This article originally appeared on Jazz Police.
2020 was the Year of the Rat which seems fitting for this year of plague. Concerts have been canceled, jazz clubs closed and it was a time when we needed music more than ever. If this dark cloud has a silver lining there must be serious wood-shedding going on right now and in 2021 after some normality returns we will witness a creative explosion of new music. But for now live streaming events help and both that and the new music released this year was a healing balm. We can take some comfort from the titles of new releases in which Matt Wilson gave us a Hug, Bill Frisell gave us a Valentine, Fred Hersch joined us in isolation with Songs From Home, Craig Taborn’s Junk Magic acknowledged our lack of direction with Compass Confusion, John Scofield regaled us with Swallow Tales, Delfeayo Marsalis cheered us with a Jazz Party, and Carla Bley assures us Life Goes On.
2020 also included new releases recorded in the past: an Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ recording from 1958 called Just Coolin’ and sat in the vaults until now. Rollins in Holland from both studio and live recordings made in 1967 and never released. Charles Mingus @ Bremen 1964 & 1975 from two concerts a decade apart, the 1964 concert features Eric Dolphy on his final tour with Mingus and one of his last public performances before his death just two months later. And a live recording from Kieth Jarrett’s Budapest Concert from 2016 which although not as from very long ago is poignantly significant as it was his final solo tour in light of Jarrett’s announcement this year that he would never play publicly again after suffering two strokes in 2018.
2020’s new albums in order of release:
Delfeayo Marsalis’ Uptown Jazz Orchestra’s Jazz Party was released on February 2nd on Troubadour Jass Records
The Uptown Jazz Orchestra is a 16-piece big band that Delfeayo Marsalis has directed for a dozen years and they have been performing every Wednesday night at Snug Harbor on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans for almost that long. Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra deliver the Jazz Party they promise with this upbeat, swinging album that remains true to its bluesy New Orleans roots but modern in its execution. Check out their version of Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s “Blackbird Special” with great harmonies, a driving second-line rhythm, and excellent solos. Listen to “Blackbird Special”
Carla Bley’s Life Goes On was released on February 14th on ECM
The cover photo for this album really predicted how 2020 would affect many of us. Carla Bley watches in surprise as wind carries music score away from the piano as many of us had all our plans blown away. However Bley’s reaction appears to be one of surprise and delight. Composer and pianist Carla Bley is joined by Andy Sheppard on saxophones and Steve Swallow on bass guitar. This is the same trio as on the 2016 release Andando el Tiempo and the 2013 release Trios. Life Goes On contains three suites of music. The title suite with four parts “Life Goes On”, “On”, “And On”, and “And Then One Day” starts with a straightforward blues before moving to different rhythms and structures. The second suite called “Beautiful Telephones” is in three parts and gets its title from a comment made by the current resident of the White House about the “most beautiful telephones.” “Copycat” is a three part suite with variations on call and response. Listen to “Like Goes On”
Aruan Ortiz’s Inside Rhythmic Falls was released on March 20th on Intakt Records
This album features master pianist Aruan Ortiz on piano and prepared piano, Andrew Cyrille on drums, and Mauricio Herrera on percussion. Born in 1973, Ortiz grew up in the city of Santiago de Cuba in the Oriente Province which is the birthplace of Afro-Cuban music. Inside Rhythmic Falls reaches into both the changüí, a style that fused the Spanish canción with Bantu percussion; and the tumba francesa which is a genre introduced to Cuba by slaves from Haiti. Inside Rhythmic Falls is as its name implies is all about the rhythm and Ortiz’s piano, both prepared and unadorned add to the percussive symphony and the quality recording captures the unique sound and nuance of all the instruments in play. This album is compelling Afro-Cuban music that is derived from rich cultural sources. Listen to “Inside Rhythmic Falls, Pt. 1 (Sacred Codes)”
Avishai Cohen’s Big Vicious was released on March 27th on ECM
