At this point, I’d go way out of my way to be surrounded by the earthshaking drama percussionist Tyshawn Sorey designs on a regular basis, but this keenly balanced outfit is known for boasting three essential elements. Vijay Iyer is skilled at giving said drama a barbed lilt, and saxophonist Steve Lehman threads the action with a tart sense of tumult. Together, the trio’s fierce accord forms a fist.

Wed., Aug. 17, 8 & 10 p.m.; Thu., Aug. 18, 8 & 10 p.m., 2011


Stephan Crump & Steve Lehman+Liberty Ellman Trio

Bassist Crump has proven himself as a rhythmic agitator with Vijay Iyer’s provocative trio. He’s dropped a couple of engaging duet discs lately, including the new Kaleidoscope and Collage, with equally daring saxophonist Lehman. The record is an open excursion: some passages are rich with gnarled twists while others are sparse, making hay with innuendo rather than invective. Guitarist Ellman’s trio is a marvel as well, cleverly spinning spiderwebs from a crosshatch of shadowy lines.

Thu., March 17, 8 p.m., 2011



The trio brokers in a confidential, esoteric kind of interplay that leaves plenty of room for explosions. Don’t buy the “quadrangle with one side missing” chides that crop up about them, because the three-way thrusts of pianist Vijay Iyer, drummer Tyshawn Sorey, and saxophonist Steve Lehman are both sturdy and graceful in a mathy sort of way. This is collaboration of a high level, without question.

Thu., March 10, 9 & 10:30 p.m., 2011


Jason Moran Tops Himself

It wouldn’t be exaggerating much to say that Jason Moran’s only competition in the Fifth Annual Village Voice Jazz Critics’ Poll was Jason Moran. Ten, his first trio album in seven years, won Album of the Year in a landslide, but that’s not all. The pianist figured prominently on the runner-up, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green’s Apex, and Charles Lloyd’s Mirror, which finished fourth—only a surprise No. 3 showing from rising guitarist Mary Halvorson kept him from a hat trick. Add Paul Motian’s Lost in a Dream, on which Moran and saxophonist Chris Potter are virtually the veteran drummer’s co-leaders, and that gives the 2010 MacArthur Fellow four appearances in the Top 10—a fete unprecedented in this poll’s short history and unlikely to be equaled anytime soon.

I wanted this year’s poll to do the impossible, to go some way toward restoring my faith in the democratic process following November’s dismal midterm elections. And in its modest way, it did. With Moran and drummer Nasheet Waits varying the dynamics and dancing around the beat while bassist Tarus Mateen holds fast to it, Ten easily passes the most crucial test facing any piano-trio album: You never find yourself wishing for horns. It’s an extremely worthy winner, and listening to it again as I write, not only do I feel guilty about its absence on my own ballot, I find myself applauding my colleagues for showing smarts I evidently lack.

Since the poll’s 2006 inception, I’ve come to think of my wrap-up as akin to a State of the Union. Starting with that first year’s overwhelming evidence of the mainstream widening to accommodate Ornette Coleman without him so much as meeting it halfway, the results of each subsequent poll have revealed an encouraging new trend: in ’07, something approaching equality for jazz women behind winner Maria Schneider; in ’08, how this country’s changing ethnic demographics are letting jazz go global without leaving home; last year, signs of a long-needed infusion of young blood. This year? Well, Ten is the second consecutive piano-trio winner, following Vijay Iyer’s Historicity, and joining it in the Top 10 are Keith Jarrett’s duets with bassist Charlie Haden, and solo efforts by Iyer and Geri Allen. But a list dominated by pianists strikes me as coincidence rather than as a harbinger of anything in particular.

What might be more significant is that with the majors having all but abandoned jazz until further notice, independents are enjoying a boom, albeit one probably more aesthetic than financial. Pi Recordings claimed four spots in the Top 20, as many as Blue Note and Nonesuch combined placed in the Top 50, the only majors to appear there. ECM enjoyed its usual good showing, although this year’s overall winner might be Clean Feed, a relatively new Portuguese label fast becoming this era’s Soul Note/Black Saint in terms of both quality and prolificacy—a staggering two dozen of its 2010 releases received votes, led by Chris Lightcap’s Big Mouth at No. 12 and Bay Area bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, who tied singer/songwriter Gregory Porter for Best Debut. But along with the perseverance of these indie labors of love, the logical takeway from a Top 10 featuring two women, as well as four musicians under 40 (including Mahanthappa and Iyer, both native-born Americans of Indian descent), is that the trends suggested by previous years’ results genuinely were trends, not just blips. Which I’d say confirms this annual survey’s worth beyond providing readers and participants alike with a catch-up shopping list.

Quick comments on this year’s Top 10:

1. Jason Moran Ten (Blue Note)
Along with dips into the Bernstein, Bert Williams, and Jaki Byard songbooks, highlights include the latest in Moran’s ongoing series of “Gangsterism” pieces reconciling jazz and hip-hop’s different ways of attacking the one, and extended variations on “Crepuscule with Nellie”—virgin territory and maybe even sacred ground, given that Monk himself pointedly refrained from ever improvising on it.

2. Rudresh Mahanthappa & Bunky Green Apex (Pi)
Although it’s cross-generational rather than cross-cultural, like Mahanthappa’s 2008 encounter with Kadri Golpalnath, what saves this alto-saxophone confrontation from becoming your typical hard-bop donnybrook are suggestions of Eastern chant that now seem intrinsic to Mahanthappa’s identity, and maybe intrinsic to the 75-year-old Green’s as well, via Coltrane’s direct influence on his generation.

3. Mary Halvorson Quartet Saturn Sings (Firehouse 12)
Quartet and trio actually, though it’s the hurtling intelligence of Halvorson’s writing on the tracks with horns that marks her transition from the cutting edge’s favorite sidewoman to one of today’s most formidable bandleaders.

4. Charles Lloyd Mirror (ECM) He appealed to ’60s hippies as Coltrane without the mathematics and perceived black militance. Older and something of a grand mannerist now, he wants nothing more than to break your heart. And damn if he doesn’t on a gorgeous “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and a cover of the Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No” that might seem like pandering coming from anybody else.

5. Henry Threadgill Zooid This Brings Us to, Vol. 2 (Pi) As close as he’ll ever come to permitting a jam, with looping extended solos compensating for less compositional motion and color than on Vol. 1.

6. Keith Jarrett & Charlie Haden Jasmine (ECM) Dueting the great bassist holds Jarrett’s mannerisms in check, but thankfully, not his ardor.

7. Steve Coleman & Five Elements Harvesting Semblances and Affinities (Pi) As governed by theories regarding this, that, and the other thing as Coleman’s work from his M-Base enfant terrible days, but rhythmically streamlined (no forced beats now) and harmonically spacious in its voicings for two brass, Jeri Shyu’s colortura, and Coleman’s own surging alto.

8. Vijay Iyer Solo (ACT) Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” is a little frilly, and Monk’s “Epistrophy” a little dense. But together with Iyer’s own angled originals, insightful interpretations of Ellington’s seminal “Black and Tan Fantasy” and proto-minimalist “Fleurette Africaine” make this a successful follow-up to Historicity.

