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No New Abnormal

Tag: fabian almazan

The 50 Best Albums of 2019

This is a playlist, plus one last record at the very end that can’t be heard anywhere online but might be the best of all of them. You can listen to everything else here, almost all of it ad-free: it couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

Lots of triage was involved. A very ambitious listener with a dayjob that allows for multitasking can hear maybe eight or nine hundred new albums a year, all the way through. An insanely dedicated blogger can hear bits and pieces of maybe five thousand more. That’s about the limit of what one human can do. You may see a few stragglers here which were technically 2018 releases but got overlooked that year. If your favorite album from 2019 isn’t here, that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good…and it might just turn up here next year.

Other than the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Being chosen as the #50 band out of 50 is like getting picked last for kickball, and that’s kind of mean. Besides, if an album is one of the fifty best out of the literally hundreds of thousands released every year, it has to be damn good. Here we go!

Big Lazy – Dear Trouble
The subtlest, most desolate and ultimately most dynamic album from a group synonymous with cinematic noir menace. Guitarist Steve Ulrich’s sense of irony has never been more refined, and the rhythm section of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion has never been slinkier. Ulrich is the only musician in history who has been on three albums rated #1 for the year here. Listen at youtube

Changing Modes – What September Brings
Best album of the year with lyrics, the New York art-rockers’ finest, most cinematic, and most political release, a savagely lyrical, spot-on reflection on Trump-era narcissism and repression, laced with shapeshifting instrumentals and frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam’s disquietingly lush harmonies. Listen at youtube

The Bright Smoke – Gross National Happiness
The title reflects frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson’s signature, withering sarcasm. It’s the band’s most savagely political record, a grimly allusive measure of Trump-era inequality, despair and resistance against all that, with a haunting Joy Division undercurrent. Listen at Bandcamp

Karen Dahlstrom – No Man’s Land
The best short album of the year, with metaphorically-loaded, sharply picturesque narratives referencing apocalypse, smalltown anomie, late-night despondency and a ferocious, defiant anthem for the Metoo era from the powerful Bobtown alto singer and Americana songstress. Listen at her music page 

Hearing Things – Here’s Hearing Things
The best debut albun of 2019, by Brooklyn’s funnest dance band, mashes up horror surt, Booker T & the MG’s, twisted go-go music, Afrobeat, Ethiopiques and the Doors, with organ, sax and surf drums. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – These Times
Steve Wynn‘s iconic, feral, influential psychedelic guitar-duel band’s quietest, most allusively political and arguably most brilliantly lyrical album. Not bad for a group who put out their first record back in the 80s. Listen at youtube

Michael Winograd – Kosher Style
Unsurpassed for his sizzling clarinet chops, Winograd is also a very colorful composer. With sabretoothed chromatics and slashing minor keys, these new klezmer tunes run the gamut from blisteringly fun to mournful to sardonic, and the band is killer. Listen at Bandcamp

Raphael Severe with the Trio Messiaen – Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time
Here’s another world-class clarinetist and ensemble playing an especially dynamic, inescapably vivid take on one of the most iconic, haunting pieces of classical music ever written (much of it composed in a Nazi prison camp). Riveting as it is, it raises questions as to how fair it is for this blog to rank it alongside the rest of the artists here. Listen at Spotify

Layale Chaker – Inner Rhyme
The brilliant violinist writes vivid, intense, often hauntingly beautiful compositions built around the rhythmic sophistication of classical Arabic poetry, equal parts Lebanese, Egyptian and western classical music, with occasional detours toward jazz or film score atmospherics. Listen at her music page

Los Wembler’s de Iquitos – Vision Del Ayahuasca
With almost all of their original members, this iconic psychedelic cumbia jamband from the heart of the Peruvian Amazon are as wildly trippy and original as they were fifty years ago. Along with Hearing Things‘ debut, this is the best party record of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

Miguel Zenon and the Spektral Quartet – Yo Soy la Tradicion
The formidable alto saxophonist teams up with one of the world’s edgiest string quartets for a mix of acerbic works with an unselfconsciously Bartokian intensity Listen at their music page

Rev. Screaming Fingers – Music for Driving and Film, vol iII (The Desert Years)
Dusky, loping southwestern gothic tableaux, twangy noir Americana, a little horror surf and ominous big-sky themes from these great guitar instrumentalists. Listen at their music page

Girls on Grass – Dirty Power
Like a female-fronted Dream Syndicate, guitar goddess Barbara Endes’ band rips through paisley underground psychedelia, spaghetti westen themes, snarling new wave and garage rock, with a defiant, politically fearless lyricism Listen at Bandcamp

Russ Tolman – Goodbye El Dorado
Jangly, vividly lyrical western noir rock: disappeances, shattered Hollywood dreams, dead-end kids who don’t have a prayer, and roadtrip anomie from the leader of 80s legends True West. Listen at youtube

Julia Haltigan – Trouble
Turns out that the torchy mistress of Manhattan noir is just as fluent with new wave and vintage CB’s-style powerpop, throughout these tales of nocturnal prowling in the East Village before it was yuppified and whitewashed. Listen at Bandcamp

The Felice Bros. – Undress
This could have been the great lyrical, populist record that Springsgteen made in between Born to Run and Darkness: surreal political broadsides, down-and-out characters and death lingering over everything. Listen at Bandcamp

Jay Vilnai – Thorns All Over
Poet Rachel Abramowitz supplies the lyrics for this haunting, mysterious collection of new murder ballads, over the guitarist/bandleader’s cold starscapes, Lynchian dirges and a relentless, lingering guitar menace. Listen at Bandcamp

