The jazz musician of 2010 has nearly 100 years of recorded jazz history to grapple with. This is both alarming and liberating: alarming because the task of coming to grips with your roots is bigger than ever, and liberating because there are so many exciting places to start doing so.
My favorite jazz records of 2010 often explicitly interacted with history. Perhaps the musicians were recasting jazz gems from the ’50s with their own language (Bill Carrothers, Mike Reed) or using predecessors’ aesthetics and sonic signatures as points of departure (Geri Allen, Jason Moran).
But just as often, musicians felt liberated to embrace whatever they felt like from outside the standard jazz narrative, from an Argentine folk composer (Guillermo Klein) to The Band (Fight the Big Bull) to hip-hop (Maurice Brown). This natural eclecticism also seems somehow appropriate to our age: If all recorded music ever is fair game, then why can’t it be on the jazz musician’s playground, too?
Of course, some great records reflected music history in less direct ways — they just were. Chris Lightcap and Mary Halvorson don’t get to play with their own bands nearly as much as they support others, but maybe their records this year will help change that. And Steve Coleman has been pioneering entire musical systems with a band called Five Elements for nearly 30 years; the latest recorded incarnation is a force to be reckoned with.
Top 10 Jazz Albums Of 2010
1. Jason Moran, ‘Ten’ (Blue Note)
It’s been The Year Of Jason Moran, with appearances on several great records (Rudresh Mahanthappa & Bunky Green, Ralph Alessi, Charles Lloyd), widespread mainstream press (NPR not excepted), and that whole MacArthur “genius grant” thing. All well and good, but Ten tops this list because the pianist has made possibly his best album yet. Whether sampling Jimi Hendrix’s feedback, writing for ballets and art museums or channeling Thelonious Monk, Moran has a way of translating high-concept commissions and unexpected artistic choices into gutsy, gritty satisfaction. And when your band has been together 10 years, and sports Nasheet Waits and Tarus Mateen, your unusual language is spoken like a common vernacular, lived and breathed night after night. It’s a kind of magic, and it’s bottled here.
2. Guillermo Klein, ‘Domador De Huellas’ (Sunnyside)
In Argentina, Cuchi Leguizamón was a folk musician whose songs people know, but whose name people don’t. He lived in northwest Argentina, developing poetic, idiosyncratic takes on folk forms: chacareras, zambas, carnavalitos. Composer and pianist Guillermo Klein grew up in Buenos Aires and, like several of his bandmates, found his way back home after studying jazz in the U.S. Now, he’s made a tribute record with his Argentine band, arranging Leguizamón’s songs for something that looks like a jazz band. But Klein stretches them until they’re new again, introducing new beat patterns, or subtracting voices, or reharmonizing passages, and otherwise making them groove. Essentially, these are the sounds of one Argentine musical iconoclast covering another, in ways that will make listeners want to learn more about both.
3. Steve Coleman And Five Elements, ‘Harvesting Semblances And Affinities’ (Pi)
As a composer, alto saxophonist Steve Coleman is as inspired by the astrological calendar and 13th-century philosophers as next-level metric number-crunching. But with a 2006 edition of Five Elements, the name he’s used for many different bands over the years, he makes all that mad science sound intuitive. Harvesting Semblances and Affinities is filled with staggered-but-throbbing grooves, edgy blowing and Jen Shyu blanketing it all with airy, often wordless vocals. Coleman also features his arrangement of a choral piece by modern composer Per Nørgård, proving that all this alchemy can in fact produce moments of beauty. There’s something here for wandering mystics and awestruck listeners alike.
4. Bill Carrothers, ‘Joy Spring’ (Pirouet)
Before Bill Carrothers moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, mostly known for its snow density and population scarcity, he studied jazz piano and worked the New York circuit. With two versatile New York musicians in bassist Drew Gress and drummer Bill Stewart, he’s made a sly new album which interprets the repertoire of ’50s trumpeter Clifford Brown — in other words, some of the best source material on earth. Subtlety is the key: Hiding in plain sight within a fine straight-ahead session are loopy clusters, cheeky snares and relaxed swingers that turn into moody ballads. Slightly demented, but rooted in the jazz mainstream, it’s one of those records that gradually sneaks in tasteful tweaks until it dawns on you that it is, in itself, a thing apart.
