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Year in Review

Mark Sullivan's Best Releases of 2020

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Despite the circumstances, this was a high volume year for album releases, rich in both quantity and quality. Mine is not a ranked listing, but more or less in reverse chronological order. Since I wrote fewer album reviews than average, for the first time I have included several releases that I did not review myself.

Nels Cline
Share The Wealth
Blue Note Records

The expanded Nels Cline Singers: now a sextet with the addition of saxophonist Skerik, keyboardist Brian Marsella and percussionist Cyro Baptista. Rich and diverse, featuring both Cline originals & collective improvisations.

Stephan Thelen
World Dialogue
Rare Noise Records

Sonar guitarist Stephan Thelen's stunning debut as a string quartet composer. Brilliant performances by the Kronos Quartet and the Al Pari Quartet.

Jon Hassell
Seeing Through Sound: Pentimento Volume Two
Ndeya

Visionary trumpeter-composer Jon Hassell's latest gift from his late career: atmospheric soundscapes with equal parts stasis and motion.

Karuna
Imaginary Archipelago
Meta Records

The magical Karuna Trio: percussionists Adam Rudolph & Hamid Drake, plus saxophonist/multi-instrumentalist Ralph Miles Jones. Spontaneous compositions built on a deep foundation of shared experience: a potent blend of acoustic instruments with electronic processing, at once ancient and modern.

Stick Men
Panamerica: Live In Latin America
MoonJune Records

A splendid box set with guest David Cross: especially rich in improvisation & soundscapes.


Kurt Rosenwinkel
Angels Around
Heartcore Records

Jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel's Trio with bassist Dario Deidda and drummer Gregory Hutchinson: easy virtuosity on mostly modern jazz standards.

Markus Reuter
Shapeshifters
MoonJune Records

Touch guitarist Markus Reuter playing in pure improvisational mode, as he joined guitarist Tim Motzer (who also painted the cover art) and drummer Kenny Grohowski to produce a series of "instant compositions." The title refers to the ShapeShifter Lab where the performance took place before a live audience; but it also reflects the quicksilver musical interaction in the trio.

Dwiki Dharmawan
Hari Ketiga
MoonJune Records

A remarkable, unclassifiable collection of music: calling it "An Improvopera In Nine Acts'' only hints at its range. The leader's keyboards were joined by touch guitarist/soundscaper Markus Reuter, drummer Asaf Sirkis, and Italian singer Boris Savoldelli. The wide-ranging experimentation of the vocals are a crucial part of an album which sounds like no other.

Keith Jarrett
Budapest Concert
ECM Records

The second complete concert released from Jarrett's 2016 European tour, this is a stunning example of his later solo piano improvisational style, which favored a suite-like structure made up of a series of brief improvisations (as opposed to the continuous impressionistic arcs of the early concerts). The timing of the release gained increased poignancy because of Jarrett's announcement of his retirement from public performance due to a series of strokes. While this was not his last public performance—nor is it likely to be his last album release, given the apparent depth of the ECM archives—it stands as one of the best recorded documents.

Terje Rypdal
Conspiracy
ECM Records

One of veteran guitarist/composer Terje Rypdal's most inspired albums. Full of mysterious, soaring guitar lines, aided by Ståle Storløkken's atmospheric keyboards. Short but sweet.

Maria Schneider
Data Lords
ArtistShare

Recorded prior to the pandemic, The Maria Schneider Orchestra still delivers a timely commentary on the digital realm and its increasing influence in our lives. The big digital companies (the Data Lords) are intent on collecting user information—but all is not lost, hence "The Natural World," the antidote to "The Digital World'' in this double-album set. Adventurous in composition and performance, and Schneider's largest, most accomplished statement.

Charles Mingus
@ Bremen 1964 & 1975
Sunnyside Records

Bassist/composer Charles Mingus' 1964 European tour is legendary, with good reason. He brought what is arguably his greatest band—featuring brilliant reeds from Eric Dolphy (in some of his last recordings), trumpeter Johnny Coles, saxophonist Clifford Jordan and pianist Jaki Byard—as well as one of the greatest jazz bands ever. The 1975 band may not be up to that standard, but they were no pikers. Trumpeter Jack Walrath, saxophonist George Adams and pianist Don Pullen (with longtime Mingus drummer Dannie Richmond, the only other player common to both bands) were a potent force indeed. The entire album represents creative jazz at the highest level.

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