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The Best Jazz of 2007

Will Layman
Robert Glasper

In spite of the perception of jazz as an increasingly niche market, the year's best show a style of music that remains ever youthful in its exploration of new territories, expanding its diversity and range of expression.

Each year, I imagine, jazz record sales are down and the days of jazz as a significant cultural force seem more distant. Why, then, is the music so fresh and vital, with scores of recordings and bands that suggest a creativity not only undiminished but at a particular high? Perhaps, with commercial expectations largely vanished for all but the most popular jazz musicians (a vocalist like Diana Krall, say, or the perennially melodic guitarist Pat Metheny), jazz musicians have truly embraced their own varied, radically inclusive visions.

My 2007 list is split almost evenly between major labels and the wonderful independents. This a great sign that Blue Note and Verve have tempered their expectation that each jazz record ought to be another Norah Jones CD and are supporting expansive, sometimes daring music. That said, if I listed another ten discs, they would almost all be on independents such as Pi, Songlines, Crytogramophone, and the like. Jazz continues to blossom in every corner of the yard (and saxophonist Chris Potter seems to be a petal on many of the flowers). Thus, the year's finest reissue and a dozen new treasures from the year nearly past.

Reissue of the Year

Billie Holiday, Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles (Sony)

In jazz, it always seems unfair to rank the reissues of immortal classics against the latest music. Unfair or not, this new packaging of the finest patch of vocal records in the 20th century was the best listening of the year. Jazz fans should know this music cold, but it is always a revelation to hear it again and to recognize that every great singer in American music since owes his or her career to Lady Day. Cut between 1935 and 1942, these are all small-group swing records that feature the young Baltimore singer accompanied by the finest of that era: Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, Cozy Cole. Not all the songs, on their own, are classics, but Billie's ingenious phrasing -- her irresistible placement of the notes against the elegant syncopations of her band -- make them great. These 80 tracks on four compact discs are spun gold.

Artist: Robert Glasper Album: In My Element Label: Blue Note Image: US Release Date: 2007-03-20 UK Release Date: Available as import

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The myth of jazz is that of continual invention -- nothing is more prized than idea of innovation. But, since Ornette threw out chord changes in 1960 and Miles gave us jungle funk in 1975, what has been truly new? Pianist Robert Glasper knows hip-hop, and he's bringing it into the DNA of jazz itself. Working again with his acoustic trio -- Vicente Archer on bass and Damion Reid on drums -- Glasper here succeeds in organically incorporating the rhythmic innovation of hip-hop. In his piano lines and in the essential groove of the trio, Glasper has found a way to use the stuttering cadence of hip-hop to surprising, elegant effect. This innovation is achieved wholly without awkwardness and without trotting out the surface elements of hip-hop -- no rapping, no digital effects, no guest producing from Kanye West. Forget other jazz groups that try to expand the repertoire by covering classic rock songs, Glasper covers J Dilla and combines Herbie Hancock with Radiohead; he spins a ballad from a recording of a eulogy. In My Element is the best evidence that jazz continues to feed off of popular music to grow deeper and richer.

Multiple songs: MySpace

Robert Glasper Trio - Live at Virgin MegastoreRobert Glasper: In My Element

Artist: James Carney Group Album: Green-Wood Label: Songlines Contributors: James Carney, Ralph Alessi, Peter Epstein, Tony Malaby, Josh Roseman, Chris Lightcap, Mark Ferber Image: US Release Date: 2007-08-07 UK Release Date: Available as import

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Green-Wood was partly written as accompaniment for cinema, and it sounds like a great movie unto itself: there is drama, development, and a great sweep of colors. James Carney, a winner of the Thelonious Monk International Composers Award, writes cliché-free music, music that sounds naturally free of the charge that "all jazz sounds the same". The four-piece horn section is used texturally and contrapuntally, and the whole group is free to improvise either inside or outside. Tony Malaby plays tons of saxophone, and Josh Roseman is a strong presence on trombone. The pianist plays plenty as well, and he plays with the architectural voicings of Herbie Hancock with his Mwandishi band. This band, despite the use of some funk and some electric piano, is much more expansive than a modern fusion group. It plays dark ballads, and it plays a kind of modern New Orleans sound. Green-Wood is epic: a movie that happens to play as fresh American music.

