Monday, December 15, 2008

Jazz 08 Part Three: Top Ten Albums of the Year

I understand that it is now in verve for critics to replace their annual top ten lists with alphabetical, formless, un-fun lists of albums that are "the best, in this critic's humble opinion." Anyone who reads this blog knows by now that this sort of meaningless, politically-correct list isn't quite my style. Hence, I'm kicking it old-school: numbered from ten to one, here are the best jazz albums of the year. Feel free to disagree with the picks or lament the lack of your favorite record in the comments section:

10. "Invisible Cinema" by Aaron Parks: Parks, who is shaping up to be the pianist of choice for the current crop of youngsters on the jazz scene, made his Blue Note debut as a leader with "Invisible Cinema," a record with a ridiculously opaque plot that doesn't seem to actually matter. The music is like prog rock with jazz musicians; Mike Moreno's guitar pyrotechnics recall Pat Metheny and Johnny Greenwood in equal parts.

9. "The Remedy" by Kurt Rosenwinkel: With "The Remedy," Kurt Rosenwinkel has proved yet again that he deserves to be this generation's most influential voice on guitar. As opposed to playing licks, Rosenwinkel plays fluid, seemingly random lines. There is a tragic element of this record though; saxophonist Mark Turner recently lost two fingers in an accident, and the jazz scene's loss is monumental.

8. "Party Intellectuals" by Marc Ribot: PARTY PARTY PARTY PARTY... Marc Ribot's free-rock trio is so good that you forget that you're listening to a jazz musician who plays with John Zorn. Like last year's "Draw Breath," by The Nels Cline Singers, songs alternate between noisy, violent free improvisations and the loudest, booty shaking party music ever.

7. "Live" by The Brad Mehldau Trio: For my money, Brad Mehldau is the best piano player alive and working in the jazz idiom. While older musicians like Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett recieve all of the accolades, Mehldau has proven himself repeatedly with his trio on records like live. The interplay between him, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard recalls both Jarrett's standards trio and Bill Evans' great trio, but creates music all its own. Mehldau covers pop songs ("Wonderwall" and "Black Hole Sun" here) without a hint of irony, and plays them like standards. Every track is a highlight.

6. "Kinsmen" by Rudresh Mahanthappa: Mahanthappa's septet on this record consists of a jazz quartet augmented by an Indian classical music trio. While there have been numerous other attempts to fuse the two musics, "Kinsmen" sounds like nothing else ever released in the jazz idiom. Saxophonists Mahanthappa and Kadri Gopalnath duel brilliantly on the tracks "Ganesha" and "Convergence (Kinsmen)."

5. "Crossing the Field" by Jenny Scheinman: "Crossing the Field," which features a full orchestra without sounding even remotely corny, is violinist Jenny Scheinman's best album yet. Her scrappy rural lyricism shines next to Bill Frisell's guitar and Jason Moran's piano, and her original compositions are alternatingly haunting, quaint, and beautiful. It makes sense that her other release this year was a set of spunkily sung versions of folk songs; her violin playing has the same weary, gorgeous quality as her voice.

4. "Esperanza" by Esperanza Spalding: Guilty pleasure of the year. Hands down. I could listen to Esperanza Spalding go on and on about her boy trouble for hours straight, and have. While her first album, "Junjo," was a straight-ahead date that showcased her bass playing, "Esperanza" is more of a contemporary R&B record with acoustic instruments and a latin-jazz tinge. Just listen to "Precious" and try not to get indignant about Esperanza's awful boyfriend (Can you believe he wanted her to change for him?), or, if you're in a jazz mood, get a hear of the catchy and wordless "I Adore You," the album's best track.

3. "The Door" by Mathias Eick: There are videos on youtube of Mathias Eick exploding with incredibly fast high-note runs, but that could not be further from "The Door." The quietest album of the year, "The Door" features the sort of lyricism expected from someone much older than the young Eick. His debut showcases the influence of earlier ECM artists and a little bit of the sound of his main gig, Jaga Jazzist, but really sounds like nothing else. If you could translate the feel and look of an intricate ice-sculpture into a jazz album, you would wind up with something a lot like "The Door."

