Sunday, January 04, 2009

Best CDs of 2008

As was true last year, choosing the ten best CDs of 2008 was far more difficult than determining the best films. Anytime good musicians come together they will produce something interesting to hear, but a lot of Hollywood talent can collectively produce a truly unwatchable movie. Just about every CD reviewed here is great release, because I prefer to be evangelical when it comes to reviewing music. Again, this is a collective top ten, not ranked from 1 to 10, but in alpha order.

There are not a lot of kora players who are household names in America, but Ablaye Cissoko might prove to be the great popularizer of the instrument. With the burnished trumpet of Volker Goetze, he has recorded Sira, a beautiful duet session that has become a serious sleeper hit for the label.

Carla Bley’s Lost Chords CD from 2007 just missed last year’s ten best list. That is not the case with this year’s Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid. Bley is one of the best arrangers and composers writing for big bands and large ensembles, and she totally delivers the goods on the hard-swing Appearing.

It is not like I haven’t heard Chick Corea standards like “La Fiesta” and “Senor Mouse” before. In fact, I have heard them previously recorded by Corea and vibraphonist Gary Burton, but it is still a genuine pleasure to hear to the highly attuned musical rapport of two old pros on the live two-disk set New Crystal Silence.

One of the most assured debuts of the year came from Norwegian trumpeter Mathias Eick, who composed all the tracks on The Door, which often suggests dualistic rhetoric: spacious but rhythmic, lyric yet forceful, Nordic cool that swings.

It is a crime that it took so long for Shirley Horn’s 1994 Monterey Jazz Festival set to be released on CD. Her performance was a total show-stopper, including the definitive rendition of Bachrach’s hoary old “The Look of Love.”

Sonny Rollins is the dean of living jazz artists. He also has a reputation for being more comfortable in live settings than in the studio, so a release of some of best performances from his archive of concert tapes seems like a no-brainer. Indeed, Road Show Vol. 1 does not disappoint, capturing the tenor titan in seven stellar live performances.

Despite the common instrument, it would be a mistake to compare Steve Wiest’s Out of the New to the many bachelor pad pop song interpretations recorded by bop trombonist Kai Winding in the late 1960’s. In Wiest’s hands, unlikely fare, from the likes of Green Day and the Foo Fighters are radically reconstructed into legit small group jazz of a very high order.

A warm and expressive vocalist, Norma Winstone’s Distances projects a deceptively sparse atmosphere, from which many gorgeous musical moments unfold. It is an elegant and intriguing session that stays in your head long after listening.

Eri Yamamato could probably have two disks in this year’s top ten, but being naturally modest, I doubt she would want to monopolize the list. I chose Redwoods over the musical duets of Duologues because the trio format just seems to be the perfect vehicle for her ever inventive and thoroughly entertaining music. I also always enjoy the playing of her longtime collaborator, drummer Ikuo Takeuchi.

Synthesizing his many international influences, Alon Yavnai’s Travel Notes features his richly textured compositions. Strongly rhythmic, but also thoughtful and calming, it has a distinctive sound that rewards repeated listening.

2008 was another dreadful year for the music industry, but it was a great year for music, if you knew where to look. This year, make a resolution to support your local jazz artists by going to shows and buying CDs directly from them. Here’s to more great music in 2009.

Redwoods cover art by Leo Yamamoto.