It strikes me – as it should strike you – that there’s an especially pervasive aura of American-ness suffusing this year’s roundup, especially given that the words, “America” and “American” appear in most of the titles. This motif was making itself apparent as I started putting the list together before November 8 and it became even more – what? “prevalent”? “0mnipresent”? “prescient”? – after November 9.
One need not use this space for further dissection of what happened, and didn’t, in that 24-hour period. It’s all we keep talking about, and avoiding talking about, sometimes simultaneously. All I can say for my part is that these selections reflect a socio-cultural patriotism in both my conscious and subconscious mind that, in spite of all that has happened and may soon happen, remains steadfast. Whatever’s coming down will likely give jazz even more of a beating than it’s already sustained through this (so far) dismaying century. But the best thing one can say is that it’s no more beaten up or beaten down than it’s been since, let’s say…1968? That was a helluva year, too. Some of us feared the worst after that election. . But we made it. And so, somehow, did music.
That’s all I got. You want to feel warmer and fuzzier about things watch a Wal-Mart commercial. But if you really want to feel good about this country and its (say it with me, America) Greatest Art Form, these eclectic items, I promise, will do the job.
In the deathless words of Yuri Gagarin (who wasn’t American, but we’ve always secretly wished he had been), “Let’s go!”
1.) Jane Ira Bloom, Early Americans (Outline) – Hard to believe that after sixteen albums through nearly four decades, Bloom has never before walked the high wire with nothing more than a bass (Mark Helias) and trap set (Bobby Previte). She comes through just as you’d expect: with bold, deep tones that swallow you whole and bright,supple phrases that recombine themselves into breathtaking shapes. From Helias and Previte, she gets the kind of backup an ace improviser deserves. They merge their rhythmic instincts with her soprano saxophone’s probing, soaring voice to become one entity, totally in control of whatever they take on, regardless of tempo or mood. On the (literally) groovy “Singing the Triangle,” they seem to take turns at the wheel with Previte’s toms assuming melodic duties with his characteristic wit and bravado. When it’s just Bloom and Helias, as on “Other Eyes,” the colloquy is so detailed and urgent that you think you’re eavesdropping on a secret plan for curing cancer, hunger and ignorance. And when it’s just her, in full flight, she asserts her command of every aspect of her art whether assembling a necklace of diamond-hard chords and taking them apart (“Rhyme or Rhythm”), burrowing deep into the contours of a classic melody (“Somewhere’) or blowing the blues with joyous abandon (“Big Bill”). It’s now official and can be certified by any number of witnesses: There’s no one like her. Anywhere.
2.) Wadada Leo Smith, America’s National Parks (Cuneiform) – Having previously contained multitudes in his matchless pageant of historic landmarks (2012’s Six Freedom Summers) and his widescreen embrace of Midwest natural wonders (2014’s The Great Lakes Suite) Smith, himself a force of nature whose renown has burst into a big, blinding glow at age 76, would of course be inclined to celebrate this year’s National Park Service centennial with a similarly ambitious and dauntingly variegated tour through the service’s assets, both widely known (“Yosemite: The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill 1890”) and relatively obscure (“New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718”). Don’t expect either a Copland-esque procession of soaring, meaty strings or a rustic stream of acoustic guitar riffs cueing your awe over big rivers, big mountains and bigger skies. Smith has a way of swelling the American heart that’s distinctly his own; his horn, by turns plaintive, coarse and slashing as Miles Davis’ once was, assumes an even heavier, more rugged tone to keep up with his voracious impulse to take in the colors, textures and elements of his subject’s landscapes, even when he’s mostly imagining what they’re like. (“You don’t need to visit a park,” he says in the liner notes, “to write about a park.” And there’s something about his submission to the imaginative muse that overpowers your literalist’s skepticism.) His instrumental voice fuses effectively with that of cellist Ashley Walker and the rest of his Golden Quintet, with pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg and, most especially, drummer Pheeroan akLaff, seems to take on added strength and power from the music’s robust challenges. It’s not an easy hike. But if you give in to the arcane beauties and shape-shifting aspirations of Smith’s muse, you’ll remember most, if not all, of what your inner ear sees.
3.) Fred Hersch Trio, Sunday Night at the Vanguard (Palmetto) – We’ve been here before with this group and we know from previous experience that they come to kill every time they show up downstairs on 178 Seventh Avenue South in Manhattan. So what’s different this time? Maybe because, as the title says, it’s Sunday night and as every Village Vanguard habitué knows, Sundays are when performers wind up their six-night engagements. While critics always show up Tuesdays for the opening-night sets, the Sunday closers can be less-heralded occasions when the ensembles, after a hard week’s work, are at once locked in tight and empowered to let loose. Hersch tweaks expectations from the jump with an appropriately spry-and-whimsical treatment of “A Cockeyed Optimist,” a Rodgers-and-Hammerstein chestnut that isn’t often put through the jazz colander. The spiraling variations Hersch’s piano applies to the melody makes you wonder why this is so and then you realize, once again, that it’s because Hersch may be one of the few pianists of his generation with the open-hearted imagination to re-invigorate mid-20th-century Broadway grandeur for post-Millennial jazz heads. Along with bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson, Hersch builds upon this frisky beginning with a couple of classics from the jazz repertoire (“We See,” “The Peacocks”); some of his own compositions (“The Optimum Thing,” “Calligram,” “Black Wing Palomino”) that deserve to be part of that repertoire and, of all things, a ruminative, fireplace-glow cover of Sir Paul McCartney’s “For No One.” Hersch’s liner notes say he and his partners were “in the zone” on this Sunday night last March. He’d know. All I know is that I had an especially hard time keeping it all out of my player – and my head – for the rest of the year.
