But Is It Jazz?… (Five recent unclassifiable musical gems)

As you may have noticed from my writings here, with regard to the arts I tend to be pretty constant, even loyal, in terms of my interest in the work of certain people; if they produce one or two pieces I find unusually satisfying, I generally try to keep up with what they do next. This is not to do with my being a critic; critics should look and analyse far and wide, sometimes unfavourably, of course, which is not what I’m doing here. Here I simply proffer recommendations from an amateur (bearing in mind the Latin root of that word). Many of us do this, I think: if we like the work of a writer, musician, filmmaker, painter or whatever, we tend to check them out when they produce new stuff in the hope of finding more to enjoy. So please forgive me if I sometimes go on about the same artists; when I find something I like, I see no harm in passing on my enthusiasm to others, who may quite justifiably choose to ignore it. (Also, rest assured there are no conflicts of interest; I’m certainly not paid to write these blogs!)

Enough disclaimers! Towards the end of 2020 and at the start of 2021, there were a few ‘jazz’ albums that especially impressed me. Oh, sorry: one more disclaimer: I hesitate a little to call them ‘jazz’, given the many differences of opinion as to what the term means. Let’s just say that all the releases below offer superb, richly imaginative music which demonstrates the limitations of that word. What matters, in the end, is whether the music is good and fulfils your needs and moods – do you wanna dance, sing along or just listen closely? Most of these are most likely primarily to fulfil the last requirement (that said, it depends on the listener); I did consider including SEED Ensemble’s Driftglass, headed by saxophonist and composer Cassie Kinoshi, which would definitely have provided a different slant, but while I myself discovered it only a few months ago, it’s old enough to have been nominated for the 2019 Mercury Prize. Not recent enough for this blog, then, but recommended if you haven’t encountered it. 

Anyway, here are five terrific – all very different – recent ‘jazz’ albums you might consider checking out…

Junk Magic: Compass Confusion (Pyroclastic)

junkA quintet session composed and led by American keyboards artist extraordinaire Craig Taborn, together with Chris Speed (tenor sax, clarinet), Mat Maneri (viola), Erik Fratzke (electric bass) and David King (acoustic and electric drums). Pretty impossible to categorise, really, the music is funky, endlessly experimental, virtuosic, evocative and inventive, drawing upon and reshaping all sorts of traditions and genres. (Taborn’s 2004 album ‘Junk Magic’, with a slightly different line-up, was fairly influential in its breaking down of musical barriers, and this certainly pushes things further.) If it’s sometimes hard to work out which instruments you’re listening to, no matter; it just works. You can find the opening track here.

Trio Tapestry: Garden of Expression (ECM)

trioA follow-up to the recent ‘Trio Tapestry’, in which tenor saxophonist, composer and leader (if such a dominant word, as above, can be used with regard to such openly shared improvisations as the ones included here) Joe Lovano is partnered with long-acclaimed pianist Marilyn Crispell and percussionist Carmen Castaldi. Their first album together was notable mainly for its rather meditative abstractions; this, if anything even lovelier than its predecessor, is probably a bit more accessible, a little more melodic and more closely related to what most people would understand as ‘jazz’. That said, it’s hard to tell where the writing ends and the improvisation begins, and it’s entrancing. Here’s the title track.

Jakob Bro, Arve Henriksen, Jorge Rossy: Uma Elmo (ECM)

2702 XAnother mesmerising trio outing, perhaps even more gorgeously lyrical, contemplative and richly coloured than the aforementioned Lovano-led album; the melodies – simple but haunting – are by Danish guitarist Jakob Bro, though here too his relationship with celebrated Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen (pictured at top) and Spanish drummer Jorge Rossy is one of equals. It’s music of considerable subtlety and delicacy which at the same time feels impressively spacious and possessed of real if judiciously restrained power. Rather amazingly, the recording session was the first time the three musicians had played together; so fruitful are their interactions that it never once feels that way. Here’s their tribute to the late Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko.

Arve Henriksen, Terje Isungset: The Art of Travel (All Ice)

artHenriksen again, but in a very different vein, proving once more that he is one of the most remarkable and rewarding trumpeters around, versatile, expressive and able to conjure unfamiliar but magical sounds from his instrument. Here, besides his horn, he’s on keyboards, electronics, bass clarinet and voice, while compatriot percussionist Isungset plays drums, mouth harp, ‘nature instruments’ – probably bits of wood and stone, I imagine – and ice. Yes, ice. The album was recorded during lockdown, with the two musicians in different countries exchanging ideas and sounds via the net. Undoubtedly innovative, adventurous and largely improvisational, it’s also highly evocative, vividly pictorial in places, and far from inaccessible. Indeed, it’s so varied it might even get you dancing or singing along to certain tracks (eg ‘Miles to go…’). Sample the opening number here.

Dino Saluzzi: Albores (ECM)

dinoFinally, in his first solo album in more than three decades, we have the great Argentinian maestro of the bandoneon, now in his mid-80s but still as marvellously imaginative and rewarding as both player and composer as he was when he first won international acclaim in the early 1980s. The mood is reflective, sometimes touched with a nostalgic melancholy – the first track is a tribute to the late Giya Kancheli (on whose 75th birthday album Saluzzi performed), the second is entitled Ausencias (ie absences) – and the music is always firmly rooted in the musical traditions of his country, however free from generic trappings the individual pieces are. A profoundly personal reverie that transcends any label one might apply to it, it’s at once intimate in its inspirations and, I’d imagine, affectingly wide-reaching in terms of its emotional resonance. Here’s a lovely example.

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