Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Our 10 best-album picks for the 2015 Twin Cities Critics Tally and why

The cover of Irie Sol's "Dred Scott Fitzgerald"
references the original cover of "The Great Gatsby"
Each year for the past several years, Star Tribune music writer Chris Riemenschneider has kindly included me in his annual Twin Cities Critics Tally, in which a bunch of us music and arts writers pick our top 10 Minnesota albums of the year. He knows that most of my choices will be lone flags flapping in the breeze – I listen to jazz, new music and classical – and none will have any influence on the TCCT’s ultimate goal of identifying the 20 Best Minnesota Albums of the Year. But he asks me anyway and I’m happy to shine some Strib light on artists who might not get much otherwise. All that being said, here are my top 10 (in alpha order, not ranked), plus a Just Shoot Me extra.

Peg Carrothers, “Edges of My Mind” (Vision Fugitive). Vocalist Peg is the wife of the phenomenal pianist Bill Carrothers, and the glory usually goes to him, though it’s her voice we hear on his award-winning “Armistice 1918.” For her debut solo release, recorded in Minneapolis, issued first in Europe in a beautiful package by the French label Vision Fugitive, Bill plays piano, with Dean Magraw on guitars and mandolin, and Billy Peterson and Gordy Johnson on bass (on different tracks). No drums, which seems to free the songs and Peg’s voice to float and waft and soar. It’s a strange mix of tunes – some Stephen Foster (“Gentle Annie”), some Johnny Nash (“I Can See Clearly Now”), some Aerosmith (“Dream On”), some Rolling Stones (a dark and rather terrifying “Sympathy for the Devil”) – but it holds together, creating its own dreamy, languid world.

An image
from "Seven Secrets of Snow"
Paul Fonfara, “Seven Secrets of Snow” (self-released). I don’t follow indie music very closely (actually I don’t follow it at all), so when this dropped into my email I almost didn’t listen. Except Fonfara gave me some background on where the music came from. He originally wrote “Secrets” for a BBC documentary about a Russian clown named Slava (Polunin) and his treks through Siberia, When that project stalled, he was far enough along that he commissioned local filmmakers to create original films to accompany his music. Fully orchestrated, performed by musicians from Painted Saints, Poor Nobodies, Dreamland Faces and the Brass Messengers on piano, brass, clarinet, woodwinds, guitar, accordion and singing saw, “Secrets” is cinematic and colorful. I hear a circus, a jazz band, a chamber orchestra, folk songs, and bits of Satie, Nino Rota and Sting. It was all so unexpected and pleasing that I listened to it several times, though I never saw the films. I missed the live show at the Cedar in December and hope it returns.

José James, “Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday” (Blue Note). Since starting out as a jazz singer in Minneapolis in his teens (and becoming a finalist in the 2004 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocalist Competition), James has had a 21st-century music career, releasing two albums on Brownswood (a London label) and a third on Verve, finally landing at Blue Note, infusing his music with hip-hop, multitracking, R&B, rock-and-roll, world rhythms, collaborations and whatever else takes his fancy. His first jazz album, 2010’s “For All We Know” with Belgian pianist Jef Neve, never caught on, and it took him a while to circle back to jazz on his own terms: with a collection of songs made famous by the woman he calls his “musical mother.” His last three albums have all been on Blue Note, where Don Was has the biggest ears in the world for someone who runs a legacy label. So “Yesterday” feels a lot more jazzy than anything James has done for a while, which is fine, but it’s also informed by everything else he’s into, which is also fine. Like Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington, James is drawing diverse crowds to a genre that has been an easy target for too long. (Related: “Jose James pays homage to the soul of Lady Day.”)

Peter Kogan, “Some Monsterful Wonderthing” (self-released on Koganote) and Dean Sorenson Sextet, “Colors of the Soul” (self-released). We lucked out this year with two recordings of brand-new hard bop composed by area musicians, performed by area musicians and recorded in Minneapolis. Drummer Peter Kogan spent several years as principal timpanist for the Minnesota Orchestra, playing jazz on the side (and more seriously during the lockout of the musicians during a lengthy labor dispute, when he suddenly, if unwillingly, had the time); trombonist Dean Sorenson is director of jazz studies at the University of Minnesota. Both of their CDs feature all-original tunes and top area musicians. Kogan’s core band for “Monsterful” is a septet with Pete Whitman on tenor
sax, fellow Minnesota Orchestra member Charles Lazarus on flugelhorn and trumpet, Scott Agster on trombone, Cory Wong on guitar, Sean Turner on piano and Brian Courage on bass, with appearances by New York-based Brazilian percussionist Rogerio Boccata and pianist Tommy Barbarella. Sorenson’s “Colors” is all sextet, with Steve Kenny on trumpet, David Milne on tenor sax, Chris Lomheim on piano, Tom Lewis on bass and Phil Hey on drums. Two great bands playing tight, swinging original music. I couldn’t choose between them.

Irie Sol, “Dred Scott Fitzgerald: A Novella” (self-released). There’s a lot going on in this 20-minute EP – musically, stylistically, lyrically, historically, multiculturally. Irie Sol is an ensemble of musicians and vocalists living and working in the Twin Cities and Eau Claire; founder Junior Williams hails from Jamaica. The five songs blend reggae, blues, funk, rock, and Americana; add dense, fast-flying lyrics full of references to Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” and historic figures (Marcus Garvey, Dred Scott, Haile Selassie, Countee Cullen); and re-imagine Fitzgerald’s Bernice (of his short story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”) as a girl from Eau Claire who dreds her hair and jumps into the Harlem Renaissance. The CD comes with a booklet that includes all the lyrics. It’s smart, assured “lit-hop” that rewards close listening, or you can just put it on and enjoy the sound.

