Skip to content

Best Recordings of 2013


“BROOKLYN BABYLON”  DARCY JAMES ARGUE’S SECRET SOCIETY   —   Working with his 18-piece big band, Brooklyn-based modern composer Darcy James Argue has fashioned a brilliant musical document in the form of a series of compositions used as a mirror to and companion piece for a graphic novel by Danijel Zezelj. The result is an impressively innovative achievement that stands effortlessly on its own. Notable for both its sonic/ cinematic sweep and its amalgam of contemporary and late 20th Century sounds, “Brooklyn Babylon” is a treat for listeners to “guess” or “find” musical homages to Aaron Copland, Kurt Weill, Thelonious Monk and others. Weaving together progressive jazz, early-American popular styles, Balkan folk musics, and the sounds of Brooklyn’s diverse contemporary music scene, Argue creates a wildly evocative musical narrative that is at once timeless and unlike anything heard before.  Easily the best of 2013.

“grand opening, brooklyn babylon” Darcy James Argue

61aYjun6yIL._AA160_ “COIN COIN VOLUME 2: MISSISSIPPI MOONCHILE”  MATANA ROBERTS   —   In 2011, Constellation Records, an indie-leaning label best known for its association with Godspeed You! Black Emperor, released the first chapter of saxophonist-composer Matana Roberts’ 12-volume avant-jazz Coin Coin project, in which her family’s story is recounted alongside an exploration of recent American history. Roberts uses the metaphor of “panoramic sound quilting” to describe the series. “Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile,” mixes experimentalism with song-form and operatic vocals, that makes for that rare balance of “accessible” and “innovative.” So it’s still easy enough, here in the early going, to get on board, and explore the music of a Jazz musician few know, but many should.

“amma jerusalem school + for this is” Matana Roberts


51TuL6n5wKL._AA160_“WINTER MORNING WALKS”  MARIA SCHNEIDER & DAWN UPSHAW   —   “Winter Morning Walks” is the first partnership between composer, pianist and orchestra leader Maria Schneider and opera diva Dawn Upshaw, uniting two of the most preeminent figures in jazz and classical music. With this release, Schneider has become one of the first artists to record major orchestras with crowd sourcing methods. The first work, ‘Winter Morning Walks,’ features the Australian Chamber Orchestra, consists of nine pieces and includes poetry by Ted Kooser, taken from his book of the same name. Three musicians long associated with Schneider’s jazz orchestra, Jay Anderson, Frank Kimbrough, and Scott Robinson, seamlessly weave improvisation throughout the pieces. The second, ‘Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories,’ features The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and consists of five songs with poetry by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, one of Brazil’s most beloved poets.

31mQWe1dwAL._AA160_ “SUNBATHER”  DEAFHEAVEN   —  “Sunbather” is the second album from the San Francisco post-metal band who combine elements of black metal, shoegaze and post-rock. It’s an emotionally overwhelming but truly absorbing listen. But best of all, it’s cleansing. By the end, you feel drained but also at ease, a calmness bestowed upon you, no small feat for music that is absolutely massive, an all-encompassing experience, and one that’s both frighteningly intense and indescribably beautiful simultaneously.

“sunbather” Deafheaven




“WED 21”  JUANA MOLINA   —   Argentinean singer-songwriter Juana Molina has set her own course for over fifteen years, steadily reinventing herself in an almost imperceptible manner. She’s a true individual who’s never been swayed by prevailing musical trends, converting her minimal psych-folk suites into intoxicating unpredictable soundscapes. “Wed 21” marks her return after a five year absence, the longest she’s been idle after a ceaseless stream of records that explore the meeting point of acoustic and electronic instrumentation. Molina possesses a fastidious attention to detail, interpolating all her rhythmic tangles until they create some kind of abstract drawing.

“eras” Juana Molina


“JEESUZ”  KANYE WEST   —   “Jeesuz” is the release I’ll say the least about. With West, you either love him or hate him—no middle ground. His latest release finds a purpose in the repulsion it has widely generated. Similar to 2008’s “808s and Heartbreaks,” he trades out smooth soul and anthemic choruses for jarring electro, acid house, and industrial grind while delivering some of his most lewd and heart-crushing tales yet. It may be in some ways, his magnum opus.

