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Jazz recording picked up in the mid-1990s and has enjoyed an extended creative boom ever since, regardless of the economic fundamentals. The major labels, which never quite controlled the jazz market, have pretty much collapsed: On my extended jazz list (547 records), I have one Blue Note at 71 (Jason Moran’s poll-topping Ten), then nothing more until you get to 293; Nonesuch at 221 and 242 (Brad Mehldau and Pat Metheny); and nothing in the top half from Verve or Columbia or, for that matter, from major-label wannabe Concord.
On the other hand, small labels are dynamic, and self-releases are so cheap anyone can get heard—one case in which globalization seems to benefit everyone. Of my top 50 records this year, six come from Clean Feed in Portugal and three from Not Two in Poland—more concentration than I expected, but both labels started out capturing live sets from musicians passing through Lisbon and Krakow, and built relations from there. Other labels with two records each: AUM Fidelity, Cuneiform, ECM (Germany), High Note, Hot Cup, Inarhyme, Leo (U.K.), Smalltown (Norway), and Sunnyside.
I’ll let my Top 10 speak for itself:
1. Billy Bang Prayer for Peace (TUM)
2. Rudresh Mahanthappa & Steve Lehman Dual Identity (Clean Feed)
3. Adam Lane’s Full Throttle Orchestra Ashcan Rantings (Clean Feed)
4. William Parker I Plan to Stay a Believer: The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield (AUM Fidelity)
5. The Mark Lomax Trio The State of Black America (Inarhyme)
6. Angles Epileptical West: Live in Coimbra (Clean Feed)
7. Mostly Other People Do the Killing Forty Fort (Hot Cup)
8. First Meeting [Natsuki Tamura/Satoko Fujii] Cut the Rope (Libra)
9. Wadada Leo Smith and Ed Blackwell The Blue Mountain’s Sun Drummer (1986, Kabell)
10. Anthony Brown’s Asian American Orchestra India & Africa: A Tribute to John Coltrane (Water Baby)
Most of these records would once have been considered avant-garde, but jazz’s mainstream has never been murkier. Mahanthappa is typical: He was as happy playing retro bebop with Bunky Green on Apex (Pi) as he is exploring the great beyond with Lehman. Parker is by far the avant-garde’s greatest bassist, but his Curtis Mayfield is a teenage pop icon with a political charge, and his arrangements energize the music much the same way as Brown does to Coltrane, or for that matter the Microscopic Septet does to Monk on their Friday the Thirteenth (Cuneiform).
Angles and First Meeting tap into rock not as fusion, but as a means to improvise at ever-higher energy levels. Lomax assays a tradition that includes the avant-garde, while MOPDTK goof off it and Adam Lane builds on it. And Billy Bang once played on Sun Ra’s tribute to Stuff Smith, which he recapitulates with interest here.
Needless to say, lots of amazing music couldn’t fit into this list. Much of it came in clusters. If Myra Melford didn’t play enough piano on The Whole Tree Gone (Firehouse 12), she made up for it on Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom (Foxhaven). Rodrigo Amado put his name on Searching for Adam (Not Two), but also dominated Humanization 4tet’s Electricity (Ayler). The keepers among Ivo Perelman’s eight releases: Mind Games (Leo), his basic tenor sax trio; Soulstorm (Clean Feed) with Daniel Levin on cello; and The Apple in the Dark (Leo), a duo with drummer Gerry Hemingway where Perelman also plays some startling piano.
Hemingway’s duos continue with Inbetween Spaces with saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and Below the Surface Of with guitarist Terrence McManus (Auricle). One I missed is Old Dogs with Anthony Braxton, who released his usual half-dozen records this year.