Best jazz albums of 2021 came from Ches Smith, Henry Threadgill, Charles Lloyd, Steph Richards & Joshua White

Ches Smith & We All Break, “Path of Seven Colors” (Pyroclastic Records): Given my comments above, it is fitting that my favorite jazz album of the year features top-flight instrumentalists and a terrific lead singer who, on some selections, performs in Haitian Creole. It’s a language I do not understand even a word of, but that doesn’t make this utterly sublime album of jazz and Haitian Vodou music by former San Diego drummer Ches Smith and his one-woman, six-man band, We All Break, any less enticing.

If anything, not knowing the literal meaning of the words allows listeners to paint pictures based on the feelings Sirene Dantor Rene conveys with her richly expressive singing. Percussionists Fan-Fan Jean Guy Rene, Markus Schwartz and Daniel Brevil (a key Haitian music mentor for Smith) provide pulsating rhythms and counter-rhythms, as well as lending enthusiastic call-and-response vocal support to Sirene Dantor Rene.

Smith, leading a band that also features Puerto Rican saxophone dynamo Miguel Zenon, is a skilled aural alchemist. His exuberant blend of traditional Haitian singing, propulsive percussion, intricate jazz improvisations and various Afro-Cuban traditions is a marvel of craft, wit and in-the-moment creation. What results is a stunning stylistic fusion that few listeners — or musicians — are likely to have experienced before.


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