I struggled with how to approach a best-of-the-decade list, shifting between simply listing the recordings that I had ranked the highest in published reviews and choosing those that I thought illustrated the most original ideas and pointed the way to new directions. In the end, I decided to go with the recordings that made me feel—and think—the most. Although I don't have any written proof, they are probably also the recordings I returned to the most often in the past 10 years. That being the case, it is probably no surprise that there is nothing on the list from the past two years, although there have been some exceptional recordings that would likely make the list if I was making it two years from now. These things need time to breathe and develop, but I must make note of some artists who didn't make the list, but whose recent recordings are moving me in ways similar to these: Vijay Iyer, John Hollenbeck, Dafnis Prieto, Miguel Zenón, Darcy James Argue, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Donny McCaslin, Mary Halvorson, Jessica Pavone, Tyshawn Sorey and Francisco Mela.
With that preamble, here are my 10, in alphabetical order.
Nels Cline – New Monastery (Cryptogrammophone) – 2006
Guitarist Nels Cline and his twin brother, drummer Alex, discovered the unique sound-world of pianist Andrew Hill when they were teenagers with huge ears. Three decades later—and finally gaining recognition from both jazz and alt-country fans—Nels employed his own distinctive sonic palette to interpret Hill’s work.
Ornette Coleman – Sound Grammar (Sound Grammar) – 2006
At least once a decade since the 1950s Ornette Coleman has released a recording that signals a new context for the human cry that flows from his alto saxophone. This time out, the setting was two bass guitars and his son’s drum kit, and Coleman illustrated how he could plumb remarkable depths of emotion in that relatively stark environment.
Dave Douglas – Witness (RCA Bluebird) – 2001
Eerily foreshadowing the rising paranoia in the wake of 9/11, while paying homage to some of the writers and activists who influenced him, Witness was both a major departure—using a large ensemble of electronic and acoustic instruments, and spoken word (performed by Tom Waits)—and a welcome extension of Douglas’s earlier works. As usual, the trumpeter was prolific and varied throughout the decade, but Witness remains the high-water mark.
Andrew Hill – Dusk (Palmetto) – 2000
Pianist Andrew Hill’s late-career comeback was one of the highlights of the decade, and this is the recording—his Palmetto debut— that announced it loud and clear. Hill’s unique writing receives superb treatment from a sextet that is deep and wise. The horn section, in particular, bristles with energy.
The Brian Lynch/Eddie Palmieri Project – Simpático (ArtistShare) – 2005
Beautifully paced and played, this was an ideal meeting of Afro-Caribbean rhythms and bebop harmony. Both the ensemble and individual parts are exceptional, and the band is studded with star players from several generations, including Phil Woods and Dafnis Prieto.
Jason Moran – The Bandwagon (Blue Note) – 2003
Pianist Jason Moran is one of the most exciting young voices to come to prominence since 2000, and this live recording—essentially the same as one of my favorite concerts from the decade—displays his idiosyncratic technique, his ability to transform hip-hop and blues into the language of improvisation, and his innovative use of recorded spoken-word material.
Maria Schneider Orchestra – Sky Blue (ArtistShare) – 2007
Bandleader Maria Schneider made several landmark recordings in the decade—any of which could be in a top 10. Sky Blue shows the most scope, and is the most personal, with gorgeous orchestrations of Schneider’s memories of her Minnesota hometown and her love of birding. As I stated in my 5-star review in DownBeat, this is the recording that should move Schneider out of the shadow of Gil Evans and into her own as a great American composer.
Wayne Shorter – Footprints Live (Verve) – 2002
Signaling the arrival of one of the most consistently exciting bands of the decade, this live recording re-established Wayne Shorter as a musical adventurer of grace and exceptional depth. The level of communication between Shorter, Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade was high from the beginning, and it has only improved.
Tomasz Stanko Quartet – Lontano (ECM) – 2006
Working with a trio of young Polish musicians, the much-overlooked trumpeter channels Miles Davis in the best way possible, stirring up what I called in my DownBeat review “a well-integrated set of quiet, melancholy fire.”
Cecil Taylor – The Willisau Concert (Intakt) – 2002
The audience wasn’t even fully seated when Taylor began a rhapsodic dance with an extended-keyboard Bosendorfer that he had fallen in love with. In the 2000s, Taylor’s solo concerts have been full of romance and sweet longing; this one balances between that new, gentler approach and his traditional whirlwind attack. Full of movement and light.