Music

12 Brilliant Recent Jazz Albums That Shouldn't Be Missed

Photo by Rich Smith on Unsplash

There is so much wonderful creative music these days that even an apartment-bound critic misses too much of it. Here is jazz from the last 18 months that shouldn't be missed.

Even when a music writer is confined to their apartment for months on end with too many hours to fill and a dwindling supply of truly compelling Netflix material, it can he hard to listen to all the incredible creative music exploding from this culture.

As a critic, you miss good music for a million reasons, many of which are based on your own ignorance, bias, or foolishness. Sometimes I don't know the name or reputation of the performer, and so I pass up the listen. Sometimes the cover image of an album pushes me away. The music might seem too traditional or too out-there, based on a title or a story I read somewhere. Sometimes I had just written about the artist recently, or perhaps I didn't care for the artist's last recording? None of that is fair, but it determines what I spin what I don't have time for.

If I'm open-minded, though, I save those CDs or downloads and put them on at odd times, opening myself to wonder. And, in this season particularly, I have been bowled over by the great music that I skipped when it first came out. Foolish me. I'll try to make up for my blindness, lightning round-style. Here are a dozen recordings from 2019 and 2020 from the world of jazz and creative music that I should have crowed about more quickly, in one way or another.

Thana Alexa - Ona [Independent]

New Vocal Art

Thana Alexa was born in New York, but her family moved back to Croatia when she was young. She found her way back to the US for school, which included time at the New School. Ona is her second recording as a leader, and it sits in a dazzling space—not-really-jazz but unclassifiable music that uses jazz players and gorgeous jazz harmonies and melodic style to communicate something beyond boundaries.

The band includes the fabulous keyboardist Carmen Staaf, Matt Brewer on bass, her husband the insane jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez, and guitarist Jordan Peters. Violinist Regina Carter guests on one track and the singer-songwriter (who Alexa resembles in how she assembles jazz feeling in music that seems not to be "jazz" in any narrow way) Becca Stevens sings with her on "He Said, She Said". The tunes are originals but for two, including a dazzling version of "Everybody Wants to Rule the World". Every note here is fantastic—and in the last days of summer, I need music that feels this good, like sunshine, like freedom and celebration, as the songs are filled with a sense of becoming.

Michele Rosewoman - Michele Rosewoman's New Yor-Uba, Hallowed [Advance Dance Disques]

Latin Legacy Continued

Pianist and composer Michele Rosewoman has been leading one of the top Latin jazz ensembles in New York for 35 years. Her New Yor-Uba band has featured top musicians from both the jazz and Cuban folkloric communities, and it interprets compositions by the leader that blend many traditions in a scintillating whole. Hallowed features a ten-part suite "Our de Oro" that was commissioned by Chamber Music America and is built around a series of riveting percussion patterns.

The band is built on three hand drummers, a trap set, and Rosewoman's deeply rhythmic piano, with a four-five-piece horn section. The set is rounded out by "The Wind is the First to Know", a vocal feature built on Rosewoman's atmospheric electric piano, and "Alabanza", the most grooving performance of all, a phantasm of inventive horn lines and hot solos, with a baritone sax added to fill out the bottom of the arrangement. Great blowing from Stacey Dillard (tenor) and Alex Norris (trumpet) too. Hearing the wonderful complexity of this music, you realize that music this detailed and tricky can still make you want to move. That is a defining feature.

Lakecia Benjamin - Pursuance: The Coltranes [Ropedope]

Twin Coltrane Legacy

Lakecia Benjamin is a young alto saxophonist from the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City who has been mentored by Gary Bartz, Clark Terry, and other older musicians. This is her third recording as a leader, and—as the title suggests—it pays some tribute to the music of both John and Alice Coltrane, evoking both his waves of saxophone artistry and her centered sense of meditation. The session is chock-a-block with heavy guests across a wide range, from Reggie Workman (who played with both John and Alice), Meshell Ndegeocello, Ron Carter, and Lonnie Plaxico on bass to saxophonists Greg Osby, Bartz, and Steve Wilson to vocalists Jazzmeia Horn and Dee Dee Bridgewater.

There's no getting around the fact that Benjamin is often overshadowed on her record, either by the famous tunes or by her guests. But it's equally true that she is a brave convener, so the combination of flute, strings, Brandee Younger's harp, and two basses on Alice Coltrane's "Prema" and "Going Home" is moving. Similarly, violinist Regina Carter is used in a beautiful, bluesy act of meditation on "Walk with Me", with the leader blending her tone with that of her guest. "Om Shanti" pulls off a hip blending of hip-hop and soul and Alice eastern-slanted meditation groove music. All that said, when the spotlight is firmly on Benjamin—as on a straight quartet performance of "Pursuance" from A Love Supreme featuring pianist Marc Cary, the results are only lukewarm. Still, it's a heady blend of sounds.

