The best album of 2004, by a wide margin, was Maria Schneider’s Concert in the Garden (ArtistShare). Critics need to be careful not to mistake taste for trend, so I’m not sure how much to make of it that both this and Wayne Shorter’s Alégria, my favorite from 2003, are Spanish-tinged. But this is unmistakably a step ahead for Schneider, whose voicings are as pellucid as any by her mentor Gil Evans, and whose touch, like Ellington’s, is evident even in her sidemen’s improvised solos. The rest of my choices follow. Counting double picks, a Top 10 ballooned into a Sweet 16—suggesting that despite nothing new from Shorter, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, or Henry Threadgill, this hasn’t been such a bad year for recorded jazz, even if a tragic one politically.
2. DAVE BURRELL: Expansion (High Two) The best of the year’s many piano trios, with William Parker and Andrew Cyrille pacing a veteran eclectic whose stride on “They Say It’s Wonderful” is, and whose karate clusters elsewhere persuade you it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that ping.
3. REVOLUTIONARY ENSEMBLE: And Now . . . (Pi) The riffs that set things in motion are sprightlier than those from 25 years ago, and the three-way discourse even headier. Leroy Jenkins reasserts his dominance among improvising violinists, Jerome Cooper shows rhythm is more than beat, and the only word for Sirone’s bowing is heroic.
4. LOUIS SCLAVIS: Napoli’s Walls (ECM) Inspired by a photo installation, but you imagine a movie—a comic noir, right down to the zany electronics. Like nothing American, this French reedman’s ensemble music isn’t like anything else from Europe either.
5. JAZZ AMBASSADOR: Scott Robinson Plays the Compositions of Louis Armstrong (Arbors) Revisionist history from a jack of all horns, including the nearly extinct bass and C-melody saxophones. “Swing That Music,” with booting tenor and an African drum choir, is the most daring gambit, but everything here makes an eloquent case for Armstrong as a proto-modernist. Good luck to Robinson in convincing his traditionalist label to let him tackle Sun Ra next.
6. BOB BROOKMEYER: Get Well Soon (Challenge) Another of Schneider’s mentors, though these works for orchestra could give anyone pointers on how to combine experimentation and lyrical euphoria.
7. MATTHEW SHIPP: Harmony and Abyss (Thirsty Ear); Matthew Shipp: The Trio Plays Ware (Splas[h]) Along with FLAM’s dreamlike production, what gives the first of these the edge over most techno or ambient jazz is pianist Shipp’s steely compositions—no going with the flow for him. The other is more conventional only in theory, with Shipp and his David S. Ware bandmates re-examining their leader’s tunes to revelatory effect.
8. CHARLIE HADEN: Land of the Sun (Verve) More Spanish tinge, this time courtesy of the late Mexican TV and film composer José Sabre Marroquin and a bassist whose signature as a bandleader has always been how gracefully he carries the weight of the world.
9. RAY ANDERSON & MARK DRESSER: Nine Songs Together (CIMP); Ray Anderson & Bob Stewart: Heavy Metal Duo (Ray Anderson/ Bob Stewart) Without toning down his growl, trombonist Anderson has unexpectedly emerged as an affecting balladeer. And what duet partners—Dresser’s bass is a full rhythm section, Stewart’s tuba a big band.
10. CECIL TAYLOR: The Owner of the River Bank (Enja); Cecil Taylor: Incarnation (FMP) The Enja, with an Italian orchestra, is Taylor at his most Stockhausen, and the FMP a quartet notable for German cellist Tristan Honsinger’s madcap élan in the face of the pianistic barrage.
11. DAVE DOUGLAS: Strange Liberation (RCA); Dave Douglas/Louis Sclavis/Peggy Lee/Dylan Van Der Schyff: Bow River Falls (Premonition) The trumpeter is leading an honorable double life: a move toward the mainstream on a major label (with jumping guitar from Bill Frisell) and darkly humorous semi-free improv for an indie.
12. MASADA STRING TRIO (Tzadik) Writing for strings may be John Zorn’s forte, the one area in which he doesn’t let irony trump emotion. Mark Feldman, Erik Friedlander, and Greg Cohen keep things soaring.
The Bad Plus: Give (Columbia) [for the Ornette, not the Ozzy]; Don Byron: Ivey-Divey (Blue Note); ICP Orchestra: Aan & Uit (ICP); Joe Lovano: I’m All for You (Blue Note) [despite a stolid rhythm section that must have looked like a dream team on paper]; John McNeill: Sleep Won’t Come (Omnitone); Tony Malaby: Adobe (Sunnyside); Myra Melford: Where the Two Worlds Touch (Arabesque), Hugh Ragin Revelation (Justin Time); Ted Sirota’s Rebel Souls: Breeding Resistance (Delmark); Trio X: Journey (CIMP); the Vandermark Five: Elements of Style . . . Exercises in Surprise (Atavistic); Matt Wilson: Wake Up! (To What’s Happening) (Palmetto); World Saxophone Quartet Experience (Justin Time).
Andy Bey’s shivering American Song (Savoy Jazz), gorgeously arranged by Geri Allen, was the year’s best, followed by Suzie Ariola’s yummy That’s for Me (Justin Time) and Barbara Lea & Keith Ingham Celebrate Vincent Youmans (A).
Neil Ardley, Clarence Atkins, David Baker, Martin Banks, Milt Bernhart, Elmer Bernstein, Chief Bey, Ruth Ellington Boat-wright, Gordon Brisker, Joe Bushkin, Ray Charles, Gil Coggins, Porky Cohen, Cy Coleman, Wallace Davenport, John R.T. Davies, Sacha Distel, Malachi Favors, Buddy Fite, Sam Furnace, Eddie Green, John Guerin, Arthur Harper, Danny Hayes, Rick Henderson, G.T. Hogan, Edward Jablonski, Illinois Jacquet, Ella Johnson, Pete Jolly, Elvin Jones, Red Kelly, Joe Kennedy, Robin Kenyatta, Barney Kessel, Steve Lacy, John LaPorta, Jimmy Lovelace, Frank Mantooth, Hank Marr, Billy May, John Mayer, Ray McKinney, Gil Melle, Middy Middleton, J.R. Mitchell, Tony Motolla, Jackie Paris, Walter Perkins, André Persiany, David Raksin, Alvino Rey, Lucille Rollins, Grover Sales, Joel E. Siegel, Jack Sperling, Gus Statiras, Coleridge Taylor-Perkinson, Claude Williams, James Williams