4.) Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double Up, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (PI) – For a change, this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for music is letting his sax and flute sit this dance out while leading two pianos (Jason Moran, David Virelles), two altos (Roman Filiu, Curtis McDonald), a cello (Christopher Hoffman), a tuba (Jose Davila) and a drummer (Craig Weinreb) in a four-part suite paying tribute to the late Lawrence “Butch” Morris (1947-2013), Threadgill’s fellow Vietnam War vet and partner in avant-garde insurgency and orchestration. The band is a typically eccentric gathering, but it is by no means Threadgill’s strangest combination of instruments. And if the dense musical collages assembled by the composer are as inscrutable and idiosyncratic as ever, they are also less forbidding; the angular dynamics and static-but-surging momentum urgently aligned with the wary-to-yearning-to-anxious mood swings of the present day. Indeed, I think Old Locks and Irregular Verbs is Threadgill’s most emotionally accessible work since Where’s Your Cup?, his 1996 Columbia album with Very Very Circus. And it couldn’t have come at a better time for him – and for our jittery selves needing the reassuring possibility of discovery and adventure in an uncertain future.
5.) Allen Toussaint, American Tunes (Nonesuch) –It may not quite fit into whatever gets categorized as “jazz” in its ever-marginalized marketing niche; not as neatly as 2009’s incandescent, expansive Bright Mississippi where Toussaint got to wander through a smoke-filled, twilit museum of 20th century black music with the likes of Don Byron, Nicholas Payton, Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman and Marc Ribot. But even with a relatively smaller guest list of notables (Charles Lloyd, Bill Frisell, Rhiannon Giddens), this album, whose concluding sessions were cut a month before Toussaint died in November, 2015 while on a European concert tour, is a deeply moving valedictory for an epoch-making legacy. No other pianist, living or dead, could apply his ironwork-ornate flourishes and mosaic-tile detail to such chestnuts as “I’m Confessin’,” “Viper’s Drag,” “Rosetta” and “Waltz for Debby.” No one could better evoke the resilient, inexhaustibly vivacious spirit of his home town when rolling through “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” “Big Chief” and “Hey Little Girl”; just as no one else could have written “Southern Nights,” whose solo rendering here is sweet-and-sour enough to sting the eyes. But you should save your tears for the finale: his vocal performance of Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” which goes down, especially this season, like both commiseration and a blessing, even when you’re stopped dead in your tracks by the plaintive, unadorned manner with which he sings: “Still when I think of the road/we’re travelling on/I wonder what went wrong/I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong…” And I wonder how we’re managing to go on without him.
6.) Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Real Enemies (New Amsterdam) — On the most elemental level, I can (almost) see conservatives’ point when they keep insisting that government isn’t your mother. But government also isn’t, or shouldn’t be, that creepy uncle who insists on hanging around your bedroom, listening in on your phone conversations, reading your mail and letting rich people with giant-squid tax shelters follow you around while you buy things. This is the world we’ve been living with for most of this – as I referred to it earlier – dismaying century so far; full of night sweats in broad daylight, cynical whistling-in-the-dark and equivocal behavior by those who’ve known too much for too long. So why, you wonder, would you want to listen to a whole damn album summoning up this dark matter? Because Darcy James Argue is a wicked-smart conjurer of phantasmagoric narratives grounded in real-life mystery. (See 2014’s Brooklyn Babylon for further enlightenment.) And his 18-piece Secret Society kicks ass and proves itself worthy of its name by enabling its leader to put forth a gnomic, allusive, brassy and insinuating musical soundtrack you can apply to any noir mind-movie your paranoia can summon to life. It’s the kind of story I wish someone of Argue’s boundless energies and bountiful vision didn’t have to tell. But, as many have observed of Edward Snowden’s transgressions, I suppose somebody had to do it.
7.) Joshua Redman & Brad Mehldau, Nearness (Nonesuch) – These two guys have been all but joined at the hip since Mehldau served in Redman’s quartet along with drummer Brian Blade and bassist Christian McBride. (Yes, that actually happened. Only one 1994 album, but, as you’d imagine, it remains a good, if retroactively undervalued one.) Redman and Mehldau have supported and inspired each other in the intervening years to the point where one is tempted to refer to them as the Huck and Tom of their generation of jazz musicians. I hope you’ve noticed that I did not say “Huck and Jim” and if you’ve read the books and been paying attention to their respective career arcs, it wouldn’t be hard to decide which is Huck and which is Tom. Or would it? Never mind. What you need to know about these live duets from five years ago is that they get off to a bit of a ragged start on “Ornithology,” but soon meld together in rapturous communication on Mehldau’s “”Always August.” Here and throughout the rest of the album, you’re aware of how much each of them has grown into their respective styles; Melhdau’s piano unfurling sheets of rich harmonies while Redman, on tenor and soprano, shows how impressively he’s contained and controlled that prodigious talent that got everybody excited more than two decades ago. And he can still level you when he wants to; most especially on a stunning extended solo break he takes on “The Nearness of You,” throughout which he doesn’t seem to take a breath – except, maybe, your own. Mehldau likewise makes your eyes grow big with his own derring-do on “In Walked Bud.” But they’re at their most potent when putting their heads together on Mehldau’s originals, notably the easy-rolling (at first) “Old West.”
8.) Kenny Barron Trio, Book of Intuition (Impulse!/Universal) — Sometimes, maybe most times, you just want music to come across like sunlight shimmering along the nearest available body of water, the undulations so soft and sweet that you don’t care how far or how high you’re floating. At 72 years young, Barron may be the undisputed living grand master of jazz piano. He is, without dispute, his idiom’s t most agile communicator in whatever setting or at whatever tempo. With bassist Kiyoshi Kitigawa and drummer Johnathan Blake, the group he’s been leading in nightclubs and concert halls for most of the past decade, Barron delivers a state-of-the-art smorgasbord of straight-ahead pleasure, much of it braced by the Latin and Brazilian rhythms that highlight his tuneful dynamics. The table is set from the start with “Magic Dance,” whose soft bossa-nova beat is Barron’s happy place; happy enough, in any case, for him to tempt fate with a flurry of arpeggios that settle soon enough into an easy-does-it samba. His homage to Bud Powell, “Bud-Like,” surges into Afro-Cuban overdrive while his fealty to Thelonious Monk is served with two of the Enigmatic One’s lesser-known pieces, “Shuffle Boil” and “Light Blue.” In each of these, Barron doesn’t try to out-Monk Monk so much as let his own graces impose their own manner of wit and mischief into their workings. It’s one of those records (and I have at least one of them every year) that doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but reminds you why and how wheels work so beautifully.
