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.

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Happy Coltrane Day

John Coltrane’s legacy is eighty-four years young today, and the shame is that if he had survived his demons he could easily be going strong this very moment.  I can’t add much to what already is a mass of knowledge, ideas, experiences and viewpoints, except for perhaps this excellent animation of his solo on “Giant Steps” (I used to practice this so much that the muscle memory is still in my fingers, thirty years later), and after, a selection of my favorite recordings of his, with perhaps a surprise or two:

  • Coltrane’s Sound; underrated but I think the greatest of his Atlantic recordings, intense and tough-minded
  • Duke Ellington and John Coltrane; the enduring hit is the duet with Johnny Hartman, but Coltrane is so subdued on that one.  With the Duke, he’s understated but speaks fully, with an aching edge to “In A Sentimental Mood”
  • Live At Birdland; this is the one that Philip Larkin hated, IIRC
  • Coltrane; with “Out Of This World,” “Soul Eyes” and “Tunji,” the best of the straight-playing Impulse! albums

One final note, don’t check for any graphic tribute to Coltrane at Google today, jazz is too hip for corporate engineers.

It Is In The Brewing Luminous

Soundcheck had a smackdown over which classic recording from Miles Davis was more influential, Kind of Blue or Bitches Brew? There’s really only one possible answer. Kind of Blue is a great, beautiful record, but it’s influence has been relatively slight. Miles’ introduction of modal playing didn’t even shift Coltrane and Cannonball, on the same record, away from their intense and joyous running of changes, and while pretty much every jazz musician who goes through any kind of organized pedagogy works with modal practice and playing (I did in the High School program at Eastman), it never really became a school or style, rather just another tool in the kit.

Fifty years later, Kind of Blue has become an object of popular worship, and that’s problematic. Yes, the music is great and gorgeous, but it seems that what has become more important is the style, the stance, the atmosphere. The record has become a symbol of a certain kind of hipness, a badge of the listener’s qualities, especially the ones (s)he imagines for her/himself. The actual music tends to get lost in the fog of echt-cool. No one seems to actually hear how Coltrane eschews the scales to produce his marvelous vertical solo on “Blue In Green,” perhaps the finest moment in the saxophonist’s career. It’s less an album today than an icon, and icons are made to be broken.

Bitches Brew is the iconoclastic answer, a recording that has had a profound influence on musical culture, from jazz to pop styles and, I believe on the broad range of improvised music that has been practiced across the world over the last forty years. It has none of the seductive style of the previous album, but it doesn’t confront the listener. It presents its powerful, uncompromising stance with an invigorating indifference, with such powerful yet lightly worn confidence in its own qualities that it feels itself beyond criticism, beyond hip, beyond cool. It doesn’t need you to like it, but it knows you need it to like you. It’s also, in its own way, a beautiful record. The question with the recording is not its influence but which package to buy?

There is the 2 CD standard set (and comparable download) that is the original recording along with the bonus track “Feio.” There is also the Complete Bitches Brew Sessions box set, which augments the original with separate tracks, comprising a total of 4 CDs, but those can also be found on Big Fun, although with the box you get a dense, detailed booklet. Unlike the Complete In A Silent Way Sessions, though, there is no material that gives any idea of how the tracks on the original release were actually put together, and the studio process, especially Teo Macero’s tape editing, was integral to the music, which is a combination of tremendous playing and tremendous after-the-fact musical construction.

This basic decision is now complicated by Sony’s production of two new and different editions, the Legacy one and the Collector’s Edition . The latter, an extravaganza priced in the three figures, is packed with a CD edition of the record plus a vinyl pressing of the record plus audio and DVD of the same material in concert plus a book, a “memorabilia envelope” and a poster! Okay! If you have the money to spend, you’re welcome to it, but I think the best choice is the Legacy edition. It’s a 2 CD/1 DVD collection, with the original recording plus material that has long been unavailable (and is on neither the standard edition or the Complete one), single-length edits of “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down,” “Spanish Key,” “Great Expectations” and “Little Blue Frog.” I wonder how often those were heard on jukeboxes? And although there’s no live audio, the DVD is a concert from Copenhagen in 1969, in excellent sound and vintage videotape, the band comprised of Miles, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette burning darkly through some of the best of his late ’60s material. The only thing missing is a reprint of the original liner notes from Ralph J. Gleason in an otherwise fine booklet from Greg Tate. Overall, it’s fantastic.