9. Geri Allen Flying Toward the Sound (Motema) I don’t think I’ve ever heard another pianist so closely evoke Cecil Taylor without surrendering to his influence completely.

10. Paul Motian Lost in a Dream (ECM) Melody-based chamber improvisation ne plus ultra.

Though I like all of these just fine, my own list is very different:

1. ICP Orchestra ICP 049 (ICP)/br>
Conspicuously missing from the poll’s upper echelons, in what may be a sign of belt-tightening, are large ensembles. But the latest, typically superb effort from this 10-member Dutch outfit, guided by pianist Misha Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink (and dotted with American expatriates like violinist Mary Oliver and saxophonist Michael Moore), fills the gap and then some. As swank and precise as it is rollicking, and knowingly evocative of both Ellington and the wildest and woolliest free jazz—sequentially and then simultaneously on Moore’s arrangement of Mengelberg’s “The Lepaerd.”

2. Dominic Duval & Cecil Taylor The Last Dance (Cadence Jazz) /br> CT at his most churning, rooted deep in his keyboard’s lower half, as if threatening his duet partner with redundancy if he can’t keep up. But no worries there.

3. Mark Ribot Silent Movies (Pi)/br> High, wide, and lonesome solo guitar starring in a revisionist Western set somewhere between Avenue B and Boot Hill.

4. Mary Halvorson Quintet Sings (Firehouse 12)

5. Myra Melford’s Be Bread The Whole Tree Gone (Firehouse 12)/br> Astor Piazzolla’s ghost smiles benignly on intricate and quietly adventurous small-group pieces that stab with their sense of unfulfilled longing.

6. Paul Motian Lost in a Dream (ECM)

7. Rudresh Mahanthappa & Steve Lehman Dual Identity (Clean Feed)/br> My preference for this stand-off with a fellow altoist near Mahanthappa’s own age comes down to their shared belief in the value of stridency (the legacy of Jackie McLean) and the sharper edge that Liberty Ellman’s guitar lends the rhythm section.

8. Michael Formanek The Rub and Spare Change (ECM)/br> Who knew the veteran bassist was such an impressive composer? Though the most impressive aspect of all might be the ample room his gambits leave for interplay with stellar sidemen Tim Berne, Craig Taborn, and Gerald Cleaver.

9. Billy Bang Prayer for Peace (TUM)/br> “Only Time Will Tell,” the latest of Bang’s tips of the cap to violin forebear Stuff Smith, is as swinging and vivacious as anything you’re ever likely to hear delivered by a putative avant-gardist, and sets the tone for everything that follows.

10. Benjamin Herman Hypochristmastreefuzz: More Mengelberg (Special Edition) (Roach)/br> I say you can never get enough Mengelberg, the greatest living jazz musician never to take up residence in the U.S. But this also makes my list because Herman, a young Dutch altoist, is quite a find. And, to be honest, because his two versions of a Mengelberg homage to Peter Brøtzmann, one studio and the other live, sound like they could be the theme to a ’60s British exploitation flick about rumbling teds and rockers that might show up on public access in the dead of the night.

Honorable Mention: Lucian Ban & John Hébert, Enesco Re-Imagined (Sunnyside); Evan Christopher, Remembering Song (Arbors); Empirical, Out ’n’ In (Naim); Amir ElSaffar & Hafez Modirzadeh, Radif Suite (Pi); John Escreet, Don’t Fight the Inevitable (Mythology); Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamers (Savoy Jazz); Tomas Fujiwara & Taylor Ho Bynum, Stepwise (NotTwo); Microscopic Septet, Friday the 13th: The Micros Play Monk (Cuneiform); Joe Morris, Camera (ESP-Disk); Jeremy Pelt, Men of Honor (HighNote). And Sarah Wilson’s Trapese Project (Brass Tonic), for her vocal on Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the year’s most inspired cover.

Reissues: Stan Getz & Kenny Barron, People Time: The Complete Sessions (Sunnyside); The Complete Novus & Columbia Recordings of Henry Threadgill and Air (Mosaic); The Complete Ahmad Jamal Trio Argo Sessions, 1956–1962 (Mosaic). Vocal: Catherine Russell, Inside This Heart of Mine (World Village). Debut: Chris Drye, Bizingas (NCM East). Latin: Guillermo Klein, Domador de Huellas: The Music of Gustavo “Cuchi” Leguizamon (Sunnyside).

Mosaic’s Threadgill box was voted Best Reissue, while Chucho Valdes and Cassandra Wilson took the Latin and Vocal categories, respectively. This was the second victory for Wilson, who’s become as automatic in polls of this sort as Ella Fitzgerald was in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The surprise was just behind her, where a never-before-issued live performance by Irene Kral, a singer’s singer who died in 1978 without ever gaining a large public following, tied White House/Vogue/New Yorker flavor du jour Esperanza Spalding for second place.

This poll has become my labor of love—my equivalent of social networking, and, for a couple weeks once the ballots start filling my inbox, just about my only social life. Along the way this year, in addition to a hundred or so albums I might otherwise not ever have known existed, I also got word of layoffs and cutbacks, a corneal abrasion, a nagging heel injury, the death of a mother, the birth of a daughter, and the loss of James Moody to pancreatic cancer. Thanks to this year’s 120 participants for keeping me up to date: David R. Adler, Scott Albin, Clifford Allen, A.D. Amorosi, Larry Applebaum, Chris Barton, Nick Bewsey, Larry Birmbaum, Paul Blair, Larry Blumenfeld, Philip Booth, Michael Bourne, Shaun Brady, Marcela Breton, Christian Broecking, Stuart Broomer, Brent Burton, John Chacona, Nate Chinen, Fred Cisterna, Troy Collins, Thomas Conrad, J.D. Considine, Owen Cordle, Lawrence Cosentino, Michael Coyle, Francis Davis, Steve Dollar, Laurence Donohue-Greene, Alain Drout, Ken Dryden, Donald Elfman, Steve Feeney, Colin Fleming, Ken Franckling, Phil Freeman, David Fricke, Richard Gehr, Andrew Gilbert, Ted Gioia, Lars Gotrich, Kurt Gottschalk, Steve Greenlee, George Grella, James Hale, Ed Hazell, Don Heckman, Tad Hendrickson, Andrey Henkin, W. Kim Heron, Geoffrey Himes, Eugene Holley, Lyn Horton, Tom Hull, Peter Hum, Robert Iannapollo, Josh Jackson, Patrick Jarenwattananon, Willard Jenkins, Martin Johnson, George Kanzler, Fred Kaplan, Larry Kart, Mark Keresman, Bill King, Elzy Kolb, Art Lange, Will Layman, Devin Leonard, Aidan Levy, John Litweiler, Martin Longley, Suzanne Lorge, Kevin Lynch, John McDonough, Shaunna Morrison Machosky, Jim Macnie, Howard Mandel, Peter Margasak, Bill Milkowski, Dan Morgenstern, John Murph, Russ Musto, Marc Myers, Michael G. Nastos, Dan Ouellette, Ted Panken, Thierry Peremarti, Bob Porter, Doug Ramsey, Derk Richardson, Joel Roberts, Chris Robinson, Britt Robson, Jim Roberts, Michael Rosenstein, Lloyd Sachs, Gene Seymour, Mike Shanley, Bill Shoemaker, Hank Shteamer, Slim, Chip Stern, Zan Stewart, Jeff Stockton, W, Royal Stokes, Mark Stryker, John F. Szwed, Jeff Tamarkin, Neil Tesser, Ludwig Van Trikt, George Varga, Andrew Velez, Seth Colter Walls, Jason Weiss, Michael J. West, Kevin Whitehead, K. Leander Williams, Josef Woodard, Ron Wynn, and Scott Yanow. You will be able to browse their individual ballots at


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


Vijay Iyer Tops the Fourth Annual Village Voice Jazz Poll

The last ballot has been cut-and-pasted, and I couldn’t be happier with the results of the fourth annual Village Voice Jazz Critics’ Poll. Oh, sure I could—but with a record 99 critics voting, what would Nate Silver have said the odds were of my top four actually finishing No. 1 through 4 for Album of the Year?

