My Top Ten Bucket-List Jazz Albums

November 15, 2014 2 comments

A few weeks ago a former professor of mine shared an article on Facebook from the Village Voice that listed the Ten Jazz Albums to Hear Before You Die. Usually it seems like the “ten whatevers you need to do/visit/read/listen before you die” lists are things that people probably haven’t done, are not likely to do, or heard of, or whatever – you know, visit the Taj Mahal, see some epic-ly awesome cave, skydive, things out of the ordinary. But I was kind of disappointed by this list. Not because the albums aren’t good – they are all great. The thing is, it was about as predictable as could be. Chances are tons of people have already heard these albums, or part of them, without even knowing it – whether in a coffee shop, commercial, movie, and hell, I remember as a kid seeing some pairs figure skaters in the Olympics (’88 Calgary games, I believe) doing their thing to “Take Five” (which was probably the first time I heard Paul Desmond, who would become my favorite saxophonist). And except for Ornette – and maybe Bitches Brew – there’s nothing that will challenge the listener. And there’s nothing past 1973 when Headhunters came out.

So, this got me thinking, what would I put on my list? So I started putting one together. At first I wasn’t going to limit myself to any particular time period. But then I thought it would be neat to do a list that only included albums recorded during my lifetime (since 1980, for the curious). What follows is not what I think are the best albums, or the most important, or whatever. They are just ten albums that I think are really good, offer something new and potentially challenging to the listener, that one probably wouldn’t encounter in everyday life, and represent the diversity of approaches that have flourished in the last 30+ years. I’m sure people will say this list is pretty whack, or too obscure, or whatever, but it’s my list. Put them on your bucket list.

There’s a ton more albums I could have put on here, but here goes, in no particular order (with YouTube clips where I could find them):

Liam Sillery, Phenomenology (OA2) – Out of the maybe 70-80 albums I reviewed for Downbeat, this is the only one I gave a 5 star, or “masterpiece,” rating. This album is a kind of update of those great mid- to late- 60s outward leaning albums on Blue Note from folks such as Andrew Hill, Eric Dolphy, and Jackie McLean. But the great thing is, it doesn’t sound like any of them. It is its own unique artistic statement. You can find my review in the October 2010 issue of Downbeat.

Paul Motian/Joe Lovano/Bill Frisell, I Have the Room Above Her (ECM) – This is the first album I heard by this trio, which was one of the great working groups of the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s. This is collective, ego-less music making at its finest, and an absolutely gorgeous and perfect album.

Cuong Vu, Vu-tet (Artist Share) – Make no mistakes, Cuong Vu will rock your shit. This was maybe the fourth or fifth CD I ever reviewed that was published. In this case, in the small Seattle-based Earshot Jazz. I remember going back and forth with my very patient editor on this one, as I had trouble capturing just how fresh, surprising, and affectively charged this music is. Vu is one of the most underrated players and composers today. Check my review of his latest project.

David Murray Octet, Ming (Black Saint) – All of Murray’s octets from the early ’80s are outstanding, and I could have listed any of them here, but I’m partial to Ming. What I love about Murray’s writing is how he updates swing and bebop writing, gives it a twist, and adds a healthy dose of free jazz abandon. And his band (Henry Threadgill, Olu Dara, Lawrence Morris, George Lewis, Anthony Davis, Wilber Morris, Steve McCall) can’t be topped.

Vijay Iyer, Historicity (ACT) - Along with bassist Stephen Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, Iyer is making some of the baddest, heaviest, and most innovative piano trio music today. Along with originals, his trio covers everything from Julius Hemphill and Henry Threadgill, to standards, to Michael Jackson and MIA. Just check out what the group does here to Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere.” Their playing with multiple meters is completely captivating and almost unbelievable.

John Zorn, Naked City (Elektra/Nonesuch) – There is perhaps no better definition of post-modern pastiche than Zorn’s Naked City group. It’s all here: surf, metal, pop, bebop, younameit. With Zorn, Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz, Fred Frith, and Joey Baron. Get ready to get freaked out.

