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TOP 10 FOR 2010

(In alphabetical order, each selection is followed by a link for further investigation)

Scott Colley – EMPIRE (Cam Jazz)
Bassist Scott Colley draws on the inspiration of his family’s history in Empire, Kansas, a little ‘community’ that featured at least a post office, before the railroad came through and skipped the town, thus dooming the village. The cover of the disc ‘Empire’ shows members of the Colley family circa 1875. What would they have thought of this music?
We’ll never know. Because even though it evokes space, hopes, a wistful and plaintive sound, the music is also thoroughly modern. Colley, who has served as Herbie Hancock’s bassist in recent years (amongst various other projects and employers) gathers together a superb grouping of musicians for this work. Bill Frisell’s spooky guitar evokes so much color. Brian Blades (whose presence on any recording is enough to recommend it’s immediate investigation) plays percussion with such subtlety. Craig Taborn’s piano is also understated. In the face of this, Ralph Alessi’s trumpet is a brave figure on the horizon, much like those isolated characters on the prairie.
‘Sophia’ is maybe the pick of the litter. A gorgeous ballad in waltz time, Colley plays the melody first on bass, a dancing bear crooning a lullaby. When Frisell takes over after Colley’s solo it’s one of those moments that is pure transcendence. And check out Blade’s drumming, supporting with exquisite clarity.
Other tracks are a little more abstract and there is much here to like for those who enjoy open improv. Like all of the albums I’ve selected this year, this is a recording that is about something. A coherent statement, more than a blowing session.

Galactic – YA-KA-MAY (Anti- Music)
The party record of the year. Like any good gumbo, this New Orlean’s stew has varied and fiery ingredients. What ingredients? Jazz, blues, funk, hip hop, rap. A roux of flat out ecstatic sound. Galactic is a quintet of Ben Ellman (harps and horns), Robert Mercurio (bass), Stanton Moore (drums and percussion), Jeff Raines (guitar) and Rick Vogel (keyboards). However, they are joined by a plethora of N’Awlins talent: The Rebirth Brass Band, Trombone Shorty, Irma Thomas, Cheeky Blakk, Big Chief Bo Dollis, Allen Toussaint, and more.
This is big noise. Crank the sound in your car on a hot drive music. It’s a snapshot of the state of music from a group that is catholic in it’s approach, and by catholic I don’t mean the religion, but the adjective: all embracing and liberal, diffuse and global. There is going to be something here for everyone, the riotous (and sometimes obscene) raps, the deep groove of Irma Thomas’ feature (‘Heart of Steel’), Allen Toussaint’s thoroughly modern rhythm & blues. The hot blowing on ‘Cineramascope’. Trust me, you will want this in your collection. The most fun music of the year.

Mary Halvorson Quintet – SATURN SINGS (Firehouse 12)
Any jazz fanatic is always looking for music that pushes the boundaries, that says something no one has said before, or at least in a way it’s never been said before.
Here is another singular voice, proof that jazz is continuing to evolve and that improvised music is not dead. No one plays guitar like Halvorson, who is a mad scientist of melody and angularity and skronk. Her lines are plunked with a physicality that indicates a human being is actually playing a physical instrument here, and the notes she plays are unlike Bill Frisell or John Scofield or Pat Metheny or any of the other primary influences in this day and age. Cross Eric Dolphy with Frank Zappa, and send her to school with Anthony Braxton (that part is true) and you have Mary Halvorson.
Halvorson has recorded with her trio before, but this is a quintet, adding two horns (Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet and Jon Irabagon on alto sax) for a new approach.
‘Sequential Tears In It (No. 20)’ is a good example of her playing. Halvorson takes a solo at the outset that seems searching, and there is a sense of exploration (does she even know what’s coming next?) in her improvisation. The music builds and an unexpected slurring of the notes, sequences blurred, plinks and new sounds are teased from the strings and amp. But Mary never quite leaves the planet. In part because of her steady and inventive rhythm section (John Herbert on bass and Ches Smith on drums).
‘Sea Seizure (No. 19)’ is punk jazz, more than a name or attitude but great noisy driving rock, while ‘Crack In The Sky (No 11)’ is a relatively straight ahead horn driven thematically tuneful composition. ‘Crescent White Sings (No 13)’ is a winner. By the way, all of these numerical references (my guess) comes from the Braxton association by way of Heraclitus. Can one really step in the same river twice?
Monty Python famously stated, “And now for something completely different.” If you’re in the mood, give Mary Halvorson a turn.

