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The New Cool: Favorites of 2019

Abe Beeson
Look at that calendar! It's nearly year's end, with top modern jazz of 2019 on The New Cool this week.

This Saturday afternoon on The New Cool, you'll hear a few of the show's favorite albums of 2019. Snarky Puppy, Julian Lage, Theo Croker, Jeff Coffin's Dream Shanti all released terrific modern jazz this year. We'll also celebrate excellent new albums from Tacoma's Velocity and Seattle's Barrett Martin Group.

Snarky Puppy released their 12th album this year, with Immigrance debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard jazz albums chart. It's another exciting blend of multiple musical influences with hip-hop and funk meeting up with rock and world music, this time performed with the confidence of a band in their 15th year together.

The bottom line is immaculately arranged grooves that feel as loose as a jam session, an impressive feat for a 19-member band. Rhythm is at a premium with three drummers performing on all the songs, featuring up to three percussionists, as well. JT Thomas, Larnell Lewis and Jamison Ross are formidable drummers on their own, with Ross earning a Grammy nomination for his own debut album in 2015.

There's a slow burn patience to much of Immigrance, often building into exciting crescendos. Band members build on each other's ideas and resolve into a unity we could use more of in the world today.

Catch the crowd pleasing funk of Snarky Puppy's "Bad Kids to the Back" on KNKX this Saturday afternoon. It's rhythm is deep in the pocket, creating a rousing solo opportunity for saxophonist Bob Reynolds and a fierce battle for the three drummers that sounds impossibly seemless. Maturity suits this band.

The new release from guitarist Julian Lage's Trio continues his survey of American music. Love Hurts includes songs from jazz legends Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett, a few Lage originals, and songs from composers as far flung as David Lynch and Roy Orbison.

Lage is a virtuoso who always honors the spirit of a song, and does so here with longtime musical partner Jorge Roeder on bass and the addition of drummer Dave King of The Bad Plus. The trio excels at blending the impulses of the avant-garde within very traditional song structures. It's a fresh view of the total freedom musicians achieve within the most time honored standards.

Hear Julian Lage and his trio performing the title song from Love Hurts on The New Cool this Saturday. The old Boudleaux Bryant song made famous by rock group Nazareth also was covered by Orbison, as well as the Everly Brothers. Lage seems to take the melody back to it's roots, yet update it for the 21st century. It's a song I never liked, until now.

Trumpeter Theo Croker's new Star People Nation album builds on the jazz tradition while sounding fully of the new century. That means we hear more traditional quintet performances than Croker's previous, modern hip-hop flavored efforts. Not what I would have asked for or expected, but I love it.

The grandson of trumpet legend Doc Cheatham, Croker says he was looking for the spontaneity of the live experience on this album. There are electronics and samples, of course, but the overall vibe is much more organic.

Croker's own vocals, as well as guest rappers and singers, make appearances on Star People Nation. His former producer and good friend Kassa Overall matches wits with Eric Harland for a double drum effort on "Alkebulan," but we mostly hear Croker's quintet shining through a polished, modern jazz vibe.

Credit Photo by Craig Carpenter, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts
Theo Croker blows his soul into his horn on Star People Nation.

You'll hear "Portrait of William" on the show Saturday, one of the more poignant songs in this 10-part album. Built on a song Croker began writing as a teenager, it's a melancholy-yet-hopeful homage to his father, a teacher and civil rights activist who worked with Martin Luther King in the '60s.

When I first heard about reeds player Jeff Coffin's new album, I was skeptical. Would his Dream Shanti band be simply adding sitar and tabla to a modern jazz band? Well, yes and no.

The new album Music in Our Dreams was born in a jam session at Coffin's home studio. He invited Indian stars Indrajit Banerjee (sitar) and Subrata Bhattacharya (tabla) to play with him and his friends, resulting in a complex but natural sounding melange of traditional Indian sounds in a fresh, free-flowing improvisational setting.

Credit Ear Up Records album cover design for Music in Our Dreams
Jeff Coffin finds inspiration from India with his new Dream Shanti project.