Nothing’s better than a close race where you’re cheering for both sides, and Vijay Iyer’s Historicity—a classic piano-trio album if your definition extends, as mine does, to such maverick examples as Herbie Nichols’s Blue Note records, Paul Bley’s Footloose!, Don Pullen’s New Beginnings, and Misha Mengelberg’s Who’s Bridge, alongside accepted-as-canonical Monk, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans—built its narrow lead over alto saxophonist and flutist Henry Threadgill’s This Brings Us To, Volume 1 only late in the game. Third went to tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, the only musician to place in the Top 10 every year since this poll’s inception, for Folk Art. But the real news might be Darcy James Argue, a 34-year-old Brooklynite by way of Vancouver, whose astonishing Infernal Machines, with the big band he calls his Secret Society, finished fourth overall in addition to its landslide victory as the year’s best debut, despite unusually formidable competition in that category.

Allen Toussaint’s The Bright Mississippi, another of my choices, finished seventh, and three others on my ballot—Bill Frisell’s Disfarmer, Bill Dixon’s Tapestries for Small Orchestra, and Dave Douglas’s Spirit Moves—ranked in the top 15. Every year, as I look not just to expand the voter base but democratize it by recruiting more women, African-Americans, and younger voters with the necessary credentials, my wife likes to joke that what I’m really aiming for is a consensus Top 10 identical to mine. This year is probably the closest I’ll ever come to reaching that subconscious goal, even if everybody else said humbug to Carla Bley’s delightful Carla’s Christmas Carols, mentioned on my ballot and no other. Yet I don’t mind telling you that I approached conducting this year’s poll with an apprehension bordering on dread.

Part of it may have been the inevitable letdown from my elation over Obama’s election in ’08 (he inherited not just two wars but three—and the presence of a black man in the White House has only escalated the Culture Wars), coupled with simple decade fatigue (the uh-oh‘s witnessed a stolen presidential election, the worst domestic terrorist attack in history, the submergence of an entire city, the collapse of the free market, and the possible demise of the publishing and recording industries). But the main source of my blues was a concern specific to this poll. Two years ago, in this space, I worried aloud about major labels, with their vast promotional reach, dominating the standings. Those were the days, huh? Those majors that haven’t dispensed with jazz altogether to help stem the tide of red ink have severely trimmed their mailing lists, and many independents are becoming just as stingy with review copies.

Granted, the only thing more annoying than critics going on about getting more free CDs than they have time to listen to is the same freeloaders bellyaching about not getting enough. And it’s tough to fault labels for their sudden parsimony, because what sense does it make for them to send out a few hundred promos of an album expected to sell a couple thousand, tops? But I worried that this new PR austerity might tilt this year’s standings, and in at least one case, I bet it did. Critics can be pushovers for an ambitious concept the same as everybody else, which is why I have to believe that Dedicated to You, Kurt Elling’s salute to Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, would have waltzed to victory as Best Vocal if Concord had bothered to service more than a handful of us. Instead, it finished second to a genuine sleeper, relative newcomer Gretchen Parlato’s In a Dream. (I knew I wouldn’t be voting for either. My choice was Normal as Blueberry Pie, Nellie McKay’s irresistibly kooky tribute to Doris Day. Love the way arranger Paul Holderbaum transforms “Wonderful Guy” into Kurt Weill and then a modal romp. And love how McKay’s phrasing evokes the late Susannah McCorkle on the opener, “The Very Thought of You,” immediately establishing McCorkle as a link. Then, I also love Doris Day.)

Soon enough, the only new music we’ll hear will consist of MP3 files sent by our Facebook friends, and the notion of consensus will seem quaint. In the meantime, what’s not to like about a poll honoring both an upstart like Darcy James Argue and Best Reissue victor Louis Armstrong (for Mosaic’s completist box of his ’30s and ’40s Deccas)? In contrast to the initial poll four years ago—wherein no artist under 50 cracked the Top 10—this year’s encouraging tally boasts four still in their thirties (Iyer, Argue, and alto saxophonists Steve Lehman and Miguel Zenón, the last of whom also romped to victory in Best Latin) and another just over 40 (Argue’s fellow big-band leader and Bob Brookmeyer disciple John Hollenbeck). Paced by Argue, two other free-thinking rookies also did extremely well, with alto saxophonist Darius Jones finishing 17th and bassist Linda Oh just missing the Top 20.

It’s open to conjecture how much this emphasis on youth merely reflects the lower average age of the electorate this year (all those younger writers I mentioned earlier, whom I’ve been more successful in locating than women or African-Americans). And no doubt new releases by, say, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and Wayne Shorter would have tipped the balance the other way. But I think this year’s results point to something else. Actually, only half of the Velvet Underground’s original fans formed their own bands—the rest all became rock critics. Something similar may be happening now, within the shrinking audience for jazz. But finally, maybe the best way to interpret this poll is to say it reflects the will of 99 beleaguered critics determined to go on doing their job, perhaps the most important aspect of which is calling attention to young talent on the rise.

My own ballot, with brief observations:

1. Vijay Iyer Trio, Historicity (ACT). The pianist approaches tunes by composers ranging from Bernstein, Andrew Hill, and Julius Hemphill to Stevie Wonder and M.I.A. as a composer himself, turning them this way and that to decipher how they work. It’s deconstruction as a tip of the cap.

2. Henry Threadgill Zooid, This Brings Us To, Volume 1 (Pi). “Zooid,” a term from biology referring to cellular locomotion, is an apt moniker for the way Threadgill keeps tuba, guitar, drums, electric bass, and his own alto or flute moving in harmonious opposition.

3. Joe Lovano Us Five, Folk Art (Blue Note). Though making its debut here, Mr. Consistent’s latest outfit (a quintet with dual drummers) sounds like they’ve been playing together for years. For Lovano, it’s an opportunity to show off his command of his horn’s high harmonics, while moving in and out of tempo at will.

4.Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam). “Steampunk,” the snazzy neologism being tossed about, refers to Argue’s passion for a subgenre of science fiction, not necessarily his writing, even if he occasionally does use alt-rock studio techniques. As with 2007 winner Maria Schneider (yet another Brookmeyerite—anybody spot a trend?), the attraction is in the creation of orchestral narrative through an accumulation of harmonic and rhythmic detail.

5. Bill Frisell, Disfarmer (Nonesuch). The guitarist’s Americana is a sonic analogue to both Walker Evans and Grant Wood, with Edward Hopper’s nighthawks in the shadows, staring into their coffee.