9.) Etienne Charles, San Jose Suite (Culture Shock) – This ambitious work, enacted here in twelve parts, encompasses not just one, but three San Jose settlements in three different Western Hemisphere spots: California, Costa Rica and Trinidad. What’s distinctive about each of these San Joses/St. Josephs is less important to the formidably gifted Charles than what they share and the music he fashions from his inquiries is bright, ingenious and bursting with provocative rhythmic combinations. The polyglot of Indo-African-Latin-American-European influences not only evokes the past but advances a singular new musical language redolent of the “creole soul” that gave trumpeter-composer Charles the title of his potent 2013 album. Whatever you call it, as pure sound, it is gorgeous to behold with intensely committed interaction throughout from Charles, altoist Brian Hogans, guitarist Alex Wintz, pianist Victor Gould, bassist Ben Williams and drummer John Davis. The last three tracks are a mini-suite, “Speed City,” in which Harry Edwards recalls his tumultuous career at San Jose State University when he helped spearhead the African-American boycott/protest of the 1968 Olympics. At first, I thought the “Speed City” trifecta differed so much from the nine previous pieces that they belonged on a different album. Over time, I’ve come to think they not only belong, they’re a bonus to what precedes them; mostly because Charles and the rest of his crew leave blisters no matter when or where they turn up the heat.
10.) Delfeayo Marsalis & The Uptown Jazz Orchestra, Make America Great Again! (Troubadour Jass) – In the most politically astute and (therefore) funniest Saturday Night Live sketch of the late, unlamented campaign season, Darnell Hayes (Kenan Thompson), host of an edition of “Black Jeopardy!” made extra special by the participation of a white blue-collar-Trump-supporting contestant (Tom Hanks), is given the last word: “When we come back, we’ll play the National Anthem and see what the hell happens.” Well, you’re all encouraged to stand – or, if you roll that way, kneel – when this album begins with a stately, serious-as-a-heart-attack rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” And what the hell happens after that’s over is a raucous compound of house party, choral recital and vaudeville revue offering, as one song lyric puts it, “soul food for your ear.” The album’s title track is played for cheeky irony with the trombone-playing Marsalis brother’s narration intoned by actor Wendell Pierce with hambone slyness over an antic riff reminiscent of Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus.” The words question whether the “catchy slogan” is a “pragmatic proposition” to “a melting pot of diversity fighting a juggernaut of adversity.” Did Marsalis and company know how things would turn out after the recorded this session? Feel free to ponder that as his 19-member orchestra throws down a potpourri of hard-driving arrangements whose sources range from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band (“Snowball”) to Benny Carter (“Symphony in Riffs”). Final question: Is this a bittersweet send-off to the optimism that followed the election of 2008 or a defiant hello to the dark-edged uncertainties unleashed by the election of 2016? Guess we’ll know for sure in eight years, if not sooner.
HONORABLE MENTION: Sonny Rollins, Holding the Stage (Doxy/Okeh); Jonathan Finlayson & Sicilian Defense, Moving Still (PI); Matt Wilson’s Big Happy Family, Beginning of a Memory (Palmetto); Bill Frisell, When You Wish Upon A Star (Okeh); Roberta Piket, One for Marian (Thirteenth Note); Chris Potter, Dave Holland, Lionel Loueke, Eric Harland, Aziza (Dare2); Anat Fort & Gianluigi Trevisi, Birdwatching (ECM).
BEST VOCAL ALBUM: Catherine Russell, Harlem On My Mind (Jazz Village)
BEST REISSUE/HISTORIC ALBUMS: 1.) Larry Young in Paris: The Ortf Recordings (Resonance); 2.) Joe Bushkin Quartet, Live at the Embers 1952 (Dot Time) 3.) Joe Lovano Quartet, Classic! Live at Newport (Blue Note)
BEST LATIN JAZZ ALBUM: Etienne Charles, San Jose Suite. HONORABLE MENTION: Sao Paulo Underground, Cantos Invisieves (Cuneiform)
Comments Off on Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Discs for 2016
But if all that’s true, then why, I keep asking every year, is there so much good-to-great “product” (a euphemism I loathe, but am stringing along, hoping it’ll take the hint from the diminishing effect of quote marks) that still comes out? Why is it that I made up this year’s list thinking that there were so many discs I could have easily included that didn’t even make the Honorable Mention cut? Why is it that any of the top five on this list could have easily been number one and why could any of the ones below them, even the Honorable Mentions, could have slipped into the top five?
Why? Why ask why?
An answer — not “the” answer — is that whatever infrastructure that used to be in place for promoting and marketing music is in worse shape than some of our bridges, tunnels and highways. In fact, there might not even BE an infrastructure so much as a make-it-up-as-we-go-along system that spreads and circulates the word on artists and “product.”
Or not. I don’t know, really. As with everybody else who still cares, I go with my gut. And what my gut tells me is that jazz, whether God likes it or not, is finding a way to move along on its own power regardless of who’s noticing at this point. And my top five especially give me hope that the music is not just moving along or getting by, but transforming itself into something not even Lisa Simpson or Mayor Quimby will recognize at first. I say it every year at this time and I will find some way of saying it again next year.
And I’m not giving up my compact discs either. Why? Vinyl. That’s why. You all said THAT was dead, too, once.
1.) Cecile McLorin Salvant, For One to Love (Mack Avenue) – Her debut album two years ago was one of those once-in-a-generation calling cards in which soul, grace, power and intelligence materialize in one implausibly commanding 24-year-old package. She could have easily followed it up with another mélange of classic or out-of-left-field standards and maintained her front-running status as the Next Great Jazz Vocalist without making your jaw drop as she did when introducing herself. But damned if she doesn’t do that to you again, and then some, with a bold concept album whose range and depth are reminiscent of similar innovations from this year’s centennial birthday boy Frank Sinatra during the fifties (“Only the Lonely”) and sixties (“September of My Years”). The songs on this album are connected in some way with what it’s like to for one’s looks to be scrutinized and summarily judged. I’d also be inclined to label her effort here as an attempt to filter The Male Gaze through a prism of her own design. But why limit oneself, or her, to one gender’s glancing assessments? The biggest tip-off is “Look at Me,” one of her five original compositions here, in which self-conscious doubt starts seeping into an otherwise idyllic romance. (“Why don’t you look at me/ the way you look at all the other girls you see?”) along with its companion, “Left Over” (“I wonder if he even knows my name”) Such plaintive, yet pointed inquiries make themselves known in other selections, such as “Stepsister’s Lament” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” and that sweet swinging Bacharach-David tune, “Wives and Lovers,” which she nonchalantly hits over the fence and through the windshield of a neighbor’s car parked four houses away. Her penchant for unearthing early blues (Spencer and Clarence Williams’ “What’s the Matter Now?”) also melds easily with the overall concept, whose poignancy is offset by the ferocious jolts of hope and mother-wit infusing “The Trolley Song” and an especially breathtaking “Something’s Coming.” It almost frightens you to keep listening. Yet you have to. And of course, it all wouldn’t work nearly as well without the pliant and comparably ingenious accompaniment of pianist Aaron Diehl, bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Lawrence Leathers.
