Do we listen to music differently during a pandemic?
More intently? More distractedly? Or, perhaps, a combination of both, depending on the day and our frame of mind at the time?
Yes, yes, and yes.
At least, that’s been my experience during the second year of COVID-19. And while I savor the sound of the human voice in song, at a time when jazz venues and clubs were dark for so much of the year, hearing instruments wordlessly express the most personal and universal emotions made an even bigger impact on me than usual.
That is, depending on the day and my frame of mind at the time. These are 10 of the albums released in 2021 I will happily listen to at any opportunity.
Ches Smith & We All Break, “Path of Seven Colors” (Pyroclastic Records): Given my comments above, it is fitting that my favorite jazz album of the year features top-flight instrumentalists and a terrific lead singer who, on some selections, performs in Haitian Creole. It’s a language I do not understand even a word of, but that doesn’t make this utterly sublime album of jazz and Haitian Vodou music by former San Diego drummer Ches Smith and his one-woman, six-man band, We All Break, any less enticing.
If anything, not knowing the literal meaning of the words allows listeners to paint pictures based on the feelings Sirene Dantor Rene conveys with her richly expressive singing. Percussionists Fan-Fan Jean Guy Rene, Markus Schwartz and Daniel Brevil (a key Haitian music mentor for Smith) provide pulsating rhythms and counter-rhythms, as well as lending enthusiastic call-and-response vocal support to Sirene Dantor Rene.
Smith, leading a band that also features Puerto Rican saxophone dynamo Miguel Zenon, is a skilled aural alchemist. His exuberant blend of traditional Haitian singing, propulsive percussion, intricate jazz improvisations and various Afro-Cuban traditions is a marvel of craft, wit and in-the-moment creation. What results is a stunning stylistic fusion that few listeners — or musicians — are likely to have experienced before.
Henry Threadgill Zooid, “Poof” (Pi): Designed as a concerto, “Poof” ingeniously combines elements of contemporary chamber music and cutting-edge jazz, with periodic nods to Dixieland. A 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner, saxophonist and composer Henry Threadgill — much like Duke Ellington before him — composes with the strengths and personalities of his band members in mind. Together, they make exceptionally distinctive and impeccably calibrated music that defies many conventions of jazz at the same time it celebrates and extends them.
Charles Lloyd & The Marvels, “Tone Poem” (Blue Note): At 83, tenor sax legend Charles Lloyd is still charting new terrain with his jazz-meets-Americana-music band, The Marvels. Guitarist Bill Frisell, pedal-steel wizard Greg Leisz, bassist Reuben Rogers and drum marvel Eric Harland are wonderfully empathetic foils for Lloyd, who shines as brightly here reshaping two Ornette Coleman classics as he does breathing new life into Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” and Cuban crooner Bola de Nieve’s “Ay Amor.”
Steph Richards, with Joshua White, “Zephyr” (Relative Pitch): Trumpet innovator and University of California San Diego music professor Steph Richards was six-and-a-half months pregnant with her daughter, Anza, when “Zephyr” was recorded in 2019. As bold and fearless as it is moving and entrancing, the album teams Richards — who sometimes performs with the bell of her horn submerged in water — with nationally celebrated El Cajon pianist Joshua White. The two listen to each other as intently as they play and their exceptionally empathetic music seems both carefully planned and largely spontaneous.
Sons of Kemet, “Black To The Future” (Impulse!): Led by English sax sensation Shabaka Hutchings, the tuba-anchored Sons of Kemet and an array of guest vocalists fuse jazz, calypso, funk, hip-hop, dub-reggae and trap. Their songs address oppression and liberation, individual struggle and collective triumph, with grit and grace, agility and earthy conviction.