Jeff Dayton-Johnson's Best of 2009


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Jazz Man of the Year honors go without a doubt to Rafael Gilbert of Spain, who attended a performance by Larry Ochs of the ROVA Saxophone Quartet at the Sigüenza Jazz Festival in December, and called the police to report that, whatever it was that Ochs was playing, it wasn't jazz. Ochs was asked to play for a Spanish cop, who agreed that it was decidedly not jazz. What's more, Gilbert complained that Ochs's music was in fact "contemporary composition," a genre that his physician had explicitly declared inadvisable for the sensitive listener. You have to marvel at Gilbert's finely-honed powers of aesthetic observation, but perhaps it's not so incredible in a country where doctors and policemen are similarly capable of splitting musical hairs.

What is so striking about this episode—beyond the image of the uniformed guardia officer, head cocked, listening to Ochs and thinking, "Well, there's a touch of Barney Bigard in that phrasing there, but not enough to count as jazz... "—is that the dispute was not based on the quality of the music, but was entirely sectarian. Was it jazz or not? Which raises the timeless question, "What is jazz, anyway?" Louis Armstrong's answer to that query is legendary: If you have to ask, you'll never know. In a way, it's oddly comforting to know that this debate still ruffles feathers with enough brio that the police show up.

I'm no doctor, but I would prescribe the following: spin ROVA's Bingo (Orkhestra, 1998), or their treatment of John Coltrane's Ascension (Black Saint, 1997) and decide for yourself how much it matters that a doctor somewhere might deem them non-jazz. In the meantime, consider the following fourteen fragments of 2009, none of them endorsed or approved by Spanish law enforcement. These are single tracks, with remarks about the full albums where appropriate, and even a few runners-up in some categories. Is it jazz? With apologies to Señor Gilbert, let the boundary-busting begin.

Orchestre National de Jazz Around Robert Wyatt (Bee Jazz)

France's National Jazz Orchestra offered a tribute to English rocker Robert Wyatt that is a polished pop gem as much as it is a big-band jazz performance, with various singers. Here, Nouvelle Vague vocalist Camille and arranger Vincent Artaud unearth a harmonic complexity in this track scarcely hinted at in Wyatt's bleak, synth-laden original; Vincent Lafont heads for the hills in a marvelous Fender Rhodes solo. Not to mention that the first eight notes of the melody are identical to those of Miles Davis's "The Maids of Cadiz" from Miles Ahead (Columbia, 1957). Elsewhere Wyatt himself sings Victor Jara's "Te Recuerdo Amanda," which doubles as a farewell to the Chilean singer tortured and murdered by the Pinochet regime and given a proper State funeral only this year.

Wayne Krantz Krantz Carlock Lefebvre (Abstract Logix)

Guitarist Krantz, in an AAJ interview had this to say about the same philosophical controversy that led to someone calling the cops in Spain: "To me jazz isn't a language, a vocabulary, a sound, a groove, or even a history. It's an approach to playing, a commitment to creating spontaneously...

Sure, not every note we play ends up being new or without precedent, but our orientation is always on exploding the moment—blowing it up—right in people's faces, cutting to the quick of creative action and getting to the freshest stuff. I always felt that's what jazz was supposed to do." Indeed. This trio listens to each other as empathetically as the legendary Bill Evans piano trio. That, and when Krantz switches from acoustic to electric guitar on this track, it's an adrenalin surge worthy of the head-banging "Bohemian Rhapsody" scene in Wayne's World.

Runner up in the Guitar Combo category: Wait Till You See Her (ECM), by John Abercrombie's fine group with violinist Mark Feldman.

"Loco" Madera Limpia La Corona (Out Here)

If this is not the hip-hop record of the year (and it's probably not), that's because this is not really a hip-hop record at all. Excellent conventional Cuban instrumental elements by this Guantánamo-based collective—listen to this alongside Jane Bunnett's tour of the eastern edge of the island, Radio Guantánamo: Guantánamo Blues Project Vol. 1 (Blue Note, 2006)—underlie sweet songs that would not be out of place on a record by Buena Vista Social Club, and rapping that in its over-the-top ferocity is at times pure Busta Rhymes or Ghostface Killah. Stiff-upper-lip tales of standing strong in the face of political informants, economic austerity, ennui and the temptation to turn to prostitution.

The real hip hop record of the year, naturally, is Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind," a rousing tribute to New York City—which reminds us that desperate recourse to prostitution is as much a feature of the supremely capitalist island of Manhattan as of the supremely communist island of Cuba.