Karine Poghosyan – Rachmaninoff & Stravinsky
Nobody plays the Russian Romantics with as much insighful flair as this irrepressible virtuoso. As with Raphael Severe above, it is fair to rate this ravishingly intuitive, picturesque performance of achingly beautiful Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableaux and punishingly difficult Stravinsky piano transcriptions against the current-day artists here? Listen at Spotify

Dina Maccabee – The Sharpening Machine
Epically eclectic, trippy art-rock, chamber pop, pastoral themes and occasional coy new wave from this shapeshifting violinist and songwriter. Listen at Soundcloud

The Sirius Quartet – New World
This adventurous, microtonally-inclined string quartet’s collection of original compositions is a fierce concept album in defiance of the current fascist climate in the US. Listen at Spotify

Yale Strom’s Broken Consort – Shimmering Lights
The un-cheesiest Hanukah instrumental record ever made, the violinist-bandleader’s new arrangements blazing with ferocious solos and bracing Middle Eastern modes. Listen at rockpaperscissors

Eleni Mandell – Wake Up Again
The iconic dark Americana and torch singer’s most hauntingly political album is a series of narratives set behind bars, inspired by her experiences teaching songwriting in the prison-industrial complex. Listen at Bandcamp

Charming Disaster – Spells & Rituals
The constantly shapeshifting murder ballad and dark rock superduo dive further into latin noir, 60s Britrock and even garagey psychedelic sounds, all with their colorfully dark lyricism. Listen at Bandcamp

Noctorum – The Afterlife
Lush, characteristically lyrical, jangly art-rock from iconic twelve-string guitarist Marty Willson-Piper – late of Australian psychedelic legends the Church – with a similarly allstar backing band. Listen at Bandcamp

Laura Carbone – Empty Sea
Bleak, Lynchian panoramas, highway-of-death narratives and some guitarishly snarling gutter blues from one of this era’s great noir singers. Listen at Bandcamp

Unnatural Ways – The Paranoia Party
A grimly surreal, volcanically noisy, rhytmically disorienting concept about contact with aliens from guitarist Ava Mendoza’s searing doom/art-rock power trio. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Maureen Choi Quartet – Theia
Epically twisting, high-voltage, flamenco and Romany-inspired string band music from the violinist and her equally eclectic ensemble Listen at Bandcamp

Budos Band – V
The imaginative Afrobeat and Ethiopiques instrumentalists’ most doom metal-inspired album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

JD Allen – Barracoon
A big comeback of sorts for this era’s most potent tenor saxophonist, scorching his way through a Zora Neale Hurston-inspired mix of ominously modal, tersely evocative protest jazz tunes with a new trio. Listen at youtube

Nancy Braithwaite – To Paradise For Onions: Songs and Chamber Works of Edith Hemenway
The classical clarinetist and her dynamic, nuanced chamber ensemble explore stunningly imagistic, darkly clever, tersely crafted pieces by a now Rhode Island-based, nonagenarian composer whose work has never been released on album before. A major rediscovery. Listen at Spotify

Fabian Almazan – This Land Abounds with Life
A glittering, epically cascading eco-disaster themed concept album from one of this era’s most tunefully virtuosic jazz pianists and his dynamic rhythm section Listen at Bandcamp

Doomstress – Sleep Among the Dead
Pervasive gloom, minor keys, purposeful guitar and unusual elegance from frontwoman Alexis Hollada on the Texas doom metal band’s debut album. Listen at Bandcamp

Bobtown – Chasing the Sun
Bewitching three-part harmonies from Katherine Etzel, Karen Dahlstrom and Jen McDearman and folk noir songwriting that’s just a hair less relentlessly dark than the material that put them on the map. Listen at Bandcamp

Petros Klampanis – Irrationalities
Slinky, brooding, Middle Eastern and Greek-inflected ballads and more kinetic, pulsing material from the eclecic bassist and his excellent trio. Listen at Spotify 

The Well – Death & Consolation
Grim, Sabbathy dirges, paint-peeling Stooges sonics and ornately macabre heavy psychedelia from this Texas band. Listen at Bandcamp

Jason Yeager – New Songs of Resistance
A short parade of first-class pan-latin singers deliver the pianist’s protest jazz reinventions of classic nueva cancion from across the Americas in the 70s, alongside some chillingly lyrical, politically-fueled instrumentals. Listen at Bandcamp

Amy Allison – Pop Tunes & the Setting Sun
A characteristically bittersweet, brilliantly crystallized, lyrical collection of rarities and outtakes by the inimitable Americana singer. Listen at youtube

Soundwalk Collective with Patti Smith – Mummer Love
Rousingly hypnotic North African grooves and immersive atmospherics behind acerbic, often savage poetry by Patti Smith and one of her big influences, Arthur Rimbaud. Listen at Bandcamp

Andplay – Playlist
The meticulously focused, tightly intertwining, colorful violin/viola duo negotiate the dynamic twists and turns of pieces by David Bird, Ashkan Behzadi and Clara Iannotta on their debut ep. Listen at Bandcamp

The Shootouts – Quick Draw
Spot-on, classic 1965-style honkytonk, hard country, Bakersfield twang and a little rockabilly from this slyly aphoristic Akron, Ohio band. Listen at Soundcloud 

The Ragas Live Retrospective
Members of the paradigm-shifting Brooklyn Raga Massive, who put all kinds of radical new spins on classic Indian raga themes, captured live in the studio over more than sixteen hours worth of music. Most of it is sublime; nobody at this blog has listened to the entire record yet. You can start at Bandcamp

Sarah Pagé – Dose Curves
Hypotically shimmery electroacoustic psychedelia and an Indian raga performed on the concert harp. Unselfconsciously magical,  cutting-edge stuff. Listen at Bandcamp 

Zosha Di Castri – Tachitipo
Vocal ensemble Ekmeles, the Jack Quartet, pianist Julia Den Boer, percussion ensemble Yarn/Wire  and a chamber orchestra join the thoughtfully eclectic pianist/composer in a diverse mix of acerbic, socially relevant compositions and art-songs. Listen at Bandcamp

Funkrust Brass Band – Bones & Burning
Sizzling Balkan chromatics, undulating New Orleans grooves and a pretty relentless sense of doom on the theatrical, sprawling brass band’s latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

Castle Black – Dead in a Dream
The ferocious female-fronted power trio look back to the most darkly ambitious of the first wave punk bands with their surreal, often haunting latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Manimals – Multiverse
Crunchy, catchy powerpop and a darkly pervasive Bowie influence on the new album from New York’s’ most entertainingly theatrical band. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 compilation
Digitized and somewhat sonically tweaked field recordings of icons like Howlin’ Wolf and cult figures like Magic Sam, shredding and wailing in their element onstage, captured by a college kid with a cheap tape recorder. Listen at Bandcamp

Beat Circus – These Wicked Things
One of the first and best of the carnivalesque rock bands of the 90s, back and revitalized with a lavish, darkly picturesque southwestern gothic concept album. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Sometime Boys – The Perfect Home
A characteristically enigmatic mix of distantly Americana-influenced, slinky originals and imaginatively reinvented covers from New York’s most charismatic, kinetically psychedelic band. Listen at Bandcamp

Locobeach – Psychedelic Disco Cumbia
Truth in advertising: trippy chicha, serpentine highway themes and some woozy dub from this tropical supergroup led by members of Los Crema Paraiso and Chicha Libre. Listen at Bandcamp 

Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee – The Newest Sound You Never Heard
Recorded live and in the studio for Belgian radio in 1966 and 1967, these radical reinventions and a handful of originals by the iconic noir pianist and the shatteringly subtle jazz singer rival the brilliance of their iconic 1961 debut. Not streaming anywhere but available on vinyl.

Blissing Out With Fabian Almazan at the Jazz Standard

This past evening at the Jazz Standard, pianist Fabian Almazan and his trio played a lustrous, glimmering set of nocturnes with the same epic gravitas as his larger-ensemble work. It was a show to get lost in.

Almazan’s lefthand attack can have every bit as much intricacy and nimble glisten as his whirlwind righthand, but the material in this set – comprising much of his latest, lavishly gorgeous, ecologically-themed album The World Abounds with Life – was typically anchored by sometimes fiery, sometimes broodingly resonant pools of chords or hypnotically circling, trickily percussive lefthand riffs.

More often than not, bassist Linda May Han Oh – Almazan’s significant other – would double those riffs, or at least the rhythm, although she took one of the night’s most unselfconsciously plaintive solos, bowing up to an angst-fueled peak in what could have been the show’s most emblenatic number, Drummer Henry Cole opened that one solo with a steady, elegantly tumbling stroll, finally hinting at a famously canine Led Zep groove. Were the band going to go there? As it turns out, no, Almazan following what would become a familiar pattern, circling staccato phrases lightly enhanced by an echo effect, bookending expansive, lush cascades and long, neoromantic chordal brescendos over a shapeshifting beat.

They opened the night with Benjamin – named after the cynical donkey in George Orwell’s Animal Farm – following a similar pattern. The fluttery electronics, which Almazan would typically set a quarter note behind the beat, added textures that during the sparest passages were surreal, and when the notes flying from Almazan’s fingers grew torrential, created a parallel storm. Sometimes this echoed Ikue Mori’s live sampling with artists like Satoko Fujii. The challenge to the rhythm section to stay undistracted must have been considerable but Oh and Cole didn’t waver.

The highlight of the night was The Everglades, an epic salute to Almazan’s refuge as an angst-ridden Cuban immigrant growing up in Florida. Building an increasingly stormy upward drive out of the murk, then going fullscale orchestral with the electronics, Almazan finally brought it down to a long, hushed, tender calm, a moody salute to an imperiled old haunt. The rest of the set was more kinetic, but the rapturous effect lingered: after awhile, it seemed like one long symphony, warmly enveloping passages alternating with frenetically circling interludes.

Almazan’s going to be on the road, in both the US and Europe, for awhile; his next gig is with trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s Art Blakey project at the Detroit Jazz Festival on Sept 1.

Epically Relevant Tunesmithing and a Jazz Standard Gig From Fabian Almazan’s Trio

Fabian Almazan is one of the most brilliantly and tunefully eclectic pianists in any style of music. His Alcanza Suite is one of the most epic albums released in this century, as ambitious in scope as, say, Miles Davis’ Miles Ahead. It doesn’t sound anything like Miles Ahead, but Almazan’s lavish orchestration is just as radical as Gil Evans’ charts were at the time. At this point, we can call the album one of the great underrated masterpieces of the past couple of decades – hopefully the critics, or what’s left of them, will catch up with it someday.

But Almazan doesn’t limit himself to orchestral epics. His latest one, This Land Abounds With Life – streaming at Bandcamp – is a mighty trio release with his brilliant bassist wife Linda May Han Oh and drummer Henry Cole. They’re playing the Jazz Standard on August 27 and 28, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $30.

The opening track, Benjamin shifts from a punishing, pummeling, syncopated scramble to a fleeting reggae interlude…and back up again. It wouldn’t be ridiculous to call this the missing link between Gyorgy Ligeti and Orrin Evans.

Keening with delicately oscillating electronic touches, Almazan’s palette balances murk and dappled sunlight in the allusively gorgeous, thirteen-minute Everglades, with a broodingly emphatic solo from Oh, his piano chords rising with a crushing intensity. Is this about fighting alligators…or alligators fighting to survive?

