A page of random longer pieces…
2011 Festive 50
50 Denys Baptiste Identity By Subtraction (Dune): The saxophonist is not exactly prolific – this is his fourth disc in 11 years – but there is always a feeling that his music has benefitted from the long gestation period. It’s thoughtful, rich and has some real personality and depth. There is a timeless quality about the compositions which I rather like. Mainly Baptiste plays tenor with a smooth, dry tone suited to his quietly intense improvisations. They are full of melodic and rhythmic freshness, and the band, especially Andrew McCormack, provides strong support. For more go here.
49 Jacqui Dankworth It Happens Quietly (Specific Jazz): The first words you hear on this CD are those of Jacqui’s father, the late Sir John, counting the orchestra in. It’s the perfect start to an intimate family affair, with John writing the arrangements and playing alto saxophone, and brother Alec in on bass. The songs are classic jazz standards, from A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square through to The Folks Who Live On The Hill, and Jacqui sings them superbly. She has a great sound, perfect timing and the ability to add just the right nuances and decoration without ever getting frilly or self-indulgent. She is obviously a firm believer that the song is the thing and a singer does her job well if she draws attention to that rather than to herself. For more go here.
48 Corea, Clarke & White Forever (Concord): In the 1970s Return To Forever became in some ways the most bloated of jazz-fusion bands. With Forever, the band’s three core players are back in stripped down, acoustic fashion. Gone are the banks of keys, gone is the huge drum kit – here we have Chick Corea at the grand piano, Stanley Clarke at the double bass and Lenny White behind a small jazz drum kit. Disc one was recorded over a 2009 world tour and comprises jazz standards like On Green Dolphin Street and Waltz For Debby as well as Corea classics like No Mystery and Senor Mouse. Disc two is rehearsal sessions with guests. For more go here.
47 John Scofield A Moment’s Peace (Emarcy): This disc, a quartet affair with Larry Goldings on piano and organ, Scott Colley on bass and Brian Blade on drums, can be placed in the side of the scales marked delight. It’s a pretty set of gentle tunes, both original compositions and covers of others both well-known and slightly more obscure. They tunes we are used to hearing sung, and there is a happy logic to this, because if any guitarist can almost vocalise his instrument it is Scofield. Hear him on Lennon/McCartney’s I Will or Abbey Lincoln’s Throw It Away and you can virtually hear the lyrics. Goldings is an especial credit to the whole for his ability on both keyboard instruments. For more go here.
46 Ma The Last (Loop Records): This quartet is made up of leader and saxophonist Tom Challenger, drummer Dave Smith, organist Ross Stanley and electronic manipulator Matt Calvert. While the band and Challenger’s writing shares that rock/trance/industrial trend that many young British groups are finding attractive, it doesn’t really sound like those other bands. The most crucial participant here is Calvert, who provides some deeply dubby bass lines but also envelops the whole thing in a large and dark, echoey soundscape. The range and richness of the textures/atmospheres/grooves makes Ma, for me, the most interesting band working in this field, and supplanting Trio VD in that spot. For more go here.
45 Julian Lage Gladwell (Emarcy): The second release from this young and most interesting guitarist has really developed the sound and style of his first album, Sounding Point. While that album risked falling into that debut album showcase syndrome, this time around Lage eschews the celebrity guests to thoroughly explore the talents of his own touring band. He also brings his wide range of influences – jazz, Americana, bluegrass – into a much more cohesive whole. And his music now really does sound thoroughly personal and original, with an appeal that should extend beyond the jazz field. For more go here.
44 Neil Yates Five Countries (Edition Records): Trumpeter Neil Yates has straddled the jazz and folk genres for a while now. Here he works with Romanian acoustic guitarist Zsolt Bende and Irish bodhran player Cormac Byrne, and the results are truly lovely, taking inspiration from the music and landscape of Scotland, Ireland, Romania and elsewhere. This is gentle, warm music with loads of space in it, in which Yates can trill and skirl his decorations on the track Snowdonia/Sail The Sky, and the band can explore some flamenco sketches on Izabella’s Dream. Imagine the views from all the country cottages of your dreams, translated into music. For more go here.
43 Seamus Blake Quintet Live At Smalls (Smalls Live): This disc features a pretty experienced crew, including Dave Kikoski on piano and Bill Stewart on drums, with Lage Lund on guitar and Matt Clohesy on bass. With the exception of the standard Stranger In Paradise, all the tunes are Blake originals, and the mood, down in that terrific little Greenwich basement with Louis Armstrong looking on imperiously from behind the bandstand, is luxuriously relaxed. It has that slight rough-round-the-edges feel of a genuine Village night and musicians at ease, just having a ball. The next best thing to being there. For more go here.
42 The New Gary Burton Quartet Common Ground (Mack Avenue): The four-mallet vibraharpist has always shown an ear for a young guitarist with potential. After all, Burton band alumni include Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Kurt Rosenwinkel. But his earliest guitar signing has to be the teenage Julian Lage, who’s older now and back for this one. The interlinking of all four instruments is fascinating, and even when one of them is soloing, one never feels they are stepping out from the quartet, merely leading the mood for a while. Burton has always had this lovely countryish (though not country & western), wide open spaces feel to his music. For more go here.
41 Paolo Fresu Mistico Mediterraneo (ECM): Sardinian-born trumpeter Paolo Fresu has developed a distinctive and individual style. On the nearby island of Corsica an all-male group called A Filetta has been developing an ancient vocal music with both respect for the tradition and a new vitality. Add the bandoneon of Daniele de Bonaventura and the result is a strikingly original disc. A song cycle that intersperses the sometimes strident, sometimes lush vocal septet with rich and gracious trumpet. A bit like a Garbarek/Hilliard project, but less ethereal, much more earthy and physical. And better, therefore. For more go here.
40 Mark McNight Organ Quartet featuring Seamus Blake Do Or Die (Whirlwind Recordings): Irish guitarist Mark McKnight took the logical route and studied at Berklee College Of Music, and was awarded third place in the Montreux International Guitar Competition in 2008. He has a rich, modern guitar sound which can be clean and singing, and often has a tinge of Scofield distortion to add burnish to the gleam. This would be a fine album without Blake, But, as usual, the Anglo-Canadian tenor man does add the cherries. For more go here.
39 Mason Brothers Two Sides One Story (Archival Records): Two brothers from Norwich, one a trumpeter and the other a trombonist, fall asleep and dream that they are in the famous Avatar Studios in New York. They are joined by Antonio Sanchez on drums, Scott Colley on bass, Dave Kikoski on piano, Chris Potter on saxophone and Joe Locke on vibes. Together they record a debut album, and Wynton Marsalis writes the sleeve notes. Except that this has actually happened. When it comes to mutual understanding, Brad and Elliott are brothers in the Brecker class, I’d say. They really are living the dream. For more go here.
38 Eliane Elias Light My Fire (Concord): While all manner of new female singers try to combine cool and hot in one effective package, the Brazilian Eliane Elias continues to knock them off their pedestals with one swing of the hips and one well placed piano solo. Because while some of the new pretenders can sing OK, none of them can back it up with such sophisticated instrumental prowess. The usual winning combination of more obscure songs from the finest Brazilian composers with cool bossa readings of such household favourites as the Doors’ Light My Fire and Paul Desmond’s Take Five. The band includes legendary Brazilian guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves. For more go here.
37 Phil Robson The Immeasurable Code (Whirlwind Recordings): The guitarist continues to show what a strong composer and conceptualist he is in addition to wielding the mighty axe. This band’s main attraction might be US tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, but just as interesting is the instrumental line-up of guitar, saxophone and flute in the front line, giving the opportunity for textural variation and a lot of strong interweaving melody writing and improvisatory exploration. Flautist Gareth Lockrane does some tasty stuff and the backline of Michael Janisch on bass and Cuban drummer Ernesto Simpson keeps things cooking. For more go here.
36 Kairos 4tet: Statement of Intent (Edition Records)
From the first soprano saxophone-stated bustling melody with a Middle Eastern tinge, into the beautifully articulated double bass solo and on to the determinedly building piano solo that opens this disc – it’s the title track – it is clear that this is going to be as enjoyable ride as the band’s first disc, Kairos Moment. The band feels even tighter, probably as a result of quite a bit of touring in between, and the character of saxophonist Adam Waldmann’s music is even more clearly defined. His compositions are strong with not necessarily just one good tune apiece. For more go here.
35 Wadada Leo Smith’s Organic Heart’s Reflections (Cuneiform Records): The trumpeter continues to mine the spiritual depths while maintaining a distinctly funky feel. He is joined by guitarists Michael Gregory and Brandon Ross and drummer Pheeroan akLaff, among many others. While Smith will never really escape the electric Miles soundalike tag, he does it so well, and brings that atmosphere so expertly into the 21st century, we end up not really caring too much about the similarities. This double disc includes dedications to Don Cherry, Toni Morrison and Leroy Jenkins around the central 11-part suite of the title. For more go here.
34 David Binney: Graylen Epicenter (Mythology)
The alto saxophonist’s latest release features some of New York’s most in-demand musicians, including Craig Taborn, Chris Potter, Brian Blade, Eivind Opsvik, Gretchen Parlato and Wayne Krantz. Reviewing it for thejazzbreakfast, JJ Wheeler wrote: “what results is a set of forward-thinking, complex yet surprisingly inclusive tunes. Binney achieves a mixture of complexity and accessibility through combining tricky rhythmic figures and long-winding harmonic structures with folkloric melodies, highly singable and immediately engaging.” For more go here.
33 Francois Couturier Tarkovsky Quartet (ECM 274 2526)
This is the third in the French pianist’s albums inspired by the works of film director Andrei Tarkovsky. The band is a quartet with Couturier at the grand piano, Anja Lechner on cello, Jean Matinier on accordion and Jean Marc Larche on soprano saxophone. The fact that three of the instruments can play solo lines or chords and that all can cover a similar range, means the can act almost like a mini orchestra, and can interweave their lines very closely, defined very much by their individual timbres. Mostly contemplative and gentle, sometimes ominous and disquieting, yet always strangely, quietly exciting. For more go here.
32 Tom Harrell The Time Of The Sun (High Note): The sounds that open this disc and its title track are actually made by the sun. They quickly give way to the sounds of trumpeter Harrell, tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, pianist Danny Grissett, basist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Johnathan Blake, as fine an ensemble as you can hear anywhere on Manhattan island, I reckon. The tune burns darkly, especially when Grissett is on Fender Rhodes and Blake and Okegwo are in processional mode behind the horn lines. For more go here.
31 Donny McCaslin Perpetual Motion (Greenleaf Records): I can hear him alongside Dave Douglas in his Quintet, and as a star soloist with the Maria Schneider Orchestra, but I’ve always found I can’t quite get enough of this amazing tenor saxophonist. This album goes a long way to feeding that appetite. It’s quite an electric album, flirts with fusion at times, and really paints a rounded portrait of a hugely talented and characterful player. If you don’t know Donny but like Michael Brecker or Chris Potter, he just could be your man. For more go here.
30 Marilyn Mazur Celestial Circle (ECM): The percussionist leader is perhaps best known for her work with Jan Garbarek, with whom she spent 14 years on the road. This is the debut of a new quartet, a band she assembled when artist-in-residence for the Molde Jazz Festival in Norway in 2008. John Taylor is the pianist, Josefine Cronholm is the singer and Anders Jormin is on the double bass. If the basic instrumentation on paper looks like a singer and a piano trio, the nature of the individual musicians and the scope of the sounds they work with means the musical landscape is far more varied. Rich and lasting music in which less is more and the depths are as lovely as the surfaces. For more go here.
29 Steve Coleman’s Five Elements The Mancy Of Sound (PI Recordings): I don’t begin to understand the weird and wonderful concepts behind this music, but I am trying, and the same goes for the music that results, made by Coleman with Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Tim Albright on trombone, Jen Shyu on vocals, Thomas Morgan on bass, Tyshawn Sorey and Marcus Gilmore on drums, and Ramon Garcia Perez on percussion. The horns and voice move together and in overlapping patterns over a sinuous and inviting groove. There is a Yoruba chart of dot patterns on the cover, and Coleman has used these patterns to directly inform the rhythms of the central suite. For more go here.
28 Empirical Elements Of Truth (Naim Jazz): Another strong outing from the quartet that last time around were reflecting upon Eric Dolphy. Here they are reflecting on disparate influences, from Steve Lehman to Monk, and on their own place in British society and in the international music world. There are some particularly strong compositions by bassist Tom Farmer, and the whole affair is infused with great energy within some pretty demanding structures. The alto, vibes, bass and drums format is distinctive and the playing amazingly integrated and tight – clearly this is a band with focus and a lot of hard work behind it. For more go here.
27 Giovanna Pessi/Susanna Wallumrod If Grief Could Wait (ECM 277 7197): Wallumrod, previously the Susanna who sang with the one-man Magic Orchestra, makes her ECM debut with baroque harpist Pessi and additional help from Jane Achtman on viola da gamba and Marco Ambrosini on nyckelharpa (a Swedish keyed fiddle, apparently). Sussana’s quiet power and meticulous diction is perfect for the arrangements of songs by Henry Purcell which form the theme of this album, and that cool, slightly breathy voice is the ideal partner to the rich and rounded harp sound. The programme is brilliant, with two Leonard Cohen songs and a Nick Drake, worked in with the 17th-century stuff. For more go here.