6. Carla Bley, Carla’s Christmas Carols (Watt/ECM). Bley’s deft arrangements for brass quintet seem based on the belief that you can’t love Christmas without loving Bach—think counterpoint and plenty of it. More deserving of being called Christmas in the Heart than that uneaten fruitcake from Uncle Bob.

7. Mulatu Astatke & the Heliocentrics,Inspiration Information, Vol. 3 (Strut). If I didn’t know better, I might mistake this heady collaboration between Ethiopia’s seminal modern jazzman and a crew of British technocrats for long-lost ’70s Sun Ra.

8. Dave Douglas & Brass Ecstasy, Spirit Moves (Greenleaf). Lower-pitched than Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy (its obvious model), and more dour in its humor, but with every bit as much flair.

9. Bill Dixon, Tapestries for Small Orchestra (Firehouse 12). Four new releases by him in two years, all with sidemen decades younger, suggests the present is finally catching on to this unreconciled ’60s avant-gardist, a trumpeter and composer whose music remains lyrical even at its most eruptive.

10. Allen Toussaint, The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch). Courtesy of producer Joe Henry, the great trad album you always guessed the New Orleans auteur had in him—though closer in spirit to Tipitina’s than Preservation Hall, even with Nicholas Payton asserting his inner King Oliver.

High among my honorable mentions are two more debuts: Linda Oh‘s Entry (Linda Oh Music) and Chicago trumpeter Josh Berman‘s Old Idea (Delmark). Others: Ran Blake‘s Driftwoods (Tompkins Square), Ravi Coltrane‘s Blending Times (Savoy), Marty Ehrlich‘s Things Have Got to Change (Clean Feed), Steve Lehman‘s Travail, Transformation, and Flow (Pi), Nice Guy Trio‘s Here Comes the Nice Guy Trio (Porto Franco), Chris Potter‘s Ultrahang (ArtistShare), Radio I-Ching‘s No Wave Au Go-Go (Resonant), Roswell Rudd‘s Trombone Tribe (Sunnyside), and Matthew Shipp‘s Harmonic Disorder (Thirsty Ear). Rara Avis: Lucky Thompson‘s New York City, 1964–65 (Uptown). Vocal: McKay. Debut: Argue. Latin: Paquito Hechavarria‘s Frankly. Reissues: Ella Fitzgerald‘s Twelve Nights in Hollywood (Hip-O Select/Verve), Charles Tyler‘s Saga of the Outlaws (Nessa), and Eddie Harris and Ellis Marsalis‘s Homecoming (Elm).

My choice for top reissue requires explanation. For the purposes of this poll, a new release is defined as consisting entirely of never-before-issued performances, regardless of vintage. To prevent votes for any particular CD or boxed set from being split across two categories (new release and reissue), this distinction is usually strictly enforced. But it seemed worth making an exception for Twelve Nights in Hollywood, which, although entirely made up of never-before-released performances, draws from the same nightclub engagement that yielded the cherished 1961 LP Ella in Hollywood. Votes were allowed for it in either category, with up to three points from each ballot on which it was listed as a new release transferred to reissues at the end of the process—an easy call to make, since it didn’t affect the final standings whatsoever.

Thanks to all who voted this year: David R. Adler, Clifford Allen, A.D. Amorosi, Larry Applebaum, Larry Blumenfeld, Bob Blumenthal, Philip Booth, Shaun Brady, Marcela Breton, Stuart Broomer, Alan Chase, Nate Chinen, Fred Cisterna, Troy Collins, Thomas Conrad, Lawrence Cosentino, Michael Coyle, Jason Crane, Francis Davis, Steve Dollar, Laurence Donohue-Greene, Alain Drouot, Ken Dryden, Donald Elfman, Steve Feeney, Sean Fitzell, Ken Franckling, Phil Freeman, David Fricke, Jon Garelick, Andrew Gilbert, Ted Gioia, Kurt Gottschalk, Steve Greenlee, David Hajdu, James Hale, Ed Hazell, Tad Hendrickson, Andrey Henkin, Geoffrey Himes, Eugene Holley Jr., Lyn Horton, Tom Hull, Robert Iannapollo, Willard Jenkins, Martin Johnson, Ashley Kahn, George Kanzler, Fred Kaplan, Larry Kart, Chris Kelsey, Mark Keresman, Elzy Kolb, Art Lange, Aidan Levy, John Litweiler, Martin Longley, Suzanne Lorge, Kevin Lynch, John McDonough, Jim Macnie, Howard Mandel, Peter Margasak, Ken Micallef, Bill Milkowski, Siddhartha Mitter, Tom Moon, Dan Morgenstern, Russ Musto, Michael G. Nastos, Stuart Nicholson, Dan Ouellette, Ted Panken, Thierry Peremarti, Bob Porter, Doug Ramsey, Derk Richardson, Joel Roberts, Michael Rosenstein, Bob Rusch, Lloyd Sachs, Gene Seymour, Mike Shanley, Bill Shoemaker, Hank Shteamer, Slim, Michael Steinman, Zan Stewart, Jeff Stockton, W. Royal Stokes, Mark Stryker, John F. Szwed, Neil Tesser, Greg Thomas, George Varga, Jason Weiss, Michael J. West, Josef Woodard, and Ron Wynn.


Jazz Consumer Guide: Little Innovations Run the World

Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra
We Are MTO

Count Basie’s ghost band is still working, available for gigs like their recent post-historic match with a batch of old Ray Charles tapes—they’re still sharp and snappy, but nowhere near as fresh as Bernstein’s MTO. Bernstein boned up on Basie while working on the soundtrack to Robert Altman’s Kansas City, then transplanted the idea of a KC territory band to Tonic in NYC, gigging once a week, not recording until the results were too legendary to resist. Here, you get old pieces from Basie, Don Redman, Fats Waller, and others genuinely obscure; an old-sounding brass-band “All You Need Is Love”; and modern flourishes like lead guitar and Charlie Burnham violin. I doubt anyone dances to this, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. A

Vijay Iyer

With alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa waxing Coltrane-ish, it’s tempting to cast Iyer as the new-model McCoy Tyner. He plays with equal facility, but with no swing in his swagger. He sets up rumbling rhythms, then busts them up into abstract blocks. He can delicately ponder a slow spot and, no matter how fast the pace picks up, he’s always thinking ahead. Actually, compared with Tyner, he’s more impressive. A

Ben Allison & Man Size Safe
Little Things Run the World

Like fellow bassist-composer Charles Mingus, Allison uses his titles to advertise public thoughts of no obvious relationship to the music. Here, the title cut refers to the Gaia hypothesis—that bacteria maintain the Earth as a habitable environment. “Man Size Safe” refers to Dick Cheney, with “Blowback” as the consequence. Unlike Mingus, though, Allison manifests little anger in his elegant and poignant postbop. A MINUS

Steven Bernstein
Diaspora Suite

A little overblown, but, hey, what else do you expect of a suite? Using the Nels Cline Singers, plus extra guitar, as the core of his rhythm section, Bernstein sounds Ellingtonian with just two brass and two reeds. A MINUS

