Picking a best of list always ends up as a Sophie’s choice for me, but I’ve narrowed down my 2019 faves to just 10. I base my selections on an entire album’s content, not just singles. So here they are, in no particular order.
Jamal’s beautiful first solo album, Ballades, provides an intimate portrait of one of our greatest musical artists. He recorded these informal outtakes of popular standards and original compositions while making his 2017 album, Marseille. They were never meant for release, and we are most fortunate to hear them. Read more about Ballades here.
Rising fado star Carminho recently made a tour stop at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica and wowed the audience with her charisma and terrific performance. She records her own compositions as well as classic Portuguese fados, and has also collaborated with several Brazilian superstars including Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, and Maris Monte.
Percussionist Poncho Sanchez has played congas and bongos for a long time, as part of many different groups he’s led. He gathered a top-notch band for this album of John Coltrane classics in tribute to the tenor master. The album makes for great listening or for a salsa dance party, too.
A new star on the busy Cape Verdean music scene, Lucibela perfectly blends Cape Verdean morabeza and sodade, sweetness and sadness. She is old-school Cape Verdean and carries on the torch left by Cesaria Evora’s death. I was thrilled to see Lucibela perform earlier this year at the Miracle Theater in Inglewood on her debut tour of the U.S. Her album Laço Umbilical was initially released in France in 2018, then reissued here in a bonus version in 2019.
Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba (=ngoni power) is my favorite Malian group. It’s a family band that celebrates the ngoni, the ancestor of the banjo. Kouyate’s music features virtuosic solos and massive groove. His live shows are stupendous. The 2019 album Miri is all about home, friends, and family (including Kouyate’s mother, who passed away). The title song “Miri” captures Kouyate’s feelings upon returning to his hometown Garana, on the banks of the Niger River.
Yuja Wang is a force of nature and one of the top classical pianists of our time. At her Berlin Recital, the piano virtuoso kept a big hall spellbound for the whole concert and beyond through her entrancing rhapsodic encores. She plays the music of Russian composers Rachmaninov, Scriabin, and Prokofiev, plus some far out pieces by Romanian composer György Ligeti. You don’t have to just take my word for it – check out all the five-star reviews on Amazon.
Norwegian bass player Mats Eilertsen’s ECM album And Then Comes the Night has been on repeat on my hi-fi ever since its release. It is a luminescent trio recording, with perfect interplay between the instruments. The improvisations are far more abstract than “straight ahead jazz.” I would compare the tone colors and improvisations to Debussy, Takemitsu, or impressionist painting. This music offers a different mental gestalt and listening experience than most jazz, by inviting you in to muse and dream. Read more about this album here.
I learned about the young Lebanese violinist Layale Chaker from a profile about her in the New York Times. Her credentials are superb—she studied at the National Higher Conservatory of Beirut, the Conservatoire de Paris and the Royal Academy in London. Chaker fuses eastern and western music, incorporating both classical music as well as improvised styles.
Blue Note Records, as part of its artisanal Tone Poet series, reissued Wayne Shorter’s album Etcetera on 180-gram vinyl, remastered from the original Rudy Van Gelder session. It is one of Wayne’s best but least-known sessions.
Finally, I tip my hat to the experts at Craft Recordings for such a great job reissuing Chet Baker’s Riverside recordings on 180-gram vinyl. It reveals Baker as a rising star of jazz trumpet just as he was becoming famous in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. It was a time when labels started recording in 2-channel stereo. As such, the five albums in this deluxe box are a mix of mono and early stereo. The sound and pressings are better than the originals, thanks to Craft. Read more about this box set here.