Letter of Recommendation is the best column the New York Times publishes.
The Letter is not really a recommendation but a reminder to peer into the unremarkable: “red onions,” “washing dishes,” “talking about the weather.” Who ever thought he needed a few hundred Allium-spiced words about how a ruddy bulb’s “bitter alchemy transmutes its heat into an experience so intense that a single bite contains an entire sensory universe”? Even humble roots deserve florid prose.
I write letters of recommendation as part of my work, and I enjoy capturing funny, brilliant students in words. But I have also wanted—for years—to write Letters for other things: picking up takeout during a storm, the crosstown bus, a regular park bench, nodding at strangers.
Dynamic Maximum Tension – Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society
I’ve written before about Argue’s group—his spectacular previous album Real Enemies mashed together conspiratorial paranoia and noir stylistics into something totally great. This new record profiles some singular characters like Buckminster Fuller and Alan Turing (instead of carrying one theme throughout). Cécile McLorin Salvant appears on the outstanding closing track, whose lyrics come from a sonnet using only letters from Mae West’s advice “Don’t be a noodle: be cool and collect.” Some tracks play neat tricks with time signatures and the longest on the album—”Tensile Curves,” clocking in at almost 35 minutes—pays homage to Duke Ellington’s own musical experiments. I was lucky to catch that last piece at the Jazz Gallery (I think?). These are adventurous works that push big-band music past whatever limits we thought it had.
Zodiac Suite – Aaron Diehl and the Knights
I was looking forward to this release for months. I knew Diehl was recording a new version of this suite from Mary Lou Williams, which was first written in the mid-1940s, performed just a couple times, and then largely forgotten. (I first stumbled across her own recording of the Zodiac Suite while reading up on Aratus’ Phaenomena ….) Diehl and the Knights keep Williams’ orchestration, so even if the recording is fresh and production value pristine, it still sounds a little like an unearthed archival recording. Some of the tracks are like miniature concerto pieces, and it’s a real monument of jazz-classical fusion, both then and now. Hopefully Williams continues to get more deserved recognition—as the closing track notes, “Life is a game whenever you come from behind.”
Ludwig Daser: Missa Pater Noster and Other Works – Cinquecento
Before this year, I had never heard of Ludwig Daser. He worked around the time of Orlando di Lasso, who himself succeeded Daser as Bavarian court composer in the middle of the 1500s. This is good polyphonic stuff, and I’m glad Daser is finally getting some play. In fact, another album of Daser masses came out in 2023 (?!), so perhaps this is just the beginning of his own Renaissance. Or maybe I’m just late to the party.
The Omnichord Real Book – Meshell Ndegeocello
Meshell Ndegeocello was on the radio when I was a kid, but now she’s on Blue Note. Nice. This album features some great instrumentalists like Jeff Parker, one of my favorite guitarists, and even tracks that feel more like interludes have a vocal and instrumental richness that can’t be skipped over. As the “Omnichord” of the title suggests (or maybe not), there’s a real range of songs here, and I found myself coming back to different tracks throughout the year. But there are little motifs, even in the first track, that reappear elsewhere on the album, making this sprawling album feel like one coherent set.
Tim (Let It Bleed Edition) – The Replacements
Even for a recent transplant to the Twin Cities like me, getting into this 2023 reissue was an actual civic obligation. I was a bit too young for to be a Replacements fan at the time (although I definitely saw Can’t Hardly Wait in the theater), so getting into this album was also a good excuse to dig through Paul Westerberg gems for a pre-millennial glimpse of my newly adopted city. The Ed Stasium mixes here are also a lesson in production values. The new version of “Swinging Party” brings out those Joni Mitchell-ish guitar chords, but the muddy original sounds just like distant strumming in a mine shaft. You definitely want the reissue to listen to on your next late-night bus ride up Hennepin Ave.