That alone was worth the cost for me in duplicating my standard set and is certainly the one to get for anyone who doesn’t yet have this music (the iTunes download appears to include the video portion as well) and is highly recommended even for those who do, especially considering the price, at least at J&R last weekend, was $16.99. And for those who don’t yet have this music, why the hell not?

Bitches Brew is one of the great archives of recorded music, a work that has one foot in popular styles, rock and funk, and the other in some of the most intellectually and aesthetically experimental music of the 20th century. It does the impossible, it brings together the strains of American popular musical culture – blues, rock, jazz, funk – parsed through the sieve of musique concrète into the ultimate Platonic emulsification. It’s enthralling and even a bit disturbing, it seems to spring from some ancient collective consciousness that Miles has directed all the musicians to tap into. There’s some secret language that they understand intuitively, they don’t translate it but let us listen in on their conversation. The sound, especially on the title track, can be shattering, Miles trumpet crying out from some far off, mysterious, even frightening land. The “B” disc of the old LP set is slightly more straightforward, with the rave-ups of “Spanish Key” and “John McLaughlin,” the slow burn of “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” and the repose of “Sanctuary,” with its hints of “Stella By Starlight.” That’s as close as the album gets to song form, though, and that’s why it still sounds as fresh and daring as always. Musicians working in popular forms, even at the creative end of jazz, still have problems breaking loose of song form while maintaining some kind of clear organization. Bitches Brew manages that feat for its duration and that’s because of Miles as bandleader, filling the chairs with cats who can follow his principles. Holland and Harvey Brooks lay down geological bass lines, DeJohnette and Lenny White define the spaces in time, Chick and Joe Zawinul play some of the darkest electric piano on record, McLaughlin, Shorter and Bennie Maupin add smears of color and pithy solos to support the leader. There’s space, density, motion, the music never resolves, but instead of leaving us frustrated and unsatisfied, we just want to come back for more. Dig it.

Dig This, Continued

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By 1979, John McLaughlin had either made or been an integral part of some of the greatest recordings of the previous ten years; In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Emergency!, Live/Evil, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, My Goals Beyond, The Inner Mounting Flame, Birds of Fire, Apocalypse and his previous years amazing Electric Guitarist.  Running through the titles on that list, it’s hard to comprehend the scope and meaning of it. Most musicians would be glad to leave one of those discs to posterity, an posterity will remember McLaughlin as one of the truly great musicians of the 20th century.

But the record I hear so often in my head, and that I’m compelled to play out loud, is the one he made with his One Truth Band, Electric Deams . As far as I can discover, this is a one-shot album/group. It really does cap his career up to that point in time, which in retrospect has also been the most innovative, fruitful period for McLaughlin. Electric Guitarist is a record that gives stunning examples of all the things he had done up to that point in time, touching on standards, electric post-bop, improvised rock with Santana, The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Lifetime. Electric Dreams synthesizes all that had come before into an integrated whole, a record with an accessible, at moments even commercial surface, underneath of which the music is tough-minded, searching, excellent.

The opening fragment “Guardian Angels” recalls both Shakti and the acoustic side of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the following track, “Miles Davis,” is a tribute/response to Miles’ “John McLaughlin” from Bitches Brew and develops on from the innovations of Miles and Weather Report. It’s the kind of loose playing inside an expansive yet tightly organized structure that leads to the most exciting, satisfying playing; an opening riff leads to a heavy groove, Tony Smith laying it down on the drums, McLaughlin slashing in and out with short phrases, the great Fernando Saunders (one of the unsung heroes of the electric bass for the past thirty years) responding fluidly on the bass and holding down a melodic line, Stu Goldberg’s punchy comping. It seems free, but there are specific moments of modulation, the container in which this great band is jamming, then, with most of the track done, the melody comes in, a pithy hip riff, doubled in the bass, and then the jamming continues through the fade. The backward structure, the playing leading up to the statement, is great, and the playing itself even better.

