The music may suffer plenty of economic slings and arrows these days, but it’s still full of thrills galore. As usual, it’s looking outside of its own orthodoxy for invigorating ideas. Here are titles you truly need. I’m posting the pop list in a day or so, and which jazz titles from this list would you deem worthy of a “decade’s-best" designation? That list of 10 hits on December 28.
Vijay Iyer Trio Historicity (ACT)
You could say it’s the repertory move that defines the pianist’s best disc yet, but while applauding a program that stretches from M.I.A. to Leonard Bernstein to Andrew Hill’s indelible “Smoke Stack," you’d be overlooking the fierce interplay generated by the Iyer’s threesome. That’s what’s really happening here. Their jittery maneuvers have been folded into the melodies, and their pliability has been honed to near perfection. It’s a joy to hear ‘em mop up each other’s spills.
John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble Eternal Interlude (Sunnyside)
It’s a string of designs for big band that prides itself on employing as wide a palette as possible, but gets over on the power of focus. Hollenbeck’s distilled several strong ideas here; as the record progresses there are flashbacks to swing-based classicism and allusions to pulse-driven experimentation. Not exactly ground-breaking, but boasting a breadth that encompasses lots of originality, damned close.
Steve Lehman Octet Travail, Transformation, and Flow (Pi)
Itchy future-bop fueled by M-BASE tactics and scientific principles – you’ll forgive it a certain algebraic vibe while applauding its clarity, ingenuity, and daring, right? Saxophonist Lehman flitters around while his ensemble (make that rhythm-obsessed ensemble) winds its way through the phattest minimalism you’ve ever heard.
Ben Allison Think Free (Palmetto)
The celebrated bassist has kept his esthetic door open for years now, inviting all sorts of influences to come play. Elements of rock mark this year’s suite of catchy tunes, but the novel way they present themselves doesn’t preclude a lithe ensemble vibe from fulfilling the jaunty business of swing.
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam)
The composer-arranger has an artistic GPS system built into his chest. The way his seven extended pieces flow from one passage to another is deeply inspired, and the methods behind his integration of electric guitar storms and a gaggle of horns are sage. Best part: the big band constantly throws its listeners curve after curve without sounding fractured or episodic.
Keith Jarrett Paris/London: Testament (ECM)
Always a tad precious, the pianist nevertheless comes up with two discs of ornate ruminations eloquent enough to tickle zealots while hushing doubters. Employing a smidge more dissonance these days, he’s brought some orneriness to his rapture. Maybe that makes the music a bit more candid, too.
JD Allen Shine! (Sunnyside)
There were several terrific tenor trio discs this year (don’t miss Marcus Strickland’s Idiosyncrasies, and Fly’s Sky & Country) but Allen’s boasted the kind of aggression didn’t hide the lyricism he’s been nurturing for a decade. The concept – finding profundity in pith – helped distinguish the sometimes sweet, sometimes roiling music as well. Almost all these tunes are fit for whistling.
John Hebert Byzantine Monkey (Firehouse 12)
One of the era’s most gripping bassists puts reeds and flutes up front for a freebop session that stretches from ancient Cajun artifacts to abstract ballads lyrical enough to have fallen from Don Cherry’s pen. What the pieces lack in compositional distinction, they make up for in textural richness. And atmosphere – mood means a lot to Hebert.
James Carney Group Ways & Means (Songlines)
Emotionally, it’s pluralistic – lots of nuanced colors bubble up as the Brooklyn pianist’s mid-sized group puts its heart into these carefully wrought tunes. That makes up for the lack of traditionally defined solos. Carney would rather have members of his team waft in and out of the arrangements, throwing a log on the fire and being on their way. Even when they saunter, there’s a mysterious momentum afoot.
Steve Kuhn Mostly Coltrane (ECM)
Celebrating the great ones isn’t anything new – jazz is awash in repertory projects. But doing it with a deep spirit that’s bolstered by a radical intra-group rapport is forever laudable. The breadth of Trane’s tunes addressed by the pianist and his front line partner Joe Lovano reminds just how extensive the icon’s reach was. Right this way for bop, ballads, and bluster.
TEN MORE GREATS + 1
Joshua Redman, Compass (Nonesuch)
Charles Tolliver Big Band, Emperor March (Half Note)
Matt Wilson, That’s Gonna Leave a Mark (Palmetto)
Tony Malaby, Paloma Recio (New World)
Henry Threadgill’s Zooid, This Brings Us To, Vol. 1 (Pi)
Miguel Zenon, Esta Plena (Marsalis Music)
Joe Lovano, Us Five (Blue Note)
Jim Hall & Bill Frisell, Hemispheres (artistShare)
Wadada Leo Smith, Spiritual Dimensions (Cuneiform)
Kurt Rosenwinkel Standards Trio, Vol.1: Reflections (Wommusic)
Fred Hersch Plays Jobim (Sunnyside)