2.) Kamasi Washington, The Epic (Brainfeeder) – I suspect this will likely lead most of the lists my peers are assembling for the year’s best jazz albums. If the level of emotional investment shown in the previous entry hadn’t moved me more, I’d have been right along with them. This represents one of those occasions where you’re not only recognizing artistry on these three discs, but what this whole work represents: A heady return to the notion of orchestrated jazz as a source of emphatic, unmediated ecstasy; the difference here from the raw, searching energies summoned by John Coltrane, Su Ra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and generations of “New Thing” acolytes and fellow travelers from the past being a wider accessibility to beat and tone. Because of Washington’s Los Angeles roots, I kept thinking about great bandleaders and mentors from that scene such as Gerald Wilson and Horace Tapscott whose charts roared, stomped and often sprawled the way these pieces do. But because of the conspicuous presence of Washington’s keening, quicksilver tenor sax on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (which, if you were holding my feet to the fire, I’d be ready to declare the Album of the Year among all genres), I also recognize in this Epic’s conception Hip-Hop’s big, avid ears for blending rogue sounds. In this case: tiers of percussion propelling choirs of angels, street-hard horns breaking and merging at will and, once in a while, the familiar sound of a Hammond B-3 organ (summoned by keyboardist Brandon Coleman). It’s an achievement of such conspicuous heft and dimension that it makes you wonder if Washington’s trying to do too much at once. But just when you think those aforementioned energies are flagging, something, maybe a speed run by the bassist known as Thundercat, an extended comp by acoustic pianist Cameron Graves, an incisive lead vocal by Patrice Quinn or a fervent, reasonably straightforward take on “Clair de Lune” comes along to sustain the sense of the ground beneath one’s feet rumbling. It’s not that The Epic represents anything new under the sun. (It even revives “Cherokee,” for Charlie Ventura’s sake!) But it makes you aware of how long it’s been since jazz music made you want to reach for the sun, much less stare at it without fear.
3.) Maria Schneider Orchestra, The Thompson Fields (ArtistShare) – In a year when the overall level of jazz composing, arranging and orchestration challenged the adequacy of one’s supply of superlatives, it altogether figured that the redoubtable Schneider would put forth what, up to this still-relatively-early point in her brilliant career, could well be her masterpiece: An eight-piece suite, a decade or so in the making, evoking the outward graces and cherished epiphanies of the Minnesota prairie where she grew up. The music at first lulls you into thinking this handsomely packaged selection will be nothing but daydreams bathed in twilight pastels. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But Schneider, whose ability to “play” an 18-piece orchestra has never before been as consummate or as confident as it is here, layers her pastoral vision with themes that thicken, recede and recharge with the mercurial impulses of Nature itself. After all, the weather isn’t always sunny and warm in one’s past, or, to be sure, in one’s present either. As with every great bandleader, Schneider allows her soloists near-collaborative space to enhance her vision, as in the cases of pianist Frank Kimbrough and guitarist Lage Lund replicating the tension between memory and reality on the title piece or Rich Perry’s inquisitive tenor sax summoning the persisting lure and unfulfilled yearning of “Home.” Too often, Schneider’s work as a composer-arranger incites comparisons to her inspirations/mentors Bob Brookmeyer and Gil Evans (about whom more later on this list). Now, she stands alone as a musical force capable of inspiring others. And if I were to make any comparisons at this point, it would be less towards other bandleaders than towards poets, to whose influence she has been paying homage on recent discs. In particular, her work on Thompson Fields reminds me of Robert Frost, another pastoralist whose darker, more ambivalent approaches to the passages of time and the seasons are often overlooked at first glance because of the elemental beauty of his tone. In both his case and hers, the subtler sense of unease aroused by their respective visions incline you to be more solicitous to the living things around you – and to treat their mysteries with respect and discretion.
4.) Stanley Cowell, Juneteenth (Vision Fugitive) – Now 74, Cowell has been among the underappreciated stalwarts – and treasures – of American music. As with generations of jazz masters who found themselves marginalized in the cultural firmament even as they were becoming more autonomous as producers (he was one of the co-founders of the legendary Strata-East independent label in the seventies), Cowell spent most of the last several decades in academia while continuing to write, perform and record in a variety of settings as sideman and leader. He has also been one of the few pianists whose solo work is as textured and broadly realized as any combo’s repertoire. This unaccompanied performance of a work originally written for large ensemble commemorating the 150th anniversary of Emancipation, or at least its informal announcement in Texas in 1865, feels very much like a splendid gift to his abiding fans as well as a moving tribute to Cowell’s resilience. Because he shares a Toledo, Ohio birthplace with the great virtuoso Art Tatum, Cowell lays claim to the same faultless command of time and space that Tatum displayed in his own formidable body of solo recordings. He also weaves references to, and extensions upon, such disparate tunes as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Strange Fruit,” “Dixie” and other Americana redolent of the surging, shape-shifting referencing of Charles Mingus, only with a more probing and nuanced approach. With the issues animating the Civil War gaining more urgency in the years since Cowell was commissioned (in 2012) to compose this suite, “Juneteenth” feels at once both topical and enduring; news that, for better and worse, stays news.
