Thursday, December 31, 2020

J. Pavone String Ensemble - Lost and Found (Astral Spirits, 2020) ****½

By Keith Prosk

On Lost and Found, violist and composer Jessica Pavone reconvenes her string ensemble for a finer distillation of the elements established on the awesome Brick and Mortar. Erica Dicker and Angela Morris return on violins while Abby Swidler replaces Joanna Mattrey on second viola. Like on Brick and Mortar, at 5 - 7 - 9 - 5 - and 7 minutes, the track lengths seem patterned at 9 - 9 - 8 - and 10 minutes, though much more even-keeled. Likewise, the sound here is more subdued, the dynamics less ostentatious, and the music more engaging for it. The focus on a kind of dualism is more zeroed-in.

It’s hard not to see twos with this ensemble. Two violins. Two violas. Two groups of string family members. The musical process alternates between metered time and clock time, notation and improvisation. And it showcases counterpoint, though this ensemble’s approach seems less conversational or combative and more like following or herding. The track titles are colloquial terms of often opposing concepts heard together, “Rise and Fall,” “Pros and Cons,” “Lost and Found.” But these little dualisms are treated as complimentary rather than antithetical. And the strength of this recording comes from exploring the sympathetic spectrums between them.

As with Brick and Mortar, Lost and Found is not slow, but relaxed. Repetitive, but in movements. Mostly sustained arco that is more often clean and classical than distressed from extended techniques or heavy bowing. There’s a recurring bucolic inflection that feels simultaneously nostalgic and spirited. Pavone is adept at striking western ears with a bittersweet mood; if it teeters too suspenseful or uneasy, it’s just a setup for release. The music is most distinguished by the concurrent confusion and comfort of its counterpoint. Family member duos or individual instrumentalists phase in and out of time with each other. They ascend and descend at the same time, making it all the more powerful when two or even all four unite in one direction. They split and rejoin between high and low frequency tones. They quicken, slow, and re-match bowing tempos. As such the music is delightfully nonclimactic and always flowing.

“Rise and Fall” is a nice balance of all of these techniques. “Nice and Easy” swings the mood a little darker with warped descending glissandos that level off before descending again, only to seemingly bend back and ascend. The second track also contains a brief glimpse of something like a raga pulse which seems fitting given Pavone’s approach to musicmaking and the emotivity of her music. “Pros and Cons” features a little glued, hairy scraping and brief resonances between instruments. And the title track generates organ-like harmonics that get a little sine-wavy.

Lost and Found is perhaps a little less tuneful than Brick and Mortar, but delves deeper into the elemental dynamics possible with such a quartet helmed by Pavone. I find it a pleasant refinement that would be difficult to imagine improvements for if not for Pavone premiering her Lull project earlier this year, in which she expands this quartet with two cellos and two contrabasses, playing with western classical forms and featuring soloists Brian Chase and Nate Wooley. Pavone is undeniably a master of performance but with this ensemble she is picking up where Hope Dawson Is Missing left off to establish herself as a masterful composer.

Lost and Found is available on digital, cassette, and CD formats.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Tim Berne: The Vowels Have Always Been Sacred

By Gary Chapin

Just to let you know: This is not a review of Tim Berne’s new release, Sacred Vowels . Rather, it is an encomium for Tim Berne using that recording as its launch point. I know I just reviewed three of his recordings a week ago. I couldn’t stop myself. I promise to write about something other than Tim Berne next time,

Berne is a composer and saxophonist living in New York, and he’s been at this dodge, amazingly, for nearly 40 plus years, now. I got on the ride around 1989, when the sublime Fractured Fairy Tales came out. The previous two records (on Columbia, no less) came into my hands shortly thereafter. The three discs — Fractured, Fulton Street Maul , and Sanctified Dreams — delivered a tight coup de tête to my stupid smart, arrogant, “world-weary” college aged brain. I was left staring blankly, wondering how this ecosystemic, ordered-chaotic, improvised-composed, earthy-abstract music could exist, defying reason and creating sense and beauty. And, no, I am not overstating it. There are those moments when “everything” changes. Those moments of initial discovery that mark you in a way that endures and glows forever. The entrance to that rabbit hole leaves a strong, delicious impression. I swear to god, if I could somehow re-experience the moment when I first heard “Hong Kong Sad Song” I would do it in a shot.

A few months or so ago, Berne released Sacred Vowels , recorded in his apartment (produced by David Torn and sounds great), an artifact of the pandemic, and also his first solo saxophone recording, ever. (Yeah, I was surprised, too.) The solo saxophone record is an institution in improvised, jazz-based music . Anthony Braxton’s For Alto casts a long, illuminating shadow. Roscoe Mitchell and Steve Lacy spent a lot of time in this territory. Julius Hemphill, Berne’s mentor and friend, has at least two albums where he’s the only musician, though he overdubs multiple parts. Like all work in jazz and improvised music, any new recording is experienced in relation to the music that went before (whether that was intended or not). Intertextuality is impossible for us obsessives to avoid. More important, to my mind, is the fact that Tim’s work has always been about conversations between musicians, and the relationships that emerge. When he’s playing solo, who’s the conversation with?

Berne has become my soundtrack for this stage of COVID life — the post-job-loss stage which began, for me, on June 30. Coltrane was there at the beginning of the lockdowns. But Berne has been the soundtrack for a number of periods of my life. There was that initial time, when I went to college in Jersey and spent so much time in New York, below 4th Street. Then I moved to Arkansas and Minnesota. Then I came to Maine. My kids were born, grew up, gone on to be happy. Two divorces, three marriages. Always music music music, of all sorts, and every so often I would go back down the rabbit hole and not come up for months. I would need that knotty, rubato-based, story-telling energy. Filled with thought and feeling, clever without being arch, and somehow grounding for me, helping the world make sense, celebrating my joys, screaming with my outrage, consoling my losses. How appropriate for the current moment.

A new realization for me — and you would be justified in chastising me for not getting it sooner — is how unified Tim Berne’s body of work looks when surveyed forty years after discovery. Through the years, when I was listening, and Berne would go from the Fractured band (with Herb Robertson, Hank Roberts, Mark Feldman, Mark Dresser, Joey Baron) to the Big Satan band (with Tom Rainey and Marc Ducret) to the Bloodcount band (with Jim Black, Chris Speed, and Mark Helias) my initial reaction was, “This is so very different!” Which makes sense. Berne invested in these relationships. The conversations and stories have depth. He’s had significant partnerships with at least four guitarists (Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, Ducret, David Torn), two pianists (Craig Taborn, Matt Mitchell), three bassists (Mark Dresser, Mark Helias, Drew Gress), and drummers and trumpers and reed players, etc. With all of these interlocutors in various combinations it makes sense that the music — improvisatory, emergent, self-generating within a structure — would sound different. But now (maybe because I am 53 and have stumbled on the long view), I find myself noticing (prioritizing in my awareness) and reveling in the shared thread that runs through the conversations, and enjoying, but not being distracted by the variance among Berne’s interlocutors.

Which feels a little like a confession. I have loved Berne’s work since I first heard it, but I don’t think I got it as a whole. Being stuck on a mountain in Maine, writing, trying to drum up work, tending to home, and immersing myself in the whole catalogue has made a difference. Put every album onto your phone and play on shuffle. Any track that comes up — Big Satan, the Empire Recordings, Bloodcount, Snakeoil, any of the many duets he’s done, or the solo recording — is so obviously part of an oeuvre (yeah, I went there). Every Tim Berne piece makes sense in terms of every other Tim Berne piece.

Around 1990 I interviewed Tim Berne for and article in Coda Magazine. I remember being an hour late for the interview because I missed the train from Jersey and had to wait for the next, and I remember Tim still being at the cafe (!) and answering all the usual questions (“Tell me about Julius Hemphill?”) and dealing with my own fanboy-trying-to-be-cool vibe. Me trying to get at the stuff interesting to me — at the time, the relationship between composition and the ethic of improvisation, saying bad things about Wynton Marsalis — and not really hearing what he had to say, because I was already writing the piece in my head while we were having the conversation. Holy shit. I was young. And Tim Berne was extraordinarily gracious. I am grateful for that.

