The good: New discoveries: The Majamisty Trio from Serbia, Dezron Douglas and Brandee Young in Harlem lockdown, Ian McGimpsey and Harrison Argatoff from Ontario, and – new to me, at least – Julia Hülsmann from Germany and the wondrous guitarist Mary Halvorson from Massachusetts. The continuing creative strength of Ahmad Jamal, Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids and Kahil El’Zabar, and the ongoing reissues of Erroll Garner. Strong new sets from Rob Mazurek (Dimensional Stardust), Marcin Wasilewski Trio with Joe Lovano (Arctic Riff) and Elina Duni with Rob Luft (Lost Ships), among many others. And surprise new issue of the year: a wonderful live concert from the Thelonious Monk Quartet at a high school in Palo Alto, California in the summer of 1968, promoted by a 16-year-old schoolboy in pursuit of racial harmony in that tumultuous American year. Never doubt the strength of youth.
The bad: The lack of live music this year has just added to the overall woes of 2020, but what most hurt me was my inability to watch live-stream music and enjoy it: my computer is for work and I find it hard to relax at my desk with ears and eyes fixed on the screen, no matter who is playing. I’ve only just come to terms with downloads, still yearning for the physical disc, so it will take me a long time to join the streaming generation. And if a recent interview he gave proves to be correct, Keith Jarrett will never play the piano again.
The future: Let us all pray for the rapid return of live music.
The first thing to say about jazz in 2020 is that there was not a lot of it about. Well, hardly any really as far as live music was concerned. Musicians complained far and wide that they were being deprived of the means to make a living and it was true. So, in the face of an evil pandemic, running rampant for much of the year, all we could do was barricade ourselves into our homes and listen to recordings. Fortunately, it was a good year for new releases and an excellent one for high quality reissues.
Pride of place for me was Maria Schneider’s Data Lords double CD exploring, in music, “Our Natural World” and “The Digital World”. Ms Schneider’s 18-piece, star-studded orchestra swung through some exciting and provocative charts, written and conducted by her. Also impressive were CDs by Toni Solà (Cool People), Callum Au and Claire Martin with their Songs And Stories album and the Jeff Hamilton Trio with Catch Me If You Can. Michelle Lordi’s Break Up With The Sound CD was fresh and different, mixing jazz and country music successfully – no mean feat! Tony Kofi’s Another Kind Of Soul came out on CD and LP and was a fresh look at the music by or associated with Cannonball Adderley.
First place in the reissue field must go to the splendid 11-LP Decca box set of all Tubby Hayes’ Fontana albums, meticulously mastered and presented for optimum sound. Or you could get it as a CD set complete with outtakes and alternates. In the same class for excellent presentation of some sterling music were the Craft box sets of Chet Baker’s recordings for Riverside in 1958-59 and four 10″ LPs of Charlie Parker’s Savoy set, the timeless music expertly remastered.
Blue Note’s new Tone Poet series of classic LP reissues remastered by Kevin Gray, a sort of 21st century Rudy Van Gelder, promise much but I have yet to hear any of them. Just Coolin’ by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers is a good indication of what is coming though.
The most obvious choice for album of the year was Maria Schneider’s meisterwork Data Lords (ArtistShare, 2020), rendered in the form of a double CD accompanied by a 60-page booklet with photos. It is also available as a hi-res 24-bit download. The recording reflects two different worlds. As Schneider explains: “I feel my life greatly impacted by two very polarized worlds: the digital world, and the organic world … it now requires great effort for us to take real breaks from the digital world so that we can fully access the organic world that sustains us. Feeling both of these opposite worlds represented in my recent music, I have decided to make this a two-album release reflecting these two polar extremes.” CD1’s The Digital World is at times dark and even oppressive, arguably reflecting Schneider’s co-writing of Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) with David Bowie as featured on his swansong Blackstar (ISO Records, 2015) and the presence here of Donny McCaslin and Ben Monder who played on Blackstar. The second CD, Our Natural World, is much lighter in tone and substance, notably assisted by Gary Versace’s uplifting accordion contributions.