Avishai Cohen on Trumpet, Effects, and Synthesizer joins Uzi Ramirez on Guitar, Yonatan Albalak on Guitar and Bass, Aviv Cohen on Drums, and Ziv Ravitz on Drums and Live Sampling to produce a sound heavily influenced not only by hip-hop, electronica, and rock but dominated by them. Although at times it changes to a more spacey feel and Cohen’s trumpet floats over it like Miles Davis in In A Silent Way. But unlike John McLaughlin guitarist Yonatan Albalak remains more firmly rooted in rock. Their surprising inclusion of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” begins gently then moves into a more prog-rock sound with a driving bass. The cover of “Teardrop” from Massive Attack is also notable. You will want t o play this one loud. Listen to “Teardrop”
John Scofield’s Swallow Tales was released on June 5th on ECM
John Scofield pays tribute to the music of electric bassist Steve Swallow in this album featuring all Swallow compositions. The trio features Scofield on guitar, Steve Swallow on electric bass, and Bill Stewart on drums. This same trio had recorded the album En Route together in 2004 and with a horn section in 2007 This and That. Despite Scofield’s passion for funk and recent side trips into Americana Swallow Tales remains a solid and satisfying jazz outing presenting Swallow’s music with subtlety and grace. The mood varies throughout as the slower “Away” has a sense of loss and longing while the uptempo “Radio” has a lighter feel. Swallow Tails also includes a wistful cover of Swallow’s waltz “Hullo, Bolinas” which was also a Bill Evans favorite. Listen to “Hullo, Bolinas”
Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Hero Trio was released on June 19th on Whirlwind Recordings
Alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, with his fiery trio, featuring his longtime musical associates François Moutin on bass and Rudy Royston on drums, has released an album that covers the tunes of his heroes. This is a bit of a departure since Rudresh Mahanthappa has previously only recorded his own compositions. Rudresh Mahanthappa’s trio honors his musical influences with Hero Trio, exploring the music of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Stevie Wonder, Keith Jarrett, Ornette Coleman, and Johnny Cash. As stated in the the lyrics of Cash’s “Ring of Fire” this album “… burns, burns, burns.” Listen to “Red Cross”
Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers’ Just Coolin’ was released on July 17th on Blue Note Records
What a treat we had in July when Blue Note released the studio album Just Coolin’ by Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers that was recorded on March 8, 1959 by Rudy Van Gelder. The session featured The Jazz Messengers with drummer and leader Art Blakey, trumpeter Lee Morgan, tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, pianist Bobby Timmons, and bassist Jymie Merritt. Mobley had just replaced Benny Golson in the tenor seat, or a return to his seat since he been part of the original lineup of the Jazz Messengers when they formed in 1954. Three of the six tracks on Just Coolin’ were written by Mobley including the title track. This was a short lived lineup as Wayne Shorter was next in line when Mobley moved on and recorded his own masterpiece Soul Station in early 1960. Just Coolin’ was shelved after At the Jazz Corner of the World featuring the same lineup recorded a month later live at Birdland was released in two volumes. We are lucky that it is now seeing the light of day. A burning session featuring the best of the best hard-bop. Listen to title track
Maria Schneider’s Data Lords was released on July 24th on ArtistShare
NEA Jazz Master Maria Schneider has earned two 2021 Grammy nominations for Data Lords in the categories of “Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album” as well as “Best Instrumental Composition” for “Sputnik” from the album. She has now earned a total of 14 Grammy nominations and 5 Grammy Awards. One of those Grammy awards was for “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” won the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Arrangement, Instrumental and Vocals which was a collaborative work with David Bowie. Schneider said that collaboration had inspired her to be willing to take more risks with her music recalling that Bowie told her “The great thing about music is if the plane goes down, we all walk away.”
Schneider has been a strong advocate for musicians’ rights and copyright and has been an outspoken critic of big data companies and their impact on music, culture, and privacy But far from being a technophobe she has been a pioneer in using the internet for funding and distributing music. In 2005, American composer Maria Schneider’s Concert in the Garden became the first album in Grammy history to win an award without being available in retail stores. The album was ArtistShare’s first fan-funded project. With Data Lords Schneider presents her musical impression that reflects the duality of living in both the natural world and the digital world.
