Best of 2017

 

At some point during the Best of 2017 festivities, you will be reading about Nicole Mitchell’s Mandorla Awakening.

When I first began putting together this album’s synopsis for the Best of 2017 list, I wrote how, for all intents and purposes, Mandorla Awakening really isn’t a jazz album.  It, like other recent Mitchell recordings, transcends the jazz classification.  The music makes ineffective any attempt at categorization.  It’s as if a bird transformed into a phoenix mid-flight and headed out to the far horizon.  But that doesn’t mean we need forget that the music was once a bird, nor do we ignore that some of its feathers are woven into the Jazz nest.

In an interview I conducted with Donny McCaslin, he speaks of coming up through the jazz tradition.  It wasn’t some momentous declaration… more just an aside during a quick tour of his music background.  But it’s an important distinction, and one that I’d imagine McCaslin takes to heart.  Because he, too, has since transcended the jazz tag that was originally home turf tread earlier in his career.  The electro-acoustic heart that beats at the center of McCaslin’s sound today is something that becomes increasingly difficult to truly nail down as anything less vague than “his thing.”

And when it comes to exploring new creative vistas, that’s probably as it should be.  I gotta wrap my head around this is a normal, human reaction to accompany all of the joy and awe and happiness and contemplation from interacting with something new.  And, by extension, it’s understandable if the artist, as they follow new visions and, in a way, reinvent themselves, that they might not like to feel pigeonholed to what-came-before.  It’s not that Mitchell or McCaslin have turned their back on jazz or no longer play it or that it has stopped informing any new projects they embark upon.  It’s simply a recognition that things change, and a desire that current perception acknowledge the transformation in some small way.

So, even when it’s near impossible (and, by the way, not altogether essential) to give name to the new music these artists present in 2017, there’s a real benefit to simply recognizing the works as being of the tradition… that the music on this Best of 2017 list (and, really, pretty much throughout all of Bird is the Worm), while it might not sound like Jazz as it first became known, it is being created by musicians who came up through the jazz tradition, and those experiences inform the music as it’s created, even if nothing about the way it sounds necessarily points to those origins.  And that’s a good thing.  The point isn’t solely to cook up some good jazz.  The point is to nurture personal creativity, to have lofty aspirations and expand out toward those horizons.  If what comes out is rooted in the blues, maybe swings or bops a little or a lot, and has healthy doses of improvisation, then, great, we got ourselves a jazz album.  If not, then we’ve got ourselves a not-jazz album created by someone of the tradition.  If there’s one thing Bird is the Worm has illustrated in the six years the open sign has been on, it’s how insufficient the word jazz has become to describe the modern jazz scene.  This list, highlighting the Best of 2017, is a celebration of it.

And if you’re interested in more of the background behind this year’s list, go check out the introduction that originally led things off.

As in previous years, I’m looking for albums that deliver an impact across the board… cerebral, physical and emotional aka head, heart and soul.  It’s not enough that they’re simply a very good album.  They have to possess gravitas or offer something a little bit different, or, conversely, present the familiar better than anybody else on the scene.  Bonus points are awarded for wild creativity and experimentalism.  These are albums, released approximately between November of last year and November of this year, that make a statement of who the individual artists and ensemble are at that point in time, and, when the list is taken as a whole, a reflection of the rich diversity and immense strength of the modern jazz and improvised music scene.

The synopses found below are not reviews.  They’re last minute thoughts about each of the albums.  However, each synopsis has a link that’ll take you to another post on this site, and it’ll provide you more information on the album, more of the music to listen to, videos, and links to interviews and artist, label and retail sites.  This Best of 2017 is just the beginning of the path to more music discovery.  And fun.  Lots of fun.

And so, with the preamble out of the way… Let’s begin.

 

Bird is the Worm 2017 Album of the Year:

Yazz Ahmed – La Saboteuse (Naim Records)

La Saboteuse is a statement album. It’s Yazz Ahmed illustrating who she is as a musician, and how the fuzzy math of past experiences, current environment and future aspirations equate to the composite of the notes she composed for her 2017 release and those that were adapted along the way. This isn’t unusual. In fact, it’s the foundation of any sincere creative endeavor. But that her 2017 release also possesses the quality of being a universal statement on the modern jazz and improvised scenes, of throwing open a window to a view of where the music can go for any that choose to launch themselves into it… that’s not so common at all. In fact, it’s pretty damn special, and that is one of the primary drivers of why the trumpeter’s La Saboteuse is the Bird is the Worm 2017 Album of the Year.

But before I go much further with this, let’s not lose sight of the essential quality that this album is a joy to hear, that it incorporates challenging elements into a fabric of embraceable ones, and that it all synthesizes down into a sharp drink that goes down smooth. It is immensely fun to just kick back and listen to La Saboteuse. It’s not obligatory to be studied up on Ahmed’s ingenious use of Arabic scales and melodic improvisation to warp and reshape a UK modern jazz sensibility and render it both alluring and catchy. Knowing that she’s lent her trumpet to the music of ambient-rockers Radiohead isn’t a prerequisite to dive into the mesmerizing drones and harmonic surges that wash over La Saboteuse like waves across sand. And it’s not required reading to be aware of Ahmed’s predilection for a forward-thinking cosmic jazz expressionism, nor how that wondrously ties back to the music influence of the trumpeter’s Bahrain birthplace. All of those characteristics lend intrigue and display the intelligence of an album that can be enjoyed for no other reason than it happens to be seriously beautiful music.

But those influences and how Ahmed wields them in the crafting of La Saboteuse, they’re a model for how others can go about seeking the convergence of past, present and future. So, too, is how Ahmed went about the practical construction of the album… of collaborating in the studio with other musicians, of weaving in separately prepared sections into the final work, of manipulating what was originally there into something new and fascinating, and yet leaving untouched the quality of it sounding as if in its original form. Every bit of the creativity and craft that went into this recording is something special, and situates itself as a path for others. La Saboteuse is a statement of what could be.

And all of that is why La Saboteuse is the Bird is the Worm 2017 Album of the Year.

Music from London.

Read more on Bird is the Worm, including links to a Yazz Ahmed interview, a cool video, to learn about the outstanding album art, to hear more of the album, and for artist, label and retail links.

