There is no rewind to this year, nor any fast forward. We are stuck in uncertainty. A year ago, the prospect of live music coming back, let alone shows of major touring scale, was the stuff of pure fantasy in a locked down world. Now, after months of measuring risk and meaning amidst global turbulence and ignorance, of COVID spreading at some shows and not others, of covering small rooms of brilliant jazz to capacity arenas and sheds with the biggest jam bands on the planet, I’ve come to one conclusion. I don’t know jack, and I’m lucky to be here. I haven’t a clue what 2022 may bring and neither do you. Will cornerstone festivals finally land as planned? Will emotional math rule every show decision? How much longer will fear creep into doing what I love? Will legacy acts age out and hang it up, or will they follow the Stones’ lead? Can the backbone of the business, the crews, the trades, the wait staff, the venue owners, survive more waves? I haven’t a fucking clue. What I do know is my life is better with a soundtrack created in real time in a shared space, and that I will mask up, vax up and continue to document those moments that stir me, so that maybe, you’ll hear something with your eyes, and I, hopefully, will not take an arrow along the way. So, in that spirit, I’ve gathered some of my favorite images of 2021, a year that began tentatively for me in late April, exploded in a Jamtober like no other and ended with a festival premiere of “A Year in the Pit”, a long awaited music photography doc that brilliantly captures the joys and challenges that go unseen, behind the music photos fans love to see.
In 2021, I heard everything with fresh ears, and encountered musicians I was barely aware of turn me sideways. Pianist Christian Sands floated through “Be Water”, his latest Mack Avenue Records release, and I will never hear “Can’t Find My Way Home” the same way ever again. Saxophonist Logan Richardson laid down “Blues People” in its entirety, which would be my hands down favorite release of 2021, if it hadn’t come out in 2018. Somehow, Newport Folk and Newport Jazz returned in slightly scaled down form and it felt like a family reunion, with performances that would stand up to any year at the Fort, especially Billy Strings’ elevation and Allison Russell’s showstopping rendering of her album “Outside Child”, which was a testament to the best of being human while emerging from the worst of circumstances. Newport Jazz was stacked with generational legends including Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland and Kenny Garrett, the roar of Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, the inimitable Robert Glasper, and the slink and funk of Khruangbin and Cory Wong. That we were there at all felt like some kind of miracle, especially after losing founder George Wein not long after. The year also christened the former Bootleg Theater, a COVID casualty that was an indie rock fixture to Los Angeles, as the new 2220 Arts + Archives, with a stunning solo recital by pianist Jason Moran as part of the expanding Just Jazz series under the spiritual guidance of LeRoy Downs, the Jazzcat.
Fall brought a rousing set from young vibraphonist Joel Ross and his small legion of fans that filled Mr. Musichead Gallery on yet another it only happens here Wednesday night. As did West Coast Get Down trombonist Ryan Porter with an unbilled Kamasi Washington running through a whole set of standards that was priceless. But my first hometown show of the year in any bigger room came in early October, with Pat Metheny and his Side Eye trio, at the Theater at the Ace Hotel, some 42 years after the first time I saw the guitarist play live.
That the Stones pulled off the biggest tour of the year, in between pandemic waves and the death of drummer Charlie Watts, and with as much shit kicking attitude that stood up to the moment as they had, is etched into this year like no other. But that tours by JRAD, Phish and Dead & Company followed in a 10-day span is almost surreal. The indoor rooms and outdoor spaces got larger as did the anxiety that followed, especially after knowing of a few in my circle getting COVID. But, Dead & Company were the best I’ve heard the band since their inception from a 16-minute drop the needle jam>Playing in the Band Friday night opener to the closing refrains of Brokedown Palace for the tour closer on Halloween Sunday (get better Billy!).
The Winter surge dampened the vibe a bit, but not before 33 strings took the stage at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel as My Bluegrass Heart in mid-December. Didn’t hurt that Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Edgar Meyer, Stuart Duncan and Bryan Sutton were pulling those strings, transporting some Summer Telluride straight to DTLA.
As to what’s next, I’ll stick with what’s now and reflect on what did happen, not what didn’t. Y’all be safe and we’ll catch each other not too far down the road.