26 Kit Downes Quiet Tiger (Basho): The trio of Kit, double bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer James Maddren is once again the band and its solo elements, while James Allsopp on tenor saxophone doubled with bass clarinet , and Adrien Dennefeld on cello act as a kind of backdrop to the action. They set off the trio rather than interact with it, and give Downes the chance to write some rich and strangely enigmatic charts against which he, Calum and Maddren can work their magic.It’s beautifully recorded, doing full justice to the depths of the bass and bass clarinet, and the heights of the cymbals. Gorgeous cover art, too. For more go here.
25 Marcin Wasilewski Trio Faithful (ECM): Pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz interlock their three instruments and three musical brains into one seamless whole of execution. The material is equally split between original tunes by Wasilewski and shrewd choices from a variety of sources. Sometimes they can get quite busy and still there is space in the music. And then they can almost slow to a standstill and still maintain a flow and sense of structure. Three musicians supremely comfortable in each other’s company, but still with a lot to talk about, and a lot of feelings to share. For more go here.
24 Stefon Harris, David Sanchez & Christian Scott Ninety Miles (Concord Picante): The three band leaders join forces for a trip to Havana and work with a Cuban band featuring, depending on the track, two different but equally fine young local pianists, Rember Duharte and Harold Lopez-Nussa. Of course, American jazz men have been visiting Cuba and finding inspiration there for well over half a century now, but it’s nice to know that the magic is still working. Certainly all three star names play their socks off here, and the Cubans are, of course, easily up to matching the chops and musicianship of their visitors. A supergroup is born, methinks. For more go here.
23 Magnus Ostrom Thread Of Life (ACT): The E.S.T. drummer left it a lot longer after the sudden death of pianist Esbjorn Svensson than his bassist colleague Dan Berglund, before bringing out some music under his own name. But it’s well worth the wait. The publicity blurb refers to this band sounding like a rock band playing jazz, as opposed to E.S.T. sounding like a pop group playing jazz. I’m not sure the comparison is quite accurate, but you get the gist. Certainly the guitar, the song structures and the general feel are rockier, and Ostrom deserves a wide and vast audience for what is very accessible and attractive music. For more go here.
22 Marius Neset Golden Xplosion (Edition Records): There have been lots of lovely jazz CDs released in the last few months, but it’s been a while since a disc has leapt from the speakers and pinned the listener against the wall in quite this way. There is quite a lot of fast and funky playing with tricky time signatures abounding, with Neset multi-tracking his saxophone lines and Django Bates often playing two lines at once. Couple all this action with the forceful drumming of Anton Eger and the powerful articulation and counter melody of Jasper Hoiby’s bass lines and you have an extraordinarily full sound for a band of four. For more go here.
21 Kurt Elling The Gate (Concord): The Gate is another step forward for a variety of reasons. The material is, for the most part, unusual; the techniques Kurt uses are more expansive; the production is bigger and rounder. The singer chooses pop and rock material from the ‘70s and ‘80s but, in between all that, is the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, Herbie Hancock’s Come Running To Me, Miles Davis’s Blue In Green, and two Elling re-workings of instrumental tunes by Marc Johnson and Don Grolnick. Kurt Elling makes each song he sings something new and somehow more complete than you’ve ever heard it before. For more go here.
20 Gwilym Simcock Good Days At Schloss Elmau (ACT): Playing solo piano and in impressive surroundings, Simcock gets to explore all his influences and musical education, feeding not only his jazz improvisations but also his classical background into these eight solo pieces. They were written with one exception – the gorgeous Plain Song – specially for this recording. They are by turns lyrical and energetic, rhapsodic and light-hearted. It’s joyful stuff in every sense, having the excitement and barely contained enthusiasm of spontaneous dance and shout, but a deep and satisfying spiritual joy also. For more go here.
19 Dino Saluzzi/Anja Lechner/Felix Saluzzi Navidad de los Andes (ECM): One of the most unusual and striking musical relationships revealed briefly in the ECM film Sounds And Silence is that of Argentinean bandoneon master Saluzzi and German classical cellist Lechner – he like a slightly grumpy bear, she the most elegant and accommodating of side-kicks. Of course in music they blend exquisitely, and on this disc they are joined by Dino’s brother Felix on clarinet and tenor saxophone, with the timbral riches enhanced even further as a result. The richness of a Beethoven string trio, the earthiness of a village band, and the overall impression that what we are listening to is not three musicians but the sound of the world in motion. For more go here.
18 Branford Marsalis/Joey Calderazzo Songs Of Mirth And Melancholy (Marsalis Music): The US tenor and soprano saxophonist is here with the virtuosic regular pianist from his quartet, maintaining a conversational tone, with both men remaining very much themselves while exchanging views on anything from an original composition to a Wayne Shorter tune to a bit of Brahms. The pair have leant increasingly towards classical music in their compositions in recent quartet recordings, and that feel is very much in evidence here on The Bard Lachrymose and La Valse Kendall, with Branford putting his exquisite soprano tone to good use. For more go here.
17 Enrico Rava Quintet Tribe (ECM): The trumpeter is a true master, and, like Art Blakey and Miles Davis and that other great ECM trumpeter, Tomasz Stanko, he has always encouraged the next generation of musicians, and the one after that, by hiring them. For his current quintet Rava has trombonist Gianluca Petrella beside him, with Giovanni Guidi at the piano, Gabriele Evangelista on bass and Fabrizio Sferra on drums. On some tracks they are joined by Giacomo Ancillotto on guitar. All the music has that characteristic Rava mood of darker shadows within a generally sun-drenched Mediterranean landscape. It is both chic and at the same time deep with complex emotions. For more go here.
16 Craig Taborn Avenging Angel (ECM): If your only experience of pianist Craig Taborn has been with, for example, Tim Berne’s Science Friction band, then this solo piano disc might come as something of a surprise. It is for the most part fairly quiet, fairly reflective and the barely-held fury of the Science Friction music is rarely even hinted at. At the same time that extraordinary precision of touch and tone that Taborn has, even when things are moving at quite a lick, is very much in evidence. This disc was recorded in an acoustic – the recital room at Lugano’s Studio RSI – that Taborn can really explore. It has quite an echo when he needs to exploit it with hard-hit high notes, yet he can soften and smooth it too when he wants to. For more go here.
15 Meadow: Blissful Ignorance (Edition Records): Tore Brunborg, the Norwegian saxophonist, John Taylor, the British pianist, and Thomas Stronen, the Norwegian drummer, together for the first time in a recording studio, and striking ideas off each other with great freshness. Each track is a fresh joy. As far as the playing is concerned, it’s very much an equilateral triangle, a thoughtful three-way conversation of equals. The first three tunes – all Brunborg’s – give you a rich introduction to the disc’s variety – not huge in dynamic terms, or eclectic in any way, but luxuriant in harmonic, melodic and rhythmic breadth. If you heard the band in concert here in the autumn you’ll probably have this already. If you missed the gig, don’t miss out on the music. For more go here.
14 Charles Lloyd/Maria Farantouri Athens Concert (ECM): The US saxophonist and his band – Jason Moran on piano, Reuben Rogers on double bass and Eric Harland on drums – sharing the open air stage at the foot of Mount Acropolis with Greek resistance singer Farantouri and her musicians. Hearing Lloyd’s saxophone alongside a singer is to realise just how wonderfully vocal his sound and phrasing are, and in turn, having the saxophone there, gives Farantouri the chance to add resonance and timbre to her singing. It’s a long and richly varied programme across two discs, taking in a three-part Greek Suite which includes traditional songs, and pieces by the great Greek composers like Theodorakis and Karaindrou. For more go here.
13 Yellowjackets Timeline (Mack Avenue Records): They might have a new record label and a new drummer (well, an old drummer but back for a second stint) but overall it’s very much business as usual for the thinking person’s jazz fusion quartet. So,while the jazz side of the scales might have found more weight in recent years, the fusion side of trickily timed melodies, rock back beats and R ‘n’ B soulfulness still pays a crucial part in the band’s sound and style. There’s a lovely recording sound which gives the drums great depth and places the whole band nicely around the room. If you missed their week at Ronnie’s during the London Jazz Festival, now’s your chance to catch up. For more go here.
12 Vinicius Cantuaria & Bill Frisell Lagramas Mexicanas (Naive): Cantuaria is the singer, guitarist and percussionist from Brazil, long resident in New York and making some of the most creative modern bossa nova there is; Frisell of course is Frisell. Together the two men have turned their attentions to the Latin rhythms and traditions from Cuba, Puerto Rica, Colombia, Venezuala and Mexico that have found their way into the sound of New York. Cantuaria’s gentle voice, with Spanish, Portuguese and English lyrics, floats above a rich groove of interlocking electric and acoustic guitars and other percussion and electronic sounds.I think this one ranks with the best both musicians have made separately. For more go here.
11 Brad Mehldau Live In Marciac (Nonesuch): This sounds and looks like a complete concert in sequence, rather than the edited highlights of a few nights – I say “looks” because in addition to the two CDs you get a DVD which contains 13 of the 14 songs. They include originals, and tunes by Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Bobby Timmons, Nick Drake, Radiohead, Lennon and McCartney and Kurt Cobain. A good hour and a half here of solo piano playing which never becomes samey or self-indulgent, which continues to surprise, delight, excite and comfort in turn. Possibly the greatest melodist of our jazz age at a time when it sometimes feels like melodies are gems in short supply. For more go here.
10 Sid Peacock’s Surge La Fête (Peacock Angel): Composer Sid Peacock is the ringmaster of contemporary British jazz, and the 16-piece Surge is his circus. To hear the band in full cry – saxophone quartet punching out staccato stabs, violins and flute adding a counter riff, horns sustaining a strange chord, drums and percussion rumbling beneath and marimba and Fx babbling constantly – is to see the full troupe piled pyramid-high and wide on the creaking but sturdy frame of a recycled bike making its way across a high wire. Peacock has found a thoroughly fresh way of building on the Hermeto Pascoal/Django Bates foundations of big band jazz. For more go here.
9 Verneri Pohjola: Aurora (ACT): This is the first album under the young Finnish trumpeter’s name, and it really is a great start, not only in its quality but in its breadth of expression, its wide range of sounds, and in the strength of the playing. Some of the music is written in detail, some is free, some is harmonically “in”, some “out”, and this variety and contrast serves to enhance each element. Pohjola describes the pieces as short stories, and they have all that narrative and atmosphere. It’s orchestral in its ambitions and succeeds extraordinarily well. As the culmination of a long career it would be impressive; as the first album under the 33-year-old’s own name, it really is amazing. For more go here.
8 Gilad Hekselman Hearts Wide Open (Le Chant du Monde): A CD by a leader I had heard of but never heard, and containing attractive pieces played beautifully that just get under the skin and bring a grin to the face. I suppose I should have been ready for the experience, due to the presence of Mark Turner on tenor saxophone (on some of the tracks) and Marcus Gilmore on drums. But it’s mainly guitarist Gilad Hekselman who instigates the smiles. The tunes and performances conjure up images – a lovely virtual soundtrack to some unmakeable film. There are lots of CDs out there by artists you’ve never heard of, but do trust me on this one: here is a leap into the unknown that is pretty risk free. And hugely rewarding. For more go here.
7 Fred Hersch Alone At The Vanguard (Palmetto): On the cusp of November and December last year, the pianist was invited to do another solo week at the Greenwich Village club, and this time he had tapes running for every set. So, a whole week of recordings to choose from, and in the end, what he chose, and what we have here is the final set from the final night, from first note to last. From standards to originals dedicated to Bill Frisell, Lee Konitz and Robert Schumann, among others, it’s all a wonderfully assured and remarkably calm performance, full of joy and thanksgiving, from a man who has been through some dreadful times in recent years. For more go here.
6 Julian Siegel Urban Theme Park (Basho Records): This music just envelops the listener with a big bearhug. Why is that? I think it has something to do not only with the individual musicianship – which is exemplary not only from a technical point of view but is also full of an often impossible to explain depth – but it has to do with the equally impossible to explain energy that is created communally by these four musicians. Yes, that’s it: it’s the sense of joy in the creation. And, damn! It’s funky. One For J.T., for example, swings like the blazes. I’ve nearly dislocated my neck a couple of times doing the jazzhead to this. For more go here.
5 Avishai Cohen Seven Seas (Blue Note): You can never quite predict what an Avishai Cohen album is going to sound like, though all possess his strong and inimitable character and his muscular, energetic and tightly focussed playing. This sea-themed second release on the Blue Note label is probably the most cohesive of his recordings to date. He plays mostly double bass and sings quite a bit, but the music melds and merges jazz and world music styles in a more successful manner than he has ever achieved before. The decision to make the writing unashamedly unjazzy and then to take a jazzy approach to playing it, might give it the Marmite factor, but to my ears it sounds just delicious. For more go here.
4 The Impossible Gentlemen (Basho Records): The first recording by this perfectly balanced transatlantic band – guitarist Mike Walker and pianist Gwilym Simcock from this side of the pond; drummer Adam Nussbaum and electric bassist Steve Swallow from the other side – builds upon and confirms what those of us who heard them playing live in the spring of 2010 already knew: that it’s one of the most exciting and satisfying collaborations for a very long time. There is also, for me, a particular joy in hearing Mike Walker finally getting some of the attention and acclaim he so thoroughly deserves. For more go here.
3 Keith Jarrett Rio (ECM): He might start out in jagged abstraction, but it’s not long before Jarrett – playing solo in Rio De Janeiro in April this year – lets the home of bossa nova and samba seduce him with its melody and rhythm. We’re only at Part II of this double disc’s XV and already the opening trilled chords have a Jobimesque sweet sadness to them. Part III has the kind of groove we have come to associate with another, younger pianist: I like to call it “the Mehldau stroll”. What is remarkable about this concert – and you hear every note Jarrett plays – is its happy exuberance and clear contentment – not always a defining factor of Jarrett in his solo, most emotionally revealing, mode. For more go here.