I keep a pretty short list of things that have improved my quality of life comprehensively, over time. Tim Berne’s music is on that list, and has been for a while. But Sacred Vowels has reminded me of how thorough and consistent that gift has been. I know (I know!) the title of this recording is a pun, but I’m going to go with earnestness when I say, it is only during COVID time that I realize, for Tim Berne, and for me, the vowels have always been sacred.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Hwyl Nofio - Isolate (Hwyl, 2020) ****½

By Stef Gijssels

"Isolate" is an amazing album, reflecting the isolation of the Covid pandemic. "One more!" I hear you say, and indeed, the crisis did/does give a lot of inspiration to artists across the world. On this album they are Steve Parry on guitarlin (a hybrid of a guitar and a mandolin), toy piano, church organ, prepared guitar, harmonium, piano, noise, Mark Beazley on basses and noise, Rhodri Davies on harp, and Steve Sherlock on saxophone and flute. 

The band's name is Welsh for "Emotional Swimmers", and was created in 1997 by Parry. This is the ensemble's seventh release in twenty-three years, with Parry being the only element of continuity. I do not know the band's other productions (I listened to them now on Bandcamp), but this music is an ear-opener. It has a strong sonic voice, relatively unique, expressive, disciplined and balanced, dark and welcoming at the same time. It is hard to categorise, and usually that's a good sign. The addition of Davies and Sherlock creates more density than on the previous albums, more tension and darkness too. The desolation on the first two tracks is complete, and by themselves already worth the album. 

But the band surprises too. Some tracks such as "Isolate - The Singing Room" have some playful elements as does the last piece, called "Dolphins", giving an optimistic sense of direction to the album, from somber desolation to joyful freedom. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Monday, December 28, 2020

Two from fixcel records!

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

Music is inseparable. This given fact is very often neglected by all of us who tend to prefer improvised musics over more, let’s call them conventional, forms or genres. It should evoke feelings, let our desires and imaginations free, and provide solace and energy. Actually I believe that it does, even if for a lot of people involves very basic reactions –like “just” dancing.

The two latest releases from fixcel records have drummer/percussionist Erwin Ditzner in common but they are quite different in many aspects. Starting with the one is a live recording (wow, I am very close in forgetting how this feels), the other a studio recording. The live duo, recorded in November 2019 at Enjoy Jazz Festival, takes a free and improvisational approach. While the music of the trio is mostly based on structures and melody.

Erwin Ditzner/Chris Jarrett – Live@ Enjoy Jazz 2019 (fixcel, 2020) ****½


On both sides of this vinyl edition, the interplay between Ditzner (drums and percussion) and Chris Jarrett (piano) is impressive. Jarrett’s fingers move with subtlety on the keyboard, always ready to translate his partners moves into a cohesive collective feeling. At the same time Ditzner’s percussion work is aggressive and passionate, like trying to head the duo into uncharted territory. There are many improvisational passages and a lot of room for both artists to breathe on their own, while the balance with collective playing is always there. Ditzner’s drumming seems to open, at least in some points, new spaces for the piano to follow –sometimes even to lead. Jarrett’s piano playing is versatile and flexible again, on his own now, proving well balanced between listening and playing. The overall performance feel like it was a wonderful experience, one of those this dystopia prevents us of experiencing right now.

Debus/Lomsch/Ditzner – Die Motive des Richard W. (fixcel, 2020) ****


Richard Wagner is still considered one of the big names is the central-European tradition of classical music. Even though music is a universal, many times non-verbal, language, there are artists that still encapsulate the feeling of geography (topos in ancient and modern Greek), something that definitely isn’t chauvinistic of course, but has to do with shared memories, a culture maybe and definitely common language. Since the titles of the tracks, but most importantly the feeling that’s this trio (Ditzner on drums, Lomsch on clarinet and saxes and Debus on double-bass and singing) brings to the listener is partly like the grandeur of Wagner’s musical world, I was puzzled. Many times the trio’s music bordered on the symphonic: melody, harmony and timbres dominate. The sound of the clarinet is so soothing, like when –in an orchestra- the clarinetist plays solo in order to give space to the other musicians to relax a bit.

Again, as the aforementioned duo, Ditzner works like the glue between them providing rhythm, being the backbone of the music. When Lomsch switches to tenor saxophone things get wilder, more angry. The music, then, seems to be reaching out for a climax, shedding its mask of harmony. In a constant back and forth movement their music blurs the limits between free playing and totally organized sounds. But, most importantly, fills the empty spaces of the room you are listening to the music with feelings ranging for solace up to anger. Now that I think of it, this could be a fully fledged re-reading of Wagner’s music.


Sunday, December 27, 2020

Ivo Perelman: A Musical Storyteller - a film by Leonel Costa (2020)

By Paul Acquaro

Ivo Perelman: A Musical Storyteller, tells the story of the Brazilian saxophonist from his formative years as a young musician moving to New York in the early 1990s, after a dissatisfying introduction to being a working musician in Los Angeles, to present day. It begins with the restless artist telling this story and how his own musical way began unfolding after a producer invited him to make the music that he wanted. Drawing from his love of nature and the sounds of his native Brazil, Perelman began intertwining his freer inclinations with the folk music of home. 

The film introduces many of the voices of the people who have worked with - and in many cases continue to do so - Perelman through the years. From musicians he played with for inspiration in Brazil to well known names like bassist William Parker, pianist Matthew Shipp, drummer Whit Dickey, pianist Marilyn Crispell, and drummer Gerry Hemingway. Many of the interviews were conducted recently, held over the all too contemporary medium of the web conference. Regardless of whom is speaking, they refer to the ease of with it is to play with Perelman and the organic, natural flow of music. Most interesting is a key formative concert that Perleman played at the old Knitting Factory in New York City with Brazilian vocalist Flora Purim. Archival footage of the 1990 concert is juxtaposed with a current interview with Purim, making for a neat loop in time. In a sense, that what the film captures, Perelman is always moving forward but not forgetting his roots.  

Over the course of an hour there is ample footage of Perelman in the studio and on the stage, and in many interviews. The interviews seem to especially highlight the importance of musical relationships, whether between people or the artist and the environment. As Perelman says, he doesn't like to play over changes, but rather from his life, his memories, from feeling. Musician and recording engineer Jim Clouse discusses the saxophonist's work ethic, to which he applies the word 'natural' as well. When Perelman is in town, says Clouse, Perelman comes to the studio and in a few hours lays down a set of music with a well chosen set of musical partners and then lets him do the rest.  

Ivo Perelman: A Musical Storyteller is a captivating documentary. It is currently making the rounds in festivals and will soon be available on streaming platform near you.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Kyle Motl & Rhonda Taylor - Sepulchers (Self, 2020) ****½

By Stef Gijssels

Possibly the most difficult thing in music is not to play an instrument to perfection, or to interact well in an ensemble, but to create art that offers something unique, differentiating, surprising and with a voice and perspective all of its own. 

This is what the duo of Rhonda Taylor on baritone saxophone and Kyle Motl on contrabass achieve. The title and the artwork already show that this is not a happy or joyful album, and maybe darkness and sorrow are easy emotions to inspire music, the improvisation still needs to be done with taste and with such a quality that it resonates with the listeners and triggers the same heart strings. And even stronger, that both musicians speak the same language. 

They have one single concept for the whole album, one mood that is explored in all its subtle variations for which words are lacking and which only good music manages to express. In the narrow confines of their mournful concept, both instruments form a perfect match in their deep lamenting tones, the unease and the pain, the slow howls or the desperate weeping. 

Rhonda Taylor is a soprano and baritone saxophonist from New Mexico. She is a very explorative player, often using electronics to alter the sound of her instruments. Her natural sound is dark, even on her many solo albums, of which one is called "Necropolis" with the first track called "Welcome to the Boneyard". Death and sorrow are not uncommon themes in her music. 

Kyle Motl we have reviewed before. The Californian bassist has excellent technique and daring musical ideas, and a personal style, best checked on his solo albums, of harsh musical explorations of darkness and solitude. 

Together both musicians are even better. The format gives a level of richness to their playing and depth to their expressiveness that far exceeds their solo efforts of the same moods and concepts. It seems that their natural voices find an authentic common sound on this album. 

