Title: Black, Brown, and Beige Artist: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis Label: Blue Engine Formats: Digital Release Date: March 6, 2020
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra captures and invokes the spirit of Duke Ellington with their release of Ellington’s masterwork, Black, Brown and Beige. The album is a live recording from a performance at the Rose Theater in 2018 with special guests Brianna Thomas (voice) and Eli Bishop (violin). Originally composed for the first of Ellington’s annual concerts in Carnegie Hall and premiered on January 23, 1943, the epic work is considered a seminal musical composition of the 20th century and in Ellington’s words, “is a parallel to the history of the American Negro.” While some parts of the suite were revised and recorded by Ellington after the premiere, the full-length version of the 1943 concert was not released until 1977, three years after his death. Now the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis imbues new life into Ellington’s jazz symphony with a modern interpretation of the complete work that’s full of creative colors and intensities.
Trumpeter and composer Ambrose Akinmusire is known for extending the margins of jazz, presenting sonically diverse albums that reflect upon the complexity of Black life in America. Such was the case with his 2018 release, Origami Harvest, which deftly wove together genres and socially conscious themes. Akinmusire describes his new release, on the tender spot of every calloused moment, as a quartet album “that studies the blues in a contemporary context.” Though primarily a jazz musician, Akinmusire adeptly taps into the blues of life in America, blowing through his trumpet with “the breath of a black man who’s seen the best and worst of the country.” Accompanying Akinmusire on this project, which features eleven of his highly original compositions, are his long-time bandmates: pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Justin Brown.
One of the most intriguing projects of the year, Ocean Bridges is a collaboration between Washington, DC hip hop artists/producers Damu the Fudgemunk (aka Earl Davis) and MC Raw Poetic (aka Jason Moore), and Moore’s uncle, the illustrious jazz elder Archie Shepp. The album’s title signifies “a re-establishing of the connection between young and old in their general community.” As Moore explains: “I began writing down the parts in my head that could tell a story, a Black American story, that would expand across the ages, a story from my grandfather to my uncle, from my mother to me. We bridged the gaps of time, culture and struggle and made an album I always dreamt of—Ocean Bridges.” Entirely improvised, the eleven tracks also bridge genres, creatively blending live music and spoken word, jazz and hip hop in a manner that maintains the spontaneity of their vision.
Title: Lagos Pepper Soup Artist: Michael Olatuja Label: Whirlwind Recordings Formats: LP, Digital Release date: June 12, 2020
Bassist and composer Michael Olatuja has a unique musical background. Born in London, raised in Lagos, Nigeria, and currently based in New York, he has certainly traversed many continents and engaged with various musical genres across the African diaspora. Olatuja’s third album Lagos Pepper Soup, released eleven years after his Speak (2009) and nine years after The Promise (2011), maintains his unique musical style that blends West African Afrobeats and jazz with the addition of a cinematic touch. According to Olatuja, Lagos Pepper Soup was envisioned as an album that would “fuse this mix of Afrobeat and jazz as if it was a Hollywood film soundtrack.”
Title: Legacy Holder Artist: Jonathan Barber & Vision Ahead Label: Vision Ahead Music Formats: CD, Digital Release date: May 15, 2020
Drummer, composer and bandleader Jonathan Barber has accomplished much in his young life. The 30-year-old Hartford, Connecticut native began performing gospel music at an early age at his family church, learning alongside his father who was also a drummer. He later studied at the University of Hartford’s Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz and went on to tour and record with artists such as Pat Metheny, Jeremy Pelt, Wallace Roney, Jennifer Holiday, and Harold Mabern. Shortly after Modern Drummer named Barber as the #1 Up-and-Coming Drummer of 2018, he released his debut album, Vision Ahead. Now Barber returns with his sophomore release, Legacy Holder, featuring his New York-based jazz quintet Vision Ahead.
Title: Live at the Paramount Artist: Ruthie Foster Big Band Label: Blue Corn Music Formats: CD, Digital Release date: May 15, 2020
Ruthie Foster delivers a high-powered performance in Live at the Paramount, her ninth album with Blue Corn Music. Complete with the combination of extraneous noise and high energy that inevitably accompanies a live album, Ruthie Foster delivers a big band set that shows off her well-known voice in a swing setting. Recorded at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas, on January 26, 2019, John Mills is the music director and conductor of Foster’s big band, and all of the arrangements for this concert are by Mills and John Beasley.
