Choosing music outside of the constraints of marketing and modishness is a difficult practice that for some is an absolute chore. In this technocratic age of curated playlists, there is less exploration among individuals. While online encyclopedias continue to define and annotate the music of the past along with current releases, it is sometimes easier to plug into the mindless algorithmic bliss provided by streaming services. That is NOT wrong. Everybody wants some simplification in these complicated times.
Still it’s important to know that those streaming services do tend to skew to more middle-of-the-road sounds when it comes to promoting the jazz they contain within. That’s with good reason, too, because, generally speaking, people are no longer as familiar with the sound of America’s revolutionary musical artform as they once were. Fear not! I have assembled some experiential and off-the-beaten-path sounds for mind expansionism, along with some situational guidelines to enhance the experience.
Here, then, is a selection of releases that arrived in 2019 and that you may have missed. Play them in the cabin of your automobile, or on the smart speaker in your kitchen while you whisk your way through Oeufs en Meurette during the upcoming holiday seasonal madness. This list is a hodge-podge of styles and timelines. Some sides date back six decades. Others are freshly recorded this year. Some enigmatically defy classification while others are as unambiguous and iconic as a black and white photograph of cigarette smoke trailing from an ashtray perched atop of a piano. They are listed in no particular order.
All My Relations – Cochemea
Cochemea Gastelum rose to prominence supporting the late Sharon Jones in her backing band, the Dap Kings. A California native, he moved eastward, first to Brooklyn, then to Woodstock. Without a doubt, Gastelum has proven on this record that he knows the sound of wind and fire and rain and sun. His music is filled by those elemental pulses. This recording isn’t free jazz or straight soul. Its closest relatives are Dr. John’s Gris Gris and Pharoah Sanders’s Thembi, recordings from 1968 and 1971 respectively. What Cochemea has really done is to have carved out his own complex rhythmic juju. When he invests enough space into that sound to let the rudiments of his aural presence fully establish itself, he is a champion. The mass of syncopated instrumentation can overwhelm the majesty of his saxophone, but what danceable mutant jazz-funk density it is.
Top Track: “Al-Mu’tasim”
When to listen: When the 405 turns into parking lot.
One to skip: “Song of Happiness” doesn’t close out the set the way you’d hope it could.
Backed With: The Comet is Coming
Immersion – Youn Sun Nah
Born in Seoul, trained in Paris, Youn Sun Nah sings in English on Immersion, often pirouetting duets with layers of her own voice, a bloom of talent and technical edits that comes most noticeably on Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology). If Petra Haden spaced out to Brian Eno and Keith Jarrett, it might sound like this. But that’s an unfair comparison for Sun Nah to compete with. Hers is a varied and different skillset than Haden’s. Sun Nah is a singer who is enchantingly inscrutable. As the music switches from ballad to beat laden pop, it never undoes Sun Nah’s naturally off-kilter cascade. Immersion takes the artistic caprice Laurie Anderson enveloped herself with early on in her career. Both musicians have embraced unorthodox choices, and led with those idiosyncratic vibrations. The decisions reflect creative sincerity rather than a borrowed jadedness. Across her career, Sun Nah has performed with with the Korean National Symphony, was the 2015 artistic director for Korean traditional Music Festival Yeowoorak, and has with Immersion released ten albums. That diversity infects her phrasing as she bounces along a futuristic but intimate take of the Supremes’s “You Can’t Hurry a Love,” recreating it amid lullaby like instrumentation that deftly manages not to turn the song into a caricature. This is a charming album of eccentric vocalized imagination. Is it jazz? Mostly yes, but even when it’s not, who cares?
Top Track: “Isn’t it a Pity” is haunting and modern and timelessly delicate.
When to listen: In the pitch-black night of the soul
B/W: In the Wee Small Hours – Frank Sinatra will take the artifice of Youn Sun Nah’s work and douse it in the classicism of Ol’ Blue Eyes.
