10 Albums You Need to Know: January 2020

A guitar hero’s new crosscultural project; the music of a jazz legend reimagined; a piano prodigy’s major-label debut. All this and more on this month’s list of ten albums you need to know about.


Moon Hooch, Life on Other Planets (self-released)

Release date: January 10

Moon Hooch is an explosive band made up of two saxophonists – Wenzl McGowan and Mike Wilbur – plus drums. The grouped formed in Brooklyn, New York, in 2010 and since then, they have been developing their own brand of dance-oriented percussion-and-saxophone-based music, which they refer to as “Cave Music” and mixes elements of jazz, funk, punk, EDM and more. Life on Other Planets is a much rawer affair that differs from their previous heavily composed and produced efforts. The new material was recorded via single-take performances and Wilbur says of the new LP’s nine tracks, which they’d been performing live for some time: “We never really consciously wrote those songs and we never really consciously planned to release them but we loved playing them and we realized they were something the fans were really excited about.”


John McLaughlin, Shankar Mahadevan, Zakir Hussain, Is That So? (Abstract Logix)

Release date: January 17

Guitar hero John McLaughlin rekindles his profound musical collaboration with tabla master Zakir Hussain for his new album, Is That So? The two have been collaborating since they co-founded the groundbreaking East-West crossover group Shakti in the ’70s. Whereas that group saw McLaughlin integrating Western harmony into traditional Indian Raga systems, here the guitarist abandons said rules, applying his personal Western harmonic liberty to the vocal talents of Shankar Mahadevan. Is That So?, which took six years to make, is therefore as much a recording of a meeting of musical cultures as it is the documentation of an encounter between three amazing musicians – each with their own individual styles, histories and journeys – entering unexplored horizons.


Lawson Rollins, True North (Infinita)

Release date: January 17

On True North, Lawson Rollins returns to his signature style of acoustic nylon guitar playing, while utilizing lessons learned from the experiences he gained in his recent forays in experimental music. “With True North,” he explains via an official statement, “I was able to bring that new knowledge and perspective back home,  in a sense, to the type of nylon string guitar-centered music that has been my true calling as an artist over the past 20 years. The 12 original tracks on this new album find his improvisational flair in top form and showcase a wide range of emotions as well as that cross-aesthetic that has come to characterize his music since he first rose to popularity in the early 2000s.


Valery Ponomarev, Our Father Who Art Blakey: The Centennial (Summit)

Release date: January 17

Russian-born hard bop trumpeter Valery Ponomarev, whose playing is defined by fiery enthusiasm, pays tribute to his mentor Art Blakey on his latest album, Our Father Who Art Blakey: The Centennial. Ponomarev was a member of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers from 1977 into the ’80s and here, he arranges compositions associated with this legendary rotating ensemble and leads a stellar band of his own, including such musicians as bassist Rusland Khain, pianist Mamiko Watanabe and saxophonist Anthony Nelson, among others. All members get a chance to shine within his arrangement, and Ponomarev takes solos of his own on the standard “Caravan” and the Wayne Shorter-penned “Tell It Like It Is.”


Jeff Parker, Suite for Max Brown (Anthem/Nonesuch)

Release date: January 24

Multi-instrumentalist/composer Jeff Parker dedicates his new album, Suite for Max Brown, to his mother, whose cover photo at age 19 adorns the record. The new LP features nine brand new original compositions by Parker as well as his interpretations of Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus” and John Coltrane’s “After the Rain.” While Parker plays most of the instruments on this album, Suite for Max Brown is credited to Jeff Parker and the New Breed – a nod to his 2016 album, The New Breed, which was a tribute to his father. The band includes, among others, multi-instrumentalist/producer Makaya McCraven and pianist/saxophonist Josh Johnson, while Parker’s daughter, Ruby Parker, adds her vocals to the track “Build a Nest.”


Yelena Eckemoff, Nocturnal Animals (L&H Production)

Release date: January 24

Russian-born pianist/composer Yelena Eckemoff is known for blending Russian romanticism with the American jazz tradition. Nocturnal Animals is the latest in a long line of spellbinding concept albums that have rightly been defined as sonic portrait galleries. This latest double-LP, released via her own L&H Production imprint, offers 14 of her impressions of the world of the creatures of the night. The music of Nocturnal Animals was recorded in April 2018 in Oslo, Norway, and features three of that country’s most acclaimed jazz musicians: Jon Christensen and Thomas Stronen on drums and percussion, and Arild Andersen on double bass.


Theo Hill, Reality Check (Posi-Tone)

Release date: January 24

Theo Hill has certainly emerged as one of the top young voices in jazz piano today. Reality Check presents a riveting mix of original compositions and interpretations. The record is defined by a wide palette of harmony and colors and finds him unleashing his talents on the piano, Rhodes and synthesizers. Reality Check marks his third full-length album on Posi-Tone, following 2017’s Promethean and 2018’s Interstellar Adventure. Whereas on those records he explored the jazz piano trio setting, here, he leads a quartet of fellow top young stars of today’s jazz scene: vibraphonist Joel Ross, bassist Rahsaan Carter and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr.


Joachim Kühn, Mateusz Smoczyński, Speaking Sounds (ACT)

Release date: January 31

German piano great Joachim Kühn and Polish violinist Mateusz Smoczyński are two of the most revered figures in European jazz. They are also both defined by personal playing styles that often transcend all categories. In fact, countless borderless influences – from European classical music genius Johann Sebastian Bach to Arab jazz pioneer Rabih Abou-Khalil – can be heard on their collaborative album Speaking Sounds. They lay the groundwork for a free yet focused, energetic and sophisticated musical conversation between piano and violin that, whether using Kuhn compositions or works by other greats as starting points, extend well beyond the known conventions of the chamber jazz genre.


Joey Alexander, Warna (Verve)

Release date: January 31

Piano prodigy Joey Alexander released his debut album five years ago, at the age of 11, shortly after moving to the United States from Indonesia. Since then, he has grown in confidence and developed his own sound, his progression documented via three successive albums released via Motéma. Warna, his latest studio project, marks his debut for the legendary Verve label and it is a collection of reflective, moving new and original material. Translating as “color” from Alexander’s native language of Bahasa, Warna features his all-star trio, made up of bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Kendrick Scott and, on select track, guest appearances by Venezuelan-born percussionist Luisito Quintero and flutist Anne Drummond.


Wayne Shorter and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, The Music of Wayne Shorter (Blue Engine)

Release date: January 31

“Everybody strives to have a personal sound: his sound is definitive,” says trumpeter Wynton Marsalis of saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter, whose legendary career spans over 60 years. Shorter joined the famed Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis on stage for three nights in 2015, to perform new arrangements of some of his best-known compositions. Highlights from these three unforgettable nights are included on a brand new album simply titled The Music of Wayne Shorter. The album opens with a new version of “Yes or No” from his 1964 Blue Note classic LP, JuJu. Other tracks featured include “Contemplation,” “Endangered Species” and “Teru,” among others.

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