2018 Year in Review

This past year was particularly bountiful with new music. So many albums and singles resonated with me and they ran the gamut across jazz, R&B, hip-hop, and genre-blurring styles. It was also the year I crossed off a bucket list concert, finally seeing Herbie Hancock Live in Toronto.

Album of the year for me was The Return by Kamaal Williams. It is still fresh after so many listens and will remain in high rotation for years to come. A close runner-up was Shaun Martin’s Focus. Both albums, although quite different stylistically, are grounded in improvisational jazz and boast enduring compositions.

Some of my favourite albums also came from artists I only discovered this year: Tom Misch, Masego, and Australian jazz ensemble, Menagerie.

Albums

  1. Kamaal Williams, The Return (Black Focus)
  2. Shaun Martin, Focus (Ropeadope)
  3. Detroit Swindle, High Life (Heist Recordings)
  4. Tom Misch, Geography (Beyond the Groove)
  5. Phil France, Circles (Gondwana)
  6. Mac Miller, Swimming (Warner Bros.)
  7. Menagerie, Menagerie (Freestyle Records)
  8. Nightmares on Wax, Shape the Future (Warp Records)
  9. Ady Suleiman, Memories (Simco Ltd.)
  10. The Expansions, Murmuration (Albert’s Favorites Ltd)
  11. Masego, Lady Lady (EQT Recordings)
  12. Reel People, Retroflection (Reel People Music
  13. Brandon Coleman, Resistance (Brainfeeder)
  14. Fatima, And Yet It’s All Love (Eglo Records)
  15. Thomas Dybdahl, All These Things (1MicAdventure)

My pick for song of the year was Mac Miller’s “What’s the Use” featuring Thundercat. Thundercat featured heavily in many of my favourite songs this year, namely on collaborations with Flying Lotus and Louis Cole.

Special mention to Chaka Khan for the flyest video in decades for “Like Sugar.”

Thundercat & Mac Miller; Image Credit: NPR Tiny Desk Concert (August 2018)

Songs

  1. What’s the Use, Mac Miller, Swimming (Warner Bros.)
  2. Trouble on Central, Buddy, Harlon & Alondra (RCA)
  3. Tried (single), Badbadnotgood & Little Dragon (Badbadnotgood Ltd.)
  4. Like Sugar (single), Chaka Khan (Diary Records / Island Records)
  5. Tadow feat. FKJ, Masego, Lady Lady (EQT Recordings)
  6. King of the Hill feat. Badbadnotgood & Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Brainfeeder X (Brainfeeder)
  7. Dancing to a Love Song (single), Barry & Gibbs (Sakura Music)
  8. Flight 22, Kali Uchis, Isolation (Rinse / Virgin EMI)
  9. Old Castles, Paul Weller, True Meanings (Solid Bond Productions / Warner)
  10. Cheers feat. Q-Tip, Anderson .Paak, Oxnard (12 Tone Music)
  11. Thinking About Your Love feat. Omar, Reel People, Retroflection (Reel People Music)
  12. Love 4 Love (Joey Negro Extended Remix), Change, Love 4 Love (Nova 017)
  13. Testify, Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth (Young Turks)
  14. Everything feat. John Legend, Ella Mai, Ella Mai (10 Summers / Interscope)
  15. Summertime Magic (single), Childish Gambino (mcDJ Recording / RCA)
  16. State of Mine feat. Philippe Saisse, Nile Rodgers & Chic, It’s About Time (Virgin EMI)
  17. When You’re Ugly, Louis Cole, Time (Brainfeeder)
  18. Lost & Found, Jorja Smith, Lost & Found (FAMM)
  19. Wait, Sabrina Claudio, About Time (SC Entertainment)
  20. Secretly, Onra, Nobody Has to Know (All City Records)

New to Me

Ryo Fukui, Scenery (Trio Records, 1976)

Ryo Fukui was a self-taught pianist who released this album in 1976 to great critical acclaim in his native Japan. Remarkably, Fukui had only started learning the piano 6 years before this album’s release. The ten minute track at the album’s heart, “Early Summer” is rich, complex, and moving, but most of all, it just swings. I have to thank Toronto DJ Jason Palma for introducing me to this album on his radio program, Higher Ground.

I also became re-enamoured with the late great George Duke, in particular, this performance of “It’s On” at the Java Jazz Festival in 2010. Duke has long been a favourite of mine but I hadn’t seen this performance until recently.

Passings

Legends like Aretha Franklin and Hugh Masekela left us in 2018. I was lucky enough to see them both live in years past. Their stage presence was larger than life. One of the most moving videos I watched this year was this tribute by Chaka Khan at Franklin’s Funeral.

