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Phil Barnes' Best Releases of 2016

Phil Barnes By

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It was tempting to view the events of 2016 in apocalyptic terms—even leaving politics to one side, the succession of beloved entertainers falling to the Grim Reaper was a salutary reminder of the limits of our own mortality. Some saw this as a sign of something ending, a watershed and not in a good way, but only time will tell whether this is anything more than a simple shift in demographics.

Musically, I found it harder than ever to stick to genre boundaries, even as I am forced to admit that they are a way of coping with the sheer volume of decent new releases and reissues. Reflecting now in the holiday period on the musical releases that had some connection to this thing called "jazz," I'm struck by the fact that I didn't actually review three firm favourites. So with the proviso that these are just the releases I got round to, here is a list of my favourites in no particular order.

David Bowie
Blackstar
Sony Music

Foremost of those that I never quite got round to reviewing on All About Jazz, and a clear album of the year, was David Bowie's Blackstar. It was an extraordinary record for any musician to make in any circumstances, and to do it while undergoing treatment that would render most of us unable to tie our shoelaces is scarcely credible. Part of the success of the album came from the mix of Donny McCaslin and his band with ECM's Ben Monder on guitar, lifting already strong material still further into a remarkable final artistic statement. This was to be my first review of 2016 for All About Jazz, but after Bowie's death it ended up on my own, occasional, blog for reasons that escape me now.

Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith
A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke
ECM Records

The second and third albums that I should have reviewed were Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith's masterpiece A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke and Nik Bartsch's sumptuous Continuum. Iyer and Smith were two master improvisers at the top of their game with a near telepathic understanding of space and dynamics and if I had to pick a single pure jazz/improv album of the year this would be it, with Bartsch a short head behind. Indeed ECM could justifiably claim to be label of the year—not only did they release these two classics but also Avishai Cohen's Into the Silence, Jack DeJohnette's In Movement and Tigran Hamasyan's Atmospheres to name but a few. I think its time to break the habit of a lifetime and actually make a new year's resolution for 2017 -to be better at tracking down ECM releases...

GoGo Penguin
Man Made Object
Blue Note Records

In the UK GoGo Penguin successfully negotiated the potentially difficult third album, Man Made Object, with some style finding themselves in the hallowed halls of none other than Blue Note records in the process. While they, inexplicably, got the gander of a few of the more reactionary elements on the UK scene their music was good enough to rise above such nonsense and we can but hope that their future continues to burn brightly.

John Ellis UK
Evolution: Seeds & Streams
Gondwana Records

GoGo Penguin's former home, Gondwana records, continued to show how to run an exemplary modern independent label with a parade of almost routine brilliance. Their expanded, remastered, reissue of Matthew Halsall's classic On the Go and Mammal Hands Floa were more than good enough but have been pipped into this list by John Ellis' Evolution: Seeds and Streams collection. Conceived as the soundtrack to a multi-media commission for the Manchester Jazz Festival, Ellis' showed that spirituality and thoughtfulness could survive in a world that often seemed to have little time for anything other than vulgar self-promotion.

Nat Birchall
Creation
Sound Soul And Spirit

Former Gondwana alumnus, Nat Birchall, continued to tread his own individual path with his latest excellent collection Creation. Released less than a year after 2015's mighty Invocations, Creation was closer in sound to 2011's Sacred Dimension in part because of the return of second drummer Randy Hayes. The album provided further evidence of Birchall's much under-estimated talent, and we can only hope that 2017 brings him the greater recognition he so richly deserves.

Neil Cowley
Spacebound Apes
Hide Inside Records

Perhaps the most audacious album of the year was the hugely ambitious multimedia concept unleashed around the Neil Cowley Trio's Spacebound Apes. Encompassing a website, tumblr blog, sheet music illustrated by a noted comic book artist, video and humble CD/download there was never any doubt that Cowley and co were pulling out all of the stops to bring their music to the attention of the discerning music fan. Thankfully the music itself more than lived up to the promotional effort, taking in references as varied as Max Richter's modern classical fusion, an improvised version of the ambience of say Air or Zero 7 and the driving trio rhythms of Cowley's own early work.

Miguel Angelo
A Vida De X
Carimbo Porta-jazz

In its way the wonderful Portuguese jazz release from the Miguel Angelo Quartet A Vida de X also looked to augment the music with a striking, stylish, limited edition that showcased a commissioned illustration for each track. It was an album that gradually built the interest over a few weeks of summer listening, until I found myself looking forward to listening to it without even thinking.

Erica Bramham
Twelve Moons
Self Produced

Another record that evoked summer 2016 was Erica Bramham's Twelve Moons. A hugely ambitious debut album based around the months of the Czech/Slavic calendar, its themes of birth, renewal and death was jazz in spirit, executed by an extremely promising singer-songwriter. To break through it probably needed either the patronage of an influential industry figure or licensing to a respected independent label—but Bramham clearly has talent and it will be fascinating to see what she comes up with next.

Jasper Hoiby
Fellow Creatures
Edition Records

An artist who made a creative jump forward in 2016 was Jasper Høiby, best known as the bassist in Phronesis. In part inspired by Naomi Klein's "This Changes Everything," Høiby recruited a five piece band that included some leading lights from the vibrant UK scene such as Laura Jurd and Mark Lockheart in an attempt to tread new creative ground. Fellow Creatures not only succeeded, but is a clear choice as an album of the year.

Eve Risser
Les Deux Versants Se Regardent
Clean Feed Records

Late in the year came this superb album by the Eve Risser White Desert Orchestra. Pitched somewhere between jazz, improvised and modern classical musics, Risser showcased an understanding of musical space and dynamics that for me was only surpassed by the aforementioned Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith collaboration. A welcome, filmic and leftfield surprise that surprised, delighted and was the antithesis of supper club show tunes.

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