Branford Marsalis Trio, Bloomington (Columbia) – As I’ve written on this site many times, the tenor/bass/drums format is probably my favorite instrumentation group. Bloomington, a live recording from 1991 at  Indiana University, is right up there with any of Rollins’ classic trio albums. Robert Hurst and Robert “Tain” Watts have gotta be one of the best bass/drum tandems of recent decades. This is a burner from start to finish, and their performances of “Everything Happens to Me” and Monk’s “Friday the 13th” are perhaps my favorite recordings of those tunes. As good as post-bop gets.

Maria Schneider, Sky Blue (Artist Share) - When I pop in a new disc by a large ensemble, no matter who it is, it quite often bears an  audible stamp of Schneider’s writing. It seemed that for a couple years just about every advance copy of a big band album I was getting sounded a lot like Schneider – that’s how important she is. Sky Blue is an impressive work. As a friend of mine once told me (I can’t remember exactly who it was), her group is basically a wind ensemble with a rhythm section. I couldn’t have said it better -the range of colors and textures she is able to coax out of a pretty standard big band lineup (and it doesn’t hurt that her band is made up of many of today’s top players) is pretty astounding. I’d post a video, but most of them out there are of college bands playing her music. I’m looking forward to her new album, which should be out in the spring of 2015.

Steve Coleman, Drop Kick (BMG) – No matter how dense and complex Coleman’s music gets, the funk is always there, and 1992′s Drop Kick is one of his funkiest.  Reggie Washington and Me’shell Ndegeocello (who plays on the title track below) share the electric bass duties and keep the funk grounded and the booty shaking. Some, such as my S.O., can’t handle the slightly dated sounding synths, but I don’t care. This one is banging.

Anthony Braxton, (Victoriaville) 1992 (Victo) – I just about felt compelled to include a Braxton album in this list, but given that there’s hundreds, it’s pretty hard to pick one. So I’m going with one of this quartet album recorded live at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville. This features one of his longer standing groups, with Marilyn Crispell on piano, Mark Dresser on bass, and Gerry Hemingway on drums and percussion. The first four cuts are Braxton originals, and the final track, which is below, is a cover of “Impressions.” It’s my least favorite cut on the album, but it’s a pretty good example of Braxton et al’s more “straight-ahead” playing, well, as straight-ahead as Braxton gets.

Expose Yourself to Johnny Janot….Or Not

November 12, 2014 Leave a comment

It’s been quite a while since I dropped a Wacky LP of the Day on you all, but as soon as I remember I owned the following, I felt like I had to share. Dig this little beauty…..


I bought this amazingly awful record as soon as I saw the amazing cover. It didn’t hurt that it was like $2. And the back cover…


Pretty basic, but then I began to wonder what was going on over on the right hand side:

(But first, look at those amazing titles: “We Need a Cajun President” or “Cajuns Are Tough”)


Without having put the record on I thought maybe Joyce was in the band, and maybe John-boy was a child picture of Janot.  Wrong and wrong.


They’re his family, which is nice. I’m just not sure I’ve seen anybody put their family on the back of their record before. I also dug the John-boy and Johnette combo. Reminds one of George Foreman naming all his kids some variation of George.

And the best part for me: “I miss my dog Barney, at times.” I’m not knocking any man who thanks his dog – I thanked mine in the acknowledgments in my dissertation. What’s the best is that he misses Barney “at times.”

Now, the music: it’s awful. It’s more country with some Cajun seasoning thrown in. Pretty much the celebrating the hard working, blue collar, God fearing, family man variety of country made popular by Merle and Waylon and those cats. But wow, it’s terrible. I enjoy this record for it’s fabulous cover art and title, the family photos, the shout out to the dog, and the unabashed expression of everything that is important to this man. It’s just too bad it’s not good to listen to.

Categories: Wacky LP of the Day

Enough with the Sex/Sax Puns and More!

In the Fall 2014 issue of Jazziz I came across this piece on saxophonist Mindi Abair:


“Sax Education.” Ugh, as a saxophonist I’ve been hearing the sex/sax pun since I was about 10 years old. And let me tell you, it never gets old. Wait, that’s not true, it got old about 10th grade. Unless you are a 12 year old boy this is not funny. And it’s not clever – far from it in fact. Pretty lazy and unimaginative stuff indeed. Musicians and their audiences deserve better than this.