5.) Rudresh Mahanthappa, Bird Calls (ACT) – Modernism meets post-modernism and the former gets a “fly” face-lift it can grow with. Bird Calls is (far) less a “tribute album” to Charlie Parker than a young alto-sax daredevil’s attempt to connect with the divinities that made Parker soar into uncharted changes more than 70 years ago. Mahanthappa borrows or, more appropriately, “samples” themes, licks and riffs from the Parker canon and uses them as propellant for his own fire-breathing inventions. The familiar fanfare from the “Parker’s Mood,” for instance, is transfigured on “Talin is Thinking” into a incantation setting the table for a dirge drastically different, yet no less resonant or far-reaching than the original while “Maybe Later” cheekily elbows tropes from “Now’s the Time,” Parker’s slow-hand blues that midwifed both bebop and post-war rhythm-and-blues, and creates a bouncy number that swings more like an uptown rave than a downtown slide. The only thing that strongly evokes Parker throughout is the insurgent, turbo-charged drive to Make It New; and, in the process, to expand the possibilities for jazz to emerge from the chrysalis of its established traditions into something resembling full, unrestrained flight. Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Rudy Royston robustly share their leader’s commitment to this process and, you hope, other attempts at homage to past masters will take the hint.
6.) Steve Coleman, Synovial Joints (PI) – “Doctor” Coleman continues the inquiry into the human body he commenced two years before with Functional Arrythmias (also on PI) and expands his bag of implements beyond those of his customary quintet of trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, bassist Anthony Tidd, guitarist Miles Okasaki and, this time, drummer Marcus Gilmore to include a few more horns, a flute and piccolo, a string quartet, a pianist (David Bryant) and a singer (Jen Shyu) who join him on the eponymous four-part exploration/appreciation of, as Coleman writes in the liner notes, “the joints that bind the human musculoskeletal system [that] function as a means of connecting bones, binding tissue and provid[ing] various degrees of movement for our bodies.” Yes, I had the exact same thought: What a fine dance performance routine this music would serve. And the pull-pull interplay between strings and horns, bass lines and modes encourage one to imagine knees, elbows, legs and shoulders accommodating themselves to whatever groove gets transmitted as permission to ambulate. This disc doesn’t just go inside on “Acupuncture Openings” and “Celtic Cells” (not those in the body, but in medieval clusters of otherwise scattered visionaries. They also spend time in the Sahara desert on “Harmattan” and “Nomadic.” Wherever they go, Coleman’s ad-hoc musical aggregation sustains an engaging blend of the spontaneous and the deliberate that keeps mind and body in constant motion at delightfully varied speeds. It’s even fun if you’re just walking at a normal pace and this quirky music’s somehow playing – in more ways than one – through your ears.
7.) ) Ryan Truesdell Gil Evans Project, Lines of Color (ArtistShare) – Despite several albums of live performances by his big band released during the last 15 years of his life, so much of the reputation of arranger-bandleader-composer-enabler-of-the-cool Gil Evans (1912-1988) remains tethered to studio work, most especially whenever Miles Davis was involved. Thus, Ryan Truesdell, to whom so much is already owed for his Evans project’s award-winning 2012 debut. Centennial (also on ArtistShare), continues to restore Evans’ body of work and its myriad possibilities for revision. Here, he also helps re-establish the exuberant interaction of big band music with its audience — even if it’s sitting and drinking along, as opposed to dancing, which for all I know happened, too, at midtown Manhattan’s Jazz Standard, where these sessions were recorded. Take, just as an example, the project’s reiteration of Evans’ arrangement of Bix Biederbecke’s “Davenport Blues.” On the 1959 Pacific Jazz album, Great Jazz Standards, the piece is carried along by the late trumpeter Johnny Coles’ soft, cool and dry solo, this version’s rhythmic pulse is amplified by drummer Lewis Nash’s down-and-dirty beat and trumpeter Mat Jodrell’s flamboyantly vertical solo. I thought Evans’ 1965 version of “Greensleeves” would be a non-starter without Kenny Burrell’s guitar up front, but trombonist Marshall Gilkes busts the arrangement wide open. Because Truesdell is as much curator as orchestrator, he also uses such occasions for lesser-known or previously unrecorded Evans, notably “Avalon Town,” which he’d written during his mid-1940s apprenticeship with Claude Thornhill, during which he began tinkering with impressionism and modulated brass.
8.) Matthew Shipp Trio, The Conduct of Jazz (Thirsty Ear) –This is the small group album many of us have been waiting for from Wilmington’s Excitable Renegade. His knotty, multi-clustered attack on the piano is as relentless as ever with his themes and motifs rolling, tumbling and shifting direction with seemingly inexhaustible inventiveness. The first few bars of “Instinctive Touch” (along with the title itself) announces to the uninitiated how insistently he’s willing to stress test a motif until it breaks apart to reveal some promising new form of life. Yet it’s the title track that discloses something new to the mix; an exuberant drive that somehow seems more contained and yet more fluid and expansive. I’m going out on a limb by saying that it’s the addition of drummer Newton Taylor Baker to the tandem of Shipp and bassist Michael Bisio, whose solos likewise seem to have gained greater breadth and openness. Baker’s playing, both with the others and on its own, stretches and spreads out along with Shipp’s and Bisio’s, establishing keener interaction within the trip and helping Shipp’s compositions, whether as crypto-funky as “Blue Abyss,” or as discursive as “Primary Form” reach trajectories that challenge listeners without leaving them stranded or shortchanged. Mostly, it’s fun. Which is how jazz at whatever level of ambition or comprehension is supposed to “conduct” itself.
9.) Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet, Intents and Purposes (Enja) – The year’s notable contribution to the file marked, Discs-I-Couldn’t-Keep-Out-Of-My-Player-Without-Knowing-Exactly-Why is a disarming and surprisingly illuminating inquiry into the oft-discredited realm of what we used to know in the 1970s as jazz-rock fusion. Because so much of the music associated with that genre leaned on synthesizers, wah-wah pedals and other plug-in accessories, purists of all persuasions suspected both its players and its repertoire of coasting on waves of bombast and white noise. Abbasi’s guitars, assisted by Bill Ware’s vibes, Stephan Crump’s upright bass and Eric McPherson’s trap set, excise the bubbles and fuzz from one’s memories of Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly,” Billy Cobham’s “Red Baron,” Chick Corea’s “Medieval Overture” and Pat Martino’s “Joyous Lake,” among others, to reveal their sinewy lyricism without muting their sounds or constricting their energies. These guys come on strong enough to make you check the cover again to make sure nobody’s packing a concealed amplifier.