Steph Richards - Take the Neon Lights [Birdwatcher]

Trumpet, Intimate

This recording came out over a year ago, and I have no excuse for only catching up now, particularly given the wonderful work in the rhythm section of pianist James Carney. He is brilliant in creating atmosphere for this stunning essay on New York from Canadian trumpeter Steph Richards. (The titles of the tunes reference well-known poems by folks like Maya Angelou and Allen Ginsberg, making the New York connection more than just theoretical.) Richards plays like an impressionist and a magician from start to finish, usually uninterested in a horn bravado but dizzying in her use of different cultures, textures, and tones.

On "Brooklyn Machine", she plays with two riveting tones at once, holding our attention in a trumpet-only section that matches the invention of the complete quartet (also including bassist Sam Minaie and drummer Andrew Munsey). On "Rumor of War", Richards plays a muffled "wah" sound that evokes Miles Davis from the early 1970s, and "Stalked by Tall Buildings" is more conventionally clean-toned, jabbing at the band's bobbing-and-weaving accompaniment, which shivers and eases and transforms into other things at will. Containing lyrical beauty, free improvising, poetic subtlety, and astonishing confidence, Take the Neon Lights presents a trumpet-led quartet as good as Ambrose Akinmusire's band. It's a set of performances that suggest one of the many paths that "jazz" now takes in being beyond category.

Alex Sipiagin - NoFo Skies [Blue Room Music]

Trumpet, Rethought

Another wonderful trumpeter from New York via a farther-away place is Alex Sipiagin, the Russian musician who came to the US almost 30 years ago. Sipiagin has built an all-star band for NoFo Skies, dedicated to the North Fork of Long Island, New York. At times, the band sounds like a high-octane modern post-bop ensemble, with Sipiagin teaming with tenor saxophone beast Chris Potter and alto wizard Will Vinson on the front line, stood up straight by Jon Escreet (piano), Matt Brewer (bass), and Eric Harland (drums). Some band—just listen to them blow you away on the opener, aptly titled "Rush".

The band has another gear, however. "Recovery" shifts Escreet to Fender Rhodes and synths, Brewer to electric bass, and adds lyrics by singer-songwriter Alina Engibaryan, who blends in with the band in a manner reminiscent of Gretchen Parlato. She sounds even more soulful on the all-acoustic "Shadows", where Sipiagin's arrangement weaves her sound together with his own horn ingeniously. She wrote "Between AM's", which adds a backbeat and overdubbed layers of vocals, both of which grow in complexity, adding a solo by the leader that is a standout. The Rhodes and synth sounds aren't restricted to her four features, however.

NoFo Skies is as good an example of how musicians are adapting "straight-ahead" jazz to more modern sounds but without sacrificing musical sophistication or daring composition. The closing track, "For You", puts is all together, sounding as much like Ornette Coleman as it does like a fabulous CTI record from the 1970s. The tricky new jazz of 2020 sounds like a smoky ballad from the 1950s. Alex Sipiagin pulls off an incredible balancing act on this one, and he never slips up.

Franco Ambrosetti - Long Waves [Unit]

Trumpet, Classic & Global

Trumpeter Franco Ambrosetti is from Switzerland but has played with the best American players for years. A chance to record with the cream of New York players in the United States ought to be an event, and Long Waves is undoubtedly that. Ambrosetti is nearly 80, but he sounds light-hearted on four originals, one tune by fellow Swiss jazz legend George Gruntz, and two standards. The band says it all: guitarist John Scofield, pianist Uri Caine, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and Scott Colley on bass. If I say that not a note is out of place, that could make the session seem fussy—rather, the performances are casual and carefree. Still, the playing is so telepathically simpatico that it seems perfect like an impeccable, sunny day.

Ambrosetti's solo on "Try Again" is a fluid masterpiece, particularly in how it intersects with Caine's exceptionally lively comping. Scofield follows, and Caine cuts out at first to create a sudden shift of tone and sense of space—only to come back in and then take over for a thrilling solo of this own. That's how it goes, track after track, on Long Waves, with these total professionals at the helm, showing you how this kind of music ought to be played.