Another highlight of the year was Barbara Thompson’s truly brilliant autobiography Journey To A Destination Unknown (Jazz In Britain, 2020). It’s a rare thing for a book to be readable, entertaining, informative and moving but this one ticks all the boxes. Its 260 pages are replete with rare photos from her various ventures with the New Jazz Orchestra, Don Rendell, Keef Hartley and her own band Paraphernalia. There’s also, unsurprisingly, much mention of her late husband Jon Hiseman who played in her band and Hiseman’s Colosseum in which she variously contributed and following the death of Dick Heckstall-Smith, became its replacement saxophonist for a time.
Not The 20/20 Vision We Hoped For: While the essence of jazz was abruptly stalled, the ability not to perform live didn’t stop the jazz community from releasing a creative and compelling array of albums that gave us hope of what might to expect in the near future. Social distancing can seem rather difficult to execute when making music in a darkened room and letting loose but artists from home and abroad continued to impress despite the barriers that fell in their way. Unfortunately, music can only do so much to convert society, but what we have experienced this year audibly can still inspire.
My first accolade is awarded to Shabaka and the Ancestors for We Are Sent Here By History. Their second release, it builds upon a reawakening of the township jazz introduced to us by musicians such as Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim. South African jazz is only partially recognised internationally, and this group is doing their best to change this situation for the better.
Secondly, directed by London-based trumpeter and composer Laura Jurd, Dinosaur released their third album back in May titled To The Earth. This one felt like you had to watch it live to really appreciate it, so it was rather ironic it was released this year. Blending in an awareness of tradition, Dinosaur are not afraid to think forward in their compositional process.
Finally, I must show my appreciation to Nubya Garcia and her debut album Source. A celebration of the African diaspora, the song titles remind us of the underlining theme throughout Source. These include Together Is A Beautiful Place to Be, Stand With Each Other and Boundless Beings.
After a year of where music-making seemed a thought of the past, I stand by many of my friends and peers and believe that 2021 will usher in a new age for jazz music.
2020 was a year, particularly in the USA (cradle of jazz) and UK (an early adopter, sharing close cultural ties underlined since the 1960s boom in US-influenced popular music) when truth was much discussed – primarily in relation to Donald Trump and Brexit.
In our sphere of interest it can probably safely be asserted that notes tend not to lie (though lyrics may, and indeed notes may be assembled without conviction, in bad faith or with cynical commercial intent). Generally though, it seems reasonable to say – sonically speaking – that what you hear is what you get. However, this frequently isn’t so in the ancillary business surrounding jazz – arts promotion and the arts media.
Our From The JJ Archive feature often suggests that 40-60 years ago there was a far wider range of opinion in jazz criticism and no fear of panning whatever the writer felt was incompetent, false, pretentious or simply not to their taste. In the last 20-30 years though, jazz has become a victim of the greater commodification of the arts. With the pursuit of a sale comes the temptation to be dishonest or at least economical with the truth. Many involved in jazz promotion had by the 1990s adopted the prevailing principle that said the specialist arts could and should be sold much as pop music was sold; the term the “jazz industry” came into common usage. Jazz came to be presented (by those practised in arts funding and sponsorship) as a unified, monolithic block to be sold to venues, the media and the public. With that, inevitably, has come promotion, publicity and hyperbole and a tendency to endorse almost everything, old and new. The sales pitch became even more hysterical and the truth even more skewed once, as lately, the perceived political dividend of jazz came into the mix.
It seems as if some mainstream commentators (e.g., the embattled BBC, whose British Jazz Explosion perhaps inadvertently succumbed to the rhetoric of British exceptionalism, even if it dwelt mostly on a warming if localised effervescence in one London constituency) have developed critical amnesia – entirely possible, of course, given that new generations don’t have the hinterland (one of The British Jazz Explosion‘s commentators described jazz as a black music, apparently unaware of its multicultural provenance) and that the perpetual reinvention of the wheel is the marketeer’s primary weapon. Now, more than ever, Sturgeon’s Law seems worth reviving as a corrective to the breathless illusion that has been proclaimed yearly since 1984 by this or that journalist, DJ or producer after a story. Orwell’s perpetual war didn’t transpire in 1984 but the media has purveyed a nice parallel: the perpetual jazz revolution.