The Poets has a wry spoken-word intro, lavishly circling chords that Almazan takes for a waltz, and Cuban percussion shuffling incisively in the background: McCoy Tyner’s 70s work seems to be an influence. Ella is more low-key, a return to the album’s opening mix of lustre and algebraic minimalism. Cole’s dirgey Middle Eastern boom and Oh’s sober, staggered pulse anchor the moody modalities of Songs of the Forgotten, with a viciously sarcastic sample springing up to drive its political message home.

The Nomads is all about contrasts, blippy syncopation versus lingering gravitas; it warms considerably as the trio follow a long crescendo. Reflecting-pool glimmer moves in and envelops the tone poem Jaula, until Almazan picks up the pace with equally colorful neoromantic cascades. 

The practically ten-minute Bola de Nieve (Snowball) is the album’s high point, Oh’s bows somberly beneath a stark string trio – Megan Gould on violin, Karen Waltuch on viola and Eleanor Norton on cello – while the bandleader’s achingly lyrical. kinetic, Piazzollaiano melodic shifts kick in with a stately, balletesque pulse. It might be the most unselfconsciously beautiful song of the year.

Just when Folklorism seems like it’ll be the album’s most lighthearted track, Almazan starts flinging icy, Messiaenic close harmonies into the mix: the thematic shifts are disorienting, but they leave a mark. Likewise, Uncle Tio (a jokey title: “tio” is Spanish for “uncle”) moves suddenly from a hypnotic, stairstepping tangent to more pointillistic variations, Oh dancing cautiously, centerstage. Along with the the coyly spring-loaded Pet Steps Sitters Theme Song, it’s the album’s most amusing cut.

Almazan winds it up with the warmly familiar, relatively fragmentary (three minute, ha) solo ballad Music on My Mind. Classic album comparison: McCoy Tyner’s Sahara. This one’s that good.

Epically Tuneful, Colorfully Cinematic Jazz from Linda May Han Oh and Her Killer Band at the Vanguard This Week

There was a point about midway through the first song of of bassist Linda May Han Oh’s first set last night at the Vanguard where tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel broke into a wide-mouthed grin, staring to his left. At that moment, guitarist Matt Stevens was perusing a gritty, spacious solo punctuated by several judicious pauses. What was he doing between phrases that had goosed Wendel so hard?

As it turned out, it was drummer Obed Calvaire’s long, leapfrogging, crescendoing polyrhythms that had grabbed him – and soon, pretty much everybody else within earshot. There were innumerable other “this is why we love jazz” moments throughout the night. She’s back there tonight, July 3 through 7, with sets at 8:30 and a little after 10; cover is $35 and worth it.

Oh has made waves in the past couple of years as sidewoman to the stars, but her own work is often her best, and this show was characteristic. When a band is having fun, that translates to the audience. Oh gives her crew – which also included her significant other, pianist Fabian Almazan, the not-so-secret weapon in this quintet – plenty to sink their teeth into. Like the best film and classical composers, she starts with the simplest materials – sometimes just a single-note rhythm – and subtly introduces variations that often go in completely unanticipated directions.

The most vivid showstopper of the night was a piece from a forthcoming film, portraying the moment when a young Brazilian woman is kidnapped into the sex trade. Oh’s wistful, insistent opening solo became considerably more plaintive the second time around, Almazan’s glittering chords elevated the constantly shifting ground to majestic heights, and the tropical milieu quickly took a backseat to a fond goodbye to happiness. As Oh saw it, this could have happened to anyone, anywhere.

The group opened with Blue Over Gold, a Rothko shout-out that built from a warily insistent, percussive bass phrase to a recurrent four-chord cluster punctuated by Wendel’s hardbop and finally Calvaire’s rumbling attack. Yoda, which Oh dedicated to her mentor of a sister (“She’s a lot prettier,” the composer grinned) began with even more tightly wound, syncopated, minimalist bass and rose to punchy heights on the waves of Almazan’s piano.

While she played most of the set on her usual upright model, Oh also pulled a beautiful, full tone from her Fender on a couple of numbers, especially when playing chords. It was a welcome change from the legions of slap-happy funkpapa cliche-heads playing Weather Report covers and such a few blocks south on Bleecker. It was also rewarding to see how much more she’s singing: her soaring vocalese compares with another rising star string player, guitarist Camila Meza.

The night’s funniest tune was Speech Impediment, a winsomely persistent portrait of a stuttering dude who nonetheless finds a way to get the girl. Wendel got the funniest arrythmic bits, but both the bandleader and Calvaire were close behind, with a deadpan wit that brought to mind the Dutch clown prince of jazz, Misha Mengelberg. They returned to close the set on a more acerbically kinetic note. Oh has grown significantly as a writer over the past few years, to become one of the most consistently interesting bassist-composers around; you should see her.

Mighty, Epic Individualist Fabian Almazan Plays the Jazz Gallery This Friday Night

As a composer and pianist, Fabian Almazan has no fear of epic grandeur, big statements or rich melodicism. He doesn’t limit himself to acoustic piano, or to traditional postbop tunesmithing either. As a bandleader, he hasn’t been as ubiquitous lately as he was a couple of years ago when he released his mighty Alcanza Suite, which is streaming at Bandcamp. He’s back out in front of his own trio this Friday night, March 1 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $25.

While there’s no telling which direction Almazan is going to go in next – he’s done everything from reinventing Shostakovich string quartets in a jazz context, to playing in starry space-jazz band Bryan & the Aardvarks – the Alcanza Suite is his magnum opus so far. There’s never been anything quite like it, a towering, symphonic masterpiece that draws equally on jazz and neoromanticism while tackling many sobering themes, from the trials facing immigrants to the bright of existentialism. The ensemble here rise to the many demands on their technique, a string quartet of Megan Gould and Tomoko Omura on violins, Karen Waltuch on viola and Noah Hoffeld on cello bolstered by Camila Meza on guitar and vocals, Linda May Han Oh on bass and Henry Cole on drums alongside the bandleader.

