Last year was a busy one for San Diego jazz musicians at the recording studio. The depth of talent here is amazing, and this year’s releases bear that out, from start to finish.
Musicians pour their heart and soul into a recording, and some of these discs stayed in my player for months!
1. Peter Sprague String Consort: Dr. Einstein’s Spin (SBE Records) Pairing a jazz trio featuring veterans Bob Magnusson on bass and Duncan Moore on drums with a string quartet including Bridget Dolkas, Jeanne Skrocki, Pam Jacobson, Lars Hoef and Carter Dewberry, Sprague’s monstrous guitar chops and incredibly fertile mind conjure up stunning music that toggles between lush romanticism and stormy chaos.
2. Gilbert Castellanos: Federal Jazz Project (Dobie Music) Castellanos has few peers as a trumpeter, and his score to the remarkable Richard Montoya play was one of the highlights of the year. Featuring San Diego masters Mikan Zlatkovich, Irving Flores, Kamau Kenyatta, Rob Thorsen, Danny Weller, Brett Sanders, Fernando Gomez, Paul Viani and his songbird wife, Lorraine Castellanos, this is a brilliant album with very hip liner notes!
3. Mike Wofford: It’s Personal (Capri Records) Even though he’s been a legend for many years, Wofford does not rest on his laurels. Mixing things up with standards, jazz classics and originals, Wofford’s catholic sense of harmony, innate sense of flow and his deft, in-the-moment choices are mesmerizing.
4. Joe Garrison & Night People: Veranda (self-produced) Garrison has finally reemerged as a force in the San Diego jazz scene, and we are all richer for it. His 14-piece ensemble is too large to name-check individually, but there are stellar solos by Gilbert Castellanos, Derek Cannon, Kamau Kenyatta and Lynn Willard, to name a few. Garrison’s charts are incredible, his imagination and skills as an orchestrator/arranger cannot be overstated.
5. Jeff Kaiser and Phil Skaller: Endless Pie (pfMENTUM) Wild and outrageous, this disc shatters whatever preconception one might have about the possibilities of a trumpet/piano duo album. Kaiser is a master of extended techniques and electronic manipulation, and he's well-matched by the resourceful antics of Skaller’s prepared piano.
6. Ben Wanicur: The Excluded Middle (self-produced) Young bassman Wanicur has been making his presence felt on the local scene, and he’s put together quite the band here, with Ian Tordella on saxophone, Charlie Weller on drums and Peter Sprague on guitar. Wanicur explores odd-metered originals with outstanding results, plus the music of Ornette Coleman and Wayne Shorter. Excellent.
7. Rob Thorsen Trio: Live (Bass-Man Records) Local bass stalwart Thorsen’s stellar trio features Joshua White on piano and Duncan Moore on drums, a unit that can fly off the page and into an improvisational netherworld at the drop of a hat. Recorded live, very lo-fi, at the Athenaeum Music Library, it’s all about the music, not the production values.
8. Justin Grinnell: Without You (self-produced) Grinnell is one of the finest bassists in San Diego. He’s got a great sound, time and ideas on the upright, and he’s absolutely amazing on the electric, an instrument I’m not especially fond of. Fronting a quartet featuring saxophonist Robby Marshall, pianist Josh Nelson and drummer Dan Schnelle, this album is filled with superb mainstream jazz.
9. Lower Left: Just Sayin’ (Sunstone Records) Lower Left are a trio with pianist Mikan Zlatkovich, bassist Bill Andrews and drummer Barry Farrar, who reinterpret jazz standards with blues and funk inflections. Zlatkovich is an amazing pianist, and his original "This Is for Horace" deserves inclusion into the jazz canon.
10. Steph Johnson Trio: Nature Girl (Lotusheart Records) Johnson’s got a big, soulful voice, and her trio -- with Rob Thorsen on bass and Fernando Gomez on drums -- go for a raw, primal aesthetic with a nice mix of standards and Johnson originals. Watching her evolve has been one of the year’s most interesting stories.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.