New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: jazz

The Webber/Morris Big Band Deliver a Smartly Thematic, Unique, Entertaining Sound

The Webber/Morris Big Band‘s album Both Are True – which hasn’t hit the web yet – is a treat for anyone who likes meticulously crafted new big band jazz. It’s unusual in that most of it is remarkably delicate for such a big ensemble. Bandleaders and saxophonists Anna Webber and Angela Morris gravitate toward the upper registers in the compositions here. Although much of this music is persistently unsettled, it’s not particularly heavy and has a welcome, sardonic sense of humor. Not everyone plays on every track: some include Dustin Carlson’s guitar, others have Marc Hannaford’s spare piano.

The opening epic, Climbing on Mirrors is a real roller-coaster ride. Delicate staccato upper-register textures join the gently circling, distantly Afrobeat-inflected milieu one by one until a terse, plaintive Charlotte Greve sax solo slows the song as the ensemble recedes to just the rhythm section. The big crescendo brings everybody back with a joyously syncopated pulse. The way the brass bracingly shadow the reeds really ramps up the suspense, toward a lush chorale that brings the opening theme full circle – in more ways than one. Darcy James Argue seems to be the obvious influence.

The album’s title track has a similar but heavier syncopation that contrasts with a much more improvisational element, pairs of instruments seemingly choosing their own material to converse with, and moments of uneasy massed resonance where the rhythm drops out. Again, a sax solo pulls the music together; the piano mingles with Patricia Brennan’s vibraphone, but not to the point of any big reveal. Is the sleekness that follows a signal that all is finally clear? No spoilers!

In Rebonds, the band shift from spacious rhythmic riffs and uneasy, dirty resonance,  guitar skronk front and center. They begin Coral with a Brian Eno-esque haze and then gradually move en masse to break it up with increasingly flickering textures, lingering, spacious Adam O’Farrill trumpet solos and a groove that could be Isaac Hayes on mushrooms.

And It Rolled Right Down is an amusingly cuisinarted mix of New Orleans-flavored riffs, with an ending that’s too funny to give away. With its echoey/blippy dichotomy, the massed improvisation Foggy Valley is aptly titled. The group close with the album’s longest epic, Reverses, a close-harmonied march from the horns over a spare, wary three-chord piano figure. Then the band echo it as a slowly syncopated pulse returns in the background, down to a moodyO’Farrill break and then up to an irresistibly stampeding payoff: it’s the most intricate and beefiest of all the numbers here.

The record also includes a couple of casual, playful two-sax conversations to break up the tracks. An original and judicious triumph for a group who also include saxophonists Jay Rattman, Adam Schneit and Lisa Parrott:; trumpeters John Lake, Jake Henry and Kenny Warren: trombonists Tim Vaughn, Nick Grinder. Jen Baker anad Reginald Chapman; bassist Adam Hopkins and drummer Jeff Davis.

The 8-Bit Big Band Can’t Stop Playing Mighty, Orchestral Versions of Video Game Themes

The 8-Bit Big Band are one of the most improbably successful brands in music. They own the franchise on lavishly orchestrated, jazz-oriented arrangements of video game themes. They have more of a following in the video game world than in jazz circles, maybe because much of what they play is closer to action film scores than, say, Miles Davis. But it sure is a lot of fun. Their frequently hilarious latest album Backwards Compatible is streaming at Bandcamp.

Between the horns, and reeds, and string orchestra, and singers, there are so many people among the group’s rotating cast of characters that they would take up more space than there is on this page. After a bit of a lush intro, they launch into the album with the main theme from Chrono Trigger, pianist Steven Feifke scrambling over a fusiony backdrop that descends to a dreamy string interlude. Take out those piano breaks and this could be an early 80s Earth Wind and Fire number.

The Gourmet Race from Kirby Super Star is basically a beefed-up hot 20s tune, tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon soloing lickety-split over a racewalking pulse as the strings swell behind him. They do Hydrocity Zone, a Sonic the Hedgehog 3 theme, as beefed-up funk with Grace Kelly adding a gritty alto solo.

Benny Benack III croons a silly lyric, Rat Pack style, then raises his trumpet in a blustery 50s-style orchestral pop reinvention of Want You Gone, from the Portal 2 soundtrack. Metaknights Revenge, a Kirby Super Star theme has a clever interweave of horns in place of motorik synth and a trio of wry synth solos from the mysterious “Buttonmasher.”

The first Mario theme here is the killer, irresistibly amusing, quote-laden tarantella Super Mario Land Underground, from Super Mario 64, with Balkan-tinged baritone sax from another mystery soloist,  “Leo P.”  It’s the best track on the album. Dire Dire Docks, also from that soundtrack, features bassist and bandleader Charlie Rosen burbling around way up the fretboard over a pillowy ballad backdrop.