Meza sings calmly amidst the sudden gusts of the opening number, Vida Absurda y Bella (Absurd and Beautiful Life), Almazan’s piano a frenzy of climbs and spirals in tandem with Cole’s pummeling attack. Astor Piazzolla at his most adventurous seems to be a reference point.

The second movement, Marea Baja (Low Tide) is a thoughtful nocturne, Meza’s tender vocal over wary strings, Almazan picking up the pace with his circling rivulets. As Meza moves further back in the mix, she grows more forceful. From there, Almazan’s carnivalesque chromatics enter and then give way to a big, hypnotically insistent crescendo.

Verla (Seeing It, “It”) being truth, begins as a tone poem and then becomes a moody, austere string quartet piece: this particular truth seems hard to bear. Almazan follows it with a brief solo piano passage that shifts from gentle lustre to disquiet; later on, Oh and Cole also get to contribute unaccompanied solos.

Meza returns to the mic for Mas, a fervent hope for better circumstances over airy, distantly blues-tinged atmospherics that builds toward towering angst with Almazan’s chromatic cascades.

Oh pounces and bubbles within the vast, catchy riffage of Tribu T9, Meza’s vocalese adding calm contrast to Almazan’s energetic two-handed polyrhythms. 

Rising from somber belltones to emphatically spaced minimalist gravitas, Oh’s solo introduces the sixth movement, Cazador Antiguo (Ancient Hunter). Its stern, mechanical, martial drive and creepy helicopter effects juxtapose with Meza’s resolutely sailing vocals, segueing into Pater Familias. A coming-of-age narrative without words, it’s a return to the bright/shadowy dynamic between Meza and the rest of the band. Almazan cuts loose with his most gorgeously glittery solo of the entire record before a grim march returns, then gives way to a jubilant Meza coda.

Este Lugar (This Place) is the suite’s most epic segment, a lush, dynamically shifting maze of counterpoint, Meza giving voice to immigrant hopes and crushing realities: the return to the relentless march theme packs a wallop. Marea Alta (High Tide) is the suite’s towering coda, Meza’s guitar chords finally punching through the symphonic, polyrhythmic web. Whether you consider this classical music, minimalism or jazz, or all of the above, this album is pretty much unrivalled, in terms of both towering majesty and social relevance, over the last couple of years,.

Camila Meza Brings Her Disarmingly Direct Voice, Guitar and Unflinching Political Sensibility to the West Village

Camila Meza’s lustrous, wondrous, disarmingly clear vocals mirror the way she plays guitar. For that reason, she’s highly sought after. She’s the not-so-secret weapon in trombonist Ryan Keberle’s group, and also plays a central role in Fabian Almazan’s large ensemble. She’s as vivid a lyricist in English as in her native Spanish; when she sings vocalese, she’s more likely to harmonize with a guitar line than to imitate a postbop horn solo.

That often shatteirngly direct sensibility serves her songwriting well. Her work has a fearless political relevance, inspired by decades of populist songwrirting from throughout Latin America. Her most recent album Traces is streaming at Sunnyside Records. She’s playing a characteristically politically-fueled show with pianist Aaron Goldberg on May 10 at 8 PM at Greenwich House Music School; cover is $15/$10 stud.

The album opens with Para Volar, a bright, gently churning melody underneath her Spanish-language lyrics, an allusively triumphant shout-out to freedom and escape, a common theme in the Chilean-born Meza’s music. Her guitar bubbles and leaps over the lithe rhythm section of bassist Matt Penman and drummer Kendrick Scott, pianist Shai Maestro kicking into his driving low register as Meza’s solo peaks out. She revisits that optimism a little later in the album’s kinetic title track, where she turns up her guitar and cuts loose, more gritty and lowdown.

Jody Redhage’s spare cello and Maestro’s sparkly Rhodes mingle with Meza’s gentle fingerpicking in Away, a wistful, hypnotic duet with Sachal Vasandani. Meza’s precise, clipped vocals leave no doubt as to the deadly consequences in Djavan’s bitter eco-disaster narrative Amazon Farewell, Maestro adding a richly incisive, darkly rippling solo.

Mar Elastico is an enigmatically hazy, summery reminiscence of Meza’s childhood adventures with her sisters, Maestro’s Rhodes front and center; Scott’s distant-tornado cymbals behind Meza’s delicate jangle is one of the album’s high points. She switches to acoustic for a spare solo take of the Victor Jara classic Luchin. an allusively harrowing tale of resilience amidst crushing childhood poverty. 

The uneasy piano-guitar harmonies in Steven Sondheim’s Greenfinch and Linnet Bird give the selfconsciously fussy ballad a welcome gravitas. Meza returns to the expectantly circling, distant yet optimistic intensity of the early part of the album in Emerald: the mantra is “There’s no need to hide now.”

The album’s most elusive yet arguably strongest track is the lush, sweeping Mangata, a metaphorically-charged refugee’s escape anthem, Meza’s stark, emphatic chords against Maestro’s neoromantic glimmer. The album ends with the self-effacingly modest Little Person – the spare, rather trad closing theme from the Philip Seymour Hoffman film Synecdoche New York-  projecting the hope of “finding another little person,” as Meza puts it. What Meza has found here in the US is a fertile crucible for her many talents, all of which are still in their formative stages. Catch her on the way up.

The 20 Best Jazz Albums of 2017

The single most riveting jazz album, and arguably the most important album of the year in any style of music was Fukushima, by the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York. A narrative of personal terror rather than a depiction of the horrific events of March 11, 2011, its tension is relentless. Fujii, who conducts the orchestra, alternates several harrowing themes within ominous cloudbanks of improvisation, poignantly lyrical solos and segments which shift from stately and elegaic to withering, chattering satire. That’s the bandleader’s response to the greed-fueled attempts to cover up the disaster. As Fukushima reactor number three continues to leak its deadly contents into the Pacific, it’s a shock that more artists haven’t addressed the ongoing environmental crisis. As Fujii succinctly said after leading the group in the world premiere of the suite in 2016, it’s not over.

