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Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Reflecting upon last decade's musical influencers

By Stef

Free music is alive and kicking. Listening experiences are expanded, innovations introduced, the nature of sound altered ... In our world of images and text, of opinions and rational arguments, of basic emotions and fast judgments, nothing is more welcome than music that elevates us all to a different sphere, allowing us to join in sentiments and feelings that cannot be spoken, that defy rationality, that are beyond categorisation, yet that appear to be somehow appreciated by many, regardless of their language or culture.

In this short piece I want to pay tribute to the musicians who made our lives deeper and more enjoyable in the past decade, both the established artists who confirmed their role and the newcomers who came with fresh and sometimes disruptive ideas.

The lists are based on the number of times these musicians appeared in our blog over the last decade, as well as the qualitative evaluation they received. This can be by reviews of their albums, or by being mentioned as reference in reviews of other albums or of concerts. To this, I added some personal preferences.

Wadada Leo Smith
(Photo by Dawid Laskowski) 
In my opinion, Wadada Leo Smith is without a doubt the most important musician of the past decade. His versatility and musical inventiveness stand out. Whether fusion, classical, free improv or jazz, whether on solo albums, duo albums, small ensembles or with large groups, Smith seems not only to offer something new and fresh, he also pushes the boundaries of music forward, relentlessly and seemingly effortless. And of course his trumpet-playing is majestic. With many of his albums obtaining 5-star evaluations, he is also the Winner of our Happy New Ears Award 2016.

Satoko Fujii
(photo by Krzysztof Penarski)
The Japanese pianist has also been one of the most prominent musicians in the last decade. A very prolific artist - especially to celebrate her 60th birthday - she is equally versatile. Possibly her orchestras (New York, Tokyo, Kobe, Nagoya) are best known, but her solo work or work with small ensembles (Kaze, Gato Libre, Ma-Do, Min-Yoh) is equally superb. Even if all her music comes in different styles and contexts, its inherent power to create tension and strong, almost visual narratives make her stand out. Like Smith, she combines composition and improvisation. And of course she is a wonderful pianist.

Ken Vandermark
(Photo by Seth Tisue)
Even if I doubt the quality of the search engine on our website, there is no doubt that Ken Vandermark is the most cited musician on this blog, with more than 225 mentions in the last ten years, or almost once every two weeks. He seems to be everywhere and active all the time, composing, touring, recording, creating new ensembles on the fly. He has an average of four albums a year as a leader, many of which are double albums or even box-sets. Of all the musicians on the list, he is possibly the one who's most rooted in jazz, celebrating the power of strong themes, solid and subtle rhythms and wild improvisation. His voice is very recognisable as a sax player, yet every time it is a pleasure to listen to.

John Butcher
(Photo by Susan O'Connor)
The British saxophonist moves us away from jazz into the realm of pure sound art and tonal explorations. Sound colours space, and space colours sound. He is most comfortable with solo albums or small ensembles, often with other British innovators, or with like-minded spirits from Germany, US, Norway, Japan. His music is visionary, full of surprise and intimacy. He forces the listener to sit down and slow down and truly listen because every note matters.

Joëlle Léandre
(Photo by Dawid Laskowski)
The second most read article on this blog, was French bassist Joëlle Léandre's virulent attack on the lack of gender diversity in the attribution of the French Jazz Awards. But that is not the reason we mention her here (no, it's not out of fear!): her impact on jazz and improvised music in the last decade has been equally formidable. She's a world citizen, meeting people, performing with them. She has also been very keen to mentor upcoming musicians, and giving them a platform to record, not only to give them a chance, but also for her to stay young and fresh and to be challenged by new sounds and approaches.
Mats Gustafsson
(Photo by K.Penarski)
The fiery Swede is also omnipresent in our reviews, getting the place he deserves on the global music stage in the last decade. Despite his reputation as a power player the sensitivity of his art in smaller ensembles is often overlooked. His Fire! Orchestra is one of the most popular live acts on the scene - and always scoring high in our polls - but he is equally comfortable to collaborate with the more abstract art of pianists like Agustí Fernandéz, with the austere inventiveness of a Barry Guy, sound artists like Joachim Nordwall or doom bands such as Chaos Echoes, to name but a few.
Joe McPhee
(Photo by Seth Tisue)
How much poorer would music be without Joe McPhee! In the last decade, he bridged the age gap between 70 and 80 years, but he seems to become younger together with the refinement of his art. He is the soul of music, whether with Trio X, or with his endless list of collaborations with musical innovators from around the world: UK, Poland, Turkey, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Portugal, France, and many more. His sound is unmistakably his, with deep and solid roots in blues and jazz that act as a springboard to go beyond the known. He is the living evidence that avant-garde and heartfelt emotions are not mutually exclusive.

