I recommended 20 new albums this month (out of more than 120 that I heard).
I usually provide just a list of these on Twitter—but I’ve decided also to share short reviews with subscribers to The Honest Broker. Feel free to pass this along to a few friends.
REVIEWS OF APRIL RECOMMENDED LISTENING
Pharoah Sanders & Floating Points: Promises (9-Movement Electronic Ambient Jazz Suite by 80-Year-Old Avant-Garde Pioneer)
How many jazz dynasties has Pharoah Sanders survived over the decades? His early career spanned the full spectrum of African-American music, covering everything from the R&B he played as a young man to his collaboration with John Coltrane on Ascension, one of the most significant avant-garde jazz albums in history. For many listeners that seemed like an end point to music, not a launching pad, but Sanders has continued to evolve and grow. He’s one of the last surviving musicians to have worked in Coltrane’s band, and has now released a new album at age 80, entitled Promises. This project also features producer & composer Floating Points (aka Sam Shepherd) and the London Symphony Orchestra. The album was reportedly five years in the making. Many associate Sanders with music that is intemperate and out there, but his work here is meditative and ambient, perhaps more reminiscent of the spiritual music of Alice Coltrane (with whom Sanders successfully collaborated) than the iconoclastic work he pursued with husband John. This nine-movement composition may defy your expectations, but Sanders has always been willing to do that. But, by any measure, this is one of the freshest sounding jazz albums of the year. It’s hard to predict a jazz artist launching a new creative phase as an octogenarian, but that might just be the case here.
Jim Ghedi: In the Furrows of Common Place (British Alt-Folk/Folk Rock)
I’ve always had a soft place in my heart for British folk rock, but it’s not a good sign that so many of the star performers of this genre are over the age of 70. Sure, this music is rooted in tradition, and the tribal elders deserve their props in any time-honored endeavor. But the music will lose its vitality without a new generation of innovators. Jim Ghedi allays my concerns—he’s the real deal. That thick Yorkshire voice sounds like it’s been aged in a whisky barrel for generations. His back story adds to the allure: Ghedi grew up in a mining village near Sheffield, England, and the rural settings that populate his songs are also part of his life and lineage. But the real test here is the music, and that will meet your most scrupulous standards of authenticity and emotional impact. You could call him a singer-songwriter, but if you used a more archaic term—bard or troubadour—you wouldn’t be going amiss.
Cha Wa: My People (Mardis Gras Funk)
This isn’t just funk—or even just New Orleans funk. This is New Orleans Mardi Gras funk, and that’s a whole world of music in itself. The beat needs to be suitable for a parade or procession—strutting music suitable for taking to the streets. The singing ought to participatory with elements of call and response. You absolutely must have horns, and the hotter the better. And the groove should be an invitation. Cha Wa lives up to all these requirements, and there’s a lagniappe that you don’t get on the album (except for the cover), namely the Mardi Gras costumes—which this ensemble does better than any other. It wasn’t much of a Mardi Gras this year due to the pandemic, but the music is just as strong as ever. And this band has established itself as one of the great New Orleans ensembles, which is no small achievement.
If you aren’t familiar with Franco Ambrosetti, the names of the other musicians in the band might catch your attention—they include drummer Jack DeJohnette, guitarist John Scofield, pianists Uri Caine and Renee Rosnes, and bassist Scott Colley. Even better watch this video of the ensemble in the studio performing Horace Silver’s ballad “Peace.” Ambrosetti is now 79 years old and has very deep roots. His father Flavio Ambrosetti was a legend of Swiss jazz and once played on the same bill as Charlie Parker, and now Franco is approaching legendary status himself, one of the leaders of that pioneering generation of post-Miles brass players who crafted a distinctly European chamber music sound for jazz. This is one of his finest moments and comes highly recommended.
