Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Discs for 2018

It was the kind of year when the biggest, most-talked-about release in recorded jazz was a compilation of takes and outtakes from fifty-five years ago. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Both Directions At Once at or near the top of some reviewers’ lists for best new album since its 1963 sessions by the John Coltrane Quartet had never before seen the proverbial light of day. The album doesn’t appear on this list, and I’ve already suggested why it won’t. Still it was the kind of marketing triumph rarely seen in jazz music, pulling in a big, broad spectrum of listeners. Some older jazz heads told me Both Directions drew bigger crowds than Coltrane did when he was still alive – which sounds more than plausible.

Even with my misgivings, it was hard not to be caught up in the excitement Both Directions At Once aroused among listeners, especially those who weren’t yet born when Coltrane died in 1967. Yet along with the excitement there was also a melancholy acknowledgment that Back Then aint the same as the Here & Now. Hearing the Coltrane quartet at a time when some of its greatest breakthroughs were just ahead reminded you that those early-to-mid-1960s were an era of expanding horizons and greater possibility.

And now? To paraphrase something one of my peers told me earlier in the year, we once lived in a time of transcendent, boundary-breaching improvisers. Now we live in an era awash in very-good-to-great players working well and even nobly within the standards set by giants. Every once in a while, one of them spins you around by making a sound you never heard before. (Number 4 on this list has been doing this since she emerged only a few years ago.) But maybe Gary Giddins was right when he wrote back in 1983 about the emergence of the Marsalis brothers and their contemporaries, “My intuition is that innovation isn’t this generation’s fate.”

After almost forty years have passed and at least a couple more of waves of musicians have emerged, Giddins’ assessment still sounds prescient, at least as far as improvisers are concerned. But there are other ways to be innovative. Throughout this period of revision and retrenchment, some of our most interesting jazz artists have devoted their energies to creating or, in Wynton Marsalis’s case, refreshing contexts for jazz’s presentation, whether by expanding the music’s canon through jazz repertory or providing broader frameworks for presenting the music. Maybe you bring choirs along as part of your equipment, as Kamasi Washington does, or revise conventional horns-rhythm-section stagecraft as the late Max Roach once suggested – and as artists such as Esperanza Spaulding have been doing. It’s the same kind of musical nation-building that Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Art Blakey and Betty Carter used to do with their outfits and I’d like to believe that from these revised contexts, more than a few musicians will emerge and make all our heads spin the way John Coltrane once did, and still does.

Or…I could be wrong. Anyway, here’s my list and I’m sticking with it:

 

 

 

 

1.) Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (The Embedded Sets) (PI) – In Coleman’s previous appearances on this list, I’ve described what he and his band are doing as an ongoing quasi-scientific inquiry into what he characterizes as biological processes, but are in reality groove dynamics and harmonic montage. The studio work has yielded encouraging and often earth-shaking results. But in a live setting, especially within the concave confines of jazz music’s Holy Dive, everything the band does seems ramped up in intensity as if having live witnesses to its experiments goads Coleman, Jonathan Finlayson, Miles Okazaki, Anthony Tidd and Sean Rickman to raise their respective games. The overlapping dialogue between Coleman’s scorching alto sax and Finlayson’s slashing trumpet seems more colorfully serpentine on stage while the worlds-within-worlds polyrhythmic drive provided by bassist Tidd and drummer Rickman yanks you into the music’s molten core and Okasaki’s guitar sets off well-timed compression bombs. If your head can move to this group’s percolating dramatic tension – and it should – your body will eventually follow.

 

 

 

 

 

2.) Wayne Shorter, Emanon (Blue Note) – This just in: THE MULTIVERSE EXISTS! If you doubt this, and you do so at your peril, you need to find the nearest available copy of The 3 Marias, a “prestigious publication” dominating a “one world reality” known as Logokrisia. Failing that, you’ll just have to trust this one-of-a-kind artifact springing from the teeming brain of a comic-book nerd from Newark who grew up to become, among (many) other things, one of this year’s Kennedy Center honorees. This combination of graphic novel and three-disc collection is a multiverse you can carry around the house or, if invited to do so, somebody else’s. The title, which is “no name” spelled backwards , owes its origins to a Dizzy Gillespie tune and is given to the novel’s mystical superhero. Described by Shorter and co-author Monica Sly as a “rogue philosopher,” this Emanon travels from dimension to dimension to subdue fear and oppression in all its forms and replace them with knowledge and wisdom. The real mystery and suspense come with the music performed on the three discs by Shorter and his comparably intrepid sidekicks, pianist Danilo Perez, drummer Brian Blade and bassist John Pattitucci, spinning off motifs, ideas and even characters from the comic book (“Pegasus,” “The 3 Marias,” “Prometheus Unbound” etc.) The first installment has the quartet deploying its customary allusive interplay in tandem with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. At times the combination sounds like the soundtrack to a cryptic SF movie spectacular. But then, almost all of Shorter’s compositions, going as far back as such grandly-conceived classics as 1965’s The All-Seeing Eye and ahead towards such underrated pastels as 1985’s Atlantis (where “The 3 Marias” first appeared) and 1995’s High Life, are soundtracks to movies whose stories would be too inscrutable for Hollywood to attempt. The quartet carries on its sporadic, probing conversations on the other two discs, whose content is culled from a live London concert. Some listeners have complained that the music seems more tentative than they expected as a definitive statement from the greatest living jazz composer. (We’ll argue that latter clause some other time.) But it all sounds pretty definitive to me, coming as it does from somebody whose teenage nicknames were “Mr. Gone” and “Mr. Weird.” Listen to this music often enough and you’ll find that its secrets aren’t meant to be deciphered; only appreciated on their own slippery, shadowy terms.

