Saturday, May 31, 2008

Top Five(ish) Jazz Tunes of the Spring!

As I've said over and over again, so far this has been an incredible year for jazz; while it doesn't look like the flow of brilliant albums and tracks will let up in the near future, I thought it was worth commemorating what may well be the best spring in jazz since the fifties with something of a Top Five list. The problem (if you can call it a problem) is that after listing a large number of my favorite tunes since March or so and then whittling it down, I was incapable of creating a list of less than eight. I've tried to link you to the song wherever possible. So here you are, in alphabetical order, my almost-top-five of Spring 2008:

"A Change is Gonna Come" by Bill Frisell: Bill Frisell is quite possibly the single most interesting musician to gain status as one of Jazz's premier artist. He got his start playing tons of sessions for ECM, and made a name for himself by spending half of his time with Paul Motian and the other half with John Zorn; for the past ten or so years he has divided his time between working with brilliant guitar trios and making country-jazz records. "A Change is Gonna Come" represents something of a departure; neither country nor jazz, the song is a cover of a Sam Cooke song from the 60s. Greg Tardy plays a ridiculously good tenor solo after Frisell himself finishes up his own trademark solo featuring a lot of space and some notes that nobody else would play.

"Cuerro Y Alama (Body and Soul)" by Esperanza Spalding: While I have not reviewed Esperanza Spalding's "Esperanza" yet (I haven't been able to get ahold of it in it's entirety), based on the tracks featured on her myspace- and this gem, a spanish 5/4 cover of Body and Soul, in particular- that it could be brilliant. At first, when I'd heard that she spent more time singing on this album than on her gorgeous, underplayed debut "Junjo," I was a little bit apprehensive, but her voice is beautiful, and her bass solo on this track is brilliant in a melodic way.

"HumSong (Skidrow Anthem) Remix" by Ambrose Akinmusire and Yellow Then Blue: While the original is without a question growing on me (the more I listen to the album, the more I feel like I may have been a little too harsh on Akinmusire; he really is a shining light in the new jazz scene, so I suppose my expectations were just too high), the remix of "HumSong" as done by Yellow Then Blue just has a vibrancy that the original is lacking. The entrance of Walter Smith III into the track almost halfway through is accompanied by particularly spastic drums, and the sequenced percussion only makes the track seem more innovative and vital. Smith and Akinmusire in passionately trade fours, and Smith hits notes with incredible intensity.

"Lonely Woman" by Marian McPartland: If one more person reminds me that Marian McPartland just turned 90 I may cry; on the basis of her recent "Twilight World" album, she is just as vital (if not more vital) as a musician as she was in the 50s. "Lonely Woman," an Ornette Coleman cover, somehow does manages to fit in with the rest of the album. The most
astonishing thing about her cover of "Lonely Woman" is that she, a ninety year old who came up in the hard bop scene, has managed to make one of the best free jazz recordings of the year.

"Nonvignon" by Lionel Loueke: I didn't love Lionel Loueke's "Karibu;" to be blunt, it wasn't accessible like his live show in spite of Blue Note's efforts to smooth out all of the rough edges in this music. "Nonvignon," however, is without a question Lionel Loueke's most beautiful song. While the version on "Karibu" isn't as great as an earlier solo version on "In A Trance" or the version I saw at his show in Oberlin- he got the audience to sing along-, there is no question that it is one of the best songs of the Spring. In spite of extended movements away from the normal harmony in the middle, Loueke always manages to come back to the gorgeous chords of the song. If more people listened to "Nonvignon" the world would be a much happier place.

"The Remedy" by Kurt Rosenwinkel: The title track of Kurt Rosenwinkel's new live album from the Village Vanguard has the best groove of any jazz song I've heard all year, perhaps the best groove since the title track of Kenny Werner's "Lawn Chair Society," and the band is absolutely incredible. The major stand-out (with the exception of Rosenwinkel, saxophonist Mark Turner, drummer Eric Harland... hell, everybody in this band is a stand-out), for me at least, is pianist Aaron Goldberg, who, while groaning along a la Keith Jarrett, plays one of the simplest, funkiest, most brilliant motivic lines I've ever heard during his solo.

"Threnody" by Vijay Iyer: I've already talked at length about this particular track on this blog, twice. To put it simply, Rudresh Mahanthappa is the most innovative, violent saxophone player in jazz right now, and by the time he comes into the picture you've already been mesmerized by Iyer's interplay with bassist Stephen Crump.

"Wonderwall" by Brad Mehldau: Brad Mehldau, like Kurt Rosenwinkel, has been less than prolific in recent years; "Live," the latest from his trio, was worth the wait. "Wonderwall," a rhythmically interesting (the bass plays in a different time signature from the piano and drums; but the band meets up during the bridge, creating a sort of Steve Coleman vibe without sounding at all like Steve Coleman) cover of an Oasis tune, features Mehldau's usual gorgeous, funky, restrained piano playing. Mehldau, more than anyone else in the jazz world, understands that less is more, and he's come a long way since his note-heavy early records. His music manages to be complex enough to satisfy a jazz snob or music school student, but is simple and catchy enough to be accessible to just about anyone.

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