Susan Alcorn by David Lobato
More than any other style of music, jazz depends on live performance, where spontaneity and improvisation leave its ephemeral markings. Playing live allows musicians to experience discovery, development, and nuance. 2020 obviously quashed this essential practice for most of the calendar. When Berlin gently opened up for small concerts late in the summer I was dramatically reminded what I had missed. I love listening to recordings at home, but catching intimate sets by Die Enttäuschung and Punkt.Ver.Plastik illustrated the difference between two and three dimensions, providing that ineffable excitement and surprise that you can’t get from your stereo.
Pandemic restrictions may have silenced stages, but musicians found ways to work around the limitations — improvising goes deeper than crafting a new solo in real-time — so the stream of new releases seemed to carry on unabated, which is something we can all be grateful for. My ten favourite albums are listed at the bottom of this column, and together they reveal how many different approaches to jazz and improvised music continue to emerge. While there’s certainly room for traditional forms, it’s these more innovate, hybridised, and challenging progressions to ensure the music’s ongoing vitality.
Complete Communion sticks to new releases in each instalment, so I want to use a little space to look at some notable reissues and archival releases from 2020. The profile of Los Angeles pianist and composer Horace Tapscott has risen in recent years, with a slew of reissues precipitating a much needed critical reassessment. Following a superb debut for Flying Dutchman in 1969, Tapscott didn’t release anything else until nearly a decade later, with the appearance of the Nimbus label, but during this drought he cemented his vision and established himself a major community force.
Ancestral Echoes: The Covina Sessions, 1976 uncovers recordings made in a sub-par studio and deemed un-releasable; four extended pieces cut with his remarkable Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. Two of the pieces were written by ensemble members—evidence of a blossoming of talent within his community — and all of them explode with orchestral richness and rhythmic genius. This stuff could fit into the current spiritual jazz vogue, but there’s so much more at work. Archival discovery of the year.
I won’t complain about the seemingly endless trickle of vintage Sun Ra recordings, and over the years few imprints have shepherded obscure gems back into circulation with the rigour and care of Art-Yard, which recently joined forces with Strut. Half of the music on the staggering 4-CD set Egypt 1971 has been released previously on insanely hard-to-find albums from the early 1970s, while two additional CDs contain unissued material. Most of the material was recorded by drummer Tommy “Bugs” Hunter, who had helped formulate the ubiquitous reverb that doused so many Arkestra recordings, during a visit to Egypt in December of 1971, a side trip following a European tour. Ra had long harboured a deep interest in and knowledge of Egyptian history and cosmology, so the trip had deep meaning. This was an especially fertile period for the Arkestra, and the set lists intersperses classic themes like ‘Space Is The Place’ and ‘Love In Outer Space’ with much less familiar material, some psychedelic keyboard excursions, and even some interviews, capturing a group that was bursting with creativity.
Speaking of Sun, Chicago gallerist and music critic John Corbett has played a big part in the ongoing Sun Ra renaissance, and his label Corbett vs. Dempsey recently reissued Ra’s essential, two-album The Solar-Myth Approach — originally released on BYG, with material cut between 1967-70. But my favourite reissue from the label this year is Writing In Water, a stunning 1985 album by British violinist Phil Wachsmann, originally on his own Bead label. The album is comprised of two fascinating and very different versions of the title piece, with resourceful electronic manipulations of his instrument that help the extended work wend through minimalist rapture, pointillistic sound showers, and patient transformation. Definitely not “jazz” in any sense, but Wachsmann certainly helped blaze the trail that’s led to an increasing amount of improvisation, finding its way into contemporary music, making overlooked connection points apparent more than 35 years after the fact.
