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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.

Review: Paul Motian Old and New Masters ECM Box Set

conception vesselConception Vessel, the title of Paul Motian’s debut album for ECM, is perhaps the perfect term to describe the prolific drummer and composer.   From his earliest work in Bill Evans’ trio, it was clear he had a unique approach to drumming.  Motian also extended his unique aesthetic to his large body of tuneful, elegant and often deceptively complex compositions.  Motian, in short, was his own “concept vessel,” and an artist whose impact was, is, and will continue to be felt for generations.  ECM’s latest in its “Old and New Masters” series, released on April 23, 2013, is a box set that contains the six solo albums that Motian recorded for the label between 1972 and 1984.  The set gives the listener a large look into Motian’s compositional and drumming concepts and the chance to enjoy his excellent groups, which were comprised of many of the top jazz players of the last few decades.

I was luckily able to pick up a near mint LP copy of Conception Vessel at a local antique store for $4 a few months back.  With a variety of personnel configurations, the album exhibits a diversity of timbres, textures and moods.  Upon putting it on the felt I was, and continue to be, immediately struck with Sam Brown’s acoustic guitar work, which is the focal point for much of the album.  The album opens with “Georgian Bay,” a trio piece for Brown, bassist Charlie Haden and Motian, which features a lot of strumming and arpeggiating from Brown, in a pseudo-classical guitar manner.  The piece is more atmospheric and mood setting than it is something with a lot of forward motion.  “Ch’i Energie” is a short solo percussion piece, with Motian employing a full arsenal of his set, bells, shakers and cymbals.  “Rebica” is another trio piece with Brown – this time on electric, Haden and Motian.  The title track is a duo with Keith Jarrett and Motian, with Jarrett playing in a searching fashion over Motian’s trademark active out-of-time drumming.  “American Indian: Song of Sitting Bull” is another duet for Jarrett and Motian, with Jarrett on flute instead of piano.  The album closes with “Inspiration from a Vietnamese Lullaby,” a quartet comprised of Becky Friend on flute, Leroy Jenkins on violin, Haden and Motian.   The bassist and drummer stoke the fire behind Friend and Jenkins’ interweaving, contrapuntal and frenetic solos, which are one of the album’s highlights.

Of the six albums included in this set I am hearing the middle four (Tribute, Dance, Le Voyage, and Psalm) for the first time, which I find surprising given that I own about a dozen Motian solo albums, and perhaps a dozen or more on which he is a sideman.

Tribute, recorded in 1974, keeps Brown and Haden from Conception Vessel, and adds saxophonist Carlos Ward and guitarist Paul Metzke.  “Victoria” opens things up, and is reminiscent of the Brown/Haden/Motian cuts from Conception Vessel, that is until Ward’s full bodied alto enters, adding a more melodic voice to the group. (Ward also appears on the other quasi-ballad, “Sod House.”)  Things change significantly with the rocking quartet track “Tuesday Ends Saturday,” which features both guitarists.  Tribute contains the only non-Motian compositions on the six discs: Ornette’s “War Orphan” (another two guitar, bass, drums quartet) and Haden’s “Song for Che.”

Dance and Le Voyage, recorded in 1977 and 1979 respectively, are trio dates, both of which feature Charles Brackeen on soprano and tenor.  David Izenzon is the bassist on the former, while J.F. Jenny-Clark occupies that chair on the latter.  The music on both albums is sparse, atmospheric, and spacious.  It provides plenty of room for Brackeen to stretch out.  Brackeen’s soprano tone is a bit on the bright side, which may turn some listeners off, but his melodic inventiveness should appeal to everyone.  Both albums are more or less features for Brackeen, who over the course of both discs does just about everything: sing, wail, honk, or weave high register gossamer soprano lines.  While some of the music on Dance can be quiet and pretty, “Prelude” is straight up agitated and at times manic.  Furious arco work from Izenzon and forceful drumming under-gird Brackeen, whose wild tenor at times recalls Albert Ayler.  The oft-recorded title track, which has Brackeen on soprano, is in a similar vein.  Le Voyage’s title track closes that album, and it’s one of the highlights from both discs.  The bulk of the eleven minutes features Brackeen blowing over Jenny-Clark and Motian’s polyrhythmic support.  Where Motian is more active – especially on cymbals, Jenny-Clark picks his spots, interjecting short figures in between the spaces left by Motian and Brackeen.  The saxophonist isn’t always the sole focus on these albums, as Jenny-Clark and Motian have plenty of solo opportunities – Jenny-Clark’s arco solo to open “Cabala/Drum Music” is dark and brooding, while Motian is the featured soloist on the track.  Dance and Le Voyage are both excellent albums, standing apart from the numerous sax/bass/drums trio format albums and groups.

