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The Most Exciting Jazz Albums Since 1969: 2017-2020

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In our penultimate collection of half a dozen jazz thrillers this week, it becomes clear that brilliant, compelling music comes in all shapes and sizes.
As we start to wind down to the 72nd jazz thriller, in our penultimate collection of half a dozen jazz thrillers this week, it becomes clear that brilliant, compelling music comes in all shapes and sizes. From an understated quartet from Germany to an Aaron Parks masterpiece, all of these albums deserve a place in the hallowed halls of great jazz albums.


72 Thrilling Jazz Albums, Part 11: 2017-2020

61

Nubya's 5ive
Nubya Garcia
Jazz Re:Freshed
2017

Saxophonist, Nubya Garcia made an indelible mark on the London jazz scene, quickly garnering acclaim with her distinct sound and magnetic presence that resonated deeply with a younger audience. Her saxophone mastery exudes a rich, resonant tone, and her ability to craft captivating solos is wondrous to behold. "Nubya's 5ive," her inaugural solo release, surpassed all expectations, despite being labeled an EP, exceeding the duration (let alone the depth) of many standard albums.

"Lost Kingdoms" embodies the thrilling essence of jazz, anchored by a robust, languid groove and complemented by the formidable support of her stellar band. Sheila Maurice-Grey delivers a stunning trumpet solo, adding to the track's allure. "Fly Free" takes flight with a mesmerizing, loping bass groove, leading to a sinuous saxophone solo for the ages. Joe Armon-Jones' piano work soars like Herbie Hancock at his zenith. A succinct drum solo maintains the track's momentum, culminating in Garcia's brilliant solo, shimmering with an irresistible groove. "Hold" explodes with a deep tuba groove by Theon Cross, mirrored by Garcia in a Middle Eastern-tinged melody evoking an exotic dance under a sultan's tent.

"Contemplation," by McCoy Tyner, finds a perfect home in Garcia's hands as she time-travels 56 years into the profound depths of this masterpiece. Her rendition stands as a testament to her evolution, on a masterful recreation of the original version featuring Joe Henderson on Blue Note in 1967. "Red Sea" gracefully floats on Armon-Jones' delicate keys before escalating into a spirited, hard-bop expedition. The album's range, depth, artistry and nod to the masters marked this as a triumph for Garcia, establishing her as a luminary in today's jazz multiverse. And don't miss her extraordinary follow-up, Source (Concord Jazz, 2020)

62

Translator's Note
Oded Tzur
Yellowbird
2017

The essence of this album is one of profound, yet understated passion. Saxophonist Oded Tzur unfurls each track on Translator's Note with a delicate whisper that gradually gathers momentum, occasionally culminating in fervent crescendos. The album, a tapestry of narratives, unfolds patiently, each note woven with care. Tzur's fortune shone with ECM's embrace of his third and fourth albums, but it's this, his second that shines as a luminous jewel, largely propelled by the virtuosity of Israeli pianist Shai Maestro. Maestro's own ascendant trajectory, marked by six personal releases and over ten collaborations with luminaries such as Avishai Cohen and Mark Guiliana, adds a brilliant depth to Tzur's fervor on Translator's Note.

The album opens with "Single Mother," a gently swaying lullaby where Maestro leads before gradually intensifying, paving the way for Tzur's entrance, weaving back to the lullaby's tranquility, and then building steadily toward a passionate, almost agonizing climax. "Welcome" follows, a joyous Eastern dance hurtling at a breakneck pace. "The Whale Song" floats mournfully, bearing a regal, solemn melody that, yet again, ascends in fervor before softly receding. On "The Three Statements of Garab Dorje," a rhythmic, meditative Eastern melody envelops you in its passionate, hypnotic sway. Throughout, Tzur's compositions consistently deliver ardent thrills, a resounding song of passion and love that resonates at the core of each piece.

63

La Sabouteuse
Yazz Ahmed
Naim Jazz
2017

With Sabatouse, Yazz Ahmed invites us on a vibrant journey from Bahrain to the colorful streets of London through a trumpet-led excursion pulsating with exuberant joy. Each track unfolds as a swirling, delirious groove, interwoven with rhythms and melodies from the East, propelled by Ahmed's Milesean trumpet, charting thrilling musical territories.

"Jamil Jamal" sets the stage for a celebratory street fair brimming with tumblers and jugglers, driven by lively brass and dancing chimes, accentuated by Ahmed's clarion trumpet. "Misophonia" serves as an interlude—a trumpet call echoing from the minaret. "The Space Between the Fish and the Moon" emerges with a subterranean trumpet incantation and ethereal vibes—a cosmic voyage between the shimmering sea and the silver orb. The title track unfolds as a mysterious tale of intrigue and treachery nestled in the deepest recesses of the desert. "Al Emadi" paints a vivid picture of a noble sheik atop his camel, traversing the dunes in a caravan laden with riches.

The album unfurls further with seven more evocative tales, each painting a highly visual and exotic narrative of the East through the lens of an extraordinarily gifted cross-cultural artist. "Sabatouse" marks an auspicious debut, weaving a sonic tapestry that immerses listeners in a world brimming with vibrant imagery and thrilling, evocative stories.

