There was a time – before the internet, no less – when I really had my finger on the pulse of the jazz world. Some of it was location – I was less than an hour from Boston, Worcester, Providence RI and the Newport Jazz festival – but some of it was just knowing where to look for new information. As the years have passed by, I found that I have been relying on many of the same sources – radio, magazines, tracing through other artists discographies – but with decreasing success in finding new music outside of the familiar realms. Even with my new internet connections – web forums, weekly release listings, and popular blog sites – it felt more and more difficult to find stuff that made me feel I was expanding my listening outside of new releases by folks I already knew.
For example, each week I check out the AllMusic new release listing, and also the All About Jazz release calendar. The AllMusic list has a couple of jazz items on it, but they are generally things I already know about (such as the recent Dave Holland Octet Pathways release he has been talking about on Twitter for a while). The AllAboutJazz list, on the other hand, has EVERYTHING. So that on any ‘release Tuesday’ there might be ~75 – 100 jazz recordings listed as ‘new’ with a couple dozen ‘reissues’. Of course, most of that ‘new’ stuff is actually re-releases, but it makes it really hard to find legitimate new music. Then there is the upswing in jazz (and other non-mainstream) artists using non-commercial means of spreading their music, such as Chris Kelsey and Jason Parker selling first from their own sites before moving to other venues such as iTunes or Amazon.
Fortunately I was turned on to a couple of very helpful new tools a couple of years ago: Jazz on Twitter and Podcasts. Back in 2008 I started listening to a new podcast called The Jazz Session, which featured interviews and music by less known artists by Jason Crane. That show – and the website and affiliation with AllAboutJazz.com – turned me on to all of the great jazz folks using Twitter and writing blogs which turned me on to other podcasts and blogs and … well, for the last couple of years I have steadily increasing my diet of great music by new artists.
Since I have family and friends with marginal interest in jazz, I am constantly answering the ‘what cool new stuff are you listening to’ question. Each person has their own tastes in terms of the jazz they can listen to, so I tend to tailor my recommendations to each person. So I wanted to highlight a few of the great recordings from the last year – naturally there has been stuff I haven’t liked, but why focus on those? Here are 13 cool recordings across jazz spectrum from the last six months or so:
Jason Parker Quartet – No More, No Less
Summary: I am leading with this recording, and featuring the image at the top from the CD release party, for a fairly simple reason: after months of repeated listenings I simply adore this music, and want to push it for three reasons: it is really good, Parker is amazing in terms of his frequent ‘pay what you want’ offers, and it is the sort of thing that is approachable to those whose ears can deal with more mainstream jazz but still offers rewards and surprises for more seasoned listeners.
My kids are both musically inclined, and between my wife and I have been exposed to an amazing array of music and have stuff they like in pretty much every genre. So when they heard the opening to Footprints (from Miles Davis ‘Miles Smiles’ they knew that, but then suddenly the theme from Gershwin’s Summertime appears and they thought it was super cool.
The remainder of the CD is similar – Parker and the group have the structure of a classic ‘hard bop’ ensemble, but are constantly bringing in everything they have learned as modern players and fans of all sorts of music. It is a recording that is filled with great tunes, wonderful improvisation, and insightful interplay from start to finish.
Choice Track (and why): Summertime / Footprints – this mashup of the classic George Gershwin and Miles Davis songs just plain works – familiar yet novel and fresh.
You Might Love This If: You enjoy Miles Davis 50’s and 60’s groups, Wynton Marsalis’ mid-80’s stuff, and want to see how that translates into a thoroughly modern context.
Summary: I generally bristle when someone positions their own product by putting down someone else – so when I saw the subtitle of this recording ‘as in, “the opposite of Paul Desmond”‘, I was not impressed. I am certainly not a Desmond fanatic, but I do like his stuff … and I thought “isn’t the Jazz world small enough NOT to do this stuff”?
