Jazz in review: 2019

    Jazz Journal writers reflect on what 2019 meant for jazz


    Simon Adams

    A Good Year: For the Love Supreme Festival in Sussex, at which the unexpected highlight this past year was a Spanish-enthused Chick Corea but which also introduced me to the ebullient pianist Christian Sands; and Christian Sands himself, with his trio in the Cadogan Hall during the London Jazz Festival, who in his role as creative ambassador to the Erroll Garner estate reintroduced me to the magical music of Mr Garner. Much consistently good music at the Verdict in Brighton, my local jazz club, especially Toni Kofi’s ongoing Monkathon tributes to all of Monk’s compositions, and all appearances by pianist John Donaldson and, to my surprise, the ever-wonderful Alan Barnes. The magisterial Art Ensemble box set from ECM marking both parties’ 50th anniversaries, and the many delights of ECM’s Touchstones reissues, notably Trygve Seim’s Different Rivers, still outstanding after all these years. Properbox’s wonderful tribute to the much-missed Alexis Korner, Matana Roberts’s ongoing Coin Coin series, and the continuing reissue and re-emergence of Sun Ra’s music from Art Yard and other dedicated Ra labels. A long-lost soundtrack – Blue World (Impulse!) – from John Coltrane came as a great surprise to all. Much new British jazz to admire, from the Mercury Prize-nominated Seed Ensemble and the Ezra Collective to Mark Kavuma, Xhosa Cole and Joe Armon-Jones and his fellow Brownswood label mates, although I am finding Shabaka Hutchings’s various groups a tad overblown. Ahmad Jamal, 89 this year and still on fine form. And of course, a round of applause to Jazz Journal’s new website, and long may it prosper. My records of the year: trumpeter Avishahi Cohen’s ECM duo Playing The Room with pianist Yonathan Avishai, for its serenity, and Mark Kavuma’s The Banger Factory (Ubuntu Music), for its sheer maturity.

    A Not So Good Year: Miles Davis’s long-awaited Rubberband set wasn’t worth the wait, and other hyped releases haven’t been all they have been cracked up to be. And do we really need countless and repetitive off-label reissues of classic works, as the copyright rules now allow the release of 1960s music for our supposed delight: for me a Blue Note or Verve remains a Blue Note or Verve, regardless of the law. Too many mediocre releases, which luckily I have not got time to hear. And a few other moans I can’t be bothered to mention.

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    John Adcock

    Musician and critic Tom Moon, author of the excellent 1000 Recordings To Hear Before you Die, wrote of his journey of musical discovery that there is “great treasure waiting on the other side of wherever you draw your territorial lines”. December 2019 marked 10 years for me as a critic for Jazz Journal and in that time I have found a lot of treasure, often in the most unexpected places.

    Looking back at some of my favourite recordings, I am struck by the serendipity of going with the “lucky dip” option when Mark, our editor, sends out the list of CDs for our perusal. Over the decade, artists I would otherwise never have heard of have become new favourites, all thanks to the random selections that have come my way. Amongst many highlights, discovering the breadth of music put out by the ACT label is perhaps the most notable for me. Browsing the review titles I would put in my Jazz Journal top 20, ACT has more than its fair share of places. Another observation is that it’s the small-group or solo stuff that gains my attention: Larry Goldings offering some exquisite solo piano work, or John Etheridge and Chris Garrick working their magic on guitar and violin. These have become albums that I didn’t just review, but came to love for the care and craft that went into them.

    It is such random discoveries that got me interested in jazz in the first place – trips to the Bull’s Head in Barnes where the Tony Lee Trio played beautifully swinging but understated jazz, or visits to my then local library in Surbiton, where a surprisingly wide range of jazz cassettes could be borrowed. Thanks to a few lucky dips there, I discovered Stan Getz’s The Dolphin album and One September Afternoon by Art Pepper. I was hooked on the music but never expected to have the pleasure of writing about it one day.

    And so, entering a new decade and my second with Jazz Journal, I am looking forward to more journeys down roads unknown, hopefully encouraging a few readers to join me along the way.

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    Derek Ansell

    It was the kind of year you wanted to forget ever existed really, when you stopped to think about it. First there was a Prime Minister who wanted to shut down Parliament to suit his own plans and had to be stopped and put in his place by the Supreme Court. He had also said he would prefer to “die in a ditch” if he didn’t get his way on pushing through Brexit and during the General Election went and hid in a giant fridge to avoid answering questions. Strangest of all though, millions of people voted for him even after those charades and put his government back in power.