“blood on the leaves” Kanye West

Mark R. Bacon Portfolio

iPhonetography: Big Sur, CA & Wolf Creek, KY


Best Recordings of 2011

1. Live In Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1 — Miles Davis Quintet
Miles Davis always wielded his genius as precisely as a diamond cutter uses his tools. In this latest set from Miles’ archives, there are three brilliant CDs of previously unreleased or previously only bootlegged material, and a gem of a DVD. The beauty is that, unlike many box sets where an overwhelming all-encompassing attitude prevails with the content selection process, Live in Europe is a specifically defined moment-in-Miles Davis-time, with similar set lists from recording to recording. Presented here is Davis’ “second great Quintet,” featuring Herbie Hancock (piano), Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Ron Carter (bass) and a young Tony Williams (drums), on George Wein’s Newport Jazz Festival in Europe tour. There are no breaks between songs. In 1967 Davis instituted the format of playing sets as a continuous jam. It is very much like a filmmaker utilizing one continuous shot. The effect is progressive and often dream-like. And dazzling virtuosity throughout. It is simply breathtaking, start to finish.

2. Smile — The Beach Boys
The Beach Boys’ Smile is the album that haunted Brian Wilson for four decades. The unfinished Beach Boys work devastated Wilson even though it later confirmed his legend as a musical visionary. He abandoned it in 1967 amid doubts from his record company and even his own bandmates about its orchestrated whimsy. Smile follows the template of Wilson’s 2004 re-recording to sequence 19 songs and snippets from the 1966-67 sessions into as close to a definitive Smile as we’re likely to ever get. With lyricist Van Dyke Parks, Wilson turned this record into a compact history of America – or at least the idea of what America once represented in its naïve optimism. It traces a journey to that begins at Plymouth Rock and makes its way west to the Promised Land, a montage of historical references and mystical reveries (the eternal “Surf’s Up”). The music embraces the epic and the fanciful, evoking a prairie church service in one sequence (“Cabin Essence”), while providing a soundtrack for an acid trip in another (“Vega-Tables”). A must for Brian Wilson fans.

3. Fugazi Live Series — Fugazi
From “Between 1987 and 2003, Fugazi played over 1000 concerts in all 50 states and all over the world. Over 800 of these shows were recorded by the band’s sound engineers. This project makes each of these recordings available to download for a small fee. The project starts with 130 shows and will release more monthly until they’re done.” There never was, or will ever be anything like a Fugazi live show. They were simply one of the most powerful and dynamic live bands ever, both sonically and visually. I know lots of people who never got to see them live. Here’s the chance to remedy that. The quality ranges from cassette sources to board recordings. A chance to hear one of the greatest bands of all time the way they should be sampled. Live. Flex Your Head…

4. Captain Black Big Band — Captain Black Big Band
The Captain Black Big Band is a group of largely Philly musicians displaying a range of skill, experience, and sound to create what is one of the most progressive sounds of late—progressive not because of a particular moment of conspicuous ingenuity or some avant approach, unless you consider the audacity to embrace big band music today novel enough to come off as that. The Captain Black Big Band succeeds at pushing the limitations of the very distinct tradition of sound from which it is born, because it preserves the elements of classic big band music in a brand new way. Instead of ignoring everything except the mold, leader and pianist Orrin Evans opts to break it and meld that nostalgic style of playing with the sensibilities of Big Band era rebels who usually struck out at tender ages to form the more memorable trios, quartets, and other small experimental groups. Simply put, this will blow you away.

5. Red Hot + Rio 2 — Various
For the last 20 years, the “Red Hot” organization has curated impeccably cast, all-star compilation albums mining every genre from freak folk to jazz to alternative-rock to Afro-pop to American standards – all to raise money in the fight against AIDS. But there’s one musical nexus they keep returning to: Brazil. It’s no surprise Brazil has become Red Hot’s default mode. Not only is it tempting to promote safe sex with the sexiest music on the planet, it’s hard to resist the chance to re-expose the movement the music references: Tropicalia (Brazil’s late ’60s/early ’70s equivalent of classic rock). The set can be faulted for over-representing Veloso and Gil at the expense of other Brazilian standard-bearers like Chico Buarque and Jorge Ben, however. The quality of the songs and recordings is extremely high. Beirut’s “O Leãozinho” is a rhythmic stunner. Alice Smith and Aloe Blacc’s “Baby” is a sweet and gentle jaunt. Jorge’s assist on Beck’s “Tropicália” gives the song an added groove. This record is easy to like. And it’s even easier to dance along to.

