Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Discs for 2017

 

Don’t know whether you’ve heard or not, but as of this year, professional basketball has become the Number One Sport in America. Many can, and likely will argue with me on this and we can do so another time. But I know that with this prominence has come some chatter among the philosophically inclined (or challenged) about how basketball is such a prototypically American team game where everybody plays together as a unit while allowing individual brilliance to come forth in dramatic ways while playing within the rules and blah-de-blah-blah…

I mean…I know that ALL team sports allow for that to varying degrees, right? But the basketball cognoscenti contends that it’s the grand, freewheeling and often explosive manner in which players express themselves spontaneously within the confines of the game that solidifies its global appeal. (Once again, blah-de-blah-blah-and again we can fight about this later.)

The only reason I’m bringing it up here is that there was a time  — and not all that long ago — when people spoke in this manner about jazz music, another American-born enterprise allowing for, even compelling individual spontaneity within a collective endeavor. Both basketball and jazz have deployed “jam” and even “jam sessions” in their argot, though they technically mean different things. And, as is especially the case with the pro game, basketball depends heavily on stars drawing fans’ wayward attention spans into the not-always-conspicuous-but-deeply-satisfying graces within the sport. Jazz likewise searches far and wide for first-magnitude stars and doesn’t lack for hot young “phenoms” of its own. (Number 1 on this list.) It also has ageless wonders who can still “ball” with eye-popping agility (Numbers 2 and 7), slammers who aren’t afraid to go hard and inside (Numbers 4, 5 and 10) and sharpshooters with wide wingspans (Numbers 3, 6, 8, 4 and 1, again).

I just wish I knew the secret to jazz drawing in, at the very least, the savants who care so much about whether the “Dubs” (look it up) repeat again as champs or whether the Celtics-Sixers rivalry is really going back to where it used to be in the 1980s/1960s or whether LeBron James is gunning hard for a third MVP award or whether the Thunder has too many shooters, etc. Why can’t jazz get buzz like that?

Because, as with everything else in the recording industry (whatever the hell THAT is these days), jazz’s future is locked in a chrysalis forged by changes in distribution, marketing and even packaging. (How long and deep is the vinyl resurgence anyway?) And when the chrysalis bursts, then what? Or, more to the point, so what? Jazz isn’t in a position to lead change, but it will, or should adapt to the changes overtaking the American psyche in matters of gender, economics and, as always, race, defined here a mythic construct that nonetheless holds American minds hostage.

(We can table that discussion for another time, too.)

Through it all, the music abides. And, for anybody bothering to listen, it’s stronger, livelier and more vibrant than ever. Case in point:

 

 

dreamsanddaggers

 

1.) Cecile McLorin Salvant, Dreams and Daggers (Mack Avenue) – As of this album, her third (or maybe fourth), it is no longer enough to say she’s the most talented young vocalist to appear in decades. Nor is enough to say that she’s the best jazz singer of her (Millennial) generation. This double disc package, composed mostly of sets gathered from a September, 2016 Village Vanguard engagement, proclaims Cecile McLorin Salvant as a star of such near-blinding magnitude that if I could have given the first five spots on the list to this album, I would. Put another way (and I apologize if I’m repeating myself): I cannot remember ever hearing a singer achieving before the age of 30 such a formidable command of rhythm, tone, nuance, articulation and idiom. Prodigies before her have come and, often, gone with her abundance of resources. But among many other things, she can bend, without undue distortions, any phrase in any standard, allowing the familiar lyrics in such chestnuts as “You’re My Thrill,” “The Best Thing For You”(with its challenging chord and line shifts), “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” to lope around, lag behind and leap ahead of their assigned tempos with a veteran’s imperturbable authority. As she has in her previous albums, she pounds hard-core blues tunes such as “Sam Jones’ Blues” and “You Got To Give Me Some” as if born and bred in brawling roadhouses. But she treats the words of these raw-boned songs with same solicitude and care that she applies to the suave cheekiness of Bob Dorough’s “Nothing Like You” and “Devil May Care” or to the ruminative pathos of the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill plaint, “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty.” She is a skilled dramatist, probing and engaging the character behind each song – though I wish another dramatist would someday fashion a vehicle that could showcase her brilliance on stage or screen the way Funny Girl delivered Barbra Streisand to the center of the universe. She’s also playful, but she aint playing. Nor is she a dilettante wandering aimlessly, from show tunes to primordial funk and back to her own original musings (“More,” “Red Instead.”) She’s probing for connections, linkages, overlapping characteristics of each tune with the kind of fortitude that over time could reinforce the foundations of American music for new generations of players, poets and lovers. And, as I may or may not have mentioned earlier, she’s only 28 years old. I did neglect to mention the comparably dynamic support of her rhythm section, especially pianist Aaron Diehl, who’s becoming a first-magnitude star on his own. I can’t tell you any more. There are some things you’re going to have to see and hear for your own selves.

