Dec. 21, 2001-
By By Christopher Porter
The jazz world is always starved for attention. Despite the fact that it's a niche trade and, increasingly, a cottage industry, the people who work under its rubricand I count myself among themstill look for signs of a commercial upturn, because jazz was once America's popular music, and it can be so again, right?
The jazz industry continued to struggle in 2001, with its overall music-market share smaller than everaround 2 percent, according to industry estimates. Still, the year began with a surgeall the attention, good or bad, for Ken Burns' Jazz documentary on PBSand ended with a surgeDiana Krall's The Look of Love debuted in the Billboard Top 10, a first for a traditional jazz artist. But in between were a few thousand mostly ignored CDswhether they deserved to be or not (and most did).
In my office at JazzTimes, where I got more than 250 CDs a week over the past year, the numbing number of releases incited not an up-all-night-with-headphones-on endurance test, but a refinedalbeit superficialway of judging whether a CD would be heard: If the cover looked like crap, it went straight into the giveaway bin. This decisive processing technique, added to denial methods such as the Oh-Fuck-Another-Goddamn-Free-Jazz-Jam Procedure, enabled me for the most part to separate the chaff from the wheat. If I wasted some wheat in the process, so be itmy office, my basement, and the world are filled with enough music to last several lifetimes.
Here are 20 jazz releases, in no particular order, that took me away to that special place where if I listened too long, I'd probably break down and cry.
Somewhere Else Before, E.S.T. Like Vu, Swedish pianist Esbjörn Svensson mixes electronics into his trio. Somewhere Else Before, E.S.T.'s American debut, which compiles tracks from his previous two European releases, is filled with electronica-savvy jazz that borrows from ambient's subtle sound effects and drum 'n' bass' rhythms but retains an improvisational core. The trio isn't groundbreaking, as some of Svensson's fans have claimed, but E.S.T.'s music is highly melodic and inviting, and a perfect introduction to the still-burgeoning crossover genre of jazztronica.
Corridors & Parallels, David S. Ware Quartet Tenor saxophonist David S. Ware has been cranking out smart ecstatic jazz for many years now, but perhaps even he was tired of hearing himself in his long-standing quartet setting with pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker, and drummer Guillermo E. Brown. Egged on by Shipp's increasing interest in electronica, Ware & Co. play against the keyboardist's synth and organ sounds with renewed verve, resulting in one of the best albums of the sax player's career.
Art of the Trio, Vol. 5: Progression, Brad Mehldau Trio This double-CD of lyrical beauty and musical reinvention finds pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Jorge Rossy tackling old war horses "It Might as Well Be Spring" and "How Long Has This Been Going On?" as if they were brand-new fillies. As on 1998's Art of the Trio, Vol. 3: Songs, Mehldau covers Nick Drake's "River Man," imbuing the gently swinging melody with resigned melancholy before he just plain swings it.
Somethin' Special, Tardo Hammer Whereas Mehldau takes a distinctly post–Bill Evans approach, pianist Tardo Hammer looks to pre-Evans boppers such as Bud Powell for his run-and-gun style. Somethin' Special is just thatoutgoing, gritty, and upbeat. Modern takes on vintage jazz often come across as redundant, but Hammer, bassist Dennis Irwin, and drummer Leroy Williams show why burning bop was so breathtaking in the first place.
Past, Present & Futures, Chick Corea New Trio Chick Corea has absorbed both Evans and Powell into his unique style, which helps make his New Trio's Past, Present & Futures, a great addition to the pianist's wildly inconsistent discography. Bassist Avishai Cohen and drummer Jeff Ballard are hyperkinetic and hyperconnected foils to Corea on this program of 10 originals and a Fats Waller cover. The band moves as one, resulting in virtuoso trio music at its finest.
Black Stars, Jason Moran Speaking of virtuoso trios, the connection between pianist Jason Moran, bassist Tarus Mateen, and drummer Nasheet Waits is as symbiotic a relationship as there is in jazz right now, as they proved on 2000's Facing Left. Add veteran reedist Sam Rivers to the threesome and the result is Black Stars, a star-making album for Moran. The CD is filled with accessible but edgy inside-out jazz that will appeal to traditionalists and avant-gardists alike, all of whom should marvel at the 26-year-old Moran's lively playing, solid sense of history, and futuristic ear.
