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The Best Jazz of 2009

Everything in the culture these days is political, right? Partisanism is the new black.

Jazz, at its heart, resists polarization. The premise of the blues, after all, is the creation of joy from adversity, and surely no music has ever reconciled as many contradictions as jazz.

Still, there has always been a pseudo-political inner tension in jazz between a conservative impulse to honor the past and a liberal impulse to innovate at every turn. During down periods in the music, those impulses do battle, creating dull music: either mindlessly imitative or mindlessly free. During good periods — and that includes the bulk of the new century so far — there is mindfulness on both sides. The tradition is referenced and transformed while still being a touchstone. And innovation takes place within brilliant systems that overthrow the past but never seek merely to destroy it.

2009 was a great year for melding innovation and tradition. The trend continues of piano trios playing boldly, creating a new language for this venerable jazz form. And other kinds of groups have been equally inventive, particularly in working through what it means to be a jazz group — a notion that has evolved beyond trumpet-saxophone-piano-bass-drums.

Also noted: only one recording here is from a major label (Nonesuch), demonstrating once again that the dissolution of big-label jazz imprints has simply allowed the music to flower in a million small pots. Alas, it is also noted that these brilliant musicians are scraping to distribute their music and deserve better deals. Support them if you can!

Here is the best jazz of 2009, interpreted in three groupings — the piano trios that knocked us out, the new groups that found new sounds for jazz, and some more traditional sounds that, nevertheless, pushed toward discovery.


New Piano Trios

Artist: Vijay Iyer Trio

Album: Historicity

Label: Act Music + Vision

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/v/vijayiyertrio-historicity.jpg

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US Release Date: 2009-10-13

UK Release Date: 2009-08-24

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List number: 1

This trio, led by a prolific and exciting pianist, moves with assured consistency across a huge swath of musical territory, from a Leonard Bernstein ballad to a particularly hard-hitting version of M.I.A.’s “Galang”. It is the strongest artistic statement of Iyer’s career, elevating the creative potential for the traditional piano trio to dramatic new heights. What impresses most is the way this trio manages to alter the very DNA of the groove.


Artist: Jack DeJohnette

Album: Music We Are

Label: Golden Beams

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US Release Date: 2009-04-07

UK Release Date: 2009-04-07

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List number: 2

This piano trio, led by the legendary drummer, takes brilliant advantage of alternate and electric instruments. Danilo Perez uses electric keyboards to create textural richness, John Patitucci plays electric bass and bowed acoustic bass, and DeJohnette contributes horn-like lines on the melodica. This array of textures helps create a fully realized orchestral approach to small-group jazz.


Artist: Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey

Album: One Day in Brooklyn

Label: R.E.D. Distribution

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/j/jacobfredjazzodyssey-onedayinbrooklyn.jpg

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US Release Date: 2009-09-01

UK Release Date: 2009-08-31

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List number: 3

Retrofitting their lineup (originally a trio) with pedal steel guitarist Chris Combs, the Tulsa-based band recorded this EP live in the studio without overdubs and generated some serious heat, seamlessly weaving together Monk, classical, Middle Eastern music, and the Beatles. It’s a great example of how jazz has expanded beyond traditional “swing” without forsaking a sense of rhythmic pliability.


Artist: Trio Subtonic

Album: Cave Dweller

Label: Trio Subtonic Productions

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/t/triosubtonic-cavedweller.jpg

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US Release Date: 2009-08-07

UK Release Date: 2009-08-07

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List number: 4

Showcasing a penchant for thundering drum ‘n’ bass grooves — while mixing in Brazilian and hip-hop rhythms — Portland, Oregon’s Trio Subtonic conjures up tightly crafted tunes that split open with bluesy piano, searing organ, and delightfully funky horn arrangements.


New Groups/New Sounds

Artist: Alex Cline

Album: Continuation

Label: Cryptogramophone

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/a/alexcline-continuation.jpg

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US Release Date: 2009-02-10

UK Release Date: 2009-02-10

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List number: 5

Drummer and composer Alix Cline has crafted a series of stately, dramatic compositions that combine violin and cello, bass and drums, and Myra Melford’s transporting piano and harmonium. Working across styles and in longer forms, Cline’s tunes are patient and full of space, and Melford provides the spontaneous juice that allows this record to blossom.


Artist: Steve Lehman Octet

Album: Travail, Transformation, and Flow

Label: Pi

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US Release Date: 2009-06-09

UK Release Date: 2009-06-09

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List number: 6

This shimmering record uses a technique called “spectral harmony” by arranging notes and instruments with careful attention to attack, decay, and harmonic overtones. But forget the technicalities — it just sounds brilliantly new and luminescent. Add to this generous dollops of rhythmic energy and concise solos by great improvisers such as Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Chris Dingman on vibraphone, Mark Shim on tenor saxophone, and Lehman, playing alto sax with acid tone and swirling imagination.