 

#02: Jaimie Branch – Fly or Die (International Anthem)

The music of Jaimie Branch is constructed with the sounds of things falling apart. Fly or Die is the echo of metal ripped in half and set to fire with wires as the kindling. It’s not pretty, and yet it has a serious allure. It’s laid back and casual, and yet has a charismatic appeal that locks the attention in place. And when it all comes together with a laser beam melody and harmonic surge breaking through the dissonance like the morning dawn through darkness, everything just falls into place and begins making sense again. The trumpeter’s core unit of cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Jason Ajemian and drummer Chad Taylor are birds-of-a-feather, and certainly no stranger to the art of building through deconstruction. These are musicians that see the poetry of decay, and how that leads to the rebirth of things anew. Jaimie Branch’s debut album not only cycles through both states, but gives the impression that they’re not viewed as even being separate. Everything about this album is different. It’s a strange vision Branch delivers, and yet it’s so simple to embrace. In a year that saw an astounding collection of singular displays of personality, Branch’s stands out as the most individualistic. This easily could’ve been the album of the year.

Music from NYC and Chicago.

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#03: Brooklyn Raga Massive – Coltrane Raga Tribute (Self-Produced)

This music is emotionally uplifting. This music is whip-smart. Exploring the connections between Indian music and the works of John and Alice Coltrane, the Brooklyn Raga Massive doesn’t obscure its ties to their inspiration, and still finds a myriad of ways to make this music sound all brand new and different. Their 2017 release Coltrane Raga Tribute elicits the complexities of John’s and Alice’s works without scrounging on the joy and intensity that drove it. And so it’s just as easy to immerse oneself in contemplation on “Africa” as it is to do a little dance around the room as it bursts from the speakers. The effect is much the same on “Journey in Satchidananda,” where the avenues to deep contemplation are just as plentiful as those that lead to a compulsion for motion. Everything about this album is wonderful, and it sets a gold standard for reinterpreting the classic songs of the past. This easily could’ve been the album of the year.

Music from Brooklyn.

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#04: Nicole Mitchell – Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (FPE Records)

Nicole Mitchell was already recognized as existing in a state of creativity somewhat outside common territory. Her recorded and performance history have been primary movers of how music is shaped in this new century. And yet even comprehending that isn’t sufficient preparation for Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds. Her Afrofuturist project is a dream, a story, a recording, a political statement and societal aspiration. Avant-garde, soul jazz, blues, modern jazz, classical, spoken word, gospel, rock are just some of the residents of this sonic city, whose story unfolds over the course of ten pieces. It’s sometimes chaotic, sometimes hopeful, sometimes at peace, and so much more of it triggering ineffable emotional reactions lying somewhere in between. Mitchell stepped up with a massive vision, and delivered it in a way that is as compelling as it is enjoyable. This easily could’ve been the album of the year.

Music from Chicago.

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#05: Collectif SPATULE – Le Vanneau Huppé (Aloya Music)

This album crackles with an electricity that sounds like laughter, feels like euphoria and lights up the room with a jolt of beauty. Le Vanneau Huppé is so full of life, it barely is able to contain itself. Thankfully, Collectif SPATULE doesn’t even bother trying. And in that same way a smile can transmit a wealth of information, so too does the music of this Nantes-based nonet. The transcendent cheerfulness doesn’t obscure the whip-smart complexities at the heart of the music, of how a strong folkloric quality is the launching point for a series of melodic diversions, and how the accent on strings with harp, acoustic guitar, cello and double bass adds rich harmonic textures to those already set in place by saxophones and voices. There’s so much going on at times, the music threatens to run away… but only to the point where it remains alluringly close, close enough to hurriedly catch up. And the resulting spikes in intensity amplify what is already a highly-charged atmosphere. This is an album with a magnetic personality, and one of the most fascinating recordings of 2017.

Music from Nantes, France.

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#06: Marco Santilli CheRoba – L’occhio della betulla (Unit Records)

Marco Santilli released two albums in 2017, and both deserved a slot in this year’s Best of 2017. The clarinetist’s concoction of chamber, jazz and folk accentuates the dramtic beauty of a simple melody, and patiently illustrates how a universe of possibilities exist within the nuance of each. The engaging La Stüa saw Santilli’s CheRoba ensemble joined by il Fiato delle Alpi for a performance recorded live at Musikinsel, Rheinau in Switzerland. It came heavy with the chamber influence, but also with the intensity, and so the album was a potent mix of introspection and liveliness. With L’occhio della betulla, Santilli took his CheRoba ensemble of 12-string guitarist Lorenzo Frizzera, pianist Ivan Tibolla and percussionist Fulvio Maras into the recording studio, with many of the same compositions as La Stüa, but with a completely different result. These are tranquil pieces. They bubble with life and resonate with daydream imagery, and there’s a certain majesty to how this music fills up a room. The balance between jazz, folk and chamber is more evenly distributed, and the transitions between states of primacy are as effortless and smooth as the changing of tides. And while it exhibits many of the same complexities as its 2017 counterpart, L’occhio della betulla simmers with a brooding passion that hints at a power that could obliterate mountains. This is the most beautiful thing to see the light of day in 2017.

Music from Zürich, Switzerland.

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#07: Anne Quillier 6tet – Dusty Shelters (Label Pince-Oreilles)

The very first recommendation of the very first column I wrote in 2017 for The Bandcamp Daily stated It’s too early in the year to be saying things like “this is the best thing I’ve heard all year”… but this is the best thing I’ve heard all year. The album I was speaking of was Dusty Shelters by the Anne Quillier 6tet. And as we crawl to the final days of 2017, it turns out that it was true all along. This album is one of the very best things I’ve heard all year. There’s a poetry to the way each piece reveals itself, and the path is marked by all kinds of little surprises and colorful displays of lyricism. There’s an electricity to this music that’s as charged as the blood coursing through our veins, a subtle nod to the life-affirming power of music and the unabashed joy of creating it. 2017 was a very strong year for the modern jazz scene. Dusty Shelters has been Exhibit A all year long.

Music from Lyon, France.

