Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2020’s New Releases, Part Two

As explained in part one, the bench for the Best New Releases of 2020 is deep. On another day, in a different mood, some of those records could’ve easily made it into the rotation of this very list. So, fret not if your favorite music of the year is absent, for these selections aren’t intended to be in any way definitive. Rather than attempting any kind of last word (what hubris that would be), these selections are simply intended to be part of the greater discussion.

5. ONO, Red Summer (American Dreams) + “Kongo” b/w “Mercy” (Whited Sepulchre) & Nicole Mitchell & Lisa E. Harris, EarthSeed (FPE) Chicago’s ONO emerged as part of the 1980s underground, with a sound that encompasses Industrial, noise, free jazz, experimentation in general (they’ve been described as an “Avant-Industrial Gospel Band”), and spirted protest that is roaring (appropriately) like a four-alarm fire in 2020 with Red Summer and the very much complementary 12-inch, which arrived a little later in the year. Absorbed together, the contents are unflinching in their historical clarity on the subject of American racism and cruelty.

Nicole Mitchell & Lisa E. Harris’ EarthSeed, recorded live in Chicago, is flautist, composer and educator Mitchell’s third work in a series devoted to the culturally prescient work of the great science-fiction novelist Octavia E. Butler. It’s also Mitchell’s first compositional collaboration with the classically trained vocalist and interdisciplinary artist Harris, as the co-composers add electronics (Harris contributes Theremin) to an ensemble featuring vocalist Julian Otis, violinist Zara Zaharieva, trumpeter Ben LaMar Gay, cellist Tomeka Reid, and percussionist Avreeayl Ra. Jazz threads are certainly tangible, but the whole, invigorating and fascinating, is perhaps best described as lengthy dive into the avant-opera zone.

4. Jake Blount, Spider Tales (Free Dirt) & Sally Anne Morgan, Thread (Thrill Jockey) Spider Tales is banjoist-fiddler-vocalist Blount’s solo debut, but it radiates experience that’s unsurprising given its maker’s prominence in the contempo old-time community, where technique and feeling in performance are necessities. Blount’s also a member of The Moose Whisperers and half of Tui with fiddler-vocalist Libby Weitnauer, and he brings his adeptness at collaboration to this album, which features the great fiddler and singer Tatiana Hargreaves. Spider Tales also documents a gay Black man contributing with nary a trace of compromise to a scene with nasty bumps of intolerance in its historical road.

Blount is part of a younger generation that’s helping to keep old-time music vital through inclusion and curiosity into untapped possibilities. Sally Anne Morgan also holds a place of prominence in this category as fiddler in the Black Twig Pickers and as half of House and Land with Sarah Louise Henson, though Thread is her first solo album as it welcomes her partner Andrew Zinn on guitar and Black Twig Picker Nathan Bowles on drums. The results are a striking combination of Appalachian roots, Brit-folk sensibilities, and touches of experimentation. Morgan blossoms as a multi-instrumentalist (fiddle, banjo, guitar, piano) and her singing is absolutely delightful. This record and Spider Tales are future focused.

3. Thumbscrew, The Anthony Braxton Project (Cuneiform) & Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl, Artlessly Falling (Firehouse 12) Thumbscrew is the improvising trio of guitarist Mary Halvorson, double bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer and vibraphonist Tomas Fujiwara. They’ve landed on this list in years previous, and they make it again due to the collective brilliance in this endeavor of interpretation as more than a tribute to one of the USA’s finest composers. Of the three, Halvorson has the most experience playing in the bands of Braxton, but the music is the byproduct of a four-week residency at City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, so that the leaderless beauty of Thumbscrew is undiminished.

