Something I’ve remarked on before is that these posts don’t properly reflect the ubiquitous presence of music in my daily life. Occasionally I do mention a new album that has made an impact, and I do record here all the live music events that I attend. But there’s always so much more. So here is a roundup of some of the music which I have particularly enjoyed in 2016. The post ends with a playlist of the music mentioned.
In May, I devoted a post to In Movement, the first release from drummer Jack DeJohnette’s new trio which consists also of Ravi Coltrane on saxes and Matthew Garrison on bass. At the time I wrote that it would ‘surely be the finest jazz record of the year’. And so it remains: destined to become an all-time classic of jazz. I called it ‘a very fine album of contemporary jazz on which all three musicians deliver stellar performances’. It shimmers with historical resonances: bass player Matthew Garrison’s father was Jimmy Garrison, the bassist in the band led by saxophonist Ravi Coltrane’s father, John Coltrane, while DeJohnette sat in with John Coltrane’s band a few times, played with Miles Davis (most notably as the primary drummer on Bitches Brew) and with almost anyone of note in jazz you could mention since. I haven’t stopped listening to this one.
At the London Jazz Festival in November, the outstanding event for us was a masterclass of breathtaking jazz improvisation by pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman. Earlier in the year, the duo had already released Nearness, an album of live recordings of many of the numbers they performed in London. It’s brilliant; just take a listen to the playlist track below.
This year ECM released A Multitude of Angels, a 4-CD set of recordings captured by Keith Jarrett on his personal DAT recorder of a series of solo concerts in Italy in October 1996. These were the last solo concerts he played with no breaks within each set, and his last before withdrawing from performance for two years due to chronic fatigue syndrome. I’m still absorbing this material, but I think it’s safe to say that there are moments here which rival the sublime Koln Concert of 1975. The first CD, recorded in Modena, features in its first ten minutes a gorgeous interplay of folk, gospel, and jazz that must rank as one the most joyful in his catalogue. A Multitude of Angels represents another landmark in his long career, wildly creative, deeply soulful, spiritual, and totally dazzling.
I’ve seen Tord Gustavsen live twice this year – in Birmingham in March, and then at the London Jazz Festival in November. On both occasions he performed songs from his new collection What Was Said with German-Afghan vocalist Simin Tander and percussionist Jarle Vespestad. It’s a remarkable cross-cultural collaboration in which Simin Tander sings traditional Norwegian songs and hymns in Pashto (her father’s native language, but one she is only just beginning to learn), along with Beat poet Kenneth Rexroth’s stark ‘I Refuse’ and lyrics by Persian Sufi mystic Rumi. Gustavsen adds his trademark delicate and melodic embroidery, plus some tasteful electronics, while Jarle Vespestad, with sticks and cymbals muffled, provides the most fragile percussion accompaniment.
Another Norwegian setting Rumi’s words to music this year was Trygve Seim on his Rumi Songs album, also from ECM. I don’t know how you’d classify this music performed by Nordic instrumentalists from jazz, folk, rock and classical backgrounds and with lyrics sung (in English) by classical mezzo-soprano Tora Augestad. Rumi’s lyrics are as varied in mood as are the musical arrangements, featuring Frode Haltli’s accordion and Svante Henryson’s violin alongside Trygve Seim’s haunting soprano saxophone:
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honourably.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
The last track on the CD, ‘There Is Some Kiss We Want’ has a memorable melody, introduced by Seim’s saxophone, then beautifully sung by Augestad and elaborated by Haltli’s accordion. It’s featured on the playlist at the end.
