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📜 Feature Best and Notable Records of 2020

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As a somewhat annual tradition, I like to run down some notable records of the year, and attempt to pick out my favorite new releases from recordings I played in 2020. Some are obvious choices. Others I struggled with, due to either a lack or abundance of choices for the year. So without further delay, let's dive right into it.

The Mavericks (L-R): Raul Malo, Jerry Dale McFadden, Paul Deakin and Eddie Perez.

Album of the year: En Español, The Mavericks

It's a rare album that will grip your attention from the first few notes, take you on a whirlwind journey, and keep your attention until the last tune fades away. That album, for 2020, is En Español by The Mavericks. If you still remember them as the upstart country group who about 30 years ago gave us the hit "What A Crying Shame," this album is as far away from that era of the band that it sounds like a completely different outfit...yet, it's not. Leader, vocalist and composer Raul Malo's voice has aged wonderfully, and his musical vision is what brought this album to life. Raul and his outfit take us on a whirlwind tour of Latin American music, starting and ending the album with tastes of Cuba (from which his parents immigrated around 1960), and visiting Mexico, Argentina, Italy and France (via Spain) along the journey.

1608581364533.pngAvoiding the pitfalls of making, say, an all-mariachi or all-salsa record, the band makes a record that is completely their own. The Mavericks' sound has grown to include Tejano, rock, Tex-Mex, country, ska, norteño and other styles into a fusion of styles that give them that unique sound and vision that few other groups possess. The songwriting, too, is split between seven covers and five new originals written by Raul Malo with the assistance of the band's videographer, Alejandro Menéndez Vega, who is also an author and poet, who provided the proper flow and dialect to the new tunes--"Poder Viver" and "Recuerdos" are two of those accomplishments featured on the album. Latin American standards such as "Sabor a Mi" and "Cuando me Enamoro" (a Spanish language version of the Italian tune "Cuando M'Innamoro") are reverently covered, as is Julio Iglesias' Spanish version of the reflective tune “Me Olvidé de Vivir” which was Malo's grandfather's favorite tune.

The core Mavericks band remains Raul Malo on vocals and guitar, co-founder Paul Deakin on drums and vibraphone, longtime keyboardist (and sharp dresser) Jerry Dale McFadden, and more recent addition Eddie Perez (himself of Mexican-American background) on lead guitar. In addition to the rest of the Mavericks band, members of Cuban rock band Sweet Lizzy Project make an appearance here and there, with lead vocalist Lisset Diaz backing Raul on some of the tracks.

Why is this my album of the year?

The execution of this project far exceeded my expectations. Upon hearing about the Mavs making a full album in Spanish, I thought it would be a fun and interesting project. It has gone above and beyond what I was expecting--it is a landmark achievement in their catalog. From the first opening notes of the album on their cinematic reworking of the Cuban guajira "La Sitiera" to the joyful reminiscence of Cuba's beautiful, untouched western province in “Me Voy a Pinar del Río" that closes the album, everything is top notch and professionally executed. The arrangements lean strongly towards Latin American sounds and textures, and the band pulls out the stops to make these disparate elements gel together. Yet, the sound is still unmistakably that of The Mavericks. Fans of any style of Latin American music would do well to listen to and appreciate this achievement. Many already have, and it debuted at #1 on Billboard's Latin Pop Album chart, a first for the band. Give this one a listen!

Honorable Mention: Agora, Bebel Gilberto

1608600627694.pngPut aside what you know of Bebel Gilberto's catalog thus far--you won't find the contemporary Bossa Nova or MPB stylings of her earlier records on this one. Instead, Bebel teamed with friend and producer Thomas Bartlett collaborated on a set of introspective tunes set to what may be her most electronic and deeply layered record to date.

Much of this darker (in a thoughtful, but not downbeat) mood was triggered by losing a best friend and both of her parents (the Bossa Nova legend Joao Gilberto, and renowned singer Miucha) in 2018 and 2019. The album's title, "Now" in English, reflected that point in time as she sorted through her feelings about these losses in her life.

It can be a somewhat complex listen until one gets used to it, but it is one of her more rewarding albums to experience.

Honorable Mention: Time Outtakes, The Dave Brubeck Quartet

1608601538546.pngThe Brubeck family has launched a label, Brubeck Editions, which seeks to release sessions from the vaults of Dave Brubeck's long career. While nothing can take the place of the original groundbreaking Time Out album, this set of unreleased 1959 studio takes of five of the albums seven tracks, plus two additional tracks released for the first time, is a fine supplement to that great album.

It is easy to hear why these were not selected for release on the final album, as you get a sense of Brubeck and the band finding their way around these tunes to see what would work. Only five of the original albums tunes were found in the vault, as the other two ("Everybody's Jumpin'" and "Pick Up Sticks") were nailed on their first takes.

"Blue Rondo a la Turk" also includes a lengthy exploration on piano by Brubeck, which is a treat to here. "I'm in a Dancing Mood" is one of the unreleased tracks, and it features a similar shifting time signature to "Cathy's Waltz," where "Watusi Jam" is a feature for drummer "Joe Morello." Overall, it's a notable companion to the classic album it originates from, and a must-listen for any Brubeck fan.

