Saturday, June 17, 2017

21st Century Jazz Fusion

The 21st century has seen what is, in my opinion, a slow and modest advance in new artists and new musics. The problem in jazz and jazz fusion is in creating new and innovative sounds and structures. So many masters of jazz from the past 75 years have explored so many nuances, so many technologies, and so many boundary-pushing structures that it is truly a daunting task to try to go boldly where no man (or woman) has gone before. Some of the best albums that I have heard in the past fifteen years that would fit into the Jazz-Rock, Jazz Rock Fusion or other Fusion subgenres have built upon that which has already been done, have merely pushed the envelope ever so slightly. The Avant-Jazz artists continue to produce surprises, but most of the sound . . . somewhat familiar. There are artists who are making wonderful, engaging, remarkable music, and there are many more making boring, redactive or redundant music. I hope that the artists and albums I have decided to list fall at least in the former category and perhaps even surprise or impress you with their ideas or instrumental acumen.
     The sub-genre where jazz seems to be being explored and experimented with the most is that of Avant/RIO--which I have yet to write about. Both Cuneiform and AltrOck/Fading Records record labels are leaders in both the discovery and promotion of new artists that are experimenting with the progressive rock side of jazz and classical musics.
      Still, the 21st Century has seen the appearance of several top notch jazz fusion records.

If you love CHICK COREA then you will adore the music of Japanese keyboard virtuoso, Hiromi Uehara. I happen to prefer her quartet work with innovative guitar virtuoso Dave "Fuze" Fiuczynski to her more traditional acoustic albums in the trio format with Jazz Fusion legends Anthony JACKSON and Simon PHILLIPS--especially the 2004 release, Time Control, under the band name of HIROMI's SONICBLOOM

Folk-based Finnish band UZVA released a masterpiece in 2006 called Uoma after two previous meandering eclectic albums and then proceeded to disappear. What a disappointment! What a great album is Uoma!

Another artist hailing from Finland comes from the wacky, genius mind of MARKUS PAJAKKALA. Calling his four releases of eclectic high energy jazz UTOPIANISTI, Markus has collaborated with a long list of musicians. The 2016 release, The Third Frontier, is a veritable masterpiece start to finish, but you're feeling adventurous, check out 2017's Brutopianisti.

If you love BRUFORD-era Allan HOLDSWORTH, Jeff BERLIN, and, to a lesser extent, Bill Bruford and Dave Stewart, then you will love and appreciate both bassist ANTOINE FAFARD's Ad Perpetuum--one of my Top 10 Albums from 2014--and Russian quartet JAM IT! with their masterful 2015 release, Following the Unknown. The former album is one of the two best Jazz/Rock Fusion albums of the 21st Century--due in part to the perfect balance of virtuosic performances by Antoine on basses, guitarist JERRY DE VILLIERS, JR., saxophonist JEAN-PIERRE ZANELLA, keyboardist GERRY ETKINS, and drummer extraordinaire, VINNY COLAIUTA, and partly due to perhaps the greatest whole-studio album drum performance that these ears & brain have ever been exposed to from Maestro Colaiuta. FAFARD'S 2016 release, Sphére--a work of collaboration with drummer/pianist GARY HUSBAND--is also well worth your attention.
     A late 2017 release called Proto Mundi yielded one new album of three jazz fusion epics involving prog legend Simon Phillips on drums, Gary Huband on keyboards, and Antoine performing both bass and lead guitar duties. A second disc accompanied the release with mostly remakes or remasters of previously recorded and released songs from Antoine's previous albums. A collection of very high quality and energy, Simon Phillips is an amazing force, even at this advanced age, and Antoine is quite an accomplished guitarist!

If you love the Smooth Jazz music that was created and made popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s, then you will love the songs and instrumental performances from Russian keyboard-composer Svetlana Marinchenko's band SVETAMUZIKA on their 2015 release, Perfect Simple. All performances are extraordinary but none moreso than those of the young band leader and her virtuoso bass player, ANTON DAVIDYANTS.

From the Zeuhl side of things comes France's seasoned quartet of ONE SHOT and their two highly rated albums, Ewaz Vader (2006) and Dark Shot (2008).

If Canterbury-styled jazz excursions are your thing then Robert WYATT devotee Patrick Forgas' FORGAS BAND PHENOMENON could be your cup of tea.

If you loved the work of 1970s supergroups UK and Jean-Luc Ponty, then you will probably love the violin-led Jazz Rock of Japan's KBB. 2000's debut, Lost and Found is absolutely jaw-dropping for its compositional strength, great melodic sense, mind-blowing instrumental performances (and not just those by leader Akahisa TSUBOY on his violin or electric guitar), and 2003's Four Corner's Sky2007's Proof of Concept are as good if you want more of what they debuted in 2000 (though each contains progressively less of Tsuboy's guitar play), and 2013's Age of Pain is good though not as fresh or surprising as the earlier work--and maybe more traditional folk oriented (and not necessarily Japanese).

