Brutality and Revival

The Best Jazz Records of 2001

Last year at this time I sermonized about the lack of consensus reflected in best-of-year record lists, and tried to pep myself up for the long haul of a jazz post-history in which no one had the stomach for—let alone expectations of—genius or innovation. Kind of Blue was the year's bestselling jazz album, Louis Armstrong's centenary was off to a shaky start, and Ken Burns's Jazz was poised to change everything.

What a difference a year makes. Not that anything revolutionary took place, short of a dismantled Taliban and vanished surplus, yet jazz optimism grew throughout the year, triggered by responses to the PBS documentary (vitriolic criticism helped keep small-j jazz in the news) and underscored by the sparsely attended but inspiring "Made in America" 9/11 benefit. Kind of Blue continued its box office rule, Armstrong's centenary was shamefully neglected by mass media, and the incredible rise in record sales following the Jazz broadcast could not be sustained, especially in a Bush economy, though the show's long-term effect won't be known for some time—dozens of anecdotes have been reported along the lines of one I heard from a man in a Midwestern bookstore, who told me that his 14-year-old came home from Tower with two CDs: Britney and Satchmo.

The jazz business is more than ever an oxymoron, so where are the signs of revival? Chiefly in the return of consensus. For the first time in several years, a handful of recordings roused an almost universal admiration—many of the faces make the best-of lists every year, but I discerned a fresh excitement this year, a shared have-you-heard-so-and-so enthusiasm regarding live performances as well as records. Admittedly, this was mostly a critics' thing, but agreement of any sort is useful, even if it doesn't affect profit margin. Not a seat could be found as Cecil Taylor reunited with Elvin Jones at the Blue Note, too many seats went begging at Lincoln Center's tribute to Jimmy Heath, and neither event translated into record sales. Still, the first year of the new century effectively replaced wails of despair with many pleasures, even as it cleared the decks with a relentless barrage of deaths.

John Lewis provided the consensus jazz record of the year shortly before joining its lengthy necrology.
photo: Jack Vartoogian
John Lewis provided the consensus jazz record of the year shortly before joining its lengthy necrology.

Necrologically, 2001 was brutal: Al Hibbler, Billy Higgins, Billy Mitchell, Brother Jack McDuff, Buddy Tate, Cal Collins, Chico O'Farrill, Etta Jones, Flip Phillips, Harold Land, Jack Elliot, Jerry Jerome, J.J. Johnson, Joe Henderson, John Collins, John Lewis, Larry Adler, Les Brown, Lorez Alexandria, Lou Levy, Makanda Ken McIntyre, Manny Albam, Moe Koffman, Norris Turney, Panama Francis, Ralph Burns, Spike Robinson, Susannah McCorkle, Tommy Flanagan. Also Anita Moore, Charles Ables, Frank Parker, Harold McKinney, Ike Cole, Janusz Zabieglin´ski, Jay Migliori, Nico Assumpção, Paul Hume, Peter Schmidli. Plus tangential figures, including Charles Trenet, Chet Atkins, Ernie K-Doe, Francis Bebey, George Harrison, John Lee Hooker. And key writers and producers: George T. Simon, Helen Oakley Dance, Jack Sohmer, Milt Gabler, Norman Granz.

One spot of good news on the mortality front. The new edition of the Grove Dictionary of Jazz includes a complete list of death dates as well as birth dates, and it appears that no one in jazz has ever died on March 14. True, many people are not listed in Grove, including anyone who played ragtime, but the inclusiveness is sufficient to warrant that jazz people get a free pass on March 14. Don't screw it up.

Much good news on the recording front, despite the reported death of Atlantic and the AWOL status of Columbia. Too bad there was nothing from Wayne Shorter, whose two New York sightings were enough to establish his jazzman-of-the-year status. Jazz CDs may not sell, but tireless artists, incurably enthusiastic indies, and a few stalwart majors continue to turn them out, and this year was fat with discs that will, in time, very likely join the more remunerative world of reissues. In no particular order, excepting number one, these are the ones I return to with increasing faith.

1. JOHN LEWIS, Evolution II (Atlantic)

This time with a rhythm section and every bit the match of its 1999 predecessor. We will never again hear a keyboard touch like this, or as gloriously introverted a feeling for deep blues and saturated melody.

2. JASON MORAN, Black Stars (Blue Note)

Moran, at 26, has, like Lewis, that rarest of qualities—an unmistakable touch. His trio with Nasheet Waits and Tarus Mateen invents its future every time out, here stimulated by crafty Sam Rivers, who is himself roused by a production that keeps the tracks short. The solo Jaki Byard homage, "Out Front," is like a cognac interlude.

3. LOUIS SCLAVIS L'Affrontement des Prétendants (ECM)

ECM also released the 1996 Les Violences de Rameau, focusing on Rameau's last, long-buried opera, Les Boréades, and featuring the trombone of Yves Roberts, but lacking the edgy directness that makes Sclavis's latest a jazz-qua-jazz breakthrough. Excepting Bruno Chevillon's bass, he introduces a vital new quintet including a daunting if underused trumpeter, Jean-Luc Cappozzo, but Sclavis's high-calorie tone—the richest bass clarinet sound since Dolphy—and varied voicing keep every track humming, especially the cortege, "Hommage à Lounés Màtoub," written for the Algerian singer who was cut down a few years ago by a dozen assassins—it builds to an improbably affirmative whirling-dervish dance riff.

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