My Favorite Things: The Top 9 Releases of 2019

My Top 9 releases of 2019 and only a five word comment about each. More to come!
Reissues/From the Vault:
Alice Clark ‘Alice Clark’: Essential soul you’ll regret skipping
Frank Zappa ‘Zappa in New York’ 40th Anniversary 5CD Deluxe Edition: Best live Zappa since Roxy
Van Morrison ‘The Healing Game’ 3 CD Deluxe Edition: Best archival release of 2019
Frank Marino ‘Live at the Agora’ Blu Ray/DVD: Guitar hero transcends guitar heroes
Various Artists ‘J Jazz Volume 2: Deep Modern Jazz From Japan 1969-1983’: This ain’t your grandad’s jazz.
New Releases:
Chrissie Hynde ‘Value Bone Woe’: Unexpected jazz greatness Pretenders-style
Joel Ross ‘KingMaker’: Gen Z makes vibraphones cool
Muriel Grossmann ‘Reverence’: Spiritual grooves meet polyrhythmic dreams
Umphrey’s McGee ‘Hall of Fame 2018’: Scaring pop fans since 1998

Woody Shaw ‘Blackstone Legacy’

Recording for this gem occurred during this week in 1970. Inevitable comparisons to @milesdavis ‘Bitches Brew’ continue, but they ring slightly hollow to my ears. BBrew was the Big Bang of jazz/rock fusion. ‘Blackstone Legacy’ is 100% jazz through and through. The record is amped with a healthy dose of electricity via George Cables on electric piano, and the presence of some bass clarinet courtesy of the amazing Bennie Maupin, which might trick you into thinking about BBrew, but this record doesn’t have any rock music DNA at all. Instead, immerse yourself in electrified post-bop, inside/outside modal journeys that are all fairly long, with enough free elements to be surprising, challenging and engaging. Shaw and Bartz are clearly having a lot of fun playing together, and Maupin picks up both tenor sax and flute to join in as well. Standup bass duties fall to the legendary Ron Carter, while electric bass is wielded by Clint Houston who would collaborate frequently with Shaw for years to come. Houston wrote the track “Sunshowers” on Shaw’s breakout ‘Rosewood’ LP (my fave jazz record EVER) which is one its most endearing tracks. Finally, future Return to Forever drummer Lenny White just kills it on skins, hitting them with a fast, firm punch without ever overplaying. All compositions are by either Shaw or Cables. This is a first pressing on Contemporary S7627/8, stereo. Wild stuff

John Coltrane ‘A Love Supreme’

55 years ago today, @johncoltrane tossed a metaphorical stone into the ocean. The ripples continue to spread, some lapping at distant shores as little more than flecks of foam, others hitting closer to home with the power of a tsunami. For an album that’s been endlessly analyzed and thoroughly discussed, it remains a delightful enigma. It’s perpetually engaging, satisfying, uplifting and thought provoking. Coltrane’s combination of urgency and serenity as he seeks to tap into whatever higher power one believes is in the universe and/or within us all is profound. Others far more eloquent and educated can better speak to the history and mystery of ‘A Love Supreme’. That said, I certainly wish that whatever benevolent inspiration visited the studio that day, I hope it visits everyone often

Grant Green ‘Sunday Morning’

I love the way Grant Green’s 4th album floats atop the room. Mixing standard and originals, this aptly titled and FANTASTIC record tends to get lost amongst Green’s better-known albums. That’s a drag because Green’s quartet, which features the Bens (Tucker on bass and Dixon on drums) along with the underrated Kenny Drew on piano, knock this 1961 session out of the freakin’ park. Green and Drew are incredibly well-matched…just amazing playing across the board. Drew is the hero of the session with line after line of melodic, graceful, fleet-fingered magic that goes toe-to-toe with Green’s propensity for single-line playing. I must call attention to the presence of the bass in the mix here which cuts through in a way that’s prominent and pleasing—if you’re one of those folks who strains a bit to hear the detail in acoustic bass when it isn’t occupying enough of the soundstage, this record will blow your stack. Great day at the mixing console by the Notorious RVG. Put down your phone/tablet/laptop, go to your record store of choice and pick up this brand new reissue from Slow Down Sounds RIGHT NOW. A late contender for my top 10 vinyl reissues of 2019, this all-analog, Kevin Gray cut, gorgeous tip-on (and heavy) jacket replica is VERY reasonably priced and sounds incredible. This is up there with Music Matters and Tone Poet in terms of sonics and overall quality @slowdownsounds