Then I listened to the music … this is great music in the so-called ‘free jazz’ tradition. The song titles are humorous and ironic, and I realized that Kelsey might not like Paul Desmond, but he’s a witty guy and a heck of a player and bandleader. In the first song I can hear echoes of Braxton’s ‘Five Pieces 1975’, Ornette’s ‘Science Fiction’, and Ayler’s ‘Spiritual Unity’. But this isn’t throwback music without context – it is interpreted by musicians who listen to a variety of modern music, who know what is going on in a variety of genres and have found a particular idiom to express their musical vision.
Choice Track (and why): If Jazz is Dead (Can I have its stuff?) – intricate composed lines, long and rhythmically challenging lines against a shifting background before things break open into wonderful soloing … brings me back to the best of the genre, but with a thoroughly modern flavor.
You Might Love This If: If your ‘ABC’s include Albert Ayler, Anthony Braxton and Ornette Coleman.
Stanley Clarke Trio with Hiromi and Lenny White – Jazz in the Garden
Summary: Stanley Clarke and Lenny White comprise half of the classic fusion group Return to Forever, but neither has ever been confined to any particular sub-genre. From funk-pop with the Clarke/Duke project to straight-ahead jazz and film & TV scoring, they have both been quite busy. Hiromi Uehara is a breathtakingly talented pianist who has blossomed into a fantastic improviser in her own right. This trio is clearly a ‘bass first’ effort, but Hiromi is a monster talent who shows both her strength as a pianist and also as a listener here … and Lenny White shines as always.
There are standards, originals, pop/rock songs and more. Jazz classics such as Someday My Prince Will Come and Solar and Take the Coltrane are alongside the Japanese traditional tune Sakura Sakura, originals such as Isotope and Paradigm Shift, and the popular rock song Under the Bridge. It is hard to believe this is Clarke’s first recording as a leader in a fully acoustic setting, as it feels completely natural. The combination of the innate communication of Clarke & White, and the dynamic tension of the creativity and technical mastery of Clarke & Uehara all come together in a superb trio recording that greatly exceeded my expectations. Clarke returns next month with an electric recording he calls a return to his classic ‘School Days’ style of playing and composing … I can’t wait!
Choice Track (and why): Under the Bridge. Clarke picks up the electric bass for the reimagining of this Red Hot Chili Peppers classic. It alternates between faithful and frenetic, with Clarke and Hiromi stretching their harmonic and technical chops and Clarke playing the lead line.
You Might Love This If: You love piano trios, but want something exciting that deconstructs the idiom and blends in pop, fusion and humor without completely destroying the format.
Summary: While I am on the subject of Hiromi, it is fitting to highlight her recent solo release ‘Place to Be’. This is her travelogue – each song reflects on a place she has visited as she has toured the world. She goes from Brooklyn (BQE) to Las Vegas to New England to the Azores to her home in Japan, and gives up thirteen distinct tunes that reflect on where she has been … as well as where she is going. It is a high intensity recording that shows many influences but also a unique individual voice … and it is also a recording that shows someone gaining musical maturity.
There is a struggle for the extremely technically gifted musician – restraint. The notes and ideas spill out so fast that the passion often gets lost in the intensity. This is considered a positive trait for rock guitarists, and threatened to swallow up many fusion musicians, and Hiromi isn’t immune. In her duet recording with Chick Corea and the trio with Stanley Clarke, the presence of legendary technical masters helped temper her and focus her intensity. Here she is free – and on the surface it reminds me of some of Art Tatum’s solo recordings, as there is sometimes way too much flashiness distracting from the core music.
But similar to Tatum, we are quick to forgive her over-zealousness, as the vast majoriyt of the recording is just wonderful. From Pachelbel’s familiar Canon, to the Azores theme that sounds inspired by McCoy Tyner, to an introspective Somewhere to a very flashing Viva! Vegas, Hiromi is always entertaining. I find that more often than not her abundant technique helps the recording rather than hindering it, and as a result I keep coming back to this.
Choice Track (and why): Cap Cod Chips – Hiromi wrote this about her trip to New England and to the home of Cape Cod Potato Chips in Hyannis, MA. As someone who grew up south of Boston and lived in Massachusetts for all of my decades until two years ago, this song brought me home … and made me think of yummy chips!