It hurts to listen to this music, and that is a great compliment. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Friday, December 25, 2020

Free Jazz Blog's 2020 Top 10s


No doubt, there is a lot to be concerned about this year; however, 2020 has also been quite a year for recorded music. Let us focus on the positive and take a time out from the everyday to enjoy the nearly impossible task of ranking the "best of" 2020. If you have ever made one of these lists you know how difficult it is and how it is really just a blurry snapshot of the exact moment the list is submitted. A minute later you listen to that album that has been in waiting and the whole thing can shift. So, take these lists as a suggestion of some of the music you could check out as you wait for your spot in the vaccine line. 

Below is the top 11, it will be voted on this week by everyone who contributed a top 10 list. On January 1, we will share our Album of the Year 2020. We look forward to your comments as well to what we missed or what you vehemently disagree with, or the other way around! 

Your friends at the Free Jazz Blog

Top 11 (the album's listed here landed on three or more of the collective's top 10 lists below)

  • Evan Parker & Matthew Wright Trance Map - Crepuscule in Nickelsdorf (Intakt)*
  • Gard Nilssen’s Supersonic Orchestra - If You Listen Carefully the Music Is Yours (Odin Records)
  • Ingrid Laubrock – Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt (Music for Chamber Orchestra and Small Ensemble) (Intakt)
  • Irreversible Entanglements - Who Sent You? (International Anthem)
  • Kaja Draksler Octet - Out for Stars (Clean Feed
  • Rich Halley, Matthew Shipp, Michael Bisio & Newman Taylor Baker - The Shape of Things (Pine Eagle)
  • Webber/Morris Big Band - Both Are True (Greenleaf Music)
  • Anna Högberg Attack - Lena (Omlott)
  • Nate Wooley - Seven Storey Mountain VI (Pyroclastic)
  • Susan Alcorn Quintet - Pedernal (Relative Pitch)
  • Various - Not Two...But Twenty (Not Two)

* Correction, 3-13-21: The first album on this list was miscounted. Two recordings with Evan Parker as a primary artist were combined. This was accidentally done while compiling the lists and the recording thus should not have appeared in the top listing.  

Paul Acquaro

  • Stringers & Struts - s/t (Aerophonic)
    The latest from David Rempis (or maybe not the latest, he has been very productive this year!) is a barn burner featuring Dave Rempis, Jeff Parker, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Jeremy Cunningham

  • Susan Alcorn - Pedernal (Relative Pitch)
    Shimmery and weird, Alcorn knows how to handle the pedal steel guitar like none other. Jazz, country, folk and more mix on this pick of the year. 

  • Tim Berne and Nasheet Waits - The Coandă Effect (Relative Pitch)
    It's hard to decide which Tim Berne duo to go with ... this one or the saxophonist with pianist Matt Mitchell, Spiders, on Out of your Head records.

  • Rich Halley - The Shape Of Things (Pine Eagle)
    Great album. Matt Shipp's trio with Bisio and Baker really push the saxophonist to a new level. 

  • James Brandon Lewis Quartet - Molecular (Intakt)
    A number of years ago, Eric Stern told me, "I try to see James Brandon Lewis as much as I can, he's fantastic." Excellent tip, Eric, thank you! 

  • Paul Flaherty - Borrowed From Children (577 Records)
    Paul's unfettered saxophone playing is always a joy, but a real revelation is guitarist Mike Roberson.

  • Luis Lopes & Humanization 4Tet - Believe, Believe (Clean Feed)
    I was waiting for a new Humanization 4Tet album. A bright spot in a bleak year. 

  • Terje Rypdal - Conspiracy (ECM)
    The Norwegian guitarist does what he does best, soaring over the Fjords and even rocking out a bit. 

  • Vandermark - Drake - Trovalusci - Ceccarelli - Open Border (Audiographic)
    A difficult album in some ways ... but one that sticks with you. 

  • Various - Not Two...But Twenty! Festival Wlen, Poland - September 21-23, 2018. (Not Two)
    So much goodness captured in this box set. While I wish I was there, this is the next best thing, all wrapped up tidily in a balsa wood box!


  • Modern Jazz Quintett Karlsruhe / Four Men Only - Complete Works (NoBusiness)
  • Lol Coxhill & Olaf Rupp - Poschiavo 2003 (s/r)
  • Black Unity Trio - Al Fatihah (Gotta Groove Records)
  • Rashied Ali / Frank Lowe - Duo Exchange: Complete Sessions (Survival Records)
  • Terumasa Hino ‎– Journey To Air (Octave Lab)

Daniel Boeker

  • Mars Williams / Tim Daisy - Live in Vienna (relay records)
  • The End - Allt Är Inet (RareNoise)
  • Susan Alcorn Quintet - Pedernal (Relative Pitch)
  • Nate Wooley - Seven Storey Mountain VI  (Pyroclastic)
  • Vandermark, Drake, Trovalusci, Ceccarelli - Open Border (Audiographic)
  • Paul Lytton, Nate Wooley - Known/Unknown (Fundacja Słuchaj)
  • Peter Evans - Being & Becoming (More is More)
  • Bonjintan - Dental Kafka (Trost)
  • McPhee, Rempis, Reid, Lopez, Nilssen-Love - Of things beyond thule Vol.2 (Aerophonic)
  • Susana Santos Silva - The Ocean inside a Stone (Carimbo Porta-Jazz)

Stuart Broomer

  • Thurston Moore, John Edwards, Terry Day, John Butcher, Steve Beresford ‒ Stovelit Lines (Weight of Wax)
    Given the pandemic’s impact on regular distribution channels, Bandcamp became exclusive home to much of the most interesting music I heard this year: recorded at Iklectik in 2017, this CD is tribute to the depth, breadth and collective genius of great free improvisation.

  • Sylvia Hallett - Tree Time (s/r),
    Extraordinary solo music and pandemic reverie, this celebrates and creates a garden with bowed branches and guitar pedals.

  • N.O. Moore - Dreamt Across Tangled Electron (s/r)
    More great pandemic solo music that sounds like a collective of the human and electronic by a guitarist deserving of far wider recognition.

  • Yves Charuest - Le Territoire de l’anche (Small Scale Music, 2020)
    A sustained program of solo music by a genuinely original Quebecois saxophonist who is also deserving of much wider recognition.

  • Jubileum Quartet - A UIŠ?  (Not Two, 2020)
    A quartet of masters ‒ Joëlle Léandre, Evan Parker, Agustí Fernández and Zlatko Kaučič ‒ turn in a superb set at Slovenia’s Cerkno Jazz Festival in 2018.

  • Nate Wooley - Seven Storey Mountain VI (Pyroclastic, 2020).
    The sixth installment in 13 years of Wooley’s masterfully structured maelstrom is a further expansion, this time with a choir and 14 musicians, including a dream trio of guitarists: Susan Alcorn, Julien Desprez and Ava Mendoza.

  • Red Trio/Celebration Band - 10th Anniversary Concert (No Business, 2020)
    The brilliant trio of Rodrigo Pinheiro, Hernani Faustino and Gabriel Ferrandini puts together a tripartite orchestra suite (one part per trio member) involving international partners (John Butcher and Mattias Ståhl) and several distinct components of the Lisbon community—from Ernesto Rodrigues’ free improvisation to the intense free jazz of Rodrigo Amado.

  • Pedro Melo Alves - In Igma (Clean Feed, 2020).
    The young Portuguese composer/percussionist fuses composition and improvisation, voices and instruments, with crucial input from Mark Dresser, Eve Risser and Abdul Moimême.

  • Susan Alcorn Quintet – Pedernal (Relative Pitch, 2020)
    A triumph of lyricism, space and mood with the pedal steel wonder creating orchestral breadth with Mark Feldman, Michael Formanek, Mary Halvorson and Ryan Sawyer.

  • Anthony Braxton/ Eugene Chadbourne ‎– Duo (Improv) 2017 (New Braxton House, 2020).
    Two unique musicians combine a century of experimentation and improvisation to create an eight-hour personal Odyssey through American musical culture.