10.) Heads of State, Search for Peace (Smoke Sessions) – This gathering of gray eminences – saxophonist Gary Bartz, pianist Larry Willis, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Al Foster – isn’t out to re-invent the wheel, or anything else. This is about as unassuming as “straight ahead” jazz gets these days, given its selection of standards, both familiar (“Impressions,” “Lotus Blossom,” “I Wish I Knew”) and not quite as well known that you don’t need to mention their composers’ names (Benny Carter’s “Summer Serenade,” Jackie McLean’s “Capuchin Swing”). There are also two pieces, “Soulstice” and “Uncle Bubba,” written by Bartz – and as masterly as the other esteemed “heads” are, it is Bartz to whom this album truly belongs and whose playing throughout is a clinic in lyricism, timing and tone. At 75, he is a living exemplar of the alto saxophone and all you have to do is listen to him lay out on something like “Crazy She Calls Me” to bask in the reflected glory of someone who knows exactly what to say, how to say it and where each bend and curve in a variation needs to go. Jazz doesn’t always have to change the world, or even rearrange the furniture in your head, to be great. Sometimes, all it needs is a rich, ripe and still evolving gift such as Bartz’s to remind you why you don’t really care what anybody else says about jazz music’s alleged “deterioration” or “demise.” If Bartz still believes, you should, too
Fred Hersch, Solo (Palmetto)
Myra Melford, Snowy Egret (Enja) Chris Potter Underground Orchestra, Imaginary Cities (ECM) Erik Friedlander, Oscalypso (Skipstone) Tigran Hamasyan, Luys I Luso (ECM) Romain Collin, Press Enter (ACT) Albert “Tootie” Heath, Ethan Iverson, Ben Street, Philadelphia Beat (Sunnyside) Vijay Iyer Trio, Break Stuff (ECM) Liberty Elfman, Radiate (PI)
BEST VOCAL: For One to Love HONORABLE MENTION: Cassandra Wilson, Coming Forth By Day (Legacy)
BEST LATIN ALBUM: Arturo O’ Farrill & the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, Cuba: The Conversation Continues (Motema)
So I’m finally catching up with Homeland after months of people yelling in my face about how my not being able to pay for Showtime was keeping me from a television series whose significance to our time-and-place rivals those of The Wire or The Sopranos. Even with all this hype and glory leading the way, nothing I’d read or heard before I dove into the DVDs alerted me to the relatively-minor-but-to-me-significant fact that Carrie Mathison, the ruthless, bipolar CIA counterterrorism operative played by Claire Danes, is a serious jazz buff.
At first, I’m thinking: How great for jazz to have even this much ancillary presence in a prestigious pop-culture phenomenon. And then I think, well, yeah, but…she’s, like, clinical, man! And not always in a good way. Do the producers imply that jazz is part of her problem, or a plausible way out of her personal wilderness? Hard to tell so far, except maybe for a crucial clue she derives early in the first season from watching a bass player’s fingers work through a chord progression. These days, serious jazz buffs, with or without their maladies showing, will take whatever they can get in validation from the zeitgeist.
Somehow, jazz goes on, with or without pop validation – even, as one keeps hearing, without compact discs, though one also hears of something called “vinyl” making inroads in the marketplace. One is still haunted by the passage of time – and of those who helped write the history of jazz’s first century. One of my picks is led by a man who died in 2011, and most of the albums listed here pay homage to another, bassist Paul Motian, paragon and patron saint of progressive music, who mentored or inspired many of the musicians cited below Nevertheless, those who follow Motian’s example aren’t standing still, but moving ahead, heedless of what the aforementioned marketplace is thinking about – when, that is, it bothers to think at all.
1.) Ron Miles, Quiver (Enja/yellowbird) – This intricately-wired gadget had me at hello with “Bruise” – which, at least to these ears, compresses the wavering emotional trajectory of one’s average 24-hour existence into nine-and-a-half action-packed minutes. And, as with any album worth its ranking, it just gets better from there. You wouldn’t think you’d get a big, thick sound out of a trio comprising a trumpet (Miles), a guitar (Bill Frisell) and a trap set (Brian Blade). But this isn’t your average chamber-jazz aggregation. It’s a pocket-sized orchestra with Frisell in top form, whether laying down chords broad enough to encircle a botanic garden or spinning contrapuntal phrases that make antsy-little-bird patterns in the sky. Blade’s already established himself as the most audacious of his generation of drummers and he proves here that his ears are as big as his moxie. Miles, one of the versatile and underappreciated horn players of the present day, leads the way with a nerviness too assured to put on airs, but not afraid to think while singing – or vice-versa. Everything this trio touches works like a fine old timepiece, whether it’s Cotton-Club Ellingtonia (“Doin’ the Voom Voom”), gut-bucket blues (“There Aint No Sweet Man that’s Worth the Salt of my Tears” – and who needs a lyric sheet after a title like that?), old-school balladry (a back-door approach to “Days of Wine and Roses”) and even some rockabilly-with-quirk-sauce (“Just Married”). After you’re through listening to it, wind it up again just to see how the tunes land in your head a second or third time. And that won’t be enough.
