Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

It’s that time of year again. Year-end polls of notable recordings are appearing on a daily, if not hourly basis. After almost 40 years, compiling a list has become a seasonal chore like stacking firewood. There’s a brief aesthetic engagement to the neat fitting of pieces; but the knowledge that the list will be lost in the crowd is enough motivation to get it over with. Whether they are painstakingly constructed or thrown together at the last moment, few readers will soon recall what recordings topped the polls, regardless of their signal quality, their monumental scale, or their sheer brilliance.

A periodic review of the music that has brought you pleasure, comfort or insight has real value. It makes sense that it occurs at this time of year, since judgment is embedded in the culture of the season: Who’s been naughty and who’s been nice? Perhaps it would be a livelier read if critics handed out switches and coals in their annual polls – or three-star ratings, now a standard of damning faint praise – or if space was allotted for explanations of an album’s inclusion. However, year-end polls tend to do little more than confirm a pack mentality that critics vehemently deny exists – at least in their own cases.

But, the great utility of year-end summations is that they allow writers an easy out at a time of year stuffed with sundry obligations. There’s no pressure to stitch together potentially provocative theses paragraph by paragraph, to find the quote at memory’s edge, or to come up with a fresh turn of phrase for an idea that has been rehashed for years, if not decades. Just stack them up; and say why each recording is noteworthy.

One of the more annoying regularities of year-end roundups is that recordings released in the second half of the year are over-represented, the gems of winter and early spring buried in the leaves. It’s a reflexive bias favoring the new. This almost always emerges if a list is quickly jotted down, which is arguably the most intellectually honest way to proceed. Otherwise, a year-end list potentially suggests that political considerations trumped emotional resonance and aesthetic identification as primary criteria for an album’s inclusion, or exclusion.

To sidestep the issue of privileging one album over another with numerical ranking, employing alphabetical order by artist names is an effective, if somewhat effete gambit, one applied to the following albums:

JD Allen: Radio Flyer (Savant):
With Radio Flyer, JD Allen ended his string of stellar trio albums by adding Liberty Ellman to the mix. It’s a bold choice, given the guitarist’s penchant for off-center phrasing and form-stretching use of color and texture. To date, the tenor saxophonist’s success is as attributable to his succinct compositions and smart track sequences as much as his distinctive sound and solos. It’s a balance that any fourth voice could disrupt; but, Ellman’s contributions expand Allen’s music without altering its core values of direct communication and a tradition-informed individuality. Radio Flyer is a pivotal album by one of the most pertinent tenor saxophonists in jazz.

Barry Altschul & The 3Dom Factor: Live in Kraków (NotTwo):
Live in Kraków is a classic old-school club date, a fine precis of Barry Altschul’s long, storied career, its expanded versions of previously recorded compositions crackling with new energy. On tunes like his “The 3dom Factor,” the drummer’s trio with bassist Joe Fonda and saxophonist Jon Irabagon exemplify jazz brinksmanship, while Monk’s “Ask Me Now” and Altschul’s “Irina” receive tender, yet probative readings. Throughout, Alschul is the consummate band drummer, his smallest details goosing the band ahead, while his solos confirm a synthesis between form and fire. If polls had a best live concert category, Live in Kraków would garner a lot of votes.

Billy Bang: Distinction without a Difference (Corbett vs. Dempsey):
Distinction without a Difference is a timely reminder of violinist Billy Bang’s initial impact in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. He was out and earthy at the same time, grounding exploratory compositional contours with a fiddler’s grit while bringing an off-center slant to more conventional blowing vehicles. This 1980 NYC gallery solo concert includes staples of his repertoire that emphasized his soaring swing and lesser-known pieces that buttressed his avant-garde cred. The original album ended with a deconstruction of “Skip to My Lou,” a thrilling finale now denied by the addendum of five previously unissued tracks; but Bang’s performance of William Parker’s plaintive “Prana” alone is ample compensation.

Paul Dunmall Brass Project: Maha Samadhi (Slam):
Paul Dunmall has a mind-bogglingly extensive discography, his 50-CD FMR collection being the mega box set in point; but, projects featuring mid-size and large ensembles like Maha Samadhi continue to be frustratingly few and far between. Fronting seven brass players and what is now the saxophonist’s first-call tandem of bassist Olie Brice and drummer Tony Bianco, Dunmall presents a five-part work with scored elements spanning joyous free bop and solemn dirge. While Dunmall’s powerful tenor provides as much continuity as his pen, solos by trumpeter Percy Pursglove and others also ignite the music throughout the proceedings. Dunheads rejoice!

