All this week, the Jazz Standard in New York will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Jazz Composers Collective, the brainchild of five musicians who formed five distinct bands: the personnel would remain the same, but each player would lead his own band and compose all of its music. Both concepts were unusual at the time: the continuity of players and the insistence on original compositions. Back then, jazz musicians rotated in and out of bands, not the other way around; and the emphasis was on covering standards or blowing improvisations.
The Jazz Journalists’ Association held its annual awards bash this week, honoring musicians and their work for the period from March 2008 to March 2009. Here’s who won in each of the major categories, followed by who got my vote and why.
The Jazz Review was one of the most fascinating journals in the history of music-writing. Its editors were Nat Hentoff and Martin Williams, two of the most insightful critics of its day (the late 1950s and early ’60s). But its main distinction was that it consisted almost entirely of jazz musicians, writing articles and reviews about other jazz musicians.
The Jeff Gauthier Goatette’s House of Return, on the L.A.-based Cryptogramophone label, is one of the most sinuously pleasing albums I’ve heard in a while. I confess that I haven’t followed this quirky label or its roster of musicians as closely as I should have, but I intend to make up for lost time. The Goatette (don’t ask me why it’s called that—there are five musicians, so it’s not even a Dada play on “quartet”) consists of Gauthier, violin; Nels Cline, guitar; David Witham, piano; Joel Hamilton, bass; and Alex Cline, drums. The way each of them weaves in and out of different tempos, rhythms, and chart-parts (shifting effortlessly from melody-line to chords to between-bar filigree to sonorous atmospherics) is astonishing. The songs range from mysterious ballads to electric rock, with much in between, sometimes within the same song. There’s wit in the compositions and breeziness in the ensemble work, but there’s no fooling around; the air is loose, but the motion is surefooted and the hand-offs are tight, like a Mondrian painting but with more indigo color. Nels Cline is the player I’m most familiar with; he may be second to Marc Ribot as the most versatile jazz guitarist on the block, and it’s due mainly to him that, when the band rocks, it really does rock; it doesn’t sound like some tame fusion-y rock. But the softer tunes have a rich melancholy, an off-centered swing, and a hazy core of blues. The engineering is very good, capturing the tones and overtones of all the instruments and the bloom of the mix.
Jenny Scheinman is one of the liveliest, quirkiest jazz musicians out there, a violinist with folk roots, a kind of bluegrass cadence, and a deepening mastery of improvisational idiom. She’s playing at the Village Vanguard through this Sunday with Jason Moran (the best pianist on the scene), Greg Cohen (one of the two or three best bassists), and Rudy Royston (a drummer who’s new to me but he’s very good too). If you’re in the tri-State area, go see her.
I’ve been following Jenny Scheinman for a few years now: her frequent Tuesday night sets at Barbes, a small Brooklyn bar and sometimes-jazzclub not far from my house; her side gigs with the likes of Bill Frisell, Jason Moran, and Ben Allison at various clubs in Manhattan; her wry CDs, most notably 12 Songs.
Violinist Jenny Scheinman is back at Manhattan’s Village Vanguard this week with the quartet she calls Mischief & Mayhem, and judging from the two times I've seen them (the first a year ago, the second last night), I'd say this is one of the great raucous jazz-fusion bands of our time. Go see them. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.
By "jazz-fusion," I mean not just jazz + rock (though there is plenty of that, thanks to the presence of Wilco's Nels Cline on electric guitar) but . . .
Hemispheres, the new two-CD album by guitarists Jim Hall and Bill Frisell, is the year’s first jazz masterpiece, a work of spontaneous lyricism as glittering and joyful as anything either has recorded (and, given their histories, that’s saying a lot). Hall, who’s 78, and Frisell, who’s 57 and something of a protg, both have a tendency toward doodling when they’re not anchored by a rhythm section. But Disc One—10 tracks of barebones duets (including Milt Jackson’s “Bags’ Groove,” Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” Hall’s anthemic “Bimini,” and several pure improvs)—are loose-limbered and air tight, the two trading harmony and melody, then merging the strands to the point where it’s unclear who’s playing what but it meshes and sings all the same. Disc Two—10 more tracks, mainly standards (“I’ll Remember April,” “Chelsea Bridge,” “My Funny Valentine,” “In a Sentimental Mood”), the guitarists joined by Scott Colley on bass and Joey Baron on drums—is no less free-spirited. Colley and Baron, who have played as sideman to both as well as many others, aren’t the sort to lay down rhythmic law; they splash color and weave textures along the leaders’ sinuous lines.
Joe Lovano’s Folk Art, his 22nd album on the Blue Note label, is an odd, sometimes jarring record—it took a few hearings before I found my bearings—but once the fragments snap into place, it’s a rousing pleaser, bursting with indigo moods, heart-skipped romance, and free-flow funk riffs. Lovano plays all kinds of reeds—tenor sax, straight alto sax, clarinet, and, on one song, the aulochrome, a Hungarian-built horn that’s a double soprano sax (attached to one reed), each side tuned to a different key, so that you blow melody and harmony simultaneously. He plays with a somewhat hardened tone, reminiscent of Sonny Rollins, but with a more soulful sensibility, stemming from his Midwestern roots (his father was a tenor blues saxophonist in Cleveland), though over the past couple decades, he’s played with, and gleaned ideas from, a wide variety of masters, including Hank Jones, Gunther Schuller, and Mel Lewis, to name a few.
The guitarist John Abercrombie's latest, Within a Song (on ECM) is something of a high-wire act: delicate music of an uninsistent intensity, a quiet swing, that hangs together or collapses on the ensemble's sustenance of balance. The musicians hereJoe Lovano on tenor sax, Drew Gress on bass, Joey Baron on drumsare masters at this sort of thing (and many other things too), and so it's a riveting album. Even when they coast, swish, and twirl along the slightest thread, you're carried along (or I was anyway).
The latest 3-CD box in Mosaic Records’ Select series, John Carter & Bobby Bradford, is something of a revelation. I’ve heard several albums over the years by the two musicians separately, but never their collaborations of 1969 (as the New Art Jazz Ensemble) and ’71 (as John Carter & Bobby Bradford, though playing with much the same quartet), both recorded on the obscure Revelation label. Now here they are, reissued with unreleased takes and a whole unissued (unknown) duet session that was laid down in ’79.
Shut Up and Dance, on the French label Bee Jazz, should catapult John Hollenbeck into the pantheon of living big-band composers, along with Maria Schneider, Bob Brookmeyer, Jim McNeely, and (if his debut works are matched by what's to come) Darcy James Argue, among perhaps a very few others. I've praised some of Hollenbeck's earlier albums in this space, especially his Large Ensemble's Eternal Interludes and his Claudia Quintet's Royal Toast, but I have to say I admired them more than I liked them. His arrangements were . . .
I’m late in coming to the drummer-composer John Hollenbeck. (These things happen: so many records, so little time…) It wasn’t until a few months ago that I stumbled upon Eternal Interlude (on the Sunnyside label), the latest CD by his 20-piece Large Ensemble, which, had I heard it earlier, would have made it on my 2009 Best 10 list. (Ditto, just to set the record straight, for Infernal Machines by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, that other wondrous big band that escaped my attention.)
John Surman, a saxophonist of jazz, folk, church, and avant-garde influences, has been a longtime denizen in the ECM stable without gaining much renown. When he recently played at a New York club, leading a rhythm section of guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Jack DeJohnette, he acknowledged to the crowd that he was the only player who needed introducing.
John Zorn’s rep as the angry bad boy of the downtown avant-garde has always been a bit of a caricature. His music has long stressed wit and beauty as much as squeals and hollers. But in the last few years, he’s tapped into a buoyant, almost gentle lyricism while still sounding distinctively Zorn.