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Performing Arts

Overlooked Jazz Gems of 2009

Jazz (partial) by Debra Hurd found on Fine Art

The year 2009 was a such a good one for jazz that even some music that had been neglected stands out as stellar. Layman catches up with music he never should have missed.

January is "spring cleaning" time for music critics. You've done a year of listening and writing, you've made your "best of" lists, and now it's time to clear the decks for the new year—or new decade—of music.

But as in life, there are inevitable loose ends you never quite tied up. In my case, terrific jazz was on my list to be enjoyed and written about but somehow slipped past me. In many cases, these were recordings not on the PopMatters official review list that had still come my way. They looked great, but I put them off while I reviewed other material.

And in 2009, this list of neglected work is remarkably distinguished. What a year for jazz when the stuff that flew slightly below your radar, frankly, should have contended for the best work of the year!

I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit how much brilliant work I ignored. But two of my New Year's Resolutions for 2010 are: (1) be more frank about my own failings, and (2) do not linger when action is called for. So, six stunners from 2009 that I haven't praised yet. Hereby, my apologies and reparations. In no particular order, some overlooked jazz classics of 2009:

Rez Abbasi, Things to Come (Sunnyside)

Guitarist Rez Abbasi played a critical role in Rudresh Mahanthappa's great 2008 recording, Apti, and Things to Come finds him again in league with the alto player and also with 2009's jazz player of the year, pianist Vijay Iyer. All three are American jazz musicians with roots in South Asia—Abbasi is Pakistani-American, while Mahanthappa and Iyer are Indian-American. Drummer Dan Weiss also has deep roots in Indian music, and Kiran Ahluwalia appears on four tracks, adding vocals with South Asian inflection.

But of all the recent experiments blending music from South Asia with jazz, Things to Come may be the most elegant and seamless. Abbasi's compositions use rhythmic patterns that feel natural to modern jazz even as they come partly from another culture. The band (also featuring Johannes Weidenmueller on bass and cellist Mike Block on a pair of tunes) easily negotiates interlocking polyrhythms while the soloists flow naturally above the groove. Even the inclusion of Indian singing on tracks such as "Air Traffic" does not mark this as music that lives primarily outside of the jazz tradition—Ahluwalia's singing uses idiomatic twists and melodic shapes, but it is ingeniously meshed with gorgeous jazz harmony. As voice blends with the alto sax and guitar such that these tunes feel like true ensemble efforts.

"Realities of Chromaticism" is a good example of how the new multi-culturalism in jazz is less about making the music specific than about giving it a boundless freedom. Here, Abbasi incorporates some harmonic elements of Western classical composition, improvisation using a post-bebop vocabulary, stuttering rhythms that could be Indian or, maybe, have a hip hop flavor. Any and all of these elements are legitimate fuel for a jazz, and in the end this collision of influences is less about making Abbasi's music linked to his heritage than it is about making his music part of the joyous history of jazz as an equal opportunity mongrel music.

Things to Come, according to Abbasi, was created at a time when change was afoot in the culture, with long-fought battles finally bringing diversity to the mainstream. This music, superbly conceived and played, makes far-flung diversity feel like the mainstream of its art.

Wadada Leo Smith, Spiritual Dimensions (Cuneiform)

This double-disc catches two live recordings by two very different bands led by the avant-garde trumpeter. For all the lack of traditional harmony in these performances, however, this is accessible music, music that feels natural and communicative. The first disc—again—lets Vijay Iyer play beautiful, expansive acoustic piano solos that always have structure. The second disc presents a multi-guitar funk orchestra that is subtle and precise despite its size.

All of this music can be seen as part of Smith's ongoing interest in refracting the sound and legacy of Miles Davis. Though Davis had little interest in the avant-garde, Smith has appropriated Davis's plaintive sound and interest in the role of silence in jazz, but he has done so in contexts that free his playing from most traditional harmony. On Spiritual Dimensions, Smith uses two of his ongoing bands, similar to the acoustic Davis band of the '60s and the other closely modeled on Davis's Bitches Brew-era electric bands of the '70s. The results, however, are quite similar.