Multiple songs: MySpaceJames Carney Group: Green-Wood

Artist: Herbie Hancock Album: River: The Joni Letters Label: Verve Contributors: Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, Lionel Loueke, Vinne Colaiuta, Joni Mitchell, Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae, Norah Jones, Leonard Cohen, Luciana Souza Image: US Release Date: 2007-09-25 UK Release Date: 2007-09-24

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In a year featuring a strong new album by Joni Mitchell, one of the finest jazz discs also happened to be a Joni album. Herbie Hancock, increasingly seeing himself as a interpreter of others' music, has created his best album in decades, exploring the idiosyncratic songs of his legendary friend. Though this record is helped out by a series of terrific pop singers (Corrine Bailey Rae, Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Luciana Souza, Leonard Cohen, and even Joni herself), the central soloist here is the saxophonist and frequent Joni accompanist Wayne Shorter. Shorter and Hancock, of course, played together with Miles Davis, and here they play with daring freedom, engaging in a jazz conversation that transcends categories. "Nefertiti" and "Solitude" are revisited along with Mitchell classics like "Court and Spark" and "Both Sides Now". For all three greats -- Hancock, Mitchell, and Shorter -- this release confirms that their talent is grander than any one genre. Still, this is primarily a jazz record, and a terrific one.

Multiple songs: MySpace

Herbie Hancock - Fast Focus feature on the Making of River: The Joni LettersHerbie Hancock: River: The Joni Letters

Artist: Kenny Werner Album: Lawn Chair Society Label: Blue Note Contributors: Kenny Werner, Lenny Picket, Dave Douglas, Chris Potter, Brian Blade, Scott Colley Image: US Release Date: 2007-03-06 UK Release Date: 2007-04-09

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Kenny Werner has made more than one terrific disc over the years, but Lawn Chair Society is a fresh and defining recording on the major jazz label. Somewhat surprisingly, it is puts forward a fresh and fully integrated electro-acoustic sound (coaxed along by producer Lenny Picket) that sidesteps category entirely. Werner's keyboards are sequenced in places, and he solos entirely on an acoustic grand -- but the sound is seamless, with trumpeter Dave Douglas and reed player Chris Potter piquant and expressive, bassist Scott Colley exceptionally lyrical, and tight grooves from drummer Brian Blade. At times, this record evokes Louis Armstrong; at other times it suggests Miles Davis's In a Silent Way. That's a broad range of association, but the music wears it well, incorporating both free jazz and rhapsodic ballad playing easily. Lawn Chair Society is the model of what jazz can be today -- electric and acoustic, "out" and in, beautiful and quirky.Kenny Werner: Lawn Chair Society

Artist: Terence Blanchard Album: A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina) Label: Blue Note Contributors: Terence Blanchard, Brice Winston, Aaron Parks, Derrick Hodge, Kendrick Scott Image: US Release Date: 2007-08-14 UK Release Date: 2007-08-13

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Terence Blanchard is both a jazz musician -- a New Orleans trumpeter, no less -- and an experienced soundtrack composer. When his longtime collaborator, film director Spike Lee, asked him to compose music for the unflinching documentary When the Levees Broke, Blanchard surely faced the greatest challenge of his career. It is a triumph. This disc uses some of that soundtrack music to develop a wholly mature sound combining a string orchestra with Blanchard's regular quintet. The orchestral writing is unique -- neither faux-classical music nor poorly swung chamber jazz -- and it sets the table for the finest and most emotional trumpet playing we've heard from Blanchard. If Blanchard started his career in the shadow of Wynton Marsalis, A Tale of God's Will makes it clear just how singular the younger man has become. His playing here is liquid, like something melting in the New Orleans heat. Also outstanding here is pianist Aaron Parks, whose composition "Ashe" is one of many highlights. Jazz with strings is usually a mistake and rarely a triumph, but this is a truly rare joy, even if it is flowing from tragedy.

Multiple songs: MySpace

Terence Blanchard and Metropole Orchestra - Funeral Dirge Terence Blanchard: A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina)

Artist: Joe Lovano and Hank Jones Album: Kids: Live at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola Label: Blue Note Image: US Release Date: 2007-05-08 UK Release Date: Available as import

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Still sparklingly alive at 89, Hank Jones is the most modern and flexible of elder statesmen. Though his playing is steeped in stride, he was also the pianist on Coltrane's "Giant Steps", and he understands the multi-directional beauty of modern jazz. In the last three years, Jones has recorded three times with saxophonist Joe Lovano (a kid at 54). The two quartet records were good, but this live recording of duets is the top. The best work here is simple enough to describe. Jones, with his assured but light touch, plays jaunty, stride/bop accompaniments, while Lovano tosses the melodies into the air and spins them like he is Meadowlark Lemon in Madison Square Garden. The feeling of time is loose, and the precision of the interaction is perfect. In that seeming oxymoron -- a casual precision -- the collaboration takes glorious flight.