    There are and always have been plenty of wild comedians among the jazz fraternity but none, I would suggest, as funny (peculiar) as Boris. As to the jazz scene it continued, much as the previous year, with several offshoots towards jazz-funk and fusion, even a jazz-rap band, would you believe? The leader of a well-established old-style New Orleans band complained to me that he was disgusted that his style of music was never promoted or played on TV or radio although they kept on playing music from hundreds of years ago. I think he meant Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and upstarts like that. How could they? He went on to deplore the fact that most, if not all his audiences now were very old and many of them didn’t like driving to gigs at night and consequently didn’t turn up for concerts. Maybe he had a point about his audiences but short of providing a free round-trip bus service or free taxi cabs there wasn’t a lot to be done about it. Hang on though, how about New Orleans style jazz street parades or a return to New Orleans style funeral parades? That way he could take the music to the audience rather than expect them to come to him.

    None of us are getting any younger though and it’s a sobering thought to realise that big band swing music is now over 90 years old and bop over 80. Hard bop continues to be the most durable and most played jazz format in pubs, clubs and even concert halls. An impressive outfit that came to prominence last year was the Misha Mullov-Abbado band, a six-piece bop and beyond unit of young musicians fronted by the bassist and composer leader. With trumpet, tenor and alto sax, piano, bass and drums they played up a popular storm in jazz clubs and festivals to wild applause. It was good to see last year that the super band was alive and well as trumpeter Steve Waterman toured with Alan Barnes on baritone, Karen Sharp on tenor, Mark Nightingale on trombone and a rhythm section of Gareth Williams, piano, Alec Dankworth, bass and Clark Tracey, drums. They played a mix of bop, blues, standards and originals to enthusiastic applause on the night I caught them.

    Records last year were the usual mix of new and reissues with some good music but perhaps not as much quality new jazz as might be desired. Near the top of my list was the Steve Fishwick/Alex Garnett quartet with just the horns and bass and drums on a label actually called Hard Bop Records and based in Caerphilly; I kid you not. It was all hard-swinging hard bop and ballads and none the worse for that. Other goodies included an excellent Claire Martin CD with Jim Mullen playing Wes Montgomery music, mostly blues lines. Tori Freestone’s Trio came up with El Mar De Nubes and Georgia Mancio had a much-admired record with pianist Kate Williams. Still with the girls, Fleur Stevenson’s Follow Me was a goodie with a fine piano trio in support. Scott Hamilton’s CD Danish Ballads And More was a real winner with some of the best tenor sax to be heard, along with a quartet including Jan Lundgren. 

    The vinyl revival went from strength to strength with several impressive new and reissue LPs, including the well-regarded Binker Golding with Abstractions Of Reality Past And Incredible Feathers on Gearbox. No use trying to make much sense of that title but just listen to the music and enjoy. Hard bop? More or less, yes. Much appreciated were box sets of vinyl from Craft Records in California with a Coltrane 1958 set, eight LPs and a six-LP box of all the classic Miles Davis Quintet recordings for Prestige in 1956, definitive versions both. Decca came up with an 11-LP set of all Tubby Hayes’ Fontana sessions from 1961-1969 but so far I have only heard the single, previously unissued CD.

    Much more too, and too many to list here. And plenty of goodies coming up, enough to keep me listening and writing about them and enough to stop me hiding in a giant fridge.

    See all Derek Ansell’s posts

    Bruce Crowther

    During my life I have stumbled into many things, among which is jazz. Unlike most of those other things (including two failed marriages and two failed careers), I didn’t stumble just as accidentally out of my love for jazz. How did this particular accident happen? As a little lad I was always hearing jazz around the house but not because anyone in the immediate family was musical. We were not, but there was always music playing on the radio; mostly popular music of the day and also old music hall songs as well as light classics.

    So where did the jazz come from? That was my brother’s doing. At weekends, he and his pals gathered to play records. These were jazz records, mostly by swing era bands, not that I knew what it was. To me, it was a racket and I hated all of it. Not that I ever ventured a comment. My brother was 10 years older than me and therefore, like any other pre-teenager, I was invisible. So, except when it was raining I spent those weekends playing outside or, when the newspaper-round money allowed, at the local cinema. That was what interested me most of all, the make-believe of the movies.