And then there’s the picture. I’m not going to dwell on this too much because I hit the topic of the sexualization of female jazz musicians somewhat regularly. But, please allow a quick take. I can imagine the photo shoot went something like this: “Now Mindi, we think it would be great if you stripped down to what you wear to bed. . . . Ok, great. Now see those stacks of records in the floor? Go lie down, rest your head on one of them, and look longingly into some record. It doesn’t matter which one. Awesome, love it, perfect.”

First, I don’t know anybody who cares about their records who would have them thrown around all over the floor. It’s hard to see in my photo, but there are 45s and LPs out of their sleeves, lying on the floor or mixed in one of the stacks, overlapping each other. They are just begging to get scratched. There better not have been any good records in there. (The only one I can identify is Cannonball’s Live in New York, which is burning, btw.) And anybody who has seen High Fidelity will know that you don’t stack your records, unless you want to warp them. What crap.

Second, it looks like Abair is in her underwear. And with the lights down low it’s as if the photographer is inviting the reader into her bedroom. That’s all.

It seems as if some of the editors and/or writers of Jazziz have the maturity of a middle school boy, think their readers do, or both, which is unfortunate. Now, please don’t take my comments to mean I dismiss everything in the magazine. And even though I’m not the magazine’s target audience (my taste rarely lines up with the music they cover), there is quality writing by some of the best jazz journalists around – Shaun Brady immediately comes to mind. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t the occasional troubling or annoying moments.

I will now leave you with a picture of the headline of short piece on Sergio Mendes from the same issue, which I think drives home some of my points. Really?


Get Hip! Fast: Astell&Kern Blue Note 75th Anniversary Package

Among the many different products celebrating Blue Note’s 75th Anniversary (or perhaps capitalizing upon is a better way to put it) is the Astell & Kern Blue Note 75th Anniversary Package.  When I got the press release I was curious, so I clicked on the link and here’s what the package includes:

-75 Blue Note albums, remastered in a hi-res digital format, preloaded onto the company’s AK240 digital player
-hardbound book with all the original album art
-a new book on Blue Note by Richard Havers
-a copy of each album on an SD card (does anybody still use those?) in a case with original album art. Bonus: it comes with a fancy tower where the cases can be spun around to make various architectural shapes, that can “be placed next to your home system for an elegant, luxurious display.”
The 75 albums are pretty much what one would expect: Monk, Silver, Sonny, Trane, Blakey, Mobley, Hancock, Dexter, Hubbard, etc etc. There’s even a couple of the more experimental-leaning albums from Blue Note’s catalog: Jackie McLean’s Destination Out, Grachan Moncur III’s Evolution, Dolphy’s Out to Lunch!, and Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures and Conquistador!.

I was particularly interested to see what post-1969 albums were included. Here’s the list: Donald Byrd’s Black Byrd, Marlena Shaw’s Who is this Bitch, Anyway?, Cassandra Wilson’s New Moon Daughter, Norah Jones’ Come Away with Me, and Gregory Porter’s Liquid Spirit. Except for Byrd, it’s all vocalists. Where are any of the label’s fantastic instrumental albums of the last 30+ years? Just in the last couple year’s there’s been some great ones, such as Shorter’s Without a Net and Ambrose Akinmusire’s The Imagined Savior is far Easier to Paint. Not to mention excellent albums by Joe Lovano and Andrew Hill.

And this tells you all you need to know about who Astell&Kern is marketing this to: upper-class people for whom the classic Blue Note catalog signifies sophisticated taste, but who probably only own a couple of them.  The Wilson, Jones and Porter albums are probably the safest – and have the most crossover appeal – of the 75 albums on the list. This is for the stereotypical NPR crowd who doesn’t know much about jazz but who think that it’s important for them to. Blue Note has tons of cultural cache, so here’s one way for those with plenty of disposable income (that there is no price listed indicates that this set costs a whole bunch) to get hip.

