This piece could just as easily have been called, with appropriate credit to Daniel Defoe, ‘A Journal Of The Musical Plague Year’. The previous year had been too weird and confusing to really get a handle on how the by-now thoroughly cliched new normal was going to affect my music listening. Bob Dylan had provided 2020’s big highlight, out of the blue and about a year short of his 80th birthday, by releasing firstly a remarkable 17-minute song, Murder Most Foul, and then, just about when people were starting to suggest that it sounded like an older recording and wondering whether it could therefore be his swansong, ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’, a consistently superb double album that continues to reveal additional treasures listen by rapt listen.
I love vinyl as much the next person and own way more of it than most but, given the cost and local scarcity of LPs, CDs by the thousands upon thousands had for decades been my way to keep several generically different musical balls in the air at once. Therefore I learnt with a degree of excitement and some self-justification in a recent article in Rolling Stone by the excellent Rob Sheffield that last year CD sales increased for the first time in 17 years. My brief frisson was soon dashed, though, when he pointed out that this was probably due to the fact that Adele’s latest offering had sold especially well and that CD sales, as relatively small as they were, had been dragged along in its wake. This tells me two things – that this might not happen again until Adele reaches another milestone birthday, and that the demise of the CD has not improved the musical taste of the general public in the slightest.
I could initially only find that Dylan album on vinyl in this country and it cost me a thousand rand inclusive of courier fees from Johannesburg to Durban … but then it was pressed on olive green vinyl after all. I ultimately got hold of a CD copy about a year later. Let me just say that this involved engaging with a well-known online company whose search engine threw up Bob the Builder as a viable option in my quest for Bob Dylan. Nor was there any mention of ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’ on the site at the time of my search.
Anyway, being neither a natural streamer nor downloader, I found myself coping by finally getting round to revisiting parts of my vinyl collection, watching YouTube a little more frequently than in the past, and even engaging, albeit briefly and sporadically, with musically orientated social media. So I hardly noticed my relative lack of investiture in the new music of 2020 and it didn’t appear to matter as this was clearly going to be a passing problem.
But last year’s combination of a music business with an ever-diminishing interest in any physical carriers of sound whatsoever, the resulting almost total demise of the South African record shop, an apparently terminally dysfunctional postal system and the new difficulty and significantly increased cost involved in getting unusual music in from overseas, along, it must be said, with my own stubborn refusal to exchange a huge physical collection for a streaming account, meant that hearing the music I was reading about was starting to become a serious issue. My usual annual purchase of a few hundred CDs dwindled to maybe a couple of dozen. The solution had been obvious to nearly everyone but me for some years, and so Spotify, whose existence had previously chafed against the very fibre of my musical being and which still sounds like a teenage pimple cream to me, rode to the rescue.
The result of all of this produced confirmation, if I had ever needed it, that, while my particular favourites might let me down from time to time, there were always others more than ready to step into their shoes and that these others were quite often drawn from the ranks of the previously unheard, and sometimes unheard of, by me. So, although it might not have delivered quite the clear Album of the Year that Dylan did for me in 2020, 2021 threw up the customary array of fabulous records, just as almost every year has done for more than fifty years.
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & the London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
Of course, jazz musicians often create exciting, sometimes thrilling and occasionally even ground-breaking music into more advanced age than musicians in other types of popular music, or, in the case of nearly everyone mentioned in this piece besides Adele, semi-popular music. So the fact that a number of jazzmen already in their eighties – for example Charles Lloyd, Andrew Cyrille, Archie Shepp and especially Pharoah Sanders, as well as the magisterial and only slightly younger bassist and composer Dave Holland who first played with Miles Davis back in 1968 – simply did what was expected of them didn’t caused as much of a stir. In the case of Sanders, ‘Promises’, his collaboration with electronic musician Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra surprised because of the identities of the collaborating partners rather than because of his age. Sam Shepherd, to remind Floating Points of his given name, spreads a simple repeated and keyboard motif and its moods, variations, and extrapolations across nine movements and a bank of understated and carefully placed electronics where Sanders’ thoughtful and frequently lovely improvisations provide the focus and the entry of the LSO strings gives the work gravitas and heft. I wasn’t altogether convinced at first, but it quite soon became my default listening for several months and remained in Album of the Year contention until the very end. Sanders has been known and lauded across several decades for his fiery and frequently explosive tenor playing but on ‘Promises’ he mostly keeps the reins on though without sacrificing any of his customary emotion or spirituality until, briefly and in a way that makes it count, he finally unleashes.
John Coltrane – A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle
A younger, more sonically radical Sanders played with John Coltrane’s expanded group in the mid-’60s as the great man’s great quartet was reaching its end and here he’s part of a septet where he and extra bass player Donald Garrett joined Tyner, Jones and Garrison – as well, for this date, as altoist Carlos Ward – on a previously undiscovered live version of one of 20th century music’s outright classics. It’s more than twice as long as the studio original with extended extemporisations on the four tracks that are often fierce if occasionally a little ragged, and four added interludes that that don’t really take matters further. Only one other complete live recording of what many still consider the pinnacle of spiritual jazz is known to exist. A few have suggested that Coltrane didn’t play it live much because he wasn’t completely satisfied with it. More think it was because even he realised that you couldn’t repeat perfection, much less top it.