It’s hard to resist singing “That’s the way of the world, yeow,” as Birdman, from Pilot Wings 64, gets underway. Zac Zinger emulates a woozy synth through his EWI while the music edges closer toward Alan Parsons Project territory. Choral group Accent’s contribution to the floating Lost in Thoughts All Alone, from Fire Emblem Fates, will have you reaching for fast forward to get away from the autotune, ruining an otherwise clever Rosen chart.

Bassist Adam Neely goes up the scale and noodles in Saria’s Song, a cheerily symphonic remake from the Zelda: Ocarina of Time score. Tiffany Mann sings on a sweeping 70s soul version of Snake Eater, found on the Metal Gear Solid 3 soundtrack.

The group close with a couple of additional Mario themes. Kelly returns, this time on the mic, for a ridiculously amusing, vaudevillian reinvention of Jump Up Super Star, from Super Mario Odyssey. The orchestra close appropriately enough with a brassy take of the Super Mario World End Theme, complete with shivery strings and a ragtime piano solo. This is a great party record and obviously a labor of love. The amount of work Rosen spent reworking all these tunes is staggering, and the huge crew here seem to be having just as much fun with it.

Summoning the Witches with Ayelet Rose Gottlieb

We just went through a wild month of eclipses, so what could be more appropriate than an album of 13 Lunar Meditations Summoning the Witches? That’s the title of singer Ayelet Rose Gottlieb’s new moon-themed album, streaming at Bandcamp. The concept is counterintuitive: where you might typically expect calm, nocturnal, possibly mysterious themes, this is a generally playful, upbeat record.

As usual, Gottlieb’s songs here span a vast number of styles, from jazz, to art-rock, to sounds of the Middle East and the avant garde. The lyrics are in many different languages as well. With a joyous surrealism, she finds moon imagery in unexpected public places in the first number, Lotte and the Moon, set to Aram Bajakian’s hypnotically loopy, pointillistic guitar backdrop with a deviously scrambling Ivan Bamford drum solo midway through. It reminds of Carol Lipnik at her most exuberant.

The second number, Yare’ah is a spare, bouncy Israeli tune spiced with Eylem Basaldi’s spiky pizzicato violin, Bajakian’s guitar and the rhythm section: that’s Stéphane Diamantakiou on bass. Mond – “moon” in German – is a surreal cut-and-paste mashup of a blippy indie classical chorale and a spoken word piece contemplating the passing of generations.

The astrologically-themed Venus and the Moon has a balletesque pulse, a tango-inflected melody and a tiptoeing bass solo. Moon Story has sailing violin and vocalese balanced by punchy bass and starkly jangly guitar.

Wafting, Middle Eastern flavored violin takes centerstage behind Gottlieb’s spoken word and wordless vocals in Patience, a spacy soundscape. Yasmoon’s Moon, the most haunting and vividly nocturnal piece here, is also a showcase for plaintive violin and Bajakian’s acerbically rhythmic, oud-like phrasing. Dissipating Discus, the free jazz freakout afterward, is irresistibly funny: hang with it until the punchline.

A Spanish-language bass-and-vocal bendiction kicks off the album’s strongest track, Moon Over Gaza, a stark, politically-themed, guitar-fueled noir swing tune. The group follow Tsuki, the most ambient tableau on the record, with its longest and most darkly orchestral epic, Traveler Woman. Gottlieb winds it up with Desert Moon, an only slightly less expansive, slinky, latin-tinged anthem. Ages come and go, but the moon remains for us to dance in its light.

Surreal Eclecticism From Nicolas Jacquot

One of the most entertainingly strange albums to come over the transom here in the past several months is Nicolas Jacquot’s Ordered Ordinaries, streaming at Bandcamp. There’s ambient music, and spoken word, and a pervasive surrealism on a rare level, a step beyond anything seen here in ages. An ability to speak Hungarian and French is a big plus if you want to understand this – to the extent that it can be understood.

Introduced by keening, whistling violin harmonics, the first track is a synthesized woman’s voice reading an Aristotle-inspired excerpt from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell concerning a poet and an angel – in French, in the archaic passé simple tense. Beyond the flamboyant, mushroomy imagery, it’s a reminder how little we actually encounter in the original language. Seriously: did you read the Iliad in Greek, or The Trial in Czech?

The album’s second track, Pomp For the Devil has a catchy yet hypnotic dichotomy between growly shards of guitar and looming, orchestral electronics: imagine if Eno had produced the first Velvets album.

There’s a similar, loopy contrast in the brief voicescape Good Morning. The album’s best and most epic track is the skeletal, distantly disquieting Basil of Salern, Hervé Boghossian ‘s gritty guitar chordlets bristling with cheap amp distortion over a staggered percussion loop.