Psalm, a quintet date from 1981 featuring Joe Lovano and Billy Drewes on saxophone, Bill Frisell on guitar and Ed Schuller on bass, is another excellent offering, which showcases Motian’s ethereal and more frenetic sides.  The disc opens with the gorgeous title track, a peaceful work, which is laced with reverb laden washes from Frisell, long arco notes from Schuller, and Motian’s bells and chimes.  The next cut, “White Magic,” is somewhat of a surprise, in that a driving rock back beat is perhaps the last thing one would expect Motian to lay down.  Motian’s work is the foundation for raucous simultaneous saxophone solos and a slightly less aggressive Frisell, who adds some fuzz to his tone.  “Fantasm” is another more quiet work that features sparse soloing from Schuller and Frisell for the first two-thirds of the album.  The rest of the tune belongs to the saxophonists, whose careful work and interplay alternates between improvisation and composed lines.  Being a saxophonist and huge Lovano fan, I would have liked to have heard more solos from each saxophonist.  The saxophones do get plenty of room however on “Second Hand,” on which they play off each other.  Psalm is less about letting each soloist go off every tune, than it is about total group sound and cohesion.  Motian used Frisell’s guitar as Psalm’s sonic glue, and he is often front and center (“Etude” is a solo Frisell feature).  The album closes with “Yahllah,” another beautiful atmospheric piece.  I will return to Psalm again and again.

My favorite Motian led group is his seminal trio with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, and their ECM album I Have the Room Above Her is one of my “desert island” discs.  The trio’s excellent It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago, recorded in 1984, is the set’s final disc.  The group here, while in good form, doesn’t quite show the exceptionally high level of telepathic integration as they did later on, although this is understandable given this album was recorded early in the group’s existence  That being said, they were still tighter in 1984 than many groups ever become, and this is still a very good record.  The title track is perhaps one of Motian’s most tuneful and memorable compositions, and the trio’s performance of it is as good as anything they’ve done.  Like Psalm, this has plenty of quiet and introspective moments, such as the Frisell solo feature “Introduction.”  “India” is another highlight, with nicely understated solos from Lovano and Frisell.  Motian augments his kit with a variety of gongs and bells, to great effect.  Perhaps the only thing not to like on this album is Frisell’s synth sound, which sounds a little dated, but this is a minor quibble, as Frisell uses it sparingly.

Something that should not be overlooked with this box set is pianist Ethan Iverson’s substantial liner notes.  Whereas many reissue box sets skimp on liner notes (for example, I love the reissues that Black Saint/Soul Note are doing, but the omission of the original liner notes is a drawback), ECM included a near 50 page booklet.  The booklet contains each album’s original cover art, personnel and recording information, and over a dozen photographs.  Iverson’s excellent essay includes important background and contextual information on each album, as well as numerous quotes from ECM head Manfred Eischer and the musicians.  And is always the case with ECM albums, the sound quality and production value is excellent.

This set is essential for any Paul Motian fan who does not already own all of these albums, and is close to essential for any hard core jazz fan.  For the casual fan, or for someone who isn’t really familiar with Motian’s work, this set would be the perfect place to start, as it documents much of Motian’s best work as a band leader, performer and composer.  In addition, it is also a great showcase for several of his band mates – such as Brackeen and Brown  – who deserve more acknowledgement for their work.  This edition of ECM’s Old and New Masters Series is easily one of the best reissues thus far of 2013, and it’s release is great recognition of the importance and impact of one of jazz’s most creative and unique musicians.

Top 5 Albums Featuring Paul Motian

As many of you probably know, the master drummer, composer and bandleader Paul Motian passed away on November 22, at the age of 80.

(There are numerous obits out there you can find with a quick Google search – this one from The Guardian is pretty good)

Motian, who is my favorite drummer, possessed one of the most unique styles in jazz; so singular was his approach that his presence was always felt, even when performing as a sideman.  Motian, who was performing and recording at a high level up until his death, has left an indelible mark on jazz: had his output been limited to his time with Bill Evans he would still be a major influence.  Considering his work with Evans, Keith Jarrett, his long standing trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano, his huge body of compositions and the variety of recent projects with artists such Chris Potter, Jason Moran, Lenny Grenadier and others – one must conclude that Motian was one of the major forces in jazz for just under the last 50 years.  Or putting that another way: jazz has been around in the national consciousness for 11 decades.  Motian’s career spanned 6 decades.

Beyond this blog post, there’s little I can do to honor Motian – I did not know him, nor did I meet him (although seeing his group at the Village Vanguard in ’06 was THE highlight of my jazz life).  The best I can do to show my appreciation for the man and his music is offer my five favorite albums that feature Motian.  In no particular order…..

Conception Vessel – His first solo album, on ECM from 1972.  I just picked up a pristine LP copy at a local antique store for $4.  It’s perfect – a mix of solo percussion, duets and quartet.  Includes Jarrett.

