1. Patricia Barber, Verse (Blue Note/Premonition)
Chicago's very own Patricia Barber managed a huge breakthrough with this release, the first to feature her own songs exclusively. While a lot of attention has been focused on songs like "I Could Eat Your Words", a clever take on cooking and having an affair with a college professor, there is much beauty in songs like "Moon", which builds from a spare meditation to a full-fledged assault on the senses with the help of a great rhythm section and the trumpet accents of Dave Douglas. Barber says this album is her homage to Joni Mitchell, and believe it or not, she goes beyond homage to join her mentor as one of the best singer-songwriters of all time.
2. Charles Lloyd, Lift Every Voice (ECM)
Lloyd crafted this meditative album as a response to the events of 9/11, but what emerges isn't some kind of patriotic jingoism or a soliloquy of grief a la Springsteen, but rather a series of performances that both honor the pain and confusion listeners are likely to have felt as well as finding ways to heal and move on. Lloyd is supported by a couple of different configurations of musicians on these tracks, with pianist Geri Allen and guitarist John Abercrombie offering standout performances of their own.
3. Jane Bunnett, Dewey Redman, Dean Bowman, Larry Cramer, Stanley Cowell, etc., Spirituals & Dedications (Justin Time)
More music as celebration, healing, and release. Bunnett offers her usual tasteful contributions on soprano sax and flute, while husband Larry Cramer gets to step out and offer some great trumpet contributions as well. Pianist Cowell is in fine form, turning in one transcendent performance after another. And tenor sax man Dewey Redman, who I don't believe gets nearly enough credit for an inventive and energetic body of work, proves again that he is one of the great tenors of our time. Dean Bowman's voice take's a little getting used to, but he can really rock the house, as he does on a performance of the traditional "Shadrack", accompanied only by Redman and drummer Mark McLean. This recording honors the spirit of jazz the way it should be done-honoring the past by embracing the future.
4. Jason Moran, Modernistic (Blue Note)
Moran is the real deal-a pianist who can recall the greatness of professors like Willie "The Lion" Smith and James P. Johnson while examining and deconstructing Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock". In short, Moran is the kind of unique encyclopedia of American and European music that Duke Ellington was: able to convey complete modernity while somehow incorporating every bit of the past available to him. Modernistic is a solo piano album the likes of which one never expected to hear at the start of the 21st century. I can't wait to hear what Moran does next.
5. Von Freeman, The Improvisor (Premonition)
For years, Von Freeman was Chicago's best-kept jazz secret, a tenor sax player who had influenced all kinds of young musicians, but who had not been widely recorded himself. Every Von Freeman CD is a revelation, but this one is particularly good, as it runs the gamut of styles. From the opening solo tenor rendition of "If I Should Lose You" to the breakneck bebop of "Ski-Wee" and the romantic beauty of "Darn That Dream" and "Blue Bossa" all the way to Duke Ellington's "I Like the Sunrise", performed with pianist Jason Moran and his rhythm section, everything about this CD is perfect. And perfectly Vonski.
6. Cassandra Wilson, Belly of the Sun (Blue Note)
Cassandra Wilson has led the fight to expand the repertoire available to the modern jazz singer beyond the Great American Songbook and the work of a few '60s songwriters. On this, her "bluesy" album, she covers Robbie Robertson's "The Weight", Bob Dylan's "Shelter From the Storm", the ballad "Wichita Lineman", and James Taylor's "Only a Dream in Rio." She also works up some sparks on a few traditional blues numbers, duets with neo-soul singer India.Arie, and offers a few of her own superb compositions all without batting an eye. This is the reason Wilson stands as jazz music's most important and gifted singer as well as an antidote to the neo-classic jazz fringe that has tried to take the music over and put it in a museum.