    It was in the cinema that I saw a film entitled Beat The Band. In this film was a swing band led by a musician I had never heard of: Gene Krupa, playing a spectacular drum solo on Shadow Rhapsody. I was so entranced by this, doubtless visually more than aurally, that as soon as I was back home I demanded to know if my brother had any records by Krupa. What he had were records by Benny Goodman’s trio and quartet and so, all on the same day, I was introduced not only to Krupa but also Goodman, Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton. From the last named, I plunged into the many records he made for RCA Victor in the late 1930s and early 1940s, on which I heard artists including Red Allen, Chu Berry, Benny Carter, Charlie Christian, Nat Cole, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart and Ben Webster. Of course, at my age (by this time I was in my mid-teens), I didn’t have the faintest idea what I was hearing. All I knew was that I liked it. A lot. And after that there was no turning back.

    Over the next few years I listened avidly and learned slowly. Quite a lot of years later, I started a third career, this time as a writer. Fortunately, in addition to writing crime fiction I was able to write about the movies and jazz. Not surprisingly, one of the jazz books was about the man who started it all, Gene Krupa. All of this sounds a bit simplistic. It was much more complicated, lots of ups, downs and wrong turns, but, if I might be allowed to end on a cliché, close enough for jazz.

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    Roger Farbey

    2019 was a funny old year, no? However, the relentless release of CDs (and vinyl) continued unabated. For this reviewer, the standout new album was Led Bib’s It’s Morning which was exceptionally vibrant and again threw down the Bib’s customary gauntlet, but mollified on this occasion by Sharron Fortnam’s lissom vocals. The band even gave a live performance of the score of the album to a backdrop of a specially produced and rather beguiling film by U.S. based filmaker Dylan Pecora at the Rio Cinema, Dalston as part of this year’s London Jazz Festival.

    But the real zingers of the year came from archival or reissue sources. One major instance of this was the unearthing and subsequent release of Grits, Beans And Greens (Fontana/Decca, 2019) aka The Lost Fontana Studio Sessions 1969 by Tubby Hayes. The past couple of decades have seen plenty of releases of Tubbs’ live sets that have tended to distract from the brilliance of the performances by virtue of the technology employed in the capture of these field records. However, Grits, Beans And Greens is, thankfully, a proper studio set – in stereo too – and instantly benefits from that. There were several different iterations of this record released: vinyl, MP3 download and two CD releases. The “deluxe” CD version is replete with copious sleeve notes from Tubbs aficionado Simon Spillett. With its two discs it’s the one most cognoscenti would agree was the essential purchase. In addition to the booklet of notes, CD1 benefits from a rare professional recording debut from the terrific and sorely underrated guitarist Louis Stewart.

    The next surprise was a very welcome reissue of all the Ian Carr and Nucleus albums released on the Vertigo label. Nucleus (& Ian Carr): Torrid Zone – The Vertigo Recordings 1970-1975 (Esoteric, 2019) was presented in a handsome six-CD clamshell box set. Whilst this is not the first time these albums have been reissued on CD it is the first time all nine albums have been released in one box set and it includes a booklet with photographs and erudite sleeve notes from the redoubtable Sid Smith.

    In December there were two veritable bombshell reissues. First Decca released Tubby Hayes’ entire back catalogue on Fontana. This mega box set (also available on vinyl) included a huge booklet with copious sleeve notes, again by Simon Spillett (who else?), rare photos and complete track listings and credits. But importantly, Tubbs’ 100% Proof (Fontana, 1967), now thankfully in stereo, also included an extra CD of unreleased, stunning alternate takes from these big band sessions. Another bonus was the inclusion of Tubbs’ final album for Fontana The Orchestra (Fontana, 1970). This is the first time it has been reissued on CD or vinyl. This box must surely rank as reissue of the year.

    Finally, in the last days of the year, there was the icing on the cake in the form of Frank Zappa’s The Hot Rats Sessions (Universal/Zappa Records, 2019). This six-CD box set contains 67 tracks all relating to recordings made around the time of the production of his groundbreaking jazz-rock masterpiece Hot Rats (Bizarre/Reprise, 1969). The LP sized box also contains a comprehensive booklet with photographs, notes of appreciation by notables such as Zappa musician Ian Underwood and Zappa fan and Simpsons creator Matt Groening, plus meticulous details of sessions and participating musicians. Of the tracks to be found here most are unreleased archival sessions from the vaults, but Zappa’s own 1987 remix of Hot Rats is presented in full. He would have wanted that.