You Might Love This If: you love the high-intensity solo piano of folks like Art Tatum.
Respect Sextet – Sirius Respect
Summary: I learned of the Respect Sextet through The Jazz Session, as they did the theme music. More recently they put out a recording of the music of Sun Ra and Karlheinz Stockhausen, two masters of 20th century music with a shared interest in musical exploration, mysticism, interplanetary origins, and technology in music. But more than anything both were simultaneously musical visionaries and deeply rooted in the traditions, so they deliver bewildering compositions that still feel organic and flow naturally.
The compositions alternate between Ra and Stockhausen, and the group had to do considerable alterations of the arrangements to get things working for the horn-dominated sextet. Ra is from a jazz tradition and Stockhausen from classical, but neither stuck with tradition in their compositions or instrumentations. If this all sounds like a challenging listen – it is.
The alternating compositions are intended to draw comparisons and contrasts, but ends up being somewhat jarring at times as you never really settle into the flow of one composer. However, all of it is worth listening to, particularly the conclusion melding Stockhausen’s Capricorn with Ra’s Saturn. Gorgeous stuff … well, if you can get past the discordant harmonies and rhythms. Very ambitious stuff, not always successful, but well worth rewarding with numerous listens.
Choice Track (and why): Capricorn / Saturn – while they don’t blend harmoniously, the compositional melding of two distinct songs by very different artists is an amazing feat, and the deftness with which the group provides the glue between the two pieces is amazing.
You Might Love This If: You are from Saturn, have been to Saturn, or know someone from Saturn. (Sun Ra claimed to be from Saturn and Stockhausen also had otherworldly origins … and their music attests to that)
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Infernal Machines
Summary: Darcy James Argue calls this music ‘Steampunk Big Band’, describing it as what would happen if the 1940’s big band styles remained in vogue, but everything from rock to techno to fusion to free jazz and so on still happened. Let me be very clear – this is an absolute gem of a recording!
Steampunk big band is the perfect description for this enigmatic musical potpourri. Is it jazz? Sure – but that isn’t ALL it is … there is rock, classical, minimalist music in the style of Steve Reich, and more. The opening song, Phobos, starts with an almost soundtrack feel, jumps into a moving melodic section, then quickly turns into a driving romp. Later there is a guitar-driven rock segment that is exciting and interesting before it returns ‘home’ again.
The compositions are deep and varied and complex, and after several months I am still learning something new every time I listen. There are times I am reminded of some of the best stuff from Gil Evans, but in a completely different sort of way. This is one of my favorite recordings of the last couple of years, but some find it difficult as it refuses to settle into a specific genre or idiom.
Choice Track (and why): Transit – straight ahead rocking big band jazz funk tune with modal themes, some cool harmonic shifts and energetic solos make this one I always move to when it comes on.
You Might Love This If: You love modern jazz, modern rock, big band, and have ever asked yourself … ‘will it blend’?
Summary: When someone releases a CD called ‘Harmonic Disorder’, you pretty much know where you stand. That 2009 recording is one of my recent faves, and his follow-up is a solo piano outing that is less of a challenging listen, but still harmonically an amazing ride.
The 16-track recording is dominated by originals, some of them (like Prelude to a Kiss) being more ‘theme and variations’ than truly original. One favorite is Frere Jacques, as it is somewhat familiar at the start but quickly devolves under Shipp’s harmonic reconstruction and rearrangement. It opens dense and challenging, and it actually took my family a while to find the theme – my younger son commented ‘that is the angriest Frere Jacques I’ve ever heard’. And with the way the melodic structure is forced to follow the pounding left hand, the assessment works – it certainly isn’t the light and lilting children’s song we all remember.
Many of the songs are like that – the title tells you what nugget of melody or harmony to search out, and from there it is all Matthew Shipp giving master classes on the melding of advanced harmony and improvisation in and around a theme. This is another recording that isn’t for everyone – and also one that doesn’t give up its secrets willingly: the more you listen the more you will learn.