So far, I’ve mentioned four very different albums released on the ECM label. As has been the case for a very long time, ECM releases have been the mainstay of my listening in 2016. There have been some very fine ones to enjoy, and one of the most beautiful has been Into the Silence, the first release under his own name on ECM from Tel Aviv-born trumpeter Avishai Cohen. Now resident in the USA, Cohen grew up in a multicultural family with roots in Spain, Greece and Poland. Into the Silence is dedicated to the memory of Avishai’s father David, reflecting upon the last days of his life with grace and restraint. Avishai’s tender muted trumpet sets the emotional tone of the music explored by the quartet of trumpet, piano, bass, drums, augmented by tenor saxophone on a few pieces. The mood recalls the pre-electric Miles Davis. In his review for All About Jazz, Mark Sullivan wrote:
It’s not always sad music—this is not a collection of dirges—but it does maintain a contemplative mood throughout. Cohen says ‘The title of the song and album refers to the silence of absence, the way you see pictures of someone who is gone but you don’t really hear them in your life anymore.’
Carla Bley’s trio with Steve Swallow on bass and Andy Sheppard on soprano sax has been recording for ECM for twenty years. This year, in time for Carla Bley’s 80th birthday on 11 May, Andando el Tiempo was released, another in a brilliant series of lively and irreverent trio recordings that I’ve enjoyed since Songs With Legs appeared in 1994 (followed by Trios in 2013) – as well as her quartet recordings as The Lost Chords. Andando el Tiempo features new music that not only underscores Carla Bley’s originality but also how these three musicians have grown and developed together over the past two decades. Andy Sheppard is in particularly fine form. Here they are in Paris in October 2015 playing the title song:
One of the great discoveries on ECM for this household in 2016 has been the young Italian pianist Giovanni Guidi – first his album This Is The Day, released in 2015, and then this year’s Ida Lupino. On This Is The Day, Guidi (who played for a while with trumpeter Enrico Rava) and his trio partners – Thomas Morgan (double bass) and João Lobo (drums) – produce a sublime sequence of restrained, meditative tunes. Ida Lupino is a quartet recording featuring trombone (Gianluca Petrella), clarinet and bass clarinet (Louis Sclavis) and drums (Gerald Cleaver). At its centre is the remarkable improvisational rapport between pianist Guidi and trombonist Petrella, their musical understanding rooted in their time playing in Enrico Rava’s band.
The bassist on This Is The Day, Thomas Morgan, turned up again with another ECM name new to me this year – the Danish guitarist Jakob Bro. Streams was a follow-up to his first album as leader album for ECM, Gefion. Both are trio albums with are strong emphases on melody, space and layered textures. At the heart of both albums is the rapport between Bro and Thomas Morgan (Bro calls him ‘my musical soul mate’). Streams features five new compositions by Bro, one heard in both a trio version and a particularly lovely solo version. The freely improvised ‘PM Dream’ is dedicated to the late Paul Motian.
Two years ago, when we saw the documentary film Sound and Silence about Manfred Eicher and ECM, Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin was one of the featured acts that made a big impression. Bärtsch has described Ronin as ‘Zen-funk’ and ‘somewhere between jazz and modern composition, progressive pop, ritual music, groove music’. Bärtsch composes and leads the all-acoustic group, playing highly-percussive prepared piano to create ‘modules’ in which phrases are repeated, combined and layered, resulting in shifting, complex rhythmic patterns which build slowly with hypnotic force. This year, Bärtsch released Continuum, a new album on which his original all-acoustic group is augmented on three pieces by a string quintet. The music here is more abstract and complex than that performed by Ronin, and has grown out of extraordinary live performances in which a tune can go on for hours (36 in one instance).
Bärtsch’s compositions are rooted in one kind of minimalism while those of Italian pianist Glauco Venier, reflect a very different kind. Venier’s album, Miniatures: Music for Piano and Percussion, with its delicate, spare pieces has been that I have returned to repeatedly in the last few months. His music puts me in mind of Satie: Venier plays piano as if the keys are scalding hot and can only be touched sparingly. He has explained how he grew up (and still lives today) in a very small village in Northeastern Italy, in the Friuli region which has a distinct cultural and historical identity. ‘The Adriatic Sea is nearby, then rivers, lakes, hills. There’s lots of silence,’ he says. You can hear the silence in these short pieces, as Venier plays what he describes as ‘sound sculptures’ on the piano, plus occasional percussive notes struck on bells, gongs and pieces of metal. A beautiful, poetic, and meditative collection. Two selections are included in the playlist below.