The performance by Smith's acoustic "Golden Quintet" is wide-open but lyrical. Iyer and Smith get plenty of solo space, but there is also room for bassist John Lindberg and drummers Pheeroan AkLaff and Don Moye to jam in thumping free dialogue. What impresses is not just the spinning but clearly articulated avant-whirlings of trumpet and piano on "Al Ahdhilli's Litany of the Seas" but also the straight-up funk of "South Central L.A. Kulture". Surprises.

The funk band is just that, but it deals in pastels too. Its "Organic" whispers out of the gates, with the many guitars (including Brandon Ross and Nels Cline) never getting in each other's way. The groove takes its time kicking in, with AkLaff again at the center, but the Davis-like funk gives way in episodes to a rock guitar feeling, then a meditative bass solo, then a free-time trumpet excursion with ballad feeling, and then a slinky new funk feeling. There is nothing obvious about this material. And though its debt to Davis is plain, Smith makes clear throughout these two discs that his interest is in pushing farther down some of the dead-ends left by the genius rather than merely creating more tributes to him.

Wadada Leo Smith has never seemed more essential and easy to listen to than in 2009. He's on a roll, or perhaps my ears are finally catching up to him.

Terence Blanchard, Choices (Concord)

Making a straight-ahead jazz record doesn't seem to interest Terence Blanchard much these days. He has experimented recently with funk, strings, and vocal music. Add to that his extensive work as a composer of soundtrack music and you get a restless jazz musician. The question is: too restless?

His band is always exceptional, and that is true here as well. Lionel Louke becomes a more compelling guitarist with every year, fusing his African playing to jazz in ever more interesting ways. rummer Kendrick Scott is versatile and thoughtful. Also here: pianist Fabian Almazan, Derrick Hodge on bass, and saxophonist Walter Smith III. But the gimmick this time out is a pair of voices in sequence. On six tracks Dr. Cornell West, the thinker and writer, speaks over or around the music about wisdom, music, liberty, and values. On two others the neo-soul singer Bilal threads his tenor through snaking melodies.

The tracks featuring West are not particularly bombastic, even though your own tolerance for being lectured by a philosopher about the "choices" you make in life will vary. Blanchard weaves the music around West with real grace, just as he integrates Bilal into a swinging jazz sextet with sinuous intelligence. But, inevitably, the bulk of the disc rises and falls on the strengths of this group. And it's very strong. Blanchard is not the only composer, each player works from within the tunes to generate feeling as well as heat. "Hacia del Aire", for instance, starts as an impossibly lovely duet between Louke and the leader but then moves into a piano trio section, followed by a unison statement of theme by trumpet and tenor. Then, slowly.. slowly, the heat is turned up as Blanchard and Smith begin embellishing and soloing simultaneously.

At its best, this is a ravishing recording—a jazz group in full possession of the drama that makes this music great. But why not let the band have the full spotlight? How many times are you really going to want to listen to Dr. West talk about being "a jazzman in the world of ideas"?

Cedar Walton, Voices Deep Within (High Note)

Jazz pianists in the classic post-bop style may have once seemed dime-a-dozen, but time has made players like Hank Jones and Cedar Walton seem increasingly special. Walton played with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers during a particularly fertile period in the early '60s, and he has composed more memorable themes than almost any other living jazz musician. And best of all, he continues to be a brilliant player today, releasing consistently fine recordings that rarely reach for gimmicks—and rarely get the acclaim they deserve.

Voices Deep Within features Walton's always dynamic trio (David Williams on bass, Willie Jones III on drums) and several appearances by Vincent Herring on tenor (yes, tenor) saxophone. It's a great record because the songs are brilliant and fun and because the playing is imaginative and full of personality. "Another Star" is classic Walton: a compelling Stevie Wonder melody that is grounded by the arranger with a funky bass line that Walton and Williams articulate together. When these guys solo, the result is not just dazzling—it is a good story being told by someone who has no intention of losing your attention. Walton's "Dear Ruth" has ambling charm to spare, and Coltrane's "Naima" is taken at a swinging tempo that never loses the transcendence of the melody.

