Friday 18 December 2020

 Top 10 of 2020 - five to one ( and one that nearly made it!)

To repeat the preface to ten to six, this list is about what I've enjoyed this year. It's got nothing to do with chart placings, other people's opinions, money paid over in bribes or, indeed to please other people. It clearly doesn't do that, since comments about part one have been about what I  had not included, although there was occasional agreement with at least one of my choices. You'll also discover that I've cheated in order to hide my indecision. Now read on....Never mind - here's the Top 5!

5. Donald Byrd and the Blackbyrds: The Jazz Funk Collection.

Robinsongs ( a part of the Cherry Red Organisation) don't release too many albums - but they tend to be crackers when they do. They only released two albums in 2020. This was one of them. It brought together tracks from a whole host of record companies that which charts the changes that took place when Donald Byrd moved from straight ahead jazz to jazz-funk fusion and then onto all the collaborations with the Blackbyrds. Not only are the choices well made, but the compilers also made sure to annotate properly what was happening thanks to an informative and well written set of notes by Charles Waring. It's a three CD set that repays repeated plays and to my ears does exactly what it set out to do. I haven't enjoyed a box set so much since the Hugh Masekela triple set. For 18 quid it's amazing value.

4. Alison Neale: Quietly there.

It's quite possible that choices 4 and 3 could appear here in different order - it was hard to choose between the two. Alison Neale plays beautifully on Alto sax, and the repertoire is incredibly diverse from Horace Silver  through Rogers and Hart and on to Cole Porter and on to the title track written by Johnny Mandel. What makes it extra special is the backing band, Dave Green on Bass and Steve Brown on drums, but especially Peter Bernstein on guitar who is both restrained and melodic, but above all bounces off Neale's sax playing in a most empathetic way. Credit too to Ubuntu Records who have maintained a steady stream of diverse and contrast in styles of music through this most difficult year.

3. Nubya Garcia: Source.

It sounds as though quite a lot of thought was put into the production of this album, and it appeared on a 'major' label, Concord. Garcia herself has been all over the media this year, but she can certainly cut it as a saxophone player, and is supported by a band that contains several of the top players in the emergent (or should that be 'emerged'' London jazz scene). Joe Armon- Jones is a great piano player in his own right, but his playing here is really empathetic throughout. However she's also made extensive used of Sheila Maurice (or Ms Maurice as she appears here) borrowed from Kokoroko, who avid listeners will know are a long time favourite of the presenter. She brings a trumpet/flugelhorn support on several tracks as well as adding vocals. All of this shouldn't detract from the fact that the compositions are excellent, the playing superb and you should certainly take time to listen to the extended title track - which we've played a couple of times on the show in its entirety.

2. Orlando Le Fleming: Romantic Funk; The unfamiliar.

Ignoring the fact that Orlando probably doesn't want to be reminded that he grew up in Exeter, went to school here and played cricket for Devon -or that one of the presenters on Phonic taught him! -this is a belting album. I've seen it described as 'high intensity fusion" but that barely begins to cover what emerges. Firstly he's a great Bass player, and secondly he has gathered around him and empathetic band, which includes Philip Dizak on trumpet and Will Vinson on Alto Sax. It's one of the very few albums that, on receipt, I played right the way through, and then played it again. Since then I've played it numerous times and have come to realise that if this is 'fusion', it has more too with the joining of two traditions, being British and living in America, and also not in the tradition as I saw in another review that it's like Weather Report. No, it's much more than that, and the title says it all. Hope there's another album soon.

Now the indecision that I mentioned in the preface.....
I've chosen two number ones. They are two albums that illustrate how far apart you can be in style and still call it jazz. So no apologies- here they are;

1=. Lionel Loueke: HH.

Don't know how Dave Stapleton of Edition Records managed to pick up on the album, but however it was this is high octane guitar playing in a unique style. All the tracks except two are Herbie Hancock tunes - Loueke currently plays in the Herbie Hancock band- but as an improviser Loueke does magical things on all the tracks. Forget the preconceptions that you may have about guitar albums, because these are virtuoso renditions of songs you might already know from the HH back catalogue. It sounds as though he had fun making it, which in lots of ways is credit enough, but included are noises made by the player, hums and times when it sounds more than just one guitar - I'd like to know more about the production methods. 

1.=. Kandace Springs: The women who raised me.

I've seen some criticism of this album which suggested that it was all too easy to hear the originals of the songs she performs on the album - but  this misses the point that she's interpreting them in the way that she heard them, rather than a copy of them. It's also striking for having a luminary backing band that seldom ever gets to 'stretch out ' Springs piano playing is often featured but it's only Chris Potter, the Sax player. who gets anything like solo time, although David Sanborn plays a lovely Alto Sax break on "I put a spell on you". The songs are from a plethora of sources, from Sade to Billie Holiday, through Duke Ellington to Roberta Flack. The breadth of what is being attempted here augurs well for whatever is to follow but it's an album that's been played constantly since I first received it. It also illustrates my stated dilemma. How can you separate two albums that are sonically far apart but linked by an enduring tradition of jazz? 

