It's only April, but it's already been a good year for a music that's seemingly been moribund since the early '70s. Last year ended with a minor bang, as was reported here, and in March, newcomers The Bad Plus became a household name overnight.
This shows no signs of ebbing. Old favorites like Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter and Ahmad Jamal have brought new offerings, as have younger, more irreverent musicians like Matt Wilson and Dave Douglas, to say nothing of a reissue box set to die for, the long out-of-print work of Grachan Moncur III. Is there a "Kind of Blue" in the bunch? Not quite, but 2003 is beginning to look like a vintage year. There's still more to come, with James Carter making his return in August and Greg Osby teaming with Nicholas Payton in June. For now, here are some of the recent and more-than-decent:
Matt Wilson: Humidity (Palmetto)
Concept: Drummer du jour Wilson and his quartet, like the famous Ornette Coleman group he seems to revere, has no piano--and it's thoroughly thrilling and liberating.
Sounds like: Freewheeling, edgy, completely likable.
And I should own it because ...? It may end up as the jazz record of the year.
Addendum: Has that unmistakable Midwestern sense of irony. And the kids love him.
Dave Douglas: Freak In (Bluebird/RCA)
Concept: One of the great eclectics of the day mines early-'70s Miles territory (and how influential have those records become?), but with his own techy spin.
Sounds like: Funked up, percussive, electronic.
And I should own it because ...? It's one of his best records to date--and he has a deep catalog. Track 4, as short as it is, is worth the price, a post-Paul Motian electro-bop number. And it features Joey Baron, downtown guitar god Marc Ribot, and "electronic percussionist" goddess Ikue Mori.
Addendum: He leads 10 different ensembles, including one devoted to Nobel Laureate Nagib Mafouz.
DJ Spooky with Mad Professor: Dubtometry (Thirsty Ear)
Concept: The latest thread of Matthew Shipp's Blue Series. Shipp is featured on this one, too.
Sounds like: Sly and Robbie (with the incomparable William Parker and Guillermo Brown), but tripped-up and hip-hopped.
And I should own it because ...? This one's a modern masterpiece, love Spooky or hate him.
Addendum: Lee "Scratch" Perry is on the record, too. Spooky is vocally antiwar at his shows.
Los Hombres Calientes: Vodou Dance Vol. 4
Concept: The New Orleans collective, led by Bill Summers and Irvin Mayfield, performs a baedeker of the African diaspora.
Sounds like: A world album, not same old same-old, same-old Crescent City revivalism. In this effort, they take us to Cuba, Haiti, Trinidad, Jamaica, Rio and Bahia and, of course, back to the Big Easy.
And I should own it because ...? The group is one of the smartest, and most fun, bands anywhere.
Addendum: Summers and Mayfield traveled to each place, without an itinerary, and recorded with local musicians as they went along.
The Ron Carter Octet: Eight Plus (Dreyfus)
Concept: August bassist, like Shorter, of Miles's Second Great Quintet (capped on purpose) adds a cello foursome to his quartet.
Sounds like: Heavy on string arrangements, with Carter's fingers working serious magic; same for Stephen Scott on piano.
And I should own it because ...? It's something different--and kind of fun. Carter is one of the only bassists with the gumption, and skill, to use the bass as a lead instrument. Even Mingus didn't do that.
Addendum: Carter has appeared in more than 2,000 recordings in his career.
Ahmad Jamal: In Search Of (Dreyfus)
Concept: The pianist (Miles once called him his favorite) who can do anything and everything, continues his renaissance.
Sounds like: Mercurial trio, sometimes straight-ahead, sometimes surreal.
And I should own it because ...? He's making his best recordings since "Live at Pershing Square."
Addendum: The spectacular (and underrated) Idris Muhammad is on drums and whacks up a tempestuous storm.
Grachan Moncur III (Mosaic)
Concept: A three-CD boxed-set reissue of one of the forgotten treasures of the great '60s Blue Note years. Bobby Hutcherson and Jackie MacLean got a lot of the deserved accolades, but the trombonist created part of that mood.
Sounds like: Great, timeless, modern compositions with a tone of yearning exuberance.
And I should own it because ...? He was a great instrumentalist as well as composer, and although many jazz box sets are fatuous, this one is absolutely essential.
Addendum: Most of his classic '60s recordings have been out of print for some time now.
The Marsalis Family: A Jazz Celebration (Rounder Records)
Concept: Ellis, with sons Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason make for quite the quintet, no matter how self-righteous Wynton can be.
Sounds like: Swinging New Orleans, piano-drums-bass-trumpet-reeds, with Delfeayo added on trombone.
And I should own it because ...? The rest of these new releases run from refreshingly off-center to the more experimental. So if you're looking for a current record with swing, well, no one swings harder than Ellis and Sons.
Addendum: Fellow New Orleanser Harry Connick, Jr. joins them in this live concert.
William Parker, Joe Morris, Hamid Drake: Eloping With The Sun (Riti Records)
Concept: Downtown bass god Parker steps out and does an avant-world record.
Sounds like: Trancelike, Middle Eastern, endless, in the best sense.
And I should own it because ...? Somehow it feels politically timely, as if you learning something by osmosis.
Addendum: Parker plays the zintir, a two-string Moroccan bass lute.
Daniel Carter & Reuben Radding: Luminescence (AUM)
Concept: This is quietly countercultural, and beautiful, with just an alto saxophone and bass.
Sounds like: A soft, meandering conversation--never raucous--with the two instruments.
And I should own it because ...? It serves as a perfect stimulant to another creative act: i.e., writing, painting, etc.
Addendum: The first four tracks were recorded live at the Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle.
Rob Brown: Round The Bend (CT Records)
Concept: A blazing, ferocious alto-bass-drums trio plays free jazz without apology.
Sounds like: The best kind of loft-era recordings: raw, aggressive, sometimes blazing, sometimes dissonant, always alive. Reminiscent, too, of Henry Threadgill's first group, Air.
And I should own it because? The missing piano gives it a speedy, seat-of-pants feel. Brown has a despairing sound (and he can screech with the best of them). Plus, it can really piss off your neighbors.
Addendum: The ubiquitous William Parker appears once again.
Wayne Shorter: Alegria (Verve)
Concept: The revered Shorter, who's had a mini comeback of late, makes his first studio album in eight years and plays with some smart, younger musicians.
Sounds like: Well, Wayne Shorter. That tone--as indelible as ever.
And I should own it because ...? He's on a roll here. His Live release was one of last year's finest.
Addendum: Shorter is like the Norman Mailer of jazz: never count him out.