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72 Jazz Thrillers

The Most Exciting Jazz Albums Since 1969: 1998-2000

The Most Exciting Jazz Albums Since 1969: 1998-2000

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Middle Eastern music often features complex rhythmic patterns, such as compound time signatures and intricate polyrhythms. Jazz musicians have drawn inspiration from these rhythms.
The recurring theme in the fifth installment of 72 Jazz Thrillers is Middle Eastern music represented by John Zorn's Bar Kokhba Sextet, Either/Orchestra's Ethiopian Suite, and Mark Gross's Riddle of the Sphinx. Middle Eastern music often features complex rhythmic patterns, such as compound time signatures and intricate polyrhythms. Jazz musicians have drawn inspiration from these rhythms, incorporating them into their improvisations and compositions. And this has turned what might have been ordinary jazz albums into thrilling ones.

72 Thrilling Jazz Albums, Part 5: 1998-2000


The Circle Maker—Zevulum
Bar Kokhba Sextet

John Zorn recorded his 10 groundbreaking Masada quartet albums from 1994 to 1998. And then, typical of Zorn, he branched out with dozens of other Masada albums featuring other players, including the astounding Book of Angels series. However, one of his best bands was the Bar Kokhba Sextet, represented here on Zevulum, half of the double album The Circle Maker. With violin, cello, guitar, bass, drums and percussion, its Jewish melodies and rhythms intertwine with classical chamber music and jazz. And every note is thrilling.

Opening with the dramatic, pulsating "Lilin," every song finds its unique groove driven by the rhythm section, with intertwining contributions by violin, cello and guitar. "Hazor" features a gentle, bouncing melody and a bluesy, dancing solo on guitar. "Kisofim" ratchets up the drama with a deep, swaying melody. "Kehbar" opens with a sprightly pizzicato on violin followed by a grooving guitar. "Laylah" is pure atmosphere with a repetitive, dark bass groove and clashing cymbals. And that's only the first five songs. Every tune features astonishing performances and insanely tight group interaction. Unclassifiable and indispensable.


Voice in the Night
Charles Lloyd

Upon his return to jazz with ECM in 1989, Charles Lloyd released one exceptional album after another with his quartet featuring Bobo Stenson on piano. But in 1999, he took a left turn and recruited a whole different kind of quartet with Dave Holland on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. But most notable was his selection of John Abercrombie on guitar. The combination was thrilling. Opening with "Voice in the Night," previously recorded with Keith Jarrett 30 years earlier, it captures the essence of Lloyd's romantic, wistful longing.

He also reprises the gorgeous "Forest Flower: Sunrise/Sunset," a staple of his live sets in the '60's. Though Billy Strayhorn's "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing" has been recorded innumerable times, it might be hard to find a more beautiful version than Lloyd's. "God Give Me Strength" by Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello from the movie Grace of My Heart has a soaring, uplifting melody that resonates perfectly. Few of Lloyd's albums are less than excellent, but this one is truly stellar, casting a magic spell that is hard to resist.


Chico Hamilton
All Points Jazz

Chico Hamilton doesn't get much attention these days, but with more than 60 albums in his discography and a nurturer of great talent (Eric Dolphy, Charles Lloyd, Gabor Szabo and Larry Coryell were in his bands), he also featured unusual instrumentation such as cello in his ensembles. Hamilton had a deep understanding of the importance of texture and dynamics in music. He used a variety of drumming techniques and tools to create a rich and layered sonic landscape.

Timely, his fourth album featuring saxophonist Eric Person and guitarist, Cary DeNigris is a corker with compelling grooves and soaring melodies with stunning interaction between sax and guitar. On the opener, "Cheek's Groove" the sinuous soloing by Person and DeNigris takes things to dizzying heights. "These Are the Dues— Pt. 1" is a blues-drenched burner with a take-no-prisoners groove. The closer, "Malletdonia," features a compelling bass groove, Hamilton on mallets and spacey contributions by Person and DeNigris. "Jeffrey Andrew Caddick," featuring the bass soloing of Paul Ramsey, is a loving shout-out to his band manager. Hamilton maintains the groove and our attention for the length of this fun and rousing album.