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#08: Red Planet with Bill Carrothers – Red Planet with Bill Carrothers (Shifting Paradigm)

There’s a fireplace warmth emitted by the guitar-bass-drums trio Red Planet, and it’s a quality of their music whether the tune be a post-bop or folk jazz piece or an adaptation of something else altogether. There’s an icy precision to the way that pianist Bill Carrothers delivers a melody, and this is true if it’s framed by a conventional jazz structure or something freer and disembodied from a typical format. Together, on Red Planet with Bill Carrothers, those opposing characteristics take on a complementary relationship, and the result are dreamy tunes with stark outlines. What’s remarkable about this recording is that this inimitable sound carries with the same strength whether they are performing an original composition or something by Coltrane or Monk. This is not in-your-face music. It’s warm and welcoming and often quite beautiful. But it’s singular personality makes a huge impression, stamps itself into every note, each phrase, and it’s why the memory of the songs continues to linger long after the album is over. Just outstanding.

Music from Minneapolis, MN.

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#09: Irreversible Entanglements – Irreversible Entanglements (International Anthem)

Of the many protest albums to surface in 2017, the recording debut of Irreversible Entanglements is what rises up and above the crowd. A quintet of vocalist Camae Ayewa (aka Moor Mother), alto saxophonist Keir Neuringer, trumpeter Aquiles Navarro, double bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Tcheser Holmes, they stand up to what’s wrong, voice and instruments in unity and channeling a rage that won’t be contained. In a year when it seemed so much went to hell and the flaws emerged all around us, Irreversible Entanglements is what it sounds like to fight back. And in a context outside of politics and society, this album isn’t so easily carried through. Spoken word and free improvisation rarely see such a remarkable confluence as on this recording, where each word seems perfectly married to an instrumental phrase, where the changes of intensity of the former rise and fall with those of the latter, and where inflections and patterns and running narratives have a complementary relationship like they were fated to be together from the very start. Irreversible Entanglements has a specific perspective, a blunt point of view, and it resonates with a power that transcends its personal meaning and touches upon the protest against everything that’s corrupt. This is the gold standard for protest albums.

Music from Philadelphia, NYC and Washington DC.

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#10: Hvalfugl – By (Self-Produced)

The music of Hvalfugl is so damn beautiful. The trio’s debut album By stakes out territory where Scandinavian folk and Nordic Jazz share a border, which means you’re gonna get some lovely melodic imagery cast out into a thick, moody ambiance. Some of this music dances joyfully about, while other pieces are made from the stuff of serenity. Opening track “Novemberhymne” still reels me in as easily as the very first time I hit play on this lovely recording, and the melodic hooks of “Op Nord” and title-track “Hvalfugl” make sure my ear isn’t going anywhere. The trio of bassist Anders Juel Bomholt, guitarist Jeppe Lavsen and pianist Jonathan Fjord Bredholt put on an excellent display of how economical melodies can result in a wealth of emotional connections. By remains one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard in 2017

Music from Aarhus, Denmark.

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#11: Paul Jones – Clean (Outside In Music)

Though primarily a work of modern jazz and chamber, Clean is informed by the music of Steve Reich, Kendrick Lamar and Philip Glass… influences that bleed into the music with a remarkable subtlety. Their effect is revealed in harmonic roll-outs, pulsing rhythms, a narrative-like melodic development, and moments of stunning minimalism at the eye of a storm… an undercurrent of influence like an untold strategy guiding the hand of active participants. It’s an effect not unlike that of an author mapping out a storyline, which is an apt metaphor in light of the structure Paul Jones provides his excellent 2017 recording. Full of recurring themes, dramatic plot twists, and inter-character tensions, there’s an abiding sense of novella in sonic form. There are countless jaw-dropping moments of beauty on this album, and at times, it seems like it could go on forever… and then it’s suddenly over, far too soon. This recording fell just outside the official Top Ten, but there’s every argument to be made that not only did it deserve to be included, but that it earned a slot in the top half. Just a wonderful album.

Music from NYC.

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#12: Goran Kajfes Subtropic Arkestra – The Reason Why Vol.3 (Headspin Recordings)

This final installment of The Reason Why trilogy ends like it began… singing with joy, dancing to a groove, and reflecting the vision that the world of music is a vast place that should be celebrated for its diversity even while treating the influences as if only a couple notes can traverse the distances between. Goran Kajfeš Subtropic Arkestra morphs between sounds that trace to Swedish, Turkish, Balkan, New York, South American, African and UK roots, and it’s anybody’s guess whether it’s gonna get expressed as a psychedelic groove, a minimalist drone, a pop music smile or anything else in between and out to the fringes. Kajfeš has got his trumpet contributing to a number of projects, all quite different from one another, and that creative elasticity is why he’s one of the most exciting musicians on the modern scene. Every one of this trilogy’s albums is outstanding.

Music from Stockholm, Sweden.

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#13: Ron Miles – I Am A Man (Yellowbird Records)

A melody from Ron Miles is moonlight distilled down to sonic form. There are times when he exhales a melody and he’s the only object in the sky. And then there are those times when the gravitational force of his presence pulls an ensemble around him like a sea of stars. The cornetist’s 2017 release I Am A Man puts those talents to excellent use, and the hall-of-fame cast of guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist Jason Moran and drummer Brian Blade happily fall into his orbit. The blues are an ever-present force of change on the recording, regardless whether the piece is an old-school ballad or a new-school burner. Miles has a lyrical touch to where he gets a sound to just hang in air, allowing patience and pauses heavy with emotion to get them to radiate with everything they’ve got before putting the next notes in play. Whether on cornet or trumpet, the sense is that here is a musician who has spent a lifetime immersing himself in his instrument and the creativity inside to make it manifest, and that impression bleeds into every note. A wonderful album from an amazing musician.

Music from Denver, CO.

