Some fans followed Art Blakey just to hear those seismic press rolls — sticks and snare meeting in a tension-building tsunami. There are a handful of modern improv zealots who feel the same about Tyshawn Sorey’s mallets, brushes, and tom-toms. The drummer’s textural gambits are some of the most provocative sounds in NYC clubs these days — especially when he’s waxing seductive and mysterious, as he is on the new Alloy. Informed by Stockhausen’s steely piano pieces as much as they are the wily maneuvers of Andrew Hill and Bill Evans, Sorey’s latest works owe a lot to stealth. Eerie, unsettling, resolute — he has his team of pianist Cory Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini double down on incorporating silence, creating something truly ravishing. Tonight he plays the new pieces at Roulette, the music space that commissioned them.

Wed., Dec. 10, 8 p.m., 2014


Frank Kimbrough Trio

I love the fact that the pianist is pro prance: Those right-hand runs usually arrive with esprit intact, spilling with the kind of joy that invariably buoys expressionism. In trio settings, he has a way of floating. The post-bop savvy he’s developed from studies of Andrew Hill and others gives way to a singular sense of momentum that has a magical side.

Wed., Sept. 5, 9 p.m., 2012


Angelica Sanchez Quintet

2008’s Life Between was like much of the impressive pianist’s work, idiosyncratic and rambling. But it also felt familiar, a bent-mirror blend of, perhaps, Miles’s Filles de Kilimanjaro and Andrew Hill’s Smokestack. She knows how to add romance to her skittish side, and with French guitarist Marc Ducret on board this evening, she has a confrere willing to take the music in any direction.

Sat., Sept. 10, 9 & 10:30 p.m., 2011


A Brief History of Vijay Iyer

The past year has certainly been eventful for Vijay Iyer, but one recent instance in particular encapsulates the 39-year-old pianist/composer’s special confluence of achievement, intellect, and globetrotting cool. A month ago, GQ India named him one of the “50 Most Influential Global Indians,” easily a first for a guy making a good bit of his living in jazz clubs. The selection, further heralding the breakthrough success of last year’s widely touted Vijay Iyer Trio disc Historicity, prompted a self-deprecating zinger from Iyer on his Facebook page: “I’m guessing I’m number 47 or 48,” he wrote, “somewhere between [former Treasury Department undersecretary and would-be Social Security hatchet man] Neel Kashkari and the butt-dialer . . . pretty surreal.”

Downplaying the accomplishment doesn’t mean Iyer is not proud of it. On the contrary, it’s vindication for choosing the path of most resistance when he could easily have ridden his Yale degree in physics and Ph.D. candidacy at UC Berkeley to a different outcome. The outlines of his rolling, slashingly funky piano style were already in place when, after a stint in the Bay Area, he hit New York City in 1998, though he admits to early trepidation about his new career choice, bred as much by the relative absence of Indian-American artistic models in America as by how difficult survival on the jazz scene can be.

“There’d been a history in this country of having visiting artists from India, but the diasporic experience—where you’re born and raised here—is fundamentally different than that,” the Rochester, New York, native says. “When I decided to be an artist at 23, though I’d been playing violin and piano much of my life, there just weren’t places to find direction. It wasn’t a case of, ‘Oh, I think I’m gonna be like so-and-so.’ More like, ‘Wait a minute . . . is this even possible?’ ” Though, of course, he found inspiration anyway: “Hearing Randy Weston’s African Rhythms Trio sort of transliterate the language of African drumming to the piano was pivotal. He did it in very specific ways, which got me thinking about how to vibe on the percussive aspects of music from my own heritage, which is South Indian.”

Dozens of albums, collaborations, and sideman work later (most notably opposite alto-saxist Rudresh Mahanthappa and in trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s quartet), creative growth seems to have put Iyer in the mood to take stock. In lesser hands, a record as thematically varied as Historicity might have turned out arbitrarily eclectic rather than dynamically potent. But the mix is astonishing, as the trio’s nod to the Southeast Asian diaspora (a reading of M.I.A.’s “Galang”) meshes with Iyer’s groove-oriented roots (Stevie Wonder’s “Big Brother,” the A Tribe Called Quest–associated “Mystic Brew”) and explorations of jazz iconography both mainstream and avant (Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere,” Julius Hemphill’s “Dogon A.D.,” Andrew Hill’s “Smoke Stack”).

“I think there was a time when modern music was sort of a lens on the past,” Iyer says, explaining his method. “Not necessarily a re-enactment of it, but something that refracts, distills, transforms it . . . ultimately making it new. I’m a product of that school more than the uptown/downtown, traditionalist vs. throw-everything-out paradigm shift in jazz over the past 20 years.”

