by Scott Yanow
There are so many jazz releases each year (a minimum of 50 a week and often quite a bit more) that it would be impossible to put together a “Best Of” list that everyone would agree upon. Many other writers, when compiling their “Best Of” lists, tend to emphasize cutting edge and avant-garde jazz. I prefer to cast a wider net, including releases that are creative within the context of many styles and approaches from trad jazz, swing, bop, and post-bop to vocalists and Latin-flavored jazz.
Below (in alphabetical order) are my picks for 2021: 27 new releases and 20 albums of reissues and historic music. While one can certainly argue for the inclusions of dozens of other superior recordings, what these 47 albums all have in common is that they have remained in my memory long after I was finished playing them. Whether they are led by famous names or new and lesser-known artists, all of these releases are highly recommended to everyone.
Greg Abate – Magic Dance (Whaling City Sound)
Paolo Alderighi/Stephanie Trick – I Love Erroll/I Love James P. (AT Music Productions)
Evan Arntzen – Countermelody (Dot Time)
The Cookers – Look Out (Gearbox)
Eliane Elias – Mirror Mirror (Candid)
Russell Ferrante Trio – Inflexion (Blue Canoe)
Bruce Forman – Reunion! (B4Man Music)
Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trio – Songs From My Father – Whaling City Sound
Benito Gonzalez – Sing To The World (Rainy Days)
Vincent Herring – Hard Times (Smoke Sessions)
Hiromi – Silver Lining Suite (Telarc)
Jon-Erik Kellso – Sweet Fruits Salty Roots (Jazzology)
Julian Lage – Squint (Blue Note)
Ira B. Liss Big Band Jazz Machine – Mazel Tov Kocktail (Tall Man Productions)
John McLaughlin – Liberation Time (Abstract Logix)
Roya Naldi – A Night In June (Rivermont)
Andrew Oliver – No Local Stops (Rivermont)
Anais Reno – Lonesome Thing: Sings Ellington and Strayhorn (Harbinger)
Martial Solal – Coming Yesterday (Challenge)
Rossano Sportiello – That’s It (Arbors)
Veronica Swift – This Bitter Earth (Mack Avenue)
Danny Tobias – Silver Linings (Ride Symbol)
Zvonimir Tot’s Jazz Stringtet – Sarabande Blue (Groove Art)
Diego Urcola – El Duelo (Sunnyside)
Angela Verbrugge – The Night We Couldn’t Say Good Night (Self-Released)
Terry Waldo &Tatiana Eva-Marie – I Double Dare You (Turtle Bay)
Bobby Watson & New Horizon – Keepin’ It Real (Smoke Sessions)
Hasaan Ibn Ali – Metaphysics (Omnivore)
Louis Armstrong – The Complete Columbia and RCA Victor Studio Sessions (Mosaic)
George Coleman – The George Coleman Quintet In Baltimore (Reel To Reel)
John Coltrane – 17 November 1962 (Fremeaux & Associates)
Arv Garrison – The Unknown Arv Garrison, Wizard Of The Six String (Fresh Sound)
Stan Getz/Astrud Gilberto – Berlin 1966 (The Lost Recordings)
Terry Gibbs Quartet – Plays Terry Gibbs (Fresh Sound)
Dexter Gordon – Montmartre 1964 (Storyville)
Roy Hargrove & Mulgrew Miller – In Harmony (Resonance)
Joe Henderson – The Complete Blue Note Sessions (Mosaic)
Freddie Hubbard – The Hub Of Hubbard (MPS)
Helen Humes – Three Classic Albums Plus (Avid)
Bob James – Once Upon A Time (Resonance)
Sheila Jordan – Comes Love (Capri)
Harold Land – Westward Bound (Reel To Reel)
Thelonious Monk – Monk (Gearbox)
Albert Nicholas – Albert’s Blues & the 44 Gerrard St. Session (Cadillac)
Rendell/Carr Quintet – BBC Jazz Club II 1965-1966 (Rhythm & Blues Records)
Sonny Rollins – Rollins In Holland (Resonance)
Roseanna Vitro – Listen Here (Skyline)
In recent times there have been an impressive number of major jazz artists (particularly singers) performing in Southern California. While unfortunately I missed Roseanna Vitro at Feinstein’s, here are six particularly memorable performances:
One of the jazz vocal greats of the 21st century, Roberta Gambarini recently returned to Catalina Bar & Grill where I first saw her over 15 years ago. While it was obvious back then that she was a masterful bebop-based jazz singer, she has continued to evolve and grow as an improviser ever since. Joined by pianist Tamir Hendelman, bassist Chuck Berghofer and drummer Joe LaBarbera, she put on an outstanding performance that, while lasting nearly two hours, never lost its momentum or excitement.