Markus Stockhausen is the son of composer and pioneer of the avant-garde Karlheinz Stockhausen. Earlier this year, the flugelhorn player released a new album on ECM, Alba, on which he appears with pianist Florian Weber. It’s a lovely album on which Stockhausen’s plaintive, melancholic tone on the flugelhorn sometimes brings to mind the sound of a Northern brass band. We saw them at the RNCM in Manchester in June.
Michel Benita has played double bass on Andy Sheppard’s last two ECM albums, Trio Libero and Surrounded by Sea. This year he appeared as leader on River Silver, which features an unusual lineup that also includes Matthieu Michel on flugelhorn, Mieko Miyazaki playing Japanese koto, Philippe Garcia on drums, and
Eivind Aarset handling guitar and electronics (he, too, appeared alongside Andy Sheppard on Surrounded by Sea).
The band (which goes under the name of The Ethics) is truly international: Benita is from Algiers, Michel from Switzerland, Miyazaki from Tokyo, Aarset from Norway, while the French drummer once lived in Turkey as a member of the Istanbul Symphony. The music is similarly cross-cultural: alongside compositions by Benita and one by Miyazaki, there’s a tune from Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell and one from the early 20th-century Norwegian composer Eyvind Alnæs. The music is lyrical, blending folk and jazz elements, Mathieu Michel’s graceful flugelhorn interwoven with koto, bass, drums and Eivind Aarset’s guitars ‘organic electronics’.
Eivind Aarset also turned up on Tigran Hamasyan’s suitably-titled CD, the outstandingly beautiful Atmosphères. Last year the Armenian pianist gave us Luys I Luso, a remarkable exploration of Armenian sacred music which featured the Yerevan State Choir. On Atmosphères he is joined by Arve Henriksen on trumpet, Eivind Aarset playing guitar and – with Jan Bang’s electronic sampling – creating atmospheric soundscapes. With Hamasyan’s piano or Arve Henriksen’s distinctive spare trumpet as the focus, ancient folk melodies and Armenian themes from Luys I Luso ebb and flow in a drift of ambient sounds.
Arve Henriksen’s trumpet can be heard also on the new album from Sinikka Langeland, a favourite artist of mine since 2008 when I first heard her haunting album, Starflowers. Featuring the same quintet as Starflowers, on The Magical Forest the Norwegian/Finnish folk singer and kantele player Sinikka Langeland, is joined by Scandinavian jazz musicians Arve Henriksen (trumpet), Trygve Seim (soprano and tenor saxophones), Anders Jormin (double bass) and Markku Ounaskari (drums, percussion), as well as the singers of Trio Mediӕval. Reviewing the album for All About Jazz in August, John Kelman wrote of Langeland’s music as ‘other-worldly, effortlessly beautiful music that is at once antiquated and timeless’.
The opening track, ‘Puun Loitsu’”(Prayer to the Tree Goddess) typifies the whole project. Against a skeletal framework provided by the silvery tones of the kantele and the darker throb of double bass and percussion, Langeland sings the words of a traditional rune song she has arranged, as the voices of Trio Mediӕval harmonise.
Good tree, God’s pure creation,
Sprout born of Mother Earth,
You who grew up in happiness!
The deciduous tree gazes in wonder
The conifer is also weighed down.
Apart from this piece, all the lyrics were written by Langeland, and reinforce an ineffable sense of the reverence for trees found in the Finnish forest culture of Finnskogen, the forested region of Norway where Langeland lives, including that of Yggdrasil, the sacred world tree of Nordic myth. If her lyrics are rooted in traditional fables, her music is decidedly contemporary, with the jazz musicians freely improvising around her cycle of songs. It’s a beautiful album with many spine-tingling moments, not least on the penultimate track ‘Karsikko’, a haunting adaptation by Langeland of a folk hymn melody from the Finnskogen that features a beautiful solo by Henriksen as Langeland sings alone, accompanying herself on the kantele. Two selections feature on the playlist.