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#14: Amir ElSaffar River of Sound – Not Two (New Amsterdam)

The fact that Amir ElSaffar seemed to have been building to this moment makes the result no less stunning or the statement any less epic. Where past recordings gave the impression of modern jazz and Middle Eastern musics locked in dance, a give and take of lead and follow, with Not Two, the musics are as one, as if a strong embrace led to a new degree of unity. The trumpeter grows his Two Rivers Ensemble into the 17-strong Rivers of Sound orchestra, with the effect being that the overall sound is given a greater weight, but that the nuances can be more fully explored without straying from the guiding vision. ElSaffar’s orchestra makes it seem like an everyday occurrence for oud and saxophones, buzuk and trumpet, and santur and cello to mingle in the same crowd and communicating in their own, unique languages while transmitting a communal meaning. They also display a nifty talent for adding layers in a way that creates thrilling surges of intensity. There are moments on this album that are as powerful as anything that came out in 2017.

Music from NYC.

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#15: Michel Portal & Quatuor Ebene – Eternal Stories (Erato Records)

On Eternal Stories, bassist Michel Portal is joined by drummer Richard Héry, keyboardist Xavier Tribolet and the string quartet Quatuor Ébène. Their method of blending jazz and classical is one of the more amazing examples of third stream music that I’ve encountered in some time. The kaleidoscopic array of expressions is endless, tiny permutations that resonate like mad, both individually and through sheer accumulation. They also add in some tango, some electro-groove, sometimes go heavier with the modern jazz and sometimes go strong with the classical and sometimes it all gets broken down into an eerie dissonance that no genre can lay claim to. The effect is often quite stunning, and it just reaffirms some of the reasons why Michel Portal is a big site-favorite. Simply outstanding.

Music from Paris, France.

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#16: Jeremy Danneman & Sophie Nzayisenga – Honey Wine (Ropeadope)

There is a supreme joyfulness to this collaboration between Jeremy Danneman and Sophie Nzayisenga. Danneman’s saxophone and Nzayisenga’s inanga (a ten-stringed instrument similar to a zither or kora) dance around in circles, their delightful motions as enchanting rhythmically as they are melodically. Honey Wine is upbeat and conversational, and all the same, this blend of jazz and folk has a calm demeanor that borders on soothing at times. And, thankfully, it shows a willingness to rear back and roar up to the skies when the moment calls for it. The bass and drums of William Parker and Tim Keiper snap right into place with this dynamic, and the result is a rich personality that crackles with life. This is an instance where doing something very different sounds as normal as a beating heart.

Music from NYC and Kigali, Rwanda.

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#17: Brot & Sterne – Tales of Herbst (Traumton)

If we’re talking about Tales of Herbst, it’d be pretty silly to do anything other than start by talking about the Brot & Sterne rendition of the Miles Davis classic In a Silent Way. They capture the work’s sublime tranquility while also instilling it with the locomotion that propels the peacefulness ahead. That potent mix of serenity and animation is difficult to conjure up, but not only do the trio of Franz Hautzinger, Matthias Loibner and Peter Rosmanith rise to the challenge, but they do it with the instrumentation of trumpet, hurdy-gurdy and hang drum (plus a tasteful serving of electronics). Melodies soar and, via the hang drum, the rhythmic effect is both conversational and hypnotic. And it’s an effect that carries out from that Miles Davis cover to every piece on Tales of Herbst. A seriously powerful album for music that’s as peaceful as the setting sun.

Music from Brest, France and Wien, Austria.

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#18: Fabian Almazan & Rhizome – Alcanza (Biophilia Records)

There’s a huge presence to the latest from Fabian Almazan and his ensemble Rhizome. The pianist’s theme of the individual’s connection to the environment plays out across a nine-movement suite, and its diverse mix of influences and instrumentation leads to heavy imagery and a sweeping grandeur. In particular, the vocal contributions from Camila Meza create a harmonic environment highly conducive to soaring melodies, and a string section that includes site-favorite Tomoko Omura adds a majestic quality to send those melodies even higher. It would appear from the very start, Alcanza had its sights set of a very high plateau. It’s not really a question of whether it was achieved, because the true joy of this album is experienced by the way it takes flight. That journey leads to a wealth of thrilling moments.

Music from NYC.

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#19: Sam Bardfeld – The Great Enthusiasms (BJU Records)

It’s truly amazing how violinist Sam Bardfeld is able to thread the needle at the point where avant-garde, modern jazz and chamber come together. The nature of the lyricism of The Great Enthusiasms is one of curious melodies, volatile bursts of intensity, and a sardonic wit. The trio of Bardfeld, pianist Kris Davis and drummer Michael Sarin somehow roll out this concoction of tones and influences in a way that is remarkably embraceable. If one were to create a soundtrack for a printed collection of The Far Side comic strips, this is likely how it would sound.

Music from NYC.

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#20: Tephra Sound – Horizon (Self-Produced)

Depending on how you go about looking at it, the sense is that Horizon is rooted to New Orleans in a number of ways. To start with the obvious, it’s where Helen Gillet lives. The Tephra Sound ensemble began in the cellist’s living room, and the resulting album was recorded there, too. There are also those moments in this dynamically diverse recording that key into a traditional New Orleans sound. And then there’s the idea of how Jazz, at its birth, was music that represented the melting pot of the city… that, with blues as its base, added the ingredients of disparate cultures as it all came together. That, too, is reflective of Horizon… measured by the diversity of its influences and the backgrounds of its members. The mix of old-school, new-school and no-school leads to moments that are joyful or ferocious or introspective or all of that and more. It’s also a whole bundle of fun, setting a charge for both head and heart. And the spontaneity that set the whole thing in motion is present throughout the recording session. Tephra Sound conjures up a unique kind of magic.

Music from New Orleans.

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#21: Rebecca Martin & Guillermo Klein – The Upstate Project (Sunnyside Records)

Though both had made their respective marks while on the NYC scene, it wasn’t until after Rebecca Martin and Guillermo Klein had each relocated to upstate New York that the two ultimately collaborated. It was worth the wait. Their respective balance between folk musics and modern jazz sync up perfectly on The Upstate Project, and lead to a series of poignant moments rich with melodicism… and this applies to the union of their voices as well as between guitar and piano. A reworking of Bill Frisell’s classic song “Throughout” is nice bonus to accompany some beautiful original pieces. This collaboration should happen far more often.

 

Music from Kingston and Beacon, NY.

