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J Hunter's Best Jazz Discs of 2009


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It's that time again—the season for relentless bell-ringers, wild-eyed consumers, and end-of-year countdown lists. The latter category can actually be helpful for last-minute shoppers who want to give someone "the best of everything." However, a little background info never hurts the buying process. As such, here's one more countdown for Best Jazz Discs of 2009.


Self Produced

How many big-label releases can count a Chinese pop song as a "standard"? Bassist Dan Loomis' latest project is a mind-bending set of compromise-free music that blends elements from several genres into one intricate package. Blues, Bartok and bullfighters all pop their heads up (literally or metaphorically) as trombonist Andy Hunter and multi-instrumentalist Justin Wood create truly distinctive harmonies; drummer Danny Fischer takes advantage of Loomis' resonant foundation to act as fourth soloist and "change agent." Spoke is another example of New York City's jazz center moving across the Brooklyn Bridge, as well as more proof that jazz in the 21st century is going to be just fine.


Ben Goldberg, et al.
Go Home
Self Produced

This head-bobbing DIY release reunites reedman Ben Goldberg with two other members of the Bay Area's vibrant 1990's jazz scene, guitarist Charlie Hunter and drummer Scott Amendola. Goldberg teams with cornetist Ron Miles to create an alluring front-line sound that echoes the genre's beginnings. But when ex-band mates Hunter and Amendola introduce a souped-up Jam Band groove, Old School meets New School with a resounding CRASH! As great as Hunter's post-Blue Note work has been, Go Home is his hottest performance yet, and Golberg's labyrinthine duets with Miles get tastier with every track. Why can't all reunions be this hot?


Denise Donatelli
What Lies Within
Savant Records

It's been an amazing year for female-vocal performances, all of them as different from Norah Jones as a Porsche 911 is from a Hyundai Accent. At the end of the day, though, Denise Donatelli's Savant debut shows the most range, variation, and accessibility. Some of the credit goes to producer Geoffrey Keezer, who acted on Donatelli's assertion that "I can basically sing everything by writing up tremendous arrangements of everything from Gary Burton's "Crystal Silence" to Joni Mitchell's "Be Cool." Most importantly, Donatelli makes a set of cover tunes seem as fresh as newly-baked bread, injecting each piece with a joy and a vitality that this genre sorely needs.


Luis Bonilla
I Talking Now!

Trombonist Luis Bonilla's PlanetArts debut opens with all the subtlety of a Pier 6 brawl, as Bonilla's hard-charging quintet re-creates the vehemence of an average "conversation" around the family dinner table of Bonilla's childhood. It gets so heated, pianist Arturo O'Farrill's right hand starts fighting with his left! I Talking Now has all the aggressive tendencies of Bonilla's adopted hometown of New York City; two tunes basically incorporate the city itself into the mix. But like every good New York story, Talking also has a heart of gold, as Bonilla offers loving musical tributes to his wife, his daughter, and the late athlete/activist Arthur Ashe.


SFJAZZ Collective
Live 2009: 6th Annual Concert Tour

There was a transitional feeling about SFJAZZ Collective's last release Live 2008 (SFJAZZ), as saxman/newly-minted Artistic director Joe Lovano took this rotating super group in a more exploratory direction. This season's tribute to McCoy Tyner seems more settled, more comfortable, even as the septet shows no compunction about flying towards the outside of the envelope. But while the workups of "Aisha" and "Four by Five" show the love these players have for John Coltrane's longtime pianist, the Tyner-inspired originals "E-Collective" and "Yes We Can—Victory Dance" show the Collective's ongoing examination of genre giants and their effects continues to be required listening for anyone who wants jazz to do more than just run in place.


Marcus Strickland Trio
Strick Muzik

Marcus Strickland always had the talent to front a sax-trio date, one of the toughest gigs in jazz. That said, what makes Idiosyncrasies this brilliant is the strength of the voices behind Strickland, not to mention the space he gives them to make their own statements. Drummer E.J. Strickland is simply monumental, deftly countering his brother when he's not launching devastating solos of his own, while bassist Ben Williams is muscular and lyrical in solo and support. What a long, sweet trip this is, as Strickland alternates between penetrating originals and eclectic "standards" from OutKast, Bjork, Stevie Wonder and Oumou Sangare.


James Carter, et al.
Heaven on Earth: Live at the Blue Note
Half Note

Heaven on Earth has a lineup of amazing individuals, but envisioning them as a group takes a fair amount of squinting. The eyestrain isn't necessary, though, because the unity on this live set's supersonic soul-jazz is unbending. James Carter's sax work alternates between sumptuous and glass-shattering, while John Medeski makes his Hammond B3 dance across the Blue Note stage. Guitarist Adam Rogers abandons his usual feedback-drenched attack long enough to lay down some "classic" lines during the disc's softer moments, while bassist Christian McBride is deep in the pocket on both acoustic and electric tunes. Go someplace else for deep, meaningful statements. Heaven on Earth has one basic mission statement: LET'S PARTY!


Matt Wilson Quartet
That's Gonna Leave a Mark

When a release is reviled by purists on both sides of the genre, then that disc's effect must be mighty indeed. Traditionalists may loathe the mix of anarchy and groove on drummer Matt Wilson's latest release, but free-jazz advocates insist Wilson didn't go nearly far enough. Put simply, both sides need to chill out! That's Gonna Leave a Mark literally oozes the thrill of creation in the moment. And if that moment happens to get slightly unhinged in the process... Well, then that's just how it goes. And while the closing cover of War's "Why Can't We Be Friends" may seem like a goof, it dovetails with Wilson's underlying message about the responsibility we all have to one another—and to ourselves.


Jeff "Tain" Watts
Dark Key

Although not every piece on this disc is political in nature, Watts is drummer Jeff Tain Watts' answer to the contention that everyone just needs to "move on" from the myriad horrors of the last eight years. Tain's reaction is, in essence, Not a chance, pal! Targets of Watts' ire get no mercy, be they the sell-outs of society or the former president of the United States. (Then again, the non-political tunes take no prisoners, either.) Watts' front line of trumpeter Terence Blanchard and saxman Branford Marsalis are about as subtle—and as attention-getting—as a punch in the face, while bassist Christian McBride's foundation lets Tain take out his aggressions on one of the most passionate releases of 2009.

And the #1 Jazz disc of 2009 is...

Chris Potter Underground

When multi-instrumentalist Chris Potter noticed his monstrous electric quartet made some of its best music during Sound Check, Potter crafted a set of tunes based on Underground's pre-show jams. The results are sensational, with an invigorating Jam Band groove and enough chops to satisfy any appetite. Getting the bass line from the keyboard rarely satisfies, but keyboardist Craig Taborn pours a relentless foundation on Fender Rhodes even as he helps guitarist Adam Rogers light up the sky behind Potter's incendiary reed work. Potter may have formed Underground as a diversion from the Dave Holland, but UltraHang shows that this unit has Potter's full, undivided attention, and deserves the same from everyone else.

And that's how the decade ends. Good luck in the next one, and thanks for listening.


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