Track five, Viki is a brooding Hungarian spoken-word piece by poet Rita Görözdi. pondering a possible journey of no return over a dissociative synth pastiche. She reprises the story at the end of the album in a condensed version for French speakers

The album’s most epic piece is the almost eighteen-minute diptych Happy Christmas, opening with a Grey Angel’s Death Song guitar-and-loops instrumental and then morphing into a desolately drifting spacescape.

Miguel Zenón and Luis Perdomo Put Out a Gorgeous, Bittersweetly Intimate Album of Boleros

Alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón has released some of the most exhilarating and forward-looking jazz in recent years, from his exploration of his Puerto Rican roots, to a string quartet collaboration. His latest album El Arte Del Bolero – streaming at Bandcamp – is much more straightforward but no less dynamic. Recorded live for a webcast last September, it’s a mix of classic boleros played as an intimate duo show with his longtime pianist collaborator Luis Perdomo, the guy who’s probably the ideal candidate for this kind of material.

Both artists had already played many of these tunes together over the years, although not typically in a duo setting. And much as boleros – on this side of the Atlantic, anyway – tend to be melancholy or mysterious, the duo span a huge range of emotion with them here. They also don’t constrain the songs to a bolero rhythm.

They take their time to open the album with an expansive take of Benny More’s Como Fue, Zenon playing the vocal line solo with a surprising mistiness before Perdomo enters the picture. Zenon rises to a gracefully leaping optimism as Perdomo lowlights his chords, then channels his usual gravitas in his own solo. At the end, they bring the song full circle.

They follow with a practically ten-minute, hauntingly spacious version of Alma Adentro. the Sylvia Rexach classic and title cut from Zenon’s 2012 album. Zenon nails the song’s searching, practically desperate quality, Perdomo echoing the theme with his judicious, emphatic chordal work and variations. And yet, as Zenon does occasionally through the set, he offers hope with a crystalline, melodica-like tone in the upper registers.

He rises to a more insistent drive in the third track, Ese Hastío, a remake of the Ray Barreto hit Piensa En Mi. Again, Perdomo anchors it with his lingering, soberly glistening lines. Zenon takes inspiration from how the great tres player and songwriter Arsenio Rodriguez reputedly wrote La Vida Es Un Sueño after discovered that the eyesight he’d lost in childhood couldn’t be restored. There’s hope against hope in Zenon’s balmy, cautiously sailing phrasing over Perdomo’s bittersweetly regal backdrop and quiet hailstorm of a solo.

The two hit as much of a peak as there is here with their version of singer La Lupe’s famous 1960s hit Que Te Pedí, from Zenon’s bounding solo intro, through a somberly unembellished couple of verses, to a trick ending – no spoilers! They bring the set full circle with a somewhat subdued yet animated version of crooner Cheo Feliciano’s Juguete, Zenon finally cutting loose with a long, flurrying solo, as he’s been threatening to do all along. Two of the most lyrical players in jazz, or any other kind of music, at the top of their game…quietly.

Purist, Upbeat, Dynamically Retro Swing Songs From Gemma Sherry

Singer Gemma Sherry escaped her native Australia before the lockdown. Considering how the lockdowners have turned the country into the Southern Hemisphere’s North Korea, she was lucky to get out when she did. On her sarcastically titled album Let’s Get Serious – streaming at Bandcamp – she shows off a purist retro 50s sensibility and an often devious sense of humor. Musicians love to play on records like this because it gives them a chance to cut loose and have fun, and Sherry is contagious when it comes to that.

Sometimes that humor is pretty broad, sometimes it’s more subtle. With her irrepressibly chirpy, cheery delivery, Sherry plays up the hokum and innuendo in the album’s opening number, Blossom’s Blues. So do pianist Rick Germanson and guitarist Paul Bollenback, the latter doing a little B.B. King flutter before nailing one of the punchlines.

Sherry approaches Give Me the Simple Life with a more pillowy delivery as the band strut behind her, propelled by bassist Eric Wheeler and drummer George Coleman Jr. The addition of Joseph Doubleday’s vibraphone in the spare, boleroesque take of Too Much in Love to Care gives it an unexpected, understatedly lurid Blue Velvet lounge feel.

Likewise, the delicate take of Try Your Wings, beginning as a wistful guitar-and-vocal duet, is a heartfelt change of pace. Sherry also does much of The Alley Cat Song as a jaunty duet with Wheeler, She plays up more wistful self-effacement than snideness in the Blossom Dearie classic The Gentleman Is a Dope (for a badass version that’s 180 degrees the opposite, check out Joanna Berkebile’s new recording).

