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Arts & Life

Nightsounds Jazz: Favorite Albums of 2021

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Todd Gehman (flickr.com/pugetive)
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Our first full year of Nightsounds Jazz. A few of the many, many great jazz records out there. I lament that these artists are not household names. Terrific work. Keep exploring.

Jihye Lee Orchestra                                 “Daring Mind”                   

South Korea to New York transplant, Lee is a superb and subtly adventurous arranger/composer/pianist. This collection takes full advantage of her jazz 20-piece orchestra.

As several other reviewers have pointed out, ‘cinematic’ is an apt term for her compositional and arranging style- many vistas, colors and time signatures are explored – sometimes within a single song. Pinpoint exploratory woodwinds, gentle, meandering brass sections and an at-times detonating rhythm section. Compositions such as “Suji’ gently swell and are carried along by gentle waves – never crashing to shore.

This is not a ‘swing’ band. It is a frolicsome, probing and smart record – full of brief comet-tail blazing soloists and at the same time showcasing Lee’s deft, rich rascality; and is the next chapter in the BMI Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Prize winner’s oeuvre. More to come.

Veronica Swift                                                       “This Bitter Earth”

From the tiptoeing piano and voice of the title track to the brisk, skittering swing of “The Sports Page”, Swift’s vocalese and compositional explorations are ‘kaleidoscopic’, as noted by many reviewers.

She can pine or wail; act coy or barrel over you; and her sumptuous take on the many compositions from the Great American Songbook illustrate a knowledge and respect far beyond her years (only three records so far). The way she digs into “As Long as He Needs Me”- mining the conflicted codependency to a hilt.

Young, talented and seeking. Bright future ahead for Ms. Swift.

Frank Kimbrough                                     “Ancestors”

This posthumously released l.p., a 2017 recording, is a haunting and painful document of what we lost in the great pianist, jazz explorer and respected accompanist.

All the mystery, power, probing authority of Frank Kimbrough is on display in this mostly ballads outing. His teammates; Kirk Knuffke on cornet, and Masa Kamaguchi on bass are able and sympathetic. Stark, spare and suspenseful - the piano of the leader alternately skips, drifts and gently prods the melody.

This is not the best place to start to discover Kimbrough. His multiple CD dissection of Thelonious Monk (‘Monk’s Dreams”) or his anchoring the Maria Schneider Orchestra are showcases of his raw power or finespun keyboard prowess.

This is moody, late night reflective music. WBGO and contributing NPR jazz critic Nate Chinen’s obituary summed it up best: "a pianist of unerring taste and touch, a composer drawn to flowing ethereality, and an improviser steeped in the art of epiphany.”  A huge loss indeed.

Helen Sung                                                  “Quartet +”

Helen Sung is one of those ‘much-admired by fellow musicians’ artists. She has an accomplished back catalog but is now gaining a toehold in the greater jazz world. And credit due Sung’s working backing band – Reed master John Ellis; and the crack rhythm section of Dave Wong on bass and Kendrick Scott on drums.

The haunting, sing-songy beauty of “Elegy for the City” also benefits from the basic four and guests (Harlem String Quartet) to grow into a mini-orchestra as the music drives to its conclusion.

The addition of the Harlem Quartet sparkles as roiling or cloudlike stringed musical co-conspirators. “Melancholy Mood” is the Webster’s definition of desperation – the four strings sadness is palpable.

And “Kaleidoscope” is just that – whirlwind in its rise and fall of emotions and tempo. Many will remember it as the entry theme of Marian McPartland’s ‘Piano Jazz’. Hitting her stride methinks.

Dave Stryker                                              “Bakers Circle”

It is no secret I love Dave Stryker. As much for his solid guitar playing, but for his approach to jazz as all-inclusive music. His “Eight Track” compilations of jazz arrangements of 60’s and 70’s rock and soul speak to me – a child of that generation – they are clever, melodic and inventive – what good music should be.

“Baker’s Circle” is the same approach. Originals peppered with respectful and yet sweet, giddy expansions. Front and center is “Superstar”; (made famous by the Carpenters - written by Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell) here a languid, faithful reading with the relaxed organ of Jared Gold gliding beneath. Same goes for Ivan Lins’ “Love Dance”- picked airy and sweet. Marvin Gayes’ “Inner City Blues” is soulful and bouncy, leaving ample room for Stryker to explore the main melody.

And this outfit – sweet saxophone from Walter Smith III; churning and burbling Hammond B3 from Jared Gold and in-the-pocket drumming by McClenty Hunter furnish a reverential yet playful backdrop for an easy-going and engaging jazz session.

Dan Wilson                                      “Vessels of Wood and Earth”

Here is another guitarist. A different approach – Wilson impresses from light swing to post-bop to languorous balladry- not unfamiliar with Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessell or even Pat Martino.

Opener “The Rhythm Section” is a perfect example of his quicksilver fretwork as well as expansive expository guitar playing – he’s in lockstep with his band- particularly his note-for-note unison with the piano. “Bird of Beauty” is burnished with a dusting of electronics, but again is a lucent, percolating call-and-response excursion. His true and pluckingly brisk take on Pat Metheny’s “James” is clean and fresh.

Able assistance from Wilson’s main foil – keyboard maestro Christian Sands. Sands has a rich solo career of his own- but here his interplay is nearly telepathic with Wilson. His solos gleam and cascade in and around the leaders six strings. This team should work further together. Bassist Marco Panascia and Drummer Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts are a magnificent bebop clockworks mooring the compositions.

Steven Feifke Big Band                           “Kinetic”

Big band jazz ushered into the 21st Century. The charts are crisp. The tempos accelerate and brake with intention.

Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream” is a perfect example of the Feifke approach. A bit of fire; ample and luxuriating piano soloing riding the locomotive push of the ensemble. “Midnight Beat” may be the most straight-forward swinger on the docket and affords some stellar soling opportunity for several players – including alto saxophonist Alexa Tarantino

Add to the recipe an appearance by Veronica Swift crooning Cahn & Chaplin’s “Until the Real Thing Comes Along”- the band a gorgeous woody, reedy and soft-brassy bed under Swift’s spot-on reading.

I am trending to the chordal command and inventive composing and arranging of big bands – an art form challenged by economic drivers in the music industry – making albums like young artists like Feifke a near requirement to keep the fires burning.

Also Noted:  Great Jazz Recordings of 2021 that I know you will enjoy:

Dave Kikoski with Boris Koslov - “Sure Thing”

Lady Blackbird – Black Acid Soul”

Emmet Cohen  - “Future Stride”

Ethan Iverson  - “Bud Powell in the 21st Century”

Jazz Worms  - “Squirmin’”

Pasquale Grasso - “Solo Ballads”; Solo Masterpieces” & “Plays Duke”

Jennifer Wharton“Not a Novelty”

Julian Lage“Etude”

Judy Wexler“Back to the Garden”

Mandy Barnett“Every Star Above”

Charnett Moffett – “New Love”

John Daversa Jazz Orchestra“All Without Words”

Jim Snidero“Live at the Deer Head Inn”

Ulysses Owens Jr Big Band“Soul Conversations”

James Brandon Lewis“Jesup Wagon”

Art Hirahara“Open Sky”

Alex Sipiagin “Upstream”

Kirk Lightsey“I Will Never Stop Loving You”

Dave Leonatti, Nightsounds
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