Monday, June 3, 2019

Music Week

Music: current count 31587 [31558] rated (+29), 248 [251] unrated (-3).

So, 29 again. Ran the counter this afternoon, after I found a missed grade and added a "remembered LP" grade -- an LP I distinctly remember having but which didn't get picked up when I jotted down my first grade list (mid-1990s, I think). I may have cut it some slack -- main thing I remember was being disappointed by it.

Once again, surprised that I bagged that many -- after a very slow start, one that kept the Salamon Freequestra album in the changer for close to three days. Finished with Alfred Soto's top 20 list, checking out Mountain Goats, National, Tyler, and Weyes Blood, leaving me with only 5 A- records from his 20 (Control Top's Covert Contracts, Billie Eilish's When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, Robert Forster's Inferno, Lizzo's Cuz I Love You, and Nilüfer Yanya's Miss Universe). Only one Christgau pick in those five (Eilish), and only one more in Soto's other 15 (Sharon Van Etten's Remind Me Tomorrow, a low B+ for me).

Speaking of Eilish, Phil Freeman dissed her album in the course of making a Facebook rant:

I will never stop griping about "Best Albums of [Year]" lists that should be called "Best *Pop and Indie Rock* Albums of [Year]". Billie fucking Eilish's album (to pick but one example: sub in Tyler, the Creator if you're worried about sexism) is not better than the Art Ensemble of Chicago's, so own your ignorance or just fuck off, OK? And no, I'm not saying all jazz > all pop. I hear shitty jazz records every day. I'm just saying that if you're simply ignoring the possibility that a jazz album could even be one of the best records of the year, especially given what's been happening in the genre in the last 4-5 years, that's *fucked up*, and major publications are fucking up by doing it.

I commented, taking exception to his examples: Eilish is currently 12 on my Music Year 2019 list, behind 7 jazz albums (counting my top-rated Heroes Are Gang Leaders: The Amiri Baraka Sessions, which admittedly has vocals, although the other 6 don't) and 4 other non-jazz. Of course, Freeman isn't complaining about me ignoring jazz albums in my annual lists. And I'm not much bothered that who spends most of his non-jazz time listening to metal should have trouble appreciating a lo-fi girl singer-songwriter. Or even that he offers Tyler, a hip-hop artist who buries himself in soft off-kilter tones, as another option in hype. (I agree that he is overrated, but I also find Igor to be his most pleasing and interesting album yet.) Where I disagree is in positing that the Art Ensemble of Chicago survivors reunion album is this year's flagship jazz hope. I played it (both CDs) until I gave up all hope, then let if off easy with a B+(**), which is to say that I currently have at least 50 jazz records this year that I like better.

On the other hand, if I had to handicap the 2019 Jazz Critics Poll, I doubt I'd find more than a couple of my A- records in the top ten: James Brandon Lewis's An Unruly Manifesto seems most likely, then maybe Matthew Shipp's Signature, Moppa Elliott's Jazz Band/Rock Band/Dance Band, Quinssin Nachoff's Path of Totality, or David Berkman's Six of One -- hunches based as much on labels and publicists as on the records themselves. But none of those artists have fared well in past polls, which is a much stronger indicator. Some albums you're more likely to find on JCP ballots (my grades in brackets):

  • Art Ensemble of Chicago: We Are on the Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration (Pi, 2CD) [**]
  • Bill Frisell/Thomas Morgan: Epistrophy (ECM) [*]
  • Vijay Iyer/Craig Taborn: The Transitory Poems (ECM) [**]
  • Julian Lage: Love Hurts (Mack Avenue) [***]
  • Joe Lovano: Trio Tapestry (ECM) [***]
  • Branford Marsalis Quartet: The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul (Okeh) [***]
  • Matt Mitchell: Phalanx Ambassadors (Pi) [**]
  • Joshua Redman Quartet: Come What May (Nonesuch) [***]
  • Wadada Leo Smith: Rosa Parks: Pure Love: An Oratorio of Seven Songs (TUM) [*]
  • David Torn/Tim Berne/Ches Smith: Sun of Goldfinger (ECM) [***]

