You wouldn’t have had your Chick Coreas five years ago. Chick Corea doesn’t have to really dress up in blazer gear to get a wide following. It just goes to show you that it’s not a question of image these days. It’s more a question of the actual music.
Keith Emerson, Keyboard Magazine interview, October 1977
In late 1976, my older brother changed my life by giving me a copy of Keyboard Magazine. It was a pretty amazing periodical: in those days before digital sounds, computers and then-undreamt-of technology became the prevailing medium of modern music, Keyboard focused on the serious fun of playing and listening, mostly in interviews with pianists, organists and synthesists across a broad spectrum of genres, as well as in how-to columns and record reviews. That’s where Chick Corea, who cranked out a monthly “Keyboards & Music” column and whose remarkably frequent albums merited equally frequent cover stories, first caught my eye. And through the album My Spanish Heart, reviewed in that issue my brother gave me, he caught my ear as well.
More than a decade into his career, Corea had unquestionably paid his dues by the mid-1970s. Born into a musical family, gigging professionally in high school, and briefly pursuing classical studies at Columbia and Julliard, Corea jumped into the jazz world of New York City as both a sideman and a leader of striking originality (as on the seminal 1968 trio date Now He Sings, Now He Sobs). Which is when Miles Davis came calling: playing on Davis’ trailblazing In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, then launching the avant-garde quartet Circle, Corea consistently sought the cutting edge of the music. But an encounter with L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology movement abruptly shifted his perspective. As he said looking back,
The concept of communication with an audience became a big thing for me at the time. The reason I was using that concept so much at that point in my life – in 1968, 1969 or so – was because it was a discovery for me. I grew up kind of only thinking how much fun it was to tinkle on the piano and not noticing that what I did had an effect on others. I did not even think about a relationship to an audience, really, until way later.
Chick Corea, Artist Interviews.eu, 1994
That shift was palpable by 1972; in addition to the meditative Crystal Silence(an outstanding duet effort with vibraphonist Gary Burton), Corea was checking out more directly populist idioms. Teaming with bassist and lifelong musical compadre Stanley Clarke, he formed Return to Forever in 1972, traveling with lightning speed from the laid-back Brazilian vibe of Light As A Feather to the audacious jazz-rock suites of 1976’s Romantic Warrior. This version of RTF, also featuring Lenny White’s funky drumming and the flamenco-metal of guitar phenom Al DiMeola, even crossed over to the still prog-immersed shores of Great Britain:
This year, I’m starting off my “best of” retrospective with albums that aren’t technically “new” — compilations, live albums, reissues and (re)discoveries from previous years — that grabbed me on first listen, then compelled repeated plays in 2020. I’m not gonna rank them except for my Top Pick, which I’ll save for the very end. The others are listed alphabetically by artist. (Old school style, that is — last names first where necessary!) Where available, listening opportunities are linked in the album title or included below my summary via Bandcamp, YouTube or Spotify.
Big Big Train, Summer’s Lease (compilation)and Empire (live): This year, I’ve bought music from even more far-flung corners of the world than usual — including Big Big Train’s Japanese-only retrospective. Disc 1 features various rarities on CD for the first time: re-recordings old and new (including excerpts from my intro to the band, the Stone and Steel Blu-Ray), plus the “London Song” sequence from Folklore in all its sprawling glory. Disc 2 leans into the post-Underfall Yard era with a solid mix of epics and, um, shorter epics, plus an unreleased instrumental as dessert. It’s all impeccably curated, and (in retrospect) a fitting capstone to the work of recently departed Train crew Dave Gregory Rachel Hall and Danny Manners. In a similar fashion, Empire is a fond farewell — the last concert played by this incarnation of the band (including Cosmograf’s Robin Armstrong) before COVID-19 killed off their first-ever North American tour. Which makes the entire show, brilliantly performed as always, even more poignant, from the rocket-fueled opener “Alive” to the romantic, spiraling coda for the best version of “East Coast Racer” yet. Sorry, there’s something in my eye . . .
The Firesign Theatre, How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All(rediscovery): This spring, my big brother Bob pointed me back to this 1969 classic — quite possibly the single most insane comedy album ever recorded. The half-hour long title track’s surrealistic road trip morphs into a wickedly irreverent (yet oddly touching) patriotic pageant, with stopover cameos from Lewis Carroll and James Joyce; “The Further Adventures Of Nick Danger,” memorized and mimed to by me and my roommates back in college, is a hallucinogenic smoothie of hardboiled detective drama, time travel and the Beatles’ White Album. “Wait a minute — didn’t I say that line on the other side of the record?” Believe me, you need to find out.