2 Gretchen Parlato The Lost And Found (ObliqSound): Parlato sings with that half-whisper, close to the mic, and it’s clear that in the two years since her last recording, In A Dream, and a lot of gigging, the singer has really focused her distinctive tone and style even more. The breathiness, the apparently slurred articulation (interesting because in fact the words are always clear despite the way she has of swallowing consonants), the incredibly controlled delivery, the calmness and almost slowing of time, the spaciousness of the arrangements – all these could come across as slightly too arty, too contrived and too self-conscious. That those traps are flirted with but never fallen into is a measure of Parlato’s shrewdness. The original compositions mark a real step forward on this disc. For more go here.
1 Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian Live At Birdland (ECM): Strong as the characters of Mehldau, Haden and Motian might be, there is, as there has been increasingly with Konitz as he has reached past his seventh decade and into his eighth, the feeling that the saxophonist’s attitude to the music and his manner of improvising colours the contributions of his band mates very strongly indeed. Lee sets the tone from the start with his improvised intro to Lover Man accompanied first just by Motian, with Mehldau and Haden joining in shortly thereafter. The way he mixes improvisation in around even the initially stated theme, and then continues to circle the tune like a prowling but very patient lion is just fascinating. The man still has so much to say to us, and more wisdom to share with every passing gig in every passing year. This is as near a perfect live album, both in performance and recording sound, as I’ve ever heard. And now, it’s also a fine memorial to the supremely musical drumming of Paul Motian, who died last month. For more go here.
2010 Festive 50
50 Ivo Neame Caught In The Light Of Day (Edition Records): Of course, with this line-up it is natural to contrast the group sound with that of the Modern Jazz Quartet. It’s not just that the players’ sounds from their instruments are quite different – Neame more florid and broader of tone on piano than John Lewis, Jim Hart a little dirtier and less precise on vibes than Milt Jackson. The band leans towards a slightly spooky atmosphere, too. Would suit the Swedish police TV series Wallander. For more go here.
49 James Morton’s Porkchop Don’t You Worry ‘Bout That (Fresh Ground Records): Alto saxophonist James Morton comes from that vital jazz spawning ground, Bristol. This band is a quartet with Denny Ilett on guitar, Dan “Pinstripe” Moore on Hammond organ and Ian Matthews on drums. It’s a grin-maker from the first notes. Matthews lays down a strong rock groove, Morton has a Maceo Parker sound and feel, while Ilett is suitably greasy playing lead or rhythm. But the real powerhouse is Moore, who just steams on the mighty Hammond and never lets up. For more go here.
48 Fringe Magnetic Empty Spaces (Loop Records): The Loop Collective, made up of a group of young jazz musicians working out of north London, has so far delivered some strong jazz combo projects, but this feels like their most ambitious recording to date. The band is 11-strong and led by Rory Simmons. He has also written all the music. When the flute, clarinet and strings sound so terribly English (Short Stories) it’s a reminder that we really should make more of our national musical heritage. For more go here.
47 The Sam Crowe Group Synaesthesia (F-IRE): Pianist Sam Crowe is, like saxophonist Adam Waldmann who leads the Kairos 4tet, a recent graduate of Trinity College in London, and, like Waldmann, he favours a melodic modern jazz which brings in influences from world music in its rhythms and classical composition in some of its harmony. Completing the band for Crowe’s debut release are guitarist Will Davies and the by now familiar rhythm pairing of Jasper Hoiby on bass and Dave Smith on drums. For more go here.
46 Francois Couturier Un Jour Si Blanc (ECM): The French pianist sees this solo piano album as a companion piece to his previous group disc, Nostalghia: Song For Tarkovsky, and it takes as its starting point a poem by Tarkovsky’s father. The poem’s quiet happiness, yet touch of melancholic regret, is in the piano playing too. His classical technique is married to a more soulful jazz ballad mood at times. A very classy solo piano disc to set beside those of Jarrett, Bley and others from the ECM stable. For more go here.
45 The Necks Silverwater (ReR): The CD format is made for The Necks – or The Necks make their music perfectly for CD. Silverwater is one piece lasting 67 minutes and 15 seconds, and is what fans of the Australian trio might expect – and then some. The slow development is there, the repeating, interlocking figures, the piano, bass and drums instrumentation, but this studio album - named after an industrial suburb of Sydney, also known for the prison there – has a wider ranging set of moods and the instrumentation includes resonant organ, electric guitar and percussion including gongs. For more go here.
44 Orrin Evans Faith In Action (Posi-Tone Records): Evans took the piano stool when Dave Douglas toured here in 2008, has studied with Kenny Barron, worked a lot with Bobby Watson and with the Mingus Big Band, and made his first trio album in 1994. He’s a terrific pianist – warm and solid, able to explore some of those modern hip-hop-nuanced things while still rooted in the grand jazz piano tradition that still finds its sternest testing ground in the clubs of New York. His treatment of the Watson classic, Love Remains, is rhapsodic and expansive. Timeless piano trio music. For more go here.
43 Stefano Battaglia/Michele Rabbia Pastorale (ECM): Stefano Battaglia plays the piano; Michele Rabbia is a percussionist. But that doesn’t begin to give much insight into this fascinating and rich set of duo pieces. On the opener, Antifona Libera, Battaglia plays slow, fairly simple falling phrases, each following a similar pattern, while Rabbia scrapes notes from his cymbals and manipulates them into electronic swoops upwards and out of sonic reach. The effect is of snow falling from the sky while fireworks shoot into it simultaneously. For more go here.
42 Jose James & Jef Neve For All We Know (Impulse!): A chance to hear James’s phenomenal voice and style virtually unadorned, framed beautifully by Belgian pianist Jef Neve’s spare and imaginative accompaniment. The tunes are all old classics and ones all covered by the greatest jazz singers of the past century: Autumn in New York, Embraceable You, Body And Soul, When I Fall In Love. I am not sure Billy Strayhorn would fully approve of the countless versions of Lush Life down the years, but I think he would nod and smile quietly at this one. For more go here.
41 Tim Whitehead Colour Beginnings (Home Made): Tim Whitehead, as the first musician to become an artist in residence at Tate Britain, stood in front of works by JMW Turner and responded to them with his saxophone. He then turned those spontaneous improvisational reactions into compositions and that’s what you find on this disc. There are quite a few solo saxophone sections, but these are mainly group performances with Liam Noble on piano, Milo Fell on drums and either Patrick Bettison on electric or Oli Hayhurst on acoustic bass. For more go here.
40 Dave Stapleton Quintet Between The Lines (Edition Records): Edition Records boss, pianist, composer and bandleader Dave Stapleton really hits all the bases with this third album. The band is Stapleton on electric and acoustic pianos, Ben Waghorn on saxophone, Jonny Bruce on trumpet, Paula Gardiner on bass and Elliot Bennett on drums. This really feels like the work of a band and a composer in harmony, not just a group of individuals showing off their talents. They know when to be flashy but they also know when to keep it simple. For more go here.
39 Gilad Atzmon & The Orient House Ensemble The Tide Has Changed (World Village): The Orient House Ensemble is ten years old, but the band’s music – a winningly compulsive mix of the Middle Eastern and jazz influences – has remained consistent from the start. Consistent, but constantly developing and becoming more finely interwoven. Listen to the 11-minute title track of this disc and those elements are there, the Middle Eastern ones especially in Atzmon’s saxophone articulation with its microtonal phrasing, but its just so cohesive now. And is there a saxophonist working in the UK today, or a band in fact, that is able quite to work up this kind of intensity? For more go here.
38 Cassandra Wilson Silver Pony (Blue Note): An album that somehow doesn’t quite hang together – some of it is live in Europe, some studio-recorded in New Orleans – but which makes up for that with some brilliant moments. Like a loose-limbed and floating slow burn on Silver Moon with Ravi Coltrane on saxophone, and great covers of Stevie Wonder’s If It’s Magic, Paul McCartney’s Blackbird and Luiz Bonfa’s A Day In The Life Of A Fool. But the album’s real highpoint is a compulsively funky St James Infirmary. For more go here.
37 Christian Scott Yesterday You Said Tomorrow (Concord Jazz): It’s nearly four minutes into the angry guitar and drums churn of K.K.P.D. before we hear the man himself, and his style is strong and personal. He combines a broad and muted, overtone laden trumpet tone that not only echoes Miles but nods towards the Norwegians like Arve Henriksen too, while, on this opener, using it in a blistering, attacking fashion. Scott has all the heritage he needs (he is saxophonist Donald Harrison’s nephew) and an all-encompassing knowledge not only of jazz but of rock and hip-hop too. For more go here.
36 Metropole Orkest, featuring John Scofield, conducted by Vince Mendoza 54 (Emarcy): It’s been a while since I’ve been excited by a new John Scofield album, which is what this is, in a way, despite being packed with old Sco’ tunes. To hear Scofield’s distortion-laden electric guitar sound in the lush surroundings of “the world’s largest professional pop and jazz orchestra” is to enjoy the same complex sensations as to see a rust-encrusted Chevy sitting in a velvet-lined boudoir – it’s both striking in its contrast and somehow the beauty of each is enhanced by the other. For more go here.
35 Curios The Other Place (Edition Records): The rapport between pianist Cawley, bassist Sam Burgess and drummer Joshua Blackmore is clearly so much deeper on this sophomore disc after countless gigs together, and the technological trickery Cawley uses – a loop device – is incorporated with great subtlety. In the thoughtful Pure the piano is accompanied by quiet reverse-looped sounds and it’s a gem of a melody, while Impure is a virtuoso display of trio interaction that builds to a torrent and then drops to a sublime pause before the finish. Lots to delight heart and mind. For more go here.
34 Ana Moura Leva-me Aos Fados (World Village): Mariza is a brilliant fadista but her pre-eminence in the wider world outside Portugal tends to overshadow the other superb singers ensuring that this fascinating and enduring music of passion and loss moves forward in the 21st century.Ana Moura has made a number of albums over the last six years and is growing with every release. She has a rich, passionate voice which she keeps more contained than Mariza, eschewing the operatic finales in favour of a more held-in intensity. For more go here.
33 Ralph Alessi Cognitive Dissonance (CamJazz): The Californian trumpeter has an exceptionally fine band in bassist Drew Gress, drummer Nasheet Waits and, for most of the album, Jason Moran on piano (Andy Milne is the pianist on two tracks). The title track which is the opener has the melodic and stylistic feel of one of Charlie Haden’s revolutionary songs – with Latin nuances and a certain romantic fighting spirit. Elsewhere (track 4, Duel, for example) the writing feels almost mathematical, overlaid with a gorgeous trumpet solo that has a lot more emotion than the stricter groove would have first suggested. For more go here.
32 Vinicius Cantuaria Samba Carioca (Naive): A new Cantuaria disc is always cause for celebration at thejazzbreakfast, and this new one doesn’t disapppoint. Try Berlin, a new song from Cantuaria on which he plays acoustic guitar, adds percussion and a great, Arto Lindsay-influenced (he produces here) electric guitar processed note that stays flickering behind at all times. Oh, and Brad Mehldau plays lovely piano on it. It’s indicative of the sound this Brazilian, long resident in New York has perfected: mainly acoustic with just the right electronic touches, graced with cryptic lyrics and that very special, under-played, weary romanticism. For more go here.
31 Lionel Loueke Mwaliko (Blue Note): More guitar wizardry but a little more relaxed than his debut disc. Angelique Kidjo, Esperanza Spalding and Richard Bona prove sympathetic fellow travellers, the latter two on bass as well as vocals. In addition to the sparky originals, full of odd timings and light-stepping funkiness, there is a fabulous version of Wayne Shorter’s Nefertiti. Griot, with his regular trio, is a fine track to start with, the timing shifting constantly behind multi-tracked vocals, before the groove is well and truly established for a blissful guitar solo. For more go here.
30 Lee Konitz New Quartet Live At The Village Vanguard (Enja): Producer Matthias Winckelmann relates in the liner notes how Konitz joked during the rehearsals that maybe the band should perform “quiz style” and improvise from the start only giving small hints as they went along as to the tune they were improvising on, with a free drink for the first in the audience to name the song correctly. It’s only a slight exageration of how Konitz has been working for a while now. And he himself quotes one critic who said that this band – Florian Weber on piano, Jeff Denson on bass, Ziv Ravitz on drums, known collectively as Minsarah – was like “the Lee Konitz idea in band form”. A very special recording by a very special jazz musician. For more go here.
29 Rudresh Mahanthappa & Steve Lehman Dual Identity (cleanfeed): Mahanthappa and Lehman, both alto saxophonists of a certain 21st-century New York downtown sensibility, really are taking jazz into fresh territory, and they work extraordinarily well together. Mahanthappa brings a raga sense of busyness achieving serenity, while Lehman has a drier sound and style that often reminds me of Henry Threadgill, both in tone and harmonically. For this disc they have Liberty Ellman on guitar, Matt Brewer on bass and Damion Reid on drums. Whenever I hear this music I imagine how exciting Charlie Parker would have found it. For more go here.
28 Tom Harrell Roman Nights (High Note): The trumpeter’s third album for High Note with this band, and it’s a corker. On saxophone is Wayne Escoffery, on piano is Danny Grissett, on bass (and for the last 12 years) Ugonna Okegwo, and on drums Johnathan Blake. The first thing that strikes the listener is the great contrast between the rumbunctious, note-piling hot Escoffery and the more measured, minimalist, lyrical and cool Harrell. They play up the contrast beautifully on the swift and straightforward Let The Children Play. A tremendous album from a bunch of thorough musicians with a brilliant leader. For more go here.