Multiple songs: MySpace

Joe Lovano and Hank Jones - Kids sessionJoe Lovano and Hank Jones: Kids: Live at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola

Artist: Chris Potter Underground Album: Follow the Red Line, Live at the Village Vangaurd Label: Sunnyside Image: US Release Date: 2007-09-11

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Chris Potter, album-by-album and show-by-show, is building a claim to greatness. He has paid his dues as a crucial and versatile sideman (from Dave Holland to Steely Dan), but the notion that there is something generic about his playing is now forever vanquished. This year he released two discs on the same day: a challenging studio recording for a ten-piece group (including strings and double-reeds), and a live date from his "Underground" quartet featuring Craig Taborn's Fender Rhodes electric piano, Adam Rogers on electric guitar, and Nate Smith on drums. As varied as the sounds are on the tentet disc, it is the plugged-in Vanguard disc that seems utterly kaleidoscopic. Though the use of funk rhythms in jazz would seem to have been played out decades ago, Potter's group uses groove the way a master chef uses onions. And without a bass player! The magic is in the drama that each player brings to his solos, which each build like a scene from a Hitchcock film. Top honors, as so often, go to Taborn's versatile Rhodes. But they are Potter's fiendish tunes and his group conception. In a year that saw the passing of Michael Brecker, Potter seems to have emerged as a steely-toned tenor player who blends harmonic adventure with groove.

Multiple songs: MySpace

Chris Potter Quartet - Live at Jazz StandardChris Potter Underground: Follow the Red Line, Live at the Village Vangaurd

Artist: Michael Blake Sextet Album: Amor de Cosmos Label: Songlines Image: US Release Date: 2007-11-13

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Saxophonist Michael Blake, a Canadian-born New Yorker, could be a poster boy for the serious and successful jazz musician of the moment. He got his break by playing for John Lurie's downtown outfit the Lounge Lizards in 1990, his debut record included serious investigation of Vietnamese music, he has backed the likes of Chubby Checker and Jack McDuff, and he has played prominently with jazz bands as diverse as Medeski, Martin, and Wood and the Gil Evans Orchestra. He is both omnivorous and highly distinctive. Amor de Cosmos was recorded a couple of years ago in Blake's home province of British Columbia with Canadian musicians -- including Sal Ferreras on Marimba and percussion and Chris Gestrin on Fender Rhodes and electronics as well as piano. It stands firmly the line of the superbly smart and diverse "downtown" music that has been coming from the likes of Dave Douglas, Steve Bernstein, and Ben Allison -- incorporating both rock and avant-garde elements with equal ease while maintaining melodic interest and the excitement of post-bop improvising. I would very much like to claim that such records are now a dime-a-dozen, but the latest from Michael Blake stands apart for its fresh instrumentation and the intelligence of its improvising. Every song is quite different -- odd tempo workouts, water color ballads, herky-jerky fun, purely improvised texture -- and every song draws you back to the idea that jazz today maintains the pleasures of swing without every being slave to formula.Michael Blake Sextet: Amor de Cosmos

Artist: Charlie Hunter and Bobby Previte as Groundtruther Plus John Medeski Album: Altitude Subtitle: Above Sea Level and Below Sea Level Label: Thirsty Ear Contributors: Bobby Previte, Charlie Hunter, John Medeski Image: US Release Date: 2007-09-25 UK Release Date: Available as import

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Groundtruther is my kind of "jam band". While the first two records in this series had a throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks intensity to them, Altitude achieves both raw edge and careful balance. Previte, the drummer, knows both groove and out music, but always brings a sense of architecture to both. Hunter, the seven and eight-string guitarist, is at his best when the groove is least obvious and therefore does not tempt him into laziness. And the special guest this time out is The Answer -- keyboard guru John Medeski. While there are healthy stretches of cinematic texture and "out" craziness, Medeski cannot go for too long without composing a fresh bass line or treating your ear to a whip-fresh lick. Best of all, perhaps, Groundtruther here offers a second disc of fully acoustic improvisations and compositions that lift the veil on the musicians' method and close the distance between this kind of jammy free-form music and the free jazz that (despite being relatively forbidding) really made possible the Grateful Dead/Phish/MMW jam scene. This music is preferable in every sense because it refuses to fall back on the easy pleasures of straight funk and demands invention at a high level. In this case, the musicians come through with amazing consistency.Charlie Hunter and Bobby Previte as Groundtruther Plus John Medeski: Altitude

