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The Best Jazz of 2009

Will Layman and Andrew Zender

This 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.

8 - 14

Artist: Ben Allison

Album: Think Free

Label: Palmetto

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/b/benallison-thinkfree.jpg

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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

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/t/tonywilsonsextet-thepeoplewholooklikeflowersatlast.jpg

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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

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/j/johnhollenbeck-eternalinterlude.jpg

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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

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/a/allentoussaint-thebrightmississippi.jpg

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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

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/m/masadaquintet-stolas-bookofangelsvol12.jpg

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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.


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