This is not to say scores of well-played new jazz sessions weren’t issued in 2020. There were many, often off the beaten track. But there were few whose novelty or excellence merited the incontinent praise typically heaped on them by publicists and regurgitated by uninformed, unscrupulous or undiscriminating journalists. I might be prey to Whitney Balliett’s description of jazz as the sound of surprise. That certainly worked until at least the late 80s, in jazz and popular music in general, when technological and stylistic invention (one following the other) were in abundance. Of course, it might be that a new jazz paradigm to match those of the pre-post-modern period lurks around the corner, or maybe innovation has moved elsewhere and jazz (well, jazz innovation) is, indeed, dead. Full marks to the recent recording project of that name for at least suggesting that jazz today isn’t quite the hotbed of creativity some wish it were.
In a year overshadowed by the far reaching impact of a deadly coronavirus, it has been hard to find much cheer. Of course it’s too early to say what the lasting impacts will be, but with ongoing shifts to digital commerce accelerating, traditional sectors appear to have been disproportionately hit by peoples’ changing habits.
This is particularly bad news if you’re a musician – not only will have you been starved of opportunities to perform in public or earn your crust teaching, but the stranglehold of streaming services on the music distribution industry will have offered little comfort. Live-casts from traditional performance spaces have to a limited extent sated fans’ hunger, but they can never be a proper substitute for the shared intimacy of a live performance.
2020 is the first time in over 35 years that I haven’t attended a gig, and although we have seen a steady flow of new releases, recorded before the world went into hiding, I wonder what next year’s release schedules will look like?
Whether we like it or not, jazz is a niche occupation, a fringe music that relies on the dedication of its performers and the ardour of its followers to survive. As the world returns to some kind of “normal” I’m sure we’ll love it more than ever, but for those European-based musicians making it through the other side, post-Brexit border frictions will pose another kind of challenge.
When I look back on 2020 I’ll think of the many celebrated musicians whose lives were claimed by the virus, but I’ll also think of the less visible victims, those whose careers currently hang in jeopardy and who may never reach their potential. If necessity really is the mother of reinvention, let’s hope that we still have the collective means.
When your life as a jazz musician consists mainly of playing club dates around the UK for audiences numbering fewer than 50, a pandemic comes as just an eight-letter word. I’ve been amazed throughout 2020 at the attitude of so many, summed up in another word of the same length – sanguine. With all work apart from teaching and whatever non-musical skills they possess dried up, the future has looked if not bleak then uncertain. It wasn’t long before many invoked the novelty of online appearance, if only to keep in touch with their followers, and maybe to introduce the Luddites among them to the possibilities of new technology. Almost any famous jazz musician they cared to name could be accessed on YouTube. Now it was possible to view, and sometimes remotely chat to, musicians they’d only read about in Jazz Journal and who were yet to appear at their local club.
For the musicians themselves, there were other possibilities to exploit, albeit in the privacy of their own homes. Having dismissed the charmless comments of some that they were “busking” for free on their settees, they began putting together gigs but not as we normally understood them. Learning more about social media techniques, they sold tickets through agencies. Not even festivals were thwarted. Brecon put on over 18 hours of music at 36 concerts pre-recorded by the Franco-UK video-hosting company Vialma. My local Wall2Wall festival at Abergavenny did the same, with local video hosts 47 Studios and Productions filming Fergus McCreadie, Luca Manning, Zoe Gilby and others for later streaming in the week the festival was due to go live. What’s more, Abergavenny paid musicians the fee they would have received at the live event.
This virus-induced resort to the virtual is likely to be the start of something that will grow post-pandemic. It will cost money, but if you miss a live act from now on and it’s been recorded, there’ll be a chance to view on screen. Anyone who baulks at paying for the privilege will not have the musician’s interests, or indeed the music itself, at heart.