 

 

 

Marseille

 

2.) Ahmad Jamal, Marseille (Jazzbook/Jazz Village)—Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the age spectrum, Ahmad Jamal is 87 years old, which means he’s three years away from being a nonagenarian. Paradoxically, he has in recent years sounded younger with age; more energetic and adventurous than he did back in the 1950s when he was wowing Chicago’s Pershing nightclub with his variations on “Poinciana.” His late-winter resurgence continues on this session with drummer Herlin Riley, bassist James Cammack and percussionist Manolo Badrena. His cleverness, whose flamboyance at one time annoyed the purists, has acquired keener, rougher edges on such tunes as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Autumn Leaves,” the latter of which is a clinic on how a pianist and a rhythm session contain and release tension like dancers working within a narrow space. His timing and poise as leader and soloist have likewise sharpened, especially on his original compositions, “Pots En Verre,” “Baalbeck” and the title tune, given three variations here; first as a straight-ahead instrumental, then with a spoken version (by Abd Al Malik) and a ballad rendering (Mina Agossi) of Jamal’s French-language lyrics – which, by the way, are also pretty deft for a man of his advanced years. But who’s counting anyway? I’m going to predict that, by his 90th birthday in 2020, he’ll still be playing keep-away games with space and time on his piano and keeping his bass-drum tandems on their toes. Anybody want to bet against me? Or him?

 

Morphogenesis

 

 

3.) Steve Coleman’s Natal Eclipse, Morphogenesis (PI) – I’m resisting the temptation to label what Coleman’s been doing these last few years as an ongoing biological experiment. That would make it sound clinical and the music he and his various ensembles have recorded is anything but. Functional Arrythmias (2013) dealt with cardiovascular matters while Synovial Joints (2015) dared you to imagine knees, elbows, shoulders and legs accommodating themselves to whatever the music, organically conceived and arranged into being, was willing them to do. This time, the shape-shifting dynamics of Coleman’s approach is geared towards movement, core, tactics, kinesis and thrust; in other words, martial arts, specifically boxing. (You heard.) Thus the orchestrations have more density and drive, which makes this album at once more inscrutable and more accessible than its immediate predecessors. Jonathan Finlayson’s trumpet shows greater range of expression even when flying in close formation with Coleman’s alto saxophone. Jen Shyu’s voice returns to the mix while pianist Matt Mitchell, drummer Greg Chudzik, tenor saxophonist Maria Grand, violinist Kristin Lee and percussionist Neeraj Mehta all work together to create an collective entity of sound and rhythm you could use to prepare for any bout you have on the schedule, metaphorical or otherwise. Since these releases seem timed for every two years, I’m guessing Coleman and crew have another inquiry due in 2019. Is it possible, doctor, that…the human brain could be next on his agenda? (Egad!)

 

 

 

far from over_vijay iyer sextet

 

 

4.) Vijay Iyer Sextet, Far From Over (ECM) – “Down to the Wire,” “Into Action,” “Wake,” “End of the Tunnel”…The titles alone are challenges hurled into the Whirlwind of Now, especially the title track, which pulses throughout like a urgent telegraph message seeking a way out of the whatever it is we’ve been going through for (at least) the last year. Iyer, having done everything with the piano trio short of equipping it with double jet packs and a hood ornament, takes the wheel of this super-powered ensemble and comes perilously close to redefining the horns-rhythm-section paradigm. Pianist Iyer, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey lay down a sweet, spongy groove for “Nope” that gives the front line of alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, tenor saxophonist Mark Shim and horn master Graham Haynes lots of room to leap with controlled abandon. Electronics are deployed with discretion and purpose on the aforementioned “End of the Tunnel” while “Down to the Wire’s” overlapping riffs and steel-mesh polyrhythms exemplify the band’s breakneck intensity as does the lyrical fire shooting out of that elite horn section. Even when in relative reflection (“For Amiri Baraka”), the album seethes and goads its listeners to lean in and press forward into whatever trials lay ahead. We should probably take a hint from the way these guys go all out on these tracks: That our only way out of this mess may be us.

 

 

 

JLCO_Batiste_LewisCover_3000x3000_600_600_80 (1)

 

 

5.) Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, The Music of John Lewis (Blue Engine) — Wynton Marsalis wasn’t the first musician to merge classical aspirations with jazz performance. Neither was John Lewis. But Lewis (1920-2001), who led the epochal Modern Jazz Quartet for roughly half his life, helped define by the middle of the last century a useable tradition within jazz music that could draw extensively upon its own heritage (blues, bop, swing and such) while establishing communion with baroque, romantic, impressionist and other genres linked to Europe. This legacy is vast and enduring enough to affect most of the jazz music written today, including most, if not all of the music represented on this list. Marsalis, especially, knows how much the very notion of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and jazz repertory in general, owes to Lewis and this tribute, recorded four years ago at Rose Hall, is an institution’s deeply-felt and elegantly-framed expression of gratitude. Marsalis, as ever, is the emcee-impresario as well an occasional soloist. But at center stage for this show is pianist Jon Batiste, a couple years before becoming nationally known as Steven Colbert’s “Late Show” bandleader-collaborator-egger-on. He proves an insightful surrogate for Lewis’ own inventions on such timeless pieces as “2 Degrees West, 3 Degrees East,” “Two Bass Hit” and (of course) “Django.” The concert’s revelations come in the orchestra’s renditions of themes taken from MJQ’s 1962 masterwork, The Comedy. That suite sustained the most knocks at the time from jazz peeps who believed Lewis was bowing too low to the European masters. But the orchestra, using a score adapted for big band by David Berger, makes the whole apparatus swing hard without in any way mitigating its surging romanticism. If I may partake of a quibble: The lovely “La Cantatrice” is rendered in these settings without a vocal proxy for the young Diahann Carroll, who sang this aria with the quartet on the Atlantic album. If the LCJO repeats this segment of the MJQ experiment, I know just the singer for the job. (Again, see Number 1 on this list).

 

 

 

Honey & Salt

 

 

 

6.) Matt Wilson, Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg (Palmetto) – Coming across this homage to the First Jazz Poet  is like wandering into a neglected corner of one’s attic and stumbling into these motley contraptions that, with a little oil in their wheels and cleaning fluid in their cogs, can still whirr, hum and beguile. Drummer-bandleader-composer Wilson comes by his devotion legitimately, having hailed from the same Knox County, Illinois birthplace as Sandburg and been distantly related to boot. He’s been touring with his Carl Sandburg project for a few years now and has now yielded a cozy, colorful quilt of Sandburg-related instrumentals, songs and readings that constitute one of the precious few times that a jazz-poetry synthesis has worked so well. (Hell, worked. Period.) With Ron Miles on trumpet, Jeff Lederer on reeds, Martin Wind on bass and Dawn Thomson on guitar and lead vocals, Wilson provides deceptively simple frameworks, rhythmically and otherwise, for a Sandburg cornucopia (never has the word seemed more appropriate): A loping shuffle for “Soup”; an indigo-blue slow jam for “Night Stuff” (with Miles in top form) and a moody prairie lament for “Bringers” (“…of dawn and dusk and dreams…”). Even more intriguing is the interplay of the music with the poems as read by such notables as Jack Black (“Snatch of Slipshod Jazz”), Carla Bley (“To Know Silence Perfectly”), Rufus Reid (“Trafficker”), John Scofield (“We Must Be Polite”) and Sandburg himself, whose recital of “Fog,” where most of us first learned about metaphor in grade school, is stretched and elaborated upon by Wilson’s trap set. Is it possible for a jazz album to restore a literary reputation? I can’t say, but I do know when I hear the group join their voices on Sandburg’s “Choose” – “The single clenched fist lifted and ready/Or the open asking hand held out and waiting/Choose/For we meet by one or the other” – it feels very much as though these poems, their author and this project have arrived in our midst exactly when we need them most.

 

Solo Relections Monk

 

 

 

7.) Wadada Leo Smith, Solo: Reflections & Meditations on Monk (TUM) I’ll repeat here what I said two months ago: At age 75, Smith is enjoying a bountiful winter of recognition for his life’s work as trumpeter, composer and bandleader, creating fresh contexts for orchestrated jazz and delivering plaintive, ruminative yet remarkably agile narratives on his horn. His liner notes acknowledge his considerable debt to Monk, “an inspiration that arcs straight across the structured invisible world.” Smith’s own art, whether alone or in groups, uses intervals as nimbly as the master. In his own renditions of “Ruby, My Dear,” “Reflections,” “Crepuscule with Nellie” and “Round Midnight” (all of which dare the bold and the thoughtful to bring their “A” Game), Smith seems to know precisely how to sustain spaces between phrases and, more important, when to come in hard, when to use stealth – and, in the case with “Nellie,” when to let its essential form do most of the work. He rounds out the album with original pieces, a couple of them stimulated by visual depictions of the pianist at work (“Monk and his Five-Point Ring at the Five Spot Café,” “Adagio Monk, the Composer in Sepia – A Second Vision”) and another, intriguingly speculative narrative (“Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium – A Mystery”). Generations of jazz musicians have brought their adorations of Monk to his legacy’s front door. I doubt there is any other musician alive who could have presented anything as austere, adventurous and challenging as Smith’s recital.

 

 

Tipico

 

 

8.) Miguel Zenon, Tipico (Miel Music) – The title of the first track, “Academia” sounds vaguely like a threat, especially since it was apparently inspired by Zenon’s interaction with his students at the New England Conservatory of Music. But it’s a buoyant, effervescent take, setting you up for similarly joyful interactions to come. Zenon has in the past organized his albums around specific themes and narratives connected to his Puerto Rican heritage. But this time, he intends nothing more than a celebration of his 15-year affiliation with the rest of his quartet (pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawisching and drummer Henry Cole). What results is hardly academic, but you could learn a lot from the way Zenon’s alto sax communicates with the other instrumentalists. On “Cantor,” for instance, Glawisching and Perdomo lay down a spectral path for Zenon to soar, hover and gradually to create spiraling patterns whose intricacies sneak up on you. The title track evokes a whole subcontinent of rhythmic and melodic influences, galvanized by the quartet’s collective sway and swagger. Zenon’s intelligence and authority are asserted as definitively as on his previous albums. But this time, there’s a relaxed open-heartedness shared by all the musicians, whose only imperative is to make it all move at different tempos (tempi?) in beauty and mystery. Zenon’s playing, at least to these ears, has never sounded as frisky or as limpid as it does here.

 

 

Weiss Wake Up Call

 

 

9.) David Weiss & Point of Departure, Wake Up Call (Ropeadope) – Weiss, as he’s proven with all his varied ensembles (including this one), knows his way around the repertoire of the 1960s. He also is unapologetically drawn to the possibilities opened up by jazz-fusion of the 1970s and he’s apparently determined to help finish, or resolve, what those fusion artists started. The Point of Departure outfit is heard here in the kind of transition that jazz itself was a half-century ago as electronics seeped into hard bop’s domain. Only the album’s midsection, “Unfinished Business,” retains tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen and guitarist Nir Felder from the ensemble’s previous incarnation. For the rest, trumpeter-leader Weiss ups the ante by using two guitarists: Travis Reuter and Ben Eunson while Myron Walden assumes the tenor sax chair. The combination jars at first, but only for a while. And the ensemble shows its tight-knit cohesion when it dives into amplified renderings of John McLaughlin’s “Sanctuary,” Joe Henderson’s “Gazelle” and Tony Williams’ “Pee Wee.” On “The Mystic Knights of The Sea,” drawn from Williams’ early 70s band, Lifetime, Weiss’ group shows that piece to be not too far removed conceptually from the Williams who played with Miles Davis’ legendary mid-60s quintet. Everybody involved is focused and engaged, but if this album has an emerging star, it’s drummer Kush Abadey, who powers this edition of “POD” with a ferocity that seems ballistic in execution. He must be destined for greater things because Han Solo, who knows a little something about hyper-drive, made what’s known as the “jazz face” when he saw Abedey flash leather not so long ago at Small’s jazz club. He wouldn’t be the first star Weiss helped propel into greater prominence. And he won’t be the last.

 

 

Christian-McBride-Bringin-It

 

 

10.) Christian McBride Big Band, Bringin’ It (Mack Avenue) – I’ve always suspected that there have been two identities in pitched battle for bassist McBride’s Philly-forged soul, one side embodied by Ray Brown, the other by Bootsy Collins. In this setting, and likely in others yet to come, the two sides aren’t in conflict so much as in spirited negotiations for a workable, lasting truce. The first track, a backyard-party rouser titled “Gettin’ To It,” loosens your bow tie and gives your head a reason to do its version of the Madison, or maybe the Funky Chicken. The immediate follow-up, Freddie Hubbard’s “Thermo,” is a steady-rolling swinger that has little in common with the opener besides the airtight rhythm section (McBride, pianist Xavier Davis, drummer Quincy Phillips and guitarist Rodney Jones) along with fleet-footed soloing by trumpeter Freddie Hendrix and tenor saxophonist Ron Blake. McBride’s wide-screen arrangement of “I Thought About You” discloses his higher-ground ambitions for his large ensemble and the band, with trumpeter Brandon Lee’s solo leading the way, comes through impressively enough for you to hope McBride aims even higher. Talks will likely continue between the Brown and Bootsy sides and McBride is a wicked-smart mediator, though part of me wishes he’d let his Famous Flames side cut loose for just one more album. If it happens, I’m all for him. If it doesn’t, I still am.

 

Daylight Ghosts

 

 

HONORABLE MENTION: Craig Taborn, Daylight Ghosts, (ECM) Tyshawn Sorey, Verisimilitude (PI); Heads of State, Four in One (Smoke Sessions); Matthew Shipp Trio, Piano Song (Thirsty Ear); Fred Hersch, Open Book (Palmetto); Jane Ira Bloom, Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson (Outline); Ron Miles, I Am A Man (Yellowbird); Joey Alexander, Monk. Live. Trio! (Motema); Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, Handful of Keys (Blue Engine)

BEST REISSUE/ARCHIVAL

 

 

Another Time

 

1.) Thelonious Monk, Les Liasons Dangereuses 1960 (SAM)
2.) Bill Evans, Another Time: The Hilversum Concert with Eddie Gomez & Jack DeJohnette (Resonance)
3.) Ornette Coleman, Ornette at 12 & Crisis (Real Gone)

BEST DEBUT ALBUM

 

Fly or Die

 

 

Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die (International Anthem LLC)

BEST LATIN ALBUM

Miguel Zenon, Tipico
HONORABLE MENTION: Baptiste Trotignon & Yosvany Terry, Ancestral Memories (Okeh)

BEST VOCAL
Cecile McLorin Salvant, Dreams and Daggers
HONORABLE MENTION: Dominique Eade & Ran Blake, Town and Country (Sunnyside); Sarah Partridge, Bright Lights & Promises: Redefining Janis Ian (Origin)

Monk/Clonk!

 

 

 

Thelonious Monk

 

 

At the top of this man-made hill you will find the first poem I’ve finished in several years. It is also the shortest poem I’ve ever written. Because pride is a sin I will say only that I am happier with it than I expected. It may not have the Whitman-esque oomph of Muhammad Ali’s immortal “Me!/Whee!” It is also not entirely original since I borrowed the “Clonk!” from Jack Kerouac’s verbal approximation of a Thelonious Monk chord: “the clonk of [Monk’s] millennial piano like anvils in Petrograd.” The sounds of both “onk” words seem exotic on first encounter, but make perfect, even logical sense when joined together.

Much like the music Thelonious Monk made: The direct statement augmented by something you may not have expected.

Today (Oct. 10) is Monk’s 100th birthday and, though he’s been dead for 35 years, the “clonk” of fresh discovery abides in his life’s work. You can still trip over things you didn’t know before and, once you recover your balance, find yourself dancing along with its ramifications. Just as he did.

 

 

For example: I’m embarrassed to ask this out loud, but how did I manage to live this long and NOT get caught up, until now, in the whirlwind of Monk’s 1958 Five Spot sessions with Johnny Griffin? Some would-be smart-alecks think of Griffin as little more than the answer to a trivia question: Who was Monk’s tenor saxophonist between John Coltrane and Charlie Rouse? But the “Little Giant,” who died in 2008 at age 80, was hardly a footnote in anybody’s history.

 

Griffin Monk Live

 

 

Griffin was both paradigm and paragon of the hard-blowing Chicago saxophonists who roared through mid-to-late-20th century jazz music. Once Griffin reached peak intensity in his tone (bottom-heavy, reflecting his apprenticeship with rhythm-and-blues bands), he could spin chorus after breathtaking chorus of thick, fluid phrases, bulging with allusions to Italian arias, arcane folk melodies and Tin Pan Alley ditties as well as his own startling, vertically driven inventions. He may not have had Coltrane’s commanding austerity and fearsome range or Rouse’s dry wit and leathery brio. But what Griffin did have put the mercurial maestro of time and space in his comfort zone. And you can hear its overall effect resound happily in the performances compiled on the two-disc Thelonious Monk and Johnny Griffin: Complete Live at the Five Spot (2012, Phoenix Records). For those who now only have ears for vinyl, Thelonious In Action is apparently easily available and while Mysterioso, the other original Riverside LP covering these sessions, appears to be only available on CD.

 

In Action Monk

 

 

I’d be happy to dwell on the specifics of Monk-Griffin, believing that I’d uncovered a whole expanse of untilled territory to cultivate. But I found out that none other than Dean Robert Christgau got there a good while before me and I am more than happy to yield my remaining time on this topic to him. And also to this.

 

 

 

 

Joey Monk Live

 

 

Meanwhile, the Monk Century is getting its proper due from many precincts, the most attention by far going to the homage submitted to the marketplace only a few days ago by Joey Alexander, the preeminent jazz prodigy of the post-Millennium. He’s 14, they tell me, though I often wonder watching performances like this one how ANY 14-year-old carries himself with as much composure as he stretches the parameters of Monk’s “Evidence,” while respecting, even enhancing the piece’s spacious design. There’s a whole album of this stuff, Joey Live Monk (Motema) ready for downloading and it’s enough to for me to admit that whatever qualms I may have entertained about this kid beforehand have now gone away and hidden under an abandoned back porch. He is, as we sportscasters like to say, For Real.

 

 

 

Wadada on Monk

 

 

At the other end of the spectrum, in more ways than one, is Wadada Leo Smith’s Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk (TUM). At age 75, Smith is enjoying a bountiful winter of recognition for his life’s work as trumpeter, composer and bandleader, creating fresh contexts for orchestrated jazz and delivering plaintive, ruminative yet remarkably agile narratives on his horn. His liner notes acknowledge his considerable debt to Monk, “an inspiration that arcs straight across the structured invisible world.” Smith’s own art, whether alone or in groups, uses intervals as nimbly as the master. In his own renditions of “Ruby, My Dear,” “Reflections,” “Crepuscule with Nellie” and “Round Midnight” (all of which dare the bold and the thoughtful to bring their “A” Game), Smith seems to know precisely how to sustain spaces between phrases and, more important, when to come in hard, when to use stealth – and, in the case with “Nellie,” when to let its essential form do most of the work. He rounds out the album with original pieces, a couple of them stimulated by visual depictions of the pianist at work (“Monk and his Five-Point Ring at the Five Spot Café,” “Adagio Monk, the Composer in Sepia – A Second Vision”) and another, intriguingly speculative narrative (“Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium – A Mystery”). Generations of jazz musicians have brought their adorations of Monk to his legacy’s front door. I doubt there is any other musician alive who could have presented anything as austere, adventurous and cordially challenging as Smith’s recital.

 

 

monk-Liasons

 

 

But perhaps the centennial year’s brightest jewel was unearthed earlier this year and, properly, it comes from Monk’s own archives. Les liasons dangereuses 1960 (Sam Records/Sag) delivers a substantial, previously unreleased account of a July, 1959 session of Monk’s quartet providing soundtrack material for Roger Vadim’s, modern-dress adaptation of the salacious 18th-century saga of seduction and betrayal among the French elite. Professional and psychological travails prevented Monk from providing original compositions for Vadim’s movie. (The liner notes by Robin D.G. Kelley, author of the definitive 2009 biography, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, are lucid and comprehensive.) Thus most of Monk’s contributions to the soundtrack are renditions of “Rhythm-a-Ning,” “Pannonica,” “Six in One” and his other familiar standards. The vogue for modern jazz being what it was in the late 1950s, most of the movie’s patrons found these songs to be properly hip ornaments to the spicy on-screen actions. Independent of the film, they present Monk in one of his happier, friskier states-of-being that overcame an especially arduous time in his life. The aforementioned Charlie Rouse and the then 22-year-old French tenor player Barney Wilen either traded off solos or fronted together on saxophone on these sessions while bassist Sam Jones and drummer Art Taylor provided backup. In this work-for-hire, one hears the stirrings of Monk’s 1960s period of wider popularity and greater opportunity. He plays here as though he knows that better times (relatively speaking) were around the corner.

 

 

Monk Strolling

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Discs for 2016

 

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!”

 

 

Jane-ira-Bloom

 

 

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.

 

 

Wadada-Parks

 

 

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.

 

 

Hersch-Sunday-Vanguard

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Threadgill Locks Verbs

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

Real Enemies cover

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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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.”

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

Delfeayo America

 

 

 

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).

 

 

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BEST VOCAL ALBUM: Catherine Russell, Harlem On My Mind (Jazz Village)

 

 

 

Larry Young in Paris

 

 

 

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)