I can think of no better summation of our shared experience over the last year than "A World Lost," the title of the piece that opens Maria Schneider's Data Lords. A slow, foreboding dirge in an oblong time signature, it instantly sets a tone of somber contemplation. Revisiting it now, as an overture to the most critically acclaimed jazz album of 2020, I hear a chronicle of pained nostalgia — mindful of the unbearable losses of life and livelihood, and the more slippery deprivations of place and custom, that marked the past year. I also think of all the old rituals that knitted a constituency into a scene, and how many of those were taken for granted.
Schneider knows this heartsick constellation of feelings well, but her intention behind "A World Lost" came from another time and place. As she told NPR Music when the album was released in July, she was thinking about the wide-open, daydreamy internal landscapes that we, as individuals and as a society, are often guilty of smothering with a flood of unfiltered input and twitchy distraction. "Last summer," she muses in her liner notes (referring to 2019, not 2020), "an old high school classmate told me how kids in our hometown no longer socially gather to the degree we did years ago. He said kids largely keep isolated, as they're drawn into their individual electronic worlds." When I reread that anecdote early last week — just after the holiday break, as my own children were plugging back into their school-issued Chromebooks at our dining room table — it struck an even more despondent chord than the ones Schneider wrote into the song.
Frank Kimbrough sounds the first of those chords at the piano: His low, tolling motif establishes the mood of "A World Lost," with a shadowy grace that was his trademark in the Maria Schneider Orchestra for more than a quarter-century. The last time I heard the band in person, at the Jazz Standard in New York in December of 2019, those nuances of tone in Kimbrough's playing — projected clearly, somehow, from within the richly textured 18-piece orchestra — were among the details I savored. I also vividly recall Kimbrough's Cheshire grin as he ambled over during the break to engage in some of the usual self-deprecation, and to inquire after the family.
This memory haunts me, because the final month in "the year of our collective dread 2020," as Ann Powers indelibly put it in a soulful essay not long ago, began and ended for me in stunned sorrow. On Dec. 2, the Jazz Standard announced that it would not reopen post-pandemic, joining a growing list of independent venues to fall permanently to the coronavirus recession. Then on Dec. 30, Kimbrough died of an apparent heart attack (not, as far as we know, because of COVID). These two departures felt inextricable as soon as I was able to process them. Without realizing it, I'd been holding on to the idea of some moment in the shapeless future when I would be settling my tab at the Standard, and all of a sudden Frank Kimbrough is clasping a hand on my shoulder, saying something like "Look out, this man is dangerous." The gathering place, the social graces. The rug pulled out from under us, again.
I was just starting in on Kimbrough's obituary — one of about 30 that I wrote in 2020 — when my phone pinged. It was a message from another leading jazz pianist, Aaron Parks: "Oh man, Kimbrough. Damn this year." This was a small gesture, but a welcome reminder: there were flickers of light and grace in our terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. And among the many changes forced upon us, there were a few that bloomed from within — regarding my self-identity as a critic, my relationship to a community and the responsibilities inherent in each of those roles. Here, let me explain.
The Sultan Room is a hallucinatory head trip of a club nestled along a gentrifying block of Bushwick, Brooklyn. When it opened in the summer of 2019 — part of a kitsch complex that also included a Turkish supper club and a takeaway kabob counter — the venue was hailed for its eclectic programming. But the Sultan Room's most distinctive attribute might best be described as a vibe. Those geometric lines and psychedelic lighting, the crisp sound and intimate scale, all added up to a trippy but welcoming air in the room, along with a hint of the otherworldly. It was the perfect spot to experience pianist Kris Davis' insinuative, exploratory Diatom Ribbons project, in a Winter Jazzfest showcase almost precisely one year ago.
Diatom Ribbons, the album, took No. 1 in the 2019 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll. Those results were still a couple of days out at the time of the show, last Jan. 12. But there was electricity in the air regardless — even by the heightened standards of Winter Jazzfest, an industry summit and musical Choose-Your-Own-Adventure that I've come to regard as the most frenetically sociable time of the year. I remember walking into the neon grotto of the Sultan Room and encountering a dozen different colleagues I'd missed while dashing in and out of a week's worth of shows and panels.
The warmth of our conversations, in between sets, mirrored the spirit on the bandstand. Diatom Ribbons was the byproduct of a collaboration between Davis, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and turntablist Val Jeanty, and they formed a magic triangle on the stage, the intensity of their listening almost creating a vortex in the room. They were joined by tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby, bassist Trevor Dunn and others; Esperanza Spalding hopped on to recite a poem. On social media, I posted pics from that night (including a blazing opening set by bassist Harish Raghavan) with a breathless caption: "Why is improvised music so vital in the 2020s? Plenty of reasons — and a good many of them were in the house at the Sultan Room tonight."
