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Somebody hit the Pause button on jazz for the first half of 2002. Sure, concerts continued to take place, and CDs still came out by the boatload on the cottage-industry independents. But among the larger record labels—both major and indie—jazz began the year appearing as if it had finally reached the status of total niche music, supported solely by well-heeled cultural institutions and rich old people who use words like “classy” to describe a music that sounds best when it’s gutbucket.
Although the majors don’t release much worthy jazz anyway, they do set the mood for the industry at large—and several labels started off 2002 by shuttering or cutting back their jazz departments. Atlantic folded its jazz division, leaving saxophonist James Carter, among others, labelless and with a new CD in the can. Columbia shed its longtime relationships with the most famous Marsalises, Branford and Wynton. And the Verve Music Group dropped half its roster, reduced most of its new-release schedule to reissues and smooth-jazzers, and then announced that it would be cutting back on instrumental jazz to focus on crossover performers such as vocalists Natalie Cole and Diana Krall.
But something funny happened during all the belt-tightening: Jazz flipped the bird and busted a move. It healed itself, as it always has, by focusing on the music, not the economics. As the rest of the world was busy buying Norah Jones’ almost-jazzlike Blue Note debut, the hard-core jazzheads discovered some truly amazing stuff—some of it, surprisingly enough, issued by the very same sources that seemed to have abandoned the music they love.
In late May, Verve released Footprints Live!, Wayne Shorter’s first all-acoustic CD as a leader since 1967. The album knocked out fans and critics alike with its powerhouse take on the sax god’s back catalog. Shorter’s disc was followed in early June by Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, and Roy Hargrove’s equally smokin’ Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall, which honored Miles Davis and John Coltrane without sounding derivative of either, as such tribute CDs typically do.
So even as Verve seemed to be moving away from such music, it gave us two of the best instrumental-jazz records of the year. These CDs share the same bassist, John Patitucci, and drummer, Brian Blade, and even the same style of material: melodic, harmonically advanced mid-to-late-’60s acoustic jazz. It was their leaders’ vision that made them more than the sum of their parts—or mere marketing exercises.
Yes, Shorter was acoustic again. Yes, Hancock added to the pile of Miles and Trane tributes. But the universal acclaim these projects received had everything to do with their musical quality and nothing to do with their sales strategies. Well, almost nothing. OK: It had a lot to do with sales strategies. But Footprints and Directions are also damn good discs—because they were popular as well as important releases, they helped overcome jazz’s overall malaise.
In August, Warner Bros. briefly left behind the likes of Kirk Whalum—gospel-flavored smooth jazz is fine for the unwashed masses, but please!—and continued to lift jazz’s spirits with pianist Brad Mehldau’s Largo. Though he’s best known for his acoustic piano-trio CDs, Mehldau enlisted a few more instruments—as well as rock producer Jon Brion—for this outing, and the result is stunning: It’s jazz through and through, but it’s recorded and produced in a style more typically associated with experimental rock (think Radiohead, whose “Paranoid Android” Mehldau covers). Largo is perfect for youngsters looking for an adventurous but accessible entree into jazz—and for the few older jazz fans who don’t have canes permanently stuck in their fannies.
If you think cultivating youthful fans isn’t important to jazz’s economic and creative health, guess again, pally. A few years ago, the Village Voice’s Richard B. Woodward reported a record-label executive saying, “The audience for straight jazz is made up of aging white males. In 10 years, after they’ve all had heart attacks, it’ll be left with no audience.” (Now that’s classy.)
Be that as it may, the end isn’t here just yet. Here’s the rest of the jazz that raced from the gut, jumped out of the friggin’ bucket, and landed right on my CD player in 2002:
Nu Bop, Matthew Shipp; Soul at the Hands of the Machine, Guillermo E. Brown; Raining on the Moon, William Parker Quartet Featuring Leena Conquest I’m usually about 600 CDs and about a million hours behind in my listening, but I broke into my regularly scheduled programming every time a new disc from Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series came into my pad. It’s not even that I liked all of them—I just didn’t know what to expect, and my curiosity always won out over my immediate responsibilities. The much-ballyhooed “sound of surprise” that describes jazz at its best is the common ingredient in this multifaceted series, overseen by pianist Shipp, but the creative use of modern electronics is much in evidence as well, especially on Shipp’s own Nu Bop. The hubristic title is completely appropriate: Shipp borrows the timbral elements of triphop without adopting any of the genre’s rhythmic trappings, making for a jazz-piano CD that sounds like little else that has come before or since.
