Identity is a theme that runs through much of May 2018’s best music. Whether that theme is explored in relation to ethnicity, community, genre, or family, the one thing that all of the music discussed below has in common is a very clear sense of self. In the current media and political culture, people are being increasingly defined purely by their race, place of birth, or their political allegiances. In the music world, now more than ever great importance has been placed on increasingly specific genre and subgenre labels, so, to me it’s heartening to see that these musicians are so sure of their identities and that of their music, that they all hold up as powerful pieces of art, regardless of the labels attached to them by society.

Wonder Trail by Dinosaur

I liked Together, As One, the debut album from British electric jazz quartet, Dinosaur. The record showed the compositional potential of trumpeter and bandleader Laura Jurd, as well as demonstrating the quartet’s chemistry, but I felt that the album was lacking something. It wasn’t until I heard the first single from the band’s May 2018 follow-up that I understood what was missing.

Dinosaur’s biggest issue was their lack of a well rounded sonic identity. Together, As One always felt a little thin to me, but thanks to stronger production and new analogue synth sounds, designed by keyboard player Elliot Galvin, Wonder Trail has a sound much more distinct to this ensemble. The compositions here are atmospheric and open-ended, characterised by eerie, ethereal synths that swirl around Jurd’s varied and spacious trumpet improvisations. I find that what makes this record special though is the stark juxtaposition between that spaciousness and the heavy, consistent grooves played by bassist Connor Chaplin and drummer Corrie Dick. It’s a totally energising contrast, simultaneously mesmerisingly directionless, and totally direct. Nowhere is that more apparent than on the excellent track, ‘Shine Your Light’, which unexpectedly, yet masterfully, adds Jurd’s unassumingly serene vocals into the mix of heavy, crackling bass and enveloping synths.

Starting Today by Joe Armon-Jones

So many musicians today are trying desperately to capture the ‘London Sound’. It seems that every prominent British musical movement has claimed to have created the definitive sound of the city, but I’ve yet to be convinced by any of them. London is such a diverse place with so many different sounds and cultures – nobody could possibly capture all of that in one piece of music.

What Joe Armon-Jones (the keyboard player for London based jazz band The Ezra Collective) has done, is to perfectly capture the blend of musical cultures to be found in a certain area of East London. The keyboard player’s new album, Starting Today, feels like a beautiful collage of sounds that one might find at a community music festival in an area like Bethnal Green, bringing together West African, Caribbean and South Asian influences to capture that part of East London’s particular blend of multiculturalism. The record is unmistakably a Brownswood Recordings release, capturing a similar aesthetic to other current London jazzers like Nubya Garcia, who makes a couple of brilliant guest appearances here, but Starting Today is a much sunnier record than anything else I’ve heard from the new London jazz revival. The optimism here is utterly infectious.

Unless by Hawktail

Contemporary acoustic trio Haas Kowert Tice had been working on the follow-up to their excellent 2014 debut, You Got This, pretty much since it’s release, but they’d hit a snag – the band was missing something. It took the addition of mandolinist Dominic Leslie and a name change to Hawktail before the group could really start in earnest on this new album, Unless. Produced by Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge, and recorded in a number of venues, ranging in grandeur from bassist Paul Kowert’s house, to a rather majestic old church in Nashville, Unless is a raw, honest expression of the full potential of contemporary acoustic music.

The addition of Leslie on mandolin to the already established trio of bassist Paul Kowert, five-string fiddler Brittany Haas, and guitarist Jordan Tice allows for much greater freedom in the arrangements. Far more than on their previous record, Unless is beautifully textured. ‘In the Kitchen’ is a slow moving, lyrical piece that is at its most gorgeous when the percussive mandolin and arpeggiated guitar parts are accompanying a soft, languid bowed bass and fiddle duet. The album also has thrilling moments of high energy, like the harmonically unpredictable, and wonderfully polyphonic ‘El Camino, Pt. 2’ that, whilst having a more traditional bluegrass aesthetic, has a lot of out-of-nowhere musical twists and turns. Unless is a thoroughly satisfying and innovative record, and an essential one for anyone remotely interested in the American acoustic music scene.