The music floats just beyond the reach of genre descriptions, but the droning sitar and pulsing tabla create a dreamy environment for all of Coffin's instruments to explore. He breaks out four saxophones, three flutes and two clarinets, joined by friends like Roy "Futureman" Wooten from the Flecktones on percussion and Coffin's Dave Matthews Band-mate Stefan Lessard on bass.

We'll dig into "Sandhya Deep" from the new record Saturday afternoon. Coffin's sax erupts with joy, and the rhythm develops into a swaying, meditative back and forth that hints at pianist Horace Silver's poppy side. Solos from Banerjee's sitar and Coffin's soprano sax follow in a loose, improvisational jazz mode. All the time, the tabla keeps the beat pulsing along.

Representing Tacoma on our year-end list, Velocity's new album Magnetar exceeded my expectations for complex and melodic groove jazz. Full of songs written by keys player Peter Adams, progressive rock meets funky jazz fusion, that pushes the band to the edge of their abilities. "I think the goal with all the songs has been to write stuff we can't play and then learn how to play it," Adams told me this year.

Odd time signatures abound, with more emphasis on funk, and hints of the rare jagged edges of smooth jazz melodicism. Velocity's drummer Brian Smith mentions new songs with rhythms " seven against 3 against 2, then it floats to four and modulates back to seven." Saxophonist Cliff Colon jokingly adds, "You have to have a calculator to listen to our album."

"Magnetar," the debut single, begins with a driving beat that lays out a couple soulful hooks, then relaxes into a chill out section. Gradually picking up the pace, with an empassioned sax solo from Colon, the song returns to chill out mode, leading to Adams' solo on spacey synthesizer. The slowdown hits once more before the band brings the proceedings to a satisfyingly funky conclusion.

With the first of two albums released this year, the Barrett Martin Group has been on a tear. Indwell, the more recent, is a customized sequence of 25 songs for the Nirguna Yoga Center in Albuquerque. The first, Songs of the Firebird is the more jazz oriented, with a healthy measure of rock 'n' roll. Indeed, the 20 songs have radio-friendly running times around three to four minutes.

Through all 20 pieces on Songs of the Firebird, the rhythm section is a central, but not overwhelming, focus. Martin has developed into a terrific songwriter. Catchy ensemble horn riffs, echoed or answered or supported by a team of bass, keys and vibes make sure that this is not simply an album for drummers.

Martin came up in rock bands in the late '80s, and there's a charming gritty, old school downtown Seattle vibe to many of the songs. Soundgarden guitarist supreme Kim Thayil plays on three songs, soloing impressively.

Credit Abe Beeson
Packed with 20 great songs, the Barrett Martin Group released this double album on one CD in 2019.

And yet, there's Hans Teuber burning up a skyscraping sax solo, or Dave Carter blowing a sharp trumpet solo through a wah-wah pedal. Seattle's improvisational "favorite uncle," Wayne Horvitz, adds solos to a pair of songs, with keyboard sounds from retro-dub to extraterrestrial.

I'll play the in-the-pocket party rocker "Drum & Basie" on The New Cool this week. Martin opens the tune on the exotic gamelan, ensemble horns punctuate the melody and piano tinkles underneath. Hans Teuber takes a yearning sax solo with the repetitive, drum-and-bass-inspired theme closing out the song.

It's been a great year for modern jazz and the less definable jazz-adjacent. I thank you for listening, and invite you to join me for another year of discoveries on The New Cool. Listen closely this week for your chance to win a stocking stuffer CD from this list, even if the mailman may not get it to your door in time for Christmas.

The New Cool airs Saturdays from 3 to 5 p.m., hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.

Abe grew up in Western Washington, a third generation Seattle/Tacoma kid. It was as a student at Pacific Lutheran University that Abe landed his first job at KNKX, editing and producing audio for news stories. It was a Christmas Day shift no one else wanted that gave Abe his first on-air experience which led to overnights, then Saturday afternoons, and started hosting Evening Jazz in 1998.