Mr. Adler returns with the second part of his “Favorite Albums of 2021” list. Please note that albums are not listed in any particular ranking order.
By David R. Adler
Michael Mayo, Bones (Mack Avenue)
Michael Mayo’s memorable vocals on recordings by Nate Smith, Kneebody, Cory Smythe and more set expectations high for his debut. The result, Bones, is a marvel and a signal achievement of 2021. Backed by keyboardist Andrew Freedman, bassist Nick Campbell and drummer Robin Baytas, Mr. Mayo builds a firmament of soaring, otherworldly harmony and a floor of solid but ever-shifting groove. His warm and radiant tone is a balm, his songcraft and improvising off-the-charts inventive.
Ben LaMar Gay, Open Arms to Open Us (International Anthem)
Chicago composer, cornetist, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Ben LaMar Gay conjures a sonic world beyond category every time out, and that consistency holds on his 2021 effort Open Arms to Open Us. (The title phrase is a lyric occurring in “Oh Great Be the Lake.”) Mr. Gay’s electro-acoustic moods and groovescapes involve a host of collaborators including cellist Tomeka Reid and the riveting singer Dorothée Munyaneza.
Caroline Davis, Portals, Volume 1: Mourning (Sunnyside)
Alto saxophonist and composer Caroline Davis augments her quintet with a venturesome string quartet on the remarkable Portals, Volume 1: Mourning, featuring Marquis Hill (trumpet), Julian Shore (piano), Chris Tordini (bass) and Allan Mednard (drums). Played with virtuosic aplomb in an acoustic jazz vein, the labyrinthine compositions sound even fresher with the strings and Ms. Davis’ intriguing poetic recitations.
Anna Webber, Idiom (Pi)
An adventurous composer and tenor saxophonist/flutist, Anna Webber follows up her 2016 Simple Trio release Binary with the double album Idiom, featuring pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer John Hollenbeck on the first half and a 12-piece large ensemble on the second. Dense and dissonant, full of varied sonics and pacing, Ms. Webber’s work is a mystery well worth investigating.
Ben Allison, Moments Inside (Sonic Camera)
Bassist and composer Ben Allison deepens his longstanding rapport with guitarist Steve Cardenas on Moments Inside, adding the incomparable Chico Pinheiro on second guitar, which ratchets up the rhythmic intensity and expression of the music. Mr. Allison’s doubling on electric bass brings a subtle, slippery feel to songs like “The Chase” and “Voyage of the Nautilus.” Drummer Allan Mednard’s groove is ceaselessly flexible, tasteful and on-point, not least on Mr. Allison’s revisitation of “House Party Starting” by Herbie Nichols.
Chris Speed, Light Line (Intakt)
In addition to tenor saxophone, Chris Speed has a long history as a formidable clarinetist with Tim Berne, John Hollenbeck, Jim Black, Uri Caine and many more. Light Line is Mr. Speed’s solo clarinet tour de force, mesmerizing from start to finish, a major credit to the discipline of unaccompanied improvisation (as were 2021 solo saxophone releases by JD Allen, Jaleel Shaw, Will Vinson, Jon Irabagon and Josh Sinton). Eric Dolphy’s “Miss Ann” is a particular treat.
Tyshawn Sorey & Alarm Will Sound, For George Lewis (Nonesuch)
Spend an hour getting lost in Tyshawn Sorey’s opus for chamber orchestra, written in honor of composer, trombonist, author and innovator George Lewis. The acclaimed new-music ensemble Alarm Will Sound gives Dr. Sorey’s demanding score — full of hovering sound masses, slowly evolving tonal fields and timbral shifts — the meticulous attention it requires. Pairs beautifully with Autoschediasms (Live), another 2021 release with Alarm Will Sound on the Cantaloupe label, devoted to Dr. Sorey’s open-form improvised large-ensemble composing.
James Francies, Purest Form (Blue Note)
James Francies engineers a wild, ear-opening blend of piano and synths on his sophomore Blue Note outing, with bassist Burniss Travis and drummer Jeremy Dutton again in the rhythm section. Richly contrasting vocals from Peyton, Elliott Skinner and Bilal give Purest Form a dreamier melodic side. But buckle up for Francies’ reimagined “My Favorite Things” with altoist Immanuel Wilkins and vibraphonist Joel Ross.
Nicole Glover, Strange Lands
Five tracks on Strange Lands feature rising tenor saxophonist Nicole Glover in superb trio form with bassist Daniel Duke and drummer Nic Cacioppo. Four tracks add the great George Cables on piano — playing resplendent duo with the leader on Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing.” On music ranging from band originals to Jobim and Cole Porter, Ms. Glover exhibits a refined tone and great rhythmic assurance, qualities that distinguish her as a leading young tenor voice of her day.
Nate Smith, Kinfolk 2: See the Birds (Edition)
Following in the same funky, tuneful, beautifully atmospheric post-genre spirit as the GRAMMY-nominated Postcards from Everywhere (2017), drummer Nate Smith returns with altoist Jaleel Shaw, guitarist Brad Allen Williams, pianist Jon Cowherd and bassist Fima Ephron in a ferocious core lineup. Guests include Michael Mayo, Kokayi, Brittany Howard and Amma What (singing Sting’s “I Burn for You”) on vocals, Regina Carter on violin, Joel Ross on vibes and more. A blissful marriage of songwriting, soundscaping and groove-rich, harmonically involved improvising.
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