Guitarist and award winning jazz composer, Rob Luft, put together an album called Pond Life with some friends under the name of BIG BAD WOLF in 2017. A wonderful collection of beautiful songs with a very subtle sophistication (including trombone as a lead instrument!), this album fared well enough in the Fishscales and Year-End polls to earn it Top 20 status in the "Best of" poll and a #9 ranking in my list of "Favorites."

Mulit-instrumentalist solo artist DEAN WATSON has releases three albums of exceptionally high quality compositions (and the production side of Dean's work has improved steadily since his first burst onto the prog scene). Check out his 2010 release, Unsettled, 2012's Imposing Elements, 2014's Fantasizer! or his new album, 2017's Sum of Parts for some technically sophisticated guitar and keyboard-based jazz-rock fusion.

For some organ-based jazz try Ståle STORLØKKEN's ELEPHANT9--in either the original trio format with 2008's Dodovoodoo or 2010's Walk the Nile or try the two Reine FISKE collaborations, Atlantis from 2012 and Silver Mountain from 2015.

The relatively obscure French quartet, SYRINX, is new to me but quite impressive. All instrumentalists are rock solid if not virtuosic--especially the MAURIN brothers (NIL, THIRK) acoustic guitarist-bass combo, David and Samuel, and drummer Philippe MAULETT. While their 2003 debut, Reification, is great, the 2008 follow-up, Qualia, is extraordinary.

JAGA JAZZIST has been leading and refining the NuJazz movement from far up in Norway since its first release in 1996. A ten- to twelve-piece combo, their upbeat, melodic jazz blends trip hop and jazz and Stereolab-like Post Rock exceptionally well. Check out 2010's One-Armed Bandit or 2015 Starfire or even 2001's A Livingroom Hush for some truly awesome, groovin' music.

FARMERS MARKET is a band of musicians who met in Trondheim Norway. They began as free jazz explorers before becoming fascinated with Bulgarian and Balkan folk music traditions, sounds, and instruments. There has been an evolution in their music since their first concerts and studio albums in the late 1990s with 2008's Surfin' USSR and 2012's Slav to The Rhythm being their most widely acclaimed. Instrumental music, their song titles are almost worthy of checking out in and of themselves.

If you like your jazz coming at you with the virtuosity and speed and dynamics of a metal or djent band, then Germany's PANZERBALLETT will probably please you quite a bit. Creators of five albums over the past twelve years, I recognize and appreciate the musicianship and compositional skill evidenced here, it's just not my cup of tea.

EARTHWORKS was Bill Bruford's main interest and project since leaving King Crimson in 1986, the band went through many changes in personnel and stylistic approaches throughout out its twenty years of performing. Five studio albums (a challenging accomplishment for Bill) and four live albums are all that the band produced but they are all excellent and worth investigating. while the earlier efforts revolved around the exploration of the MIDI and new computer technologies available in the 1980s and 90s, the later albums found Bill and company settling for more of an acoustic approach to their Jazz Fusion. One thing that remained distinctive throughout Bill's career was his fascination with and dedication to odd time signatures and polyrhythmic soundscapes. I love it all--the Simmons drum era stuff and the piano & sax era stuff.

Italian jazz wizards, ACCORDO DEI CONTRARI have been releasing high quality albums of complex jazz fusion since 2007 with each of the four albums coming out as an improvement on the former, though I find myself still favoring 2014's self-titled third album as my favorite. 2017's Violato Intatto finds the band's sounds and stylings harkening back to some of the stronger RPI bands of the early 1970s.

HELMET OF GNATS is an American band of Berklee grads who've sadly only released three albums over the past twenty years. Their style is most often compared to Return to Forever and Dixie Dregs.

Former Frank Zappa cover band FROGG CAFÉ knows their way around the avant/RIO scene though their own eclectic compositions are often far more melodic than those of their mentor/model. Though all of their five album releases between the years 2001 and 2011 stand well on their own, I've found myself going back to their 2002 self-titled debut, 2003's Creatures and 2010's Bateless Edge the most.

UNAKA PRONG Including this band on this list is stretching it a bit for their jazz is simpler and rooted deeply in blues and rock and even a little of the hip-hop traditions, but it is quite jazzy all the same. Check out either of their two wonderful releases, their 2015 debut, Margot, and 2017's Adult Contemporary for some gorgeous and fun music. Their 2018 release, Salinity Now! immediately impressed itself into my psyche and currently occupies the #2 spot on my list of Favorite Albums of the 21st Century. It has, to me, a Steely Dan feel and sound to it with some highly personal and emotional performances over some incredibly tight and sophisticated compositions.

Then there are some old-timers who are still putting out highly regarded albums, including PAT METHENY, AL DI MEOLA (2003's Flesh on Flesh), Terje RYPDAL, ambient/world music pioneer Jan GARBAREK (whose 2010 studio album, Officium Novum, performed with the accompaniment of the classical and folk vocal choir, The Hilliard Ensemble, is extraordinary, it is questionable when it comes to falling under the "jazz fusion" moniker. Try 2004's In Praise of Dreams with drummer Manu Katché and violist Kim Kakashkian for some great prog/jazz fusion), and the ever prolific JOHN ZORN.