6. Ninety Miles — Christian Scott, David Sanchez & Stefon Harris
Ninety Miles is a collaboration among rising young trumpeter and native New Orleanian Christian Scott, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, and tenor saxophonist David Sanchez. The trio had not played together before traveling to Cuba in May 2010 to perform and record with Cuban musicians. It was a challenging session, but as Ninety Miles shows, a rewarding one. The songs have consistent energy, and the American and Cuban musicians gelled and sound like a group that had been playing together for years. As both a musical and geographic setting, Ninety Miles is a fine album from these three musicians.

7. Spacer — Jason Adaciewicz’s Sun Rooms
One of the most amazing players to ever pick up the vibes – an artist with the sort of boundless creativity that Bobby Hutcherson brought to the instrument in the 60s, Jason Adasiewicz has an amazing ear for both sound and music – and manages to balance the two perfectly. He reaches for a completely fresh sounds from the vibes, yet also with a sense of structure that’s never too free – really maintaining a musical, melodic approach that keeps the listener rapt all the way through. Jason’s music has always been great, but this recent set is even a cut above – proof that the new Chicago scene is a powerful force in 21st Century jazz.

8. Kaputt — Destroyer

Destroyer continue to map out unexpected territories with referential landmarks, with magnificent results. In a teaser paragraph that accompanied this releases’ information, Daniel Bejar cryptically described the album as, “80’s Miles Davis…90’s Gil Evans…fretless bass,” exploring the “hopelessness of the future of music” and the, “pointlessness of writing songs for today.” Perhaps this is why he’s made an album that is so clearly steeped in traditions of modern music; music with smooth jazz, soft-rock disco, and 80’s new wave overtones dominate throughout. Traditions that the group has internalized, morselized, and grafted into an album that goes down smooth before tearing at your insides. It isn’t clever, it’s superb. Those genre tags listed above didn’t turn out to be volatile for Bejar and company. In fact it might be the first fully realized album, in all respects, of Destroyer’s history. This is a triumphantly singular album that explores a space that only this band could have made.

9. The Coimbra Concert — Mostly Other People Do The Killing
Noted post-bop quartet Mostly Other People Do The Killing (to be referred to by their initials for the rest of this) have used their own CD covers to pay tribute to classic jazz releases for several years now. Shamokin!, released in 2007, bore a cover inspired by Art Blakey‘s A Night in Tunisia; 2008′s This is Our Moosic took both title and cover image from Ornette Coleman; and 2010′s Forty Fort nodded to Roy Haynes‘ Out of the Afternoon. This, their latest release, is easily the most audacious cover-cover yet, poking fun at Keith Jarrett‘s The Köln Concert, offering both front and gatefold photos of the four bandmembers (none of whom is a pianist) hunched grimacing over the keyboard. This two-CD set was recorded at a pair of shows the group performed at the 2010 Jazz ao Centro festival in Portugal. Describing MOPDTK’s music is difficult; simply playing it for someone, and watching a broad grin split their face, would be much easier. The quartet (trumpeter Peter Evans, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, bassist/composer Moppa Elliott, drummer Kevin Shea) combine hard bop’s melodic heads, the conversational, polyphonic interplay that characterizes the work of both Louis Armstrong and Albert Ayler, and an infectious spirit of fun, creating a music that swings ridiculously hard, displays wild technical skill without ever going so far out that a relative jazz neophyte couldn’t follow along, and is a joy to hear. Do yourself a favor, explore this release and this band.

10. James Farm — Joshua Redman, Matt Penman, Aaron Parks & Eric Harland
James Farm is a collective recording from four potent young jazz players that attempts—and utterly succeeds—at making instrumental jazz that is catchy and fun to hear while still offering serious pleasures in the originality of its compositions and the verve of its improvisations. The band consists of saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt Penman, and drummer Eric Harland. James Farm places Redman’s expressive tenor saxophone into this trio’s shimmering, exciting world. Using compositions from all four members of the group, James Farm sounds like a leap in the right direction. Each song establishes a scrambling, skittering rhythm that pushes and pulls in an exciting way. Harland almost never plays a “swing” beat, but he infuses the backbeats a with a loose-limbed elasticity that is, nevertheless, pure jazz. Penman plays with economy and melody, and Parks continues his ascent: sounding just a little like Keith Jarrett at times, but more often playing with a jittery freedom that is all his own. While the record is not a flatly innovative recording, it is just the kind of thing that modern instrumental jazz needs these days. Continuing an arc of superb discs by relatively young players who are finding ways for jazz to rise above the merely accomplished to become something that is emotional and compelling for aficionados AND listeners who might not listen to jazz as a habit.