Best Historical Albums:

  • Horace Tapscott & The Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra - Ancestral Echoes - The Covina Sessions, 1976 (Dark Tree, 2020)
  • Barry Guy - London Jazz Composers Orchestra That Time (Not Two)
  • Sam Rivers - Ricochet (No Business)

Tom Burris

Weirdly, I didn't listen to as much music during the pandemic as I had predicted. An early onslaught of creativity took hold in March & I began working on my own music, which was a welcome surprise. So rather than list “the best” of 2020, what follows is a list of discs I listened to the most – primarily for solace and escape – in this horrible, terrible year.

  • Jeff Parker & The New Breed – Suite for Max Brown (International Anthem / Nonesuch)
    At 53, Parker is better than ever. His greatest & most cohesive work to date.

  • Susan Alcorn Quintet – Pedernal (Relative Pitch)
    Nothing can quite prepare you for this stunningly rich and gorgeous debut of Alcorn's quintet. Simply jump in and surrender to the mountains and the shooting stars.

  • Matthew Shipp Trio – The Unidentifiable (ESP-Disk)
    Shipp celebrated his 60th year on the planet by releasing more great albums than some artists produce in a lifetime. I haven't heard half of them yet but of the ones I've heard, I've returned to this one the most. Having said that, his double-LP solo record on RogueArt is due out any day now.

  • Rob Mazurek / Exploding Star Orchestra – Dimensional Stardust (International Anthem / Nonesuch)
    Weaving a patchwork of music from a mostly Chicago-based band of all-stars, Mazurek composes a major work mashing up free jazz and avant classical music that dazzles on the surface & still manages to provide as much depth as a listener could possibly desire.

  • Quin Kirchner – The Shadows and The Light (Astral Spirits)
    Whoever stuck the young Kirchner in front of a television that aired a ton of bad 1970s cop shows deserves some credit for turning him onto an unlikely sound source for inspiration. That's only a small piece of this diverse and often brilliant work, but it's the piece from which I have yet to recover.

  • Tashi Dorji and Tyler Damon - To Catch A Bird In A Net Of Wind (Trost)
    For those of us who will never tire of free guitar n drums energy, this is an absolute monument to all that is good still left in the world. May these guys spawn a legion of superheroes worthy of the title.

  • McPhee / Rempis / Reid / Lopez / Nilssen-Love – Of Things Beyond Thule (Aerophonic)
    An almost impromptu all-star group, the result of a magical night of musical creativity was released in two volumes, one on LP and another on CD. Both are essential.

  • Charles Rumback – June Holiday (Astral Spirits)
    Rumback's trio with Jim Baker & John Tate again casts the criminally underrated Baker in the starring role, providing us with a dreamy landscape onto which we could project our collective 2020 melancholy. Now that's what I call a public service!

  • Threadbare – Silver Dollar (No Business)
    Threadbare, the result of two whippersnapper musician/composers named Ben Cruz & Emerson Hunton tapping lauded old-timer bass clarinetist Jason Stein on the ear, straddles the line between free jazz and guitar rock better than anyone since the Stooges had the L.A. blues. And that's just the title track! And this is their first and only recording!

  • Joe McPhee & Fred Lonberg-Holm – No Time Left For Sadness (Corbett vs Dempsey)
    Containing infinitely deep listening and truly empathetic & illuminating responses from both musicians, which are surely the result of working together in various combinations for decades, this recording stands as one of the finest representations of the duo format I've heard in quite some time. I've craved more ever since viewing that streaming outdoor show they did earlier this year – and this disc scratches the itch every time.

Troy Dostert

  • Eric Revis - Slipknots Through a Looking Glass (Pyroclastic Records)
  • Natsuki Tamura, Satoko Fujii, and Ramon Lopez - Mantle (Not Two Records)
  • Ivo Perelman with Arcado Trio - Deep Resonance (Fundajica Sluchaj)
  • Webber/Morris Big Band - Both Are True (Greenleaf Music)
  • Gard Nilssen’s Supersonic Orchestra - If You Listen Carefully the Music Is Yours (Odin Records)
  • James Brandon Lewis Quartet - Molecular (Intakt Records)
  • Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl - Artlessly Falling (Firehouse 12)
  • Pedro Melo Alves - In Igma (Clean Feed)
  • Sylvie Courvoisier Trio - Free Hoops (Intakt Records)
  • Rich Halley - The Shape of Things (Pine Eagle Records)

Lee Rice Epstein

  1. Mary Halvorson's Code Girl - Artlessly Falling (Firehouse 12, 2020)
  2. Kaja Draksler Octet - Out for Stars (Clean Feed, 2020)
    Hearing Robert Wyatt sing Halvorson's words over the tangled lushness of her Code Girl ensemble was a listening experience only matched by Laura Polence and Björk Níelsdóttir's harmonies offsetting Ab Baars and Ada Rave's rich improvisations on Draksler's spiritually potent settings of Robert Frost poems.

  3. Rachel Musson - I Went This Way (577 Records, 2020)
  4. Wendy Eisenberg - Auto (Ba Da Bing, 2020)
    Musson and Eisenberg entrusted their hearts to listeners, and these albums are sometimes hard to hear, for all the naked sincerity and personal exploration. And yet, each of them is a master on their instrument of choice, sax and guitar, their songwriting equally addictive, and their supporting players as fully devoted to their purpose.

  5. Webber/Morris Big Band - Both Are True (Greenleaf, 2020)
  6. Spike Orchestra - Splintered Stories (Tzadik, 2020)
    Anna Webber, Angela Morris, and Sam Eastmond took tremendous leaps forward this year with these big band albums. For Webber and Morris, it was the debut heard around the world, and I've been pleased to see it represented on so many lists. For Eastmond, it was an overdue return to his own compositions, full of joy, anger, humor, and swing.

  7. Sarah Gail Brand/Paul Rogers/Mark Sanders - Deep Trouble (Regardless, 2020)
  8. Polyorchard (David Menestres & Jeb Bishop) - Ink (Out and Gone, 2020)
    For a year when the public intimacy of duo and trio improvisation was projected, if at all, through cameras and screens, these albums exemplified the beauty of that experience IRL. Each small group draws from the long years of improvising together, with Brand, Rogers, Sanders, Menestres, and Bishop creating some of the most radical and forward-thinking freely improvised music this year. Heartbreaking reminders of what we've nearly lost completely.

  9. Anna Högberg Attack - Lena (Omlott, 2020)
  10. Sloth Racket - Exabout: Live In Ramsgate (Luminous Label, 2020)
    Högberg and Roberts lead two of the most exciting groups around, and these albums, Lena from April and Exabout from November, more or less started and ended 2020 with a full-strength blast of fire music.


  1. The MacroQuarktet - The Complete Night: Live at the Stone NYC (Out of Your Head, 2020)
  2. Willem Breuker & Han Bennink - New Acoustic Swing Duo, I.C.P. 001 (Corbett & Dempsey, 2020)
  3. Sonny Rollins - Rollins in Holland (Resonance Records, 2020)

    Each of these reissues transformed legendary sessions, capturing them from the depths of dubiously circulated sessions, and presented as finely mastered deluxe albums.