Reissue of the Year: Stonebone, J&K

1608602045301.pngWhile this one is not a groundbreaking musical statement, its notoriety and its place in the Creed Taylor catalog made it a natural for this year's favorite reissue.

Musically, of the three albums J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding recorded for A&M, this one is by far the best of the three. It takes on more of the unadorned soul jazz sound that the CTi label would explore in albums once Creed Taylor bailed from A&M for greener pastures, free of the faux baroque treatments that dragged down Betwixt & Between or heavier strings of Israel. The album hosts only four tracks, including the extended 14 minute treatment of "Dontcha Hear Me Callin' to Ya?" on the first side. J.J. and Kai are in good form here, and the backing band is a familiar CTi assemblage of musicians like Herbie Hancock, George Benson, Bob James, Grady Tate and Ron Carter.

While we may never know the real reason this album was held back for so long, we do know it's long been a collector's item among fans of both the trombonists as well as collectors of Creed Taylor's recordings. The album was only released in limited numbers in Japan in 1970, and has otherwise remained in the vaults. As for now, it is only available on vinyl but, if it's like the similarly unreleased A&M/CTi album California Soul by Tamba 4, I would bet the album gets a digital release within the year.

The sound quality is typical of that slightly muddy Van Gelder style that seems to be a trait of most CTi recordings, but at least the album seems to be well-mastered. The record is pressed on dark red vinyl, and a couple of accounts have noted that (like my copy) side two is slightly noisy compared to side one. But for collectors, this album fills in a long-missing piece of the CTi puzzle, and is worth picking up. (This was a Record Store Day release but as of this writing, plenty of copies are available.)

Reissue Honorable Mention: Just Coolin', Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers

1609803505363.pngNot a compilation or outtakes but a complete, finished album from 1959 was reissued this year on Blue Note. This one was recorded a few weeks prior to a live gig at Birdland (released as At the Jazz Corner of The World on Blue Note) that included four of the six tunes on this record. The lineup is Art Blakey (drums) with a short-lived Messengers lineup including Hank Mobley (tenor), Lee Morgan (trumpet), Bobby Timmons (piano) and Jymie Merritt (bass). Mobley would depart a mere three months later, to be replaced by Wayne Shorter.

The music here is typical of the Blue Note aesthetic, with plenty of good soloing from Mobley, Morgan and Timmons. Like other Blue Note records, this one was also cut at Van Gelder's.

Just Coolin' is not an essential album or a long-lost holy grail, but is a solid gig nonetheless, thankfully unearthed in 2020 from the vaults. It gives us a studio recording of a short-lived lineup of the Messengers, much like the recent Bill Evans reissue Some Other Time: The Lost Session from The Black Forest which documented his trio with Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette.

Disappointment: From This Place, Pat Metheny

Every artist has that point in their career where an album just doesn't click. Metheny's most recent release, From This Place, looked promising from the beginning but ultimately was a disappointing and frustrating project to listen to. Longtime readers know that I have been a fan of Pat Metheny's albums since diving into his catalog in the mid 1990s. There was a gap between this latest release and his prior album, as he was working with his Side Eye project--a rotating band of younger musicians who accompanied him on gigs around the world.

1608602807277.pngThe band backing him on this record is not to be faulted--longtime drummer Antonio Sanchez appears on this album, as does the fine British pianist Gwilym Simcock. Linda May Han Oh in particular is an incredible young bassist from Australia, and I hope we hear more from her in the future. Part of the theme of this album was to make it somewhat broad and cinematic, for which Metheny employed the Hollywood Studio Symphony. Sadly, the engineering of this album squashes the dynamics of the symphony and smears the details in the drumming, especially on the opening track "America Undefined," which comes across as a congealed mess as the sound intensifies.

Many of these melodies seem as though we've visited this music before. I hear bits and pieces of moods or phrases from, say, Secret Story, an album he still has yet to top, as well as other touchstones in his massive catalog. One gets the feeling the well has finally run dry and that, after a four year pause, he really had nothing new to say this time around. It's one thing to be influenced or informed by past works; this one just feels recycled and, well, tired. The lead-off track aside, there isn't much here you haven't heard before on a prior Metheny album. Metheny's butthurt political leanings dragged into a few of the song titles and the lone vocal track on the album also put a damper on the proceedings. Some may have enjoyed this album but I grew tired of it rather quickly.
Tell us what you found notable this year! GIven the strange year we've had, there has to be something that stood out.
The biggest event of the year 2020 from my perspective has to be the long-await Herb Alpert box set called HERB ALPERT IS:


It was released as both a 5-LP set with a 12x12 coffee-table-sized book, and as pictured here, a 3-CD set with the same booklet only CD sized. The set was accompanied by a movie that had a world premiere event on home screens which was welcome due to the year's health circumstances. The set contained 63 tracks - really good ones - from all of Herb's career.

And speaking of Herb's career, an enterprising outfit in the UK managed to scrape together Herb's early work in FROM LEGAL EAGLES TO TIJUANA BRASS: 1958-62.


