Monday, November 23, 2009

Top 10 Coming Soon

Once again this year, Francis Davis is co-ordinating a year-end critics poll of best CDs for the Village Voice, so my list will be delayed until his compendium appears in the paper and online either on December 30 or January 6. As expected, there have been a couple of late considerations and additions, and Francis' approach requires a bit of revision, since he also includes vocal, latin and historical releases.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Jazz On The Web

Big buzz circulating this week about the future of in the wake of founding editor Ted Gioia's decision to step away from the project. Since Ted hasn't commented yet on the future of the site (and his silent partner/investor hasn't stepped forward) any speculation is just that. Some blog posts have pondered what this means for the future of jazz on the Web—and while I gave a moment's thought to how much I'd miss Ted's vigilant aggregation of jazz posts around the world (and thanks, Ted, for picking up the occasional piece from Jazz Chronicles) if that doesn't continue under whoever takes over his job—I don't think there's great cause for alarm. While there is still no viable business model for a large, expansive site like, I'm convinced that there will always be enthusiastic people who want to spread their passion about the music they love.

That idea was reinforced (again) when I read Robert Hilburn's chatty autobiography, Corn Flakes With John Lennon. Like myself, and thousands of other music nerds out there, Hilburn got involved in music journalism because he saw a void. In his case, it was the early 1960s and the setting was Los Angeles, but it happens over and over, in big cities and small: you hear something that moves you and you want to share it—and your opinions and passion about it—with others.

So, while Ted Gioia's knowledge and steady editorial hand will be missed—and will be missed, too, if Ted's departure signals its end—I'm convinced that someone else will step up and fill the hole he leaves.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Take That To The Bank

Great news for Canada's major jazz festivals: TD Canada Trust has announced that it is extending its title sponsorship through the 2014 season. This means a strong foundation for festivals in Victoria, Vancouver, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax.

Full disclosure: I've signed on to return for a second year as the media specialist for the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival. Good to see that the festival—and the others across the country—will be able to continue to build on past successes.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Best Of The Decade

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.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Keeping It Young

I was unabashedly obsessed with The Allman Brothers Band throughout the 1970s, from the first time I borrowed their debut album from my friend Myles and dropped the needle on the lacerating medley of "Don't Want You No More" and "It's Not My Cross To Bear." I was devastated when guitarist Duane Allman died on his Harley-Davidson at the age of 24, just as he was realizing his dream of breaking through to the mainstream with a band that synthesized rock, blues and improvisation with a definite Southern accent.

I dabbled in later versions of the band, but as much for social reasons (all of my close friends were Allman freaks, too) as musical ones. Perhaps because I was never lucky enough to see the original band in person, I have never been a camp follower for any of the later versions. I caught a weird hybrid of the band in 1978, when they reunited in Macon, Georgia, after several years of acrimonious separation (in fact, I was the only person in the tiny audience to tape the show—the tape resides in the band's archives) and one of their 25th anniversary shows in 1994, when original guitarist Dickey Betts was still in the band. The only time I've seen the modern lineup—with dual guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks—was the only time the band has played my hometown.

Given that context, I've been delighted with my purchase of a triple-CD set from the band's annual run of shows at the Beacon Theatre on New York City's Upper West Side last March. While the band has always been respectful of Duane Allman's memory to the point where his name has seldom been uttered onstage, during this 40th-anniversary tour the band made a point of paying tribute to him. The shows opened with an electric version of "Little Martha"—the only song in the band's extensive catalogue that is solely credited to him—and his image was prominent. During the stand at the Beacon this year, a number of musicians associated with the band were invited to sit in. While, reportedly, there were memorable highlights from the likes of Buddy Guy, the only show I really wanted to hear was from March 19, the night Eric Clapton came to play.

Clapton plays a special role in Duane Allman's short career, because—despite Allman's prolific period as a session musician—Clapton's album Layla is his best, and highest-profile platform outside his own band.

Following 11 songs by the Allmans themselves, Clapton joins the group (and Trucks' wife, blues guitarist Susan Tedeschi, for one track) for five songs from Layla and a version of "Dreams." As great as that is—and it is—what really has me stoked about listening to this recording again and again is the sound of Gregg Allman's voice. Next to Keith Richards, Gregg Allman is perhaps the most infamous drug abuser/survivor from the 1960s, and his voice is one of the finest in the blues. At his best, the man can break your heart with a simple phrase. Sadly, for too much of his career this amazing voice has been damaged by his chemical dependencies. Not here, not now. On this set from the Beacon he sounds better than at any time in his career. Not only has his voice taken on more of an edge (imagine that!) but it's more powerful, and his diction is crystal clear.

I won't even bother going into how good the rest of the band sounds; at this point in their career, that's a given. Trucks is an astounding, inspiring musician, who moves me when I hear him because he shows what Duane Allman might have grown to become had he not taken that fateful bike ride and been snuffed out when he was barely grown.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Heavy Hitting Rookie

Who gets Joe Lovano, Greg Osby, Jim Hall and Don Thompson to play on their debut CD? Only someone like drummer Terry Clarke, who has worked as a sideman behind some of the most important leaders in jazz for more than 50 years without putting his own name above the title on a CD until now.

Clarke has appeared on more than 400 recordings and circled the world with everyone from Oscar Peterson to The Fifth Dimension.

Appropriately, his first recording as a leader is called It's About Time.