Best of 2001: Michael Stone

Best Music of 2001 Lists

Musical Reflections, 2001

No intent to rank these titles, and no pretense that they represent “the best” of anything. Just an alphabetical register of some worthy recordings that have helped to chase demons away through the tragic odyssey of 2001.

Monty Alexander, Goin’ Yard (Telarc Jazz)
Jazz pianist Monty Alexander proffers a wicked spliff of archetypal Jamaican dub, soul, funk, jazz and folk. Recorded live at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Goin’ Yard — in reference to a Jamaican colloquialism meaning “home” — glistens like the tropical sun on Montego Bay, with seven spirited Alexander originals, an Augustus Pablo classic, two Bob Marley standards, and a sublime reworking of the timeless folk tune “Day-O”. The Jamaica native, who took up piano at age six, absorbed the influences of performers like Louis Armstrong and Nat “King” Cole at Kingston’s Carib Theater, and landed his first New York club gig at eighteen. Some 35 years later, having played with jazz greats Herb Ellis, Ray Brown and Milt Jackson, Alexander swings more lyrically than ever. Check out his gospel-inflected “Trust”, or the brilliant 10-minute exploration of Marley’s “Exodus”, easing stylishly from the original film score (as covered by the Skatalites in 1964) into the reggae anthem it became. Big up!

The Blind Boys of Alabama, Spirit of the Century (Real World)
Formed in 1939 as the Happyland Singers at the Talladega (Alabama) School for the Blind, and first recorded as the Blind Boys in the late 1940s, the group is still headed by founding tenors Clarence Fountain and George Scott. The album confirms The Blind Boys’ enduring claim to the gospel legacy, and reveals an innovative musical force worthy of the new millennium. The instrumental talents of blues stalwarts John Hammond (electric guitar, dobro) and Charlie Musselwhite (harmonica), plus session stalwart David Lindley (guitars, oud) back the venerable harmonists. Gospel standards include “Motherless Child”, “Run on for a Long Time”, a startling remake of “Amazing Grace”, and a church-rocking “Soldier”, whose vocal wizardry and resonant oud-guitar-tambourine interplay stand to raise the quick and the dead. Equally riveting is their take on the Rolling Stones (“Just Wanna See His Face”) and Tom Waits (“Way Down in the Hole”, “Jesus Gonna Be Here”). Gospel album of the year, and you’d best believe.

Cristina Branco, Post-Scriptum (L’empreinte digitale)
For many aficionados, the 1999 death of Amália Rodrigues marked the end of an era for fado, Portugal’s national song form. But a new generation of artists more attuned to the sonorities of Cape Verde’s morna, Brazilian bossa nova, blues, jazz and pop, have taken fado as a point of departure rather than a formal straitjacket. The result is a looser, more open style that retains the expressive lyricism of fado’s incurably tragic longing (a feeling Brazilians call saudade), while assimilating a stylish array of vital contemporary influences. Now 28, Cristina Branco first came to fado a decade ago. An untrained singer of arresting clarity, she projects an ardent vocal intensity whose aspirated Portuguese enunciation conveys fado’s plaintive passions via a vivid selection of poetry set to music by her husband, a subtle instrumentalist whose fluid, ringing precision on the 12-string Portuguese guitar impeccably complements her polytonal colorings. The album is an affecting portrait of a spirited sensibility whose elegant, searing passions reveal a voice of reckoning in the new Portuguese fado.