1. ANTOINE FAFARD Ad Perpetuum (2014)

2. HIROMI'S SONICBLOOM Time Control (2007)

3. PAT METHENY GROUP The Way Up (2005)

4. KBB Lost and Found (2000)

5. UTOPIANISTI The Third Frontier (2016)

6. UZVA Ouma (2006)

7. FARMERS MARKET Surfin' USSR (2008)

JAN GARBAREK In Praise of Dreams (2004)

PAT METHENY GROUP Speaking of Now (2002)

JAGA JAZZIST Starfire (2015)

JAM IT! Following the Unknown (2015)

SYRINX Qualia (2008)

AL DI MEOLA Flesh on Flesh (2003) 

EARTHWORKS The Sound of Surprise (2001)

ANTOINE FAFARD Sphére (2016)

JAGA JAZZIST One-Armed Bandit (2010)

JOHN ZORN The Garden of Earthly Delights (2017)

BIG BAD WOLF Pond Life (2017)


WILDFLOWERS Season 2 (2020)

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Overlooked Albums from the 2010s that Should Be Heard!

Funin Unsound - the amazing Björk-like voice of Elizabeth Marit Svensboe with quirky yet masterful electro-percussion.

Brother Ape A Rare Moment of Insight - amazing energy, maturity, and subtle virtuosity on display throughout this wonderful album

iamthemorning- classical, folk, jazz, yet so prog! and Marjana Semkina and Gleb Kolyadin are perfect

Homunculus Res Limiti all'eguaglianza della Parte con il Tutto - perhaps the best Canterbury album, ever.

Faun Eden - Prog Pagan music? It must be heard to be believed.

Bent Knee Shiny Eyed Babies - One of the most devastatingly powerful albums ever assembled.

Cicada Light Shining Through The Sea - Neoclassical Post Rock from Taiwan. Gorgeous!

The Amazing Gentle Stream - a collection of some of the most psychedelic folk-tinged beautiful jam songs ever made

Five-Storey Ensemble Not This City - classically oriented avant prog from Belarus

Edison's Children The Final Breath Before November - containing one of the best prog epics EVER

Ga'an Ga'an - Zeuhl with melody—from America!

The Danish Girl Original Sountrack Music - Alexandre Desplat - the most beautiful soundtrack of the Teens

Violeta di Outono Espectro - the reincarnation of Khan?

Votum Harvest Moon - the most perfect blend of djenty metal and ambient music

Anathema Falling Deeper - the artistic and orchestrated remaking of old songs

Humana Prog Fiori, frutti, farfalle - one of the best prog epics of the decade

The Gabriel Construct Interior City - a complex, sophisticated spiritual journey

Axon-Neuron Metamorphosis - an amazing blend of orchestral, jazz and prog

Midlake Antiphon - gorgeous Prog Folk

Setna Guérison - when Zeuhl goes Canterbury?

L’Estate di San Martino Talsette di Marsantino - stunningly gorgeous instrumentals

Aalto Ikaro - world music and prog folk blend

Vaneta Antimemory - so difficult to categorize and yet so nostalgic

ZA! Lolosimo - Prog Hip hop?

Lagartija Particelle

Unaka Prong Margot - Prog Blues!

Tree Tops Ghosts Don’t Dance in Shoes - Amazing twin guitars and Donald Fagen voice, lyrics

sleepmakeswaves …and so we destroyed everything… one of the best Post Rock albums

Airbag The Greatest Show on Earth - the reincarnation of Pink Floyd

Methexis Suiciety

Kotebel Concerto for Piano and Electric Ensemble

This Clear Divide Stare at The Clouds

The Psychedelic Ensemble The Dream of The Magic Jongleur

Kant Freud Kafka No tengas miedo

Domina Catrina Lee Songs from the Breastbone Drum - a self-produced masterpiece in the Pat Metheny vein

Battlestations The Extent of Damage - amazing Post Rock that tells a story

Antoine Fafard Ad Perpetuumm - THE BEST Jazz Fusion album of the decade (I challenge you:  Find me one better) and one of the best drumming albums of all-time (Vinnie Coluaita).

North Sea Radio Orchestra I a Moon - quirky Prog Folk that must be heard

Swans The Seer - searing, gut-wrenching epics

Syd Arthur Sound Mirrors - such smooth, sophisticated song-writing á la a Canterbury Paul Weller

Vola Inmazes - the shape of things to come?

Monobody Monobody - another totally unexpected Post Rock masterpiece--with a jazz bent!

Alio Die & Lorenzo Montanà Holographic Codex - the best album from the dude who leads the way in 21st Century Prog Electronica

Battlestations Vixit

Weserbergland Sehr Kosmish Ganz Progisch