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#22: Fabel – Fabel (Jaeger Community Music)

This video-as-album project is some serious enchantment. Pianist Kasper Staub, bassist Jens Mikkel and trumpeter Jakob Sørensen teamed up with cinematographer André Hansen, and their music and imagery are the perfect match for one another. One song melts into the next like scenes shifting to different landscapes and backdrops. Sometimes Sørensen’s trumpet is the moonlight filtering through the trees and sometimes it’s the fireplace generating warmth. Staub’s piano is the sunlight bending through a window pane, splashing a melody across the floor. The soft footfalls of Mikkel’s bass marks both the passing of time and the motion of passing through it. It’s an illustration how an economy of sound can radiate a presence like a storm cloud threatening rain. It’s proof that some of the most powerful melodies are crafted with nothing more than just a few perfect notes in a perfect place. Fabel is as lovely as it gets.

Music from Aarhus, Denmark.

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#23: Tyshawn Sorey – Verisimilitude (Pi Recordings)

Verisimilitude is a piano trio recording. It makes its intentions known in the opening notes of composer Tyshawn Sorey’s latest. Pianist Cory Smythe offers up some thoughtful phrases. Bassist Chris Tordini takes advantage of the open range by augmenting the rhythm with some melodic contributions. Sorey, on drums, adds nuance with a restrained patter and tasteful cymbal crashes. But Sorey’s creative impulses lean heavier toward forward-thinking expressionism, even as it goes about honoring that which has come before. And that marks where Verisimilitude ends its phase as a classic piano trio recording and becomes something else. Classical, electronic, ambient, avant-garde and any number of other influences become ingredients for an album that doesn’t exclusively cozy up to any one. And, intriguingly, the album never fully manifests into a final stage. It is music that is undergoing evolution while the tape is rolling. It’s a seed undergoing self-realization as the bloom is underway. That quality is what renders the album’s opening notes as the most intriguing moment of the Sorey’s latest project. Sorey’s trio rehabs the state of transformation into a permanent resting point, where everything changing is everything staying the same. Fans of Bill Evans are going to say this is the good stuff. Fans of Debussy are going to say this is the good stuff. Fans of Nils Frahm and Hauschka and Andrew Hill and Matthew Shipp are all going to say this is the good stuff. At least for a little while, until everything changes again. And that’s a good thing. Because Tyshawn Sorey is currently traveling a creative arc where every new change has the potential to be the most wonderful thing ever heard.

Music from NYC.

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#24: Matt Otto with Ensemble Iberica – Iberica (Origin Records)

That Matt Otto’s collaboration with Ensemble Ibérica is drop-dead gorgeous doesn’t come as a huge surprise, but it is remarkable just how welcoming a personality it possesses. When confronted with beauty set to stun, the tendency is to experience it from a distance… a sort of defensive detachment meant to open lines of communication that might otherwise be overwhelmed by the emotional reaction. That posture isn’t necessary on Ibérica. The tenor saxophonist and Spanish music ensemble bring a peaceful seaside ambiance to music that might otherwise turn out the lights. The use of instruments like oud, steel guitar, cavaquinho, cello and Cuban tres speak to the album’s rich personality, and the many avenues at its disposal to express all that beauty.

Music from Kansas City, MO.

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#25: Matthew Bourne – Isotach (Leaf Label)

Matthew Bourne had been spending his time lately experimenting with a moog. He put out a couple interesting recordings documenting those experiments. But for Isotach, the pianist returned to his home overlooking the moors of the Yorkshire countryside and recorded a solo piano work that is nothing short of stunning. Notes are allowed to hang in the air and slowly drift and fade, with the next volley only served up just before the previous blink out of existence. Bourne adds some cello here and there for texture, but only ever as accompaniment and never as the main course. Melodies spread across each song like moonlight… slowly, almost imperceptibly, until suddenly everything is lit in a magical glow. A truly beautiful recording, and a nice example of how the slightest emphasis can resonate like a hurricane.

Music from Yorkshire, England.

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#26: Miles Okazaki – Trickster (Pi Recordings)

The music of Trickster possesses a strange and curious interface, as if a self-replicating alien language perpetually on the verge of translating itself into human words. The newest album from Miles Okazaki is driven by rhythmic forces that shape the melodies into their ultimate form, and the impression is that among the guitarist’s quartet of drummer Sean Rickman, bassist Anthony Tidd and pianist Craig Taborn, no one person is excluded from the opportunity to impose their will upon that motion. The result is a passive kind of addiction, where the album’s charismatic personality keeps the ear locked in place until the translation is complete, and what once seemed alien and strange becomes as welcome and familiar as a loved one saying hello.

Music from NYC.

Read more at Bird is the Worm.

 

#27: Diego Barber – One Minute Later (Sunnyside Records)

The evolution of Diego Barber’s fusion of classical and jazz shows no sign of slowing down, nor does the fascination it generates reflect any sign of dwindling. Over the course of five albums, the guitarist has incorporated electronic, avant-garde and folk into his heady mix of classical music and various forms of bop, post- or otherwise. Percussionist Alejandro Coello and his use of vibraphone and marimba is an especially positive addition. That said, the way bassist Ben Williams and drummer Eric Harland cast a rhythmic spell over a track like “Jacaranda” to give the illusory effect of electronic dance music on a session using only organic instruments is pretty damn amazing. In a modern jazz landscape that is as diverse as it ever was, Diego Barber has developed a sound that differentiates itself from the herd, while simultaneously situating itself as a territory that others could gravitate toward. One Minute Later is yet more evidence of it.

 

Music from NYC.

Read more about the album on Bird is the Worm.

 

#28: Daniel Herskedal – The Roc (Edition Records)

If there exists a societal opinion that tuba is incapable of being the source of beautiful music, then Daniel Herskedal has something to send that premise crashing down. The Roc is arguably the most gorgeous recording of 2017. Built upon the tubist’s personal concoction of modern jazz, chamber and folk, Herskedal adds an intriguing influence of Arabic music to the mix, as well as expands his ensemble with a cellist and violinist. As with previous Herskedal recordings, The Roc is an album overflowing with cinematic imagery, thick beautiful harmonies and melodies as bright and clear as a forest stream. The addition of Arabic music creates a rhythmic environment that brings a life to those elements that breathes an entirely new way, and has the melodic effect of a shapely allure, of providing an enchantment impossible to ignore. This is a phenomenal album from a musician who just keeps raising the bar on his own projects, and exceeding it.

