Much like pianists owned 2010, 2011 has proven to be the Year of the Tenor—even if by coincidence, rather than trend. Sonny Rollins remains the undisputed world champion, of course, with James Carter, Joe Lovano, David Murray, and David S. Ware the top-ranked contenders in their respective divisions. But the undercard has an abundance of talent as well. Although the following survey is hardly comprehensive—those CDs do keep piling up—it at least gives you some idea of this year’s bounty.
JD Allen Trio, Victory! (sunnyside)
Nine tracks clocking in at 36:51; only one longer than five minutes. That’s OK by me, because a streamlining of Allen’s turbocharged solos results in greater acuity and a stiffer punch than we expect from latter-day hard-bop. A semi-dirge early on recalls Ornette Coleman; two pieces toward the end (one fast, one slow) are based on Coltrane changes; and a pianoless trio helmed by a tenor inevitably begs comparison to late-’50s Rollins. Yet not a single chorus of Allen’s sounds remotely secondhand—bowing to tradition is merely step one in bending it to his own whims. Drummer Rudy Royston is as deft a colorist here as he was in a tamer setting with Bill Frisell, and the spin Gregg August puts on his walking fours calls to mind Martin Williams’s only-half-joking definition of swing as “any two consecutive notes played by Paul Chambers.”
Ellery Eskelin, Trio New York (prime source)
Although Eskelin might be familiar to song-poem aficionados as the son of Keith Rodd (of “I Died Today” notoriety), this one is dedicated to his late mom, once a journeyman organist on the Baltimore neighborhood-lounge circuit. But with drummer Gerald Cleaver eschewing the merest hint of propulsion and instead engaging the saxophonist leader in quarrelsome dialogue, and Gary Versace coming up with such an odd, disquieting assortment of sounds that you’re half-convinced he must be augmenting his Hammond B-3 with a synthesizer, this trio is about as far from your stereotypical organ combo as Boulez’s Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique was from Harlem. Five standards ranging from “How Deep Is the Ocean” to Monk’s “Off Minor” are probed for dark corners, their chord changes ignored and full statement of their melodies generally postponed to the end. Eskelin loves the hard-boiled tenor tradition once embodied by Gene Ammons and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, though, and because he remains in touch with the combination of the tender and the brusque central to the code even at his most abstract, these interpretations are as moving as they are thought-provoking.
Rich Halley Quartet, Requiem for a Pit Viper (pine eagle)
Eugene, Oregon, is far off the jazz map, but that’s where Halley—by day a field biologist, no less—has established himself as a paradigm of structured free improvisation. Recorded in concert and typical of Halley’s strong work over the last 25 years or so, his bruising interplay with (the also scandalously overlooked) trombonist Michael Vlatkovich takes center stage here. And Halley’s son, Carson, who knows his Ed Blackwell and Max Roach, is a drummer worth keeping an ear on.
Bill McHenry, Ghosts of the Sun (sunnyside)
The unsung McHenry is a harmonically advanced thinker with a lyrical bent; guitarist Ben Monder can summon up Hendrix or Jim Hall as needed; the late Paul Motian’s noninterventionist drumming could make a good soloist like McHenry sound great; and Reid Anderson from the Bad Plus is a supple bassist. I only wish this could have been a full-time band.
Tony Malaby’s Novela (clean feed) and Tony Malaby’s Tamarindo Live (clean feed)
In his late forties, Malaby is still commonly referred to as up-and-coming, which means that he has yet to receive the widespread attention he deserves—but also that his approach is still evolving, especially in terms of the musical settings he chooses for himself. Featuring a heavy-on-brass-and-low-pitched-reeds nine-piece band conducted and arranged by pianist Kris Davis, Novella amounts to a Malaby retrospective, but only in that it revisits pieces he has recorded previously with smaller configurations. Davis favors wide voicings and encourages instrumental clashes and collisions, and the speed with which the three soloists—Malaby (on soprano), trumpeter Ralph Alessi, and trombonist Ben Gerstein—rocket out of the stacked ensemble on “Floating Head” make it possibly the most invigorating piece of recorded music I’ve heard all year. The rest is almost as good. But for a better glimpse of Malaby as a soloist, catch him matching wits with Wadada Leo Smith on Tamarindo Live, released earlier this year.
Sam Rivers & the Rivbea Orchestra, Trilogy (mosaic select)
Not one of this label’s definitive reissue collections, but recent evidence of how a transitional figure once fired by Miles for being too far out has been as successful in creating his own scene in Florida as he was in jump-starting the New York loft scene in the early 1970s. The middle of three discs is a studio session given over to a nine-part suite whose individual movements are named for Rivers family members; it’s buoyant and appealing but surprisingly conventional, possible to mistake for the work of Gerald Wilson or Thad Jones. The real deal comes on the harder-hitting live discs, where Rivers’s strategy of solo after solo by every bandmember (most no longer than a half-chorus, and driven by a ruckus of other horns) blurs the line between composition and improvisation—or do I mean compulsion and improvisation?—in a way that leaves no room for monotony, or doubt as to whose big band this might be.
Trio, Pitch, Rhythm, and Consciousness (new artists)
Luckily, “consciousness” seems to refer to three instrumentalists tuned into one another’s thoughts, rather than anything cosmic. Tenor saxophonist Tony Jones—who stays rooted near his horn’s bottom register as if going higher would bring temptation to upset the conversational balance with a scream—is the band’s leader in all but name, and the collective improvisations that move along most purposefully are two for which he provides compositional road maps (the unabashedly lyrical, lonely-as-a-cloud “Dear Toy,” especially). But with percussionist Kenny Wollesen’s gongs and temple bells establishing a mood of intense contemplation and violinist Charles Burnham matching Jones, keen for keen and infinitesimal microtone for infinitesimal microtone (whether bowing or plucking), everything on this vinyl-only release is quietly riveting, and worth retrieving your old turntable from the basement for.
And, finally, an announcement. Although my byline might continue to appear in the Voice from time to time, this is my last regular (or semi-regular) column. Taking the reins from Gary Giddins was no easy feat, and I hope I’ve maintained the same high level of inquiry these past eight years. I’m especially proud of conducting this paper’s annual jazz critics’ poll; this year’s is already under way as you read this, and results will be posted on rhapsody.com soon after the new year.