But the most critical reason to choose this Cedar Walton over other recent recordings is "Voices Deep Within", a track that meshes a funky original tune, a complex multi-part arrangement, and several solos that bore into your head the way the finest jazz must: with a sense of drama and swing and surprise. Too much recent jazz is fresh and dazzling but fails to express a sense a true individual personality in the improvisations. But only Cedar Walton makes the piano sound quite this way: logical, daring, conversational, swinging, and harmonically acute.

Possibly you don't know Cedar Walton? The time has come.

Kurt Rosenwinkel Standards Trio, Reflections (Word of Mouth)

There was certainly a time when a fine recording by a traditional jazz guitar trio did not seem so singular. But in 2009, it is refreshing to hear a relatively young (39) jazz guitarist play the kind of music that once was the territory of Kenny Burrell or Jim Hall. If previous Rosenwinkel releases have tended to knotty, modern jazz, then Reflections proves that his work has always been grounded in a keen understanding of jazz harmony and a penchant for the value of melody.

What makes this disc more than just an explanation or nostalgia is the pure quality of the ideas in Rosenwinkel's solos and his application of the guitar trio language to more modern standards. Monk, of course, figures strongly here with the title track and "Ask Me Now"—and Rosenwinkel paints these lumpy tunes with a beautiful watercolor stroke. Wayne Shorter (maybe the only other vital modern jazz composer beyond Monk) also receives this chill treatment. "Fall" becomes a series of hip but patient chords over a light funk groove, and "Ana Maria" gets the standard bossa treatment but with a sense of behind-the-beat ease.

There are also some ballad chestnuts ("More Than You Know," "You Go To My Head") and the flexible, tasteful work of Eric Revis on bass and Eric Harland on drums. The trio plays easily together, and each performance feels like a soft-shoe on a tightrope: easy as pie and remarkable too. Compared, say, to the guitar trio work of Pat Metheny, Reflections is both more historically sharp and looser. It feels like you could listen to its pleasures all day and never get bored.

Ben Perowsky, Esopus Opus (Skirl)

Ben Perowsky is a new-generation jazz musician in that he would probably be just as happy to never hear the word "jazz" near his name. As a drummer, composer, and bandleader, he has played music well beyond category—with the Lost Tribe, with John Zorn, with The Lounge Lizards, and on his own. At the same time, Perowsky has free-wheeling attitude of a jazzman—an improviser's heart. His band here (Chris Speed on tenor sax and, mostly, clarinet; Drew Gress on bass; and Ted Reichman on accordion) consists of three-fifth's of John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet, but this is a much more madcap affair, with crazier soloing but also more references to rock music.

There are two Beatles tunes: the instrumental "Flying" from Magical Mystery Tour (a bit of a throw-away) and an affecting "Within You Without You" that truly takes advantage of the sonic textures of the clarinet and the accordion. Hendrix gets a nod with "Manic Depression", a treatment that rocks with clarity but then lets Speed play a solo well beyond the harmonic norm that climaxes in a group freak-out. Beyond these actual compositions, there is simply a rock energy to this band. The moderate tempo of "Red Hook", for instance, is still cloaked in Gress's funky bottom and a sense of pocket all the way around.

If Esopus Opus has a weakness, it is in the playful eclecticism that is also its joy. This is a band that plays a great Latin tune ("Perolas"), some neat Brazilian stuff ("Nem Um Talvez"), down-home blues of a sort ("Keylime"), quirky Monk-ish stuff in 7/8 ("Esopus Opus"), modal grooves ("Present Distance"), and on and on. After any one of these tracks, your appetite is whet for more. The direction changes on you, which is both frustrating and wonderful. But that is jazz today, happily: a collection of ideas and influences that is too big for any cliché.

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