What a year! Some venues may have been able to restart their jazz programmes at times, albeit in a limited way, and there have been some pre-recorded or streamed virtual festivals, but that’s about it. So, a terrible year for performers and gig-goers, but in some ways it’s been a good year for those who could compose and record new projects. Studio recording is uniquely suited to the Covid-19 situation – a small or relatively small number of people in the same space but separated by screens and even separate rooms, but that depends on having a budget to do it. Surely the biggest change in jazz-making has been the surge in remote home performance/recording, either via sometimes part-glitchy real-time software or via non-real time sharing and mixing of audio files, which costs nothing other than time, provided that musicians are already set-up to do it.
So, the process by which the music is now made is perhaps as improvised as the music itself. Does that matter? Well, yes. Although it’s still possible to make something that sounds like jazz via these means, we’re losing that all-important factor – the split-second interaction between musicians playing next to one another, which means that the music produced is different – more immediate, more improvised. Once the world has been fully vaccinated it will surely take a little while for jazz musicians to become reacclimatised to the immediacy of playing alongside others in the same room – it’ll be like we’ve temporarily forgotten how to speak to each other.
Remarkably, the Radio Times (enthusing in their preview about this year’s BBC Jazz Musician Of The Year Award) said jazz is thriving. Tell that to musicians that used to play at Café Jazz in Cardiff, which closed its doors in the summer this year, and the city’s other main very regular jazz venue (Dempsey’s Jazz, at The Flute and Tankard) which was at the same time under threat because of a new housing development. There will obviously have been casualties elsewhere too, so the Radio Times is stretching the imagination somewhat. I applaud their enthusiasm for a very visible showcase of new jazz talent, but the wider possible audience and the general public need to know that it’s arguably been the toughest time ever for jazz musicians, whatever their age, and that’s saying something, as it’s never been easy. The vaccines are arriving – good – but Brexit looms, which will do its best to prevent musicians from travelling across Europe to play and record.
Anyway, on to the albums. For me, it was a year of the pianists – some well known, some less so, offering us a wide variety of projects. We lost the great McCoy Tyner, but his jazz spirit seems to have very immediately lived on in Fergus McCready’s contribution to the Richard Glassby Quartet’s new album, Eclipse. Christian Sands’ Be Water is arguably his best yet – a proper album where the tracks work alongside each other to create a much greater whole. Bill Mays takes the trio prize with his well-balanced trio and swinging ease, and Tete Montoliu and Stefano Bollani gave us great but very different solo piano offerings. John Beasley pipped them all to the post with another superb big band release, Monk’estra Plays John Beasley, but hold on – I’ve said that previously in 2017 and 2018, when I also mentioned a number of the other pianists here. So maybe not that much has changed, at least in a recorded jazz sense.
They say that adversity brings out the best in people. Clearly the music industry has had an unprecedented year with virtually no live music being played. Our sympathy must go out to the thousands of musicians who have been left without any form of income since March of this year. Yet creativity wins through regardless. Virtual concerts have been held online and there have been some great new albums. My favourite lockdown recording is Melody Gardot’s Sunset In The Blue (recorded with Gardot in Los Angeles and the Royal Philharmonic in London) which is proof that you can still record the perfect album, even if it is not the album you originally planned.
My second choice in music goes to the entire Jazz Is Dead series by rap and hip-hop producers Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, featuring veteran jazz artists such as Roy Ayers (JiD002), Marcos Valle (JiD003), the Brazilian jazz-funk band Azymuth (Jid004) and Doug Carn (Jid005). The Jazz Is Dead title is intended to be provocative but these guys really do love their jazz and pay respectful dues to some of their musical heroes whilst giving the music a modern take. It may not be the salvation of jazz but it sure feels optimistic. Hopefully more will follow.
It was probably inevitable that a lack of “live” concert work would mean that musicians would spend more time writing and recording. Many musicians have reported a change in their musical style – much simpler and more meaningful. What has been released so far in 2020 is probably only the tip of the iceberg of what is yet to follow. Let us hope so.