 

Hugh Masekela; Image Source: YouTube, Hugh Masekela Live in Berlin (2014)

Other passings that were particularly sad were Mac Miller at the young age of 26 and Roy Hargrove, who was such an innovator in the crossover of jazz, R&B, and hip-hop.

Anticipating in 2019

Speaking of Chaka Khan, there is apparently a new album in the works although no sign of a release date. If “Like Suger” is any indication, it will be worth the wait. Khan’s last studio release was more than 10 years ago.

I’m still eagerly awaiting a sophomore release from Jarrod Lawson and, perchance, a new album from my favourite musical group, Incognito.

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Album Review: Circle, Phil France (Gondwana, August 2018)

Phil France is a UK-based producer and musician known for his work with The Cinematic Orchestra, most notably their soundtrack for the nature documentary, The Crimson Wing (Walt Disney Studios, 2008).

He also likes circles. His bandcamp page explains the concept behind this album as one that uses circular musical structures to echo a more universal notion of “unity, strength, and inclusiveness.”

With Circle, France uses mostly electronic arrangements that loop, meander, and overlap, having an almost narcotic effect on the listener. Curiously, the album’s two most acoustic tracks, “Circle (reprise)” and “The Breaks” are its most enchanting.

France is said to be inspired by the likes of Vangelis and Philip Glass. Indeed, this album evokes Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack (Atlantic, 1994), not for its sonic similarity but for its immersive quality. With his compositions and arrangements, France creates a place you don’t wish to leave – a place wherein you’d rather revel in the music, round and round in circles.

 

 

 

Album Review: Focus, Shaun Martin (Ropeadope, July 2018)

I liked Shaun Martin the instant I heard his first chord. His debut 7 Summers album (Ropeadope, 2015) is still one of my favourite piano jazz recordings. Martin has a majestic compositional and musical style. There’s something sweeping and “American” about his sound – a hint of Aaron Copeland.

In Focus, Martin delivers jazz piano in a more conventional trio framework while retaining his knack for rhythm and pleasing chords. This record, more than his last, oozes patience and evokes the touch of a pianist like Ahmad Jamal. To wit, Martin’s version of “Body and Soul” is as classical a rendering of that standard as one can imagine. “Festina Lente” is more grand, bridging contemporary and smooth jazz. “Ms Genell” is an easy-going and bluesy number, named for his grandmother.

Martin writes on his bandcamp page, “this album reminds me to focus on the purity of the instruments and the authenticity of music.” With Focus, he’s achieved this for himself and for the listener.

 

The Players: Shaun Martin (piano), Jamil Byrom (drums), AJ Brown (double bass); On “Focus,” Keith Taylor (bass), Robert ‘Sput’ Searight (drums)

Concert Review: Herbie Hancock, Toronto, June 29 2018, Sony Centre for the Performing Arts

L to R: Herbie Hancock, Lionel Loueke, Trevor Lawrence Jr., James Genus (photo by author)

What’s constantly impressive about Herbie Hancock is his ability to innovate. A full 6 decades into his career, his forward momentum has never dragged. His June 29 show in Toronto was no exception.

Hancock opened with not so much a tune as a sonic sculpture. Layering, bending, crescendoing, Hancock reminded the audience that he is a pioneer of synthesized music. He had told the audience he would take us on “a journey.” By the end of his opener, we had taken flight.

Lionel Loueke was on guitar that night in his inimitable way, crafting sounds with his effects pedals that blurred the lines between keyboard, guitar, and horns. It reminded me of a passage I read in Hancock’s autobiography wherein he chose a clavinet for his Headhunters ensemble, partly to avoid the need for a guitar. With Loueke’s innovations, Hancock has come full circle, electing to play the acoustic piano while Loueke rocked the spacier effects of the evening. The flipside to Loueke’s presence was the conspicuous absence of Terrace Martin, who had been touring with Hancock until his recent departure for a European tour for one of his other projects. Although I would have liked to see Martin on keys and saxophone, I would not change anything about the show that ultimately materialized.

The performance was deep with delight. Hancock enchanted everyone in the place with his music, his virtuosity, and his disarming affability. Seeing Hancock for the first time qualified as a bucket list checkmark for me. Now that I’ve experienced him live, I realize one doesn’t satisfy a jonesing for Herbie Hancock’s performances. One can only relish them in the moment because they will never be the same again.