Pat Mastelotto and Markus Reuter, FACE (discovery): My New Year’s resolution was to become a MoonJune Music subscriber through Bandcamp; twelve months later, it’s still one of the best musical decisions I made. In recent years, touch guitarist Reuter has become a major contributor to Leonardo Pavkovic’s ongoing quest to “explore and expand boundaries of jazz, rock, ethnographic, avant, the unknown and anything between and beyond,” frequently joined by King Crimson drummer Mastelotto (his partner with Tony Levin in Stick Men). The 2017 FACE (not actually on MoonJune) stands out in the duo’s catalog: a single, 35-minute instrumental travelogue that swiftly spans the globe and its myriad rhythms, aided and abetted by Steven Wilson and associates of David Lynch, Tool and the Rembrandts. Blink with your ears and you’ll miss the transitions from theme to theme and place to place; this one both demands and thoroughly rewards my attention every time. Hopefully, the excerpts linked above will convince you — don’t hesitate to hop on board!
The Neal Morse Band, The Great Adventour Live in Brno (live): every bit as impressive as when I saw this show in Detroit the same year, the NMB’s concert take on The Great Adventure is even tighter, more driven and more finely honed than the studio version. Kaleidoscopic contrasts of rhythm, instrumental color, vocal textures (mainly from Morse, guitarist Eric Gillette and keyboardist Bill Hubauer) and tonality mesh effortlessly with drummer Mike Portnoy and bassist Randy’s George’s badass forward propulsion, mirroring the lyrical highs and lows of the journey to John Bunyan’s Celestial City. The result is sustained, extended, unforced ecstasy in the Czech audience, capturing how Morse’s recent work embodies the ongoing ideal of American revivalist religion. A journey worth taking, whether you caught this in person or not.
Jaco Pastorius, Truth, Liberty and Soul: Live in NYC(live, archival, discovery): 2020 was the year I came across Resonance Records, where “jazz detective” Zev Feldman has been unearthing incredible archival treasures for nearly a decade. Jaco Pastorius single-handedly revolutionized electric bass playing in the 1970s; this 2017 release captures him in 1982, fresh from his boundary-busting stint in jazz-rock titans Weather Report. Fronting a big band of great players — the best New York horns, the drum/percussion duo of Peter Erskine and Don Alias, Othello Molineaux on steel pans and harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielmanns — Pastorius mixes classic tunes with his own soulful writing. It’s a mighty, bubbling noise — jazz, funk, rock, reggae, swing and more, with a groove that never stops and heart behind the flash. Irresistible for anyone with a pulse!
Porcupine Tree, In Absentia(deluxe reissue): Not the Porcupine Tree album that hooked me (that was Deadwing, promised its own deluxe box next year) but, looking back, my firm favorite of the band’s late period. Freshly signed to the American label that brought us Trans Siberian Orchestra, Steven Wilson and company made the polar opposite of a sentimental holiday album, focusing on the inner motivations of — serial killers? What makes that work? Well, how about: the full-on debut of Gavin Harrison’s stylish, rhythmically slippery drumming; Richard Barbieri’s off-center, arresting synth textures and solos; Colin Edwin’s relentless, incomparably steady bass workouts; Steven Wilson’s reignited love of metal slamming up against the songcraft developed on Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun, as well as a fixation with Beach Boys-tinged harmonies? Oh, and a clutch of superior tunes that became perennial favorites, both on the main album (“Blackest Eyes,” “Trains,” “The Sound of Muzak”) and the bonus disc (“Drown With Me,” “Futile”). Add in subtle yet superb remastering and you have a near-perfect example of how these boxes should be done.
Pure Reason Revolution, The Dark Third (reissue): At a time when progressive rock’s troops were thin on the ground, PRR provided reinforcements — and a breath of fresh air. It’s still hard to believe a major label released The Dark Third back in 2006; the effortlessly evolving long-form suites, the sweet-and-sour pairings of lush soundscapes and jacked-up beats were a vivid variant on Pink Floyd’s classic palette that turned the bass and drums up to 11. Jon Courtney, Chloe Alper and their cohorts weave the webs of melody and harmony; Paul Northfield’s co-production brings out the cavernous bottom end. The new bonus disc includes both the intriguing student work that led to Sony signing PRR and outtakes that showed up in different forms on later albums. Always an booming, blissed-out listen, now more inviting than ever.
