2010 Year's Best Jazz

This is my official ballot, as submitted to the Village Voice Jazz Critics Poll:

10 Best Releases

1. Radif Suite – Amir ElSaffar and Hafez Modirzadeh: What makes this one so special is the incredible emotional power and depth of expression. The style of the music, in the legacy of the Ornette Coleman Quartet, is still relatively unique and under-explored, but it how they are making the music is secondary to what they are saying and doing, musically. Beautiful, gut-wrenching and haunting in a way that is rare in jazz. More here.

2. Apex -Rudresh Mahanthappa & Bunky Green: One of the best pure listens of the year. More extensive review here.

3. Transmit – Ideal Bread: One of the smartest groups around playing some of the smartest, and best, music in contemporary jazz. More here.

4. Ten – Jason Moran: It’s pretty much a default that a Jason Moran CD will end up on such a list, arguably the most important musician currently in jazz. More here.

5. Reunited – Jazz Passengers: Like Moran, a Jazz Passengers release is an event. Also like Moran, what they are doing is a known quantity, and also like him, that quantity itself is still so fresh and exceptional. The fundamental tie that binds them all is unselfconsciousness. For the Passengers, the mix of genres, styles and the generous humor and essential mocking of the conventions of jazz are a natural way to make music, not an argument to make or a point to prove.

The title track says it all, a brilliant vocal arrangement of the slow-dancing pop ballad of the early 1980s. It’s funny, hip, musically accomplished, and rather than say something about jazz or pop music it says something about those who might look down from the supposedly lofty heights of non-pop. The same is true for their version of Radiohead’s “National Anthem,” which is one of the more inventively musical covers of that band I’ve heard in jazz. But the meat is the original music and sound of Roy Nathanson and band, the way they constantly and creatively undermine the very premises of jazz gestures and playing, the way they show clichés what they are, essential components of the music that still need to be questioned every time jazz gets played. One of the essential ensembles in jazz.

6.   Dual Identity – Rudresh Mahanthappa & Steve Lehman: Burning intensity and overwhelming excitement. More here.

7. siLENT Z Live – Pete Robbins: Accomplished, understatedly sophisticated, subtly daring, a top-level example of the promise, possibilities and fulfillment of contemporary jazz. More here.

8. Timshel – Dan Weiss: Quiet and very involving. Beautiful playing from Weiss’ group, and a set of music that has a wonderful quality of integration. More here.

9. Finally Out of My Hands – Ches Smith and These Arches: A knotty, challenging, pulsating disc. The band – Smith on drums, Mary Halvorson on guitar, Andrea Parkins playing accordion and organ and Tony Malaby on tenor – has a great sound that adds to the possibilities Henry Threadgill laid out in his first Make A Move ensemble. Just scoring on the basis of adding to the jazz tradition, that would make this a notable release. But this list is about the music, and this is some of the strongest music of the year.

The concepts of “good” and of “liking” something are the least important aspects of true criticism, and Finally Out of My Hands is an ideal example of this. There’s little in the way of ingratiating tunes and structures, there’s no concession to satisfying conventional ideas (and jazz has a deeply conventional streak) about being a jazz band. There’s also no concessions to the usual poles of free playing, either evocatively pointillistic or aggressive and full of existential angst. Instead, there’s a complex balance of organizing the music in terms of the sound of the instruments and in setting contrasting events along a time frame. There’s also, and I think this is the greatest strength of the CD, the feeling that Smith and musicians don’t have any answers, but they are interested in the questions of what can be done, and how it can be done. It’s not conceptual, it’s practical – they are looking for possibilities in praxis, and that gives this recording real bite and a compelling quality. You want to go where they are leading, even though there’s no particular destination involved, nor even signposts on the way.

10. Observatories – Blue Cranes: The elements – rock, blues, big band – are familiar, but the way this group puts them together is unique, and the music is winning. More here.

3 Top Reissues

1. Complete Novus/Columbia Henry Threadgill and Air (Mosaic): Monumental and deserved. Threadgill’s extraordinary breakthroughs and creativity over the last ten years or so came from somewhere deep in both the roots of jazz and in contemporary improvisation and performance, and this set collects range of thinking and playing that have to be heard to be believed. It’s invaluable to have these recordings available again, especially the run of Sextett CDs on Novus. The usual great production from Mosaic, including a nice booklet from Hank Shteamer.

2. The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra (ESP): Great music, of course, and great to have it collected and released. This is a superior reissue package, though, because of what comes with it when you put the discs into a computer; collected writing, collected photos, and a documentary film on the music and Sunny.

3. Django Reinhardt, Musette to Maestro 1928-1937 (JSP): A revelation. Hear how Django got his start in French popular music between the wars. Great examples of the wonderful café style of music that combined urban sophistication with rural nostalgia, but mainly hear is the evolution of one of the all time giants, from accompanying singers like Jean Sablon to the cusp of the Hot Club Quintet.

Top Vocal Album

Out of the Shadows Ran Blake/Christine Correa: Not just great singing but a great selection of material. My original review is here.

Best Debut CD

It Would Be Easier If– Ken Thomson & Slow/Fast: This could also be on the Top 10 list, but putting it in this category, where it belongs, allows the listing of one other excellent recording. Thomson is a musician’s musician, an important member of Gutbucket and the Asphalt Orchestra and seen in innumerable new and classical music concerts around town and the country. He’s also got his own band, a rich and beautiful bridge between jazz and new music.

The sound of this band is very much like that of a particularly lauded trumpeter of the past decade, a fine player who has been especially praised for his compositions. But writing some contrapuntal lines for a jazz quintet, while never organizing them into any particular form or structure and hoping improvisation carries the day is not much in the way of composition. What Thomson does here is simply great: writing homophonic and polyphonic (and polyrhythmic) lines within the structure of real compositions that are thought all the way through. He favors long, complex lines, jazz ‘endless melody,’ and they always move purposefully towards a point, even if in the moment that point seems distant and mysterious. The music is compositionally interesting in every moment. But this isn’t icy third-stream, Thomson’s style is laden with emotional force, and the band is just great (live they build up tremendous fire). The improvisations are terrific and fit seamlessly into the overall aesthetic. This is simply one of the best examples of a truly non-jazz compositional method applied to jazz that one will ever hear. Excellent, memorable and with a power that will grow with each listening.

Best Latin Jazz

Mood Music for Time Travellers – Either/Orchestra: Goes well beyond that standard idea of Latin Jazz. More here.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.