However, Artlessly Falling is very much Halvorson’s thing, even as Formanek and Fujiwara are part of the lineup. And Halvorson’s thing is the union of music and poetry, an endeavor distinguished by its sheer rate of success, and by its transcending what’s often expected when the two disciplines are combined. This is partly because Halvorson’s poems are impressively sharp across eight poetic forms, and also well-sung by Amirtha Kidambi, Maria Grand (who also plays tenor sax), and on three selections, Robert Wyatt. Yes, that Robert Wyatt. Adam O’Farrill completes the band on trumpet. The wilder parts recall Halvorson’s work in Trevor Dunn’s Trio Convulsant, which is just one of numerous highlights…

2. Gunn-Truscinski Duo, Soundkeeper (Three Lobed Recordings) & Elkhorn, The Storm Sessions (Beyond Beyond is Beyond) & The Acoustic Storm Sessions (Cardinal Fuzz / Centripetal Force) Music made by duos has resonated muchly in 2020, hopefully for obvious reasons. As Soundkeeper is their fourth joint album, guitarist Steve Gunn and drummer John Truscinski excel at psych-imbued communication, and due to the comfort of familiarity, the improvisational fortitude has increased alongside the stylistic breadth, with the contents spanning from material that would be right at home in a ’60s San Fran ballroom to rawer racket appropriate for a chilly ’80s NYC art bunker.

Elkhorn are the duo of Jesse Sheppard on twelve-string acoustic and Drew Gardner on electric, though for the records listed here, Turner Williams of Ramble Tamble and Guardian Alien plays electric bouzouki and shahi baaja on The Storm Sessions and guitar on its acoustic counterpart, records so named due to inclement weather putting the kibosh on a highly anticipated scheduled gig. The three didn’t stew and moan but just got down to music making. Being prime examples of expansive interaction and bountiful fingerpicking, Elkhorn’s records served as inspiration in a difficult year: step back, breathe, adapt, and then just push ahead. Repeat when necessary.

1. Vinny Golia, John Hanrahan, Henry Kaiser, Wayne Peet, Mike Watt, A Love Supreme Electric & Daniel Carter, Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Gerald Cleaver, Welcome Adventure! Vol. 1 (577) Upon announcement, both of these records landed in the neighborhood of the jaw-dropping, and that’s specifically due to the strength of each lineup. However, in the case of A Love Supreme Electric, the excitement was undeniably intensified by the thematic inspiration for the quintet’s assemblage.

There is a mild similarity to guitarist Henry Kaiser and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s Yo! Miles project, but here, the focus is much tighter as the band of unimpeachable players; Watt and Hanrahan with the bass and drums, Kaiser on guitar, Peet on organ, and Golia on soprano, tenor, and baritone sax, tackles Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Meditations. And yet, the music repeatedly defies expectations to positive result. The rhythm section is unfailingly expressive, Golia blows with verve and obvious thoughtfulness for the undertaking, while Peet is explorative without meandering, and Kaiser burns like a motherfucker. Hopefully, these guys will eventually get to blow some minds on tour.

In free jazz terms, Welcome Adventure! Vol. 1 presents a stacked lineup. William Parker has handled the double bass, anchoring yet searching, on hundreds of recordings since the early ’70s, with a few as loaded with august names as this one. Drummer Cleaver is of a younger generation, but he’s been perpetually in-demand at the kit, and like Parker, has led his own sessions. Daniel Carter is a multi-horn master who flourished as part of the ’90s u-ground free jazz resurgence, though his roots extend back to the ’70s. And having hit the scene in the late ‘80s with extensive recordings with the late saxophonist David S. Ware and as a leader, Matthew Shipp remains one of the true giants of post-Cecil Taylor piano.

Back in the 1950s, jazz labels (Prestige, in particular) would occasionally organize all-star affairs that, since they were frequently just jam sessions on blues and ballads, were often enjoyable but ultimately to varying degrees disappointing. As should be clear by its placement on this list, this is emphatically not the case with Welcome Adventure! Vol. 1. It offers inspired, risk-taking music made by familiars who have complete control of the situation at hand, from playing to production to distribution. Altogether a life-affirming experience. Bring on Vol. 2!

Closing with wishes for 2021 to be a much better year than the one we are leaving behind. Everyone, please be safe in the days ahead, and of course, listen to some music…

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