Choice Track (and why): The Crack In The Piano’s Egg – at once being completely himself and also liberally quoting Ellington and Monk stylistically, this song is angular, jagged, melodic, sweet and furious at turns.
You Might Love This If: You love solo piano and are willing to stretch your mind to take in one of the great masters of the modern jazz piano.
Summary: I have been a fan of Dave Holland since his work with Miles Davis in 1969 on Bitches Brew, and he seems to be a recurring figure in music I love: with Chick Corea’s Circle, John Abercrombie’s Gateway, and a number of his own recordings – his 2003 ‘Extended Play: Live at Birdland’ is one of those rare recordings that has never left my iPod since it was released. His amazing musicianship, great compositional and band leading skills have made him one of the most constantly exciting and relevant figures in modern jazz.
He is also a big user of Twitter, so I knew this recording was coming for a while – and grabbed it on day of release. An octet is a great setting – bigger than a typical quartet so he can get a large palette, but smaller than a big band so he can weave more deft harmonic threads. The use of a vibraphone rather than a piano also opens the harmonic landscape and adds a uniqueness to the sound.
Holland wrote most of the songs, with saxophonist Chris Potter and trumpeter Alex Sipiagin each adding one. There is a pretty even mix of through-composed sections and open improvisation – and the level of musicianship and interplay is stunning. This is thoroughly modern jazz – it draws from every decade of the music, plays through pop, rock, funk and yet at the end is clearly ensemble jazz.
Choice Track (and why): Shadow Dance – I love the composition itself, having heard it first with Jack Dejohnette’s Parallel Realities group live, but the level the group reaches, particularly behind Chris Potter’s and Antonio Hart’s stellar solos, make this a definite favorite.
You Might Love This If: You are open to all sorts of jazz styles, particularly exciting live music, but don’t want something too far ‘out there’.
Summary: I have a bit of a mixed history with Brad Mehldau: on the one hand I appreciate the technical prowess and creativity he brings to the mainstream jazz form, I often find myself removing his music from my iPod to make room for other stuff after only a few listenings. With Highway Rider I finally have one that seems like it will stay for a while.
Mehldau creates a melding of styles – mainstream jazz meets classical musical composition structure meets pop use of styles and recording production values. And yet it all works. He is joined by a myriad of artists most notably Larry Grenadier and Joshua Redman (someone who seems to shine even brighter as a sideman than as a frontman for some reason). The pieces range from one minute to over 12 minutes long, and from solo to quartet, with and without strings, to create a wide musical palette.
Choice Track (and why): Always Returning – incorporating themes from throughout the recording, this is the true culmination of the suite, with both Redman and Mehldau rising to the occasion and leaving you feeling satisfied at the conclusion of this long epic cycle.
You Might Love This If: You are not a big fan of heavy improvisational jazz, but do like some instrumental jazz and classical music and are willing to give this jazz/pop/classical melding a try.
Summary: When you hear the name ‘Nels Cline Singers’ you expect to see some sort of 50’s or 60’s era bobby-sock wearing group of young smiling women with Jackie O haircuts. Instead, you get the ironic band name from current Wilco lead guitarist Nels Cline – ironic because there isn’t any singing!
This two CD set contains one CD of all-new studio material, and one of live recordings from the band presented in a ‘you are there’ format. The live recording instantly reminded me of John Scofield’s Shinola live trio from 1981, but over the course of the next hour it gets much more exploratory and modern in feeling and technology mixing. It is some pretty exciting stuff and definitely worth a listen.
But the real action is with the new stuff on the first disk. There is a major amount of technology manipulation on display here. The songs are a mix of stream-of-consciousness flowing melodic fragments, and hard-driving rock improvisations. There are through-composed sections and fully open areas, but it all has an open feel of being very experimental. It gets screechy and grating at times – to the point where most of my family didn’t like it – but it never lost the innovative feel. I would tend to call this more ‘experimental instrumental rock’ than jazz, but who really cares, anyway?
