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A Year of Music 

Our jazz critic looks back at his favorite sounds of 2019.

click to enlarge James “Saxsmo” Gates

Ash Daniel/File

James “Saxsmo” Gates

Once again, choosing a definitive best of the year is rendered impossible by the inability to go without sleep or be in multiple places at the same time. Thanks, science.

And given that production time requires writing best of lists in early December, the holiday season gets short shrift. Last year that included the Butcher Brown-R4nd4zzo Christmas show at Broadberry and the gourmet food and the lovely music of a semiprivate Miramar house party on Cary Street.

The rest of the year was a continuation of the multicurrent flow of the Richmond scene, with the occasional visiting artist like John Scofield, Branford Marsalis or the brilliant tangle of Richmond Jazz Festival sweeping swiftly by. The Folk Festival remains a high point, closing appropriately with local saxophonist James “Plunky” Branch’s soulful extravaganza. Homecomings were another stream in the flow: Natalie Prass at the renovated Ashland Theatre, saxman Steve Wilson at the Richmond Jazz Society and sets from Abinet Berhanu, Reginald Chapman and at least temporarily returned pianist Steve Kessler at various clubs.

Charles Owens carved new branches to his sound, first with the R4nd4zzo band and later with a full string section arranged. Trey Pollard, the arranger of the latter, showed his compositional chops with a live performance of his debut classical CD “Fixed Idea.” Percussionist Hector Barez brought his “Labertino Del Coco” bomba project to town for two performances prior to playing the Kennedy Center and high-profile concerts in Puerto Rico. Local big band legend Doug Richards celebrated his retirement from Virginia Commonwealth University with a performance and forthcoming recording featuring an elite group of players from Virginia and beyond. Rex Richardson and Taylor Barnett had killer faculty recitals at VCU. The school’s recitals, which are always inspiring, typically brilliantly performed, and frequently free, remain one of the best musical values in town.

Some of the deepest currents were supplied by a trio of veteran musicians, bassist Mike Hawkins, pianist Weldon Hill and the irrepressible James “Saxsmo” Gates. They were the rock around which a constellation of younger players eddied, including drummers Kofi Shepsu, Billy Connely and Billy Williams, and saxophonists Chet Frierson, Dexter Moses and Nate Clark. Two of the top local guitarists, Alan Parker and Morgan Burrs, have done a couple of memorable shows together but have not yet made a duet appearance.

Its been a fun ride if it all becomes a bit of a blur, defined by moments of exceptional clarity: The packed performance of Daniel Clarke’s band with J.C. Kuhl, Brian Jones, Cameron Ralston and John Winn at Derbyshire Baptist Church. The Answer Brewpub memorial concert for Quy Suong Pham, who drowned in a local ironman race. Andy Jenkins’ dramatic collapse at the end of a stripped-down performance of his new EP at Spacebomb Studios. The merging of School Work and Michael Formanek and son at the end of the gig at Candela Books. Leading saxophonist Al Regni, for decades a principal at the New York Philharmonic, the New York Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera, playing for a small crowd on a Saturday night at the Barrel Thief. Erin and the Wildfire at Riverrock. Marlysse Rose Simmons sitting in with Big Lazy at Poe’s Pub. Yuko Mabuchi’s ebullient set at the Richmond Jazz Festival. The stunning impact of hearing renowned Virginia Opera guest soprano Inna Dukach let loose on a Friday morning at 10 a.m. at Barry Bless’ Breakfast Cabaret at Crossroads. Singer and songwriter Skylar Gudasz, when asked by a fan about a song not in her set at Black Iris, going to an upright piano and playing it for an audience of one.

Apologies to any omitted. As at the Oscars, the music is starting to play.

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