Whittling this list down to another nineteen albums out of the hundreds of releases that deserve to be credited here was almost painful. It makes no sense to try to rank them: if an album’s good enough to make this list, you ought to hear it.

Ran Blake & Dominique Eade – Town & Country
Protest jazz, icy Messiaenic miniatures, reinvented standards and luminous nocturnes from the noir piano icon and his brilliant longtime singer collaborator. Listen at Spotify 

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound – Not Two
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s latest large-ensemble recording, blending elements of Middle Eastern, Indian music and jazz is an album for our time: turbulent, restless and packed with poignant solos from a global lineup. Listen at New Amsterdam Records 

Anouar Brahem – Blue Maqams
The oudist teams up with bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Django Bates for some of the year’s most haunting themes, drawing evenly from the Middle East, the tropics and the west. Listen at Spotify 

JD Allen – Radio Flyer
This era’s preeminent tenor saxophonist/composer expands on his usual terse, three-to-four-minute “jukebox jazz,” biting irony and ironic humor by bringing guitarist Liberty Ellman in to join the longtime ace rhythm section of bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. Listen to a little bit at Soundcloud 

The Mary Halvorson Octet – Away with You
The world’s foremost under-forty jazz guitarist has never written more plaintively, or more amusingly. Even more caustic sarcasm than Allen, not quite as many jokes as Mostly Other People Do the Killing (see below). Haunting pedal steel ace Susan Alcorn is the not-so-secret weapon here. Listen at Bandcamp 

Vijay Iyer – Far From Over
Like Allen, Iyer beefs up his sound, in this case bolstering his trio with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey by adding cornetist Graham Haynes, Steve Lehman on alto sax and Mark Shim on tenor. Fearlessly political, constantly uneasy, bustling with urban noir tableaux, a requiem and smoking bhangra jazz. Listen at Spotify 

Greg Lewis – The Breathe Suite
The organist best known for reinventing Monk tunes dedicates each track on this often shattering, sometimes acidic collection to black men murdered by police. Angst, horror and slashing solos from guitarists Marc Ribot or Ron Jackson take centerstage as the bandleader builds relentless ambience. There’s never been an organ jazz record anything like this. Listen at Spotify 

Doug Wieselman‘s Trio S – Somewhere Glimmer
The multi-reedman (who also plays banjo here, more than competently) joins forces with drummer Kenny Wollesen and cellist Jane Scarpantoni for broodingly cinematic themes on a smaller scale than his legendary, carnivalesque Kamikaze Ground Crew have typically tackled. Listen at Bandcamp 

Guy Mintus – A Home In Between
With his long-running trio, bassist Tamir Shmerling and drummer Philippe Lemm, the pensive, incisive Israeli-born pianist cascades through dark cinematic tableaux with moody Middle Eastern and angst-fueled neoromantic interludes. This is one restless album. Listen at Spotify 

Shahin Novrasli – Emanation
Eerily rustling, acerbically modal postbop and more Middle Eastern-flavored themes from the Azeri pianist (an Ahmad Jamal protege) with bassist James Cammack and drummer André Ceccarelli plus Georgian percussionist Irakli Koiava. Violinst Didier Lockwood proves perfect for this uneasy project. Listen at Spotify 

The Jihye Lee Orchestra – April Wind
The singer/composer makes some serious waves with her first big band recording, a lustrously blustery, suspensefully cinematic, dynamic suite inspired by a ferry disaster off the Korean coast. Listen at her music page 

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan – Small Town
The iconically  lyrical guitarist and his sympatico bassist bandmate intimately reinvent bluegrass, Lee Konitz, Paul Motian and some Frisell standbys in a return to the format he first recorded with thirty-five years ago. Listen at Spotify 

Tomas Fujiwara – Triple Double
Two horns (Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and Ralph Alessi on trumpet), two guitars (Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook) and two drummers, Gerald Cleaver holding down the second chair through variations, and frequent sparring, over one bitingly catchy theme after another. Drummers always lead the best bands, don’t they? Listen at Bandcamp  

Josh Green & the Cyborg Orchestra  – Telepathy & Bop
Composer/conductor Green ambitiously makes his debut with an irrepressibly theatrical, sometimes vaudevillian, lavishly cinematic big band album that rivals Esquivel for outside-the-box creativity and bizarro orchestration. One of the funnest and most irreverent albums of the year. Listen at Spotify 

Sam Bardfeld – The Great Enthusiasms
In this fearlessly political collection, the violinist takes each of the song titles from speeches by Richard Nixon. Pianist Kris Davis and drummer Michael Sarin join in the rich irony, bristling with energy. If Thelonious Monk had been a violinist, he would have made this record. Listen at Bandcamp 

Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge – Whispers on the Wind
The follow-up to the composer/conductor’s titanically gripping, picturesque River Runs suite isn’t quite as intense, but it’s just as dark, inspired by Larry McMurtry, Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy. Unorthodox instrumentation to rival Darcy James Argue; twisted cowboy themes; southwestern gothic; brassy solar flares and the most counterintuitive, smart jazz guitar solo of the year: that’s LaRue Nickelson on acoustic. Listen at Spotify 

Fabian Almazan – Alcanza
The Cuban-born pianist has done some memorable work with strings and orchestration; here, the Shostakovich-inspired bandleader fully realizes that epic vision, with Camila Meza centerstage on vocals and guitar. Plaintive ballads, vertigo-inducing overlays, glistening melodicism that’s equal parts latin and classical, and a grandeur unmatched by any other album this year. Listen at Spotify 