7. Spring Heel Jack, Amassed (Thirsty Ear)
Some might argue that Matthew Shipp's Nu-Bop album was the better offering from Thirsy Ear's Blue Series of improvised music (of which Shipp is the guiding force), but I think this CD proved so amazing simply because it comes from a perspective other than jazz. Spring Heel Jack have moved solidly from a drum 'n' bass outfit to a group that is experimenting with a new language for jazz and electronic music that will result in a true fusion of the two rather than the mere grafting of one onto the other. There are contributions here from a wide array of European jazz heavyweights including Evan Parker, Kenny Wheeler, Paul Rutherford, Han Bennink, and Jason Pierce of Spritualized. The results are sure to rankle traditionalists in both jazz and electronic camps, which is exactly how you can tell just how admirably these folks have succeeded in finding a new path.
8. Dave Holland, What Goes Around (ECM)
Look, Dave Holland is simply brilliant, whether leading his quintet or a larger band featuring talents like Antonio Hart, Chris Potter, Robin Eubanks, Earl Gardner, and Steve Nelson. Holland owes a debt to bassist-composer-bandleader Charles Mingus, with arrangements that manage to make the band sound even bigger than it is. There's no question that Holland is one of the best composers working in jazz now, and his arrangements on this disc are equally admirable.
9. Keith Jarrett-Gary Peacock-Jack DeJohnette, Always Let Me Go: Live In Tokyo(ECM)
The music of Jarrett's trio is not for everyone. It is challenging, cerebral, and sometimes fairly opaque, but it is also emotional, soulful, and dream inspiring. The trio has been working together for 20 years or so, but they don't fall back on any kind of formula. Here they are completely improvising together, communicating freely and openly with a live audience listening in. Jarrett and DeJohnette were both part of Miles Davis' touring band around 1970 and, though they don't play the kind of supercharged Afro-rock that made that group famous, they obviously learned a whole lot about listening to each other and taking risks.
10. Julian Priester, In Deep End Dance (Conduit)
Another disc that demands something of the listener-in other words, you won't be humming these tunes around the house anytime soon. But Priester's first recording as a leader in 25 years is a gem, with compositions that help showcase his inventive playing as well as the energetic work of his young group, comprised of pianist Dawn Clement, bassist Geoff Harper, and drummer Byron Vannoy. While indie label Conduit Records (for whom this was the inaugural release) doesn't have the marketing budget of Universal or Blue Note, this quality recording is every bit as deserving of attention as more well known jazz releases this year.
- Wayne Shorter, Footprints Live (Verve)
- Karrin Allyson, In Blue (Concord)
- Mingus Big Band, Tonight at Noon (Dreyfus)
- Rene Rosnes, Life on Earth (Blue Note)
- Thomasz Stanko, Soul of Things (ECM)
- Eddie Palmieri, La Perfecta II (Concord)
- Erik Truffaz, Mantis (Blue Note)
- Tom Harrell, Live at the Village Vanguard (Bluebird)
- Jean-Michel Pilc Trio, Welcome Home (Dreyfus)
Record Label of the Year:
ECM Records The quality of their releases this year speak for themselves: Charles Lloyd's Lift Every Voice, Jarrett's Always Let Me Go, Dave Holland's What Goes Around, Tomasz Stanko's Soul of Things, John Abercrombie's Cat 'n' Mouse, Jack DeJohnette & John Surman's Invisible Nature, and Steve Tibbetts' A Man About A Horse (to name a few) were all recordings that pushed the boundaries of improvised music beyond what could comfortably be relegated to the "jazz" bin. In addition, their rarum series of reissues-"greatest hits" packages of artists who have never had anything like a hit, chosen by the artists themselves-is truly inspired and worth the cost of each and every one of the eight volumes released thus far.
Reissues of the Year:
- Chick Corea, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Blue Note)
- Bill Evans & Jim Hall, Undercurrent (Blue Note)
- John Coltrane, A Love Supreme (Deluxe Edition) (Verve)
- Charlie Parker, Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes (Savoy)
Best Box Sets:
- Miles Davis, The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux (Sony/Columbia)
- Grant Green, Retrospective (Blue Note)
- Herbie Hancock, Herbie Hancock Box (Sony/Columbia)