Conrad Herwig has been engaging the compositions of various jazz icons (Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane) and giving them reinterpretations via the Cuban mambo approach. His background is as an alum of the renowned North Texas University’s One O’Clock Jazz Lab Band. His discography covers numerous large ensembles, from Toshiko Akioshi in the ‘80s through Mingus Big Band, Joe Henderson, Joe Lovano and tons of session work. A busy cat indeed. Trombonist Herwig has found a happy recipe here though. Along with pianist Bill O’Connell he arranges eight Herbie tunes for a spicy entertainment.
The octet sounds larger than it is and the live recording from the Blue Note adds to the sense of spontaneous fun this music is meant to occupy. And what a band! Eddie Palmieri sits in on piano on nearly half the tracks, and Randy Brecker guests on nearly all of them. Craig Handy on all manner of reeds, from sax to flute and even bass clarinet takes some heated solos and adds great textures to ensemble passages. And the rhythm section is muy caliente (Ruben Rodriguez on bass, Robby Ameen on drums and Pedro Martinez on percussion).
My favorite track is ‘Butterfly’, a tune from Herbie’s funk opus “THRUST”. There are several pauses in the melody that give over perfectly to a Latinization. Percolating percussion under the drizzle of Herbie’s lines makes for a wonderful combination. Handy’s bass clarinet solo echoes memories of Bennie Maupin in the Headhunters.
Here’s to hoping that Conrad Herwig has a few more of these releases in mind. My Spanish Monk, anyone?

Dave Holland Octet – PATHWAYS (Dare 2 Records)
Recorded live at Birdland, Holland adds to a series of hot recordings of the morphing band he’s lead over the past decade or so. Whether it’s a quintet or big band, the band is usually a high powered and muscular affair, yet with a light touch which is largely provided by vibes player Steve Nelson, who takes the place of the traditional pianist. Pathways, the title and first track on the album, is a perfect example of this. Opening with a bustling baritone solo by Gary Smulyan (who provides fat blats through whole gig) the band accompanies and states the theme under and over the soloists.
I had the good fortune to see this configuration live in Ann Arbor, just after this music was recorded. This is a band of dualities: orchestrated yet with a heavy emphasis on improv, lithe and heavy, swinging yet a big emphasis on grooves (Holland’s lines would sound just as good in a rock setting). And a leader that feels comfortable in spreading the wealth, whether it be composers adding their bit, or the very democratic lean towards solo time.
And what soloists! Chris Potter (tenor and soprano), Smulyan (bari) and Antonio Hart (alto) are the featured reed players, while Robin Eubanks (trombone) and Alex Sipiagin (trumpet and flugelhorn) represent the brass. Holland always features a hot drummer, for years Billy Kilson, and now Nate Smith. I’ve already mentioned Steve Nelson’s pivotal role in the band’s arrangements via vibes and marimbas, the sense of hearing the bare bones of the music in a translucent manner prevails (check out Potter’s Sea of Marmara, for instance). Soloists often begin melodically over a simmering rhythm section, then build to a crescendo with assistance of riffs and counter riffs from the horns. Altogether a very workable equation.

Brad Mehldau – HIGHWAY RIDER (Nonesuch Records)
Mehldau pairs with wunder producer Jon Brion for a second time, this time to create a double disc of a soundtrack to his imagination. The cover is a tip off, a drive in theater at dusk, the screen blank and awaiting our projections. Plus, Brion, creator of soundtracks (The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind being primary) is another clue that this isn’t going to be just another great jazz blowing session.
Carefully and lushly orchestrated (in spots) the music highlights Mehldau’s writing as strongly as it does his playing. Since recording a series of fairly ripped (as in muscular) trio sets over his career, the composer is just as powerful as his chops. Don’t Be Sad is an excellent example, a bitter sweet melody, achingly played by Joshua Redman on tenor sax, the arrangement features touches of orchestra, accordian and bassoon to accent and color the screen.
There are moments of sheer aching beauty, such as Now You Must Climb Alone, a piece that features the orchestra without piano, just Mehldau’s writing. Or the wonderful tension between the orchestra’s ascending strings and the trio, with Redman climbing over the tumult, on We’ll Cross The River Together.
The album is careful and constructed and may be, if one had to choose, one of those very best of Mehldau’s superb canon. His trio is featured as well, the stalwart Larry Grenadier on bass and percussionists Jeff Ballard and/or Matt Chamberlain. I tend to favor the tracks that feature Redman, who plays with a new level of maturity, both restrained and with a different tone than I’ve heard in the past: the kind of tone you hear in the real masters of the music, like Billie’s voice or Miles’ horn. A kind of humanity that connects immediately.