honorable mention–
Alma Adentro — Miguel Zenon
COIN COIN Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres — Matana Roberts
Gladwell — Julian Lege
Diminuto — Carlinhos Brown
Watch The Throne — Jay-Z & Kanye West

David Greely Retires From Mamou Playboys

Some sad news regarding Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys, from the band’s website:

We would like to announce, with enough solemnity, but not too much, that David Greely will be retiring from the Mamou Playboys, with his final performance with the band on Mardi Gras Day.  David cofounded the Mamou Playboys with Steve in 1988, and has spent a fantastic 23 years with the best band he has ever known, but his audiologist has informed him that he must avoid dance hall sound levels.  In February and March David will go on his final tours with the band, to the Midwest and Northeast, along with a handful of South Louisiana dates.

David will continue recording, teaching and performing Cajun music, solo and in small acoustic groups, at home, across the country, and worldwide.  He continues to be the best of friends with Steve, Sam, Kevin, Brazos, and Scott, and he would like to thank the Mamou Playboys’ fans for their support and goodwill over the decades.

David is a world class human being and one of the finest musicians, Cajun or otherwise, in the land. He will be missed. (Wonder if C.C. Adcock would consider joining up with the band?)

Trend or Coincidence in 2011 New Music?

Two new releases in the last two months have piqued my interest a great deal. Notably, they’re in the “Rock” realm. (Can we please get a new term, and NOT Indie?) “The King Of Limbs” by Radiohead and “Kaputt” by Destroyer have been my personal soundtrack, non-stop, since the latter’s release last month. They are the first two non-Jazz projects I’ve popped in a CD player, and listened to all the way through, non-stop, 2-3 times in a row.

It’s perhaps an indication of something I sense as a trend, or maybe it’s just coincidence. But either way, it’s a totally welcome occurance. I think “trend,” as both releases are offerings of some above average intelligent artists, who are copied at times, and certainly admired by folks I admire. People look to these bands for hints of what they should be doing down the road, especially Radiohead. (Would there even be a Coldplay without Radiohead? I doubt it; and I still like Thom Yorke & Co., even if they helped spawn, albeit indirectly, one of the most annoying and pretentious bands of all time.)

Exactly what caught my attention? I was hoping you’d ask…

As mentioned above, they are both recordings that practically demand the listener’s full attention, start to finish. That’s against the grain in this age of the singles download. And the reason you listen all the way through is not because they’re a single narrative. In other words, not necessarily “concept records,” but a well-thought out whole. Radiohead and Destroyer both have delightfully embraced this to my ears. I advise listening to these several times through in the car.

Something else strikes me as nice, beyond nice, in these two jewels. The pay-off never arrives. No sweeping finales or “arena moments,” even though they are hinted at, and would fit. Daniel Behar (Destroyer) or Johnny Greenwood (Radiohead) do not rip cascading arpeggios from their guitars. There are places where they might, I suppose. Instead, that moment arrives, and the artists simply withdraw, ending pieces prematurely. I like it; the sound of pseudo-surprise.

There are more similarities; both are well produced, especially “Kaputt.” Makes sense, it’s a lush, gorgeous pop gem with a jazzy sway (near smooth jazz, but skirted brilliantly,) and really brilliant instrumentation that evokes a kind of paradise feel; trouble in paradise is never far off, however. Distant horns, slinky bass, and cavernous drums create a feeling of an endless horizon, the kind you walk towards until you can’t walk another step. Bejar’s vocals on the record remind me of a demented Jewish cantor. He’s straining against the lyrics at times, and always projects a world weary Playboy. Take that, “world’s most interesting man!” Never did like XX cerveza.

On “King Of Limbs,” Radiohead is in the details. For years, they have been “championed as the most innovative band on the planet, turning rock-and-roll’s bombast inside out, building songs with incalculable layers, nooks and crannies.” (Chris Thomas, The Washington Post. Nice dude!!) One doesn’t listen to Radiohead records so much as scour them. Matter of fact, one would do well to discard one’s initial impression of the latest and start over.  The new release is elegant, richly textured and quietly pleasing. It’s a finely sculpted effort, with skittish rhythms and more akin to Amnesiac or Kid A than recent output.

Both “Kaputt” and “The King Of Limbs” display such confidence and grace, they’re hard to leave after just one listen. They’re too rich and luscious. Both albums are worth exploring and re-exploring. If this is a trend in the new year, it’s welcome.

