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While jazz’s clash with the mainstream was the most intensely debated topic of 2009, it was actually an incredibly fruitful year for the music. The recordings I discuss in the link above were among the best and most exciting; whether or not they ultimately catch commercial fire, their attempts to employ rock and hip-hop aesthetics were successful and excellent. But why stop there? Jazz in 2009 also saw engagement with 21st century classical concepts; a breakthrough project by a gifted, young singer; a caravan of musical history by one of the most dependably imaginative figures in the avant-garde; and a major reinvention by a legend of jazz piano.
This last, almost completely overlooked in the jazz world, was nonetheless the record of the year. Here it is, along with the next, oh, say, nine. Where applicable, I’ve quoted (and linked to) my own reviews of these albums.
1. Ramsey Lewis – Songs From the Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey (Concord) “In a word, astonishing. It finds Ramsey Lewis, after 50 years playing R&B- and pop-laced jazz piano, reinventing himself as a composer—hence the subtitle, Ramsey Plays Ramsey. The trio disc (Larry Gray, bass; Leon Joyce, drums) contains 12 straightahead tunes of extraordinary delicacy, lyricism and finesse, all sounding thoroughly fresh.”
2. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam)
3. Rakalam Bob Moses – Father’s Day B’Hash (Sunnyside)
4. Gretchen Parlato – In A Dream (ObliqSound) “Recently, jazz has embraced some callow vocalists whose singing is a sideline for their instrumental pursuits. Fortunately, such artists have Parlato to show them how it should be done: with emotional depth, subtlety, and the kind of precise technical craft where even the breathing sounds matter.”
5. Vijay Iyer Trio – Historicity (ACT Music + Vision) “It may be hard to grasp Iyer’s statement, but it’s fun to try, and the unique conceptions of both originals and covers suggest clues aplenty. Yet it’s just as exciting to imagine that Historicity’s equation has no solution and Iyer, with this compelling, provocative work, is still writing his place in history.”
6. Arve Henriksen – Cartography (ECM)
7. Steve Lehman – Travail, Transformation, and Flow (Pi) “With Travail, Transformation, and Flow, alto saxophonist Steve Lehman makes a rare offering to the jazz world: a thoroughly alternative principle of improvisation. Lehman’s deeply compelling harmonies and textures sound noticeably different from anything before it, but the music doesn’t have the threat-to-everything-we-know-and-love trappings of prior upheavals.”
8. Joe Lovano’s Us Five – Folk Art (Blue Note)
9. Robert Glasper – Double-Booked (Blue Note)
10. Jeff “Tain” Watts – – Watts (Dark Key Music) “Jeff “Tain” Watts’ drumming style is not generally about understatement, and neither is much else on the fantastic Watts. His quartet-saxophonist Branford Marsalis, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, and bassist Christian McBride-is a supergroup’s supergroup, and their mainstream jazz is muscle-bound and always in hyperdrive.”