Choice Track (and why): Red Line to Greenland – I prefer the first CD as it is all new and forward-looking whereas the second is more a recap of where the group has been. This song represents everything that is contained in the entire package – exploration, improvisation, strong melodies, crazy electronics, and more.
You Might Love This If: You like rock instrumentals, and you don’t have a problem with experimental music.
Summary: One of my best ‘woodshedding’ memories as a bass player was learning Jeff Berlin’s solo from the Allan Holdsworth song ‘Water On The Brain, Part 2’. Berlin was a technical equal to the fusion greats who preceded him, but traded flashiness for intricately balanced melodies and streaming harmonic shifts. As such I have always been a fan, but in general his work as a leader has been largely hit-or-miss, with great stuff like In Harmony’s Way bookended with rough entries like Pump It.
Fortunately High Standards is truth in advertising: he chooses great classic songs to play, and executes them with brilliant form and performances. He is joined by pianist & acoustic bassist Richard Drexler and drummer Danny Gottlieb for a set of nine familiar songs reinterpreted for the bass-led trio. Berlin successfully provides the leading voice while still allowing a workable piano trio format to emerge at times, and when the pairing of acoustic and electric bass play, everything shines all the brighter.
Choice Track (and why): Solar – this classic generally attributed to Miles Davis (possibly written by Chuck Wayne according to some) has a great melody and harmonic structure for improvisation. Berlin starts with a thoughtful opening statement, then the tempo gets cooking and everyone lets loose with some great ideas. It is straight-ahead yet modern – pretty much the theme for the whole CD.
You Might Love This If: You are a fan of the electric bass and want to see a great example of how it can be used as a lead voice in a traditional setting.
Summary: Imagine Miles Davis’ recordings from the early 70’s brought into a modern context. That is what Erik Telford attempts, and he succeeds wildly with his debut recording. The trumpeter has amazing chops as a player and also a composer, putting together an inspired set of tunes. The use of wah-wah and other effects on the trumpet draw an immediate comparison to Davis, but Telford possesses an individual voice and style that is showing through already.
The recording has something for everyone – Horizon Problem is a driving funk number that gives everyone a chance to stretch out, followed by 3012 which shows how Telford has digested the jazz-rock-fusion of the last four decades, and then the beautiful ballad Rosemary. The title track falls in the middle of the recording, but also gets a quick prelude and postlude to begin and end the set. Just before the ending, The Rival offers a tremendous burst of heavy-energy jazz-rock-funk that will get you moving whether regardless of your thoughts about jazz in general.
Choice Track (and why): Death Trap – I love how this song draws you into with a slow brooding intro, then hits hard with a moody groove topped with some upbeat horn work that sets up a conflict and allows Telford to enter with his effect-laden trumpet. Then the whole thing settles into a delicious groove that features the whole band both as individuals and as a unit.
You Might Love This If: You like your jazz mixed with rock and funk and want to get in early on the future of modern jazz.
Summary: Drummer Paul Motion is not remotely new to jazz, having come to acclaim with Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro in what is still considered the ultimate piano trio back in the late 1950’s. He also featured heavily with Keith Jarrett’s quartet in the 70’s, producing some excellent music and forever cementing his place as one of the best and most important drummers in jazz history. His work as a leader has really blossomed in the last twenty-five years. I have always loved It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago, and so was thrilled to see this new trio recording with Chris Potter and Jason Moran, two of my favorite contemporary jazz musicians.
The pacing and quiet introspection make this a recording that can easily fade into the background, yet it is this very subtlety that invites you to listen again and again to mine the rich depths these musicians explore. All but one of the songs is a Motian composition, with some reaching back to the 1970’s. Each has a distinct personality and structure. Some are straight forward, others are more complex, but every one gives plenty of space for improvisation and interplay. And Potter, Moran and Morian are all up to the task. This is very much music in the ‘ECM style’ (if you know what that means, you will either run towards or away from this recording), and I feel this will be remembered as one of the best recordings in the long and classic-laden history of the great Paul Motian.