Tears for Fears, The Seeds of Love (reissue): A marvelously all-over-the-place, widescreen record. Unabashedly pop but also fearlessly expanding the TFF sound into psychedelia (the title track was everywhere back in 1989), soul (big shout-out to Oleta Adams and Tessa Niles, who pushed Roland Orzbaal and Curt Smith to new vocal heights on “Woman in Chains” & “Swords & Knives”), jazz (Nicky Holland & Adams serve up stunningly tasty piano), world music (Jon Hassell’s superlative trumpet on “Standing on the Corner of the Third World” & “Famous Last Words”) and even a touch of prog-funk on “Year of the Knife.’ The squeaky-clean remaster (plenty of headroom and dynamic range) is dandy, but if you need more, the super-deluxe set linked above includes some dynamite rehearsal recordings.
and my Top Pick . . .
Ella Fitzgerald, The Lost Berlin Tapes (live, archival): My recent listening has tacked in the direction of mainstream jazz; if I had to speculate as to why, I’d say I might be looking for less tension and more release during my unobligated time. But what’s on offer is a factor as well. Instead of baking sourdough bread or taking up acoustic guitar during the time of COVID, it’s as if jazz musicians and aficionados have all dug deep in their closets and simultaneously unearthed long lost vintage recordings — which record companies eager to fill their distribution pipelines have snapped up and launched into the wider world.
This, in my view, is the best of that harvest: an astounding, life-affirming 1962 concert buried in the archives of Ella Fitzgerald’s manager until now. Ella and her fellas (Paul Smith on piano, Wilfred Middlebrooks on bass, Stan Levey on drums) are at their absolute peak, in tune with each other and with an extroverted, enthralled Berlin audience. Every note of this concert radiates warmth and inner joy, even when the mood darkens on torch songs like “Cry Me A River” and Billie Holiday’s “Good Morning Heartache.” And when Ella swings on “Jersey Bounce,” jumps on “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie,” digs into Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah, I Love Him So” (resulting in an immediate, complete encore!), then breaks into her trademark scatting on “Mack the Knife,” well, she is unstoppable. I have had no finer feeling listening to music this year; whatever may ail your soul, I believe that The Lost Berlin Tapes are good medicine for it.
But wait, there’s more! Watch for my “new album” favorites from 2020 coming soon . . .
In his 2018 book Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century, Nate Chinen devoted his final chapter to guitarist Mary Halvorson, rightly declaring her “an original in every sense.” Her spiky, pick-driven timbre, sparse yet compelling use of effects, daring improvisational command and distinctly off-center compositions add up to a sound like no one else’s, effortlessly catching (then twisting) the ear regardless of context — from the radiant solo album of covers Meltframe to her head-spinning work with avant-garde trio Thumbscrew to the precise, conversational octet writing of 2016’s Away with You (my first, heady exposure to her music).
Also in 2018, Halvorson released Code Girl, her first extended foray into songwriting; the band she put together for the album boasted serious roots in jazz, but fearlessly mashed up genres and straddled extremes of expression, pivoting on a dime from a murmur to a scream and back again. On October 30, the revamped Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl (pictured below) returns with a second album, Artlessly Falling. Reconnecting with vocalist Amirtha Kidambi, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, Halvorson also welcomes new collaborators Adam O’Farrill (trumpet) and Maria Grand (tenor saxophone and voice). For the cherry on top, three of the new tracks are sung with gravity and grace by Soft Machine founder Robert Wyatt, one of Halvorson’s most profound influences.
It was an utter delight to speak with Mary Halvorson — a thoughtful musician and a serious music fan — about her approach to lyrics, songwriting, composition, collaboration, improvisation and more. The video of our conversation is below; a lightly edited transcript follows the jump!
Well there’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm Gonna be a twister to blow everything down That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground
— Bruce Springsteen, “The Promised Land”
The cover image for Pat Metheny’s From This Place — Springsteen’s twister touching down under lowering clouds above a reversed title — suggests that the guitarist’s first collection of new music in six years might be a dystopic downer, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls re-purposed for resistance in a tensely partisan time. It’s true that Metheny writes from a distinct viewpoint here; but first and foremost he’s writing and playing from his musical and personal core, giving everything he has to connect with listeners of any and every outlook. And this album communicates like mad. It may end up being one of the best records released this year — state of the art jazz composed and performed at the highest level, a unified work of formidable emotional range and intelligence: instantly accessible, inescapably substantial — and above all, incredibly moving.
