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72 Jazz Thrillers

The Most Exciting Jazz Albums since 1969: 2009-2011


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The six jazz thrillers for this week are widely diverse–from a big band outlier, a soaring two-sax front line and an expression of the ideas from an esoteric teacher.
The six jazz thrillers for this week are widely diverse—from a big band outlier, a soaring two-sax front line and an expression of the ideas from an esoteric teacher. What they all have in common are their thrilling cohesiveness, gripping rhythms and compelling melodies.

72 Thrilling Jazz Albums, Part 7: 2009-2011


Infernal Machines
Darcy James Argue
New Amsterdam

Thrilling jazz albums are rarely an accident; they emerge from dedicated jazz leaders, composers and musicians. Darcy James Argue is one of those outstanding leaders and composers. This big band album was also his first. Argue labeled it as "Steampunk Jazz" from his Secret Society. Heady images, for sure, and he delivered in spades, catapulting him to international recognition. Argue invited musicians to join his band with the caveat: "This music is very hard to play!" It certainly is complex. With multi-textured rhythms, melodies and passages that go from whisper-quiet to exhilarating heights, this album grabs you by the lapels and urges you to explore a hidden world of gears, boilers, steam valves and passionate machine designers and engineers. This album also tells a series of stories, tied together—a magnificent jazz opera from an age reminiscent of the late 1800s with its vision towards the AI future of tomorrow. Stories of great depth and passion.

"Phobos," the opener, is a panoramic sweep of the emotional moods of the time. It's exciting, dark, daring and boldly creative. It feels a lot like right now. Where "Phobos" was an emotional panorama, "Zeno," is a chase to the future, an intensely passionate journey of the mind and heart. "Transit" then gears it up a notch to a wildly grooving dance of joy with the soaring, dramatic trumpet of Ingrid Jensen. It proclaims: "Hey, this future is an absolute blast!" Need to motivate your team? Play this one to them.

"Redeye" speaks of long, passionate, creative work and the weariness and joy that often accompanies it— delivered with intense conviction by guitarist Sebastian Noelle It also blends in some of the anguishing, stressful struggles that lead to triumph, and sometimes defeat. It ends with a passage of weary, but smiling fulfillment. "Jacobin Club" depicts discreet, mysterious and dramatic scenes behind the Secret Society's massive doors. The dreary, yearning "Habeus Corpus" feels like the sad passing of something, a person or an idea, and then, a resurrection on a magnificent scale. "Obsidian Flow" soars on a wind of optimism—yes, seriously joyful optimism. What a great way to end such an expansive jazz journey.


Billy Fox's Blackbirds and Bullets
Clean Feed

Although Billy Fox is a fairly obscure jazz musician, his music is certainly thrilling. This is his second of a two-album discography, and we can only hope he'll emerge once again in the future. But he has left behind one of the most infectious jazz groovers ever recorded. "Girl Cheese Sandwich" starts as a trumpet trio with a snaky, subversive melody that bursts into a swirling dance, and a delicate, grooving bass to take the song out. "Go Pocket Pickles," feels like a rendezvous in a sultan's tent with a bouncing, joyous rhythm and melody. The power of the exotic melodies and pulsating rhythms take every song to soaring heights and ecstatic climaxes. "Deva Dasi" is a monastic journey to the core of being that morphs into a multi-solo dance of joy—and a groove, unlike anything you've heard before.

"Tatsin" starts the second half with a mournful trumpet playing over a bass groove, then the sax enters, and they play in unison before things kick into a hard-driving organ-sax quartet that grooves into outer space. "Elisha & the She Bears" opens with a slow, evocative groove by a campfire, and suddenly we're in a very cool jazz club channeling Miles Davis circa 1969, replete with the muted ghosts of Miles and Wayne Shorter. Killingly thrilling.


