Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2021’s New Releases, Part Two

As we arrive at the final tippy-top ten of the Best New Releases of 2021, it easy to envision the scroll-downs and the scrunched-up frowns: “hey, where is _____?” Please understand that the fave in question is likely in a queue still waiting to be heard, or was heard but is hanging just off the periphery, perhaps even making an early draft of the list, or was simply elusive in the modern avalanche of high quality sounds. As said at the beginning of the week (seems like much longer than week ago, and it’s only Friday), these lists are never really final. Lists are in fact, at their best, just part of an ongoing conversation…

5. Chris Corsano & Bill Orcutt, Made Out of Sound (Palilalia) & Binker & Moses, Escape the Flames (Gearbox) Versatility and adaptability are common, near constant, traits in the great “jazz” drummers, characteristics that allowed Elvin Jones to productively create with Barry Harris (RIP), John Coltrane (of course), Lee Konitz and Sonny Sharrock.

I mention this because Chris Carsano is definitely a “jazz” drummer in all the best ways, and on Made Out of Sound he gets very much into a Elvin-like zone in tandem with the soaring beauty of guitarist Bill Orcutt, who locates those fleeting moments of transcendence heard from some the great expansionist string benders of the 1960s-’70s (a few of them also “jazz”) and then just hangs out there beautifully. It’s impossible for me to contemplate listening to Made Out of Sound and not feeling good.

Corsano and Orcutt dish an exemplary serving of duo exchange, but Escape the Flames hits the “classic” exploratory sax-drums target right in its bullseye with “The Departure,” and then takes a big groove offramp with “Intoxication From the Jahvmonishi Leaves.” That means this 2LP is likely not as skronky as some hardcore aficionados of freedom might prefer, but Binker Golding’s tenor is still cut from the cloth of ’60s Coltrane (some of finest woven aural threads, anywhere). And with “Fete By the River” he brings Impulse-era Sonny Rollins to mind, partly because Boyd displays some of that versatility spoken of up above. The crowd loves it (yes, this set was recorded live). Then they tear it up some more…

4. Thumbscrew, Never Is Enough (Cuneiform) & Colleen, The Tunnel and the Clearing (Thrill Jockey) Is there a better leaderless “jazz” trio than Thumbscrew currently working? By which, let me clarify, amassing a discography; this is guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist (upright and plugged-in) Michael Formanek, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara’s sixth album. The appeal is partly based in ceaselessly sharp playing, partly in structural acumen (each point on this triangle brings three compositions to the table), and partly about heightened interaction. One could call it a series of beautiful conversations, but it’s more like snapshots of three brilliant humans living together and attaining a rare level of harmony.

Shifting from group settings to the solo paradigm, The Tunnel and the Clearing is another exceptional record from Cécile Schott. With a synth and keyboard-based approach, often glistening in its retrofuturist qualities (but never trite), her stuff is solid as marble structurally, with her vocals adding considerable value. And there is a sense of quiet, of intimacy, on her latest that is never labored. The songs, and Schott is as much a crafter of songs as she is an architect of atmospheres, are excellent listening any time of day, but especially so late at night.

3. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra, Promises (Luaka Bop) & Patrick Shiroishi, Hidemi (American Dreams) Promises makes this list because of the beauty that unfurls as its nine movements (but really, one long piece) progress, but it’s also something of an odds-beater in its collaborative sweep avoiding generational clichés, pairing electronic musician-younger person Sam Shepherd (Floating Points), with the saxophone and voice of certified senior citizen Pharoah Sanders. Then, an orchestra enters the scheme. And their contribution is flat-out fantastic.

A possible reason for Promise’s success is that is was Sanders who initiated the whole collab after listening to a prior Floating Points album, Elaenia, at age 75. Let me make it as plain as possible: If I make it to 75 years old, I hope I’m living like Pharoah Sanders.