Morton Feldman: Triadic Memories & Piano (hat[now]ART):
Morton Feldman’s late music for solo piano can slow and even stop time in a manner comparable to hours of watching gently falling snow, the accumulation of miniscule details creating a graceful, if glacially paced transformation. John Snijders’ finely calibrated touch and his adherence to Feldman’s instruction to hold the sustain pedal halfway down throughout this hour-plus reading of “Triadic Memories” results in harmonics that never fully decay, functioning much like a continuo. Snijders also fully realizes how Feldman explored permutation, not repetition, in his reading of “Piano.” The antithesis of wallpaper music, Triadic Memories & Piano is appointment listening.

Steve Lacy: free for a minute (Emanem):
This important 2-disc anthology reissues Steve Lacy’s mid-‘60s LPs for Italian labels – Disposability (with Kent Carter and Aldo Romano) and Sortie (which adds Enrico Rava) – eliminating the notorious ride cymbal distortion of the former and restoring the latter’s album-closing seven-second track, excised from earlier reissues. Additionally, there are two unearthed gems. A 1972 session with his Paris quintet (Carter, Irene Aebi, Steve Potts and Noel McGhie) complements their American album, The Gap, a timely reminder of the gritty textures and bustling drive generated by tandem saxophones and strings, as well as the astringency of Lacy’s early compositional voice. Yet, the ‘72 session adds illuminating details to a period already well-outlined on LP, whereas the 13 short tracks recorded in ‘67 for the soundtrack for the never-released film Free Fall is part of a heretofore undocumented chapter in Lacy’s career. In the ‘90s, Lacy remarked off-handedly that this short-lived quintet with Carter, Rava, Karl Berger and Paul Motian was the best band he ever assembled, the proverbial big one that got away; and while this incidental music is thoroughly engaging, it presumably only suggests the band’s capacity.

Michael Parsons: Patterns of Connection; Instrumental Music 1962-2017 (Huddersfield Contemporary Records):
Since Cornelius Cardew gets most of the ink, Michael Parsons is often obscured as one of the founders of Scratch Orchestra, the definitive radical music ensemble of the late 1960s and early ‘70s.  After his deep dive into what he calls the collective’s “indiscriminate mix of sound materials and activities in a post-Cagean flux of indeterminacy,” Parsons’ music became slightly more conventional in terms of notation and pitch relationships, and, on occasion, conveyed the pleasures of rhythm, line and even folkloric materials with an unsparing critical ear. Parsons’ evolution is well represented on Patterns of Connection by Apartment House, an ensemble whose ranks includes such preeminent interpreters of contemporary composition as pianist Philip Thomas and cellist Anton Lukoszevieze. This 2-disc collection is a superb brief for Parsons ongoing vitality.

Roots Magic; Last Kind Words (Clean Feed):
Roots Music again hits the sweet spot between early blues and composers like Julius Hemphill, Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill on their second album. The quartet of reedmen Alberto Popolla and Errico De Fabritis, bassist Gianfranco Tedeschi and drummer Fabrizio Spera is tight when indicated, loose at the right moments, and exudes conviviality in both modes. It may be glib to characterize Last Kind Words as a great avant-party album, but ...

Adam Rudolph’s Moving Pictures: Glare of the Tiger (Meta):
Brimming with deep grooves, eye-popping colors and textures, and simmering solos, Glare of the Tiger gives fusion a very good name. It’s impossible to emphasize a single musician when the music is driven by the percussion troika of Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake, and its intensities are spiked by cornetist Graham Haynes, guitarist Kenny Wessel and others. This is 21st Century electric ensemble music at its best.

Wadada Leo Smith: Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk (Tum):
Connections between Wadada Leo Smith and Thelonious Monk as composers are not immediately obvious; but they do share the important trait of unpredictability, a quality Smith resuscitates on his versions of compositions that have been at the core jazz repertory for so long that generations have known them only as standards. Smith explores the dynamics between improvisation and notation of all stripes that permeates his own work, creating startlingly new aspects to chestnuts like “’Round Midnight” and “Ruby My Dear.” He then further extends the horizon for his tribute by mixing his takes on Monk tunes with four new compositions that consider the pianist’s life and work from various angles. Tributes are usually formulaic; Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk is the polar opposite.

Still, even the most extensive elaboration of why a recording is counted among the year’s most notable doesn’t tell much about the person making the pronouncements, as it does not throw light on what’s playing in the car at midnight on the interstate, what is spinning while grillin’ and chillin’, and what wafts in the darkness when waiting for sleep or dawn. Regardless of the paradigm-shifting nature of some best-of titles, only placing them within the context of daily listening – of jump-starting the day with Mahalia Jackson, kicking back with some choice Stax, and slipping into slumber with Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin – begins to convey their real meaning.

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