BEST OF 2020: Best in Jazz2K, Part Deux – Top 10 Jazz2K Discs of 2020

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As Chris Hardwick might have said, “Now it’s time to let the rubber meet the road. IT’S ‘FOR THE WIN!’”

NUMBER TEN…

NDUDUZO MAKHATINI – Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds (Blue Note)

This disc nearly won Rookie of the Year, although it would have been a Pau Gasol type thing: Modes is Makhatini’s first US release as a leader, but the mercurial piano player has been making music in his native South Africa for most of this decade; among his past collaborators is horn player Feya Feku, who Greater Nippertown jazzers were introduced to on Jeff “Siege” Siegel’s 2017 ARC release King of Xhosa. As the liner notes stress, “This is not a performance. This is a ritual!!!” You get that celebratory, sanctified feel from the opening notes of “Yehlisan’uMoya”, and you ride that vibe through a mammoth set of originals that takes the cascading sound Hugh Masakela brought to Monterey Pop and kicks it into the 21st century, with ample help from a big unit that includes flame-throwing saxman Logan Richardson. Modes is one letter you do NOT mark “Return to Sender”! Open it up!

NUMBER NINE…

JIMMY GREENE – While Looking Up (Mack Avenue)

Given the sorrow Jimmy Greene has had to endure, it would not have been a shock if he turned away from any kind of brightness this world can offer. Instead, this phenomenal reed wizard has created yet another light-filled mix of originals and covers that celebrates all the emotions in the human experience. As an interpreter, Greene is one of the best of his generation: His reboot of Cole Porter’s “So in Love” is both buoyant and complex, while he turns Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” into a slow, romantic mirror-ball moment. Greene’s originals more than stand up to their well-known counterparts, with “No Words” flexing Electric Miles muscle and “April 4th” painting a loving portrait of the daughter he lost in the Sandy Hook massacre. Maybe this disc should have been called Keep Looking Up, because you never know what beauty you’ll miss if your head’s always down.

NUMBER EIGHT…

DAN LOOMIS – Job’s Trials: A Jazz Song Cycle (Self-released) 

One of my favorite bass players, Dan Loomis has been part of next-level groups like The Wee Trio, Spoke, and Ernesto Cervini’s Turboprop. This year, Loomis decided to mount his passion project: A crowd-funded “song cycle” breaking down the Biblical trials of Job, framing them with acerbic commentary from none other than Satan himself (as portrayed by Daniel Breaker). Job’s Trials is a swirling, multi-faceted example of how high and wide jazz can go if you don’t hinder it with limits. Loomis gets help building this massive musical structure from guitarist Jeff Miles and drummer / longtime co-conspirator Jared Schonig, and Yoon Soon Choi & Song Yi Jeon’s vocals scale that structure like supercharged mountain goats. Traditionalists (both musical and religious) may look askance at Job’s Trials, but sometimes you need to look at old stories with a fresh eye.

NUMBER SEVEN…

DAVE DOUGLAS – Dizzy Atmosphere: Dizzy Gillespie in Zero Gravity (Greenleaf Music)

Dave Douglas’s compositional skills are beyond compare, so he hasn’t had to rely on other player’s portfolios to survive. However, even geniuses need new challenges, so Douglas took on the legacy of another great trumpeter /composer, the late John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie. Rather than simply play the existing text of Dizzy’s works, Douglas uses them as a touchpoint for his own cosmic compositions, reworking “Con Alma” into “Con Almazan” (a nod to phenomenal keyboardist Fabian Alamazan, who paints sheets of beautiful sounds) and “Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac” into, simply, “Cadillac.” Dave Adewumi’s trumpet allows Douglas to avoid multi-tracking and keep the music in the moment, while Matt Stevens’ volcanic guitar helps Douglas take Dizzy’s spirit into high-earth orbit. Dizzy Atmosphere is one more small step for Douglas, but another giant leap for jazz.

NUMBER SIX…

BRIGHT DOG RED – Somethin’ Comes Along (Ropeadope)

How can you NOT love a group that can pair sharp, funny, intelligent lyrics with a borderline-chaotic mix of jazz, rock and hip-hop unmatched by anyone in the game? That’s Bright Dog Red, only the second Greater Nippertown group to make the Top 10 Jazz2K Discs list. Drummer Joe Pignato’s revolutionary collective brings the noise once again on their third release with a two-disc hit that showcases their overwhelming power and astounding range. Multi-instrumentalist Eric Person’s diverse arsenal expands BDR’s color palate even as he gives tenorman Mike LaBombard more room to roam, while Tyreek Jackson’s snarling guitar adds barbed-wire spikes to the overall attack. And under it all is Matt Coonan’s whip-smart freestyling, delivered with a nonchalance even Brad Pitt would admire. Bright Dog Red is not a gimmick; it is a force to be reckoned with, and may the reckoning come soon for all of us!