Orlando Cachaíto López, Cachaíto (World Circuit/Nonesuch)
Among the most original sounds to emerge from Cuban traditional music’s late rediscovery, this is no Buena Vista Social Club rehash. BVSC veteran bassist Cachaíto leaps into untracked territory, melding Afro-Cuban roots with an inspired blend of jazz, R&B, hip-hop DJ and reggae dub. Think bass ‘n’ drums ‘n’ horns, wherein Cachaíto convenes with the righteous rhythmic souls of Art Blakey, Mingus, Max Roach, Mongo Santamaria, Cal Tjader and the fleeting spirit of Latin Boogaloo. Guests include Jamaica’s Hammond organ wizard Bigga Morrison, South African trumpeter Hugh Masakela, saxists Pee Wee Ellis (of James Brown and Van Morrison fame) and Jimmy Jenks (NG la Banda, Celia Cruz), and Los Zafiros doo-wop surf guitarist Manuel Galván. Galván’s eerie fuzz-tone guitar invokes the sound of legendary blind tresero Arsenio Rodríguez on “Oración Lucumí” and “Wahira”, the latter with a sublime vocal cameo by the ageless Ibrahim Ferrer. Essential listening.

The Conga Kings, Jazz Descargas (Chesky)
Afro-Cuban percussion and modern jazz owe much to veteran rhythm aces Candido Camero and Patato Valdés, whose conga stylings marked the sound of Kenny Dorham, Errol Garner, Stan Kenton, Machito, Tito Puente, Max Roach, Billy Taylor and so many others. These elder hand-percussion statesmen hold court once more with Puerto Rican master Giovanni Hidalgo. Like his seniors, Hidalgo once backed Art Blakey and Dizzy Gillespie, along with Freddie Hubbard, Eddie Palmieri and Dave Valentin. In ten extended descargas (jams), each plays multiple congas, joined by such standout guests as Cuban trumpeter Chocolate Armenteros, Puerto Rican trombonist Jimmy Bosch, Dominican baritone saxist Mario Rivera, alto saxist Phil Woods and flautist Mauricio Smith. The incomparable conga triad strikes a resonant foundation for a fully textured sound in turns evocative of Duke Ellington, Juan Tizol, Bud Powell, Machito, Dizzy and Chano Pozo (all of whose compositions they essay), while the magnificent tres of Nelson Gonzalez summons the hovering spirit of Cuban legend Arsenio Rodríguez.

Csókolom, Ludo Luda — Fool’s Fancy (Arhoolie)
With humor, verve and virtuosity this European string foursome improvises upon the gypsy inflected string music of the Balkans and greater Transylvania. Leader Anti von Klewitz possesses a raspy, world-weary alto voice, and she plays a quick-fingered fiddle. The recording reveals a dramatic ear for arrangement, and an omnivorous musical appetite that embraces Balkan miscellany, Hungarian, classical, and jazz influences. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard the “Pink Panther Theme” slyly retooled as a traditional Hungarian dance, and that’s only the beginning.

Yair Dalal & the AIOI Ensemble, The Perfume Road (Magda)
Israeli composer, violinist and oud player Yair Dalal, leader of the AlOl Ensemble, is a passionate advocate of cultural reconciliation between peoples of diverse ethnicity, language and religion, citing their long linkage by the trade routes crisscrossing the Middle East and Arabic-speaking Africa. In a multicultural music of profound artistry, hope and cultural respect, Dalal offers evidence that musicians from diametrically opposed religious traditions can convene to make transcendent music dedicated to seeking peace and understanding in the face of mutually assured destruction. The album weaves together the delicate strains of Middle Eastern sounds in an entrancing exploration of cross-cultural kinship whose time has undeniably come.

Lila Downs, Border — La Linea (Narada World)
Lila Downs grew up in Mexico listening to ranchera singers like Lola Beltrán and Lucha Reyes (as favored by her mother, a Oaxaca native and singer). From her father she developed musical tastes ranging from Billie Holiday to Woody Guthrie (Downs interprets Guthrie with the kind of authority and power that hasn’t been heard since Dylan’s early tributes). She processes all these influences through her own exacting artistic frame, instilling a productive creative tension in her music, an engaged fusion of indigenous Mexican and Latin American traditions with Tex-Mex conjunto, folk, C&W, rock, jazz, funk and hip-hop. Downs’ astonishing voice, poignant coloration and soaring range (in Spanish, English, and indigenous Mexican idioms) reflects an immersion in opera and classical voice training, and a background in jazz. She has a dramatic sense for vocal improvisation, and an intuitive feel for the expressive traditions of greater Latin America. Her third album is a critical extended essay on the paradoxical presence and meaning of the U.S. Mexico border in the lives of Mexicans and North Americans alike. Border confirms a rare vocal talent combined with a passionate, deeply expressive composer’s hand, manifesting a continuously maturing artistic and political voice whose capacity to provoke and surprise demands far wider audition.