"Modest" Jeremy Udden Plainville (Fresh Sound New Talent)

Either/Orchestra alum Udden's plaintive Plainville sounds like it might have been recorded in his kitchen, with the use of a few of the utensils to jerry-rig a homemade instruments: keyboardist Pete Rende in particular sometimes sounds like he's playing an even more battered version of that precarious adapted Fender Rhodes contraption Keith Jarrett struggled with on the Miles Davis 1970 Cellar Door sessions. Udden himself plays somewhere between Phil Woods and Stan Getz, and takes the new elegiac, folky jazz of Todd Sickafoose one step forward.

"I Dream A Highway" Elan Mehler The After Suite (Brownswood)

Brooklyn pianist Mehler maps out a territory not so far from Udden's gentle take on post-Sickafoose jazz; on an album that goes from one highlight to another (see AAJ reviewer Chris May's apoplectic review for a typical reaction). On this cover of a number by country singer Gillian Welch, Becca Stevens's quiet vocal makes it clear that the only highway that will lead her back to her beloved exists in dreams. "Step into the light, poor Lazarus," she whispers, although during Jeremy Viner's saxophone solo minutes before, barely breath and grit, you could almost see the lights fading; and then "let me see the mark death made."

"Anthem" Christian Scott Live At Newport (Concord)

The most representative track from this fine late-2008 collection of aggressively anthemic numbers would have to be the one called "Anthem." Everything about this performance can be read like a projection of the young leader's trumpet sound writ large: big, powerful but poised, virtuosic but controlled, achingly melodic, favoring the middle range; more than a fleeting reference to the mid-60s Miles Davis ensemble.

Runner up in the Newport Jazz Festival category: the somewhat shady discovery of hours of music from the 1959 edition of the festival, now streaming online, including a phenomenal set by Count Basie.

"I Loves You Porgy" Guillaume de Chassy & Daniel Yvinec Songs From The Last Century (Bee Jazz)

Guillaume de Chassy might, in his quiet way, be the bravest pianist around; sans complexes, they would say in his native France. Not only does he record a version of a song identified closely with the mythic Bill Evans—George Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy"—he does so with drummer Paul Motian, the drummer on the legendary 1961 Village Vanguard gig with Evans (using, moreover, the same cymbals he did at the Vanguard that remarkable Sunday). He sounds great—and then, beautifully, he segues into a coda that turns out to be Prince's "Condition of the Heart." A more convincing case for the bottomless capacity for renewal inherent in beautiful songs, I cannot imagine.

Runner up in the Great American Songbook category: novelist Wilfred Sheed's book on the subject, The House That George Built (Random House). Written in the humorous tone of the aging hipster, the book evinces the same enthusiasm for the great songs as de Chassy.

"Even If It Is So" Q-Tip Kamaal The Abstract (Sony/Jive)

Q-Tip is rap royalty: a founding member of A Tribe Called Quest, he has long shown an understated affinity with jazz (Ron Carter guested on one Tribe album). His long-lost "jazz" album, released and then abruptly withdrawn by his record company in 2001, finally saw the light of day in 2009. The record has a loose, friendly jam-session feel: an agreeable mélange of jazz, hip hop and R & B. Jazz notables, including Kurt Rosenwinkel, Kenny Garrett, and on this track, trumpeter Marlon Bonds and tenor saxophonist Gary Thomas, sit in.

"Plastic Woman" Los Amigos Invisibles Commercial (Gozadera/Nacional)

A pure party record by Venezuela's invisible friends, with plenty of musical chops, but also featuring a by-now old-fashioned tinge of irony. In part, this is because there are commercial messages between tracks (hence the disc's name), in the spirit of The Who Sell Out! (Track, 1967). But the irony is also musical: their joyful plundering of 80s and 90s lightweight pop sounds at first like a send-up of the source material, but subsequently become irresistible as lightweight pop. (This is a little like the relationship between Steely Dan and smooth jazz.)

"Two Bass Hit" Matt Wilson That's Gonna Leave A Mark (Palmetto)

Wilson's drumming is joyfully virtuosic, propulsive and funky; his two-reeds, no-piano lineup is rooted in an Ornette Coleman aesthetic, reaching back to Art Blakey-and forward to free jazz. Nowhere is this more clear than on this, the band's rendition of Ray Brown's hard-bop chestnut. Saxophonist Andrew D'Angelo had just emerged from brain surgery when this was recorded; on the evidence of his performance here, doctors cleared some kind of robust sonic channel.

Runner up in the Outré-Saxophone-Plus-Populist Drumming category: Fly's Sky & Country (ECM), where the parts are played by Mark Turner and Jeff Ballard, respectively.