Choice Track (and why): Lost in a Dream – the melody is gorgeous, the interplay between the trio is captivating, and it reminds me again and again why Chris Potter has become someone whose releases are a ‘must buy’ for me.
You Might Love This If: you like thoughtful, introspective music and gorgeous ballads.
Summary: OK, so here we have ANOTHER bassist-led group. This time it is Mark Egan, who was in the original Pat Metheny Group and then went on to lead Elements with Danny Gottleib before being a sideman with just about everyone. He has had a half-dozen or so solo recordings since the 80’s or varying success (I personally like Touch of Light much more than most critics), and is now back with a new set of songs and joined by saxophonist Bill Evans, keyboard player Mitch Forman, and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta.
A common criticism of Egan’s earlier work is that it is too ‘light and airy’, creating plenty of atmosphere ala New Age music but not really ever going anywhere in terms of composition or improvisation. I have mixed opinions on both Evans and Forman, but in this ensemble everything clicks. The obvious goal here is to create melodic fusion with strong harmonic underpinnings for improvisation and group interplay. Bill Evans creates real excitement without resorting to too many trite riffs (a complaint from his years with Miles) and Forman has certainly loosened up and grown quite a bit since Mahavishnu – and has also brought much of that into this session. These guys have played together for years, and it shows with how wonderfully everything flows organically from song to song from start to finish.
Choice Track (and why): Truth Be Told – strong beat and rhythmic unison runs start this one off right, bringing you into the groove and never letting go. Bill Evans shines here, and Forman provides the atmosphere, but ultimately Egan is the star of the show as he is throughout.
You Might Love This If: You like your jazz a bit on the lighter side with a solid beat but won’t sacrifice quality of compositions or improvisation.
Jeff Lorber Fusion – Now is the Time
Summary: Keyboard player Jeff Lorber started out strong with Jeff Lorber Fusion back in the late 1970’s, but soon got to the point that the pop music influence overtook his work and he said he ‘felt like a sideman’ on his own recordings. Now is the Time marks a return to form for Lorber, bringing him full circle with loads of fusion, smooth jazz, rock and R&B influences on display in a solid effort that is sure to be a hit with even non-jazz fans.
Unlike the Mark Egan CD, this doesn’t feel like the effort of a working group. Instead, it feels like Lorber has a bunch of compositions and has assembled a core group and a bunch of guests. That isn’t a bad thing at all, as each song works quite well. The R&B and smooth jazz sounds dominate, but not in a bland way – there are guest vocals that work well within the context of the recording, and Erik Marienthal (whom I loved with Chick Corea way back when) shines whenever his appears. It is a really solid set of compositions and everyone involved puts together a great set of music. But at the center of it all is Jeff Lorber – and we are reminded why we very much like it when he DOES put himself at the center.
Choice Track (and why): Mysterious Traveler – Wayne Shorter wrote this for Weather Report, and the song remains a classic and is expertly reinterpreted in a way that is retro and new all at once. Great playing that serves as a reminder these guys aren’t lightweights!
You Might Love This If: You are familiar with (in a positive way) names like David Benoit, Gerald Albright, The Rippingtons and The Yellowjackets.
Allan Holdsworth – Blues for Tony
Summary: Few musicians exemplify the problems of being immensely technically gifted as Allan Holdsworth. As part of Bill Bruford’s late 70’s group, and having a great band (with Jeff Berlin as mentioned above) through the mid 80’s, Holdsworth (and his fans) was left wondering ‘what comes next’. Since then his output has been uneven in quality, with some very good stuff mixed in with some major misses, yet none of it has gained him the exposure or regard he deserves. Until now – Holdsworth has recently released his best work since the early 1980’s.
Here Holdsworth is joined by keyboardist Alan Pasqua, bassist Jimmy Haslip and drummer Chad Wackerman on a two-CD tribute to the late-great drummer Tony Williams. Both Holdsworth and Pasqua spent time in the New Tony Williams Lifetime in the mid-70’s. The songs on the recording are almost all from either Holdsworth or Pasqua, and feature some great songs from both from the past few decades as well as some new songs. Chad Wackerman has played with everyone in rock and jazz-fusion and is a monster in his own right. He cannot fill Williams shoes, but that isn’t the point – this group is about celebrating the great musical vision and life of Tony Williams and it is an immense success on that front.