64

Awase
Nik Bärtsch's Ronin
ECM
2018

Nik Bärtsch categorizes his jazz as "Ritual Groove Music," and with Awase, his eighth studio album since 2001, one could easily append the word "ecstatic" to that label. As with most outstanding jazz, Bärtsch's Ronin have not only crafted their own sonic universe but have stretched its boundaries to the brink of an event horizon. Part of this universe includes numbered compositions or "moduls," and on Awase, they range from "Modul 34" to "Modul 60" with 65 minutes of varying moods and levels of intensity.

These Moduls often open with the serene precision of a finely-tuned mechanism, building to the frenzied intensity of a dystopian, mechanized future. Bärtsch's piano pounds out meticulously precise rhythms, establishing a groove deep enough to carve a mile-deep trench, while the saxophone soars above the mesmerizing soundscape. The real thriller is the 18-minute "Modul 58," proscribing a languid groove that amplifies in intensity before ascending to delirious heights where it explodes into a fervent fire dance of sheer rapture. And just when you think the groove can't get any deeper, it ignites into a glorious, sonic supernova. Then, silence.

Nik Bärtsch's Ronin and Awase encapsulate a level of thrill that jazz rarely achieves, marking an exhilarating futuristic journey that pushes the boundaries of the genre.

65

Glitter Wolf
Allison Miller's Boom Tic Boom
Royal Potato Family
2019

Master drummer Allison Miller helms a band that stands distinctly apart. From the inception of her Boom Tic Boom ensemble, evolving since its eponymous album in 2010 to its crowning achievement, the magnificent Glitter Wolf, Miller has orchestrated a transformative journey. Initially a tight trio featuring Miller, pianist Myra Melford, and bassist Todd Sickafoose, the ensemble expanded into a sextet by their third album, Otis Was a Polar Bear, welcoming Jenny Scheinman on violin, Ben Goldberg on clarinets, and Kirk Knuffke on cornet. With Glitter Wolf, this seasoned and brilliant unit elevated the groove.

Miller harnesses the band's full sonic spectrum in "Congratulations and Condolences," unveiling Goldberg's soaring clarinet in the opening statement, shifting seamlessly into Knuffke's brilliant chorus, then culminating in Melford's animated solo. "The Ride" evokes the sensation of a tipsy, bluesy, roller-coaster journey, while "Malaga," a sinuous tango, slinks across the dance floor, the band settling into a delectably perfect groove. "Zev—The Phoenix" embraces a more relaxed atmosphere, whereas "Daughter and Sun" amplifies the celebration of life with tender interplay between Goldberg and Knuffke.

"White Wolf" encapsulates mystery and yearning, with Scheinman and Goldberg delivering plaintive solos. And the title track presents one of jazz's coolest, bounciest grooves. Melford delivers a tango-infused solo at her zenith, embraced by the horns in unison, as the bass and drums transition into a double-time Dominican merengue, allowing the horns to soar. Glitter Wolf embodies jazz infused with profound joy, a testament to masterful musicians on a quest to enchant and delight.

66

Little Big II Dreams of a Mechanical Man
Aaron Parks
Ropeadope
2020

On Aaron Parks's Little Big II: Dreams of a Mechanical Man, Parks and guitarist Greg Tuohey craft a futuristic landscape, melding bleakness and hope through captivating grooves and compelling melodies that tend to replay themselves in your mind. Released on the brink of the pandemic, this album became my most cherished sonic companion during the "isolation years" and it continues to resonate. Its compositions, mostly atmospherically languid but often passionate, unfold multilayered tales of a conflicted, mechanized existence in search of truth in a world full of contradictions.

These twelve tracks narrate a musical tale told by a searcher confused about who he is and what the world means. And it's expressed through a passionate, colorful, swirling dance, evoking deep emotions. The album title, "Dreams of a Mechanical Man," transcends metaphor; it feels more like a documentary set against a sublime soundtrack. The song titles alone, offer a glimpse into this inner odyssey.

Here's a guided tour into the essence of each of the album's songs:

"Attention Earthlings": Observing and seeking to understand.
"Here": Distinguishing reality from the false.
"Solace": A fleeting moment of peace amid chaos.
"Friendo": Finding harmony with true companions.
"Is Anything OK?": Perceiving pervasive conflict.
"The Shadow and the Self": Residing in darkness yet embodying light.
"The Storyteller": Crafting vibrant new realities infused with energy and love.
"Dreams of a Mechanical Man": Questioning one's identity and beliefs.
"My Mistake": Acknowledging faults and moving forward.
"The Ongoing Pulse of Isness": Embracing the sheer joy of awareness in the present.
"Where Now?": Navigating life with curious anticipation.
"Unknown": Reveling in the thrilling joy of each moment.

In this thrillingly sublime jazz masterpiece, emotion takes center stage, without resorting to noise or anger. The album weaves an intricate narrative, inviting listeners into an immersive, expansive world of self-discovery—all while grooving like mad.

Next week

In our final week, the thrills continue with the hottest guitarist on today's scene, a British groove-based sax trio, pure blues with sax and guitar, and an album by a fusion pioneer in their 55th year.

To see all the albums in this series, scroll down the page and click on the blue MORE button.

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