There are moments that are dated, that are very much late-seventies post-fusion – Goldberg’s blooping Moog sound, L. Shankar’s electric violin on the title track, the simple soulful lyrics and vocals on “Love and Understanding,” the cold-war politics of “The Last Dissident” which features that era’s studio stalwart, David Sanborn – but it’s just a matter of the flavors that musicians favored at the time. Those tracks themselves are completely funky and hip, the playing supple, responsive and muscular – Sanborn in particular plays beautifully on his feature. There’s the obligatory feature, “The Dark Prince” (another Miles tribute?), that electric musicians of the time used to remind the listener that they could still play jazz, and it is great, burning, straight-ahead, post-bop jazz, and not even the best thing on the album. Dig it.

Dig This

(First in a regularly occasional series) Turner Classic Movies has “The Essentials,” the BBC has their long-running “Desert Island Discs” program, and Alex Ross’ new book is titled “Listen To This; ” lists of things they consider the very best, the most special. I have my own, and this post inaugurates what will be an ongoing sub-series. As time passes, I’ll be accumulating an annotated list of recordings that are personally important. They are not necessarily all my favorites, or the ones I love and listen to the most, but they are ones that have some quality (which hopefully I’ll discern and explain) that makes them stick in my mind, recordings that have a powerful effect on me and that, if I were to have to choose discs to keep, would make up that list.

Now, in a particular order but in no particular rank . . . First is a recording I’ve been living with since it first came out in 1980, Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition . The title is also the name of the ensemble that he led, off an on, for roughly a decade or more. On this debut recording, the group is made up of Arthur Blythe on alto sax, David Murray on tenor and bass clarinet, Peter Warren playing cello and bass and the leader playing piano and melodica, along with sitting behind the drum kit.

When the LP first came out, I was fascinated and baffled by it. As I wore down the grooves, I replaced it with the CD and find that through the years it’s grown on me to the extent that there are times when I have to listen to it out of an almost physical need. It’s great urban music. Things that sounded a little stiff and arty at the beginning are now fully rooted in my psyche as stylish and sincere sophistication.

What is it like? It’s explicitly Modernist, explicitly dedicate to certain musicians and certain styles, explicitly involved with playing around with existing ideas and teasing out new responses and possibilities. There’s only five tracks, and they are easy to break down; “One For Eric” and “Zoot Suite” have bi-modal structures, with the former alternating between a riff that could have been played by Dolphy, and a choppy but still flowing rhythmic structure supporting the solos, while the latter is a jump tune, distilled down to it’s densest essence, again alternating with a completely different and more modern solo structure. DeJohnette doesn’t try and synthesize these concepts, he merely juxtaposes them and offers the question, what do you think? “Central Park West” is a simple and lovely arrangement of the Coltrane tune, with the leader filling out the voices on melodica, and the burning “India” is more re-arranged Coltrane. The closing “Journey To The Twin Planet” is, like the first two cuts, a DeJohnette piece, and culminates in a peaking intensity before settling back into a literally composed, Minimalist repose.

What makes it special? One part is the tone, a combination of intellect, wit, and seriously intense playing. The music is committed and elusive, coherent but with an abstract expression that has one coming back to discover more. Another is the interesting and musically successful feature of DeJohnette himself playing multiple instruments, but without overdubbing. His piano intro to “India” drops out after the bass and horns enter, then the drums come in once he slides onto the stool. It’s the type of detail in a studio recording that makes it bracingly live. This is also one of the prototypes for what can be called the ECM sound; a balance of sharp transparency and just enough resonance – the music seems to jump off the surface, with the cymbals sizzling and shimmering. Ultimately, though, it’s about the horns. Blythe and Murray were young and relatively new to the scene when the recording was made, and they are great complements, each with a personal and unique combination in their sound of the past and the future. For each, this is some of their keenest, hottest playing. There’s also an involving retrospective sadness inescapable in listening to Special Edition, as their careers diverged drastically. Murray has become one of the Titans of contemporary jazz, a tremendous and tremendously prolific musician who has created a beautiful synthesis of Ben Webster and Albert Ayler, while Blythe somehow lost his chops and, when his wind returned, it could be heard that he lost his ambition. He made two LPs for Columbia that are exciting, great and important – Lennox Avenue Breakdown and Illusions – and that demonstrate some of the most fertile and successful post-fusion, post-avant jazz thinking, and then essentially fell off the face of the musical earth. His sound was one of the most beautiful ever produced on the alto sax, and his playing on this disc was his finest ever.