"Cochabamba" Sarazino Ya Foy! (Cumbancha)

A bunch of bands, many of them in Spain (Huecco, Ojos de Brujo), are aggressively breaking down musical boundaries to create a kind of global pop music, working hard to bring in musical elements from around the planet; in so doing, they show a healthy attitude toward mixing genres foreign to their compatriot Señor Gilbert and the Sigüenza cops. When Lamine Fellah—the real-world alter ego of Sarazino—begins playing and singing, he cannot help but produce such a stew, and there is nothing fatuous about it in his case. See, Fellah is an Algerian who has settled in Quito, Ecuador, having made stops along the way in Spain, sub-Saharan Africa and Montreal; Fellah shifts seamlessly between English, French and Spanish on this cut. Like the Police (and Manu Chao) before him, and as improbable as it sounds on the face of it, Fellah understands that the substrate for such a truly global populist pop must be a kind of streamlined reggae music. As sincere and socially engaged as Los Amigos Invisibles are arch and tongue-in-cheek. The music on this record stands in relation to current Latin American politics in just the same way as the intrusion of an Appalachian reel at the Governor's Ball in Robert Rossen's film of All the King's Men (1949) relates to the politics of the fictional Willie Stark. "Playing up to the crowd, letting them trample on tradition," Joseph Ireland's character says menacingly of the populist Stark in the voiceover. "Well, tradition needed trampling on." Which is to say, the politics of this music is exciting, genuine and morally ambiguous.

"Recording Angel" Arve Henriksen Cartography (ECM)

Norwegian trumpeter Henriksen claims he's tired of being a jazz player, but rather than abandoning ship, he's trying to raise the game of the whole enterprise, introducing new ideas about improvisation. Band mate Jan Bang's "live sampling" (on this track including a medieval vocal trio) lends a human, analog quality to what is essentially a digital and electronic technique. Henriksen's vulnerable, fallible trumpet sound can be traced back, via Jon Hassell, to Miles Davis's deliberate heightening of the fragile side of his playing.

"Spanish Key" (from the Isle of Wight Festival) Miles Davis The Complete Columbia Album Collection (Sony France)

Miles was everywhere in 2009; you can hear his legacy in at least half of the tracks listed above. No better accompaniment to the new releases of the year, then, than this massive box of 70 CDs and one DVD, every original release by Davis for the label that would define his recording career. Miles and Columbia made each other rich, and made each other very bitter at times, but it was a hell of a partnership. Several things stand out as you listen again to all this music, from the 1949 French radio broadcast with Tadd Dameron to the early-1985 sessions that yielded Aura (not initially released by Columbia, finally driving Davis to leave the label), not least of which is the considerable share of total minutes of music represented by the Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969) period: there are no fewer than eight versions of "Bitches Brew" included here, recorded between August 1969 and June 1970, and almost as many of "Spanish Key." This version from the Isle of Wight rock festival, only sporadically available up to now, may be the best: not for the solos, but for pure rhythmic force.

Runner up in the Compleat Miles Davis category: We Want Miles, an exhibit devoted to the trumpeters life at the Cité de la Musique in Paris, this year (in fact, the box set was released to coincide with this museum exhibition); artifacts include producer Teo Macero's handwritten notes made during the Bitches Brew sessions, suggesting how the unwieldy slabs of material might be joined together in post-production.

And for an encore, how about:

"Encore" Joachim Kühn & Michael Wollny Live At Schloss Elmau (ACT)

This live album of duets by senior statesman Kühn, just now hitting his stride melodically, and Young Turk Wollny, is full of pleasant surprises. Each takes a solo number: Kühn's is a jazzy setting of a Bach chaconne. On this spontaneous-sounding set closer, the pair approach the embroidered delights of the final moments of the string-less first movement of Bartok's second piano concerto.

Runners Up in the Ponderous Pianist category: The prototype for Bach-playing jazz pianists, Keith Jarrett, released many minutes of sublime solo piano encased in far more minutes of noodling around, seeking sublimity on his three-disc Testament Paris/London (ECM). He is still capable of excellent spontaneous country tunes (e.g. "London Part III"), but I find myself equally drawn to his 1970 battles with the electric piano accompanying Miles at the Isle of Wight above. Meanwhile, Dutch pianist Edwin Berg gave us a jazzy treatment of a Bach prelude on his trio date Perpetuum (Bee Jazz); the Berg trio also provide a lovely reading of Michael Jackson's "Ben," as fitting a eulogy as any to mark the death of the Gloved One this year. (Listen to Quincy Jones's audio commentary on the CD re-release of Jackson's great Thriller (Epic, 1983): he asserts that Jackson's conquering MTV was a milestone because the channel had a policy of not featuring "jazz artists." Jacko—a jazz artist. What would Rafael Gilbert say? The debate continues.)

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