Could that all have been just a year ago? Time, as we know, has gone haywire. The charge in the room that night is easy to recall, but so much else about the moment feels like a fading echo from some faraway place. A World Lost. I caught other gigs, some of them excellent, in the two months between Winter Jazzfest and the onset of lockdown in New York. One evening I recall with unusual clarity was in late February at the Yamaha Piano Salon in Midtown, when I emceed a concert for WBGO featuring drummer Alison Miller and pianist Carmen Staaf. Most of what I remember is the effortless collegiality between the two musicians, and the way they lovingly accessed the jazz tradition without a trace of obeisance to it. But what also springs to mind is a moment before the concert, when several WBGO board members stood around discussing their concerns about the coronavirus, which we knew so little about. Six weeks later, one of those board members died of COVID.
I've mused aloud before about the grief shouldered by the jazz community last year, especially during that ghastly stretch in the spring. At the end of 2020, Jazz Night in America paid tribute with an In Memoriam radio episode, and commissioned trumpeter Keyon Harrold to perform an elegy. So there's no reason to restate the scope of our losses here — except maybe to point out that the artists we mourned were part of a larger musical ecology that also vanished, at least for the foreseeable future. What will that ecosystem resemble when clubs can feasibly reopen, and festivals start booking again, and artists can go back out on tour? I wonder whether this global reset can foster a more sustainable, more equitable, more accessible future for the music. There'll be so much ground to regain, so much rebuilding to do. But based on an array of conversations with musicians, arts presenters and my fellow writers over the last several months, I sense an opening.
A disaster of this magnitude turns every critic into an advocate. For many of us, of course, that function was already part of the equation. But as I look back on our distorted timeline, I'm struck by how great a percentage of my energy was devoted to crisis response: detailing the collapse of an infrastructure; sounding the call for public support; spreading the word about everything from a relief fund to a Bandcamp Friday release. Everything felt pressurized by a desperate sense of purpose. I blame this feeling for the fact that it was much more difficult than usual to produce a ballot for the critics' polls; what do rankings really matter when the world is falling down?
The first pandemic story that I filed was a news report for Morning Edition on the effect that venue and festival cancelations would have on the jazz economy; it featured an interview with British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, whose band Shabaka and the Ancestors had been ramping up for a major tour. That story broadcast on March 19, the same day NPR Music published a piece I wrote about Aaron Parks and his tentative decision to proceed with a new album announcement. (His lead single was "Solace," an apt offering, though he could also have gone with "Is Anything Okay?") The album-release engagement for his Little Big II: Dreams of a Mechanical Man was then still scheduled for the middle of May — "and it's unclear whether clubs in New York will be back in business again," I wrote. My assessment turned out to be a lot less perceptive than one articulated by Parks.
"It's a really, really sad situation," he said, extrapolating on what he'd seen unfolding abroad. "I'm not sure how ready we are for that. We're probably going to want to hide from how we feel, to a certain extent — to put up buffers and protect ourselves — but I do think we really need to be able to feel. We need to have that empathy within ourselves wide awake during a time like this. Just being concerned with our own individual safety and comfort, that's not going to cut it."
Jazz critics have always had a complicated relationship with jazz musicians. It's complicated not only for the obvious reasons — that unfortunate mix of imprecise craft, unchecked bias, and conflict of interest that once led the legendary record producer Orrin Keepnews to declare jazz criticism "a bad idea, poorly executed" — but also because of a lurking codependence at its core. When musicians carp about the uselessness of critics, I tend to keep my disagreement to myself. Because while I firmly believe that a robust criticism is crucial to the well-being of any art form, I'm also aware of how easy it is to drop the ball, and how much damage can blithely be done.
Partly because of the role models I had as a young critic almost 25 years ago, I've long taken pains to preserve a respectful distance between myself and the artists I covered. Without falling for the myth of pure objectivity, I placed my faith in the idea of boundaries. When I joined Facebook in 2008, I made the gut decision not to accept friend requests from musicians, later going so far as to explain my policy in JazzTimes. One artist dinged me for inflated self-importance, a fair judgment. Still, the alternative seemed so messy and compromised. As a workaday critic, my obligation was clear, at least to me. It wouldn't help anyone to pull my punches, or change my compass, on account of personal allegiance. Fairness is the whole point. Right? Why would that ever change?
