Welcome back to another installment of Jazz Quarterly! As you may have already noticed from a quick scroll, we have an eclectic list of albums touching nearly every corner of the jazz spectrum. Let’s dive in, shall we?
Australian Jazz Roundup
I know, I know – a roundup blurb within a roundup column. Pretty lazy, right? In all honesty, I could’ve easily written up new full-length blurbs for each of these releases; they’re just that good. But in the interest of time and energy, I figured it would be better to opt for quick summaries here while pointing towards my more in-depth thoughts. Cool? Cool!
The Biology of Plants – Vol. 2 (nu-jazz, art rock)
This is easily an AOTY contender for me, regardless of genre. The quartet’s synthesis of nu-jazz, art rock, and modern classical is as bold and adventurous as it is purely blissful and beautiful. A must-listen for anyone who appreciates good music.
COAST – Skim (jazz fusion, nu-jazz)
I raved about COAST‘s self-titled debut last year, and less than 12 months later, I’m still just as impressed with the group’s take on modern jazz. An excellent gateway for jazz newcomers and a joyous celebration for longtime fans of the genre.
Lisathe – Lisathe (chamber jazz, post-rock)
Such a rich, expansive album, touching on the intersections of classical, folk, jazz, and rock. Lisathe have a unique approach with broad appeal.
Read More: Review
Meatshell – Afar (modern classical, post-minimalism)
Though Afar isn’t technically a “jazz” album, it’s yet another great release from the Australian scene that’s well worth your time. Fans of experimentalism fill find an excellent, modern take on classical music.
Read More: Jazz Club
Milton Man Gogh – How to Be Big & Small (At the Same Time) (experimental jazz)
This is certainly the most traditional “jazz” release of the bunch, albeit with an incredible signature style. The trio approach traditional jazz and vocal jazz with an adventurous spirit, creating invigorating compositions in the process.
Read More: Jazz Club
Jazz from the Rest of the World
Farmhouse Odyssey – Fertile Ground (jazz fusion, psychedelic prog rock)
Yes, it is I, the stranger in this, the Realm of Jazz! If you’ve paid attention to my infrequent dalliances with the genre, you know I’m usually spurned to them if they involve progressive rock. This involvement is usually dubbed “jazz fusion” or “prog fusion”, as rock, progressive music, and jazz all blend into one heady mix. This is certainly the case with Farmhouse Odyssey’s Fertile Ground but in incredibly different ways from the, also excellent, Joona Samuel, who is mentioned above.Jazz/prog fusion is often associated with this ultra-modern and yet fantastical sound, drawing on a host of synths and electronics for its main timbre.
Farmhouse Odyssey instead draw on inspirations like Gentle Giant and King Crimson for their fusion, creating a more earth-y album that still manages to be technically impressive and engaging while it also soothes and speaks to a more simple in us. Indeed, their music is filled with a love of nature belied by their name and choice of album title, bringing forth folk inspirations and compositions to conjure their imagery for the album. This amalgamation works incredibly well, creating a light-hearted album that’s still intimate and meaningful.
Thus, opening track “The Call”, which soothes with an acoustic guitar and nature samples, blends perfectly with inheritor “Out of the Fog”, filled with twelve minutes of winding guitars, verbose pianos, and a groove section that perfectly captures the jazz origins of the band in the overall rhythm structure of the track. Because the fusion is handled so expertly, elements from jazz and from progressive rock blending so well together, even a longer track like this avoids the pitfalls of both genres, skipping agily over the burden of “too much” shared by the two styles.
Thus, Fertile Ground feels incredibly fresh, and not just because of its subject matter. In drawing on the best from both worlds, Farmhouse Odyssey have created an endearing, engaging, and downright infectious album filled with tasty compositions and a captivating atmosphere.
Kinkajous – Hidden Lines (nu-jazz)
I love when nu-jazz embraces the “new” aspect of the subgenre. At its core, jazz has always been about innovation, so why shouldn’t more modern iterations continue that trend? While I don’t believe any genre can truly “die,” stagnation and refusal to change is the fastest way to irrelevance for any style of art.
Hidden Lines is anything but stagnant. On every track, gorgeous, textured jazz from a traditional ensemble dances within lush soundscapes. Kinkajous conjure a spacious, spiritual vibe with their embrace of electronics, coming off as warm and inviting rather than a cold and synthetic. It’s a beautiful release from start to finish, and one I’ll continue spinning well past this year.
