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Year in Review

Karl Ackermann's Best Creative Music of 2021


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2020 was a disaster and 2021 was less than a beacon of hope. COVID-19 is in the rear-view mirror but closer than it appears. The political clown cars are over capacity, still running on fossil fuel and spilling occupants into the drinking water. That said, jazz and creative music flourished in ways that could make us forget we were listening from crumbling infrastructures. Everywhere in 2021, we were met with prolific genius: multiple releases from Wadada Leo Smith, Satoko Fujii, Matthew Shipp, or a welcome voice from the past, like Billy Bang. From further outside, saxophonist Bo van de Graaf gave us a live concert of car horns, Sara Schoenbeck/Nels Cline, a bassoon/guitar "Lullaby," and tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, an imaginative work inspired by a failed George Washington Carver experiment. All are original, intriguing, and enjoyable. So, 2021 had its issues but finding good music was not one of them. The list below is not in order of preference.

Ches Smith / We All Break
Path of Seven Colors
Pyroclastic Records

For some time, drummer/composer Ches Smith kept his interest in the Voudou music of Haiti at bay. Recognizing himself as an outsider in that world, he researched, listened, studied, and after years brought a project to fruition. Smith's group We All Break released its self-titled, self-produced debut in 2017 and received less attention than deserved. Now on Kris Davis' Pyroclastic Records, the outstanding Path of Seven Colors should produce wide recognition. Smith's career has been dominated by sideman and co-leader projects. His work with Craig Taborn, Tim Berne's Snakeoil, Marc Ribot, and the Mary Halvorson Trio, has been widely praised. It is fortunate for creative music that his scarcer leader outings are such great achievements. The "break" in We All Break refers to the Haitian Creole word—kase—for a sudden alteration in the music introduced by the principal drummer. And just as Vodou drumming rituals call upon abstract ancestral spirits, Smith crafts his arrangements with an appropriate level of uncertainty. He breaks new ground with We All Break, and with no template for this hybrid model, he has created something new and extraordinary.

Ill Considered
Liminal Space
New Soil

The rare studio recording for the current trio formation of Ill Considered loses none of the visceral energy of their marathon live recordings. The trio incorporated live performance with studio modifications from the extensive roster of guests. The approach is frequently amorphous and could have been a jumble. Yet, there's nothing messy or distracting about the multiple layers of production and the free-form contributions.

Ill Considered increasingly becomes a shining hope for the future of jazz. Self-assured in their group agenda, the trio flawlessly navigates borderless territories with such ease that they inspire each other and the listener. They bring the genre to a new, younger, non-jazz audience that may stick around for their hypnotically unflustered grooves and primordial rhythms. Not yet riding the crest of London's contemporary jazz wave, Ill Considered has limitless potential.

Allen Lowe
A Love Supine: Ascension into the Maelstrom
ESP Disk

A Love Supine: Ascension into the Maelstrom is an ambitious double-disc collection recorded in four sessions in 2018. The eighteen tracks were all composed by Lowe. The sessions feature different lineups, with some overlap, and Lowe on alto saxophone in each setting. Lowe's historian alter-ego frequently crosses over to his eclectic music, and the spectre of Coltrane hangs over the pieces on A Love Supine, often in esoteric ways that are not at all obvious but are uniquely Lowe. His James Lamb-inspired ragtime "Blood of the Lamb/Opening Theme: Blue Dirge" celebrates the largely unsung contemporary of Scott Joplin and James Scott. Along with "Tiger Rage" the two pieces play like idiosyncrasies of a Bourbon Street parade.

Lowe has launched several projects far-reaching in scope but, with A Love Supine, he captures a broad chronicle of American pre-jazz and jazz through the richness of his own sound. The musicianship, especially that of pianist Lewis Porter, trombonist Brian Simontacchi, and guitarist Ray Suhy, is top-shelf. Much like his written word projects, Lowe displays sophistication, humor, and defiance.

Billy Bang
Lucky Man
BBE Records

When he performed in Germany, they called him the "black devil violinist," his frenetic playing wrapped in a gyrating, trance-like state. For Billy Bang, who believed he had schizophrenia, the epithet bore a resemblance to his inner turmoil. He fought in the infantry during the bloodiest period of the Vietnam War's TET Offensive. Back home, his expertise in weaponry led to a job buying guns for a black militant group. He wandered into a pawnshop's backroom on one such buying trip in Baltimore and found a twenty-five-dollar violin hanging from the wall. He brought it home and started over. There are twenty-two audio tracks on Lucky Man of which twelve are spoken narrations mostly alternating with musical tracks. The music is unlike anything else that Bang had recorded.