Roberta Gambarini has a lovely expressive voice, a wide range (able to flawlessly jump between octaves), and always hits the center of each note. At Catalina’s she performed such numbers as a slow and tasteful “Isn’t This A Lovely Day,” “You Taught My Heart To Sing” (in 6/4 time), a cooking “No More Blues,” the Jimmy Heath ballad “Without You,” a dramatic medley of “Porgy” and “I Loves You Porgy,” a hard-swinging “From This Moment On,” Johnny Griffin’s “The JAMF’s Are Coming,” “Estate” (during which she sang a trumpet-like chorus in which she sounded a bit like Chet Baker”), and a joyfully swinging “Just Squeeze Me.” As usual, she sang her vocalese version of “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” (which has her words to the recorded solos of Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sonny Rollins). The emotional highpoint was her medley of “Polka Dots And Moonbeams” and “Moody’s Mood For Love.” James Moody’s widow was in the audience and the singer’s version of the latter classic (which she took slower than usual) was quite tender and touching.
While there are many talented female jazz singers on the scene today, very few are on Roberta Gambarini’s level. She just needs to record another half-dozen albums so those who are not fortunate enough to see her live will be able to enjoy her remarkable artistry.
Branford Marsalis has been one of jazz’s great saxophonists from nearly the start of his career. While there were times in the past when his live performances were dominated by marathon high-energy solos, recently at the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts in Northridge, he constructed a set that was full of variety. Alternating between uptempo romps and sensitive ballads and occasionally changing styles, tenor-saxophonist Marsalis (who actually played soprano on the majority of the selections) and his quartet with pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner were quite outstanding.
The night began with a boppish tune inspired by Ornette Coleman that had blazing soprano and piano solos. A melancholy ballad was followed by a tongue-in-cheek version of “When I Take My Sugar To Tea” that could have easily been twice as long. Marsalis created an emotional and somewhat forlorn statement on the stormy ballad “Conversation Among The Ruins” which was succeeded by a joyous version of the Dixieland standard “Royal Garden Blues.” “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” was taken surprisingly slow before the band really cooked on an uptempo run-through over rhythm changes. Calderazzo, who took one creative solo after another throughout the night, was pretty spectacular on the latter piece. As an encore, Branford Marsalis said that he was going to play two devastating songs about love lost. Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “If You Never Come To Me” preceded a rambunctious “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” (which is actually about running out of beer!).
Branford Marsalis clearly enjoyed being on stage almost as much as the audience enjoyed his quartet’s colorful performance.
She has long been one of jazz’s most consistently creative singers but Jay Clayton has rarely performed in Los Angeles. Recently she was in top form at Feinstein’s at Vitello’s, leading a group also featuring pianist Bill Cunliffe, Kim Richmond on alto and straight soprano, bassist John Leftwich, and drummer Tiny Raymond. It is fortunate that she was joined by such open-eared musicians for Ms. Clayton constantly challenged and inspired them with her unpredictable improvising and wide-ranging repertoire.
Sounding very much in her musical prime,, Jay Clayton started off with “I Wish I Knew” (which included her scatting in a duet with drummer Raymond), performed an original boppish minor blues, a sensitive “Young And Foolish” (which started out with its rarely-heard verse) and then, by using electronics, created her own fascinating and rhythmic choir on a modal piece. Her scat-singing was always full of surprises in her choice of notes, the sounds that she made, and the wide intervals that she hit effortlessly. After some free interplay with the other musicians, she performed “You Taught My Heart To Sing” (the only collaboration between McCoy Tyner and Sammy Cahn), acting out the words and at its end creating an adventurous choir that sounded like hearts singing. Other highlights included brief duets with each musician (including a comedy monologue), a vocal duet with her daughter on “My One And Only Love,” a heated version of “Freedom Jazz Dance” and welcoming Cathy Segal-Garcia to join her on the closing “There Will Never Be Another You.”
Throughout her extended performance, Jay Clayton brought out the best in her musicians, each of whom clearly appreciated the opportunity to perform with a singer on her level. Even though the set was fairly long, her inventive singing still left one wanting to hear more.
Congratulations are due to Feinstein’s at Vitello’s which, with its increasingly excellent booking, is becoming one of the most significant jazz clubs in town.
