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72 Jazz Thrillers

The Most Exciting Jazz Albums since 1969: 2001-2005

The Most Exciting Jazz Albums since 1969: 2001-2005

Courtesy Michelle Le


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All six albums feature influences from Middle Eastern, African, and Asian traditional music. They are all very visual in that they conjure up exotic vistas and locations.
These six jazz thrillers from the first years of the 21st-century journey to wonderful and exotic locations with music that moves and grooves. All six albums feature influences from Middle Eastern, African, and Asian traditional music. They are all very visual in that they conjure up exotic vistas and locations, such as caravans and oases in the Sahara, weddings in India, snakey and danceable melodies, and dramatic sci-fi-like soundscapes.

72 Thrilling Jazz Albums, Part 6: 2001-2005


Michael Blake
Knitting Factory Works

Michael Blake was a founding member of the Jazz Composers Collective (1992-2002), which consisted of New York musicians Ben Allison, bass, Ron Horton, trumpet, Frank Kimbrough, piano, and Ted Nash, sax. They all recorded their own solo albums that featured the members of the collective as well as a series of three albums of tunes by pianist Herbie Nichols (1919-1963). This album, which includes Allison and Kimbrough, is one of the best of their collective efforts and a real thriller.

The opener, "In the Arms of Ali" feels like a prayer to a higher power; Blake's sax whispers, cries and seduces the listener to a higher calling. "Surfing Sahara" kicks things up a notch, evoking images of an oasis on a sunlit morning with a caravan of camels traversing a shifting sand dune. The title song, "Elevated," is saturated in the spiritual jazz tradition with a transporting, elevating melody. "Addis Ababa," continues the East African theme with a swaying, exotic groove. The remaining five songs are also excellent, but the four opening tunes form an atmospheric suite that sets this thrilling album apart.


Pandora's Box
Michael Wolff
ESC Records

Pianist Michael Wolff has had an illustrious musical career, playing in the bands of such notables as Cal Tjader, Frank Sinatra and Wayne Shorter. He went on to be the musical director for Nancy Wilson and then for The Arsenio Hall Show (1989-1994). But he entered into the pantheon of jazz thrillers with his boundary-crossing band, Impure Thoughts, featuring Alex Foster on sax and Badal Roy on tablas. The inspiration to include Roy was genius, incorporating complex Indian rhythms with exciting, groove-based jazz. Pandora's Box is a compilation of the band's first two albums, Impure Thoughts and Intoxicate.

"Badd Al" kicks off with percussive piano and tablas and a piercing, sinuous melody by Foster. "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," The Temptations No. 1 soul hit from 1971, somehow fits in perfectly. Wayne Shorter's classic "Witch Hunt" follows and is the real thriller of the collection and one of the best versions ever recorded. Other jazz and soul classics follow: "Sidewinder," "In A Silent Way" and Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing." Many of the originals, "Impure Thoughts," "Euphoria" and "Bells," are slow, deep and beautifully wrought. Recommendation: Get both of the original albums, if you can, with five more great songs.


Nguyen Le

Vietnamese-French guitarist Nguyen Le has had a solid career for more than thirty years, mostly on the German ACT label. He's played with such jazz notables as Peter Erskine, Terri Lyne Carrington and Art Lande, plus dozens of European musicians. E_L_B stands for Erskine (drums), Le, and [Michael] Benita (bass)—the first of two albums by this guitar trio. The attention-getting thrillers on this album are "ZigZag" and "Pong," and they may be enough to bring listeners back again and again. "ZigZag" features a snaky guitar solo that just builds and builds, first very subtly and then with more dynamic force and an incredibly strong melody that keeps you in its thrall until the very end, when you may be compelled to play it over and over again. "Pong" boasts a more aggressive rock guitar sound with yet another wonderful, dancing groove.

These two standout groovers put the rest of the program in relief as the remaining songs are gentler, emphasizing subtle beauty. They grow on you over time as Le's masterful playing takes you on a magical journey. He always manages to find subtle variations in his tone and playing. Erskine and Benita are able partners in this journey; their improvisations are always at the highest level of spontaneity and inventiveness. "Autumn Rose," an endearing ballad, "Now or Never," a blues workout, and "Bee," a languid lament, are standouts. And, as in many of his albums, Le visits his Vietnamese roots in the meditative "Sao Sen." A welcome surprise, however, is a rare cover of "Bass Desires" from the album of the same name that also featured Erskine with Bill Frisell and John Scofield. E_L_B does them proud. It's a deeply satisfying, multi-textured album from a true guitar genius.


Kurt Rosenwinkel

On Kurt Rosenwinkel's fifth album, Heartcore, instead of a straight lineup, he opts for a dense production that is extraordinarily atmospheric. Many of the songs are overdubbed, with Rosenwinkel playing guitar, keyboards and sometimes drums. Mark Turner, on sax, is heard on five of the selections. With producer Q-Tip on board, the album reportedly took a good part of three years to produce, and with the addition of digital sampling and programming, he creates a dreamy, sometimes sci-fi-like soundscape. The songs are deep, multi-textured, and groove like mad, yet his signature guitar sound comes through stronger than ever. The opener, "Heartcore," establishes a solid groove over which Rosenwinkel improvises magnificently. That he's the sole musician on all instruments (except Turner), makes it even more thrilling. "All the Way to Rajasthan" finds a slow, introspective groove with passionate soloing that celebrates the heart of space.

Then "Your Vision" emerges with an impossibly languid and deep groove by the guitarist's (highly processed) voice, which then melds seamlessly with his guitar. Mind-blowing. This is followed by an otherworldly bass clarinet solo by Andrew D'Angelo in a rhapsody of ecstatic agony floating on a cloud of angelic voices. "Dream/Memory" somehow recreates the perfect soundtrack for a meandering, drifting night or day. "Love in the Modern Word" feels like the soundtrack to a future of both conflicted and blissful connections. The music is jaw-dropping.

Rosenwinkel finds an almost infinite depth here, not only rare for him but rare in all of jazz. Listen to this album once or twice, or plumb its depths for decades; the emotional intensity of this stunningly beautiful album is deeply moving. Rosenwinkel hit his creative apex on Heartcore 20 years ago, yet he is still playing wonderfully deep and immersive music to this day.


Wide Angles
Michael Brecker

Michael Brecker's preferred band format was a quartet or quintet. On his penultimate album before passing in 2007, Brecker did something very different; he assembled a "quindectet" (15 musicians) very unlike any other standard big jazz band. Along with trumpeter Alex Sipiagin and trombonist Robin Eubanks, it includes five wind instruments (Brecker was the only sax) and five stringed instruments, including Mark Feldman and Erik Friedlander, plus bass, drums and percussion. And it doesn't sound like any other large-scale band, before or since. The closest jazz album to Wide Angles might be the masterpiece, Focus, by Stan Getz with a string trio, piano, bass and drums that backed Getz on sax, the only solo instrument.

In the same way here, the band provides a rich and varied musical foundation while Brecker is the only soloist. What makes this album so thrilling is how tight and cohesive this big band performs as a unit without anyone getting in anyone's way. And a lot is going on. The band ebbs and flows like a living organism. A through-composed work, it's dynamic and spontaneous, never getting bogged down. "Broadband" kicks off the festivities with a lively, bouncing groove and memorable melody. "Cool Day in Hell" follows with a cool grove that heats up as the piece gives way to sizzling sax solos. "Angel of Repose" is a tender tone poem. The album's biggest thriller, "Timbuktu," features a roller-coaster groove and earworm melody that builds to the fever-pitched intensity of Brecker's soloing, then calms down only to revisit the intensity. "Night Jessamine" features a funk groove with attitude. The texture of the band, the wide variety of tempos, and especially the masterful soloing of Brecker make this one of the most thrilling jazz alums of the early 21st century. Brecker is sorely missed.


Lingua Franca
Peter Epstein

You are on a camel in the Sahara, slowly approaching an oasis. You hear the faint echoes of an ancient music in the air as you draw closer and closer. Then, through the palm archway of the oasis and into the bazaar, a trio is grooving on sax, guitar and percussion with wild intensity and joy. You then find yourself dancing in the sand. Thus opens "Two Door" on Lingua Franca, one of the true gems melding Middle Eastern music with jazz. Oh, and how it succeeds—with every song—in this immersive, joyful performance. This visit to an oasis flows from one space to another, from one dance to another.

"Miro's," grooving five-note dance gyrates and rambles with mischief through the oasis. "Emerald" is a stately procession to the inner sanctum. "Temoin" emerges with light, dancing joy. "Here and There" opens as a meandering search and then kicks into a high-speed chase through the desert until it rambles and skips through the marketplace. "Monsaraz" is the evening procession, holy prayer and ecstatic dance to the gods of the desert. "Kovanova" is a slow but deliberate caravan crossing the desert in moonlight from dusk to dawn. "Sunrise" is just that: after a long night journey, the sun rises on another oasis of new music and dance just ahead. On "Meditation," you have arrived once again, and you reflect on the depth and beauty of your journey and the miracle of these oases in the sun-drenched desert. Lingua Franca: A Desert Oasis Thriller. Peter Epstein, tenor sax; Brad Shepik, guitar; Matt Kilmer, percussion.

Next week

Next week's six jazz thrillers include albums with deep atmospheres and compelling, joyous grooves by Mike Mainieri, Myriam Alter and Bobby Previte.

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