Those of you in the New York area for the holidays (or for all times) should know that two of the best jazz groups around are playing at the two best jazz clubs: Maria Schneider and her Jazz Orchestra make their traditional Thanksgiving-week appearance at the Jazz Standard, and Jason Moran and his Bandwagon trio are at the Village Vanguard.
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.
Donald Fagen isn't exactly a jazz musician, but he is a musician who plays jazz and whose music is suffused with a jazz sensibility, whether on his own or as co-leader of Steely Dan, so here we go. His 4th solo disc, Sunken Condos (on Reprise), is one of his best and maybe the best-sounding since the Dan heyday . . .
One drawback of the New York-centric jazz world (and I say this as a New Yorker) is that musicians who live elsewhere too often go ignored. Oral histories are full of tales about some tenor saxophonist in Mississippi, or a guitarist in Nevada, who influenced someone who influenced everyone else. And so you should definitely check out the Denver trumpeter Ron Miles’ riveting new CD, Quiver (on the Enja label).
Dave Douglas' Be Still (on the trumpeter's own Greenleaf Music label) is his most sheer-gorgeous album since the 1998 Charms of the Night Sky and one of the best-sounding new recordings that I've heard by anybody in quite a while. And it's available on LP as well as CD (more about which, later).
Ravi Coltrane's quartet is at the Village Vanguard this week, and that in itself is a marker of how confidentballsy wouldn't be a stretchthis musician has become in recent years. It's bold enough for John Coltrane's son to take up the tenor saxophone as a trade. It takes the next level of audacity to lead a band at the club where Dad laid down maybe the greatest live jazz recording ever. But the ultimate display of self-assurance from Coltrane fils came during his improv on an original tune, "Thirteenth Floor," when he casually quoted a few lines from "A Love Supreme."
Fred Hersch's new double-disc album (on the Palmetto label) might be called Alive at the Vanguard, instead of the customary Live at . . . , for two reasons. First, it's a declaration that Hersch, who's had HIV-positive for many years and not long ago slipped into a coma for six months, is alive. Second, this music is alive: fire-breathing with adventure, dance, spirits of all sorts . . .
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).
In a sense, I understand why Thelonious Monk's albums on Columbia, recorded between 1962 and 1968, have been neglected. His earlier sessions, on Blue Note, Prestige, and Riverside, were the ones where he introduced his classic songs, developed his eccentric style, and played with star-studded rhythm sections. The six quartet albums for Columbia feature a total of just six new Monk songs. And they find him playing with a working band of accompanistsno John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Griffin, Art Blakey, or Roy Haynes here.
Sometimes you hear a CD, things come up, you store it away and forget about it, until something compels you to take it out of the closet, give it a spin, and you kick yourself for your negligence, you realize, suddenly, belatedly, that this is a really special album. That's my story with Bob Brookmeyer's Standards (on the ArtistShare label), a pretty magnificent send-off from one of the most elegantly inventive big-band composers in jazz, released in 2011, shortly before he died at the age of 81.