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Jazz In 2019! A Round Up By Peter Margasak
The Quietus , December 9th, 2019 12:58

There's no time to police the borders of jazz, says Peter Margasak, in the introduction to his top ten releases of 2019

Matana Roberts portrait by Evan Hunter McKnight

In 2019 jazz continued to fracture into ever more specialised niches and schools of thought, and, remarkably, people continue to question what defines the “genre” rather than simply embrace its wonderfully unkempt, shifting borders. For this writer improvisation remains the key ingredient in all jazz—although sometimes its lack isn’t a deal breaker—and this year the most interesting players carried on seeking out new contexts and methodologies to give spontaneous creation meaning and purpose.

As someone who spent 35 years living in Chicago it’s been gratifying to see its anarchic, sprawling scene get major props thanks largely to the output of International Anthem Records, which dropped debuts from folks like bassist Junius Paul and clarinetist/singer/keyboardist Angel Bat Dawid, and the resurgent Art Ensemble of Chicago under leader Roscoe Mitchell’s big tent ethos.

Even more than a century on jazz is often rooted in regional flavours and my favourite music this year both reflected those accents while revealing in its ever-increasing universality. What happens in Chicago, London, New York, and Berlin is unique to each location, but the portability and mutability of improvisation allows for genuine, substantive exchange, and ideas seem to ricochet around the globe in ever accelerating ways.

Additionally, jazz musicians have always embraced new developments, both in and well outside of the tradition, so when Moor Mother works with the Art Ensemble or Nicole Mitchell, the music adapts and mutates in thrilling new ways. Some of the most bracing and rewarding music of the year thrives upon naturalistic, sincere collisions of approaches, and it seems that such absorption remains a key to jazz’s sustained relevancy, whether the gatekeepers like it or not.

In a business that privileges viral chunks, jazz resists, remaining true to extended exploration and the album as a primary means of delivery outside of the stage, where the heart of jazz still beats loudest. The following ten recordings—including two potent reissues that speak both to the prescience and longevity of the best jazz—aren’t necessarily the ten best albums of 2019, but as a whole they suggests its awesome range and incessant curiosity.

Petter Eldh - Koma Saxo
(We Jazz)

Swedish bassist Petter Eldh has spread his talents widely in recent years, whether holding the low-end down for Django Bates or Kit Downes’ Energy, but he showed the world something new with his first project as a leader. Joined by the remarkable German drummer Christian Lillinger and three top-flight Nordic saxophonists—Jonas Kullhammar, Mikko Innanen, and Otis Sandsjö—he applies his deep love for J Dilla in remapping post bop with hip hop production techniques without muting the expressive heft of his ensemble. He uses the tart blend of horns as modelling clay, sometimes accenting the reedist’s engagement in fiery multi-linear improvisation, sometimes smearing their harmonies into a luscious sound mass, all set within irresistible melodies penned both by band members and overlooked Nordic composers like Edward Vesala and Matti Oiling. Eldh mixed the session for maximum propulsion and heft, underlining his own pointillistic, jabbing lines and the meticulous time-fracturing of Lillinger to forge a sound that convincingly reconciles boom bap with abstract improvisational impulses. This isn’t a hip hop record, but Eldh has managed to inject its ideas within a jazz setting with a logic, musicality, and integrity that’s rarely been achieved before.

Joshua Abrams ‘ Natural Information Society - Mandatory Reality

On the latest and best transmission from his long-running Natural Information Society Chicago’s Joshua Abrams locates a nifty nexus of classic minimalism and his group’s adaption of North African hypnosis via Don Cherry’s proto-world music explorations. The group has always relied on spare materials, layering slow-moving harmonic and melodic development atop the leader’s twangy, endlessly cycling yet incrementally changing guimbri patterns, but this time the ensemble looks to its homeland for subtle inspiration, although there’s no confusing these mind-altering grooves with the work of Steve Reich (although there’s a kick akin to Terry Riley’s mescaline-inspired experiments, at times). A top-flight horn section including Jason Stein, Ben LaMar Gay, and Nick Mazzarella drape subtly morphing, improvisation-minded, gauzy long tones or hocket-like patterns over trance-inducing rhythms sculpted by percussionists Mikel Patrick Avery and Hamid Drake, harmonium anchor Lisa Alvarado, and the leader’s imperturbable, placid foundation. With so much music claiming to be transformational, it’s assuring to get lost in something that actually makes you think as it takes you places.