Rudresh Mahanthappa & the Indo-Pak Coalition – Agrima
The alto saxophonist’s wind-tunnel control and technique are as breathtaking as always. The themes are more distinctly Indian, and darker, and more ambitious. Guitarist Rez Abbasi takes his tunefulness to new levels. And let’s not stop with the music: let’s say the hell with imperialist historical smog and unite India with Pakistan. Listen a little at Soundcloud

Jen Shyu – Song of Silver Geese
The esteemed singer and multi-instrumentalist peppers this surreal, envelopingly lush nocturnal suite with moon lute and piano, mingling with strings and vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s Jade Tongue ensemble. Singing in Timorese, Korean, Chinese and other languages, she gives voice to individuals real and mythical impacted by or lost to tragedy.  Listen at Pi Recordings

Mostly Other People Do the Killing  – Loafer’s Hollow
Packed with both inside jokes and irresistibly cartoonish humor, the world’s funniest jazz group give the gasface to Count Basie and his innumerable imitators in 30s style swing. They can spot a cliche a mile away and never miss their target. Satire doesn’t any broader, more spot-on or more hilarious than this. Listen at Spotify 

Bryan and the Aardvarks: The Ultimate Deep-Space Band

It’s impossible to think of a more apt choice of players to evoke an awestruck deep-space glimmer than vibraphonist Chris Dingman, pianist Fabian Almazan and singer Camila Meza. Back them with the elegantly propulsive drums of Joe Nero and bassist-bandleader Bryan Copeland, and you have most of the crew on Bryan and the Aardvarks’ majestic, mighty new album Sounds from the Deep Field, streaming at Bandcamp. Saxophonist Dayna Stephens adds various shades with his EWI (electronic wind instrument) textures. They’re playing the album release show on April 27 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $22.

Over the past few years, the band have made a name for themselves with their bittersweetly gorgeous epics, and this album, inspired by Hubble Telescope images from the furthest reaches of space, is no exception. The opening number, Supernova is much less explosive than the title implies: it’s an expansive, almost imperceptibly crescendoing epic set to a steady, dancing midtempo 4/4 groove, Almazan’s purposeful ripples mingling with subtle wafts from the EWI and Meza’s wordless vocals, setting the stage for Dingman’s raptly glistening coda. Meza doesn’t play guitar on this album: that’s Jesse Lewis’ subtle but rich and constantly shifting textures.

Dingman and Almazan build and then drop back from a hypnotic, pointillistic, uneasily modal interweave as the rhythm of Eagle Nebula circles and circles, subtly fleshed out with Meza’s meteor-shower clarity and the occasional wry wisp from Stephens. Subtle syncopations give the distantly brooding Tiny Skull Sized Kingdom hints of trip-hop, Meza calmly setting the stage for an unexpectedly growling, increasingly ferocious Lewis guitar solo

Echoes of Chopin, a contemporaneous American Protestant hymnal and John Lennon as well echo throughout Soon I’ll Be Leaving This World. Almazan’s gently insistent, stern chords build to a trick turnaround, then Nero and Dingman finally come sweeping in and the lights go up. By the time the warpy electonic effects kick in, it’s obvious that this is not a death trip – at least not yet.

Meza’s tender, poignant vocals rise as the swaying waves of The Sky Turned to Grey build toward Radiohead angst. It’s the first of two numbers here with lyrics and the album’s most straight-ahead rock song, fueled by Lewis’ red-sky guitar solo. By contrast, Nero’s lighthanded, tricky metrics add to the surrealism of Strange New Planet,  a disarmingly humorous mashup of Claudia Quintet and Weather Report.

Interestingly, Bright Shimmering Lights isn’t a vehicle for either Dingman or Almazan: it’s a resonant Pat Metheny-ish skyscape that grows more amusing as the timbres cross the line into P-Funk territory. It segues into LV 426, a miniature that recalls Paula Henderson’s recent, irresistibly funny adventures in electronics.

Meza’s balmy, wistful vocals waft through Magnetic Fields, the closest thing to a traditional jazz ballad here, lit up by a lingering Dingman solo. Nero’s dancing traps, Dingman’s shivery shimmers and Almazan’s twinkle mingle with Lewis’ pensive sustain and Almazan’s rapidfire, motorik electric piano in To Gaze Out the Cupola Module. the album’s closing cut.

The next time we launch a deep-space capsule, we should send along a copy of this album. If anybody out there finds it and figures out what it is, and how to play it, and can perceive the sonics, it could be a soundtrack for their own mysterious voyage through the depths.

Linda May Han Oh Releases Her Gracefully Kinetic Marcel Marceau-Inspired New Album at the Jazz Standard

Linda May Han Oh is the only jazz bassist to ever make the cover of the Village Voice. That speaks both to her enormous popularity in the jazz community as well as her appeal beyond it. As a sidewoman, her distinctive style is tireless, purposeful and tuneful to the max: she’s never content to merely walk scales, but she also isn’t self-indulgent. Her own compositions have flair and wit and a general sense of optimism. Her latest album Walk Against Wind, inspired by the exploits of legendary mime Marcel Marceau, is streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing the album release show on April 19 at the Jazz Standard, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $25.

Her jaunty bass solo kicks off the lithely dancing opening diptych, Lucid Lullaby; guitarist Matthew Stevens throws some similarly goodnatured sparks into the mix, tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel adding airiness. The second part is a tone poem of sorts where Oh anchors Wendel’s serenity with stygian, sustained bowing.

Firedancer is more about the dancer than the flames, propelled by guest Fabian Almazan’s minimalistic pedalpoint and Wendel’s judiciously steady figures. Speech Impediment is Oh at her wryly amusing best, her own irrepressible vocalese punching in tandem with Wendel’s insistent upper-register lines over drummer Justin Brown’s flurries and clusters. Then the conversation restarts between Wendel and Stevens.

