be found in close attention to the detail and each encounter reveals more of the underpinning without completely explaining the magic.

William Hooker
Live At Vilnius Jazz Festival
(NoBusiness Records)

Veteran drummer William Hooker continues to expand his varied discography with the addition of Live At Vilnius Jazz Festival. It's a summit with a resourceful saxophonist -this time Liudas Mockunas, a co-founder of the label. On this occasion Hooker avoids the all out aural assault which has tested previous collaborators to the limits, settling instead for power exercised with restraint and precision. And the result is all the better for it. Even in the most extreme moments the two always seem to possess another gear should they need it. Both men are at the top of their game.

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