Finally, new London imprint Jazz in Britain had a killer inaugural year, digging up all sorts of live gems from the late 60s and early 70s. There have been terrific collections from guitarist Ray Russell, pianist Mike Garrick, and saxophonist Mike Osborne, but my favourite has been Chronology: Live 1968-1969 by alto great Joe Harriott. The first five tracks are from a smoking quintet date with trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, while the final two cuts feature him as a member of the Harry South Big Band, which also includes Wheeler and fellow saxophonists Tubby Hayes, Alan Skidmore, and Ray Warleigh.
1. Nate Wooley – Seven Storey Mountain VI
Trumpeter Nate Wooley is one of the most incisive, fearless musicians and thinkers in improvised music, but as his career has progressed he’s devoted more and more time to creating new compositional conceits to both ground and inspire improvisation. With each new chapter of his decade-old Seven Storey Mountain project, the weight of its predecessors (in the form of a layered tape piece used in and derived from earlier iterations, and in the way the piece has accrued greater direction) weighs heavier. Seven Storey Mountain VI is the most impressive, ambitious, and musically rewarding instalment yet, with church-like female singers bookending extended passages of colour, post-Terry Riley minimalism, and dense, multi-layered rumbling. It’s fun to pick out individual threads of each of the top-notch cast, but the overall arc is what packs the punch.
2. Susan Alcorn Quintet – Pedernal
This pedal steel guitar virtuoso has been making music of lyric extravagance and spectral moodiness for decades, translating the instrumental fundamentals she learned from country music into improvised music — as well as the compositions of Astor Piazzolla and Olivier Messiaen. Finally, at age 67, she dropped her first album as a bandleader and it packs a lifetime of ideas within meticulously pitched arrangements that make the most of a spectacular band with guitarist Mary Halvorson, violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Mike Formanek, and drummer Ryan Sawyer. Some themes are jaunty, some exploratory, and others solemn, yet all of them evoke the splendour of rural and urban landscapes with a humanity that’s nothing short of breathtaking.
3. Torbjörn Zetterberg & Den Stora Frågan – Are You Happy?
Swedish bassist Torbjörn Zetterberg tweaks the sound of his rugged, versatile band Den Stora Frågan (The Great Question) with the addition of Hammond organ or Fender-Rhodes on a few pieces, played either by himself or guest Alexander Zethson, complementing his already blustery post-Mingus attack with drones, extra propulsion, and churchy counterpoint. The core sextet — trumpeter Susana Santos Silva, trombonist Mats Äleklint, saxophonist Jonas Kullhammar, reedist Alberto Pinton, and drummer Jon Fält — is seriously locked in, bringing unrestrained brio and refined focus to his muscular, ebullient themes, with spirited improvisation that seems to bleed naturally from his compositional fabric rather than as pro-forma strings of solos.
4. Eric Revis Quintet – Slipknots Through A Looking Glass
Over the last few years bassist Eric Revis, who’s long held the low-end in the Branford Marsalis Quartet, has emerged as an insightful bandleader and composer, and he’s achieved an impressive apotheosis with this new collection. Surrounded by an excellent support cast—pianist Kris Davis, saxophonists Darius Jones and Bill McHenry, drummer Chad Taylor (and on two cuts, fellow percussionist Justin Falkner) — Revis veers between ultra-taut funk grooves (the opening track ‘Baby Renfro’ evokes Steve Coleman’s M-Base sound at its best), extended sound studies, moody post-Ellington balladry, and brooding free jazz. The writing is memorable and efficient, but its main purpose is to foster improvisation and on that count it excels, provoking some fiery playing, particularly in the exchanges between the two reedists.
5. Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl – Artlessly Falling
On the second album from her song-driven Code Girl project, guitarist and composer Mary Halvorson has made a massive leap, transforming the often schematic material of the group’s impressive debut into the kind of tunes that guitarist has long admired. Although the group is rooted in jazz, these tunes have an art-pop sophistication that melds melodic splendour with harmonic sophistication, adding harmony singing, deep hooks, and a rigorous engagement with various poetic forms. Somehow the group enlisted Robert Wyatt to sing on the three songs, but Amirtha Kidambi and saxophonist Maria Grand are worthy of sharing the spotlight with him.