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It Ain’t Got That Swing

Sorry, Louie, but it must be asked; if it ain’t got that swing, is it still jazz? Yes, indeed it is. And it does mean a thing.

Think of jazz, the complete body of history and knowledge, as a set of quanta; styles, musicians, concerts, albums and writings, then find a way to plot those quanta in a chart. For example, plot an X-axis of the evolution of jazz styles through time, and then place the number of albums issued in each style on the Y-axis, and you’ll get a distribution something like this:

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It’s rough, it’s generalized, but it illustrates the point I want to make, which is that jazz styles are distributed along a bell curve, with the styles that have had the longest history of propagation enjoying the greatest general success and thereby moving the bulk of the curve in one direction or another. This is an important way to look at jazz, because it’s a unique musical concept; it’s a social music which seeks a popular and (originally) dance-based audience, it’s a music which develops knowledge about what it can possibly do and keeps expanding and moving that forward through time, and it is a music the relies on improvisation for its existence and continued development. There are other musics around the world that have these characteristics, but no other which combines all three.

There’s a feedback loop built into that curve as well. Styles that musicians find the most attractive and fruitful will be played and produced more commonly (jazz is unpopular enough that musicians are still relatively unfettered to make music in the style they desire). Hard-Bop, arguably, is the most frequently produced style in jazz since it’s the most appealing to other musicians, and it certainly is the lingua franca, idiomatically, of the music since the mid-1950s. But jazz-rock and free styles have been hanging in there gamely over the last forty years, and enough musicians respond with their own variations of those styles to move the distribution along the curve forward through time. Of course, if a massive revival of Dixieland and Traditional styles happened and lasted for a century, the distribution would be moved back towards the left. It’s the styles at the edges that make the mainstream body of the music, and the mainstream idea of what that music is, move through tastes and concepts.

So, if it doesn’t swing, is it still jazz? Yes, indeed it is, it’s jazz to the right on the chart. But if it doesn’t swing, what elements does it have which identify it as jazz? This is an important and arguable question, and for the sake of this particular essay I define jazz in two inseparable ways; as a music with particular qualities and as a cultural concept. Jazz is a music which expresses an idea of rhythmic freedom within the limits of the rhythmic quality it presents, and which, through improvisation, allows for the possible expression of anything. Culturally, jazz is music created by racial and ethnic minorities as a way to place a sincere claim on American ideals and nationality and through which generations of new ethnic and racial minorities have assimilated into American culture and added their own voices to it (that is, until this past generation or so, which has used Hip-Hop as such a vehicle, an interesting story of Modernism vis-a-vis Post-Modernism which will need to be saved for the future).

Culturally, this story is pretty clear. Jazz began as a mixture of African-American work and worship songs, Spanish and French popular and dance music, and white marches, and was developed as an enduring music mainly by Blacks, Italians and Jews through the first half of the twentieth century. Musically, this definition requires refinement. “Swing” was created in jazz, but jazz itself didn’t swing for a decade at least. The earliest recordings of the music, from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band to King Oliver and even to Bix Beiderbecke, Jelly Roll Morton and Fletcher Henderson have tremendous rhythmic drive and life, and are certainly not stiff, but the beat is not yet what we think of as a jazz beat, that’s not there yet. What is there is the clear desire to lay down a tempo and a beat and then see how far it could be pushed and pulled away from the center while sill being coherent. It was a process of experimentation which arrived at “Swing,” like science develops theories from evidence. But once swing as a rhythm appeared, it was subject to the further experimentation of Be-Bop, which itself doesn’t swing in the classic sense (it’s almost too fast to swing) but still seeks rhythmic freedom (and led inevitably to free jazz). Hard-Bop swings fiercely, it reclaims that idea, but by mixing in flavors of funk and R&B it points the way towards jazz-rock, which doesn’t swing either.

