Skip to content

2017: the best bits

SLIDESHOW 4 -® Camille Blake - Berliner Festspiele-41

L to R: Kendrick Scott, Gerald Clayton, Ambrose Akinmusire, Dean Bowman (pic: Camille Blake)

Ambrose Akinmusire’s MaeMae

About a year ago I invited the trumpeter and composer Ambrose Akinmusire to listen to the four short blues songs sung in 1939 by Mattie Mae Thomas, an inmate of the women’s wing of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman Farm. She sang them into a recording device set up by Herbert Halpert, a musicologist from the Library of Congress, in the prison’s sewing room, where the female inmates made uniforms and bags for collecting cotton. Unheard by the outside world until 1987, when they were released on a LP by the Rosetta label, these unaccompanied songs are just about as deep and powerful as any blues singing I know. (Here’s one of them: “Workhouse Blues”.) And they are all we know of Mattie Mae Thomas. No details of her life have survived. We don’t know where she came from, how old she was, why she was in prison, or what became of her. All we know is that voice, with its astonishing strength, self-confidence, and nuanced phrasing.

After listening to her, Ambrose accepted a commission to create a piece for the 2017 Berlin jazz festival, my last as artistic director. He told me that Mattie Mae’s voice reminded him of his grandmother, who came from a small Mississippi town called Drew, not far from Parchman Farm, singing in the kitchen when she visited them in Oakland during his childhood. His mother’s middle name, he told me, was also Mae. She had picked cotton as a girl and left Drew to move to California as soon as she could. When he suggested that they make a visit to her old home, she declined. She never wanted to go back there.

In the months between our meeting and his arrival at the festival in the first week of November, I didn’t ask Ambrose any questions about the nature of the piece. All I knew was that he would be bringing a specially assembled sextet including the guitarist Marvin Sewell, the pianist Gerald Clayton, the bassist Joe Sanders, the drummer Kendrick Scott, and the singer Dean Bowman. Once they were in Berlin, I didn’t even go to their rehearsal. I wanted to be surprised.

And I was. The 70-minute song cycle, called MaeMae, contained elements of all the rich sophistication that characterises Ambrose’s music, but dialled right down so that what emerged was a restrained, often sombre, blues-drenched meditation on the music and the culture of the Delta and its echoes in the present day. Samples from Mattie Mae Thomas’s recordings emerged like ghost fragments, lying against the music or integrated into it. Variations on her phrases were sung by Bowman, who sometimes shaped his tone to evoke the texture of voices heard on old shellac 78s and at others ululated to dramatic effect. In one section he explored other hallowed blues motifs (“Another man done gone…”).

The piece took a while to settle — this was a new band, and a new piece — but before long Kendrick Scott was exploring a deep rhythmic pocket, a master drummer of the 21st century channeling the Chicago blues backbeats of Sam Lay and Fred Below.  Marvin Sewell played a magnificently eerie unaccompanied bottleneck solo that paid homage to the masters of the Delta blues. Ambrose, the most eloquent of today’s trumpeters, announced the piece with an unaccompanied liquid fanfare but held back in his solos with a masterful sense of economy.

For me, MaeMae is a composition that involves itself in some of the deepest currents flowing through this period of history, a time in which old battles are suddenly needing to be refought. I hope its life is not confined to a single performance on November 3, 2017 in the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, because it deserves a chance to evolve and deliver its message to the widest possible audience. And to make Mattie Mae Thomas live again.

Now here’s the rest of what I’ve particularly enjoyed this year.

Live performances

1. Vijay Iyer Sextet (Wigmore Hall, October)

2. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society (Kings Place, November)

3. Paolo Conte (Royal Festival Hall, November)

4. Mary Halvorson Octet (New School, New York, January)

5. Caetano Veloso / Teresa Cristina (Barbican, April)

6. Art Ensemble of Chicago (Cafe Oto, October)

7. The Weather Station (Lexington, October)

8. Samora Pinderhughes’ The Transformation Suite (New School, New York, January)

9. Aarset / Bang / Henriksen: The Height of the Reeds (Humber Bridge, Hull, April)

10. Wanja Slavin’s Lotus Eaters (Tiyatrom, Berlin, January)

11. Catherine Christer Hennix (Silent Green, Berlin, March)

12. Steve Winwood (Hammersmith Apollo, July)

13. Giovanni Guidi Trio (Rosenfeld Porcini Gallery, May)

14. Han Bennink / John Coxon / Ashley Wales (Cafe Oto, August)

15. Vyamanikal + 2 (Kings Place, September)

New albums

1. Hedwig Mollestad, Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, David Torn etc: Sky Music: A Tribute to Terje Rypdal (Rune Grammofon)

