I’ve sometimes wondered how long The Bad Plus can keep up their high-concept mix of pop and punk covers, avant-classical harmonies, jazz cadences, kick-ass polyrhythms, and sly but un-ironic wit. Don’t get me wrong: I like their music a lot; each of the players (Ethan Iverson, piano; Reid Anderson, bass; David King, drums) crackles with brio and virtuosity; their interplay is a delight. Still, in the six years since they improbably crashed onto the scene, there have been times when their conceit has seemed to reach its limit.
Here’s my list of the 10 best jazz albums of 2008. An elaboration, with 30-second sound clips illustrating my points, will appear tomorrow in my column in Slate. (Some of you may notice that I’ve mentioned most of these CDs in this blog through this year.)
As usual around this time of year, I have a column in Slate (where I usually write about foreign and military policy), listing my picks for the 10 best jazz albums of the year and, in this case, the two best jazz reissues. Here’s the list, and regular readers might recall that I’ve reviewed almost all of them in this blog-space (or in Stereophile magazine) over the past twelve months.
Today in Slate (which, as some of you know, is where I do most of my writing, mainly on national-security politics), I lay out—as I have in each of the last five Decembers—my picks for the 10 best jazz albums of the year. Here are the best of 2007:
Speaking of Carla Bley, her ex-husband, Paul Bley, has a new CD, Solo in Mondsee (ECM), and it’s quietly stunning. I’m a bit late with this—the album came out last summer—but then again, it was recorded in 2001, so who’s counting? Paul Bley has been one of the piano giants in jazz for over a half-century. He may be more famous for those he’s introduced to the jazz scene. He led, I think, the first jazz trio that featured Charles Mingus on bass. While house pianist at the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles in 1958, he hired Ornette Coleman to play with him (when nobody else would); in fact, what became, a few months later, the first Ornette Coleman Quartet started out as the Paul Bley Quintet, minus Bley. Over the years, he’s frequently played with Ornette’s bassist, Charlie Haden, most recently in a night of riveting duets at the Blue Note in New York. (A couple decades ago, the Montreal Jazz Festival held a weeklong celebration in which Haden led a variety of ensembles; all the sessions were eventually released on CD by Verve; the best of the bunch was a trio session with Bley and Paul Motian.)
As further evidence that the American empire is on the decline, I submit the 8:00 set Friday night at the Blue Note on West 3rd Street in New York City, where three front-and-center tables of Europeans—twenty young to middle-aged, professional-looking men and women, who all seemed to be part of the same tour group—made more noise at a jazz club than I think I’ve ever witnessed. Shushing and shaming, from me and others in the audience, had but short-term impact; they’d quiet down for a few minutes and listen to the trio on the bandstand (more about them, in a moment), but then got back to the main business of yakking, chuckling, and generally treating the whole proceedings as the soundtrack to their merry Manhattan vacation and us poor jazz fans as mere props in the spectacle.
A few months ago, I reviewed Carla Bley’s wonderful CD, The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu, a deceptively Dada title that referred simply to the nature of the session—Bley’s quartet, called the Lost Chords, joined by the Sardinian trumpeter, Paolo Fresu. I praised Fresu’s “appealing” sound, its “clarion tone with a slight huff of breathiness,” but confessed that I’d never heard him before. Now comes a trio album, Mare Nostrum (on the German label, ACT), with Fresu as co-leader—along with the French-Italian accordionist, Richard Galliano, and the Swedish pianist, Jan Lundgen—and, though it’s not as quirkily magical as the Bley, it’s a charmer. There’s at once a twilight intimacy and a panoramic insouciance to this music. Imagine a gentler Nina Rota, as if he’d scored the soundtracks for early Truffaut instead of boisterous Fellini; toss in some Argentine spice (Galliano, who also plays bandoneon, was close to Astor Piazzolla); and you get a sense of the mood. It’s a bit fluffy and sentimental, but in a good, lively way (though there’s also a spirited arrangement of Ravel’s “Ma Mere L’Oye” and a darkly stirring piece, a Fresu composition, inspired by the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet). The sound quality is quite good, though I wish there’d been less reverb on the trumpet.
Herman Leonard’s first New York show in 20 years got underway last week at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in SoHo. It’s open to the public every day until June 1, and anyone with a taste for classic jazz, gorgeous black-and-white photography, or both should take a look. If you don’t know Leonard’s name, you probably know him by his work. He has taken some of the most iconic shots of Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Dexter Gordon, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk—the list goes on. There are, or were, half-a-dozen great jazz photographers covering the same era of the late 1940s through early ‘60s, but Leonard was the genre’s Cartier-Bresson—a genius at capturing the “decisive moment,” when the essence of the man or woman and the music are revealed. Monk at Minton’s Playhouse, one hand on his chain, contemplative, the other hitting just the right-wrong note on the piano (you can almost hear it). Blakey beaming with delight as he bangs out a solo on his trapset. Sinatra, back to the camera, singing before the kliegs, and still, somehow, his very tone comes through. Leonard (who, at 85, is still hearty and good-humored) also captured the human side of jazz: Parker and Gillespie cracking laughs during a studio break; Ellington and Strayhorn sharing a cigarette break; Miles, late in life, fixated on an oil painting; Dexter, in perhaps Leonard’s most famous shot, sitting with his tenor and blowing more smoke than one would have thought human lungs could hold. The lighting is dreamy but not at all soft; these pictures are amazingly sharp, printed on gelatin silver. They’re signed and for sale. I own one of his prints (the Parker-Gillespie, from 1949). A jazz critic gets paid in Leonard photos for one of his regular columns. They are sources of endless pleasure, and they’re probably as safe an investment as any in the art world.