Archie Shepp & Jason Moran – Let My People Go
Archie Shepp, the original ‘Fire Music’ tenorist, had augmented Coltrane’s quartet for a ‘Love Supreme’ studio take that failed to make it onto the original album, but his mere presence at the session illustrated his status as a saxophonic firebrand for the ages. In 1977 he appeared to go against type and made one of my favourite jazz albums, ‘Goin’ Home’, with similarly attack-minded pianist Horace Parlan where the tenderness, respect and outright melodicism with which they treated a programme of hymns, spirituals and other black folk tunes was notable. Shepp has in fact made a number of duet records with piano players and last year he released this one comprising festival recordings that he had made with Jason Moran, reprising a couple of the ‘Goin’ Home’ tunes, adding a few jazz standards and achieving much the same successful artistic result as before.
Charles Lloyd & the Marvels – Tone Poem
‘Tone Poem’ is the third album by the veteran Lloyd with this group and the first of these not to feature any singers. There is, however, a very strong song feel to a set which starts with a couple of Ornette Coleman compositions and includes both Monk’s Mood and Leonard Cohen’s Anthem. The Marvels are unusual for a jazz outfit in their inclusion of both a guitarist, the wonderful Bill Frisell, and a steel guitarist, Greg Leisz, who is probably better known for his work in Frisell’s own bands and in the roots music field broadly described as Americana. Their interplay with the leader, whether he’s on sax or flute, gives the Marvels a very satisfyingly particular sound and texture.
Andrew Cyrille Quartet – The News
Frisell’s guitar is also a mainstay of this quartet led by Cyrille whose recording career started with Coleman Hawkins 60 years ago but soon identified him as one of the leading free jazz drummers of his generation as he played with the likes of Cecil Taylor, in Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra and later behind David Murray while establishing a solid reputation as a leader. On ‘The News’, where the music is largely contemplative, Cyrille’s role is more as an arranger of space and reflection than as a timekeeper, perhaps in the vein of Paul Motian with whom Frisell previously made so much magnificent music.
Dave Holland – Another Land
Eventually the Holland and Lewis albums fought it out for my vote as the straight-ahead jazz record of the year with ‘Jesup Waqon’ just tipping the scales at the end, though that could easily change next time I listen to ‘Another Land’. Holland, whose various groups have generally been at or near the forefront of modern jazz for decades, with his quintets ruling the game around the turn of the century, just never seems to make an inessential album.
James Brandon Lewis – Jesup Wagon
Lewis, a tenor saxophonist in whose playing one easily hears the influence of canonical greats like Coltrane and even Albert Ayler and in whose compositions one detects the guidance of both Coltrane and Ornette Coleman yet whose overall effect is not only impressively challenging but fresh, exciting and even new, formed the Red Lily Quintet and composed seven pieces across a broad stylistic range to celebrate the life and work of the multi-disciplinary scientist/artist/philosopher George Washington Carver. The quintet features cornet and cello along with a rhythm section with the mighty William Parker on bass.
William Parker – Mayan Space Station / Painters Winter
Parker, who may be the leading bass player in contemporary free jazz, released several albums in 2021, one of which comprised no fewer than ten discs. The two mentioned above are trio recordings with ‘Mayan Space Station’ giving Ava Mendoza’s noise and post-rock infused guitar acres of space in which to play, while ‘Painters Winter’ features another leading avant-garde drummer, Hamid Drake, and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter. Holland’s ‘Another Land’ is also a trio record featuring guitar. This time the player is Kevin Eubanks, for many years a wide-ranging stylist as fluent as he is funky.
Craig Taborn – Shadow Plays
Despite the fact that contemporary jazz constantly discovers astonishing new talent, at some level it is deeply incestuous. Eubanks had previously recorded with two separate Holland quartets a mere 24 years apart. Pianist Craig Taborn had been in the second of those quartets. In 2019 Taborn and Vijay Iyer made a terrific album of piano duets. In 2021 they released, separately, my two favourite piano albums of the year. Taborn’s is solo, improvised and displays a quite remarkable grasp of the historical pianistic influences that have become part of his very being as he mixes, matches and then all but sheds them in order to produce something entirely his own.
Vijay Iyer – Uneasy
Iyer, once a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship (the USA’s so-called “genius” award) and a professor at Harvard, is anything but academic in an approach that has made him one of the great contemporary improvisers. His London concert with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith about five years ago was one of the jazz nights of my life and easily provided, in the title of their then current album, a cosmic rhythm with each stroke. ‘Uneasy’ is a trio outing whose title might reflect not only the strongly political thread that runs through the music but also the fact that the music is constantly searching rather than allowing the participants or the listener to settle for any length of time.