27 Ketil Bjornstad/Jon Christensen/Tore Brunborg Remembrance (ECM): The title says a lot – 11 pieces called Remembrance I to Remembrance XI, all linked by graceful, contemplative tunes and graceful, contemplative playing. But while the act of remembering might have a naturally reflective nature and a sometimes wistful air, there are also the things remembered which may be exuberant, which may be joyful. And so the gorgeous music that fills this disc is by no means dour or tragic. What it does have is a great multi-layered feel to it, just as remembrance is a multi-layered feeling and process. For more go here.
26 Mats Eilertsen Radio Yonder (Hubro): The double bass player was in Birmingham late last year playing in the band of Tord Gustavsen, as was the saxophonist here, Tore Brunborg. The quartet is completed by Thomas T Dahl on guitar and Olavi Louhivuori on drums. Radio, the opening track, starts quietly and gently, but very quickly Dahl is turning the flame up, and Brunborg continues to fan it, while Eilertsen and Louhivuori stir it up beneath, so that by the time we are over six minutes in, the tune is a very different beast, before returning to the theme in a more fulsome manner than at the start. For more go here.
25 John McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension To The One (Abstract Logix): The guitarist has a blistering band comprising Gary Husband on keyboards (and sometimes drums too), Etienne M’Bappe on bass guitar and Mark Mondesir on drums, and he has set his sights firmly on achieving his own version of John Coltrane’s total absorption in the spiritual search for the source. He sees this, he says in the liner notes, as his own Love Supreme. It sounds very different from that masterpiece, of course. It’s good to have some music back that markets itself unashamedly with the words “File under Jazz/Rock”. For more go here.
24 Mayte Martin Al Cantar A Manuel (World Village): A non-jazz choice. This Flamenco musician started singing at the age of ten and is now notching up 35 years as a professional, in the interim gaining accolades and awards by the bucketload. But this might just be her finest hour. She has taken the highly personal poems by Manual Alcantara, from Malaga, and brought out their exquisite beauty, earthy reality and heightened passions in song. The settings for guitars, violin, bass and percussion, are similarly meticulous and just plain lovely. And the singing is as compelling as any you will hear. For more go here.
23 Kit Downes Live At The Wardrobe, 2010 – Solo Piano (Own label): He starts with Magic Cat, The Bemsha Wizard, a kind of Cecil Taylor meets Thelonious Monk outing – full of big and bountiful runs up and down the keyboard which do find their way into Bemsha Swing eventually. It is followed by one of my real favourites – Skip James. A blues singer’s name, an unmistakable Americana feel about the tune and its harmonies, an apparent simplicity and directness of expression, but capable of bearing a lot of decoration, of variation, of emotional development. All of which Kit does full justice to here. For more go here.
22 Food Quiet Inlet (ECM): Iain Ballamy and drummer Thomas Stronen have Nils Petter Molvaer in on trumpet and Christian Fennesz on guitar. Their blend of horns, percussion and electronics has never sounded quite so lovely. This disc really does echo its title: gentle, barely rippling expanses of electronic wash, detailed with dancing flecks of light and, on closer inspection, filled with busy insect-like life. A recording to keep you nourished for years to come. For more go here.
21 Jason Moran Ten (Blue Note): Moran with his regular trio, Tarus Mateen on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums, who have notched up a decade together, hence the album title. The programme is as eclectic as you’d expect from this wide-ranging pianist, with Monk, Jaki Byard, Bernstein and Nancarrow in there alongside the originals. It’s a band that can slow and speed up as one, so close is their communal understanding. Some intriguing electronics add another layer to Feedback PT.2, but there is an abundance to interest with just the acoustic instruments. For more go here.
20 Esperanza Spalding Chamber Music Society (Heads Up): Possessed of extraordinary virtuosity and a fresh, new, adventurous musical character, the bassist/singer has it all. There are some fabulous bass solos – try Winter Sun for one – but what is striking about this album is how little grandstanding there is – the music, the arrangements, the overall feel and sound is what Spalding is interested in; she got over the need to show off while still in her teens, I suspect. Oh, and we welcome the return of the Afro hairdo to jazz – we’ve not seen such a striking example since the 1960s. For more go here.
19 Abdullah Ibrahim Sotho Blue (Intuition): The South African pianist has done some of his most satisfying work with a mini-big band, which is what this US-manned septet sounds like. The absence of trumpet gives the band a particularly lush timbre, and all the players are quite old-fashioned in tone and style, despite their youth. There may not be anything particularly new here – it is, rather, a fine-tuning, a re-honing of some of the brilliant things Ibrahim has already done. For more go here.
18 Absolute Ensemble, featuring Joe Zawinul Absolute Zawinul (Intuition): Just when we thought we wouldn’t hear any new Zawinul again, here is the last recording he played on and a fascinating extension of the music that made up his later years. I suspect there is only one classical chamber ensemble that could do justice to Zawinul’s music – luckily they are the ones playing here: the extraordinary Absolute Ensemble under the leadership of Kristjan Jarvi. He worked closely with Zawinul to conceive these arrangements and Joe and his regular band play at the centre of the ensemble. For more go here.
17 Wadada Leo Smith Spiritual Dimensions (Cuneiform Rune): You can still apply the word legendary to a few jazz musicians today, and one of them is trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. There are two different bands on this double disc. The Golden Quintet roams wide and free, managing to be pretty busy players yet still leave a nice amount of space in the music. Organic sets Smith’s powerful, declamatory trumpet sailing upon an ocean of electric guitar sustain and distortion, cello and bass guitar. And you just wouldn’t want to be without either. For more go here.
16 Nik Bartsch’s Ronin Llyria (ECM): The Swiss pianist has been causing quite a stir with his zen funk, and this third Ronin disc for ECM broadens the scope of the band and its unique sound. The tightly wound, urgent pulses and interlocking riffs are still there but now they relax and open out for periods, before tightening again. This gives saxophonist Sha more room to move, and the contrasts of main theme and interlude also serve to heighten the delight in both tension and release. With this more wide-ranging album, Ronin should build an even more diverse audience. For more go here.
15 Polar Bear Peepers (LEAF): Peepers opens with indy drums and guitar (Leafcutter John is the axeman) but soon the characteristic twin tenor harmonies kick in. This is Happy For You, and it is followed by the rolling, reggae circus groove of Bap Bap Bap. There are some freer tracks, like Bump and Scream – two brief group improvs – but most of the time things are pretty ordered. In a world where nothing seems to last and everything seems to move far too quickly, it’s wonderful to hear a band still doing what I remember them doing six years ago – only even better. For more go here.
14 Soweto Kinch The New Emancipation (Soweto Kinch Recordings): Four years after the ground-breaking A Life In The Day of B19, the saxophonist/rapper returns with an update on British inner city life. His protagonists have moved from the dole office to the debt-collection call centre – the new slavery. After the jumps between drama and music in the first half, the disc settles latterly into a series of strong group instrumentals interleaved with Soweto raps. Trade and On The Treadmill are highlights, with the latter adding Harry Brown’s trombone and some Ellingtonian harmonies in the horns. For more go here.
13 Bill Frisell Beautiful Dreamers (Savoy Jazz): The band is just a trio, with Eyvind Kang on viola and Rudy Royston on drums. Listen to the opener, Love Sick, and you hear how complete a sound these three instruments make, Kang and Frisell sharing the melody and harmony while Royston creates a brushed cushion. The whole album is an extraordinary example of three-way empathy, ending up sounding like one three-headed vision. And simply gorgeous music, of course. Some classic old tunes like the title track, and new orginals, too. For more go here.
12 Dave Holland Octet Pathways (Dare2 Records): The agility of a combo with the orchestrating riches of a bigger band. There are familiar names here: Nate Smith is on drums, Steve Nelson is on vibes and marimba, Robin Eubanks is on trombone and Chris Potter is on tenor and soprano saxophones. The new additions are Alex (Sasha) Sipiagin on trumpet and flugelhorn, Antonio Hart on alto saxophone and flute, and Gary Smulyan on baritone saxophone. Holland says he has always loved Duke Ellington’s small groups which often had a five-horn front line. He’s clearly having a ball with writing for his own twin horn, three sax combination. For more go here.
11 Norma Winstone Stories Yet To Tell (ECM) With Distances, the singer, and her younger pianist Glauco Venier and reed-player Klaus Gesing, found each other, and having done so, they were never likely to let go after just one recording. Stories Yet To Tell is another triumph, the formula repeated, the style very much the same, but some more live performing and further sessions in the studio have built in even more empathy, allowing the trio more freedom and scope for individual intuition in what was already a remarkable intuitive band. Venier’s piano accompaniments and Gesing’s interjections and counter-melodies on soprano saxophone of bass clarinet, form a perfect equilateral triangle with the singer’s voice. For more go here.
10 Phronesis Alive (Edition): The Danish double bassist Jasper Hoiby, who, very luckily for us, has made his home in England, is bringing his big, accurate tone and pliant style to all manner of British bands, but it is in this band which he leads that he sounds even bigger, even more pliant. Ivo Neame is well-known both as a saxophonist and pianist, but here he restricts himself to the keyboard and brings a mixture of strong harmony and a real searching spirit to his playing. And then there is brilliant drumming of Mark Guiliana. One of the best live sounds I’ve heard in ages. For more go here.
9 Brad Mehldau Highway Rider (Nonesuch): A double album of new compositions from the pianist, played by his trio (Larry Grenadier on bass, Jeff Ballard on drums) sometimes with a second drummer (Matt Chamberlain), sometimes with saxophone (Joshua Redman) and often with a chamber orchestra for which Mehldau has done all the arrangements. All the instruments are very much integrated in this music, all play live and the instrumentation changes practically with each track, so giving a lovely rise and fall, swell and contraction. A wide screen movie for the imagination. For more go here.
8 Vijay Iyer Solo (ACT): Epistrophy gets a hypnotic, rocking back and forth intro, with the two hands bouncing off one another and throwing up minimalist cross-rhythms; Darn That Dream gets an extraordinary reconstruction and reharmonisation, its pliable beauty managing to survive and be enhanced by all this pulling about. Another challenging, absorbing and rewarding Vijay Iyer recording takes its very secure place in my permanent collection – his is turning into a pretty substantial body of work and one which I know will bring me fresh insights and continuing pleasures for years to come. For more go here.
7 Charles Lloyd Quartet Mirror (ECM): Is there a more perfect match than I Fall In Love Too Easily and Charles Lloyd? It’s a stunning start to an exceptional disc. Just try the old spiritual, Go Down Moses, for an example. Listen especially to how the rhythm elasticates at the end of Lloyd’s solo, as drummer Eric Harland and pianist Jason Moran erupt briefly and then settle around Reuben Rogers’s bass solo. That’s only one of many countless joyous moments in this long album. This is a masterclass in the art of saying so much without showing off, without shouting, with just sharing the love… For more go here.
6 Christine Tobin & Liam Noble Tapestry Unravelled (Trail Belle Records): The singer and her pianist collaborator have changed the order of the songs and Christine has added her original Closing Time to round the album out, but otherwise this is all the songs on Carole King’s Tapestry LP given new interpretations. What is remarkable is how much is achieved in such an apparently unadventurous way. Both musicians have come to that point in their art, it seems, where they have realised the beauty of simplicity and straightforwardness. For more go here.
5 Django Bates Beloved Bird (Lost Marble): We are only a few bars into Scrapple From The Apple – still in the tune, in fact – and an unmistakeable sequence of chord voicings and a slight slowing of the beat moves us seamlessly from the bebop of Charlie Parker to the 21st-century style-splicing, post-modern jazz of Django Bates. He does this trick continually throughout this piano trio CD, moving back and forward in and out of bebop, and he does it brilliantly. Bates and his Danish friends, Petter Eldh on double bass and Peter Bruun on drums, have made not only a spectacularly fine piano trio record but also the most interesting, articulate and exciting Bird album since… well, since Bird. For more go here.
4 Henry Threadgill Zooid This Brings Us To Volume II (Pi Recordings): The great iconoclast still sounds like no one else, and does things with his music that no one else can do. Guitarist Liberty Ellman slots in perfectly to the Threadgill sound and style, Jose Davila adds trombone and the characteristic tuba bass lines, leaving bass guitarist Stomu Takeishi to play the role of colourist while drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee keeps the rhythms sinuously funky. Five substantial originals, all carrying a coherent mood and drenched in that deeply strange and deeply beguiling kind of Threadgill beauty. For more go here.
3 Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden Jasmine (ECM): I first listened to this disc at four o’ clock one morning. Quiet, gentle and almost meditational at times, the music nevertheless didn’t send me off to sleep. Rather than feeling unjustly deprived of sleep, I found myself revelling in the joy of being awake. Which is, I suppose, what Keith Jarrett’s and Charlie Haden’s music is all about. It’s recorded in Jarrett’s small studio. The last time we heard this intimacy and unadorned feel from Jarrett was in his solo disc, The Melody At Night, With You. As with that album, I have the feeling my initial listen to Jasmine is the start of a long and beautiful friendship. For more go here.
2 Paul Motian/Chris Potter/Jason Moran Lost In A Dream (ECM): The sure sign of Motian’s greatness is to be found not only in his own subtle, sure musical touch but most strikingly in the playing of his two young sidekicks. Both saxophonist and pianist are slower, more contemplative than we are used to from their own albums, and both explore new musical territory in a hugely satisfying way. The Village Vanguard atmosphere adds that final patina to make this a truly great masterpiece. The finest Motian album, the finest Potter album and the finest Moran album I think I have ever heard. For more go here.
