Top 10 Favorite Jaki Byard tracks

I missed pianist Jaki Byard’s centennial by a few days (oh, life) but have been thinking a lot about his legacy and the influence it has had on me and beyond. While comfortable in both experimental and conventional jazz settings, his organic capacity to meld the two (and the worlds between) was particularly groundbreaking. Sometimes this would manifest from one tune to another, sometimes from one moment to another within the same tune, and sometimes all coming together at once. This made him difficult to categorize, and as tends to be the case, one could say it hindered his public profile and led to him generally being underrepresented in the literal and figurative history books.

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EDS Awareness 2022: Patch Kit and the Solidarity of Suffering

I had a different piece of writing planned for Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Awareness Month this year, but reeling from a mass shooting (and the gut-wrenching awareness that anyone reading this will have to wonder even which one I’m referring to) has turned my head around and made me reflect on the nature of suffering as a societal phenomenon. A physical disability like EDS is so often a source of isolation (among its many challenges) and yet as I watch so many people trying to reconcile their grieving, I think about the capacity we have to connect in the face of suffering.

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Top 10 Favorite Makanda Ken McIntyre Tracks

Makanda Ken McIntyre was a demonstrated virtuoso on alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flute, and oboe at minimum (though his multi-wind capacities didn’t end there), a distinctive, meticulous composer, and an educator with a deep impact. I have heard stories from folks across multiple generations describing Makanda’s seriousness and integrity, and I am delighted that work is being done (particularly by the Makanda Project) to preserve and amplify his legacy.

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Top 10 Favorite Charnett Moffett Tracks

Charnett Moffett was a great bassist, full stop. “Was” is tough to swallow, in the wake of the news of his death of a heart attack at age 54, and it shines a light on how taken for granted he was, which in turn is why I feel the need to begin with this seemingly-obvious assertion. Maybe it was because of his ubiquity in the 80s and early 90s, maybe because his technical mastery was so ludicrous that one could only laugh at times. In any event, he was an extraordinarily mature, versatile, empathic musician and a vital contributor to the sounds on which my generation of musicians was raised.

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Top 10 Favorite Billy Drummond Tracks

I’m thrilled that I’ll get to play this weekend with the phenomenal drummer Billy Drummond at St. Peter’s in NYC, as I’ve been a fan of his playing for thirty years now. The first time I heard him was just weeks after I began college – my friend Jeff invited me to go with him to Tavern on the Green to hear the James Williams Trio with Billy and bassist Bob Cranshaw. I soaked in every note for two long sets (this I remember vividly because it resulted in literally sprinting through Port Authority bus terminal to catch the last bus back to NJ). As wonderful as James was, as always, it was a night of Billy giving me what I sometimes refer to with students as “involuntary stank-face.” That is, his playing was so tasty and grooving that it made me grimace in disbelief over and over. Not surprisingly, this is the experience I’ve had ever since when listening to him in different musical contexts.

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Top 10 Favorite Jackie McLean Tracks

If I had never met the great saxophonist, composer, bandleader, educator, and activist Jackie McLean, I suspect he would still be one of the more important musicians in my consciousness. I do not, however, have that abstraction. Although I didn’t spend a lot of time with Mr. McLean, every interaction left a mark, as did my time as a student at the Artists’ Collective (the Hartford, CT community organization he co-founded over 50 years ago) and more generally within his musical/spiritual/intellectual orbit (including with my many friends and colleagues involved with the jazz program, now the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz, at the Hartt School). Even being young and foolish, I appreciated the uniqueness of proximity to such a master and in the ensuing 30 years have only increased my appreciation for that and for the distinctiveness of his musical voice and legacy. Few instrumentalists have had sounds as distinct as his on the alto saxophone, and the seamless way he bounced between blues, bebop, and the most modern jazz (and at times melded it all together) was truly visionary.

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Top 10 Favorite Billy Taylor Tracks

If the great pianist/composer/educator Dr. Billy Taylor had only one of those “angles” to lean on, he’d still be a “hall of fame” level force in jazz, and the sum of the three (and the fascinating ways they’re interwoven) make him an extraordinary figure in the music’s history, something that itself belies the delightfully positive energy that radiated through any space he entered. He championed jazz on network television, he was a committed educator and wrote a book on the history of jazz piano that hasn’t aged, and he generally worked to help the music reach wider audiences without diluting any of the substance. His determination to help jazz earn the respect it deserves is consistent with this being the guy who wrote “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” (perhaps best known via Nina Simone’s interpretation), just one of his many noteworthy compositions. And yet when I was first exposed to his music I literally didn’t know any of this, I just knew he was charming and played the bejeezus out of the piano.

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15 Albums That Moved Me in 2021

Is music getting better every year or am I just getting more sentimental about the artistry and courage and persistence that being a musician requires? I don’t know, but it was literally painful to assemble this list, knowing how much truly excellent music I had to omit, even with the loophole of these honorable mentions. Take this not as a ranking (much less a referendum on quality through some claiming-to-be-objective lens) but as a series of shout-outs and an invitation to dig some (or if you’re ambitious all) of the wonderful music cited below.

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Leave No Griever Behind

It’s no secret that American society does a lousy job of allowing grief its proper place in everyday discourse. Or maybe it is a secret in the sense that with so few people talking about it, it’s not even sufficiently part of most folks’ consciousness to even form an opinion about it. And yet humankind is nothing if not a potpourri of grievers. There are folks in states of intense grief, folks for whom the sting of grief has abated over time or for whom the grief was more distant in the first place, and folks in the “not-yet-griever” category who are going about their lives without thought to or preparation for the inevitability of grief brought about by the inconvenient fact of human mortality. Literally everyone who has another human in their life is impacted, and yet so few are inclined to talk about it. It doesn’t have to be that way and there are things we can do as individuals and as a society to open our eyes and thereby share the load more equitably.

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Top 10 favorite Barry Harris tracks

The last of the forefathers of Detroit jazz piano has gone on to join his honorary brothers Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, and Sir Roland Hanna as an ancestor. No one can question that he was one of the greatest bebop pianists who ever lived (a case could be made that he was THE greatest, but I don’t want to get in any fights here) and nobody has done more to keep the pianistic flames of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk alight. Even if he hadn’t been much of a player, his legacy would be secure from his pioneering work as one of the most influential of all jazz educators – I could go on for pages about that, but will leave it to the many who studied with him more formally and extensively. I didn’t know him well, but I my one cherished opportunity to have lunch with him back in 1997 confirmed what I have heard from everyone who knew him, that he was a class act through and through. Put all of this together and you get one heck of a high-impact life.

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