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Karl Ackermann’s Best Releases of 2020


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2020 abridged: A staggering loss of lives and livelihoods. We had worldwide social unrest, wildfires, locust swarms of Biblical proportions, killer hornets, killer drones, kids in cages; an impeachment, an election, an attempted insurrection. Oh, and Poland accidentally invaded the Czech Republic. It was not exactly the Gilded Age. Yet, amid doom-scrolling, the creative music community did its best to adjust to the chaos, uncertainty, and isolation and produced more excellent recordings than in any year in recent memory. Music can't transform society, but even in times of fatalism, it can—and did—move us. The list below is not in order of preference.

Nate Wooley—Seven Story MountainNate Wooley
Seven Story Mountain
Pyroclastic Records

A masterwork of expressionist passion and discord, taking the Seven Storey Mountain series to a new level. The final ten minutes spirituality collide with the defiant poetry of Peggy Seeger's "Reclaim the Night." VI is a potion concocted with equal parts of anger and euphoria. It is commanding, distressing, but ultimately assenting, and the most potent work of Nate Wooley's career.

Matthew Shipp Trio—The UnidentifiableMathew Shipp Trio
The Unidentifiable
ESP Disk

Shipp is consistently brimming with new ideas, and even where the style is familiar, the music is inclined toward Shipp's singular eclecticism. The enterprising improviser discards none of the heritage or theories he's absorbed but leans towards dissonant elucidations and wide-ranging expansions. The interactions with bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker are as good as it gets in piano trios.

Rob Mazurek
Exploding Star Orchestra: Dimensional Stardust"
International Anthem/Nonesuch

Composer, multi-instrumentalist, and visual artist Rob Mazurek has made his Exploding Star Orchestra the centerpiece of his larger groups. In this formation, he finds ample room to channel his disparate influences such as Sun Ra and Bill Dixon, and the distinctions he has incorporated as a global citizen. On Dimensional Stardust, Mazurek and a dozen collaborators present an energetic, always changeable, genre-less mélange of styles held together by imagination and daring.

Bruno Parrinha—A Silent Play In The Shadow of PowerBruno Parinha
A Silent Play In The Shadow Of Power
Creative Sources Recordings

This improvised work is impressive in its scope. The trio interlaces aural lines that sound unexpectedly natural. Very much a collective work, the music strikes a balance between unassuming and dramatic. Darkly textured, Santos, Moimême, and Parrinha create an extraordinary soundscape across the strange and familiar terrain. There is no sense of finality to A Silent Play in the Shadow of Power, but rather an undeniable and eccentric beauty that invites the listener to take another look.

AVA Trio—Digging The SandAVA Trio
Digging The Sand
Marocco Music

The Mediterranean region is steeped in an array of ethnic sounds. The music on Digging the Sand is appropriately full of dichotomies; it is exotic even while being grounded in fundamentals of Western and non-Western music. It is immersed in dreams, mystery, and melancholy but with intense moments that suggest whirling dervishes. Giuseppe Doronzo, Esat Ekincioğlu, and Pino Basile are erudite and virtuosic guides, navigating through these rich and diverse sonic surroundings.

Arun Ortiz With Andrew Cyrille and Mauricio Herrera
Inside Rhythmic Falls
Intakt Records

Across his catalog, Ortiz does not replicate his music, nor is his approach linear. What makes Inside Rhythmic Falls different from previous Ortiz trios is the unique texture created by the piano and two percussionists—only Cyrille on the drum kit. The unusual sense of shifting movements is liberating and fascinating; the music exceedingly listenable and inventive. Ortiz is an exceptional composer with a special talent for surrounding himself with gifted and empathetic colleagues.

Maria Schneider Orchestra—Data LordsMaria Schneider Orchestra
Data Lords
Artist Share

The pastoral soundscapes associated with the music of Grammy-winning composer/bandleader Maria Schneider belie her activist alter-ego. She ventures onto unfamiliar terrain, coalescing her passions on this masterwork double album.

Ayman Fanous/Frances-Marie Uitti— NegoumAyman Fanous/Frances-Marie Uitti
Mode Records

Fanous writes in his liner notes that he and Uitti met for the first time—in concert—in 2011. The pair improvised for just a few minutes, met in the studio the following day, and produced this outstanding music. It isn't jazz or any other genre, but there are principles of many musical traditions within. Negoum is a fascinating album from two master composer-musicians.

Adam Berenson—Every Beginning Is A SequelAdam Berenson
Every Beginning Is A Sequel
Dream Play Records

A document of self-discovery, plangent, diffusive, or rhapsodic. This collection is the confluence of Berenson's influences—pieces deeply informed but not overtly predisposed by his mentoring from Paul Bley or his penchant for the works of Frank Zappa, Beethoven and John Lennon. This immense collection is richly inventive, moving effortlessly from one probing piece to the next, dynamic and alive where electronic/experimental music often falls short.

The Ogun Meji Duo featuring Dr. Mark Lomax, II and Edwin Bayard
CFG Multimedia

#BLACK LIVES MATTER was recorded in 2014 to memorialize the hundreds of black, unarmed Americans who lost their lives to a lingering, grotesque systemic racism. The album makes a powerful statement that could have been a response to Emmett Till in 1955 or George Floyd in 2020.