1 Loose Tubes Dancing On Frith Street (Lost Marble): There may be a dozen other discs worthy of the top spot, but my argument is that with all the others you have options – you might have a chance to hear the performers playing together live, you might prefer other items in their discographies. But if you want to listen to one of the most original bands of the last quarter century, and one which has many of today’s leading players all together, then this really is your Hobson’s Choice. And what a wonderful choice Hobson has here.
To quote most of my original review, this is not just some roughly recorded scraps of tape off the cutting room floor – it’s the band sounding as fine as it ever did, a live recording from Ronnie Scott’s 20 years ago, some seven years after Loose Tubes grew out of a Graham Collier-amassed bunch of young musicians and just hours before those musicians all went their own ways, most of them to continue shaping the sound of British jazz as it is today.
It’s clear from the first few minutes of the Django Bates-composed opening track, Yellow Hill, what it is about Loose Tubes that was so special. There are good big bands and there are great big bands. Good ones are full of talented musicians that are probably interchangeable with other talented musicians. They sound like the composers and arrangers of their music want them to sound, with minimal added character. They are the transparent jazz orchestras, and we have all heard them.
And then there are the great bands, bands made up of strong musical characters who bring their sounds collectively to the benefit of the whole. They are usually led by strong musicians who understand that personal expression enhances the group sound and is to be specially written for. Think Duke Ellington, think Charles Mingus, think Carla Bley, think David Murray, think Maria Scheider…
Loose Tubes took it even further, having no real leader, though, let’s face it, we fans always thought it was Django, really. What is indisputable is that this was one of the great bands. And the members were not interchangeable with whoever happened to be in town that night or didn’t have a gig with one of their other bands. These guys were totally committed and a solo from any of the other excellent guitarists in the country would have been no subsitute for a John Parricelli solo, for example.
Just listen to the opening ensemble playing on Yellow Hill, the gorgeous way Iain Ballamy’s soprano solo is cushioned by the rhythm team on the same track, the barely contained chaos in the centre of Discovering Metal, and the way it coalesces into the head at the end, the growing groove of the tune in Eddie Parker’s Last Word… The examples go on and on right through this disc.
I didn’t get to hear them this week in 1990 but had the privilege to sit in the front row on one of their previous residencies at Ronnie’s. That was when I first felt the physical exhilaration of a big band blast at close range. And it really was physical, an impact of blown air!
But brass power is only one element. There is the wide range of influences from rock, reggae, Latin and world music, the playfulness, the passion for the music, and the lightly worn intelligence and wit of it all.
Of course, how the hell over 20 strong creative individuals could all stay together and move in a cohesive manner for so long is extraordinary. Herding cats springs to mind. So, it was never going to last, but we give grateful thanks that it lasted those seven years and that this superb example of what they sounded like is now available for our enjoyment.
It’s been classified in more than one end-of-year list as a reissue or in the archive section, and not as a new release, which is strange because this recording has never been previously released and it’s as far from the dusty archives as it’s possible to get.
If you haven’t already done so, buy this, I urge you, buy multiple copies and send them to all those you love… And buy them from Django Bates’s website. That way, the band members get the most benefit. The link is here
2009 Festive 50
50 Jim Hart’s Gemini: Narrada (Loop Records) Gemini is Hart on vibes, Ivo Neame on alto saxophone, Jasper Hoiby on bass and Dave Smith on drums – all four players are strong, giving the band a fine balance, with Hart’s vibes tone and Neame’s relatively rich alto sound stopping things getting too harsh, and Hoiby giving a powerful bottom end. Smith is pushy when he needs to be but is always very musical with it. Narrada is a place on Bodmin moor where Hart grew up, and this more elemental, lyrical music begins to leaven my initial wariness that this might just be clever-clogs music. More
49 Traincha & the Metropole Orchestra: This Girl’s In Love With You: Burt Bacharach Songbook (Blue Note) The best singer of Bacharach since Dionne Warwick. Maybe that is what Burt himself saw in her singing and why he became involved in the recording; her relatively ego-less approach must be every songwriter’s dream. It’s great, too, to hear new arrangements – mostly by Patrick Williams, but some by Vince Mendoza – of these mostly familiar tunes. And where so many jazz singers have failed singing Burt, Traincha succeeds. More
48 Julian Arguelles: Momenta (Basho) Saxophonist and composer Julian Arguelles has been in residence in Frankfurt, working with the HR Big Band. In his spare time he recorded the recent solo project Inner Voices, but this live recording shows the rewards of the day job – his own compositions played live by the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, with guest soloist Gwilym Simcock on piano and, of course, the man himself on tenor and soprano saxophones. Momenta is another highly worthwhile addition to the Arguelles catalogue, and a reminder that the scope and depth of his contribution to 21st century jazz continues to grow. More
47 Lars Danielsson: Tarantella (ACT) The double bass virtuoso has prettiness pretty well corralled and safe inside the pen. He has been wearing his heart more openly on his sleeve for the past few releases on the German ACT label, and this could just about be his loveliest yet. The textures he gives us on the opening track, Pegasus, include breathy Norwegian trumpet from Mathias Eick, graceful acoustic guitar from John Parricelli, and the double bass and bowed cello of the boss. The band is completed by Leszek Mozdzer on piano, celesta and harpsichord, and Eric Harland on drums and percussion. More
46 Kairos 4Tet: Kairos Moment (Kairos Records) Saxophonist and leader of this quartet, Adam Waldmann includes a definition of “kairos” on the sleeve – “a propitious moment for decision or action… opportunity”. A fine way to approach jazz, which is filled with such moments. The band is completed by Jasper Hoiby on bass, Rob Barron on piano and Jon Scott on drums, and Waldmann’s writing is thoughtful and covers a variety of moods. There is no showing off I can discern here – it feels like four young men intend on the selfless exploration of what is special in the moment, and how best they can share it with the listening world. More
45 Get The Blessing: Bugs In Amber (Cake) What strikes me when I listen to this Bristol-sourced four piece made up of bassist Jim Barr and drummer Clive Deamer (who were once in Portishead), and trumpeter Pete Judge and saxophonist Jake McMurchie (who weren’t), is the prog and jazz rock of my youth. There are quite a few of the young British post-jazz bands that do the loud thrashy, free thing very well but seem incapable of leavening it with something slower, quieter and contrasting. Get The Blessing can do big and brash but they can also do small and subtle. More
44 Gill Manly: With A Song In My Heart (Linn Records) It’s inspired by Ella and there are moments when an individual sample, subjected to a voice pattern test, might throw up an uncanny similarity in phrasing and timbre. To be able to approach the vocal near-perfection of the great Ms Fitzgerald is an achievement in itself. But this is certainly not to suggest that Gill Manly is an imitator for nothing could be further from the truth. The songs are mostly familiar ones – September Song, Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most, Midnight Sun, Lush Life – but the insights Gill gives, both to their melodic and harmonic content, and to their lyrical meaning are fresh and original. More
43 Alyn Cosker: Lyn’s Une (Linn Records) The young Scottish drummer would have made a pretty good album with his same-generation mates Ross Hamilton on bass, David Dunsmuir on guitar and Paul Towndrow on saxophones. The fact that he also has the slightly older Tommy Smith on tenor and Smith’s one-time pianist Jason Rebello in on the sessions as well, makes this a particularly lively listen. It’s the “everybody’s having a damn fine time” feel along with some equally damn fine playing that makes this one to search out. More
42 Seb Pipe’s Life Experience: Shoot For The Stars (33 Records) It opens with Yonetsu. This translates as “residual energy” and is certainly full of that from Pipe on alto, Arthur Lee on piano and Fender Rhodes, Phil Donkin on bass and George Hart on drums. This is tricksy modern jazz that suggests some Steve Coleman influence in the way the lines are constructed. But, unlike some of Coleman’s work, this does not feel coldly academic, and this feeling is further enhanced when the track segues into an old Brazilian classic, Tico Tico. A wide variety of mood, the songs are all very strong, the playing is great and the band wonderfully cohesive. More
41 Partisans: By Proxy (Babel) This is only the fourth album Phil Robson, Julian Siegel, Thaddeus Kelly and Gene Calderazzo have recorded as Partisans in 13 years. I always think of the word “fusion” with a wry smile when I hear Partisans, because I think the jazz-rock style of the 1970s acquired such a bad name for its excesses that its strengths are often forgotten. And Partisans seem to me to embody many of them. More
40 Colin Steele: Stramash (Gadgemo Records) There is a piano introduction that sets a poised tone, almost jazzy but not quite, then a bunch of folk fiddles underpinned by cello set up a melody that could be a centuries-old Scottish traditional song, and that is soon underpinned by jazz acoustic bass and brushed drums as a rich, grainy and lyrical tenor saxophone sets up an unmistakably jazz solo that soars over the whole. It is this ability to blend these folk and jazz traditions that marks Steele out as an important composer and this as an album of importance. More
39 Julian Lage: Sounding Point (Emarcy) This young guitarist can play jazz effortlessly, but he also has buddies in jazz bluegrass, like banjo player Bela Fleck and mandolin wiz Chris Thile. They both contribute as does young and very talented piano star Taylor Eigsti, and then there are a bunch of hugely talented kids Lage was at Berklee with. The music adds jazz and a hyphen to classical, bluegrass, folk, etc, and although Lage often takes the spotlight with seemingly effortless displays of virtuosity, he is not just a grandstander and does give a lot of attention to textures within the arrangements, leaving space for others to shine too. More
38 Michael Janisch: Purpose Built (Whirlwind Recordings) The album has many moods and characters but, whether Janisch is on double or electric bass, his big, low round tone and strong riff lines are always at the fulcrum. A mix of originals and classic jazz tunes, including Strayhorn’s Blood Count and Coltrane’s Moment’s Notice. The band may swell and contract in size, the personnel may change from track to track, but the strong character of the leader makes it all hang together. More
37 Gretchen Parlato: In A Dream (ObliqSound) This disc finds the New York-based singer working often as a fifth instrument within her band. Track two, Within Me, is an ideal introduction, Parlato singing in a just-above-a-whisper, bossa-tinged tone against a skittish snare pattern and lovely cushioning piano chords. She is particularly adept at the odd timings and nuanced harmonic changes found in this very cool, very contemporary jazz. There is a fabulous bit in In A Dream where she sings harmony first with Aaron Parks’s keyboard, then with Lionel Loueke’s guitar. More
36 Stan Tracey Quartet: Senior Moment (Resteamed) Stan’s always played a strong card in irony and deadpan, of course – and the title is a classic case in point. In a blindfold “guess the ages of the band members” test the number 80 would have no chance of being mentioned, yet this adventurous, spirited, robust and superbly executed album is the latest from the supreme grandaddy of British jazz. We know of Stan’s exemplary taste in musicians, but a special word for saxophonist Simon Allen is in order. More
35 Christian McBride & Inside Straight: Kind Of Brown (Mack Avenue) This new band looks set to be more than a one-album aggregate, which is excellent news. The quintet brings together established names – Carl Allen on drums, Eric Scott Reed on piano, Steve Wilson on saxophone – and their playing is as impeccable as one would expect. But it’s the new one who really has the ears flapping. He is vibes-player Warren Wolf Jr. More
34 Laurence Hobgood: When The Heart Dances (Naim) There have been many pleasures discovering the singing and recordings of Kurt Elling, and one of them is discovering his pianist and musical director, Laurence Hobgood. In some ways, the arranger-brain and ear for beauty he revealed in his accompaniments reminded me from the start of Alan Broadbent, pianist and often arranger with Charlie Haden’s Quartet West, so it feels rather neat that for this new disc under his own name Hobgood is partnered by Haden. Oh, and there’s a guest, too. Mr Elling pops in for three. More
33 Steve Kuhn Trio with Joe Lovano: Mostly Coltrane (ECM) The pianist played with Coltrane in between the saxophonist’s leaving Miles and forming the famous Quartet, so he has good reason to record an album dedicated to the great man. It features his long-time trio of David Finck on bass and Joey Baron on drums, plus Lovano in absolutely stunning form. Kuhn is a rich and multi-layered player – a far cry in style from the pianist who would come to be most strongly associated with Coltrane, McCoy Tyner – but one who gets to new places in the music via a very different route. More
32 Claire Martin: A Modern Art (Linn) In a world of lots of other kinds of singers pretending they do jazz, Claire Martin is the real thing. A Joshua Redman tune is the place to start if you thought jazz singers were a bit too showbiz and cabaret for you – it’s a storming piece of thoroughly 21st century jazz. In fact, that can be said of the whole album. Martin has found a way of making jazz singing a modern art when so much of the time it has retreated into an exercise in nostalgia. More
31 Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: The Moment’s Energy (ECM) This group has been described as a new kind of chamber orchestra, for while it contains some of the instruments you might find in a conventional classical ensemble (double bass, violin, piano, percussion) there are also all kinds of other things, from shakuhachi and sho to signal processing, live electronics and sound projection. It is fascinating how the sounds all feel part of the same world, whether acoustically or electronically generated. And an expansive world it is, throwing up wide landscapes of sound. But it is also highly detailed and multi-layered, leading the listener to lean in and become absorbed in the micro sounds as well as the macro one. More
