2018 in Review: Jazz

I think I’ve found a formula that’ll work going forward for which of these lists to do at the end of the year: One for EPs (posted that yesterday), one for archival or reissued albums, one for Richmond artists, one for albums that don’t fit into any of those categories, and then one more for a genre that stood out in some way during the course of the year. Last time around it was Americana, with exceptional releases by the likes of David Rawlings, Willie Watson, Dori Freeman, and Jake Xerxes Fussell. This year, jazz resonated especially deeply, so I thought I’d highlight five albums I was grateful to get to know.

John Coltrane — Both Directions at Once

I’m a big believer that you’re likely to feel a special connection to the first new album that comes out after you get into a band or artist. (The example I usually cite is Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief — an album many folks view highly but that I would rank one or two spots higher in their discography than others might.) Getting to have the Hail to the Thief experience with John Coltrane is such an unexpected treat, and Both Directions will always feel a little more meaningful to me as a result.

Julian Lage — Modern Lore

If you haven’t yet had a chance to read the Off Your Radar issue from November about Julian Lage’s Arclight album, I hope you’ll take a moment to have a look. Arclight is such a wonderful album — so fascinating in terms of the connection between the notes you hear and the tools used to create those notes. Modern Lore is cut from very similar cloth and features the same ensemble, and I’ll cosign it with just as much enthusiasm as I did Arclight.

Makaya McCraven — Universal Beings

This may be the most perfectly packaged album of 2018, and it’s not just about the weight of the paper used to make the cover or the art that adorns it. Each side of my vinyl copy — four total — features a distinct group of musicians, all united by Makaya McCraven’s exploratory process. Start side one and you’re in New York. Flip the disc, you’re in Chicago. Grab the second disc and you’re in London. Flip that and you’re finishing in L.A. No two sides sound the same, even though they share an approach that’s indebted to sampling yet unmoored via improvisation. Somehow, amid all the repetition, you still feel like anything can happen. That’s the brilliance of a hip hop producer like J Dilla, and McCaraven has managed to capture that electricity with live instrumentation. It’s as inspiring as it is fun to spin, whether you’re zoning out or zooming in.

The Nels Cline 4 — Currents, Constellations

Nels Cline and Julian Lage in the same ensemble? Yes please and thank you. They’re two of my favorite guitarists, and while they’re divergent enough in terms of style, there are still moments on Currents, Constellations when you get to wonder who’s playing. They’re both such inventive, intuitive musicians, and I love that they join forces from time to time. I haven’t spent much time with their Room album, but I plan to ASAP.

Kamasi Washington — Heaven and Earth

This dude. His band. This album. His last album. His show at the National in November. His show before that at the National. All of it can be overwhelming — not because it’s too much, or because his albums are lengthy and generously built-out (which they are), but because there’s an abundance of goodness you don’t find very often. Most musicians can tell you the story of why their tracks are titled the way they are, or what inspired a certain instrumental piece, but when Kamasi Washington tells you about how a song was created and why, it’s wildly compelling and convincing. He has a poise when he speaks that stands in stark contrast to the fury he can conjure when he plays, and the only way to reconcile those two states is to understand that what he’s presenting is the absolute truth as he sees it. Seeing him play means seeing what he sees so vividly. I believe in Kamasi Washington’s truth. You should too.

More 2018 in Review:

2018 in Review: EPs
2018 in Review: Blasts from the Past
2018 in Review: RVA
2018 in Review: 15 Favorites

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2018 in Review: EPs

I’m a year older. So is everyone I know. The Warriors have another championship. Sea levels are rising. Each day brings new horrors to America’s increasingly sad and bizarre political stage. Time continues its inexorable march forward.

Then again, some things are exactly the way they were at the end of 2017! Yet again:

  • It’s the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
  • I’ve spent the year tracking the albums I listened to (125 in total this time around) via a shoddily organized spreadsheet.
  • I’ve waited too long to start turning that spreadsheet into best-of lists.
  • I’m using last-minute panic as fuel to finish those lists, which mean more to me than they probably should.

Without further ado, let’s get this retrospective party started with a handful of alphabetically ordered EPs that I particularly enjoyed this year, starting with a two-parter that I recommend highly if you haven’t heard it/them yet:

Jackie Cohen — Tacoma Night Terror Part 1: I’ve Got The Blues

Some albums feel like fully formed universes — like you’re being invited to join something vivid and different that’s already in progress and has been for some time. That’s how it felt first encountering Jackie Cohen’s music via Spacebomb’s communication channels. From the off-kilter album art that accompanied Tacoma Night Terror Part 1 to the EP’s sound, which immediately called to mind the girl groups of the 1960s but felt more gothic and organic, somehow. It was one of those exciting “I don’t know what this is, but count me in” moments. To this day, it still feels like I’m entering and exiting a world when I start and finish this EP. Not something you come by often.

