2020 in Review Part 4: Jazz

Part 1: Duos
Part 2: Covers
Part 3: Survival Sounds
Part 4: Jazz (You are here!)
Part 5: Live
Part 6: Blasts from the Past
Part 7: RVA
Part 8: 31 Favorites

Jazz was an incredibly important part of my life in 2020. It was something to turn to, focus on, and disappear into. When it was time to start cooking dinner — a typically enjoyable task that assumed a new level of intensity as a result of the regimented nature of life in 2020 — I reached for jazz. When I was up late, typing about who-knows-what and worrying about everyone-knows-what, I reached for jazz.

As I have the past few years, I spent a ton of time following the International Anthem label’s release cycles. You’ll read about one of those albums below, but I’ve already written about two 2020 additions to their catalog, and more IA blurbs are on the way. The fact that they’re scattered across these lists is both a testament to the imprint’s eclecticism and an attempt to hide my IA stan status in plain sight. (Is it working? Probably not.)

I’d also call 2020 the year that I aimed to form a more personal relationship with John Coltrane’s music. It’s always felt like I was barely scratching the surface there, so I decided I’d hold myself to a higher standard and get to know albums like Giant Steps and A Love Supreme in a way that felt less like saying “Hey” from a distance and more like a focused conversation. Later albums, too — I picked up a used copy of Kulu Sé Mama via Steady Sounds’ Instagram and held it up like a map of that unfamiliar territory. I still have a ways to go, but I do feel more connected, both to his work specifically and to the broader idea of spirituality being communicated instrumentally. It’s opened my ears, and I’d guess that the rest of the jazz I heard in 2020 sounded sweeter as a result.

That said, I’m certain that these five albums would have sounded sweet regardless. And truth be told, the bonus list below them still seems woefully incomplete, so I’ll probably keep adding to it as the year comes to a close.

Kahil El’Zabar — Kahil El’Zabar’s America the Beautiful

Pitchfork reviewed this a day before the election, and I was so moved by it — the idiosyncrasy of El’Zabar’s renderings of “America the Beautiful,” the frankness of the album’s dissonant passages, the ebullience of “Express Yourself” — that I put in an order for it right away, knowing it wouldn’t come until at least a few days after the last votes had been cast. The way I saw it, that first spin would either be a celebration of a hopeful new chapter, or a motivating reminder of how much work is left to be done. It ended up feeling like both. This is music that zooms way out, reminding you that history is long, that the difficulties ahead are part of struggles that are bigger than ourselves, and that they connect us to good people who came before.

Greg Foat — Symphonie Pacifique

A top-10 2020 album in terms of play count. I went through a stretch over the summer when I listened to Symphonie Pacifique about once a day, usually at night through headphones, and I’ve internalized it to the point that “Man vs Machine” starts playing in my head every time I hear a synth sound that’s anywhere in the same sonic ballpark. It’s lush, it’s varied, it’s fun, and it welcomes you with open arms. I did end up getting a vinyl copy, but I’ll always have a special place in my heart for that initial run of late-night listens.

Asher Gamedze — Dialectic Soul 

Three cheers to the kind folks at Small Friends Records & Books for securing a copy of this with my name on it. Like Kahil El’Zabar’s America the Beautiful, Dialectic Soul offers a blend of savory and sweet, marrying a lyricism that hits my ear like Mingus’ with a capacity for beauty that makes it seem like notes were placed next to one another by divine predestination. Seriously, listen to “Siyabulela” and tell me you can’t picture some melodic higher power guiding the way. It’s astonishingly gorgeous.

Sam Gendel — Satin Doll

This was a game-changer. I’ve since picked up two more Sam Gendel albums — DRM, which came out in October, and Music for Saxofone and Bass Guitar (with Sam Wilkes) from a couple of years ago. All brilliant, all with a similar sideways vantage point into how melody and arranging can function. It’s hard to imagine life without Gendel’s instrumental voice now, and it all started with this collection of woozy renditions of jazz standards.

Jeff Parker — Suite for Max Brown

In addition to being one of the year’s best albums of any genre, Suite for Max Brown was also my overdue introduction into the multi-faceted and wildly rewarding world of Jeff Parker’s past output. I didn’t have to go far (same Bandcamp page!) to find him in the liner notes for recordings by International Anthem labelmates like Makaya McCraven and Rob Mazurek, but I ended up spending even more time with Tortoise’s TNT. That turned out to be another late night headphones-in favorite of 2020. Getting to know that one helped me appreciate Parker’s versatility even more — something that really shines on Suite for Max Brown.