This history of jazz shows that the rhythmic element of swing is secondary to the articulation of sounds, which is what really makes jazz sound like jazz. It’s the way a player attacks and shapes notes, independently and in relation to the other notes in a melodic phrase, improvised solo, and even walking bass line. While every player has a personal approach to articulation (compare the way Coltrane and Sonny Rollins begin the production of each note on ‘Tenor Madness’ for a good contrast), there is a combination of elements that makes a certain way of playing music into jazz; a vocalized approach to making notes, meaning a variation in the dynamics, inflection and shape of the beginning of each one; a rhythmic articulation that goes hand in hand with the vocalized one in that a line or set of chords has a rhythmic emphasis that the articulation conveys and reinforces; and a consistent placement against the prevailing beat, whether that may be playing in tempo slightly ahead of the beat, like Dizzy Gillespie, or doing the same well behind the beat, a la Dexter Gordon. This is a way to make music that is absolutely jazz even as it’s played over a straight eighth note beat – Dave Holland’s contemporary Quintet is strictly jazz over mainly rock and funk grooves – and separates the vocalized, jazz articulation of John Scofield from the more uniform attack and metronomic precision of Al DiMeola, who is playing rock guitar, not jazz, on those Return to Forever records.

Just as swing is actually not an essential feature of jazz, the same is (counterintuitively) true for improvisation; not all jazz is improvised. This is heard across the decades, whether it’s the ODJB or Stan Kenton or Mingus, but many of the non-improvised records were developed through improvising parts before the music was felt ready, and all the music retains the possibility of improvisation as an essential part of its aesthetic. It’s the difference between a rock group improvising riffs and putting together a song, then recreating that finished result again and again, and a jazz group doing the same and then building more improvisation in repeated live performances.

The fundamental idea is that jazz advances. Like a living person, it explores, learns, masters and grows. What is possible now is so because previous generations of musicians accumulated a body of knowledge which supports each new generation. A handful of jazz releases, most new (with one new to me), which swing hardly at all, demonstrate a broad and exciting range of possibilities and are all definitely jazz.

Paul Motian has been one of the great and most unique drummers in jazz for many decades. As he nears 80 years of age he continues to produce records which explore what is possible in the music and what is possible for himself as a musician. His new release on the Winter & Winter label is his fifth CD exploring “standard” American songs, his On Broadway series. The first three in the series were issued on JMT records from the late 1980s to early mid 1990s (now reissued on Winter & Winter) and featured a band based around the drummer’s trio with saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frissell, playing sympathetic, straight-forward readings of songs from Gershwin, Cole Porter and other composers who wrote for the stage. The records swing, but swing is a relative term for Motian, who has developed a singular way of keeping time; he pushes the beat forward with a joyful aggression, and even though he often eschews the back-beat with what would seems a stiff emphasis on the first and third beats of a four beat measure, he does so with such a loose feel that it comes to sound both right and innovative. This new release, and the previous volume, continue to approach the same world of songs but in a very different manner. The core of the group is paired down to Motian and pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, though even he rotates in and out of tunes, along with various horn players and, on Volume 4, the singer Rebecca Martin.

