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Best of 2023: Jazz albums

CHRIS SEARLE picks his favourites

FOR me, the record of the year is the re-release of a precious vinyl disc on CD of the Jazz Doctors, who toured the UK in in 1983-84, and recorded their first session as Intensive Care on John Jack’s Cadillac label in a Hoxton studio in November 1983.

Val Wilmer’s expressive sleeve photograph shows squatting tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe, drummer Dennis Charles with a cymbal under his arm, violinist Billy Bang and bassist Rafael Garrett fresh from the US, posing in an East End park. As they romp into Jackie McLean’s Little Melanae, they play with prescriptive fire in the heart of London.

The record includes an unreleased session of November 1984, with bassist Wilbur Morris and drummer Thurman Baker, with the Doctors still offering a full dose of groove. My favourite track is the 12 minutes of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman from the 1983 date, its haunting melody set on edge by Garret’s throbbing bass, Lowe’s moaning horn and Bang’s palpitating strings: marvellous!

 

 

In 2020 jazz lost the great Bristolian pianist Keith Tippett. The album Sound on Stone (Discus Records), was created by his vocalist wife Julie (formerly Julie Driscoll) in 2022, using extracts from recordings of Keith from his tour of Holland which sparked the making of his 1979 album The Unlonely Raindancer, and other unreleased waxings made in Bologna (1991) and the Welsh College of Music and Drama (1995-96). This final album of the Couple in Spirit duo is a brilliant amalgam of Keith's pianism and Julie’s effervescent voice, including a memorable version of Michel Legrand’s ballad, Windows of Your Mind.

Elaborately reinvented, beautifully harmonised, extraordinarily fused, this landmark album fully expresses one of jazz’s blessed unities. An outstanding track is the title song, Stone on Stone, and as Julie sings “Who stood enraptured?/ How many echoes call/Sharp on the breeze?” we know it is us, the listeners, spellbound by their sound.

 

 

Another powerful duo album is Fragile (Intakt Records), full of co-operative beauty by Stadtlon, Germany-born saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and the pianist from Hamilton, Ontario, Andy Milne.

Both musicians explore their sonic vulnerability on tracks like Fragment or Shard but the power of their inventiveness seems boundless, with Laubrock giving full scope to her soprano horn and Milne playing with a potent empathy and, as a student of a master, Oscar Peterson, with a deeply affective lyricism.

Although there are but two musicians at work, as a listener you feel that their sounds are coming from a much larger collective ensemble, giving them their strength and innovation, and making Fragile a profoundly memorable album.

 

 

The Arizonan pianist now living in New York City, Angelica Sanchez, a lover of big band music, moved to a secluded cabin while teaching upstate. She would walk in the woods at night and “realised that it was only my ears that were activated. I became fascinated by what I couldn’t see.”

Her album Nighttime Creatures (Pyroclastic Records) recreates those moments where “coyotes and other animals make noise in the dark.” It’s where living nature stews up into ensemble music and the human imagination joins with the animate external world, with Sanchez tunes plus Ellington’s Lady of the Lavender Mist and Carla Bley’s huge influence with CB the Time Traveller and Wrong Door for Rocket Fuel.

Alongside eight other virtuosi like saxophonists Michael Attias, Chris Speed and John Goldberg, Thomas Heberer’s trumpet and bassist John Hebert, Sanchez opens up the night and makes beautiful light out of darkness in a profoundly original and revelatory album.

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