Other jazz albums I enjoyed:

Butcher Brown — #KingButch (more to come on that one)
Bill Frisell — Valentine
Sam Gendel — DRM
Irreversible Entanglements — Who Sent You?
Quin Kirchner — The Shadows and the Light
Rob Mazurek — Dimensional Stardust
Makaya McCraven — Universal Beings E&F Sides
Gil Scott-Heron — We’re New Again: A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven (More to come on this one.)
Shabaka and the Ancestors — We Are Sent Here by History
David Tranchina — The Ogre
Kamasi Washington — Becoming

2020 in Review Part 2: Covers

Part 1: Duos
Part 2: Covers (You are here!)
Part 3: Survival Sounds
Part 4: Jazz
Part 5: Live
Part 6: Blasts from the Past
Part 7: RVA
Part 8: 31 Favorites

Covers were such an important part of the musical landscape in 2020. I’d say this was most evident in the spring and summer, when bands started launching video series in which individual members would record their parts remotely and piece them together to create one bittersweetly fractured whole. I hope you were following Butcher Brown’s Mothership Mondays during that time. So good. Another great series was Erin & the Wildfire’s, and I spoke with Erin Lunsford about those clips for a piece that didn’t end up being published. She encapsulated the meaning of these videos beautifully:

“We miss each other a lot,” the group’s leader and vocalist Erin Lunsford said. “And it’s really hard to collaborate on original material when we’re not together, because that’s usually where our good ideas come to light — when we’re jamming and fleshing stuff out in a group setting… But these covers feel really good. It feels like we’re still doing something creative.”

Some of the cover albums listed below were motivated by that same drive to create in the face of unprecedented challenges. Others, like the Aquarium Drunkard comp, were already in the works. But all of these albums reminded me of the determination it took to make it through 2020 as a musician, and of the ingenuity I saw and so admired.

Lambchop — TRIP

You had me at “13-minute version of a Wilco song.”

Wesley Schultz — Vignettes

Lots to enjoy here, from Springsteen to Sheryl Crow, and Schultz does a characteristically excellent job of tugging at heartstrings throughout, but his rendition of “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” is a tour de force. It’s one of Mrs. YHT’s favorite songs, and she and I had a conversation while listening to this version in the car about the decision to drop the tempo and highlight the story’s mournful side. Doing so makes the most of lyrics like “The price of a memory is the memory of the sorrow it brings,” and while Schultz did some editing to keep the length down on an already-long song that’s been slowed down, what’s left is a take on the song that feels essential — something that needed to be in the world.

Various — Lagniappe Sessions Vol. 2

Aquarium Drunkard was a crucial sanity-maintenance agent during this bonkers year we’ve just had, and it’s gotten to the point where you can sign me up sight-unseen for just about anything they write about or make, Lagniappe Sessions very much included. Picking a song from the Lagniappe Vol. 2 comp to embed below was very, very tough. I’m in awe of Joan Shelley’s take on “I Would Be in Love (Anyway),” and I’m a sucker for just about any recording of “Can’t Hardly Wait,” but I love it when a cover song brings me closer to an artist I’d been hoping to learn more about or understand better, and that’s what Erin Rae’s version of Scott Walker’s “Duchess” has done.

Gillian Welch & David Rawlings — All The Good Times

Back in September I wrote the following in a review of Elkhorn’s The Acoustic Storm Sessions:

The most compelling music I’m hearing these days reflects the moment we’re experiencing, not just by addressing current challenges and opportunities lyrically, but also by letting our broken, unvarnished humanity show through. Whether it’s a collection of covers captured imperfectly on home recording equipment, or experimentation with new techniques and tools, I’m finding the most fulfillment in music that dares to document — faithfully — who we are after we’re knocked down but before we’re back on our feet. That’s certainly where I find myself these days.

All the Good Times is what I had in mind when I typed that part about “covers captured imperfectly on home recording equipment,” and it’s a big part of what helped that idea crystalize. Feeling overrides precision for a listening experience that echoes the countless unseen acts of creativity and endurance that have helped us make it through the year, from songwriting to sourdough starters. Speaking of unseen, one of the clear highlights here is “Hello in There.” Rest in peace, John Prine.

Whitney — Candid

I’m not typically one to suggest certain songs are “off-limits” when it comes to covers, but “Hammond Song” gets close. The vocals that are as distinctive as they come, the production makes brilliant use of understatement… how do you add to that? (Did y’all know Robert Fripp produced the Roches’ self-titled album? I didn’t until just now.) But Whitney succeeds by grounding their version in their own falsetto-focused vocal distinctiveness, and by gently building outward to fill in some of the areas in the arrangement the original version intentionally left blank. High risk, high reward — and they nailed it.