The title track indulges in a gorgeous introduction before establishing an effortless mid-tempo swing, for example, and the band's take on "Old Folks" is what ballad playing can be at its best. The other standard is "Green Dolphin Street", which I know you've heard at too many local jam sessions. But Ambrosetti's version here seems pulled right out the best version you've heard, that Miles Davis recording that made every other player love the tune in the first place. What Long Waves lacks in innovation it earns back in joyful ease.

Chris Lightcap - SuperBigmouth [Pyroclastic]

Two Bands, Colliding

Bassist Chris Lightcap has been on so many of the coolest records of the last 20 years, playing with people like James Carney, Regina Carter, Craig Taborn, Matt Wilson, Rob Brown, Joe Morris, and many more. His bands have blended extended composition, freedom, groove, and adventure distinctively. Bigmouth featured two saxophones and Taborn's blend of piano and other keyboards. Then Superette paired up two electric guitars. SuperBigmouth whams it all together: Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek on tenor sax, Jonathan Goldberger and Curtis Hasselbring on guitar, Gerald Cleaver, and Dan Rieser on drums, plus Taborn.

The sound is thick and layered, sometimes reminiscent of the Zappa-styled rock-jazz of The Grand Wazoo. "Sanctuary City" has raving freakout sections, and "Queenside" possesses whirling saxophones and driven guitar lines. Other times the sound is like the genre-less open spaces of guitarist Bill Frisell with horns and guitars woven like a tapestry before moving into a textural density defined by the two drummers ("False Equivalency"). Individual voices can be obscured in a band this dense, which is partly why it doesn't often sound like "jazz", even when it swings (as on the fast-shuffling "Deep River"), but Taborn always seems to emerge from the storm. His organ style is increasingly identifiable, somehow never seeming like a take on the past, and his piano holds up even in a band this loud. Lightcap himself is at the center of the mix, holding it together, but it's a joy to hear him featured as a soloist on the collection's quietest track, "Nothing If Not", where he is given the foreground in a burbling collective improvisation that comes together in a bucolic theme.

Kneebody - Chapters [Edition]

Better Than Snarky Puppy

Kneebody is a quartet that no longer qualifies as all that new (it formed more than 15 years ago, and released a great debut on Dave Douglas' Greenleaf Records, from associations formed at the Eastman School of Music). But the group is a terrific exponent of the new century's popular jazz format. Like Snarky Puppy, the players in Kneebody are brilliant jazz players who are perfectly comfortable making music that weaves together hip-hop, pop, funk, rock, soul, and anything else that happens to be at hand. But it is done with a healthy dose of adventurous improvisation. As just a single example, Shane Endsley's resume includes recordings with Steve Coleman, Jason Mraz, and Ani DiFranco. That's a jazz musician these days in a nutshell.

The front line of Ben Wendel's tenor sax and Endsley's trumpet makes the band sound bold and brassy (the new century's version of the Brecker Brothers, at times), and Adam Benjamin's keyboards create a thousand killer textures over Nate Wood's drum groove. On Chapters, the band has invited in guest vocalists with their own tunes on four of the ten tracks, each of whom stands up to the band's coiled power nicely. Josh Dion offers a rocker with stabbing horn parts over the cracking groove, Becca Stevens's song (written with Wendel) is a gorgeous piece of melodic impressionism (of course). Michael Mayo provides a winding piece that almost sounds like an outtake from Hamilton, and Gretchen Parlato's song is a floating ballad.

With Snarky Puppy, guest vocalists tend to bend the band (large as it is) to their own style, making them seem like merely the slickest backing band in the land. Kneebody never seems less than at the center of these collaborations. On the instrumental tracks, the band is deliciously entertaining but never mere stunt performers—they play with muscular, fun creativity—but the creativity remains central.

Dayna Stephens Trio - Liberty [Contagious Music]

Classic Tenor Trio

Saxophonist Dayna Stephens fits into a tradition of no-nonsense mainstream players. He's not a brawny ripper, an avant-garde honker, a silver-toned ballad guy, or a new jazz intellectual creating daring puzzles. His tone shines, and his harmonic knowledge is vast, and he plays with a clean and lean logic. If you don't know him, he shares an approach with Joshua Redman, who happens to have also gone to Berkeley High School though a decade early.

On Liberty, Stephens is recording with a piano-less trio featuring Ben Street (bass) and Eric Harland (drums). The tunes are mainly down the middle, but some of the sneaky stuff is the best, such as "The Lost and Found", which finds Harland playing hip and funky modified tango feel and Stephens on his baritone saxophone rather than his primary voice, the tenor. "At Least 37th Cousins" throws a crazy time signature into play, but the trio is so full of open space that it just sounds like a groove.