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    Thomas Fletcher

    After a year of much to discuss, my thoughts turn instantly to the ever-growing, flourishing scene that is British jazz. With numerous albums being released covering a wide range of influences and styles, jazz has seen an influx not even New York can compete with.

    British albums of 2019 to highlight include Fyah by Theon Cross. Well driven by placing the unfamiliar tuba in the heart of the music, this album includes New Orleans orientated brass alongside distinct drums. This was also the year that saw Ezra Collective thrive too, selling out across the U.S. and performing on stages such as Glastonbury and Green Man. Their latest release this year saw collaborations with artists such as Loyle Carner and Jorja Smith on You Can’t Steal My Joy which took an alternative slower approach rather than their usual energetic Afrobeat flair.

    Other memorable albums in 2019 included Driftglass by SEED Ensemble. More than just an album, this debut release focuses on political affairs such as Grenfell in addition to race relations. Driftglass is also an album that emphasises giving young musicians the opportunity for their work to be heard. My final acknowledgement is awarded to The Comet Is Coming and their album Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery. This cosmic, creative swirl of jazz and electronics combines to construct a well-defined mixture of music featuring saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings. One could draw many comparisons with Sun Ra’s explosive approach.

    Although I’ve directly focused on four key albums, there was much happening elsewhere. With small venues such as the Boiler Room and Buster Mantis, the expanding scene in the capital has reached wider audiences and crossed over with rap, electronic, Afrobeat and many more. As the new year unfolds, I and many others are ready for a new age of jazz to evolve. Perhaps to celebrate the centenary of the Roarin’ Twenties, we may see a new musical dawn.

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    Dave Gelly

    Here come the Twenties again.

    Nobody can say when jazz was born, although plenty have tried. However, we can be certain of one thing, namely that jazz burst into glorious and irrepressible life during the 1920s, which makes this year as good a centenary as any. Before 1920 there were jazz bands – the Original New Orleans Jazz Band, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the Frisco Jazz Band, and band leaders – Buddy Bolden, Kid Ory, Noble Sissle. But after 1920 along came the big stuff – Louis, Bix, Jelly Roll, Bechet, Hawkins and Duke’s early bands.

    Probably the biggest event in 1920 itself was the release of Mamie Smith’s record, Crazy Blues. This was the first time a record by an African American artist had sold in anything like serious quantities. There was no reliable way of counting the actual number of copies sold – some claimed as many as a million in six months, which would be phenomenal, bearing in mind that there was no radio then. It was certainly enough to awaken the record business to the fact that there was a huge untapped audience, eager for more. As a result, Okeh Records launched a line of product aimed specifically at African American customers, its so-called “Race” series. This was the label which brought the Hot Five and Hot Seven into being, not to mention Clarence Williams Blue Five, the Red Onion Jazz Babies and many more. Soon, the vast majority of US record companies, including some of the biggest, were featuring “Race Series” discs in their regular output, and continued doing so until well into the 1940s.

    The idea of “Race” records is now well and truly consigned to the dustbin of history, but if the 2020s can do even half as well as the 1920s in presenting jazz music to the world, it will be a decade to remember.

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    Mark Gilbert

    I wrote virtually nothing last year, so time-consuming is maintenance of the Jazz Journal site, but I did hear and sample quite a bit, being at the frontline of jazz promotion through the JJ inbox, and checking out a good number of the albums we receive. One of the most problematic aspects is the volume of material received (or plugged) – about 1500 albums in 2019, of which over 900 were reviewed. Everyone has an album now and they all want a review. You might think this is a good thing for the jazz fan, but… A second problem (I admit perhaps a reaction occasioned by the hyperbole and volume of the first) is the predictability (creatively speaking: technical skills, possibly due to competition and the proliferation of college-level jazz training are very high) of so much stuff (oddly, JJ founder Sinclair Traill said something similar in the late 50s, when there were just expensive-to-produce LP albums, long before laptop recording and the incontinent stream of CDs and streaming arrived). Time was when the “sound of surprise” principle pertained. College training might be behind my sense of déjà vu: inevitably, despite prospectuses prioritising creativity, education tends to perpetuate the canon (fine as it is).