Colin Green

Top Ten albums of 2020 (alphabetical order by album title)

  • Evan Parker, Barry Guy, Paul Lytton – Concert in Vilnius (NoBusiness, 2019)
  • Larry Ochs / Aram Shelton Quartet – Continental Drift (Clean Feed, 2020)
  • Last Dream of the Morning (John Butcher, John Edwards, Mark Sanders – Crucial Anatomy (Trost, 2020)
  • Ivo Perelman & Arcado String Trio – Deep Resonance (Fundacja Słuchaj!, 2020)
  • Ingrid Laubrock – Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt (Music for Chamber Orchestra and Small Ensemble) (Intakt, 2020)
  • Various Artists – Not Two…But Twenty (Not Two, 2020)
  • John Edwards – Oslo Solo (22.10.19) (s/r, 2020)
  • Matthew Shipp – The Piano Equation (Tao Forms, 2020)
  • From Wolves To Whales (Dave Rempis, Nate Wooley, Pascal Niggenkemper, Chris Corsano) – Strandwal (Aerophonic, 2019)
  • Daniel Carter, Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Gerald Cleaver – Welcome Adventure! Flight. 1 (577, 2020)

Historic/Reissue albums of 2020 (alphabetical order by album title)

  • Horace Tapscott with the Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra – Ancestral Echoes - The Covina Sessions, 1976 (Dark Tree, 2020)
  • Bobby Bradford, Frode Gjerstad, Kent Carter, John Stevens – Blue Cat (NoBusiness, 2019)
  • Modern Jazz Quintet Karlsruhe / Four Men Only -- Complete Recordings (NoBusiness, 2020)
  • Han Bennink & Willem Breuker ‎-- New Acoustic Swing Duo (Corbett vs. Dempsey, 2019)
  • Stephan Keune, John Russell, Hans Schneider, Paul Lovens – Nothing Particularly Horrible (Live in Bochum '93) (FMR, 2019)

Stef Gijssels

  • Satoko Fujii & Natsuki Tamura - Pentas: Tribute to Eric and Chris Stern (Not Two, 2020)
    Wonderful piano trumpet duo, composed and improvised, who create their own style of music with superb musicianship and musical vision. They released two more albums as a duo this year.

  • Peter Evans - Being & Becoming (More is More, 2020)
    A brilliant virtuosic and complex album, created with a unique musical vision, and performed by a band of stellar musicians.

  • Jeremiah Cymerman - Systema Munditotius, Vol.1 (5049 Records, 2020)
    One more musician with a strong voice. This album is a carefully crafted work of art, a deep and emotionally overpowering expression of solitude and loneliness.

  • Pak Yan Lau & Darin Gray - Trudge Lightly (By The Bluest Of Seas, 2020)
    Piano and bass as they're rarely heard together, and they open new possibilities for future exploration. Intense and welcoming.

  • Luis Vicente - Mare (Cipsela, 2020)
    A solo trumpet performance of rare emotional depth and quality.

  • Magnus Granberg & Skogen ‎– Let Pass My Weary Guiltless Ghost (Another Timbre, 2020)
    A tentet of virtuosi creates the most fragile piece of musical lace.

  • Lina Allemano - Glimmer Glammer - Solo Trumpet (Lumo Records, 2020)
    A rich solo trumpet performance, leading us through various moods from playfulness to sadness, expressed through deep understanding and exploration of her instrument.

  • Susana Santos Silva, Zetterberg & Lindwall - Hi! Who Are You? (Matière Mémoire, 2019)
    An unusual ensemble of trumpet, bass and church organ, that creates a strange sonic world, that is at once brutal, haunting, reverent and riveting.

  • Hwyl Nofio - Isolate (Self, 2020)
    A Welsh quartet creates music that is unique in its sound: expressive, disciplined and balance, dark and welcoming at the same time.

  • From Wolves To Whales - Strandwal (Aerophonic, 2019) & Dead Leaves Drop (Dropa, 2019)
    I called both albums "Free jazz at its best", with an all-star quartet consisting of Dave Rempis on sax, Nate Wooley on trumpet, Pascal Niggenkemper on bass and Chris Corsano on drums.

Stephen Griffith

  • Big Bad Brötzmann Quintet - Karacho! (Euphonium)
  • Kuzu - Purple Dark Opal (Aerophonic)
  • Evan Parker & Paul Lytton - Collective Calls (Revisited) (Jubilee) (Intakt)
  • Gard Nilssen’s Supersonic Orchestra - If You Listen Carefully The Music Is Yours (Odin)
  • Rich Halley, Matthew Shipp, Michael Bisio & Newman Taylor Baker - The Shape of Things (Pine Eagle)
  • Various - Not Two...But Twenty (Not Two)
  • Spike Orchestra - Splintered Stories (Tzadik)
  • Alexander Hawkins & Tomeka Reid - Shards and Constellations (Intakt)
  • Evan Parker & Matthew Wright Trance Map - Crepuscule in Nickelsdorf (Intakt)
  • Cecil Taylor & Tony Oxley - Birdland, Neuberg 2011 (Fundacja Sluchaj)


  • Han Bennink & Willem Breuker - New Acoustic Swing Duo (Corbett vs Dempsey)
  • Axel Dörner & Agustí Fernández - Palynology (Sirulita Records)

Eyal Hareuveni

  • Anna Högberg’s Attack - Lena (Omlott)
    Mats Gustafsson promised that this band will “melt your brain as we know it”. Mine was already melted with Attack’s debut album from 2016.

  • Nate Wooley - Seven Storey Mountain VI (Pyroclastic)
    Magnificient, ambitious and most important, compassionate work that calls for social justice.

  • Susan Alcorn Quintet - Pedernal (Relative Pitch)
    There are very few musicians with such fantastic musical horizons and imagination as Alcorn.

  • Jürg Frey - l'air, l'instant - deux pianos (elsewhere)
    A fascinating realization of the Swiss composer’s Architecture of Silence compositional approach.

  • Vilde & Inga - How Forests Think (Sofa)
    Immersive listening experience, recorded by the duo in four different locations around Oslo.

  • Polwechsel / Klaus Lang - Unseen (ezz-thetics)
    The experimental quartet and Austrian composer-organist explore ambiguous layers of acoustic and electronic sounds.

  • Hermione Johnson - Tremble (Relative Pitch)
    Would love to hear more from this singular pianist-composer. I think you should too.

  • Kaze & Ikue Mori - Sand Storm (Circum Disc/Libra)
    Mori is a perfect match for the fearless, forward-thinking Kaze.

  • Ernstalbrecht Stiebler - Für Biliana (Another Timbre)
    Violinist Biliana Voutchkova presents the music of the German minimalist composer.

  • Tania Giannouli Trio - In Fading Light (Rattle)
    Most beautiful music for piano-oud-trumpet trio by the Greek pianist.


  • Sun Ra Arkestra - Egypt 1971 (Strut/Art Yard)
    3 rare albums + tons of live material of the Arkestra from its trip to Egypt.

  • Horace Tapscott with the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra - Ancestral Echoes - The Covina Sessions, 1976 (Dark Tree)
    A second excellent album of Tapscott and the Arkestra by a label named after one of his compositions.

  • The Thing & Joe McPhee - She Knows… (ezz-thetics)
    Did you know that the original name of the now-defunct trio was Trans Love Airways?. The only trio that can match Don Cherry, P.J. Harvey and the great McPhee. I still cherish my original copy of this album.

Nick Metzger

Another great year for recorded music, if there is an upside to it. There have been lots of great online shows and festivals, but it's not been the same. I'm looking forward to the day that we're all able to share music out in the wild again, whenever and wherever that might be. Here's my Top 10 sorted by release date:

  • Zlatko Kaučič/Tomaž Grom – Τhe Ear is the Shadow of the Eye (Sploh, 2019)
    My one carryover from December 2019. A tremendously inventive and consistently interesting album that I keep returning to.

  • Steve Beresford & John Butcher - Old Paradise Airs (Iluso Records, 2020)
    A couple of masters getting weird with it, that's all one can really ask for. Complimentary tangles of sound that evolve/resolve in unexpected ways.

  • Evan Parker & Paul Lytton - Collective Calls (Revisited) (Jubilee) (Intakt, 2020)
    Telepathic improvisations for the golden jubilee of one of the great duos in free music history. Essential listening.

  • Kaja Draksler Octet - Out for Stars (Clean Feed, 2020)
    This is an extraordinarily touching album that brought me a great deal of comfort this year. Draksler's Octet composes a far-away meadow for Robert Frost's flowers.

  • Kang Tae Hwan, Kang Hae Jin - Circle Point (Dancing Butterfly Records, 2020)
    A completely unexpected release that still blows me away with it's confident power and expressiveness. Incredibly good, a must listen.

  • Various ‎– Not Two...But Twenty (Not Two, 2020)
    An entire festival's worth of material featuring combinations of Brötzmann, Fernandez, Gustafsson, Guy, Holmlander, Homburger, Kaučič, Leandre, Mazur, Nilssen-Love, Swell, Trzaska, and Vandermark in honor of Not Two's Twentieth year. Tremendous.