The one that got away;

Spanish Harlem Orchestra: The Latin Jazz project.

I was alerted to this by a review in the Financial Times by Mike Hobart. It's not available in shops and is part of the Artist Share label that brought me the latest Patricia Barber album last year. I applaud the endeavour, since the Artists are not seeing their money dissipated by the paying of agents, promoters and record companies. If you go on line and look up Artist Share you can find out more about how it works and how you can support a wide range of schemes. The album is a joyous rampage through big band arrangements by top session musicians or a range of various Latin tunes, and is highly recommended for both the music and the concept.

Finally 2020 has been an awful year for jazz musicians, especially in the area where I live, where gigs have been sparse, and cancellations the most notable feature for much of the year. It seems imperative that wherever you live supporting live jazz in 2021 is an imperative.

Friday 11 December 2020

2020 Top 10 - ten to six.

Firstly, the annual reminder. These albums have got nothing at all to do with sales, other chart placing or money received as payola. They're the albums that have given me the most pleasure during the course of this very strange year, so it's an esoteric mix, for which I make no apology. It's (if you like) the equivalent of being asked to pick your "Desert Island Discs" on an annual basis. Anyway, there aren't any rules apart from the ones that I make up, so this year it includes an album that was recorded a long time ago, but appeared in public for the first time this year. Five to One will follow!

 10. Michel Benita: Looking at sounds.

As with many ECM releases you get very little information from the sleeve notes. Benita himself is Algerian, and he's based in Paris, so I would guess that the other musicians are French. He's featured in several other albums that I've liked, and recorded with Erik Truffaz and Nguyen Le, whose album I lauded last year. This album is for the main part very reflective, and the Flugelhorn Player Matthieu Michel adds his own style to the whole album. This is not an album which will allow you dance (except perhaps very slowly) but it's a wonderful example of reflective European Jazz in 2020.

9. Various Artists: Blue Note Re-imagined.

Tricky one this! Several of the tracks were pre-released and indeed several of the tracks are essential listening, but over 16 tracks there are only four or five that fall into that category. In the main they (for me) tend to be the artists who have had wider recognition in the proto jazz scene, and there are a couple of tracks that are very pale versions of the originals - for they are all tracks that have been recorded by other Blue Note artists. It's probably best for you to sort out for yourselves the tracks that you like, and then work out which ones I liked! My other disappointment was that there was so little information included within the package about the original tracks. When Blue Note re-released their re-mastered CD's in the late 90's they had an informative look at the original album and then added a more considered view. Pity they didn't do that for this package.

8. Thelonious Monk: Palo Alto.

I only got to see Thelonious Monk play once (yeah, I'm that old!) and it seemed at the time that the Quartet playing live suited Monk much better than in a more formal setting. That's why this album, recorded October 27th 1968 is such a delight because the band stretches out as they did and seldom were allowed to do in the recording studio. Quite why the Janitor recorded the session beggars belief, but the quality, apart from one or two blurs is amazing - and the band and Monk sound as though they really enjoyed it. The story behind the album is worth checking out, but so is the album. Incidentally I got my copies before the Monk Estate threatened legal action which delayed it's eventual release. By then I'd played most of the tracks on the show!

7. Benjamin Boone and the Ghana Jazz Collective: Joy

Can't remember who suggested this to me - but thanks! Strangely, Benjamin Boone was known to me because of his Classical music releases. he's a Professor at UC Fresno, but also went to Ghana as a Fulbright Scholar 2017 to 2018. It's there that he recorded this rather joyous slice of Afro- American jazz. At a guess they went into the studio with only the vaguest idea of what they wanted to produce and spent the time bouncing ideas off the 5 musicians and vocalist that were involved. Boone plays alto and soprano sax, and the rest of the band is tenor sax, keyboards, bass and drums. The titles vary from an excellent version of Herbie Hancock's 'Maiden voyage' through more cerebral stuff to '233 jazz bar' which is a joyous free for all vamp. Highly recommended.

6. Django Bates: Tenacity.

Recorded with his own trio, and the Norbotten Big Band. It's a mixture of self composed material and Charlie Parker tunes. It took me quite a long time to really get into the music that's on the CD, which Bates himself admits in the sleeve notes requires 'Tenacity' hence the title of the album. The Parker tunes present a different sound to the original sound of Parker himself so listeners might like to start with 'Confirmation' which to me is about as far away from the original as its possible to get. There are two commissioned tracks on the album with "We are not lost we are simply finding our way' being for Radio 3 and the Cheltenham Jazz Festival. As ever, Bates is pushing forward the boundaries of what can be described as 'jazz'

Part Two to follow, with choices from five to one, and a couple of tracks that nearly made the cut (but eventually didn't!)