All That Jazz

The year’s best records.

It was a good year for jazz recordings. Yes, sales continued to slip, a few more labels shut their doors, and the next John Coltrane or Charlie Parker—some genius-messiah who transcends all boundaries and pushes jazz to a startling new level—failed, once again, to materialize. Still, young musicians scaled new heights, elders renewed their spirits, and, in the reissue bins, forgotten masterworks returned to astonish us.

Here, then, in very rough order, are my picks for the 10 best new jazz albums of 2004 and the four best reissues.

Chris Potter, Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard (Sunnyside) Chris Potter, 33, has been an impressive sideman since he turned 18, playing tenor saxophone with Red Rodney, Dave Holland, Dave Douglas, and (on Two Against Nature) Steely Dan. But his efforts as a leader have never dazzled, until this live quartet session. Potter has found his voice: gruff yet lyrical, ceaselessly imaginative, thoroughly commanding. The album starts with a skittish blues solo that combines dexterous speed, Alpine-sharp turns, and barroom bravura and concludes with a six-minute a cappella intro to a lively take on Mingus’ rarely played “Boogie Stop Shuffle.”

Geri Allen, The Life of a Song (Telarc) The pianist Geri Allen is another musician who had been strongest as a side player—to such giants as Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden, Abbey Lincoln, and Lester Bowie—until she uncorked this album, her first as a leader in six years and her best by far. It may simply be that, all this time, she needed to hire better underlings. Here she heads a trio with Dave Holland on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, two of the best jazzmen around, who both play in top form. Allen is nearly peerless among jazz pianists at coaxing chromatic riches from the simplest chords, and she combines this gift for harmony with a rhythmic deftness, shifting in and out of tempo without ever losing the beat. The album is a mix of original compositions, unbridled improvisations, and a few jazz standards, most notably a meticulous deconstruction of Bud Powell’s “Dance of the Infidels.”

Masada String Trio, 501 (Tzadik) In September 2003, John Zorn—protean saxophonist, composer, and impresario of New York’s downtown music scene—celebrated his 50th birthday by putting on a month’s worth of concerts, featuring a different one of his many bands each night, at the Lower East Side club, Tonic. This is the first volume of live CDs from those sessions; it features the Masada String Trio, his most accessible and festive ensemble. Zorn leads several bands that play Masada music —a series of 200 pieces he wrote, based on jazz cadences and the “Jewish scales.” The string trio consists of Mark Feldman on violin, Erik Friedlander on cello, and Greg Cohen on bass, with Zorn sitting before them, conducting their cues. This is high-spirited music that weaves threads of klezmer, Bartok, avant-bluegrass, and straight-ahead jazz into a fabric that’s bracing and truly original. The CD captures the trio at their most vigorous.

Don Byron, Ivey-Divey (Blue Note) Don Byron must be the most versatile jazz musician around, a clarinetist with classical training who plays all genres in all styles with impeccable tone and phrasing (though he can also play rough when he wants). This is a novel concept album, inspired by a 1945 trio album by Lester Young, Nat King Cole (just playing piano), and Buddy Rich on drums—here ghosted by Byron, the amazing Jason Moran, and the irrepressible Jack DeJohnette. The new trio traverses the same songs, many of them ancient even back then (“Somebody Loves Me,” “I Cover the Waterfront,” “I’ve Found a New Baby”), injecting them with a modernist zest while preserving the originals’ insouciant swing.

Maria Schneider, Concert in the Garden (ArtistShare) Maria Schneider, the composer, conductor, and leader of her own jazz orchestra, drew her first influences from Gil Evans’ stacked harmonies and Bob Brookmeyer’s staggered rhythms, but she’s lately added her own blend of Spanish spices. Her music is complex but accessible, lush and lyrical, with an edge just sharp enough to evade sentimentality. She gives her band members lots of space for solos, and they return the favor with some of the tightest musicianship in modern jazz. This is her fifth album in a dozen years, her first on an artist-controlled label that sells CDs (and bonus-feature downloads) exclusively over the Internet.

