Monday, January 31, 2011

Raymond Hayes' Top 10 Jazz CDs of 2010

Jazz writers are supposed to create Top 10 lists. Maybe next year. Meanwhile, here's a list from Ray Hayes. Ray is one of my go-to guys for jazz expertise. He listens to a lot of music and attends a lot of shows, and I trust his opinions and his judgment. Someday I would love to get a look at his music collection. bb

TOP 10 JAZZ CDs 2010

1. Brad Mehldau: Highway Rider

This was the most anticipated jazz release of 2010. I can happily say it was worth the hype. Mehldau starts with his normal trio of Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard, then adds Joshua Redman on sax, Matt Chamberlain as an additional drummer, and, last but certainly not least, a chamber orchestra. This is a suite of songs—or compositions, if you prefer—that ostensibly take you on a journey, which can be either literal or figurative, like a journey through your life. It is a long record, a double CD, but surprisingly not difficult to listen to. That's because of Mehldau's writing, which right now is at the top of the game. These types of jazz/classical collaborations usually see one side or the other just looking on from the sidelines. That does not happen here. Everybody seems fully engaged. I look forward to Mehldau's future jazz/classical collaborations. But even if he does not do any more, this one’s for the books.

2. Darcy James Argue: Infernal Machines

This officially came out last year, but I probably listen to it as much this year as I do anything else. Here is a big band for the 21st century, with as much indie rock and electronica influences as there are Duke Ellington and Count Basie influences. Again, really smart songwriting or composing is the real secret here. Add some of the hottest young players in New York and you have one of the stellar releases, not just of this year but any year. Argue also has one of the coolest websites around, called Secret Society, which is also the name of his band. He records all of his concerts and allows you to download them for free. He is also one of the smartest writers about music. The only bad thing about this is waiting for his next project.

3. Eric Harland: Voyager Live by Night

It's hard to believe that this is Eric Harland's first official recording as a leader. That's because he's been around so much, including on recordings by Charles Lloyd, Jason Moran, the SF Jazz Collective, McCoy Tyner, and Dave Holland. So maybe it should be no surprise that his first recording sounds so professional and mature. This is from a live concert (that always helps) and the band he brings is first-rate. Besides Harland on drums, it includes Julian Lage on guitar; Taylor Eigsti, piano; Harish Raghavan, bass; and Walter Smith III, saxophone. Everybody shines in this live recording from Paris. Julian is in Pat Metheny mode, and Taylor sounds just like Herbie Hancock. This is a truly listenable recording that holds up after many repeated listenings.

[Ed. note: Harland comes to the Artists' Quarter in St. Paul on Feb. 18–19 with the Aaron Goldberg Trio. Sorry, these events have been cancelled.]

4. Azar Lawrence: Mystic Journey

This one has come in for a lot of criticism. Why? Because Lawrence unabashedly sounds like Coltrane. That suits me just fine. This is another record with a fantastic band playing great tunes: Azar Lawrence, tenor and soprano saxophones; Eddie Henderson, trumpet and flugelhorn; Gerald Hayes, alto saxophone; Benito Gonzalez, piano; Essiet Essiet, bass; Rashied Ali, drums. Azar was a minor star in the 70s, a youngster who seem to have unbelievable promise. However, as has happened many times in all genres, he fell off the map and went into teaching instead. Now he's back with a vengeance and roaring like a lion. Everybody here sounds really good, but it's Rashied Ali who really steals the show, with his take-no-prisoners style of drumming picked up from his days with Coltrane. Sadly, Rashied passed away last year. This is about the best eulogy anyone could ever get.

5. Benito Gonzalez: Circles

Another name you might not have heard of. Gonzalez is a young piano player living in New York. Once again, we have a fantastic band: Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums; Christian McBride on bass; Myron Walden, Ron Blake, and Azar Lawrence on saxophones. Azar repays Benito for playing on his record. Even with these strong musical personalities vying for attention, Circles is a Benito Gonzalez album.  This is a record that is characterized by tumultuous, churning energy. Gonzalez composed eight of the nine pieces on Circles. The lone nonoriginal is a lengthy take of McCoy Tyner's "Blues On the Corner." Another great record where the only downside is waiting for the next one.