Coward of the County
Ginger Baker

This is the second album by Ginger Baker featured in 72 Jazz Thrillers. This is notable, as Baker had less than a handful of jazz albums to his name. This is the only release of his band, the DJQ2O—the Denver Jazz Quintet-to-Octet—with whom he had been working since 1995, with six songs by trumpeter Ron Miles and two by Baker. Sadly, due to immigration and tax issues, Baker was deported soon after this album was released, and he never played with this band again. Luckily, it's a real thriller and also features James Carter on sax and bass clarinet in one of his greatest performances.

All the songs stand out for their memorable rhythms and melodies. "Cyril Davies" and "Megan Showers" feature languid grooves. "Ginger Spice," with arguably the best solo ever recorded by James Carter, is a wild burner, and "Dangle the Carrot" boasts the album's most memorable hook—a launching pad for oblique horn solos and a climatic drum solo by Baker. How often do you get a non-gospel album with two songs about Jesus? "Jesus Loves Me" (no, not the old hymn) and "Jesus, I Just Want to Sleep" are deeply soulful, with the latter, the album's finale, featuring two stirring bass clarinet solos by Carter. The penultimate song, "Daylight," is a tour-de-force of shifting moods and ferocious emotions that somehow manages to groove like Led Zeppelin at their wildest—the definition of thrilling. Ginger Baker and Ron Miles, we miss you both.


More Beautiful than Death
Accurate Records

The first song on More Beautiful than Death lets you know you're in for something quite special from Either/Orchestra, the now-retired eclectic 10-piece band led by saxophonist Russ Gershon. "Amiak Abet Abet" is one of three reimagined Ethiopian pop tunes from the '70's. It grooves, soars and dances with wild abandon. Take Sun Ra, cross him with Yusef Lateef and Randy Weston, and you get the idea. The celebratory energy is deliriously infectious. The second Ethiopian excursion, "Musicawi Silt," features a sinuous groove and exotic melody that Duke Ellington might have written if he had hailed from Ethiopia. Finally, "Feker Aydelmwey" rounds out the Ethiopian Suite with more joyful exultation and percussive delirium that transports you to a land of stately camels, cool oases and swaying palms.

It's easy to forget that the "Ethiopian Suite"'s three songs, evenly spaced throughout the album, only comprise about a third of More Beautiful Than Death. The other six songs are standard Either/Orchestra fare, which is not to denigrate them. In their time, this little big band featured tight arrangements, memorable melodies, an extraordinarily tight horn section and masterful soloing on all instruments. On this album, their seventh, they were at the peak of their powers, and every song soars to the stratosphere, but it's the Ethiopian music that makes this a true thriller.


Riddle of the Sphinx
Mark Gross
J Curve

Mark Gross is an exceptional New York-based saxophonist who has played with the Mingus Big Band, the Dave Holland Big Band and toured with innumerable other jazz musicians. Content to be a sideman, he's only recorded a handful of albums. "Riddle of the Sphinx," his second, is a brilliant concept album with Egypt as the theme. Few thematic albums capture the feel and energy of their subject as well as this one. And every song is a gem. Five self-penned titles and five others—one each from Mulgrew Miller (appearing here on piano), Wayne Shorter, Kenny Garrett, Cannonball Adderley and Duke Ellington (in a sublime Miller-Gross duet of "Isfahan").

One begins to feel something special on the opener, "Valley of the Dry Bones," where a stately opening on sax segues into a processional marimba solo by Joe Locke followed by a searing, sinuous solo by Gross that ultimately blends and fades with John LaBarbara's oud. "Moses in Egypt" features a dancing Middle-Eastern groove and beautiful pulsating piano soloing from Miller. The title song spans several time signature changes to mirror the different ages of man. Gross's final original and the album closer, "The Red Sea," evokes the parting of the waters by Moses through a mystical dance. This is inspired stuff, ranking with Randy Weston's "Spirit of Our Ancestors." Each tune is finely conceived and a mini- masterpiece in its own right. If you enjoy jazz with energy and inventiveness, along with sensuousness and warmth, you will find much to appreciate here.

Next week

Thrilling jazz albums keep coming with celebrated albums by Kurt Rosenwinkel and Michael Brecker, as well as underappreciated masterpieces by Peter Epstein and Michael Wolff.

To see all the albums in this series, scroll down the page and click on the blue MORE button.

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