Big Air, Chris Batchelor, Dave Whitford, Dave Wickins, Django Bates, Jim Black, Jim Hobbs, Joe Lovano, Joe Morris, Liam Noble, Matthias Schriefl, Myra Melford, Oren Marshall, Shreefpunk, Steve Buckley, Steve Kuhn
Once again it’s that time of year again when people publish their “Best of the Year” lists. So here’s my list of the best new recordings I’ve heard this year. The usual caveat applies: I’ve only heard a small proportion of the new releases, so if you ask me my favourite jazz albums from 2009 in a year’s time, the list might be different.
If one thing unites them all, it’s that, in their very different ways, they’re all post-free jazz. None of them could have been made if it wasn’t for the avant-garde of the 60s and early 70s, although they’re all conventional jazz with themes and structures. The leaders range in age from the mid twenties to the early seventies. There are two American groups, one British one, one mixed UK-US one, and one from mainland Europe. One album is on ECM, the other four on smaller independent labels: the big corporations have failed us again.
Best of the Year
Noble applies the full range of contemporary jazz piano techniques to frequently radical but never disrepectful reworkings of tunes by or associated with Dave Brubeck. Dave Whitford on bass and Dave Wickins on drums offer solid support. It’s “Take Five”, Jim, but not as we know it. Brubeck himself apparently loves this album.
Runners-up (in alphabetical order)
Trumpeter Chris Batchelor and saxophonist Steve Buckley play vaguely Ornette-y horn lines, while drummer Jim Black clatters away in his own inimitable fashion behind them. Pianist Myra Melford and tuba-player Oren Marshall spend some of the time acting as another melody instrument and the rest of the time playing an accompanying role. A bit of electronics sometimes gets thrown into the mix. Some passages, for instance the section in opening track “The Wizard” where the two horn players solo simultaneously, are absolutely superb. The rest of the album is merely very good indeed. Brian Morton’s “Jazz Journal” review claimed that this was “the best British jazz album for 20 years”. He’s wrong, but not very wrong.
Kuhn was the pianist in John Coltrane’s quartet before McCoy Tyner, so he’s got more right than most to do an album of pieces from his ex-boss’s repertoire. There are few if any of the obvious tunes here (no “Giant Steps” or “Naima” or “My Favorite Things” or…). Instead we get a cross-section of Trane’s career from the Atlantic days up to the late recordings with Alice and Rashied Ali, performed with an approach which is more lyrical and poetic than Coltrane’s. My one slight reservation is that, although Lovano isn’t imitating Coltrane, so much of the writing seems tied up with the sound of the tenor saxophone that it’s hard not to compare these versions with the originals. Part of me thinks this could have been even better if it had been a different horn – say a bass clarinet – in the line-up. But it’s still sheer class.
Morris, who works both as a guitarist and a bassist, is on guitar throughout here. He’s a player with a very distinctive style, playing single note lines with an old-fashioned Jim Hall-type sound. There are few if any chords on here. If there’s a stand-out player on this, though, it’s altoist Jim Hobbs who has a highly-expressive and at times almost vocal tone. But it’s the performance of all four players as a band that’s most impressive. There’s something about their slinky approach to rhythm which is reminiscent of the Ornette Coleman – Don Cherry quartets, although this music doesn’t really sound like anyone else.
Lyrical straightahead jazz trumpet. Free improv abstraction. Heavy metal riffing. A German oompah band getting drunk with a New Orleans marching band. They’re all here. In lesser hands this could be a too-clever-for-its-own-good postmodern mess, but this young German outfit pulls it off with aplomb. Two thirds of the album is a live set by the basic trumpet, guitar, bass and drums Shreefpunk quartet, while the remainder (from a different Cologne concert) adds Django Bates and a string quartet.