The pandemic took so many things from us, but it gave us a few things too. For my household, a deeper bond emerged in the fraught stillness of lockdown. Musicians improvised new ways of connecting with listeners, and with each other. As our interminable spring yielded to summer, many awakened to the urgent cause of #BlackLivesMatter, on a scale we'd never seen before — a direct response to the horrors unfolding on our screens, in a virtual town square momentarily uncluttered by the usual rhythms of work and play. The first time my family ventured into an actual town square, breaking the sanctity of our bubble, it was for a protest march that felt both like a civic duty and in some ways a privilege: Here was the spirit of community we'd so dearly missed, conscientiously masked and distanced, united in voice and mission.
It was around this time that Aaron Parks and his wife, María José Galindo, moved to Beacon, N.Y., the Hudson Valley town that I've called home for the last decade. After hearing about this through a mutual acquaintance, I sent Parks a welcoming email. Without giving the matter much thought, I floated the idea of a backyard social call, though we hadn't yet crossed that line with anyone other than a next-door neighbor. It took a few weeks, but one afternoon in late August there we were, sitting in lawn chairs a comical distance apart, watching my daughters play with the Parks' puppy. We talked about puppy care — we were about to get one of our own — and Beacon landmarks, and pandemic surreality. María was seven months pregnant, so we talked about the excitement and anxiety of a new baby, too. It all felt perfectly natural, which on further reflection seemed like the only unnatural thing about it.
"I think that yes, there was some element of it that in normal time might have felt stranger," Parks said recently of that afternoon. "But in those days, the idea of what roles we would play as musician and critic, that stuff all fell away. It was just like, 'Here's a family that's trying to figure out how to adjust to life in this strange new world as well.'"
Less than three weeks later, my family got that puppy. And in short order, at the Parks' invitation, we joined a small circle of locals who gathered with their dogs in a field down the street; in a text thread, this confab called itself "Puppy Crew." Over the next month or so, I found myself conversing with Parks a few times a week, in actual physical proximity, while the dogs ran. Along with the small talk, there were conversations about music, and tentative efforts to reboot the scene. Among his core musical affiliations is one with Carrington, in her protest-minded Social Science band; when she was announced as a 2021 NEA Jazz Master, we talked about how deserving she is of the honor, in a way that felt unburdened by decorum, and unselfconsciously human.
The same was true when we discussed a piece I reported about Keith Jarrett for the New York Times, sharing the sad news that due to a series of strokes, he may never play the piano in public again. Few jazz artists have ever had a more contentious relationship with critics than Jarrett — I once saw him berate a colleague by name from the Carnegie Hall stage — while being the beneficiary of so much fawning coverage. I've reviewed Jarrett in concert, both in solo piano mode and with the blue-chip trio he led for 30 years with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Whenever I did, I took pains to be evenhanded, assuring myself that a mixed or even tough assessment was justified by critical candor. But to hear Jarrett talk about his creative output is to hear a man speaking about his whole self, his experience in the world (and in his head) up to that moment. I'm not sure I fully reckoned with the implications of that idea until we were on the phone lamenting the dimensions of what he'd lost.
Peacock, who died in 2020, is part of that wreckage. But the most heartbreaking realization about Jarrett's circumstance was the idea that he felt severed from both the piano and his public. I believe the pandemic, which stripped away so much of our social binding, intensified reaction to the piece; it was that much easier to imagine his isolation. Some readers reached out to say it felt like mourning a death.
Days after the story dropped, I ventured out to The Falcon, an excellent venue not far from Beacon, which had found a workaround for New York state's restrictions on live music by presenting unbilled shows on an outdoor stage. This show featured keyboardist John Medeski, guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Joe Dyson — only my third time hearing a band in person since early March. Aaron and María met me and a friend there, and we sat in our parkas enjoying dinner before the set. DeJohnette was at a nearby table with his wife, Lydia, and we all talked briefly about how everyone had been holding up.
The outrageous good fortune of that evening — the miracle of the music, the fellowship, the sensation of something being quenched — stretched into the wee hours, when María delivered her baby, Lucas River Parks. "She was definitely in early labor during that concert, without being aware of it," Aaron reflects now. "The music started a rhythm that just never stopped. It carried us right on through until 4:50 a.m."
