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The best jazz recordings of 2020 to date: From Wynton Marsalis to Adam Palma

Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

With live musical performances still in extremely short supply, recordings help us make it through the night.

Following are some of the best jazz releases of the year so far:

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis: "The Music of Wayne Shorter" (Blue Engine Records). In one of the most compelling recordings yet from JALC's Blue Engine Records label, the orchestra pays homage to Wayne Shorter -- with the revered composer-saxophonist as soloist in his compositions. Recorded in concert in May 2015 at JALC's Rose Hall, the two-CD set somehow combines something close to the sumptuousness of a studio recording with the spontaneity (and enthusiastic audience response) of a live recording. There's so much to recommend this release, starting with Shorter's imposing solos on tenor and soprano saxophones. To hear his depth of expression playing tenor on "Yes or No," his questing lines on soprano in "Diana" and his musical profundities in "Contemplation" is to appreciate anew his stature as soloist. In a well-established JALC tradition, each Shorter composition has been arranged by an orchestra member, with virtuoso writing from Victor Goines in the aforementioned "Yes or No," cascading brass passagework by Vincent Gardner in "Endangered Species," and a sense of solemnity in swing in Marcus Printup's arrangement of "Armageddon." The JALC orchestra reaffirms its stature as a state-of-the-art large ensemble, producing a remarkable range of orchestral color and considerable solo firepower. Each track is a feast.

Ryan Cohan: "Originations" (Origin Records). Savvy listeners already know that Chicago pianist-composer Cohan has a well-honed gift for writing long-form jazz compositions. It reaches a high point in "Originations," a suite Cohan performed to vivid effect at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in 2018. The new recording deepens earlier favorable impressions of the piece, which amounts to a series of tone poems in which Cohan explores his Middle Eastern heritage – Jewish and Arabic. Those two cultures share a great deal of history and musical lineage, Cohan building on that foundation via jazz technique. If the meditative, mystical qualities of "The Hours Before Dawn" draw you into the work, the translucent instrumentation of "Imaginary Lines" and other compositions keep you there. The collaboration between Cohan's jazz ensemble and the Kaia String Quartet point to a composer who transcends "jazz plus strings" cliches.

Rudresh Mahanthappa: "Hero Trio" (Whirlwind Recordings). By naming his album "Hero Trio," alto saxophonist Mahanthappa isn't trying to glorify himself and colleagues Francois Moutin on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. Instead, in this recording Mahanthappa salutes the musical heroes who have shaped his art: Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, among others. "Hero Trio" offers a bracing reexamination of music by these innovators, as filtered through a bebop and post-bop lens. Mahanthappa's ferocity of expression and technical fluidity in Parker's "Red Cross" and other works underscores just how deeply Bird has influenced him. And though Mahanthappa expands the repertoire's stylistic range with Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed" (arranged by Danilo Perez) and June Carter Cash's and Merle Kilgore's "Ring of Fire," Mahanthappa's roots as stylist clearly are planted deep in the mid-20th century. Yet there's no mistaking the vitality and freshness of these accounts, with oft-volcanic playing from Moutin and Royston.

Don Stiernberg Quartet: "Straight Ahead" (Mando Traveler). As its title suggests, the repertoire and approach here are straight down the middle of mainstream jazz. The twist is that Stiernberg happens to play an instrument not often encountered in this music: the mandolin. That he plays it at such a high technical and artistic level makes "Straight Ahead" compelling from start to finish. "I Want to Be Happy," which opens the recording, sets the optimistic tone for what's yet to come, Stiernberg and friends joyously working their way through "Witchcraft," "I'm Old Fashioned," "Pick Yourself Up," "It's You or No One" and other classics. Beyond the surface glitter of these performances, Stiernberg also digs more deeply into the poignant lyricism of Django Reinhardt's "Anouman" and the Latin currents of "Vibracoes." Guitarist Andy Brown, bassist Jim Cox and drummer Phil Gratteau are Stiernberg's like-minded collaborators, enriching a swing aesthetic while keeping the spotlight aptly trained on the singular mandolinist.

Matthew Shipp: "The Piano Equation" (Tao Forms). Pianist Shipp long ago established himself as a deep-thinking innovator with a singular touch. Nowhere has he sounded more appealing than on "The Piano Equation," a solo recording in which one can savor his tonal beauty, impeccable voicing and ever-changing keyboard textures. Each composition/improvisation conveys an inner logic of its own, Shipp meticulously working out themes in the title track and elsewhere. Jazz traditionalists may find this music too experimental, and avant-gardists may regard it as too genteel (at least in certain sections). In the end, though, Shipp transcends both camps with a thoroughly personal musical language, an obviously profound love of the piano and a virtuosity of thematic development as well as keyboard technique. A major statement from a pianist who helps us reconsider what the instrument can say.

Madre Vaca: "Winterreise" (MVR). Franz Schubert's "Winterreise" stands as a landmark of 19th century song cycles, performed by brave classical vocalists willing to probe its themes of sorrow and torment. The collective Madre Vaca here has conjured a jazz response or reinterpretation of several "Winterreise" movements, to enlightening effect. For without lyrics, arranger Benjamin Shorstein has created the best kind of jazz-meets-the-classics merger, the two worlds intermingling rather than crashing up against each other. In some spots, the musicians aptly bring elements of blues expression to the dark song cycle; in others, they ease into swing rhythm almost imperceptibly. In the end, they show not only the durability of Schubert's score but the value of approaching it via a jazz-blues sensibility.

 

Rez Abbasi: "Django-shift" (Whirlwind Recordings). Guitarist Abbasi's homage to Django Reinhardt is no nostalgia bath. Quite the contrary, Abbasi uses Reinhardt's ingeniously constructed compositions as a touching-off point for unusual sonic explorations with drummer Michael Sarin, and Neil Alexander playing organ, electronics and synthesizers. The textural effects are often startling, casting Reinhardt tunes in unlikely, sometimes otherworldly contexts.

Kenny Barron/Dave Holland Trio Featuring Johnathan Blake: "Without Deception" (Dare2 Records). Piano trio recordings don't get much more inviting than this, thanks largely to Barron's Chopinesque approach to the piano. His gentle tone and touch are warmly reflected by bassist Holland and drummer Blake, the musicians crafting translucent renditions of compositions by Barron, Holland and others.

Adam Palma: "Adam Palma Meets Chopin" (MTJ). Guitarist Palma released this in Europe last fall, but this recording just reached me and is too deliciously idiosyncratic to pass up. Many musicians have created jazz versions of Chopin's music, but Palma has been particularly creative in doing so. His mostly solo reconceptions of Chopin preludes, waltzes and other miniatures reflect a keen understanding of how these works were put together and how to breathe elements of jazz rhythm and melodic freedom into them. Ultimately, Palma shows unmistakable respect for these works, even as he cleverly reworks them.

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