This year my listening in jazz and international music leaned even further into modern jazz and Nordic noir. The album I listened to the most was actually from 2019: I was late in discovering Bedehus & Hawaii by Norwegian guitarist Trond Kallevåg, featuring the great steel guitar player Geir Sundstøl. I didn’t find Kallevåg’s 2021 release quite as compelling, but fortunately Sundstøl had a new album out this year, and it made my list.
Vijay Iyer’s Uneasy
Of this year’s music, to me Vijay Iyer’s trio record Uneasy was easily the most powerful. There are depths there I have yet to plumb. Every time I listen to anything from this album, I hear some phrase, or more likely some combination of note and chord and rhythm from Iyer, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, that makes me catch my breath, or smile, or involuntarily exclaim – or all three.
Geir Sundstøl’s St. Hanshaugen Steel
Norwegian musician, composer and instrument collector is best known as a pedal steel guitar player, and indeed that’s what you first hear on album opener “Våg.” But backed by an ensemble that includes drummer and percussionist Erland Dahlen, bassists Mats Eilertsen and Jo Berger Myhre, and pianist/keyboardist David Wallumrød, as well as the Sølvguttene boys’ choir, Sundstøl paints eight variegated portraits of Nordic noir, at times cool and soothing, other times chilling and eerie.
Nils Økland’s Glødetrådar
I’ve been a big fan of Norwegian hardanger fiddler Nils Økland since 2016’s Kjølvatn (link), and Glødetrådar (“filaments”) is his most compelling recording since then. Premiered as a commission for the Vossa Jazz festival in 2016, it took until this year for Økland to transition it to a studio work. Featuring members of Nils Økland Band and his experimental group Lumen Drones plus his brother Torbjørn Økland, it further develops the many musical threads that typify Økland’s music including jazz, folk, contemporary music and free improvization. Utterly mesmerizing.
Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra’s Tinctures in Time
MTO is a modern big band featuring lots of horns including Bernstein’s slide trumpet, trombone, up to three saxophones, violin, guitar, bass, drums and the occasional guest vocalist. This orchestra has carved out its niche doing 21st century, post-modern takes on music by other composers, from Count Basie to Lennon-McCartney to Prince. With Tinctures in Time Bernstein and Co. are taking the MTO’s sound to a whole new level, and this is just the first of four releases in this Community Music project. I can’t wait for the next to drop. My review is here.
Christian McBride & Inside Straight’s Live at the Village Vanguard
This recording presents performances by the McBride’s hard bop quintet at the storied Greenwich Village jazz club in 2014. With a front line of Steve Wilson on alto and soprano saxophones and Warren Wolf on vibraphone, plus Peter Martin on piano, McBride on bass and Carl Allen on drums, the band presents hard-hitting and hard swinging post-bop jazz of a high order. My review is here.
Frode Haltli’s Avant Folk II
The prolific and wildly inventive Norwegian accordionist and composer also recorded a work originally commissioned for Vossa Jazz. With a 10 piece ensemble that includes fiddles, guitars, horns, organ, bass, drums and his accordion, this album continues the exploration of the fringes of folk, contemporary and improvization tht Haltli began with the first Avant Folk release in 2017. My review is here.
Ben Goldberg’s Everything Happens To Be.
The quintet here features an unusual front line of clarinet and saxophone —Goldberg on (mostly) B-flat and Ellery Eskelin on tenor sax. The rhythm section’s core is also two players known for their progressive chops, Michael Formanek on bass and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. Mary Halvorson, one of the most experimental of guitarists playing today, fluidly moves back and forth between the rhythm section and the front line, adding lots of texture and color with an array of effects pedals in addition to her keen melodic inventiveness. My review is here.
Anat Cohen & Marcello Gonçalves’ Reconvexo
The Brazilian 7-string guitar player Gonçalves and New York-based clarinetist Cohen for their second collaboration turn to music from Brazil’s Música Popular Brasileira (MPB) songbook. As with so much music from Brazil, the tunes on this collection brim with sunny hope and optimism even in the midst of sadness and isolation. Every note here reflects the grace that imbues the playing and personalities of these two virtuosos.
Jennifer Wharton’s Bonegasm’s Not a Novelty
Wharton follows up the surprise hit of her ensemble’s self-titled 2019 debut with an absolute gem of a jazz record. With her bass trombone fronting a four-trombone brass jazz choir, abetted by a muscular piano-bass-drums rhythm section, Wharton soars through the lower end of the audible sound spectrum. The 10 tunes include compositions and some choice covers (including Tori Amos’s “Twinkle”) arranged by Bonegasm members, and range from lushly romantic to salty blues, Latin confections to harmony-drenched tone post-bop.
Ilka Heinonen Trio’s Lohtu
Finnish musician and composer Ilkka Heinonen plays the jouhikko, a bowed version of the kantele, a box lyre or zither common in Karelian dance music of Finland and Russia. In this album Lohtu (Solace) he has made a recording that reflects the anxiety of our time, grappling with a pandemic in the short term while struggling with the long-term consequences of ongoing climate change. With bassist Nathan Riki Thomson and percussionist Mikko Hassinen, Heinonen blends early and classical music with the improvisational methods of Nordic style jazz. The effect is by turns somber, fretful, and alarming, but never less than fascinating. My review is here.
Various artists’ Folk Music of China, Vol. 18 – Folk Songs of the Uyghur Peoples
I just have to include this eleventh disc in my Top 10. This year I reviewed 10 of the 20 releases in Naxos World’s series on folk music of China, and this was my favorite. The style and sound of these songs incorporate elements of both Chinese and Persian music, with different kinds of lutes and hand drums, with singing always by a solo male voice. It’s all very captivating and given the ethnic cleansing that’s happening now in the Uyghur regions, it’s important that this very human music be documented, heard and shared. My review is here.
Jazz and world honorable mentions
Helen Sung’s Quartet + | Review
Orrin Evans’s The Magic of Now | Review
Jim Snidero’s Live at the Deer Head Inn
Little North’s Finding Seagulls
Caamaño & Ameixeira’s Aire! | Review
Shujaat Khan and Katayoun Goudarzi’s This Pale | Review
Ceramic Dog’s Hope | Review
Mdou Moctar’s Afrique Victime
Here’s a playlist with some singles from these albums plus some more I liked in 2021.