    But it seems there is a wider cultural problem in the West and jazz, despite constant protestations of originality, is not exempt. The last distinct surge forward in jazz style was in the 70s/80s when genuinely new fusions (jazz has always been one) seemed to emerge monthly thanks to collisions of new technology with old, and musical idiom with musical idiom. But since the 90s, nostalgia, the search for an authentic past (cf. the vinyl revival) and possibly cyclical fatigue with musical complexity seems to have driven musical enterprise backwards, or at least into stasis. In addition, more recently the co-option of jazz by those invoking or cloning something from jazz’s political past, perhaps for extra-musical reasons, seems to have accelerated, with neither message nor music being new. Non-musical parallels in the West confirm the regression – the march of retrospective nationalism, politicians invoking golden eras, back-to-the-roots gentrification in virtually every Western city.

    That said, there is, of course, loads of superb newly recorded jazz around – just not, in most cases, as earth-shatteringly new as the publicists claim. I have enjoyed (in some cases stylistically antique but still vibrant) work from Steve Khan (Patchwork), Carlos Henriquez (Dizzy Con Clave), Mark Winkler (I’m With You), Oz Noy (Booga Looga Loo), and Jessica Radcliffe (Remembrance), to name just a few, and still hope for greater revelations. I hope this isn’t too jaded a view of one of the most original – and uplifting – musical manifestations of the 20th century.

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    Fred Grand

    The defining event of my 2019 jazz year was almost certainly the 50th birthday of ECM Records. It wasn’t that I spent untold hours wading through the label’s vast back catalogue, works I’ve lived with for several decades and already know intimately, but more the pause for reflection that the celebrations set in train.

    For each of the 50 Touchstones reissues I could point to at least another three or four titles by each artist that I’d argue are every bit as good. My personal favourite will always be Jan Garbarek’s Afric Pepperbird (1970), and almost without exception my own top 50 would be drawn from ECM’s extraordinary first two decades. The label’s commitment to reissuing out of print albums from the early catalogue as hi-res digital downloads was extremely welcome, and works by overlooked bands and artists such as Michael Naura, Om, Contact Trio and Tom van der Geld considerably enriched my year. This was a groundbreaking period of fearless musical cross-fertilisation, and although Eicher’s project has latterly settled into a reassuringly familiar set of conventions, I think we could all benefit from an extended look at its formative years.

    Amid a myriad of identikit new releases I did unearth a number of outstanding recordings which can withstand favourable comparison to the best from any era. Verneri Pohjola (Land Of Real Men, We Jazz Records) and Adam Bałdych (Sacrum Profanum, ACT Music) delivered two of the year’s most accomplished and emotionally resonant individual performances, while Iro Haarla’s gripping journey into the world of Paul and Carla Bley (Around Again, TUM Records) channelled all of the magic of ECM’s early years. Anton Eger (Æ, Edition Records) and 3TM (Lake, We Jazz Records) exemplified jazz’s ongoing dialogue with contemporary electronica, while David Torn’s collaboration with Swiss minimalists Sonar continues to go from strength to strength (not to forget the marvellous Bill Laswell remixes too).

    Despite 2019 being a year weighted heavily with nostalgia, jazz clearly still has some wide-open frontiers which are only just beginning to be explored.

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    Andy Hamilton

    The CD is allegedly in decline, but you wouldn’t think so from the remarkable releases I heard in 2019. My album of the year is Francois Houle/Alexander Hawkins/Harris Eisenstadt: You Have Options (Songlines). This cerebral yet beguiling album pulls the listener in from the first listen, and reveals new delights on each subsequent listen. It’s a tribute to the late Ken Pickering, one of the great patrons of the music, who was a founder of the Vancouver jazz festival, one of the most important events in the calendar. Pickering suggested the multi-national line-up, featuring UK pianist Alex Hawkins, and Canadians Francois Houle (clarinet), and Harris Eisenstadt (percussion) – and so a superb trio was born. This 2016 recording has a more contemplative ethos – it’s a genuine example of chamber jazz, with all the subtlety and musicality that label implies. Compositions are by the trio members, plus one additional piece by Steve Lacy, Andrew Hill and Charles Ives.