2. Mavis Staples: If All I Was Was Black (Anti-)

3. Roscoe Mitchell: Bells for the South Side (ECM)

4. Trio Da Kali / Kronos Quartet: Ladilikan (World Circuit)

5. The Weather Station: The Weather Station (Paradise of Bachelors)

6. Amir ElSaffar / Rivers of Sound: Not Two (New Amsterdam)

7. Kendrick Lamar: DAMN. (Top Dawg)

8. Tyshawn Sorey: Verisimilitude (Pi)

9. Little Steven: Soulfire (UMe)

10. Alexander Hawkins: Unit[e] (AH)

11. Bill Frisell / Thomas Morgan: Small Town (ECM)

12. Matt Wilson: Honey and Salt (Palmetto)

13. Binker and Golding: Journey to the Mountain of Forever (Gearbox)

14. Jaimie Branch: Fly or Die (IARC)

15. Ron Miles: I Am a Man (Yellowbird)

16. Yazz Ahmed: La Saboteuse (Nain)

17. Sharon Jones: Soul of a Woman (Dap-Tone)

18. Jimmy Scott: I Go Back Home (Eden River)

19. Gerald Clayton: Tributary Tales (Motéma)

20. Rhiannon Giddens: Freedom Highway (Nonesuch)

Archive / reissue albums

1. Tony Williams Lifetime: Live in New York 1969 (HiHat)

2. The Transcendental Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda (Luaka Bop)

3. Isaac Hayes: The Spirit of Memphis 1962-1976 (Stax)

4. Chris Wood: Evening Blue (Hidden Masters)

5. Bob Marley & the Wailers: Lively Up Yourself (Wewantsounds)

6. Bobby Hutcherson & Harold Land: UCLA 27 September 1981 (Timeless)

7. Jon Hassell: Dream Theory in Malaya (Tak:til)

8. Mike Westbrook Concert Band: Marching Song (Turtle)

9. Gillian Hills: Zou Bisou Bisou (Ace)

10. Harry South: The Songbook (Rhythm and Blues)

Feature films

1. A Quiet Passion (dir. Terence Davies)

2. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

3. Certain Women (dir. Kelly Reichardt)

4. Land of Mine (dir. Martin Pieter Zandvliet)

5. Personal Shopper (dir. Olivier Assayas)

Documentary films

1. I Am Not Your Negro (dir. Raoul Peck)

2. Chasing Trane (dir. John Scheinfeld)


1. Svetlana Alexievich: The Unwomanly Face of War (Penguin Classics)

2. Sam Shepard: The One Inside (Knopf)

3. Thomas Dilworth: David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (Jonathan Cape)

4. Timothy Snyder: On Tyranny (Bodley Head)

5. Jeremy Whittle: Ventoux (Simon & Schuster)

Music books

1. Peggy Seeger: First Time Ever (Faber & Faber)

2. Todd Mayfield w/ Travis Atria: Travelling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield (Chicago Review Press)

3. Bob Dylan: The Nobel Lecture (Simon & Schuster)

4. David Hepworth: Uncommon People (Bantam)

5. Trevor Barre: Convergences, Divergences & Affinities (Compass)


1. Cy Twombly (Centre Pompidou, Paris)

2. Soul of the Nation (Tate Modern)

3. States of America (Nottingham Contemporary)

4. Cézanne portraits (National Portrait Gallery)

5. John Singer Sargent watercolours (Dulwich Picture Gallery)

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Richard Harris #

    Can never match that but the reissue for me, or issue, as it’s never been previously been released in full on record or CD…

    Thelonious Monk Qrt/Quintet, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”, Monk’s own music recorded for Vadim’s film in New York July 1959 with Sam Jones, Art Taylor, Charlie Rouse and Barney Wilen. Glorious, the band still fresh and energised and Monk totally engaged. And on the bonus rehearsal track, Monk calling Art Taylor a “Dumb MF”, because AT keeps messing up a ludicrous snare/bass drum figure. Elsewhere he plays superbly, they all do, it was 1959 after all. THAT year. 2 CD set on SAM records.

    December 19, 2017
  2. Very pleased to see you liked A Quiet Passion so much. And still very miffed that I missed that Giovanni Guidi gig!

    December 19, 2017
  3. saverio pechini #

    Once I mentioned to John Zorn our mutual passion for Tony Williams Lifetime . He beamed and said : greatest group ever !

