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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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 

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December 30, 2017 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Haunting, Cinematic, Relevant State-of-the-Art Big Band Jazz from the Jihye Lee Orchestra

If tuneful, cinematic, vivid and distantly haunting big band jazz is up your alley, you should know that the Jihye Lee Orchestra are playing Symphony Space this Friday, April 14 at 8 PM. Cover is $25, which is reasonable for a Manhattan gig by a 20-piece ensemble. To give you an idea of what they’ll be playing, here’s what their gripping, picturesque debut album April Wind sounds like. It hasn’t made it to any of the usual places on the web yet, although half the tracks are up at Lee’s video page. 

The title track, which opens the six-part suite, begins with a rhythmless lustre and a distant sense of foreboding, the only place in the piece where that’s allowed to creep in. Sean Jones’ airy trumpet mingles with the bandleader’s wistful vocalese. Spare, carefree piano phrases from Alain Mallett mingle as the orchestra rises with brassy flair over an easygoing sway. A dancing rhythm comes to the forefront with an incisive piano solo. A casually spiraling Shannon LeClaire alto sax solo leads the ensemble in a return to gently swaying lushness.

John Lockwood’s tersely dancing bass hook opens the practically thirteen-minute epic Sewol Ho, then gives way to a bit of icy, chromatic piano and then an exchange of brass that picks up the melody. Suspense builds over an understated clave, a brooding call-and-response between brass and reeds that wouldn’t be out of place in the Chris Jentsch big band book. A minor sixth chord lingers, actual or implied, eventually edged out by uneasy close harmonies and then a seemingly free interlude pairing off spare, bubbling individual voices: trumpet, drums, bass, trombone each scrambling around in the waves. Rhythm returns with an ominous low-brass pulse underneath those voices: then the music literally slides down and out for a second. Then the bass clarinet leads a search party, more or less, over a bubbling, reedy groove that builds with considerable gravitas and shivery clarinet.

The way the piano and horns, then Lee’s voice paired with alto sax, mirror the previous number’s intro as Deep Blue Sea gets underway is especially artful. A carefree/foreboding dichotomy develops between highs and lows; again, the rhythm grows bouncier, this time on the wings of a gentle, smoke-tinted tenor sax solo. Lee takes the orchestra in a more ebullient, brass-fueled direction, then pauses and returns to a spare, moody piano-and-tenor interlude

Whirlwind begins over a brisk clave, cloudbanks of brass passing quickly overhead, punctuated by dynamic shifts, a piano solo bristling with icepick chords, and then a return to a brass-driven intensity. Building out of a spare piano phrase beneath emphatic horns, Guilty follows a martial beat up to Shostakovian, menacingly gavelling phrases that back away for a long, judicious Bruce Bartlett guitar solo, then a long, crushing coda that leaves no doubt what the verdict is. The final number is You, a slow ballad with a bright opening chart that backs away for a melancholy Jones flugelhorn solo and then brightens as the energy picks up. A series of pensive swells make way for a calmly lively Jones solo spot, then spring returns and everything is in bloom again.

Spoiler alert: if you want to find out for yourself what this is about, stop here, bookmark the page, give the album a spin or better yet, go see the show and then come back.

The backstory here is that Lee’s suite follows the narrative of the April, 2014 Sewol ferry disaster. More than three hundred passengers were killed when the vessel sank off the Korean coast. In Boston at the time, the Korean-born composer wrote much of the suite in the weeks that followed.

News reports on the disaster have been conflicted: what is apparent is that the ferry was overloaded, and many eyewitness accounts concur that the crew didn’t react immediately when it was apparent that the ship was in distress. The same thing happened over a hundred years ago north of Nova Scotia; an iceberg was involved that time. Nobody went to jail for that one. The owner of the Sewol was found dead, victim of foul play, a year after going on the run. That case also remains unsolved. 

April 13, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment