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Year in Review

Mark Sullivan's Favorite Recordings of 2021

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2021 may have been a year best forgotten in many ways, as the pandemic continued to make "normal life" look like a distant memory. There was a brief bright spot after the introduction of the vaccines, only to be crushed by the emergence of the Delta variant, then the Omicron. Yet somehow there was plenty of glorious music of all kinds. Here are my favorites (including a few exceptional reissues) with too many excellent releases to choose from. The list is in chronological order and is not ranked.

Alex Conde
Descarga For Bud
Sedajazz Records

A rare focus on bebop legend Bud Powell's compositions, often overshadowed by his influence as a pianist. Masterfully interpreted by pianist Alex Conde, with a unique blend of flamenco and bop.

Quartet Diminished
Station Three
Hermes Records

The third album from the Iranian band established in 2013 by guitarist Ehsan Sadigh. Stylistically diverse, the music draws freely from contemporary jazz, art rock and avant-garde music.

J. Peter Schwalm & Markus Reuter
Aufbruch
Rare Noise Records

A remarkable instance of two musicians merging into a single collective voice. Even though Reuter provides a great deal of the sonic foundation, Schwalm's contributions place his distinctive fingerprint on the final result. It is that rare collaboration that neither contributor could have created on their own.

Stephan Thelen
Fractal Guitar 2
MoonJune Records

Once again, Thelen and his collaborators have crafted a banquet of odd-meter grooves (which always feel completely natural) and guitars, guitars, guitars! Enthusiastically recommended to fans of the first installment.

Andrew Green
Dime Dancing: The Music Of Steely Dan
Shifting Paradigm Records

Green's ambitious, adventurous arrangements are a revelation. After the initial shock of hearing arrangements so different from the original recordings, the listener is presented with additional meanings and emotional depth previously only implied in these classic songs.

Ches Smith
Path of Seven Colors
Pyroclastic Records

Path of Seven Colors is a rare example of successful cultural fusion. Jazz composition and improvisation and Haitian Vodou music both retain their identities, while simultaneously enriching each other and forming a harmonious whole.

PAKT
PAKT
MoonJune Records

A fascinating document of the debut performance by a dynamic improvisational ensemble: guitarists Alex Skolnick & Tim Motzer, fretless bassist Percy Jones and drummer Kenny Grohowski.

Gregg Belisle-Chi
Koi: Performing the music of Tim Berne
Screwgun Records

Koi makes a strong case for saxophonist Tim Berne as composer, stripped of both his playing and interaction with band mates. It is also an acoustic guitar album like no other, combining adventurous harmonies and rhythms into a lyrical whole; the closest comparison would probably be Ralph Towner's solo works.

Craig Taborn
60 x Sixty
Pyroclastic Records

Keyboardist Craig Taborn offered an inventive streaming-only project : 60 minute-long keyboard pieces. Each visit to https://60xsixty.com/ produces a different random track order.

Rachika Nayar
Our Hands Against The Dusk
NNA Tapes

Brooklyn-based ambient/electronic composer Rachika Nayar bases her compositions upon her guitar playing, in this case loops that are electronically processed, often beyond recognition. Occasionally the original basic guitar sounds poke through.

Andrew Cyrille
The News
ECM Records

Legendary drummer Andrew Cyrille leads the current version of his quartet, with guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist David Virelles and double bassist Ben Street. Music that is often rubato, frequently lyrical, sometimes abstract and mysterious.

Ghost Rhythms
Spectral Music
Cuneiform Records

As always, this music is a winning and eclectic blend of rock, classical, and folk music. Forced to employ more overdubbing than usual due to the pandemic, it nonetheless retains the energy of an ensemble accustomed to playing together live.

Mats Eilertsen
Hymn For Hope
Hemli

A beautiful and mysterious Norwegian jazz album. Eilertsen took the cover photo, an enigmatic black and white image of two people sharing a public space, but facing away from each other: together, yet apart. A fitting visual metaphor for his compositions and the empathetic playing of his band mates.

The reissues

Lee Morgan
The Complete Live at the Lighthouse
Blue Note Records

Trumpeter Lee Morgan's 1970 stand at The Lighthouse has already been documented twice before. But this complete edition is still a revelation, consistent in its energy and creativity. Giants really did walk the Earth.

Art Blakey
First Flight to Tokyo: The Lost 1961 Recordings
Blue Note Records

There has never been a hard bop band better than the 1961 Jazz Messengers, and here is the proof.

Oscar Peterson
A Time for Love: The Oscar Peterson Quartet
Mack Avenue Records

A magical 1987 performance in Helsinki. The whole quartet is on fire, especially Peterson and guitarist Joe Pass.

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