Up to the Wire

It takes an intrepid listener to dig out of this year's jazz avalanche

I figure each year is good for about 2,000 new jazz records. This year I heard 650, which means I missed two out of every three. It also means I never had enough time to live with any of them, even favorites. So it's hard to say which are the best, but these strike me as special:

1. Powerhouse Sound, Oslo/Chicago: Breaks (Atavistic). Ken Vandermark probes the differences between Europe and America, then proceeds to blow them all away.

2. Jewels and Binoculars, Ships With Tatooed Sails (Upshot). Makes a good case for Dylan as a melodist, then reshapes the melodies with Coleman Hawkins élan.

Ken Vandermark, exploring borders and then exploding them
photo: Ziga Koritnik
Ken Vandermark, exploring borders and then exploding them

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3. David Murray Black Saint Quartet, Sacred Ground (Justin Time). Two Ishmael Reed texts sung by Cassandra Wilson, stitched together byprotean sax, lamenting the past, offering hope for the future.

4. Albert van Veenendaal/Meinrad Kneer/Yonga Sun, Predictable Point of Impact(Evil Rabbit). Prepared piano trio, mostly hard, rhythmic stuff you can tap your toes to, but with jagged edges and biting surprises.

5. Chris Byars, Photos in Black, White and Gray (Smalls). Referencing Gigi Gryce's alto and Lucky Thompson's tenor, Byars finds new niches in old bebop, making you wonder whether postbop wasn't premature.

6. Billy Bang Quintet, Above & Beyond: An Evening in Grand Rapids (Justin Time). Frank Lowe's last concert, his one lung gasping for air, buoyed up by Bang's prodigious violin swing, the pleasure staving off the pain.

7. Kahil El'Zabar's Infinity Orchestra, Transmigration (Delmark). The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble scaled up to 39 pieces, which add details so subtle you only gradually realize how far they've moved beyond the original trio.

8. Assif Tsahar/Cooper-Moore/Chad Taylor, Digital Primitives (Hopscotch). Cooper-Moore's homemade strings add hillbilly twang to Harry Partch tonality, Taylor's beats bounce like a balafon, and Tsahar's reeds comp and coo, especially when he pulls out the didgeridoo.

9. Matt Lavelle Trio, Spiritual Power (Silkheart). Plays bass clarinet with the same sharp, short bursts he learned on trumpet, and flugelhorn with a dusky avant twist.

10. Happy Apple, Happy Apple Back on Top (Sunnyside). Minneapolis power trio, like Hüsker Dü with powerful but unstable rhythm and stuttering sax instead of vocals.

Of course, the A-list goes on, currently numbering 45. The next few could just as easily be above the line:

David Torn, Prezens(ECM); Joe Lovano/ Hank Jones, Kids (Blue Note); Ted Des Plantes, Thumpin' and Bumpin' (Stomp Off); Wolfgang Muthspiel/Brian Blade, Friendly Travelers (Material); David S. Ware, Renunciation (AUM Fidelity); Logan Richardson, Cerebral Flow (Fresh Sound); Pablo Aslan, Buenos Aires Tango Standards(Zoho); Louis Sclavis, L'Imparfait des Langues (ECM); Rafi Malkiel, My Island (Raftone); Fay Victor, Cartwheels Through the Cosmos (ArtistShare); Bloodcount, Seconds(Screwgun).

In the reissues category, I missed out on Mosaic's lavish box sets, but hardly had time after digging through Allen Lowe's That Devilin' Tune: A Jazz History [1895-1950](WHRA), a book lavishly augmented with 36 CDs, divided into four cramped boxes of nine each. Deliberately anticanonical, he doesn't get to Louis Armstrong until the end of disc nine, and doesn't let bebop hold court while Kid Ory's still cooking.

 
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