Rob Mazurek
(Photo by Ariele Monti)
He's less prolific and less present than some of the musicians mentioned in this list, but that is possibly due to his long stay in Brasil. Even if he was already very active in the decade before, his art really came to fruition now, with his extraordinary "Exploding Star Orchestra", his Chicago Underground and his Sao Paulo Underground. He is a musical and technological innovator, experimenting with sound (including by electric eels), electronics, arrangements and post-production, but all this without loosing sight of what it means to take listeners along on his journey.

Matthew Shipp
(Photo by Thien V)
Even if he decided not to record for one year, this doesn't show in his prolific record output of the last decade. Shipp's art is one of integration, a sublimation of musical influences from blues to classical, where improvisational structure and abstract lyricism meet. Around half his albums of the last years have been duets with Brazilian saxophonist Ivo Perelman, but that gives only a partial view of his music and sound. He has had several 5-star reviews for his solo work and his collaboration with Daniel Carter and William Parker. Always a joy to hear.

There are of course many more musicians to be mentioned. I did not include free jazz and free improv luminaries such as Evan Parker, Peter Brötzmann, Anthony Braxton, Alexander von Schlippenbach, Barry Guy or Steve Swell because they continued their innovations and work of the previous decades. Their influence was already felt and made earlier, and it obviously continues today.

Other established musicians who appear often in our blog, and as a consequence they also shaped the decade are Eddie Prévost, Agusti Fernandez, Tim Berne, Trevor Watts, Paal Nilssen-Love, Simon Rose, Steve Noble, Hamid Drake, William Parker, Ivo Perelman, Larry Ochs, Craig Taborn, Tom Rainey, Daniel Carter, Gerald Cleaver,  Cooper-Moore, Paul Dunmall, Frode Gjerstad, Marilyn Crispell, ... 

If all these musicians had strong impact on music, in essence they continued the career they had started many years before. But we have also seen a wonderful number of younger musicians who are committed to finding new musical experiences, who, despite all odds of commercial success, invest their time and creativity in music that may never make them rich - even if we hope it does - working on their artistic vision with stubborn enthusiasm.

Nate Wooley
(Photo Schorle - Creative Commons)
Trumpeter Nate Wooley is almost the perfect representation of the decade. A very disciplined instrumentalist, he is as versatile as he is inquisitive for new sounds. He can play as a member of a band with a more traditional use of his instrument, or go totally beyond expectations with his personal investigations. His output is prolific as it is rich. From solo albums, collaborations with fellow trumpet-player Peter Evans over the interesting bands such as 'From Wolves To Whales' or the 'Bureau of Atomic Tourism', to his most singular vision on his Seven Storey Mountain ensemble.
Okkyung Lee
(Photo by Peter Gannushkin)
Korean cellist Okkyung Lee moved to the US in 2000 where she got a degree in contemporary music. Musically, she is closer to the avant-garde free improv scene than to jazz. She combines technical mastery with an uncompromising and adventurous musical vision that his deeply emotional at the same time. Some of her solo albums are exceptional, but so are her collaborations with other forward-thinking musicians such as Axel Dörner, Lasse Marhaug, John Edwards and Peter Evans.

Matana Roberts
(Photo by Frank Schindelbeck)
The last decade is the decade of Matana Roberts' "Coin Coin" series, a narrative of racial suppression and human rights. Her output is not as prolific as some other musicians on this list, but the quality is exceptional, with 5-star ratings for each of the four chapters, and guaranteed appearance on the Best Albums of the Year. Ambitious and powerful. Originally, her "Coin, Coin" series was expected to be organised in twelve chapters. We have eight more to go. We look forward to the next decade!

Martin Küchen
(Photo by Iztokx)
The Swedish saxophonist is actually no longer part of the new generation of the last decade (sorry, Martin), but he only managed to really break through in this decade and create his impact. Possibly his best known and loved bands are the "Angles 9" (or 3 or 8 or 10) ensemble, that accuses the hypocrisy of today's political world and its violence against the powerless, in a music that is as infectious as it is deeply emotional and free. But next to this, he also delivered some of the more personal and deeply felt solo albums of the decade, as well as creative adventures in other smaller ensembles.

Tyshawn Sorey
(Photo by Helmut Berns)
With "Koan" from 2009, drummer Tyshawn Sorey illustrated that he had some very personal ideas about music, and luckily he managed to realise his potential, and his ambitious "Pillars" became the Winner of the Happy New Ears Award 2018 and he also figured in the Top-10 Happy New Ears 2017, and getting 5-star scores for "Alloy",  "The Adornment of Time" and "Flaga: Book Of Angels 27". He is one of the Anthony Braxton students, and not the only one in this list.