5. Maurice Brown, ‘The Cycle Of Love’ (Brown Records)
Trumpeter Maurice Brown came up in jazz in Chicago; he found his way to New Orleans for a while, including through Hurricane Katrina, and he now lives in New York. Judging from his second album, The Cycle Of Love, he seems to have picked up various lessons along the way: earthy intelligence, urbane slickness, how to party. The global aesthetic of hip-hop is also present — Brown works with plenty of R&B and rap artists — and his band, especially the tenor saxophonist Derek Douget, has a certain bounce (and a few skittering rimshots) in its step. But there’s also a clear compositional savvy in the 10 tunes here; it attests to a jazz pedigree. The result is a jazz record that feels like it’s from musicians of the hip-hop generation — and compromises neither genre.
6. Mary Halvorson Quintet, ‘Saturn Sings’ (Firehouse 12)
The critical hype that preceded Mary Halvorson’s second album as a leader made her out as one of the most original guitarists today. Indeed, she can lay the strange squiggles on thick, and the rawk shredding on with force. But Saturn Sings succeeds largely because of her compositions, too. Halvorson has added trumpet and saxophone (Jonathan Finlayson, Jon Irabagon) to her core trio (John Hebert, Ches Smith) for many of the tracks here; her music feels grander, more fleshy. Sometimes, the songs bound and even swing, and sometimes they paint somber moods through much chromatic strain. But they make easy sense — not an easy feat in the world of free/out/whatever jazz. This recording highlights this band’s abilities to ramp up the tension, and also to sketch fetching release valves in tandem.
7. Geri Allen, ‘Flying Toward The Sound’ (Motema)
For one of two remarkable albums she released this year, pianist Geri Allen recorded by herself. It seems like a simple decision, but it’s inspired: Flying Toward The Sound is an engrossing program of nine original compositions. Some of the works are inspired by her heroes Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock; others are titled “GOD’s Ancient Sky” or “Your Pure Self (Mother To Son)”; all deliver the inquisitive, weighty oomph their subjects and titles would suggest. It’s tremendously well-recorded: The pianos she plays have lots of flavor, and their sounds are captured pristinely. This was a year filled with standout solo piano records (Matthew Shipp, Vijay Iyer, Marco Benevento and others), but in any format, it’s uncommon to hear abstract improvisation so dark, so enveloping, so moving.
8. Fight The Big Bull feat. Steven Bernstein, ‘All Is Gladness In The Kingdom’ (Clean Feed)
Imagine the intersection of free jazz and Southern music at large; now, take that idea and flesh it out for an 8- to 11-piece band, bristling with plump orchestrations and noisy breakdowns. That approximates the music of Fight The Big Bull, whose sophomore disc also features buzz-saw slide trumpet and some arrangements from New York guru Steven Bernstein. Not all the solos on All Is Gladness In The Kingdom are of the same caliber, and not every transition comes off perfectly cleanly. But there are too many good ideas in play here, many of them from the brain of leader Matt White. When this unit is at its best — and it is frequently here — it rears back and bellows, and cuts quickly to the pleasure centers of your brain.
9. Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth, ‘Deluxe’ (Clean Feed)
Red and cream with silver accents, a vintage convertible extends across the gatefold cover of bassist Chris Lightcap’s CD Deluxe. It references his band, Bigmouth — after the oversized grilles of such vehicles, presumably — but also evokes a great mental image. Lightcap is a smart composer of driving music; his tunes breathe, with plenty of room for horn interplay, but they also chug-chug along. (Craig Taborn’s electric piano and Gerald Cleaver’s drums have a way of doing that.) And he summoned more New York heavy hitters for his front line: Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek on tenor saxes, plus Andrew D’Angelo on alto on three cuts. It’s a brawny unit, but also at ease — a muscle car with an unconcerned foot on the gas, a ribbon of Western highway unspooling before it.
10. Mike Reed’s People, Places And Things, ‘Stories And Negotiations’ (482)
In other hands, this would be a “blowing session”: Gather several top-notch soloists, line up some tunes, press record. But this is drummer Mike Reed’s People, Places and Things, a project expressly committed to Chicago jazz history. So the special guests here are three Chicago gentlemen of earlier generations — trumpeter Art Hoyle, trombonist Julian Priester and saxophonist Ira Sullivan. Live at Chicago’s Millennium Park, they join a tight-knit unit which takes late ’50s tunes (and Reed’s charts) and works them over with modern, casually audacious language. In all, eight musicians were on stage: The arrangements take advantage of their quantity, while the solos benefit from their quality. This disc is third in a trilogy of PP&T records; all were so taut, so unpretentiously joyous, that a fourth is already on the way.