Muppets, Myra, and More: The Best Jazz of 2010 — So Far.

My 2009 was largely devoted to music-making (and the drinking of copious amounts of lagers) with too little time spent checking out new music. As a result, one of the big resolutions I made for 2010 was to hear more new works — at least a handful each week. It was ambitious, but, through the first month and change of 2010, so far so good. Certainly it takes time to fully digest some music in order to form an educated opinion and make any weighty decisions. But, well, weighty decisions are overrated anyway! So, I present to you my personal favorite jazz of 2010: a highly uneducated — and frequently irritable — compendium. (Note to readers: Keep an eye out for an upcoming piece on my least favorite jazz of 2010, which is much funnier.)

Favorite Piano Album:

Orrin Evans — Faith in Action (Posi-Tone)

I’ll be one of the first jazz fans to admit it: the jazz piano trio format usually bores me to tears and makes me value my Nation of Ulysses albums as if they were the last drops of Alagash Curieux in the universe (though, I usually do anyway). While there are certainly some phenomenal piano trio albums in the history of jazz — Oscar Peterson, Brad Mehldau, Bill Evans, to name a few — most of the trio albums I’ve heard in recent years were self-indulgent exercises in musical masturbation. They essentially served as demo recordings, creating a relatively inexpensive means for the pianist to obtain gigs and earn coveted positions in the bands of larger fish. That being said, young jazz tuna (the term “lion” is so overused!) Orrin Evans’ latest effort, Faith in Action, is one of the best trio recordings I’ve heard in recent time. I’ll cut to the chase: it’s accessible, filled with bluesy solos, swinging rhythms, and playful harmonies. Most importantly, this music is overflowing with emotion, passion, soul, and humor — and all from a trio! Drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Luques Curtis kill.

Favorite Concept Album:

Sam Sadigursky — Words Project III: Miniatures (New Amsterdam)

I actually go back and forth with this album. Sometimes it’s in my best column, while other times it’s at the top of my worst list. And that’s what makes it so awesome. In recent years, with David Lang winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Little Match Girl Passion, essentially a composition for half-a-dozen vocalists and no instrumentalists (save for a lonely percussionist), more and more avant-garde composers have been revisiting the a cappella format. In 2010, so far, I’ve heard John Zorn’s Mycale: The Book of Angels, Vol. 13 (Tzadik), which is very monotonous, and saxophonist Sam Sadigursky’s Words Project iii: Miniatures, the third volume in his Words Project series, which I like — most of the time. With a collection of short pieces based on famous poems and story excerpts scored mostly for voice (and a few jazzy instruments), Sadigursky has created a thought-provoking work that marries the intellectual side of music (avant-garde jazz) with the intellectual side of literature (poetry and poetic prose). Divorce is most likely in the cards for this union, but enjoy the sparks while it lasts!

Favorite Avant-garde Album:

Myra Melford’s Be Bread — The Whole Tree Gone (Firehouse)

How do you feel about free jazz? Is it just a bunch of noise that your six-year-old nephew could easily make with a Casio keyboard, some non-stick pans, and a free afternoon? Or is it the constructive and destructive interference of disparate sounds played by skilled improvisers resulting in a thrilling stew of exhilaration, terror, anxiety, and joy? Like many of you, I’m probably somewhere in the middle of the pack: Ornette Coleman — definitely; William Parker — sometimes; Cecil Taylor — maybe not. Myra Melford writes and plays music for us “middle-of-the-road” folks. Her compositions are rooted in tonal harmony, with hooky melodies and agonizingly beautiful chord progressions, but the tether to those roots is mucho adjustable. It’s the best of both worlds: you get the improvisational spirit — beauty turns into chaos, and vice versa, in an instant — with the comforts of more traditional bebop. Melford’s latest, with her phenomenal group Be Bread, The Whole Tree Gone, is more of the same from this piano goddess and Berkeley professor.

Favorite Live Album:

Live at Small’s series (Small’s)

Small’s is a great little jazz club in the Greenwich Village section of New York City. It’s made a name for itself as a breeding ground for the next generation of great jazz musicians. Kirk Rosenwinkel, Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, and Roy Hargrove have all graced the bandstand at Small’s. Now, through the club’s own fledgling record label, those of us outside the Big Apple get a chance to hear the magic that goes on at Small’s and, most importantly, to hear a new generation of young(ish) jazz stars begin to shine. Six stellar Live at Small’s recordings have been released so far in 2010, with albums led by trombonists Steve Davis and Ryan Kisor, saxophonist Ian Hendrickson-Smith, guitarist Peter Bernstein, and pianists David Kikoski and Kevin Hays. All are first-rate recordings with excellent production: you can hear the atmosphere as wine glasses clink, musicians confer with one another, and spontaneous moments of (mostly straight-ahead) jazz bloom before your very ears. Jazz is meant to be heard in the flesh and it’s usually best in a small venue where you can interact with the performers. If you can’t make it to the club, these recordings are the next best thing.