The spoken tracks are mesmerizing and seamlessly incorporated into the field recordings. Bang sometimes sounds like he has conquered his demons, but at other times, his pain is palpable. Bang talks about the trauma of coming home to a country jeering rather than cheering its vets. There's no bitterness in his voice, but there is profound sadness, regret, and a reluctant acceptance. The music conveys much the same context and emotion; Bang's trademark acerbic but animated style is peppered with the violinist's inner dialog. He says, "You can't hurt a guy that got no more feelings." Bang's final act may have been his best.

Matthew Shipp
Tao Forms

An intrinsic value in Matthew Shipp's music is his insight into the language of his chosen profession. The processes that have led to one hundred years of change in jazz are embedded in his compositions and improvisations. More than a dozen solo piano albums into his thirty-five-year recording career, Codebreaker, Shipp's latest such effort, furthers his exceptional amalgam of spontaneous improvisation and historical authenticity. More concise than many of the pianist's projects, the compact pieces serve to highlight the expressive content of several performances, intensified by Shipp's moderation.

The content on Codebreaker is more euphonious than the pianist's recent solo outings, but it is a relative correlation. The album is more melodic, but it is so through Shipp's lyrically oblique worldview. He lets listeners discern for themselves if there is a more resounding theme across the eleven compact tracks. Still, the transition from the tranquil opening title track to "Spiderweb" and then "Disc" depicts a loose trajectory. By the time we get to the second half with "Green Man," logic has developed. Shipp has cracked the combination, and we can hear the pieces falling together in the tumbler. When Codebreaker concludes with "The Tunnel," it is with an exhalation of relief.

Fred Lonberg-Holm, Abdul Moimême & Carlos Santos
Transition Zone
Creative Sources

Chicago-based cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm has long been in the vanguard of free improvisation. But along with free jazz, he has recorded in the rock and country genres, and composed concert works. He is joined on Transition Zone by two leaders of Lisbon's creative music scene. Dual-electric guitarist/composer Abdul Moimême and electronics artist/composer Carlos Santos bring their extraordinary abilities to create ethereal soundscapes to this impressive project. For moments at a time, Transition Zone glides dispassionately across an alien landscape only to attract a resistance that sets the trio to scraping and crunching their way through. It evokes nothing so much as harrowing proximity to the edge of an unfamiliar world. Yet, there is an inspiring beauty almost as intangible as the species generated by the instruments in this album.

Eberhard Weber
Once Upon A Time -Live in Avignon

Once Upon A Time-Live in Avignon is the fourth release of ECM-sourced material from the celebrated German bassist Eberhard Weber whose 2007 stroke left him unable to play. Résumé (2012) consisted of bass solos extracted and re-engineered from Weber's work with Jan Garbarek. Encore (2015) followed a similar formula with seventeen years of bass solos mixed and edited. Weber also contributed keyboards, and Dutch trumpeter Ack Van Rooyen added flugelhorn. Hommage à Eberhard Weber released later in 2015 was recorded during a live all-star tribute, with archival audio recordings of the bassist mixed in. Once Upon A Time-Live in Avignon is artistically the cleanest of these recordings, an empirical study of Weber alone.

Solo bass recordings are an acquired taste and struggle to be compelling even at their most imaginative. Weber's exceptional Pendulum, while largely praised, drew mixed reactions overall, with some finding the bassist's reticent nature and his repetitive self-accompaniment weighing the music down. Once Upon A Time-Live in Avignon should generate no such debate. Weber's compositions, exceptional playing, and unique voice make this an extraordinary album.

Satoko Fujii
Piano Music

The solo piano works of Satoko Fujii often summon an ethereal ensemble of sounds. Prepared, or in its natural state, her piano speaks as a proxy for the always searching composer/improviser. Fujii's recordings are an ongoing stream of themes based on the here and now for an artist who does not fit neatly into any category. The loss of close band members, her kanreki (sixtieth birthday celebration), the pandemic, and her personal emergence, are all refrains that inform her creative process. A half-dozen solo albums in, Piano Music is one of her more ambitious projects.

From her enormous orchestral projects to these intimate ventures, all of Fujii's work is defined by individualism. Piano Music is yet another improvisational opportunity with its quiet power and good-natured gaudiness. In parallel, the album is a defiant cuff at the significance of pandemic isolation and its effect on creativity. Fujii works in the contrasting aspects of her music in big tones, sound combinations, and slight passages.