Anyone that sees Mon David perform knows that he is the best male jazz singer in Southern California. Inspired by Mark Murphy yet always displaying a charming humility, Mon David is equally skilled at interpreting lyrics and taking occasionally wild improvisations.
At Catalina Bar & Grill on his birthday, Mon David was joined by pianist Tateng Katindig, guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Edwin Livingston, and drummer Abe Lagimas Jr. After a brief and unaccompanied “This Is A Lovely Way To Spend An Evening,” he sang such numbers as “City Of Angels,” “Comes Love,” a powerhouse performance of “Better Than Anything” in 5/4 time, Oscar Brown Jr.’s “The Tree And Me,” “Milestones” (which had some very good scat singing), and Gregory Porter’s “Take Me To The Alley.” A duet version of “Skylark” with Tateng Katindig was quite wonderful (the pianist, who was in great form throughout the night, hinted at Art Tatum) as was a rendition of “No More Blues” that built up from some a capella singing to some explosive ensembles. In addition, Mon David welcomed his daughter and son (both of him sang with his son also playing guitar) on a few numbers, adding to the party atmosphere.
While he should feature his talented sidemen a bit more (Koonse and Katindig were often confined to half-chorus statements), Mon David as usual put on a memorable show that was certainly “A Lovely way To Spend An Evening.”
Karrin Allyson has been a major jazz singer at least since her first Concord recording nearly 30 years ago. After all of this time, she is still at the peak of her powers. At Feinstein’s at Vitello’s, with the backing of pianist Miro Sprague, bassist Dave Robaire, and drummer Dan Schnelle, she performed a wide-ranging show that consisted of some of her favorite songs.
She began the night by singing “Autumn Leaves” as a ballad in French before cooking in English. Karrin Allyson found fresh things to say on “Blackbird” (with started with the famous “All Blues” riff), two Mose Allison songs (“Stop The World” and “Ask Me Nice”), Bonnie Raitt’s “Valley Of Pain,” Sippie Wallace’s “Women Be Wise,” and “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” (a witty version with many key changes). Switching to piano, she sang a song apiece from South Pacific, The King And I, and My Fair Lady. Joe LaBarbera sat in on drums for “My Little Boat,” and the singer concluded with the always fun quacking song “Little Duck.”
Word to the wise: Always see Karrin Allyson when she comes to town. She is a delight.
DUETS AT THE BROAD STAGE
It was billed as “Duets,” but the performances by pianist Chucho Valdes, singer Dianne Reeves and tenor-saxophonist Joe Lovano were more accurately “Solos, Duets and Trios.”
The first half of the night put the focus on Valdes who is one of the most skilled and dazzling jazz pianists alive. A giant both in size and as a musician, Valdes stated off with “But Beautiful,” keeping a slow tempo that was full of runs that were worthy of Art Tatum. That song segued into “Feelings” (he is one of the few musicians that can make that number into a worthwhile piece) and then finally a rollicking version of “St. Louis Blues.” On the latter, Valdes played an endless trill with his right hand while his left did all of the other parts in a display reminiscent of Earl Hines.
Joe Lovano joined the pianist on “Body And Soul” (creating new variations without playing the melody) and an original ballad on which Lovano displayed complete control of his horn. They also played a few more duets with the tenor often looking with wonder at Valdes during his solos. After Lovano, Valdes created a medley of “My Funny Valentine” and “Liza,” hinting strongly at Erroll Garner, Thelonious Monk and Teddy Wilson during the latter.
The second half of the night was dominated by Dianne Reeves who was celebrating her 65th birthday. She started “Stella By Starlight” by herself at a surprisingly slow tempo that continued through her duet with Valdes. Reeves was in superb form throughout the night, displaying a very wide range that included some deep low notes. She showed that, if anyone is the successor to Sarah Vaughan, she is it. Another duet was a quietly emotional version of “My Foolish Heart” (a masterful performance) and then Lovano returned to make the group a trio. “Caravan” had some complex voice and tenor unisons, Reeves singing was quite warm on “Besame Mucho,” she improvised what would have been a very sophisticated saxophone solo on “Blue Monk,” and ended with a partly out-of-tempo “Summertime.” The night concluded with an encore version of “A Time For Love.”
While I wish that there had been a Reeves-Lovano duet, and that the singer had left more solo space on her numbers for the other two musicians, this was a memorable evening. Dianne Reeves really excelled in this intimate setting while Chucho Valdes was consistently miraculous throughout. The trio should record together sometime.