It’s easy to hear what Iyer means when listening to Solo, his latest disc. For sheer cohesion, it tops Historicity, and since he’s alone at the piano throughout, his reflective streak is telegraphed. The album is almost evenly split between originals and jazz-repertoire classics (Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Van Heusen); its one pop piece, Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” opens the disc by employing classicism in clever disguise. “I didn’t plan this, but the album sequence ended up being a loose chronology of when each piece entered my life,” he says, recalling how he developed the subtle, abstractionist take on stride piano that courses through his version of the showtune “Darn That Dream.” “Do you know Verona Rag, that Andrew Hill solo recital from the ’80s?” he asks. “That’s the first place I heard that tune, a period of his work I think is undervalued.” The track’s sly early-jazz accents become unabashedly robust on the next piece, Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy.”

For all the invention of the familiar pieces, however, it’s Iyer’s own compositions that showcase the full range of his gifts. They’re as dense as you’d expect from a piano expressionist, but his style creates warmth by exhibiting contrast: On “Prelude: Heartpiece,” “Autoscopy,” and “Patterns,” he offsets low-end raga-like droning with melodic runs as weightless as clouds. Solo‘s self-penned liner notes reveal the story behind “Autoscopy”: The title “refers to a type of out-of-body experience where you observe your actions from outside of (usually above) your body.” Has Iyer experienced this? “Yes,” he says matter-of-factly. “But I think it’s a phenomenon that music—or perhaps any engagement with creativity—is particularly well-suited to induce. If it’s just out of your reach, you’re looking for it all the time.”

Vijay Iyer plays (le) poisson rouge solo September 10 and the Miller Theatre at Columbia University October 9 with Craig Taborn


David Weiss  

The trumpeter comes out with both fists swinging on the new “Snuck In,” a disc that explains his skills at reconfiguring neglected deep cuts from the jazz canon. His Tony Williams lands jab after jab, and his Andrew Hill heals most of the gashes. The lyricism of saxophonist J.D. Allen has a lot to do with that assuaging process. Weiss has built a quintet that waxes fierce one moment, flowery the next. Both tacks are pretty damn convincing.

Wed., June 16, 8 & 10 p.m.; Thu., June 17, 8:30 & 10 p.m., 2010


Vijay Iyer Trio

Just because the titillating Historicity is largely a covers disc doesn’t mean the pianist has taken his eye off the ball writing-wise. It simply means that he’s as strong a programmer as he is a conceptualist—which is way strong. His jittery trio is a working band whose members foreshadow each other’s maneuvers and mop up after each other’s spills. Whether applying their clattering swing to pieces by M.I.A. or Andrew Hill, they’re dedicated to messing with rhythmic expectations—that goes for the West Side Story nugget, too.

Nov. 6-8, 7:30 & 9:30 p.m., 2009


John Herbert Group

hat happens when poise meets pluck? From his eloquence with Andrew Hill to his energy with Mary Halvorson, this bassist has proven himself as left-leaning mainstreamer who works a poetic lingo while still keeping things engaged. His Hat Hut duets with pianist Russ Lossing are good example of rumination with results. Lossing’s part of this squad, a foursome of dudes who deserve to have their individual praises sung. Watch how much saxophonist Loren Stillman finds ways to tunnel through the action.

Fri., May 29, 9 & 10:30 p.m., 2009


Skronk On

2007 seemed like kind of a middling year for jazz, upon casual reflection. The big deaths—Andrew Hill, Oscar Peterson, and Max Roach—were losses keenly felt in my house. But other than mourning, there didn’t seem to be as much going on with the music as there was with my other favorite genre, metal. (Chicago’s Yakuza once again blended both—and threw in some other stuff, too—on their third full-length, Transmutations.) After some thought, though, I recalled 10 better-than-decent releases deserving, as jazz CDs so often do, a wider hearing.

Fred Anderson’s been playing with Hamid Drake since the drummer was a teen, but their latest collaboration, From the River to the Ocean, is a high-water mark in the saxophonist’s discography. The ensemble drags the leader out of his comfort zone and into sonic regions previously explored by Pharoah Sanders in the early ’70s, chanting and all. Guitarist and producer David Torn, on the other hand, is definitely living in 2007, if not 2017. Prezens combines a laptop aesthetic with bluesy, skronky blowing from Tim Berne: easily one of the most exhilarating ECM releases in some time.