Jazz Journeys Honors the Memory and Work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Jazz Journeys Respectfully Dedicates a Portion of Today’s Program to the Memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I Say A Little Prayer — Rahsaan Roland Kirk


RFK In The Land Of Apartheid — Jason Moran


Fables Of Faubus — Charles Mingus


Birmingham — Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra

Alabama — John Coltrane

Strange Fruit — Billie Holiday


This Is My Country — William Parker

The Blessing Song — Michael White


Song Of The Underground Railroad — John Coltrane


Vibes From The Tribe — Phil Ranelin & Tribe

K.K.P.D. — Christian Scott


Trouble On The Bus — Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra

Freedom Jazz Dance — Miles Davis


Mandela — Abdullah Ibrahim & WDR Big Band

Kiama For Obama — David Murray & The Gwa Ko Masters

Philanthropic Landscapes — Logan Richardson


Elegy — Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Tony Williams & Wallace Roney


We Shall Overcome — Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra


Went Down To St. James Infirmary — Cassandra Wilson

Loose Wig — Randy Weston & His African Rhythms Sextet


The Clutch — Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth

Dewey Square — Joe Lovano & Us Five


Clouds — Steve Coleman & Five Elements

South By West — Matana Roberts

Haiti: One Year Later

As many of you know, a year ago today, January 12, 2010, a devastating earthquake rocked the capitol of Haiti, Port-au-Prince. The island nation was totally unprepared for such calamity, and so poor, that the resources simply did not—and do not—exist for them to adequately cope with the aftermath. The situation there today is still grim. Not much has changed for the better. For the worse? Yes. Cholera, a disease that is pretty treatable, is widespread. For all the world, it seems like every nation has more or less turned their collective backs on the continuing problems there. A true 21st Century tragedy.

This blog began as a direct result of a trip I made to Haiti in May, 2010. I traveled, as you can read in the initial posts here, to Croix-de-Bouquet, Haiti, with the good people at St. Johns Lutheran Church in Alexandria, VA, to try and make a small difference in the lives of students there, and elsewhere. It taught me a lot. Especially about the meaning of the word “profound.” It WAS a profoundly moving experience. My friend Jason thought it would be a good idea to write about the experiences there, and set The Blender up.

Today, I wanted to remind people that things are still very bad there, and they need our help. There are many ways to do that. Traveling there with a group and/or organization doing work there is one way. It will change your life, I promise. Another is to consider donating to Partners In Health, who do very good work there, and elsewhere. They are a stellar organization. Another is Green Microfinance, in Phoenixville, PA. They help with needed, sustainable solutions for the Haitian people.

And pray. Please.

Jazz Journeys for 2 January 2011

I’m going to begin posting the set lists for my radio program, Jazz Journeys, each Saturday on The Blender.
The show airs 13:00 to 16:00 ET, Sundays, at 91.9 on the FM band, or online at

Please join Jazz Journeys as we pay tribute to three Jazz Giants who passed away in 2010:
Lena Horne, James Moody & Dr. Billy Taylor.
Plus, we check out “Deluxe,” a marvelous 2010 release from Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth.

Girl Talk — Carlos Franzetti & The City of Prague Orchestra


What’s New? — The Ahmad Jamal Trio


Jazz Me Blues — Lester Young with Glenn Hardman & His Hammond 5

Chocolate Shake — Duke Ellington

Love You Madly — Duke Ellington, Joe Pass, Ray Brown & Louie Bellson


Big Stuff — Billie Holiday

I Put A Spell On You — Nina Simone


Stormy Weather — Lena Horne

I Wish I’d Met You — Lena Horne & Sammy Davis, Jr.

I’ll Always Leave The Door A Little Open — Lena Horne


The Plain But The Simple Truth — James Moody & Mark Turner

Anthropology — James Moody


Polkadots & Moonbeams — James Moody


C-A-G — The Billy Taylor Trio

‘Round Midnight — Dr. Billy Taylor & Gerry Mulligan


Ahmad’s Blues — The Ahmad Jamal Trio with Strings

You Go To My Head — The Ahmad Jamal Trio


Deluxe Version — Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth

One Step, Two Step — Tal Farlow


The New Song And Dance — The Clayton Brothers


Time Tick Tock — Maurice Brown

Ting — Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth


Satin Lady — Andrew Hill

Poinsettia — Andrew Hill


Speak Low — Hank Mobley

Blues In The Night — Tal Farlow

Funk In Deep Freeze — Chet Baker