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2000 Rewind


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You can drive yourself crazy trying to determine the "best" releases of this or any other year. But this past year, perhaps like every year, presented admirable music of excellent quality that did not stir my passions. And it also brought music of dubious quality that I enjoyed almost despite myself (this year, heaven forgive me, 'twas Kid Rock's "American Badass." Groan.).

Though I'd like to think that this list presents the ten best Jazz releases this past year, at the very least it captures the ten releases that most consistently and solidly appealed to my tastes. Maybe these aren't exactly the ten best, most accomplished records I heard this year. These are, most likely, the ten records that I listened to the most this year, mainly because they really spoke to me.

Various Artists: Ken Burns' Jazz: The Story of America's Music (Columbia / Legacy)

Even if imperfect, this five-CD summation of Burns' 19-hour Jazz public television documentary provides a generally solid overview of and introduction to the first several decades in the history of "America's Music." Conveniently collects under a single cover most musical souvenirs from the fledgling days of Jazz, including among its nearly one hundred tracks the definitive versions of "Take Five," "Straight, No Chaser," "Body and Soul," "Salt Peanuts," "Strange Fruit" and "So What." No place to be ending, but somewhere to start.

Various Artists: Best of Cookin' (Ubiquity)

One of the year's best Groove-O-Matics, this two-CD retrospective slices and dices two dozen tracks from the label's out-of-print Cookin' series (annual retrospectives of Ubiquity's releases from the year) into a thick, trippy groove stew. Label stalwarts Greyboy rock steady with "Unwind Your Mind" and a silky slick "Panacea," joined in this funky, chunky gumbo by Vibes Alive, The Rhythm Section, Sonny Simmons and others. As someone who got into Jazz mainly through the soulful romps of Atlantic Records' 1970s Jazz roster (Eddie Harris, Les McCann, Herbie Mann, Yusef Lateef), it's nice to hear their beat go on.

Joni Mitchell: Both Sides Now (Reprise)

Mitchell traces "the arc of a modern romantic relationship" in one dozen orchestral arrangements of torch, pop and blues standards, beginning with "You're My Thrill" and Etta James' "At Last," worrying through "Answer Me, My Love" and "Don't Go To Strangers," and ending with "Stormy Weather" and "I Wish I Were In Love Again." Guest soloists Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Mark Isham help Mitchell approximate the sound and feel, if not the phrasing or intensity, of Lady Day. Most importantly, the set ending arrangement of "Both Sides Now" completely restructures the meaning of the poem, changing it from an airy balloon of youthful wonder into a meditation on wisdom and life. Instrumental re-arrangements that reinvent the meaning of a popular piece—that's good Jazz to me.

Roy Haynes Trio with Danilo Pérez and John Patitucci: Roy Haynes Trio Featuring Danilo Perez and John Patitucci (Polygram)

Even without much of a title, this is a solid, solid record: One of the great and enduring Jazz drummers crafts his own career retrospective through live and studio performances of mileposts from his legacy in the company of two of today's most accomplished bass and piano players. Haynes bobs and weaves a little more than he goes for the knockout now, but tunes from his tenure with Monk, Miles, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea with Joe Henderson, and Sarah Vaughan—plus classics from Ellington and Rodgers & Hart—in these capable hands make this set a sure bet.

Caravana Cubana: Late Night Sessions (Rhino)

A host of past, present and future Afro-Cuban all-stars—Chucho Valdés, Al McKibbon, Jose "Perico" Hernandez, Francisco Aguabella, Jimmy Bosch and others—unite in a spiritualized session of rumbas, sons, descargas and boleros. The descargas in particular ("Anga Y Jimmy," "Chucho Carabal") burn with passion, creating palpable and intense synergy between six, seven, and sometimes eight musicians that somehow retains their individual styles, too. If I had to pick only one title, I would probably select this for "Album of the Year." I tried to open up my brain to more "non-American" music this past year—Caravana Cubana clean blew off the top of my head and cleared room for more!

Chico O'Farrill: Carambola (Milestone) Carambola is not mere warmed-up leftovers from of O'Farrill's acclaimed release one year earlier, Heart of a Legend (this Editor's pick for Best of ‘99). With son Arturo as pianist and musical director, Chico leads the O'Farrill Afro-Cuban Big Band through some amazing instrumental passages crafted together in amazing arrangements. Carambola would make this list if only for its presentation of the epics "Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite" (which O'Farrill first wrote and performed with Machito's orchestra in 1950!) and "The Aztec Suite" (the composer's first performance of a song he wrote for Art Farmer decades ago). The final five minutes of "Aztec," especially trumpeter Michael Mossman's pyrotechnics, are as spectacular as anything I heard all year.

Trilok Gurtu: African Fantasy (Blue Thumb)

Just like Caravana Cubana did with music from Cuba, this percussionist's exploration opened my brain to the fertile musical hemispheres of India and Africa. The track "Africa con India" crystallizes Gurtu's synthesis of the two, but digging into this set reveals deeper treasure: The traditional sound of Indian music in a tabla/sitar duet, African ju-ju, indigenous instruments from around the globe, synthesizers, acoustic and electric percussion, gloriously unusual time signatures and changes, even electric guitar blues! Colorful, dramatic, poetic and powerful.

Sun Ra: Lanquidity (Evidence)

Recorded and briefly available in 1978 on vinyl but released for the first time on CD last year, Lanquidity is another jewel in Evidence Music's resurrection of Ra series. The title track is one of the most beautiful melodies Ra ever wrote; typically it wobbles more widely and wildly in its orbit until things fall apart and its center cannot hold. This set documents some of Ra's most coherent electric keyboard playing in an R&B pocket, his profound acoustic piano solo in "Feel," and a track that would serve, both in title and construction, as fitting caption to a portrait of Ra's kaleidoscopic legacy—"There Are Other Worlds (They Have Not Told You Of)."

Pat Metheny Trio: Trio 99>00 and Trio Live 2000 (Warner Bros.)

Because they afford him more time and space for expression, trio sets by guitarist Pat Metheny are generally an event. These sets with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Bill Stewart (the first recorded in the studio, the second on tour) are exceptional even by this standard. The two-CD Live set opens with the guitarist's classic "Bright Size Life" and includes presentations of the standards "Giant Steps" and "All The Things You Are," plus "Question And Answer," where Metheny's dialogue with HIMSELF is nothing short of incredible. Both sets are pregnant with moments that leave the listener simply dumbfounded by the instrumental dexterity of this trio, especially its leader.

John Scofield: Steady Groovin' (Blue Note)

Subtitled The Blue Note Groove Sides, this compilation skims the creamiest grooves off the top of Scofield's most recent releases into a "Best of" set worthy of the title. For a release built around such a singular theme, this set presents surprising diversity: The guitarist scales and leaps the hard rock edges of "Fat Lip," pays tribute to Santana in "Carlos" and revisits country haunts and memories with Bill Frisell in "Twang." Sco more than holds his own with Eddie Harris, a founding father of funky Soul-Jazz, in "Do Like Eddie" and borrows the lazy sound and feel of Harris' "Cold Duck Time" for his own tunes "Chariots" and "Lazy."

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