Other cover albums I enjoyed:

Christian Lee Hutson — The Version Suicides (no longer available online)
Bonny Light Horseman — Bonny Light Horseman (sort of counts as a cover album, but its rightful spot is on another one of these lists)
Sam Gendel — Satin Doll (more to come on that one as well)

Buy from Bandcamp today… again!

Happy Bandcamp Friday, y’all! I’ve been eager to get this list out into the world since the first item hit the ‘camp a couple of weeks ago, so without further ado, here are this month’s recommendations. Remember, fees are waived, so it’s a great day to show your support.

Ophelia — Ophelia

A big part of past Bandcamp Fridays has been music that’s resurfaced — extra copies of pressings that had sold out, or albums that are seeing the light of day after spending some time on the shelf. This Ophelia album is such a glorious example of the latter, as it hit Bandcamp a couple of weeks ago after having been recorded back in 2010. After hearing it and enjoying it tremendously — including a magnificent listen all the way through on a long run at dusk — it’s hard to imagine this not being out in the world. It immediately feels canonical, given the strength of these tunes and the involvement of two Richmond favorites: David Shutlz (a Bandcamp Friday favorite) and Jonathan Vassar, who you might remember from the excellent Lonely Rooms album I wrote about last month.

PJ Sykes — “Rain in to the Sea”

Speaking of David Shultz, I absolutely love the “Rain in to the Sea” cover PJ Sykes released today. What a perfect illustration how a song can vibrate harmoniously on wildly different wavelengths. (Ocean pun fully intended.) Halfway through this new version, it’s easy to imagine the song having been written with this arrangement in mind, especially when it comes to the delivery of the central metaphor. So cool. And can we all agree this cover art wins Bandcamp Friday?

Opin — Media & Memory

There’s a specific anticipatory joy that floods in just before you hear a new Opin song for the first time. Their track record of adventurousness means you’re never sure where they’re about to take you. It’s exhilarating — especially when, time and time again, you end up thrilled with where they’ve decided to go with their sound, from their self-titled full length in 2017, to the EPs they’ve released since (including a cover of Mariah’s “Shinzo no Tobira” that I’ve listened to approximately 1.5 million times since it came out). I’m on pace to catch up with that play count when it comes to the first two songs from their upcoming LP, Media & Memory — out 10/30 on WarHen Records. I couldn’t decide which to embed below, so they’re both there. And while I don’t know where the other seven tracks on the album will go, I know by now to sit back and enjoy the ride, because Opin’s sense of sonic navigation is as good as it gets.

Bartees Strange — Live Forever

We’ve all heard “You are what you eat,” but “You are who (whom?) you hear” seems increasingly applicable the more time we spend with earbuds in catching up on the podcasts that reflect and shape our thinking about the world. The voice that’s been bouncing around my brain most during the pandemic has been Steven Hyden’s; his 36 from the Vault podcast about the Dick’s Picks Grateful Dead live album series has been my primary means of auditory escape. As a result, the line between his thinking on music and mine is starting to blur, and when he tweeted the following, I was eager to snag my own seat on the Bartees Bandwagon™:

Live Forever promises to be one of this year’s most celebrated albums, and today’s the big release day. I’m 100% in. It’s so good. The “Half Orange/Half Bone” pressing I snagged is sold out, but he recently added a “Red with Bone & Orange Splatter” variant, and copies of that are still available. Don’t sleep. As a side note, the Hyden-Strange connection came full circle with the publication of this Uproxx interview. Don’t sleep on that either. No sleeping whatsoever, ok? It’s Bandcamp Friday!

Hiss Golden Messenger — School Daze: A fundraiser for Durham Public Schools students

This is the second live album Hiss Golden Messenger has released during the pandemic — click here for my post about the first one. Proceeds are going to the same great cause — the Durham Public Schools Foundation — but not a single song is repeated from his previous live release, which is fun. One other Hiss-related recommendation: If you’re not already signed up for M.C. Taylor “Kitchen Table Speculator” mailing list, I recommend it highly. He includes poetry, books and music he’s been enjoying, and words of hope like these:

I realize that life is chaotic and complicated right now. I’m trying to remember to take some time each day or week to thank the folks that keep showing up, nose to the grindstone, every day. I’m trying to give back to my community with emotions as well as dollars. If you have the bandwidth, please consider donating your time, money, or other resources to an organization doing good work in your community. I’ve found it’s the best way to alleviate feelings of hopelessness.

I plan to heed that excellent advice by downloading School Daze right about now.