James Moody – 4A (IPO Recordings)
WIth James Moody’s passing this past month we lose one of the last of the boppers. Who is left? Roy Haynes, Sonny Rollins, both still playing amazing and vital music. But, like WWII vets, we are witnessing the end of an era as each of these national treasures leave the stage. Moody left it burning.
Armed with an armful of jazz chestnuts and a cracker jack rhythm team (Kenny Barron on piano, Lewis Nash on drums and Todd Coolman on bass), Moody attacks each tune with aplomb. His deep tone and elegant phrasing brings to mind Dexter Gordon every now and then, high praise indeed.
So many of these tunes are such old friends: ‘Round Midnight’, ‘Stella By Starlight’, ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’; here they are played so superbly by a master who has devoted his life to playing this music.

Danilo Perez – PROVIDENCIA (Mack Avenue Records)
Bassist Rodney Whitaker once noted that Mack Avenue Records producer Al Pryor’s approach to a recording session is to encourage the artist to find a way to express their influences and passion. Hence Providencia finds pianist and composer Danilo Perez expressing Panamanian flavors while also addressing the meaning of the title, which he relates means ‘to be prepared for the future’ or ‘to be prepared for the unknown’.
‘Daniela’s Chronicles’, the first track, is mainly a trio thing, augmented by steel drums during the statement of the sweet melodic theme. Add altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa to the next tune, ‘Galactic Panama’; on ‘Bridge of Life’ Perez adds several horns to the palette, and the music sounds more like modern classical than it does jazz. Which says something: jazz continues to draw in influences from various cultures and styles. Perez, with chops to spare and fresh from his amazing tenure with the improv heavy Wayne Shorter Quartet, draws from some deep waters for this music.

Christian Scott – YESTERDAY YOU SAID TOMORROW (Concord Records)
The opening sounds more like a rock album, with electric guitar strums and drums roiling and tumbling along, nearly chaotic, and then Scott’s muted trumpet, a soft line, more drum freak out and then Scott without mute, full throated trumpet, a shout, as Jamire WIlliams (drummer) slowly deescalates his efforts. ‘K.K.P.D.’ is based on Scott’s interactions with police in the city, and traces that tension while exposing the tender hopes of some new way out of the historic hatred.
And this is the first cut.
Christian Scott has crafted an album that evokes Miles without imitation. Leading a quintet (Williams on drums, Matthew Stevens on guitar (he also serves as musical director), Milton Fletcher on piano and Kris Funn on bass) Scott explores a jazz rock blend that is pretty much unlike any other I’ve ever heard. Not that it’s all thrum and thrash. ‘Isadora’ is a hesitant, aching ballad, for instance. And there is much about this music that is tender, though often contrasted with electric guitar. Rock fans might dig this!
This is music that was carefully conceptualized, that blends rock and hip hop and jazz and various other influences. It’s also overtly political with titles like ‘The Roe Effect’ or ‘Angola L.A. & The 13th Amendment’.
I’m often asked, ‘What does jazz have to do to draw in a younger audience?’ I think that Christian Scott might have an answer here.

Kenny Werner – NO BEGINNING, NO END (Half Note)
This disc has already received much critical appraise. Werner has won a Guggenheim Fellowship Award for the composition. The music, and the poem that serves as the libretto for this piece, are a tribute to his daughter Katheryn, who died in a car accident a few years ago.
This is transcendent music, written for woodwinds, voices and strings, and featuring Kenny’s good friends, Joe Lovano (saxophone) and Judi Silvano (vocals). It sounds more like modern classical music than it does jazz, though Lovano’s contribution is profound.
The process of creating and recording this music is described in a series of videos you can view on YouTube.

It’s advisable to do this before purchasing the album, because this is not light listening. But it’s a healing document and anyone familiar with loss, grief and spirit may find this helpful. Kenny is a practitioner of meditation, and the title of the album reflects his attitude and philosophy regarding these themes of mortality.
Years ago a colleague of mine had a young adult daughter who died in a car accident. The funeral service was achingly sad and somehow uplifting as well. Several people got up to tell stories about the young woman, each part deeply appreciated by the community that had gathered. And then a cellist stepped forward and played a Bach Sonata. And it just said, in music, something no one else could express.
That’s what this music does. Beautiful writing, beautiful playing. A magnificent achievement.

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