Jackie Cohen — Tacoma Night Terror Part 2: Self​-​Fulfilling Elegy

When Part 2 of the Tacoma Night Terror project was released, I started getting my hopes up about an eventual vinyl release that would compile both parts and bring the whole project full-circle, literally and figuratively. Vinyl Me Please to the rescue. The subscription service named Cohen a VMP Rising artist and pressed the Tacoma Night Terror set to gorgeous purple and blue vinyl. Its arrival and time spent on my turntable have provided a fitting sense of punctuation to a musical thread that’s run throughout my 2018.

The Fearless Flyers — The Fearless Flyers

Following along with the release of the Fearless Flyers EP was my way of peering into the greater Vulfpeck universe and looking around a bit. I’m really glad I did, because this is an exceptionally fun and funky set of songs, with a top-notch cover of “Under the Sea,” drums by the great Nate Smith, and a guest spot from Blake Mills, who contributes truly filthy slide guitar to the Flyers’ version of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” Take a listen:

Panda Bear — A Day with the Homies

This got the 2018 party started on my end. Released January 12. Exclusively on vinyl, so no sample tune to share. I find that a good measure of how the year went is looking back at the first album you really dug into in the new year and thinking about how long ago that feels. It feels like this record was release about 12 years ago. It’s a good one, though, and I’ve brought it out consistently when I’m cooking dinner and in a good mood. It’s not that the music is aggressively buoyant or anything; I think the title has really shaped my perception of the music, as has the fact that I can only listen while at home — where I tend to be more distracted and less able to zoom in on lyrics.

Moses Sumney — Black in Deep Red, 2014

“Rank & File” is one of the year’s best songs, and it may not even be the best song on this three-song EP. (Don’t sleep on the wordless “Call-to-Arms.”) I’m so glad Sumney decided to share this brief collection of tunes, which have thematic roots in 2014, when a grand jury decided against indicting the police officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. I wrote about “Rank & File” in RVA Magazine earlier this year, and I zoomed in on one lyric in particular: “If we make you nervous, what is your purpose?”

That question calls attention to the mangled power dynamics at work during protests like the one Sumney attended in honor of Michael Brown — complexity that finds a musical parallel in the song’s time signature.

More 2018 in Review to come…

2018 in Review: Jazz
2018 in Review: Blasts from the Past
2018 in Review: RVA
2018 in Review: 15 Favorites

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Warrant

Heaven isn’t too far away, y’all.

Regardless of your beliefs on what awaits in the afterlife, Hopewell isn’t that far a drive for those of us who live in Richmond, and I can confirm that the Beacon Theatre is truly a heavenly place to see a concert.

I was in the area a few weeks back, on a Friday that was mostly spent exploring the past and present of Petersburg, VA. Good beer, lots of history, and evidence all over town of the film being shot there based on the story of Harriet Tubman.

That night, I got to see the results of a very different kind of historical project — the restoration of the Beacon Theatre, which originally opened in 1928 as a silent movie theater but was left vacant starting in 1981. Intentions to reopen the space turned into action in the late 1990’s, and in 2014, the Beacon reopened its doors as a music venue with beautiful bright red seats and carpets, balcony seating, and the air of grandeur you’d expect given the theater’s vintage.

And what better way to experience that grandeur for the first time than a band whose double-platinum selling debut album was called Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich? That’s right: I got to see Warrant in all of their hair-flinging, riff-spitting glory. It was quite a moment: Warrant had that room in a feverish state, with longtime fans and younger attendees alike on their feet and shouting out lyrics — especially the ones to the debut album’s title song.

If you haven’t heard it, listen below. And if you haven’t yet been to the Beacon in its current form, take a look at the schedule here and make a plan to head to Hopewell. You’ll be happy you did.

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Small Friend Records and Books

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I’d like to share a link to an article I wrote about a place I’m truly thankful for: Small Friend Records & Books. I had an opportunity to interview the shop’s owners a little while back, and it was such a pleasure learning about how they got started, how they envision their store’s role in the Shockoe Bottom community, and how they see that space evolving in the future. They have such clear and admirable passion — not just for music, books, and zines, but also for the ideas represented in and by the items they stock.