Motian’s playing is also very different on these records, which tend towards slower, even almost still, tempos, with the band playing around a pulse that seems to be produced through moment-to-moment mutual agreement. The drums no longer keep time for the ensemble, instead they color the songs, comment on the solos and provide a bed of sound which stretches the canvas on which the instruments paint. Motian tosses brief rhythmic phrases off to bassist Thomas Morgan, and responds to Kikuchi with witty, quizzical gestures that have the sound and shape of scat-singing. It’s quite remarkable. The pianist is an exceptionally sensitive partner with a beautiful, limpid touch. He is comfortable both in the abstractions of Motian’s ‘Morrock’ and clearly outlining the harmony and structure of ‘Something I Dreamed Last Night.’ His rendition of ‘Midnight Sun,’ starting in dark pedal tones and moving via silent-movie piano type tremolos into the brightness of the major key portion of the melody, with Motian shuffling and Morgan plucking plangently, is a primer in how jazz doesn’t have to swing, or even have a tempo, and be absolutely extraordinary jazz. There are excellent contributions from saxophonists Loren Stillman and Michael Attias, with the latter’s mellifluous baritone especially notable. The horns offer a warm dialogue on the material, and the whole is a record that is quiet, but not reticent, free but judged with understated taste, and one of the most focussed and lovely jazz CDs of recent years.

There is a more familiar sense of time-keeping, but still no old-fashioned swing, on un monton de notas from Argentine pianist and composer Emilio Teubal, a recording with a sense of modern jazz which stands out from the crowd. Teubal, a recipient of a Meet The Composer fellowship, uses simple elements to create ensemble compositions that are more complex and involving than the standard legacy of Hard-Bop. He favors lyrical, lilting lines over a pulsating, sometimes heavy groove – bassist Moto Kukushima solely plays the electric bass – and there are rhythmic ideas and melodies from café music, New Tango and what seems to be folk music folded in seamlessly, which give the music a satisfying international quality, an Argentine returning jazz to America with new ideas. The title track is a multi-varied composition that sounds like a tour of the past and present of Argentine culture, at times rollicking, naive, rocking and mysteriously mournful. There is featured solo from cellist Greg Heffernan who plays with great clarity, strength and rhythmic force. The basic band is a quintet, with Franco Pinna on drums and saxophonist Xavier Perez and Felipe Salles, who are fine players, although Salles is following Chris Potter a little closely on this CD (Teubal features the two horns together on most of the compositions, but the liner notes don’t identify who can be heard in which channel). There is some deference to the standard, mainstream conception of jazz on ‘El amanecido,’ which is the only weak part of an otherwise completely enjoyable and satisfying record – Teubal’s own art and style are strong enough that he needn’t prove that he can fit into a mainstream conception. The opening track, ‘Ping Pong,’ does a lot with repetition over a solid ostinato, while ‘Before the outerspace’ wrings great power out of taking a long line and doubling it’s tempo, going from bluesy and funky to carnivalesque, and ‘Baguala’ is a sonorous ballad. Teubal clearly has a fulfilling idea of what he wants to do, it’s worth doing and he does it so well that he sounds like no one else. This is a CD worth seeking out, and a musician worth watching,

The same is true for Rob Mosher, whose The Tortoise with his large ensemble Storytime is not new but is new to me. Like Darcy James Argue, this is another formidably talented, fascinating Canadian jazz composer. What makes them similar is the quality of their ideas and execution, but they are refreshingly different in the approach to and goals for writing for a large jazz ensemble. His dectet mixes french horn and the leader’s double-reeds with standard jazz instrumentation, and his use of the darker range of the woodwinds, horn and flugelhorn gives the ensemble a rich, mellow quality. Mosher is writing complete pieces for the ensemble, and his voice is an absorbing blend of jazz sensibility, contrapuntal inner voices and a lyrical sonorousness from early twentieth century French music (in the liner notes, Mosher name-checks Debussy, Ravel, Bach, Gyorgy Ligeti and Wayne Shorter; I hear Milhaud in the way he brings lines together into chords, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra in the overall sound and Stan Kenton in the way solos emerge from the ensemble writing). His is an original voice, however, and the influences just give an idea of where he’s coming from. He offers witty, pithy takes on bossa nova and classic dance-band sounds on ‘The Sands of Maundune’ and ‘What Snowflakes Are Plotting,’ but that’s the closest he gets to the standard idea of jazz. This a serious jazz record though, and it wears its compositional methods lightly; it’s more sophisticated, more grooving and more pleasurable than the self-conscious third-stream experiments of the 1950s. The track ‘Sleepless Lullaby’ is an example of how the music works; it begins as a minor key lullaby, develops into contrapuntal chamber music, then a rich textured ensemble piece which channels the strengths of Milhaud’s “Creation du monde,” before transforming into a brief, powerful vocal chorus that has the effect of a protest song. That description may make the piece seem disjointed, but Mosher hangs it all on his melody while changing the setting and it all hangs together and is powerful. His music is attractive, with pithy and effective melodic material set against superb, imaginative, textured accompaniments which make what happens in each subsequent moment more interesting and more emotionally affecting. The centerpiece is the excellent ‘Twilight,’ with Nir Felder’s guitar sliding above and through rising woodwind textures in a dialogue that maintains forward momentum even as if seems to start, fail and start again. This is a strong, supple, beautiful and moving record from a talented composers and band-leader.