Youn Sun Nah, “Isn’t it a Pity”
We Are On the Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration – The Art Ensemble of Chicago
When Joseph Jarman died at the age of 81 in the beginning of the year, The Art Ensemble of Chicago was whittled down to lone original member, Roscoe Mitchell, on woodwinds. Nevertheless, Jarman appears on the band’s 2019 50th anniversary release, combining a raucous live performance with a comprehensive studio session, both recorded last year. Mitchell, Jarman and long-time percussionist Famoudou Don Moye usher the band through their own compositions, and one by Lester Bowie, the band’s late co-founding trumpeter. You get the feeling this was a band who conceptualized at their genesis they would have a prolonged existence. And this is what the music of such visionaries sounds like as they come down to root together one last time. Tempering the wilder dissonance of past outings, this anniversary AEC remains equally committed to the instinctual vigor that first brought them attention. On We Are On the Edge, they do not sound excessive, though Mitchell and Moye and Jarman are augmented by twelve additional musicians (that’s Mitchell’s daughter Nicole on flute and Hugh Ragin spitting fire on the trumpet.) Though this incarnation plays a more regimented music than the anarchic stuff of its heyday, it is always good and at no time is it dull.
When to listen: When the wind starts to howl through the trees, or the sirens pick up.
One to skip: If avant-tribalism with vocals isn’t for you, pass by “Mama Koko.”
B/W: Itself. This is a two-disc set, listen to one disc and then listen to the other.
The Art Ensemble of Chicago, “Saturday Morning”
After the Rain: A Night for Coltrane – Teodross Avery
Recorded live in Oakland California, Teodross Avery’s four-piece approximation of Coltrane’s classic quartet surges through a riveting set of Coltrane staples, ending the night with a mystical performance of Pursuance, from A Love Supreme. Pursuance played the role of Holy Ghost in role in the trinity of ALS’s first three songs. Avery and his band deliver it with a clever, spiritual acknowledgement of the man who first brought this music to the people. Taking on the work of a giant like John Coltrane is no easy task, but it is part of a long tradition in jazz. Up and comers take the music of their forbears and try to reignite it with their own interpretative flame. That nod to tradition is exactly why this set works. As Avery’s band stretch out along their own pacing, their choices allow Coltrane’s songs a separate movement that lopes along differently than it did with the Classic Quartet. Coming out in between two new releases from the long dead jazzer, Avery’s embracement of Coltrane couldn’t have landed at a better time. Though the drums tend to cluster together in places and it can be difficult to grab on to the upright bass lines in others, that’s likely due to the recording peculiarities of capturing a live performance. There is no doubt what a driving, forceful band this is, and they inhabit Coltrane’s sound with suaveness, fizz, and confidence. Coltrane’s vast genius is such that no band ever truly takes over for him. A good band knows that; a great one, like Avery’s, acknowledges the debt but does not relent to the challenges presented.
Top Track: “Afro Blue” – a favorite of Coltrane’s and among his repertoire, done here with honors.
When to listen: After watching CNN turn into a miasmic chorus of shouting conjecture.
B/W: Parker’s Mood, by Roy Hargrove
Teodross Avery, “Afro Blue”
Trilogy 2 – Chick Corea/Christian McBride/Brian Blade
A long proud commitment I had with myself kept Chick Corea’s music from my library of sound. This live acoustic performance of his trio with drummer Brian Blade and bassist Christian McBride is a kind of threef-er of sorts for me, as both Blade and McBride have also remained in musical exile. That all three made a record divorced of the clichés that saw their banishment is a triumph of substance over style. Trilogy 2 follows 2013’s three disc set Trilogy, by the same trio. The six years in between these releases has smoothed over some of the compulsive smooth jazziness that poked into the music of the previous outing. This time, they narrowed the set down to twelve songs spread across two discs, though it’s still nearly two hours long. By the third song, the band opens up to Thelonious Monk’s “Crepuscule with Nellie” and refine some of Monk’s spontaneous angles to a polished soulful eloquence. It is a great take and it is a true thrill to hear these three musicians play songs so totally devoid of platitudes.