2.) Ravi Coltrane, Spirit Fiction (Blue Note) – After more than a decade in which Ravi Coltrane’s been out-front as a leader and composer, newcomers still insist on bringing his parents into the discussion; how he and John play the same axes, how much they’re alike (or not), how Alice’s incantatory style has influenced him and on and on…No use complaining, since just about everything’s that been said on these matters so far has been true. But as of this, his most accomplished album yet, Coltrane has more than earned the right to have his artwork taken on its own distinctive terms. Enabled by co-producer Joe Lovano (about whom, more later), Coltrane triumphantly puts forth a personal vision that inquires as lithely as it asserts, that probes as decisively as it propels. He and his album benefit from having two ensembles at their disposal; a quartet with pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Drew Gress and drummer E.J. Strickland that gives added running room for Coltrane’s massive chops (especially on such freewheeling runs as “Spring & Hudson” and the more meditative showcase for his soprano sax, “Marilyn & Tammy”) and a quintet with trumpeter Ralph Alessi, bassist James Genus, pianist Geri Allen and drummer Eric Harland that engages his conversational agility. And with individualists as those in the latter crew, one can’t help but listen as deeply as one speaks. Alessi’s compositions, “Klepto,” “Who Wants Ice Cream” and “Yellow Cat,” extract deep tone colors and slippery phrasing from Coltrane as the imperturbable Allen strings together gem-like chords with escalating force. Lovano joins in on worthwhile examinations of Ornette Coleman (“Check Out Time”) and the aforementioned late, lamented Motian (“Fantasm”).
3.) Vijay Iyer Trio, Accelerando (ACT) – There’s no respite in pianist Iyer’s assault on the traditional jazz repertoire. If anything, his trio shakes things up with even more urgency on its latest production. Yet there’s also greater authority in its overall execution given how better attuned its members are to each other’s instincts. With something as well-worn as “Human Nature” (and no, once and for all, Michael Jackson did NOT write it, but my Hartford housing-project homeboy Steve Porcaro did with John Bettis), Iyer, bassist Stephen Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore re-jigger familiar elements into something like a grand incantation while still making it sound like something you could dance to (though it might be a slightly different dance from the one you’re prepared for). The trio also unearths unexpected theme-extending possibilities in other pop-funk guests on the playlist: “Mmmhmm” by bassist “Thundercat” Bruner and Flying Lotus and “The Star of the Story”, written by Rod Temperton for the seventies disco band Heatwave. The jazz “standards” are, of course, so left-field that Henry Threadgill’s wildly-eccentric “Little Pocket-Sized Demons” is given as straightforward a reading as can be imagined while a conventionally-swinging foundation is generously applied to Herbie Nichols’ typically-unconventional “Wildflower.” And why doesn’t it surprise that when Duke Ellington is invited to the party, his house gift is the lesser-known-than-it-should-be “Village of the Virgins,” from the maestro’s collaboration with choreographer Alvin Ailey? Iyer’s own pieces, including the explosive title track, move forward with a kind of mutant turbulence reminiscent of both Andrew Hill and Charles Mingus, while achieving a definitive shape they’ve earned on their own. It’s hard to tell at times whether harmonies are being re-imagined here as rhythms, or the other way around. Either way, you’re ready for whatever the Iyer Gang stirs up next time.
4.) Henry Threadgill, Tomorrow Sunny/the Revelry, Spp (Pi) – Yup, that’s the title — even those last three letters, which look like the tail end of a URL address from an undiscovered continent, but likely stand for “species”, given the biological roots of the ensemble’s name, Zooid (pronounced “zoh-oyd” and defined as “an organic cell or organized body that has independent movement within a living organism.”) Once again, it would appear Henry Threadgill’s not going to make things easy for us. Yet if you keep in mind what that Z-word means, you can begin to understand how his group’s instrumental voices merge to form their own arresting unity from ostensible chaos. To the regular quintet — the omnipresent Threadgill on reeds, the irrepressible Liberty Elfman on guitar, Jose Davila on tuba and trombone, Stomu Takeishi on bass guitar, Elliot Humberto Kavee on percussion – cellist Christopher Hoffman is added, which broadens the range of melodic-harmonic conversation while providing additional underpinning for the rhythmic attack The frisky result is the most cohesive and accessible of Threadgill’s previous four Zooid albums. It’s almost as if the guys finally got around to what they wanted to say all along and are better able to bring all of us into the flow. Then again, maybe we’re the ones who are adjusting to the seemingly fragmented nature of this music given how increasingly static our digitized day-to-day living has become. There’s a third possibility: That the lilting dynamics of this particular disc shields more disconcerting perceptions (e.g. If “tomorrow” is “sunny,” then what’s that make “today”? And how long before “tomorrow” gets here?) But why make things harder for us than they need to be? Just revel, Humans from Earth.
5.) Luciana Souza, Duos III (Sunnyside) – Her voice is such a gorgeous instrument that it tempts producers to frame it in all manner of contexts, whether it’s Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry set to music or Chet Baker’s songbook steeped in indigo. But the formula that’s thus far worked best for Souza puts her in a studio with the finest guitarists of her native Brazil and lets them run free in duet mode with the classic repertoire of their homeland. To say this third installment is as great as its 2001 and 2005 predecessors only solidifies the stature of this career-defining trilogy. It’s hard to single out any of her accompanists, Toninho Horta, Romero Lubambo and Marco Pereira, since each manage to bring out her inner poet, chemist or dancer, whichever the occasion requires. Her interplay with Pereira on the latter’s “Dona Lu” is as ingenious as it is enchanting while Lubambo, mainstay of the invaluable Trio La Paz, collaborates with her on a transcendent, enrapturing version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Dindi,” which, as with many of the other tunes here, sounds both warmly familiar and startlingly fresh.
6.) Dave Douglas, Be Still (Green Leaf) – Not since 1998’s Charms of the Night Sky has a Dave Douglas album beguiled as consistently as this. The soft, wistful essences of Be Still have more elegiac tinctures given that it is a series of tunes, many of them in the folk and spiritual idiom, dedicated to the memory of the trumpeter’s late mother Emily. Hence, the first verse of “This is My Father’s World” substitutes “mother” for “father.” Moreover, the quintet of Douglas, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Rudy Royston make the century-old hymn swing ever so gently behind the spring-water vocals of bluegrass singer Aoife O’Donovan, who shows here that she can hold her own with the jazz kids. She brings such limpid, ethereal grace to such songs as “Be Still My Soul” (whose music comes from Jean Sibelius), “Barbara Allen” and Douglas’ “Living Streams” that you almost wish she was on all the tracks. But Douglas’ own instrument is plaintive and poignant enough, even with it kicks up some dust on the more festive “Going Somewhere with You.” By its last cut, “Whither Must I Wander”, Douglas’ tribute seems suspended in a nether region between grief and acceptance, solemnity and release. It’s where most of us end up after we lose someone close to us – and where we sometimes tend to stay longer than we should. It’s that very ambivalence that makes Douglas’ musical wake seem a generous, more authentic gift to the living.