Whispery Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen impressed me twice, with his third solo album Strjon, and then with 8, the moody, monolithic latest from his group Supersilent. Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii and husband Natsuki Tamura danced dissonantly all over When We Were There, bolstered by bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black. David S. Ware bid farewell to his long-running quartet with the magisterial Renunciation, recorded live at the 2006 Vision Festival. And Ware’s pianist for over 15 years, Matthew Shipp, offered Piano Vortex, his first acoustic trio album in a long while and his first studio disc, period, with a bassist other than William Parker present (Joe Morris held things down quite ably).

Former ’60s firebrand Jacques Coursil returned with his second comeback disc,
, a study for solo trumpet and synth strings, plus highly political spoken-word texts by Frantz Fanon and others. The track titles on Other Dimensions in Music’s double disc, Live at the Sunset, occasionally overdosed on politics—”Blues for Baghdad,” “New Millennium Chaos (The Bush Reign of Terror)”—but the breathtaking, hard-swinging interplay between trumpeter Roy Campbell, saxophonist Daniel Carter, bassist Parker, and Hamid Drake on drums was the selling point. Finally, New York’s most Afrolistic jazz/funk/metal/New Music improvising ensemble, Burnt Sugar (featuring the Voice‘s own Greg Tate), released Live From Minnegiggle Falls, a swirling 2004 live date that displayed all the power, introspection, and limitless imaginative potential of their best work.

Of course, the reissue of the year was Miles Davis’s Complete “On the Corner” Sessions, but nobody should ignore Andrew Hill’s churning, furious Compulsion or Noah Howard’s legendary, too-long-gone The Black Ark, both of which reappeared this year. As did Borbetomagus’s Live in Allentown, a masterpiece of rip-roaring free-skree-plus-electronics that I couldn’t vote for in the poll because an encomium I published in The Wire was borrowed by the band for the liner notes.


Andrew Hill

The pianist Andrew Hill, who died of lung cancer on April 20, was born in 1931, not 1937, as was frequently reported, and in Chicago, not in Haiti, like he used to tell reporters and liner-note writers. Never as willfully enigmatic as Thelonious
Monk or as alienating (to some ears) as Cecil Taylor, Hill was an integral member of Blue Note Records’ mid-’60s class of “in ‘n’ out” players—musicians equally comfortable with freedom, complexity, and the deceptively simple joys of hard bop. His compositions were frequently tricky, almost to the point of dissonance, but “Pumpkin,” “Refuge,” “Black Fire,” and many more have melodies and a swinging energy that’s impossible to shake loose once you hear them.

Hill got a late start, taking up the piano at 13 and making his debut as a leader with 1959’s So in Love, a trio session on the Warwick label featuring fellow Chicagoan Malachi Favors on bass. He took few sideman gigs (most notably backing Rahsaan Roland Kirk), preferring to concentrate on his own compositions. He signed with Blue Note in 1963 and recorded four albums in five months: Joe Henderson’s Our Thing, Hank Mobley’s No Room for Squares, and his own Black Fire (with Henderson as a sideman) and Smoke Stack, which added a second bassist to a piano trio.

Still, he wasn’t an ascetic by any means—he could get down ‘n’ dirty when the mood struck. Hill wrote, but didn’t play on, “The Rumproller,” Lee Morgan’s follow-up to the hit “The Sidewinder,” at the same time that he was backing avant-gardists Sam Rivers and Bobby Hutcherson on the latter’s
Dialogue and wresting saxophonist John Gilmore free of Sun Ra’s Arkestra for Hill’s own
Compulsion (re- issued March 20) and Andrew!!!.

Like some other forward-thinking jazz players, Hill found his way into academia as the ’60s ended. From 1970 to 1972 he was a composer in residence at Colgate University, where he received a doctorate. He taught at Portland State University, at NYU, and in public schools and prisons in California. He recorded for the short-lived Arista/Freedom label and, later, Black Saint/Soul Note. And in 1989, he returned to Blue Note for two albums, Eternal Spirit and But Not Farewell, both featuring then-up-and-coming alto saxophonist Greg Osby and, in the younger man’s view, offering Hill the chance to apply his teaching experiences to the studio.

“Before I met Andrew, although I knew his music well, I hadn’t figured upon a realistic or applicable means of integrating my thoughts, studies, and creative aspirations into a composite and personal approach to music,” recalls Osby via e-mail. “In many ways, I was a wandering student in search of the elusive and indescribable mentor. Andrew sensed this and took it upon himself to advise me. His unselfish counsel, candor, and generosity provided me with solutions to many unanswerable questions.” In 2000, the pair reunited on Osby’s The Invisible Hand, a contemplative album with the feel of post-bop chamber music.