أحمد [Ahmed] - Super Majnoon [East Meets West]
( Otoroku)

On its relentless second album this intensely focused quartet formed to pay homage to the singular Sudan-born bassist and oudist Ahmed Abdul-Malik—who worked with folks like Art Blakey, Randy Weston, and Thelonious Monk—arrives at its own form of ecstasy inspired but unbound by its namesake’s musical aesthetic. Drummer Antonin Gerbal and bassist Joel Grip sculpt a throbbing groove that cycles like a turbine even as it perpetually shifts accents and flow, giving pianist Pat Thomas—the criminally overlooked London improviser who issued a slew of fine recordings in 2019—and saxophonist Seymour Wright a slippery foundation for chiseling simple motifs in a zillion, spellbinding variations. It’s all a form of jazz minimalism that gets seriously under the skin—needling, pushing, and exploding—over an extended period with the pianist and reedist masterfully in sync with one another and the rhythm section.

Matana Roberts - Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis

The fourth installment of Matana Roberts’ ambitious 12-part Coin Coin cycle reveals an artist at the peak of her powers, accruing and assimilating ideas at an astonishing clip. Working with a nimble, flinty ensemble—including Land of Kush guitarist-oudist Sam Shalabi, multi-instrumentalist Hannah Marcus, drummer Ryan Sawyer, and bassist Nicolas Caloia--that’s able to reflect her polystylistic vision, the music focuses on tales from the titular city, translated from the artist’s own bloodline into a first person perspective narrative marked by brutal racism. Using a mixture of traditional notation and graphic scores, Roberts and her cohorts wend through a melting pot of approaches that mirrors the vibrant, variegated stew of Memphis musical history—including highly effective passages of folk-derived material, with rustic fiddling by Marcus—all held together by the leader’s serrated alto saxophone and her increasingly assured singing. The performances are marked by the sense of struggle and triumph embedded in the story, as tension builds and releases in cathartic rushes.

Art Ensemble Of Chicago - A 50th Anniversary Celebration: We Are On The Edge

It’s easy to forget that before the Art Ensemble of Chicago there was the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, the group that changed its appellation and became one of the most paradigm-shifting forces in music history. With most of the members of the old iteration of his group dead, a few eyebrows were raised when the composer and improviser revived the band with only percussionist Don Moye connecting the group to its past. With We Are On The Edge the multi-instrumentalist delivers a statement, if a little overstuffed, on many levels; the primacy of his vision (from ancient to the future); his unceasing commitment to exploration and growth; an embrace of a younger generation of musical seekers. Mitchell’s music sprawls from heavily notated contemporary music, wide-open improvisation, old AEC classics, and an embrace to new iterations of the avant-garde, whether through the charged oratory of Moor Mother or a by bringing in leading lights of a much younger generation, including cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Junius Paul, and violinist Jean Cook.

Anna Webber - Clockwise

One of the most promising and rigorous reedists and composers in New York for half-a-decade now, Anna Webber achieves a dazzling apotheosis on Clockwise, fronting a septet as versatile as it is technically strong. Her thorny compositions are distinguished by endless corkscrewing, contrapuntal, and harmonically ambiguous lines that can suggest the hands of a clock revolving in opposite directions. The braided, dizzying lines of cello and reeds on a track like 'Idiom II', where they collide with an almost martial rhythm & brass figure, are representative of her knack for astringent contrasts. Webber has already mastered arrangements stuffed with contrasting impulses and textures, creating a gut-punch tension that rarely resolves. Players like pianist Matt Mitchell, trombonist Jacob Garchik, percussionist Ches Smith, and cellist Christopher Hoffman (who excels playing the similarly complex music of Henry Threadgill) all thrive in toggling between precise ensemble passages and high-wire improvisation.

