Jazz is not dead, nor does it smell funny. This year alone was packed with rediscovered lost gems, re-energized trios, revitalized living legends, and revelatory violin solos.
Some artists rely on all-star producers to make relevant music past the age of 60, but all saxophonist Charles Lloyd needed to do was finally cut a record with his working quartet. Though evident in live performances, the simmering spiritual depth that Lloyd developed over 40-plus years in the business has been largely compromised on his post-millennium recordings. With the help of pianist Geri Allen, bassist Robert Hurst, and drummer Eric Harland, Jumping the Creek finally rectifies the situation, presenting a deeply passionate work that's easily the crown jewel of his ECM discography � and arguably of his entire career.
Scott Hreha Amazon iTunes
This installment in bassist Haden's ongoing Liberation Music Orchestra project is lovely, serious, and transcendent. While early versions of this expanded group (essentially a small big band) played music of revolutionary movements in Latin American and around the world, Mr. Haden is now concerned with home. Not in Our Name is a meditation on the most American of music � "America the Beautiful", Ornette Coleman's "Skies Over America", "Amazing Grace", and Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings". The music swells and surges gently, with an emphasis on melody, particularly in the strong, unshowy solos by Curtis Fowlkes's trombone, Steve Cardenas's guitar, and the saxophones of Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek. But there is a deep sadness here. Carla Bley's arrangements bathe the tunes in gospel blues and Ellington swank, so that they suggest what is best about America even as they comment implicitly on where America has been led astray.
Will Layman PopMatters review Amazon iTunes
This pianist from Sao Paulo loves Bill Evans and old forró music and straight-ahead jazz and avant-garde jazz and classical music and life and love and children and peace and liberty and friendship, and it all comes across here on this stunning record. Her musical accomplice, Zeca Assumpçao, provides a great bottom end on bass, and guest Nana Vasconcelos does his funky vocal percussion thang on "Colheita". But this is Fernandes's show all the way. Her manic take on Caetano Veloso's "Trilhos Urbanos" is like Vince Guaraldi's undone score for "Charlie Brown Moves to Harlem," and her chilled-out title tune is a frozen candy bar. But the most ambitious piece is the best one: Her double-tracked pointillist piano and harpsichord work on "Criança" plays nicely off the two cellists who bring this nine-minute piece into the mystic. Better wake up, American jazzos, Brazil is KILLING you right now.
Matt Cibula Amazon
Who says that a jazz band can't rock out? On its second studio recording, one of prolific Chicago saxophonist Ken Vandermark's steady projects pays tribute to decidedly non-jazz inspirations like Shellac and Finnish architect Eero Saarinen with a five-part suite of loosely constructed and addictively memorable pieces. Boston bassist Nate McBride and Norwegian wunderkind drummer Paal Nilssen-Love supply equal parts energy and finesse to flesh out Vandermark's compositional vision, which has explored the intersections between rock and jazz for the better part of 15 years, but rarely achieved such a transcendent level of success.
Jimmy Smith is gone, and he's never coming back, and that's sad. After all, it's not everyone who invents an entire musical sub-genre (Hammond B-3 organ jazz) the way he did. Here, his greatest musical follower/stalker, Joey D, repays him by inviting him to a huge ol' studio hoedown in the Arizona desert. The results are groovy, good-humored, and surprisingly ambitious (what's that sitar doing in the title cut?). Smith was still sharp here, like on his own "Dot-Com Blues", and DeFrancesco displays an honorable restraint in letting his hero take most of the solo spotlight. When they are both getting it, it's like mainstream jazz is relevant again.
Matt Cibula PopMatters review Amazon iTunes
The old saw is that jazz is a kind of democracy, with each player contributing equally to an incredible musical conversation. Cool! But how often is it really true? This miraculous album by Wayne Shorter's late-career acoustic quartet � with Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and Brian Blade's drums � fulfills jazz's democratic promise with revolutionary technique. Defying the Melody-Solos-Melody formula, Mr. Shorter constructs organic performances that build toward dramatic themes. His saxophone plays devilish hide-and-seek with the piano, while bass and drums roil and slash with an independence and freedom rarely heard in mainstream jazz. Using themes from classical, soundtrack, and jazz sources (as well as Shorter originals), this quartet delivers on its early promise with explosive power. As extraordinary and unpredictable as the avant-garde, this music suggests that great jazz is indeed a balanced conversation � maybe even a path to enlightenment.
Will Layman PopMatters review Amazon iTunes
This great man is the go-to jazz drummer for progressive types in Chicago, but he is also a great and inventive bandleader, as he proves here in this deeply soulful record. His rhythm is full of blues, even when he's grooving with a kalimba for 20 minutes ("Big M"). El'Zabar is so full of joy and music that he shouts and moans right along with the band, and the music is so good that it's not even annoying. Ari Brown's saxophone is full of Africa, and Yosef Ben Israel acquits himself nobly on bass � no small feat, considering that this functions as a tribute album to the Ritual Trio's last bassist, the should-be-legendary Malachi Favors. But what takes this album to the stratosphere is the hard-edged fiddle attack of Billy Bang, who plays at least three of the year's best heavy metal solos on his violin.
Matt Cibula PopMatters review Amazon
Among the recent jazz piano trio records that have risen above the painfully boring pack, none has made an impression as powerful as Triptych Myth's second release. As a master of several homemade instruments, Cooper-Moore's piano work is often overshadowed on his recordings; but in this context, along with bassist Tom Abbs and drummer Chad Taylor, it's given the exclusivity that it deserves. Though it's impossible � and irrelevant � to pin down a specific influence, fans of Herbie Nichols or early Cecil Taylor may find recognizable points of reference in this trio's brilliantly executed paean to all things beautiful in the world.
Scott Hreha Amazon
Anyone who rebukes Mehldau's piano trio as scholarly jazz intellectualization need only listen to Day Is Done, perhaps its most aggressive and vibrant studio effort to date. Drummer Jeff Ballard, who replaces longtime Mehldau collaborator Jorge Rossy, brings infectious excitability to the trio; likewise, bassist Larry Grenadier is a strong harmonic ballast, holding down the melodies so that Mehldau can weave improvisations like a raconteur with a sailor's mouth. The trio undresses selections by the Beatles, Nick Drake, Paul Simon, and Mehldau fave Radiohead with tenacious greed, not satisfied until they've been stripped bare, gleefully disassembled, and reconstructed in different patterns. The set's pièce de résistance, however, is Mehldau's turn as a contrapuntal Houdini: the solo piano treatment of "Martha My Dear" is all elbow shoves and finger dislocations, a pell-mell plunge into deconstruction that simply can't be reasoned with.
Zeth Lundy Amazon iTunes
This has been a year for uncovering lost jazz gems, but the crown jewel is this Grade-A recording of a 1957 Carnegie Hall concert by Thelonious Monk's working trio with the surging talent of Coltrane's tenor saxophone. Following Trane's extended residency with Monk at New York's Five Spot, this is the only high fidelity recording of the two giants playing together in complete comfort and relaxation. The quirky opening duet, "Monk's Mood", is perfection � you hold your breath and dread the band breaking the mood. Yet when they do, Trane and Monk launch into rippling glory. Much of Trane's '50s output was in his scalar "sheets of sound" style, but Monk inspires him to play with a steely melodicism. Monk dances and quips on piano while drummer Shadow Wilson is the Arthur Rubenstein of brushes. The result is more than a historical find � it's the best music of the year.
Will Layman Amazon iTunes