6. Dave Douglas and Keystone: Spark of Being Box Set including ExpandSoundtrack, and Burst

This is a project that was done in conjunction with filmmaker Bill Morrison; I saw the Midwest premiere at the Walker Art Center in October 2010. For his film, Morrison took several silent films and cut them up to make a new movie that was a new take on the story of Frankenstein. It was very avant-garde, and the quality was just OK. The live music by Dave Douglas and Keystone was much better. This is one of my favorite Douglas projects. His DJ takes sampled sounds and mixes them in with the band. This can be a little disconcerting at first, because you are hearing this great music and then, all of a sudden, these little electronic effects pop in and out. So it takes a little getting used to, but once your ears adjust, it sounds fantastic. I have actually been listening to this record more than most since the concert in October. Like many of these types of projects, there ended up being more music then the film could use.  So Douglas took the outtakes and put them on two additional CDs. Soundtrack is the music from the actual film, Burst and Expand are the outtakes. The band is very good. Marcus Strickland on tenor sax continues to grow every time I hear him; his tone seems to go brighter and deeper. The rest of the band is Adam Benjamin on Fender Rhodes; Brad Jones on Ampeg baby bass; Gene Lake on drums; and DJ Olive on turntables and laptop. They all shine.

7. William Parker: I Plan to Stay a Believer: The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield

This was number 6 on a previous version of my list. It’s not that I like it any less; it's just I have been listening to Douglas so much that I figured I need to move that one up one notch. But I should not have moved this one down because it's a fantastic release. Here you have one of the all-time great avant-garde jazz bass players ever. His stint with the David Ware Quartet is now legendary. He also has a slew of incredible records, including this one. The idea seems wild: an avant-garde stalwart playing the music of an R&B artist. Of course, Curtis Mayfield was not just any old R&B singer. He was at the forefront of the underground movement in black music that occurred in the late 60s and early 70s, one of the few from that group who made it to the top of the pop charts (with the soundtrack to Superfly). Parker plays some of the tunes form that seminal record, but he uses even more from Mayfield's underground period. Like "People Get Ready" (a semi-anthem for the civil rights movement) and "Move On Up." This is one of the most accessible records William Parker has ever put out. It's also one of his best bands, including Lewis Barnes on trumpet; Sabir Mateen, alto sax, tenor sax, and flute; Darryl Foster, tenor sax and soprano sax; Dave Burrell, piano; Hamid Drake, drums; Conquest, vocals; Amiri Baraka, voice and poetry; Asim Barnes, guitar; Lafayette Gilchrist, piano; Guillermo E. Brown, drums; Achille Gajo, piano; and the New Life Tabernacle Generation of Praise, choir. Besides the bass, William Parker also plays doson'ngoni and balafon. A major release from a major talent.

8. SF Jazz Collective: Live 2010: 7th Annual Concert Tour

The music of Horace Silver was the main focus of the Collective this time around, with each member also contributing one of his own compositions. Only Eric Harland and Miguel Zenón are from the original group; all of the other music chairs have flipped once or twice. The new lineup is Miguel Zenón, alto saxophone; Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; Avishai Cohen, trumpet; Robin Eubanks, trombone; Stefon Harris, vibraphone; Edward Simon, piano; Matt Penman, bass; and Eric Harland, drums. What is truly amazing is that they sound almost the same as the original band from 2004. Like always, the "guest composer" tunes are way better than the original member contributions. But of course they're taking the guest composer's very best work over the course of a lifetime vs. their own current contemporary compositions, which may or may not be the best they've ever done. Even with that caveat, this is still a great record. with wonderful playing from all involved. A long record (three CDs), it takes time to work your way through it, but the reward is well worth a go.

9. Trombone Shorty: Backatown

Trombone Shorty (real name Troy Michael Andrews) is one of the true breakout jazz stars of the 00s. In fact, he would be the breakout star if it weren't for Esperanza Spalding, for these reasons: 1) He plays funk, R&B, and soul as well as jazz. 2) He is featured in the HBO series Treme. 3) He is really good looking. 4) He is from New Orleans, and everybody who knows anything about music knows that is a jazz city. 5) He gives really good live performances that incorporate all of the above. 6) Oh, yeah, he also put out a really good record. These days, that sometimes seems the least of the reasons someone becomes a star. However, it is not the least for me. This is a really fun record, the type you can put on in your car that keeps you alert and energetic. This could definitely be called party jazz. One friend recently complained that most new jazz is too intellectual and too serious. That is definitely not the case with this record. Shorty has a great band of young New Orleans players. The only downside is that the songs are too short. There's not enough room for him to stretch out, which he can and does do live. Let's hope for a live recording soon.