This is pure and simple conspicuous consumption (don’t forget to make sure that luxurious and elegant tower of SD cards with original artwork is prominently displayed next to the McIntosh speakers for dinner parties). Forget about going out and discovering new music, being surprised by it, taking a risk and buying something based on a trusted friend’s recommendation (Grant Green’s Idle Moments was one of the best albums recommended to me), or beginning on a trail of exploration that leads to unexpected places (How did Song for My Father take me to The Sidewinder, then to Mode For Joe, before ending at Black Fire?) – don’t worry about the fun part of collecting and listening to music: Astell&Kern are offering up the chance to not only show the Joneses how unhip they are, but to buy great taste in one limited edition package. I can’t think of a more soul sucking way to enjoy all this great music.

Jacob Young’s Multiple Sides and the Danger of Pigeonholing

September 10, 2014 Leave a comment

There aren’t too many professional musicians I know who can only do one thing. In fact there might not be any. To make it playing music one has to be able to take a bunch of gigs which requires playing in a bunch of styles – weddings, swing dances, funk bands, latin, messed up country, whatever.  So why is it that when I heard a new album featuring Norwegian-American guitarist Jacob Young I was surprised?

The only times I’ve heard Young was on his albums with ECM. Regardless of where one might stand on the existence of the ECM sound, one has a pretty good idea as to the universe the label’s albums occupy. For example, his new album on ECM that’s a few months old–entitled Forever Young and featuring saxophonist Trygve Seim, pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz, and drummer Michal Miskiewicz– ended up having the mood and vibe I expected. Not that the album was predictable by any means, but that the lineup pretty much told me what I could expect to hear: pretty melodies, an understated yet tight rhythm section, and relaxed and tuneful saxophone and guitar work. And Forever Young more or less matched up with what I thought I’d hear conceptually. It’s a gorgeous and eminently enjoyable album that’s perfect to curl up with.

So it was a bit of a shock when I popped Interstatic’s new album Arise into my player. I didn’t read the one sheet beforehand, and the cover doesn’t list the personnel. As soon as I read who was in the band I was surprised, almost to the point of “This can’t be the same Jacob Young.” But it was, and more than that, the group’s drummer is Jarle Vespestad, who has worked with pianist Tord Gustavsen, who has put out several gorgeous and austere albums on ECM. The trio is rounded out by Roy Powell on organ (he’s the guy behind the Mumpbeak progish album I just reviewed on this blog). Interstatic isn’t your prototypical B3 trio in the Jimmy Smith vein, as these guys get their rock on. On Forever Young, Young plays acoustic on a few tracks and when he picks up the electric it has a very clean sound. But on Arise – which is on Rare Noise Records – he nasties things up with large heaps of overdrive, wah wah and other distortion effects. It’s a whole other side to Jacob Young that I didn’t know existed, and why would I, all I knew of him prior to hearing Arise is the side that shows up on ECM.

I know that I shouldn’t have been surprised when I heard Arise, but I was, and still kind of am. As a musician who likes to play in different styles, and who has lots of friends who play professionally with tons of different bands, this shouldn’t be a shock. His presence on each album simultaneously does and does not make sense to me. If anything, my momentary cognitive dissonance serves as a healthy reminder that musicians are not just the sum of what you hear on your speakers. They are complex folks, with complex interests, who in order to get to where they are have more than likely had to learn several different approaches and musical languages. Any statement like “Oh, I know that musician’s stuff, s/he does x” – while easy to make, especially if all you have heard of a particular player is one style, ends up pigeonholing that musician and what s/he does. It’s a statement and a mindset that limits not only our own thinking, but the way in which we perceive and structure the world. It hems in musicians as well, just like genre names and boundaries.

I submit: “But she’s a jazz player, what is she doing, this doesn’t make sense?” In cases like this, the listener needs to come to the musician, not judge the musician based on preconceptions on what the musician should be or only does. I remember getting an album by Robert Hurst, and I was so confused because it didn’t meet my expectations of what a Robert Hurst album should sound like I almost dismissed the album. But I forced myself to figure out what he was doing, and I’m glad I did, because I ended up really enjoying the album and getting a lot out of it. I still hold on to that lesson.