  • Anna Högberg Attack - Lena (Omlott, 2020)
    We were all highly anticipating this release and Högberg delivers in a big, big way. This is her best album thus far and easily made the list. If you haven't heard it yet, you must.

  • Reiner van Houdt - Pieces for AMPLIFY 2020
    The Dutch composer/pianist's contributions masterfully capture the unprecedented moods and feelings of early quarantine. Musical journals from a very strange time. It will be interesting to see what emotions these conjure during better days. Incredible work.

  • James Brandon Lewis Quartet - Molecular (Intakt, 2020)
    A wonderful album of compositions by one of the most intriguing saxophone players in jazz. His Willisau release with Chad Taylor (also on Intakt) is equally amazing, but the songcraft here begs inclusion. Sophisticated and snappy while remaining expressive and soulful.

  • Nate Wooley - Seven Storey Mountain VI (Pyroclastic, 2020)
    This is the best album yet from Nate Wooley. A forceful condemnation of violence against women performed by an extraordinary ensemble of musicians. Innovative and powerful.


Again, sorted by release date:

  • Horace Tapscott with the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra - Ancestral Echoes, The Covina Sessions, 1976 (Dark Tree, 2020)
    A phenomenal archival release from a too-oft overlooked pianist and composer. Of the Ark, Stuart says it best in his review "That lack of celebrity sidemen testifies only to the degree to which jazz is, in some dimensions, an almost anonymous art, a creative force outside celebrity that is, at many of its higher harmonics, a transformative, extra-personal force, an archetypal expression."

  • John Coltrane Quartet - My Favorite Things, Graz 1962 (ezz-thetics, 2020)
    Pair with 2019's Impressions, Graz 1962 for the full set. No matter if you take issue with the resequencing or not, these are the best sounding versions available of this defining concert from the classic quartet's 62' European Tour.

  • Modern Jazz Quintet Karlsruhe / Four Men Only - Complete Recordings (NoBusiness Records, 2020)
    NoBusiness delivers again with a wonderful collection from this obscure German group. A wonderful package altogether and a great addition to our music collections.

  • Thelonious Monk - Palo Alto (Impulse, 2020)
    Enough has been said about this one since it's release in September so I'll keep this lean for those that somehow missed all the fuss. This is Monk's Quartet playing a concert for racial unity at Palo Alto High School in 1968 at the invitation of a 16 year old student (reportedly recorded by the janitor), and it still sizzles after 52 years on ice. Buried treasure of the highest order.

  • Bergisch-Brandenburgishes Quartett & Fred Frith - Free Postmodernism / USA 1982 (SÅJ, 2020)     
    The BBQ (Rüdiger Carl, Hans Reichel, Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky, & Sven-Åke Johansson) captured in their prime with Fred Frith joining in on the back half of the set. An incredible release from the scarcely documented German supergroup.

Gregg Miller

  • Whit Dickey - Morph (Esp-Disk)
  • Matthew Shipp - The Piano Equation (Tao Forms)
  • John Butcher, Thomas Lehn, Matthew Shipp - The Clawed Stone (RogueArt)
  • Ingrid Laubrock with EOS Chamber Orchestra and Small Ensemble - Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt (Intakt Records)
  • Lori Goldston - On a Moonlit Hill in Slovenia (Eiderdown Records)
  • Bernard Santacruz & Michael Zerang - Cardinal Point (Fundacja Słuchaj)
  • Whit Dickey Trio - Expanding Light (Tao Forms)
  • Various - Not Two, But Twenty (Not Two Records)
  • Darragh Morgan and John Tilbury - For John Cage (Diatribe Records)
  • Okuden Quartet - Every Dog Has Its Day But It Doesn’t Matter Because Fat Cat is Getting Fatter (Esp-Disk)

Historic Recording:

  • Jack Wright and Michael Taylor - Kryptischgassa (Right Brain Records)

Fotis Nikolakopoulos

As the vinyl market becomes bigger by the day and a lot of people are profiting from this, even in dystopian 2020, we have to be really careful on where we spend our money. A lot of the "new" musics is not so new, but, mostly packaged and presented like it is. Beware, consume less and listen more.

In no particular order, apart from one: I chose duos and small groupings, as they seemed -during pandemic times- more appropriate and realistic

  • Talibam! With Silke Eberhard And Nikolaus Neuser - This Week Is in Two Weeks (ESP Disk)
  • The No-Neck Blues Band – Gitanjali + The Nascent Stigma (Ri Be Xibalba)
  • Costis Drygianakis – The Approach (Hxoi Kato Apo to Spiti)
  • Bertrand Denzler/Antonin Gerbal - Sbatax (Umlaut)
  • Tashi Dorji & Tyler Damon - To Catch A Bird In A Net Of Wind (Trost)
  • Whit Dickey Trio - Expanding Light (Tao Forms)
  • Tim Berne/Nasheet Waits ‎– The Coandă Effect (Relative Pitch)
  • Irreversible Entanglements - Who Sent You? (International Anthem)
  • Graham Dunning / Colin Webster ‎– Terrain (Raw Tonk)
  • Gerrit Hatcher/Jakob Warmenbol - Sublime Again (No Index)


  • Akio Suzuki ‎– Zeitstudie
  • New Direction Unit ‎– Axis/Another Revolvable Thing 1+2 (Blank Forms)
  • Rashied Ali / Frank Lowe - Duo Exchange: Complete Sessions  (Survival Records)
  • Company - 1983 (Honest Johns)

Nick Ostrum

Here are some of the releases from 2020 that stuck out the most to me listed in no particular order.

  • Anthony Braxton/Eugene Chadbourne – Duo Improv (2017) (2020)
    Just finally got a copy of this one. Had high expectations and it still blew me away.

  • Anna Höstman and Cheryll Duvall – Harbour (Redshift Records, 2020)
    A sleeper hit from the beginning of the year. Slow, spacious, and beautiful.

  • Gordon Grdina’s The Marrow - Safar-e-Daroon (Songlines, 2020)
    Infectious Middle Eastern-rooted music. Entrancing.

  • Susan Alcorn Quintet – Pedernal (Relative Pitch, 2020)
    Susan Alcorn has really crescendoed over the last couple of years. Still, this seems a new high for her. Love the Americana, love the freer excursions.

  • Kaja Draksler Octet – Out for Stars (Cleanfeed, 2020)
    Stunning examination of the avantgarde potentialities of Robert Frost’s meticulous and rather conservative approach to poetry. An inspired marriage of two poles of art.

  • Roscoe Mitchell With Ostravaska Banda – Distant Radio Transmission (Wide Hive, 2020)
    I thought I had heard more than enough renditions of Nonaah to satisfy the most fervid Mitchell devotee. Apparently, I was wrong. This version, and really this album, opened Mitchell’s compositions to me in new ways.

  • PEK - Solo, An Orchestra of PEKs: Some Truths are Known (Evil Clown, 2020)
    Over three hours of one man with 100+ instruments at his disposal, recording himself over and over and plumbing the pipes of the musical cosmos. (NB: This makes an especially interesting companion/counterpoint to the similarly collaged but much less “musical” The French Drop and This and the Other Place by Lance Austin Olsen, which also deserve at least honorable mentions.)

  • Jeremiah Cymerman – Systema Munditotius, Vol. 1 (5049 Records, 2020)
    Similar to the PEK release in that it is a solo effort of layered and augmented recordings. It is, however, much darker, more forbidding, and more intimate.

  • Merzbow, Mats Gustafsson, Balasz Pandi – Cuts Open (RareNoiseRecords , 2020)
    The latest installment of the Cuts series. This one maintains the ear-bleed aggression of the previous releases, but also opens spaces for more “musical” elements. A pleasant (?) surprise.

  • Ernstalbrecht Stiebler – Für Biliana (Another Timber, 2020)
    What a wonderful release. Spacious, deep, incremental, and solitary.

Archival releases and reissues:

  • The MacroQuarktet – The Complete Night: Live at the Stone NYC (2020)
    A document that captures an era.

  • The New York Contemporary Five – Consequences Revisited (ezz-thetics, 2020)
    Brings me back to what attracted me to free jazz and improvisational music in the first place.

  • Charlie Parker – Savoy Recordings (ezz-thetics, 2020)
    An impeccable remastering of an absolute classic.