Susana Santos Silva
(Photo: Christer Männikus)
As an occasional member of the 'Fire! Orchestra', a remarkable solo album, and strong collaborations in bands such as Lama, or the occasional ensemble with Scandinavian musicians, Susana Santos Silva created her voice: clear and agile. Her duo with Kaja Draksler and her albums as a leader all received very high ratings and mentions among the Best Albums of the Year. She is one of the many Portuguese artists who received a platform by the Clean Feed label, but the quality and inventiveness of her work has confirmed their initial support.

Eve Risser
(Photo by Tore Sætre - Creative Commons)
French pianist Eve Risser had released three albums when she suddenly hit the global musical stage with her "En Corps" album which won her the Happy New Ears Award 2012. Afterwards, she consistently ended up on our Best of the Year lists (2015, 2016), with her solo albums, her duos and smaller ensembles.

Almost by herself she created a new sound for the piano, building on the legacy of artists like Benoît Delbecq's rhythmic complexities and prepared piano, but adding a phenomenal energetic drive and single-minded focus. In the over-crowded space of jazz piano, she managed to find her own voice and do something exciting with it.

Ingrid Laubrock
(Photo by Harald Krichel - Creative Commons)
Saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock's real breakthrough happened only in the last decade, possibly after the success of the excellent "Sleepthief" in 2008. Like Sorey, Halvorson, Ho Bynum and other musicians, she is one of the musicians who developed under the mentorship of Anthony Braxton. Today, she is very much in demand, as is illustrated by her participation on more than 40 albums in the last ten years, of which a large part by one of the eleven ensembles that she led or leads.

With several 5-star albums on our blog, she appears on several Happy New Ears albums of the year.

Marcelo Dos Reis/Luis Vicente
(Photos by Nuño Martins and Cees van de Ven)

We could have reviewed them separately, but the Portuguese guitarist Marcelo dos Reis and trumpeter Luis Vicente have created their own sound of modern improvised music, and this in various ensembles with different approaches and line-ups: free, cohesive, hypnotic and sensitive. With Chamber 4, they won our Happy New Ears Award for 2017, and they were runner-up in 2015. I could and maybe should also have added the brothers Théo and Valentin
Ceccaldi, who also played with the two Portuguese in various ensembles.

Mary Halvorson
(Photo by Franpi Barriaux - Creative Commons)

Even if I don't like the "twang" of her sound, guitarist Mary Halvorson appears on not less than 127 articles published on this blog in the last ten years, either as a leader, as a band member or as a reference in other articles. This sheer quantity of posts says enough about the impact she has. She is also somebody with a strong musical character, and with the skills to turn them into a reality. She's a disciplined composer and improviser, with a style on the guitar that's all her own.

The downside of selecting musicians in a list like this, is that you frustrate all the other musicians that are not mentioned and who still made a difference. Apologies to them for this.

In my opinion, a number of things have changed in the past decade (or this also may have to do with my personal bias and changes in musical appreciation).

First, quite a lot of (young) women have taken front-stage. I could have added musicians such as Jaimie Branch, Kaja Draksler, Mette Rasmussen, Anna Högberg, Paula Shocron, Lina Allemano, Elisabeth Harnik, Magda Mayas, Lotte Anker, Rachel Musson, Jessica Pavone, Catherine Sikora, Lisa Mezzacappa, Sophie Agnel, Alexandra Grimal, Angharad Davies, Zeena Parkins, Katherine Young, Susan Alcorn, Judith Hamann, Kris Davis, Lisa Ullén, Nina de Heney, Sandy Ewen, Birgit Ulher, Christine Sehnaoui, Heather Leigh, ...

Second, that the world has become more global, with new voices coming from around the world. The old Chicago-New York axis is still very strong, and attracted artists such as Okkyung Lee, Joe Hertenstein, Ingrid Laubrock, but the emergence and growth of new labels in Europe (Clean Feed, No Business, Not Two, Multikulti, Dark Tree, ForTune, Ayler, ...) has led to the promotion of lots of new local talent, especially from Scandinavia, Portugal, Poland and France. Maybe in that respect, Poland is underrepresented in the list above with stellar musicians such as Tomasz Dabrowski, Waclaw Zimpel, Mikolaj Trzaska, and Portugal could also have offered more names such as Rodrigo Amado, Sei Miguel, Hugo Antunes, Rodrio Pinheiro. And I would like to add many more names from other countries too: Italy, Australia, Switzerland, Spain. I can only recommend to use the search function of our blog or to browse through the topics list on the right. There's a lot to discover. 