Fanfare Ciocarlia, Iag Bari (Piranha)
I first saw Fanfare Ciocarlia live at a street festival in Nuremberg, Germany, in the summer of 1998, and their killer wall of sound drew an audience that wouldn’t let them off the stage. Hailing from Moldavia in northeastern Romania, the band embodies all the bravura and vertiginous speed of Romany gypsy brass-band music, a tradition sprung from the Turkish military occupation of the Balkans under Ottoman rule. This high-spirited release comprises a supple blend of Serbian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Romanian, Turkish, Near Eastern and international influences, all played with grace and humor at a breakneck pace, and without ever losing a fine sense of musical precision. Includes an engaging bonus video clip from their upcoming documentary.

John Hammond, Jr., Wicked Grin (Pointblank)
Two American originals convene on an inspired album of Tom Waits tunes, turned inside out by one of today’s finest traditional blues performers. Spanning a nearly 40-year career, John Hammond’s artistry can be measured by a stellar roster of a collaborators: Duane Allman, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Mike Bloomfield, David Bromberg, T-Bone Burnett, J.J. Cale, Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Dylan, Richard & Mimi Fariña, John Lee Hooker, Garth Hudson, John Mayall, Augie Meyers, Charlie Musselwhite, Robbie Robertson, Koko Taylor, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bill Wyman and Waits himself. Steeped in the styles of Son House, Skip James, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Hooker and Jimmy Reed, Hammond is a consummate performer, a powerful, wryly offhand singer, and an authoritative acoustic and electric guitarist. And here he reveals himself as a matchless Waits interpreter. Waits produced, also playing guitar and piano; Meyers contributes his inimitable keyboard sound, with harmonica accents by Musselwhite. Waits adds his own unmistakable voice on the closing cut (the only tune he didn’t write), a stirring a cappella gospel shout, “I Know I’ve Been Changed”. You will be too. (The number-one selling blues title of the year, reports Amazon.)

Sandy Lopicic Orkestar, Border Confusion (Network Medien)
A tragic sonority drives this powerful 14-member Balkan brass band, fronted by three soulful female singers hailing respectively (and improbably, if we are to believe the region’s ethnic cleansers) from Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo. The title invokes the bloodletting madness of the Balkans during the 1990s, but the album confirms the capacity of the human spirit to rise from the ruins of a murderously compromised social experiment that engendered unspeakable human brutality, suffering and hypocrisy. Lopicic’s erudite, abandoned, non-stop reworking of Balkan brass traditions through the idioms of R&B, funk and jazz suggests that music, in its potential to express sentiments and longings that defy verbalization, has the power to heal all.

Lydia Mendoza, La Alondra de la Frontera Live! (Arhoolie)
National Heritage Award winner Lydia Mendoza has performed for presidents in Mexico and the United States, including the 1977 inauguration of Jimmy Carter. The Texas native was ushered into the Tejano Music and Conjunto Music Halls of Fame in 1991, and President Clinton conferred the National Medal of Arts upon her in 1999. Mendoza, “the lark of the border,” reigns as the most enduring and highly revered female singer-guitarist of traditional Mexican music on either side of the border. This previously unreleased 1982 recording is an important addition to the oeuvre of an American artistic legacy.