Quartet by Bob Reynolds

Words don’t do the interplay of the band on Bob Reynolds’ new record justice. Quartet is aptly titled because this record is about more than just its frontman – tenor saxophonist Bob Reynolds – who has assembled one of the tightest and most intuitive bands in contemporary jazz. Bassist Janek Gwizdala, pianist Ruslan Sirota, and drummer Chaun Horton are all long-time collaborators of Reynolds, and their performances on this record make it feel as if they were born to play this music.

The tunes on Quartet are all in Reynolds’ signature style of pop and soul-influenced jazz, including definitive versions of ‘Closer’ (from 2013’s Somewhere In Between), ‘Down South’ and ‘Crush’ (from 2017’s Guitar Band). The highlights for me were ‘Hollywood Startup’ and ‘Stray Voltage’; the former being an unspeakably warm piece, opened with a simple, rounded bassline and the most heart warming piano playing on the record, followed by a beautifully optimistic saxophone melody. ‘Stray Voltage’ was completely improvised, featuring otherworldly bass effects and echoing sax and piano interplay. The record is totally mesmerising and that is all down to the band’s incredible performance. For my thoughts on one such performance, check out my review of their recent live set in Manchester here.

(((echo chamber))) by MC Paul Barman

Paul Barman is perhaps the most esoteric lyricist in the indie-rap scene. His flow is intentionally non-conforming to the rhythm of the instrumental – something he references in the lyrics to the track, ‘(((happy holidays)))’ – and his rhyme schemes are as complicated as it gets. For me though, and this is perhaps the most personal comment that will be made in this article, the most exciting thing about MC Paul Barman is that he’s Jewish and making music that is at times overtly Jewish.

I can tell you about how much fun the old school hip-hop beats by Questlove and MF DOOM are, or how great the guest performances by Open Mike Eagle and Masta Ace are, but this album is special to me because of the comments that Barman makes about how contemporary Jews in the west relate to society. ‘YOUNGMAN Speaks on (((race)))’ talks about the Jewish relationship to whiteness:

“We gotta start talkin’ or we’re gonna rot and decay
Jews speak the language of our privilege and genocide
We’ve only recently been invited to dress up in their tennis whites”

It’s so rare that Jewish music confronts contemporary Jewish issues, and (((echo chamber))) does so eloquently and with care on an album that flows beautifully thanks to its attentive, visceral production, and conceptual unity. MC Paul Barman is very… very smart.

Still Dreaming by Joshua Redman, Ron Miles, Scott Colley & Brian Blade

Aside from being a brilliant jazz quartet record, saxophonist Joshua Redman’s new project, Still Dreaming – with cornetist Ron Miles, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade – is a moving tribute to Redman’s father, Dewey Redman, and his Ornette Coleman tribute band from the 1980s, Old and New Dreams.

Most of the compositions on Still Dreaming were written by either Redman or Colley, with a couple of tunes by Ornette Coleman and the late bassist Charlie Haden thrown in for good measure. Whilst it’s touching to hear this quartet of excellent musicians interpret some of the music that prompted the project’s existence, it is perhaps more emotionally powerful to hear compositions like ‘Unanimity’ in which Redman channels his father’s aesthetic through his writing. A lot of these tunes are built from thunderous grooves from Brian Blade’s drum kit, and harmonically adventurous, jagged melodies, often played in unison by Redman and Miles, with Colley switching frequently between rhythmic bass lines and melodic fragments. It’s fascinating how, even in the slower tunes like ‘Haze and Aspirations’, the sense of energy and tension is maintained through Redman and Miles’ back and forth, the shape of the melodies, and Blade’s ability to keep his drumming sounding utterly frantic, whilst ensuring that he plays with an incredibly light touch.

Still Dreaming pays tribute to some of the greatest musicians the jazz world has produced but conveys a sense of identity and originality that is wholly belonging to Redman and his bandmates. This is, for me, the best straight-up jazz record to come out of the US this year, so far.

If you enjoy any of this music, please consider supporting the artists by purchasing their work. All of the albums mentioned above are available on iTunes, Google Play and Amazon. All but Still Dreaming are also available on Bandcamp.