The Best Jazz Discs of 2009

Jazz in 2009 meant the continuing dismantling and irrelevance of major-label homes for the music; the growth of vital indie jazz labels; the decision of many artists, including major jazzers, to take charge of recording, packaging and distributing their own work; and the emergence of a variety of strong new voices in jazz.

Gloomsaying to the contrary, jazz is in very good shape, at least on the recording front. Now, about places for all those artists — and younger players, graduating in droves from still-proliferating college jazz programs — to play ….

As promised, here are links to my list of 2009’s best jazz discs, as published in the Village Voice, the Voice’s complete jazz poll results, and Voice critic Francis Davis’s overview of the year in jazz recordings.

My own list of the year’s best jazz recordings, with one-line descriptions, as published in Las Vegas City Life (but slightly expanded here):

Allen Toussaint, The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch) – The old-school R&B hitmaker digs deep into jazz roots, applying elegant piano to New Orleans chestnuts and pieces by Monk and Ellington.

Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge
, The Comet’s Tail: Performing the Compositions of Michael Brecker (MAMA) – The Florida-based big band revisits and reinvents the music of late saxophone great Brecker.

David Binney
, Third Occasion (Mythology) – The underappreciated alto saxophonist offers ambitious, expansive originals, with his quartet joined by brass.

Tom Harrell, Prana Dance (Highnote) – The trumpeter leads his tight-knit quintet on compositions that are brainy yet emotionally engaging.

Kurt Rosenwinkel Standards Trio
, Reflections (Wommusic) – The most gifted jazz guitarist under 40 takes a break from his edgy originals for brilliant, shimmering readings of standards by the likes of Monk and Wayne Shorter.

John Patitucci Trio
, Remembrance (Concord) – The bassist’s heavyweight pianoless trio, with saxophonist Joe Lovano and drummer Brian Blade, bring piercing original compositions replete with surprising detours.

Fly, Sky and Country (ECM) – Saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard turn in fertile modern-jazz explorations.

Joel Harrison, Urban Myths (Highnote) – The guitarist again draws from fusion, funk and blues for smart, multi-textured jazz originals.

John Scofield, Piety Street (EmArcy) – Sco wields his tangy overdriven guitar for hard-grooving gospel pieces, driven by Meters bassist George Porter, Jr.

New Orleans Nightcrawlers
, Slither Slice (Threadhead) – The veteran brass band returns with horns chewy enough and funk deep enough to blast the competition.

Vocals: Roberta Gambarini, So in Love (Emarcy) & Gretchen Parlato, In a Dream (Obliqsound) & Tierney Sutton, Desire (Telarc)

Debut: Gerald Clayton, Two-Shade (ArtistShare) & Michael Janisch, Purpose Built (Whirlwind)

Latin: Arturo O’Farrill, Risa Negra (Zoho) &  Dafnis Prieto, Live at Jazz Standard NYC (Dafnison Music) & Omar Sosa, Across the Divide (Half Note)

Reissues: Scott LaFaro, Pieces of Jade (Resonance) & Medeski Martin & Wood, Radiolarians: The Evolutionary Set (Indirecto) & Eddie Harris and Ellis Marsalis, Homecoming (ELM).

And 10 more of the year’s best jazz recordings:
Vijay Iyer, Historicity (ACT)
Joe Lovano, Folk Art (Blue Note)
Joshua Redman, Compass (Nonesuch)
Gary Burton-Pat Metheny-Steve Swallow-Antonio Sanchez, Quartet Live (Concord)
Gary Peacock-Marc Copland, Insight (Pirouet)
The Bad Plus with Wendy Lewis, For All I Care (Heads Up)
Robert Glasper, Double Booked (Blue Note)
Cedar Walton, Voices Deep Within (High Note)
Christian McBride, Kind of Brown (Mack Avenue)
James Carter-John Medeski-Christian McBride-Adam Rogers, Heaven on Earth (Half Note)

Vijay Iyer Trio Tops Village Voice 2009 Jazz Poll

Acclaimed pianist Vijay Iyer‘s Historicity, a forward-thinking trio outing, has been named Album of the Year in the 4th annual Village Voice Jazz Critics Poll.

