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NPR Music 2020 Jazz Critics Poll

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    Posted: 15 Jan 2021 at 3:39am
1) Susan Alcorn Quintet, Pedernal (Relative Pitch).

It took a lot for me to knock Schneider off the top of my list, but this did it. If you didn't already know that Alcorn plays pedal steel from from her work with Mary Halvorson you might never guess what instrument you were hearing. Essentially an oddly configured string quartet-plus — Alcorn and Halvorson, guitar; Mark Feldman, violin; Michael Formanek, bass; and Ryan Sawyer, drums — this is as far away from Nashville as you can go without leaving Earth's orbit. The jauntiest cut is one that sounds like a tune Ornette Coleman might have written for bagpipe – only without the bagpipe.

2) Maria Schneider Orchestra, Data Lords (ArtistShare).
The anger beneath the surface on Disc 1 ("The Digital World"), new to Schneider's palette, blends more harmoniously with her characteristic midwestern-longing than anyone who can't hear the difference between beautiful and merely pretty might suppose. The soloists — including, Donny McCaslin, Ben Monder, Rich Perry, Steve Wilson Marshall Gilkes and the late Frank Kimbrough — all of whom have been with her seemingly forever, give her their hearts even when simply (or not so simply) reading parts. Drummer Johnathan Blake deserves special mention for the urgency and variegated shadings he supplies beneath it all. If Concert in the Garden (2004), Sky Blue (2007) and The Thompson Fields (2015) haven't already, this breathtaker establishes Schneider as our greatest living jazz composer and orchestrator, if also the least prolific.

3) Matthew Shipp Trio, The Unidentifiable (ESP-Disk).
Shipp, an advocate of what he identified as "the black mystery school piano" in a recent online article, proves himself no less an exemplar of it than Monk, Cecil Taylor or Mal Waldron. He turned 60 in 2020, and what with imports, solo albums and stand-offs with Ivo Perelman and other saxophonists, keeping up with him has been a challenge. The one you can least afford to miss is this dark, churning, deep-in-the-keys — and, yes, mysterious — trio effort with his regular rhythm team (Michael Bisio, bass and Newman Taylor Baker, drums) on the granddaddy of all independent avant-garde labels.

4) The Warriors of the Wonderful Sound, Soundpath (Composed by Muhal Richard Abrams). (Clean Feed/Ars Nova Workshop).
The 17-piece, Philadelphia-based Warriors celebrate what was most likely the irreplaceable Abrams's last work with a parade of explosive soloists, including head Warrior Bobby Zankel (who commissioned it) and such visiting New York horns as Marty Ehrlich (who conducts), Steve Swell, Graham Haynes and Hafez Modirzadeh. But this is music that percolates from the bottom, so reserve praise for bassist Formanek (ubiquitous these days, and you can hear why) drummer Chad Taylor and Tom Lawton, an unheralded Philly pianist who's on fire in the challenging role of Abrams's surrogate.

5) Joshua Redman-Brad Mehldau-Christian McBride-Brian Blade, Round Again (Nonesuch).
A reunion of the most stellar young band of the early 1990s, all of them not just older now but more judicious and more in command of their ebullient virtuosity.

6) Thumbscrew, The Anthony Braxton Project (Cuneiform).
Braxton's head-scratching, diagramatically titled compositions serve as a springboard for bang-up trilinear improvisation by Formanek, Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara — a streamlined trio quickly becoming today's premiere small jazz group. Also recommended: Tropos, Axioms //75ab (Biopholio), which features more Braxton by a group of all up-and-comers who do him proud.

7) Rudresh Mahanthappa, Hero Trio (Whirlwind).
The altoist reinterprets his heroes, ranging from Ornette Coleman to Johnny Cash. I single out Ornette and Cash because Mahanthappa's take on the former's "Sadness" is perfection and his inspired overhaul of the latter's "Ring of Fire" contagious, genre-leaping fun.

8) James Brandon Lewis Quartet, Molecular (Intakt).
Together with mystery-school pianist Aruán Ortiz, the lunging tenor saxophonist makes free jazz sound free again.

9) Liberty Ellman, Last Desert (Pi).
The guitarist's wide-open, perpetual-motion writing for a sextet featuring both bass and tuba shows how much he's absorbed from his stay with Henry Threadgill. The front horns are alto saxophonist Steve Lehman and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, both terrific here.

10) Lucian Ban-John Surman-Mat Maneri, Transylvanian Folk Songs (Sunnyside).
Specifically, the folk songs collected by Béla Bartók in the Carpathians in the early 20th century. Bartok couldn't stop himself from adding layers of counterpoint, and Ban, a Transylvanian living in New York who's developed a fine rapport with violist Maneri, can't stop himself from adding still more. Plus, this is your opportunity to catch up with Surman, a Brit who was only the most outstanding baritone saxophonist to emerge between Pepper Adams in the 1950s and Hamiet Bluiett 20 years later, though few stateside have acknowledged as much.

Honorable Mention: JD Allen, Toys/Die Dreaming (Savant); Alan Braufman, The Fire Still Burns (Valley of Search); Bill Frisell, Valentine (Blue Note); Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra With Wynton Marsalis, Black Brown & Beige (Blue Engine); Kirk Knuffke, Brightness: Live in Amsterdam (The Royal Potato Family) and Tight Like This (Steeplechase); Eric Revis, Slipknots Through a Looking Glass (Pyroclastic); John Scofield, Swallow Tales (ECM); Brandon Seabrook With Cooper-Moore & Gerald Cleaver, Exultations (Astral Spirits); Shabaka and the Ancestors, We Are Sent Here by History (Impulse); South Florida Jazz Orchestra, Cheap Thrills: The Music of Rick Margitza (Summit); The Westerlies, Wherein Lies the Good (Westerlies); Matt Wilson Quartet, Hug! (Palmetto).

The remainder of my ballot:

Rara Avis

Sonny Rollins, Rollins in Holland (1967, Resonance);

Paul Desmond, The Complete 1975 Toronto Recordings (Mosaic);

Borah Bergman-Wilber Morris-Sunny Murray, Monks (1996, SomeRealMusic).


Loudon Wainwright III with Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks, I'd Rather Lead a Band (Search Party).


Immanuel Wilkins, Omega (Blue Note).


Aruán Ortiz with Andrew Cyrille and Mauricio Herrera, Inside Rhythmic Falls (Intakt). 

from www.npr.org

Edited by snobb - 15 Jan 2021 at 3:43am
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