BEST OF 2017: J Hunter’s Best Jazz2K Releases (Part I)
By J Hunter
Maybe you have this problem, too: There are so many CD mailers stacked against my front door when I come home that, once I force my way inside the house, it’s almost impossible to get out again! So while I was able to cover a few more shows for Nippertown than I did last year, I still didn’t get enough of a sample size for a comprehensive Best Concerts list. However, thanks to the aforementioned stack of recorded material, I had more than enough nominees to juggle for THIS particular list – like, over 130 of them. Before we get down to the nitty gritty, though, let’s hand out a few bowling trophies:
BEST VOCAL RELEASE
SOMI: Petite Afrique (OKeh)
She may have been born in Illinois, but Somi (full name Somi Kakoma) is of Rwandan and Ugandan descent and spent part of her childhood in Zambia while her father worked for the World Health Organization. In 2014, this mesmerizing vocalist created The Lagos Music Salon, my pick for Best Vocal Release of that year: Inspired by an 18-month sabbatical in Lagos, Nigeria, the enthralling themes and sounds of Lagos are picked up on Petite Afrique and applied to the Western African community of 21st-century Harlem. Somi reboots Sting’s “An Englishman in New York” as “Alien,” making the protagonist’s isolation even starker. The conflict between Harlem’s past and present is a burning undercurrent to this riveting song cycle that, sadly, shows xenophobia is not a state solely owned by Donald Trump.
BEST SOLO OR DUO RELEASE
HIROMI & EDMAR CASTANEDA: Live in Montreal (Telarc)
I can’t imagine a less likely live pairing than the Japanese piano prodigy Hiromi and the Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda: Maybe Yo-Yo Ma and Seasick Steve would do the trick. Nevertheless, Hiromi and Castaneda got together onstage at the Montreal International Jazz Festival earlier this year, and their recorded efforts make up one of the most interesting releases of 2017. Both artists combine solid musical foundations with a particular sense of whimsy; that quirkiness is evident throughout their hilarious take on “Cantina Band” from the original “Star Wars” soundtrack, but their instrumental and creative prowess also elevates “For Jaco” (Castaneda’s brilliant tribute to a star-crossed legend) and Hiromi’s far-flung suite “The Elements.” Apparently, opposites DO attract. What’s more, they can make some darn good music when the mood takes them.
BEST PARTY DISC
STANTON MOORE: With You in Mind: The Songs of Allen Toussaint (Mascot Label Group)
People keep saying it because it’s true: Ain’t no party like a NEW ORLEANS party! Composer-arranger-producer Allen Toussaint‘s music has been part of the Crescent City party scene since the early ‘60s, when he was writing hits for Ernie K-Doe, Chris Kenner and Benny Spellman. On With You in Mind, longtime Galactic drummer Stanton Moore’s dynamic acoustic trio drives NOLA heavies Cyril Neville, Nicholas Payton and Donald Harrison Jr., as well as Jazz2K monsters Skerik and Trombone Shorty. As a result, late-night staples like “Night People,” “Here Come the Girls,” “Everything I Do Gone Be Funky” and “Southern Nights” live and breathe and jump again, all performed by artists whose love for this all-world gentleman shines throughout. No “hangin’ out, waitin’ for somethin’ to happen” here. It is on like Major Kong!
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
ISAMU McGREGOR: Resonance (Ghost Note)
McGregor’s online bio says his future plans include “occasionally sleeping” – not surprising, given that the Queens resident is one of the most in-demand keyboardists and musical directors on the menu, with past employers like Chris Potter, Richard Bona, Patti Austin and GZA from Wu-Tang Clan. Somehow, McGregor found time to put together Resonance, ramrodding a sizzling date that includes cameos by reed wizards (and, not surprisingly, former employers) Seamus Blake and Benny Maupin. McGregor’s playing and compositional skills easily evoke Skidmore Jazz Institute alum Ryan Cohan, expertly mixing electric and acoustic elements on pieces that never fail to surprise in their direction and intensity. Besides, you have to love someone who comes up with titles like “The Tao of Flying” and “Thor versus James Brown.” More please, Isamu… but get some sleep first!
LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD
PETER ERSKINE & THE DR. UM BAND: Second Opinion (Fuzzy Music)
Try this on for contrast: After making his bones with Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson’s big bands, Erskine joined Weather Report in 1978, and then went on to backstop Steps Ahead and Jaco Pastorius’ group Word Of Mouth. Since then, this Hall Of fame drummer has played with everyone from Kate Bush to Steely Dan, but he’s always had those electric jazz days in the back of his mind. Last year, he dropped the amazing Peter Erskine is… Dr. Um into our bathtub, and the resulting shock not only showed us that jazz fusion doesn’t have to sound dated, but it also doesn’t require the pretentiousness that dominates other reboots of the sub-genre. With crackerjack performances by keyboardist John Beasley and saxman Bob Sheppard, Second Opinion is a logical extension of Dr. Um, as well as that rare animal that is a worthy sequel.
LOCAL HERO AWARD
JEFF “SIEGE” SIEGEL QUARTET: King of Xhosa (ARC)
The Greater Nippertown jazz scene had a pretty busy 2017, seeing releases by Scott Bassinson, Joe Barna & Sketches of Influence, Bryan Brundige’s Piggy Wigglies, and the ground-shaking duo of Bob Gluck & Tani Tabbal. At the end of the day, though, this award was sewn up about five minutes after I started listening to King of Xhosa, drummer-educator Jeff Siegel’s first release as a leader in almost seven years. Siegel combines friends and colleagues from his long musical career with the awesome open sound of South African horn player Feya Faku to create an incendiary set that brings to mind the depth & color of Horace Silver, the spirituality of late-career Coltrane and the tribal vibe of Hugh Masakela. Jazz is now a global music, and King of Xhosa is proof of what phenomenal sounds can happen when we embrace that matrix. (GO HERE to read Jeff Nania’s review of the album…)
Last year, I gave up trying to pare down the mountain of music I live with to just ten essential pieces. For one reason or another, they’re ALL essential! Instead, I paired my Top 10 Jazz2K Discs with what I call “The Rest Of The Best.” Here’s this year’s list, in no particular order (and there’s 16 of them so I can give them a radio show of their own):
AMBROSE AKINMUSIRE: A Rift in Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note)
BEN ALLISON: Layers of the City (Sonic Camera)
MIGUEL ZENON: Tipico (Miel Music)
CYNTHIA HILTS: Lyric Fury (Blond Coyote)
JOEY DEFRANCESCO & THE PEOPLE: Project Freedom (Mack Avenue)
GERALD CLAYTON: Tributary Tales (Motema)
ZEM AUDU: Spirits (Origin)
BRIAN CHARETTE: Kürrent (Self-released)
GEOF BRADFIELD: Birdhoused (Cellar Live)
AMANDA MONACO: Glitter (Positone)
DAVE LIEBMAN / JOE LOVANO: Compassion: The Music of John Coltrane (Resonance)
BRYAN & THE AARDVARKS: Sounds from the Deep Field (Biophilia)
URI GURVICH: Kinship (Jazz Family)
SIMONA PREMAZZI: Outspoken (Pre)
MARC COPLAND: Better by Far (InnerVoice Jazz)
ERNESTO CERVINI’S TURBOPROP: Rev (Anzic)
In our next episode, I’ll count down the Top 10. Be there. Aloha!
MORE BEST OF 2017 LISTS
STANLEY A. JOHNSON’S Top 12 (Or So) Live Music Performances