The Best Jazz of 2008

When I’m not listening to jazz or writing about jazz, it’s a fair bet you will find me teaching music to kids. Yeah, lots of jazz there too. And in high schools, the good news about music is everywhere. Today’s teenagers are the hip-hop generation, and that has made them the hybrid generation: they like little snatches of everything, as long as it is vibrant. They like Pet Sounds as much as they like TV on the Radio, and they like their jazz adventurous rather than smooth.

And this year they liked jazz plenty. My students — regular 14-18 year-olds — liked many of the following records for the same reasons I did. The year’s best jazz contains deep grooves and wildcat improvising. It is rich in references to the past but not throwback music. It is music as fun as it is smart, as often thrilling as it is beautiful.

More than ever, the best is coming from small labels, and more than ever the best draws a decent slice from the dynamics of rock and pop music without itself being a commercial venture. Here are 15 great jazz recordings from the last year, including the one reissue that everyone already knows about but that should not be ignored.

Artist: Aaron Parks
Album: Invisible Cinema
Label: Blue Note
Contributors: Aaron Parks, Eric Harland, Mike Moreno, Matt Penman
US Release Date: 2008-08-19
UK Release Date: 2008-08-18

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List number: 1

Aaron Parks, in his Blue Note debut, continues to expand the jazz vocabulary with the new rhythms of hip-hop. Like last year’s In My Element by Robert Glasper, Invisible Cinema does not graft some jazz playing onto a hip-hop album, nor does it tack some DJ or MC onto an otherwise conventional jazz album. Rather, it takes a fairly tame-seeming jazz line-up — acoustic piano, guitar, bass, and drums — and creates a new vocabulary within which the group can interact and improvise. Most obviously, this group does not play standard jazz “swing” rhythms. Rather, Parks’ tunes and arrangements offer up stuttering repetitions and lurching syncopations that create a new kind of swing. The whole disc crackles with fresh invention.

Aaron Parks: Invisible Cinema

Artist: Avishai Cohen Trio
Album: Gently Disturbed
Label: Razdaz
Label: Sunnyside
Contributors: Avishai Cohen, Shai Maestro, Mark Guiliana
US Release Date: 2008-05-20
UK Release Date: 2008-05-05

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List number: 2

The Avishai Cohen Trio is also suggesting the different ways that jazz can move forward without simply rehashing the traditions that are firmly centered on four-four swing rhythm, blues, and the harmonies of the American songbook. Bassist Cohen, with pianist Shai Maestro and drummer Mark Guiliana, infuses his music with enough classical influence, music from around the world, and contemporary energy to make it fresh. The absence of straight walking swing, for example, doesn’t make this music sound unlike jazz, because the spirit of invention, dialogue, and elasticity is applied to every element of the music. The strength of ballads alone marks this trio as one for the ages.

Avishai Cohen Trio: Gently Disturbed

Artist: Eri Yamamoto
Album: Duologue
Label: AUM Fidelity
Contributors: William Parker, Hamid Drake, Federico Ughi, Daniel Carter, David Ambrosio, Ikuo Takeushi
US Release Date: 2008-06-24
UK Release Date: 2008-06-30

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List number: 3

Yamamoto is not a new name on the New York scene, but 2007-2008 has still been a coming-out period for her, with her ingenious work on William Parker’s Corn Meal Dance recording, and then two tasty recordings this year as a leader. The trio album Redwoods is superb, but Duologues is closer to essential — a series of duets with Parker, drummers Federico Ughi or Hamid Drake, or saxophonist Daniel Carter. The pianist came to jazz from classical training and then a fascination with Tommy Flanagan, but today she plays “free” or “out”, liberated from conventional tonality. But her “out” playing is persistently sunny and beautiful. These duets glow.Eri Yamamoto: Duologue

Artist: Mostly Other People Do the Killing
Album: This Is Our Moosic
Label: Moppa Music
US Release Date: 2008-10-28
UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 4

This piano-less quartet, modeled on the Ornette Coleman group of 1959 but utterly up-to-date, brings rock energy and free-jazz adventurousness to a program of tunes that are melodic but tough. The leader, bassist Moppa Elliott, and his alto player, 2008 Monk contest-winner Jon Irabagon, are young stars of the first order. The stylistic range here is astonishing: from two-step rags to Mingus to the Bad Plus, but all within a tongue-in-cheek whole. Unsparingly fun, this music combines tradition and vanguard with ease.Mostly Other People Do the Killing: This Is Our Moosic

Artist: William Parker Quartet
Album: Petit Oiseau
Label: AUM Fidelity
US Release Date: 2008-10-14
UK Release Date: 2008-10-27

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List number: 5

Another piano-less quartet — just as good but utterly different. Bassist Parker and drummer Hamid Drake form a human elastic band of swing. They are less likely to rock than to play in a grooving polyrhythmic blend — traces of reggae, funk, and world music surface like exotic flavors in a jambalaya. Like most of the music on this list, Parker’s quartet plays music that has made a lie of the contrast between “avant-garde jazz” and the jazz tradition. The jazz tradition, represented so well here, is just about the freedom to sing as you choose.William Parker Quartet: Petit Oiseau