Choice Track (and why): Looking Glass – from the 1986 synth-guitar classic Atavachron (still on my iPod), this version is more than twice the length of the original, but that added time is put to great use. The song is complex and constantly in motion, but it also allows Holdsworth and Pasqua to stretch out quite a bit – and the effect is stunning. The group really shines here as it moves from section to section, from subtle to thunderous.
You Might Love This If: you want to hear one of the best guitarists ever in top form … or you love strong fusion with great group interaction and improvisation.
Reissues – OK, I said I was doing recent releases, and only doing a ‘Baker’s Dozen’, which would mean 13. But I lied! Sorry, there were a crop of new releases all at once, all of which were worth mentioning, and there are these two formerly out-of-print gems get a mention anyway … well, and then I’ll close with a few more ‘high visibility’ releases from 2009:
Summary: Have you ever heard something and someone else heard the same thing but you each thought the source was entirely different and couldn’t understand how the other person heard it as something other than what you KNEW you heard? If so, you are better prepared to listen to Derek Bailey’s vision of Standards. Looking at the titles of the songs you will get a sense of his playful spirit – When Your Lover Has Gone becomes When Your LIVER Has Gone, and so on. You also get the sense that an accurate read of the songs is not about to happen.
What you get instead of anything familiar is what Derek Bailey heard in his head when he listened to these standards, and his outward reinterpretation of the tunes. Occasionally there is a quote of melody or harmonic structure, but more often than not there is the usual way Bailey does things. But amazingly each song is distinct – that was something my kids didn’t believe until they heard it: these is almost total chaos at play, yet the songs are distinct and individualistic. For example, you can plainly hear a beginning, middle, recapitulation and ending to the song Nothing New … or at least I can.
I am almost willing to bet that if you are reading these words that you will hate this music. That isn’t a judgment on the reader, merely an opinion that the music of Derek Bailey is so unstructured, so atonal and without any sort of hook that many people would argue it isn’t music at all. Yet in this sea of atonal chaos I find reason and order and beauty, oh yes, loads of beauty.
Choice Track (and why): Please Send Me Sweet Chariot – yes, his interpretation of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Sad and mournful and angry and resigned – the use of dramatic chords and wide open space has tremendous impact.
You Might Love This If: you have no strong attachment to things like melody, harmony, tonality, rhythm or structure in music.
Summary: John Zorn is another one of those musicians who freaks people out. And this is a recording that serves as a reminder of why: he is immensely talented at playing, composing, arranging and interpreting all sorts of music – and he can also let loose a torrent of fury that will send dogs scrambling for cover faster than a thunderstorm.
Sonny Clark was a modern pianist and composer who tragically died before his time at 31, and left behind a body of work that has become more appreciated through the years but never really launched him to any major acclaim. In the late 80’s when this was recorded, Blue Note was reissuing classics on CD, and it was a great chance to celebrate his work.
Experimentalist keyboard player Wayne Horvitz assembled the group with Zorn on sax, avant-garde drummer Bobby Previte and classic bassist Ray Drummond to interpret some lesser known tunes. Only Cool Struttin’, the title song from his best work for Blue Note, is well known. How and why ANY of this works I have no idea … but it does. This is a really cool recording that is just plain different than what anyone would expect.
Choice Track (and why): Minor Meeting – this is a fun song that features Zorn alternating between straight bebop lines and wide-open screeching and rambling. It shows how one can respect the work and tradition of someone with no link to ‘free jazz’ yet use their songs as a tearing off platform for extrapolation.
You Might Love This If: you have heard Zorn’s music and don’t flinch at the sound of his name.
