By Don Beryman
We Sick – deVon Russell Gray, Nathan Hanson, Davu Seru
What I consider the most significant and poignant release of the year is We Sick. It was recorded in 2020, the year that we all witnessed (via video from a bystander) the callous, almost casual murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The ensuing protests spread across the nation and world but Minneapolis was ground zero and reeled under the stress of grief, anger, fear, and frustration. In the aftermath pianist deVon Russell Gray, saxophonist Nathan Hanson, and drummer Davu Seru came together to record at the 150 year old Christ Lutheran Church across the street from the heavily armed National Guard who surrounded the Minnesota State Capitol. The church was empty because it was the time of COVID shutdowns. What they played in that sacred space were spontaneous compositions in which they poured out their souls to express grief, pain, and as they say in the notes, “The music made that day reflects the feelings of isolation from community, hunger for justice, and the weariness of the wait. We offer it to you as a humble confession and renewed covenant.” Listening to the record you can feel where it was created, both the physical sanctuary space and the mental space. The music is intense, plaintive, and beautiful. In the last track “Paths Open and Tolling” transcending despair, we can hear hope.
Fire Illuminations – Wadada Leo Smith and Orange Wave Electric
For his 80th birthday last year Wadada Leo Smith released String Quartets No. 1-12 on seven CD’s, and The Emerald Duets, the five-CD set of Smith’s collaborations with drummers. Now he presents us with a Bitches Brew for the 21st century. Fire Illuminations allows the ever-inventive trumpeter to explore new dimensions of sound with his new group Orange Wave Electric featuring Nels Cline, Brandon Ross, Lamar Smith, Bill Laswell, Melvin Gibbs, Hardedge, Pheeroan akLaff and Mauro Refosco. Smith’s trumpet floats above the driving pulse of the ensemble and then the guitar work of Nels Cline weaves a tapestry of sound that is mesmerizing and magical. Wadada Leo Smith says, “This album is a ceremonial space where one’s hearts and consciousness can embrace for a brief period of unconditioned love where the artist and their music with the active observer becomes united.”
Live at the Village Vanguard – Mark Turner
Twenty-eight years after his debut recording as a leader in 1995, tenor master Mark Turner released his first live album as a leader, recorded at the Village Vanguard with trumpeter Jason Palmer, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Jonathan Pinson. This is the same pianoless quartet that appeared on Turner’s 2022 release Return from The Stars. All of Turner’s compositions from that ECM release were played at the Vanguard but as one might expect they are explored in more depth. The tune “Bridgetown” goes from eight minutes in the studio recording to eighteen minutes in the live recording. Feeding off the energy from the appreciative crowd the music becomes more intense and more personal. The interplay between the band is a complex tapestry of intertwined improvisation. The recording is great too, rivaling studio recordings in sound quality.
El Arte Del Bolero Vol. 2 – Miguel Zenón, Luis Perdomo
Following up on their Grammy nominated pandemic project El Arte Del Bolero,alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón and pianist Luis Perdomo reunited on Volume 2, which is more expansive. As Miguel says in the notes: “The Latin-American Songbook is so vast and varied that it naturally lends itself to limitless explorations. We purposely looked beyond the Caribbean (exploring composers from México, Venezuela and Panamá, for example) because we wanted to emphasize the point that these songs deserved to be explored and recognized for what they are, beyond labels, categories and regionalisms. Just beautiful music that is a joy to perform and listen to.” I can agree that it is a joy to listen to. From the mellow and melodic “En La Soledad” by Tito Rodríguez to the vibrant and intricate “Silencio” by Puerto Rican legend Rafael Hernández there is much beauty here. I like it even more than the first album.
Vista Cruiser – 58 Belvedere
I have been a fan of guitarist Dean Granros for decades. Twenty years ago I wrote on JazzPolice “guitarist Dean Granros is a musical Jekyll and Hyde, mild mannered when he takes the stage and settles into the groove but eventually he will play like a madman taking the music where no sane person would and then makes it beautiful when he gets there. With solid chops and a jazz sensibility, this player demonstrates mastery of his craft and the music. Granros blends the vocabulary of bebop, acid rock, and delta blues into a delightful and potent cocktail that may leave you shaken or stirred.” His artistry has expanded even more since then, adding more ingredients to that musical cocktail including electronics with his group 58 Belvedere. With Dave Power on drums and Pat Keen on bass, and guests Nelson Devereaux on sax and Dex Wolfe with vinyl scratching, they released another mind-bending recording that sometimes sounds like a David Lynch science-fiction sound track. It then moves to an acid infused delta blues style in “Big Rig”. The sound is often dense, but space emerges like a clearing in the forest allowing clarity and singularity of sound, especially evident in the closing track: “Tailgater”. Check it out:
Weights and Measures – Nathan Hanson & Chris Bates
Another COVID isolation project, Weights and Measures was recorded at Christ Lutheran Church in Saint Paul, MN, in March 2021. This is a duo project, but when listening it seems the space itself is a third musical instrument with the expansive echos fading into silence. Saxophonist Nathan Hanson and bassist Chris Bates have some history of working together, but this is their first recording as a duo. It is all improvised but I would not call it experimental. They bring their mastery of their instruments and depth of knowledge of their craft to bring out the best in each other.
Timeless – Adam Rudolph’s Hu Vibrational
Hu Vibrational, led by percussionist Adam Rudolph, produces a cascade of world-inspired beats mixed with jazz, hip-hop and electronica. In Timeless Rudolph plays most of the instruments but is joined on several tracks by some of his longtime associates: guitarist Eivind Aarset, drummer Hamid Drake, percussionist Brahim Fribgane, Neel Murgai on sitar, and Sameer Gupta on tabla. TImeless combines world music with electronica and improvised jazz to create music that is spacy and dreamlike.