6. Rob Mazurek Exploding Star Orchestra – Dimensional Stardust
The prolific career of trumpeter Rob Mazurek has been distinguished by an unceasing curiosity and an ability to steadily build upon his many accomplishments, but, still, I wasn’t quite prepared for the density of ideas, the razor’s edge execution, and the ingenious production flourishes on Dimensional Stardust, the latest and best effort from his long-running Exploding Star Orchestra. Astonishingly the large band — which includes cellist Tomeka Reid, flutist Nicole Mitchell, guitarist Jeff Parker, trumpeter Jaimie Branch, pianist Angelica Sanchez, vibist Joel Ross, violinist Macie Stewart, bassist Ingebrit Håker Flaten, vocalist Damon Locks, and percussionists Chad Taylor, Mikel Patrick Avery, and John Herndon — recorded much of the music remotely, but the results hit like a bomb and flutter like a leave falling from a tree, melding free jazz, contemporary music, post-hip hop grooves and much more into an agile, ever-surprising amalgam.
7. Ambrose Akinmusire – On The Tender Spot Of Every Calloused Moment
The latest from trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire recently notched a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Album, a category that almost never aligns with one of my favourite albums of the year. But Akinmusire’s almost sneaky subtlety afford him mainstream exposure while he consistently pushes the sonic envelope and seeks out new sounds. His tunes are unapologetically melodic and constructed with an elegant craftsmanship, but he regularly ups the stakes, first hijacking the coolly simmering ‘Tide Of Hyacinth’ with a Yoruban chant and polyrhythms courtesy of guest Jesús Díaz, and then pulling the rug out of the jam with a fiery, exploratory solo that subversively transplants the language of free jazz with a rhythmically punchy marvel.
8. JD Allen Trio – Toys/ Die Dreaming
When I mention traditional forms above, no one demonstrates that there’s plenty more to pull from post-bop fundamentals than tenor saxophonist JD Allen. His second album with his working trio with bassist Ian Kenselaar and drummer Nic Cacioppo swings like mad, but the rhythm section burrows so deeply into the sleek grooves, finding endless variation and coloration, that the leader seems to have infinite space to unfurl his rugged, deeply soulful improvisations within. His full-bodied tone is among the best, most agile attacks in jazz today, summoning the spirits of Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane in a thoroughly contemporary fashion. When people talk about music as something timeless, this is what they should be referencing.
9. Anna Högberg Attack! – Lena
Swedish reedist Anna Högberg’s flinty free jazz sextet lives up to the promised of its 2016 debut with this explosive yet finely etched follow-up. The group pivots between elegant themes — some derived from Swedish folk tradition, with another borrowing ideas from contemporary classical music — and bruising, interactive improvisation. While the band possesses formidable firepower, the members can also step back, forging lyric probing solos against changes and enveloping charts. The top-notch ensemble includes tenor saxophonist Elin Forkelid, trumpeter Niklas Barnö, pianist Lisa Ullén, bassist Elsa Bergman, and drummer Anna Lund, all of whom reveal individuality while committed to a focused group sound.
10. Sylvie Courvoisier Trio – Free Hoops
Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier works in numerous contexts, but with the third album from her trio with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Kenny Wollesen, I don’t think another generates such unfettered pleasure while insistently pushing against the strictures of the format. Balancing compositional rigour and improvisational élan, the pianist uses dedicatees for each of the nine pieces to focus specific ideas, whether the title piece, which she wrote for husband and violinist Mark Feldman, in its embrace of his unexpected phrases, or ‘Requiem d’un song’, which incorporates a bass figure that bandleader Claude Thornhill often used as introductory material in numerous entries in his live repertoire. The music epitomises inside-out playing, but the range of inspiration pushes the trio into new corners at every stop.