Past Imperfect | Music | Style Weekly

Time often crawls when experienced and flies in retrospect.

Year ends are the traditional separator, an interruption for colored lights and time off, over which a continuum of activity is draped. The past 12 months saw a somewhat shaky return from COVID constriction to something that passes for normality, even if the past still lingers in every cough and prudent facemask.

Best of the year lists are inevitably a fool’s errand. This year involved, as always, too many great moments and missed opportunities for a complete list. So with apologies for omissions, including everything yet to happen in the waning days of 2022, here is an imperfect perspective.

It was a good year for intimate shows with extraordinary quality. A band like Tim Bailey and the Humans can rock a conventional club like the Broadberry, but hearing them in the confines of the Sefton Coffee Company basement opens an entirely new dimension. John Hollenbeck’s “George” quartet, and bassist Michael Formanek’s Drome trio played house parties at Spacebomb’s lovely studios, as did a series of local bands curated, and often led, by drummer Brian Jones. Curt Sydnor’s “Four Folios” series at Epiphany Church are often as experimentally revelatory as they are unattended.

The new series programmed by Adam Hopkins at Artspace had some great nights with both local groups and individual artists passing through town, including saxophonist Josh Sinton and guitar/organ duo Grassy Sound. Michael Hawkins jam sessions, featuring guest artists and anyone brave enough to sit in, relocated with Orbital Music Park from a jewel-like corner of a warehouse to Cary Street. Cameron Ralston and Daniel Clarke’s golden hour performances in Quirk Hotel’s boutique lobby were a weekly reminder of the offhand brilliance of the local scene.

It was a big year for world music. The flagship Richmond Folk Festival, the premier RVA world music event, attracted its largest crowd ever, with over 230,000 attendees. Also, Richmond’s Bio Ritmo celebrated its 30th anniversary with a joyous, crowded concert/reunion at Hardywood. “Swinging Addis Ababa”-centric Afro-Zen Allstars released a new CD with several RVA performances over the year, including a memorable opening for authentically Ethiopian band Quanqua. The mesmerizing Yeni Nostalji has traded the harmonic complexity of a full band for emotional directness of a bass and vocalist duet.

On the classical side, Rosette Quartet had two months of performances devoted to individual composers. Their “So Hot Right Now” series focused on the playfully moving Kenji Bunch and the ethereal John Luther Adams. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma made a guest appearance expected world-class virtuosity, but the surprise of the night was the illuminating excitement of the orchestra under the baton of new music director Valentina Peleggi.

Butcher Brown released its most RVA album, backed by the all-star big band organized by the band’s bassist Andrew Randazzo. Their headlining gig at Pete LeBlanc’s Daydream Festival had renowned guitarist Charlie Hunter subbing for increasingly renowned Morgan Burrs. Ex-Richmonder DJ Williams returned several times for memorable gigs. Anthony Cosby Jr.’s “I Would Die for You” tribute to Prince was a masterpiece of high-energy commitment. Charles Owens released a charming new CD, backed by a new rhythm section, and then joined with his longtime trio including Randazzo and Devonne Harris to back Ali Thibodeau/Deau Eyes on the Kabana Rooftop. And world-travelling VCU trumpet master Rex Richardson fronted the same trio on consecutive weeks. Richardson also made a rare club appearance at Brun Experience, the latest iteration of a venerable venue on Robinson Street, this time with fancy cigars and leather armchairs.

Many threads of the local scene came together for the raucous, talent-dazzled, ultimately moving celebration of the 80th birthday of Ethel Barnett-Johnson, AKA the Lady E, AKA the Duchess of Soul. It was a reminder of how deep the Richmond music roots reach.

There was a generational change at VCU with the departure of jazz program head Antonio Garcia and his replacement with Taylor Barnett. The program is in a rebuilding phase, with the core of the staff built around players, like Barnett, who grew up within the RVA music scene. There was a missed opportunity when no local institution hired newly minted Ph.D Brian Jones, a pillar of the scene who still lives here but is commuting to an associate professor of music industry position at South Carolina’s Francis Marion University.

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Vocalist Laura Ann Singh. - PETER MCELHINNEY

  • Peter McElhinney
  • Vocalist Laura Ann Singh.

If there was a single musician who stood out in the year, it was Laura Ann Singh, who seemed to be everywhere. The singer’s gigs with Butterbean Jazz Quartet leaned into the Great American Songbook; while her group Miramar focuses on Puerto Rican boleros, and another group Quatro Na Bossa on Brazilian music. She is a vital voice in Curt Sydnor’s edgily retro Heaven is Begun! folk jazz ensemble. She is the vocalist in Doug Richards’ upcoming Antonio Carlos Jobim project, her voice soaring over complex charts played by a stellar big band. And her set of poetic compositions by bossa nova originator Dorival Caymmi, accompanied only by the seaside murmur and crash of Scott Clark’s drums, was as lovely and surprising as anything in this or any year. And Singh had a recent gig on Dec. 23 at Artspace with post-bop masters Michael Hawkins, James “Saxsmo” Gates, and Dr. Weldon Hill.

There is an old joke about a kid saying that the challenge with spelling the word ‘banana’ is knowing when to stop. Best of year lists are inevitably incomplete. Getting near the end, and among the things so far left out were some great nights at Black Iris, with returning RVA pianist Jacob Ungerleider and a visit from the great jazz pianist Dave Kikoski. Also any number of Richmond Jazz Society-sponsored Wednesday nights at the VMFA where you can see Roger Carroll, Kelli Strawbridge, and many of the above, and more for free surrounded by priceless artwork.

Even in its final days, the year has been rewarding. On the back porch of the Get Tight Lounge, on a bitter-cold Friday, Dec. 23, the R4nd4zzo Big Band played its annual tribute to Vince Guaraldi’s classic “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Fear of Music evoked the Talking Heads at the Broadberry. Susan Greenbaum held forth at the Tin Pan. An All-Star band assembled by Mike Hawkins, with his Brotherhood’s Dr. Weldon Hill and James “Saxsmo” Gates augmented by Rex Richardson and the ubiquitous Laura Ann Singh drew a capacity crowd to Gallery5.

If you love music, RVA is a great place to live.

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