I Have the Room Above Her – With Lovano and Frisell, on ECM from 2005.  This record was my first exposure to Motian as a leader.  I had heard the Evans trio discs, but I hadn’t heard anything like this album.  I was very familiar with Lovano and Frisell at the time, but it was a Downbeat review that led me to buy the record.  Perhaps one of my favorite recordings – in any genre.

Bill Evans: Portrait in Jazz – Classic.  If I remember right, the blurb from the original Downbeat review called this album “the truth.”  If the only song on the record was “Witchcraft” – that would be enough.  A perfect example of the innovations the group made to the piano trio format.

Keith Jarrett: Death and the Flower – all of the American Quartet’s albums are good, and their four albums are just about the only Keith Jarrett I still listen to regularly (I love Fort Yawuh as well).  The long title track, and the way it organically grows and evolves – completely natural and unforced.

Paul Motian Trio 2000 + 1: On Broadway 4: Or the Paradox of Continuity – This is the group I saw at the Vanguard – featuring Potter, Grenadier, vocalist Rebecca Martin (Grenadier’s wife), and pianist Masabumi Kikuchi (if you think Jarrett moans at the piano a lot, then you haven’t heard Kikuchi, who makes Jarrett sound silent).  Kikuchi and Martin split time as the “+1″ member of the trio.

Joe Lovano Us Five live from Village Vanguard Tonight

Hey everybody, NPR will have live streaming of a set by Joe Lovano’s killer group Us Five from the Vanguard tonight.  The link is here.  And if you miss it or forget, NPR will have it archived.  Probably tunes from the group’s new album, which twists up Bird’s famous compositions.  “Donna Lee” gets an especially modified treatment – hard to hear the tune in places.

Joe Lovano Cleans Up in Recent Critics Polls

Ok, after a month’s hiatus to move I’m back.  After coming up for air after packing and unpacking, I come to find out that Joe Lovano is a bad, bad man.  Of course I’ve known this for a while (although admittedly it took me quite a while before I got hip to him).  My first real exposure came via his trio with Paul Motian and Bill Frisell on their ECM album I Have the Room Above Her (can’t wait for their next record) and I’ve been blown away by his playing ever since. 

This summer Lovano, who I’m convinced can play anything with anybody at anytime, has garnred some serious praise from the jazz critic establishment.  Lovano won the awards for best tenor player, best small group band (Us Five), and record of the year for Folk Art in this year’s Jazz Journalist Association  awards, which were handed out in NYC on June 14.  A full list of the awards can be found here.

Lovano faired even better in this year’s Downbeat Critics Poll, which appears in the August issue.  He won jazz artist of the year convincingly over Sonny Rollins, narrowly beat out Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio for jazz group of the year, and edged out Rollins for tenor of the year (this was a two man race, with Chris Potter coming in a distant third).  Although Lovano’s Folk Art did not win album of the year it did come in second to the Vijay Iyer Trio’s latest album Historicity, which is just sick.  Surprisingly (at least to me because I voted for him) Lovano was nowhere to be found on the list of soprano winners.  As opposed to tenor players who happen to pick up the soprano from time to time (one thing I cannot stand on soprano is poor intonation and that spread honky-goose sound in the low end, come on folks, if you want to play soprano do what my man Branford did and take lessons, because there’s nothing worse than crappy soprano playing) Lovano has a distinct approach on the soprano and exhibits control of the horn that in my opinion most soprano players lack.  A great display of his soprano playing can be found on that live duo record he did with Hank Jones a few years back, which is maybe about the closest a jazz album can be to being perfect.

Just before I sat down to write this post I asked myself why I chose to focus on Lovano for this post.  Sure, he cleaned up, but so did plenty of other deserving folks like Vijay Iyer, Darcy James Argue and lots of others.  It then occured to me that while the jazz industry obviously recognizes Lovano, as do JazzTimes’ and Downbeats’ readers which is shown in their reader polls, most of the young (I’m talking high school and college age) saxophonists – or young jazz musicians of all instruments I know rarely say they are into Joe Lovano; some have never heard of him.  There is a huge contingent of Chris Potter disciples out there, and deservedly so, but for the most part Lovano isn’t somebody young players I know talk about as being someone they listen to, would like to emulate, or transcribe.  Maybe I just haven’t talked to the right ones.  Anyway, despite Lovano’s haul this summer, the “Titan Among Us,” as Dan Ouellette calls him, hasn’t been as influential in the next generation of kids I know as his stature in the jazz press would suggest.  I’m not sure why that is, although I’m sure there’s got to be some young kids who are diheard Lovano fans; I just haven’t met them yet.

Anyway, coming soon will be a quick run down of who I voted for in the Downbeat critics poll and how my votes stacked up to the other critics.  For the most part I wasn’t too out there, although there were a few picks that I’m sure caused the associate editor to wonder if I was high.

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