Horace Tapscott with the Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra—Ancestral Echoes: The Covina Sessions, 1976Horace Tapscott with the Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra
Ancestral Echoes: The Covina Sessions, 1976
Dark Tree Records

Tapscott's music, particularly with the Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra, is traditional in a way we rarely think of as tradition. The pianist/composer created and fostered multiple generations of Watts musicians through the nurturing of a sweeping philosophy of autonomous and organic creation with origins in Africa and South-Central LA. The reality Tapscott presents on Ancestral Echoes, plays out at the crossroad of music and values.

Roberto Magris—Suite!Roberto Magris
JMood* Records

In conveying his ambitious message of hope through this collection, Magris is unassuming. He says: "I have invented nothing. I just added something personal to what I learned from the masters." With the support of his top-notch band, he adds a level of energy, emotion, and musicality that convey his vision without preaching.

Patrick Brennen/Maria Do Mar/ Ernesto Rodrigues/Miguel Mira/ Hernani Faustino/Abdul Moime—The Sudden Bird Of WaitingPatrick Brennen/Maria Do Mar/Ernesto Rodrigues/Miguel Mira/Hernani Faustino/Abdul Moimeme
The Sudden Bird Of Waiting
Creative Sources

There is a lot of complicated unpacking to do here, but much of The Sudden Bird of Waiting has an inexplicable warmth even in its overt abstraction. Like Brennen and Moimême's previous work, much of the interest is generated by the sextet giving alternate voices to their instruments. Moimême often shape-shifts in his adherence between strings and saxophone when he isn't emitting hybrid sounds. It makes tracking his influence challenging, but that is by design. This is daring, experimental music, spontaneous and cerebral.

Okun Quartet: Mat Walerian/ Matthew Shipp/William Parker/Hamid Drake—every Dog Has His Day But It Doesn't Matter Because Fat Cat Is Getting FatterOkuden Quartet: Mat Walerian/ Matthew Shipp/ William Parker/ Hamid Drake
Every Dog Has His Day But it Doesn't Matter Because Fat Cat Is Getting Fatter
ESP Disk

This is Walerian's fourth album as a leader on ESP-Disk; each has included some configuration of these same artists. Each of his albums has been critically acclaimed, and Walerian's music is more intriguing with each successive release. Every Dog Has Its Day... brings together some of the best improvisers in music today; it is Walerian's best work to date.

Rudy Royston—PaNOpticRudy Royston
Greenleaf Music

The album is divided into three sections. The first six tracks were inspired by diverse artists from The Beatles to the swing era composer/violinist Victor Young, and the second grouping are tributes extended to Elvin Jones, Bill Frisell, Jack DeJohnette and Max Roach. The last two sections are influenced by sacred music and a selection of poems and music. PaNOptic is imaginative and engaging, and Roystan reveals an extraordinary ability to transpose jazz idioms to the solo drum kit evocatively.

Shabaka And The Ancestors—We Are Sent Here By HistoryShabaka And the Ancestors
We Are Sent Here By History
Impulse! Records

An aqueous flow of strong emotion and spirituality. In updating the African griot's traditional role, Shabaka Hutchings takes a mystical and cautionary pilgrimage through failing society. The subject matter is weighty, but the music itself is uplifting when removed from the context. Hutchings' playing has been compared to several sax greats from the latter half of the twentieth century. The associations are fitting, but more important, Hutchings has a compelling story to tell.

Bob Gluck—Early Morning StarBob Gluck
Early Morning Star
FMR Records

However spiritually or politically disposed his work is, Gluck is deeply committed to the rudimentary systems of jazz music, its fundamentals, and its past. This underrecognized virtuoso, along with Andrea Wolper, Kinan Azmeh, Ken Filiano, and Tani Tabbal bring these elements together superbly.

Daniel Carter/Matthew Shipp/William Parker/Gerald Cleaver—Welcome Adventure! Volume 1Dainel Carter/Matthew Shipp/William Parker/ Gerald Cleaver
Welcome Adventure Volume 1
577 Records

By turns, the music is triumphant, muted, intelligent; the quartet, with all their connectivity history, is empathetic, without formulas. Shipp, Parker, and Carter come to the project with a wealth of harmonic skills generously shared and exchanged. Cleaver, in a class with the best avant-garde drummers, contributes in ways that can't be overstated. He doesn't just move the music and hold it together; he generates and creates spontaneously.

A Bu/Dai Liang—Live At Beijing Poly TheaterA Bu/Dai Liang
Live At Beijing Poly Theater
Self Produced

Liang (aka A Bu) has said that one of his goals is "to experiment with the free form of improvisation and to search for a new conception of how a solo piano concert could be." Few artists could surpass his ability to realize that mission. But for all the impressive training he has amassed, he is not an academic ideologue; his technical expertise only heightens his music's warmth. It is not an overstatement to say that A Bu/Dai Liang, as an instrumentalist and composer, is the best of his generation.



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