Marc Johnson

The virtuoso bassist Marc Johnson has kept a relatively low profile as a leader. A graduate of the prestigious North Texas State University jazz program, Johnson made his mark as a member of Bill Evans' trio from 1978 until the pianist's final album the following year. His ECM debut came as a member of John Abercrombie's trio on Current Events (1986) with Peter Erskine. The same trio, plus Bill Frisell, under Johnson's name, released Bass Desires the same year on ECM. Overpass marks Johnson's return to Manfred Eicher's label after ten years and is his first solo album. The music of Marc Johnson, original and repurposed, mingles traditional jazz, vivid structures, and improvisation, and an intuitively unique style develops. It's quite a feat to generate so much appealing sound from a double bass, but Johnson is talented enough to make that kind of magic happen. Eliane Elias, a frequent Johnson collaborator, co-produced the album with the bassist.

Jeff Pearring/Pearring Sound
Socially Distanced Duos
Self Produced

Jeff Pearring's background in jazz, classical, reggae, and other genres has informed his creative process in ways that are not always apparent. That turns out to be a good thing as his ability to encapsulate influences without genuflecting is part of his music's appeal. The alto saxophonist, a Brooklyn-based Colorado native, is a Connie Crothers protégé with a similarly independent mindset. Billed as "Pearring Sound," the saxophonist surrounds himself with a rotation of players varying on three previous, self-produced albums, What Had Happened (2016), True Story (2018), and Nothing But Time (2019). Pearring's latest, Socially Distanced Duos, sets up a collection of diverse duo performances with (mostly) new colleagues. In documenting the creative barriers of the pandemic, Pearring paints a series of impressions reflecting a range from inconvenience to crisis. He spontaneously generates bombast-free ideas, while his partners instinctively move the stories through the leader's wide berth of concepts. Socially Distanced Duos is intriguing from beginning to end and highlights Pearring's artistic prowess to a greater extent than his previous releases.

East Axis
Cool With That
ESP Disk

Free improvisation has a special place in a polarized world. It accepts and rejects jazz culture in an ebb and flow of unprompted ideas. On the album Cool With That, we get the essence of the music's history from the inside, out. The quartet East Axis is new in name but the unit has been in place for several years and its members are well-known. Pianist Matthew Shipp, saxophonist Allen Lowe, bassist Kevin Ray and drummer Gerald Cleaver are at the top of the elite in creative music. East Axis is a formidable quartet in every way; they encompass a universe, or two, of experience and creativity. On most of Cool With That, they create massive but loosely constructed structures without obscuring the music. It is a worthy addition to each member's considerable catalog of acclaimed albums.

Michael Bisio / MMBC
MMBC Terma

Among the side effects of the 2020-2021 pandemic has been the rediscovery of misplaced resources. The trio MMBC dug up the fourteen-year-old recording MMBC Terma, a collection of nine group compositions and improvisations. MMBC is an acronym condensing the initials of the players. Tenor saxophonist (and psychoanalyst) Michael Monhart and drummer Ben Chadabe are lightly-recorded; acclaimed bassist-composer Michael Bisio rounds out the group. MMBC Terma has an energy that seems to pour out of every piece, increasing depth, and feeling.

The trio creates sounds of ethereal serenity and, alternately, colliding worlds. Monhart, Chadabe, and Bisio have plenty to say, and this album makes one wish they had created a larger body of work as a unit. Bisio has said that he hopes his music is a healing force; it is very much so on this album, which grows with repeated listening. The CD cover features the fascinating visual art of Dawn Bisio, Michael's wife.

Wadada Leo Smith
TUM Records

In a half-century of recording, he has never stopped exploring the parameters of the form and instrument. Listening to composer/trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith is demanding but rewarding. His inspirations are classical in the small 'c' sense: the AACM, Persian music, August Wilson, Stravinsky, spirituals, and so on. Before the masses woke, Smith's music had incorporated political, cultural, spiritual, and environmental awareness. The elder statesman of new music continues his prolific output with TUM Records box sets for the first half of 2021. His Sacred Ceremonies three-disc release features bassist Bill Laswell and the late drummer Milford Graves, in duo and trio combinations. Trumpet, also a three-CD set, is solo Smith. It was recorded at Saint Mary's Church in Pohja, Finland, in the summer of 2020; the acoustics adding further weight to Smith's opulent, dazzling tone. Much of the two-plus hours is somber but uplifting. Smith's compositions are sophisticated and expressive, his playing, clear as a bell. A bonus with the box set is the striking self-portrait cover art.