Top Track: “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs” is a daring showcase for what Christian McBride can do on an upright bass, what Blade can do on drums and what Corea should always do on piano.
When to listen: On a mid-winter jaunt, headphones on.
B/W: We Three – Roy Haynes, Phineas Newborn, Paul Chambers
Chick Corea/Christian McBride/Brian Blade, “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs”
Uppsala 1971 – Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington appears to have been the preeminent elder statesmen of jazz right from the very start of his lengthy career. By 1971, when his big band recorded this live shot from Uppsala, Sweden, he was engaged in a fascinating resolution of a life in music. Many of Ellington’s most steadfast compatriots were gone, most notably, co-writer and arranger Billy Strayhorn, who died in 1967. Ellington himself would soon to split the mortal coil, felled by lung cancer in May, 1974. On Uppsala 1971, the fire in Ellington’s orchestra is primordial. Having toured Sweden for five decades, starting in 1939, Ellington gives the Swedish people what they want, rejoiceful horn lines that swerve with dynamism as they lift the roof off of the joint. Paul Gonzalez’s saxophone lights some dim candles on “Happy Reunion,” and the Duke closes the night out with a touching piano acknowledgment of the debt he owed to Strayhorn. Throughout it all, the band religiously addresses the corners of Ellington’s sound. This is a must have. When Duke acknowledges Marshall McLuhan, a kangaroo and the digeridoo before launching into “Chinoiserie,” it’s a motif, a mark of his musical absolution. He is now, and was then, powering the wave. And oh what a wave it was.
Top Track: “Kinda Dukish and Rockin’ in Rhythm” – This is the raucous take of the night. When the band slows it down, they don’t adjust the volume one bit.
When to listen: Friday night when you don’t have nothing to do and you’re feeling low
B/W: Ellington’s The Nutcracker Suite
Duke Ellington, “Kinda Dukish and Rockin’ in Rhythm”
Emanation – Sam Rivers
With Emanation, the late Sam Rivers joins the group of now dead musicians with newly released superlative music that went previously unissued in their careers. This live date from ‘71 features the musician on an array of flutes and saxophones while backed by bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Norman Connors. Rivers was also featured in Blue Note Records Tone Poet Series this year, with a vibrant remastering of his 1965 album, Contours. Jazz went through a number of changes in the six-year gap between that album and this recording. But even on his early work, Rivers was an aggressive musical investigator. On Emanation, Rivers bounces that investigative practice from instrument to instrument, even taking a turn on piano. There are two sets, each featuring one extended piece of music. The first set goes on for about a half an hour and the second lasts for just over 45 minutes. These improvisational movements or jazz concertos were, due to their lengthiness, left off Rivers albums of the era. Hearing them in full scale is a monument to where jazz has landed in the 2010s. This music does ask a lot from the listener, but the trio deliver robustly upon that ask.
Top Track: Both are lengthy movements but track one covers some incredible terrain for each player to stretch out across.
When to listen: This is the sound of a robust cigar. After a big meal.
B/W: The back porch.