Artist: Dee Dee Bridgewater Album: Red Earth: A Malian Journey Label: Emarcy Contributors: Edsel Gomez, Ira Coleman, Dee Dee Bridgewater Image: US Release Date: 2007-04-17 UK Release Date: 2007-06-11

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Young jazz singers should certainly apprentice themselves by singing standards, and no one begrudges them a recording or two where they place their stamp on the tradition -- my copy of Cassandra Wilson's Blue Skies is well-worn. But the challenge in jazz singing today is to move beyond the endless rehashing of "Autumn Leaves". Dee Dee Bridgewater has made the most convincing and fresh recording of jazz singing in quite some time with Red Earth, an essay that combines jazz with music from African music to stunning effect. Despite the obvious African heritage of jazz, few American jazz musicians have been able to create common ground with this degree of success. Bridgewater brought pianist Edsel Gomez and bassist Ira Coleman to Mali, where they combined forces and traditions to generate something beautiful and new. The jazz musicians integrate seamlessly into compositions composed by their Malian hosts, the collective reinterprets several jazz classics ("Afro-Blue", Wayne Shorter's "Footprints", here titled "Long Time Ago", and Nina Simone's "Four Women"), and the original "Meanwhile" by Gomez and Bridgewater dons African clothes in a manner that is fully integrated. Even on the jazz groove number "Compared to What", an authentically Malian rhythm is integrated into the vamp. To my ears, this is the most successful African/jazz project in decades and maybe ever -- and Dee Dee Bridgewater's singing is confident, gutsy, expressive, and wholly beyond category. For the hour you spend listening to Red Earth, jazz singing seems wide open again.

Multiple songs: MySpace

Dee Dee Bridgewater - LiveDee Dee Bridgewater: Red Earth: A Malian Journey

Artist: Paul Motian Trio Album: Live at the Village Vanguard, Volume One Label: Winter and Winter Image: US Release Date: 2007-09-04

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List number: 11

Drummer Paul Motian almost never leaves New York these days, but why should he? Within a few miles of his place, he is rich with an endless stream of collaborators and the Village Vanguard, the venerable jazz basement where Motian always seems to be leading a brilliant band. The "Trio 2000" is yet another group featuring Chris Potter on tenor, along with Larry Grenadier's bass. The additional two are alto player Greg Osby and pianist Masabumi Kikuchi. Four elliptical Motian originals plus "If You Could See Me Now" are all given extended treatment, with Motian providing his usual non-time drumming in which he (and Grenadier) imply meter with accent and color, allowing the soloists a huge space in which to toy with the harmonies and melodies at hand. Everyone is wonderful, but it is the Japanese free jazz pianist Kikuchi who -- at 68 years of age -- seems like a fresh voice: loose-as-a-goose and willing to play both jarring tone clusters and playful, Monk-ish figures. Osby sounds that much younger and more tart here, and Potter is reliably exciting, moving from gruff to haunting in single truly dramatic improvisations. And the recording, echoing in the perfect space of the Vanguard, is another outstanding piece of engineering from Winter and Winter.

Multiple songs: MySpacePaul Motian Trio: Live at the Village Vanguard, Volume One

Artist: Nels Cline Singers Album: Draw Breath Label: Cryptogramophone Image: US Release Date: 2007-06-26

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List number: 12

The Nels Cline Singers are a blastacular power trio led by the titular jazz guitarist who is currently enjoying rock star status with the band Wilco. With this regular trio (featuring Devin Hoff on acoustic bass and Scott Amendola on drums), Cline can be either polite or -- as he prefers -- perfectly rude, without regard for lyrics (there are no singers in the Singers) or radio play. While "Angel of Angels" is flat-out gorgeous, more of the tracks here trade in post-punk power filtered through the sensibility of the most exploratory jazz guitarists, such as Sonny Sharrock. The result, however, is not forbidding as much as it is dramatic. "An Evening at Pops" moves through numerous sections, exhibiting a schizophrenic joy in all that these three instruments can do in the right hands. Like a looser, less leash-held version of John Zorn's band Naked City, this trio prances through genres the way your son uses the remote control on the TiVo -- it's virtuosic and casual at the same time. But through it all, there is a compositional order in what Cline writes, and so a track like "Attempted" or "Mixed Message" never sounds like rock noodling or art-punk. It remains, like all of the music described above, part of the grand American tradition of improvisation that is -- still -- best described as jazz.

Multiple songs: MySpace

Nels Cline Singers - LiveNels Cline Singers: Draw Breath

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