 

Setlist (from Setlist.fm)

  • Overture
  • Actual Proof
  • Come Running to Me
  • Secret Source
  • (unknown)
  • Cantaloupe Island
  • Encore: Chamaeleon

 

The Players: Herbie Hancock (piano, keyboard, keytar), James Genus (bass guitar), Trevor Lawrence Jr. (drums), Lionel Loueke (guitar)

 

Further Reading:

Playlist Review of Hancock’s autobiography, Possibilities (Viking, 2014)

Best of 2017, including Trevor Lawrence’s solo album, Relationships (Ropeadope, 2017)

Review of Terrace Martin’s last album, Sounds of Crenshaw Vol. 1 (Ropeadope, 2017)

 

Album Review: High Life, Detroit Swindle (Heist Recordings, June 2018)


Detroit Swindle is an electronic music duo comprised of Dutch producers Lars Dales and Maarten Smeets. Their last LP, Boxed Out (Dirt Crew Recordings, 2014) was one of my favourites from that year in any genre, particularly because of the uplifting closing track, “You, Me, Here, Now,” a re-edit of The Floaters’ “Float On” (ABC, 1977).

I always hold a little more anticipation for full-length albums from producers like these who are prolific in releasing singles but not so in long play recordings. The wait is usually worth it and High Life rises to the occasion.

Dales and Smeets have a knack for creating great dance music but also for creating tracks you can listen to more deeply because of how rich they are in melody, rhythm, and arrangement. The title track is a perfect example: 7 minutes of entrancing synth and beats but with a compositional variation not often found in straight-ahead house tracks.

The duo’s collaboration with singer/songwriter Tom Misch, “Yes, No, Maybe” is a standout hit. “Ketama Gold” and “The Girl from Shiraz” are soulful instrumentals, the latter adeptly using the synthesizer to create an immersive mood piece sans a drum track.

High Life is proof that electronic, dance, and house music can be nuanced, dynamic, and interesting to listen to. You might say Dales and Smeets possess a jazz sensibility. I really like the album cover too – it looks like a jazz record. Just saying.

Further Listening:

My favourite track from their last LP, Boxed Out

And the original, by The Floaters

Album Review: The Return, Kamaal Williams (Black Focus, 2018)

Kamaal Williams (a.k.a. Henry Wu) and half of Yussef Kamaal just dropped a killer jazz album withThe Return.

I’ve been listening to this record repeatedly for 2 weeks Now that it has soaked in, I can honestly say it is one of the most pure jazz albums in recent years. Williams’ keyboard, Joshua McKenzie’s drums, and Pete Martin’s bass produce an immersive soundscape, evoking mood and movement.

The album’s purity is oddly tied to how casual it appears to be. The tracks are easy-going, simply constructed, but at the same time, positively gripping.

There are strong influences of Herbie Hancock and other 70’s synth funk pioneers but Williams also injects a dose of contemporary electronic, ambient, and broken beat.

The Return is a complement to the Yussef Kamaal Black Focus (Brownswood, 2016) project Williams did with drummer Yussef Dayes. Although the two records have a similar style, The Return is more sparse in its arrangements, with nary a guitar or horn. In that sense too, it is pure: a beguiling crucible of keys, drums, and bass.

Related:

Yussef Kamaal’s brilliant performance in the Brownswood Basement, Dec 29, 2016

 

Album Review: Starting Today, Joe Armon-Jones (Brownswood Recordings, May 2018)

Joe Armon-Jones is a keyboardist and songwriter from the London jazz scene. He plays keys for Ezra Collective and has just released his debut solo album, Starting Today.

With just 6 tracks, Armon-Jones offers a wide range of style. The title track has a spiritual jazz vibe, helped by Ras Asheber’s trippy vocals. “Almost Went Too Far” is more groovy with a seventies softness. “London’s Face” switches gears again with a more Latin influence. “Mollison Dub” has a reggae dub backbone that leaves plenty of space overtop for Armon-Jones and his collaborators to improvise.

It’s an eclectic mix of styles but remains unified by Armon-Jones’ keyboard chops. I can’t help but make comparisons to the late George Duke because of how naturalistic Armon-Jones’ playing is and how bold his arrangements and range are, even just on this record.

Starting Today is an apt title for this project. Although Armon-Jones has been around for some time, the strength and promise of his solo debut whets the appetite for what’s to come.

Related:

Superb performance of “Go See” from the We Out Here collection (Brownswood, 2018)

Nice track from saxophonist Nubya Garcia’s EP, When We Are (Nayasha Records, 2018) featuring Joe Armon-Jones on keys. Garcia is also featured on Starting Today.

Album Review: Murmuration, The Expansions (Albert’s Favourites Ltd, March 2018)

The Expansions are James O’Keefe (Guitar), Dave Koor (Keys and Synths), Jonny Drop (Drums), and Matt Summerfield (Bass). Their recent 6-track album, Murmuration, features jazz and synth funk in the tradition of Herbie Hancock, Azymuth, Weather Report, and other 70’s influencers.

The Expansions are not particularly unique in an already crowded field of jazz/funk outfits. Badbadnotgood, Vels Trio, and Yussef Kamaal, to name a few, are putting out progressive jazz in tight ensembles with a contemporary sound. The Expansions are doing the same but what compels me to write about them is the consistency of this album. It is wall-to-wall jazz/funk, original enough to be fresh but authentic too in its homage to the form. I’ve heard other attempts at rekindling a Herbie Hancock Headhunters vibe but they sometimes fall flat, resorting to mimicry rather than offering something new.