There’s striking modal sternness in Why Don’t You Do Right, fueled by Germanson’s resonant, incisive chords and Bollenback’s biting solo: this Great Depression-era hit has special resonance in a year where forty percent of New Yorkers can no longer pay rent. Sherry drifts back into slinky latin noir in Whatever Lola Wants, Germanson relishing the role of creepy lounge lizard. It’s the best song on the album.

The group give a chipper early 50s feel to Straighten Up and Fly Right, complete with drum breaks and spare vibes. It’s hard to disassociate Sherry’s remake of Go Away Little Girl from a certain version that plagues mallstore radio mixes. She winds up the album with a tiptoeing, lighthearted take of The Doodlin Song, which will definitely drive the party poopers out of the room.

Lush, Thoughtful, String-Driven, Vastly Eclectic Tunesmithing From Alice Zawadzki

Singer/multi-instrumentalist Alice Zawadzki writes distinctive, individualistic songs that blend jazz, chamber pop, western classical sounds and occasional Korean influences. Her songs are on the slow side and typically take awhile to unwind. She likes atmospherics, has a mystical side and writes pensive, generally optimistic lyrics. Her lush, dynamically shifting album Within You is a World of Spring hit the web about a year and a half ago and is streaming at Spotify.

It opens with the title track, a blustery Asian flourish from the string section – Simmy Singh snd Laura Senior on violins, Lucy Nolan on viola  and Peggy Nolan on cello – quickly giving way to Zawadzki’s terse, modally vamping piano. It’s the missing link betwen Ghost in the Machine-era Police and Hissing of Summer Lawns-era Joni Mitchell. Rob Luft’s guitar adds enigmatic sear to the mix; bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado and drummer Fred Thomas take over the dancing drive from there. In her leaping, energetic soprano, Zawadzki sings this soaring encouragement to leave the dark side behind.

She goes even further up the scale, spare piano over lingering atmospherics in the second track, Gods Children, finally picking up with a spacious guitar solo over a slow, anthemic drive.

“Superior Virtue was my protection, and I could gaze over the abyss all day without falling,” she intones over the drone of the strings and the occasional piano flourish in the third track, Nolan’s viola soaring plaintively over a twinkling, balletesque pulse as the song gathers steam.

Zawadzki sings the bouncy love song Es Verdad expressively in Spanish, Thomas on tenor banjo throughout a surreal mashup of bluegrass and 1970s nueva cancion. The otherworldly melismas of Hyelim Kim’s Korean taegum flute to introduce The Woods, a mystical nighttime spoken-word forest tableau that builds to a twinkling waltz.

Keeper is the most straight-up rock anthem here, with triumphant, gospel-infused harmonies, a resonant guitar solo, dancing bass where least expected over steady Pink Floydian piano chords. Witchy strings come together over a trip-hop beat after an introduction that’s painful at high volume in Twisty Moon, a surreal mashup of soukous and circus rock. Zawadzki closes this fascinating and stunningly original album with O Mi Amore, a balmy ballad infused with spiky banjo accents.

The 50 Best Albums of 2020

This is a playlist, plus a small handful of albums that can’t be heard anywhere online. You can listen to everything else here, the majority of it ad-free. It couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

What’s most obvious about this list is that the music rarely reflects the fascist nightmare of 2020. Most of these albums were recorded in 2019, or right before the lockdown. Although there’s been an unprecedented amount of archival live material dumped on the web in the past six months or so, only five of the picks on this list fall into that category.

The other obvious and disturbing trend is that there’s less rock music on this list than there’s ever been since this blog went live in 2011. That’s because many of the albums here – almost all of those being either jazz or classical releases – were recorded with nonprofit or government money, or by the few remaining record labels. It’s impossible to count the number of artists who relied on tour money to fund their records and were unable to put out new albums because of the lockdown.

Beryond the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Albums are listed in rough chronological order of when they were reviewed here, which seldom coincides with official release dates, if such dates existed. Ultimately, the big takeaway here is reason for optimism: 2020 may have been hell, but artists around the world somehow found a way to keep putting out new music.

The number one album of the year, with a bullet, is the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s Data Lords. It’s the big band composer’s darkest and most fearless album, and arguably the most relevant record released in the past year. In the end, it’s very optimistic. Everything on this vast, sweeping collection was written and recorded before the lockdown, but Schneider prophetically and mercilessly pillories and parodies the tech Nazis behind it. This comes across as the most improvisational release Schneider has ever put out, but knowing her, everything here could just as easily be composed all the way through. Her rage and satire are as venomous and funny as anything Shostakovich or the Dead Kennedys ever recorded. And after she’s done savaging the would-be architects of the New Abnormal, the album’s second disc celebrates the beauty and grandeur of nature and the real world – rather than the virtual one – with characteristic lushness and a side trip to Brazil.