Dave Douglas & Keystone
Greenleaf Music

Several years of electronic dabbling finally pay off: DJ Olive’s scratching and Adam Benjamin’s Fender Rhodes are woven seamlessly into the rhythm, but the garbled Bush sample seems to be there just to make you wonder. New saxophonist Marcus Strickland more than lives up to his illustrious predecessors. And then there’s the trumpeter: Douglas wins those polls not for his compositions—he’s too far over everyone’s head for that—but for his chops. A MINUS

Mike Ellis
Bahia Band
Alpha Pocket

The sweet spot between Ellis’s sparsely avant Chicago Spontaneous Combustion Suite and his luxuriant Mali-meets-Brazil Speak in Tones project Subaro: a group from the nordeste Brazilian melting pot, with a groove that can’t stop, chants that don’t get in the way, and the leader’s soprano sax, which bites a little when he gets excited. A MINUS

Scott Fields Freetet
Bitter Love Songs
Clean Feed

Exorcising the “slime trail of bile that love leaves behind,” Fields’s guitar doesn’t ramble for once: He is focused, calm, cool, concise. Bass and drums forgo the avant free-for-all, keeping him on track without demanding attention. His misery is our gain. A MINUS


Steve Lehman’s alto sax distills the acidic tones of his mentors Jackie McLean and Anthony Braxton, which might seem to limit him, but here, his trio support from pianist Vijay Iyer and drummer Tyshawn Sorey is so brimful with clever ideas and good cheer that he simply brings them back into earthly balance. Too tight to be a supergroup, although the individual talents warrant that claim. A MINUS

David Murray/Mal Waldron
Silence [2001]
Justin Time

Cut in Brussels a year before Waldron’s death, this may now be seen as a remembrance of an all-time piano great, but Murray fills the room so prodigiously that you have to work to hear how skillfully Waldron ties it all together. A MINUS

Sun Ra
Some Blues but Not the Kind That’s Blue

Two “small group” sessions that fell through the cracks and wound up in Atavistic’s remarkable Unheard Music Series. Mostly covers, familiar songs like “My Favorite Things” and “Black Magic” shot into unforeseen orbits. The horns cut the grease, but the piano (or organ, on the 1973 tracks) dominates: Ra’s mix of stride, bebop, and something from the outer reaches of the galaxy is pretty amazing. A MINUS

Sonny Rollins
Road Shows Vol. 1

Who else could throw together an album of seven concert shots spanning 27 years, with five different drummers, and make it all sound of a piece—much less a tour de force? A MINUS

Vandermark 5
Beat Reader

Opening up feature space for cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm slows them down, drawing in Ken Vandermark’s clarinet for approximate ballads. Still, most of this is loud enough, and when they crank it up, what you notice even more than Dave Rempis’s lead sax lines is how strong and agile Vandermark has gotten on baritone. A composer’s group with improvisers’ skills, they haven’t dropped a merely good record since 2000’s Burn the Incline. A MINUS

Honorable Mentions

Steve Reid Ensemble

Itinerant drummer, with Kieran Hebden’s laptop in tow, meets up with Senegalese pros for a slick little groovefest.

Maceo Parker
Roots & Grooves
Heads Up

The WDR Big Band Cologne goes to heaven, backing the man with the keys on one disc of Ray Charles, and another of James Brown.

Art Pepper
Unreleased Art, Vol. III: The Croydon Concert, May 14, 1981
Widow’s Taste

A hot set with a “favorite group” he rarely recorded with—remarkable as usual.

Peter Brötzmann/Peeter Uuskyla
Born Broke

Two discs, no bassist, less terror, more soul, vibrant as ever, aging with some grace, some bitterness.

Bobby Previte & the New Bump
Set the Alarm for Monday

Slick rhythm, with drums and vibes leaping over one another, but Ellery Eskelin and Steven Bernstein cut the grease.

Houston Person/Ron Carter
Just Between Friends
High Note

Pitching woo, directed more at old chestnuts than each other.

Jon Larsen
The Jimmy Carl Black Story
Zonic Entertainment/Hot Club

Grandmother of invention tells tall tales over chintzy avant-lounge.

Marcin Wasilewski Trio

A near-perfect quiet storm of ECM piano, with every little detail carefully locked into place.

ZMF Trio
Circle the Path
Drip Audio

Avant violin; a Revolutionary Ensemble for liberal Vancouver.

Territory Band-6 With Fred Anderson
Okka Disk

Ken Vandermark’s territory band makes more sense centered on Anderson, who breathes soul into the transatlantic avant’s peculiar blues.

Louie Bellson & Clark Terry
Louie & Clark Expedition 2
Percussion Power

A bang-up big band whose octogenarian leaders are still swinging like they did for Ellington.

Willie Nelson/Wynton Marsalis
Two Men With the Blues
Blue Note

Neither man feels the blues, but call out a song and chances are they can wing it.

Esmée Olthuis/Albert Van Veenendaal
The Mystery of Guests
Evil Rabbit

Guests like drummer Han Bennink and guitarist Corrie van Binsbergen flesh out a sax-piano duo with plenty of rough edges and unfinished ideas.

Mort Weiss/Ron Eschete
All Too Soon
SMS Jazz

Clarinet-guitar duets—a late bloomer from the bebop generation alongside a young 7-stringer who can swing.

The James Moody and Hank Jones Quartet
Our Delight

Bebop upstarts, octogenarians now, relishing Gillespie and Dameron.

The Peter Brötzmann Octet
The Complete Machine Gun Sessions (1968)

The original fount of saxophonic terror, a certified classic, and still farther out than you really want to go.


Rob Mosher’s Storytime
The Tortoise
Old Mill

More proof that jazz is the semipop classical of the 21st century. B MINUS

Lindha Kallerdahl

Near-solo voice; shows that the avant-garde can still find new ways to annoy. C PLUS

Kate McGarry
If Less Is More . . . Nothing Is Everything

Stupid pet tricks, without the cute factor. C


Sonny Rollins Rules the Third Annual Voice Jazz Critics Poll

Believe it or not, Albert Goldman once had a good idea. Uninterested in rock except as a form of cultural pathology, the author of demeaning biographies of Elvis Presley and John Lennon was a lifelong jazz buff who despised his subjects for stealing glory from master craftsmen like Elvin Jones and Zoot Sims. Jazz was flatlining commercially post–Sgt. Pepper’s, and Goldman thought he knew how to shock it back to life. Inasmuch as the essence of jazz was improvisation—laying everything on the line in the heat of the moment—why not capitalize on that? Forget studio recording altogether, and instead of issuing live albums to commemorate specific engagements, trail a chosen musician from gig to gig, all the while releasing the best stuff at regular intervals on LPs that would have the eavesdrop appeal of that era’s Dylan and Stones bootlegs.

I could offer a strong counterargument in favor of studio recording, but this isn’t the time. Independent of Goldman or anybody else (except maybe an audiophile and virtual doppelgänger named Carl Smith, who made available his stash of clandestine concert tapes), Sonny Rollins this year seized on a similar idea to overcome his well-known wariness toward recording, studio or otherwise. But leave it to Rollins to take his sweet time culling. The never-before-issued performances on Road Shows, Vol. 1—voted Record of the Year in the third annual Village Voice Jazz Critics Poll, and my top choice as well—span 27 years, not to mention the globe, ranging from a pair of 1980 performances in Europe and Scandinavia to the spartan trio version of “Some Enchanted Evening” with drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Christian McBride that had me walking on air at Carnegie Hall in September 2007.