Myele Manzanza: Crisis and Opportunity, Vol. 1: London (Hard Bop from New Zealand Drummer)
Much of this hard bop album sounds like it might have been recorded at Birdland in 1963. That’s how credible the sounds are—and you could describe the whole affair as retro or vintage, except that such labels don’t do justice to the immediacy and intensity of the performances. New Zealand drummer Myele Manzanza is the bandleader, and his bio tells us the following: “Born in New Zealand to a Congolese master percussionist, and currently residing in London, Manzanza was raised listening to hip hop, jazz and dance music all of which strongly inform his current practice.” I fear that jazz media in the US will ignore this album—coverage of overseas releases is almost non-existent unless they have the support of a statesdie label. But don’t let that discourage you from checking it out. Manzanza is a strong presence here, and the whole band is persusaive.
Monodrone: Customer Service (Customer Service Music for Phone Calls on Hold)
Long ago I hatched a plan to compose songs for callers on hold. An essential part of the music would be the interruption of a voice every 90 seconds saying: “We want you to know that EVERY call is important to us. PLEASE hold on, etc. etc..” But actually composing the music—with just the right mix of relaxation, triviality and flippancy proved more challenging than I imagined. But now the mysterious composer Monodrone (from Calgary—no bio available, but here’s the Twitter feed—has stepped in with perfectly realized tracks. These enompass everything from the anxious noir qualities of “News at Nine” to the soothing waves of “Early Morning Euphoria.” The spoken voice interludes are omitted, but that’s okay. It almost makes me want to call the Microsoft helpline.
Golden Hornet: String Quartet Smackdown VII (Finalists in a NCAA-Style Bracketed Tournament Style Competition for String Quartets)
Can you really have a NCAA-style tournament for string quartet composers? Golden Hornet, a non-profit in Austin, has been doing this for seven years, with 4-minute compositions competing head-to-head in front of a live audience. “It’s like March Madness for the ears!” the organization announces on its website. And why not? There’s so much hand-wringing over ways of bringing classical music to the people, so why not a bracketed tournament with cheering fans in the bleachers? Uh, excuse me, in their seats. The music is populist and tonal—but that’ what the audience wants, I suspect. I enjoyed these pieces, and would like to see more competitions of this sort. If you want to know where to start, consider the winning composition by Jimena Palma de Gyvés.
Jihye Lee Orchestra: Daring Mind (Big Band Jazz)
There are many unusual paths to leadership of a jazz big band. Duke Ellington started out as a painter, and showed genuine gifts as a visual artist. Woody Herman began as a child tap dancer in vaudeville. But Jihye Lee traveled even farther on her career path. She began as a pop singer in her native South Korea, where she earned a degree in vocal performance at Dongduk Women’s University. She then headed off to Boston, where she switched her focus to jazz composition while earning a degree at Berklee. In 2015, she moved to New York, where she studied under Jim McNeely and entered a master’s program at the Manhattan School of Music. Now, on her second album, she emerges as a mature artist with great lyrical and expressive gifts—only in 2021, it's an orchestra not her voice that serves as platform for her self-expression. Few things are harder than paying the bills for big band jazz in the current day. But she is one of our most promising up-and-coming jazz composers, and will probably defy the odds. Expect to hear from her again in the future.
Leesa Johnson: Barn Tracks (Voice, Bass and Djembe in a Barn in Arkansas)
I’ve come to the conclusion you can find great music anywhere—so long as you keep your ears open, and don’t put too much credence in what power brokers and gatekeepers in the music biz tell you. Because there’s just too much they won’t tell you, especially about self-produced albums. In this case, the music was recorded in a barn in Arkansas. And it’s just voice, ukulele, upright bass, and djembe. I didn’t know Arkansas barn music could be so soulful, and you probably didn’t either. But a lot of the credit goes to Leesa Johnson, whose voice would sound just as good fronting a jazz big band or LA studio ensemble.