The final two records under review are related in that the leaders of each explore some similar directions and make up two-thirds of the group Fieldwork. Steve Lehman’s Travail, Transformation and Flow is a recent release, while Vijay Iyer’s Historicity comes out next month. Lehman and Iyer are on the vanguard of contemporary jazz, of what it is, where it’s going and what it could possibly become. There’s not a hint of swing in their music, but they each use rhythm ferociously. The saxophonist’s recording is his third on the Pi label, and the story they tell when put together through time is a sort of Hegelian dialectic in the development of a brilliant, searching musician. His Demian As Posthuman is a fascinating collection of truly edgy fragments, setting his keening playing against a variety of complex beats and pulses, themselves variously chopped-up, foreshortened and staggering. There is no concession to any kind of standard form; the short tracks state a focussed, severe idea and have done with it. There is very little development and no resolution. It’s intensely listenable. His following On Meaning adapts his ideas about time to a quintet, playing original material in more familiar forms and was one of the best releases of 2007. Like jazz through history, Lehman’s music shows the influence of pop music. But where before that meant that musicians took pop songs and transformed them through arrangement and improvisation into jazz standards, Lehman is learning from today’s electronically based pop music, especially the way software can produce beats and rhythms that are deliberately inconsistent, which start and stop the pulse, stagger and push forward at the same time. The difference in jazz is that there is a group of young drummers, especially the astonishing Tyshawn Sorey, who can play this type of music live, in the moment. Compositionally, Lehman is adapting ideas about form, structure and development from the exceptional music of Henry Threadgill. This means musical lines made in a tightly compressed range of notes, lines which turn back on themselves to repeat fragments before going on to repeat another group, and another. The emphasis is on rhythm, spare, stabbing harmonies, a bass pulse and improvisations that develop so seamlessly out of an instrument’s line that ideas of melody are secondary to the sheer excitement of the playing.

The new disc looks back a little and moves forward simultaneously. To this mainly horizontal process Lehman has added a harmonic idea from the cutting-edge of contemporary classical music, that of spectralism. Roughly, this is a method of using an analysis of the spectrum of pitches (essentially the overtone series), as a source for musical structures based on timbre. A struck note on a piano will generate a series of tones above that fundamental pitch, and those higher tones are an inherent part of the pitch’s frequency and also sound out of tune, as our ears have been conditioned by centuries of Western tuning which forces the placement of notes into predictable places within the octave. Applying spectral methods to instruments means fitting notes from the spectrum to the proper instrumental timbre, and produces a sound that is both tonal and surprising at the same time (this is a gross simplification, as the idea and technique are sophisticated and complex). Lehman orchestrates this by adding tenor sax, trombone and tuba to his quintet of alto, trumpet, vibes, bass and drums. The sound he gets has an exceptional affect; it’s transparent and full of wide open spaces with a powerfully low bottom which anchors the ear even as the stacked notes threaten to fly away from each other. Inside this open, vertical palette the music follows the approach from the previous record with stabbing, almost obsessive lines over pulsing, jittery beats and tempos. ‘Rudreshm’ alternates a short, intense line with equally short, intense solos, all frequently interrupted by a rhythmic, two-beat phrase by the ensemble. Lehman’s sound combines the beauty of Jackie MacLean with the neurotic energy of Charlie Parker, and there’s a case to be made that this is the contemporary equivalent of Be-Bop; it’s the first radically new experiment with harmony in jazz in decades, it has tremendous tension, energy and velocity, is exceptionally demanding in its virtuosity, is highly urban and is tremendously exciting. Once the ear acclimates to the method, the sound is quiet amazing, with tight voicings familiar from Hard-Bop, cleansing harmonies, hyper-funky rhythms and breathtaking solos from all; the centerpiece track “Alloy” sounds in part like a loving, imaginative and sophisticated updating of the entire legacy of the Jazz Messengers. Mark Shim especially shines on tenor, thinking and articulating at a pace and with a density of ideas which rivals the leaders brilliant musicianship. It’s impossible to predict what kind of influence this spectral approach will have on contemporary jazz, after all Kind Of Blue never sparked a broad modal movement, but like that classic record Travail, Transformation and Flow is a breakthrough of new thinking about the music and is still firmly jazz. It’s Kind of Blue for the twenty-first century.