30 Lynne Arriale: Nuance: The Bennett Studio Sessions (In & Out Records) Pianist Lynne Arriale brings a wider audience to jazz, I believe, because, like orchestra leader Maria Schneider, she values the heart over the head. Or rather, she places the head in service to the heart. This impeccable session expands Arriale’s band from piano trio to quartet, and the trumpet and flugelhorn of Randy Brecker is a real bonus, as are the contributions of the veteran bass player George Mraz. Drummer Anthony Pinciotti is a new name to me, but he is equally classy. More
29 Jon Balke: Siwan (ECM) This music has an extraordinarily timeless quality to it – in places (the introduction, Tuchia, and O Andalusin, which follows) it sounds as if it could be from before the first millennium, never mind the second one. And then on track three, Jadwa, it adds a more contemporary groove to that ancient feel. So, Andalusian music, early Baroque and jazz all come together, united by their flexibility and ability to incorporate improvisation. It’s not a music of individual prowess as much as incredible interactive group subtlety. More
28 Lura: Eclipse (Lusafrica) Although born in Lisbon, Lura’s heritage is Cape Verdean and with her 2006 release, M’bem di Fora, she showed herself capable of being the Cesaria Evora of her generation, with an assured ability to deliver the morna style of the Atlantic island as well as ranging wider to encapsulate Portuguese popular music, Brazilian and Cuban sounds, jazz, an African flair and more. Eclipse is, if anything, even more assured. One of the young shining stars of world music. More
27 Zed-U: Night Time On The Middle Passage (Babel) The debut album from the trio of Shabaka Hutchings (clarinet, tenor saxophone), Neil Charles (electric and synth bass) and Tom Skinner (drums, keyboards, voice). The lingering feel is of a thoughtful and highly creative trio making a sound like no one else’s, moving jazz and improvisation in yet another fascinating direction, and bringing the eclectic musical interests they all must have into a thoroughly coherent, deeply thought through and exceptionally attractive whole. This is music of acute intellectual rigour but also of deep spirit. More
26 Empirical: Out ‘n’ In (Naim) The young British quartet of Nathaniel Facey (alto saxophone), Lewis Wright (vibes), Tom Farmer (double bass) and Shaney Forbes (drums) take the music and life of Eric Dolphy as inspiration and have really got to know the man and his music so well that they can internalise the influences and, so, be themselves while still paying tribute. All four are searching, intellectual musicians, but they are not just about serious exploration – they also have a damn fine time. More
25 Chick Corea & John McLaughlin: Five Peace Band Live (Concord) Just eight tracks over two CDs gives a lot of room to stretch out, and boy, do John and Chick need it. In duos and in an all-star quintet with Kenny Garrett on saxophone, Christian McBride on bass and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, they turn in superhuman performances. Listen to the final track, Someday My Prince Will Come, and forget a mere prince; this time there are kings, two of them, bringing instrumental grace to the world. More
24 Martial Solal: Live At The Village Vanguard (CamJazz) The Algerian/French pianist was celebrating his 80th birthday in 2007 when he recorded this solo date in that most magical of jazz clubs. His spoken introduction shows his humour and perfect timing, and those too are here in spades in the nine tunes he then plays. Along with, of course, an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of jazz piano and a prodigious technique. More than anything it is the generosity of the great man that shines through. More
23 Chris Bachelor & Steve Buckley: Big Air (Babel) The duo expands and brings in a transatlantic element. In addition to Oren Marshall on tuba, we have pianist Myra Melford and drummer Jim Black joining the trumpeter and woodwind-player. It’s a richly varied programme and my favourite track keeps changing. Today it’s The Road, The Sky, The Moon, with Batchelor and Marshall sharing the improvising honours, Melford on harmonium and a lovely background wash of percussion. But tomorrow it might be Song For The Garlic Seller with its looped trumpet blanket intro against which Buckley plays some great whistle. More
22 Jon Hassell: Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street (ECM) Trumpeter Jon Hassell compares his way of making music to creating montages of sound, but even that doesn’t quite capture the full nature of what he does. This feels very much like four-dimensional music, having great space and depth as well as forward propulsion. It attains an almost mystical or magical quality – one that is difficult to describe because, like his melodies and moods, it feels always just out of reach. More
21 Jack DeJohnette, John Patitucci, Danilo Perez: Music We Are (Golden Beams) So you note that DeJohnette is a drummer, Patitucci a bassist and Perez a pianist so you think, OK, this is a piano trio record. But of course, you would be wrong, or at least wrong a lot of the time. Right from the start there is more going on. DeJohnette plays the lovely Tango African melody on Melodica in harmony with the bass and elsewhere uses electronic drums, Perez plays keyboards as well as piano, Patitucci plays electric as well as acoustic bass, and sometimes plays up in the guitar range in the former instrument and with bowing in cello range on the latter. More
20 trio VD: Fill It Up With Ghosts (Babel) Chris Sharkey plays guitar and bass parts simultaneously, and clearly takes inspiration from death metal players and Derek Bailey in equal measure; Christophe de Bézenac plays saxophone and can be remarkably delicate or play with such attack that his sound has more in common with the slap and pop of a funk bass player than with other reedmen, and Chris Bussey plays drums, although he usually sounds like three drummers at once. In the crowded place where young Englishmen mix free jazz and heavy rock, trio VD are more focused, more original and more skilled. More
19 Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition: Apti (innova) On this trio disc with Rez Abassi on guitar and Dan Weiss on tabla, the saxophonist achieves an extraordinary synthesis, one that is a perfect reflection of his personality and dual heritage. Yes, we have heard Indo-jazz synthesis before, from Mahavishu and Shakti and so on, but this really is very fresh and very exciting. The playing is jaw-droppingly good, especially when they are really firing on Vandanaa Trayee and on IIT. Having said that, there is not a dud track on this disc.More
18 Kit Downes Trio: Golden (Basho Records) Very much in the modern style of being an equilateral triangle; the other two sides are Calum Gourlay on bass and James Maddren on drums. My favourite track is A Dance Took Place, in which Downes keeps reducing me to slack-jawed wonderment – his sound on the piano is so strong and personal, his touch both definite and graceful, the shifting dynamics of the piece continually surprising. More
17 Huw Warren: Hermeto + (Basho Records) The Swansea-born pianist, accordionist and composer has such a great and personal style, always identifiable, a gorgeous synthesis of jazz and classical styles plus a very rich take on the folk music of these isles. He brings all those influences to bear here upon the music and inspiration of the Brazilian bandleader, composer and all-round extraordinary human being Hermeto Pascoal. Hermeto’s songs are interleaved with Huw’s own, and a rich tapestry they make. Peter Herbert is on bass and Martin France on drums. More
16 Fly: Sky & Country (ECM) Fly is a trio of saxophone, double bass and drums and those musicians are saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard. So, two thirds of the Brad Mehldau Trio and a tenor/soprano player who doesn’t get heard nearly often enough. It’s interesting to listen to the opening track, Ballard’s Lady B, and imagine it as the Mehldau band with saxophone in place of piano – it has a similar musing mood and gentle swing, and with the lovely locking together that Grenadier and Ballard achieve, their combined sound is already hard-wired into the subconscious. More
15 Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, Steve Swallow, Antonio Sanchez: Quartet Live! (Concord) Some of the tunes come from way back when they were together before, some are new – all are just great. But it’s the group sound that is most magical. Metheny explains in the notes that vibes and guitar make for a really rich set of possibilities – both are able to play single notes or chords, and their timbres can blend or contrast as needed. With Swallow’s distinctive woody bass guitar sound in there too, these really are three highly individual instrumental sounds. And, while drums may be drums, Sanchez does have a great and wide ranging way with them. More
14 Jan Garbarek Group: Dresden (ECM) The cover is a rich and multi-faceted red and reflects perfectly the energy, the passion and the sometimes explosive playing that lies within. Drummer Manu Katche is clearly a key driver of the new sound the group has, and the funkier sound of the electric bass (Yuri Daniel) is vital, too. But Rainer Bruninghaus is not to be ignored and turns in some of the most dramatic playing of the evening. Garbarek is on fire on soprano on the opener and just as impassioned on tenor. It’s just a fabulous concert recording. More
13 Tomasz Stanko Quintet: Dark Eyes (ECM) When it comes to being cool and hot, restrained and unleashed, all at the same time, the Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko does it better than most. He is also a great spotter of young talent – this time its up-and-coming pianist Alexi Tuomarila, Jakob Bro on guitar, Andres Christensen on electric bass and Olavi Louivuori on drums (two Finns book-ending two Danes). Stanko himself is on blinding form, so controlled so much of the time, then occasionally unleashing one of those blistering, choked screams… More
12 Tord Gustavsen Ensemble: Restored, Returned (ECM) It’s a little disconcerting for ardent Gustavsen trio fans when, at the beginning of this latest disc, the gentle piano chords are quickly joined by a horn – at first it has the timbre of a muted trumpet and then it becomes clear this is the clear-toned saxophone of Tore Brunborg. On track two Jarle Vespestad’s quiet storm returns beneath the piano, but the bass part is now taken by Mats Eilertsen who provides a stronger, more precise low end. The other change here is the presence of singer Kristin Asbjornsen, who sings a few gorgeous songs Tord has written as settings of WH Auden’s poetry. More
11 Steve Lehman Octet: Travail, Transformation and Flow (Pi Recordings) Sometimes album titles tell you nothing – in this case it says a lot about the music within. There is evidence of great labours, sometimes a struggle, to achieve what we hear which transforms both jazz itself and maybe us, the listeners, along the way. And there is a great flow to the music – a stream, sometimes near a deluge, of both compositional and improvisational ideas. Fans of the younger New York musicians like Vijay Iyer and Stephan Crump as well as longtime travaillers working to find a new musical language like Henry Threadgill will be familiar with this kind of sound. More
10 Liam Noble Trio: Brubeck (Basho Records) There are more obscure Brubeck tunes, as well as the hits (It’s a Raggy Waltz, Blue Rondo A La Turk and Paul Desmond’s Take Five). We might be forgiven had we wearied of the latter, but these reworkings are so fresh and so fascinating that our interest is reinvigorated. The internal workings of the trio (Dave Whitford on bass and Dave Wickins on drums), Noble’s complete understanding of – and determination to extend – the music of Dave Brubeck, the witty artwork of the cover, all go towards making this one of my recordings of the year. More
9 Robert Glasper Trio & Robert Glasper Experiment: Double Booked (Blue Note) We get five tracks of Glasper with Vicente Archer on acoustic bass and Chris Dave on drums, and then a bunch of tracks with Dave still there but joined by Derrick Hodge on electric bass as well as Casey Benjamin on sax, and guests Bilal and Mos Def on vocals and Jahi Sundance on turntables. The trio builds on what we heard on Glasper’s first two discs for Blue Note. The Experiment section includes Herbie Hancock’s Butterfly from his Thrust album, sounding wonderfully retro and up-to-date simultaneously. With Double Booked Glasper brings his two distinct musical personalities into a thoroughly coherent and exceptionally enjoyable whole.More
8 Gwilym Simcock: Blues Vignette (Basho Records) Gwilym Simcock and his record company are extremely generous people. This album is a double CD, the first consisting of the pianist solo and in a duo with cellist Cara Berridge, the second a piano trio set with Yuri Goloubev on double bass and James Maddren on drums. The latter feels like the beginning of something really big – or, at least I hope it grows into that: a major piano trio on the world stage, up there with Mehldau, the Standards Trio, with Charlap’s and Barron’s and the Stefano Bollani Trio – because Simcock, Goloubev and Maddren do sound like they have found a magical place already. A great album and hard to believe it’s still only, in recording terms, a sophomore outing. More
7 Branford Marsalis Quartet: Metamorphosen (Marsalis Music) And metamorphose he certainly does. Put a tenor saxophone in his hands and the older Marsalis brother is a monster, attacking each verse, rising in triumph over the turmoil that Jeff “Tain” Watts can stir up from a drum kit. But, make that saxophone the smaller, straight soprano, and Marsalis changes shape to become an angel, soaring effortlessly and ecstatically over the piano of composer Joey Calderazzo on the exquisitely titled, and exquisitely lyrical The Blossom Of Parting. Eric Revis is on bass. More
6 Vijay Iyer Trio: Historicity (ACT) Why is it that whenever I listen to a Vijay Iyer disc, the future looks brighter? More complex than ever, sure, but filled with new possibilities, new conundrums, fresh ways of hearing. The Indo-American pianist has performed in many different instrumental combinations before, but this time the format is the conventional acoustic piano trio (though, naturally, that word “conventional” is going to be confounded here). We find Iyer, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore leaping, landing and somersaulting like free runners up the walls and across the roofs of a complex musical landscape – it’s all about getting the correct angle, the right acceleration and degree of twist. More
5 Stefano Bollani/Jesper Bodilsen/Morten Lund: Stone In The Water (ECM) ”We never have to discuss how to play a piece of music, which in my experience is very unusual, and there’s a shared understanding that the way we play the songs can sometimes be more important than the material itself.” If the last ten years or so has taught us piano trio fans anything, it has taught us overwhelmingly that this format is infinite with possibilities but while there are many piano trios out there, there are only a handful that achieve this level of interactive playing. More
4 David Murray Black Saint Quartet: Live In Berlin (jazzwerkstatt) Oh joy of joys – a jubilant piano introduction over a Latin-infused beat, somewhat reminiscent of the later work of Don Pullen, and that life-giving elixir that pours from David Murray through the tenor saxophone and into our ears. Apparently all this music was written by Murray for a documentary film called Banished about all the black families expelled from their homes between the Civil War and the Great Depression. Somehow, four musicians on a Berlin stage in 2007 evoke the trauma, sorrow and anger of all this in the most compelling and profound way, and somehow turn it into a celebration of life nevertheless. More