Sam Rivers, “Emanation Part 1” (31 min)
At The Hickory House, Vol. 1 – Jutta Hipp
This recording was made by a German the piano player, a lanky English bassman and a mid-twenties American on the drums. Hipp’s two volume live set the Hickory House was re-released this year, and Vol. 1 is the set to nab. Hipp is in fine form right from the start, bringing to her piano a bluesy angular attack and while this recording offers nothing absolutely groundbreaking, the playing is elegant and strong and tuneful throughout. Thigpen and bassist Peter Ind hold equal shares in the trio, and Hipp is happy for that equanimity of sound. She never forges onward without her bandmates and that gives this trio its truest accolade — they three invest a bubbly trust in each other across the entire set. Jutta Hipp and Thigpen both are gone now, but amazingly, the 91-year-old Ind is alive and kicking, playing music and recording bands and painting. Somewhere before the 60s, Hipp was cast aside, largely viewed as a follower of Horace Silver, rather than the sprightly leader she is here on this date and that’s too bad. There were not a lot of women-led bands in the 50s and by all accounts Hipp was a trailblazer in professionalism and artifice and skill. She drifted out of music, handling a clothing company’s alterations department for 35 years, and Blue Note lost track of her for a generation. When label administrators rediscovered her, Jutta Hipp received her first royalty payment, a check for $40,000.
Top Track: “Mad About the Boy”
When to listen: Decompressing after work
B/W: Jutta Hipp’sAt The Hickory House Vol 2, of course!
Jutta Hipp, “Mad About the Boy”
Hometown: Detroit Sessions 1990-2014 – Tribe
Tribe is a Detroit collective big-band which has for a few decades applied larger orchestrated ministrations to grooves more regularly associated with smaller bands. Hometown Detroit Sessions contains a couple of different iterations of the band recorded over a 24 year period from 1990 to 2014. Tribe’s most notable player, trombonist, Phil Ranelin, is an Angeleno now, though he is most closely associated with Motown, having worked sessions with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Martha Reeves to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Ranelin is front and center on most of these numbers, but he’s not out front alone. Harold Mckinney plays arithmetical piano that tumbles and trickles and propels the musical cadence from the one beat to the three without error. Trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, a former Ray Charles sideman was also a member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra before he passed in 2015 at the age of 78. Reedsman Wendell Harrison played with Sun Ra’s Arkestra and Grant Green and Hank Crawford. That this music is largely unknown outside of Detroit, where Harrison recorded it, is a sin this Strut Records release will hopefully correct.
Top Track:“Wide and Blue”
One to Skip: “Ode to Black Mothers” is a great aggregation of tribal rhythms sprinkled with jazz punctuation, but the poem recitation relies too much on “poet” voice.
B/W: After Hours – Hank Crawford
Tribe, “Wide and Blue”
Where Future Unfolds – Damon Locks/Black Mountain Ensemble
Locks and the umpteen members of the Black Mountain Ensemble unravel a preternatural story filled with grief and hope, sanding down the edges with poetry, clarinets, electronics, and choirs. The whole thing combusts into a blazing revival of gospel mysticism. That this was done live is astounding. The piece was recorded last year at Chicago’s Garfield Park Botanical Conservatory. Lock and band create a narrative that winds through the Civil Rights movement and stops off in Afrofuturism, Pentecostalism, and the Black Consciousness Movement. Not to worry, that gumbo is far easier to swallow than those influences suggest. This is the kind of performance that should be staged at the Hollywood Bowl and Madison Square Garden and Red Rocks, sponsored by banks that routinely strip the identity from the communities who support them. Required experiential momentum for the heart having brain users of the world. Where Future Unfolds travels from a time and place in the recent past to the timeless region of deepest space only to Earth before you can rearrange the isometric cortex of your fundamental essence.
Top Track: “The Future?” Weird, unyielding, and hallucinatory.
B/W: The Call: The Call – Henry Grimes’s first solo record from 1965.
When to listen: Long drives into the hills trying to sort out your life
One to skip: The musical impact of “Power” is already woven into the other songs of this set and with a bit less ostentation.
Damon Locks – Black Mountain Ensemble, “The Future?”
Henry Cherry is Jazz Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Mr. Cherry is also a photographer, writer and documentary filmmaker who lives in Hollywood. His work has appeared in Huck, PBS, OC Weekly, Los Angeles Review of Books, Artillery, and LA Weekly. A documentary film on master jazz musician Henry Grimes is in the works. For contact information go to his website: henrycherry.com