Whilst lockdown has given many of us more time to listen to music, it has also given me more time to read. My best jazz book of the year has to be Barbara Thompson’s autobiography Journey To A Destination Unknown, a moving story of a great musical talent overcoming adversity, a great example of hope in an otherwise bleak year. Poetry doesn’t usually get much space on the bookshelf but I must give mention to a superb short collection of jazz poetry by the American poet Lenard D. Moore: The Geography Of Jazz is collection of poems paying tribute to renowned singers and instrumentalists familiar to most JJ readers (Billie, Dizzy, Duke, Ella, Miles, Nina, Thelonious et al). It may be slim in terms of pages but its jazz-imbued rhythms are rich in jazz nostalgia. My last good-read award goes to the veteran Jazz FM broadcaster David Freeman who has written a fabulous book called Blues People to commemorate the centenary of the release of the first blues recording by Mamie Smith and The Jazz Hounds. What looks again like a short read opens up to endless listening with scannable links to Spotify so that you can actually listen to the music whilst reading about the artist. Very simple and highly effective.
No one is quite sure what 2021 will bring. Hopefully more album releases of music recorded during lockdown and (for the sake of the musicians more than the audience) more live music. If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that nothing can be taken for granted. So next time we can safely go to a jazz concert (or any live performance for that matter) let us savour that moment and say a little prayer!
Over the past 12 months there has been some excellent music released and perhaps one small upside of the year is that there has also been a bit more time to listen to it.
Releases of classic jazz albums continue, such as Antônio Carlos Jobim’s 1967 Wave from A&M Records, Wes Montgomery’s 1960 The Incredible Jazz Guitar Of Wes Montgomery from Jazz Images, and Chet Baker’s 1968 Chet Baker Plays And Sings from American Jazz Classics. In addition, many new albums from established musicians have been released, and Trilok Gurtu, Randy Brecker & Eric Marienthal, John Patitucci and Kenny Wessel have all recorded new music. There has also been some great work from contemporary UK jazz groups such as Resolution 88’s Revolutions and Draw By Four’s second album Salinas Song.
In terms of the weird and wonderful, the second of Masayuki Takayanagi’s New Direction Unit albums, Axis/Another Revolvable Thing was released by Blank Forms, following 2019’s April Is The Cruellest Month, encouragingly suggesting that there is still a market for the avant-garde.
Regarding books, Henry Martin’s Charlie Parker, Composer is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking books on the saxophonist that I have read, and one I would certainly recommend to anyone interested in bebop and in the wider questions of how jazz fits into current theories of music.
Personally, a definite favourite of 2020 is Bill Frisell’s album Valentine, which is a fantastic blend of jazz, elements of folk and Americana, and his own signature experimental twist. Overall, while certainly not the easiest year to be a working musician, there has still been some great music to listen to and enjoy, and a lot added to the list of who to see perform in 2021.
2020 was certainly a year that will stick in the mind. It started promisingly for live music, with women’s jazz being given a boost through Alison Rayner and Deirdre Cartwright’s Blow The Fuse endeavours and Karen Sharp’s Quartet which toured, playing a terrific set at the 1000 Trades in Birmingham. Simon Spillett’s exciting big band debut at Atherstone (of all places) followed, whetting the appetite for what was to follow, but then … frustration. Streaming helped to some degree, though no substitution for the real thing, and later Nigel Price’s brave attempt to tour was sadly thwarted. Spasmodic localised appearances cropped up, as and when allowed, but as Evan Parker said, “We can’t go on not meeting like this.”
So down to the recordings. The resurgence of interest in British jazz seemed to dominate and all credit to those involved. For me the Joe Harriott Chronology 1968-9 and Alan Wakeman’s Octet stood out on the home front, whilst Thelonious Monk: Palo Alto and Mingus At Bremen 1964 & 1975 were the cream of archive material. Of the albums I reviewed, I particularly enjoyed Joe McPhee & Decoy’s AC/DC and the Jerry Granelli Trio Plays Guaraldi And Mose Allison, but it was Asher Gamadze’s Dialectic Soul that caught my attention most and its relevance for the world situation.
In between walks and the solace of village churchyards, with their perfect isolation, books were read and a good many films found their way onto the small screen at our household, but the BBC documentary on Ronnie Scott was especially moving and Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series an insightful walk down Memory Lane.
The turmoil of the year was tinged with sadness, and times hearing Peter King, Don Weller, Keith Tippett, Ron Rubin, Lee Konitz, Annie Ross and many others were brought to mind. Stay safe and healthy.