Best of 2009, Part Three (20th to 11th)
20. Mulatu Astatke & the Heliocentrics, Inspiration Information 3 (Strut)
Veteran Ethiopian composer, keyboardist, vibist, and arranger Mulatu Astatke—whose tunes you’ve heard if you’ve seen Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers—hooks up with avant-garde UK hip-hop/funk crew the Heliocentrics and creates an unexpectedly simpatico hybrid. I’m usually suspicious of calculated cross-generational or cross-stylistic experiments—Inspiration Information 3 is part of a Strut series that’s also paired Tony Allen with Jimi Tenor and Horace Andy with Ashley Beedle—but this one works perfectly. Haunting pentatonic melodies tussle with the kind of grooves Sun Ra might have written if he’d been born six decades later.
19. Vic Chesnutt, At the Cut (Constellation)
Adding another layer to the tragedy of Vic Chesnutt’s suicide is the fact that he’d just released what might be the most powerful album of his career. A combo including Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto and folks from Montreal’s Godspeed/Silver Mt. Zion crowd wrap up his singing in arrangements both tender and harrowing—the opener, “Coward,” is easily the most unsettling rock song I heard all year. “Flirted With You All My Life,” a breakup note to death, stings much worse if you know about Chesnutt’s previous suicide attempts (to say nothing of the one that succeeded), but even if you’re completely ignorant of the details of his troubled life this record can clobber you emotionally.
18. J.D. Allen Trio, Shine! (Sunnyside)
J.D. Allen has been leading a growing reinvestment in the saxophone trio on the New York jazz scene. John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins remain clear points of reference, but this group—with the sturdy rhythm section of bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston—has a no-nonsense concision and lean architecture all its own. Shine! puts the spotlight on some of the most fundamental aspects of jazz—subtle group interaction, focused improvisation, and infectious rhythmic buoyancy.
17. Liam Noble Trio, Brubeck (Basho)
Thanks to the metrical experiments of his ubiquitous landmark album Time Out, pianist Dave Brubeck has long been dismissed by some jazz fans as a square, clunky player, but terrific British pianist Liam Noble flies in the face of that prejudice with this superb homage. Noble is wonderfully flexible, equally at home in free-jazz settings and mainstream contexts, and his scrappy trio manages to be both sincere and revisionist in its precise, energetic interpretations. Nothing here is too outre, and I doubt the music will provoke much reconsideration of Brubeck’s work—but it certainly would be nice if it did.
16. Tinariwen, Imidiwan: Companions (World Village)
The original Tuareg rockers pull back on the power, reverting to the stabbing intensity of their earliest work, which conveys emotion through nuances in its lilting vocals and floating matrix of guitars. Tinariwen’s style of musical hypnosis hasn’t varied much over the years—even the change on Imidiwan is of degree, not of kind—but when a band consistently casts spells like these, who cares?
15. David Sylvian, Manafon (Samadhisound)
For his latest album, veteran art-pop singer David Sylvian surrounded himself with a heavyweight crew of free improvisers and experimentalists—Christian Fennesz, Evan Parker, Otomo Yoshihide, Keith Rowe, Franz Hautzinger, Sachiko M, and John Tilbury among them. Within meticulously calibrated improvised settings he sings his elliptical lyrics with rhapsodic splendor, shaping grandiloquent melodies that contrast radically with the stark, spiky, sometimes even menacing music.
14. Mario Diaz de Leon, Enter Houses Of (Tzadik)
This stunning album by young New York composer Mario Diaz de Leon features members of the International Contemporary Ensemble—a superb new-music collective based here and in New York—who bring crisp, bracing technical rigor to de Leon’s mind-melting pieces, which draw liberally from noise, free improv, and the work of modern composers like Xenakis and Ligeti. He’s fluent enough in the languages of his various influences that his work never sounds like an arbitrary pastiche. In fact in “Mansion” the transitions between pure acoustic sound—the flutes of Claire Chase and Eric Lamb—and lacerating electronic feedback are as organic as they are abrupt. Enter Houses Of portends great possibilities for new “classical” music.
13. A Hawk and a Hacksaw, Délivrance (Leaf)
When American musicians catch a fever for some faraway regional tradition, it usually ends up as a fleeting obsession, but Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost (aka A Hawk and a Hacksaw) have proved themselves an exception to the rule. They’ve not only stuck with their love for Roma fiddle music, they even relocated to Budapest, Hungary, for a year and a half, where they studied with bona fide practitioners and eventually formed a band with some of them. Lots of great players help out on Délivrance, where Barnes and Trost maintain a distinctly American artsy feel amid the wildly sawing fiddles, sprightly cimbalom (played by the great Kalman Balogh), and pumping accordion. And as they proved at the Empty Bottle in September, they can also pull off a great show without the European ringers.
12. Buika & Chucho, El Ultimo Trago (Warner Music Latino)
Remarkable Spanish producer Javier Limón strikes again, pairing Buika—a powerhouse black flamenco singer from Mallorca—with brilliant Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés for a program of songs made famous by Mexican ranchera icon Chavela Vargas. It might seem like some kind of postmodern bricolage, but everything here sounds utterly natural. Valdés has such an authoritative rhythmic drive that he can’t help but give the whole endeavor an Afro-Cuban feel, but Buika has the kind of smoky, malleable voice that can traverse any style—the music they make together feels almost nonidiomatic.
11. Christian Lillinger’s Grund, First Reason (Clean Feed)
Ubiquitous, flexible German drummer Christian Lillinger has made his first album as a leader, and it’s a knockout—not least because his impressive band includes saxophonist Tobias Delius, bassist Jonas Westergaard, and pianist Joachim Kuhn. Lillinger’s tunes are both distinctive and open enough to allow for potent improvisation and lots of interactions between members, particularly the jabbing exchanges between Delius and horn man Wanja Slavin, and second bassist Robert Landfermann gives the bottom end extra movement and muscle.