What a year this was for recordings. With the sheer amount of music being put out now it’s of course impossible to keep track of more than a tiny sliver, and it’s virtually impossible to narrow down a small list of favorites from even that sliver. But here we are.
Note that I have excluded albums in which I had a hand one way or another, either as a musician (I am proud to have been part of Reach Out by Envisage Collective) or through running RMI Records (Mel Hsu’s a prayer for broken glass and Amanda Monaco’s Pirkei Avot, Vol. 2 both deserve your attention, but I won’t claim objectivity). Beyond that, here are 10 standout moments from the year in recordings, acknowledging that on one level I totally cheated by referencing many more along the way.
In no particular order of preference:
1 ) Our Native Daughters: “Mama’s Cryin’ Long” from Songs of Our Native Daughters
I’m not sure if Rhiannon Giddens has down years, but this sure as heck wasn’t one. Her collaborative album with Francesco Turrisi is powerful enough, but this album is easily one of my favorite of the entire decade. Conceived and performed in collaboration with Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell, this album is soulful, raw, uncomfortably truthful, triumphant, and musically profound all at once, basically everything I hope for music to be. While the instrumental work (including that of all four women on banjo at various points) is stellar throughout, I’m choosing this deeply haunting Giddens composition. If this doesn’t bring you to your knees, you’re not paying close enough attention.
2 ) Godwin Louis: “Siwel” from Global
It was a heck of a year for musicians exploring the connections between jazz and various world musics, from Brazilian jazz (for lack of a better term) by Kerry Politzer and Pedro Martins to Akira Tana’s exploration of his Japanese heritage to Bill O’Connell’s Afro-Caribbean Ensemble to even the album Africa by Santana (which maybe only tangentially belongs in a jazz discussion – some tracks more than others, anyway – but is probably my favorite album he’s done in over 40 years). And then there’s David Sanchez’s utterly stunning new double-album . . . which was a near coin-toss for this list, though I spent the whole year basking in Godwin’s daring multi-cultural fire and rhythmic innovation on his own epic double-album.
3 ) Best Mann: “And the Sky” from . . . And the Sky
I’ve grown happily accustomed to this, but a bunch of former students of mine put out compelling music this year, from Jess Best’s EP to the production work by Spencer H on the new EP by Garth. to Joe Newman’s clever interpretation of video game music, not to mention Sam Friedman’s bluesy cat videos. But I was not prepared for this tour de force album – I knew that Nate (aka Best Mann) was a great drummer and wordsmith, but hearing his singing, songwriting, and playing of pitched instruments on this emotionally and musically deep album was a real highlight of the year for me.
4 ) Curtis Nowosad: “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” from Curtis Nowosad
So it turns out it was a good year to be a socially conscious drummer/bandleader. I quite enjoyed music in this vein put out by Jerome Jennings, Ulysses Owens, Jr., and Terri Lyne Carrington, whose double-album is getting some well-earned hype right about now. Less hyped but extremely potent is the latest album by Curtis Nowosad. The whole album is powerful and direct in its addressing of social justice; at risk of marginalizing his original compositions, I’ll choose this, one of the best instrumental interpretations of a Gil Scott-Heron tune I’ve heard.
5 ) Jennifer Wharton: “Other Angles” from Bonegasm
I suppose every year is a good year for people doing ambitious projects, but that doesn’t make 2019 less noteworthy. I was so pleased to see Grammy recognition for Miho Hazama’s amazing new album, and hope that this year’s ambitious works by Ezra Weiss, Avery Sharpe, and Remy Le Boeuf also get attention. Being married to a low brass enthusiast, I developed a particularly strong appreciation for this trombone-heavy project which is not at all the novelty that the name might suggest to the uninitiated. The playing and writing is stellar throughout, representing a number of important composers including fellow trombonist Sara Jacovino, who wrote this lovely tune.
6 ) Reese Wynans: “I’ve Got A Right To Be Blue” from Sweet Release
It would almost be easier to make a list of my favorite blues-relevant recordings from 2019 that Keb’ Mo’ DIDN’T participate in. He put out two albums (the powerful Oklahoma and then a Christmas record) as well as having a hand in debut albums by two of the young torchbearers of blues, Jontavious Willis and Christone “Kingfish” Ingram (as producer and guest artist respectively). Picking one track, though, I’ll go with this duet with an organist and (on this track) pianist from whom I copped a lot when I was a teenaged fan and have appreciated ever since, even as it’s taken until this year for him to make a solo album.
7 ) Camila Meza: “This Is Not America” from Ambar
A number of Chilean women put out music that really hit me this year. Melissa Aldana’s Visions (featuring new star Joel Ross on vibraphone) is one of my short list of favorite albums of the year, and I’ve really enjoyed Claudia Acuna’s latest. The powerhouse guitarist/vocalist Camila Meza’s album is really compelling (as is her work on the predictably great new release from Ryan Keberle’s Catharsis) and this track stands out as it is the embodiment of everything I always thought this haunting and still-relevant David Bowie/Pat Metheny song could be since I first heard it on the radio as a kid in the 1980s.
8 ) Ahmad Jamal: “Poinciana” from Ballades
It was a fertile year for jazz musicians 75 and older (in terms of recordings anyway, obviously some of them also checked out this year, which is a sad reality of mortality and of where we are in the music’s historical trajectory). Ron Carter put out his first record with his quartet featuring Jimmy Greene, Monty Alexander put out a beautiful album (featuring Wayne Escoffery) of Jamaican-infused Monk tunes, and there were lovely recordings by Abdullah Ibrahim, Al Foster, George Cables, and Jimmy Cobb (featuring the recorded swan song of Harold Mabern). And that doesn’t even include sideman appearances, like Buster Williams on George Colligan’s fiery new trio record or Jack DeJohnette’s guest spot on the gorgeous Bruce Hornsby track “Absolute Zero.”
So at the risk of being “that guy” who wants to hear the hit song over and over, I have made a study of Ahmad Jamal’s many renditions of “Poinciana” from 1955 on forward, and they’ve served as a sort of snapshot of his broader musical development. But I sure never heard anything like this – nor did anyone else, given that it’s at 89 years old that he dropped his first-ever solo piano album, which is uniformly lovely.
9 ) Johnathan Blake: “Synchronicity I” from Trion
The members of this trio all had quite a year. Saxophonist Chris Potter’s Circuits album blew my mind in 2019, as did Linda May Han Oh’s Aventurine (and her work on Fabian Almazan’s wonderful This Land Abounds With Life). Drummer Johnathan Blake, in addition to contributing to the latest tour de force by Tom Harrell, put out this intense and gorgeous trio album that I keep going back to. Again, there is no intention here to marginalize the original compositions, but the first inkling I had of this trio, bootleg teaser style, was this transformation of the title track from the Police’s last album.
10 ) Kenny Barron and Mulgrew Miller: “Blue Monk” from Art of the Piano Duo
I’m always ambivalent about including “historical” recordings on a list like this – every year there are previously-unreleased things that come to light (this year no different, with John Coltrane and Marvin Gaye standing out as having “new” music that has become important to me, and I would put Chick Corea’s “new” trio record and the live record from Gerald Cleaver’s “Detroit” band in that category). But the duo of Kenny Barron and Mulgrew Miller has a particularly strong soft spot in my heart and given that of course Mulgrew will not be joining maestro Barron on the stage again, I felt as though this 2005 and 2011 music was a particularly welcome gift, bringing me all the way back to Bradley’s in the 1990s. 2-piano duets are tricky terrain but these two find that amazing middle ground between cutting contest and nurturing while displaying what made them both so influential on the pianists of my generation.