A selection of 10 albums that particularly caught my attention in 2021 with the best left to last.
Bill Charlap; Street of Dreams
Bill Charlap, the New York based pianist is an established master of the art of the piano trio. He is particularly renowned for his reinterpretations drawn from the great American songbook, both familiar and less familiar tunes. I caught him live only once during my last visit to New York, a sensational couple of sets at Dizzy’s Place. Here he is joined by his long standing, and un-related accompanists, Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums . The album provides a perfect setting for what Bill Charlap does best.
Dave Holland; Another Land
Dave Holland continues to perform and release new albums in a variety of modern jazz styles. He is an astonishingly gifted bassist with an immediately recognizable feel and tone. Whether as a leader, as here, or as a sideman over the 50 years since leaving London to join Miles Davis, Holland is a consummate team player. I recall attending an open evening master class he led at the Royal Academy of Music where in an understated and low key ways he encouraged the students to see their main responsibility as being to listen and respond to what was going on on the band stand. Holland has exemplified those principles all through his career. A jazz maestro whose skills are always geared towards the collective musical good.
Rudresh Mahanthappa; Hero Trio
Rudresh Mahanthappa was a new discovery for me this year although at 50 he is no ingenue and has garnered numerous awards from U.S. and European jazz outlets. Jazzwise summarized this album as follows,
“Its central achievement is a bridging of the gap between supposed high and lowbrow as Mahanthappa’s trio convincingly puts a distinctive stamp on eclectic source material, with sparkling cocktails of grooves, hooks and solos”
I love Rudresh’s tone and technique and, particularly, his playful decoding of three Charlie Parker standards, giving the bebop legacy new twists. He is ably supported by two long standing associates, also new to me, Francois Moutin on bass and Rudy Royston on drums
Emmet Cohen; Future Stride
Emmet Cohen is my standout discovery of lockdown. Largely due to his weekly Live at Emmet’s Place livestream performances from his Harlem apartment. I was also fortunate to catch Cohen live at the Duc des Lombards in Paris in October and he didn’t disappoint. Occasionally I sense that his prodigious technique can obscure his own voice, but that is a minor quibble. He has an astonishing facility with all jazz styles, including stride piano. On this album he is joined by his long-standing collaborators Kyle Poole on drums and Russell Hall on bass. The future of the piano trio is alive and well with these guys.
Julian Lage; Squint
I owe it to Greg Loops, our bassist in the Equinox Jazz Quartet for tipping me off to Julian Lage this year. A genre-busting early-30’s American guitarist with an astonishing technique. One of his earliest mentors was the legendary guitarist Jim Hall. This album deserves repeated listening. Bassist Jorge Reader and former Bad Plus drummer Dave King make up the trio. The levels of creativity and interactions are truly remarkable
Xhosa Cole; Know Them, Know Us
Xhosa Cole came to national prominence in winning the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the year award in 2018 when he was barely 20 and still a conservatoire student. That was my first introduction to this Birmingham-based saxophonist. This is his debut album as a leader, and he has both bravely and wisely chosen to surround himself with older and more experienced musicians from the UK jazz scene. I am really looking forward to my first opportunity to hear him live. The album largely features re-workings of modern jazz tunes. It maintains very high levels of creativity throughout
Alex Hitchcock has been a distinctive presence on the London jazz scene for the last decade. I have heard him live in various musical contexts pre-lockdown. This album is his response to lockdown, and this is how Alex himself describes it.
I wanted to make a project that could only happen at this specific moment in time, bringing together different musicians I’ve connected with over my time in London. Lockdown offered an opportunity, both to get the musicians together practically but also to respond positively (and with unity) to the difficult past year. I wanted to create space for these musicians to express themselves and shape my music – some of whom I’ve worked with for 10 years, and some of whom are new to me.
Martin Speake; Charlie Parker
Martin Speake has been active on the UK and European jazz scene for over 35 years. He combines playing and recording with a long-standing involvement as a jazz educationalist. More unusually he has a parallel career as a nutritionist. I caught Martin live at the Vortex in Hackney in the summer presenting an evening of music celebrating Ornette Coleman. It still stands out in my memory. This album is Speake’s tribute to Bird (at 100).
Ron Mathewson; Memorial
Ron Mathewson who died last December was an astonishingly gifted bass player, a mainstay on the modern-to-free spectrum of the London jazz scene. I saw him numerously over the years, mainly at Ronnie Scott’s. He was the bass player in Ronnie’s own band for many years. This album appeared this year as a memorial to him and also underlined the range of his musicality and involvement with the very best players on the UK jazz scene. Ron had a reputation for lugubriousness and heavy drinking, which belied his passionate and sensitive bass playing. This album gives an indication of his range and impact on the UK jazz scene.
Both the Martin Speake and Ron Mathewson albums are not on Spotify and therefore do not appear on my playlist. I’d encourage you to hunt them down on Bandcamp, a musician friendly website.
And so to my best album of the year…
It’s Bud Powell in the 21st Century by Ethan Iverson
Iverson who came to prominence in the genre-busting The Bad Plus trio revisits the legacy of the bebop piano virtuoso Bud Powell through a mix of tunes written by Powell and Iverson originals. While the core of the band are U.S. based players, Iverson’s complex and evocative arrangements are beautifully delivered by the Umbria Jazz Orchestra. Both new and old material showcases the lasting genius of Bud Powell and are studded with references to his improvisational imprint. A bonus is that the album is a live recording, it captures the breathless performance of the players and the appreciative responses of the audience. This album truly lives up to its intention- updating Bud Powell for the 21st Century.
Three classic recordings from Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson and Keith Jarrett. With a rediscovered live session from Dexter Gordon and a long out of print early 70’s Blue Note recording from the neglected drummer Roy Books. No further introductions necessary.
- Joe Henderson; So Near So Far
- Keith Jarrett; Tribute
- Dexter Gordon; Swiss Radio Days
- Sonny Rollins ; Saxophone Colossus
- Roy Brooks; Understanding