Music from Oslo, Norway.

Read more at Bird is the Worm.

 

#29: Trio Blastonal – It Is What It Is! (Self-Produced)

The joyful enthusiasm of It Is What It Is is positively addictive. It carries through strong, no matter if the expression is something traditional, something modern, or something completely unidentifiable. Trio Blastonal is comprised of trombone, bass trombone and saxophone, so it’s no surprise that thick harmonies rule the day when a concise melody gets served up. The addition of a guitarist and drummer for this session adds some essential definition to those textures at both ends of the spectrum. Additionally, the electronic effects that bleed into things during the “Untold Time” suite add even more personality to music that has tons of it to begin with. Just a seriously fun and fascinating album, and doing something a little bit different.

Music from Korb, Baden-Württemberg, Germany.

Read more at Bird is the Worm.

 

#30: Nate Smith – Kinfolk: Postcards from Everywhere (Ropeadope)

There’s some seriously vivid imagery on Kinfolk: Postcards from Everywhere, and the way it’s presented as snapshots of a story instead of a running narrative makes the music resonate that much stronger. Nate Smith is, in fact, telling a story on his 2017 release, and his fortuitous decision to focus it through the lenses of his bandmates (and various guests) gives that story a detached, ethereal presence, as if recollections told through shared dreams. And so the modern jazz and soul and contemporary groove and folk and old-school ballads and string sections all sort of coalesce into a blurry haze at the same time the immediate moment is snapping into focus. The phase in and out of contradictions and states of unison drives this music, even when it’s laid back and easy-going. That’s no small thing. Also not to be undervalued is the supreme enjoyment gained from simply sitting back and hearing that story pour on out.

Music from NYC.

Read more at Bird is the Worm.

 

#31: Tony Allen – The Source (Blue Note Records)

It’s been a fruitful collaboration between Tony Allen and Blue Note Records. The drummer’s first release for the label was a tribute to Art Blakey, and it captured the high-voltage nature of the hard bop drummer’s classic sound while remaining true to his own voice on drums. Allen’s second 2017 recording for Blue Note is The Source, and, remarkably, it somehow eclipses his first. Bringing together afro-beat, post-bop, hard-bop, electronica and Afro-jazz speaks to the creative elasticity Allen has employed throughout a career of varied projects. The electricity that’s generated by this thrilling music, Allen makes it seem as natural as breathing.

Music from Paris, France.

Read more at Bird is the Worm.

 

#32: MAP – Guerra e Paz (Porta Jazz)

The magic is in the melody on this excellent set from the MAP quartet of pianist Paulo Gomes, guitarist Miguel Moreira, bassist Miguel Ângelo and drummer Acácio Salero. The craftsmanship of those melodies is exquisite, but what really elevates their 2017 release Guerra e Paz up a notch or three is how those melodies become launching points to all kinds of improvisation. Some of those journeys are filled with wild abandon, while others follow a more familiar route of trading solos. Either way, this is an excellent example of modern jazz done right. Also, on a personal note, the song “Norte” is one of my top ten favorite songs of 2017. I can easily envision the Brian Blade Fellowship performing a rendition of it.

Music from Portugal.

Read more on Bird is the Worm (LINK).

 

#33: Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition – Agrima (Self-Produced)

It’s been rewarding and more than a bit fascinating to witness the transformation of the music of Rudresh Mahanthappa. Indian music and NYC jazz isn’t a typical match of influences, and yet with his 2017 release Agrima, it’s as if the saxophonist has achieved a certain normalcy of presentation, to the point where an unconventional sound is as embraceable as taking your next breath. The core of Agrima is Indian music, sometimes as a melodic influence and other times imposing its will upon a piece rhythmically. But the house of the album is built with the raw materials of an indie-rock edge and contemporary grooves and electronic effects, and it’s why Agrima sits plumb with previous Mahanthappa recordings while also representing something new.

It’s been nearly ten years since Mahanthappa’s last recording with the Indo-Pak Coalition of guitarist Rez Abbasi and drummer-percussionist Dan Weiss, but the daylight that separates 2008’s Apti and 2017’s Agrima could fuel an entire season of summer. If anything, Mahanthappa’s 2011 release Samdhi should be singled out as the precursor to Agrima‘s effortless display of casual virtuosity. Abbasi’s nuanced shifting of intensities on guitar is the perfect complement to the addictive chatter when Weiss switches over to tabla, and how the trio adds additional textures with varying degrees of electronic effects is a wash of color that adds vibrancy everywhere it touches down.

Everything about this album is wonderful. And what it says about Mahanthappa’s willingness to refuse to sit still is promising as hell.

Music from Brooklyn, NY.

Read more at Bird is the Worm.

 

#34: Web Web – Oracle (Compost Records)

The Web Web quartet references Detroit’s classic Strata East label in the liner notes for Oracle, and it’s more than just a haphazard shout-out. Running through the blood of pianist Roberto Di Gioia, saxophonist Tony Lakatos, bassist Christian von Kaphengst and drummer Peter Gall are those times when hard bop ceded ground to spiritual jazz and avant-garde, where a thick groove and a thicker melody might begin with the blues, but likely won’t end there, and where a sense of song structure is just kindling for a wild conflagration. 1970s jazz too often gets associated with divergences into more saccharine forms of music and production. The seventies were a magical time for creative reinvention of jazz forms, where the pain of the blues and the joy of the soul came together in vivid imagery and volatile motion. Oracle celebrates those times and keeps them in fashion in the present day… both are excellent reasons to raise a glass and toast this supremely enjoyable recording.

Music from Munich, Germany.

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#35: La Pingo’s Orquesta – Peregrino (Ropeadope Sur)

The motion of the music is tango and tropanka, waltz and twist, foot taps and head bops and long slow dances with someone held close. It’s music from Argentina and Mexico and the Balkans and NYC to the north and Tuscon to the south. This music is the salt of the earth and the story of the roots. It’s a joyful form of folk music, and Peregrino serves it up like a stiff drink of euphoria. La Pingo’s Orquesta folds all of those influences along lines of motion until it resembles the shape of their sound. That this music can be so varied and yet so coherent and distinct is pretty amazing in its own right. But that the intelligence of its construction is made secondary to an abounding sense of fun is why this is a must-have recording, and why it’s one of the best things to hit the shelves in 2017.