  • Willem Breuker/Han Bennink – New Acoustic Swing (Corbett vs Dempsey, 2020)
    Another one that captures the playfulness and excitement of a very specific time and place. One of my favorite releases, new or old, of the year.

Antonio Poscic

  1. Ingrid Laubrock - Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt (Intakt)
  2. J. Pavone String Ensemble - Lost and Found (Astral Spirits)
  3. Angel Bat Dawid & Tha Brothahood - LIVE (International Anthem)
  4. Susana Santos Silva Impermanence - The Ocean Inside a Stone (Carimbo Porta-Jazz)
  5. Nate Wooley - Seven Storey Mountain VI (Pyroclastic)
  6. Irreversible Entanglements - Who Sent You? (International Anthem)
  7. Dan Weiss Starebaby - Natural Selection (Pi)
  8. Matthew Shipp Trio - The Unidentifiable (ESP-Disk)
  9. Webber/Morris Big Band - Both Are True (Greenleaf Music)
  10. Quin Kirchner - The Shadows and the Light (Astral Spirits)

Reissues & archival releases:

  1. Muhal Richard Abrams - Celestial Birds (Karlrecords)
  2. Pharoah Sanders - Live in Paris 1975 (Transversales)
  3. Joe McPhee - Black Is the Color (Corbett vs Dempsey)
  4. Sun Ra - Egypt 1971 (Strut/Art Yard)
  5. Rashied Ali & Frank Lowe - Duo Exchange: Complete Sessions (Survival Records)

Keith Prosk

Beyond these nice and neat recordings, I would like to recognize the experience of AMPLIFY 2020: quarantine, through which I’m still wandering, happy as a clam.

  • Kang Tae Hwan, Kang Hae Jin - Circle Point (Dancing Butterfly)
    The saxophone master returns after a long recording hiatus, his tone and overtones still rich, his soulful outflow still snaking to ascendant spiral curves, finding a fine foil in the authoritative Jenkinsesque violin of Kang Hae Jin.

  • John McCowen - Live @ ISSUE Project Room (DAAANG)
    Solo Contra rended live and exhibiting the guts of contrabass clarinet sound, known better than none other than McCowen at this point.

  • Judith Hamann - Music for Cello and Humming (Blank Forms)
    Just one part of Hamann’s awesome work released this year, but vital in its investigation into the many resonant frequencies of the cello and the human voice, among other waveforms.

  • Sergio Merce - en lugar de pensar (Edition Wandelweiser)
    In circles, sines, and cycles, microtonal saxophonist Merce examines the intuitive unconscious in musicmaking.

  • Ellen Fullman & Theresa Wong - Harbors (Room40)
    With Wong’s cello, Fullman and her Long String Instrument find the most compelling companion to their rainbow of harmonics since the Deep Listening Band.

  • J. Pavone String Ensemble - Lost and Found (Astral Spirits)
    Two string duos survey counterpoint and the spectrums of false dualisms and Pavone continues to scale new peaks in composition with this ensemble.

  • Sarah Hennies - Spectral Malsconcities (New World Records)
    What happens when something should falter or break, but does not? Hennies finds fresh methods to explore failure in two pieces that are not just conceptually gripping, but musically so too (performed by Bearthoven and Bent Duo).

  • Macie Stewart & Lia Kohl - Recipe For a Boiled Egg (Astral Spirits)
    The strings of the violin and cello and the cords of Stewart and Kohl harmonize, playfully, raucously, magically.

  • Joanna Mattrey - Veiled (Relative Pitch)
    Mattrey shreds the viola and folk melodies and mournful tunes fall out of the multiphonic maelstrom like gifts from a paper surprise ball.

  • Angharad Davies | Klaus Lang | Anton Lukoszevieze - unfurling (Another Timbre)
    The gasping pump and warm throb of the harmonium swirled with rich strings. Simply enchanting.

Favorite historical release or re-issue

  • Charles Curtis - Performances & Recordings 1998-2018 (Saltern)
    A compendium of one of the finest cellists around and their relationship with sound. Perhaps “too classical” for the blog, but Curtis’ interpretations of Messiaen, Feldman, and Radigue, among others - music that still informs various spheres of improvisers - and practice as composer/performer should appeal to listeners here.

Martin Schray

  • Nate Wooley - Seven Storey Mountain VI (Pyroclastic Records)
  • Bohren & Der Club of Gore - Patchouli Blue (PIAS)
  • Cecil Taylor / Tony Oxley - Birdland, Neuburg 2011 (Fundacja Słuchają!)
  • Anna Högberg Attack - Lena (Omlott)
  • Irreversible Entanglements - Who Sent You? (International Anthem)
  • Various - Not Two…But Twenty (NotTwo)
  • ROPE - Open Ends (Trouble in the East Records)
  • Gard Nilssen’s Supersonic Orchestra - If You Listen Carefully The Music Is Yours
  • Makaya McCraven - Universal Beings E&F Sides (International Anthem)
  • Xenofox - Macondo (Farai Records)

Historic Releases:

  • Modern Jazz Quintet Karlsruhe / Four Men Only: Complete Recordings (No Business) 
  • Rashied Ali / Frank Lowe - Duo Exchange: Complete Sessions (Survival Records)

Sammy Stein

  1. Sothiac feat Paul Jolly - Superluna ( Sotrhiac/33Jazz)
  2. Ivo Perelman/Gordon Grdina - The Purity of Desire (Not Two)
  3. The End - Allt Ir Intet (Rare Noise)
  4. Will Glaser and James Allsop - New River Ramble (self released)
  5. Elliot Galvin and Binker Golding - Ex Nihillo (Byrd Out)
  6. Ensemble C - Small World (self released)
  7. Dinosaur - To The Earth (Edition)
  8. Erodoto Project - Mythos- Metamorphosis (Cultural Bridge)
  9. Tony Kofi - Another Kind Of Soul (Last Music Company)
  10. With N Monk  - Witch 'N Mo (Tzadik)

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Ingrid Laubrock – Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt (Music for Chamber Orchestra and Small Ensemble) (Intakt, 2020) ****(*)

In recent years there have been some memorable projects from Ingrid Laubrock which display her considerable skills in marshalling small and large groups, treating composition and improvisation as part of a continuum of methods that both set the parameters for collaborative movement as well as stimulating individual invention – the brass-laden Ubatuba (Firehouse 12, 2015), the spiralling components of Serpentines (Intakt, 2016), and the weighty Contemporary Chaos Practices / Two Works for Orchestra with Soloists (Intakt, 2018), one of my top ten albums that year. Now, these two scales of thinking are combined in Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt (Music for Chamber Orchestra and Small Ensemble), a set of ambitious doublings occupying 2-CDs in which different kinds of expansion and reduction are prominent features. Inspired by Laubrock’s diary notes of her dreams, she wrote the small ensemble pieces initially (Twice Dreamt) and then “re-imagined” them for the orchestral versions (Dreamt Twice). They were recorded in reverse order a matter of weeks apart in December last year: CD1 with the EOS Chamber Orchestra at Riverside Studios, Köln, after several performances of the work, and CD2 in various groupings at Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, NY. The individual pieces appear in the same sequence on both CDs save that ‘Dreamt Twice’ opens the first and ‘Twice Dreamt’ closes the second, mirror images that bookend the collection. Laubrock suggests the discs can be listened to in any order.

The chamber orchestra comprises strings, woodwind, and brass together with a group of soloists: Laubrock (tenor and soprano saxophones), Sam Pluta (electronics), Cory Smythe (piano, quarter-tone keyboard) – a trio said to provide a sort of glue between the two recordings – together with Robert Landfermann (double bass) and Tom Rainey (drums). The conductor is Susanne Blumenthal who commissioned the work. For the Oktaven studio sessions there’s the core trio of Laubrock, Pluta and Smythe, plus contributions from Adam Matlock (accordion), Josh Modney (violin) and Zeena Parkins (electric harp) who are used sparingly; all six musicians only play together on one track. As much as with her orchestral writing the small ensemble reveals Laubrock’s ear for telling arrangements and instrumental colour, lush and austere, and in both settings she’s assisted by sympathetic colleagues with a firm understanding of her aims. The EOS Chamber Orchestra specialises in collaborations outside the standard “classical” repertoire.