The first disc of this double album presents the digital world opening with “The Lost World” featuring Ben Monder’s guitar in a mournful lament and Rick Perry on tenor saxophone. The discord evident in “Don’t Be Evil” when a growing orchestral cacophony leads to Monder’s blistering distorted guitar solo and Ryan Keberle bold blasts on trombone then the orchestra fades a bit as Frank Kimrough’s piano starts with intricate precision trying not to be evil but as the orchestral big data swells he succumbs after a defiant punch at the keyboard. The second disc presents the natural world and the music is pastoral rich and lush. And throughout along with the orchestral performance there are great solos, from Gary Versace’s accordian on the track “Sanzenin” to Donny McCaslin’s expository tenor on the final track “The Sun Waited For Me”
Bill Frisell’s Valentine was released on August 14th on Blue Note Records
This double album by Bill Frisell’s current touring trio features the guitarist joined by Thomas Morgan on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. Valentine is probably my favorite album of 2020. The guitar sounds so good on this record with a sustain that lingers in the air like a fragrance and the effects are brilliant. The title track is a solid blues that opens with a Monkish motif that returns to comp the bass solo. Frisell’s “Winter Always Turns to Spring” which first appeared on his 2000 release Ghost Town is revisited with a somber reflective feel that makes one doubt the title’s promise. Notable covers include “A Flower is a Lonesome Thing” by Billy Strahorn, “What the World Needs Now Is Love” by Burt Bacharach, and the traditional protest anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Listen to “We Shall Overcome”
Matt Wilson’s Hug was released on August 28th on Palmetto Records
Matt Wilson’s quartet features Jeff Lederer on saxophone, Kirk Knuffke on cornet, Chris Lightcap on bass and Matt Wilson himself on drums. Hug opens with Gene Ammons’ “The One Before This” which sets the tone for the album which is upbeat and playful. The farcical “Space Force March/Interplanetary Music” is a comical theme for the newly created military branch. There is more humor with “Ma Bun” and a swing rendition of “King of the Road.” There is both humor and warmth in this musical embrace. Listen to “Jabaloni”
Eric Revis’ Slipknots Through A Looking Glass was released on September 11 on Pyroclastic Records
Best known for his tenure in the Branford Marsalis group bassist and composer Eric Revis has released 8 albums of his own. On Slipknots Through A Looking Glass he is joined by Kris Davis Piano, Bill McHenry on tenor saxophone, Darius Jones on alto saxophone, Chad Taylor on drums/Mbira, and Justin Faulkner on Drums. The germinal of this album was a result of a partnership with The Jazz Gallery when Eric Revis received a 2017 grant from The Rockefeller Foundation to spend some time at the Kykuit estate in Pocantino Hills, NY to compose new music. Two compositions from that retreat were recorded for Branford Marsalis’ The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul. Revis presents the remaining compositions Slipknots Through a Looking Glass. In addidtion to Eric Revis’ original compositions this recording includes one each by saxophonists Darius Jones and Bill McHenry. Listen to “Baby Renfro”
Christian McBride Big Band’s For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver released on September 25th on Mack Avenue Records
Hammond B3 organist Jimmy Smith and guitarist Wes Montgomery both pioneered a new way of playing their respective instruments and were among the most influential players in jazz. They only recorded together once in sessions with a big band led by Oliver Nelson on September 21st, 23rd and 28th in 1966 that produced the two albums Jimmy & Wes: The Dynamic Duo and Further Adventures of Jimmy and Wes.