Third, that maybe our concept of "jazz" itself should be revisited in our blog's title. Even if the music we review has strong roots in jazz, and would mostly technically qualify as jazz in music stores and streaming services, it has long gone beyond this narrow definition, bringing us back to Wadada Leo Smith, who says, why not just call it "music". Artists create their own musical landscapes, unhindred by the constraints of rigid forms, yet building on the existing foundations and influences to take our music even further. We have witnessed a tendency towards more minimalism and intimacy by musicians such as Xavier Charles, Ingar Zach, Kim Myhr, Jim Denley, Ernesto Rodrigues, Robin Hayward. Or others who explore the possibilities and the limits of sound, such as Magda Mayas, Jean-Luc Guyonnet, Mike Majkowski, Axel Dörner. We have also witnessed the emergence of larger ensembles, with Fire! Orchestra, Angles 9, the Dorf, the Brötzmann Tentets and others. We have witnessed the wonderful group experiments by Mazen Kerbaj who brought together 49 trumpet players or by Peter Jacquemyn who brought together a few dozen musicians with instruments that can reach bass tones. We have seen the emergence of experimentation with electronics, radically changing the sounds coming out of instruments, in live or studio settings, often pushing us out of our comfort zones. We have seen the further expansion of new lyricism and the willingness to embrace emotions in a way that would have met with skepticism in the past, and especially Polish and Portuguese musicians dare take the lead in that direction. 

In sum, the last decade has been absolutely fantastic, with many new ideas and wonderful listening experiences. This music - whatever its name - is alive and kicking, more vibrant than ever, universal, innovative and human. 

I can't wait for the next decade to hear how all that further evolves. 


Colin Green said...

Some interesting observations, Stef and much to ponder on.

My own view is that musically speaking, there’s not been much change in the last decade in comparison to the decade before that, and maybe the one before that. As I’ve mentioned before, when it comes to this kind of music – the appropriate name for which has been debated for over half a century – development is not so much by way of direction as depth, what Barry Guy recently referred to as greater refinement, with the underlying issues not having changed a great deal since the 1960s and 70s. For this reason I think talk of “innovation”, though appealing is also rather misleading.

Of course, there are always new voices coming onto the scene, and as you say there has been an increase in the number of women performing the music along with musicians playing generally, but I think the most significant changes in the last decade have been the greater ease of recording, production and distribution, primarily brought about by the Internet. There are now vastly more recordings available each year and for many downloading and streaming have become the principal ways of getting at the music. That in turn has led to a more level playing field and more global exposure. The momentum started in the previous decade but seems to have reached critical mass and shows no signs of abating. It’s now possible to preview a great deal of the music almost instantaneously or to spend an evening watching free jazz and improv from across the world on YouTube. The blog only manages to review well under half of the albums released each year.
Whether the sometimes dizzying affect of just so much music is altogether a good thing is an interesting topic for debate. You can’t have too much of a good thing, right?

Unknown said...

Dear Stef,Thank you very much for your Poetic & Inspiring reflections on these Great Art & Artists! They are a daily & urgent source for me. Emile

Anonymous said...

Another very good list but Henry Threadgill should be in it.

Chris said...

referring to Colin’s “can’t have too much of a good thing”, does having so much music weaken the musical economy? I suppose if it broadens the audience base that’s great, but if not? Maybe I need to dust off that old copy of Jaques Attali’s “noise” and give it a re-read!

Colin Green said...

I don’t know if there are any figures on this, but I’m sure the audience size has grown, and is growing, albeit that it’s minuscule compared to other “genres”. Nor do I know such increase has been at the same rate as the increase in those performing the music, so it’s possible that there is more music but spread more thinly. I also get the impression that apart from the big names many of those performing the music have day jobs or other income streams. The economic realities are still unclear, though it’s safe to say that there’s no real money in free jazz. Perhaps that’s as it should be as in many ways it represents values that have no place in more commercial culture. That may be small comfort, however.

Stef said...

Based on the statistics of our blog, the number of readers is increasing. We reached an all-time high number of visits in December, with 209,000, an absolute record (the second best month was December 2017 with 189,000 visits). Our trend-line shows a stready growth over the years in any case. So even if that's a lot for "our" music, it's peanuts compared to other more mainstream music genres. I know that some musicians can live from their music, but that often includes teaching or freelancing for mainstream bands. To Colin's point, if the musical choice is to go beyond what exists, you cannot expect this to result in commercial success. It makes the effort and financial risks taken by record labels even more laudable.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for this interesting listing!
But I was wondering if John Zorn should be on that list as well. I'm aware that this is always a personal weighting. Considering his multiple roles as musician, composer, producer I would definitely include him in this list.

Stef said...

Hi Christoph, I agree with you about John Zorn. He had suddenly disappeared from my radar screen. He is mentioned in around 150 articles we wrote and he released 105 albums under his own name in the last ten years, quite prolific indeed. Add to that his 'stewardship' for all kind of talent, his Tzadik label and the existence of The Stone in NYC. Point taken.