Favorite Straight-Ahead Album:

Joe Locke — For the Love of You (Koch)

What is it about pizza? I’ve had pizza, like most other people in America and Europe, a bajillion times. Yet, when I find myself in a new restaurant looking at their extensive menu of unique, exotic selections, I gravitate to that old friend listed at the bottom, with its crispy crust, melty cheese, and gorgeous toppings. Will this pizza be the same — yet different? Should I go with the thrice-cooked chicken with lavender baby hearts and magic shitake puffs, which exists at no other restaurant on Earth, or should I take comfort in the familiar pizza experience? That’s the way we feel about straight-ahead jazz. It’s been done before — many times before. But we keep coming back for more: to experience that love again; to see if this time it might be just a bit different (yet the same). Vibraphonist Joe Locke’s new album, For the Love of You, is that new pizza that turns out to be perfect: lush new arrangements of old classics featuring the sweet, on-the-spot vocals of Kenny Washington and a heart wrenching cover of Morricone’s theme song from the film Cinema Paradiso.

Favorite Album Cover:

John Ellis and Double-Wide — Puppet Mischief (ObliqSound)

From a man who calls his backing band “Double-Wide” you expect nothing less than a totally absurd album cover, and saxophonist John Ellis has delivered just that. Take a looky here. I’ll admit that Ellis has certainly tugged at the Muppet-lover within me (isn’t there Muppet love in us all?). This cover could easily fall into the worst album art category, but, in the meantime, soak it in folks, and hope that it’s Animal on drums and not some amateur like Brian Blade. How’s the music, you ask? Who the hell knows! (Actually, it’s pretty good.)

Favorite Rediscovered Album:

Rahsaan Roland Kirk — The Inflated Tear (Atlantic)

Kirk is a giant and history has at turns been laudatory and cruel to him. Hailed as a pioneer in his field, he’s often described in rather wretched terms (that make him sound a bit like Franz Kafka): as a bitter, anti-social, vengeful man, angry with his lot in life — and, well, who can blame him. Blind since age two and plagued by racism and illness throughout his life, Kirk became one of the greatest, most revolutionary musicians in history. Before it was common, Kirk played multiple horns at once, utilized found sounds on stage and in recordings (alarm clocks anyone?), and inserted politics into music. He also developed a technique of literally singing into his saxophone and combined jazz with pop music in ways that can still be heard today. Kirk should be thought of in the same category that people reserve for Mingus, Monk, and Miles, but, for whatever reason, he’s not. In a weekly jazz gig I had with a DC quartet, no song — not those from Mingus, Monk, or Miles — elicited as big of an audience response (positive, mostly) as our rendition of Kirk’s “Serenade to a Cuckoo.” In January, added the entire Atlantic records discography to its growing catalog, which led me back to one of my favorite Kirk records, 1967’s The Inflated Tear. Words cannot properly articulate the emotional power in this recording. Freewheeling and brash, sweet and sentimental, exhilarating and exuberant: it’s all here, in a quartet setting. These relatively short compositions, including a Duke Ellington cover, show Kirk at the top of his game. It’s a perfect mix of hard bop, avant-garde, and soul music. Kirk’s backing band, as always, is stellar. In particular, bassist Steve Novosel, probably the greatest live double bassist I’ve ever seen in person — with his subtle, buttery, always-melodic walking lines — is phenomenal. And Kirk is, well, Kirk.

Most Anticipated Future Releases:

Nels Cline Singers — Initiate (Cryptogramophone)

Brad Mehldau — Highway Rider (Nonesuch)

Amir ElSaffar and Hafez Modirzadeh — Radif Suite (Pi)

Yep, it’s only February and there’s nearly a whole year’s worth of releases ahead of us. (I’m exhausted already!) These are just a handful of the albums I’m eagerly awaiting. Nels Cline, most famous for his guitar playing in Wilco, is one of the most adventurous jazz composers around. I hear good things about Initiate — and anything on Cryptogramophone is bound to knock your UGGs off. Mehldau is, well, Mehldau. Among the growing number of musicians merging jazz with various world musics, Amir ElSaffar and Hafez Modirzadeh are tops. The pair’s future release, Radif Suite, also features Nels Cline’s brother Alex Cline, who produced one of 2009’s best jazz records (featuring Myra Melford!).

Honorable Mention

Out to Lunch — Melvin’s Rockpile (Accurate)

Kairos 4tet — Kairos Moment (Kairos)

Fringe Magnetic — Empty Spaces (Loop)

Aaron Immanuel Wright — Eleven Daughters (Origin)