Brown, one of Shipp’s bandmates in the David S. Ware Quartet, made his debut as a leader on Soul at the Hands of the Machine, another CD that lives up to its title: The sci-fi-influenced disc somehow mixes world music, illbient, and jazz in a way that sounds completely natural.
Bassist Parker, another Ware Quartet colleague, released approximately 9,907 CDs in 2002, but Raining on the Moon is the only one that will make you feel as if you need the other 9,906. It’s funky without being funk, bluesy without being blue, and it features an avant-leaning vocalist without annoying pretensions. The sassy Conquest always stays just inside the edgy and grooving melodic contours Parker and his band provide, giving the music elegance and grace without making it sound overwrought.
Modernistic, Jason Moran; Strange Place for Snow, E.S.T. Though their styles are hardly similar, pianists Moran and Esbjorn Svensson are both nothing if not au courant. On Modernistic, Moran shows off his postmodernist chops by interpreting James P. Johnson’s “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic,” Robert Schumann’s “Auf Einer Burg,” Muhal Richard Abrams’ “Time Into Space Into Time,” and Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” churning them out with conviction, style, and largess. It’s ballsy as hell, but Moran has the mad skills required to pull it off.
Like Mehldau, E.S.T. leader Svensson grew up listening to rock and electronica as well as jazz and classical. All of those influences are evident on the smart and lovely Strange Place for Snow. Though Svensson’s trio is all-acoustic, ambient electronic sounds are often overdubbed for subtle textural effects. Drummer Magnus Ostrom, who favors brushes over sticks, often interpolates the light and nervous stop-start rhythms of drum ‘n’ bass into his playing, and bassist Dan Berglund walks not once on the album, recalling the open-ended approach of the late, great Scott LaFaro.
Hecho a Mano, Chano Dominguez; Soul of Things, Tomasz Stanko Quartet; Black Water, Rudresh Mahanthappa Jazz should always have an accent, and these three CDs speak in tongues from Spain, Poland, and India. On Hecho a Mano, pianist Dominguez mixes thick bop harmonies with the rhythm and energy of flamenco, and he does so without making either weak-kneed.
Trumpeter Stanko doesn’t add polka to his jazz, but on the gorgeously open and lyrical Soul of Things, he does make music that fits the postcommunist Polish psyche: warm but reserved, quiet but tough. The CD isn’t overtly political, and it doesn’t need to be; it’s the thoughts that inspired it that count. As Stanko told JazzTimes: “Jazz was like freedom for us, the opposite of communism.”
Personal politics also have a place on alto saxophonist Mahanthappa’s Black Water, which addresses the Indian diaspora. Mahanthappa explores his heritage with a jazz quartet alone, opting not to add obvious decorations such as sitar and tabla to his hard-edged post-bop sound. Why should he? Sax, piano, bass, and drums are all he needs to make his musical point.
If you’re looking for box sets and reissues, these are the ones you need:
The Complete Roost Johnny Smith Small Group Sessions, Johnny Smith There is no lovelier collection of jazz guitar from the ’50s. Or, for that matter, any other era: Smith’s tone and phrasing are so smooth that only a corpse could be unmoved by them.
On the Beach, Philip Cohran and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble; Music From Tomorrow’s World, Sun
Ra and His Arkestra Cornetist Cohran played with Ra, and it’s obvious that he studied the master’s free-form groove. On the Beach is an obscurity from 1967, but it shouldn’t be: The album is an explosion of loose-limbed, large-scale African-funk-flavored jazz.
Music From Tomorrow’s World is a lo-fi collection of two ’60s club dates by Ra’s Arkestra, but what it lacks in fidelity it more than makes up for with quirky melodies and tumbling rhythms. It’s post-bop, pre-free, and all good.
A Love Supreme (Deluxe Edition), John Coltrane Sort of a no-duh, but for those on the fence: This includes the only complete live performance of the timeless title suite as well as the long-thought-lost sextet version of “Acknowledgement.”
These are the ones you don’t:
The Genius of the Electric Guitar, Charlie Christian; The Herbie Hancock Box, Herbie Hancock Cool-looking packages, sure, but not really worth the expense. Clunky as hell, too. In fact, the Hancock set actually includes directions on how to open the damn thing.
The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux, 1973-1991, Miles Davis Let’s just get this out there: Miles pretty much stank in the ’80s, and no one needs eight versions of “Time After Time” stretched over 20 CDs to prove it. CP