Next in this series of posts of my 2017 cultural highlights is music. This was the year in which sanity eventually overcame parsimony – I gave up on the mind-numbing adverts obligatory with a free Spotify account, and started paying for the service. It has been a marvellous year of discovery. What Spotify does, at least for me, is to nullify history. All music becomes contemporary. So everything is now, making all of the tracks below from 2017, even if strictly speaking only some were first heard by anyone in the past year. Anyway, here’s how the best of the year sounded to me.
Binker and Moses, ‘Intoxication from the Jahvmonishi Leaves’
Binker Golding and Moses Boyd are a jazz saxophone and drums duo of great invention and tremendous cool. This is from their 2017 album Journey to the Mountain of Forever (they tend to go for portentous titles). You can nod your head to it, or dance to it. Or both.
Bob Dylan, ‘Making a Liar out of Me’
Bob didn’t produce any new compositions this year (alas), instead giving us a triple album of soporific standards (Triplicate) and the latest in his ‘Bootlegs’ series, Trouble No More. This is mostly live performances from his early 80s born again Christian period, which to me sound rather weaker than the concerts did at the time. And then he completely surprises you with this track, which was never performed live or released, being only a rehearsal recording. It is utterly mesmeric. Once again Dylan’s cast offs defeat the best efforts of others, and not infrequently his own.
As Dinosaur were among the nominees for this year’s Mercury music prize (albeit as the token jazz offering, doomed to instant rejection) I feel that maybe I was a little in touch with what is happening now after all. They are a British quartet led by the fine trumpeter Laura Jurd, and this number demonstrates their inventive approach with its palpable enthusiasm.
Rudresh Mahanthappa, ‘Chillin”
Rudresh Mahanthappa is an American jazz saxophonist of Indian parentage. He’s been around for some time, and I’ve greatly enjoyed catching up on his collected works (he’s been a busy man). This Charlie Parker-inspired piece is just so refreshing and light on its feet.
The Waco Brothers, ‘Baba O’Riley’
I’m a sucker for any off-the-wall cover version, and this guitar-twanging version of The Who’s deathless number by alt-country American band Waco Brothers is a hoot. I was particularly pleased to learn, when discovering the Waco Brothers for the first time, that they were formed by Jon Langford of The Mekons, the engagingly quirky British new wave band of forty years ago.
Mary Halvorson, ‘Cheshire Hotel’
Quite a lot of my listening time has been devoted to guitarists, usually of the left-field variety, to which I have long been partial. I don’t know how I’d not come across American avant-gardist Mary Halvorson before now, but she is among the best in the field, with a clean, spare, personal style, exemplified by this wistful piece.
As I wrote sometime early in the year, I’d been reading about Odetta, doyen of 50s/60s American folk music, for years and yet had never actually heard her. What an omission to have made. She is thunderously good, never more so that in this funky 1964 recording with its delicious guitar accompaniment.
Bob Hadley, ‘Blackberry Picking’
There are hundreds of highly proficient acoustic guitar pickers out there on Spotify, who tend to merge into one after a while, for all their great skill. One who stands out is Canadian Bob Hadley. He made three albums in the 1970s of superlative artistry, before hanging up the guitarist and becoming a professor of computing science. Surely we have many computer scientists but only a few people who can play guitar with such clarity and freshness as here.
Genevieve Waite, ‘Love is Coming Back’
Back in the late 1970s Paul Gambaccini produced a book culled from music critics’ personal top tens, Rock Critics’ Choice: The Top 200 Albums. It made quite an impact because possibly no one had produced such a list before (now anyone and everyone produces them on a daily basis). One surprise choice featuring quite high up the list was Geneviève Waïte’s 1974 album Romance is on the Rise. Thirty-eight years later I finally got to hear it. The twee voice won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it has that extra something of which minor classics are made.
Silent Velcro, ‘Darknessville’
This is a Norwegian band of satisfying obscurity. They lurk somewhere along the hinterland between rock and jazz, sounding not unlike their compatriots Jaga Jazzist, but with none of the latter’s recognition. I like the modest portentousness of this piece.
The Art Ensemble of Chicago, ‘Barnyard Scuffle Shuffle’
I saw the Art Ensemble of Chicago (or what survives of them) this year, an overwhelming experience. Those who would run a mile from avant garde jazz (or jazz of any kind) might want to think again if they listen to this fun number from their classic 1973 album Fanfare for the Warriors, which shows they could do toe-tapping boogie if they wanted to (with a bit of deconstruction along the way, just so you don’t get too comfortable).
John Surman and Jack deJohnette, ‘Mysterium’
I wrote a post welcoming the appearance on Spotify of Carla Bley’s Escalator Over the Hill, thanks to the ECM music library finally appearing on Spotify (and other online platforms). Here’s another ECM gem, a long-time favourite of mine, with its echo-ey saxophone and padding bassline that is actually the drums. Music for listening to late on a moonlit night.
Neil Cowley Trio, ‘Revolution # 9′
I don’t know anything about the Neil Cowley Trio, but anyone who can take on a cover version of The Beatles’ ‘Revolution # 9’ and win is smart.
Pan Daijing, ‘Act of the Empress’
There is so much experimental twaddle out there. It’s just too easy to let the software ramble where it will. Chinese-born, Berlin-based experimentalist Pan Daijing has the discipline and invention to stand out from that crowd. Her 2017 album Lack is an extraordinary adventure for the ears and the imagination.
Chris Forsyth, ‘String Haters’
As said, I’m a sucker for guitar music, the more confrontational the better. There’s something about having just a person with an electric guitar and no rule book, sweetness battling with the need for chaos, that has something profound about it. Chris Forsyth’s recent music, with a band behind him, lapses into jams that suggests someone who wants Television’s ‘Marquee Moon’ never to stop. His earlier solo work is far better, none more so than this tsunami of tuneful noise. It starts quietly enough, but ends gloriously.
Markus Stockhausen, ‘Far into the Stars’
The trumpeter-composer son of Karlheinz Stockhausen sits comfortably in his own space between jazz and classical music. This mysterious, exploratory piece is the title track from his most recent (2017) album.
Kante Manfila, ‘Doumany’
Of all the music I heard in 2017, this one track is one that I expect to be taking to the desert island. Kante Manfila was a Mali multi-instrumentalist, known for his collaborations with Salif Keïta. He played in many styles. This haunting piece from 1988 – with singing guitars, balafon (an African xylophone), and delicate call-and-response with the backing singers – stands out for me. It has such feeling and grace. World music for anyone in the world.