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Arts Desk

WRTI's Best of 2021

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Check out our classical and jazz picks for 2021.

Despite the challenging year we've all had, music has endured—elevating our lives during the darkest days and the brightest ones. Here's what our classical and jazz hosts/producers have selected as the best of the best for 2021. Check out picks from: Melinda Whiting, John T.K Scherch., Mike Bolton, Kevin Gordon, Zev Kane, Susan Lewis, Bob Perkins, Matt Silver, Bobbi Booker, Maureen Malloy, and J. Michael Harrison.

CLASSICAL PICKS

Melinda Whiting: Mahani Teave, Rapa Nui Odyssey

Pianist Mahani Teave, a native of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), is a magnificently gifted artist who, after classical studies in Chile, returned home to found the only music school on her island. That story is inspiring in itself, but the true revelation for me is her own superb expressive gift. It's hard to choose from the offerings on this debut recording—her Bach has impressive architecture and focus, her Liszt is powerful, virtuosic, and subtle. And the traditional Rapa Nui ballad that closes this double-CD set is a perfect, moving closer for a truly notable debut recital set.

Here's a preview of a documentary about Teave that's on Amazon Prime.

Mark Pinto: Heitor Villa-Lobos, Choral Transcriptions

Literally breathing new life into familiar works for solo keyboard, the performances of these (mostly) wordless transcriptions for unaccompanied chorus by Villa-Lobos add up to the most captivating, and frankly astonishing, recording I’ve come across in a long time. Choral music fans will find the Bach performances, in particular, simply goosebump-inducing.

Mike Bolton: Will Liverman, Dreams of a New Day: Songs by Black Composers

Will Liverman is among the wildly talented young performers who have as much to say about the world in which we live as they do musically. Not only is his luscious baritone voice joyous in its beauty and musicality, but this recital of music by Black composers honors composers of the past while celebrating composers active today. It is a thoughtful, beautiful, and sometimes painful recital that makes me excited for Mr. Liverman's future and also the future of art song recitals.

John Scherch: Imani Winds, Bruits

This features both excellent performances of wonderful 21st-century music and too-necessary commentary about the state of our country. I could say more, but ensemble members Monica Ellis and Toyin Spellman-Diaz put it just fine in their conversation with Susan Lewis. Here’s Reena Esmail’s “The Light is the Same,” the more optimistic side of the record, about our shared humanity.

Susan Lewis: Wynton Marsalis, Blues Symphony

I love the idea of the blues in symphonic form, and the journey through different styles of music that correspond to the timeline of the American social, cultural, and political experience. Here’s the 3rd movement, called “Reconstruction Rag.” I spoke with Wynton about his album earlier in the year.

Susan Lewis: Pat Metheny, Road to the Sun 

I love the intersection of classical and jazz. With this album of works for classical guitar, jazz artist Pat Metheny dives into classical composing, writing for the LA Guitar Quartet and guitarist Jason Vieaux, and featuring a bonus track of Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina, a piano piece reinterpreted by Metheny himself on his 42-string guitar. Check out my TIME IN conversation with Jason here.

Here’s Jason playing Part 3 of Four Paths of Light.

Zev Kane: Thomas Dausgaard, Swedish Chamber Orchestra, The Brandenburg Project

Of the many 2021 albums released to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos this past March, none capture the unique spirit of innovation, wit, and joie de vivre like this triple album from the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and conductor Thomas Dausgaard.

Here the six concertos dialogue with works by composers of our time—including Olga Neuwirth, Uri Caine, and Mark-Anthony Turnage—that complement, comment upon, and compound Bach’s tremendous legacy. Made all the more impressive by a phenomenal crop of soloists, including harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, flutist Claire Chase, violinist Pekka Kuusisto, and violist Tabea Zimmerman, these Brandenburgs that should set the standard for the three centuries to come!

Kevin Gordon: Philip Kawin, Russian National Orchestra, Beethoven

This is a bittersweet selection for me. It’s a lovely all-Beethoven album performed by my first piano teacher, and friend, Phillip Kawin with Gerard Schwarz and the Russian National Orchestra. It was one of a series of CDs Phil recorded with Master Performers shortly before he passed away several months ago. Here’s Phil playing the Largo from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, op 37.

JAZZ PICKS

Matt Silver: Samara Joy, Samara Joy

The last few years have seen the ascendance of generational young vocal talents: Cyrille Aimée, Jazzmeia Horn, and Veronica Swift to name just a few. Add to that list the recently-turned-22 Samara Joy. On her self-titled debut, Joy, like Swift, shows herself not just a vocalist but a well-rounded performer who really knows how to inhabit a role and tell a story through song. See her take on Carmen McRae’s “If You Never Fall in Love with Me” for all the proof you’ll need. That’s to take nothing away from a voice that’s always in tune and comes equipped with all the tools: whether interpreting ballads or swinging in double-time, she’s got whatever the tune calls for. Her accompaniment here—Pasquale Grosso (guitar), Ari Roland (bass), and Kenny Washington (drums)—is world class. Grasso, in several instances, is otherworldly. See “Everything Happens to Me,” where, in between periods of comping for Joy as a piano player would, his curly-cued chromatic runs ascend and descend like ladders to and from the stars.