The best short album of the year was The Living End, by Karla Rose. Karla Rose Moheno, of irrepressible swing trio the Tickled Pinks, may be best known for her nuanced, smoldering vocals, but it’s her similarly subtle, often haunting songwriting that sets her apart from the legions of great singers around the world. This is just a fraction of what she has in the can: if the rest of it is this good, the full-length record is going to be amazing. There’s some starry soul, a little streetwise New York rock and a rampaging southwestern gothic-tinged anthem that you will see on the best songs of the year list. Listen at Spotify

Another album that stands apart from the rest of the list is Charles Mingus @ Bremen 1964 & 1975. It’s a gargantuan triple-disc set comprising material from two concerts in Germany, each with a completely different but brilliant lineup, getting a first official release after floating around the web for years and in the cassette underground before then. On one hand, it’s completely unfair to compare the other albums here to these sizzling, epic performances by a guy who was probably the greatest bassist in the history of jazz and definitely one of the ten greatest composers of alltime. On the other, this will give you goosebumps. Listen at Spotify

Ward White – Leonard at the Audit
Witheringly funny, hyperliterate, semi-linear narratives set to catchy janglerock with sinister cinematic overtones from the king of implied menace in rock tunesmithing. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – The Universe Inside
Steve Wynn’s legendary, noisy, dueling psychedelic band’s trippiest, most cinematically desolate, epicaly jam-oriented album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

Ted Hearne  – Place
A crushingly satirical, cruelly hilarious, minutely detailed exploration of how gentrification has destroyed Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with a backdrop of surreal avant garde sounds, art-rock and protest gospel music. Listen at Bandcamp

John Ellis – The Ice SIren
The brilliant jazz saxophonist takes a brilliant and unexpected plunge into the waters of noir cabaret and chilly cinematics, with a sweeping big band behind him. Listen at Spotify

High Waisted – Sick of Saying Sorry
Guitarist Jessica Louise Dye’s band makes a shift from surf rock to gorgeously bittersweet powerpop and other retro sounds. Listen at Bandcamp

Péter Szervánszky/Szekesfovarosi Orchestra –  Bartok: Violin Concerto No. 2
Like the Mingus record, this is probably an unfair addition to the list. But it’s spellbinding, and the only album the Hungarian virtuoso ever appeared on, recorded on an x-ray plate under the Nazi invasion in 1945. Listen at Spotify

Alina Ibragimova/Russian State Academic Symphony Orchestra  – Shostakovich: Violin Concertos No.1 and 2
In the year of the lockdown, these two fiercely antifascist, poignant pieces have never had more cultural resonance. Not streaming online.

Alban Gerhardt/WDR Symphony Orchestra  Shostakovich: Cello Concertos No.1 and 2
It makes sense to pair this iconic, scathingly angry, wickedly sardonic and thoughtful interpretation with the ferocity of the one above. Listen at Spotify

Gregg August  – Dialogues on Race
The powerful jazz bassist’s haunting, majestic big band explore the divide-and-conquer implications of racism and the the 1955 murder of Emmett Till with somber grace. Listen at Bandcamp

Niv Ashkenazi – Violins of Hope
The virtuoso violinist teams with pianist Matthew Graybil to celebrate obscure, poignant repertoire by composers murdered or imperiled during the Holocaust. Listen at Spotify

Balothizer – Cretan Smash
They make slashing psychedelia and thrash metal out of classic, haunting Greek revolutionary and hash-smoking anthems from the 20s and 30s. Listen at Bandcamp

The Psychedelic Furs – Made of Rain
A grimly swirling, potently lyrical return to form by one of the greatest bands who defined the new wave and goth movements of the 80s. Listen at Spotify

Steve Wynn – Solo Acoustic Vol. 1
What do you do if you’re an icon of noir-tinged, careening rock and you can’t tour like you always did until the lockdown? You reinvent those songs, many of them iconic, as equally menacing acoustic numbers. Wynn has seldom sounded so stark, or so dark.  Listen at Bandcamp

Ben de la Cour – Shadow Land
A concept album of sinister mini-movies and murder ballads from the dark Americana crooner and bandleader.Listen at Bandcamp

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore – their debut album
The first trio record by the soulful, often haunting Balkan and klezmer trumpeter with guitarist Brad Shepik and multi-percussionist Shane Shanahan was worth the wait. Listen at Bandcamp

Sylvie Courvoisier – Free Hoops
One of the elegant pianist’s most menacing yet also one of her funniest albums with her long-running trio featuring Drew Gress on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums. Listen at Bandcamp

Summoner – Day of Doom Live
The year’s best heavy psychedelic rock record is a cannon of doom metal riffs, searing two-guitar epics and gritty bass. Listen at Bandcamp