Artist: Cassandra Wilson
Album: Loverly
Label: Blue Note
US Release Date: 2008-06-10
UK Release Date: 2009-06-09

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List number: 6

The best voice — the most original and compelling voice — in jazz continues to be that of Cassandra Wilson. Her pliant contralto started as a single flavor on some M-Base recordings with Steve Coleman, then she broke out as a star on the new Blue Note, recording jazz, blues, and pop songs with an innovative guitar-based band. More recently, she has experimented with neo-soul and hip-hop styles. Her 2008 recording, however, was a return to singing standards with a mostly swinging acoustic band. But, from the presence of pianist Jason Moran to the continued use of blues-drenched guitar, Loverly proves itself a different kind of step forward. Wilson never forsook jazz, and she comes back to it with lessons learned from her pop excursions. Fresh air, as usual, from our greatest American singer.

Cassandra Wilson: Loverly

Artist: Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis
Album: Two Men with the Blues
Label: Blue Note
US Release Date: 2008-07-08
UK Release Date: 2008-07-07

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List number: 7

The legitimate complaint about Wynton Marsalis is that his music has come to have an academic tinge — a preservationist’s obsession with historical authenticity. What could be a better antidote to stuffiness than Willie Nelson? This live club date puts the behind-the-beat looseness of Willie (and his trusty harp player) in front of Marsalis’ talented quintet on a series of blues tunes. The vibe is both sophisticated and direct. The quintet sounds like a larger band, with specifically arranged parts for all five hands, but with Nelson out front, these tricky arrangements seem that much more palatable and grooving. There are ballads, swingers, roadhouse blues, and plenty of backbeat. The performance of “Tain’t Nobody’s Business” is a flat-out classic. It’s good to hear both Marsalis and Nelson being pushed out of their comfort zones. The result is stellar.

Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis: Two Men with the Blues

Artist: Nicholas Payton
Album: Into the Blue
Label: Nonesuch
Contributors: Nicholas Payton, Kevin Hays, Vincent Archer, Marcus Gilmore, Daniel Sadownick
US Release Date: 2008-04-22
UK Release Date: 2008-04-21

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List number: 8

Into the Blue sounds like a trumpeter’s self-discovery. Recorded in the leader’s hometown of New Orleans with his regular group, this recital presents a unique blend of influences. There is a wide tone, post-bop speed and clarity, New Orleans groove, and the influence of Miles Davis. But the Davis band that Payton is emulating is the late ’60s quintet with electric piano, expressive cymbal, and moody soundscapes. The playing of pianist Kevin Hays makes a huge impact. This amalgam of sources is filtered through Payton’s own conception. The feeling is one of letting go — Payton seems just to be playing, telling stories, letting his horn speak plainly and naturally.

Nicholas Payton: Into the Blue

Artist: Fight the Big Bull
Album: Dying Will Be Easy
Label: Clean Feed
Contributors: Matthew White
US Release Date: 2008-09-16
UK Release Date: 2008-09-15

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List number: 9

Matthew White lives and gigs primarily in Richmond, Virginia. He’s a guitarist and an arranger (and a student of Steven Bernstein, see below), and he’s the leader of the spectacularly creative nonet Fight the Big Bull. Anchored by a pair of glowering trombones, FtBB evokes Mingus, the Clash, and flamenco music at once. This music is careful but not spic-n-span or predictable. It moves with an organic sense of growth from bar to bar and section to section. The writing uses New Orleans grooves, contrapuntal dialogue, saw-buzz guitar, military percussion, and hushed passages for woodwinds. This is dense, playful, and serious music, rich with pleasures. Richmond is the new Brooklyn? Why not?Fight the Big Bull: Dying Will Be Easy

Artist: Rudresh Mahanthappa
Album: Kinsmen
Label: Pi
Contributors: Kadri Gopalnath, A. Kanyakumari, Rez Abassi, Carlo de Rosa, Poovalur Sriji, Royal Hartigan
US Release Date: 2008-09-23
UK Release Date: 2008-09-22

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List number: 10

Rudresh Mahanthappa is a vanguard alto saxophonist who happens to be Indian-American. Kinsmen finds him fusing jazz with South Indian Carnatic music in collaboration with the Indian “Emperor of the Saxophone”, Kadri Gopalnath. Gopalnath and Mahanthappa share a love for intricate improvisation, but their music is not obviously compatible. Yet the tunes and arrangements here fuse the two traditions without awkwardness. The band combines a jazz trio (guitar, bass, drums) with a traditional Indian ensemble (violin and barrel drum), but the arrangements do not suggest plain demarcations. The group can groove like a jazz band and play with the metric precision of Indian music. When the two saxophonists play together, they weave a natural tapestry. This is sincere, driving world music that never gets cute.Rudresh Mahanthappa: Kinsmen