Henry Franklin ‘The Skipper’

High energy modal/spiritual grooves driven by the formidable bass playing of Henry Franklin and electric piano of Bill Henderson. I dig the frequent nods to early electric Miles and Return to Forever, though I wouldn’t classify this as a fusion record. I’m reminded in places of Eddie Henderson’s sides for Capricorn and Joe Farrell’s CTI records as there’s a similar vibe. The brass frontline—Oscar Brashear on trumpet/flugelhorn & Charles Owens on tenor/soprano sax—wails, swings, duels and soars as Franklin and Henderson scurry busily in, under and around them. There’s some heavy duty yet intricate three-headed beats from drummer Mike Carvin who’s flanked by percussionists Fred Lido and Tip Jones, while guitarist Kenny Climax rears his head only occasionally, but when he does he makes he presence known. “Beauty and the Electric Tub” lays down a groove so deep you wonder how they’re ever gonna find their way out. They do, but they take the scenic route. Tough to find on vinyl, available if you look on CD, but seemingly absent from the usual streaming services other than YouTube. Obscure but worth searching for, as are most of the albums on the Black Jazz label. Franklin recorded a follow-up, the equally scarce ‘The Skipper at Home’, a favorite, particularly after a couple of tracks were sampled by A Tribe Called Quest. Franklin has an extensive discography with more than a dozen sessions as a leader, and sideman credits on over 100 records ranging from Stevie Wonder to Ornette Coleman. He’s still out there playing and recording…more power to you Mr. Franklin

Muriel Grossmann ‘Reverence’

One of my most eagerly awaited releases of 2019 and it has exceeded every expectation! Muriel Grossman’s ‘Golden Rule’ was one of my favorite (and best) jazz releases of 2018. On her new record ‘Reverence’, she’s painting with even more colors and a wider variety of brushes. The key word: POLYRHYTHMS. If ‘Golden Rule’ set out to explore the cosmos, ‘Reverence’ is about exploring the multiple heartbeats of the earth, while retaining a strong propensity for soaring skywards. The rhythmic DNA of each track sets the tone, and from there the melodies, interplay and improvisations are built, deconstructed and rebuilt, sometimes with subtlety and sometimes with a passion that’ll make your own heart beat a little bit faster. Muriel alternates between tenor, alto and soprano sax, leading her expanded group across the eight original compositions. The “newbie” of the group is Hammond B3 ace Llorenc Barcelo, augmenting her core working group which includes longtime collaborator Radomir Milojkovic-guitar, Gina Schwarz (no relation)-bass, and Uros Stamenkovic-drums. The digital album is released on 12/12 and there’s a limited edition vinyl available RIGHT NOW at RRGEMSRECORDS.COM but like her previous record there are only 1,000 available and they are going FAST. If you like the notion of a record that combines the spiritual vibes of mid-60s @johncoltrane, combined with rhythms that draw from African roots along with some interesting “drone” layers a la Alice Coltrane’s ‘Journey to Satchidananda’ album, this album is gonna blow you away. It’s released a bit late this year to make a lot of ‘Best of 2019’ jazz lists which is a shame because it belongs there @murielgrossmann

Nat Birchall ‘Live in Larissa’

Ever been to one of those shows that’s *SO* great, after the final encore and you’ve come back down to earth, some part of your brain thinks “I really hope they recorded that!” Then by design or by luck if that occurred, often when listening to the recording later on, it’s just not the same. It’s like looking a photo of a Picasso—something gets lost in the attempt to reproduce the experience. Cue disappointment. So I’m always impressed when a live record successfully manages to fully capture both quality audio *AND* the spirit of the event. Nat Birchall’s ‘Live in Larissa’ is one of those records. It’s a top shelf recording of a red hot performance in front of a totally amped crowd who are hanging on every moment. Especially the more exploratory ones—this quintet isn’t afraid to take risks, and when they take flight they manage to achieve escape velocity quickly, regularly and with a great deal of creativity. Even with most tunes reaching well past the ten minute mark, there are no meandering moments, dead ends, or grandstanding solos. Not that there aren’t impressive solos…the piano solo in “Return to Ithaca” will bring you to your knees! I’d been hoping for a repress of ‘Live in Larissa’ as the original LP is rare. Well it’s back @bandcamp in a limited edition of 500 so act fast. The modal/spiritual grooves here are so thick you’d need a chainsaw to cut through them. I’m stoked to have this in my collection, and you will be too. Available on digital services for those without turntables. Nat Birchall-tenor/soprano sax, Adam Fairhall-piano, Corey Mwamba-vibes/bells, Nick Blacka-bass, Paul Hession-drums. Recorded live May 2013 at Duende Jazz Bar, Larissa, Greece. PS—On Side C of this double LP, they take Alice Coltrane’s “Journey to Satchidananda” on a 13 minute ride to a pretty fantastic place @natbirchallmusic @bandcamp