I reviewed the CD earlier this year for Down Beat. Here’s what I wrote: “A kind of dialogue — ever in flux, constantly probing, frequently morphing, informed by disparate traditions but pushing toward new paradigms — is at the heart of the performances on pianist Vijay Iyer’s trio outing with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore. In the liner notes, Iyer describes that dialogue, on the cover tunes, as ‘a conversation between the original work and something else entirely.’ But there are also conversations here between form and freedom, light and dark tonalities, and, as the title suggests, jazz history and future jazz.”

Also among the winners in the poll, surveying the best jazz releases of the year, as chosen by 99 jazz critics from around the world (including me) are the following:

Vocal: Gretchen Parlato, In a Dream (ObliqSound)
Debut: Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam)
Latin: Miguel Zenon, Esta Plena (Marsalis Music)
Reissue: Louis Armstrong, The Complete Decca Recordings, 1935-1946 (Mosaic)

Full poll results will be published in the Voice’s Dec. 30 issue, and will be available online as early as Tuesday night. I’ll follow up with a subsequent post, and include links to the results along with a link to my list.

Happy 40th Birthday to ECM Records

Has it really been four decades since German bassist and jazz LP collector Manfred Eicher (photo, above) launched the ECM label with pianist Mal Waldron‘s album Free at Last?

Yes, believe it or not, in 2009 ECM is celebrating its 40th anniversary. In a New York Times piece published earlier this week, Steve Smith writes about the origins and legacy of the noted classical and jazz label, home to pianist Keith Jarrett’s great Standards Trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette, among many other artists.

Writes Smith, ” ‘A music producer, as I understand it, should be a trained musician in order to work with musicians, the psychological aspects,’ he (Eicher) said. ‘To be in front of the microphone, alert to things, and be able to talk about intonation, phrasing and musical structure is very helpful. If you are a musician changing from one side of the microphone to the other side, to the control room, you’re a good listener, a patient listener.’ ”

Read the rest of the piece here.

Christmas Music: Jazz and More

There haven’t exactly been sleighfuls of great Christmas music released this season, although Bob Dylan‘s holiday album has to count as the most surprising holiday oddity of this season or many others.

Several yuletide recordings, though, have risen to the top, including the following:

The Putumayo folks have again applied their big ears to a search for eclectic holiday music, and they’ve come up with another keeper, A Family Christmas. As per Putumayo tradition, the sources are diverse and the music generally falls into the category of rootsy/earthy. Highlights: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s sassy, swinging “Is Zat You Santa Claus?,” Leon Redbone’s sly, laidback “Let It Know,” Brave Combo‘s polka-hopping “Jolly Old St. Nick” and the bluesy “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus,” from The Christmas Jug Band featuring Angela Strehli and Maria Muldaur. Sample here.

Threadhead Records, the fan-funded label created by devotees of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, this year offered its first yuletide collection, A Very Threadhead Holiday. It’s a uniformly terrific collection of originals and classics. Picks: Bonerama leader Craig Klein’s “Christmas On My Mind,” a Fats-style brassy gem; Debbie Davis‘s ukelele-driven version of ’50s-vintage “Hanging Up My Stockings”; Matt Perrine’s tuba choir on “Carol of the Bells”; John Boutte‘s romantic, soulful “Holding You This Christmas”; trumpeter Shamarr Allen‘s trad-jazz “Santa Passed My House Up”; and Alex McMurray‘s bluesy, boozy “Santa, Let Me Call You a Cab.” It’s a real collaboration, as these dozen tracks feature much mixing and matching of great NOLA talent. Downloads here.

Trio West takes a second trip to the Christmas stocking with Plays Holiday Songs, Vol. 2 (Yummyhouse Records), another set of tightly constructed familiarities played by pianist Eldad Zvulun, bassist Neal Miner, and drummer Tobias Gebb (who arranged the tunes and produced the session). The three turn in a funk-edged “O Tannenbaum,” a samba version of “Silent Night” and a gently grooving “We Three Kings Waltz.” The group clearly was aiming for breezy get-in-and-out-of-the-tune brevity, but it would have been nice to hear these simpatico players stretch out more. Downloads here.

Jazzy Brass for the Holidays (DBCD) is halfway brass choir, halfway straight-ahead jazz, with pleasant arrangements of seasonal chestnuts played by an all-star group frontloaded with brass — trumpeters Eddie Allen and Cecil Bridgewater, trombonist Clark Gayton, and W. Marshall Sealy on French horn (yes, he improvises, too). Latin jazz is in the mix, with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and it’s all driven by a pianoless rhythm section, with bassist Kenny Davis, and Carl Allen on drums and glockenspiel.