I’m glad I discovered this other side to Jacob Young, and it has reminded me that I need to keep an open mind, remember that musicians do many things, and that if I can, I should try and remove all preconceptions of an artist or label or personnel lineup before hitting the start button. Doing so better serves the musician and my appreciation for them.

And now to give you a little taste of two of the sides of Jacob Young (noticed I didn’t say THE two sides, cause there’s probably a whole lot more to him than I will ever know):

For a sample of Forever Young, head to the website ECM put together for the album.

And now a video of Interstatic in action…..


The Genre Bending of Rare Noise Records

September 3, 2014 2 comments

The handful releases from Rare Noise records I’ve received in the last couple years has presented a problem for organizing my music collection: as I sort albums into loosely defined genres I can’t figure out where in the hell to put them. Most of Rare Noise’s output that I’ve heard contains a mix of so many influences and genres that it’s really doesn’t make much sense to file them under any genre. The catalog is full of combinations and takes on metal, prog, electronica, musique concrete, free jazz, straightahead jazz, new/contemporary music, and so on. To get out of trying to best organize them, I decided the best solution would be to put them together. And so they all reside together on the same shelf. While sure, I’ve got plenty of albums that defy genre that have found homes, but putting all the Rare Noise releases together makes them easier to find.

These albums’ resistance to classification, as manifested in my organizational conundrum, is pretty telling as to what Rare Noise produces. While I don’t care for everything the label puts out, there’s several albums I really dig, all of which bend, or flat out ignore, genre conventions.  Here’s the lowdown on a few of them I really enjoy.

That_The_Days_Go_53bfc0785c4cdThat the Days Go by and Never Come Again, by Indigo Mist, is an Ellington tribute unlike any I’ve heard. The group consists of trumpeter Cuong Vu, pianist Richard Karpen, bassist Luke Berman, frequent Vu collaborator drummer Ted Poor, and several folks on live electronics. Four of the ten cuts are from Duke’s book: Strayhorn’s “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” and “Lush Life,” and Ellington’s standards “Mood Indigo” and “In A Sentimental Mood.” The tracks all segue, so as to make one long suite, and they vary in instrumentation, texture, dynamics, and mood. It’s also not always clear when one song begins and the other ends, and when combined with the free flowing and organic way in which the music grows, the album takes the listener on a winding journey. Along the way one encounters Karpen’s thundering left hand piano booms and dissonant clusters, a lengthy drum solo from Poor that dances around the stereo field, brief outputs of random sine waves, a piece that straightforwardly touches on swing and bebop before going sideways, and Vu’s plaintive recitations of “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing” and “In A Sentimental Mood” wafting through the mist. That the Days Go by and Never Come Again is a gorgeous, far out, haunting, and evocative album. In a word: special.

2.-Plymouth_Cover_600600_72dpiOne of my favorite albums of 2014 so far is the self titled album from Plymouth. This is a heavy album that imposes its will. The quintet includes Jamie Saft on organs, echoplex and Rhodes, guitarists Joe Morris and Mary Halvorson, Chris Lightcap on electric bass, and drummer Gerald Cleaver. The three tracks on this beast are long – the “short” one (“Plimouth”) [sic] is thirteen minutes, the long one (“Standish”) almost thirty. Each cut follows roughly the same narrative arc: a relatively quiet and sparse beginning that is followed by a slow buildup in intensity, dynamics and polyphonic textures, and then concluding with a gradual decline.  The buildup is not constant, however, as the players weave in and out of each other, contributing a new chord, huge swath of sound, short-lived rhythmic gesture, or melody. The sonic pallet contains a little bit of everything: spacey ’70s fusion, driving hard rock, crunching distortion, huge organ chords, and angular and penetrating guitar lines. Don’t bother looking for catchy tunes or hummable melodies. There are no stars here, as no player stands above the rest – just a guitar flourish from Morris or Halvorson here, a keyboard or drum kit intervention there. Listening to Plymouth’s music is almost like being able to watch the entire lifespan of a glacier: seeing it form, watching it gorge its way through a mountain, witness subsequent fall into the sea, and then being left to consider its power and complexity.

spA second Saft-involved project is Slobber Pup, which released Black Aces in June 2013. Pretty much all you need to know about this album can be found in the title of the disc’s final track: “Taint of Satan.” Yup, Black Aces is Hard. Like Plymouth, this album also features Joe Morris. The quartet is rounded out by bassist Trevor Dunn-who was a member of The Melvins-and drummer Balazs Pandi, who played with Merzbow. [Morris and Pandi can be heard on the avant-garde free jazz album by tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman on Rare Noise entitled One.] Although Slobber Pup’s instrumentation is similar to Plymouth’s (only one guitar here instead of two) they’ve got a completely different sound. As opposed to Plymouth, there is a whole lot of space for soloists to stretch out. The members of Slobber Pup don’t take a whole lot of time to get started – they punch you in the teeth just about from the word go. Black Aces opens with the 27 minute long “Accuser,” and after a roughly two minute introduction in which Morris and Saft test the waters it’s on, as Morris unleashes some serious and lengthy shredding. In fact, the tune is basically one long vehicle for Morris, who navigates the changing grooves and textures by moving from long single note lines, to waves of distortion laden sustained or strummed chords. The last few minutes is a dark maelstrom of drums, organ chords, fuzzy guitar, and Dunn’s penetrating solo bass lines. Pandi is an absolute beast throughout the entire record; he is almost unbelievably active, and his drums thud with unwavering strength and authority. Check out the title track especially, which features some massive organ playing by Saft, to see what I mean. Pandi gives the music its drive and the group’s stomp on your neck swagger.  He is, like Slobber Pup as a whole, a force to be reckoned with.

mumpbeakProg fans would do well to check out the self titled album from 2013 by Mumpbeak. The group is led by keyboardist Roy Powell, and as is the case with many of Rare Noise’s releases, it includes contributions by heavy hitters from other prominent groups. King Crimson alum and bassist Tony Levin sits in on one cut, and King Crimson’s Pat Mastelotto holds the group’s drum chair. The album also features bassist and producer Bill Laswell.  Powell hitched a complex set of pedals to his Hohner Clavinet, teamed up with a few electric bassists, and proceeded to record seven tracks that are venues for him to explore his instrument’s sonic possibilities, get inside the spaces provided by the wide variety of grooves and tempos, and generally rock out.  As is the case with prog, mixed meter and tricky rhythms abound. The compositions aren’t based around tunes; rather, they are grounded by Mastelotto’s drum patterns, melodic ostinatos, and particular colors and moods. Most of the record features simultaneous bassists, and the ways Powell uses his clavinet’s effects to sound like a variety of guitars and keyboards makes it seem like there are multiple soloists, which gives the album a range of timbres, new sounds, and ideas to check out. Mumpbeak surely isn’t for everyone, but it’s an intriguing, dark, ominous, and stimulating take on prog and other forms of improvisation-heavy instrumental rock.



Pharoah Sanders’ Black Unity for Less than a Buck!

pharoah black unitySo after getting a few things for the S.O.’s birthday last week on Amazon I got sent a free $1 mp3 credit. When I get one I scour Amazon for digital albums that, because they only have one long track, are 99 cents. Not every album with one track is 99 cents, but many are. I’ve found a great Cecil Taylor album that way, and some other great things. This time I found Pharoah Sanders’ album Black Unity, which is a single, 37 minute long cut. Get it here.

Recorded in 1971, it features:
Pharoah Sanders – soprano and tenor saxophone, balafon
Carlos Garnett – tenor saxophone, flute
Marvin Peterson – trumpet, percussion
Joe Bonner – piano
Stanley Clarke, Cecil McBee – bass
Norman Connors, Billy Hart – drums
Lawrence Killian – congas, talking drum, balafon

As the personnel would suggest, it’s a rhythm heavy album that grooves like crazy. Combine that with impassioned and fiery blowing from the horn players and you’ve got the best 99 cents you will certainly spend this week.


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