Best Jazz of 2016

First, my contrarian uncool confession: I don’t love lists. I just don’t think music is a competition. Nor is writing about it, for me, a ratings game. (I prefer telling stories and reviewing each recording in its own context.) Still, I see the point, know the drill and have my choices, which honor worthy recordings and form a guide to satisfying listening. And this time of year is about giving: What readers want is lists, so critics need give accordingly.
Truth is, I’ve found that the making of these lists—the consciousness, conversations, even arguments they generate in the context of the many other lists made by critics, bloggers and even musicians—does in fact add up to meaningful context. That point was best driven home or me by actual public conversation at a “Year in Jazz” panel hosted by my colleague Nate Chinen and presented by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem a few years ago.
Most of colleagues love lists—especially year-end ones. Few have gone about compiling lists with the rigor and passion of Francis Davis, who, a decade ago, corralled 30 writers to create a list of the finest jazz albums of 2006 for the Village Voice. Now, Davis’s poll lives on as the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll, and he has more than quadrupled his forces — 137 voters.
Im honored each year to answer Davis’s call.
You can find this year’s results here. Continue reading “Best Jazz of 2016”

Back to Cuba, Through a Door I Hope Doesn't Slam Shut Again

Chucho Valdés (left) first played the Jazz Plaza Havana Festival in 1980, leading his legendary band, Irakere. He is the music director of this 32nd edition. Pianist Roberto Fonseca was just 15 at his Jazz Plaza Havana debut. He sis artistic director of the first edition of a sister event, Jazz Plaza Santiago.

Hard to believe I’m at JFK airport waiting to fly to Havana. Hard to believe I’m going back (haven’t been since 2010). Hard to believe I can fly direct, and for less than it costs to visit my folks in Jacksonville. Hard to believe that this sudden ease, and the renewal of cultural exchange that was missing during the Bush years may soon get shut down again by a brutal Fascist.

Fidel, of course, is gone. Trump will be president. Among the things these two men have in common: they rose to power surprisingly, and by making promises quickly abandoned; they mastered the dark arts of fearmongering and propaganda. Among the things they don’t share: One of them was exceedingly literate and recognized the meaning and value of culture.
Not sure I’ll bring back rum or cigars when I return from the 32nd annual Havana Jazz Plaza Festival, but I will come back to with stories to write. Stories about pianist Arturo O’Farrill, who travels back this time with the ashes of his father, composer/bandleader Chico O’Farrill, to repatriate to an abandoned homeland. About trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who makes his first trip to the island, with a band that includes pianist Fabian Almazan, who left Cuba at age 9 and hasn’t yet returned. About pianist Chucho Valdés, a towering presence among Cuban musicians and the longtime music director of this festival. And about other Cuban musicians, such as trumpeter Yasek Manzano, who we rarely get to hear in the U.S.
And about the long embrace between U.S. and Cuban musicians, and the issues of identity and politics that swirl around it.
Here’s some background—a piece I wrote for The Wall Street Journal (also pasted below), after Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced a path toward normalized relations.

Continue reading “Back to Cuba, Through a Door I Hope Doesn't Slam Shut Again”

David Virelles: A Finely Tuned Antenna

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My pick hit right now comes from pianist David Virelles, who I’ve been following closely and writing about for quite some time.
“Antenna” (ECM) is a 6-track, 22-minute EP released exclusively on vinyl and digital download. Drop what you’re doing and thinking and submit to this recording.
This dense swirl of sound from Virelles, who was born and raised in Santiago, Cuba and who has made Brooklyn, New York home, makes for riveting listening without any context at all. It would hard not to hear suggestions of ancient rhythms and rituals as well as urban modernism, of jazz and Afro-Cuban pedagogies as well as wild electro-acoustic dreams.
It’s all yet richer with some backstory, though… Continue reading “David Virelles: A Finely Tuned Antenna”

Never Wanted a Blog, Never Expected a Trump…

220px-liberation_music_orchestra-1I never wanted a blog. I resisted having a blog. The only thing I hated more than that invented word, blog, was its bastard form as a verb.

And then I found myself doing that, blogging.

When asked me to create a jazz blog in 2012 I said yes. I knew my stuff—about jazz and culture, about New York and New Orleans, about ideas beyond those categories and places—would get read by folks outside my usual music-world echo chamber, owing to Blouin Media’s broad international reach and visual-arts focus. Plus, the site looks terrific. The things that I couldn’t fit into The Wall Street Journal, of which there were many, spilled into “Blu Notes.”

Still, I really never wanted to blog.

And until the blog disappeared in late October—a problem since resolved by Artinfo’s tech gurus—I didn’t think I’d miss it.

For month or so, I felt like I’d evaporated from the digital sphere. The distressing “page not found” message made it seem as if I’d been ripped out of a binding or blown away by a stiff wind.

To a degree, I was not found: I felt lost.

I guess I did, and do, want to blog.

So now I’m back in business: Blu Notes rides again. Please saddle up with me once more… Continue reading “Never Wanted a Blog, Never Expected a Trump…”