Dustin Laurenzi - Snaketime: The Music Of Moondog
(Astral Spirits/Feeding Tube)

There’s much more to Chicago jazz than what you here on International Anthem these days. Saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi sometimes tours with Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver and makes up one-third of the nimble Twin Talk, but he’s probably a name you’ve never heard. He formed Snaketime to interpret the music of Moondog—a fairly common occurrence of late—but his deft arrangements leech out Louis Hardin Jr.’s naiveté in favour of his melodic generosity, especially in the pieces that are canons. Laurenzi is the featured soloist here, playing buoyant yet probing lines mixing of lilt and soulfulness, but the high-quality band brings the leader’s ideas to pungent, springy life—as drummers Ryan Packard and Quin Kirchner apply an infectious polyrhythmic push, bassist Matt Ulery and guitarist Dave Miller map out lovely harmonies and three additional horn players (reedists Nick Mazzarella and Jason Stein and trumpeter Chad McCullough) articulate the catchy melodies in geometric splendour. The music doesn’t try to mimic Moondog’s records—instead it zeros in what made his pieces so indelible.

Grischa Lichtenberger - re: phgrp

German producer Grischa Lichtenberger doesn’t merely remix Consequences (Why Play Jazz), a heady, detail-rich album from Berlin saxophonist Phillipp Groper’s Philm--also released in 2019--he creates an alternative universe from it. The source material was recorded live in a single room by the quartet, so Lichtenberger couldn’t easily separate specific instrumental tracks, but his mastery at dicing up and reconfiguring isolated elements—throbbing bass notes or grainy tenor stabs—is so rigorous and inventive that the limitation seems to have inspired him. While he added a few dabs of piano and synthesizer to his overhaul, the vast majority of the material comes from Gropper’s band; there’s a kinetic, driving broken-beat thrust, but what’s most impressive is that he maintains the essence of the splintery, post-Tim Berne fractalism of Consequences, as individual lines, blurts, and tones endlessly recombine within a trippy, aqueous suspension that someone feels as organic and peripatetic as the original music.

Louis Moholo Octet - Spirits Rejoice!

Louis Moholo is the last surviving member of the Blue Notes, the South African expats who first imported ebullient township melodies into free jazz after fleeing their homeland for Europe in the mid-60s, paving the way for the success enjoyed these days by Shabaka Hutchings—who now plays in the drummer’s working band Five Blokes. This 1978 recording was Moholo’s first outing as a leader and its strain of joyful freedom still sparkles five decades later. The top-notch band includes saxophonist Evan Parker, pianist Keith Tippett, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, and bassist (and fellow Blue Note) Johnny Dyani, and the musicians deftly articulate the leader’s aesthetic both on skipping tunes derived from kwela tradition such as trumpeter Mongezi Feza’s ‘You Ain’t Gonna Know Me ‘Cos You Think You Know Me', as well as more ruminative material like the chorale-like closer 'Amaxesha Osizi'. The band masterfully erases any gaps between the celebratory and the exploratory.

Eric Dolphy - Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions

These sessions, cut when Eric Dolphy was between contracts on Prestige and Blue Note, were among the most pivotal recordings he ever made, but they’ve been treated shabbily over the decades, issued and reissued in incomplete, often slipshod fashion. Finally the music that first appeared on the classics Iron Man and Conversations is given a proper context, with an extravagant photo-packed 100-page booklet and fleshed out by 85 minutes of previously unissued material from the same two-day sessions in 1963. In the company of a superb group of players including vibist Bobby Hutcherson, bassist Richard Davis, drummer Charles Moffett, trumpeter Woody Shaw, and reedists Clifford Jordan and Sonny Simmons, Dolphy reveals an artistic transition that would soon yield his masterpiece Out To Lunch the following year, only months before he slipped into a fatal, undiagnosed diabetes-related coma at the age of 36. Here one can fully appreciate his inventive explorations into jagged chamber jazz, whether through quicksilver duets with Davis or arrangements for a ten-piece line-up, and adventurous post-bop marked by his penchant for wild intervallic leaps.