Washington City Paper

Dec. 26, 2003 –
Jan. 8, 2004



Arts in Review 2003

Songs of Praise

Wayne’s World

Wayne Shorter has won album-of-the-year honors at the jazz magazine I work for two years in a row now. I’m sure some of the positive vibes represent genuine love for Shorter’s latest, the classical-jazz Alegría. But others are no doubt left over from the good reception enjoyed by the saxophonist’s previous CD, the all-acoustic Footprints Live! After years of that fusion stuff, it seems, most jazz fans are just happy to have the 70-year-old Shorter back on the nonelectrified side of the tracks. If we like this one, maybe Wayne’ll cut another swingin’ quartet date.


The jazz world is like that: Fans are always stoked for the old dudes, and sometimes it seems as if every musician over 55 is a “master.” The jazz world simply loves to venerate its heroes, and, as Shorter’s case demonstrates, it gets especially tweaked when those heroes return to their “roots.” That’s all well and good if you’re a member of the pump-priming jazz press. But we live in a rootless age, and what with technology, travel, and common sense, Our Music has come a long way from its original sources. There are plenty of younger players out there creating new music that reflects their modern-day experiences and isn’t grounded in any one tradition. And anyway, utter purity has never existed in jazz. Cross-pollination has always been where it’s at, daddy-o, and here’s a top 10 to prove it:

1. These Are the Vistas, the Bad Plus. The most rousing and divisive jazz record in years—and it’s by a piano trio? Sure, a lot of cranks saw these Midwesterners as white elephants (with an emphasis on the “white”). And sure, the Nirvana, Blondie, and Aphex Twin covers here scream “novelty act.” But those songs are actually pretty killer—and the band’s angular originals are, well, as original as they come. You need this CD, whether you want it or not.

2. The Bandwagon, Jason Moran. It sounds as if it had been recorded on a Walkman, but this is still a stunning document of a band and its leader at their peak. The best postmodernism in the genre, live at the Village Vanguard.

3. New Conceptions, Chucho Valdés. This legend of Cuban jazz has released a ton of albums, both as a solo artist and as leader of the legendary Irakere. Dare I say that this is the pianist’s best record yet? I just did.

4. Airports for Light, the Vandermark 5. Prolific reedist Ken Vandermark absorbs various forms of art voraciously, then shoots out his own interpretations. Songs on this alternately smokin’ and cerebral disc more than live up to their dedications to such diverse talents as Gerhard Richter, John Cassavetes, Curtis Mayfield, and Sonny Rollins.

5. Changing Places, Tord Gustavsen Trio. Elegant, late-night piano-trio music. The band plays slow and slower, with Gustavsen striking a note only when he absolutely decides it’s required. Space is the place, and it’s gorgeous.

6. Live at the Village Vanguard, the Fred Hersch Trio. Pianist Hersch is a master of harmony, and this live ’n’ loud recording is what a date at the Vanguard should sound like. From one of the smartest and—ahem—purest trios in jazz, too.

7. Malicool, Roswell Rudd & Toumani Diabate. Trombonist Rudd hooks up with kora player Diabate, and the mixture of low brass, 21-stringed harp, and West African percussion is as unique as it is inspiring. Monk goes to Mali.

8. Equilibrium, Matthew Shipp. The most avid and prolific of those exploring jazztronica, keyboardist Shipp is a fascinating technician and arranger. Here, he goes heavy on the grooves, turning in his most appealing mix yet.

9. Freak In, Dave Douglas. The problem with combining jazz and electronica—a fluid live form vs. a programmed studio creation—is that usually the bleeps and bloops win out, making the music far too rigid. Not so here, as trumpeter Douglas builds a solid bridge between two very different worlds.

10. Sonic Trance, Nicholas Payton. Somewhere between electronica and electric Miles—and by Payton, the formerly buttoned-down trumpeter who everyone thought would be the next Wynton Marsalis. Such beautiful blasphemy.

—Christopher Porter

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