2. "History, Mystery" by Bill Frisell: "History, Mystery" is easily Bill Frisell's most cohesive album since "Nashville," if not since "Have A Little Faith." The band is something like a who's who of the rural jazz movement: Jenny Scheinman and Eyvind Kang take up the strings, Ron Miles plays trumpet, and the perennial rhythm section of Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen anchors the proceedings. The album's sound is evocative of Americana circa 1950 or 1960; a melting pot of blues, country, bebop, soul, tango, Copland-style classical music and pretty much anything else Frisell sets his sights on. The record is set up as two different suites that go together, the first framed by different versions of "Probability Cloud," and the second by versions of "Monroe."

1. "Tragicomic" by Vijay Iyer: While "History Mystery" presents a beautiful fantasy version of the world, "Tragicomic" presents the world precisely as it is: dark, claustrophobic, complicated, and more often than not downright scary. Of course, Iyer treats it as a joke: the second track is named "Macaca Please" after former Virginia senator George Allen's now famous slur, while the music bludgeons you over the head like a blunt weapon. The album's only moment of respite, which comes in the form of a beautiful solo piano take on "I'm All Smiles" ends in an unsure vamp, and is almost immediately drowned out by the death march and subsequent riot of "Machine Days." Iyer's long-standing quartet with Rudresh Mahanthappa, Stephen Crump, and Marcus Gilmore has made a record that isn't for the faint of heart, but has more to say about the state of the world than most jazz. I said in April that this was going to be Iyer's year, and it was.


AccuJazz said...

Thanks for posting the list. I definitely dig everything you list here that I've heard, and definitely have to check out the Vijay Iyer and Jenny Scheinman discs.

Anthony said...

The Jazz Monster influeced some of my jazz-buying in 2008, so I thought I'd give my personal list. Of all the jazz CD's that came out in 2008, I only heard some. It wouldn't make sense to list a top 10 when nobody knew what pool of CD's I was choosing from. So, here are my 2008 CD rankings:

1) Little Things Run The World - Ben Allison. This isn't groundbreaking, but strong throughout.
2) Live 2008: 5th Annual Concert Tour - SF Jazz Collective. Every year they put out a strong set.
3) Lobster Leaps In - The Microscopic Septet. Modern swing.
4) Esperanza - Esperanza Spaulding. Very catchy & musical.
5) Guitars - McCoy Tyner. Guest spot discs can be iffy but given the diverse guitarists this one surprisingly works.
6) The New York Suite - Ken Vandermark. This is a live bonus disc included with "Beat Reader".
7) Day Trip - Pat Metheny. His jazz stuff is very good.
8) Leucocyte - Esbjorn Svensson Trio. Quite like the Chicago Underground Trio.
9) Recommended Tools - Donny McCaslin. Strong sax throughout.
10) Tragicomic - Vijay Iyer. Vijay should add more melodicism to move up my list.

Pretty good:
Karibu - Lionel Loueke
The Wheel - Joel Harrison
Invisible Cinema - Aaron Parks
Zaebos: Book Of Angels, Vol. 11 - Medeski, Martin & Wood
Emphasis! (On Parenthesis) - Stanton Moore
Pass It On - Dave Holland
Tokyo Day Trip Live EP - Pat Metheny
Dragon's Head - Mary Halvorson
History, Mystery - Bill Frisell

Set The Alarm For Monday - Bobby Previte
Beyond Quantum - Anthony Braxton, William Parker, Milford Graves
Present Tense - James Carter
Beat Reader - Ken Vandermark
The Door - Mathias Eick
Just Like This - Keefe Jackson
The Turning Gate - The New Jazz Composers Octet
We Are MTO - Steven Bernstein

Beyond My Ability To Appreciate:
Bill Dixon With Exploding Star Orchestra - Bill Dixon, Rob Mazurek