Identifying the best releases of the year is a simple matter. There are only two conditions: (1) Have unerring critical judgment; and (2) Listen to every release of the year. The rest falls into place. Both are necessary conditions, by the wayeven if you have unerring taste, you might miss a masterpiece if you slack off and don't listen to everything. And even if you listen to everything, you'll make the wrong choices if your taste is not tip-top.
I worry sometimes that my critical discernment is not up to that high caliber. But not too much, because I'm a long way from having listened to all the releases. What then, do these 2007 picks represent?
Let me put it this way. If you go to pianist Ben Stepner's web site, you will find that you can pick up his début album by swinging by his house. I like that level of informality; indeed, those of use who love jazz often find ourselves on the marginsthe distant marginsof musical superstardom. So then, in the spirit of Stepner's marketing strategy, the list below are records that I'd play for you if you stopped by my house this year. Records, that is, that may or may not be the best of the year's productions, but records to which I find myself returning happily. (Links to full reviews are provided where appropriate.)
Ben Stepner Nineteen Pieces for Piano Pure Potentiality
For an apéritif to the year's-best list, start with the above-mentioned Stepner's record: witty, eccentric, exceedingly well played miniatures from a nineteen-year-old Massachusetts pianist.
As for the rest, they're listed in alphabetical order by the artists' names; ranking would be no more than an exercise in frustration. Except Rachid: he's Number 1.
Gérard Arnaud and Henri Lecomte
Musiques des toutes les Afriques
So, the first entry is not jazz, not a sound recording, not even in the English language. But it's the most authoritative book I've seen on African music since AAJ Senior Editor Chris May's African Music: The Pop Music of a Continent (Quartet/Paladin, 1991, with Chris Stapleton). Arnaud and Lecomte hew a middle line between pop-music criticism and ethnomusicology, with chapters for every country on the continent (including North Africa from Morocco to Egypt, and the Indian Ocean). There are as well engaging overviews of a host of special topicsjazz, African-American music, famous collectors like Hugh Tracey and a wonderfully French taxonomy of the African instrumentarium. Not to be read in a single sitting, but sure to be taken off the shelf repeatedly.
Nik Bärtsch's Ronin Live Ronin Rhythm Records
Terry Riley meets James Brown in this mesmeric 2002 set by Zurich pianist Nik Bärtsch with his Ronin band.
Buck 65 Situation Warner Music
I can't stop listening to this Canadian rapper's disquisition on alienation and nostalgia. A work of terrific rhymes and real empathy that alternately makes you laugh out loud and hang your head.
Miles Davis The Complete On the Corner Sessions Sony-Legacy
A misnomer, first of all; could equally well have been called The Complete Big Fun Sessions. The folks at Sony would have us trace a straight line from the still poorly understood 1972 On the Corner to the recently rehabilitated 1975 live masterpieces that follow the music in this metal box (Agharta, Pangaea); I don't buy it. That weird yellow-jacketed 1972 record stands alone, unassimilable. But this box is worth the price of admission to hear its strange music in long unedited doses.
Guillaume de Chassy Piano Solo Bee Jazz
A remarkably mature work. De Chassy sketches the contours of a musical universe in which I would gladly spend the rest of my days. Restrained, decorous, an obviously classical pedigree, but lots of soul, too.
Exploding Star Orchestra We Are All From Somewhere Else Thrill Jockey
Cornet player Rob Mazurek brings us the best big-band science-fiction since Sun Ra. Two suites, one of them about human communication with electric eels. Fantastic writing, arranging and playingespecially from the leader, as well flautist Nicole Mitchell and guitarist Jeff Parker; a perfect complement to the Maria Schneider, for those who find the latter too straightforward.
Alain Gerber Miles Fayard
For the last few years, Gerberone of France's premier novelistshas been writing fictional jazz biographies. After Louis, Chet, Billie, Bird and Paul Desmond, he feels secure enough to take on the Everest of the genre: Miles Davis. The story is told by multiple narrators, most of whom are drummers (Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Tony Williams, Al Foster). Not as successful as some of the earlier works, but it's hard for a jazz lover to resist a novel one of the key scenes of which is the 1954 session that produced "The Man I Love."
Herbie Hancock River: The Joni Letters Verve
Should have been easy listening Starbucks music, with guest vocals by the pop stars du jour; instead the A-list band does extraordinary justice to Joni Mitchell's songbook and Hancock demonstrates yet again that he is the finest pianist of his generation.
Orchestra Baobab Made in Dakar World Circuit
I like these guys the way some people like U2; they're my favorite band. I just can't get over how many things they get rightthe elegance, the Cuban-Casamance mélange, the amazing crystalline guitar playing of Barthélemy Attisso. Unfortunately, their albums come out with less frequency than U2's, and when one does, it must be greeted with joy.
Chris Potter Underground
Follow the Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard Sunnyside
Much of the music on this list demonstrates that the jazz universe is vast and multifaceted: great music comes from every corner of its far-flung reaches. Potter's live set reminds us, however, that the jazz universe has a center, and that center is New York City.
Rockingchair Chief Inspector
Part Radiohead, part Jim Black, yes, and that's pretty interesting; but what keeps you coming back is the strong playing of multi-reed player Sylvain Rifflet (playful, promiscuous) and trumpeter Airelle Besson (disciplined) on this French combo's début.
Maria Schneider Orchestra
Sky Blue Artist Share
Magisterial orchestral jazz, epic, worldly and spiritual.
Diwan 2 Universal
A rumination on identity, memory (collective and individual) and migration. Taking in half the worldfrom Cameroon to Algeria to France to Egypt with a dose of Anglo-American rock 'n' rollDiwan 2 rocks hard. Taha comes in last alphabetically, but is my Number 1 pick for the year.