Jazz is now so various and fragmented—mainstream, avant-garde, crossover vocalists, “nu jazz”, Latin jazz, smooth jazz—that it’s hard to discern annual trends or tendencies. Occasionally, reissued or rediscovered recordings are the headlines rather than brand new music—Monk and Coltrane at Carnegie Hall and Bird and Dizzy at Town Hall certainly overshadowed most of 2005’s original music. But this year was more typical of the era, with a mixture of styles and vintages competing for a jazz listener’s hungry ear.
Perhaps there is one trend: nearly every good jazz record that came out this year was released by an “independent” label. That is simply the state of the music today—major labels aren’t producing it, aren’t distributing it, aren’t supporting it. But maybe that’s just as well. With jazz flowering in smaller pots, it’s also flowering variously.
Without a doubt, the jazz tent has grown huge. Even as we might bemoan the music’s weak record sales or radio play, it’s obvious that jazz is mightily alive and fermenting. Musicians who improvise within a broadly-defined blues-based tradition may or may not call themselves “jazz musicians”, and they often incorporate elements—classical themes, electric instruments, hip-hop, non-US “world music”, noise—that push the definition of “jazz”. That’s why I love it.
Here is a baker’s dozen, two stellar reissues and eleven brilliant examples of jazz imagination, in alphabetical order. Each has lingered in my ear through the long, queer months of 2006.
Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra
MTO Volume 1
(Sunnyside; US: 1 Aug 2006; UK: 1 Aug 2006)
Bernstein, a downtown trumpeter who combines puckish humor with a history lesson, has a brilliant mini-big band that plays with raucous exuberance. Here, the group tackles 1930s jazz alongside soul classics like “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and “Darling Nikki”. The past and the present never feel uncomfortably “fused”—rather, Bernstein’s arrangements make it seem like Prince and Duke Ellington were always meant to hang out. Combining the cheek of Lester Bowie’s old Brass Fantasy band and an archivist’s love for the grit of the past, Bernstein has found a new way to honor the masters.
A View Into the Music of Andrew Hill
(Cryptogramophone; US: 26 Sep 2006; UK: 1 Sep 2006)
Music fans who only know Nels Cline as the guitarist from Wilco don’t know the half of it. A prolific, slyly imaginative guitarist based on the West Coast, Cline has been recording daring jazz as a leader for years. This sextet date—an exploration of the music of iconoclastic free-bop pianist Andrew Hill—is a fantastical, wild ride. With Ben Goldberg on clarinet, Bobby Bradford on cornet, Andrea Parkins on accordion, Devin Hoff’s bass, and Scott Amendola on drums, this is hardly a stock “jazz group”. The result is surprising at every turn, with arrangements and solos that startle. Be not afraid!
Multiple songs [MP3]
Ornette Coleman, the alto player who turned jazz upside down with his free playing in 1959, has never settled down. Seventy-five years old when this concert was recorded, Coleman remains a pure form of joy: blues-drenched, melodic, singing, yet cut loose forever from the notion that chords—or convention—should tie a musician down. After years of excursions with Prime Time, his dense electric-“harmolodic” band, Coleman seems to be enjoying an acoustic renaissance. The quartet here consists of Denardo Coleman (Ornette’s son, sounding quick and light and fantastic) on drums and two bassists—Greg Cohen (usually plucking) and Tony Falanga (usually arco). While it’s a treat to hear the group reinvent “Turnaround”, “Song X”, and “Sleep Talking”, the new compositions are as lyrical and urgent as ever. “Once Only” suggests that Coleman has much more to offer the world. Sound Grammar is no small contribution.
The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions
(Concord; US: 23 May 2006; UK: 26 Jun 2006)
This beast must not be ignored. The four-five great albums made by Miles Davis (mostly in one mid-‘50s marathon session) for Prestige are the most-imitated—and most justly imitated—model in jazz history. This complete reissue just lays it out: four CDs of Davis’s fragile/bold trumpet, John Coltrane playing his soul-stirring sheets of sound, and the swingingest rhythm section to grace Planet Earth. When they made these records, they were already a hand-in-glove working band, so there are no outtakes or false starts. What is most amazing, perhaps, is realizing that this music—a darkly tender “My Funny Valentine”, a taut-as-a-guitar-string “Oleo”—did not always exist. It is such a fixture of the American musical landscape that it’s useful to revisit the remarkable week when it all just tumbled out of a genius and into our ears.
You are going to have to wait quite a while for a year to go by without trumpeter Dave Douglas making a gorgeous, original album. He leads half a dozen different groups, and he seems to understand how each one can approach the jazz language differently. This disc is from his quintet, a band that, on the one hand, is fashioned very specifically after the Miles Davis Quintet of 1968 (with Uri Caine playing the Fender Rhodes electric piano as Chick Corea did for Miles) and, on the other hand, floats free into its own extraordinary explorations of the infinite ways that a jazz quintet can arrange time and harmony into beauty. The band can swing, honk, paint in pastels, and probably do your laundry too. Donny McCaslin on tenor is a new star, and everything Caine plays is fresh as daisies. Douglas’s solos ain’t bad either.
Edsel Gomez has been featured with Don Byron and David Sanchez, usually playing a variation of modern Latin jazz piano. Here, he presents his own vision in full: dashing, slashing modern jazz that asks each soloist to develop his solos with motivic logic and rhythmic fire. The reed players—Miguel Zenon, Greg Tardy, and Steve Wilson in addition to Byron and Sanchez—are having a field day here, matching Gomez’s joyous playing with take-no-prisoners blowing. What astonishes, in the end, is how intelligent this fired-up music can be, an ideal combination of flicker and illumination.