Hill was riding a new wave of appreciation in recent years, scooping up
numerous prizes and awards. Jason Moran, possibly the best young pianist in
mainstream jazz, co-wrote “Aubade” with Hill and recorded it on his 2005 album
Same Mother
. Earlier this year, guitarist Nels Cline released New Monastery, an entire album of Hill interpretations.

Last year, Hill returned to Blue Note again, releasing Time Lines, which had the feel of a farewell, the closing of a loop. It opened and closed with two versions—one with a full band, and one solo—of “Malachi,” a tune dedicated to the late bassist who’d anchored So in Love. His 1960s albums were being remastered and reissued, and Mosaic Records, the label specializing in boxed sets aimed at connoisseurs, compiled a three-CD set of previously unreleased sessions from 1967–70.

On March 29, Hill played his final concert, a lunchtime trio date at Trinity Church which, like an idiot, I missed.

Andrew Hill’s last concert is available online, though, through a search at


Harmolodic Convergence

Along with unimpeachable swing and blues sensibility to spare, Ornette Coleman possesses other jazz essentials today’s institutional guardians leave out, beginning with individuality, or what some might call personal eccentricities—in his case, and arguably all cases, they amount to the same thing. Jazz’s closest equivalent to the old, weird Dylan figured to win best album in the First Annual (?) Village Voice NY-and-Then-Some Jazz Critics’ Circle Poll. The surprise was the margin of victory for Sound Grammar, Coleman’s first new release in nine years and the first on his new vanity label of the same name, not to mention the eagerly anticipated recording debut of the dazzling two-bass quartet he’s been performing with in concert since 2003. Top choice on 10 of the poll’s 25 properly ranked ballots (including mine), Sound Grammar outpolled Andrew Hill’s Time Lines(Blue Note), a strong favorite almost any other year, by better than two to one, 189-89. (Though voters were requested to assign their top-10 points in descending order—10 points for their 1, one point for their 10—five entrants, undeterred by a wag of my finger, chose to distribute points equally.)

The Circle consists of critics currently living in New York and/or writing for New York–based publications, along with a few from elsewhere who figured to add spice. (A different rotation of outsiders might be called on next year.) Thirty respondents voted for 10 new releases and three reissues in descending order, plus one vocal record and one debut. You can see their ballots at [URL], along with the complete results. More than 200 CDs received votes in the four categories—whether this reflects a true embarrassment of riches or just a lack of consensus beyond Ornette is a question for a later occasion. One thing I learned for sure, in my position as this poll’s self-appointed poobah, is how many mailing lists I’m not on.

Charles Mingus
photo: Jazz Workshop Inc.

Placing somewhere on two-dozen of the 30 lists—compared to 13 for Hill and 11 for Sonny Rollins’s third-place Sonny, Please (Doxy)—Sound Grammar still would have won handily counting only those ballots that didn’t pick it

1. Even if you consider that Wilco guitarist Nels Cline’s New Monastery
(Cryptogramophone), a surprising fourth-place finisher, is subtitled “A View into the Music of Andrew Hill,” adding its votes to those for Time Lines would do no more than reduce Coleman’s margin of victory to just over 50. Ornette was the clear winner among radicals and conservatives, and in every age and racial demographic. If a certain New Yorker on loan to Kansas hadn’t pulled out at the last minute—after e-mailing me that he despised polls, but was looking for forward to voting for Ornette—I’d be telling you Grammar even carried the red states. This is what critical consensus looks like, folks, and for it to be forming behind a figure portrayed as a barbarian at the gate nearly 50 years ago isn’t ironic—it’s the way evolution is supposed to work, only it’s not supposed to take so long.

Time Lines, an even thornier and more densely lyrical effort than usual from another maverick absorbed into the mainstream and on a roll, is also

2. on my list. But after Hill is where the Circle and I went our separate ways, with only Rollins in common. Here are the rest of my choices, along with how they fared in the poll at large, ranked up to 40:

3. Theo Bleckmann and Fumio Yasuda, Las Vegas Rhapsody—The Night They Invented Champagne (Winter & Winter). The most transcendent vocal album in many a moon (for my money, anyway) reminds me of Björk’s Selmasongs. Bleckmann’s voice and Yasuda’s orchestrations have the same blissfully troubling emotional pull. (Unranked)

4. Odyssey the Band, Back in Time (Pi). The electric-hoedown bottom half of the straight harmolodic ticket, reuniting James Blood Ulmer with his compelling, short-lived trio of the early ’80s. (39)

5. Sonny, Please (Doxy). Riff tunes, ballads, a calypso, and an oddball pop selection—the sameformula as before, but a full-bodied sound and the Colossus at the top of his game make all the difference. (3)

6. Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra: MTO, Volume 1 (Sunnyside). Avant covers ranging from Cecil Scott and His Syncopated Serenaders to the Dead and Prince, with fastidious musicianship only adding to the fun. (13)

7. Odean Pope Saxophone Choir, Locked & Loaded (Half Note). Sax-section voicings as in-the-clouds as Ellington’s or Benny Carter’s, plus Pope, Michael Brecker, James Carter, and Joe Lovano’s post-Coltrane speaking-in-tongues —either way gets you to heaven, but both earn you wings. (16)

8. Andy Biskin, Early American—The Melodies of Stephen Foster (Strudelmedia). Foster deconstructed in the new old-fashioned way, but with his defining doo-dah blessedly intact. (Unranked)

9. Houston Person with Bill Charlap, You Taught My Heart to Sing (HighNote). Melodious duets representing a young pianist’s coming of age and a veteran blue-collar tenorist’s apotheosis. (25)

10. Steve Swallow and Robert Creeley, So There (Xtrawatt/ECM). The greatest love poet of the second half of the 20th century (when love got really difficult) lived long enough into the 21st to lay down tracks for what proved to be good friend Swallow’s moving, high-spirited eulogy. (Unranked)

My rule limiting the field to CDs released between last Thanksgiving and this year’s prohibited me from honoring Anthony Brown’s sagely multicultural Rhapsodies (Water Baby), an ’05 release that found its way to me only this spring. My other Honorable Mentions (because convening the Circle and tabulating the votes should bring some privilege): Henry Allen & Joe Cohn’s Hey, Look Me Over (Arbors Jazz); Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City
(Pi); Satoko Fujji’s Undulation (PJL); Billy Hart’s Quartet (HighNote); Lee Konitz-Ohad Talmor String Project’s Invention (OmniTone); John McNeil’s East Coast Cool (OmniTone); Peter Madsen’s Prevue of Tomorrow (Playscape); The Source (ECM); and David S. Ware’s Balladware (Thirsty Ear). And I’m pulling your coattails, not your leg, when I tell you Bruce Springsteen’s The Seeger Sessions: We Shall Overcome
(Columbia) is the best Dixieland album since the 1950s and might have gotten my vote for best vocal if not for Bleckmann.

Back to the poll results. Rewarding genuine rarity over lavish repackaging, the Circle voted Charles Mingus’s unruly but worth-it Live at UCLA (CME/Sunnyside) the year’s best reissue. It was my choice as well, followed by Seven Men With Neckties and Surrealistic Swing, Cuneiform’s two-double-disc Microscopic Septet retrospective (the Circle ranked it 10), and the overall unranked Jimmy Raney With Bob Brookmeyer (Verve), ’50s postbop lyricism personified.

One model for the poll was the one conducted by Jazz from 1964 to 1971, by which point the magazine had morphed into Jazz & Pop and the poll into the prototype for Pazz & Jop. J&P used to name winners for best piano album (meaning solo or trio sans horns) and best big-big or large-ensemble recording (meaning, oh, let’s say eight or more instruments) extrapolated from the general results. Following that tradition, this year’s respective winners are Keith Jarrett’s The Carnegie Hall Concert (ECM, 7 overall) and Joe Lovano’s Streams of Expression (Blue Note, 10).

Given the indifference, if not contempt, many critics feel toward singers, they needed their own category. (“Hate jazz vocals—always have,” one critic explained, leaving the line blank.) Unheralded veteran Nancy King’s Live at Jazz Standard (Maxjazz) won0 the nod 4-3-3 over perennial critics’ favorite Cassandra Wilson’s Thunderbird (Blue Note) and newcomer Roberta Gambarini’s Easy to Live (Groovin’ High), with a few critics taking advantage of the option I gave them to substitute a CD featuring spoken word.

Looking at the ages of the musicians in the poll’s Top 10—five of them over 70, with Cline the youngest at 50—you can see why I initiated a debut category designed to favor performers in their twenties and thirties. The lukewarm response to this category raises the question of whether the fetish for tradition (as opposed to innovation) that took hold in the ’80s has had the long-term effect of chasing younger players, as well as younger audiences, away from jazz, despite that decade’s parade of young faces following Wynton Marsalis. The good news is that drummer Francisco Mela’s Melao (Viya) garnered six votes, an impressive total when compared with the two votes apiece for four other CDs, including trombonist Curtis Hasselbring’s The New Mellow Edwards (Skirl), my pick for its inspired mix of rambunctiousness and whimsy. The victory by a Cuban-born musician suggests a deep new talent pool as well as an enduring musician. Which perhaps this poll will become.