AEC looks pretty imposing on this list: it's big (last year was dominated by 2-CD releases and won by Wayne Shorter's 3-CD monstrosity), has historic cachet that reconciles the avant-garde with the tradition; it augments what's left of a legendary group augmented with lots of guest stars, and is on a label which always places records high in EOY polls (that same label is the reason Mitchell is on this list). None of the other records have that sort of cred, so maybe Freeman is right to pick it. My only complaint is that it isn't good enough. If I wanted to broaden the horizons of non-jazz critics, I'd start by recommending better records.

Christgau remarked recently that EOY list-building has more to do with brand identification than diligent sorting and ranking. I know that to be true of my own lists, where my brand is somone who listens to all kinds of things and doesn't give a fuck about what anyone else thinks. As the Dean, I figure Christgau is more focused on building a pantheon, but individual lists tend to be idiosyncratically personal (and his certainly is). Freeman's referring to corporate lists, which are carefully crafted to cater to a target audience. There's no place for jazz in most, not because their writers dislike jazz (although many do, or simply don't get the exposure -- hardly anyone hears much outside of their niche these days), but because their editors don't expect their readers to be interested in such things. So what you see is what you'd expect when people of limited knowledge try to write down to appeal/appease people who know even less.

Nonethless, as someone who has compiled literally thousands of EOY lists in recent years, I believe that there is actually a tiny trend toward more crossover jazz in predominantly indie/pop lists (although more so in UK than US). Last year the major breakthroughs were Kamasi Washington, Makaya McCraven, and Sons of Kemet (two A- records among those three, the other a high B+, so those picks were much more respectable as jazz than, say, Bad Bad Not Good from a few years back).

I could write volumes more on EOY lists (for data, see last year's EOY aggregate and Jazz Critics Poll). But my bottom line is learn what you can from the data, don't begrudge other people's pleasures, and don't rag on people for not liking what you like.

Back to my original thread about what I reviewed this week: beyond Soto's list, I looked at AOTY's Highest Rated Albums of 2019 and picked out a few records that seemed promising. Three sounded good enough to warrant multiple plays before I settled on B+(***): Fontaines D.C.'s Dogrel (1), Slowthai's Nothing Great About Britain (22), and Craig Finn's I Need a New War. Two previously graded A- in top 25: Dave's Psychodrama (2), and Little Simz's Grey Area (6), and a bunch more I haven't heard. By the way, the Lee Perry dive started with Christgau's review of Rainford. I couldn't find it on Napster, so went to Bandcamp. Obviously, a lot more Perry I haven't heard. I've always recommended the 3-CD compilation, Arkology, but that only gets you 4 prime years (expect overlap with Super Ape). I also really like the recent (2014) Back at the Controls.

New records reviewed this week:

Melissa Aldana: Visions (2019, Motéma): Tenor saxophonist, from Chile, studied at Berklee, won a Monk prize. Quintet, with Sam Harris (piano), Pablo Menares (bass), Joel Ross (vibes), and Tommy Crane (drums). Cites Frida Kahlo as inspiration. Mainstream postbop, emphasis on flow. B+(**)

Bruce Barth: Sunday (2017 [2018], Blau): Pianist, from California, more than a dozen albums since 1993. Tenor saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi threatens to take this over, but the pianist doubles down and plays harder. With Mark Hodgson on bass and Stephen Keogh on drums, recorded live in Spain. B+(**)

Jerry Bergonzi: The Seven Rays (2019, Savant): Tenor saxophonist, quintet with Phil Grenadier on trumper and Danish pianist Carl Winther's trio, same line-up as on 2017's Dog Star. More postbop, or maybe I just mean his sax rarely stands out. B+(*)

