Independent Jazz Spotlight

By Raghav Raj

In 2021, a musical year that hasn’t really had the sort of star-studded, critically adored releases that the year before it did (not yet, at least), the underground and independent music scenes have never been more important. We’re only five months into this year, but luckily, there’s been no shortage of great music from the fringes of mainstream attention. In the past, we’ve shined a spotlight on independent rock and R&B records we love, but for this edition, the Chronicle wants to take a look at another genre that’s often flown under the radar: jazz. There was no shortage of great jazz releases in 2020, and 2021 is on pace to not just continue, but eclipse that trend. Here are a few of the best, boldest, most enjoyable independent jazz records this year has to offer (so far), from some truly fantastic musicians worth paying attention to.

Promises – Pharoah Sanders, Floating Points, & the London Symphony Orchestra

There is something truly, profoundly inspired about the meeting of minds that occurs over the gorgeous, 47-minute odyssey of Promises, in which celestial bodies seem to collide for an out of body experience. Maybe it’s kismet that brought legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders together with producer Sam Shepherd (fka Floating Points), or maybe a shared interest in improvisatory music; whatever the case, their resulting collaborative piece is a marvelous one. Composed primarily by Shepherd, who enlisted the London Symphony Orchestra to perform it, Promises is a richly woven tapestry, a nine-movement piece with chiming synths and swelling strings. But, it is the warm, resonant saxophone tone of an 80-year-old Sanders that truly makes this a revelatory experience. To hear him play on this late-career masterwork is to simply behold a master of his craft, pouring his heart out into every spiritual note.

Made Out Of Sound – Chris Corsand and Bill Orcutt

The latest in a series of collaborations between veteran improvisors Chris Corsano and Bill Orcutt, Made Out of Sound is one of the more unique records this year has had to offer, jazz or otherwise. It is another record where the duo feed off each others energy, with Corsano rumbling on the drums and Orcutt spinning webs of electric guitar lines, but it’s the result of a process where the two couldn’t occupy the same space due to the COVID-19 pandemic — Corsano would send Orcutt his drum parts, and Orcutt would record over them. Yet, despite the disjointed recording process, this is a remarkably cohesive work from start to finish. The pair seem to operate without form, abstract and disjointed in their performances, but what comes through in Made Out of Sound is this unmistakable beauty, gleaming in the eye of their whirling storm.

Uneasy – Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh, & Tyshawn Sorey

Like its title suggests, there is a sense of turbulence running throughout Uneasy, the latest album from pianist and bandleader Vijay Iyer, joined here by bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. The three instrumentalists — all critically acclaimed and wildly talented at their craft — are often entangled with one another throughout the record, each navigating through circular, elliptical passages, dense polyrhythms, and fragmented harmonies. Yet, the triumph of a record like Uneasy is how pristine everything sounds in spite of the sheer musicality at play, how open and resonant it feels, even with its razor-sharp precision and angular textures. It is a deeply complex work, filled with sharp political statements (“Contact Breathing”) and astute reinventions (“Drummer’s Song”) alike, yet it still feels so open, so moving, and so beautiful.

Now – Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble

There is a profound urgency that has animated the works of Damon Locks for the 30 years he’s spent in the heart of Chicago’s art scene, an urgency that has continued into his work as of late with the Black Monument Ensemble, a collective of musicians ranging from ages 9 to 52 that explores what Locks calls “the Black nod,” an unspoken acknowledgement between Black strangers in public. On his latest record, Now, he anchors a raging sonic storm around freeform jazz drumming, pulling in choirs, Angel Bat Dawid’s clarinet, Ben LaMar Gay’s cornet, and a bevy of vocal samples, stitching them together into something that’s unapologetically Black and just wildly gorgeous. The record is another gripping work from Locks and his ensemble — it is deeply political, starkly immediate, and utterly sensational.