 

 

 

 

3.) Charlie Haden & Brad Mehldau, Long Ago and Far Away (Impulse!) – Up until his death in 2014, bassist Haden was always up for melding minds with other individual seekers of beauty and truth. This colloquy, recorded in 2007 at a jazz festival in Mannheim, Germany, may not be perfect (since nothing is), but it is gorgeous in the affecting manner of an early winter sunset or a lingering over-the-shoulder pivot towards a onetime lover you’re certain of never seeing again. Haden knew a fellow romantic sensibility when he met one and Mehldau found in Haden’s generosity of spirit a warm, safe haven for his vagabond lyricism and bold phraseology. The playlist is pure classic standard, from “Au Private” to “Everything Happens to Me,” both of whose steady-as-she-goes renditions here would have made Charlie Parker smile. But what would have caused Bird to sit up straight with wide eyes are Mehldau’s variations within each chord change; sometimes they swirl and tumble onto a different path while at other times they imperturbably ride with whatever tangent Haden discovers along the melody’s surface. These collaborators bring out each other’s richest conceptual contours in such ballads as “What’ll I Do” and a Haden favorite, “My Love and I,” David Raksin’s love theme from the 1954 movie “Apache,” within whose bridge Mehldau shakes loose some of his most stunning inventions, expansive yet firmly tethered to the song’s pulse. Haden has always shown a special watchfulness in piano duets. This one is most remarkable for disclosing many things we either didn’t know, or merely suspected, about Mehldau’s resourcefulness. And, as another entry on this list will attest, we’ve come to know a lot more by now.

 

 

 

 

 

4.) Cecile McLoren Salvant, The Window (Mack Avenue) – She can neither be stopped nor contained by anybody’s marketplace; nor is she in any way daunted by having to immediately follow the most breathtaking and ambitious jazz vocal album of this century. She takes a heady gamble on this one by relying mostly on a single accompanist: pianist Sullivan Fortner, who is as formidable a dramatist with his instrument as she is with hers. Her inflections provide well-timed cues for his embellishments and fusillades. Granted, there are times when their respective strengths almost collide, most notably on that Bernstein-Sondheim rouser, “Somewhere,” when their attacks at different ends of the song threaten to shortchange its impact and even confuse their listeners. But even when they threaten to go too far, they end up creating something you haven’t heard before – and won’t mind hearing again. She’s still at the top of her game and, more definitively, her profession. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I’m talking about her again in this space a year from now. I expect to be surprised by what she chooses to do next.

 

 

 

 

 

5.) Charles Lloyd & The Marvels + Lucinda Williams, Vanished Gardens (Blue Note) – “We all play folk music,” Thelonious Monk once told Bob Dylan. Accordingly, this smoke-cured aggregation of laments, dirges and secular prayers lofted towards what we cringe to regard as Present Day Reality feels very much like the album Dylan would release if he believed now was the time to try more jazz with his blues. Led by tenor saxophonist Lloyd, who at 80 seems to be (in Dylan-speak) a lot younger than he was in his Forest Flower period of the 1960s, guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Eric Harland and steel guitarist Greg Leisz concoct a spectral blend of American musical java that soothes and jolts at odd hours of the day. Williams, in my judgment, has never had more suitable backup for her leathery vocals, whether on original songs such as “Ventura” or “Unsuffer Me” or on Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel” on which you’re tempted to imagine an alternate reality where he lived long enough to accompany her. (Maybe Wayne Shorter, or Emanon, can find one.) Still wondering why “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” is an instrumental, but they (whichever [sic] “they” are) may know something I don’t.

 

 

 

 

6.) Joshua Redman, Still Dreaming (Nonesuch) – Jazz needs another tribute album the way I need another Bush, Clinton or Trump to run for president. But this feels far more like an urgent personal testament than yet another solemn salaam to a past master. It’s a tribute, perhaps foremost, to Redman’s father, which also makes it a homage to the Old and New Dreams band that featured Dewey Redman on tenor, Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums. And because that group was formed as a kind of early exemplar of an Ornette Coleman repertory band, the younger Redman, Ron Miles, Scott Colley and Brian Blade are taking on the respective roles of the aforementioned (now departed) players, but in their own voices and on their own terms. Thus, these four guys aren’t paying homage so much as paying renewed attention to a state of mind, a manner of behaving well under pressure and a means of stretching the collective unconscious. There is one piece each by Haden (“Playing”) and Coleman (“Comme Il Faut”). Yet most of the compositions are originals by Colley and Redman, the latter of whom, despite the fearsome range displayed in his previous recordings, shows sweet affinity with the serrated rhythmic patterns and riff extensions of the older band. It’s hardly a secret that all was not well between the elder Redman and his son in the former’s lifetime. But the peaceful feeling one gets listening to these tracks suggests a more intimate, profoundly deeper peace fully achieved within a tumultuous heritage of undaunted dream weavers.

 

 

 

 

 

7.) Brad Mehldau Trio, Seymour Reads the Constitution (Nonesuch) – To get the obvious out of the way, yes, I was intrigued, though mildly disappointed to find out that the title tune refers to a dream Mehldau had wherein the thirsty-grizzly voice of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman was reading the Constitution to him. But it wasn’t the only reason I couldn’t keep this disc out of my player for most of the calendar year. By now, the things Mehldau has done to stretch possibilities of the piano trio format have become part of the music’s turn-of-the-century heroic folklore. But what keeps us attentive to Mehldau and his longtime partners Larry Grenadier (on bass) and Jeff Ballard (on drums) is their expansion of jazz’s repertoire, either by broadening the definition of “classic pop” (Brian Wilson’s “Friends,” Paul McCartney’s “Great Day”) or by prying open fresh approaches to modernist standards, especially Sam Rivers’ evergreen “Beatrice,” whose natural bounce is refreshed here with insouciance and ingenuity. To his own compositions, Spiral” and “Ten Tune,” Mehldau brings deeper harmonic invention and tonal progressions that reflect the abiding influences of both Bach and Brahms. Somehow, Mehldau has softened his intensity without losing his edge and still stands out among a prodigious — and increasingly crowded — pack of great jazz pianists.

 

 

 

 

8.) Christian McBride’s New Jawn (Mack Avenue) – “Jawn” is Philly-speak for…well, I suppose if a definition of a noun is person, place or thing, then “jawn” is another word for “noun,” though I always took it as a Del-Val variant of “joint.” In any event, I don’t think McBride’s piano-less quartet necessarily qualifies as a “new thing,” which for jazz heads of earlier generations was a euphemism for what was considered avant-garde from roughly 1959 till 1971. In fact, there’s something bracingly familiar in this joint’s blend of freewheeling neo-bop and nimble rhythm machinery. Trumpeter Josh Evans and saxophonist Marcus Strickland let fly with seeming abandon while staying grounded to the shifting pocket of percussion lad down by drummer Nasheet Watts and the bassist-leader, who despite his growing reputation as an eminence-gris on his instrument still comes across as the young tyro breaking loose from Philadelphia’s storied Settlement Music School. And perhaps what’s most gratifying about a small ensemble such as this is that it provides an ideal showcase for hearing what McBride has learned and can teach as a musician and a leader.

 

 

 

 

9.) Eddie Henderson, Be Cool (Smoke Sessions) – Let me tell you about Eddie Henderson because his is one of the most remarkable jazz-life stories you probably never heard. First of all, it’s Doctor Eddie Henderson, having earned a medical degree from Howard University in 1968 four years after earning a B.S. in zoology from Cal-Berkeley in 1964. His general practice came in pretty handy in the years after he’d recorded with Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi electro-boogie band in the early 1970s. Oh, and before all that happened, he took his first trumpet lesson with Louis Armstrong at age nine. This was in large part because he came from Harlem entertainment royalty since his mother was a Cotton Club dancer and his father was a singer whose 1957 cover of “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” was a million-seller. If that sounds like too much to take in at once, then we’ll make this long story short by saying that Dr. Henderson continued to practice general medicine while playing, recording and touring all over the world. This latest album of polished hard bop, backed by solid gold players such as pianist Kenny Barron, alto saxophonist Donald “Big Chief” Harrison, bassist Essiet Essiet and drummer Mike Clark, comes across as the closest thing to a musical autobiography Henderson has put forth so far. Its selections pay homage to players who have inspired and nurtured him throughout his long career whether it’s Hancock (“Toys”), Coltrane (“Naima”), and fellow trumpeters Woody Shaw (“The Moontrane”) and Miles Davis (his take on “Fran Dance” just misses equaling Davis’ dry-witted studio rendition from 1958, but that’s OK because Miles never quite matched it either and Henderson’s comes closer than he did). But what boosts this testament towards rare air is its approach to that stout old warhorse, “After You’ve Gone.” Most interpretations play that Tin Pan Alley ditty as a briskly paced taunt. Henderson, however, goes against the grain and slows the tempo, turning what’s popularly recognized as a jolly anthem of comeuppance into a wistful rumination on loss. I forgot to mention: Henderson turned 78 last October and is still gigging, recording, broadening his musical horizons and, for all I know, available for consultation.

 

 

 

 

10.) Noah Baerman Resonance Ensemble, The Rock & The Redemption (RMI) – The notion of a jazz suite devoted to the myth of Sisyphus seems so obvious that you wonder why it hasn’t happened before now. (Albert Murray, the late philosopher king of swing, had to have at least sketched out an idea of Sisyphus as the first blues hero…somewhere.) It’s likely that the idea was waiting to land on someone like Baerman, a keyboardist-composer who teaches at Wesleyan University and has struggled his entire life with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, an incurable malady that affects connective tissue. As one can imagine, the disorder has tempted Baerman to walk away from playing music, but he has gone on and in doing so, found communion with the dogged Sisyphus, whose labors to roll a boulder up a slippery slope are duly honored with an 11-part piece blending funk, gospel, hard bop and (of course) blues. Baerman’s Resonance Ensemble provides formidable support for this tribute to perseverance: Kris Allen on reeds, Chris Dingman on vibraphone, Henry Lugo on bass, Bill Carbone on drums and vocal support from cellist Melanie Hsu, Garth Taylor, Latanya Farrell and the late Claire Randall, whose murder at age 26 a year after this 2015 recording session became yet another painful marker on the slippery, treacherous slope of day-to-day existence. Her presence here is part of the bittersweet gift this enterprise bestows on those of us who wake up every day with a boulder in front of us, still standing wherever we left it the day before. The way I see it – and maybe Noah does, too – the rock mocks us, but in doing so, its presence reminds us that we’re still alive. And pushing.

 

 

 

 

 

HONORABLE MENTION: Orrin Evans and the Captain Black Big Band (Smoke Sessions) Andrew Cyrille, Lebroba (ECM); Luciana Souza, The Book of Longing (Sunnyside); Renee Rosnes, Beloved of the Sky (Smoke Sessions); Jeremy Pelt, Live in Paris (High Note); Fred Hersch Trio, Live in Europe (Palmetto); Don Byron & Aruán Ortiz, Random Dances and (A)tonalties (Intakt); Ambrose Akinmusire, Original Harvest (Blue Note); Dave Holland, Uncharted Territories (Dare2); Matthew Shipp Quartet Featuring Mat Walerian, Sonic Fiction (ESP Disk); Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth (Young Turk)

 

 

 

 

HISTORICAL/ARCHIVAL/REISSUE, ETC.
1.) Frank Sinatra, Only The Lonely (Capitol)
2.) Keith Jarrett, La Fenice (ECM)
3.) Miles Davis & John Coltrane, The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6 (Columbia/Legacy)

 

 

 

 

LATIN ALBUM

David Virelles, Igbó Alákoran (The Singer’s Grove) Vol. I & II (PI)

HONORABLE MENTION: Ruben Blades, Wynton Marsalis & Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Una Noche Con Ruben Blades (Blue Engine)

 

 

 

 

 

VOCAL
Cecile McLorin Salvant, The Window
HONORABLE MENTION: Luciana Souza, The Book of Longing

DEBUT
Arianna Neikrug, Changes (Concord)

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Discs for 2013

Of the assorted cans of worms pried open among jazz heads on the Internet in recent years, my favorite comes from Branford Marsalis who has been calling out his peers (and, by implication, critics like me) for embracing virtuosity and harmonic invention at the expense of melodic content, which in turn was pushing more and more listeners away. “Harmonic music,” Marsalis said back in 2011, “tends to be very insular. It tends to be [like] you’re in the private club with a secret handshake.”

From that same interview: “When laypeople listen to records, there’re certain things they’re going to get to. First of all, how it sounds to them. If the value of the song is based on intense analysis of music, you’re doomed. Because people that buy records don’t know shit about music. When they put on ‘Kind of Blue’ and say they like it, I always ask people: What did you like about it? They describe it in physical terms, in visceral terms, but never in musical terms.”

The argument over whether jazz is hermetically sealing itself by being absorbed with invention-for-its-own-sake is as almost as old as jazz itself. Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, for all their worship of literary modernism, snarled over most of the boundary-busting jazz music that came after the swing era. (People of varied generations and races are always shocked to find that Ellison disliked Charlie Parker almost as much as Philip Larkin.) Even Miles Davis at some point in the early1960s admitted that he didn’t buy jazz records of his era because “they make me too sad, man.”

I don’t get sad with what I hear lately. Once in a while, I even like being sad, and so do what Marsalis calls, “laypeople.” But there were times in the last several months when I was getting impatient with the new discs I was listening to. I was, like, OK, I’m impressed. But I’m not aroused. So you can make chord changes sit up, roll over and swim across a pond. But my question is the same one Lester Young asked long ago, “Can you sing a song?” I’ll throw another one out there: Can you handle a groove?

 

Maybe that’s why, even in a better-than-average year for product, I was drawn to those albums that gave me a bit more of what Marsalis describes as “physical” or “visceral” pleasure. I admit that in Larkin’s famous tautology, I still lean a little more towards intelligence-without-beat over beat-without-intelligence. But most of what I choose to venerate this year came close to achieving a balance between the two. The needle’s still stuck at the low end as far as jazz music’s presence in the marketplace is concerned. But maybe some of these will help nudge it a little higher and attract more people who search the clouds, or Cloud, for sounds that both please and challenge. Baby steps, I suppose; dance steps, I hope.

Ahmad Jamal Saturday Morning

1.) Ahmad Jamal, “Saturday Morning” (Jazzbook) – You’re Ahmad Jamal and life right now couldn’t be more satisfying. You’ve outlasted almost all the pianists you’ve influenced since the 1950s who, fairly or not, received more critical approbation than you. You’ve also outlasted most of those critics who either demeaned or second-guessed your popularity and, in any case, never gave you the degree of respect you’ve received from audiences and fellow musicians. In the meantime, you’ve been putting out immaculately crafted recorded product for at least the last three decades. And at 83 years old, you’re playing with even greater vitality, invention and polish, submitting (for our approval) one of the crown jewels of your long career: A sweet-swinging session recorded at the Studio La Buissonne with the attentive support of bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Herlin Riley. As always, your trio keeps time like a handcrafted wristwatch. What broadens the package is the sparkling variety of tempo and mode. You seem even more engaged by the material, even with such familiar should-have-been-classics-long-ago as “The Line.” And though yours is the last such unit that would need extra percussion, the contributions of Manolo Badrena are seamlessly wired into your rhythm machine. You’re Ahmad Jamal and we’re just about as satisfied with your life right now as you are. (Thank you, Jimmy Cannon and may your own termite artistry soon be rediscovered.)

Steve Coleman Functional

2.) Steve Coleman & Five Elements, “Functional Arrhythmias” (Pi) –And speaking of rhythm machines…First, though, a confession: Over the three or four decades alto saxophonist/composer Steve Coleman’s M-Base movement has been around, I could never cozy up to it; especially when it seemed intent on fashioning a kind of cerebral funk, as I prefer my funk to be pure and uncut. GIVE IT UP, PEOPLE, FOR BOOTSY’S RUBBER BAAAAAANNNND!!!! But I digress…If Coleman’s aesthetic principles have led to this ultra-sophisticated and fearsomely versatile aggregation of bassist Anthony Tidd, drummer Sean Rickman, guitarist Miles Okazaki and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, then I need to rethink, if not revoke, my earlier skepticism. As the titles of both the disc and its contents (e.g. “Sinews”, “Cerebrum Crossover”, “Cardiovascular”) imply, the intent here is to strike a polyrhythmic, harmonically complex connection with human physiology. It’s a smart idea (inspired, as Coleman says, by the example of drummer Milford Graves). But the intelligence behind the concept isn’t as conspicuous as its vigorous application. The band members are locked into each other’s frequencies and their interaction glides, strides, twists and meshes in the same manner as an abstract painting or modern dance piece. Coleman and Finlayson’s front-line conversations have a riveting yin-yang quality that places them at or near the high-end spectrum of such similar sax-horn confabs as Bird and Diz, Trane and Miles and Coleman’s namesake (if not relative) Ornette and Don Cherry. This disc has all the brains, and then some, of Coleman’s body-of-work. But it’s also got an unexpected surplus of — well, you know – heart.

Brooklyn Babylon

3.) Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, “Brooklyn Babylon” (New Amsterdam) – Having spent twenty thrilling years inhabiting the Beautiful Borough as it made the awkward, irrepressible leap from hipster incubator to Promised Land, I can testify that one of the many things that fascinate even the most casual Brooklyn bystander is the ongoing tension between its gilded skyscraping aspirations and its wait-till-next-year past lives. This 17-part suite for an 18-piece orchestra conflates Brooklyn’s past, present and (potential) future into what amounts to a steampunk fantasy novel of the mind. Argue’s epic tells the story of a master carpenter named Lev who, in a dystopian future (or alternate present), is commissioned to build a carousel atop a tower whose immensity could obliterate whatever‘s left of Brooklyn’s old-soul romance. The music aims as high as that mythical tower and you can feel yourself ascending on its surging waves of energy. But the suite doesn’t just go up; it spreads out to encompass different cultures from Eastern Europe to Latin America to the Middle East, keeping a fingertip or two on all-American swing and/or rock. You could follow Argue’s story or project one of your own upon its volatile contours. As with the only science fiction that matters, “Brooklyn Babylon” is lavishly hypothetical, strangely familiar and recognizably human in the grandest and grubbiest terms.

Creole Soul

 

4.) Etienne Charles, “Creole Soul” (Culture Shock) – Jazz’s grow-or-die imperative has found its most gratifying adherents among 30-and-under musicians willing to use what they’ve learned of the music’s basics as springboards to more adventurous or exotic compounds. Charles, who just turned 30 this year, is a Trinidad-born trumpeter who received much of his education at Florida State and Juilliard and was inspired by the examples set at both institutions respectively by Marcus Roberts and Wynton Marsalis in re-energizing the music’s mainstream traditions. He retains some of Marsalis’ sound in his horn. But it’s the multicultural, polyrhythmic setting of this zesty, spicy gumbo that makes Charles’ music sound like exactly no one else’s. With a formidable array of young instrumentalists and percussionists as backup, Charles immerses himself in the varied strains of Caribbean pop – reggae, mambo, conga, even Gulf Coast R&B – to put together an mélange of electro-boogie, calypso and funk. Traditionalists can growl, snap and dismiss it all as “slick” pop. But the music they cherish has a far better chance for long-term survival with a sensibility willing to invite Monk (“Green Chimneys”), Marley (“Turn Your Lights Down Low”) and Bo Diddley (“You Don’t Love Me”) to the same house party and give each of them the respect and elbowroom they deserve. And, by the way, he also serves up melodies that stick to your head like Post-It notes reminding you what music is for.

 

Endangered Species

5.) David Weiss, “Endangered Species: The Music of Wayne Shorter” (Motema) –Weiss, who also holds down a trumpeter’s chair here, leads a 12-piece murderer’s row of first-rank instrumentalists that includes trombonist Steve Davis, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, saxophonists Ravi Coltrane and Tim Green, drummer E.J. Strickland and the incomparable pianist Geri Allen in celebrating the legacy and (though recorded live a year earlier at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola) 80th birthday of the Greatest Living Jazz Composer. They do not come to merely pay homage. That would be too much like church and the guy they’re honoring is far from finished. (See below.) Weiss instead leads his cadre on a reconnaissance mission probing the less-heralded (as in least-covered) pieces of the Shorter oeuvre as a means of illuminating its orchestral possibilities. The recital opens your eyes from the jump with “Nellie Bly,” which the always-surprising Mr. Weird wrote very early in his career when he was sitting in Maynard Ferguson’s reed section and now comes across as one of the more ornately conceived barn-burners ever lit. Even the most familiar of these selections, the inscrutably haunting ballad “Fall,” is given a rich, harmonically-layered treatment that inspires glistening fire-and-ice variations from Allen, Coltrane and, especially, Pelt. As widely acknowledged as Shorter’s writing brilliance has been over generations, it takes a classic setting such as this to reaffirm both the sturdiness and suppleness of Shorter’s melodies e.g., they endure and you can do almost anything you want with them.

 

Piano Sutras

 

6.) Matthew Shipp, “Piano Sutras” (Thirsty Ear) – If progressive jazz pianists carried the same renegade credibility in pop culture as heavy-metal rock guitarists, Matthew Shipp would be a biker’s tattoo by now. Twenty-something years is a long time to be an Angry Young Man. But the customary rules don’t apply to Shipp, who at age 53 can still wield a thorny club with swaggering panache, both on- and off-stage. His jazz-outlaw persona packs dual reserves of intensity and insolence; the latter, especially, gets him noticed in jazz circles when it’s directed at such elder statesmen as Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett – the latter of whom could, ironically enough, match Shipp on whatever Mr. Cranky meter that’s available. For whatever it’s worth, I think Shipp’s uncompromising, mostly unsung insurgency gives him better reason to complain than Jarrett. He even released a “Greatest Hits” compilation earlier this year that made an impassioned what-the-eff-more-do-I-have-to-do case for his artistry. Still, this solo recital, meditative, prickly and ingenious, is an even more persuasive brief on Shipp’s behalf. It literally stomps, like the step-master of an unruly fraternity, to its own beat, piling dense tone clusters and weaving thick harmonic passages into eccentric, arresting patterns. On such pieces as “Cosmic Shuffle” and “Uncreated Light,” Shipp indulges his combative impulses before giving way to lyrical rumination. Though he may seem at times to be an unrepentant churl, Shipp’s “Sutras” remind listeners that, whatever hard things he may have to say, or play, at a given moment, he’s not inclined to stay mad – or stay anything else – for very long. (I bet he’s still happy, though, that I ranked this disc ahead of the next one.)

Without a Net album cover

 

 

7.) Wayne Shorter Quintet, “Without a Net” (Blue Note)As I said (maybe) earlier this year, the more I’ve listen to it, the deeper its mysteries grow; almost to the point of making me wonder whether there’s anything more to this group’s colloquies than mysteries for their own sake. Then, I try to tell myself what Shorter, in his way, is telling everybody else: that questions and answers are often the same thing. And I’ll go, yes, but…This incessant give-and-take between my ears is why “Without a Net,” for all its insistence on keeping secrets, stays on this list, no matter what. Give me another month or two and it’ll likely be back in the top five, but for the moment….

Claudia September

8.) The Claudia Quintet, “September” (Cuneiform) – Because I am an easy mark for crafty historical gimmicks, I was piped aboard this vessel by a number called “September 29th, 1936: ‘Me Warn You’,” in which the voice of FDR, sarcastically chiding his Republican fat-cat opposition for their empty promises of out-dealing the New Deal, is carved up, sampled, mixed, mimicked and harmonized with throughout by this eclectic chamber ensemble led by percussionist John Hollenbeck and featuring Chris Speed on reeds, Matt Moran on vibes, Red Wierenga on accordion and either Drew Gress or Chris Tordini on bass. Once you get past the wonder of hearing instrumental correlatives to Roosevelt’s memorable pipes and recognize the sly contemporary references being made by this juxtaposition, you start to wonder if the joke is being carried a little too far – until, about seven minutes in, when the group, collectively and individually, starts laying down its own cheeky variations on the president’s joke. This open-ended interplay typifies the rest of the album – a series of sound mosaics and tone poems devoted to the month that Hollenbeck prefers to use as time for reflection and contemplation. There’s a witty birthday salute to the unavoidable Mr. Shorter (“September 9th Wayne Phases”), a deep-dyed autumnal ballad (“September 25th Somber Blanket”) and, inevitably, a 9/11 piece (“September 12th Coping Song”) that closes the disc on with introspection that never becomes maudlin. It’s taken me longer than it probably should to have climbed aboard Claudia’s bandwagon and I’m still not sure why this particular one did the trick. But I plan to check back with them.