A couple of weeks back I bought an album by a group I’d never heard of before, purely on the strength of a run-down of the best jazz albums of 2016 I came across online. It was a gamble that paid off: the music played by Aly Keïta, Jan Galega Brönnimann and Lucas Niggli on Kalo-Yele combines two of my favourite kinds of music: jazz and the sounds and rhythms of West African music.
Aly Keïta (from Ivory Coast) is a master of the balafon, the West African instrument with a warm, woody tone that lacks the harsher, metallic sound of its American cousin the vibraphone. Jan Galega Brönnimann plays bass Clarinet and soprano saxophone, while Lucas Niggli whips up a storm on drums and percussion. The latter two are both from Switzerland, though born in Cameroon. The trio play exciting music that is colourful and expressive, ranging from dynamic rhythms and improvisation to slower passages in which the clarinet weaves soft and gentle melodies.
Madeleine Peyroux produced a gem of an album this year. Secular Hymns features just Peyroux, plus her regular guitarist Jon Herington and bassist Barak Mori, and was recorded in a 12th-century Oxfordshire church (hence the title). The record is a stunning collection of classic songs from American composers in the pop, blues and jazz, and rock traditions. High points include Tom Waits’ ‘Tango ‘Til They’re Sore’, Allen Toussaint’s ‘Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky From Now On’ (especially poignant since Toussaint died suddenly last November), Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s ‘Shout, Sister, Shout’ and Patti Smith’s ‘Trampin’. For me, though, the standouts are Peyroux’s heartfelt rendition of 19th-century American songwriter Stephen Foster’s ‘Hard Times’ and the delicious ‘More Time’ written by Linton Kwesi Johnson. I’ve included both on the playlist.
There’s a sadness so deep the sun seems blackSometimes these things don’t work that well, but God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson, a tribute to the seminal slide guitarist whose imaginative vocals and gospel blues compositions are one of the peak achievements in the blues tradition, really worked. Tom Waits appears twice – he does a fierce, rasping ‘The Soul of a Man’ (featured on the playlist) backed by his wife Kathleen Brennan and son Casey- as does Lucinda Williams, covering ‘God Don’t Never Change’ and ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ with her own band. The Blind Boys of Alabama offer a gospel take on ‘Motherless Children Have a Hard Time’, while Rickie Lee Jones restores the searing lyrics of the 18th-century hymn that Blind Willie’s instrumental ‘Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground’ was based on, accompanied only by her guitar and New Orleans-style funeral brass. Sinead O’Connor also rises to the occasion on ‘Trouble Will Soon Be Over’.
Lucinda Williams put out a double CD of her own this year. The Ghosts of Highway 20 featured atmospheric, brooding guitar textures from Greg Leisz and Bill Frisell, highly personal songwriting, and her weathered, slurred and defiant vocals. On the opening track, ‘Dust’, she sings:
And you don’t have to try to keep the tears back
Well you don’t have to try to keep the tears back
Cause you couldn’t cry if you wanted to
Even your thoughts are dust
Along with her 2014 collection, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, The Ghosts of Highway 20 ranks as one of the peaks of her career. The title track refers to the Texas-Florida Interstate that runs through Louisiana, the state where Williams was born. Describing it as a highway of ‘run-down motels, faded billboards’, she sings:
I know this road like the back of my hand
Same with the stations, only FM band
Farms and truck stops, firework stands
I know this road like the back of my hand
Southern secrets still buried deep
Rooting and restless ‘neath the cracked concrete
If you where from here, you would fear me
To the death along with the ghost of highway 20
One of the highlights of live performances seen this year was seeing Van Morrison at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. He had a new album, Keep Me Singing, out this year which sounded like many that have preceded it, but proved to be very listenable with mellow vocals and laid-back jazz grooves. More exciting was the release of a triple CD supplement to It’s Too Late to Stop Now, his 1974 live album which remains one of the greatest live recordings. None of the newly-released recordings overlap with the original album, and what the collection reveals is the night-to-night dynamic as Morrison and his band of the moment, the eleven musicians of the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, improvise around his own songs and classic soul and blues by Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, Willie Dixon and Sonny Boy Williamson.
