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Troy Dostert's Best Releases of 2020


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2020 will be remembered as a year of resilience. And surely a part of that story will be the fortitude displayed by musicians of all stripes, who have endeavored creatively to manage the challenges of a hollowed-out economy and a global pandemic with innovative business platforms and novel approaches to recording and content delivery. The jazz community certainly deserves kudos for rising to the occasion in these unprecedented times; each and every release of new music this year has been a triumph. But there are some recordings that have stood out especially prominently, and here are ten of them.

Eric Revis
Slipknots Through a Looking Glass
Pyroclastic Records

Revis has long been an on-call bassist for a host of jazz luminaries, but his prowess as a composer and bandleader shouldn't be overlooked. Here those talents come to the fore, with an irresistible collection of pieces that can be either elusive or invigorating, but always with a sinuous groove at their core. Revis has a world of talent with him on this release as well, with pianist Kris Davis, saxophonists Bill McHenry and Darius Jones, and drummer Chad Taylor aiding and abetting Revis' singular compositions.

Natsuki Tamura, Satoko Fujii and Ramon Lopez
Not Two Records

A stellar effort from a trio of expert improvisers, Mantle is yet another entry in the storied catalogue of trumpeter Tamura and pianist Fujii, here complemented by Lopez, a nuanced and skilled percussionist who brings just the right color to the trio's music. Each piece is a marvel in finding the ideal balance between composition and freedom, and the musicians' ability to shift emotional registers is astonishing. An album that not only repays, but compels, multiple encounters.

Ivo Perelman with Arcado Trio
Deep Resonance
Fundacja Sluchaj

Saxophonist Perelman is almost too prolific for his own good, but the consistently strong quality of his music justifies his prodigious output. Nowhere is this more evident than the music on this wonderful release, where he combines his gifts with those of violinist Mark Feldman, cellist Hank Roberts and bassist Mark Dresser, reunited here as the Arcado Trio after a hiatus of almost thirty years. The four musicians' rapport is undeniable, and listening to Perelman merge his outsized instrumental voice with those of his partners is to witness a clinic in free improvisation.

Webber/Morris Big Band
Both Are True
Greenleaf Music

Two fiercely independent saxophonist/composers join forces on one of the most pathbreaking releases of the year. While Anna Webber has long been a fixture in the jazz avant-garde, expect Angela Morris' profile to rise significantly as a result of this remarkable big-band disc. Some pieces surge with rhythmic energy, while others glow with a subdued intensity. But each is a well-constructed gem, filled with surprises and delights, and together they open up new horizons for the future of large-ensemble jazz.

Gard Nilssen's Supersonic Orchestra
If You Listen Carefully the Music Is Yours
Odin Records

Supersonic indeed. A massive band with a massive sound, drummer and bandleader Nilssen has taken some of the leading-edge improvisers in creative jazz and fused them into a collective that swings hard but in an anarchic spirit. A live recording from 2019's Molde International Jazz Festival, Nilssen and fellow composer-arranger Andre Roligheten somehow hold together an ensemble with three bassists, three drummers, and more reeds than brass, and it is truly a glorious noise, yet with a nimble agility and emotional depth that are equally astonishing.

James Brandon Lewis Quartet
Intakt Records

Lewis has been on the radar of creative jazz fans since 2019's UnRuly Manifesto (Relative Pitch), and the tenor saxophonist released two superb albums on Intakt in 2020. His duo album with drummer Chad Taylor, Live in Willisau, features plenty of his vigorous grooves and style-shifting technique, but Molecular gets the nod for putting the focus more squarely on his compositions, which are bold, compelling, and crafty. And he's got a great band on hand as well, with Taylor teamed with bassist Brad Jones and pianist Aruán Ortiz for a top-shelf rhythm section able to match Lewis' boundless drive and expansive vision.

Mary Halvorson's Code Girl
Artlessly Falling
Firehouse 12

The second installment of Code Girl, guitar wizard Halvorson's beguiling avant-prog project, makes use of another extraordinary lineup. Bassist Michael Formanek, drummer Tomas Fujiwara and the unique vocal gymnastics of Amirtha Kidambi are complemented by new additions Maria Grand (saxophone), Adam O'Farrill (trumpet), and, last but not least, the venerable Robert Wyatt, who lends Canterbury cred to the proceedings on three vocal cameos. And then there's Halvorson, whose skewed lyrics and masterfully oblique compositions are, as always, the perfect vehicle for her inimitable tone-twisting virtuosity.

Pedro Melo Alves
In Igma
Clean Feed

One of the most transfixing releases of 2020, percussionist Alves' darkly resonant chamber work expertly integrates three vocalists with the combined talents of Alves and pianist Eve Risser, bassist Mark Dresser and guitarist Abdul Moimême. A daunting, sometimes mystifying recording that nonetheless amply rewards the investment required to grapple with it. A noteworthy achievement from one of Portugal's rising stars.

Sylvie Courvoisier Trio
Free Hoops
Intakt Records

An outstanding follow-up to 2018's D'Agala (Intakt), pianist Courvoisier once again draws upon the rhythmically fluid tandem of bassist Drew Gress and drummer Kenny Wollesen for an album in constant motion and with subtle lyrical touches. The three musicians work together so sympathetically that it can be easy to forget just how challenging these compositions are, and how much coordinated artistry is required to bring them to life.

Rich Halley
The Shape of Things
Pine Eagle Records

With the same group he convened for 2019's Terra Incognita, tenor saxophonist Halley and associates cover the spectrum of free-jazz creativity, from soulfully plaintive cries to no-holds-barred fury. But guiding it all is a deeply-rooted musicality, and the cooperative efforts of pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker bring a seasoned expertise to ensuring that even in their most impassioned moments, these freely-improvised pieces retain a fundamental coherence and integrity.



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