Stephens has a tone that can be light enough to masquerade as an alto saxophone at times ("Tarifa"), but that has a heft suggesting that he has listened to his share of Sonny Rollins recordings ("Wil's Way"). Rollins, of course, led a legendary piano-less trio, and that band comes to mind often enough on Liberty. It helps that the sound—recorded at the legendary Rudy Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey—is utterly ideal, capturing every nuance of Harland's cymbals and the beautiful, woody tone of Street's bass, not to mention the leader's voice.

Todd Marcus - Trio+ [Stricker Street]

The Coolest Horn

Todd Marcus is a stalwart of the Baltimore jazz scene, as well as a community activist who makes his town a better place. Plus he specializes in the wondrous bass clarinet, a horn that has played a limited but fascinating role in the music—used as an angular but lyrical voice in Eric Dolphy's articulation of the "New Thing" in the 1960s, and then as a dark counterpoint in Miles Davis's early electric experiments. It has rarely gotten the chance to be the star of a great mainstream set, working as the main voice in a swinging band. Marcus has made that happen here, but without seeming like he has gone all the way into the past.

There are two beautiful standards in "My Foolish Heart" and "How Deep Is the Ocean" and a hip swinger by bass clarinet master Bennie Maupin. However, the rest are modern originals that nevertheless allow Marcus to play his instrument much as if it were a tenor saxophone. Although trumpeter Sean Jones joins on a third of the tracks, most of the recital is just for a trio, with acoustic bass (Jeff Reed or Ameen Saleem) and drums (the brilliant Ralph Peterson on all but two tracks). Marcus orchestrates the small band so that his horn often enough plays in the ensemble with the bass, using every possibility. Mainly, however, we get to hear the glowing, warm tone of his instrument improvising fluidly, unencumbered by clutter or any sense that it shouldn't be the main attraction. Peterson, sounding as good as he ever has, often included the bass clarinet in his Fo'tet sessions, and he is right at home here.

Greg Ward and Rogue Parade - Stomping Off from Greenwood [Greenleaf Music]

Chicago Twin Guitars

Greg Ward is a cutting but still lyrical alto saxophonist who is a big part of the vital Chicago scene, and his latest band is configured in a way that shouldn't be so unusual in jazz. In addition to bassist Matt Ulery and drummer Quin Kirchner, a firm and modern rhythm section, the band features two guitarists playing complimentary patterns as well as improvising. In rock, of course, having two guitars is fairly standard—lead and rhythm, two rhythm, whatever, but a pair of guitars create power, texture, and a web of lines. The music doesn't tend to get as jammed up as it can between a guitarist and pianist, as well.

In jazz, however, the practice has been rare. Miles Davis did it for a while in the 1970s, bassist John Patitucci tried out the configuration in a band recently, and some jazz guitarists operating as lead voices have brought in other guitarists in a comping role. But Ward's Rogue Parade has cracked the code. He has just the right players in Matt Gold and Dave Miller, whose pedal effect and an array of different tones allow them to build whole sonic worlds ("The Fourth Reverie") or to play as intertwining voices, with each other or with the horn ("Let Him Live"). Ward is not lost in overdrive or feedback, though. The guitars are deployed like knives and like light, depending on the arrangement, and Ward's nimble alto slithers through all of it, sounding more human and more vocal than anything else in the band: truly the vocalist who takes center stage.

Caroline Davis and Rob Clearfield's Persona - Anthems [Sunnyside]

Cool Alto Plus

Caroline Davis released the delectable Heart Tonic in 2018, reflecting her transplant from Chicago to New York. This new project with pianist and composer Rob Clearfield (now in Paris but from the Chicago scene as well) is a more lyrical project, with compositions from both leaders (as well as the classic "Miss Ann" by Eric Dolphy). The band errs on the side of beauty whenever there is a question, I suppose, but don't hold that against them. The duet "A Soothing Melancholy Breeze by Clearfield is perfectly described, written note for note, and perfect as it is.

The pianist's "Secrets" uses bassist Sam Weber and drummer Jay Sawyer as more than timekeepers in another sumptuous atmosphere piece, but one that draws melodic mastery from the leaders as improvisers. Davis's compositions are less atmospheric but still in the band's wheelhouse. "Bots" moves deliberately and in logical stages, each of which has a harmonic beauty. "Lithe" features Clearfield on Fender Rhodes piano with the band goosing along with the pretty sounds with a bobbing Latin groove.


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