Morricone Youth – The Last Porno Show: Original Soundtrack
What an absolutely gorgeous, sad score, evoking the fatalism of a decaying porn theatre with echoes of Tschaikovsky, David Lynch noir and ornate 70s psychedelia. Listen at Bandcamp

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Chunky Shrapnel
An appropriately epic double live album by these anthemic, quirky, Middle Eastern-fixated Australian psychedelic road warriors. The best possible advertising for their live show: when we take our world back from the lockdowners, we can see them live again. Listen at Bandcamp

Vigen Hovsepyan – Live in Paris 2017
The impassioned Armenian guitarist/singer fronting a ferocious band with duduk player Harutyun Chkolyan and pianist Havard Enstad in front of a packed house on a barge docked along the Seine. The slashing minor-key energy is through the roof: you really feel like you’re there. Listen at Spotify

Dennis Davison – The Book of Strongman
The former Jigsaw Seen frontman’s solo debut, where he plays all the instruments, is a series of historically-informed, metaphorically bristling psychedelic janglerock narratives that scream out for the repeat button. Listen at Bandcamp

Office Culture – A Life of Crime
Seething satire and very subtle but corrosively lyrical narratives – like Margaret Atwood backed by the Human League – on the Brooklyn 80s parody band’s cruelly hilarious debut. Listen at Bandcamp

Dawn Oberg – 2020 Revision
The searingly lyrical, irrepressibly funny pianist and protest song stylist at the peak of her power, singing truth to power about racist cops killing innocent black people in San Francisco, and fascist political overreach in general. Listen at Bandcamp

Immaterial Possession – their first album
Deliciously individualistic, macabre psychedelic rock informed by but hardly limited to classic 1960s sounds, with bracing Balkan and Middle Eastern overtones. Listen at Bandcamp

Trio Tekke – Strovilos
The Greek psychedelic band look to the Middle East as much as to the first wave of Greek psych-rock bands from the 60s, and the underground hash-smoking classics of the 20s and 30s.  Listen at Bandcamp

Mahsa Vahdat  Enlighten the Night
Over an elegant, brooding piano-based band, the Iranian singer employs the words of both iconic Persian poets and contemporary lyricists to celebrates freedom and hope for the future in the face of increasingly grim odds. Listen at Spotify

Susan Alcorn – Pedernal
Resonant, dynamic, often haunting vistas by this era’s great virtuoso of jazz pedal steel and her similarly inspired quintet. Listen at Bandcamp

Lord Buffalo – Tohu Wa Bohu
Are their sprawling, hypnotic guitar jams metal, psychedelia or film music? Whatever you call it, this is one of the best albums of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

The Pocket Gods  – No Room at the (Holiday) Inn
Who would have thought a Christmas record would make this list? Actually, this is more of a protest album, a scathing, wildly multistylistic mix of pro-freedom songs to raise your spirits and give you hope. Arguably the best album ever from perennially prolific frontman Mark Christopher Lee. Listen at Spotify

Superfonicos – Suelta
The slinky Texas-Colombian band’s debut album is a mix of tropical psychedelia, cumbia, skaragga, Afrobeat and salsa jams. The band’s secret weapon? Reedy gaita flute. Listen at Soundcloud

Mehmet Polat – Quantum Leap
Haunting, high-voltage, plaintively modal Turkish and Balkan songs from the brilliant oud player and bandleader Listen at Bandcamp

Fantastic Negrito – Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?
The incredible oldschool soul album Prince wished he’d made but never did. Like Prince, this guy plays pretty much all the instruments too. Listen at Spotify

Emily Barker – A Dark Murmuration of Words
Hauntingly imagistic, tersely arranged, Americana-tinged narrative songs from this lyrical Australian songwriter and her band. Listen at Bandcamp

The Plastic Pals – It Could Be So Easy, Free and Fine
A scorchingly lyrical, deviously funny short album by these Swedish connoisseurs of the edgiest sounds to emerge from 60s American psychedelia, 70s powerpop and 80s punk/ Listen at Bandcamp

Mamie Minch – Slow Burn
Characteristically sly, slashingly lyrical, erudite original steel guitar blues from the sometimes haunting, sometimes hilarious blues guitarist/chanteuse.Listen at Bandcamp

Scott Robinson/Milford Graves/Roscoe Mitchell/Marshall Allen – Flow States A riveting improvisational quartet record, featuring the first-ever collaboration between iconic drummer/cardiac medicine pioneer Graves and AACM sax titan Mitchell, plus the Sun Ra Arkestra’s ageless Allen and Robinson as ringleader on bass sax. Not streaming online.