Artist: Henry Threadgill

Album: This Brings Us to, Volume I

Label: Pi

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US Release Date: 2009-10-27

UK Release Date: 2009-10-27

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List number: 7

Henry Threadgill is one of the few utterly pure originals in this music, and his rare releases appear as sensations. This music by his group Zooid sounds like a collision of unexpected joy, with angular lines of melody passing each other in midair: alto sax or flute, trombone or tuba, acoustic guitar, bass and drums in ecstatic, intelligent dialogue. Threadgill’s groups use distinct vocabularies, so this much is wonderfully true: no other jazz sounds like this, period. And it sounds good.


8 – 14

Artist: Ben Allison

Album: Think Free

Label: Palmetto

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US Release Date: 2009-10-13

UK Release Date: 2009-10-12

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List number: 8

Returning with the imaginative guitarist Steve Cardenas for the third time and featuring violinist Jenny Scheinman, bassist/composer Ben Allison’s latest for Palmetto builds upon the vibe of his previous two records, further mining Americana, jazz, pop and soul, pushing forward with an indie rock sensibility.


Artist: Tony Wilson Sextet

Album: The People Look Like Flowers at Last

Label: Drip Audio

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US Release Date: 2009-10-20

UK Release Date: 2009-10-20

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List number: 9

Guitarist Tony Wilson is a stalwart improviser on the Vancouver scene, and this second release by his sextet features a bold arrangement of nine sections from a viola sonata by Benjamin Britten, “Lachrymae”. The arrangements are thorny and complex, setting Britten’s melodies over polyrythmic figures, and allowing the soloists (including the great cellist Peggy Lee) to play tonally or atonally, as they see fit. Wilson’s band swings too, finding a sweet spot between free playing, post-bop drive, and chamber intimacy.


Artist: John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble

Album: Eternal Interlude

Label: Sunnyside

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US Release Date: 2009-08-18

UK Release Date: 2009-09-07

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List number: 10

Hollenbeck is a drummer and composer whose ambitions are hardly contained by the word “jazz”. Here, African rhythms bam into minimalist technique, and the quirk of Thelonious Monk scrapes against wordless vocalizing. This is “big band” music of a different breed — both wildly ambitious and entirely inviting… and all too rare.


Tradition Reinterpreted

Artist: Allen Toussaint

Album: The Bright Mississippi

Label: Nonesuch

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US Release Date: 2009-04-21

UK Release Date: 2009-04-20

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List number: 11

The great New Orleans pianist is not really known as a “jazz” player, but he has finally made a recording that looks backward at our music’s roots, but does so with a keen consciousness of both modern jazz and rhythm-and-blues. It is a jazz record with the impulses of pop, or maybe a roots record with the soaring improvisations of jazz. With producer Joe Henry, Toussaint has recruited top jazz players (Nicholas Payton, Don Byron, Marc Ribot, Brad Mehldau, and Josh Redman), and his versions of Ellington and Monk are among the year’s great highlights.


Artist: Masada Quintet

Album: Stolas: Book of Angels, Volume 12

Label: Tzadik

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US Release Date: 2009-06-16

UK Release Date: 2009-08-10

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List number: 12

John Zorn’s Masada Quartet was the leading edge of his now longstanding fascination with Jewish culture and music. With this quintet release featuring mainstream tenor master Joe Lovano, Zorn’s klezmer-meets-Ornette trope seems all the more tied to a jazz tradition of excitement and late-night intrigue. For the first time, the group is fleshed out with piano (by the sympathetic Uri Caine) and seems as muscular and substantial as a great Blue Note release from 1965. Is it retrograde to feel that Masada is better when it is more beautiful? Nah.


Artist: Matt Wilson Quartet

Album: That’s Gonna Leave a Mark

Label: Palmetto

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/m/mattwilsonquintet-thatsgonnaleaveamark.jpg

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US Release Date: 2009-07-07

UK Release Date: 2009-09-07

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List number: 13

Working with his Quartet for the first time since 2003, drummer Matt Wilson escaped to Maggie’s Farm in rural Pennsylvania for another palpably witty, playful session. Wilson, using a two-saxophone line-up, creates the joyful landscape of Ornette Coleman, but also lays down funk-party jams and meditative moments.


Artist: Fay Victor Ensemble

Album: The FreeSong Suite

Label: Greene Avenue Music

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US Release Date: 2009-09-22

UK Release Date: Import

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List number: 14

Fay Victor’s voice can be sweet and sultry or it can scrape like sandpaper — often within a single tune. She is arguably a contemporary version of Betty Carter or Abby Lincoln, yet she is new too. Although she’ll have some listeners scratching their heads as she lets her story-songs meander, others will find completely irresistible her style of coiling up a melody and letting it spiral out into unpredictable directions.