Music from Aguascalientes, Mexico.

Read more at Bird is the Worm.

 

#36: Marta Sanchez Quartet – Danza Imposible (Fresh Sound New Talent)

Tracing the emerging patterns of a Marta Sánchez melody is like attempting to map out the shapes of a kaleidoscope. The changes of tone, texture and shape create a series of unexpected discoveries, sometimes startling and sometimes sublime. But that she goes through these thrilling permutations and then hits a landing spot that wraps everything up nicely is what clinches her 2017 release Danza Imposible as something special. It’s a wonderful follow-up to her equally wonderful 2015 release Partenika, and a promising sign of the state of her music today and what might come next.

Music from NYC.

Read more at Bird is the Worm.

 

#37: Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band – Body & Shadow (Blue Note Records)

There’s really no risk of assigning too great of value or esteeming too highly the music of Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band. Their singular form of expression incorporating cinematic imagery, moody contemplation and dramatic surges is such a specific sound and so innate to their collaboration that it’s almost impossible not to recognize their music if blindfolded. But more than that, their particular sound is one that has been adopted by a number of other musicians… to the point where the sphere of influence could be regarded as a school of modern jazz. It’s that way with other seminal artists from recent times… Bill Frisell, Esbjorn Svensson, Brad Mehldau… that the gravitational pull of their specific sound can alter the course of any musicians who that music speaks to. Blade’s 2017 release Body and Shadow captures all the magic of past releases, while conjuring up something new. This is captivating music created by musicians who have made a career of it.

Music from Shreveport, Louisiana.

Read more at Bird is the Worm.

 

#38: Han-earl Park – Sirene 1009 (Buster & Friends)

This album is brilliant. This album is insane.

That’s how I ended my write-up of Sirene 1009 from the trio of guitarist Han-earl Park, bassist Dominic Lash, drummer Mark Sanders and vocalist Caroline Pugh. And since I feel no differently about this fascinating album, it seems appropriate that I begin that way when speaking of its inclusion in this Best of 2017. Unbridled creativity is something majestic to aspire to. An ineffable vision is an endeavor to pursue. To bring those together and still give manifest shape to something completely different and new? That’s nothing short of remarkable.

Nothing about this album sounds normal. Sirene 1009 is a soundtrack for a seizure. It’s spasmodic and flails about wildly. The music is disconcerting. But it enters fugue states of focused intensity that border on meditative, and it is the most powerful sensation to experience even the tiniest hint of serenity at the center of so much chaos.

Nothing about this album sounds normal, and I mean that in the way alien landscapes can appear strangely familiar in the most vivid cinematic imagery or how the best fiction novels can alter reality to where you peek out the window to confirm that things are really as you remember them to be. That’s the effect of this album.

Music from Cork, Ireland.

Read more at Bird is the Worm.

 

#39: David Virelles – Gnosis (ECM Records)

On Gnosis, there’s a startling convergence of Cuba and NYC, and neither music influence is left unchanged. The clash between a chamber music sparseness and Cuban folk flow is as dramatic as the sky during a full eclipse, as is the resultant tension of one aspect seeking ascension over the other. Heavy on percussion and strings, this large ensemble offering from pianist David Virelles possesses both an improvisational streak and a classical framework, and it’s why at times this music seems impenetrable and then suddenly it’s a welcoming, open embrace. At times, it can be a challenging listen. But challenges are fun, especially in music, and it’s the kind of quality that generates some serious intrigue. On Gnosis, there’s plenty of that. For David Virelles, it’s becoming a common trait in his recording career.

Music from NYC.

Read more at Bird is the Worm.

 

#40: Albert Cirera & Tres Tambors – Suite Salada (Underpool)

It’s pretty thrilling how each piece on Suite Salada begins as the thin flame of a solitary match and then gradually builds up to a raging conflagration. Albert Cirera and his Tres Tambors unit have an exquisite touch at modulating the intensity of a piece, with an eye on a finish line located at the extremes. But what marks this marvelous recording as something special is how the quartet focuses their lyricism through that torrent of intensity, and the miraculous way a melody not only retains its shape, but is able to express itself delicately when the moment calls. And while this music resonates with the jazz and folk of the Barcelona scene, there are passages on this recording that echo the joyful grooves of Keith Jarrett’s 1970s output with his American Quartet. That’s no small thing, and quite honestly, there should be a hell of a lot more of it. I’m more than a bit addicted to this recording. Results may vary… but probably not. Expect for this album to hit you like a drug.

Music from Barcelona, Spain.

Read more on Bird is the Worm.

 

#41: Cat Toren’s HUMAN KIND – Cat Toren’s HUMAN KIND (Self-Produced)

Yes, there’s the political inspiration this album is built upon and there’s also the willful channeling of music from the past, but what really makes the new release from Cat Toren’s HUMAN KIND so damn thrilling is how the pianist sets in motion a series of acts where things begin to fall apart and then come back together just on the brink of annihilation. There’s a melody. It’s often quite beautiful and in possession of a serious magnetism. And Toren lights the whole thing on fire, and lets it rage out of control before, somehow, guiding it all back down to a single flame. Sometimes the conflagration is more akin to a fireplace warmth, but the transition of divide and unity is no less dramatic. A powerful recording. Also, bonus points for incorporating an oud into the proceedings.

Music from Brooklyn, NY.

Read more about the album on Bird is the Worm.

 

#42: Brenton Foster – The Nature of Light (Self-Produced)

The success of The Nature of Light has as much to do with Brenton Foster‘s talent at crafting spellbinding melodies as it does his sextet’s predilection for giant swells of harmony that spread out like sunlight across wide open fields. It’s just one beautiful moment after the other on Foster’s 2017 release, endlessly. The juxtaposition of grand statements and whispered nuance adds a wealth of textures, and it gets to where no matter where the attention is focused, there’s always going to be elements looking to pull it away to something new and equally gorgeous. Just a phenomenal album.