Roberto Miranda's Home Music Ensemble
Live at the Bing Theater; Los Angeles, 1985
Dark Tree Records

Roberto Miranda has appeared on almost one-hundred albums but has been lightly recorded as a leader, and inexplicably struggled to generate interest among labels. Dark Tree Records has released some great Horace Tapscott performances from the '70s and '80s. The label resurrected a Miranda-led session on Live at the Bing Theater; Los Angeles, 1985. Recorded at the USC campus auditorium, the sound is pristine, and the ambiance, eclectic and dynamic. Miranda has toured Europe, the Middle East, Australia, Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.A. and has been teaching at USC's Department of Jazz Studies for more than two decades. Live at the Bing Theater; Los Angeles, 1985 demonstrates his skills as a composer and player in some challenging settings. His music is worth seeking out, and fans of Tapscott's Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra will find this release very satisfying.

Johan Lindstrom Septett
On The Asylum
Moserobie Music

Multi-instrumentalist and composer Johan Lindstrom issued his 2018 septet debut Music For Empty Halls (Moserobie Music) to global accolades. The unique set was nominated for a Swedish Grammy, an award that Lindström had captured on four previous occasions. The debut was noted for its unhurried and democratic approach to creative ensemble music. On the Asylum, the second outing of the Johan Lindström Septett surpasses its predecessor as a stunning and eclectic project.

Lindström craftily weaves discord into the otherwise bucolic On the Asylum, many of the pieces transitioning without a break, creating a suite-like feeling. There is the gentle swing of "Edwards Chacone," Margareta Bengtson's celestial harp on "Music Orbit Box," and the stately orchestration of "Humming Ships," featuring one of two vocal appearances by Sofie Livebrandt. The collection closes with "Worms of the Underground," an exotic four-track pedal steel guitar concoction. On the Asylum is one of those rare albums which appeals at every point, beginning to end, and on repeated listening.

Dot Time Records

Five years passed between the debut release from PLS.trio and this follow-up. East River (Echo Chamber) was one of the best albums of 2015 and elevated the piano trio format in a way that had not been heard since the Esbjorn Svensson Trio first made their mark. The COVID-19 virus kept PLS.trio off the stage, and a series of business and life events kept them out of the recording studio for long enough to cause doubt that they would hold together. Finally, Italian pianist/composer Pier Luigi Salami and his American rhythm section, of bassist Martin Fowler and drummer Shawn Crowder return for their welcome sophomore outing, Cosmonauts.

The justified comparisons of PLS.trio to e.s.t. are felt on "Look Ahead," and "B.E.C"; reflective but with powerful, driving rhythms, the band's interactions are on a higher level. The album closes with an unusual interpretation of Puccini's "Nessun Dorma" from the opera Turandot. Italian vocalist Giorgia Renosto supplies a warm, rich, and low-key reading which conceals the aria's origin. Cosmonauts finds PLS.trio looking outward and experimenting but not so much as to obscure their unique talent for stunning spontaneity.

Becca Stevens and Elan Mehler
Pallet On Your Floor
Newvelle Records

It would be easy to describe Stevens and Mehler as an amicable duo given the familiarity and gracefulness that pervades Pallet on your Floor. But there is more here; Stevens lends an incandescent quality to old, over-recorded standards such as Gershwin's, "Our Love is Here to Stay," and the Van Heusen-Burke classic "But Beautiful." Stevens mines her deep, rich, stylistic references to put a unique spin on these pieces. In tandem with Mehler's noctilucent readings, it is all very fresh and engaging. The highlights of Pallet on your Floor are the blues numbers. Duke Ellington's "I Ain't Got Nothing but the Blues" and the debatably attributed W.C. Handy title track. Stevens and Mehler's deliveries are poetic and earnest; the closing piece, moving in its spirituality and poignancy. These two artists have an abundance of commendable projects in their portfolios, but this stripped-down collection is a most striking showcase of their talents.

Adam Berenson, Scott Barnum & Bob Moses
Dream Play Records

Keyboardist and composer Adam Berenson has at his disposal an arsenal of instruments, electronics, synthesizers, etc. But to hear him in the traditional acoustic piano trio setting is immensely enjoyable, while hardly "traditional." On the double-disc Assemblages, Berenson puts aside his plugged-in instruments in favor of the piano and colleagues Scott Barnum on double-bass and Bob Moses on percussion. Assemblages is unconventional, even in its quietest moments. It takes rare agility to efficiently move in and out of all these musical worlds without leaving a telltale footprint between. Berenson composed fourteen of the twenty tracks, the remainder being group efforts. The pianist's work neither romanticizes nor conveys detachment. Barnum and Moses are a great rhythm section contributing complex articulation or laying low when warranted. Assemblages is sophisticated and warm and rewards repeated listening.

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