Los Mocosos, Shades of Brown (Six Degrees)
Los Mocosos present a searing Latin ska, rockero swing, R&B funk and Spanglish hip-hop blend sprung from the San Francisco Mission District’s polyglot streets. The band’s tight, bright invocations of Willie Bobo, Santana, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria and Tower of Power reflect the unimpeachable pedigree of old-school Bay Area Chicano music. Los Mocosos’ percussive groove renders a wickedly witty but absolutely sober goodtime music whose outspoken politics align them with the best of War, El Chicano, Malo, Los Lobos, Dr. Loco’s Rockin’ Jalapeño Band and performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña. Los Mocosos breathe life into War’s old hit, “Spill The Wine” (complete with some perfect Beny Moré gritos), and overall the album celebrates the streetwise attitude of their dead-on songwriting and musicianship. There’s a montuno tribute to Tito Puente, a pointed denunciation of sweatshop worker abuse (“The Border”), and a wry repudiation of San Francisco’sé gentrification (“Mi Barrio Loco”). Finally, there is the title track’s infectiously subversive ode to racial tolerance, which with any justice, could become the anthem of an emergent multicultural nation.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba Trio, Supernova (Blue Note)
Jazz pianist and composer Gonzalo Rubalcaba comes from Cuban music royalty, and his rare genius unfolds in perfect synch with the playing of bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ignacio Berroa. The latter, one of the most sublime percussionists in jazz today, plays the traps with a beatific wisdom confounding in its depth, unerring taste and transcendent good humor. In performance, one sees Rubalcaba thinking as he plays, crossing and combining the many colors of his aural palette. Beyond an essay in the fortuitous meeting of Cuban music and jazz, this is a joyously fluent global exposition of the classic jazz trio framework’s untapped potential, and the kinetic planetary tonalities it can produce through the hands of a master.

Otis Taylor, White African (Northern Blues)
Taylor is a Colorado bluesman whose razor-edged message of human dignity slices to the blues idiom’s very heart of darkness. In a case-hardened social-expressionist mode, Taylor offers a merciless, brilliant minimalist deconstruction of racism, lynching (“St. Martha’s Blues”, based on his own great-grandfather’s end, as told by his grandmother), poverty, illness, homelessness, and other institutionalized features of the American social formation. Taylor stands to fill the shoes of John Lee Hooker, who passed into the spirit in 2001, together with Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Charley Patton–not to mention the forlorn denizen genius of the bedeviled global crossroads blues himself, Robert Johnson. Ignore Taylor’s searing message at your own and society’s peril.

Riccardo Tesi & Banditaliana, Thapsos (Dunya FY-8022)
At the forefront of Italian roots music, melodeon wizard Riccardo Tesi crafts an erudite instrumental blend of folk, jazz, classical and Eastern influences. With nothing to prove but much to impart, Tesi’s majestic virtuosity taps the vital pulse of the Mediterranean’s intersecting expressive traditions, projecting a cosmopolitan vision, irrepressible optimism and impeccable musicianship. Cut from a luxuriant tapestry of pan-Mediterranean sound, this is a subtle improvisatory work whose every listening reveals previously hidden nuances.

Various Artists, Bosavi: Rainforest Music from Papua New Guinea (Smithsonian Folkways)
A word of caution to would-be listeners. Prepare to enter a world wherein sound and human sentiment are inseparable, one whose musical conception offers a radical critique of our unexamined account of reality, and hence, of the very character of the human condition. What is the fundamental relationship between us all as humans, and what is humanity’s collective place in the natural universe? The Bosavi offer a recondite, musically philosophical reflection upon an ageless conundrum, and this carefully documented three-CD set offers a rare chance to listen in upon a people whose very cultural survival (not unlike our own) now hangs in the balance.

Various Artists, New York City: Global Beat of the Boroughs (Smithsonian Folkways)
Produced by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance in connection with the 2001 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, this two-CD set presents 31 lively examples of folk music from the transnational crossroads, performed by ensembles from New York’s many vibrant immigrant neighborhood. True to the Smithsonian’s educational mission, erudite and informative aural, textual and photographic documentation illuminates the music of New York’s sizable and diverse foreign-born population. Little could the artists and producers have anticipated the vital historical significance of their project, released only shortly before September 11. But New York lives, and here is the evidence, in the worst of times a worthy musical testament to human endurance and cultural survival.