Arts Desk

Jazz 2008: The Outliers

I'm keenly aware that my Top Ten for the year included very little in the way of the avant-garde in jazz. What can I say? My favorites were my favorites. Yet I can't help but feel like some great "out" records got overlooked in the shuffle to compile these best-of-'08s, and so I've got a handful here of five avant-garde albums — three new releases, two archival — in 2008 that deserve your attention.

1. Keefe Jackson's Project Project – Just Like This (Delmark)
All right, I'm cheating: Just Like This was a December 2007 release. Nonetheless, it set a great tone for the year, with rich, soulful free jazz placed into a big band context that was great fun to listen to and to decipher. I wrote at its release that "It’s no coincidence that Project Project is from Chicago: Just Like This places Jackson into the tradition of Windy City stalwarts like Henry Threadgill and Muhal Richard Abrams. Those giants aren’t yet passing the torch, but Jackson will be a worthy recipient when they do. "

2. Wadada Leo Smith – Tabligh (Cuneiform)
An AACM stalwart since the '60s, trumpeter Smith makes music as mysterious as it is cerebral and culture-spanning. Tabligh uses sinuous elements of European, Asian, and especially Middle Eastern music to forge musical links between Muslim religious rites ("Tabligh"), American musical traditions ("DeJohnette") and even the civil rights movement ("Rosa Parks"). A quartet of legends young and old—pianist Vijay Iyer, bassist John Lindberg, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson—make breathtaking contributions to the effort.

3. Mary Halvorson – Dragon's Head (Firehouse 12)
28-year-old Halvorson's debut as sole leader (she's co-led sessions in the past) is very likely the most exploratory album on this list. The guitarist leads a Hendrix-inspired trio featuring bassist John Hebert and drummer Ches Smith through a set of her own intuitively designed compositions. Between her unconventional approach to structure and her thorny guitar style, however, it's impossible to tell where composition ends and improv begins, and vice versa; the effect is not unlike watching a cat unfurl a ball of yarn, with no telling which directions the string might end up going but, ultimately, a layout of distinct but unusual patterns.

4. Sun Ra – Newport Jazz Festival/Electric Circus (Transparency)
Sun Ra was as psychedelic as rock's most far-out acid kings in 1968-69, and this compilation of two gigs from those years demonstrates exactly that. Ra's freakouts here are almost indistinguishable from those of, say, Can or The Mothers of Invention, save the jazzy flute and horn solos and readings of his cosmic (in the literal sense) poetry. This latest in Transparency's bootleggish collection of Ra's concerts is an inspired, intoxicating romp through the liberation of experimental music in the '60s, and despite its oddity it has all the inclusiveness (and percussiveness) of a drum circle.

5. The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton (Mosaic)
It's tempting to suggest that this 8-disc behemoth is all the Braxton you'll ever need. Alas, the man is too complex for that, but these recordings from his fruitful mid-'70s work will go a hell of a long way towards understanding the ultra-cerebral saxophonist and composer. There are solos, duets, quartets, orchestras, and even his 1978 album For Four Orchestras, capturing Braxton the academic, Braxton the experimenter, Braxton the fiery jazzman, and Braxton the tunesmith. There are even a few standards thrown in to show you Braxton the interpreter. Rarely do even box sets get quite this expansive.

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