Hotspit — Hotspit Live Session

If you’ve been following this Bandcamp bonanza from the very beginning, you might remember that my very first Bandcamp Friday post included music by Avery Fogarty, who fronts the Richmond band Hotspit. That group just released a three-track live session, which is very exciting. I’m especially fond of the first track, which illustrates the range the group has, and how great they sound in exploratory mode. Well worth a download.

Other items on my radar today:

Sam Gendel — DRM
Spacebomb House Band — X: Kernel Eternal
Mdou Moctar — Mixtape Vol 6
Phil Cook — From the Kitchen: Winston​-​Salem, NC – 10​/​27​/​​2018 @ Ramkat
ragenap — “masters of war” (benefits Sustain Chicago Music)
Various — Good Music to Avert the Collapse of American Democracy, Volume 2 (benefits Voting Rights Lab)
John Moreland — Live at The Grey Eagle – Asheville, NC – 6​/​9​/​19
addy — re call/bug (benefits MAD RVA)
Durand Jones & The Indications — “Power To The People
Avery Fogarty — “sunken cities

Buy from Bandcamp today… again!

We’re back, baby! Bandcamp has generously decided to waive its 15% cut on the the first Friday of each month through the end of this godforsaken year, which is pretty awesome in my book. Also awesome? The albums below, which I submit for your consideration as you browse the ‘camp and decide which artists you’ll support.

Carlos Niño & Friends — Actual Presence

If you’re as smitten with International Anthem Recording Co. as I am, you likely already have your pre-order in for a copy of the album Carlos Niño & Miguel Atwood-Ferguson released in late June via the Chicago label. Atwood-Ferguson is among Niño’s “Friends” on this set as well, and another name jumped out among those who contributed to Actual Presence: Sam Gendel. I wrote about Gendel and his innovative album Satin Doll in connection with the May Bandcamp event, and I love how his unique sax treatment moves within in the space Niño creates. (To be clear, this isn’t their first collaboration. I’m late to the party. Very happy to be here, though!)

Reginald Chapman — Prototype Remixes 

Reginald Chapman may have moved away from Richmond, but “Hoodie” remains one of the core compositions I think of when I picture in my mind’s eye (as we’re forced to these days) the glory of seeing Richmond’s most overwhelmingly outstanding live act, the No BS! Brass Band. I love this Foisey. remix of the version of “Hoodie” that appeared on Chapman’s 2018 Prototype album, and I can’t wait to hear the rest of these Prototype Remixes. (Full album out in September.)

Kate Bollinger — A word becomes a sound

If there were ever a chorus to keep in the front of your brain in order to maintain sanity during a global pandemic, it would have to be:

Grey skies, they don’t scare me
I find them unnecessary
There’s no tellin’ when the bad’s gonna come around
And it’ll come around no doubt

It’s like a badly needed pat on the back from a friend who’s reassuring you without bullshitting you. And Kate Bollinger’s gift for phrasing means the words slide through your consciousness so gracefully the toxic parts of your psychology don’t have a chance to play defense.

Bollinger’s 5-song album A word becomes a sound is available on cobalt colored vinyl, and I can’t wait to have it spinning at home, and have my head spinning a little less as a result.

William Tyler — Music from First Cow

I’d totally planned see this movie before I bought the soundtrack. That seemed like the right order of events — as if there were a “wrong” time to buy a William Tyler album. (There’s not.) Then I listened to Music from First Cow a third time, and a fourth time, and I feel hard for how beautiful, musically economical, and evocative these pieces are, and I started to develop the kind of emotional responses you might expect to have after actually having seen the film, like how “The Arrival” triggers the kind of nostalgia you feel when something’s not even over yet but you already miss it… I’m still going to see this movie, but I’m not waiting to but its soundtrack a moment longer.

Ohbliv — LewseJoints Number 8 (a) and LewseJoints Number 8 (b)

Where Ohbliv goes, I’ll follow. His DarkTwaine_  pseudonym? Yup. The PANGEYA tape that became available last Bandcamp Friday? I’m there. The two new volumes in his LewseJoints series that hit the interweb earlier this week? Yes, please.

As always, here’s a running list of the other stuff I have my eye on, updated as needed throughout the day. Yay for Bandcamp Fridays, y’all. Now go forth and get some great music.

Mary Lattimore & Elysse Thebner Miller — And the Birds Flew Overhead (60 vinyl copies were made available today, but they’re going quick)
Philip James Murphy Jr — I went to sleep
Bon Iver — “AUATC
Christian Lee Hutson — The Version Suicides
Mdou Moctar — Mixtape Vol. 4
Alabaster dePlume — “Seen” (will be deleted tomorrow)
Various — Habibi Funk 014: Solidarity With Beirut (proceeds go to the Lebanese Red Cross)
left.hnd — ad mausoleum

Buy from Bandcamp today… again!