Duo Tandem – Guitar Duos of Kemal Belevi
Gorgeously interwoven, largely minor-key acoustic Middle Eastern music with elegant climbs, moving basslines, exchanges of roles and lead lines.Necati Emirzade is typically in the right channel, his bandmate Mark Anderson in the left. Listen at Spotify

Amanda Gardier – Flyover Country
Fiery, picturesque, midwestern gothic-tinged modal jazz from this rising star alto saxophonist and her similarly edgy crew. Listen at Spotify 

Sigurd Hole – Lys/Morke
Solo bass has rarely sounded so haunting or interesting. Maybe recording it on a deserted Norwegian island had something to with the desolately gorgeous vistas here. Listen at Bandcamp

The Icebergs – Add Vice
This is the album where frontwoman/poet Jane LeCroy’s punchy, lyrically slashing cello rock trio took their songs to the next level, as psychedelic as they are ominously cinematic. Listen at Bandcamp

Sara Serpa – Recognition
The brilliant, lustrous singer/composer confronts the genocidal legacy of European imperialism in Africa in the corrosively lyrical, lushly enveloping soundtrack to her debut film, a collage of archival footage taken in Angola under Portuguese imperialist rule in the 1960s. Listen at Bandcamp

Ran Blake/Christine Correa – When Soft Rains Fall
An angst-fueled, saturnine duo album of hauntingly reinvented standards and originals by the veteran singer and her long-running, iconic noir pianist collaborator. Not streaming online.

JD Allen – Toys/Die Dreaming
Dark, careening modal intensity from this era’s most intense tenor saxophonist/composer and his energetic, newish trio. He’s been building toward this big sort-of-comeback for a long time. Listen at youtube

Ren Harvieu – Revel in the Drama
A lavish, immaculately layered, brililantly produced trip through decades of soul, from pre-Motown sounds through the 90s from the edgy British chanteuse.  Listen at Bandcamp

Sarah Brailey/Experiential Orchestra and Chorus – Ethel Smyth: The Prison
The world premiere recording of one of this pioneering early 20th century woman composer’s most important, philosophically rich works, a somber, lavishly orchestrated, uninterrupted sixteen-part 1930 song cycle Listen at Spotify

Victoria Langford – Victoria
Swirling, stormy orchestration and religious imagery as a metaphor for interpersonal angst in the singer/multi-keyboardist’s debut album, arguably the best rock debut of 2020. Listen at Bandcamp

The Electric Mess – The Electric Mess V
Sizzling psychedelic punk and janglerock from this darkly careening, female-fronted New York band. Listen at Bandcamp

Rachelle Garniez/Erik Della Penna – An Evening in New York
Retro charm and devilish levels of detail in this New York-themed collection of originals and reinvented swing tunes from the iconic accordionist/chanteuse and the subtly slashing, brilliant Kill Henry Sugar guitarist/frontman. Listen at Spotify

Michael Hersch – I Hope We Get the Chance to Visit Soon
A chilling live concert recording of the harrowing 21st century classical composer and pianist’s suite, inspired by a dear friend whose ultimately futile struggle with cancer was not helped by experimental drugs. Listen at Bandcamp

ARC Ensemble – Chamber Works of Walter Kaufmann
A rapt, often hypnotic, starkly engaging collection of rare works by a Jewish composer who escaped the Holocaust to follow his muse and write orchestral Indian music. Listen at Spotify

How The River Ganges Flows compilation
Gripping, slaring, ancient Indian carnatic music for violin and percussion captured on 78 RPM shellac records between 1933 and 1952, newly rescued from the archives. Listen at Bandcamp

Matthew Grimm – Dumpster-Fire Days
Just to keep you listening all the way through, this is one of the most searingly lyrical albums on this list, from the charismatic, politically fearless songwriter who recorded the song that topped the Best Songs of 2013 list here and once fronted legendary Americana rockers the Hangdogs.

. Listen at Spotify

A Historic, Hard-Hitting New Album From the Radam Schwartz Organ Big Band

The new album by the Radam Schwartz Organ Big Band, Message From Groove and GW – streaming at Spotify – is the first-ever big band jazz release where the organist plays all the basslines. Dr. Lonnie Smith does that with his Octet, but they’re only eight guys in a world of even larger sounds. Historically, there have been very few big bands with an organ to begin with: Jimmy Smith with Oliver Nelson, and the mighty Eight Cylinder Bigband, to name a couple.

Here, Schwartz decides to walk the lows briskly all by himself, joined by the Abel Mireles’ Jazz Exchange Orchestra in a mix of imaginatively rearranged covers and originals. This isn’t just esoterica for B3 diehards: this is a rare example of gritty gutbucket organ jazz beefed up with bright, hefty horn harmonies, rather than a big band that happens to have an organ as a solo instrument.