Booker Ervin ‘The Freedom Book’

“A Lunar Tune,” which kicks off this record—the first of tenorist Booker Ervin’s terrific “Book” series—embodies the essence of Booker Ervin’s work as a leader: if you want predictability, you’ve come to the wrong place. This quartet hangs together marvelously, though when I listen closely, I also hear them as a double duo—bassist Richard Davis and drummer Alan Dawson are tightly locked in a rhythmic articulation that dares Ervin and pianist Jaki Byard to prove themselves. Challenge accepted: as both were Mingus veterans, they were no strangers to finding a pathway no matter how uppity the rhythm section was, or creating one if necessary. There are also times such as during “Al’s In” where you’re certain that everybody is in search of the “1”, but deep listening reveals the truth—these guys are messing with us and playing a shell game of “hide the 1”. They know EXACTLY where they are! Though the balance of the record tips towards the energetic and uptempo, versatility is on the menu too. Look no further than “A Day to Mourn” (dedicated to the late President JFK) to hear how deeply and heartfelt this quartet/double duo can execute a ballad. A giant of a record, and a must-own (along with “The Space Book” which believe it or not is even BETTER and more exploratory). This pressing is a 2016 Analogue Productions 200gram stereo reissue of a session originally recorded on this day in 1963. Marvelous

Miles Davis “Fall” from ‘Nefertiti’

The few remaining leaves are now falling with the first snow of the year. The tranquility of their shared journey downwards is captured perfectly by “Fall,” one of my Top Ten jazz tracks of all time. There’s a certain sadness to it, and while I can’t speak to the minds of the Second Great Quintet, it seems to me that it’s not just about a season. This Wayne Shorter composition was recorded two days after the death of @johncoltrane, and there’s an underlying melancholy that permeates not only the tone but the execution. “Fall” is generally beautiful and serene, the perfect soundtrack to the outside vibe. That said, beneath the surface, there’s an underlying sense of disquiet. It’s not enough to pierce the veil of calm, and if anything, the counterpoint provides a marvelous tension to the piece. By far my favorite moment comes at 2:18 when @herbiehancock begins a captivating piano solo when suddenly at 2:43—in classic Second Great Quintet form—he and Tony Williams break the space-time continuum with a mind-meld that just knocks me flat every time…it’s one of my favorite moments in jazz, an answer to the question “what’s so great about @milesdavis Second Great Quintet?” Well, there are many answers to that question, but right here, right now, it’s “Fall

Sam Rivers ‘Fuchsia Swing Song’

Some of my fave jazz records are those that never quite stray specifically into free or “out” playing, but hover right on the edge…sessions where the players experiment with the boundaries of melody, harmony and time while never losing sight of the groove. Enter ‘Fuchsia Swing Song’, a record that oozes hard bop and blues, but morphs them into mutant versions of themselves—recognizable, but different. This was tenor sax/flautist Sam Rivers’ debut for Blue Note, having just come from a brief stint in the sax chair in @milesdavis Second Great Quintet. Miles didn’t find what he was looking for in Rivers and replaced him with Wayne Shorter, but Rivers borrowed a couple of his bandmates from his brief stint with Miles for this session. Joining Rivers is Ron Carter (bass) and Tony Williams (drums) from the SGQ as well as Jaki Byard (piano) to complete his quartet. There’s a lot going on here—the dialogues between the players can move pretty rapidly and it may take a couple of spins for everything (or anything) to sink in. Moments that start out as a toe-tapping, blues-based theme can turn on a dime, the structure blurring as one player deviates from the path and others follow. Tony Williams in particular is fond of implying the beat and then toying with it…his sense of playfulness adds a LOT to the overall vibe as it keeps everyone on their toes. Jaki Byard has a knack for dropping the perfect block chord at just the right time to accentuate a point or change the tone of the conversation, and Williams is right there with him…it’s really impressive. Through all the intricacies, looser moments and flirtations with throwing the rule book out the window, the album still swings pretty hard. Both this and Rivers’ follow-up LP ‘Contours’ are essential records IMO, and great places to start for those looking to dip their toes into edgier jazz waters. This is a 2 X LP 45RPM pressing that sounds FANTASTIC