3 Kurt Elling: Dedicated To You (Concord) Nightmoves of two years ago marked a new high point for Elling and this disc, his tribute to the classic Impulse! disc made by John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman in 1963, continues that high quality. Elling is surely the most intelligent vocalist on the planet today. Those quiet high notes he hits in Dedicated To You; the breathy, bending phrasing, the ability to suggest a whole (very interesting) chord in a single note by somehow finding just the right overtones; the grittiness in his voice on Nancywhich is as close as a singer comes to the saxophone. A man who treasures the music’s history, and is playing a vital role in its present and future. More
2 Sonny Rollins: Road Shows Vol 1 (Emarcy) It might be spelt with an “o” but I always hear a “u”. Sonny is Sunny in an elemental way – a bringer of light and energy to the world – life-giving, vital, a source. This disc is of live tunes between 1980 and 2007 and while it might be to being there as a picture of the sun is to the sun itself, it is nevertheless one of the most evocative pictures of the sun you will ever hear, if you catch my drift. There are a number of solo codas here, including on Easy Living and on More Than You Know, and they are masterpieces of saxophone playing, of jazz and of personal expression. It’s extraordinary that on the most recent of these recordings Rollins is 76 or 7, and his power is undimmed. More
1 Keith Jarrett: Paris/London (Testament) (ECM) Not since the multi-disc releases of the 1970s has there been quite such a work of greatness as this from Jarrett. He reveals in the extraordinarily frank liner notes that he came very close to a nervous breakdown in the days before the London gig. That what he chose to cling to was a grand piano on a concert hall stage is possibly what brought him back from that edge, but it is certainly what gives us both alarming and, in some ways, comforting insights into the nature of artistic creativity and its ability to both explore the darkest parts of the human psyche while possibly healing them, too. The “big stuff” contained in these 12 pieces is, then, to be expected: drama, rage, despair, hopelessness, searching… What is more surprising in the circumstances is the funky stuff. More
2008 Festive 50
50 The Tomorrow Band: 2 To Get Set (Rehab Records) Chris Bowden, Neil Bullock and Ben Markland, Birmingham favourites all, give Freddie The Freeloader and more a good going over. Red Baron is a bonus DVD track. More
49 Myriam Alter: Where is There (Enja) She’s a composer and gets Jacques Morelenbaum, Greg Cohen, Joey Baron and others to play her almost-jazz from the heart. Very Southern European in feel. More
48 Tom Richards Orchestra: Smoke and Mirrors (Candid) He might come across like a Maria Schneider imitator, but that’s no mean feat, especially when it’s his debut disc. Gwilym Simcock is on piano. More
47 Huong Thanh & Nguyen Le: Fragile Beauty (ACT) I suspect this mix of trad Vietnamese and jazz has displeased purists in both camps, but her voice, his guitar and the lovely arrangements have always floated my bamboo canoe. More
46 Sara Colman: Ready (Q-note) Birmingham singer of great class, able to do justice to the great American songbook and to modern rock songs. Try her Stuck In The Middle With You. More
45 Houston Person: The Art And Soul Of… (High Note) If music were a bearhug it would sound like this. Gentle giant tenor saxophone plays the great composers on this three-disc bargain compilation. More
44 Blink: (Loop Records) Bass-less trio with strengths in Alcyona Mick’s compositions, Paul Clarvis’s always sensitive drumming and Robin Fincker’s knotted saxophone improvs. Part of the Loop Collective. More
43 Devon Sproule: Keep Your Silver Shined (Tin Angel) The wild card in this ten. Solid silver songs, Americana-country atmosphere and some jazzy rhythms. And her record company is based in Coventry! More
42 John Taylor: Whirlpool (CamJazz) Possibly the finest pianist this country has produced, with Palle Danielsson fulsome on bass and Martin France busy on drums. Arise Sir John! More
41 Enrico Rava/Stefano Bollani: The Third Man (ECM) A joyous trumpet and piano duo who bring romance, great style and a little humour to all they do. And so very Italian.More
40 Was (Not Was): Boo! (Ryko) Tongue-in-cheek soul-funk is not an overpopulated area in popular music, but the Was Brothers and their silver-tongued singers would be classy in the most crowded genres. This ten’s wild card. More
39 Outhouse (Babel) Drummer Dave Smith’s quartet has the same instrumentation as the original Polar Bear, with Robin Fincker and Mark Hanslip as the two tenors. Some African influences, but a fresh and original sound. More
38 Matana Roberts Quartet: The Chicago Project (Central Control) The ’60s spirit of black power and free playing is alive and well in this fearless, young saxophonist from Chicago. She has Tortoise’s Jeff Parker on guitar. More
37 Trio Mediaeval: Folk Songs (ECM) More non-jazz, this one features three scholarly classical singers bringing their Scandinavian song heritage back to life with sublime harmonies and great atmospheric sense. More
36 Dianne Reeves: When You Know (Blue Note) Singing pop songs and jazz with equal aplomb, Reeves is a deserving 21st-century keeper of the Ella Fitzgerald flame. Sumptuous George Duke production. More
35 Melingo: Maldito Tango (Manana/Naïve) If Tom Waits had been born in Argentina and was slightly better looking, he would have been Daniel Melingo. Nuevo Tango from a man who could lead your loved ones astray. More
34 E.S.T.: Leucocyte (ACT) The highly improvised, jam session swansong from a band that changed the sound of the piano trio forever, and shows they were still pushing at the limits. More
33 Mike Walker: Madhouse and the Whole Thing There (Hidden Idiom) The Salford -born guitarist waited a long time to become a leader but has done it with great confidence and eclecticism. More
32 Markus Stockhausen: Electric Treasures: Live in Bonn (Aktivraum) A superb example of a modern, high-tech form of unscripted group jazz improv – a complete live concert by the trumpet-led quartet. More
31 Bobo Stenson Trio: Cantando (ECM) I was a bit piano-trio jaded when I first reviewed this – it’s a real grower and feeds all kinds of music into the mix, from Ornette and Don Cherry to Piazzolla and Alban Berg. More
30 Alec Dankworth: Spanish Accents (Basho) What it says on the tin with the bassist assisted by Julian Arguelles, Phil Robson, Marc Miralta and Christian Garrick, all in an Iberian state of mind. More
29 Steve Lehman Quintet: On Meaning (Pi Recordings) Vijay Iyer’s saxophonist pal leads a quintet with vibes in place of piano. Strenuous and exacting, with familiarity its discipline reveals a certain charm. More
28 Curios: Closer (Impure) Another piano trio but with catchy tunes, a certain wit, great interplay and that always attractive atmosphere created when musicians simply celebrate being alive together. More
27 Gabi Lunca: Sounds from a Bygone Age Vol 5 (Asphalt Tango Records) The wild and rather dangerously joyful music that would have been heard at wedding parties in the repressed Romania of Ceausescu makes for a truly wonderful wild card. More
26 Tcheka: Lonji (Lus Africa) It’s the old woman, Cesaria Evora, who brought Cape Verde’s morna sounds to international attention, but it’s this young man who is the island’s most talented new find. More
25 Polar Bear: Polar Bear (Tin Angel) Still the most creative and distinctive of the young indie-friendly British jazz groups. Seb Rochford’s writing gets even better and Leafcutter John’s laptop tweaks are even more integrated now. More
24 Brad Mehldau Trio: Live (Nonesuch) The first really substantial recording of the trio revitalised by new drummer Jeff Ballard. Two discs, a full evening, at the one-and-only Village Vanguard. More
23 Arild Andersen, Paolo Vinaccia, Tommy Smith: Live At Belleville (ECM) Norwegian bassist, Italian drummer and Scottish tenor showing how fiery playing is vital to combat the chill up north. More
22 Christine Tobin: Secret Life of a Girl (Babel) She finds a new way to sing jazz, a new way to arrange a band, and a new way to write fine songs. The two covers are no less original. More
21 Arve Henriksen: Cartography (ECM) The most mesmerizing new trumpet sound since Miles, and a much broader, richer, deeper landscape of sound and vision than we have previously heard for this ECM debut as leader. More
20 Marcin Wasilewski Trio: January (ECM) Polish piano trio who have collectively supported trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and individually Manu Katche, with the leader’s sure-footed piano voicings a deep joy. More
19 Fieldwork: Door (Pi Recordings) Pianist Vijay Iyer, drummer Tyshawn Sorey and saxophonist Steve Lehman fluent in a jazz language I don’t begin to understand but find fascinating nevertheless. Jazz for intergalactic visitors? More
18 Vinicius Cantuaria: Cymbals (Naïve) The New York Brazilian makes it sound so effortless but reforming bossa and other samba-inflected music so expertly for the 21st century takes a subtle touch and great intelligence. More
17 Phil Robson: Six Strings & The Beat (Babel) I have become exceedingly wary of jazz musicians mixing with classical string players, but the guitarist dispels all misgivings with excellent writing and arranging, plus a great range of moods including West African to Americana. More
16 Toumani Diabate: The Mande Variations (World Circuit) A master musician who transcends genre and has brought the always attractive sound of the kora to its widest audience yet. This is a solo disc but he conjures a whole orchestra from that calabash, wood and strings. More
15 Carla Bley Big Band: Appearing Nightly (Watt) Carla and crew always delight but this time the band’s nomenclature has even more resonance as her compositions quote from and comment on all kinds of big band classics. More
14 John Zorn/George Lewis/Bill Frisell: News For Lulu (Hatology) It’s a short step from Bley’s big band references to the deliriously wonderful re-workings of obscure ’60s Blue Note hard bop created spontaneously by three avant-gardists. A reissue that was new to me for the Festive 50. More
13 Pat Metheny: Day Trip (Nonesuch) The guitarist with Christian McBride and Antonio Sanchez should please the purist jazz fans while maintaining the groove, accessibility and joyful sense of celebration his PMG audience values. More
12 Norma Winstone: Distances (ECM) A worldly-wise singer and a band young enough to be her sons – Betty Carter would be proud. Norma’s finest singing and lyric writing to date, the most sympathetic piano accompaniment and some sublime soprano saxophone. More
11 Dave Douglas & Keystone: Moonshine (Greenleaf) Inspired again by silent film, but these are no simple soundtracks. The trumpeter has DJ Olive at the decks, Adam Benjamin at the Fender Rhodes and others, plus some striking compositions to explore. Propulsive. More
10 Jenny Scheinmann: Crossing The Field (Koch) The final wild card – influenced by a terrific set at the Village Vanguard I witnessed from this talented violinist and composer. Jason Moran on piano, Bill Frisell on guitar, some great string writing and delightfully quirky Americana-tinged tunes. More
9 Jim Hall & Bill Frisell: Hemispheres (artistShare) Two master guitarists from two generations sitting down in a friends house in Brooklyn to swap tunes and ideas. A second disc adds Scott Coley on bass and Joey Baron on drums with a songbook of standards. More
8 Zoe & Idris Rahman: Where Rivers Meet (Manushi) A ground-breaking Indo-jazz sound from the pianist and clarinet siblings. Their father’s Bengali ballads collection inspired them and the results are inspired indeed. Some great singing too. More
7 Abdullah Ibrahim: Senzo (Intuition) A whole solo piano set with Abdullah wandering from old favourite to new tune and on, returning at last to where he started. The complete circular journey, just as he played when I first heard him live in Cape Town in 1970. More
6 Dave Holland Sextet: Pass It On (Emarcy) The bassist uses old methods – an acoustic line-up and all the conventional instrumental roles – but gets something new from them every time – it’s the result of painstaking work from all involved, as well as the highest creative standards. Group cohesion and great playing – one cannot ask for more. More
5 Evan Parker/Transatlantic Art Ensemble: Boustrophedon (ECM) Some may say it’s not jazz but contemporary composition, but this band, co-led by Parker and Roscoe Mitchell creates a sound world unlike any other I’ve heard, and with players like Craig Taborn and Barry Guy in the band, as well as the two leader/saxophonists, how could it not be jazz? Frightening but exhilarating, too. More
4 Django Bates: Spring is Here (shall we dance?) (Lost Marble) The ultimate student group, storRMChaser, working where jazz big band meets pop songs, and led by a seriously brilliant jazz musician. Witty lyrics, even wittier playing and jam-packed with ideas and whatever joie de vivre is in Danish. More
3 Bill Frisell: History, Mystery (Nonesuch) A double disc that explores all the guitarist’s eclecticism and makes it sound completely cohesive. Everything is here, from snippets that sound like soundtracks to films you wish you could see to a live version of Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come which makes you want to leap for joy. More
2 Joe Zawinul & the Zawinul Syndicate: 75th (Birdjam) Joe’s timing was always impeccable. This double disc is recorded on his birthday, he died just weeks later, and left us this final document, not only of one of the greatest live bands but also preserving a last duet with his old Weather Report co-leader, Wayne Shorter. More
1 Julian Siegel Trio: Live at the Vortex (Basho) The English saxophonist/clarinetist with Greg Cohen on bass and Joey Baron on drums from the US. I first heard them at the Cheltenham Festival, then up so close in Birmingham you could hear them breathe. This is a terrific recording from that tour – three-way modern jazz music making that seems to me to get to the heart of what it’s all about. Virtuosity is present in spades, but more important is the warmth and humanity, the delight in spontaneous and communal creation that oozes from these men and their music. More
Sound in its natural state
When was the last time you heard some music and no electricity was involved?
It wasn’t on an internally-batteried ipod, it wasn’t cranked up on a music system or docking station, it wasn’t pumped through a club sound system, it wasn’t played live on electric guitars, electric keyboards, powered laptops and decks and sung through a PA. There were no mics.
Nope, just acoustic instruments were involved and the sound made by vibrating metal strings amplified by a wooden box or air blown through a metal tube or over the vocal cords, or sticks hitting velum or metal had passed through nothing but air before entering and interacting with the complex bones, fluids and nerves inside your ear.
It should not be a rare occurrence but it is becoming one. I experienced it recently at a Birmingham Jazz gig at the CBSO Centre in Berkley Street – the gig was the Julian Siegel Trio and although double bassist needed a small amp on very low to boost his deep sound slightly to match the other instruments, the saxophone and clarinets of Julian and drums of Joey Baron were unamplified.
