1 Bobo Stenson Trio, Sphere, ECM
A heavyweight listen that rewards maximum concentration this trio of pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Anders Jormin and drummer-percussionist Jon Fält has been together for a long time and there is a gravitas to what they do that such a long association has helped create. It is no exaggeration to claim that the Stenson trio is one of the greatest jazz piano trios in Europe of recent decades and this latest output recorded last year only goes to underline that idea. Stenson shares a lot in common with John Taylor and fans of JT will locate a certain solace and beyond in this Lugano recording when they listen to Stenson. While often an austere listen shaped around compositions (and arrangements) by Jormin and with repertoire also spanning the Norwegian pianist and composer Alfred Janson, Danish composer Per Nørgård, Swedish composer Sven-Erik Bäck and the great Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius, Stenson escapes the barriers of any structures to radiate outwards his particular sense of freedom. And you get this factor especially on Jormin's hugely expansive piece 'Kingdom of Coldness'. Fält's touch at the beginning of 'Communion Psalm' is perfect and here Stenson's devout statement and recapitulation of his theme has a dimensional exactitude that is almost baroque in its sense of discipline and immaculate symmetry.
2 Lucia Cadotsch, AKI, Heartcore
Berlin based Swiss experimental art-jazz singer Lucia Cadotsch here with the UK piano trio of pianist Kit Downes, bassist Phil Donkin and drummer James Maddren plus guest Heartcore label boss US guitar icon Kurt Rosenwinkel on the tracks 'Bitter Long Lying Leisure' and 'Medusa's Champagne'. Maddren explodes the beginning of the 'Bitter' track like the aftermath of having lobbed a grenade into an inert puddle of absolute calm. And Rosenwinkel's hugely bluesy pas de deux with Cadosch on it has a John Scofield quality sense of poise. You can feel the flow - and that is a factor throughout AKI.
Most of the songs on an album that celebrates many facets of iconic female strength and role model empowerment here are Cadotsch and Downes co-writes while Donkin wrote the track 'Naked and Numb' sequenced right at the end of these succinct and highly intoxicating songs. The album also features a reimagination of the Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill murder ballad 'Ballad of the Drowned Girl' (in German 'Ballade Vom Ertrunkenen Mädchen'). Brecht was inspired to write by the murder of the Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg during the suppression of the Spartacist Uprising in Berlin in January 1919 and known in a classic low toned - by then far from soubrette - version from the mid-1950s by the Vienna born icon of the 20th century - Lotte Lenya (1898-1981).
A 10th album in a much acclaimed and Deutscher winning career so far, Cadotsch is very unmannered and natural as a singer attuned to the canvas where improvisers are most at home. Donkin is hugely listenable to in his opening solo on 'Brother II'. Highlights also include Downes' luminous introduction to 'Lily of the Nile' and scampering warp speed brilliance on 'I Won't'. In all there are at least three winning elements here: the Rosenwinkel tracks, incredible band rapport and persuasive faraway vocals.
The ghostly multi-tracked backing vocals response on 'Secedas' is one of the best arranged features in terms of impact and to-and-fro across pillar to post from singer to trio. Here Downes and Maddren's rapport with Cadotsch can be happily appreciated alongside their work with another fine very clued up jazz singer, Sarah Gillespie. Best of all on AKI is the room to roam experimentally in terms of extended soloing that illuminates rather than crowds out the core quality of the songs in all their intricate beauty.
3 Jef Neve, That Old Feeling, Universal Music Belgium
''Everybody wants somebody to be their own piece of clay'': What a treat of a late night listen from Jef Neve. The solo piano piece 'Merlot', as intimate as any Ellingtonia, ironically at the end is your first port of call for the ''famous'' jazz Belgian pianist's study of touch. But look what else there is and the substantial parade of guests does not diminish the album in terms of consistency or impact at all. There are some great songs here after all from a wide variety of sources and the whole thing is jazz arranged.