Here’s how I started the piece:

When you walk into a house and scan the walls and shelves for the first time, you learn a lot about the people who live there. In that sense, Small Friend Records & Books, which opened its doors on 17th Street in April, feels as much like a home as a place you’d go to buy albums or novels.

I’ve written about this before, but one reason I care so deeply about — and am so thankful for — the record stores here in Richmond is the way they represent the importance of a sense of place in our lives. Places connect us to other people. They keep us engaged with those people, even when we don’t agree with them. And places connect us to our past, helping us better understand our present and future. Without a sense of place, we are diminished.

Small Friend is a wonderful place, and I hope you’ll take a few minutes to check out the interview. More importantly, head downtown to check out Small Friend for yourself. I’ve been there a number of times, and of the albums I’ve snagged there, I think I’m most in love with my copy of the Wild Wild Country original score, which was composed by Brocker Way — brother of the pair of brothers who made the Netflix docuseries. (There are three brothers total. Well, three brothers involved in the series. I guess they could have other brothers… I’m gonna stop. You get the idea.)

In many ways, the show is itself a meditation on the idea of place — on what it takes to build an organic community, and how quickly a place can grow without losing its sense of self. Here’s a favorite track of mine from the score — the elegiac “Church and State.”

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Trey Pollard

Really neat shindig happening tonight at the Hofheimer Building in Scott’s Addition. Trey Pollard will be debuting pieces from Antiphone, his soon-to-be-released album of contemporary chamber music (out Friday — preorder here). They’ll be played by a string quartet in collaboration with Classical Revolution RVA, an organization that aims to present classical music in inventive ways “by taking it into local bars, restaurants, cafes, and galleries.” Did I mention Matthew E. White will be opening? This promises to be special, y’all. Hope to see you there.

If you’re interested in learning more about Antiphone, be sure to check out the interview I did with Pollard for the Auricular. He was incredibly candid and thoughtful throughout our conversation, and I think you get an especially keen sense for the dedication he brings to his work, whether he’s composing original pieces like the ones being performed tonight or arranging songs written by others. Here’s how Pollard put it when we spoke:

Matt and I talk about it a lot. The craft of what you do is important… It’s about how you go about it — caring about the details, caring about the parts that make up the bigger thing.

While Antiphone certainly represents a moment of cultivation, it’s also a window into how Pollard approaches music on a daily basis. In that sense, his story and Spacebomb’s are one and the same: When you do things the right way, it shows. And Antiphone is nothing short of an achievement. What a gift it’ll be to see these pieces in the live setting.

Get your ticket here, check out my interview with Pollard here, and listen below to a piece from the album entitled “8 Pairs: Fugue VI. Very Slowly.”

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VOTE

Big day today. I bet many of y’all have already voted, but for those of you who haven’t or are on the fence, I want to add my voice to the many I’m sure you’re hearing saying things like “Vote!” and “Please vote!” and “This could be the most important midterm election in our nation’s history, so for crying out loud, PLEASE VOTE.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it: Democracy works best when all of us are involved. Your vote matters. You matter. Please vote.

For those in Virginia: Here’s the information I typically share about what forms of ID you can bring to the polls, this time in the form of a handy YouTube video:

For those of you who have already voted and are nervously awaiting results, I thought I’d share some self-care music to get you through the day. (I know I’m a nervous wreck, and I’m leaning hard on tunes like these today.) Courtesy of a Mark Richardson tweet, here’s Charlie Haden and Hank Jones playing “Going Home,” which is based on a passage from Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9.

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Matthew E. White

This. All damn day.

Listen below to Matthew E. White’s “No Future In Our Frontman,” a protest song that’s as blistering in terms of groove as it is in terms of commentary.

Here’s a taste of the latter:

There is no future in our frontman
There is no gracefulness to his song
There is no melody in his choir
And I refuse to sing along

I love this metaphor so much. Not only is it incredibly apt, it’s profoundly ironic, because it brings into relief just how devoid of art our president’s life must be. Can you imagine him engaging in the creative process in any way? He danced to “My Way” to celebrate winning a democratically held election, for crying out loud.

If you dig the song like I do, click here to snag a 7-inch vinyl copy and/or its companion t-shirt, which was designed by brilliant artist and musician Lonnie Holley, who recently released a powerful statement of his own on the state of our democracy. (If you’ve been following this here blog, you might remember Holley was the opening act for White’s 2017 show at the Broadberry with Flo Morrissey in support of Gentlewoman, Ruby Man.) Proceeds go to voter registration and participation charities. Great song, great cause. Check it out.

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