Witness, Dave Douglas It's easy to take trumpeter Dave Douglas for granted: He's a prolific composer with catholic tastes and a different band for each. He also releases more CDs (five in the last two years) than the average fan can handleor afford. With Douglas, however, it's usually worth saving up those pennies to keep up with him. Witness, performed by his band of the same name, saw Douglas stretching himself politically as well as musically. The CD was inspired partially by the war in the former Yugoslavia, and the nine-piece group, which includes strings, electronics, and tuba among its standard jazz-band core, plays Douglas' Eastern European–folk–music–inspired themes with dedicated tenacity. This RCA-underwritten release isn't Douglas' most accessible album, but it ranks with 1997's Sanctuary as his most ambitious.
Everybodys Mouth's a Book, Henry Threadgill & Make a Move and Up Popped the Two Lips, Henry Threadgill's Zooid Like Douglas, reedist Henry Threadgill once composed ambitious works for a major label. But it's been five years since 1996's Where's Your Cup? for Columbia, and Threadgill has turned to indie Pi for its follow-ups (yes, plural): Everybodys Mouth's a Book, featuring his old band, Make a Move, and Up Popped the Two Lips, featuring his newer group, Zooid. Both albums are grand experiments in Threadgill's distinct stylecharacterized by discursive harmonies, wide tonal palettes, and multifaceted compositionsbut whereas the Make a Move disc focuses on groovy electric-tinged styles, the Zooid album tackles acoustic themes that take their cues from folk and chamber music. Both discs are difficult and brilliant.
Reissues and Archival Releases
Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933–1944, Billie Holiday The recordings encompass the sunniest era of the great vocalist's otherwise cloudy life, and the often joyful music reflects it.
El Tambor de Cuba, Chano Pozo Conguero Chano Pozo, who helped ignite Dizzy Gillespie's fusion of jazz and Latin music, was one of the original gangstas, living a hardscrabble life filled with drugs, hos, and gambling. This invaluable box set brings together many of Pozo's best performances for the first time and pairs them with a thorough booklet about his life and music.
The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions, Miles Davis and Live at the Fillmore East (March 7, 1970): It's About That Time, Miles Davis There can never be too much Miles as far as I'm concernedthough check back with me next spring, after his uneven '80s recordings are given the box-set treatment.
The Time Is Now!, Phil Ranelin and Vibes From the Tribe, Phil Ranelin Tribe was a collection of Detroit musicians who took the popular music of the early and mid-'70sfunk and R&Band fashioned jazz to it. Trombonist Phil Ranelin was a co-leader, along with reedist Wendell Harrison, and the music they created was political, earnest, and groovin'if a touch corny. It also anticipated many of the rock-electronica-jazz experiments of Tortoise, the Chicago Underground Quartet, 5ive Style, and dozens of other Windy City bands. Check out the upcoming CD of remixes of tracks from The Time Is Now! and Vibes From the Tribe for proof.
Lawrence of Newark, Larry Young Though not organist Larry Young's best work, 1973's Lawrence of Newark, featuring guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer, is still a great blend of jazz, funk, psychedelia, Indian ragas, and free-jazz energy.
Self Portrait, Artie Shaw A fantastic, self-chosen, and self-annotated selection of clarinetist Artie Shaw's best work from his entire career, which he ended permanently in 1955, sick of fame and just about everything else. Now 91, the still whip-smart Shaw hasn't played his instrument in almost 50 years, but the ex–Mr. Ava Gardner and –Mr. Lana Turner, among others, played the way he fell in love: like no one else.
Nuclear War, Sun Ra This ultraobscure 1982 Sun Ra release was rescued so that all eternity can chant the funky title track's mantra: "Talking about nuclear war/It's a motherfucker, don't you know/If they push that button, your ass got to go." CP