Pianist Iyer has already produced, in collaboration with Hip-Hop artist Mike Ladd, a thrilling and important mix of the two genres with in what language?, a challenging masterpiece of music and politics. October sees the release of a new recording for him, this one in the classic piano trio format (with Stephen Crump on bass and drummer Marcus Gilmore). Iyer shares with Lehman an emphasis on contemporary ideas of rhythm in jazz. While he can play delicately and wistfully with the best, he generally favors a heavy left-hand ostinato coupled with a propulsive groove in the rhythm section. His series of records with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa are updates on Keith Jarrett’s European quartet, with more rock and blues feel and in-your-face intensity and a similar use of powerful pedal tones as a foundation for some real wailing, like their massive cover of ‘Hey Joe,’ ‘Because of Guns’ on the excellent Blood Sutra. The new record is immediately recognizable as Iyer’s work, but has surprises as well.

The disc is stylistically expansive, it reveals new ideas in the pianist’s work and new details in his palette. He opens up the left hand more for wider-spaced chords and a greater variety of color, and he accompanies his right hand solos in a sparer, more antiphonal style. It is old-fashioned enough to feature a walking bass line, in the introduction to Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Somewhere,’ but there’s nothing old-fashioned about the results. The bass serves as an anchor for a completely out-of-time rendition of the melody, after which Iyer’s own piano bass line swamps that of Crump’s and the trio settles into an involving and quietly intense deconstruction and exploration of the tune. Iyer tests the song in many ways; he repeats fragments, subverts the melody, tries to break free and settles back into lushly re-harmonized cadences, which smoothly elide into a bass solo, then into a vivid sensation of the trio finding a groove in the moment and riding out the tune on top of it. While Iyer’s previous work has been extroverted up to the point of mildly, bracingly confrontational, the trio format lends itself to more introverted playing, more of a sense of private conversation than public rhetoric. Even the brash and propulsive cover of MIA’s ‘Galang’, with Iyer picking over a musical fragment, has the sensation of witnessing someone in a fascinating but inscrutable private act. Gilmore’s drumming is fabulous, his beat is so uplifting that he sounds like he’s raising up the whole group on his drums, giving the band a funky dance step. There are other covers as well, of Andrew Hill’s ‘Smokestack,’ Stevie Wonder’s ‘Big Brother,’ Ronnie Foster’s ‘Mystic Brew’ and ‘Dogon A.D.’ by Julius Hemphill. The use of such varied material is one of the things which gives the record such an expansive feel; Iyer has chosen music that means something to him in various ways and playing it means offering us his different ideas about these songs and musicians. And a musician with Iyer’s brains and soul is going to have interesting thoughts about each one, look at each tune in a different way, find something unique to explore in each one. Historicity has stunning playing and the electrifying quality of an artist who is both reaching inside himself and expanding his possibilities. It’s a record with power which will endure.