Title: In Common 2 Artist: Walter Smith III and Matthew Stevens Label: Whirlwind Recordings Formats: CD, LP (limited ed.), Digital Release Date: May 15, 2020
In Common 2 is the much-anticipated second release from tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and guitarist Matthew Stevens. After the noteworthy success of their first collaboration In Common, Smith and Stevens assembled another star-studded cast featuring pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer Nate Smith to perform their original compositions. Smith and Stevens are both at the nexus of the international jazz scene as performers, bandleaders, and composers, having performed and recorded with a wide range of artists including Ambrose Akinmusire, Christian Scott, Esperanza Spalding, and Roy Haynes. Their collaboration produces a high energy, dynamic album that sounds like a band that has been playing together for years.
Title: The Latin Jazz Project Artist: Spanish Harlem Orchestra Label: ArtistShare Formats: CD (limited ed.), Digital Release date: May 22, 2020
The Spanish Harlem Orchestra (SHO) has become a household name for salsa lovers and Latin jazz enthusiasts over the years. Founded in the early 2000s by bandleader Oscar Hernández and producer Aaron Levinson, SHO has accumulated several Grammy nominations and three Grammy Awards for their albums Across 110th Street (2004), Viva La Tradicion (2010), and Anniversary (2018). Known for their “dedication to the sounds of the barrio (Spanish Harlem NYC)” and their “mission to keep the musical legacy of salsa dura (hard salsa) alive,” SHO has become one of the standard representations of the New York style of salsa music.
Title: War Chant Artist: AJOYO Label: Shems Format: Digital Release Date: May 22, 2020
Celebration and protest, traditional and contemporary—Jazz-world ensemble AJOYO’s sophomore album War Chant is filled with seamlessly blended contradictions. Like their self-titled 2015 debut album, War Chant brings high energy, celebratory music, but this time with a social and racial justice aim. Using their own immigration stories as a foundation, the six-member Brooklyn-based group, organized by Tunisian-born saxophonist Yacine Boularès, cultivates empathy and calls for action.
Title: It Is What It Is Artist: Thundercat Label: Brainfeeder Formats: CD, LP, Digital Release Date: April 3, 2020
Electric bassist and singer/songwriter Thundercat, aka Stephen Lee Bruner, has released his fourth studio album, It Is What It Is. Executively produced by Bruner and Flying Lotus, the project features collaborations from artists such as Childish Gambino, Lil B, Kamasi Washington, Ty Dolla $ign, BADBADNOTGOOD, Louis Cole, and comedian/rapper Zack Fox. The new album is the follow-up to Thundercat’s ambitious Drunk (2017), which cemented his genre-defying reputation and provided an evolutional framework for It Is What It Is, which continues the versatile artist’s experimentation with sound and compositional technique.
Vocalists have played a notable role in the history of jazz, including women such as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughn, who collectively defined vocal artistry in the ongoing jazz tradition. Ella 100: Live at the Apollo! showcases the continuing role of today’s artists, vibrantly celebrating the 100th birthday of another legendary jazz vocalist, Ella Fitzgerald. This recording of the Ella Fitzgerald tribute concert on October 22, 2016, transports you to the stage of the Apollo Theater in New York City, the site of Ella’s performing debut in an amateur contest when she was only seventeen years old. The selections are drawn from Ella’s recording legacy, which extends from her first recording with Chick Webb’s Orchestra on June 12, 1936 for Decca Records to her final complete album recorded for Pablo Records on March 20 & 22, 1980. This represents a span of 44 years, which is truly remarkable for any artist.
While there are no surviving recordings of New Orleans cornetist Buddy Bolden, a leading figure in the early development of what would come to be known as jazz music, Grammy award-winning trumpeter Derrick Shezbie attempts to recreate Bolden’s band and music in his most recent release, The Ghost of Buddy Bolden. Shezbie is one of the primary trumpet players on the national scene performing original New Orleans jazz music; his sound and style have often been compared by critics to Louis Armstrong. As well as having full command of earlier styles, Shezbie also masterfully blends a range of different genres which are exemplified in his performances with the funky Rebirth Brass Band, and on his debut album Spodie’s Back (1994), which mixes New Orleans styles with more modern jazz bop influences. For this most recent record, Shezbie teamed up with historian Charles Tolman to recreate the atmosphere and conditions under which Bolden would have produced a recording. Shezbie even went on the streets of New Orleans, in the same manner as Bolden, to recruit other African American musicians for his group, ultimately joining forces with clarinetist Louis Ford, guitarist Carl Leblanc, bassist Chris Severin, trombonist Revert Andrews, and drummer Jerry Anderson.