With this masterful turn from Patrick Shiroishi, we scale it back to one person once again. Those familiar with both Promises and Hidemi are likely contemplating the saxophone in regards to this pairing, and that’s part of it, but there is the additional common thread of beauty to consider, and through it, how Hidemi positions Shiroishi as an heir to Sanders.

This connection is driven home through prior LP Descension, on which Shiroishi blows with utter ferocity, though there are marked differences between Sanders’ ecstatic spiritualism and Descension’s meditation on the existence of and life inside the Japanese-American internment camps. Hidemi connects and extends, its multi-layered reeds contemplating the experience of his grandfather after the camps. As such, there is a narrative quality to the record that’s quite distinct, as the whole is exceptionally moving.

2. Irreversible Entanglements, Open the Gates (International Anthem) & Circuit des Yeux, -io (Matador) No doubt many have perused this list and are grumbling that there is too much fucking “jazz” on it. Well, deal with it, pal. One thing making contemporary jazz so vital, and therefore prominent on in this ordered assemblage (and so many others) is that those at the forefront are doing it out of Love.

And by extension, the music is in pursuit of positive societal change. That’s the case with the Philadelphia-based Irreversible Entanglements, which is shaped by the voice of Camae Ayewa, the saxophone of Keir Neuringer, the trumpet of Aquiles Navarro, the bass of Luke Stewart, and the drums of Tcheser Holmes. Their sound carries the spirit of collectivity forth into the Now, completely on their terms, and it’s glorious.

Glorious is also an accurate assessment of Haley Fohr’s latest record. It’s her seventh as Circuit des Yeux and her first for Matador, a label move that very likely contributed to the buzz that accompanied -io’s release back in October and that has lingered afterward. But the reality is that the ten songs cohere into a thorough success, realizing its considerable ambitions with confidence that only sharpens the record’s emotional power. The strings are fabulous. So is Fohr’s singing. It’s all amazing.

1. Wadada Leo Smith, Jack DeJohnette & Vijay Iyer, A Love Sonnet for Billy Holiday (Tum) & Myriam Gendron, Ma Délire – Songs of Love Lost & Found (Feeding Tube / Les Albums Claus) A slew of recordings came out in 2021 with Wadada Leo Smith’s name on them, and I haven’t even gotten around to them all for a handful of reasons, but with one that applies specifically to this situation. I keep coming back to A Love Sonnet for Billy Holiday.

The lineup features two older vets of roughly the same generation, Smith and DeJohnette, both with ties to Chicago’s AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) and numerous collaborations since, connecting with Iyer, who’s one of the more critically lauded players to have hit his stride in the 21st century. Across five pieces breaking 57 minutes, the trio’s rapport and their prowess at writing (all three contribute compositions) results in a journey that’s captivating and unpredictable and yet sweetly familiar.

Even as it exceeded expectations, I was essentially ready for what A Love Sonnet for Billy Holiday had in store, but must admit I was pretty unprepared for the sheer magnificence of Myriam Gendron’s record. I mean, I had an general idea that it would be worthwhile, as the label putting it out doesn’t disappoint, but Ma Délire – Songs of Love Lost & Found took it to another level.

The record features Gendron’s singing and playing guitar (acoustic and electric), combining songs of her own writing (excellent) with those of traditional origin (her interpretations splendid) and one by John Jacob Niles (always a good sign when he’s part of the deal), with the intent to engage with and freshen folk material, specifically Quebecois folk songs with a significant relationship to religion, namely Catholicism. In casting aside the beliefs, the songs have been neglected, but Gendron rescues them with an exquisite combination of zeal and control.

As these final ten have been unveiled, let it be shouted from the rooftops that music played an essential role in navigating another difficult year. Lists complete, now I’m going to sleep for six days. No, not really. There’s just too much great music to catch up on. Have a great holiday, everybody.

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  • Henri Saarela

    I agree with #1. That Myriam Gendron record is incredibly strong!

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