As always, this is not a ‘Best of 2021’ for two reasons. Firstly, I’ve only heard a fraction of the new releases, so there will be many that I’ve missed. Secondly, this is a choice based upon my own tastes.
And having looked at many other listings, there’s not much in the way of overlap, so maybe it’s a case of ‘different drummer’ syndrome. It may also be the case that many of my choices are released on small independent labels that do not get wide exposure.
I’ve sampled most of these albums on my podcasts. And…. as choosing ten is difficult, I’ve appended a number of other albums that I wouldn’t be without.
Cowboys and Frenchmen – Our Highway (Outside In Music)
This was my first encounter with Cowboys and Frenchmen. Despite the fact that they have two previous releases to their name (...a name adapted from the title of a short film by David Lynch).
The quintet have been together for over five years and comprise Ethan Helm sax and flute, Owen Broder sax, Addison Frei, piano, Ethan O’Reilly bass and Matt Honor drums.
The original music from Ethan Helm comes across as a suite, reflecting the trials and tribulations of life on the road and the solace afforded by nature. The compositions are cleverly structured and the unison playing of the front line is noteworthy.
The album was produced by Ryan Truesdell and recorded live at Subculture in NYC in Sept 2019. And the album release is accompanied by an online video that was live-streamed as part of a virtual tour. It’s well worth investigating if you get the chance. As is the album.
And needless to say, I’ve since acquired their previous albums.
Grand Picture Palace – Grand Picture Palace (WERF)
There are an increasing number of recordings that bring strings into a contemporary jazz setting. And here we have a fine example, with bass player Anneleen Boehme taking the initiative.
Anneleen is probably best known for being part of the LAB Trio. Here she brings together the unusual instrumental line-up of Rob Banken, bass clarinet, Cedric De Lat trumpet, Berlinde Deman, tuba and Matthias De Waele drums. Plus a string quartet. A band she calls Grand Picture Palace.
It’s fascinating stuff. Eight originals from the leader. Sometimes they hint at film music, other times classical. In fact the album opens with a short choral piece. And Anneleen’s mastery of the double bass throughout is impressive.
It’s well worth tracking down. And while you’re about it, why not check out her work with the LAB Trio.
Nezelhorns – Sentiment (Barefoot)
Nezelhorns are a Scandi quintet led by saxophonist Nana Pi Aabo Larsen (or Nana Pi as she is credited on the sleeve). Sentiment is the band’s second recording, their first having been released in 2013. And I might add, played on Jazz Today.
And it’s good to have them back, albeit with two changes in personnel. Composing duties are shared between Nana Pi and trombonist Petter Hangsel and the music has a nice edgy feel, mining territory between post-bop and free.
Completing the band are the always excellent Erik Kimestad on trumpet, and the solid rhythm section of Johannes Vaht on double bass and Kristoffer Rostedt, drums.
I asked Nana Pi how the band got its unusual name. Apparently it came to her while she was vacuuming and playing with words in imaginary languages. As you do. She thinks it might be linked to naesehorn, rhinoceros in Danish. And the fact that the band has a three horn front line. One thing it does however, is make it easy to find them online when the band has a unique name.
Mario Rom’s Interzone – Eternal Fiction (Traumton)
Eternal Fiction is the Austrian trio’s 4th album and celebrates ten years of playing together. The band comprises Mario Rom, trumpet, Lukas Kranzelbinder, bass and Herbert Pirker on drums.
They’re a band I was lucky enough to see live a few years back. They contrast high-energy romps with bluesy dirges to great effect. And the quality of their musicianship is second to none. In fact, if I had to highlight a band who’s music appealed equally to the head, heart and feet, then Interzone would be on the short list. Along with another (larger) ensemble that Mario and Lukas are part of, Shake Stew.
All four of the Interzone albums deserve your attention. And why not have a peek at their entertaining videos on the band’s webpage.
Slowfox – Freedom (Rent a Dog)
An international trio that have turned up before on Pete’s Pick, back in 2015. Hayden Chisholm, saxophone and flute, Philip Zoubek, piano and leader Sebastian Gramss on bass.
Their latest release presents fourteen short melodic originals from Sebastian, plus one number based on a traditional Korean Song. And like their previous two albums, the track titles use words from a quotation; on this occasion, one attributed to Nina Simone.
Philip occasionally uses ‘prepared’ piano and on three tracks Sebastian features his spacebass, a modified double bass with twelve additional sympathetic strings.
And as I said in my comments back in 2015, it’s interesting to compare Slowfox with another trio that Sebastian leads, Fossile 3 (with Rudi Mahall on clarinet and Etienne Nillesen drums). Fossile 3 occupy somewhat freer ground, but are equally creative in their approach. In fact it would be fascinating to hear both groups amalgamated as a quintet. I suggested to Sebastian that he could call them Fossile Fox. He said he would bear it in mind (!)
Unscientific Italians - Play the Music of Bill Frisell Vol 1 (Hora)
Unscientific Italians are an 11-piece ensemble led by pianist Alfonso Santimone. They boast an impressive front line, featuring some of the top players on the Italian scene. In amongst are Filipo Vignato, Fulvio Sigurta, Piero Bittolo Bon and Francesco Bigoni, underpinned by the stellar rhythm section of Alfonso, Danilo Gallo and Zeno De Rossi.
Many of the musicians have worked together for the now-dormant El Gallo Rojo label and at times their tight interplay reminded me of the wonderful Italian Instabile Orchestra.