There’s no attempt to recreate Laubrock’s sleep-time narratives; instead these are realisations of their emotional and dramatic shape. “Rather than writing programmatic music that reflects the dreams,” she says, “I would read a diary entry and attempt to re-enter the dream to compose from that state of mind.” This has resulted in a compendium of free-flowing, quixotic, occasionally disquieting pieces, and yes, dreamlike states where time opens out and incidents are magnified in flights of imaginative fancy, or compressed into jump-cut hyperactivity. Dreams absorb and conflate different sources and memories, and we can hear juxtapositions that parallel these troubling affiliations and discontinuities; “tears in the fabric” Laubrock calls them. Particularly in the small-group settings the electro-acoustic combinations make the familiar oddly unfamiliar introducing echoes, modulations, and the incongruous. Smythe’s elegant fingerwork takes on a slightly skewed dimension when played in quarter-tones, and the clarity of he and Laubrock’s interplay is blurred by the delays and interpolations of real-time sampling. Smooth, melodic passages sit next to abrasive distortions and vivid conjunctions pop up in unlikely places. Sonic collisions alternate with calm interludes.

‘Drilling’ features the entire sextet and begins with a dense conglomeration, thick layers in a gradual crescendo laced with anxiety, that’s reduced to a slender line, then supplanted by a melange of liquid electronics, violin scrapes, spiky interjections, and electric harp soaked in a plethora of pedal effects. After a momentary blackout there’s a strange shuffle from the accordion and the genesis of a tune on tenor, interrupted by tiny agitations but eventually breaking loose to close with a pensive melody, whose underpinning notes in turn provide the glacial chords that open ‘Drilling’ in its orchestral guise and from which its first half is formed. The second half ends with a funereal diminuendo against a screen of icy strings, the converse of how the small ensemble began its version of the piece.

Elsewhere too, the connections between the corresponding compositions are as variants in a new context, not simply a transposition for larger forces. Laubrock explains in her liner notes: “As I wrote the large-scale pieces, I often zoomed-in on a detail in a small-group version to generate a materially different large-group piece. It was almost as if the music was a Russian nesting doll – or a map of a map – and I was finding strangely-familiar “new” compositions within the already existing music.” She gives some examples of how musical ideas are transplanted and germinate in fresh surroundings. ‘Snorkel Cows” begins with arpeggios ascending softly on the piano, which are transformed during the chamber orchestra’s rendering into a series of massed, overlapping glissandi. The figures and microtonal shadings of ‘Down the Mountain, Down the Mountain’ find an equivalence in the large-group counterpart as they’re drawn out by the orchestra, divided into three units playing at independent speeds (requiring three conductors) and merging into a richly complex sound, the microscopic clusterings now a macroscopic mesh. The two versions of ‘I Never Liked That Guy’ explore the same mysterious idée fixe but from noticeably different perspectives.

As to the relationship between orchestra and soloists, the latter is more a term of convenience than an entirely accurate description. What impresses is the extent of their integration so that we hear orchestral parts and individuals in coordinated spheres of activity, sometimes occupying different zones, in other passages intermingled, within the texture rather than dominating it. The second half of the orchestral ‘Drilling’ is an abrupt change from the static blocks that fill the first, a maze of contrasting episodes, fixed and free. At one point a cycle of notes descends through the orchestra’s registers. Later, the phrase returns but this time it accelerates and moves in the opposite direction, rising through double bass, bassoon and french horn, then woodwind and brass. This quasi-mechanical process is repeated several times becoming faster, and joined briefly by Laubrock, surrounded by chiming piano chords and the swirling clatter of drums, and builds to a peak with each temporal strand finishing at the same point, followed by the doleful, aforementioned coda. On ‘Dreamt Twice’ the intricacies of the quintet are to the fore with the orchestra as a spectral backdrop. The focus subsequently shifts to instruments alone or in pairs, including a lovely exchange between viola, soprano saxophone and violin.

This music has been assembled with great ingenuity and care, full of refined details that emerge on each new hearing. Notwithstanding the web of connections you can leave such matters aside however, and listen to these works simply as a sequence of variegated soundscapes, each probing uncertain alterations of mood, emotions sometimes lying just under the surface, in a way that evokes the peculiar logic of our dreamtime selves.

Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt is available on CD and as a download , including 24/96 hi-res. Again, one of my albums of the year. Treat yourself this Christmas – goodness knows, we need it.

A revealing look at the small ensemble sessions:

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

James Brandon Lewis Quartet - Molecular (Intakt, 2020) ****½


By Nick Metzger

Composer/saxophonist James Brandon Lewis had a great year release-wise with Molecular being his fourth offering overall after his terrific 2019 release An UnRuly Manifesto . The other three releases are a burner with John Edwards and Mark Sanders 4.2.19 that was released digitally by Cafe Oto (thanks to Colin for the heads up), the excellent Live at Willisau with drummer Chad Taylor that finds them revisiting some of the material from their excellent 2018 album Radiant Imprints (with gusto) at the historic festival (out on Intakt as well), and a new release from Heroes Are Gang Leaders (titled Artificial Happiness Button ), the literary jazz collective he started with poet and professor Thomas Sayers Ellis in 2014. Molecular again pairs JBL with Chad Taylor, joined here by pianist Aruán Ortiz (who also has a dynamite 2020 release on Intakt called Inside Rhythmic Falls ) and veteran bassist Brad Jones. The title references JBL's Molecular Systematic Music approach which draws some of its logic from molecular biology and the structural components of DNA (explained better in JBL and Peter Margasak's liner notes).

A thrumming bass line kicks off album opener "A Lotus Speaks" before the rest of the quartet drops in to state the theme. JBL's playing is fierce but measured and there are some really great complementary/counter melodies laid down by Ortiz. The next track is the ballad "Of First Importance" on which JBL applies a breathy tone with a wide, mournful vibrato. It's an absolute stunner that begins stately and gradually becomes more emotive and visceral. "Helix" is the first truly uptempo piece on the album and features great (albeit brief) solos from each member of the quartet. JBL takes the attack off his playing, making the notes sound as if they are coming out slurred and backwards. "Per 1" is a brief piece with a steady 4/4 beat that finds JBL and Ortiz locked in a dance over the rhythmic backdrop. It's quick and to the point. On the title track the quartet stretches out a little bit and you can more clearly hear the band working through the new approach. Ortiz and JBL work out extended, ardent solos playing off each other, winding down the piece in an increasingly embellished vamp of call and response.

"Cesaire" is brief at under 3 minutes but features some vicious sax work and a persistent cowbell that livens Taylor's percussion. The track flows along before erupting over the final 20 seconds. "Neosho" ratchets up the drama with a flowing piano stanza accompanied by gruff arco and swirling cymbal hiss. JBL states the theme and goes quiet, giving the rest of the band space to slowly wind up, then returns and blows the doors off. This is followed by "Per 2" again finding Ortiz and JBL trading licks over a powerful rhythmic accompaniment from Jones and Taylor. "Breaking Code" is another ballad, and a doozy too. JBL plays in a gritty tone, again applying a wide, wavering vibrato to emphasize the blue in the brooding theme. His solo is an extended flight of nimble finger work and emphatic blowing. I could listen to the guy play all day, just excellent. On "An Anguish Departed" Ortiz embellishes his rolling vamp before taking flight a brief, jagged solo. JBL plays the majority with a stabbing, staccato phrasing before softening at the end. Album closer "Loverly" opens with soft chords accented with a measured sax line before Brad Jones takes a terrific solo over the middle third. JBL transitions back into the pretty theme, stating it twice before leaving the piece to evaporate.

James Brandon Lewis continues his remarkable line of great albums with Molecular. His playing has a lot of reference points, Coltrane, Rollins, Lester Young, Ayler, and Hawkins to name a handful, but he's got his own fingerprint altogether, and it has become more and more distinct with every new release. It's exciting to see how he develops and grows from album-to-album, and with the release of Live at Willisau I'm doubly excited to see a live platter with some of these (and older) tracks aboard. A tremendous artist and another tremendous album. Highly recommended.