Best Jazz CDs of 2002

Everything That Rises Must Converge

As the wheels of capital grind remorselessly to the tune of impossible profit projections, jazz grows increasingly irrelevant to the dominant record labels. Atlantic vanished; Columbia recycled Miles; Concord Jazz did singers; BMG and Warners hardly mattered; and even Verve tightened the noose. Blue Note kept the faith, revived by the improbable triumph of Norah Jones in a nonjazz setting. Yet good jazz records proliferated, some better than good, and often on labels like Palmetto, Justin Time, Pi, Aum Fidelity, and others yet more obscure. Something like consensus coalesced around half a dozen titles. One dares to imagine the divided jazz tribes rising above ever thinner layers of air to converge. For example, if the audience for Bob's Pink Cadillac were also to buy The Music of Bob Haggart, and vice versa, two little tribes might surprise themselves and turn into one with box-office clout. Shhhhh—let me dream, albeit alphabetically. Five entries, however, are asterisked: CDs that, like it or not, you must hear.

1. David Berkman, Leaving Home (Palmetto): Chris Cheek's take on Wayne Shorter underscores the Shorter-esque feeling of Berkman's writing on the title tune, yet the entire session—the sextet's third outing—resonates with understated clarity and deliberation, quickened by Brian Blade's drums.

*2. Arthur Blythe, Focus (Savant). In his most electrifying recording in a decade, the altoist's huge, ribald sound leaps out with renewed authority and abiding wit in the spectacularly empathic setting of marimba, tuba, and drums. "C.C. Rider" is the year's jazz rocker, but every track swaggers.

3. Ruby Braff, Variety Is the Spice of Braff (Arbors Jazz). The big band is better than the strings, but Braff is inspired by the former—he sounds like an old friend whispering in your ear. On a highly imaginative "There's a Small Hotel," he reminisces about Bobby Hackett as only another original can, but it's pure Braff from then on.

4. Dee Dee Bridgewater, This Is New (Verve). The Weill songbook, but not the faded Weill of Weimar cabaret. Pushing her vibrato, she weds theatrical flair, improvisational brio, and sexual provocateuring ("I'm a Stranger Here Myself") to take this repertoire in hand. "Bilbao Song" is vitalized, "Alabama Song" is as ham-on-wry hilarious as the composer intended, and "Poor Jenny" really gets to strut her stuff. A parody/breakdown of "Mack the Knife" follows a minute of silence on the last cut.

5. Bill Charlap, Stardust (Blue Note). "Jubilee" is a brilliant kickoff for an album with splendid contributions by Tony Bennett, Frank Wess, Jim Hall, and Shirley Horn, though the main attraction is the tight-as-a-fist trio—you may wonder who's leading who through the darkest "Georgia on My Mind" since Ray Charles.

6. Von Freeman, The Improvisor (Premonition). Life begins at 80. The tracks were culled from concerts, and the first is an unaccompanied ballad on which Freeman produces Rollins-like centered pitch. Three pieces with guitar trio and two with Jason Moran (quirkily whimsical on an "After Hours" blues) include breakneck "How High the Moon" variations ("Ski-wee") and a dreamy "Blue Bossa" that suggests the contorted melancholy of Albert Ayler.

7. Bireli Lagrene, Gypsy Project (Dreyfus Jazz). The recent Gypsy Project & Friends has more virtuoso éclat, but the sometimes plodding rhythm guitars are over-recorded, while the earlier album is leaner and more diverse—totally Django and yet a great modern guitar album.

8. Andrew Hill, A Beautiful Day (Palmetto). First listen for the plot, then go back for the nuances that animate the change-ups, as from the lowering clouds of "The New Pinocchio" to the swing-to-free acuity of "J Di." This is Hill's big band, recorded at Birdland, and more impressive than Dusk in its candid lyricism (especially the title piece, which cuts the sweetness of a tune verging on sentimental), disciplined solos (Marty Ehrlich is inspired on "Faded Beauty"), and shifting tonal centers. As ever, the pianist is stark and sure.

9. Dave Holland, What Goes Around (ECM). The other big band that recorded at Birdland, though this debut is a studio session. The voicings are bright as day and the solos damned near impeccable—Gary Smulyan's opening melody sticks in the brain. Holland's orchestra is built on the foundation of his quintet, and he employs it strategically, allowing individual players breathing space while pumping up the ensemble, as in "Blues for C.M.," here rendered with a definitive luster.

10. Misha Mengelberg, Four in One (Songlines). Many soloists work better as sidemen than on their own sessions—Dave Douglas's muted, skittering phrases throughout this lively session contain some of his best work since Tiny Bell. His light-fingered trumpet tears through the first track, a "Freedom Jazz Dance" meets "Hot House" pastiche. Mengelberg's piano responds in kind, and plies Monkian wit on a Monk triptych.

11. Mulgrew Miller, The Sequel (Maxjazz). Don't be put off by the high soprano-trumpet-vibes voicings, apparent familiarity, and disarmingly relaxed ambience. Miller's shrewd tunes are crafted to put his players in a groove. Subtle in design, they provoke subtle responses, including his own. Notwithstanding his tremolo habit, he never settles for a rote phrase on "It Never Entered My Mind," and his lyricism fuels originals like "Holding Hands" and a deft reworking of "Dreamsville."

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