    Another leading contender was Pateras-Baxter-Brown: Bern Melbourne Milan (Immediata). This is an Australian improv trio, and the release appears on pianist Anthony Pateras’s own Immediata label. There’s a paradox, in that this is full-on improvising by a prepared instrument trio – Anthony Pateras (prepared piano), Sean Baxter (drums), and David Brown (prepared guitar). John Cage’s invention is known for a gentler tradition, I reckon. It’s good to know that the trio, which has seemed to be in abeyance, has reunited and is adding to their stellar production. This release documents their first rehearsal (2002), performances in Bern (2006) and Milan (2008), and their Melbourne reunion at Inland. David Brown’s prepared techniques grew from captivation with extraneous sounds from an unplugged Stratocaster, while Sean Baxter is a furious iconoclast on the drum kit, playing it with everything but drum sticks.

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    Brian Morton

    The calendar-click into 2020 was a reminder that we really are on the cusp of the second jazz century and that we seem to have survived multiple obituaries, extinction events, fusion, lite jazz, Nu Jazz, world jazz, and in reasonably good shape. It’s interesting how often our music seems to buck the various demographic and economic trends. Jazz is more popular than ever, even among younger listeners who have understandably tired of the rather generic and image-driven popular music of the moment, though there are many honourable exceptions to that generalised opinion. Music that 25 years ago was listened to by small, grim-faced cadres of middle-aged men is now considered to be hip and packs in audiences. I sense that as adventure declines in a risk-averse world, risk in musical appreciation might rise in response. The stock reaction to the admission that jazz is one’s “thing” is no longer, “Yeah, my granddad likes that stuff” but, this very week, “I’ve just discovered this guy called Albert Ayler. He’s wild, man”. Regrettably, this was followed up with a version that booksellers know as the Anne Frank question: “Can’t wait for his next one”.

    For reasons entirely personal and no sign of disloyalty, much of 2019 was spent listening to music other than jazz, and when it has been jazz in the machine, it has mostly (review responsibilities, unsolicited but welcome promos and a few purchases all aside) been older music. What has struck me most forcibly in the process is the sheer density of the music’s documentation on record. Few art forms of such comparative short lifespan have ever been so extravagantly preserved. There are piles of forgotten scores in all the court libraries and church cellars of all the capitals of Europe, witness to the ruthlessly ad hoc nature of 18th century court music: symphonies and oratorios written for a baptism or a marriage, with no prospect of ever being played again – indeed the idea of repertory itself (still the number one bore subject in jazz discussion sites) is a rather modern one, and probably fostered by recording.

    As for a lot of us, I imagine, the 50th anniversary of ECM was a moment for genuine celebration. I toasted Manfred Eicher with three of the oldest and most expensive malts I’ve ever dared invest in and which I dole out in eye-dropper quantities with a doom-laden “When it’s gone, it’s gone” but also with the guilty awareness that vintages are probably the joy of the older man and woman. The music I then set about listening to felt (sometimes horribly, sometimes joyously) like the soundtrack to an autobiography. I was particularly thrilled to get the double vinyl reissue of Mal Waldron’s Free At Last, which was the head-turner of my youth. For what they’re worth, the others that brought a small sting to the tear ducts were Edward Vesala’s Lumi, Julian Priester’s Love, Love, Bennie Maupin’s The Jewel In The Lotus, and records by Dave Holland, Circle, Kenny Wheeler, Azimuth, Charles Lloyd, Jon Balke and half a dozen more. I reckon I got through the bulk of the catalogue one way and another, encountering some unplayable (or not enjoyably so) along the way, rediscovering forgotten favourites and finally the delights of the formerly spurned, including a record by one K**th J*rr*tt that I used to think was a pretentious yawn. And I made good inroads into the New Series as well. So, belated as it might be: hats off to Eicher and his team. Feels like they changed everything.

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    Brian Payne

    For me, 2019 produced a number of jazz highlights, not least Ivo Neame’s quartet and their exhilarating February gig at Wakefield Jazz; the vaudevillian Sammy Miller & The Congregation at Newport Jazz Festival; the superb performances from Clement Regert’s Wild Card and Jim Mullen’s Volunteers at Scarborough and Ingrid Jensen’s storming delivery at Jazz Leeds in November. But my discovery of the year has been Tuba Skinny.

    I first stumbled across them on YouTube early in 2019 and have been hooked ever since. Tuba Skinny is part of the new generation of musicians who migrated to New Orleans when the city started to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They’ve since toured a few countries outside the US but spend most of their time busking in the streets of New Orleans seemingly content to exist on tips from this. They live cheaply using bicycles for transport.