Dave Douglas/Uri Caine/Andrew Cyrille: Devotion (2018 [2019], Greenleaf Music): Trumpet-piano-drums trio, type suggests I could have credited it just to Douglas, but the other names are stacked above the title. Caine comes out aggressive here, but the trumpet never really takes charge. B+(*)

Ezra Collective: You Can't Steal My Joy (2019, Enter the Jungle): London-based jazz group, led by drummer Femi Koleoso with his brother TJ Koleoso on bass, Joe Armon-Jones on keys, plus trumpet and sax. More fusion than pop but that's a fine line. B

Craig Finn: I Need a New War (2019, Partisan): Fourth solo album, after fronting groups Lifter-Puller and the Hold Steady. Has a distinctive voice, writes fine songs about other interesting people, produces them with warmth and sparkle. Worried a bit that the reason the songs haven't sunk in yet is that they're less memorable than his best, but this sounds great, even if it wears a bit thin. Title refers to U.S. Grant, who would think such a thing. B+(***)

Fontaines D.C.: Dogrel (2019, Partisan): Irish post-punk group, led by singer Grian Chatten, first album, 11 songs in 39:55, most with rhythm that reminds me of the Roadrunners with a soupçon of Pogues, ends on a ballad ("Dublin City Sky") that ripens the accent. B+(***)

Ryan Keberle & Catharsis: The Hope I Hold (2018 [2019], Greenleaf Music): Trombonist, has used this band name since 2012, with Scott Robinson (tenor sax), Jorge Roeder (bass), Eric Doob (drums), and Camila Meza (vocals/guitar). Songs inspired by Langston Hughes. B+(**) [cd]

Maren Morris: Girl (2019, Columbia Nashville): Nashville singer-songwriter, Wikipedia lists some juvenilia but her effective debut was a 2015 EP followed by her hit album, Hero. Her follow up sticks to formula, effectively oversinging on top of excess production. B

The Mountain Goats: In League With Dragons (2019, Merge): John Darnielle's 17th album, something to do with dungeons and dragons (the tabletop game), offers the level of songcraft we've come to expect, passes perhaps a bit too easily. B+(**)

The National: I Am Easy to Find (2019, 4AD): Alt/indie band from Cincinnati, released their debut in 2001, Matt Berninger has the voice, while the band has a knack for rhythm -- gives them reliable appeal, as we wait for special moments. Not enough this time, but the talkie "Not in Kansas" is one. B+(**)

Lee Scratch Perry: Rainford (2019, On-U Sound): Hard to know how much to credit dub, which takes existing tracks and adds echo and scratch, but Rainford Hugh Perry has a major player since the 1970s, spawning further dub masters like producer Adrian Sherwood here. Nine distinctive tracks dwell on his Upsetter theme, artfully enough to sound like everything and nothing else before. A-

Rotten Girlz: Punk You (2018 [2019], Sazas): Slovenian jazz guitarist Samo Salamon's project. Seems like the original idea was to do something rockish, to which end he wrote some lyrics and recruited Eva Fozenel to sing. But his band -- saxophonist Achille Succi and drummer Bojan Krhianko -- didn't see any reason to temper down their jazz chops. The singer tried some scat, then dropped out after 5 cuts. B+(*) [cd]

Samo Salamon & Freequestra: Free Sessions, Vol. 2: Freequestra (2016 [2019], Klopotec): Slovenian guitarist, has been producing 3-5 albums per year since 2004. Group here expands from his Rotten Girls trio to twelve, with two more guitarists, piano, violin, tuba, more horns, and a second drummer. Vol. 1 was released in 2017 as Planets of Kei. A- [cd]

Samo Salamon/Szilárd Mezei/Jaka Berger: Swirling Blind Unstilled (2018 [2019], Klopotec): Guitar-viola-drums trio. Mezei was featured in Freequestra Vol. 1, but missed out on Vol. 2. Similar moves here, but the group is too sparse to sweep you away. B+(**) [cd]