The effect on the audience was striking – we leant forward, we had to actively concentrate on listening. The music was coming to us but it wasn’t pushing us back in our seats – we had to meet it halfway.
And visually it was different too. The musicians were much closer to us than usual, and there were no mic stands and wires running everywhere. There was also no music playing over the PA beforehand – because there was no PA.
It will probably happen again later in the year when the Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen returns for another BJ gig with his trio – he also likes to do away with that electric filter between musicians and listeners.
Musing on all this, I remembered a classic French film by the director Jean-Jacques Beineix. He is best known for his movie Betty Blue but his first film, called Diva, and made in 1981 was about a young Parisian postman and his obsession with an American soprano. She believes so strongly that music must happen in the moment and cannot be anything other than live that not only has she never sung in a studio, she forbids her concerts to be taped.
Yes, of course, technology is a wonderful thing and exploiting its potential has resulted in some staggeringly good music and some very exciting experiences for all of us. My CD collection and the contents of my ipod are among my most treasured possessions, and some of my favourite bands and players – Joe Zawinul, Miles Davis, Django Bates, Joshua Redman – have made amazing music with the aid of electricity.
But sometimes it’s a good idea to stop and take stock, and remember how magical purely acoustic music, made in the moment and never to be heard again, can be.
This originally appeared in Night Times
Teaching jazz – this time it’s personal
A personal sound, a characterful tone, immediately recognizable – these are vital characteristics of the jazz saxophonist. To use them in a description of a player is indeed to pay a compliment.
But apply them to a classical player – do they still sound as positive?
Let us deal quickly with the gainsayers – there are, doubtless, readers of this magazine who will wax lyrical on the immediately identifiable sound of students of Sigurd Rascher, and contrast them with those more influenced by Larry Teal.
But these are, like most classical discussions, concerned with far more nuanced distinctions, and still the personal sound, the degree of individual character in the tone and timbre will need to be kept strictly in check so as not to overwhelm the much more important personality and characterful sound of the composer these players are interpreting. The classical instrumentalist is more concerned with transparency than personality, it might be argued.
Things might sound cruder in jazz, the timbre more brazen, the expression vulgarly broad, especially if it is classical ears doing the listening. But, believe me, that brass-brash, bar-walking Chicago tenor man is as acutely attuned to the sound he is making as the silver-smooth, conservatoire-seated Rascher scholars. Perhaps even more so, because so much more is dependent upon it.
In Michael Segell’s book The Devil’s Horn: The Story of the Saxophone from Noisy Novelty to King of Cool (published by Picador), there is a whole chapter devoted to Personal Sound. In it, Segell, who spends his book telling two parallel stories (one the history of the instrument, the other his own quest to learn to play it), describes jazz saxophonist Dave Liebman leading a class of saxophone students.
It makes for exhilarating reading – heaven knows how stimulating it would have been to be there. Liebman is a crude-talking Brooklynite with a pugilistic look; he is also a font of jazz and saxophone knowledge and an exceptional educator.
Segell writes, paraphrasing Liebman’s view: “The process of finding your sound can be torturous, it can take decades of serious playing, but it always involves imitating someone else’s first, and then, as (bass player and band leader Charles) Mingus said, being able to conjure up the rest of the history of the instrument. On the saxophone, that means being able to mimic the tones of a dozen or so distinctive voices – Hawk, Hodges, Webster, Prez, Parker, Getz, Cannonball, Trane, Rollins, Coleman, Konitz and Brecker are a good start – and then abandon them all and find your own.”
We’ll set aside for the moment the assumption that for Segell the history of the instrument equals its jazz history, and the implication that its classical use will always be a rather fusty and forgotten little side chapel in the glorious cathedral that is jazz saxophone.
My point is, would that torturous route to a personal sound be an over-riding issue for the classical player? I suspect it would be more of a hindrance.
Jazz, at its heart, will always be a player’s music, not a composer’s one. And the individual, the personal, the unique voice is what it should be all about.
I say “should be” because I would suggest there has been an insidious, though possibly naively so, force at work in jazz, or, more specifically, on its fringes.
It is the teachers I blame. Not the Dave Liebmans, the jazz practitioners working in the jazz colleges. Not the semi-pro bandleaders fostering young talent in the youth orchestras. It’s the well-meaning, classically-schooled teachers who started out on clarinet and started teaching saxophone because that was what the children wanted to learn, and then started teaching jazz because that was a little bit more modern than this Gavotte or that Barcarolle.
They think that teaching jazz rather than classical saxophone just means changing the music, and then forcing a little stilted syncopation upon it.
They also concentrate on playing music with the eyes – which is why reading the music and playing the right notes is everything – rather than with the ears – which is why developing a personal sound doesn’t get a mention. And let’s not take two many steps down that stony, twisted path signposted Improvisation – it’s far too scary!
The dangerous result – and I suspect this is more of a problem in the United Kingdom, where fewer of the teachers have a jazz grounding – is armies of grey, faceless saxophone clones who can play lots of fancy things and whose sight-reading is exemplary, but don’t have a clue who they are in the Liebman sense, i.e. what they really sound like. And, like those who taught them, don’t have a clue what jazz really is.
It is not classical music with a swing, it is a celebration of the freedom of the individual, a crucial voyage of self-discovery, a never-ending quest to define and articulate a point of view, based on the music that grew in the United States in the early 1900s from a whole variety of sources only one of which is European art music.
Of course, the end point of this search, the pot of gold for the jazz saxophonist, is to be able to play as naturally as breathing, with a sound as true to oneself as one’s speaking voice, and the technical facility to construct musical sentences as effortlessly as one constructs verbal ones. Not to recite, but to speak one’s mind, and express what is in one’s heart.
And, of course, no one gets to that end point, to the end of that seductive rainbow. But any progress we make along the path is a bonus.
I must end – Coleman Hawkins is playing Juicy Fruit, and I have some serious listening to do.
This was originally written for CASS Magazine, the organ of the Clarinet And Saxophone Society.
It’s sweet, it’s black, it’s back in fashion
I was watching a little food porn on telly, The Great British Menu, in which chefs from all over Britain compete to cook a meal for chefs from all over the world. Representing the Midlands was young Brummie Glynn Purnell who shocked the taste police in round one with a modern twist on the old cheese and pineapple on a stick 1970s party snack, only to boggle both minds and tastebuds at the next stage with veal fillet rolled in liquorice charcoal with tamarind jam, liquorice puree and rocket.
I decided immediately what to write about on this page – no, not the baby cows, the bitter lettuce nor that spice which I have since discovered is used in the recipes of both Worcestershire and HP sauces.
Liquorice then, or, more specifically, the liquorice stick.
It had been there at the beginning of jazz, the clarinet, and remained strong right through to the heady days of swing, when Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw were kings.
And then came bebop and bang went the liquorice stick – like a prop in a Laurel and Hardy magic show, all that was left was a puff of smoke and a sweetish smell.
In a thoroughly entertaining volume called The Jazz Word, the only book about jazz I could find in my school library in the 1960s, and which I came across again in a second-hand bookshop in Wigtown, in Dumfries and Galloway, there is a chapter on The Argot of Jazz.
This small glossary of hipster speak from 1957 contains references to all kinds of musical and lifestyle slang, but while it tells us a Small Pipe is an alto saxophone and the Vein is the double bass, there is no reference at all to the clarinet.
I shall return to The Argot of Jazz another time, for it is filled with quaint and witty phrases, but it is difficult to leave it without mentioning that a Fig is “a traditionalist; a cat for whom jazz sort of ended with the swing era. For him Mulligan’s a stew, Parker a coat…” Presumably also a clarinet fan, then?
And so, with isolated exceptions, like Jimmy Giuffre and more recently Louis Sclavis, the liquorice stick left a bad taste in the modern jazz mouth for, oh, 40 years or more.
To turn briefly down the oft-avoided side road where race and jazz are spoken of together, it is striking that the major clarinet stars of the swing era were white players, and it was the black-led bebop that sent the clarinet salesmen spare with worry. So, it is notable that the man who, almost single-handedly, made the clarinet fashionable again in modern jazz was a dreadlocked, Bronx-born Afro-American.
He is Don Byron.
In a marvelous bit of hyperbole, Time magazine said of him: “Calling Don Byron a jazz musician is like calling the Pacific wet…” and it is easy to see why they might get carried away.
This is a man whose first recording of avant-garde and often angry atonal music was called Tuskegee Experiments, after the infamous medical experiment in which a group of black men were left to deteriorate without medication to study the effects of syphilis.
He followed that with a klezmer album inspired by the music and comedy of Mickey Katz.
Since then, he has made recordings in almost every style there is, playing hip hop on the record Nu Blaxploitation, more formal contemporary compositions with the Bang on a Can All-Stars, classic romantic tunes by Gershwin, Porter, Arlen et al from the great American songbook, setting lieder and arias against Tamla Motown pop songs, and revitalising the long-forgotten swing-era writing of the composers John Kirby and Raymond Scott on Bug Music.
And he has done it all on the clarinet.
In the last year or two of reviewing contemporary jazz concerts in the English Midlands I have come across the liquorice stick two or three times; this is possibly two or three times more than in the last 20 years.
The young now London-based Shabaka Hutchings started out playing tenor saxophone in the Walsall Jazz Orchestra, but he has increasingly turned to the clarinet – and not the more common tenor-doubling instrument the bass clarinet – as his primary instrument.
Last year I was privileged to hear the first outings of Bengali tunes given jazz interpretations by pianist Zoe Rahman. Her brother Idris, more commonly to be seen playing tenor saxophone in the Afro-Jazz group Soothsayers, was on clarinet, and brought a new power and muscularity to the instrument I hadn’t heard before.
This was not the high, happy singing clari of the swing era, but a gruffer, earthier, harder-blowing clarinet sound. It sounded thoroughly contemporary and fresh with not a hint of retro-swing or trad.
So, if Don Byron and Shabaka Hutchings and Idris Rahman – oh, and Glynn Purnell – have anything to do with it, a taste for liquorice is returning.
Now where’s that bag of All Sorts?
This first appeared in CASS Magazine, the organ of the Clarinet And Saxophone Society.
An old saxophone reed box
It’s a good job I can’t afford a cleaner – sure as Hoovers are now Dysons I would, sooner or later, lose one of my treasured possessions.
It’s an empty box, rather tatty, the cellophane still round it but ripped where it was opened at one end. It has a white sticky label on it that reads GEWA Music. I have discovered from a quick Google search that this is the name of a German musical instruments dealership with subsidiaries all over the Continent.
The box itself is black with blue and magenta lettering that tells me it once contained five Rico Select Jazz filled reeds. They are for the tenor saxophone and are of the hard/3 variety.
How did I come by this box?
On a Saturday morning in late April 2006 I was having a fine time as a volunteer at the Cheltenham International Jazz Festival, cleaning out a dressing room at the Everyman Theatre. It needed to be prepared for its next occupant, which wouldn’t take long as all that remained as evidence of the previous evening’s visitor was an empty red wine bottle, this empty box and a paper sign bluetacked to the door which read: David Murray.
I first came upon the music of David Murray in the 1980s when I first heard the World Saxophone Quartet. This was challenging, boisterous jazz well within that catch-all term we writers use for something a bit too weird for us fully to understand: the avant-garde.
In the quarter century since then I have followed the career of Mr Murray, and have been fascinated by the way in which he has performed a trick not unlike the one Martin Amis played in his Holocaust novel, Time’s Arrow. He has managed to take his listeners on a reverse journey in time.
We may have started out listening to 1980s jazz in the 1980s, but in the ‘90s and the ‘00s we have heard in the saxophone-playing of David Murray the John Coltrane ‘60s, the Charlie Parker ‘40s, the Ben Webster ‘30s, even the Sidney Bechet ‘20s. And all incorporated into a jazz sensibility continually searching for new things to say and a more profound way to articulate them. (He is also an fine and original exponent of the bass clarinet, by the way.)
That evening in Cheltenham, Murray was there as a guest for a live BBC broadcast of Jazz On 3.
Jez Nelson was set up at a desk on one side of the Everyman stage with a comfy chair for those musicians he was going to interview. The instruments of the various bands that would be performing during the show took up the rest of the stage.
I can’t recall who else was on, as I was dashing here and there doing other things, but towards the end of the broadcast I did manage to squeeze in to the wings among the assorted musicians and other hangers-on.
Heavens, I thought, they’re not going to have much time for Murray. He hadn’t been interviewed, hadn’t sat in with any of the other groups, and now the minute hand was fast approaching the top of the clock.
And then, with five minutes left, Jez introduced David Murray and the short and stocky man with the large tenor worked his way through the crowd in the wings and took centre stage.
Dressed in a crumpled brown suit that looked like it had the dust of jazz history in its creases, he raised the saxophone to his mouth, expanded those bulbous cheeks to their full extent and started a solo improvisatory line that teased out that full jazz history from the air.
This gleaming avalanche of music seemed unending and unstoppable, yet as the final seconds of the programme ticked away Murray brought his exposition to a coruscating close, bowed and left the stage to receive the delight and camaraderie of his fellow musicians in the wings.
This empty reed box on my mantelpiece sits there to remind me of all of that: not just the mundane mechanics of a piece of carved cane buzzing against a shaped hole, not just that hugely seductive, serpent-curved tube of burnished brass, but the unlimited sound world that is conjured out of thin air when the instrument Adolphe Sax invented just 150 years ago is played by a genius like David Murray.
A reminder of one night among many when the sound of the saxophone has made this life really worth living.
This first appeared in CASS Magazine, the organ of the Clarinet And Saxophone Society.