Title: Inside Rhythmic Falls Artist: Aruán Ortiz Label: Intakt Formats: CD, Digital Release date: March 20, 2020
Many artists are known for expressing their cultural identity through music, but the issue most grapple with is how to articulate their own cultural experiences while also evoking the musical traditions of the people. For pianist and composer Aruán Ortiz, the answer lies in the culturally relevant storytelling abilities of the artist. His newest release, Inside Rhythmic Falls, aims to capture “the symphony of everyday life” in his birthplace, the Oriente Province of Cuba, while telling the story of the people and his Afro-Cuban heritage. Joined by legendary drummer Andrew Cyrille, percussionist Mauricio Herrera, spoken word artist Marlène Ramírez-Cancio and narrator Emeline Michel, Ortiz utilizes the changüí by substituting guitar for his piano in the guitar-and-drum music style, while “reconstructing and reconfiguring” the musical aesthetics to uplift the Afro-Cuban voices that were historically repressed, silenced and/or “hidden.”
A rising star on the international jazz scene, South African pianist and composer Nduduzo Makhathini is a member of the band Shabaka and the Ancestors and was recently featured on the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s musical celebration, “The South African Songbook.” Nduduzo makes his Blue Note recording debut this month with Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds. The album is deeply rooted in the music and ritual practices of his homeland in KwaZulu Natal, with additional inspiration provided by legends of South African jazz including his mentor, the late Bheki Mseleku, and pianist Abdullah Ibraham. It was through Nduduzo’s exposure to American jazz pianist McCoy Tyner, however, that enabled him to develop a style of playing that “could mirror or evoke the way my people danced, sung, and spoke.” Retaining those nuances and connecting his improvisations to more profound elements of divination and healing, known as uBungoma, Nduduzo’s unique vision is communicated throughout the 11 original tracks.
Title: Not There Yet Artist: Chicago Yestet Label: Tiddlywinks Music/Dist. CD Baby Formats: CD, Digital Release date: March 27, 2020
Formed in 2008 by bandleader and trombonist Joel Adams, the 13-piece horn-heavy Chicago Yestet draws from a wide range of genres ranging from big bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s to the sharp-edged political-leaning soul of Donny Hathaway, James Brown, and Marvin Gaye. With the addition of vocalist Maggie Burrell and spoken word artist Keith Harris, the ensemble also incorporates contemporary hip hop influences and socially conscious messaging. On the group’s third release, Not There Yet, they perform eight highly original tracks composed or arranged by Adams, with lyrics contributed by the vocalists.
Title: Collusion Artist: The Session Label: Bubble Bath Formats: CD, Digital Release date: August 16, 2019
Straight outta New Orleans, The Session is a jazz quartet of young musicians who were schooled by several of the city’s legendary elders, such as Ellis Marsalis, Germaine Bazzle, and Dr. John. While their focus is on more contemporary aspects of jazz, they respect the genre’s historical traditions, with various members performing regularly at Preservation Hall and with Jason Marsalis’ Vibraphone Quartet. The group’s third album, Collusion, was released just before Donald Trump was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives and, as the title confirms, is the group’s most political statement to date. Throughout the 10 tracks, quartet members Steve Lands (trumpet), Jasen Weaver (bass), Andrew McGowan (piano), and Darrian Douglas (drums) explore their “politically-fueled reflections on our country’s current climate,” while also expanding their own range as they each contribute original tunes for the album.
Title: Sings Tribute to Alberta Hunter Live! Artist: Alicia Crowe Label: Spitslam/Dist. MVD Formats: LP, Digital Release date: February 7, 2020
Jazz vocalist Alicia Crowe offers a sweet send-up to the legacy of the great Alberta Hunter with her new album. Recorded live on November 14, 2018, during her Alberta Hunter Tribute show at the Triad Theater in New York City, Crowe is backed by Takaaki Otomo on piano, Noriko Ueda on bass, and George Gray on drums. Covering many of Hunter’s greatest hits, from “My Castle’s Rockin’” to “Handyman,” Crowe presents a musical portrait of one of the great vocal performers of the twentieth century.