Bobbi I. Booker: Dr. Lonnie Smith’s Breathe

The 2021 Blue Note album "Breathe" by organist Dr. Lonnie Smith is bookended by studio duets with legendary vocalist Iggy Pop, notably covering Timmy Thomas' “Why Can't We Live Together,” Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman,” and Smith’s 1969 hit, "Move Your Hand." The fascinating Doc and Pop collaboration is the centerpiece of this ear candy, recorded live at the Jazz Standard the same week Smith recorded his critically acclaimed trio album, "All In My Mind." Smith's infectious sound is so fully incorporated that it imbues you with the musician's feel-good vibe.

A funky jazz arrangement of the Donovan hit from 1966, Dr. Lonnie Smith teams up with rock legend Iggy Pop on "Sunshine Superman," the first of two studio collaborations on Smith's 2021 album, "Breathe.”

Bob Craig: Bill Charlap's Street Of Dreams

Quite simply to my ears, Bill has continually applied his creative juices to give inventive takes on well-known as well as lesser-known songs. Whether pulling from The Great American or Great Jazz Songbook there's a passion and drive that digs deep into the roots of the composition. The most respected jazz artists claim that to best understand a song, know the lyrics. That has always been easy to hear throughout Bill's recordings. "What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life" is a delicate question that allows solitude to look deeply into "the North and South and East and West of your life."

The little-known "Your Host" that dates back to a 1956 session with, at the time, Detroit jazzers Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Burrell, Pepper Adams, Paul Chambers and Kenny Clarke flows freely into the comfort zone. Dave Brubeck's "The Duke," a great jazz composition to begin with, finds the trio kind of mapping their route for the first minute or so before hitting the road to Swingsville. If you like your trio jazz creatively smooth, put those headphones on and get in the groove.

Maureen Malloy: Hailey Brinnel’s I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles

During a year that was unstable, to say the least, it was great to have an album released that was just plain fun. Hailey, a Temple Alum, was a finalist in the 2021 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition, and she also plays the trombone. On this album, she does both on familiar tracks, but since there aren’t many seasoned vocalist/trombonists out there, they sound different, but in a really good way. Her energy is effervescent on standouts like “Orange Colored Sky” and “Show Me the Way To Go Home,” along with the title track.

Bob Perkins: Joey DeFrancesco’s More Music

In the wake of a year of pandemic lockdown - with stages dark and nightclubs shuttered, friends and family isolated, and political and social tensions raging - more music is the one way we can all find relief. Joey DeFrancesco is the one to meet that demand. More Music, his 39th studio album to date, accomplishes this goal in every possible way along with an extraordinary trio that brings ten new originals to life.

Known for both his keyboard playing and trumpet playing, the master organist is here able to fully display his talents: organ, keyboard, piano, trumpet, and, for the first time on record, tenor saxophone.

It's good to hear Joey Defranchesco moving on to command the tenor sax and trumpet on record and in personal appearances--after becoming the world's leading jazz organist. Almost 40 years ago, when a then 10-year old Joey was jamming with a host of older musicians, I, as an emcee, introduced him as the "elder" of the group.

Well, Joey, you're growing there too, because your odometer is now in the half-century mark! But keep going and growing.n“Free” from Joey DeFrancesco’s 2021 album More Music, is a brisk uptempo tempo offering with Joey testifying on trumpet, Lucas Brown on guitar and Michael Ode on drums. Matt Silver also wrote about More Music; read his review here.

J. MIchael Harrison: Hasaan Ibn Ali’s Metaphysics and Retrospective in Retirement of Delay

Calling Omnivore Recordings to help circumvent Omicron’s headline grabbing, fear invoking forecast and global despair. More than ever music has provided a bit of a sanctuary for me throughout the pandemics. The anticipated and subsequent release of Hasaan Ibn Ali’s Metaphysics earlier this year and the fall release of Retrospect in Retirement of Delay: The Solo Recordings has offered an opportunity to escape from the day to day grind that life can be, amplified even more so with a heavy dose of COVID on top. These releases, and the very personal journeys traveled by Lewis Porter, Alan Sukoenig, and Omnivore to bring this music to the world, has been wonderful to witness. Rediscovering the legendary Hasaan has been priceless to experience.

Hasaan Ibn Ali performing the music of an artist that he’s sometimes compared to. Here’s Hasaan playing Thelonious Monk’s “Off Minor” from Retrospect in Retirement of Delay: The Solo Recordings.