    December 19, 2017
  4. MJG #

    Another fine list with some things to hunt out, thank you for another year of great writing.
    That Akinmusire sounds great. A real talent apparent from his debut leader date onwards and his earlier work with Steve Coleman. His quartet impressed at Ronnies in the summer. I hope someone gives him the opportunity to record Mae Mae if he’s so inclined.
    Thanks for highlighting the Hutcherson/Land – I had no idea of its existence but listening now and it’s sounding very nice indeed.
    I’m another Guidi fan miffed at missing the gig, sailed completely below my radar. Did it have any pre-publicity?

    December 19, 2017
  5. Steve Hurrell #

    Thank you for your ‘Best bits …’, and all the memories of your year. It is just what I had hoped to have, though reminding me of how much I have missed. The story of ‘Mae, Mae’ was a real bonus.

    December 20, 2017
  6. Nick Clarke #

    There’s a comment by Mike Daley below your Youtube link to Mattie May Thomas’ Workhouse Blues: ‘Mattie May Thomas recorded several a cappella songs for the folklorist Herbert Halpert at Parchman Farm, in the womens’ camp, on May 31 and June 1, 1939. She had been sentenced to life at Parchman for murder. She was from Jackson, Mississippi. She was pardoned by the governor and released in 1956. Her recordings and Halpert’s notes are the Library of Congress, and her recordings have been issued on Jailhouse Blues (1987, Rosetta Records) and American Primitive Vol. 2 (1997, Revenant).’

    December 20, 2017
    • Nick — Thanks for pointing that out. I’m not going to cast aspersions on it at all, but I’ve seen a few things of that nature — including one that suggested she had three stretches in prison — and I’m a little reluctant to place absolute belief in any of them, unless there’s documented evidence to back it up. I have the reissue on Revenant, too — and that’s also hard to find (or expensive, anyway) now. RW

      December 20, 2017

    It was my great privilege to attend this year’s Berlin Jazz Festival, and Ambrose Akinmusire’s ‘Mae Mae’, along with Nels Cline’s ‘Lovers’ and Monica Vasconcelos’s concerts, would certainly appear on my own list of best live performances during 2017. Congratulations and many thanks for three marvelous festivals during your period as artistic director.

    I’m glad to see that Rhiannon Giddens’ ‘Freedom Highway’ made your list of best albums of 2017. I also enjoyed her fine five-track EP, ‘Factory Girl’, which I understand comprised tracks produced by T Bone Burnett and recorded at the sessions for her previous album, ‘Tomorrow Is My Turn’. I share your enthusiasm for The Weather Station, but also listened a great deal during the year to the latest release by another superb singer and songwriter, Aimee Mann’s ‘Mental Illness’.

    Thanks again for your consistently excellent posts during the year; they’re very much appreciated.

    December 21, 2017
  8. GuitarSlinger #

    A few I agree with – A few you introduced me to . A few I disagree with ( Frisell’s latest ) .. and more than a few missing ;

    Here’s a couple of examples


    John Abercrombie 4tet – ” Up and Coming ” ( how in the __ did you overlook that one ? )

    Julian Lage – Chris Eldridge – ” Mount Royal ”

    Concerts ( in the US )

    The Julian Lago Chris Eldridge tour . Two incredible musicians – performing on two fantastic acoustic guitars – playing a set of absolutely wonderful tunes and compositions both traditional and original – one mike – no effects – no amps – no bs


    Ta-Nehisi Coates – ” We Were Eight Years in Power ; an American Tragedy ”

    Sam Shephard – ” Spy of the First Person

    Patti Smith – ” Devotion ”

    Music Books

    Art Garfunkel – ” What is it All But Luminous ”

    David Yaffe – ” Reckless Daughter ” ( a bit fawning and over the top but still informative even for the staunchest of Joni Mitchell fans )

    December 21, 2017
    • Colin Harper #

      But Slinger, you can’t ‘disagree’ with Richard – there’s nothing to disagree with – it’s just a list of what he’s ‘particularly enjoyed’ this year.

      December 21, 2017
      • GuitarSlinger #

        Sure I can . Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion … and as long as its done constructively … they’re also entitled to disagree .

        December 21, 2017
      • Colin Harper #

        No, I don’t think you’re understanding what I’m saying: Richard has offered us a list of things he ‘particularly enjoyed’ this year, not a list of astuff he’s putting up as ‘the 10 best…’ this or that. If you ‘disagree’ with him you are simply disagreeing that he particularly enjoyed those things – which is absurd.

        December 22, 2017

Leave a Reply to Richard Harris Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: