Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top Ten CDs of 2009

Every jazz musician who released a new CD in 2009 deserves hearty congratulations. The music business is getting even more challenging, especially for jazz artists, but their perseverance has enriched our lives and culture immeasurably. In that spirit, every new jazz release of 2009 not on this list should be considered an honorable mention. What follows is my personal—idiosyncratic even—list of the top ten new jazz CDs of the year, again in alpha order.

The blessedly prolific Carla Bley is a perennial candidate to make year-end top ten lists and this year is no exception. What was different was her choice of material: Carla's Christmas Carols. Yet her music remains as distinctive as ever and she gets major credit for fulfilling her ambitions to release a set of Christmas music, even at the risk of seeming unhip to modernist snobs.

Kurt Elling memorably paid tribute to the beloved Johnny Hartman-John Coltrane session with Dedicated to You. Featuring one of his best pseudo-spoken word tracks ever, it was unabashedly sentimental, in the right way.

A major talent as an improviser and composer, Hiromi Kasuga helped keep bop alive and vital with New York Callin.’ Featuring some of the leading players on the New York scene, Callin’ has a crisp freshness that really stood out from the pack.

How can you not root for a Grammy nominated student ensemble? The University of North Texas One O’Clock Lab Band’s Lab 2009 was more than a mere classroom assignment. It is a fully realized musical statement with two Grammy nominations to prove it: Best Large Jazz Ensemble and band director’s Steve Wiest’s “Ice-Nine” for Best Composition.

The cooperative trio of Mikkel Ploug, Sissel Vera Pettersen, and Joachim Badenhorst made worldess vocalizing cool again with Equilibrium. Employing unusual instrumentation, electronic distortion, and unearthly noises, Equilibrium is about as far from mood music as one can get. Yet their group conception and musical rapport is so cohesive, they draw listeners in with their surprisingly seductive sounds.

Classical-Jazz crossover ensembles are often well intentioned, but they have trouble with that elusive thing called swing. Not so with the Quartet San Francisco, who interpreted the compositions of Dave Brubeck, particularly his sacred music, with classical discipline and jazz verve on the aptly titled QSF Plays Brubeck.

Louis Sclavis has long been a musician who challenges popular preconceptions of the clarinet. He did so again with Lost on the Way, a thematically unified CD inspired by Homer’s Odyssey. Though darkly hued and somewhat rock influenced, it is a surprisingly intimate and melodically accessible statement from a restless musical spirit.

Though Andy Sheppard has often recorded as a leader in his own right, many listeners think of him primarily as a frequent sideman with Carla Bley’s ensembles. His latest release, Movements in Colour ought to set perceptions straight. Seamlessly integrating the tabla into a modern hard bop context, Sheppard’s Colour never sounds like a gimmicky “jazz meets raga” affair. Instead, it is a powerful set of some strikingly melodic originals.

Although the great British bari player John Surman has experimented with Middle Eastern musical forms and avant-garde explorations, his latest, Brewster’s Rooster, is about as jazz as jazz gets. Also, throwing an occasional change-up on soprano for a refreshing combination of sounds, it is a full-bodied, highly rewarding bop-oriented session.

Someday, the rest of the world will catch on to how remarkable Gianluigi Trovesi’s music truly is. Inspired by Italian banda and operetta music, the richly diverse All’Opera: Profumo di Violetta is highly structured, but it had an infectious swing.

There were dozens of other outstanding jazz CDs that were worthy of critics’ year-end top ten lists. Those I have chosen simply spoke to me in an indefinably subjective way more than others and I will continue to argue that they deserve reach more ears in the years to come. Have a Happy New Year and keep supporting the music.