7.) Fred Hersch Trio, Alive at the Vanguard (Palmetto) – It’s not the first album Hersch has recorded at the fabled Village Vanguard – and, now that we’re sure he’s in fine fettle, one expects it won’t be the last. But that word in the title, “Alive,” carries added weight precisely because of the pianist’s astounding recovery from an AIDS-related coma in 2008. He seems to have come back from the abyss with greater fortitude and rawer energy than he’d had before. Even the romantic lyricism, one of many attributes that prompted immediate comparisons with Bill Evans upon his earlier emergence, packs earthier, more serrated textures on such intriguing medleys as “The Wind/Moon and Sand” and “From This Moment On/The Song Is You.” He literally tosses the Evans comparisons in the spin cycle by melding “Nardis” with Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman.” With his simpatico band mates, bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson, opening doors and windows for his imaginative faculties, Hersch leaps, saunters and, sometimes, stomps through those passages with a unassailable bravado that tells anybody who’s listening: Yes, I’m alive, thanks. Are you?
8.) John Abercrombie Quartet, Within A Song (ECM) – Yes, guitarist Abercrombie is the name on the door, and he is also leader of the pack and owner of the context (jazz music from the late 1950s and early 1960s that inspired him). But from the moment Joe Lovano’s tenor saxophone starts his journey into deeper, broader variations on “Where Are You” that are worthy of the mighty Coleman Hawkins and his epoch-making 1939 recording of “Body and Soul,” he’s the one you’re most anxious to hear again throughout, whether soaring on balladry or pirouetting through Something Completely Different (e.g. Ornette Coleman’s “Blues Connotation.”) Abercrombie’s downy, single-note lyricism seems to yield so much of the floor to the greatest saxophonist of his generation that you almost overlook the unflappable expertise he shows in letting his guitar wrap itself around all manner of rhythms. Both bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Baron glide and pivot their way through whatever each tune requires, whether it’s the title track (Abercrombie’s crafty inversion of “Without A Song,” reminiscent of the 1961 colloquy on that standard between Jim Hall and Sonny Rollins on the latter’s “The Bridge”) or pieces by John Coltrane (“Wise One”) and Bill Evans (“Interplay”, “Sometime Ago”). It’s a delicate bit of retrospective-izing that never fawns over the past, but finds elegant ways to re-invigorate it.
9.) Sam Rivers, Dave Holland, Barry Atschul, Reunion: Live in New York (Pi) – Do the math. Rivers died a year ago this month at age 88. He recorded this in May, 2007. That would make him 84 at the time; actually, 83, since his birthday was in September. Whatever the case, you will simply not believe that a man in his eighties is capable of the kind of sustained energetic invention on saxophone and flute that Rivers displays on this epic series of live performances with old friends Holland and Atschul at Columbia University, their first performance together in a quarter-century. Those who recall how naturally lucid and enrapturing their free-form interplay was in the 1970s may not find any true astonishments in this interchange. Even so, there is always anticipation whenever Holland tosses a bass line or two into the void. Will Rivers grab at a bop-like riff and weave a few quick licks into a bird call? Will Atschul (and where has he been all this time?) pounce on his hi-hat to propel their thoughts or pry open a new path with the proverbial different drum? Maybe Rivers will move to a piano; something he rarely, if ever did back in the day. This is free jazz at its most accessible, which makes it no less challenging and much more fun. The only thing that would have made it more galvanic an event would have been an appearance by Anthony Braxton to round out the crew that was aboard for the Holland-led 1973 ECM disc, Conference of the Birds. As it is, this Reunion was more than enough to remind devotees-of-a-certain-age of the sublime, long-lost joys of listening to musicians in loft apartments make artful noise purely for inspiration’s sake.
10.) Bobby Hutcherson, Somewhere in the Night (Kind of Blue) –. Aficionados of the jazz organ know Joey De Francesco’s cooking facilities are at even- or above-par with such masters of the pedal-walking bass line as Jimmies Smith and McGriff. But on this 2009 live date with vibraphonist Hutcherson at Dizzy’s Coca-Cola club at New York’s Jazz @Lincoln Center, Joey Dee shows off his commanding maturity and range of expression. He seems especially charged by this eclectic play list to flash some lyrical agility in his solos. Who knew that Duke Ellington’s “Take the Coltrane” would make for such a four-alarm barnburner with De Francesco tearing into riffs only to blow them apart and use their shards as fuel for thin-air improv? He’d walk off with the whole program in his back pocket if it weren’t for sure-handed drummer Byron Landham driving the crew in the focused, but open-hearted way your parents would take your Little League team to and from a long-distance away game and guitarist Peter Bernstein un-spooling his own versatility (especially on the title track, best remembered by those of us raised on black-and-white TV as “The Theme from ‘Naked City’”) from a pronounced center-of -gravity. But this date, basically and properly, belongs to the leader, who turns 72 next month and, despite his seemingly inexhaustible drive, still doesn’t get the props he deserves as both instrumentalist and composer.
1.) Anat Cohen, Claroscuro (Anzic)
2.) Matthew Shipp, Elastic Aspects (Thirsty Ear)
3.) Ted Nash, The Creep (Plastic Sax)
4.) Chick Corea & Gary Burton, Hot House (Concord)
5.) Billy Hart, All Our Reasons (ECM)
BEST NEW ARTIST: Ryan Truesdell, Centennial: Newly Discovered Works by Gil Evans (ArtistsShare)Honorable Mention: Reggie Quinerly, Music Inspired by Freedmantown (Redefinition)
BEST LATIN JAZZ: Guillermo Klein Y Los Gauchos, Carrera (Sunnyside) Honorable Mention: David Virelles, Continuum (Pi)
BEST VOCAL: Luciana Souza, Duos III (Sunnyside)
Honorable Mention: Tessa Souter, Beyond the Blue (Motema); Cassandra Wilson, Another Country (Entertainment One); Susie Arioli, All The Way (Jazzheads)
BEST REISSUE: Charles Mingus, The Jazz Workshop Concerts, 1964-65 (Mosaic)
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