Damon Locks & Black Monument Ensemble – Where Future Unfolds (Afro-jazz, spiritual jazz)
Though less of an “album” and more of a full-on art experience, Where Future Unfolds is nonetheless one of 2019’s essential jazz records. Led by composer Damon Locks, the Black Monument Ensemble is comprised of an eclectic group of musicians and performers, including a handful of dancers for live shows. It’s a testament to how diverse the avant-garde jazz label can be, and what kind of a vehicle it can be for music with a message.
From solo clarinet explorations to Afro-jazz flavors and protest-driven choruses, Locks has pulled together a remarkable array of talent and ideas on Where Future Unfolds. Influences from hip-hop, spoken word, and broader African music traditions help bolster his adept approach to song craft. There’s quite a bit to parse out on the album, but it’s well worth the journey.
MAGAM – Another (avant-garde jazz, dark jazz)
Dark jazz is such an interesting niche that I’ve yet to fully explore. Essentially, it’s a murkier subset of avant-garde jazz that sees experimentation steeped in dark ambient traditions. I don’t stumble upon very many examples of this style every year, and the noteworthy releases from this bunch are even more sparse. But when done well, the genre can produce some exceptional music, as is the case on Another.
Hailing from Athens, MAGAM are seemingly content with performing all their music under the veil of nightfall. Every aspect of the group’s pensive spacey jazz-rock stylings is delivered via an elongated performance with sinister undertones. The entire affair is mostly whisper quiet, though the impact of each composition is profound and lasting. Prepare for something weird, but also incredibly rewarding.
Joona Samuel – The Act of Disintegration (prog fusion)
It’s not often that a sub-20 minute jazz EP would compel me to write an ecstatic review for one of our columns. But then again it’s not often that a talent like that of Finland’s Joona Samuel bursts onto the scene with a debut as immediately impressive as The Act of Disintegration. The one word best used to describe Samuel’s three compositions featured on the EP is “full.” Every inch of his music is packed like sardines with sonic lushness with a combination of fluttering woodwinds, hypnotizing synths and organ, and guitar ranging from classic jazz cleans to distorted prog fuzz.
Like Nordic contemporaries Jaga Jazzist, Samuel often takes a maximalist approach to his compositions with big ideas and equally dense arrangements that nonetheless never get too lost in themselves or shy away from more delicate passages. Middle track “The Stars Are Not For Men” is the best example of this as it comes kicking out of the gate with a King Crimson-like guitar lead, then slowly builds itself up with layers of intricate sax flute passages, culminating in a distinctly Jaga-like nu-jazz flurry of winds and breakbeat percussion, only to let it slowly simmer and stew in understated beauty.
And like all of the best modern fusion, Samuel clearly comes from a place of deep love and understanding of both classic and modern progressive rock music, as the heavy use of guitar never wanders into cheese and his compositions always veer into the most interesting and, at times, downright mysterious directions. Opener “Disintegrate” falls directly in the lineage of other standout modern jazz/prog composers like Darcy James Argue to find a sweet spot that dives into the dark and meaty underbelly of prog rock traditions all the while never losing track of how to filter it through a distinctly jazz lens.
Final track “Irrational Thought Patterns” is a psychedelic mindfuck that combines a modern probing sensibility and sound architecture with deeply satisfying and groovy retro fusion bounce ala Weather Report. The track’s climax though is where all bets are off and Samuel truly shows the peak of his songwriting potential in a positively transcendental melody and combination of elements that elevate the entire thing into musical nirvana.
The Act of Disintegration is an immensely pleasant surprise and jolt to the system that gets my mouth watering at the prospect of much more to come. Surprising no one, however, is that the EP was released through Art As Catharsis, which may as well just have the automatic Heavy Blog stamp of approval for everything it puts out at this point and have amassed an incredibly impressive roster of forward-thinking jazz artists from around the world. Just give into this one and enjoy yourself. You will not be disappointed.
Tuba Skinny – Some Kind-a-Shake (NOLA brass band)
Maybe I just haven’t been paying attention, but there have been a number of classic jazz genres making a resurgence this year. And when I say classic, I mean truly OG subgenres. My personal favorites include Nirav Sanghani‘s take on swing with Nirav Sanghani and the Pacific Six, as well as traditional big band on Dark Eyes from Shirt Tail Stompers.
A familiar name returning this year is Tuba Skinny. The Louisiana ensemble does their home state proud with a fun, vibrant take on the classic NOLA brass band tradition. We’re talking ragtime, Dixieland, and a bit of swing thrown in for good measure. Some Kind-a-Shake sounds like it was transported from a bygone era, while simultaneously feeling like it was crafted with a refreshed mindset informed by modern jazz ideals. It’s an immensely fun, enjoyable listen that will immediately transport you to the Bayou.