Road Shows isn’t perfection. The audio quality varies from location to location, and the accompaniment is rarely up to the level of that provided by Haynes and McBride on the lone performance from Carnegie to make the cut. But just be grateful. Rollins is on fire throughout, and although the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune is as magnificent as I remembered, here it’s merely the obligatory encore—the track I keep returning to is “Best Wishes,” the blistering opener from Tokyo in 1986, with Rollins racing a riff through a labyrinth for chorus after chorus. For close to four decades now, since he returned from his third and final sabbatical in 1972, we’ve judged each new Rollins release wanting, not just compared to his ’50s and ’60s albums, but also measured against what experience tells us he’s capable of live on any given night. Yet more often than not, we also come away from his concerts disappointed, haunted by the memory—or maybe just the inherited memory, but one way or the other, the expectation—of an even better night. Rollins is notorious for holding himself to an even more impossible standard, and Road Shows is his dream of the best of all possible nights—and our dream now, too.

Road Shows outpolled alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Kinsmen, the surprise runner-up, 208.5 to 118.5 (those nagging half-points residue from a handful of ballots listing 10 choices alphabetically, rather than in order of preference), and the margin might have been even wider if not for a philosophical disagreement. A little bit of backstory is necessary here: In 2005, the average age of the top three finishers in JazzTimes magazine’s annual year-end poll—Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and John Coltrane—was deceased. Downbeat, fearful that the winners’ circle in its mid-year poll the following summer also figured to read like an R.I.P. list—sending a message to potential subscribers that jazz itself was dead—changed its rules to divert votes for previously unissued vintage material into the reissue category, which it renamed “Reissue/Historical.” JazzTimes did likewise the following year.

I see the logic, but unlike “reissue,” which can be defined precisely, “historical” leaves an awful lot of wiggle room—and, in any case, what sense does it make to treat as a relic an album by a living artist featuring two performances from just last year? Nevertheless, I gather this is how JazzTimes is categorizing Road Shows, and several critics who vote in both polls wanted to play by that publication’s rules. My greatest concern in disallowing votes for it as a reissue—besides the fact that it plain isn’t—was to prevent the absurdity of it or any other album finishing in the top tier of both categories, but first in neither. In protest, several voters left it off their ballots altogether.

Did I sense in all of this a desire to kick Rollins upstairs—a move to declare him unfair competition? A poll in which he bests the nearest competition almost two to one, even with a handicap, suggests he might be. But in the months leading up to this year’s presidential election, how often did we hear that an opinion poll is merely a snapshot of prevailing sentiment at any given moment? A poll such as this one doesn’t so much predict what lies ahead for jazz as it reflects what critical consensus happens to be right now. Sonny Rollins’s greatness is about all that we agree on; if the rest of the figures confirm an absolute lack of consensus regarding anyone else, so be it.


That said, just below Rollins in the standings lies evidence of a remarkable—or perhaps just inevitable—trend. The top 12 includes five musicians—Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer (#4), Donny McCaslin (#8), Guillermo Klein (#10), and Lionel Loueke (#12)—who recorded their first albums as leaders and/or only began to gain recognition in this decade. But that shouldn’t be all that leaps out at you. Remember the old joke about the square asking the bandleader how many musicians there were in the quartet? The new joke could be asking how many African-Americans and how many white guys are in the quartet. The trick answer would be one of each. Iyer’s piano and synthesizer contribute greatly to Wadada Leo Smith’s Tabligh (#5), which, added to Mahanthappa’s Kinsmen and his own Tragicomic (featuring Mahanthappa as a sideman), gives American-born musicians of Indian descent three rungs in the top five. The top dozen also includes a French-Algerian pianist (Martial Solal, #11), a West African guitarist (Loueke), a black American Rastafarian (Smith), and an Argentine pianist and composer with a surname that could be either German or Jewish (Klein). I know, I know: Sometimes, diversity is what you wind up with when you aim for multiculturalism and fall short. But the music that these people and others are creating isn’t just the same old bebop with a dialect. Or even the same old free jazz.

In headlining 2007’s poll “The Year of the Woman” in honor of the winner, Maria Schneider, and other female instrumentalists who finished among the runners-up, I was also playing off the widespread assumption that Hillary Clinton was no worse than even money to be elected our first female president. As it turned out, history had something even better in store for us. A television image from this year that sticks in my mind is of Bruce Springsteen singing “This Land Is Your Land” on a podium with Obama at a rally in Ohio a few days before the election. Seeing black and white together on the campaign trail was no more unusual than seeing them together at a wedding or bar mitzvah—but for once, the white guy was the one there as the entertainment. There’s America 2008 in a snapshot for you. In its modest way, this poll is another.

For what it’s worth, this year’s highest finish for a female instrumentalist was #21, for guitarist Mary Halvorson’s Dragon’s Head. But 2007 didn’t necessarily guarantee that women other than singers would place high year after year, just that it will no longer come as a surprise whenever they do. And for those keeping count, including singers, there are eight women in this year’s top 50, the same number as last year.

In other results, the vote for Best Reissue went overwhelmingly to Anthony Braxton’s eight-CD The Complete Arista Recordings, an invaluable look back at a germinative period in the 1970s not just for the alto saxophonist, but for much of what followed under the banner of the jazz avant-garde. (This actually appeared on more ballots than any new release; Tom Hull provides more analysis elsewhere in this issue.) The vocal winner was Cassandra Wilson for Loverly—also #6 in the general standings and her best album ever for my money, although my vote went to Sentimental Streak by Catherine Russell, a veteran former backup singer who swings as if to the manner born (as well the daughter of Luis Russell should). The ageless pianist Bebo Valdés won Latin for Live at the Village Vanguard, featuring his touch-sensitive duets with bassist Javier Colina. Tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger’s Dry Bridge Road was voted Best Debut, and would have snared my vote if not for Ideal Bread’s The Ideal Bread—a New York–based quartet utilizing Steve Lacy tunes as a springboard for free improvisation, much the way Lacy once did with Monk.

Here’s my ballot, with the album’s overall poll standing in parenthesis.

