A look back at 2018

Doug Deloach cites the Top Five local albums to catch his ear this year

Photo credit: All photos courtesy the respective labels.
FIVE FOR '18: The pick of the crop.

The Royal Krunk Jazz Orkestra: Get It How You Live (ROPEADOPE) —  What does 21st century big band jazz sound like? The answer is Get It How You Live, which showcases the Royal Krunk Jazz Orkestra, a 19-piece ensemble led by Atlanta-based trumpeter Russell Gunn. With a couple of exceptions, the compositions are Russell’s complemented by arrangements from trombonist and Kennesaw State University jazz band director Wes Funderburk. Dionne Farris lends her superlatively soulful voice to a hair-raising rendition of “Fair,” a song she wrote, along with a new arrangement by Funderburk of another Farris original, “Hopeless,” the title song from the 1997 film. Dashill Smith delivers a lyrical punch to “The Critic’s Song,” which features a funky rhythmic core that careens into a free-blowing horn excursion led by alto saxophonist Brian Hogans. With a degree of precision and élan usually associated with more seasoned big bands, the RKJO maneuvers through a thoroughly contemporary cornucopia of styles including trad jazz, neo-bop, new soul and hip hop.

Lonnie Holley: MITH (Jagjaguwar) —  In September, against a backdrop of unprecedented tension and discord, Lonnie Holley dropped MITH. Like the polished stone and rough concrete sculpture (also by Holley), which serves as the album’s titular inspiration, the third album by the 68-year-old artist is an example of hard-edged reality rendered poetically sublime by its creator’s laser-sharp vision and mindful handling. Abetted by a beautifully apropos ambient framework constructed by Dave Nelson (trombone and loops) and Marlon Patton (drums, percussion, Moog synth bass pedals), with guest support from Shahzad Ismaily, Laraaji, Sam Gendel, Richard Swift, Elizabeth Laprelle and Anna Roberts-Gevalt, Holley leads listeners on a mostly improvised, hypnotically engaging path through impressionistic realms, which touch on myriad themes ranging from racial strife and “overdatafying” to blood kinship and spiritual salvation. “I Woke Up in a Fucked Up America,” a video of which was distributed as a preview of MITH, stands out as a harrowing, dissenting national anthem.

Okorie Johnson: Resolve (Self-release) — Resolve is the product of a commitment by Okorie Johnson, an Atlanta-based cellist and composer self-dubbed OkCello, to explore the potential of his instrument in a solo improvised setting augmented by live electronic effects. Johnson draws from a broad compositional palette, which includes elements of jazz, funk, reggae, EDM, traditional African and Western classical music. Out of this mélange he creates songs that simultaneously resonate with deep familiarity and satisfying freshness, evoking themes ranging from migration (“Broken Teacup”), racism (“Incredulous”) and resilience (“I Wonder What Your Life Was Like”) to love (“You Make Me Smile”), joy (“Springtime in Wakanda”) and desire (“Silence,” the only track with vocals by OkCello). Recorded over a six-month period, Resolve was produced by OkCello, Monyea Crawford and Richard Rollie for LoveChild Productions.

Various Artists: Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by Bill Ferris (Dust-to-Digital) — Almost a decade in the making, Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by Bill Ferris chronicles the estimable work of the field recordist, filmmaker, folklorist, and teacher whose massive archives reside in the University of North Carolina’s Southern Folklife Collection. Functioning as a virtual time machine, Voices of Mississippi transports the listener to worlds inhabited by familiar creatures whose lives play out in unfamiliar temporal, cultural and contextual realms. Every bit as enthralling as the blues and gospel selections in the set are storytelling and spoken-word tracks featuring literary luminaries, such as Barry Hannah, Alice Walker, Alex Haley, Robert Penn Warren and Allen Ginsburg. Also in the mix are examples of bawdy toasts and “the dirty dozens,” representing stylistic precursors of rap. Voices of Mississippi includes a 120-page book edited by Ferris; two CDs featuring blues and gospel recordings (1966-1978); one CD of interviews and storytelling (1968-1994); a DVD featuring documentary films (1972-1980); and a code for downloading/streaming.

Clay Harper: Bleak Beauty (Self-release) — With Bleak Beauty, Clay Harper takes a deep dive into the art of darkness to create a wrenching evocation born of enduring love interrupted by untimely death. In April 2016, six months after being diagnosed with a brain tumor, Harper’s partner of twenty years, Stephanie Gwinn, died at Hospice Atlanta. During the ensuing months of grief and mourning, Harper chronicled his vexed but evolving psychological and emotional state in song form. The result is a compelling amalgamation of dolefully funky ruminations (“The Kindness of Strangers”), blues-inflected lamentations (“Let Me Sleep, I’m So Tired”) and swinging, streetwise observations (“Friday San Francisco”) by a masterfully intuitive songwriter. Recorded by Harper and Ruairi Kilcullen at RdK Audio in Little 5 Points and mixed at Harptone in Atlanta, Bleak Beauty features exquisitely sparing accompaniment by Chaz Jankel, Rick Richards, Duane Trucks, Kevin Scott, Mark Johnson, Tom Gray, Chris Case and Mark Bencuya.

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