2016 was a terrible year for losing great musicians. Guy Clark leaves behind some of the best songs ever to come out of Texas: down-to-earth, workmanlike, tender, and often with a touch of wry humour. A few weeks back we heard him again, as he was in 1976 when James Szalapski shot his sketchy documentary about the music of Nashville and Austin in Heartworn Highways. Much of it was filmed in Clark’s home, with Clark, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, John Hiatt and others swapping songs and getting decidedly drunk. The DVD has been re-released, along with a soundtrack album. Now both Clark and Townes have passed on: such a great loss. Listen to Guy Clark sing ‘That Old Time Feeling’ on the playlist.
In November, Sharon Jones, the exhilarating soul singer who spent decades in obscurity before finally breaking through in 2003 with her longtime band the Dap-Kings, died of pancreatic cancer, aged only 60. I first noticed her in Reginald D Hunter’s BBC TV series, Songs of the South. Her albums are tremendous, harkening back to the great days of sixties soul. I dug out her 2005 album, Naturally, to listen again to her cracking version of Woody’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’ (it’s on the playlist).
Then there were those two spookily prescient albums put out by two of the truly great ones, just weeks – days even – before they died. David Bowie’s Blackstar, released on January 8, Bowie’s 69th birthday, sounded like jazz mashed up with dense ambient sounds and splurts of electronica. Bowie once said that when he was fourteen he couldn’t decide if he wanted to be ‘a rock’n’roll singer or John Coltrane’. The video of ‘Lazarus’ that was released to accompany the album suddenly seemed a million times stranger when Bowie’s death was announced two days later.
Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now
In November we learned of the death of Leonard Cohen, just weeks after the release of his last album, You Want It Darker, on which he had sung these words:
If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame.
Then, backed by the male voices of the Montreal Shaar Hasomayim Synagogue Choir where he had worshipped as a child, and the synagogue with which his family has been associated for some 150 years, he sang ‘Hineni, hineni’, meaning in Hebrew ‘Here I am, I am ready, Lord.’
Finally, two live performances epitomise for me the mood of a terrible year. Hours before the news came of Leonard Cohen’s departure from this life, I was privileged to see an outstanding show by another great poet of song, Paul Simon. Two days after Donald Trump’s dismaying victory in the American Presidential election, Simon sang for his encore ‘American Tune’. The song was offered up with no introduction, no commentary, none needed. Its lyrics of uncertainty, unease and shattered dreams ring as true this year as they surely did in 1973: ‘When I think of the road we’re travelling on, I wonder what’s gone wrong.’
I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
But it’s all right, it’s all right
We’ve lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road we’re travelling on
I wonder what went wrong.
The greatest musical moment of 2016? It has to be Patti Smith’s performance of Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ at the Nobel Literature Prize ceremony in Stockholm. It was truly magnificent, perhaps the song’s greatest interpretation. I was moved to tears by the deep feeling that flowed through her rendition of a song even more germane now than when it was written. The moment when Patti was overwhelmed by the imagery of the second verse and her own nervousness only made it even more moving, increasing the humanity of her performance.
And since he won the Nobel, this playlist ends with a second helping of one of his greatest songs. I didn’t know this existed until this week – it’s Dylan performing ‘Hard Rain’ with a full orchestra (as Patti did in Stockholm) in Japan in 1994.
Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’,
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the colour, where none is the number,
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’,
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’,
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard,
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.