On his website, Metheny writes extensively about the process that led to From This Place: touring his back catalog with an international trio of virtuosos (Gwilym Simcock on piano, Linda May Han Oh on bass, Antonio Sanchez on drums); the decision to record brand new tunes without rehearsal (a strategy by Miles Davis with his 1960s quintet); another snap decision to leave space for orchestrations (by Alan Broadbent and Gil Goldstein), incorporating both Metheny’s composed motifs and the quartet’s improvised inspirations; orchestral overdubs with conductor Joel McNeely and the cream of West Coast pros on a Hollywood soundstage (evoking CTI Records’ lush 1970s aesthetic); topped with guest shots from percussionist Luis Conte, harmonica player/Metheny alum Gregoire Maret and vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello on the hymnic title track.
All well and good, but process and preparation can only go so far. Where the rubber meets the road is the playing — Metheny’s gutsy, creamy-toned melodicism, Simcock’s rhapsodic comping and vivacious solos, Oh’s fertile, bubbling foundational work and Sanchez’s pungent, earthy rhythmic concoctions. These four are at the peak of their abilities throughout the session, primed to deliver their best. It’s jaw-dropping stuff: interplay verging on telepathy, exhilarating ebb and flow both between individual players and as a unit, the space they leave for each other and the sumptuous orchestral backing all come together in awe-inspiring, high-intensity takes on 10 new tunes. Whether scaling edifices of endlessly unrolling melody (“You Are” and “Pathmaker”), math-rocking through intricate uptempo bebop/Latin fusions (“Everything Explained” and “Sixty-Six”) or settling into hushed balladry (“The Past in Us” and “Love May Take Awhile”), they impress and astonish, as individuals and as a unit. It’s hard to believe there’s a better jazz quartet active right now; this is a band I want to see and hear live as soon as possible.
But in the meantime, whither Metheny’s point of view?
Gifted with a glorious, classically trained voice plus extraordinary skills on banjo and fiddle, equally at home with African-American spirituals, Celtic “mouth music” and opera, Giddens is the kind of protean musician that comes along once in a generation.
Founding “postmodern string band” the Carolina Chocolate Drops, writing music for Bob Dylan’s words on The New Basement Tapes, winning a MacArthur Genius fellowship, acting in CMT’s Nashville series — Giddens has gone from strength to strength in a remarkably short time, earning every step up in her meteoric rise. Seeing her live in the summer of 2015, I walked away giddy, as she and her band effortlessly filled a Cape Cod town hall with irresistible rhythms, utterly committed performances that ran the gamut from a tear-inducing take on Dolly Parton to funked-up Appalachian folk tunes — and that powerful, powerful voice.
For her third solo album (after 2015’s Tomorrow Is My Turn and 2017’s Freedom Highway), Giddens has teamed with Italian pianist/percussionist Francesco Turrisi, who filters early Mediterranean folk music through the prism of jazz. Recorded in Dublin, Ireland in five days with minimal preparation and few overdubs, There Is No Other soars, sears and astonishes — breaking your heart one instant, healing it and setting off fireworks of exhilaration the next, commanding your attention throughout.
Words can only approximate the sweep of traditions and times woven together here. Folk ballads from Appalachia, Italy and England, jazz via Hermeto Pascoal (a Brazilian collaborator with Miles Davis) and vocalese pioneer Oscar Brown, classical arias by Carlisle Floyd and Samuel Barber — they’re all subsumed into the spell that Giddens (on banjo, violin and viola) and Turrisi (on piano, accordion, lute, banjo, and percussion) conjure up. This music is warm, determined, melancholy, driven and delighted by turns, seamlessly flowing from one track to track, each its own thing, each part of a greater unity.
And Giddens’ singing — again, gorgeous beyond words. On “Gonna Write Me A Letter” and her own “I’m On My Way”, she’s an unstoppable force of nature; on “Pizzica di San Vito” and “Briggs’ Forro”, a rippling vocal breeze above dancing beds of rhythm; on “Wayfaring Stranger” and “The Trees on the Mountains”, the cry of a broken heart devastated by life and love; on “Brown Baby” and her gospel-tinged “He Will See You Through”, the voice of maturity, determination and hard-won belief. Nothing human is foreign to her — the wisdom of generations and the optimism of youth come together to devastating effect.
I recommend There Is No Other without hesitation — it’s one of those albums that Duke Ellington might have termed “beyond category”, resonating deeply with the core of our shared humanity. As Giddens and Turrisi put in in their liner notes,
From the beginning of our musical partnership we have been struck with the commonality of the human experience through music; how instruments, modes, and the very functions of songs and tunes are universal from culture to culture. There are very real and documented yet unheralded historical links between many of the instruments we play; and yet others of the connections we have here arise solely from our artistic instinct; but either way, the overwhelming feeling we have is that there is no Other.
Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi tour North America from September to November; tour dates are here. In the meantime, listen to There Is No Other for yourself:
Here are the albums of new music from 2018 that grabbed me on first or second listen, then compelled repeated plays. I’m not gonna rank them except for those that achieved Top Favorite status, which I’ll save for the very end. The others are listed alphabetically by artist. (Old school style, that is — last names first where necessary!) Links to the ones I’ve previously reviewed are embedded in the album titles. But first, a graphic tease …
As I exited the CTA Green Line on a crisp, clear Chicago Sunday, Reggie’s Rock Club and Music Joint beckoned with the promise of Progtoberfest’s final day: twelve hours of sixteen bands on two stages. Constantly unfolding delight or endless endurance test? Only one way to find out.
(Notes for after the jump: links are provided to bands’ online presence — website, Facebook or Bandcamp pages — wherever possible. An asterisk [*] by a band’s name means I bought one or more of their CDs at the event; A cross [+] means the band didn’t have CDs for sale — but their music is now on my want list. Here we go …)
Jazz shouldn’t have any mandates. Jazz is not supposed to be something that’s required to sound like jazz. For me, the word ‘jazz’ means, ‘I dare you.’
Wayne Shorter, the last saxophonist standing from jazz’s golden age, its great lateral thinker both as player and composer, tossed off that quote in 2013 when he turned 80. For his 85th birthday, Shorter has tripled down: his latest project Emanon breaches multiple boundaries, stretching out not just beyond jazz, but beyond music itself.
Emanon (“no name” spelled backwards, referencing both a Dizzy Gillespie tune and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man) is a marvelously ambitious sprawl, Shorter’s stab at a work of total art. Containing a 2013 suite of his music re-imagined for jazz quartet and chamber orchestra, a double album of his quartet’s 2016 live date in London, and a graphic novel in collaboration with screenwriter Monica Sly and comic/children’s book artist Randy DuBurke, it’s meant to be heard and seen as a whole. Also touched — it’s not available digitally, only in CD (Standard) or CD/LP (Deluxe) box sets. Or as Shorter puts it, “The packaging is intentionally designed to reveal its dormant possibilities as it travels between alternative realities of the multiverse.” Sounds kinda progressive to me …
“There are dark parts to life. We all want to tuck our heads down and cry somewhere. But there’s a lot that’s really beautiful. It’s amazing, a blessing, that we have all these influences. That’s what this album is saying: you don’t have to be overwhelmed.” — Kamasi Washington, quoted in July 2018’s MOJO magazine.
If you take mainstream American media seriously (just once, for fun), Kamasi Washington is the latest Savior Of Jazz. Leading a vanguard of hot young musicians from South Central Los Angeles, Washington has been everywhere at once since he emerged in 2004, working in the bands Young Jazz Giants and Throttle Elevator Music, playing with R&B/hip-hop stars like Snoop Dogg and Flying Lotus, even writing string charts for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
In 2015, Washington unleashed his first solo statement, The Epic, and the jazz world was understandably blown away. The 3 hour, 3-CD concept album, performed by The West Coast Get Down (Washington’s 13-piece, double-rhythm section band) with strings and choir, channels the “spiritual jazz” of 1960s heroes like John Coltrane and Sun Ra into a fluid, expansive historical survey of black consciousness. One example of the man’s range and ambition: Disc Three, subtitled The Historic Repetition, whipsaws from Charlie Parker’s “Cherokee” through Claude Debussy’s “Clair de lune” to Terence Blanchard’s “Theme for Malcolm,” moving from a whisper to a scream, contentment to anguish, simplicity to maximum overdrive with seemingly effortless mastery and power.
Crossing over to a wider public, Kamasi Washington had it all, and everyone wanted him on their side (critic Greg Tate, riffing on Washington’s work with Kendrick Lamar, tagged him as “the jazz voice of Black Lives Matter”). After The Epic, the floodgates opened: Washington composed a suite for New York’s Whitney Biennial, guested across the modern musical spectrum, and toured worldwide — including a stop in Ann Arbor, where I heard his 8-piece band The Next Step live in 2016.
So when you’re on top of the heap, or in the center of the storm, where do you go next? With Heaven and Earth (only a double album — but hold that thought!) Washington makes a classic move, diving deep into a personal take on African-American spirituality, with new music informed by the gospel tradition and the blues. As he said to the British magazine Dazed:
The inspiration for that is this idea I had that the world is the way we imagine it to be, but it’s also informed by the way we experience it … The journey, you realise, is one and the same: how you imagine the world affects how you experience it. The world your mind lives in, lives in your mind.