Summary: To be honest, I tend to abhor ‘revival tours’. I cite the abysmal performance of ‘The Who’ at the last Super Bowl; a group that was all about youthful vitality and live performance was now a caricature trotting out a bunch of oldies. Return to Forever embodied all of the good and bad elements of 1970’s jazz/rock fusion: virtuosity, complex compositions, egoism, heartfelt improvisation, and so on. Since then, each of the members has remained vital in one part or other of the music world. The group got together in mid-2008 for a tour, and it was a resounding success. This album chronicles one of those performances in full along with a couple of bonus tracks.
While on the surface this is just a ‘trot out the old fogeys’ reunion tour, once you start digging into the songs you’ll find that everything feels fresh. New arrangements, new sections to old songs, new interpretations, and so on. The original group never released a live album, but this fills the role very well – there is masterful playing showing the growth the individuals have made through the decades. I liked this much more than I expected.
Choice Track (and why): Romantic Warrior – title song from my favirte recording by the group, this has a nice soft opening and features plenty of high speed, high-energy unison runs and great improv sections!
You Might Love This If: You are a fan of classic fusion or are looking for songs made by musicians with monster chops.
Summary: Yet another reunion … but as this one features three of my favorite musicians (vibraphonist Burton, guitarist Pat Metheny, and bassist Steve Swallow), I was quick to grab this. Gary Burton’s Passengers from 1976 featured those three and is a long-time favorite of mine.
But there is no getting past the fact that this is a revival – it is three members of a 35-year old group, minus second bassist Eberhard Weber and with a new drummer. The songs are mostly older stuff, generally familiar works. Yet it is just such a really great team effort that I had to mention it. The group recaptures the magic that made them such a good group back in the mid-70’s, yet brings their maturity to play as well as all of their experience.
Choice Track (and why): B And G (Midwestern Night’s Dream) – this is a sentimental fave, dating back to Burton’s Passenger’s and Metheny’s solo debut Bright Size Life, and it is brilliantly executed – showing the melodic beauty that Burton, Metheny and Swallow all are capable of generating.
You Might Love This If: You like straight-ahead melodic jazz.
Chick Corea & John McLaughlin – Five Peace Band
Summary: While this might seem similar to the previous two entries, this is somewhat different – it is not a revival of an old group but rather a new band that is playing a combination of old and new music by the two leaders of the group. Corea and McLaughlin are together for the first time since they were with Miles Davis in 1970, and are joined by an all-star group of Kenny Garrett on saxophone, Christian McBride on bass, and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums.
Choice Track (and why): Hymn to Andromeda – newly written by Corea, this half-hour long tribute to John Coltrane sings and soars with solos and sections by all of the members of the group, a reminder that while there are two main headliners, the quality of the recording is due to the full ensemble.
You Might Love This If: You are a fan of the classics in jazz-rock fusion, but also love new masters like Garrett.
Finally, one that has been out nearly a year, that I couldn’t believe I missed at release!
Summary: As I said, I couldn’t believe this had been out for more than six months before I discovered it … I adore Potter’s ‘Follow the Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard, which has been a staple of my listening and working out music collection since I grabbed it a few years ago.
While Follow the Red Line shows what the band can do live, Ultrahang allows the same high-intensity improvisation in the studio with more complex compositions that show off the band in a whole new way. Each member has loads to say and contribute, and not just in their solos. Potter melds styles easily and readily allowing members to rock out of lay back or do whatever works – and it all works. There are fast and slow songs here, but the pace never really relaxes as the band works through complex time signatures and harmonic shifts. Definitely one of my favorites form 2009.
Choice Track (and why): Ultrahang – high energy, erratic polyrhythms, stop-action staccato and angular melodic phrases and top notch improvisation come together in one gorgeous package.
You Might Love This If: you love modern jazz laced with bits of the avant-garde, rock, fusion, and pretty much anything else these guys can dream up.
Believe it or not … that is all! What started out with me looking at six recent recordings wound up with … 22. I hope that you find something in there to excite you the way these recent jazz recording have thrilled me. In recent years there has been loads of ink spilled declaring jazz dead … but looking at this list all I see is nearly two dozen solid and vibrant recordings that span young and old players, traditional and modern styles, and all of which are very well done and rewarding to anyone who gives them a try.