Bay Area jazz awards 2020: These musicians made great music in a bad year

A most unusual year calls for a different approach to evaluating the albums that have crossed my path over the past 12 months.
In the best of times I’m grateful for new music that moves, inspires and entertains me, but in this annus horribilis music has provided an emotional lifeline and vision of connectedness amidst the grinding isolation. In a spirit of cautious optimism that better times lurk around a corner or two, these are the first (and hopefully last) annual Pandemic Awards for Jazz and Beyond.
The World Catches Up: Award: After three decades soaring around the Bay Area jazz scene, soul-powered Oakland jazz vocalist Kenny Washington earned a Grammy nomination with his first studio album under his own name, “What’s the Hurry?,” a relaxed and confidently swinging set of standards featuring Los Angeles pianist Josh Nelson and the Bay Area’s Gary Brown (bass) and Lorca Hart (drums).

The Catalog? I Got Your Catalog Award: Long before Venezuelan-born Emeryville pianist/composer Edward Simon started his ongoing run in the SFJazz Collective, he released a series of exceptional albums melding jazz and Latin American rhythms for small, poorly distributed labels. The two-disc anthology “25” makes an incontrovertible case that he’s been a vanguard figure in jazz’s pan-American expansion.

The Sheila Jordan Award: San Francisco vocalist Noa Levy makes a dazzling debut on the duo session with stellar bassist Shimpei Ogawa, “You Me & Cole,” delivering a set of Cole Porter standards with all the wit and joie de vivre the material requires. She makes the high-wire bass-and-vocals format pioneered by vocal legend Sheila Jordan sound like a cake walk.

The John Santos Award: As a musician, educator, activist and bandleader who embodies integrity and the highest musical values Oakland percussionist John Santos deserves an award in his own image, presented this year in honor of “Art of the Descarga,” his jazz-steeped Smithsonian/Folkways album inspired by his collaborations with pioneering Cuban bassist Israel “Cachao” López (who formulated the jazz-informed, improv-laced descarga format in 1950s Havana).

The Crime Does Pay Award: Refusing to let a crisis go to waste, Oakland’s Jazz Mafia collective has released a steady flow of recordings and videos over the past nine months, including the funk-driven get-out-the-vote collaboration with W. Kamau Bell and Jacob Kornbluth, “Say Something, Do Something,” an eponymous project on Slow & Steady Records by Cosa Nostra Strings (and a companion album of remixes); and most recently “West Oakland Sessions Vol​.​2.” Going to the mattresses is a whole lot more fun with a hard-grooving Jazz Mafia soundtrack.

The You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet Award: In the weeks before the March shelter in place order came down, Berkeley clarinetist/composer Ben Goldberg released the sumptuously lyrical album “Symphony No. 9,” which would have made 2020 a winning year for any artist. But since the initial lockdown he’s written, recorded and posted a new tune almost every day, a beguiling body of work called “Plague Diary” that encompasses more than 200 pieces. You can listen to it all here.
The In Case NASA Needs a Resident Composer Award: Inspired by the whimsical celestial fables of Italian writer Italo Calvino, Berkeley bassist/composer Lisa Mezzacappa wrote a series of antic, playful, and often poignant settings for the album “Cosmicomics,” a project featuring her sextet with guitarist John Finkbeiner, drummer Jordan Glenn, tenor saxophonist Aaron Bennett, vibraphonist Mark Clifford, and Tim Perkis on electronics. Toggling between free improvisation and through-composed passages, her music infuses cosmic musings with human drama.

The Cuba Con Alma Award: After decades of delivering Cuban standards Havana-born Oakland vocalist Bobi Cespedes released her first album focusing on her own songs with “Mujer y Cantante,” a project that combines her deep folkloric roots with her affectionate and often wry view of contemporaryCuban music. Her top-notch band is led by Marco Diaz, a commanding pianist and a warm-toned trumpeter.

The Finger on the Zeitgeist Award: Released within days of the March shelter in place order by the artist-run San Francisco label Slow & Steady, El Cerrito trumpeter Ian Carey’s “Fire In My Head” is a study in tension and release, with his Quintet Plus One deftly navigating his extended forms and dense counter themes. Featuring pianist Adam Shulman, drummer Jon Arkin, bassist Fred Randolph, reed expert Sheldon Brown on bass clarinet, and alto saxophonist Kasey Knudsen, it’s a band brimming with exceptionally expressive players.

The Young Lions Frolic with Old Cats Award: Recorded in October 2008 but not released until June, “6X6” documents an afternoon studio encounter between two avant garde jazz giants — San Jose trumpeter Eddie Gale and Oakland saxophonist Prince Lasha — and four younger colleagues, including saxophonists Howard Wiley and David Boyce, bassist Marcus Shelby, and drummer Darrell Green. Every player contributes a tune, and the volatile music reflects rising spirits days before Barack Obama’s first presidential triumph.
Honorable mentions
Here are another 11 highly recommended 2020 releases

Brian Andres Trio Latino, “Mayan Suite”
Clairdee, “A Love Letter to Lena”
FivePlay, “Summer Dusk: Studio Sessions”
Phillip Greenlief, “Barbedwire: 37 Graphic Scores for Trio, Vol. 1”
Lorca Hart Trio with Ralph Moore, “The Colors of Jazz”
Erik Jekabson Sextet III, “One Note At a Time”
Michael O’Neill, “And Then It Rained”
Jill Rogers, “Cloudy Day Sunny”
Fred Randolph, “Mood Walk”
Trance Mission, “Le Pendu”
Mahsa Vahdat, “Enlighten the Night”

Contact Andrew Gilbert at jazzscribe@aol.com

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