Sons Of Kemet – Black To The Future
While 2020 was passing most of us by, pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, the first South African to be signed to Blue Note, released ‘Modes Of Communication: Letters From The Underworlds’, his debut for the illustrious label. Makhathini had been part of the Shabaka & the Ancestors project where British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings had collaborated with a gathering of progressive South African musicians to create two fine albums. Hutchings might just be the current crown prince of UK jazz, certainly the strain that looks to keep pushing at its conventional boundaries. In addition to a staggering assembly of side projects he is permanently a member of two important groups, the electronically-focused The Comet Is Coming and Sons Of Kemet where Hutchings is joined by two percussionists and a tuba. He spent a good deal of his childhood in Barbados where he often heard tuk bands, small parade or festival groups which are a kind of Afro-Caribbean version of the old colonial marching bands. The music on ‘Black To the Future’, another strong contender for Album of the Year, reflects those influences while incorporating elements from across the black music landscape. At its core, though, this is a dance record, a radical one with plenty to say but a dance record all the same and, perhaps surprisingly, a most accessible one. Read sequentially, the track titles tell their own story, one that is filled in and filled out by guest commentators, both vocal and instrumental, one of whom is poet and self-described “ranter” Josh Idehen who closes the album with an impassioned plea to “leave us alone”.
The Brother Moves On – Tolika Mtoliki
Siya Mthembu, also once a member of Shabaka & the Ancestors, is the vocalist in Johannesburg collective The Brother Moves On, whose ‘Tolika Mtoliki’ revisits – without, Mthembu assures, being a covers record – six pieces of South African musical history by Philip Tabane & Malombo, the Malopoets, Moses Molelekwa, Johnny Dyani and Batsumi but, most critically, former Blue Notes and Brotherhood Of Breath trumpeter Mongezi Feza, in order, as jazz writer Gwen Ansell put it, to resurface a musical heritage. While each of the stylistically different tracks has its own strength and meaning, none has the immediate and visceral impact of a version of Feza’s You Ain’t Gonna Know Me ’Cos You Think You Know Me where Mthembu delivers, in a manner reminiscent of Mzwakhe Mbuli but without the basso profundo, a bunch of uncomfortable truths over one of the most gloriously anthemic melodies in the local music canon, closing with the revelation that, “You think you fucking know me … that’s the problem.”
Malcom Jiyane Tree-O – Umdali
Malcolm Jiyane, a Johannesburg trombonist among other skills who is one of a number of musicians to have previously augmented The Brother Moves On, had forgotten about the sessions he had recorded three years earlier when he wound up in the studio to record what was going to be his Tree-o’s debut. When the earlier recordings were produced, he changed his mind, dusted them off, polished them up and released ‘Umdali’ instead, and we can be thankful that he did. It’s unsurprising, for any number of reasons, not all of them purely musical, that he has been touted as the successor to Jonas Gwangwa who died early in 2021. Possibly because it has survived a number of claims that jazz is dead, those who occupy its world are constantly looking for a succession plan. On the evidence of ‘Umdali’ they could be right as Jiyane pays thoughtful tribute to a deceased musician friend on Senzo seNkosi and takes a nonchalant but respectful stroll in the virtual company of Gwangwa himself. But the clincher is Life Esidimeni where all of the various emotions discharged by the health tragedy of the same name are poured into the album’s 11-minute centrepiece.
Terence Blanchard – Absence
Trumpeter Blanchard emerged from New Orleans at more or less the same time as Wynton Marsalis as part of an ’80s jazz generation giving the lie to the latest jazz-is-dead theories – it has to be admitted that it wasn’t breathing all that well at the time. In spite of his thoroughly impressive discography and the fact that he recently became the first black composer to have an opera presented by New York’s Metropolitan Opera, he may be best known these days for his regular musical contributions to the films of Spike Lee, around twenty of them if you count TV projects that include Lee’s masterly documentary series on Hurricane Katrina. For Absence, he seamlessly infuses contemporary jazz, both composed big band and improvising small group, with contemporary classical music by combining his E-Collective outfit with the renowned Turtle Island String Quartet. The album pays tribute to Wayne Shorter, the saxophonic titan who was a critical part of the development of jazz in the ’60s, ‘70s and beyond, both in his own name and as a member of the second great Miles Davis Quintet (Coltrane was on sax in the first) and fusion pioneers Weather Report. Five of the twelve tracks are Shorter compositions but it’s the man’s influence rather than his notes that prevails.
Joe Lovano & Dave Douglas Sound Prints – Other Worlds
Dave Douglas, my choice for the post-Miles trumpeter without whom, and Joe Lovano, a strong favourite for the position of leader of the post-Shorter tenor sax generation, formed their Sound Prints quintet with the fabulous Joey Baron on drums, bassist Linda May Han Oh (who plays in Vijay Iyer’s trio above) and pianist Lawrence Fields in order to pay tribute to Shorter for his 80th birthday. That was eight years ago. ‘Other Worlds’, their third album, has no compositions by Shorter this time, just a good deal of inspiration, a relentlessly investigative spirit and some of the best quintet playing you’ll have heard since the last time.