Oh switches to Fender for the bubbly Perpluzzle, a study in contrasts between Stevens’ distorted chords and Wendel’s gracefully kinetic melody over Brown’s shadowboxing beats. The title track alternates between an unexpectedly dark march over a catchy modal hook and a doublespeed variation that’s just short of frantic: clearly, getting out into the gusts was a challenge, but once you’ve got your footing, apparently all is well.

Oh returns to Fender for the similarly hypnotic, catchy Ikan Bilis, gingerly spiced with Minji Park’s traditional Korean percussion. The enigmatic Mother Reason juxtaposes Wendel’s occasionally Joe Maneri-ish, microtonally-tinged longtone phrases against Stevens’ resonant chords and slow, methodical single-note lines.

Stevens builds tension with a rising-and-falling phrase throughout Mantis as the rest of the band hovers distantly. Oh and then Brown scour the ocean floor beneath steady guitar/sax harmonies in another hypnotically catchy number, Deepsea Dancers. Stevens, Brown and Almazan – on electric piano – prowl energetically over Oh’s moody, chromatic pedalpoint in Midnight, a Hollywood hills noir set piece with a long, deliciously fiery crescendo out. The album winds up with the bouncy Steve Coleman-esque syncopation of Western. Good to hear such a consistently strong collection from such a major force on the low strings.

A Transcendent Big Band Jazz Twinbill with the Awakening Orchestra and Fabian Almazan’s Rhizome

Composer/conductor Kyle Saulnier’s mighty twenty-piece Awakening Orchestra played one of the year’s best concerts last month at Shapeshifter Lab in Gowanus, on a fantastic doublebill with pianist Fabian Almazan‘s chamber jazz group, Rhizome. Saulnier’s most obvious comparison is Darcy James Argue, considering how fearlessly relevant and politically inspired the two composers’ recent work has been. Maria Schneider is another, in terms of epic sweep and textural lustre.

Pablo Masis introduced one of Saulnier’s favorite recent tropes, a long, searching trumpet solo to open the evening’s first song, an imaginative reinvention of the Low cult favorite, Murderer, sung over balmy high reed swirls and cloudbanks of brass by Julie Hardy and Seth Fruiterman. As would be the case throughout the performance, James Shipp’s lingering vibraphone provided unsettling, twinkling contrast, in the same vein as the Claudia Quintet, while trumpeter Seneca Black prowled the perimeter with a similar judicious unease, up to a simmering coda.

Jesse Lewis’ The Robert Frost Experiment gave alro saxophonist Vito Chiavuzzo a glistening backdrop for wistful pastoralisms, drummer Jared Schonig pushing toward a steady heroic theme, guitarist Michael McAllister adding enigmatic textures. Empty Promises, the second movement of Saulnier’s This Is Not the Answer suite from the band’s 2014 album, moved deftly from lushly nocturnal ambience to a steadier disquiet, echoing Bernard Herrmann with its subtly shifting rhythms, trumpet/high reeds dichotomies and a vivid wee-hours street scene of sorts from Chiavuzzo, rising to an angst-fueled peak.

As dynamic as the early part of the set was, the high point was Saulnier’s new election year suite, a work in progress. He explained that he’d originally envisioned the project as pretty grim, but that it had become much more complicated than that (Bernie Sanders had not yet conceded on Bastille Day, the date of this show). The first of these numbers, Free Labor, Free Land, Free Men draws on the original slogan of the Republican Party. Trombonist Willem De Koch supplied the wary, circumspect introduction, the orchestra reaching toward a vast, brooding panorama, Schonig finally kicking in and then turning it over to Shipp’s opaque atmospherics and then unexpectedly anthemic, psychedelic lines. De Koch’s wounded foghorn resonance took centerstage as early promise gave way to sheer dejection, chaos and then blaring, stentorian sarcasm. Let’s not forget that the Republicans began life as abolitionists. The second part, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité began with Aaron Kotler’s lyrical, neoromantically optimistic piano, RJ Avallone’s trumpet leading a bustling, swinging drive upward, Samuel Ryder’s bluesy tenor sax spiraling into a brief, harrowing conclusion.

Saulnier emphasized that he wanted to wind up the show on a positive note, and then led the group through a plush take of Hi-Lili, a summery chamber-pop reworking of an early 50s hit, Fruiterman on vocals. Altogether, a provocative and powerful performance by the group, which also featured saxophonists Andrew Gould, Andrew Gutauskas and Carl Maraghi; trumpeter Daniel Urness; trombonists Michael Boscarino, Matthew Musselman and Joe Barati, and bassist Nick Dunston. They return to Shapeshifter Lab to continue the suite this coming November 11 at 7:30 PM.

Almazan followed with a simlarly luminous, dynamic, more briskly paced set equally informed by neoromanticism and cutting-edge large ensemble jazz. The pianist fired off long, sinuous cascades, his balletesque leaps and bounds anchored on the low end by bassist Linda Oh, who really got a workout as the show went on. Guitarist Camila Meza added alternately misty and crystalline vocalese as well as decisive, emphatic chordal swells over the shifting sheets and tricky rhythmic pulse of a string quartet, fueled by the drums’ exuberant bluster. An anthemic, cinematic sweep gave way to brief, lively Afro-Cuban romps, a marionettish string interlude or two, allusions to Shostakovian horror and latin noir balladry. Following the Awakening Orchestra and managing not to be anticlimactic was quite the challenge, but Almazan and his crew delivered. He’s currently on West Coast tour; his next gig in that part of the world is on August 12 with support from the Aruan Ortiz Trio at the SF Jazz Center, 201 Franklin St. in San Francisco. $15 tix are available.