Yes, it’s that time of year once again – best of the year list-time, that is. We’re gathering together Best of 2016 from various media outlets, our own contributors and our readers, too.
Here’s a list of Top Jazz Albums from Nippertown contributing photographer Albert Brooks:
BEST TENOR SAX ALBUM A Master Speaks by George Coleman is indeed a master class by the esteemed master of the saxophone. Accompanied by Mike LeDonne on piano, (the late) Bob Cranshaw on bass, George Coleman Jr. on drums and Peter Bernstein on guitar, Coleman’s tone is like a warm sable wrap and his improvisational choices a primer in erudition, taste and excitement. The Master Speaks, and those with ears that hear must listen! (Smoke Sessions)
BEST PIANO ALBUM
All hail Kenny Barron, who is the unmitigated, incomparable and peerless exemplar of pianism and quintessential jazz trioism. The combo a trois that delivers Book of Intuition includes, along with Barron, the amazingly simpatico Johnathan Blake and Kiyoshi Kitagawa. They operate as one intuitive organism, and “Magic Dance” – one of many highlights on the album – is commended as required listening for anyone having a bad day, who’s lonely, who may be depressed about the recent elections or who is just in need of sonic uplift. This album is a paragon of beautiful energy and therefore a musical embodiment of hope, something that is sorely needed at this time. (Verve International)
Okay, we’ve handed out the awards and revealed the “Rest of the Best.” Now it’s time to make my brown eyes blue. IT’S “FOR THE WIN!”
NUMBER TEN… ANTHONY BRANKER & IMAGINE Beauty Within (Origin)
Composer/arranger Anthony Branker doesn’t play on his own pieces; like Maria Schneider, he’s got people for that. But where Schneider literally needs an army to paint her pastoral pictures, Branker employs an uber-tight quintet of notorious killers to conjure music that soothes your soul one moment, then goes for your throat the next – on the same tune! The front line of saxman Ralph Bowen, guitarist Pete McCann and pianist Fabian Almazan is simply monumental, while bassist Linda Oh and drummer Rudy Royston make their own substantial voices heard while building a tremendous foundation. The beauty within Anthony Branker must be a sight to see, because the music that comes from that place is a joy to experience.
NUMBER NINE… AZIZA Aziza (Dare2)
It never fails: Every time I think, I’ve got my Top Ten set, one disc always flies in at the last minute and screams, “Get that spreadsheet out, sucker! You ain’t done yet!” This year’s self-titled gatecrasher is another fire-breathing group date from legendary bassist Dave Holland. But where the fusion of 2013’s Prism stayed on the “traditional” jazz/rock path, Aziza serves up a cornucopia of jazz, funk and world music, thanks to dizzying contributions from reed wizard Chris Potter and guitarist Lionel Loueke. Drummer Eric Harland is the sole holdover from Prism, but given that the Houston native can create shoulder-shaking rhythms for any group of any size or direction, he takes to Holland’s new vision like a duck to water. So did I – and then I got out the spreadsheet and started sorting again.
Blues recordings made a strong showing this year. The trend across all genres of music continues to marginalize artist income from recordings and depreciate the value of intellectual property. This forces performers to do live concerts to survive and reduces recordings to calling cards in order to create demand that puts asses in the seats. The CD then becomes of secondary importance, and less time and money are spent on them as “product.”
Blues, too, as a genre, is always in danger of being painted into a box of clichés. But none of these potential drags materialized in this year’s crop of CDs. And we, the listeners, are presented with a cornucopia of great music:
“Jazz2K @ The Saint” was just going to be a sideline thing, but it became something other than else. It’s like when you get in a relationship that you think is going to be casual; the next thing you know, you’re wearing better clothes, you’re driving a better car, you’re shopping for rings you can’t possibly afford, and your friends want to know why you don’t hang out any more.