Jamie Dupuis: The Last Crossing (Slide Guitar Instrumentals)
If I had to list the 10 greatest American contributions to music, the introduction of slide guitar techniques into the vocabulary of popular song genres would have a high spot in my ranking. I’ll leave it to others whether primary credit goes to Mississippi or Hawaii or another of the 50 states—or perhaps we should trace it even further back to Africa—but the cumulative impact of this development has been world-changing. By sliding between notes (with the aid of a knife or bottletop or other implement) musicians could combine the freedom of African traditions with the Pythagorean precision of the Western paradigm. Alas, pop culture seems to have forgotten this liberating lesson in the current moment—you wouldn’t even know it was possible to bend notes in this way based on the hit songs in rotation on your local corporate radio outlet. All the more reason for us to cherish top-tier slide master such as Canadian guitarist Jamie Dupuis. You can admire the technique, if you wish, or just enjoy the expressiveness of his phrasing. And if you want to hear a different side of his guitar artistry, check out his harp guitar arrangements on Bandcamp.
Pasquale Grasso: Solo Ballads (Virtuoso Solo Jazz Guitar)
Pat Metheny allegedly called Pasqaule Grasso “the best guitar player I’ve heard in maybe my entire life.” Can it be true? Well, hearing is believing. This 30-year-old native of Italy, now living in New York, is a virtuoso of the highest order. Jazz fans will be reminded of Joe Pass, Lenny Breau and a handful of others—and there are only a handful of them—who have managed to play such fully-realized solo guitar renditions of jazz standards. Yet for all his ability, Grasso isn’t well-known outside the inner circle of jazz guitar (where he revered—go check out guitar discussion boards if you doubt it). Nor does he have the cool cocktail-party name-dropping cachet of some pricklier improvisers on the scene. His hipness quotient is no doubt hurt by his preference for very old songs, and the ridiculous ease with which he plays them. Honestly, it looks like child’s play for him. But don’t let that mislead you. He’s an extraordinary talent, and is still in the early stages of his career journey.
Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band: Dance Songs for Hard Times (Juke Joint Dance Band)
I’ve been following this band from afar for several years now. Every album is an invigorating reminder of how unhinged American popular music once was. I marvel at the songs, but I revere even more the fact that the Reverend—whose group is quite small, despite the name—has survived on the scene. Where does he perform? This is true juke joint dance music, and there aren’t many juke joints, last time I checked. But the vibe is so strong, that Rev. Peyton could play Carnegie Hall or La Scala, and make it feel like there’s sawdust on the floor and a moonshine still out back.
Bomb Bom Mafayette: Treasure from Below My Couch's Cushion (Quirky, Poetic Alt-Folk Singer-Songwriter from Botswana)
I dig deeply into self-produced albums on Bandcamp—checking out dozens of these each week. I always find some hidden gems, but one of the curses is that I often can’t get any biographical information on the musician, or even a photo in some cases. The only published bio I could find for Bomb Bom Mafayette—which seems to be a pseudonym for Maf Sheldon of Botswana—reads like a work of magical realism. (“I played with a deceased cult leader in the villages of the Andes,” etc.) The whole bio might be a short story, as far as I’m concerned, but that won’t deter me from the music. This is very quirky songwriting (especially the lyrics) under any circumstances, but especially for an artist who just appeared out of nowhere. I’d be on the lookout for more—if only I knew where exactly to look.
Magneto: Requiem pour Satana (Warsaw Surf Guitar Meets Ennio Morricone Film Music)
As Shakespeare once said: “There are more sounds in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of by your music criticism, Horatio.” Or, if he didn’t say it, he should have. The narrow confines of genre are too much of a straitjacket to convey the riches of the current music scene. Take this album for example. Magneto is a surf guitar band from Warsaw, Poland, but there’s a strong jazz component here too, and a cinematic conception that sometimes reminds me of the Spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone. And the title track would make for a killer ringtone. Yet this is no hodge-podge or postmodern mashup. The band members have also declared their allegiance to Turkish funk, Hawaiian hula ballads, South American rhythms and Thai shadow music. It sounds foreboding, but all these ingredients cohere into a unified musical vision. If the world is a global village nowadays, this is what a walk around the precincts sounds like.