Schwarz takes considerable inspiration from Richard “Groove” Holmes’ work with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, notably two cuts on their album where Holmes took over the basslines. Schwartz opens his record with an original, Trouble Just Won’t Go Away, a brisk, catchy swing tune with punchy solos from throughout the group.

The band remake Coltrane’s Blues Minor with an ominous bluster anchored by the low brass, alto saxophonist Danny Raycraft’s solo setting up a searing, cascading one from the bandleader. The Aretha Franklin hit Ain’t No Way gets reinvented as a stampede with jaunty solos from trumpeter Ted Chubb, tenor saxophonist Gene Ghee and guitarist Charlie Sigler.

Dig You Like Crazy, another Schwartz original, has bustling, vintage Basie-style horns, with terse solos from Chubb, saxophonist Anthony Ware and then the organ. What to Do, a catchy Mireles tune, is more of an early 60s-style postbop number turbocharged with brass and organ, drummer David F. Gibson raising the energy very subtly at the end.

They do the Isley Bros.’ Between the Sheets as muted, pillowy funk, with slit-eyed solos from Sigler and Ware. Baritone saxophonist Ben Kovacs, trumpeter Ben Hankle and trombonist Andrae Murchison smoke and sputter and soar in Schwartz’s tightly clustering, bluesy title track.

Trombonist Peter Lin’s moodily shifting, latin-tinged A Path to Understanding features an ebullient solo from trumpeter Lee Hogans handing off to the composer’s lowdown turn out front, then the bandleader’s spirals and rapidfire triplets.

Schwartz charges into his epically swaying arrangement of the Mingus classic Work Song, Hankle contributing a hauntingly rustic muted solo echoed by Murchison, Ware and then the organ taking the energy to redline. Likewise, the brass – which also includes trumpeter James Cage – kick in hard. It’s the album’s big stunner. They wind up the record with a benedictory composition by Bach. Leave it to an organist to go for baroque at the end.

Charming, Cheery Swing Tunes For a New Era of Speakeasies

When Fleur Seule put out their album Standards and Sweet Things – streaming at Spotify – in 2019, little did they know how radical their music would be less than two years later. Obviously, in 2019, nobody regarded this group’s perennially cheery, dancefloor-friendly swing tunes as dangerous. Sure, back in the 1940s, the sound they emulate was considered scandalous in redneck parts of the world, but that was then and this is now. Right?

Wrong. Who knew that dictator Andrew Cuomo would illegalize dancing to jazz in clubs…never mind criminalizing music venues themselves? Until the underground speakeasy circuit which has come to replace the scores of shuttered venues around town becomes more integrated into this city’s nightlife, we have Fleur Seule’s sassy, urbane record to remind us of the fun we had…and the fun we will have. But we’re going to have to work for it. Recent court rulings have overturned Cuomo’s ridiculous lockdown edicts against gyms and houses of worship, but we have to do our part and keep fighting to get back to normal. Let’s not forget that if the lockdowners get their way, indoor concerts in this city will always have to be clandestine.

The album opens with a low-key, scampering take of Taking a Chance on Love, frontwoman Allyson Briggs’ understated optimism over Jason Yeager’a tightly clustering piano, Michael O’Brien’s woody bass and Paul Francis’ shuffling drums, Andy Warren’s muted trumpet raising the temperature here and there. That sets the stage for the rest of the record: most of this is party music, and this is a long album, sixteen tracks.

One of Fleur Seule’s distinguishing features is that they have more of a latin flair than most of the energetic, female-fronted swing acts to come out of this town since the big swing revival a quarter century ago. Their version of Piel Canela has a lowlit simmer, coy overdubbed vocalese and Spanish guitar from Richard Miller. Trumpet and guitar elevate Sabor a Mi above a muted wistfulness, while Briggs plays up the innuendo in Manuelo (even as she mispronounces this hombre’s name). She turns her brittle vibrato up all the way for an aptly summery version of Con Los Ayos Que Me Quedan. And the take of Sweet Happy Life, with its precise, carnavalesque piano, is one of the album’s most individualistic tracks.

Briggs toys with the melody of Almost Like Being In Love, Anita O’Day style. The band plunder the Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald songbook for brisk romps through Them There Eyes and S’Wonderful. Shoo Fly Pie has a wry muted trumpet solo and all the guys joining in on the chorus; the group opt for doing Zou Bisou Bisou as a light-fingered bossa

There are some ballads here too. The most lushly nocturnal track here is Embraceable You. Tenderly is a showcase for glittering piano over a slow triplet shuffle, a lyrical bowed bass solo at the center. Briggs saves one of her most vivid vocals for Misty, then a little later she gets especially tender in an expansive take of La Vie En Rose.