We’ll see if things change (or moderate, anyway) in 2017. But while I didn’t see a ton of live music this year, I did experience one of the best years in recorded 21st-century jazz since Y2K went bust. Boiling over 150 discs down to the best of the best was especially difficult, because nearly every artist or group I heard could make a case for itself as something to be remembered. In the end, though, the winnowing had to occur, so let’s start by handing out the usual bowling trophies:
LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD DR. LONNIE SMITH: Evolution (Blue Note)
As Michael Sarrazin tells Tim Matheson in “The Gumball Rally,” “Some things get meaner as they get older.” That certainly sums up one of the grand masters of the Hammond B3, who made his return to a resurgent Blue Note after a gap of over four decades. With cameo appearances by Joe Lovano and Robert Glasper, and a core group featuring alto sax fiend John Ellis and mammoth drummer Jonathan Blake, the good doctor sets it all on fire with burning takes on Monk and Rodgers & Hammerstein, sandwiched between killing originals like “Play It Back” and “African Suite.” The evolutionary process includes survival of the fittest, but Smith isn’t just surviving – he is most assuredly thriving.
RED HAIRED STRANGERS
@ The Ale House, Troy
Saturday (March 19), 9pm
Led by vocalist-harmonicat Ryan Dunham and vocalist-guitarist John Rice (who have been playing together for more than 20 years), the country/blues band celebrates the release of their excellent new album, Doc Roots Elixir: Guaranteed to Satisfy, chockfull of tunes that sound right at home in a bar room or a back porch. The rootsy Americana album also features bandmembers Mike McLean (bass), Rick Morse (pedal steel, dobro) and Chris Scharl (drums), as well as special guests Greg Speck (of Captain Squeeze & the Zydeco Moshers on accordion) and Joseph Gumpper (fiddle).
No question about it – David Bowie’sBlackstar (Columbia) was the most talked-about album of the year so far. And shockingly it was also Bowie’s first No. 1 album… unfortunately for all the wrong, heartbreaking reasons.
Looking beyond the death-induced headlines and subsequent Bowie catalog revival, there was also a surprisingly rich batch of January releases – all the more unexpected because January is traditionally a down-turn month for new music releases.
Here’s a quick round-up of a few new album releases for the month that you may have overlooked:
For me, nothing in 2015 compared to the thrill of (somewhat belatedly) discovering twentysomething Chicago singer-songwriter Ryley Walker. Evoking the American Primitive guitar stylings pioneered by John Fahey and Leo Kottke that were later carried into the 21st century by such fretboard masters as Daniel Bachman and Steve Gunn, Walker’s mind-boggling finger-picking is rooted in traditional folk, but applied to a more avant-garde, neo-classical aesthetic. And his fearless, holy howl of a voice resonates with echoes of Tim Buckley at his most adventurous.
His sophomore album Primrose Green was hands-down my most-listened-to record of the year, and I caught three of his four Greater Nippertown tour-stops – each time with different accompaniment. (Sadly I missed his stop at BSP Lounge in Kingston).
TOP 20 CONCERTS OF THE YEAR
Art Neville and George Porter of the Funky Meters @ Massry Center for the Arts, 4/16/15
THE LAST CONSPIRATORS Hold That Thought Forever
(Driving Rain Music)
When last we heard from the Last Conspirators on their 2013, Terry Plunkett-produced A Celebration of Fury, the veteran punk band seemed headed toward the metalesque edge of the musical spectrum.
But a lot has happened since then. Plunkett and the band parted ways; bassist Nick Bisanz shifted over to fill Plunkett’s vacated guitar chair; and new bassist Mike Grundy was recruited.
Produced by Conehead Buddha’s Chris Fisher at his Easter Island Studios in Coxsackie, Hold That Thought Forever is the new line-up’s debut (the band’s fourth release over-all), and all but one of the album’s 11 songs are co-written by frontman Tim Livingston (a veteran of the Morons and Ghostrunner) with Bisanz. And the personnel shifts seem to be reflected in a new direction…
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