Slowthai: Nothing Great About Britain (2019, Method): English rapper Tyron Frampton, from Northampton, first album, after two EPs and several singles. Hard/harsh but austere beats, thick accent, hard to catch much of an album where words are the main course. B+(***)

Peter Stampfel and the Atomic Meta Pagans: The Ordovician Era (2019, Don Giovanni): Scratchy-voiced folksinger's follow up to The Cambrian Explosion, the ancient eras represented in his selection of moldy standards. Cover adds "featuring Shelley Hirsch." B+(*)

Mavis Staples: We Get By (2019, Anti-): Quickly became the star of her father's gospel family act, tried going secular in the 1970s, much later finding her calling as the torch bearer of the civil rights movement. At 80 she has more gravitas than anyone needs, which lends extra heft to Ben Harper's solemn songs. A-

Tyler, the Creator: Igor (2019, Columbia): Tyler Okonma, Odd Future rapper turned soul crooner and slinky r&b producer -- an improvement, for once. B+(**)

Vampire Weekend: Father of the Bride (2019, Columbia): Fourth album, first three were alt/indie darlings, but this one -- six years after the last, minus music wizard Rostam Batmanglij, leaving singer Ezra Koenig the main writer, plus a number of guests -- is a sprawling 18-cut mix: cheerful, often catchy, rarely compelling, with a couple cuts where the pop gets overly ripe. Not something I care about enough to figure out. B+(**)

Weyes Blood: Titanic Rising (2019, Sub Pop): Natalie Mering, moniker a corruption of a Flannery O'Connor novel (Wise Blood). Fourth album, heavily orchestrated. B-

Old music:

Jerry Bergonzi Trio: Lost in the Shuffle (1998, Double Time): With Dan Wall on organ and Adam Nussbaum on drums. Mostly originals (one Hart & Rodgers standard), strong tenor sax showing. B+(**)

Jerry Bergonzi: Spotlight on Standards (2016, Savant): "Witchcraft," "Dancing in the Dark," "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Stella by Starlight," others less famous. Backed by organ (Renato Chicco) and drums (Andrea Michelutti), more energy than a great ballad album needs, but this tenor saxophonist has always been restless. B+(***)

Lee Perry: Africa's Blood (1971, Trojan): First LP under his own name, most songs attributed to the Upsetters, although the opening James Brown riff is credited to Dave Barker, and Winston Price also gets a feature. Perry wrote everything but "My Girl," a weak signal of the song. B+(*)

Lee Perry and the Upsetters: Some of the Best (1968-79 [1985], Heartbeat): One of the first US compilations of Perry productions, with credits to Dave Barker, Bob Marley, Junior Byles, and Linval Thompson, as well as lots of Upsetters. Not sure of the dates, but most pre-1974. All singles-length (2:07-3:43). Few stand out, but "Keep On Shanking" is the operative motto. B+(***)

The Upsetters: Super Ape (1976, Mango): Lee Perry's first record appeared in 1969, and through the 1970s he mostly recorded as the Upsetters. This one originally appeared as Scratch the Super Ape in Jamaica, then was picked up by Island, introducing him to the world. This may have seemed slight, or just weird, at the time, its dub effects obscuring reggae's pop sense, but it seems like a classic now. In fact, one cut seems like a radical remix of Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves" -- a hit a year later, produced by Perry. A-

The Upsetters: Return of the Super Ape (1978, Upsetter): The sequel, didn't get the Island distribution but has been reissued a dozen times or more, with Cleopatra crediting this to Lee "Scratch" Perry & the Upsetters. B+(**)

Added grades for remembered lps from way back when:

  • Lee "Scratch" Perry: The Return of Pipecock Jackxon (1980, Black Star Liner): B

Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:

  • Akiko Hamilton Dechter: Equal Time (Capri): June 21
  • Satoko Fujii/Ramon Lopez: Confluence (Libra): July 29

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