Three cheers for Bandcamp, y’all! Once again, the impressively benevolent music community and sales platform is waiving its usual 15% cut to generate extra revenue for artists, so many of whom have been hit hard by the effects of COVID-19 and social distancing. The last event like this was hugely successful — $4.3 million in sales in one day — and it’s so great to see they’re running it back. Sounds like they have a couple more planned, as well — on June 5 and July 3.

Here’s a big long list of artists and labels who are participating. I didn’t manage to get a post with my own picks up last time until later in the day, so I started chipping away at this one earlier in the week. Here are a few YHT-approved ways to join in on the fun and show your support.

Rob Dobson — No Cover Covers Vol. 1

Charlottesville’s WarHen Records recently launched a series of digital singles called “No Cover Covers,” kicking things off with a great take on Neil Young’s “Barstool Blues.” Looking forward to more of these. (Volume 2 is out now.)

Also firmly on the radar: a limited cassette run of Saw Black’s Horsin’ ‘Round rarities album, which I posted about in mid-March.

Sam Gendel — Satin Doll

Satin Doll is described in its Bandcamp liner notes as (and I love this description) a “simultaneous synchronized sonic construction/destruction of well-known jazz standards.” It’s singular. It’s innovative. It sounds like the past and the future at the same time. I’ve wanted to snag a copy for a while now, and today seems like just the day to do it.

Andy Jenkins — “Far Away From Here” (feat. Erin Rae)

The age-old alchemy of masking complexity with breeziness has a worthy standard-bearer in Andy Jenkins. “Far Away From Here” seems to hang in the air effortlessly, yet the accompanying instrumental version provides a peek into the jazz-informed intricacy involved. Such a beautiful conversation between Alan Parker’s guitar and Jacob Ungerleider’s piano, echoing the A+ pairing of Jenkins’ voice with Erin Rae’s. A masterstroke of a musical still life painting here.

left.hnd — Mira

This is so beautiful. Grippingly so. I listened to this while running, and I was so wrapped up in it I don’t think I took in visual information during those eight minutes. It was like being spatially transported. The vocals and strings work together to play with your expectations for tension and release, keeping you in this perpetual state of needing the next note to happen. In terms of atmosphere, Mira makes me think about Frank Ocean. The boldness. The use of space. It’s really something. (Kudos to Calvin Brown on those amazing string arrangements.)

While you’re on left.hnd’s Bandcamp page, be sure to grab “Vessel” as well. It’s been a beam of positive energy for me throughout the last month.

Gia Margaret — Mia Gargaret

Speaking of music that’s helping right now, I’ve found ambient music to be an essential part of my daily listening diet these days, and I can’t wait for this full album to be released. The first two tracks are meditative gems, and I could see this getting a ton of turntable time when my copy arrives.

Pearla — Quilting & Other Activities

This one came out last year, but I recently got a copy and have been falling in love with it all over again. These songs stick with you in a really interesting way — hours after I’ve spun the album, specific moments tend to drift around my consciousness and resurface periodically, like vivid memories that steal you away from the moment you’re in. (Then you put the album back on and start the cycle over again!)

David Shultz — “Still Here”

Very exciting — this tune wasn’t due out until next week, but it’s a Fee-free Friday miracle! I posted about Shultz’s song “Spring Forward” not too far back, when it was time to set our clocks forward for daylight savings. More recently, I’ve been spending a bunch of time with his wonderful Rain in to the Sea album — keep an eye on Off Your Radar and you’ll find out why. “Still Here” is another bright spot — life affirming, defiant in the face of fate, and demonstrative of Alan Parker’s deep and wide instrumental skill set. (That makes two mentions of Parker in this post. Is this turning into an AP fan blog? Trick question! It already was.) If you don’t have a copy of Rain in to the Sea, I’d recommend heading to the WarHen Records Bandcamp page and snagging that as well. Just a few copies left! (Yes, this is a WarHen fan blog as well.)

Various — Sahel Sounds Label Sampler 2

Sahel Sounds is making all of their downloads pay what you want, and if you’re new to their catalog, I recommend this new sampler. Mdou Moctar, Les Filles de Illighadad, Luka Productions… so much great stuff here. (If you dig Mdou, he’s got a new mixtape of live recordings and demos out today as well.)

Thought I’d throw in a few other intriguing options, lifted directly from Bandcamp’s list of participants: