Jazz is working all the angles these days. We’d be surprised if there was any genre-specific best-of-the-year list on PopMatters to have such range—from solo instruments to big bands, from instrumental to vocal, from European musicians to both North and South Americans, from truly pretty music to raucously avant-garde “noise”. This range is remarkable because “jazz” still has a center that holds: every record on this list features intelligent, artful improvisation, compositions steeped in a tradition reaching back to Armstrong and Ellington, and remarkably cohesive fusion of elements beyond the tradition.
Increasingly, jazz does all this without the support of radio airplay, major label support, or a significant “popular” following. Which is not to say that the music is petering out in any way. It lives in a million places at once, not only in jazz clubs in Brooklyn or Lower Manhattan, but also at the Kennedy Center in DC or Tipitina’s in New Orleans or countless concert halls, clubs, bars, and even living rooms from Oslo to Buenos Aires.
Our list, to an even greater degree than in previous years, features music produced for small, independent labels—some that are starting to look like old reliables such as Pi or Cryptogramaphone and a whole bunch that merely promise a non-commercial commitment to integrity with each release. Only Blue Note is a true major label (with a single entry), and ECM, though independent, qualifies as the granddaddy of jazz outlets in 2010. We’re thrilled that both still make the annual list.
The last thing we should note is that the communities of musicians making great jazz today are sufficiently rich and interconnected that other discs featuring the musicians on this list might easily have made the elite grouping. To choose just one example, Natural Selection by the Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet could easily be included. Is it mere coincidence that the vibes player on that recording is Bill Ware, who is a primary player and composer for the Jazz Passengers, represented here by Reunited? Or that Abbasi’s frequent bandmate is Vijay Iyer, whose solo disc sits near the top of our list? Surely not.
Which is to say: there is a great web of jazz from 2010 to explore. Let this list be a beginning and not an end.
Solo Outings of Note
(ACT Music & Vision; US: 31 Aug 2010; UK: 31 Aug 2010)
The first solo piano outing by Vijay Iyer is an unqualified triumph, idiosyncratic and highly personalized, accessible but also fresh. On the one hand, Iyer reimagines some standards and pop songs so that his ideas about rhythm and his methodologies as a composer make sense. Particularly, we can hear the way Iyer uses patterns and repetitions to create unique harmonic and melodic structures on tunes as varied as Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and Monk’s “Epistrophy”. On the other hand, Iyer presents a series of original tunes that exhibit his concepts compositionally. The essence of Iyer’s excellence as a jazz pianist, however, is in the degree to which these performances are emotional, dramatic, and compelling. Whatever systematic method he brings to his playing, it serves the music itself: an art form that tugs at your ears and heart.
Marc Ribot is like a young Derek Bailey; he can sit down with just his guitar and simultaneously confound you with technique, beauty, and surprise. Often within the same two bars of music. Various pieces of Silent Movies were born out of real soundtrack assignments, while the origins of others remained imaginary to Ribot. The result is solo guitar at its finest.
Matthew Shipp has been pushing the boundaries of jazz for decades, and this solo piano recording is a perfect summary of the man’s impulses, techniques, and strengths. He plays with deep lyricism, but also maximum freedom here, staying close to the conventional on a few tunes (Duke’s “Prelude to a Kiss”) but more often veering off from stride into jagged zip. Shipp is impressionistic, driving, explosive, bombastic, playful, and psychedelic all in one solo recital.
(Cryptogramophone; US: 12 Oct 2010; UK: 22 Nov 2010)
Mad guitarist Nels Cline already released an exceptional double album earlier this year titled Initiate. Dirty Baby ups the ante big time. Producer David Breskin commissioned Cline to compose music to accompany the visual images of Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha, and what came out of the deal runs everywhere from fragile and elegiac to outright nuts. Boasting some fine help from fellow west coast musicians, this is challenging music for challenging paintings.