C. Andrew Hovan's Top Jazz Picks For 2007
Taking time to reflect back on the year in jazz music brought with it mixed emotions in regards to the current state of the record industry in America. Without a doubt, the affects of internet downloads and other ways of acquiring music, both legal and illegal, have had a huge impact on the amount of product the record labels are willing to release. Jazz has always been a marginal part of the big picture as far as the industry goes, but it seemed in 2007 that the overall amount of jazz product was at an all-time low. Even smaller labels that in the past have fostered active release schedules seemed to cut back on their projects. Nonetheless, here are a few items that managed to make a ripple in a pool that seems to be getting smaller and smaller with each new year.
On the Verge
Criss Cross Jazz
First making an impact with trumpeter Nicholas Payton, New Orleans native Adonis Rose is an extremely musical drummer who had made two classy Criss Cross dates previously before suffering the strains and tribulations brought on by Hurricane Katrina. In the vaults for several years, this superb date final makes its debut and features Rose's strong writing, exploring a variety of moods. Rose plays in service of the music, making this a real departure from your typical drummer-led sessions. Up and coming vibe man Warren Wolf is also heard to great advantage.
Harrell's first new album in quite some time was well worth the wait. This gem puts into sharp focus Harrell's current combo, which features the immense talents of saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, pianist Danny Grissett, and drummer Johnathan Blake. The writing is as strong as ever, leaning more firmly on Latin and funk grooves than conventional swing for the majority of the date. Rudy Van Gelder's engineering and Grissett's use of Fender Rhodes on several cuts help give the music a warm afterglow that fits like a glove.
Charles Tolliver Big Band
At a time when it might be financial suicide to assemble a big band, trumpeter Charles Tolliver has returned to the jazz scene with a superb big band of talented players. With Tolliver's unique writing taking center stage, this band manages to update the genre with a visceral approach that is at once loose and responsive, but ultimately tight and cohesive. Here's hoping the Tolliver can keep the gigs coming so that this band can continue to work. A live album would certainly be a great addition to the catalog as these guys are especially emotive in front of an audience.
The story goes that by the time of the final sessions that make up this swan song, Michael Brecker was in a great deal of pain and definitely on the decline. It would be hard to tell this just based on the aural evidence, as the saxophonist turns in some of his most inventive and cogent work as both a composer and improviser. It certainly doesn't hurt that Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, and Jack DeJohnette are on hand and all seem inspired to be partaking in this special event. Brecker may no longer be with us, but he certainly went out on a high note.
My Foolish Heart
Recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2001, this two-disc set features music that Jarrett held back until now, it's appearance helping to set the momentum for the 25th anniversary of the formation of the Standards Trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette. Jarrett claims it's some of this trio's finest work on tape and while it might be hard to choose among a healthy number of releases available from this group, this set is definitely of a superlative nature. As an added bonus, the pianist shows another side of himself with stride-based performances of "Honeysuckle Rose and "Ain't Misbehavin' .
One For All
What's Going On?
Going on ten years now, the hard bop collective One For All has proven that you can sometimes have your cake and eat it. While each of the gifted group members can boast active careers as leaders and valuable sidemen in their own rights, they have managed to keep this group together and keep the albums flowing while providing evidence that working ensembles make the best music together. The group's latest for the Japanese Venus label explores classics from the soul genre and iconic numbers associated with Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and Earth, Wind & Fire. The arrangements stay true enough to the originals while providing adequate jazz fodder. David Hazeltine and Jim Rotondi get the lion's share of the writing chores and all hands on deck get plenty of space to speak their piece.
Live at Jazz Standard Volume One
In a world filled with scores of jazz vocalists, few of them actually worth much more than a listen or two, pianist and singer Dena DeRose stands apart as a true musician. How she has managed to stay just below the radar of most jazz fans over the past ten years is simply inexplicable. In a perfect union with bassist Martin Wind and drummer Matt Wilson, DeRose ups the ante from her first MaxJazz release for this live set that finds the trio pulling out all the stops. Not only has she chosen her material carefully, but DeRose conveys a strong sense of group unity in her colorful interactions with Wind and Wilson. Based on the strength of this first volume, one can only anticipate with enthusiasm its follow-up.
The Scenic Route
A man for all seasons, drummer Matt Wilson has quickly become the one to call for all sorts of musical endeavors. He has a chameleon-like ability to find just the right way to support a band and soloist while putting forth his own individual stamp. His current edition of Arts and Crafts may just be the best. Trumpeter Terrell Stafford has never sounded better and the B3 organ work of Gary Versace is far removed from the greasy spoon sound usually associated with the instrument. Wilson's writing here explores a variety of moods, from boisterous to melancholy, "25 Years of Rutabagas being an especially emotive example of the latter. And for you drum freaks, Matt's kit and cymbals sound great here and his brief solos are worthy of further study.
Marsalis Music Honors Alvin Batiste
At the age of 74, Alvin Batiste left the world this past spring. Fortunately, this New Orleans legend had recently recorded this highly spirited farewell. What's so interesting to note when listening to this set is how little Batiste sounds like your typical Dixieland clarinetist. He had much bigger ears, embracing the innovations of men like Coltrane and Ornette and integrating this forward-thinking approach with the musical legacy of his hometown. The youngsters that support Batiste clearly inspire him and the mix of something old and something new results in a piquant mix that will stand as a lasting testament to Batiste's artistry.
Sam Yahel Trio
Truth and Beauty
Along with Gary Versace, Larry Goldings, and Kyle Koehler, organist Sam Yahel has helped to usher in a renaissance for an instrument that in the past has been associated more with groove music than with forward-thinking jazz. In other words, Yahel's muse is more about the advanced vocabulary of Larry Young than the histrionics of Jimmy Smith. He shares a long history with Joshua Redman and Brain Blade, both heard to great results on this superlative date that mixes originals with some carefully chosen obscurities by Ornette Coleman, Gilberto Gil, and Paul Simon. The reward here is in listening closely for the empathy shared by these men, especially as Blade shapes each performance with his highly musical use of shading and textures.
Kenny Cox and the Contemporary Jazz Quintet
2007 (1968 & 1969)
The two albums compiled here featuring pianist Kenny Cox and The Contemporary Jazz Quintet can arguably be considered the rarest of the rare in terms of the Blue Note catalog, and they come at a time when Cox is back on the scene and being rediscovered by a new generation of listeners in his native Detroit. Bringing together all the titles from the group's two releases for the label, Introducing Kenny Cox and The Contemporary Jazz Quintet (Blue Note, 1968) and Multidirection (Blue Note, 1969), this disc perfectly captures the melding of hard bop styles at the end of the decade with a more adventuresome spirit inspired by latest innovations of Miles Davis.
A mere footnote in the history of jazz during the 60s, Onzy Matthews was one of the best arrangers on the West Coast contributing his efforts to many memorable projects of the time including works by Lou Rawls, Ray Charles, and Esther Phillips. Matthews' 1963 classic Blues With a Touch of Elegance has been considered a classic by those in the know since its initial release, even though it has been hard to track down for decades. This three-disc set reissues that LP and another that Matthews recorded for Capitol, plus some 29 previously unissued tracks. Sidemen include Lou Blackburn, Curtis Amy, and Groove Holmes, among many others. A reminder of how the best reissues can shed light on music that has been unfairly neglected, fans of updated large ensemble jazz will find much to enjoy here.