Music from Melbourne, Australia.

Read more at Bird is the Worm.

 

#43: Kati Briens Dream Band – Happy Music (Self-Produced)

I love the way this album sings. Every expression has got so much feel, and the energy radiating from each note comes through strong and bright. The debut from Kati Briens Dream Band sets off the bright tones of alto sax against the darker tones of bass clarinet, in that same way both a glorious summer afternoon benefits from the warmth of sunbeams and the shadows cooling off the breeze. The sextet, consisting of two alto saxophonists, a trombonist and a bass clarinetist, makes good use of the harmonic avenues open to it, while the bass and drums rhythm section adds some definition to melodies that might otherwise run free and wild. Melodies are cast out sharp and clear before the ensemble begins to murky the waters and have some fun splashing about. Even when the music grows introspective, the sense of a weightless motion carries things along. Happy Music is not even a little bit accidentally named.

Music from Berlin, Germany.

Read more at Bird is the Worm.

 

#44: Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference (Young Turks Recordings)

After the explosion set off on the jazz scene by Kamasi Washington‘s 2015 masterwork The Epic, it was inevitable that the follow-up might not be received with the same jolt of electricity. That’s okay. An excess of hype has a strange way of skewing perceptions and altering the interface with whatever is right there in front of us. It’s rather refreshing to be able to experience Washington’s new release in something of a vacuum. And though its scale is dramatically pared down from the crazily sprawling three-disc The Epic, it’s no less enjoyable. Harmony of Difference keeps in line with The Epic, exploring convergences between spiritual, cosmic, and post-bop with a series of dramatic harmonic builds, catchy melodies and contemporary grooves. There’s a joyfulness to this music that eclipses its curious forms of expression, and, ultimately, that’s why this music carries like it does. There’s something special going on here, and it’s a hopeful thing that Washington isn’t yet done exploring this particular vision.

Music from Los Angeles, CA.

Read more at Bird is the Worm.

 

#45: Bostjan Simon – There Be Monsters (Klopotec)

There’s an irresistible sing-song demeanor to There Be Monsters, even when the music dives into heady contemplative waters or takes a spin with folk music demanding a formal comportment. Boštjan Simon’s There Be Monsters ensemble nimbly toes the lines where tonal contexts collide, keeping things light even when the humor grows dark. The Slovenian saxophonist has a curious quintet that consists of tuba, vibraphone, trombone and drums, and this unconventional assortment of instruments has as much to do as anything with the strange and beautiful music. Captivating, yes, and in a way quite unlike much else that’s out there.

Music from Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Read more on Bird is the Worm.

 

#46: Binker & Moses – Journey to the Mountain of Forever (Gearbox Records)

The duo of tenor saxophonist Binker Golding and drummer Moses Boyd come out strong on their 2017 release Journey To The Mountain Of Forever, and then jack up the voltage even higher to finish things off. The two-disc recording begins with just the two. They settle upon a melodic path and then go kick up some dust exploring it. The second disc sees things expanded into an ensemble affair, and what began as a solid post-bop date transforms into something freer, wilder, and bordering on spiritual. That said, even with the addition of unconventional instruments like harp and tabla, this is still relatively straight-ahead music, and the reason to sit down and give it a listen is the same one might provide to pull out a classic Art Blakey recording with Wayne Shorter leading the Jazz Messengers… raw lyricism and focused intensity equals unparalleled fun.

Music from London, UK.

Read more on Bird is the Worm.

 

#47: Sandcatchers – What We Found Along the Way (Chant Records)

The captivating session from the Sandcatchers brings together the musics of the Middle-East, the Appalachian Mountains and metropolitan NYC. The melodies of What We Found Along the Way bends and warps and melts into different forms and shapes, one no less compelling than the next. Oud, cello, lap steel, bass and drums kick up some folk music twang, some melodic dancing with maqam improvisation, some hop and bop of modern jazz, and all of it fun and friendly and seriously mesmerizing.

Music from Brooklyn, NY.

Read more at Bird is the Worm.

 

#48: Misha Mullov-Abbado – Cross-Platform Interchange (Edition Records)

There’s a whirlwind expanse of ground covered on the sophomore release from Misha Mullov-Abbado. Whether diving into Ellingtonian territory with a bop-infused orchestration or spiking a flag into the soil of his own little section of the modern post-bop landscape, the bassist displays a remarkable ability at making it all sound like one coherent vision. Bits of space-y drone, indie-rock edge, contemporary groove and curiously expressive chamber music comprise just some of the ingredients that make Cross-Platform Interchange a wild success.

Music from London, UK.

Read more at Bird is the Worm.

 

#49: Kungobram – Night in Panam (Self-Produced)

At the center of this delightful album from the sextet Kungobram is Yan Lebreton and his kamalengoni, an African rhythm harp. It possesses an hypnotic quality, and it’s one whose potency is unchanged regardless of whether the melody is one that smoulders like fireplace embers or one that dances joyfully in tight circles. Add to that foundation a pair of saxophones, additional strings and some essential percussion, and it’s why there’s both detail and depth to these pieces attributable to far more than the kamalengoni’s personality. The fun demeanor of Night in Panam is hard to miss, but that it’s whip smart, to boot, makes it a must-have album.

Music from Paris, France.

Read more at Bird is the Worm.

 

#50: Emilio Reyna – La Lenta Marcha de las Estrellas (Self-Produced)

On some albums, the musician syncs into a melodic stream of thought, and just follows it all the way out to the sea. Emilio Reyna‘s 2017 release La Lenta Marcha de las Estrellas is a prime example of this occurrence, and the majestic beauty it inspires. The melody undergoes changes with each piece, but they all sound connected to the same source, the original vision. The pianist’s sextet achieves a seamless flow from one piece to the next, and it’s why it feels like this album could go on forever, and then, suddenly, it’s over too soon. I fell in love with this album on first listen, and over the course of the year, my appreciation of the nuance and depth that define its beauty continues to grow with each additional listen.

Music from Montreal, Québec.

Read more at Bird is the Worm.


And remember… the list never truly ends.

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