Sonny Rollins, Road Shows, Vol. 1 (Doxy/Emarcy). If nothing else, admire the self-confidence of a 78-year-old man daring to juxtapose current performances with ones from when he was merely 50. (#1)

Fieldwork, Door (Pi). Iyer again, with drummer Tyshawn Sorey and altoist Steve Lehman playing Sunny Murray and Jimmy Lyons to his Cecil Taylor. (#77)

Tony Malaby, Warblepeck (Songlines). The tenor saxophonist’s combustible chamber trio with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and drummer John Hollenbeck. (Unranked)

Rudresh Mahanthappa, Kinsmen (Pi). A breakthrough for the leader, as well as an Indo-jazz fusion with something personal at stake for a change. (#2)


Bill Dixon, 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur (AUM Fidelity). Spidery trumpet amid massive blocks of sound. And won’t somebody please reissue his 1966 Intents and Purposes and his ’62 quartet LP with Archie Shepp? (#29)

Microscopic Septet, Lobster Leaps In (Cuneiform). “Money, Money, Money” has been bouncing around my brain since hearing them introduce it at a dump across Cooper Square from the Voice 20 years ago, and now that they’ve reunited to record it and other gems they never got around to the first time. I swear it’s never going away. (#55)

Mary Halvorson, Dragon’s Head (Firehouse 12). Lyrical barbed wire. (#21)

Paul Bley, About Time (Justin Time). And about ritardondos and arpeggios as well. A masterful, extended, free-piano improvisation that flirts with “All the Things You Are,” followed by an encore that does shamefully more than flirt with a certain Sonny Rollins waltz. (Unranked)

Charlie Haden, Rambling Boy (Decca). Hillbilly and proud of it. An Ornette Coleman cameo would have completed the circle nicely, but even then, I bet I’d still be raving about Bruce Hornsby’s vocal on “20/20 Vision,” to say nothing of Haden’s opening bass solo, with its allusions to the same bluegrass favorites he quoted on Coleman’s “Ramblin’ ” nigh on 50 years ago. (Unranked)

Nicholas Payton, Into the Blue (Nonesuch). The kind of album Art Farmer used to make, defined by a subtle trumpet virtuosity that calls attention to the material at the expense of itself. (#62)

Honorable mention: Ben Allison, Little Things Run the World (Palmetto); Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra, We Are MTO (Mowo); Theo Bleckmann & Fumio Yasuda, Berlin (Winter & Winter); Bill Frisell, History, Mystery (Nonesuch); Vijay Iyer, Tragicomic (Pi); Carmen Leggio, Carmen Leggio Quartet (Mighty Quinn); William Parker, Petit Oiseau (Aum Fidelity); Revolutionary Snake Ensemble, Forked Tongue (Cuneiform); Matana Roberts, The Chicago Project (Central Control); Martial Solal, Longitude (CamJazz).

Reissues: Art Tatum, Piano Starts Here: Live at the Shrine/The Zenph Re-Performance (Sony Classical); Anthony Braxton, The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton (Mosaic); Dizzy Gillespie, Showtime at the Spotlite: 52nd Street, New York City, June 1946 (Uptown).

Vocal: Catherine Russell, Sentimental Streak (World Village).

Latin: Bebo Valdés & Javier Colina, Live at the Village Vanguard (Calle 54 Norté).

Debut: Ideal Bread, The Ideal Bread(KMB).

I should add that I might never have heard my Best Debut choice had it not shown up on a number of early ballots, piquing my curiosity. Hopefully, this will encourage you to take a peek at the individual ballots yourselves—think of them as a critics’ grapevine—and they’re all available at A whopping 79 critics voted this year: David R. Adler, Clifford Allen, Larry Applebaum, Paul Blair, Larry Blumenfeld, Shaun Brady, Stuart Broomer, Thomas Conrad, John Corbett, Lawrence Cosentino, Francis Davis, Steve Dollar, Laurence Donohue-Greene, Ken Dryden, Steve Feeney, Sean Fitzell, Ken Franckling, Phil Freeman, David Fricke, Will Friedwald, Ted Gioia, Kurt Gottschalk, Steve Greenlee, Laurel Gross, James Hale, Ed Hazell, Don Heckman, Tad Hendrickson, Andrey Henkin, Geoffrey Himes, Eugene Holley, Lynn Horton, Tom Hull, Robert Iannapollo, Willard Jenkins, Martin Johnson, Mike Joyce, George Kanzler, Fred Kaplan, Larry Kart, Elzy Kolb, Art Lange, Suzanne Lorge, Kevin Lynch, John McDonough, Jim Macnie, Howard Mandel, Peter Margasak, Ken Micallef, Bill Milkowski, Dan Morgenstern, Russ Musto, Ivana Ng, Dan Ouellette, Ted Panken, Thierry Peremarti, Bob Porter, Doug Ramsey, Derk Richardson, Joel Roberts, Gene Seymour, Bill Shoemaker, Hank Shteamer, Slim, Michael Steinman, Jeff Stockton, W. Royal Stokes, Mark Stryker, Zan Stewart, John Szwed, Jeff Tamarkin, Neil Tesser, George Varga, Jason Weiss, Michael J. West, K. Leander Williams, Josef Woodard, Ron Wynn, and Scott Yanow.


Muscling Up and Rocking Out

Pick Hits

Wolfgang Muthspiel
Bright Side

This Austrian guitarist is hard to characterize. He avoids power chords and single-note bebop runs, and does without a funk lick or even a blues move. He gets a soft, metallic tone, sometimes tweaking it with effects. His early work suggested fusion, but lately he’s gravitated toward a kind of chamber music. He cites Bach’s lute works, Glenn Gould, and Bill Evans as influences–indeed, he plays more like a pianist than any guitarist I know. Solo offers a detailed exposé of his bag of tricks, but his small-group records are more immediately accessible–Friendly Travelers is an engaging dialogue with drummer Brian Blade. But richer harmonically is this record by his trio, with a pair of twins on bass and drums doing his bidding. A MINUS

Anders Nilsson’s Aorta

A second album, Janus, is more varied and virtuosic, with saxophonist Mattias Carlson much more prominent. But this debut stakes guitarist Nilsson’s conceptual claim to the mother of all arteries and its pulse of life. Bass and drums thrash as in dozens of Scandinavian post-punk fusion bands, only the fretwork here is something else–fond of power chords, but able to pick around them when he wants, with the sax adding menacing overtone to the flash and finesse. A MINUS

Club D’Elf
Now I Understand

As the name implies, this is less a group than a meeting place, with a website listing more than 100 conspirators beyond a core–bassist Mike Rivard, drummer Eric Kerr, and oudist Brahim Fribgane–that favors fast grooves and world fusion. Special guests abound, with keyb whiz John Medeski, avant-violist Mat Maneri, and turntablist DJ Logic the best-known. My faves are the kids on the reggae track “Just Kiddin'” and the rapper who sounds like Dr. Dooom. A MINUS

Satoko Fujii Four
When We Were There

The high point of her eight albums last year, mostly because the Mark Dresser–Jim Black rhythm section relishes her fusion groove as well as her predominant and wildly varied avant interests. Also because trumpet-playing husband Natsuki Tamura continues to mature as a steadying, lyrical accompanist. A MINUS

Gato Libre
No Man’s Land

Ten pieces, named for cities and months of a tour through Europe, with Spanish guitar by Kazuhiko Tsumura and Italian accordion by Satoko Fujii establishing a folkish milieu for leader Natsuki Tamura’s plaintive trumpet. Tamura has been working his colors into Fujii’s chaotic canvases all along; here, his impressionism flowers. A MINUS

Vijay Iyer + Mike Ladd
Still Life With Commentator
Savoy Jazz

We are living through an era of endless war and atrocity, but experience it as virtual, as sight and sound filtered through media, quarantined from experience, interpreted by commentators. Iyer’s programming is appropriately synthetic, chilling Ladd’s words, which flit through the ether, not making sense so much as suggesting profundity–an effect heightened when he translates some into Japanese, others into operatic Italian. A MINUS

Steve Lacy Quintet
Esteem [1975]

