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When it comes to marking end-of-the-millennium jazz centennials, three seems to be the magic number. 1998 saw a flood of releases associated with George Gershwin’s 100th birthday. In 1999, D.C.’s own Duke Ellington got the centennial treatment, with a monumental limited-edition 24-CD box set and a host of ancillary releases. This year’s birthday boy is considered by many scholars to be jazz’s first true innovator and superstartrumpeter, singer, actor, and cultural ambassador Louis Armstrong. Like the past two centennials, Armstrong’s has triggered an avalanche of box sets, reissues, tribute albums, lectures, and concerts for the honoree. And guess what? You can look forward to more of the same. Historical records show that Armstrong was actually born on Aug. 4, 1901not on July 4, 1900, as the musician long claimed.
Although Armstrong’s centennial celebration has had a strong impact on the jazz market, with well over 30 discs bearing his name coming out this past year alone, plenty of other worthwhile material was released in 2000. For those who, like me, avoid centennial rereleases like the plague, this year’s top-10 list is for you. In no particular order:
Dusk, Andrew Hill After a several-year absence from recording, veteran pianist and composer Andrew Hill came back with this haunting album, which showcases his knack for writing alluring yet foreboding compositions of the highest quality. From bassist Scott Colley’s hushed ostinato figure on album-opener “Dusk” to the cacophonous climax of the charging penultimate track, “15/8,” Dusk is as seductive and intriguing as the writings of poet Jean Toomer, whose Cane provided some of the record’s inspiration. Hill’s fractured, speechlike playing has never sounded betteror more up-to-date. It’s evident from the popularity of pianists such as Jason Moran and Geri Allen that Hill’s obtuse, brooding, and elastic style has become a standard for some of today’s most highly regarded players.
The Invisible Hand, Greg Osby Not long before the release of Dusk, Hill made a noteworthy appearance on his former student Greg Osby’s sumptuous The Invisible Hand. Like his teacher, composer and alto saxophonist Osby is a highly individualistic musician who refuses to play in the same manner as his contemporaries. Osby’s diamond-hard tone and quicksilver phrases are perfect for blistering bop, but on this plush, romantic outing, his edgy playing swoons convincingly alongside that of Hill, guitarist Jim Hall, and reedist Gary Thomas, while drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Scott Colley gently nudge them forward.
Works on Canvas, Cindy Blackman Subtlety has often eluded Cindy Blackman on her solo albums. Never shy about letting you know that she’s a kickass drummer, Blackman frequently overstuffs her recordings with thundering flurries of rhythmic mayhem that too often suffocate the compositions. Not so on Works on Canvas, which was released so close to the end of 1999 that it seems appropriate to mention it here. The opening reading of the languid “Green Dolphin Street” sparkles, as Blackman’s shimmering cymbal work pushes the piece forward and J.D. Allen’s saxophone unfurls the melody. And even on more up-tempo numbers, such as the demonic “Ballad Like,” Blackman devises pockets of rhythmic openness that allow both her dynamic improvisations and her compositions’ burning grooves to shine through. Not only her best effort to date, Works on Canvas is also one of the best drummer-led jazz albums of recent memory.
Trillium & Rhodes Ahead Vol. 1, Marc Cary Washington, D.C.-bred pianist and composer Marc Cary picked up the Best New Artist award at this year’s Billboard/BET Jazz Awards. And even though the award was five albums too late, these two discs from Cary were among the most transfixing albums of the year. On Trillium, Cary joins bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits for an adventurously groove-laden yet immediately accessible summit meeting. With Rhodes Ahead Vol. 1, the pianist leaves the smoky jazz room to go club-hopping via hooky house music and infectious drum ‘n’ bass. On both records, everything works superbly well, whether it’s the yearning title track from Trillium or the misty “Transient Treasure Part 1” from Rhodes Ahead.
Outhipped, Barbara Dennerlein Who’d have ever thought that one of the greatest practitioners of greasy funk-jazz organ would hail from Munich, Germany? But for the past two decades, Barbara Dennerlein’s mastery of the Hammond B-3 organ has summoned such heavyweights as David Murray, Ray Anderson, Frank Lacy, and Roy Hargrove to join her sessions. On Outhipped, Dennerlein finds the common threads among Jimmy Smith, Larry Young, and Sun Ra by leading a juggernaut ensemble that includes Anderson, trumpeter Darren Barrett, and bassist James Genus, as well as drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, who gives his band leader a mighty rhythmic spanking.
Kinda’ Up, Oliver Lake Steel Quartet Of all the members of the World Saxophone Quartet, alto saxophonist Oliver Lake writes the most stringent compositions. Too often, Lake’s pieces mirror his own precise phrasing. Danceable rhythms, however, have always buffered Lake’s angularity and made his music more accessible. On this lively outing, Lake tangles with steel drummer Lyndon Achee, who is one of few able to play the instrument in a freedom-swing setting without making it sound like something you might hear on a touristy Caribbean cruise. In fact, on the bluesy “Land of the Freaks” and Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” Achee’s McCoy Tyner-like approach gives even Lake’s acidic playing a run for its moneynot to mention Pheeroan akLaff’s thundering percussion and Reggie Washington’s rubbery electric bass.
Motherland, Danilo Perez One of the most transportive records of 2000, Motherland is pianist and composer Danilo Perez’s grand finale after two years of intensive artistic endeavors. More a look at the world through the eyes of Panama than a simple homage to his homeland, Motherland finds Perez gathering musicians from the United States, Cameroon, Brazil, and Panama and mixing their rhythms to concoct a bitches’ brew that’s beyond categorization.
Melaza, David Sánchez Melaza has everything to do with Puerto Ricoand nothing to do with the likes of Ricky Martin. Turbulent, passionate, and black to the bone, the album is tenor saxophonist David Sánchez’s tribute to the Africans who were brought to Puerto Rico to work the sugar-cane fields. And indeed, Sánchez and alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon wail over the rolling rhythms of hand drums like slaves seeking salvation from the burning heat of the sun and the lash of the master’s whip. Melaza’s rhythmic pulse is appropriately urgent, and its melodic improvisations are as incisive as machetes; only on Milton Nascimento’s “Veja Esta Cançáo” does the record cool down from what sounds like a long day’s hard work.
The Goldberg Variations, Uri Caine Ensemble If you’re like me and don’t know dick about Johann Sebastian Bach but are instantly entranced by jazz interpretations of European classical music, then you’ll agree that pianist Uri Caine’s devilish Goldberg Variations is a winner. Caine transports Bach to the world of the Information Superhighway, where arias sit next to hiphop, chamber music morphs into drum ‘n’ bass, and swing goes avant-pop. Assisted by an eclectic cast that includes Greg Osby, Don Byron, DJ Logic, Milton Cardona, and Tracie Morris, Caine makes each variation an entirely new listening experience. CP