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Year in Review

John Sharpe's Best Releases of 2020


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With so few performance opportunities since March, and musicians in continuing limbo, the continued stream of new releases has been a surprise, but a welcome one. For me, and many others, music has been a source of solace in an otherwise dreadful year. That makes it all the more invidious to pick and choose between honest artistic endeavours. As always it's better to view the selections as a chance to pick up on something that you might otherwise have missed. As a fan 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 delights. So, if you like some of the same things as me, then these ten new issues and one unearthed gem which gave me the most enjoyment among the 200 or so discs that I heard this year, could be for you!

Angelica Sanchez / Marilyn Crispell
How To Turn The Moon

While piano duets have a checkered history, the wide open sound and clear separation on this recording ensures that there is no hint of either redundancy or murkiness. Instead the session presents a fertile meeting of two personalities who just happen to share the same instrumental outlet. Sanchez may be more direct in terms of lyricism and rhythmic impulse, while Crispell perhaps works with fuller voicings and more readily at the extreme ends of the keyboard, but both are totally empathetic and at the top of their game here. Whatever gambit they pursue, the outcome supplies the intense pleasure of eavesdropping on two kindred spirits communing in a richly transporting narrative.

Mary Halvorson
Artlessly Falling
Firehouse 12

Not content with having scaled the heights of the guitar pantheon, with the second release from Code Girl, Mary Halvorson also cements her place in a unique genre of her own design. As befits someone who has taken to heart Anthony Braxton's dictum to find her own musical voice, she presents something which is part art song, part indie rock, part mainstream jazz and part free form, but all Halvorson. None of this would be possible without the high caliber crew, supplemented by the eye-catching addition of the legendary British singer Robert Wyatt on three tracks.

Evan Parker / Barry Guy / Paul Lytton
Concert In Vilnius
No Business Records

At this stage of an existence spanning some 38 years and counting, the superlative British trio of saxophonist Evan Parker, bassist Barry Guy and drummer Paul Lytton plays only a few concerts each year. When they do, the results tend to the spectacular. As ever, the dizzying unbridled interchange when all three push the foot to the floor can be exhilarating, sparking a visceral thrill. But spacious interludes, either alone or in varying permutations, intrude often on this particular occasion, offering showcases for the extraordinary skills of the three principals and allowing more direct appreciation of the emotional ambivalence which underpins their edgy rhetoric.

Anna Webber
Out Of Your Head

Canadian saxophonist Anna Webber's quartet provides a dazzling entry in Out Of Your Head Records digital Untamed series. Webber calls the band Rectangles after a composition sparked by a sequence of 10-second videos on a YouTube test channel. If that premise sounds unpromising, the execution is anything but. Straight from Webber's unaccompanied gitgo, where she calmly reiterates and elaborates a simple phrase, before zigzagging between the registers in increasingly animated style, it's clear that with sufficient imagination the potential for individual expression within the constraints of the piece is boundless. It's minimalism on steroids. It was a toss up between this and Both Are True (Greenleaf, 2020), by the stunningly innovative Big Band which she jointly helms with fellow countrywoman and reed player Angela Wilson.

Anna Hogberg Attack

It's a time-honored trope to start an album with one of its strongest tracks. But it must have been a difficult choice for Swedish band leader and saxophonist Anna Hogberg when programming her group Attack's second release. That she chose "Pappa Kom Hem," which opens with a sustained stentorian bellow from tenor saxophonist Elin Forkelid leading to a cataclysmic free for all, announces that this is an uncompromising outfit. But the way the cut ends with the emergence of a folk-inflected anthem also carries a message, indicating that nonetheless there is still a place for well-crafted arrangements amid the fierce blowing.

Steve Swell
The Center Will Hold
Not Two Records

Unusual instrumentation inspires NYC-based trombonist Steve Swell to ever greater heights. Pride of place goes to veteran drummer Andrew Cyrille, who certainly deserves the extra billing he receives on the cover. Beside him are a mixture of long time colleagues, more recent collaborators, and newcomer chromatic harmonica-player Ariel Bart, a 22 year old from Israel, on one of her first recordings, who adds a startling new shade to Swell's palette. Together they produce a well-rounded program chock-full of tremendous playing which ranks alongside Swell's finest releases.

Ingrid Laubrock / Kris Davis
Blood Moon

Saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and Canadian pianist Kris Davis recognized each other as soul mates early on after the German's move to New York City and have remained close collaborators ever since. They've honed their shared sensibilities in Laubrock's Anti-house, Davis' Capricorn Climber and co-operatives such as Paradoxical Frog and LARK. And it's that sense of being entirely on each other's wavelength as they weave a mysterious web between composition and improvisation which makes this date such a winner. Predetermined unisons spring from seemingly unfettered interaction in such a way as to keep the listener guessing, both as to what's notated and what's on-the-fly, and indeed what might be coming next.

Alexander Hawkins / Tomeka Reid
Shards And Constellations

By placing two works from the AACM canon amidst eight spontaneous creations, Hawkins and Reid fashion a near perfect balance between form and abstraction. Between repeated passes at the gorgeously questioning refrain of Muhal Richard Abrams' "Peace On You," singing cello and rhapsodic piano swell in a warm embrace, the bursts of drama darkening as the piece progresses towards a soaring conclusion, while Reid's cello carries the aching elegiac line of Leroy Jenkins' "Albert Ayler (His Life Was Too Short)." Having explored romanticism, the rest of the program gives more emphasis to the spikier side of the duet, although it's not just that as melodic ideas pepper the fragmented rhythmic discourse.

Satoko Fujii / Natsuki Tamura
Not Two

Prolific Japanese husband and wife pairing trumpeter Natsuki Tamura and pianist Satoko Fujii draw deeply from a seeming perpetual wellspring of inspiration. The bare bones instrumentation promotes full recognition of their virtues: inventive composerly guile; prodigious improvising prowess; a taut tradeoff between melody and mayhem; and individual excursions which confirm the parameters of the charts as stimulating rather than limiting factors. It's almost as if they decided to use this album to examine staccato structures and space. Most pieces take ABA form, with themes bookending solos, but they inject a staggering variety into that format.

Matthew Shipp / Nate Wooley
What If?
Rogue Art

While Shipp's place as one of the pre-eminent piano stylists in contemporary jazz is assured, Wooley is as much a key to the success of this date as the pianist, as he delivers a masterclass in adventurous trumpet. It's pitched towards the jazzier end of the spectrum Wooley inhabits, not quite as in the tradition as his work with his own Quintet, but even so a far cry from his more experimental solo and group situations. Part of the attraction of the album is how different it is to much of both men's previous output. A delicious feeling of unexpected maneuvers pervades the disc. Even after multiple listens, they do what all the best music does: consistently astonish. Among a plethora of other discs, Shipp's outing with John Butcher and Thomas Lehn, The Clawed Stone (Rogue Art, 2020), also stands out.

Borah Bergman / Wilber Morris / Sunny Murray

For free jazz aficionados, it is much like excavating a hitherto unknown archaeological treasure. For the ordinary listener, dulled by all the Monk retreads, there has been little to prepare him/her for this dramatic reinvention. Recorded in 1996, it's taken a while to surface. Bergman, who died in 2012, was an astoundingly gifted pianist, who through intense practice had become near ambidextrous to the extent that he could improvise free counterpoint with either hand at unconscionable speed. So much so that it often sounds as if there are two accomplished pianists on the date. But he also had enough ideas to mean that technical fluency was never just an end in itself.

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