The albums that got us through 2018: Alexander Varty

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      I’m not going to pretend it’s been a great year; there have been too many deaths in my own circle and beyond to end 2018 with anything other than a sense of loss. Yet music continues to offer not just solace but hope, and the recordings here, for the most part, demonstrate what humans can do when they band together around a shared purpose. The exceptions, of course, are the solo guitar recitals of Bill Frisell and Miles Okazaki, which are more about the beauty that can be found in deep contemplation. Thought and action: along with clean water, they’re the essentials of life.


      Jeremy Dutcher
      Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa

      Utterly deserving of its Polaris Prize win, Jeremy Dutcher’s Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa is a brave and stunningly beautiful voyage deep into the Indigenous singer’s heritage. Responding to archival recordings of the endangered Wolastoq language, Dutcher has enshrined this source material in a web of beats, shimmering string arrangements, and his own operatic tenor, and the end result exemplifies the notion that sometimes you’ve got to look back to move forward.


      Danish String Quartet
      PRISM 1

      I’ve been listening to more chamber music than usual of late, although primarily older recordings on vinyl. One of the new ensembles I’m following is the Danish String Quartet, which has just followed up an extraordinary record of Scandinavian music with the first in a five-part series examining the links between Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, and more contemporary music, in this case that of Dmitri Shostakovich. Sublime playing; revelatory concept.


      Bill Frisell
      Music IS

      A meditative solo excursion from the man who basically invented 21st-century jazz guitar, Music IS finds Bill Frisell reinterpreting some of his “greatest hits”, including the title track from his 1983 debut, In Line, and his gorgeous modern standard “Rambler”. It’s generally sweet music, but that doesn’t take away from Frisell’s deep musicality and whimsical sense of the surreal.


      Julia Holter

      From an opener that sounds like Björk jamming with Swans to other passages that oscillate between the best of prog and the haunting sound of a lonely trumpet, this music has huge ambition and a heart to match.


      François Houle/Alexander Hawkins/Harris Eisenstadt
      You Have Options

      We can’t show 2018 the door without a nod to the contributions of the late Ken Pickering, whose discernment will continue to shape the local and global music scene for years to come—a case in point being this clarinet-piano-drums trio, which he put together for the 2014 TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Compared to the group’s wild, free-form Ironworks debut, which I witnessed, You Have Options is a more contemplative undertaking, but still marked by extraordinary musicianship and near-psychic rapport.


      Myra Melford’s music is a balm in a world gone mad.

      Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret
      The Other Side of Air

      It’s hard not to hear this music as the perfect riposte to the lunatic currently occupying the Oval Office: two African-Americans, two immigrants, and a woman making a collective sound that is compassionate, considerate, and often quite beautiful. It also, at times, indicates horror and sorrow—but hey, life’s like that.


      Miles Okazaki plays Thelonious Monk on Work.

      Miles Okazaki

      ElkHorn plectrist Tom Wherrett tipped me off to this online-only tour de force, in which jazz educator Miles Okazaki has arranged all 70 of Thelonious Monk’s durable compositions for solo guitar. Okazaki’s knack for translating Monk’s pianistic vocabulary to the guitar is uncanny, and of course the tunes themselves are genius.


      Joshua Redman/Ron Miles/Scott Colley/Brian Blade
      Still Dreaming

      Compared to most of the rest of the improv on this year’s list, Still Dreaming is easygoing, swinging stuff—proof that the jazz tradition continues to be elastic and expansive, because 60 years ago the music that inspired Joshua Redman’s all-star band was considered not just new, but threatening. The saxophonist’s pianoless ensemble shares instrumentation with Ornette Coleman’s classic quartet, and reminds us just how songful the late radical’s innovations always were.


      Sons of Kemet
      Your Queen Is a Reptile

      Shabaka Hutchings’s incandescent quartet uses tenor sax, tuba, and two drum kits to explore the many colours contained in blackness—thus, as any painter knows, encompassing the entire visible spectrum. Audible here are reggae, Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian ritual drumming, Ethiopian jazz, Nigerian funk, Detroit house, and New Orleans second-line, all wrapped up in a roiling mass that’s liberating, celebratory, and fierce.


      Dan Weiss

      When Dan Weiss’s Starebaby quintet made its local debut at last summer’s TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, the audience was split between those who were stunned and those who were screaming for more. That’s understandable, for the virtuoso drummer’s music combines the pyrotechnics of technical metal with the rhythmic intricacy of contemporary composition—and having the astounding keyboardists Matt Mitchell and Craig Taborn in his band doesn’t hurt either.