After 50 prolific years, the soprano sax legend’s posthumous career gets under way with widow Iréne A sorting through some 300 private cassettes for a series titled “The Leap.” The first installment is a raw and deliciously noisy quintet, with Steve Potts doubling the sax on alto and second soprano, plug-ugly bass and drums, and A herself. I never could stand her arch vocals, but there’s acid wit in the cello and violin. A MINUS

Joe Lovano & Hank Jones
Blue Note

Third time’s the charm, as they clear away the concepts and clutter–the ballad trough on I’m All for You, the all-star rhythm that made Joyous Encounter routine–and get down to business. Three tricky pieces by brother Thad are highlights, as is Lovano’s “Charlie Chan,” about a saxophonist Jones made sense of 60 years ago. A MINUS

Rudresh Mahanthappa

Where Mother Tongue looked to natural languages for transformation tricks, this one moves on to ciphers and encodings. More importantly, the leader’s post-bop alto sax has matured enough that he can no longer be pigeonholed as one of Coltrane’s minions. For once, Vijay Iyer’s piano doesn’t steal the show. A MINUS

Bob Reynolds
Can’t Wait for Perfect
Fresh Sound New Talent

This tenor sax debut reminds me of the young, fighting-weight Ben Webster, suggesting that Reynolds has a great ballad album in the distant future. Main difference is that he grew up on funk instead of swing. Less impressive are one cut on soprano and some synth programming, signs of the overheated times. A MINUS

Sound in Action Trio

Two drummers: Robert Barry from the Sun Ra Arkestra, and Tim Daisy from Triage and numerous Ken Vandermark projects, including the flagship 5. One horn, Vandermark’s, constantly on the spot. Half originals, all dedicated to drummers; half modern jazz pieces, with Dolphy offering a clarinet feature, and Coltrane setting up some ferocious tenor sax. A MINUS

David Torn

Rip Torn’s cousin played guitar on some fusion albums in the ’80s, working with such usual suspects as Bill Bruford and Tony Levin before moving on to soundtrack/production work and the group Splattercell. Here he employs Hard Cell–Berne’s trio, with keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Tom Rainey–for a dark, demonic comeback. Berne’s alto sax adds bite to Torn’s power chords, Taborn juices up the electronics, and the always-superb Rainey muscles up. A MINUS

Frank Wright
Unity [1974]

A saxophonist so far out he would have slipped by unrecorded were it not for ESP’s “only the artist decides” philosophy. But two 1965-67 albums registered his name, and occasionally a live tape surfaces, such as this one from the Moers Festival. It builds on a terrific rhythm section: Bobby Few’s crashing piano, Alan Silva’s volcanic bass, and on drums, Rashied Ali’s brother, appropriately named Muhammad. Wright always brought the noise, and in the end even rocks out. A MINUS


Turtle Island String Quartet
A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane

The title suite has lately lost its untouchable status, but nowhere else has it been so trivialized. Jimmy Garrison’s signature bass line barely registers on cello, and the violins can’t lead at all. With the last two movements reduced to 2:44 and 2:47, all they acknowledge is a lack of ideas. And the disc doesn’t let you off easy, slogging on to 64:17 with standard fare like “Naima” and “My Favorite Things”–no chance hoping for “Ascension” just to hear them croak.

Additional Consumer News


The Brian Lynch/Eddie Palmieri Project
Simpático [ArtistShare]
A steady stream of bubbly percussion, tasty alto sax, and bright trumpet.

Vittor Santos
Renewed Impressions [Adventure Music]
Trombone samba, the rapid-fire puffs muscling up sly rhythms and flighty melodies.

Carneyball Johnson
Carneyball Johnson [Akron Cracker]
Rubber City lounge lizards, hold the tango.

Anat Fort
A Long Story [ECM]
Slow, with a soft piano cushion for Perry Robinson’s jagged clarinet.

Gordon Grdina’s Box Cutter
Unlearn [Spool/Line]
Vancouver guitarist propels François Houle’s clarinets through a world-beat maze.

Joel Frahm
We Used to Dance [Anzic]
A tenor-sax lover’s album modeled on Stan Getz, with three-fourths of his late quartet.

Anat Cohen & the Anzic Orchestra
Noir [Anzic]
Israeli-Brazilian big band struts with some barbecue.

The Line Up [Clean Feed]
Short for Mark Helias, Gerry Hemingway, and Ray Anderson, a trio dating back to 1979, hard again.

Bob French
Marsalis Music Honors Bob French
[Marsalis Music/Rounder]
Even post-Katrina, what worked for Papa Celestin works for his heir.

Jerry Granelli/V16
The Sonic Temple: Monday and Tuesday
Twin-guitar group does eight-song set twice, first night more daring, second bluesier–just like life.

Satoko Fujii/Natsuki Tamura
In Krakow in November [Not Two]
Stripped down to piano-trumpet duets, where parry and joust waxes and wanes.

Uri Caine Ensemble
Plays Mozart [Winter & Winter]
Or plays with, like a cat with a rat.

Russell Malone
Live at Jazz Standard: Volume One
In a different venue, could be Smolderin’ at the Half Note.

Les DeMerle
Cookin’ at the Corner, Vol. 1 [Origin]
Small-time Louis Prima type–Bonnie Eisele is his Keely Smith, but he gets the best laugh with “Bennie’s From Heaven.”

Michael Brecker
Pilgrimage [Heads Up]
Impending death focuses the mind, thaws the heart, brings out the best in friends.

Carl Allen & Rodney Whitaker
Get Ready [Mack Avenue]
Motown rhythm guys keep the quiet storm loose and limber.


John Abercrombie
The Third Quartet [ECM]
Subtle and self-effacing, hiding behind Mark Feldman’s violin.

Vijay Iyer & Rudresh Mahanthappa
Raw Materials [Savoy Jazz]
Rough, unfinished, ill-fitting duets.

Wynton Marsalis
From the Plantation to the Penitentiary
[Blue Note]
As viewed from the penthouse.


Conceptual jazz that’s furious even when it’s inarticulate

The latest collaboration between pianist Vijay Iyer and performance artist Mike Ladd, following 1994’s In What Language?, suffers from a problem seemingly endemic to contemporary leftist critique. The project’s theme seems to be the ongoing erosion of the already fine line between information and propaganda, given the proliferation of blogs and partisan mass media. But Ladd’s verbal opacity works against him—you’re never quite sure what he’s getting at, just that he’s pissed off.

Iyer’s overloaded piano and synthesizer scores, a few crafted in tandem with guitarist
Liberty Ellman or vocalists Pamela Z and Pálína Jónsdóttir, work best when one detail rises above the others. It’s usually Iyer’s interlocking rhythms, but here and there it’s Pamela Z’s chilling bel canto on “Been There Done That” and “Cleaning Up the Mess,” or percussionist Guillermo E. Brown’s soulfully nerdy recitation and singing on shout-outs to Jon Stewart and Dan Rather. As for Ladd, I pretty much gave up on him as a thinker after hearing him say, during a Q&A
following a performance of In All Languages a few years ago, that cops were just custodians for the rich. No matter—his delivery is dexterous enough to hold your ear even when his logic is solipsistic or his point unclear. You couldn’t call what he does rap, exactly. But unlike Wynton Marsalis, he knows from flow.