S. Victor Aaron’s Best of 2017 (Part 4 of 4, Fusion Jazz): Wadada Leo Smith, Peter Erskine, Brian Blade

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In the world of fusion jazz, 2017 brought a lot of new material from artists both young and old that reinvigorated, reaffirmed and reinvented the genre. The baker’s dozen in this Best of 2017 list reveals that fusion jazz has expanded and diversified way past its Bitches Brew-era beginnings.

What hasn’t changed though, is that lovers of this sort of music are really cool people…

*ahem*

Safe to say, 2017 was a very productive and fruitful year in particular for the progressive trumpet legend Wadada Leo Smith. Recording since the late 60s, he is still gaining momentum past his 70th birthday. He was a key participant on an album led by Satoko Fujii, lending enough brilliance to put that album on my list of best avant-garde records of the year. He also put forth two albums of his own, one that landed on this here list. The other, the solo trumpet exploit Solo Reflections and Meditations on Monk, wasn’t reviewed on this site so it didn’t qualify for consideration for any year-end honors. However, a powerful musical statement he helped to make with the muscular, boundless trio Harriett Tubman did qualify and it more than qualified, it took home the prize.

Click through the album titles to read the full reviews.



BEST OF 2017 ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Harriet Tubman, with Wadada Leo Smith – Araminta: Brandon Ross, Melvin Gibbs and JT Lewis had banded together twenty years ago to make a visceral sort of rock-jazz that’s fueled by emotion and guided by intuition. They thrive in a no-man’s land of music that stands just outside of fusion, funk, dub, experimental, and improvised music. Since they produce new material rather infrequently, any new release is worth attention but Araminta (the real Harriet Tubman’s real name) deserves more so because of the heavy involvement of a guest fourth member: Wadada Leo Smith.

Smith’s commanding trumpet lends further edginess to the project, and the guitarist (Ross), bassist (Gibbs) and drummer (Lewis) share in Smith’s approach to music making by starting with fragments and instantly formulate sound around space and intensity. The sinister jams that result has some semblance to Smith’s Yo Miles! collaborations with Henry Kaiser but Harriet Tubman had long developed their own, complex voice, so this isn’t just a rehash of the early 70s electric experimentations of Miles Davis. In truth, the cornerstone track is when they are at their freest, not their funkiest: “President Obama’s Speech At The Selma Bridge” is an outpouring of expression that goes further outside than the rest of fare on this album, but also logically extends from all that.

In what will likely go down as one of the best fusion experimental improvised music uncategorizable releases of the year, Araminta is a swaggering statement from four musicians who thrive on taking chances.



THE BEST OF THE REST

Gerry Gibbs & Thrasher People – Weather Or Not: Wayne Shorter himself sees the “graphically arranged material of Weather Report” on Weather Or Not as Gibbs keeping up with his “creative mission.”

Adam Rudolph’s Moving Pictures – Glare Of The Tiger: With such an impressive assemblage of talent pushing out the frontiers of world music, this could have easily been a scholarly affair, but then that wouldn’t be an Adam Rudolph-led record. Glare Of The Tiger is spontaneous, instinctual, colorful, danceable and…most importantly…a hell of an enjoyable listen.

Peter Erskine and the Dr. Um Band – Second Opinion: Proving that Erskine’s return to fusion jazz was no one-off fling Second Opinion is every bit as good as his first Dr. Um record.

Eivind Opsvik – Overseas V: This part of the wild, woolly world of Eivind Opsvik that fans of the unconventional will want to partake.

Taylor Haskins – Gnosis: Haskins’ capacity for blending cutting-edge, high-tech means of music making with the handmade, organically conceived method of playing jazz borders on the genius level, and that’s just what he is going for with Gnosis.

Butcher Brown – The Healer: Jeff Beck himself hadn’t been able to replicate the grit and immediacy of the funk/rock/jazz classic Blow By Blow but this comes close.

Jonathan Rowden Group – Skyward Eye: A weighty set of works by his Jonathan Rowden Group held together by a thematic purpose, Skyward Eye sets its ambitions, well, skyward.

Various Artists – Sky Music, A Tribute To Terje Rypdal: The impressive array of guitarists who contributed to this project speaks loudly to the influence Rypdal has had to generation of plectrists, each of whom have their own distinctive way of expression.

Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition – Agrima: The Indo-Pak Coalition’s the original mission of melding modern group-level stream-of-consciousness with contemporary raga remains intact and Agrima builds on those original ideas.

Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band – Body & Shadow: Always putting spirituality above improvisation, Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band connects to listeners in a way uncommon for jazz musicians, and Body And Shadow continues a remarkable consistency of mission and quality spanning two decades.

Wadada Leo Smith – Najwa: Teeming with guitars, Wadada Leo Smith’s Najwa is one of those particularly bright moments in a catalog full of them.

Mumpbeak – Tooth: Some four years after a stimulating debut, the old school, prog-rock fusion power trio returns, and its freewheeling mission remains the same.


< S. Victor Aaron’s Best of 2017 (Avant-Garde & Experimental)


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