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Karl Ackermann’s Best Releases of 2019


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2019 was the year when one couldn't turn an ear without hearing a release that featured either Kris Davis or Matthew Shipp. Between the two pianist/composer/improvisers, listeners have been treated to more than a dozen recordings, each noteworthy. Then there is Satoko Fujii. On the heels of her 2018, twelve-album birthday celebration, the pianist issued another five in 2019. In 2019 jazz recognized the four-hundred-year anniversary of slavery in the US, documented in multiple albums from their descendants. And it was the year of a new British Invasion, this one led by the next generation of groundbreaking UK saxophonists: Binker Golding, Idris Rahman, Nubya Garcia and Shabaka Hutchings.

Top Albums (in no particular order)

Mark Lomax
400: An Afrikan Epic
CFG Multimedia

There is no hyperbole in the title 400: An Afrikan Epic; it is work of significant importance, a spiritual fact-finding mission that plays out as an impressive, multilayered historical soundtrack. As a percussionist, Lomax is striking, carrying out solos and all-percussion tracks in a style that is primal yet intricately sophisticated. His duo, trio and quartet are long-time associates—outstanding musicians, well-aligned with the leader. As a composer, Lomax incorporates all the key benchmarks of jazz, from West Afrikan roots, to gradations of bop and on to progressive jazz extensions.

Tyshawn Sorey / Marilyn Crispell
The Adornment of Time
Pi Recordings

Two of music's true geniuses, drummer-percussionist Tyshawn Sorey and pianist Marilyn Crispell, join forces on an extraordinary album. The Adornment of Time is a single-track project running almost sixty-five-minutes. The music was improvised and recorded live at the multi-purpose Greenwich Village club, The Kitchen. Outside their considerable composing and instrumental skills, Sorey and Crispell are known for their exceptional ability to listen and to empathize with colleagues. These personal traits make this album a benchmark for immediate creativity.

Kris Davis
Diatom Ribbons
Pyroclastic Records

For all of her extensive playing skills, experiments and classical training, Davis has kept an approach that need not explain itself. She simply infers melodies before finally revealing their full content and like Satoko Fujii she composes minimally, giving her colleagues the space to further shape ideas in their own voice. It's a risky process that involves trust and musical skills in equal measure. Diatom Ribbons is yet another example of how uniquely talented Davis is in her creative process and playing.

Rob Mazurek
Desert Encrypts Vol. 1
Astral Spirits

Desert Encrypts Vol. 1 is a two-part suite inspired by Mazurek's natural surroundings in Marfa, Texas, near the Mexican border. Known for its mysterious, shape-shifting "Marfa ghost lights," it seems a perfect location for an artist who has drawn much of his inspiration from the unknown.

Satoko Fujii / Ramon Lopez
Libra Records

Satoko Fujii's duo recordings are among her most interesting projects. Those one-on-one situations bring out creative energy in the improviser that becomes perpetual movement between musicians. Similarly, Fujii's work with artists with whom she is less familiar seems to spark the inventive challenge she thrives on.

Adam Berenson / Scott Barnum
Stringent and Sempiternal
Dream Play Records

Given the exploratory nature of Berenson's catalog, standards and covers are not expected, but there doesn't seem to be a genre or style in which the pianist is not at home. Stepping outside the musical laboratory, the duo take on the works of Bud Powell, Wayne Shorter, Thelonious Monk and more.

Paul Bley / Gary Peacock / Paul Motian
When Will The Blues Leave
ECM Records

It's difficult for piano trios to distinguish themselves in that most common of jazz formations, but When Will The Blues Leave could have been a defining moment for this unit. Their juxtaposition of lyricism and free improvisation within single pieces, and in real-time, is challenging listening, but this elite group of artists have left us with a scrapbook of stunning ideas.

Matthew Shipp Trio
ESP Disk

Signature comes roughly two years after Shipp moved on from his long, and multifaceted, relationship with Thirsty Ear Recordings. That move had triggered rumors that Shipp would stop recording, performing, or both and thankfully, none of the above were true. Shipp's career has played out in waves, from the David S. Ware era on and has hit new peaks without ever landing in the valley. Signature is one of his albums that attaches itself with greater adhesion on each listen.

Patrick Brennan / Abdul Moimême
Creative Sources Recordings

The seven spontaneous pieces on Terraphonia defy clarification, let alone categorization. Brennan's alto saxophone is enigmatic and abstract; Moimême's guitars—of his own design—are played together, with bow, mallet, or hand, and prepared with various objects. The interaction between musicians is not any easier to explain than the music itself. Moimême's guitars behave as completely foreign devices; the territory they occupy is no more familiar than the instruments.

Club d'Elf
Night Sparkles
Face Pelt Records

For the Boston, Massachusetts-based Club d'Elf, the boundaries are long gone; they may never have been there to start with. Almost twenty years ago, the group debuted with Live at The Lizard Lounge (Grapeshot Media, 2000), an amalgam of jazz, electronica, hip hop, and funk. The group (always a fluid entity) has included accordion, oud, didgeridoo, doumbek and qaraqab standing comfortably next to guitars, bass, keyboards, and horns. If it weren't obvious from the instrumentation, this is not a group to be categorized by genre. Two decades and a dozen albums later, Night Sparkles continues to provide listeners with inimitable musical adventures.

Horace Tapscott with the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra
Live at I.C.U.U.

Tapscott, who was born in Houston, Texas, relocated to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles at nine. It had a profound effect on his life and music as the early part of his career coincided with the 1965 Watts Rebellion which left dozens of African American residents dead at the hands of police and military. Hundreds of structures, residential and commercial, burned to the ground including many local jazz venues. Tapscott had founded the artist group Underground Musicians Association (UGMA) in 1963 and he took on the role of activist and mentor, bringing his "spiritual" jazz to community youth, and offering jazz as a creative outlet to that same community. It was from Tapscott's own neighborhood that members of the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra (PAPA) were often nurtured.

Eric Dolphy
Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Sessions
Resonance Records

This double album represents a transition period for Dolphy and even within the confines of Conversations where we hear Latin jazz, traditional and avant-garde in close proximity. But with so few years to record, Dolphy was always looking forward with one eye on the past.

David S. Ware Quartet
Théâtre Garonne, 2008
AUM Fidelity

Recorded when Ware's heath was at a crisis point, this temporary quartet formation is marked by guitarist Joe Morris replacing Matthew Shipp. The sound is very different as a result, but Ware—despite his illness—is as visceral as ever.

Lucy O'Day and The Simon Latarche Trio
Self Produced

Latarche is overdue for wider recognition and perhaps this collaboration with O'Day will lead to a breakthrough. Honeymoon is a true partnership between a highly engaging vocalist and a terrific pianist; the rhythm section, while reserved, is excellent throughout.

Portraits Jazz Project
Portraits Featuring Adalia Tara
Self Produced

Portraits Featuring Adalia Tara has plenty to offer for both traditionalists and fans of jazz-worthy pop songs. Tara—also a composer, pianist, and guitarist—has an impressive range and a fine voice for the bluesy interpretations of some of these old and new classics. Mills has plenty of opportunities to demonstrate his own technique and Rownd, Jenkins and Carson form a tight, supportive rhythm section striking the perfect balance.

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