Normally, I wouldn't be recommending or even reviewing one of these gray market releases, but in reality, these records are fully public domain in the UK, so it's all perfectly legal. Since these have never been collected before, the set is welcome for the curious and the collectors. The tracks contain a good portion of Herb's early releases under various names including his turn at RCA as Dore Alpert. The sources of the tracks are largely clean enough for enjoyment without distraction, but all are sourced from needledrops. Decent mastering makes this one an OK release in my book. While musically, many of these songs are simplistic and fluffy teen stuff, they provide a look into how Herb's formative years in the business went.

I'll echo Rudy's assessment in STONEBONE by J.J.Johnson & Kai Winding. It's a neat, straight-ahead jazz album, AS someone who's not been big into hardcore jazz, it's ironic that I should find this one so listenable. In fact, it has led me to reassess my collection of A&M / CTi albums and I;ve gone ahead and acquired many of the missing pieces.

Three new releases from artists who've been around awhile are MᶜCARTNEY III by Paul McCartney, and two albums from Taylor Swift, folklore and evermore. With all that's been going on, I've only had a passing chance to listen to evermore and McCartney III. Folklore has gotten a play or two, but hasn't yet "sunk in". All of these albums were done during lockdowns as both Taylor and Paul filled their time with composing and recording.

I've always been a fan of soundtracks, and this year saw the release of a 3-CD set of music from the old TV series VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA. Composers like Jerry Goldsmith, Paul Sawtell, Alexander Courage, Nelson Riddle, Leith Stevens and more contributed scores to episodes of the series, and La-La-Land Records put together this long-awaited set for fans of soundtrack music.

And how could I forget the one big Carpenters release this past year. SINGLES 1969-1973 got a special Target stores release on Coke bottle clear vinyl. The sources for the master could have been better, but the record sure is purty.

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Honorable Mention: Time Outtakes, The Dave Brubeck Quartet
These historical documents are always provide fascinating insight to the creative process. Thank you for the recommendation.
Reissue of the Year: Stonebone, J&K
Agreed! It's a very likable LP.
Reissue Honorable Mention: Just Coolin', Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers
Rudy, what's the story? I thought between the '70s 2-fers and the '85-'07 CD era Cuscuna essentially mined the BN vaults. (Was this one of those ¼" 7 ½ ips mono board feeds that RVG regularly made?)
Rudy, what's the story? I thought between the '70s 2-fers and the '85-'07 CD era Cuscuna essentially mined the BN vaults. (Was this one of those ¼" 7 ½ ips mono board feeds that RVG regularly made?)
From what I understand from another review I read, it was only recently discovered, but it didn't go into the exact souce. Checking Qobuz, though, their review is more revealing. Short version--it was recorded in Van Gelder's living room.

This time capsule, recorded in 1959 in Rudy Van Gelder's Hackensack, NJ, living room and left undisturbed in the Blue Note vaults until now, contains the essential DNA of the first flowering of hard bop in the late '50s. All the genre hallmarks are present: There are intricate chase-scene originals and clever arrangements (the standard "Close Your Eyes") and brash blues-inflected outbursts that light up the solos. And yet, transcending those individual traits, defining not just the notes but the very spirit of the endeavor, is a quality that doesn't get discussed enough in jazz—precision, as in persnickety dotted i's and crossed t's.

At times it's downright startling hearing these five musicians nail the details to the wall. They're hardly "just coolin'" here; they're attentive to the small nuances of tunes that might have been written the morning of the session. You can detect the commitment in the pitch-bending doiiiits and the staccato single-note jabs, in the explosion of a long-cresting press roll and the deliberate, nothing-extra stride of a Blakey-trademarked medium-tempo swing. You can hear it in the way trumpeter Lee Morgan and tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley phrase together, adding grace notes that are almost inaudible but key nonetheless. And you can't miss it in the thrillingly open lanes where the solos happen. Blakey was revered for the communication he cultivated between musicians; using a repertoire of hits and jabs, he pulled his collaborators into rich, sometimes boisterous discussions, a mode of interplay that in many ways defines hard bop.

There are plenty of examples on this record, but perhaps the most crystalline comes during Morgan's first few choruses on "Jimerick," a blazing uptempo blues. He begins with a short inversion of the theme, first restating it in a lazy way. Then he articulates more aggressively, as though trying to establish consensus on the tempo. Blakey picks that up, and jabs out an even sharper response from the metal rim of the snare drum. That unleashes some mean Morgan double-time bebop; what began as a single-note bugle call becomes an intricate conversation. Each element of that conversation is notable for its clarity, and each new soloist contributes to it in a different way—check the unhurried, wonderfully lucid way Mobley carves up the opening "Hipsippy Blues." The tune is one of three originals Mobley wrote for the date, and if it's familiar that's because it was included on a monumental live recording captured a few months later—At the Jazz Corner of the World, a fiery and complex document that's become part of the "essential listening" jazz canon. Just Coolin', which is apparently the only other recording of this short lived incarnation of the group, might be a step below that in terms of intensity. But only a step. © Tom Moon/Qobuz
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