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Troy Dostert's Best Releases of 2019


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Is it jazz? Perhaps not in the narrowest sense, but each of the releases below arguably retains enough of a foothold in the tradition to justify that description. Maybe we've finally reached the point where the question no longer matters. In any case, what these artists have in common is a commitment to venturing outward in endlessly creative ways, whether it's Anna Webber drawing inspiration from avant-garde classical icons like Milton Babbitt or Morton Feldman, Kris Davis finding ways to fuse cutting-edge jazz with other idioms, or Steph Richards bringing her fearsome technique to music that is both accessible and daring. It's also an encouraging sign that ten different labels are represented here, suggesting that the music is being well cared-for: established stalwarts like Pi, ECM and Clean Feed are present, but so too are lesser-known imprints like Relative Pitch and Birdwatcher. And no list from 2019 would be complete without a bit of political commentary; here that is offered courtesy of fine releases from the Mark Dresser Seven and the DKV Trio, the latter of whom partner with Joe McPhee in invoking the prophetic spirit of James Baldwin.

Anna Webber
Pi Recordings

It's really a marvel that music this cerebral can be simultaneously engaging and infectious, but multi-instrumentalist Webber somehow pulls it off. Even notoriously difficult figures like Karlheinz Stockhausen or Iannis Xenakis are utilized for inspiration via Webber's unique vision. It helps that she can draw on the expert skills of veterans like pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Chris Tordini and drummer Ches Smith. They anchor Webber's fiendishly complex compositions with a deft hand, allowing Webber's interactions with fellow horn players Jeremy Viner and Jacob Garchik, as well as cellist Christopher Hoffman, to generate dense ensemble voicings and crafty rhythmic displacements that invigorate and surprise. A masterful recording.

Mark Dresser Seven
Ain't Nothing But a Cyber Coup & You
Clean Feed

Dresser has done it all during his long and storied career as a first-call avant-garde bassist, but since 2016's Sedimental You (Clean Feed) he's also carved out opportunities to bring his political convictions to the fore, with 2019's effort a particularly memorable one. Like Webber's Clockwise this too is a septet album, although one with a much more obvious connection to the world of jazz, as Dresser's hard-grooving pieces provide the perfect vehicle for his wry humor and activist sensibility. And there's musical intensity in abundance, with saxophonist/clarinetist Marty Ehrlich and flutist Nicole Mitchell turning in especially impassioned performances, while Jim Black's manic drumming keeps the energy flowing from beginning to end.

Kris Davis
Diatom Ribbons
Pyroclastic Records

Davis' pianistic ambition knows no bounds, and Diatom Ribbons may be her most far-reaching effort yet. Seamlessly synthesizing disparate personnel and a cornucopia of influences, she produces music truly beyond category. Built around a core trio that includes Davis, turntablist Val Jeanty and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, the album draws liberally from a who's who in contemporary jazz: vocalist Esperanza Spalding, saxophonists Tony Malaby and JD Allen, bassist Trevor Dunn and vibraphonist Ches Smith are present, in addition to the guitar wizardry of Nels Cline and Marc Ribot. A chance-taking album that opens up many new avenues for Davis to explore as she continues to hone her distinctive identity as a pianist and composer.

Iro Haarla
Around Again: The Music of Carla Bley
TUM Records

Carla Bley's elliptical compositions are more than worthy of the devoted treatment they receive from this superb trio. Pianist Haarla and bassist Ulf Krokfors team with drummer Barry Altschul to bring to light the indeterminacy and fluidity of Bley's pieces while also elucidating their melodic potential. Music this alluring, played with this degree of sensitivity, deserves the utmost care in presentation, and fortunately TUM Records has done an exemplary job in recording and packaging this splendid release.

DKV Trio and Joe McPhee
The Fire Each Time
Not Two Records

An expansive treasure-trove of music, this six-disc collection of a series of live performances captures the long-standing DKV Trio alongside guest McPhee in making the group's most sustained political statement to date. The rhythmically shape-shifting Hamid Drake is, as always, a phenom, as are multi-reedist Ken Vandermark and bassist Kent Kessler. But the end result wouldn't be the same without McPhee, who brings an elder statesman's sense of purpose as well as a fierce urgency, especially when he locks horns with Vandermark. Large swaths of American music are touched upon, from Monk to Ellington to Gershwin—always with a ferocious groove and, indeed, enough fiery fury to make Baldwin proud.

Gabriel Zucker

With Rachel Kushner's whirlwind novel Flamethrowers for inspiration, pianist Zucker creates a compelling, mysterious world that is as beautiful as it is elusive. Moments of bracing intensity emerge, fueled by Tyshawn Sorey's percussive flurries and Zucker's powerful flourishes; but it's the two-horn team of trumpeter Adam O'Farrill and saxophonist Eric Trudel that gives the album its lyrical power, with the suite's dominant motifs leavening the music's brooding resonances. A captivating album that reveals more of its charms with each encounter.

Steve Baczkowski, Brandon Lopez and Chris Corsano
Old Smoke
Relative Pitch Records

The opening blasts of Steve Baczkowski's baritone saxophone on Old Smoke leave little room for restraint or diffidence, and bassist Brandon Lopez and drummer Chris Corsano match his incendiary power with astonishing, relentless stamina. Lopez and Corsano have abundant experience in this format, but Baczkowski is a revelation, with a particular fluency on the baritone axe that gives him limitless opportunities to plumb its depths or climb its upper registers with intrepid fortitude. Even the occasional moments of respite just barely conceal the righteous roar waiting to surface. It's a potent reminder of the exhilaration of free improvisation at its most elemental level.

Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn
The Transitory Poems

Iyer and Taborn, two of today's most consistently inventive pianists, come together for a largely improvised performance that reveals remarkable cohesion and unity. The music explores a range of emotional registers, frequently alternating between an ethereal tranquility and a tectonic density. While abstraction prevails over much of the album, there is more than enough rhythmic sophistication and rich harmonic inflections to signal both players' substantial debt to the jazz tradition as the most basic foundation of their craft.

Steph Richards
Take the Neon Lights
Birdwatcher Records

Trumpeter Richards' Fullmoon (Relative Pitch, 2018) heralded the arrival of a bold new voice, with an uncompromising dedication to innovation and extended technique. Take the Neon Lights is no less self-assured, but it possesses a genuine warmth and irresistibly engaging spirit that distinguishes it from its more austere predecessor. The music remains adventurous, but its melodic appeal and more conventional structure add depth and listenability. The level of musicianship is outstanding, with drummer Andrew Munsey, pianist James Carney and bassist Sam Minaie working in perfect rapport with Richards, opening enough room for freedom while still maintaining some terrific rhythmic chemistry. Richards is and will continue to be a force to be reckoned with, and this superb release makes that unmistakably evident.

Sylvie Courvoisier and Mark Feldman
Time Gone Out
Intakt Records

Given that this is the sixth duo release from pianist Courvoisier and violinist Feldman, listeners could perhaps be forgiven for taking them for granted. But that would be our loss, as Time Gone Out provides plenty of top-shelf improvising and heady compositions—to the point where the boundaries between the two are seemingly rendered nonexistent. Short, concentrated bursts of improvisation are present, as are lengthier journeys that showcase the duo's confidence in using space and silence. These players have forged a common mindset through years of partnership, and their shared perspective always holds the music together, despite the numerous surprises it contains.

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