Clariloops: Sun/Rain (Solo Clarinet Modified with Loops and Electronics)
The driving ambition of many early commercial electronic music technologies was to emulate the sound of physical instruments. I remember with fondness those old keyboards, with their “flute” and “trumpet” and other settings—which often were mere simulacrums of the originals, but charming in their own tacky way. The opposite path, however, is much rarer, but perhaps even more ambitious: to create the seamless sound of electronica with actual acoustic instruments. Sun/Rain from Clariloops is a fascinating example. Most listeners would never guess that this is a solo clarinet album. But with the help of loops and software, composer Ruby Lulham of Australia creates extraordinary textures and soundscapes—clarinet sounds Benny Goodman never dreamed of. This is one of the freshest woodwind albums you will hear this year.
Sufi Parveen: Kanha (Sufi Electronica Chant/Hip-Hop)
Some might be surprised that Mumbai-based composer and singer Sufi Parveen has tagged this new recording as a hip-hop album. How can Sufi music of this sort be considered rapping? But hip-hop is only the latest manifestation of a long history of populist and ecstatic monophonic chanting, which probably originated among hunters in ritualistic gathering before they embarked on the dangerous pursuit of prey—after all, it can’t be coincidence that those famous prehistoric paintings of animals are located in the most acoustically resonant parts of caves. The chant has always been a participative assertion of magic and power. Kanha is a good reminder of these larger connections, with its combination of the oldest techniques (for example, call-and-response) with the newest electronica technologies. And it does all this with directness and in-the-moment vitality—anything but the museum-curated world music so common nowadays.
Casey Driessen: Otherlands:One (American Fiddler Collaborates with Expondents of Local Musical Traditions in 6 Countries)
American fiddler Casey Driessen spent 9 months traveling through six countries seeking out musical collaborations with exponents of local traditions. He embarked on this project in September 2019, and continued until the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to his travels in May 2020. The final result included exciting documentation of 25 collaborations in Spain, Ireland, Scotland, India, Japan, Finland. There’s much to enjoy in this album—but my favorite tracks are “Jos sä olet minun hellunani” with Finnish musicians Maija Pokela & Antti Järvelä; “She Moved through the Fair” with Irish musician Tommy O’Sullivan; and “Manyota dao Jibonke” with Calcutta musician Arko Mukhaerjee.
Jupiter & Okwess: Na Kozonga (High-Voltage Congolese Dance Music)
What happens when Congolese musicians hire the horn section from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and ask it to play frenetic African dance music? Well, you can hear the results on Na Kozonga. The Bandcamp bio claims “Jupiter & Okwess have no fear of strange encounters, nor the craziest journeys”—assertions validated by these sui generis tracks. There wasn’t much preservation goin’ on here—this is a high-voltage, forward-looking album, and another reminder of how much excitement is brewing on the African music scene. Some of this is almost too fast for the dance floor, but I suspect that’s part of the plan.
Dan Wilson: Vessels of Wood and Earth (Jazz Guitar)
Guitarist Dan Wilson is hardly a household name, and even jazz fans are unlikely to know about him. But a quick look at the personnel on his new album Vessels of Wood and Earth tells you he mixes in heavy company. The supporting cast here includes bassist Christian McBride, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts and pianist Christian Sands—musicians at the top of their craft. Wilson flourishes with this world class support, with a sweet, swinging sound that may remind you of those past masters (Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, or even Charlie Christian) who learned their craft at jam sessions, not college classrooms. For those who wish that contemporary jazz had the same soulful vibe of their old favorites, this is an album to check out.
Yasmin Williams: Urban Driftwood (Solo Fingerstyle Acoustic Guitar)
This genre somehow earned the label “American Primitive Guitar”—which is misleading title, because its leading exponents are anything but primitive in their approach to the instrument. Yasmin Williams, age 25, shows that this approach, which mixes heartfelt emotional expression with intricate fingerstyle guitar-picking, has lost none of its charm in the 21st century. Urban Driftwood offers a kind of embellished minimalism, built on expanding patterns of sound played with rich rhythmic fluency. I’m not sure if the word swinging applies to this genre, but Williams’ solo work has a surprising degree of propulsive momentum in a category known more for its ruminative qualities.
Below is a list of all these recommended albums—happy listening!