 

Border Free Chucho

9.) Chucho Valdes, “Border Free” (Jazz Village) – I hope he wont take this the wrong way, but it must be said up-front: This man is a beast, a monster, an unstoppable force-of-nature – and, to be sure, a supreme virtuoso. But his is the kind of virtuosity that, rather than swooping down from thin air, blows the doors open to his listeners, making them run en masse towards him and scream for more. (Just listen to the first five minutes of “Congadanza” and you’ll know exactly what I mean. The last four are pretty “wow”, too.) Valdes is also a paragon among 70-something artists who seem to be gaining in raw power and messianic force with age. He and his Afro-Cuban Jazz Messengers aren’t just wearing down the all-but-fragmented barriers between hard bop and Latin jazz; they’re also expanding rhythmic horizons towards Native American (“Afro-Comanche”) and Andalusian (“Abdel”) sources of inspiration. He also takes time out to honor both his pianist father (“Bebo”) and his late mother (“Pilar”) in ways that make his Cuban homeland vivid and stirring. OK, so he gets a little carried away at times with the occasional Rachmaninoff reference and melodramatic flourish. So long as you can still keep up with the stories, what do they matter?

 

Gerry Gibbs Dream

10.) Gerry Gibbs, Kenny Barron, Ron Carter, “Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trio” (Whaling City Sound) – If I had Barron, a grandmaster of jazz piano, and Carter, the greatest bassist alive, at my disposal, I bet even I could complete a dream trio with a frying pan, a crockpot and a pair of wooden spoons. But Gibbs, who’s been following in his vibraphonist father Terry’s footsteps by leading his own big band, brings his own aggressive sound, far-reaching chops and orchestrator’s instincts to this session, giving these two demigods a wide-open frame for their immense resources to roam like wolves. The result is a surprising rarity: a piano trio album delivering music with the heft and momentum of a larger ensemble, thanks mostly to the prodigious balance of power and flexibility coming through Gibbs’ trap set. Along with the usual stops (“Epistrophy,” “Impressions,”), the trio shines new light on works by McCoy Tyner (“When I Dream”) and Herbie Hancock (“The Eye of the Hurricane,” “Tell Me a Bedtime Story”). The biggest revelations, however, come from the pop book: that old mid-1960s warhorse, “The Shadow of Your Smile,” Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” and, most especially “Promises, Promises,” whose sleek mounting and seamless arrangement here showcase Carter and Barron’s mastery of tempo and changes while delivering what may be the most effective jazz take yet on a Burt Bacharach tune.

 

 

 

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HONORABLE MENTION: Maria Schneider & Dawn Upshaw, “Winter Morning Walks” (ArtistShare) Marc Cary, “For the Love of Abbey” (Motema) Charles Lloyd & Jason Moran, “Hagar’s Song” (ECM) Joe Lovano UsFive, “Cross Culture” (Blue Note) Geri Allen, “Grand River Crossings” (Motema) Bill Frisell, “Big Sur” (Okeh) Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard, Steve Swallow, “Trios” (ECM) Wadada Leo Smith & Tumo, “Occupy the World” (Tum) Ben Allison, “The Stars Look Very Different Today” (Sonic Camera) Rudresh Mahanthappa, “Gamak” (ACT) Fred Hersch & Julian Lage, “Free Flying” (Palmetto) Art Pepper, “Unreleased Art, Vol. VIII: Live at the Winery, September 6, 1976” (Widow’s Taste) Matt Mitchell, “Fiction” (Pi)

 

Finlayson cover

BEST NEW ARTIST: Jonathan Finlayson & Sicilian Defense, “Moment & the Message” (Pi)

 

 

Gregory Porter cover

 

BEST VOCALIST: Gregory Porter, “Liquid Spirit” (Blue Note) HONORABLE MENTION: Youn Sun Nah, “Lento” (ACT)

BEST LATIN ALBUM: “Creole Soul” HONORABLE MENTION: “Border-Free”