    The band plays jazz in the New Orleans and Chicago style that was established in the early 1900s and they’ve rescued many songs of the era from obscurity. All the members are outstanding musicians and are totally unassuming in their demeanour. For a flavour take a look at this clip: Papa’s Got Your Bathwater On.

    You can follow the band on several other excellent YouTube videos too. Incidentally, the cornet player and apparent leader of this democratic ensemble, Shaye Cohn, is Al Cohn’s granddaughter. The band’s main vocalist is Erika Lewis. They’re a big draw everywhere they perform but are yet to do so in the UK – a situation that jazz promoters reading this might want to rectify.

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    John Watson

    What a joy it is to report on positive developments on the jazz scene. It is certainly possible to do so in the West Midlands, for 2019 was a year in which two new grass-roots venues presented strong programmes despite the uncertain economic times. The NAC arts centre in Wolverhampton had substantial crowds for bands including trumpeter Steve Fishwick’s Quartet, Swedish saxophonist Örjan Hultén’s group Orion and a fine solo performance by pianist Zoe Rahman. In 2020, the programme at the NAC includes gigs by saxophonists Scott Hamilton, Xhosa Cole, Mark Lockheart and Dave O’Higgins, plus the band of drummer Clark Tracey.

    In Lichfield, the Cathedral Hotel featured a new series with regional bands plus visiting soloists including saxophonist Derek Nash, and in 2020 will have artists including pianist Wendy Kirkland, vibes player Roger Beaujolais, and saxophonists Tommaso Starace and Iain Ballamy. Among established organisations, Birmingham Jazz continued its weekly programmes of outstanding progressive jazz at the venue 1,000 Trades in the city’s Jewellery Quarter, and promoter Tony Dudley Evans continues to develop cutting-edge performances with his TDE Promotions at various venues. The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire’s Eastside Jazz Club regularly features significant international soloists.

    The major organisation Jazzlines – linked to the company which owns Symphony Hall and the Town Hall – survives despite surprisingly low turnouts in 2019 for some international artists, including Ingrid and Christine Jensen with the Whirlwind Recordings Jazz Orchestra. In 2020 the extensive Jazzlines programme continues to feature regional bands at weekly free concerts, and has Wynton Marsalis with the Jazz Orchestra of the Lincoln Center at Symphony Hall in May.

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    John White

    With only a few exceptions, the hours I spent listening to, reading about, and writing on jazz were happy experiences in an increasingly depressing and dangerous world. Among the memorable CDs I reviewed for our cutting-edge magazine, were performances by Oscar Peterson in Chicago, Ben Webster in Denmark, Ahmad Jamal in Chicago, and sessions by Ike Quebec, Billie Holiday, Milt Jackson, Bill Evans and Martial Solal. Check them out. My putative ”Record of the Year” would have been Scott Hamilton’s Danish Ballads…& More. ’Nuff said? On a more sober note, I contributed obituaries of Andre Previn and Michel Legrand, Harold Mabern and Richard Wyands.

    Left to my own devices, I revisited and sampled my LP holdings, and can report that they exceeded expectations: warm sounds, “artistic” covers, and some informative sleeve notes that helped to make me semi-literate in a mis-spent youth. That said, I also downloaded many MP3 jazzy items to my computer, and (can you hear me Mr. Putin?) took in – against my wife’s advice – an obliging lady called Alexa, who instantly responds to my commands for Earl Bostic, Terry Gibbs, Paul Gonsalves, Bud Shank or even Spike Jones. Is this heaven on earth? Not quite, but it will do until the real thing comes along.

    Tipped off by soul mates in the Heatons Jazz Appreciation Society in Manchester, I listened to the excellent programme on Mary Lou Williams on BBC Radio 3, and noted the TV re-airing of the not entirely satisfactory Ken Burns Jazz extravaganza. What else? I continued to haunt record and CD racks in the charity and specialist shops of East Sussex, and even purchased another hi-fi system (I now have four) about 10 years old, but which at full volume can at least move, if not actually raise the departed.

    In sum, 2019 was a very good year, and I’m again reminded of Philip Larkin’s assertion, mischievously attributed to the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867): “Man can live a week without bread, but not a day without the righteous jazz”.

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