(Radio Legs Music; US: 7 Mar 2006; UK: Available as import)
Jazz trios without chording instruments—here just Tony Malaby’s tenor, Mark Helias’s acoustic bass, and Tom Rainey’s drums—risk being monotonous. The solution has often been the inclusion of one titanic soloist such as Sonny Rollins. Here, the answer lies in great writing—with intricate parts for all three musicians that never sound fussy—and magical interplay. Malaby is better than you’ve ever heard him before—sly, rowdy, quicksilver, depending on the tune’s mood or the moment. Helias and Rainey—old partners who’ve conceived of 300 ways to swing and as many ways to play creatively free—are engaged in the kind of conversation that only takes place at 3:00AM between best friends. It’s not dull. It’s not exactly avant-garde yet it’s definitely not mainstream. A great place to be.
Way Out East
(Songlines; US: 13 Jun 2006; UK: 3 Jul 2006)
“Third stream” music—the 1950s attempt to fuse jazz and classical music—was the Hindenburg of jazz styles: cool idea, terrible result. It’s not that jazz and European classical music don’t have lots in common, but putting jazz and classical musicians together never seemed to work, with basic tendencies clashing at every turn or, worse, merely taking turns. Here, pianist Wayne Horvitz has created a pastoral but daring work for piano, trumpet, cello, and bassoon in which the players all operate as jazz improvisers but do so with the idiom of chamber music. The result stresses collective playing and texture over jazzy riffing or virtuosity. What is edgy and bold is the group’s willingness to develop a certain collective dissonance, under the umbrella of fascinating compositions by Horvitz. Spellbinding.
Way Out East [MP3]
(Savoy Jazz; US: 23 May 2006; UK: Available as import)
Mahanthappa and Iyer are both Indian-American jazz musicians (alto saxophone and piano, respectively) whose telepathic connection is astonishing. Iyer plays plenty of notes in every imaginable swirling pattern, yet his touch is light and buoyant. Mahanthappa plays precisely but in a keening, acrid tone that has teeth. These duets are unlike any jazz you’ve heard—with both men playing continuously (even when Iyer is “soloing”) and the tunes seeming to blend one into the next. For all the rhapsody that’s here, the compositions are complex and precise, with both counterpoints and unisons that are as detailed as quality lace. This partnership is so strong and heartfelt that historical comparisons are tempting: a new Zawinul and Shorter? Tyner and Trane? Crispell and Braxton? Pullen and Adams, or Cecil Taylor and Jimmy Lyons? Heady company, for sure, but Raw Materials makes you reach for superlatives.
Multiple songs [MP3]
(Nonesuch; US: 12 Sep 2006; UK: 23 Oct 2006)
Pat Metheny is probably the most famous jazz “name” who exists with equal ease as a pop-jazzer and a serious player. Here he matches melodic capacity with the crystalline pianist Brad Mehldau, himself no stranger to appealing to rock audiences with his Radiohead and Beatles covers. These are all original tunes, however (a few with Mehldau’s trio, most just duets), and they exceed expectations. The partners never settle for mere too-pretty playing, and they prove that accompaniment can be as breathtaking as soloing. A second volume is promised.
Coalition of the Willing
(Rope-a-Dope; US: 2 May 2006; UK: 27 Mar 2006)
Bobby Previte is a composer and drummer who falls under the “jazz” heading almost by default. He has composed jazz, sure, but also circus music, soundtracks, and pop-rock soundscapes featuring harmonica and lap steel as much as saxophones. Coalition is a revved-up variant on rock, with political anger (the tunes include “The Ministry of Truth” and the like) fueled by juiced organ (Jamie Saft) and power guitar (Charlie Hunter). While much of the record is a thunderbolt, Previte blends in lyricism, horns, and swing guitar as well, also recasting some of his older themes in a new way. Like an English major who also happens to start on the offensive line of the football team, this band is in touch with its feelings—until it bashes you in the mouth. It tastes good.
The Ministry of Truth [MP3]
The group consists of John Scofield on guitar, Jack DeJohnette’s drums, and Larry Goldings on organ and Wurlitzer electric piano, and the occasion is a concert paying tribute to the late drummer Tony Williams. Though this instrumentation mimics Williams’s “Lifetime” group, the trio tackles repertoire from his Miles Davis tenure too, as well as original tunes. It is a perfectly balanced group in every respect. Scofield, whose chorused and compressed electric guitar sound too often takes the easy funk road or seems slightly out of place on mainstream dates, here gets his dead-on perfect setting. He plays up to the competition, allowing DeJohnette to splash and color at every turn and giving Goldings the best outing of his career. Worth the double-ECM-disc price for the versions of “Seven Steps to Heaven” and “I Fall in Love Too Easily” alone.
If You’ve Got To Ask, You Ain’t Got It
(Legacy; US: 26 Sep 2006; UK: Available as import)
A slice of heaven on Earth. Three discs: the great stride pianist playing instrumental classics, the great singer putting out his own brilliant tunes (“Ain’t Misbehavin’”, “Honeysuckle Rose”), and then vocal versions of Tin Pan Alley gems. You laugh, sure, but you also realize what a great improviser he was, how touching he could be, and how timeless pre-bop jazz can really be. Plus—the fidelity on these remastered tracks is exceptional. Jazz hasn’t given me this much pleasure in 20 years—I sat on a deck in my backyard while Waller made the stars in the sky shine brighter. Glorious.