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."

12. Roscoe Mitchell, Song for My Sister (Pi). The title track is the best hard bop tune in years—the kind of piece you think you've heard before, but would never connect with Mitchell, who solos politely at the end. Yet trust him, with his double rhythm section, to push other buttons as well, and remember that if you find it chilly at one point, the weather will shift before you have time to grab a sweater.

*13. Jason Moran, Modernistic (Blue Note). Jazz is not dead. Here's proof—a young pianist's first solo recital, with overdubs, tapes, a toy keyboard, and repertory from stride to hip-hop, all undertaken with contagious invention. And the thing is: there's no self-congratulatory cleverness, not to "Body and Soul" without the bridge, Schumann lieder with improvised variations, or conversations-with-himself on "Planet Rock."

14. William Parker, Bob's Pink Cadillac (Eremite). The bassist calls this his Clarinet Trio, and it may be the best record Perry Robinson has ever made—his sound liquid, his disposition relaxed yet buoyant. And what a kick to hear the veteran drummer Walter Perkins, who backed Roland Kirk so unforgettably on I Talk With the Spirits. The first disc was made in the studio, the second live at Tonic, where from the moment Robinson enters on a continuous five-part suite, Parker alights with Mingusian exultation and might.

15. Randy Sandke, The Music of Bob Haggart (Arbors Jazz). A coup for jazz rep. In 1958, Haggart arranged a Bob Crosby album released as Porgy and Bess as Gershwin Would Have Liked It. Especially with Gil and Miles on the case, no one took Crosby seriously, and Crosby didn't take the arranger seriously enough—he was unidentified on the LP, which Haggart later declared his best work. I've never heard that album, but the playing can't have been more radiant than that of Sandke's crew. Lucid harmonies and polyphonic embellishments—Dixie-swing reborn.

16. Matthew Shipp, Songs (Splasc[h]). A highly personal hybridization of pop, jazz, and hymns treated with Calvinistic fury and heavy foot pedal. Bounding over genre lines, Shipp fractures each piece just enough to pull the cork and set free a world of arcane spirits—"Con Alma" is one startling example, but the whole album unwinds in a combination of indignant passion and plainsong beauty.

*17. Wayne Shorter, Footprints Live! (Verve). Quartet music with a textural and compositional range that makes each measure count. Shorter is always front and center—it's his music, affect, tempo, respect for space—yet the solos are less exacting than the way the four men respond to each other and the moment. At least that's what I think now—every time I play it, I hear it differently. The only constant is that Shorter makes the tenor sound like breathing.

*18. Cecil Taylor, The Willisau Concert (Intakt). A magnificent solo tour de force, and if I had to choose one, this would be album of the year. Everyone for whom I've played the opening passage is instantly seduced. Unfortunately, not everyone wants to follow a 50-minute movement. Think of it, then, as a short opera, its variations logical, broadly romantic, and often overwhelming. Perhaps his finest recital on records.

*19. David S. Ware, Freedom Suite (Aum Fidelity). Doubling the length of Sonny Rollins's 1958 trio opus, and parsing the four themes into discrete movements, Ware has reconceived the piece as Rollins's A Love Supreme—even to its length, still a mere 39 minutes. The quartet is as tight as ever, but this is the leader's showcase, and though his style is his own, he plays with a grace and well-being that rival the composer's.

20. Cassandra Wilson, Belly of the Sun (Blue Note). After not hearing it for several months, I had forgotten how much fun it is, how original and varied, funny and melancholy.

Others: Ben Allison, Peace Pipe (Palmetto); Billy Bang, Vietnam (Justin Time); Tony Bennett and (regrettably) K.D. Lang, A Wonderful World (Columbia); Tim Berne, The Sevens (New World); Willem Breuker, Misery (BVHaast); Armen Donelian, Mystic Heights (Sunnyside); Fieldwork, Your Life Flashes (Pi); Joe Lovano, Viva Caruso (Blue Note); Mario Pavone, Mythos (Playscape); Marian McPartland, Live at Shanghai Jazz (Concord Jazz); David Murray, Yonn-De (Justin Time); Larry Vuckovich, Blue Balkan Then & Now (Tetrachord); Jeff "Tain" Watts, Bar Talk (Columbia); Jessica Williams, This Side Up (Maxjazz).

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