Last Call Reviews: Best of 2020
Last Call host Chris Cooke has selected a number of discs that are worth your attention for the best adventuresome jazz discs of 2020. New reviews will be posted here, and links to previously reviewed discs will be furnished here also for your reading pleasure.
Nduduzo Makhathini-Modes of Communication/Letters From the Underworlds/Blue Note
A truly profound experience of ritual issues forth from South African pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, whose inspired Modes of Communication/Letters From the Underworlds is easily one of the finest recordings of 2020. Makhathini, an award winning jazz pianist, has assembled a band of all stars, including Logan Richardson(alto saxophone), Linda Sikhakhane(tenor saxophone), Ndabo Zulu (trumpet) and others. The intent is to create music which "creates bridges and channels/spaces for dialogue to and from the realms of our ancestors", according to Makhathini. And that intent is achieved through inspired music which is Coltranesque. Highlights of the disc include "Unyazi", "Shine", and "Umlotha". Highly recommended.
Joel Harrison + 18/America at War/Sunnyside Records
Veteran jazz guitarist Joel Harrison brings together an all-star ensemble of 18 players for a very heartfelt, emotive release. "America at War" is a tribute to the veterans. "I respect veterans--less so the leaders who have put them in harm's way", states Harrison, in the introduction to this honest musical commentary on the impact of near continous United States engagement in foreign military wars since the late 1950s. "America at War" begins with "March on Washington", featuring Harrison's fiery guitar work in front of his fully alive orchestra that culminates in a literal shout of protest from the band. "My Father in Nagasaki" is a musical portrait of Harrison's father's experience of being one of the first two American soldiers in Nagasaki after an atomic bomb was dropped on the city. Other selections include "Gratitude", based on a traumatic brain injury the guitarist suffered in recent years and the moving lament of "Reqiuem for an Unkown Soldier". Harrison's stellar cast on this recording includes band conductor Matt Holman, trumpeters Seneca Black and Ingrid Jensen, tenor saxophonists Jon Irabagon and Stacy Dillard, and many others. Arguably one of the finest recordings of 2020.
One of the most inspired recordings of 2020 was from saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin. Read my review of her brilliant release, Pursuance: The Coltranes.
Robby Krieger/The Ritual Begins at Sundown/The Players Club
The jazz mailbag in 2020 brought us a pleasant surprise. Legendary guitarist and songwriter of The Doors, Robby Krieger, released the jazz rock disc The Ritual Begins at Sundown. In his 9th studio album guitarist Kreiger gets together with his co-writer and co-producer, bassist Arthur Barrow, who notably worked with Frank Zappa during the 1970s and 1980s. Other players on the date include Zappa alumni such as Jock Ellis(trombone), Sal Marquez(Trumpet) and Tommy Mars(Keyboards). The result is a vibrant, exciting, fully alive session. Highlights include the mysterious "What Was That?", "Slide Home(where Krieger's guitar artistry is prominently featured)" and groovy burner "Hot Head". Initially influenced by Wes Montgomery, Albert King, Joan Baez and Larry Carlton before joining the legendary group The Doors, Robby Krieger performs brilliantly here. "The Ritual Begins at Sundown" is a recording that will leave you thoroughly satisfied.
Rez Abbasi/Django-shift/Whirlwind Recordings
Acclaimed guitarist Rez Abbasi has explored on his previous albums a wide range of music, from straight ahead jazz to classic fusion to South Asian Qawwali and Indian classical traditions. All played with consistent relaxed authority. For his latest project Abbasi has chosen to explore the music of legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. And with the sympathetic company of Neil Alexander on organ and electronics and Michael Sarin on drums, the throughly satisfying result is Django-shift. Ranging from electrified and adventuresome covers of "Diminishing" and "Swing 42" and "Anniversary Song(arguably the centerpiece of this very fine album)" to straight ahead numbers such as "Django's Castle" and "Cavalerie", Abbasi and his trio create a homage that is warm and enchanting, presenting the great music of the legendary guitar master in an updated context.
The trio GoGo Peguin released another brilliant recording in 2020. Read my review of their self-titled release.
Charlie Ballentine/ Vonnegut/ Green Mind Records
One of the most striking records of 2020 is inspired by the works of legendary writer Kurt Vonnegut. Guitarist Charlie Ballentine, with a string of fine releases already to his credit, presents a recording of thoughtful music with Vonnegut in mind. The opener, the western-flavored "Sympathy for Malachi Constant", Vonnegut's anti-hero from the Sirens of Titan, is very impressive. "No Damn Cat, No Damn Cradle" is the centerpiece of the session. Driven by a melancholy mood, Ballentine and his band present music inspired by the book of the same name. And the date closes with the guitarist making a very effective solo statement on "So it goes". Fans of Vonnegut know his brief statement is featured prominently in his compelling book Slaughterhouse-Five, partly based on author personally witnessing the firebombing of Dresden, Germany as a POW in World War II. Charlie Ballentine, guitar is joined by Amanda Gardier, alto saxophone and bass clarinet; Rob Dixon, tenor and soprano saxophone; Mina Keohane, piano; Jesse Wittman, bass; Cassius Goens, drums and Rob Funkhouser, music box. Ballentine's finest record to date and well worth your attention.