NUMBER FIVE…

LAKECIA BENJAMIN – Pursuance: The Coltranes (Ropeadope)

It would have been WAY too easy for altoist Lakecia Benjamin to do a tribute to sax icon John Coltrane: Put simply, Benjamin’s got the chops & imagination to take Coltrane’s best recordings to the next level. Instead, Pursuance: The Coltranes is a fire-breathing love letter to the compositions of both members of Trane’s last marriage. I think many traditionalists would like to “forget” Alice Coltrane in the same way John Lennon devotees try to “forget” Yoko Ono. Unlike Yoko, Alice created beautiful, powerful pieces that should definitely be remembered, and Benjamin’s affection is just as strong for Alice originals like “Prema” and “Going Home” as it is for John masterworks like “Liberia” and “Syeeda’s Song Flute.” Benjamin is also unafraid to go up against living reed masters, bringing Gary Bartz, Greg Osby, and Marcus Strickland into a killer cast that puts the Coltranes on the pedestal they both deserve.

NUMBER FOUR…

ORRIN EVANS & THE CAPTAIN BLACK BIG BAND – The Intangible Between (Smoke Sessions)

Like Dave Douglas, pianist Orrin Evans has become a perennial on the Top 10 Jazz2K Discs list, whether it’s with his solo efforts or with his outings with Captain Black, a group that had to shrink down in order to grow bigger. Captain Black’s also become more of a “group thing”, with members contributing originals and re-arrangements to go with Evans’ own devastating compositions. Josh Lawrence’s “Proclaim Liberty” opens Intangible with a soaring vibe straight out of John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass; Evans counters with a dizzying take on the spiritual “This Little Light of Mine”; and then Sean Jones’ gorgeous flugelhorn has us slow-dancing to Johnny Mandel’s “A Time for Love.” It only gets tastier from there as Evans chops & changes the band config to suit each piece, all of it with horn charts that bring a smile to the face and a tear to the eye. The 21st century needs a 21st-century big band, and here it is!

NUMBER THREE…

TERRI LYNE CARRINGTON + SOCIAL SCIENCE – Waiting Game (Motema)

It only makes sense that, in a year that social justice became a primary subject for jazz composers, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington’s latest would be the greatest of them all: Carrington already used Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle as a primal scream in the face of income inequality. Using a foundation group that features keyboardist Aaron Parks, guitarist Matt Stevens, saxman Morgan Guerin, and DJ Kassa Overall, Carrington incorporates vocalists, spoken-word artists (including Malcolm-Jamal Warner) and cameos from Nicholas Payton and Me’Shell Ndegeocello to put blinding spotlights on women’s rights, gay rights, income & social inequality. Carrington could have stopped with a single disc and still been in the Top 10, but she has her group get together with bassist Esperanza Spalding and a few other good actors on the devastating second-disc-long epic “Dreams and Desperate Measures.”

NUMBER TWO…

SHABAKA & THE ANCESTORS – We Are Sent Here by History (impulse!)

It’s only fitting that English reed master Shabaka Hutchings’ latest release comes out on impulse, the label where John Coltrane did his most expansive work. To be blunt, Hutchings deserves all the love Kamasi Washington gets, plus a few dump trucks more. (YEAH, I said it!) Rather than wrap everything in strings & choirs that sound like outtakes from Marvin Gaye’s I Want You, Hutchings uses both electric and acoustic venues to push this genre deep into the 21st century while embracing the tenets of 20th-century free jazz. Shabaka & the Ancestors is Hutchings’ (mostly) acoustic platform: The aforementioned Nduduzo Makhatini adds a touch of Fender Rhodes. They leveled the Gazebo Stage at Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival a few years back. If you saw that show, please know that We Are Sent Here by History takes all the mystical energy & beauty we saw and turns it up to ONE HUNDRED and eleven!

…and the NUMBER ONE JAZZ2K DISC OF 2020 is…

MARIA SCHNEIDER ORCHESTRA – Data Lords (ArtistShare)

I’ve been raving about Maria Schneider’s latest project since the world-renowned composer brought it to Troy Music Hall back in 2019. We only got a few tracks then, but after listening to this sprawling two-disc concept from end to end, I have to say that Data Lords is Schneider’s greatest work to date. Schneider could have simply released the first disc – “The Digital World”, a powerful indictment of the computer’s takeover of our lives – and called it a day. However, Schneider knows there needs to be a bright yang to go with a dark ying, so she gave us hopeful, pastoral music on the second disc, “The Natural World.” All of the music is beautifully performed by the vast cadre of artists that make up the MSO, including all-world pianist Frank Kimbrough, who we lost at the end of 2020. After a year where almost all our interactions were virtual, Data Lords’ dueling messages sound twice as loud, and they both need to be heard.

And that’s it. As usual, it’s just my opinion; your results may vary. If you’re reading this, congratulations: You survived 2020! Keep Staying Safe, and let’s hope 2021 is a little more user-friendly!

“The Top 10 Jazz2K Discs of 2020” and “The 2020 Jazz2K Awards” can be heard Saturday, January 2nd @ Midnight (with a re-broadcast Monday, January 4th @ 9pm) on WVCR 88.3 / Albany, NY!

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