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.

4. DAVID S. WARE Corridors & Parallels (Aum Fidelity)

I disliked Lord of the Rings(never read the book), but since seeing it, I find that Matt Shipp's electronic interludes remind me of the dark caves, and when Ware's tenor arrives, finally, and rises to its full height, it's like Gandalf knocking Christopher Lee on his ass. In other words, after five months, this album seems even grander than it did first time around.

5. MATTHEW SHIPP Expansion Power Release (hatOLOGY)

A series of appealing, mesmerizing ostinatos lifts this final string trio project into the rarefied world of ominous lyricism conjured by Bernard Herrmann—there's plenty of rock and rumble and blues, but it's the melodic gambits that do the come-hither thing.

6. TED NASH Sidewalk Meeting (Arabesque)

Placing his reeds in the unlikely setting of violin, accordion, and tuba produced a ripping new sound that avoids pastiche even when reexamining Ellington and Debussy—in fact, those are the high points, and more fun than you think possible, with Wycliffe Gordon doing the vocalized plunger work. Also, the year's best album cover.

7. BALLIN' THE JACK The Big Head (Knitting Factory)

In mostly short takes of 16 pieces by Ellington, Django, Hawkins, Ammons, and Leadbelly via Clifford Jordan, Matt Darriau, who wrote most of the charts and co-produced with George Schuller, zeroes in on the melodic hooks and riffs. This is the second go for a band that derives from Schuller's Orange Then Blue, but with the irony turned up a notch and everyone pledged to les tout ensemble.

8. TRIO 3 Encounter (Passin' Thru)

Oliver Lake, Andrew Cyrille, and Reggie Workman unite with a kind of loft-era thrift, and everything works—the energy level high, the affect sparkling yet controlled, and never a tossed-off moment. Lake's sound is a saw with inch-long teeth and thoroughly fetching; I'd love to hear him commune with Lee Konitz.

9. LEE KONITZ Parallels (Chesky)

Speak of the devil. The ageless improviser, splendidly recorded at Saint Patrick's, cuts deep swaths through two ballads and two originals, then explores the Tristano-era book with Mark Turner in the Warne Marsh role. In spontaneous "Star Eyes" variations and a smooth-as-satin "Subconscious Lee," they achieve peace on earth.

10. HENRY THREADGILL Up Popped the Two Lips (Pi)

He simultaneously put out the modestly electric Make a Move's Everybody's Mouth's a Book on the same label (the titles are phrases from a Threadgill poem), but I slightly prefer the debut of the acoustic Zooid, with galumphing tuba and oud, sinuous cello, and spacy Liberty Ellman guitar—by all means, "Do the Needful."

11. FRED ANDERSON On the Run (Delmark)

Live at his own club, Anderson sustains interest with fragmented melodic figures that wax and wax, spurred by bass ostinatos and electrifying percussionist Hamid Drake for what may be the best album ever by the smoothest and most elusive of the AACM saxophonists.

12. BOB BELDEN Black Dahlia (Blue Note)

Sentimentalizing a 22-year-old casting-couch hooker and murder victim would seem to be a lost cause, but the result is so era-specific you can forget the backstory and make up your own; Belden, with a cast of 65—winds, strings, rhythm, Joe Lovano, Kevin Hays, a powerfully expressive Tim Hagans, and himself in the final elegy—melds Miles and Jerry Goldsmith to make his own enveloping noir soundtrack.

13. RONI BEN-HUR Anna's Dance (Reservoir)

As eloquent as a cool breeze, this understated exercise in bebop equilibrium goes down so easy you might underestimate the magic—something only Barry Harris can effect. Ben-Hur, a guitarist with a low flame burning in every note, and Charles Davis, trading in his Sun Ra baritone for suave tenor, speak Harris's lingo like natives.