Graydon Peterson Quartet, “Duets” (Shifting Paradigm Records). A tune for bass and trumpet, then a tune for bass and drums, then one for drums and Fender Rhodes, then one for bass and guitar … For his second release as leader, jazz bassist Peterson turns a kind of nerdy idea into a varied, intriguing listen. The concept: to write songs for every permutation of two instruments in his quartet. (In fact, Peterson had five instruments to work with; his original quarter included a guitar and his current group has the Rhodes.) All the tunes are originals, and all the tracks have that relaxed, conversational feeling that comes from knowing the person you’re playing with. There’s satisfying mix of rhythms, moods and grooves. I would have included one more song featuring all five musicians – Peterson, Adam Meckler (trumpet and flugelhorn), Adrian Suarez (trap set), Joe Strachan (Rhodes), and Vinnie Rose (guitar) – just because.

John Raymond, “Foreign Territory” (Fresh Sound Records). On his second album as leader, trumpeter and composer Raymond turns standards inside-out and creates something fresh and exciting. Making “What Do You Hear” from the chords of “I Hear a Rhapsody,” the beautiful “Deeper” from “How Deep Is the Ocean” (and winning a 2015 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award for that one), he delivers music that’s new yet somehow familiar, at the same time freeing himself and the other musicians in his quartet to experiment and explore. And what a quartet: Dan Tepfer on piano, Joe Martin on bass and the legendary Billy Hart on drums. The whole album – which also includes a free improvisation inspired by Horace Silver’s “Peace” (“Rest/Peace”), an homage to one of Raymond’s main influences, Lee Konitz (“Adventurous-Lee”) and the sole cover, Kenny Wheeler’s “Mark Time” – is a pleasure, earning well-deserved coverage and kudos including an editor’s pick position in Downbeat and praise from Nate Chinen of the New York Times. (Related: “Jazz trumpeter brings ‘Foreign Territory’ home to Minnesota.”)

Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra: “The Thompson Fields” (ArtistShare). If there’s justice in the world, Schneider’s eighth album will win at least one of the Grammys it’s nominated for: “Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album” or “Best Improvised Solo” (for Donny McCaslin’s work in “Arbiters of Evolution”). Lush, gorgeous, spacious and embracing, it makes me want to move to Windom, Schneider’s Minnesota hometown, and grow beans. Schneider leads her excellent New York big band in eight original compositions about beauty, evolution, the changing weather, miles of land, monarch butterflies, and the meaning of home. As ever, she leaves ample room for her soloists – McCaslin being just one example – and I especially love hearing Gary Versace’s accordion in “A Potter’s Song.” This music tells stories, taps the emotions and paints pictures with a big, wide brush and all the colors. If you want to hear it, you’ll have to buy it or borrow it; don’t look for it in Spotify or other streaming services, which Schneider fiercely opposes. (Related: “Maria Schneider on her hometown of Windom, leading the band and working with David Bowie.”)

Mike Olson, “Six Projects” (Innova). As the title suggests, this is a compilation of six discrete works, not an album in the traditional sense of something you listen to from start to finish, although you can certainly do that. Olson is an experimental/electronic/new music composer, so these six pieces, spanning 13 years, are soundscapes, not songs. Most were created using his own fragment-based compositional process – gathering many small musical fragments (some performed live, some preexisting), then manipulating, layering, aligning, altering, combining, and mixing them to create what he wants to say. Some of the musicians heard here include drummer Dave King and percussionist Heather Barringer (on “De Novo”); Olson also borrowed bits from works by Stefan Kac, Paul Dresher, Zeitgeist, Anthony Gatto, Pauline Oliveros, and Janika Vandervelde, among others. You’ll hear thunder and rain in “Flute Clouds,” the repetition and exploration of a single Ojibwe word in the haunting, atmospheric a capella choral piece “Noopiming” (that’s the word, and it means “in the North, inland, in the woods”), vintage and contemporary synthesizers in “Implied Movement” and “Shift.” This is spacey, ambient, dynamically diverse (sometimes loud, sometimes barely discernible), occasionally rhythmic (more often not) music I turned to out of curiosity, then ended up liking very much. We should all listen to more Innova recordings.

Just Shoot Me

I thought Jeremy Siskind’s “Housewarming” (Brooklyn Jazz Underground) came out in 2014. I was wrong; its official release date was Feb. 24, 2015. I love this album and would have included it in my Top 10; just don’t ask what it would have replaced. “Housewarming” is the same core trio as Siskind’s earlier “Finger Songwriter” – Siskind on piano, Clara City native Nancy Harms on voice, Lucas Pino on reeds – plus guests Kurt Elling, Kendra Shanks and Peter Eldridge on selected tracks. Nine original Siskind compositions (and four covers) explore themes of home, belonging, and yearning for home – perfect material for a group that has made a specialty of house concerts, intimate live performances in private homes. I heard them at a friend’s home in Plymouth in August and it was enchanting. So is the recording. Don’t expect drama or pyrotechnics; this is music of tenderness and taking care. The instrumentation – Siskind’s lyrical piano, gleaming with arpeggios and pillowed with chords; Pino’s pensive saxophone and clarinets – is paired with eloquent lyrics borrowed in part from Marilynne Robinson, W.B. Yeats, Carl Sandburg and Derek Walcott. The singing, most by Harms, is exquisite and expressive; she can tell a whole story in a single word or syllable. This is not an album for driving 70 mph down the freeway, but for an evening at home with friends or loved ones, memories or dreams.

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