Eight Ways of Looking at Wayne Shorter as he Approches Eighty

Wayne Shorter1.) During the one time I interviewed  Wayne Shorter, I asked why no one had ever asked him to compose a film score. This set him off on an epic soliloquy on how male movie stars walk from Bogart, Gable and Cagney to Lancaster, McQueen and (I think) Poitier. He got up out of his chair and gave brief, impromptu imitations. He even brought Kirk Douglas into the discussion by which time he got me so caught up in whatever he was saying that I tried to bring such contemporary-cool avatars as Douglas’s son Michael and Denzel Washington into the mix (to little avail). He digressed into matters of posture, pace and the way people sway their arms in stride. It was enrapturing, frenzied and elliptical; like much of his music, only with words. I didn’t, couldn’t write any of it down because I knew I’d never get it in my paper. I wish I could find the tape, though. I also wish he’d answered my original question – and still wish that that somebody, anybody else would, too.
2.) In the summer of 2001, he appeared – materialized? – at New York’s JVC Jazz Festival in one of the first live appearances of the quartet that many now consider the best small combo in jazz. (This is by no means a unanimous opinion; more later about this.) So much time had passed since people heard him playing acoustic jazz with a rhythm section that there were several red-zone levels of anticipation for this show, the closing act of a three-tiered bill that, if memory served, included a crowd-pleasing Chick Corea set. The house fell in on him as soon as he walked on-stage. But the glow receded as soon as he started playing. He seemed reticent, even tentative, as if he were still hugging corners of the shadow-world in which he’d embedded himself for most of the previous decade. It wasn’t quite the rouser everyone in Avery Fisher Hall was amped for and one remembers how deflated even the most indulgent true believers looked as they filed out that night — though, to be fair, that acoustically-challenged venue may not have been the most ideal for a quartet seeking a détente between rumination and momentum.
3.) On the other hand, what else DID they expect? A John Coltrane-style secular-mystical revival, radiant fire breathing and all? That’s not what you anticipate – or even desire – from Wayne Shorter, though he’s certainly proven himself capable of such incantatory drive. (I don’t know how many times I’ve played Juju among friends and found those unfamiliar with the album swear that it was Coltrane playing that tenor, even after I’ve told them otherwise.) Shorter, going all the way back to his mid-1960s tenure with Miles Davis (and more so with his Blue Note albums of that period) always connected with the writer within me. He had a distinctive, near-oblique narrative voice: lyrical, inquisitive, restless, but always with a solid harmonic foundation bracing his often-eccentric digressions. The sound of his saxophone didn’t swallow you whole as Coltrane’s could, but rather carried you along like a magical-realist storyteller. As with the best music of that era, Shorter’s playing and composing didn’t impose their mystique upon you so much as invite you to come up with your own poetic responses. George Harrison would have understood where Shorter was coming from – and for all I know, likely did.
4.) I just now remembered something else from that interview: His abiding interest in comic books and in one series in particular featuring a dauntless young aviator named “Airboy.” (There was one other hero whose name now escapes me. I’ve GOT to find that tape!) It occurred to me at that moment to ask why he never wrote a tune with “Airboy” as a title, but somehow we got caught up on another subject.
5.) As for writing a score for movies….what the hell. The way Hollywood is now, he’d be a lot better for them than they’d be to him. Best to make up your own movies in your head while listening to “Chief Crazy Horse” or “Mah-Jong” or “Schizophrenia” or “Over Shadow Hill Way” or “Calm” or “Face of the Deep” or “Deluge” or “The All-Seeing Eye” and…Know what? Even some of the titles, when you throw them in the air come across like some allusive, inscrutable and faintly volatile Shorter solo when they hit the page.

 

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6.) So then…what about the other guys – Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums? Do they and their leader deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the Davis-Shorter-Hancock-Carter-Williams tandem – or any other classic small-jazz group that you can think of? Maybe it’s enough that Shorter always looks on-stage as if he’s overjoyed to be with them. I always had the feeling that from the start of their association, each member of the rhythm section was using his own resources to draw Shorter further out into the open. If their latest album, the aptly titled Without a Net (Blue Note) is any indication, they’re still tugging, coaxing and, especially in Blade’s case, shoving Shorter towards the deeper end of the pool. Often, it sounds as though he’s hanging back at the start, letting his fellas set the table before allowing whatever’s in his head seep or leap into view. Hence his off-the-cuff rendering of the “Lester Leaps In” theme that opens “S.S. Golden Mean,” which seems calculated to get Patitucci, Perez and Blade to ramp it up a little more. They do and this in turn gets Shorter to toss more angular shards of phrasing at unexpected times. (See what you do with this one! Wait! Think fast! I got another one.) Taking in all this freewheeling interplay is like making one’s way through a murder mystery written by a surrealist poet. There are enough familiar signposts of the genre to string you along, but the prose trips you up as often as the plot.

 

 

Without a Net album cover
7.) On record, it’s engrossing; on-stage, it’s challenging, but no more so than a Bartok string quartet. (You’ll have plenty of opportunities to find out as the beginning of Shorter’s ninth decade is celebrated in live performance here and elsewhere throughout the year.) Still, many listeners coming with their own preconceived notions of what jazz is, or should be, find this quartet’s method too arbitrary and unfocused. Some might suspect the quartet’s colloquies are little more than expanded, busier editions of the airy, abstracted interplay in which Shorter and his old friend Herbie Hancock engaged with mixed results in their 1997 duet album, 1+1 (Verve).
8.) I’m nowhere near as negative, but I understand why others are. When Shorter edged his way back into full view less than twenty years ago, I hoped he’d carry with him some hooks and melodies evoking the familiar, relative solidity of “Speak No Evil” or “Adam’s Apple” – which, lest any of us forget, were considered pretty far out in their own time by those who left their hearts and heads with hard bop and cool jazz. It would seem that Shorter, whose place in history as a composer is safe and secure, now wants to find ways of inventing off the imperatives of a given moment, just as Miles Davis insisted on doing to the end. He’d just as soon share such moments with his team, the better to see where they can take him. I don’t mind the extra work they give me because as a listener, I’m taking the leap with them. True, I wouldn’t mind a net, or even a soft, wet towel at the bottom. But if “Airboy” can fly through the thickest, stickiest obstacles, Shorter believes we should at least try. You may come out the other end thinking bigger than you did before — or at least, more different.

 

AIRBOY