During the set, there had been moments when Dyson's drumming in particular caused both of us to shake our heads, murmuring low, appreciative noises. At one point I leaned over to remark how DeJohnette might be experiencing this performance, by an exemplary young inheritor of his style. In fact, Parks was so taken with Dyson's groove that he asked him to join his quartet for a forthcoming gig at The Jazz Gallery. It's happening as a livestream on Jan. 21, with Immanuel Wilkins on alto saxophone and Ben Street on bass. My critical opinion is that it will be well worth watching. I'd hasten to add a disclosure, but that's probably unnecessary if you've read this far.
When I reflect on how much suffering the pandemic has inflicted, I also try to remember the things it made possible — not in some kind of silver-linings gloss but as a matter of perspective. I've discussed this with Aaron, the notion of counting our blessings. "I think of not only Lucas himself but the fact that I was in town for the entirety of María's pregnancy," he says. "I don't know that I would ever have been able to take this amount of time off the road. It's something that just wouldn't have happened without this." This, of course, meaning the pandemic and everything it put on hold, while we did our best to make sense of so many endings and beginnings.
"Hits different" — perhaps you've encountered this coinage over the last year or so, since its leap from a corner of YouTube fandom into the mainstream lexicon of social media. The extraordinary solo piano album that Jarrett released last year, Budapest Concert, hits different with the knowledge that it's a souvenir of his final tour. "Hooded procession (read the names outloud)," the elegiac closing track from Ambrose Akinmusire's latest album, hits different in light of the #SayHerName chants following the death of Breonna Taylor — even though, as the song urges us to consider, the underlying injustice goes back farther than any of us can recall.
As we lumber into a new season of hope and heartbreak, watching the news for portents, I'm aware of some kind of rewiring in my own perceptions. The critical apparatus I've honed, over a lifetime of receptive listening, feels changed in some undeniable way. I'm beginning to understand that the whole dutiful scaffolding of dispassionate remove — a policy passed down as if etched on stone tablets — may have always been more about protecting the critic than serving the music. What would it feel like to refuse the safety of that position? To recenter the discipline with a more humanist aim? To weigh the edicts of an arbiter against all the mitigating factors, including those I bring to the table myself?
I can only begin to answer these questions, and so far the answer is that it feels destabilizing. It may help to explain why I've lately been drawn to some music for extramusical reasons — drawing a particular sustenance, for instance, from the network of relationships connecting Micah Thomas' Tide to Immanuel Wilkins' Omega to Joel Ross' Who Are You? to Rob Mazurek's Dimensional Stardust to Nicole Mitchell and Lisa E. Harris' Earthseed. Instead of a list of albums, I thought about a matrix of connections. I thought about the positive musical embodiment of a superspreader — like guitarist Jeff Parker, who turned up on at least six terrific albums in 2020, including his own Suite For Max Brown.
One of the last phone conversations I had in 2020 was with Maria Schneider, hours after we'd both learned that Frank Kimbrough was gone. I was seeking a quote for his obit, but in the fog of our mutual shock and sadness, it felt more like we were sharing consolations. Speaking through tears, Schneider made the suggestion that certain musical relationships achieve a sort of deep connection that isn't available even to the closest friends and family. Night after night, striving together toward an elusive ideal, achieving the highest creative highs together. I murmured my agreement as an outside observer, but one with investment in the idea. I knew what she was talking about because I'd felt it in the room.
Schneider divided Data Lords into two halves, "The Digital World" and "Our Natural World," with the latter meant to acknowledge the parts of human experience still unmediated by technology. One piece on that portion of the album bears the title "Braided Together," after a phrase in a Ted Kooser poem — and that idea of interwovenness, of how we support each other, hits different now.
Over Thanksgiving, when the Maria Schneider Orchestra would traditionally have been in residency at the Jazz Standard, Schneider posted a two-hour video to the band's Facebook page, featuring footage from both the recording sessions and a recent engagement at the Jazz Standard. It concludes with the band gathering over a video-sharing service, with all the fondness and awkward pauses of a virtual family reunion. (For a few minutes they all just watch an old clip of the band's drummer, Johnathan Blake, appearing on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood at age 6 with his late father, violinist John Blake.)
Precisely an hour into the video, there's footage from the Jazz Standard of a piece Schneider titled "Look Up." As on Data Lords, it begins with a brief solo by Kimbrough, unspooling impressionistic phrases in a major key. In her introduction, Schneider tells the audience that its title refers simply to the wonders above, which are easy to miss with a head buried in your phone.
As I consider all the ways my attention turned inward over the last year, and whatever transformation has been happening there, this feels like a plain, useful prompt. It's not enough to ruminate on the world we lost, or even the one we hope to rebuild. There's also the exhortation Schneider offers to the crowd that night, and by extension now to us, whatever our dawning resolutions: "Don't forget to look up."