Not at all, however archly, a case of ''nostalgia ain't what it used to be,'' Madeleine Peyroux is all croaky and fragile like a singer in an old western saloon on the Sammy Fain and Lew Brown written title track that goes back to the late-1930s delivered up by the cheeky chappies Shep Fields and His Rippling Rhythm consigned such is the way the cookie crumbles as history mostly fails to remember, to the music hall of non-fame. The melody of the song, however, is still instantly familiar and the words best of which include ''once again, I seemed to feel that old yearning'' radiate and linger long however exasperatingly.
UK singer Sam Merrick (Nick Ross Orchestra) is so creamy and complete and contemporary by contrast on 'Something So Right,' and Sam ''Black and Gold'' - what a wonderful song from 2008 - Sparro goes on a dive into the 1980s. But was covering the Eurythmics' 'Here Comes The Rain Again' such a splendid idea? Hmmm, the jury's still out.
Dutch hip hopper Typhoon provides some more ace moments on 'The Nearness of You' where Neve's accompaniment is discreet but top drawer. Dutch singer Trijntje Oosterhuis is on the highly arranged 'Here's To Life', while soulstress Robin McKelle on 'Cheek to Cheek' is when the band get a chance to blow. Also on the album are America's Got Talent singer Johnny Manuel and on here too is Monique ''Mo'' Harcum on the lit up inside 'Piece of Clay'. Harcum started in the States as a dancer and was in Spike Lee's Malcolm X. If you are a fan of the great Carleen Anderson who covered the gospelly number this certainly will make your day and quite probably your week. Manuel is moving and does justice to the Damien Rice tearjerker from the earlier noughties 'The Blower's Daughter'. Harcum on the Marvin Gaye and Anderson associated 'Piece of Clay' written by Gloria Jones and Pam Sawyer sticking close to Carleen's template on the glorious anti victim-blaming song is simply phenomenal.
That Old Feeling is cleverly knitted together because it merges the super vintage with some recent choices that update the balladic sensibility and there is a certain witchcraft in the strength of the A&R choices.
4 Nguyên Lê, Silk and Sand, ACT
Playing a blinder on the new Dhafer Youssef album Street of Minarets Silk and Sand is every bit as good east meeting west - and whisper it the great Vietnamese-French guitarist Nguyên Lê's best record yet, and that's saying a lot given his many achievements over the years mostly on ACT. Why that is perhaps is the sheer comfort you find him in here. But there's more than that. Yes, the instrumentalism is dazzling. For his sound make the leap from the microtonalism of David Fiuczynski, add in a bit of John McLaughlin and you are half way there plus factor in a lot of Asiatic dreaming and non-western scales journeying even deeper. Here Nguyên is with bassist Chris Jennings and percussionist Rhani Krija. It's a power trio sound that joins the dots across so many genres and yet connects most with a hot fiery blues sensibility and particularly if you like the adventurous innovations of the 1970s. The bottleneck reverberations on 'Becoming Water' are a feat for one. Guests are Sylvain Barou on the flute and duduk, Miron Rafajlovic trumpet & flugelhorn and the great Étienne Mbappé on electric bass.
5 Maciej Obara Quartet, Frozen Silence, ECM
A serious elemental listen the tunes stacked with intimations of the natural world, mountains, rainbows, stone, heat, cold and silence. Sax, piano, bass drums - very much an acoustic sound where you can feel the presence and strength of all the instruments it is the work of the Polish-Norwegian band of alto saxophonist Maciej Obara whose Three Crowns (2019) and Unloved (2017) have already unveiled the band's pedigree. The new album is stocked with Obara tunes the compositions inspired by the landscapes of the Karkonosze region in south-west Poland where Obara's family roots are. The pianist on the new album is once again fellow Pole pianist Dominik Wania, with Norwegians Ole Morten Vågan on bass and drummer Gard Nilssen completing the quartet. Hugely rewarding.
Jon Fält, Bobo Stenson, Anders Jormin. Photo: Caterina Di Perri/ECM