To honor that historic collaboration Christian McBride brought together organist Joey DeFrancesco, who is arguably the greatest jazz organist in the world, with guitarist Mark Whitfield who is veteran of Jimmy Smith’s groups. Quincy Phillips on drums fills the chair of Grady Tate who appeared on the 1966 session. The McBride Big Band supplies the muscle. Four of the tracks feature only the quartet while the other six tracks include the big band along with the quartet. There is a definite hip 60’s vibe in the arrangement for For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver and the musicianship is top notch. A satisfying recording. Listen to “Night Train”
Junk Magic’s Compass Confusion was released on October 2nd on Pyroclastic Records
With Compass Confusion Craig Taborn’s band further explores the approach to music pioneered when he released Junk Magic in 2004. Since then many have followed the mix of electronica, free jazz, synth, and the rhythms of hip-hop and rock. ths not regarded as heretical as it had been, particularly to the jazz orthodoxy of the time who had pigeonholed Taborn due to his highly visible role as pianist from his tenure in Chris Potter’s quartet. But even in Potter’s quartet Taborn’s inventiveness was already pushing the envelope. Taborn’s band now goes by the name Junk Magic after that original revolutionary album and the project has progressed over the past 16 years with a few changes in personnel adding Chris Speed on saxophone and Erik Fratzke on bass to the core of the original lineup with Craig Taborn on piano/keyboard/synthesizer, Mat Maneri on viola, and David King on drums. The sound is dense and rich, and despite the processing, you can still hear the interplay of the band members. The album opens with “Laser Beaming Hearts” which sounds as spacey and scifi as the name suggests until the drums come in 2 minutes in. The whole album has an engaging other-worldly quality that draws you in and demands that you listen. Listen to “Laser Beaming Hearts”
Chick Corea’s Trilogy 2 was released on October 4th on Concord Records
Chick Corea’s stellar trio with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade released the triple album Trilogy in 2014. That albums won two Grammy Awards (Best Jazz Instrumental Album and Best Improvised Jazz Solo for “Fingerprints”). Now with material from a recent reunion tour, a new double album Trilogy 2 has received two Grammy nominations, for Best Improvised Jazz Solo (for “All Blues”) and Best Jazz Instrumental Album. The album includes two Thelonious Monk compositions “Crepuscule with Nellie” and “Work;” Miles Davis’ “All Blues;” Corea’s “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs,”, “500 Miles High.” and “La Fiesta;” Steve Swallow’s “Eldertown;” Joe Henderson’s “Serenity;” Kenny Wheeler’s “Lotus Blossum;” and Stevie Wonder’s classic “Pastime Paradise.” The performance of the title track to Corea’s masterpiece Now He Sings, Now He Sobs is historic as it is Corea’s first recording of this tune since its release in 1968. This version from Trilogy 2, clocking in at over 16 minutes, allows the musicians a little more space to stretch out and features a sizzling drum solo by Brian Blade. Listening to this Trilogy 2 is pure joy. Listen to “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs”
What Happens in a Year released cérémonie/musique on October 9th on FiP Records
What Happens In A Year is a band led by Josh Sinton on baritone saxophone and bass clarinet with Todd Neufeld on guitar and Giacomo Merega on bass. Their album cérémonie/musique was recorded at Oktaven Studio in Mount Vernon, New York, 2018. This is a contemplative group improvisation that has an organic feel. This is free-form chamber music. There is a lot of space in the music and the dynamic range of the recording demands that you listen in a quiet room or quality headphones. I particularly like the passages with the bass clarinet and how that full woody tone blends with the guitar. Listen to “Netherland”
Kieth Jarrett’s Budapest Concert was released on October 30th on ECM
This is the second album released from his 2016 solo tour (Munich 2016 was released in 2019). But according to the New York Times Jarrett was even more enthusiastic about the Budapest Concert, which was the tour opener,” which he briefly considered calling “The Gold Standard.” This was his final European tour as Jarrett announced earlier this year that he would never play publicly again as he is dealing with partial paralysis from suffering two strokes in 2018.