Chris Lightcap's Bigmouth
Clean Feed

With the cover of Deluxe featuring a 1950's chrome-plated convertible cruiser, it conjures images of wide- open highways and wind in your hair. The two-sax frontline of Chris Cheek and Tony Malaby play long, soaring solos in unison, backed by Craig Taborn on electric keys along with the steady bass of Chris Lightcap and the propulsive drumming of Gerald Cleaver. "Platform" opens strong and steady with the band grooving in a pulsating forward momentum. "Silvertone" opens hesitantly with the rhythm section moving cautiously forward, then joined by the powerful sax duet in a languid but beautiful dance that builds and builds in intensity. Their phrasing and interaction are quite like anything else in jazz.

"Ting" again opens with the rhythm section in a livelier workout, joined by the dynamic duo of Cheek and Malaby soaring once again like massive clouds sweeping over the great plains. Lightcap's bass takes center stage on "The Clutch" with a driving, funky groove, shadowed by Taborn on piano as the saxophones dance with rapturous ecstasy. This thrilling album may quicken your pulse as if you were hurtling down a wide-open road at 100 mph.


The Way of the Sly Man
Dave Morgan
Being Time Records

Despite this being the only album released under the name of bassist Dave Morgan, it's a thriller that revolves around an unusual theme—the esoteric teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff. He employs a crack team of 12 jazz musicians (keyboard player, Dan Wall is the only one this writer is familiar with). This evocative music conjures various inner states and strivings. Yet, it remains beautifully accessible and engaging. The opener, "The Search," starts with a meditative drone and builds to a passionate frenzy. "The Law of Three" based on one of Gurdjieff's foundational life principles, has a bouncy, dancing rhythm and catchy melody reflecting the three principles of "active, passive and neutralizing."

The remaining songs capture the essence of various states, demonstrating what jazz is capable of—the expression of deep feelings and ideas. The music is immersive, uplifting and brilliantly performed, and like all of the jazz thrillers in this series, it is an album you can return to again and again and still keep hearing something new. For this particular album, I'd encourage you to read the original review by Matt Marshall that captures its essence perfectly.


The Kandinsky Effect
The Kandinsky Effect
SNP Records

This American/European trio has recorded four albums since 2010 and this, their freshman release, has an informal spontaneity that is infectious. It soars and grooves with a full, resonant sound not typical of a sax-bass-drums trio. At the same time, it feels both relaxed and vibrantly alive. "Sad Novi" feels like a personal sketch of someone with a very complex emotional inner life. "Photo Book" is a melancholy, yet dynamic glimpse of places and friends. Try listening to this while paging through your online photos, and you'll get the idea.

"Patterns" is a mournful lament. "Girl/boy Song" applies their resonant, singing tone to its full advantage. The songs vary from upbeat and playful to downbeat and thoughtful, but they all find a groove, and the soaring sax of Warren Walker turns each of his solos into a compelling story. And this is what makes this album so thrilling. Each song inhabits its own unique world with an emotional message that communicates deep truths.


Beat Therapy
Dmitri Tymoczko
Bridge Records

On his website, Dmitri Tymoczko says, "I am a composer and failed former philosopher who loves to think about how music works." Apparently, he did a lot of thinking about this album, his only jazz work amongst three other releases. He says, "I am currently developing a number of games, compositional utilities, and electronic instruments, most of which involve geometry in some way." We might wish he had applied his talents to more jazz albums like this one, but we'll have to settle for this excellent piece of music of which he says: "Beat Therapy combines the sounds and rhythms of jazz with a classical sense of form and development. Ideas change and grow and return in unexpected ways, with literal repetition being rare."

But make no mistake, this album's concept might be heady, but the octet he's assembled here grooves like mad. When classical music and jazz collide, the results can be stilted, with the classical elements suppressing the jazz groove. But not here. The jazz is front and center, while the classical structure keeps things dynamic and multi-textured. The opener, "Loop & Swing" starts hesitantly with a hi-hat and bass groove that evolves into a full-blown, joyous celebration. "Katrina Stomp" conjures images of dancers on a Harlem stage. And the finale, "Sayonara" is a Japanese- tinged road song—yet another unique jazz thriller.

Next week

The Jazz Thrillers of next week span the years of 2011-2014 with a saxophone statesman and a budding guitarist, a trumpet masterpiece of bounding joy, a sublime piano trio, and an album each from the UK and New Zealand. Thrilling jazz knows no boundaries.

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