Standards – Noah Haidu
Standards celebrates the 40th anniversary of the release that launched Keith Jarrett’s great Standards Trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJonette and a follow-up to Noah Haidu’s 2020 release Slowly: Song for Keith Jarrett. On Standards pianist Noah Haidu is joined by bassists Buster Williams and Peter Washington, drummer Lewis Nash, and guest saxophonist Steve Wilson The album features songs that Jarrett’s Standards Trio had recorded plus two Noah Haidu originals: “Last Dance I” and “Last Dance II” which he named after a Jarrett recording. It may not be groundbreaking but this band of top level jazz musicians is so solid and the music sublime. This album is a joy to listen to from start to finish.
2023 Found Treasures:
Producer Zev Feldman a.k.a. “The Jazz Detective” has had a very busy year bringing previously unreleased records into quality production, including the following.
Emerald City Nights: Live At The Penthouse (1966-1968) – Ahmad Jamal
Emerald City Nights: Live At The Penthouse 1966-1968 is the third set of previously unreleased recordings of the iconic pianist Ahmad Jamal, captured live at the Penthouse jazz club in Seattle with bassist Jamil Nasser and drummer Frank Gant. 2 LP set.
Maximum Swing: The Unissued 1965 Half Note Recordings – Wes Montgomery/Wynton Kelly Trio
Previously unreleased recordings from jazz guitar giant Wes Montgomery and the Wynton Kelly Trio at the Half Note jazz club in New York with drummer Jimmy Cobb and bassists Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Herman Wright and Larry Ridley. Limited Edition 3 LP set.
Treasures: Solo, Trio & Orchestra In Denmark 1965-1969 – Bill Evans
These radio studio recordings on Bill Evans Treasures: Solo, Trio & Orchestra In Denmark 1965-1969 have been unreleased and unheard since their debut on Danish radio in the 60’s. This three LP set is a treasure indeed featuring Bill Evans on piano solo and in trios with Niels-Henning Pedersen, Eddie Gomez on acoustic bass; Alan Dawson, Alex Riel, Marty Morell on drums and also with the Royal Danish Symphony Orchestra & The Danish Radio Big Band with Palle Mikkelborg – arranger, conductor, and trumpet.
Catch The Groove: Live At The Penthouse (1963-1967) -Cal Tjader
Live performances on this previously unreleased 3-LP set were recorded for radio broadcast. Vibraphone legend Cal Tjader is heard with variations of his quintet, backed by pianists Clare Fischer, Lonnie Hewitt and Al Zulaica, bassists Fred Schreiber, Terry Hilliard, Monk Montgomery and Stan Gilbert, drummers Johnny Rae and Carl Burnett, and percussionists Bill Fitch,and Armando Peraza. Each of the six LP sides contains a recording from a different date.
Blue Room: The 1979 VARA Studio Sessions in Holland – Chet Baker
This double album includes performances from two recording dates at VARA Studio 2, Hilversum, the Netherlands.Chet Baker’s chops are great, his tone sweet and mellow, and the melodic lines exquisite. His vocal chops are also good as demonstrated on “Oh, You Crazy Moon” and his scatting on “Candy” is phenominal. The mood is relaxed and even on the upbeat numbers everyone is at ease and swinging. Baker hits every note with precision and his solos are constructed like spontaneous fugues. He makes it sound effortless
There are so many reissues these days – Blue Note, Verve, et al. have been putting out some great reissues from their classic catalog. I just wanted to list a couple others that brought me special delight this year.
Androids – Robert Rockwell III
Originally released in 1974, this fusion fest featured some of the Twin Cities best jazz musicians including Bob Rockwell on saxophones and bass clarinet, Bobby Lyle on piano and Fender Rhodes, Bill Berg on drums, Billy Peterson on bass, Mike Elliot on guitar, and Bill Buchen, Steve Kimmel, and Victor Lewis on percussion. Rockwell would move to Denmark a decade later where he has remained ever since. The opening track “All Of Us (Todos Nosotros)” has all the percussion elements working to create not only a complex foundation for Rockwell’s expansive tenor runs but give witness to the cohesion of the band. Similar to his recordings with Natural Life this gives a snapshot of Bob Rockwell’s and Bobby Lyles’ 70’s work.
Chet’s Choice – Chet Baker with Philip Catherine
Chet’s Choice was recorded and released in the Netherlands on the Criss Cross label in 1985. It is one of the best studio albums from Chet Baker’s final years. It presents Baker singing and playing the trumpet in an intimate drumless trio format with the phenomenal Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine and JeanLouis Rassinfosse on bass. This new double LP includes all seven tracks from the original album, plus three songs that appear here for the first time on vinyl, and five previously unreleased alternate takes.
Chet – Chet Baker
Another Chet Baker album reissued in 2023, Chet, which is sometimes subtitled The Lyrical Trumpet of Chet Baker, was originally issued on Riverside records in 1959. The new release issued by Craft Records features all analog remastering from the original 1959 tapes by Kevin Gray. This is the first US mono issue since the 1959 release on Riverside. Chet, which is my favorite Chet Baker album, features performances by Baker with alto flautist Herbie Mann, baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, pianist Bill Evans, guitarist Kenny Burrell, bassist Paul Chambers, and either Connie Kay or Philly Joe Jones playing drums.