The double album Budapest Concert documents Jarrett’s brilliant performance at the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall in Budapest. The program consisted of twelve moments “Part I” through “Part XII” followed by two encores: “It’s A Lonesome Old Town” and “Answer Me.” Listen to “Answer Me”
Fred Hersch Songs From Home was released on November 6th on Home Palmetto Records
Pianist Fred Hersch recorded a solo album at his home that includes a variety of comfort songs including standards and a few pop tunes like Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman”, Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want” and the Lennon/McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty Four”. Among the standards Cole Porter’s “Get Out of Town” reflects our desire to escape confinement while Ellington’s “Solitude” our reality. The two originals on Songs From Home come from two different trio albums: “Sarabande” from the album of the same name recorded in 1986 with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Joey Baron and “West Virginia Rose” is from his 2014 release Floating with John Hebert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums. This is not Hersch’s first solo album but compared to concert halls the intimacy of this home recording and the choice of material make it unique. Listen to “Solitude”
Charles Mingus @ Bremen 1964 & 1975 was released on November 13th on Sunnyside Records
Charles Mingus was certainly one of the giants of jazz and his talents as a composer, performer, and band leader all come together with his touring bands. In 1964 he toured with what is considered his greatest band, a sextet, that in addition to Charles Mingus on bass included Johnny Coles on trumpet; Eric Dolphy on alto saxophone, flute, and bass clarinet; Clifford Jordan on tenor saxophone; Jaki Byard on piano; and Dannie Richmond on drums. One stop on Mingus’s legendary 1964 European tour was the performance at Radio Bremen’s Studio F which was his first ever in Germany. The song “Hope So, Eric” aka “So Long Eric” was written for Eric Dolphy by Mingus after Dolphy announced that he would stay in Europe after the tour. But this was to be his final tour ever as just weeks after this performance he died from mistreated diabetes. This concert opened with a 26 minute version of that song and closed with a 25 minute rendering of “Meditations On Integration.”
Mingus brought a new incarnation of his band, (this time a quintet) back to Bremen, Germany in 1975 with Jack Walrath on trumpet, George Adams on tenor saxophone, Don Pullen on piano, and Dannie Richmond returning on drums. This is also a great band and this concert has better sound quality than the 1964 recording, either due to the acoustics of the hall, better recording gear, or better sound engineering. The set list includes “Fables Of Faubus” which is the only tune also performed in 1964. A couple more political statements in song include “Free Cell Block F, ‘Tis Nazi USA” and “Remember Rockefeller At Attica.”
Charles Mingus @ Bremen 1964 & 1975 is a 4 disc set. Some of this material has been available on bootlegs and poor quality copies but this is the first official and complete release from the 1964 and 1975 Charles Mingus recordings in Bremen. Also the first mastered from the original source recording. This set sounds great and should be in the collection of any Mingus fan. Listen to “Hope So Eric”
Sonny Rollins’ Rolling in Holland released November 27th on Resonance Records
On a 1967 tour of the Netherlands Sonny Rollins quickly established a rapport with bassist Ruud Jacobs and drummer Han Bennink. In an interview included in the liner notes, the 89-year-old Rollins says, “I’m so happy that Resonance is putting it out because it really represents a take-no-prisoners type of music. That’s sort of what I was doing around that period of time; that was sort of Sonny Rollins then – a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am approach. It was very much me. And I loved it and I loved playing with those guys.” Rollins in Holland brings together recently discovered material drawn from three separate appearances over the course of three days by the trio: a burning May 3rd concert at the Arnhem Academy of Visual Arts, a studio session at the VARA Studio in Hilversum on the morning of May 5th,, and two live tracks recorded during the evening of May 5th on “Jazz met Jacobs” a half-hour national NCRV TV show presented live from the Go-Go Club in Loosdrecht.
Rollins in Holland comes on either two CD’s or three LP’s. The first LP has the VARA Studio on side A with “Blue Room,’ “Four,” “Love Walked In,” and “Tune Up ” and side B with “Sonnymoon for Two” and “Love Walked In” from the performances recorded at the Go-Go Club. The remaining two LP’s have all the recordings from the Arnhem Academy of Visual Arts concert where the band stretched out with tunes over 20 minutes in length with most of the sides containing only one track. Listen to “Tune Up”
Karuna Trio (Adam Rudolph/Ralph M. Jones/Hamid Drake) released Imaginary Archipelago on December 4th on Meta Records
Featuring drummer/percussionists Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake, and saxophonist/flutist Ralph M. Jones, Imaginary Archipelago takes the listener on a musical journey through imagined islands of natural beauty and wildlife with lush forests, dark caves, and roaring streams. Adam Rudolph talks about “sonic masking” when performers “put on masks to transform her or himself into a transcendent/mythic other” to bring us beyond familiar and ordinary. Improvised with both ancient and modern instruments, these soundscapes are further sculpted and recombined by Adam Rudolph’s electronic processing to create the final result that still manages to keep it’s organic sound. Listen to “The Island of Alima”