10. The Cookers: Warriors

Here is a group of hard-bop icons: Billy Harper, Eddie Henderson, David Weiss, George Cables, Cecil McBee, Billy Hart, and Craig Handy. Each and every one of these guys is a fantastic player with a wide discography of his own. Collectively, they form one of my favorite bands right now. They take their name from an incredible Freddy Hubbard record from 1965 called The Night of the Cookers. The group was put together by trumpeter David Weiss, who is the master at these kinds of all-star gatherings. He made sure that everybody got a chance to shine and nobody stepped on anybody's toes. There is a quote from Weiss in the liner notes that says, "This is the sort of music that should reflect the times we live in today, as we should be screaming from the rafters trying to fix all that is going wrong in the world... Perhaps playing music of great intensity and passion is a start at least and can shake some from their slumber.” Well, if this music does not wake you up, you must be dead. The music is a mix of new compositions and old compositions from the band members; for example, they play Harper's "Capra Black," a tune he first recorded in 1973. The liner notes say this group has over 250 years of jazz playing. You can feel it in every note.

That is my Top 10, but hardly the only music I listened to in 2010. Here are more records I really like that are just outside the Top 10. 

• Jason Moran: Ten and more. Pianist Moran had a fantastic year. First with his own recording, Ten, and then playing with Charles Lloyd on his record Mirrors. He also played on Paul Motian's Lost in a Dream. All three recordings are great. 

• The Claudia Quintet: Royal Toast. I have been immune to this group's charms for a while. But after seeing them live, I have finally been infected. Not quite avant-garde, not quite hard bop, they are most thoroughly modern. 

• Esperanza Spalding: Chamber Music Society. OK, Esperanza is the breakout star of the 00s. Thankfully, this record is no sophomore slump for her. In fact, it is a much stronger record than her first, Esperanza, which was actually her second. Esperanza was strictly instrumental, which does not seem to count with today's tastemakers. Chamber Music Society is a return to her classical roots. Like Trombone Shorty, Spalding blurs the lines between jazz, classical, funk, and world music. Like almost all of the records listed here, she has a group of sympathetic players including herself on vocals and bass; Terri Lyn Carrington, drums; Leo Genovese, drums; Milton Nascimento and Gretchen Parlato, vocals; Quintino Cinalli, percussion; Ricardo Vogt, guitar; Entcho Todorov, violin; Lois Martin. viola; and David Eggar, cello. Everything is propelled by Spalding's great acoustic bass playing and interesting scat-like vocals. Like Brad Mehldau's Highway Rider, this could be considered a jazz/classical collaboration. Also like Highway Rider, this pushes the genre forward. Spalding is a bright star for jazz who hopefully will continue to glow even brighter.

• Eli Degibri: Israeli Song. Drummer Al Foster, bass player Ron Carter, piano player Brad Mehldau. If I told you this was the rhythm section for a saxophonist, you would say, "Okay, for whom? Branford Marsalis, Joshua Redman, maybe Charles Lloyd or Sonny Rollins?" Any and all of those names would make sense for a rhythm section like that. But how about Eli Degibri? The natural response would be, "Who?" Yet those are the players on his newest record. Of course, it's very common to have big-name players on a jazz record. However, they usually tend to be players of similar fame and experience. This type of project was rare for an unknown, even in the heyday of major-label jazz. Now you have a small label fronting major money. But for someone like Eli, who is ready to make the jump to the next level, it makes perfect sense. No need to comment on the players; you know them all well, and just as you would expect, they totally deliver the goods. The only question mark is the leader. I am happy to say that he plays his ass off. The title track is a duet with Brad; if you didn't know it, you would think the sax player was Joshua Redman. It's a great track and the rest of the record is just as good. Degibri may not yet be a breakout star but this is definitely a breakout record.

• The Clayton Brothers: The New Song and Dance. It has been a long time since jazz was associated with popular dance. The Clayton Brothers remember that time, and their new recording tries to invoke a little bit of it. Not that they're trying to create literal dance music; the dance here is figurative dancing, although I'm sure some people could dance to this recording. People like me will just be content to listen. They're using their working quintet, which includes the brothers Jeff Clayton, alto saxophone and alto flute, and John Clayton, bass; Terrell Stafford, trumpet and flugelhorn; Gerald Clayton, piano; and Obed Calvaire, drums. Everybody plays well, but two stand out: Stafford and John Clayton's son Gerald, who is quickly becoming one of the most in-demand piano players in New York. They cover a wide range of dance styles, from breakdancing to tango, with energy, soul, and intelligence.

• Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green: Apex. Here is a record I really like but did not listen to nearly enough. The reason: too much music, not enough time. You may not know Bunky. He's a great alto saxophone player who spent most of his career in Chicago and did not tour much, so he never got the fame to match his talent. Rudresh is one of the hottest alto players on the scene today. He had listened to a lot of Bunky's earlier recordings when he was learning to play, so he wanted to do a tribute to his idol. Then someone suggested that he actually play with him. Give that person a gold star. These two play off each other in a noncompetitive way, with each supporting the other. They play spectacularly off the all-star rhythm section, which includes Jason Moran, piano (again, wow, this guy gets around); François Moutin, bass; and Jack DeJohnette and Damion Reid, drums. It's really nice to hear two alto players who idolize but are not slaves to Charlie Parker.

• Hiromi: Place to Be; Junko Onishi: Baroque; Helen Sung: Going Express. Hiromi, like Jason Moran, seemed to be omnipresent in 2010, playing in a duet with Chick Corea, a trio with Stanley Clarke and Lenny White, a duo with Stanley Clarke, and finally solo. This is the solo recording and I think it's by far the best of them. Hiromi is at that age where she is a ball of fire on the piano. If you're looking for subtlety and introspection, look elsewhere. But if you're looking for hard-banging, hard-bop piano, this is it. Two other Asian women also put out excellent records this year, Junko Onishi and Helen Sung. Both have great bands. On Baroque, Junko has herself on piano; Rodney Whitaker and Reginald Veal, bass; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Herlin Riley, drums; Nicholas Payton, trumpet; James Carter, tenor and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet, and flute; Roland Guerrero, congas. So, a great band. She also picks great tunes like "The Threepenny Opera," "Stardust," and "Meditations for a Pair of Wire Cutters." Onishi was big in the 90s, then disappeared in the 00s after she lost her Blue Note contract. She is now on Verve records, let's hope for a long time. Helen Sung also has a great band: herself on piano; Seamus Blake, tenor and soprano saxophones; Lonnie Plaxico, bass; Eric Harland: drums. Going Express is a live date and it smokes. Unlike Hiromi and Junko, Helen is an American; they are Japanese. So her playing tends to be a little grittier. She mixes some originals with some standards like "Love for Sale" and "In Walked Bud." Another outstanding recording      

• Mingus Big Band: Live at Jazz Standard. You will not find this one on many critics’ lists. Why? Not because it is not good enough. Rather, it’s because the Mingus Big Band is so good that they are just taken for granted. Year in and year out, they have been one of the most consistently excellent big bands around. Consistency can lead to complacency on the part of listeners and critics. The band's other problem is they almost never have new material because they always play Mingus. Once in a while they do a cut from him that we have not heard before. However, in concert they usually play his most familiar material. That's okay with me. Mingus tunes are some of the best ever written. This is an exceptionally good unit of this band. Recorded on New Year's Eve 2008/2009, it features special guests Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums and Randy Brecker on trumpet. Mingus regulars Wayne Escoffery and Abraham Burton on saxes also stand out. While the critics may not have been impressed, the Grammy voters were; this album has been nominated for best big band CD. If I were voting, it would have my vote.

• Portico Quartet: Isla. You cannot mention this group without talking about their unique instrument called the hang. It looks like two metal bowls sealed together, one on top of the other. This is the only instrument for one of the players, Nick Mulvey. For the other three, the instruments are more conventional: Jack Wyllie, saxophones and loops; Milo Fitzpatrick: double bass; Duncan Bellamy, drums and hang. Their sound is very reminiscent of early Paul Winter consort music. The closest current American example would be Oregon. They are a British jazz group, just one of a number including  Phronesis, England's answer to The Bad Plus, who are making their names known outside of England.

• Live at Smalls. The New York City jazz club Smalls has started a record label, on which they're releasing live recordings of some of their favorite artists. I've picked up 10 so far and all are excellent. I will just mention two: Jimmy Greene and Seamus Blake. Both have put out other recordings on a number of other labels. Some were very good, but these catch them at their very best. All of the bands on all of the recordings are great. The reason this label was created was to give you the feel of live jazz in an intimate setting. At this, they totally succeed. I would highly recommend any of the records. Just start with your favorite setup, such as a trio, quartet, or quintet. I guarantee you'll love any of the ones you pick.

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