Their debut focusses on seven of Bill Frisell’s early compositions arranged and conducted by Mr Santimone. And it obviously has the approval of the composer, as the cover art was supplied by Bill himself.
It’s the first of three releases on the fledgling Hora Record label. And fortunately, it sounds like we will only have to wait until 2022 for Vol 2.
Jakop Janssonn – Bricoleur (Finito Bacalao)
Often an album released at the end of a year doesn’t get to my ears until the New Year. Such was the case with this little gem, released in October 2020 but only came my way in February. It’s the debut release of percussionist Jakop Janssonn and features the trio of Jakop, violinist Hakon Aase and tuba player Daniel Herskedal.
Hakon and Daniel have international reputations, but I’d not encountered Jakop before. He hails from the north of Norway and his music is influenced by the traditional music of that region, particularly the music of the indigenous Sami people. But surprisingly, it doesn’t have you looking for that warm puffer jacket; it has a folkish warmth and charm.
Bricoleur means someone who builds or creates using whatever materials are available. And appropriately the CD cover shows a Nordic shack built with what looks like flotsam and jetsam.
Intriguing music from three skilled musicians, together with occasional support from the Arctic Philharmonic. You can find Bricoleur on the Tromso-based Finito Bacalao Record label.
Jared Schonig – Two Takes Vol I: Quintet & Vol II: Big Band (Anzic)
The second disc features the same compositions interpreted by big band. Two different big bands in fact, with overlapping personnel. They include top players from the East Coast scene, such as Jon Gordon, Donny McCaslin, Marshall Gilkes and Nir Felder. And aside from the leader, the only musician to appear on both discs is bassist Matt Clohesy.
Both big bands are conducted by Matt Holman, although each of the eight originals has a different arranger (including Alan Ferber, Jim McNeely and Darcy James Argue). And they make the most of the power at their disposal.
It’s fascinating to compare the different approaches taken by small group and big band. Both fall into the modern mainstream and Jared propels each of the ensembles with his dynamic drumming.
Wako – Live in Oslo (Ora Fonogram)
Music recorded between lockdowns, at two concerts in Oslo in 2020; the Oslo Jazz Festival in August and at the National Jazzscene in November. From a quartet that is rapidly making a name for itself inside and outside of Scandinavia.
The three tracks that were recorded in August feature just the quartet; saxophonist Martin Myhre Olsen, pianist Kjetil Mulelid, bassist Bardur Reinert Poulsen and drummer Simon Olderskog Albertsen.
The six tracks recorded in November add like-minded guests in the guise of saxophonist Tore Brunborg, violinist Adrian Loseth Waade, percussionist Kyrre Laastad and clarinettist Lars Horntveth, who also doubles on steel guitar. They add a different dimension to the group sound, especially the presence of vibes and steel guitar.
It’s the bands fifth album, and like its predecessors moves from fiery to reflective. A band that I’m sure would be great to see live. Wherever.
Linda Fredriksson – Juniper (We Jazz)
On my ‘Pick’ so far we’ve had music recorded in Denmark and Norway. Now its music from Finland. An indication that the Nordic scene is still as vibrant as ever.
This is Linda’s debut as sole leader. Until now she is probably best known for her work with the trio MOPO and on this recording plays baritone and alto saxophones as well as bass clarinet, guitar and keyboards.
Adding layers to the sound are Tuomo Prattala on keyboards, Minna Koivisto, synthesiser, Mikael Saastamoinen bass and Olavi Louhivuori drums. All recorded at various locations over the past two years.
Apparently most of Linda’s seven originals were composed with just voice, guitar and piano. The result is a magical and haunting album featuring some memorable tunes. A leader who deserves greater recognition outside of her native Finland.
Despite the pandemic, there’s been a lot of good music issued in 2021. Here are some more albums I wouldn’t be without:
Robert Jukic – Caminos de Gloria (SBC); Paul Berner & Michael Moore – Amulet (Ramboy); Reverso – Live (OutNote); Artifacts - …and then there’s this (Astral Spirits); Maridalen – Maridalen (Jazzland); John Pope Quintet – Mixed With Glass (New Jazz & Improvised Music Recordings); Horse Orchestra – The Milkman Cometh (self-released); Fergus McCreadie – Cairn (Edition); Broken Cycle – Broken Cycle 2 (Sunny Sky); Igor Yakovenko – The Music Machine (Fancy Music); Joris Roelofs – Rope Dance (Bis); Emma Famin – Limbo (Ears & Eyes); Knimes Acoustic Group – Adventures in Improvised Music (Envelope); David Leon – Aire De Agua (Out of Your Head); NoSax NoClar – Red Sisters (Yolk); Luke Bainbridge – Surface Tension (self-released); Clover – Paradigme (Yolk); Florian Arbenz – Conversation #2 and #3 (self-released); Alban Darche – Le Gros Cube #2 (Yolk); Michel Portal – MP85 (Label Bleu); Noah Preminger & Kim Cass – Thunda (Dry Bridge); Nazareno Caputo – Phylum (Aut); Vasko Atanasovski Adrabesa Quartet – Phoenix (Moonjune); Steven Kamperman – City Map (Zennez); Woody Black 4 – The Lost Tapes (ORF); Christof Thewes Quartet – SurRealBook G (Gligg); En Garde! – Apocalypso (Gateway); Nu Quartet – NUQ (Clear Now); Ben Goldberg – Everything Happens To Be (BAG).