14. AHMAD JAMAL Olympia 2000 (Dreyfus Jazz)

George Coleman and Jamal's trio were psyched at this concert, within the borders of the leader's punctilious arrangements—which seem all the more impressive for having to support a guest. After four fast-moving but expansive quartet ballads, the trio returns for two lessons in Jamalian dyNAMics.

15. DAVID MURRAY Like a Kiss That Never Ends (Justin Time)

A bringin'-it-all-back-home quartet set (Hicks, Drummond, Cyrille) that opens with a jaunty bebopping "Blues for Felix," one of Murray's best new pieces in years; the title tango, his only extravagant blowout; a gospel number; and a debonair bass clarinet version of Monk's "Let's Cool One," complete with witty tongue-popping intro and asides—all cheer, no regrets.

16. KENNY BARRON & REGINA CARTER Freefall (Verve)

More pure joy with Barron at his empathic best as Carter matures into a soloist of great panache. The material, from Romberg to Hodges to Sting plus originals, is cannily chosen, but the free-form stuff closes the sale—the title cut and a rumination that serendipitously turns into Shorter's "Footsteps."

17. MATT WILSON Arts and Crafts (Palmetto)

The exceptional young trumpet player Terrell Stafford continues to score mostly as a sideman—he lets you know instantly that Wilson's trenchant "Lester" is not about Young, and then rises to the challenge of Bud Powell's "Webb City." Larry Goldings plays piano, happily (he's the only one who thinks he does better on organ), while the fastidious leader and Dennis Irwin sustain a we're-swinging-and-it-ain't-no-big-deal merriment from top to finish. Extra points for reviving Ornette's "Old Gospel."

18. MARC RIBOT Saints (Atlantic)

I understand why Los Cubanos Postizos are the bigger draw, but I'll take the idiosyncratic and mesmerizing solo recitals, of which this is the first since Don't Blame Me. Every taut and quivering string is beautifully recorded as he connects Charley Patton to Duane Eddy in the name of Albert Ayler, burlesques Les Paul, impersonates sitar, koto, dobro, and Monk. Never a dull moment.

19. VIJAY IYER Panoptic Modes (Red Giant)

A gifted pianist with his own distinctive nail-hammering attack, Iyer makes an equally strong impression in the way he regroups his quartet, micromanaging each piece with ostinatos and unison phrasing, especially in tandem with the sanguine saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, all of which says nothing about how open and entertaining the music is.

20. JOHN HOLLENBECK No Images (Blueshift)

This maddening CD makes a 25-minute Martin Luther King sermon on the "drum-major instinct," backed by three blustery trombones and Hollenbeck's drumming, unreasonably affecting. Tenor blowouts by Dave Liebman and Ellery Eskelin provide more conventional ballast.

21. ARCHIE SHEPP AND ROSWELL RUDD Live in New York (Verve)

Not quite the party it was in person, but the equation of boisterous Rudd, restored and plaintive Shepp, and Cyrille-Workman interplay is so poetically involving even Baraka sounds good.

I also admire Steve Turre's TNT (Telarc), Leo Smith's Red Sulphur Sky (Tzadik) and Golden Quartet (Tzadik), Roy Campbell's It's Krunch Time (Third Ear) and Ethnic Stew and Brew (Delmark), the Classical Jazz Quartet's The Nutcracker (Vertical), Cyrus Chestnut's Soul Food (Atlantic), Joe Lovano's Flights of Fancy (Blue Note), William Parker & Hamid Drake's Piercing the Veil (Aum Fidelity), Don Byron's You Are #6 (Blue Note), D.D. Jackson's Sigame (Justin Time), Scott Hamilton's Jazz Signatures (Concord), Hugh Ragin's Fanfare & Fiesta (Justin Time), Pat Martino's Live at Yoshi's (Blue Note), Warren Vache and Bill Charlap's 2Gether (Nagel Heyer), Myra Melford and Marty Ehrlich's Yet Can Spring (Arabesque).

Next time, 2001 singers and reissues.

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