I think another appeal of this album is the variety of tempo and arrangements. “Cannonball” evokes a Bob James and Azymuth vibe. “Dragonfly” features a lengthy distorted guitar solo. “Pocket Vibe” is more trancy and synth centric.

In a way, Murmuration is remarkable for how conventionally good it is. That’s one of the great things about jazz music. When it is done well, it stands up without having to stand out.

Related:

Live Rehearsal of “Ivory Mountain,” a nice showcase of the band’s musicianship

The Expansions’ Bandcamp Page

My 2012 post on Azymuth and Badbadnotgood

Concert Review: Charlotte Day Wilson, Toronto, April 6 2018, Danforth Music Hall

Charlotte Day Wilson, Danforth Music Hall, April 6 2018

Charlotte Day Wilson performed most of last night’s sold out show in silhouette. Like the video for her title track from Stone Woman (Charlotte Day Wilson, 2018), the evening’s lighting design obscured the Toronto native in front of a tungsten backlight display. The effect created a mystique that befitted Wilson’s musical presence: soulful, strong, but also um, shy.

James Tillman

As an aside and pleasant surprise, I only learned when he took the stage that James Tillman was the opening act. I first heard him on Jason Palma’s excellent Higher Ground Radio show in 2014. He played some of my favourites, including Shangri La from his EP of the same name (James Tillman, 2014) and “Run of the Mill” from James Tillman on Audiotree Live – EP (Audiotree, 2015).

Wilson took the stage will little fanfare and opened with “Stone Woman,” a short piece, but one that demonstrates her strengths in production, vocal performance, and most of all, pure songwriting talent.

To the audience’s delight, she included her stunning collaboration with Badbadnotgood, “In Your Eyes,” from that group’s IV release (Badbadnotgood, 2016).

Another remarkable selection was “Funeral,” beginning with a solo on her childhood acoustic piano (which Wilson had hauled to the venue from her home), then morphing into a coda featuring Wilson on sax vamping to the groove from D’Angelo’s “Spanish Joint” (Virgin, 2000).

Wilson included two unreleased selections, one of them in her encore, dedicated to her grandparents. Finishing with Erykah Badu’s “Out My Mind, Just in Time” (Universal, 2010) was particularly fitting. Comparisons to Badu would not be misplaced. Like Badu, Wilson has created her own sound, technically and musically, and as a self published artist, has set her own terms for how she will move about the world.

Setlist

  1. Stone Woman
  2. Doubt
  3. In Your Eyes (Badbadnotgood cover)
  4. Falling Apart
  5. Funeral (coda: Spanish Joint, D’Angelo cover)
  6. Let You Down
  7. Nothing New
  8. Find You
  9. (Unreleased)
  10. Mine
  11. Work

Encore:

  1. (Unreleased)
  2. Out My Mind, Just in Time (Erykah Badu cover)

The Players: Charlotte Day Wilson (vocals, guitar, piano, saxophone). Accompanied by unnamed players on bass guitar/guitar and keyboards. Also unnamed but likely on drums was Duncan Hood.

 

Further Listening:

A nice performance of “In Your Eyes” on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series starts in this clip around the 7 minute mark. Badbadnotgood’s Alex Sowinsky delivers a warm intro to Wilson at 6:40, revealing that her vocal talent was not known by her then schoolmates until later in their musical relationship.

Further Reading: NOW Magazine profile of Charlotte Day Wilson

Album Review: Shape the Future, Nightmares on Wax (Warp Records, Jan 2018)

George Evelyn is a U.K. based DJ and producer whose stage name is Nightmares on Wax. Shape the Future is his 8th studio album in a recording career that spans over 25 years.

It is a truly eclectic album, touching on dub, soul, and the electronic and trancey vibes that characterize most of his body of work. “On It Maestro” is a particularly luxurious electronic selection.

“Deep Shadows” featuring Sadie Walker and “Tomorrow” featuring Lsk are distinctly dub and remind me of Thievery Corporation’s recent release, The Temple of I & I (ESL Music, 2017).

What got me hooked however was the outstanding guest spot from Jordan Rakei on “Typical” and the driving beats and almost spiritual chorus on “Citizen Kane” featuring Mozez. The opening track, “Back To Nature” featuring Kuauhtli Vasquez & Wixarika Tribe is the most unique and perhaps the most lasting. It features a Rhodes riff similar to Bob James’ “Angela” (Columbia, 1978) and tribal vocalizations from the Wixarika people of Mexico.

The beauty of albums like these is the way your listening gravitates to different tracks at different times through its life in your collection. Crafty, you might say.