Artist: Todd Sickafoose
Album: Tiny Resistors
Label: Cryptogramophone
Contributors: Ani DiFranco, Andrew Bird, Adam Levy, Mike Gamble, Alan Ferber, Allison Miller, Simon Lott
US Release Date: 2008-06-10
UK Release Date: 2008-06-30

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List number: 11

Sickafoose, best known as the bassist for Ani DiFranco, has created a musical document that weds the indie-rock aesthetic to jazz practices with seamless pleasure. Pop advantages such as genial melody and rich texture work with challenging, long-form compositions pungent improvisation. Some of the music as much in common with Philip Glass or Radiohead as it does with Miles Davis. Other tunes reach to the gut-bucket. But in every case, this is music that banishes whatever smugness is associated with indie-rock and whatever sterility people hear in mainstream jazz. This is a model for all kinds of new music.Todd Sickafoose: Tiny Resistors

Artist: Uri Caine Ensemble
Album: The Othello Syndrome
Label: Winter and Winter
Contributors: Uri Caine, Ralph Alessi, Tim Lefebvre, Zach Danziger, Achille Succi, Nguyen Le, Joyce Hammann, Bunny Sigler
US Release Date: 2008-08-12
UK Release Date: 2008-08-11

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List number: 12

For more than a decade, the jazz pianist Uri Caine has been successfully interpreting the work of great classical composers through the lens of jazz, soul, electronic music, klezmer, marches, you name it. This zany take on Verdi’s 1887 opera is Caine’s most consistently focused and best classical project. Caine trots out a passel of singers, from straight operatic singing to comic mock-opera to soul singing to gospel grooving and combines them with a single, tight band that works in many styles while keeping its basic sound intact. Without question, this is “post-modern” music that laughs its way across genres and jump-cuts with glee. But Caine’s schtick is fresh on this outing because the band (particularly Caine’s longstanding trio with Tim Lefebvre on bass and Zach Danziger on drums) plays with purpose. A gem.Uri Caine Ensemble: The Othello Syndrome

Artist: Steven Bernstein
Album: Diaspora Suite
Label: Tzadik
Contributors: Steven Bernstein, Peter Apfelbaum, Nels Cline, Devin Hoff, Scott Amendola, Jeff Cressman
US Release Date: 2008-01-22
UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 13

This is the fourth, and finest, of Steve Bernstein’s Diaspora discs, each of which finds a new and enlivening setting for cantorial melodies and Jewish folk tunes. This time out, Bernstein has surrounded himself with the musicians he grew up with (including Peter Apfelbaum on reeds, Ben Goldberg on clarinet, Jeff Cressman’s trombone, Nels Cline on guitar, Devin Hoff on electric bass, and Scott Amendola on drums), and the sound is drenched in rock and soul grooves, with ostinato funk lines giving rise to restless trumpet flurries as if late-’60s Miles Davis had taken a detour through a synagogue. A Jewish Bitches Brew? Better. The arrangements are also precise and carefully colored, and the melodic material is arresting. In a great career, Bernstein may never top this work.Steven Bernstein: Diaspora Suite

Artist: Steve Lehman Quintet
Album: On Meaning
Label: Pi
Contributors: Steve Lehman, Jonathan Finlayson, Chris Dingman, Drew Gress, Tyshawn Sorey
US Release Date: 2007-11-06
UK Release Date: 2007-11-06

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List number: 14

Lehman is both an up-to-the-minute alto player and a doctoral candidate in music composition. But this recording is anything but academic. Rather, it is grooving, harmonically adventurous, weird, soothing, and now. The band is a quintet of alto, trumpet, vibes, bass, and drums — the instrumentation of Eric Dolphy’s classic Out to Lunch date. But On Meaning is not some kind of tribute to 1964. It is a tight and driving quintet that wastes no time in aimless noodling or experimental meander. It is an Out to Lunch for the present, with the smack and appeal of mainstream modern jazz but powered by the fire of the new.Steve Lehman Quintet: On Meaning

Artist: Miles Davis
Album: Kind of Blue
Subtitle: 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition
Label: Legacy
Contributors: john coltrane, bill evans, cannonball adderley, paul chambers, jimmy cobb
US Release Date: 2008-09-30
UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 15

What is there left to say about Kind of Blue, the consensus “greatest jazz album of all time”? In this half-century anniversary reissue, the five classic first complete takes are accompanied not only by studio chatter and various false starts, but also by the 1958 recordings by the same classic sextet of Davis on trumpet, Cannonball Adderley’s alto, John Coltrane on tenor, Bill Evans (or Wynton Kelly) on piano, Paul Chambers’ bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums. Hearing all these tracks together reestablishes the greatness of the earlier recordings, particularly the transcendent version of “Love for Sale”. Sure, you’ve heard it all before. But hearing it all again is still a joy.

Miles Davis: Kind of Blue