The Great Jazz Trio, Someday My Prince Will Come (Eighty-Eights/Sony) It’s a lofty name for a band, but the title fits: The pianist Hank Jones, his drummer brother, Elvin, and bassist Richard Davis are veteran titans who rousingly refute the cliché that jazz is a young man’s game. Hank Jones is 85; Elvin was 75 when he died earlier this year; Davis is the fledgling at 73; they swing harder than most players a third their age. Listen especially to Elvin, who pounds and caresses the drum kit with a stunning polyrhythmic agility and a keen feel for melody. The album, mainly of standards, was recorded in analog and direct-stream digital and is available in standard CD, Super AudioCD, and LP (the latter two formats available, by mail order, from Acoustic Sounds).

Ben Allison, Buzz (Palmetto) Ben Allison is a riveting young bassist-composer who, for the past decade, has co-led the Jazz Composers Collective, a group of musicians that plays together under various names (and with various concepts), depending on which of them has composed the music. The band on Buzz is Allison’s sextet (the collective’s other bands, and albums, are led by pianist Frank Kimbrough, saxophonist Ted Nash, and trumpeter Ron Horton, but for the most part feature the same personnel), and its music is laced with rhythmic wit, off-centered blues, and a film noir air of mystery. The playing is tight and loose all at once, a feat best managed by musicians who have come to know each other very well.

Matt Wilson, Wake Up! (Palmetto) Matt Wilson, a drummer who has the rare ability to play all kinds of music with all kinds of musicians, isn’t as well-known as he should be. Maybe he’s too modest. Case in point: Wake Up! Here’s an album led by a drummer, yet it features no long, loud drum solos. Still, this is clearly a Matt Wilson production; the signposts are the music’s playful swing and the ensemble’s casual confidence. That said, the star here is trumpeter Terell Stafford, who blows with a sterling tone, restrained passion, and a brilliant instinct for knowing when to lay back behind the rhythm and when to catch up.

Jenny Scheinman, Shalagaster (Tzadik) Jenny Scheinman is a violinist who has attracted a following for her work with guitarist Bill Frisell, but here she plays her own music, a heady brew of jazz, Irish, and lazy-day tango, accompanied by Myra Melford’s moody piano (or sometimes harmonium) and Trevor Dunn’s insistent bass. The music is dreamy, even haunting, except when it’s tipsy, or spry.

Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette, The Out-of-Towners (ECM) Keith Jarrett is not my favorite pianist. His overbearing self-indulgence and nasal humming drive me nuts. But his trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette is one of the most pleasurably simmering ensembles in jazz. Whether it’s the material (standard ballads) or the interplay, the combination brings out the best in Jarrett—a virtuosity that serves and illuminates a song’s beauty, even majesty. Still, this album’s highlight may be the one solo number, ” It’s All in the Game,” which Jarrett keeps simple yet infuses with a poignant touch.

Duke Ellington, Masterpieces by Ellington (Columbia Legacy) This is the reissue not just of the year but of the decade. Recorded in 1950 (and long out of print), Masterpieces was Ellington’s first “long-playing” album, or LP, so he expanded some of his hits and came up with his most sumptuous, sophisticated arrangements. The jaw dropper is the 15-and-a-half-minute “Mood Indigo.” It begins with piano trills, followed by three horns carrying the melody while the bass sways just behind the beat. Then comes a string of gorgeous horn solos over piano and bass. After Johnny Hodges’ lilting turn on alto sax, the full orchestra re-enters, blowing rich, dark, tone clusters that evoke Ravel, then dissonant harmonies that anticipate Sondheim, and on and on the variations wondrously tumble. Finally, the sound quality is sensational. Essential.

Herbie Hancock, The Piano (Columbia Legacy) Recorded in 1978 as a direct-to-disc LP, this album was released only in Japan. It’s never been available in the United States in any format till now. The session marked a rare return to jazz standards for Herbie Hancock, who was in the middle of his rock-fusion period. It was also a highly demanding session. “Direct-to-disc” meant the microphone fed directly to a vinyl cutting lathe, with no tape-recorder between the two. Hancock played piano non-stop for 16 minutes while the lathe cut Side A. Then he played non-stop for another 16 minutes while it cut Side B. No chance for false starts or post-production edits. Yet Hancock uncorked an unhurried, even meditative, yet intensely sensuous recital. It’s one of the loveliest solo jazz piano albums ever.

Dexter Gordon, The Complete Prestige Recordings (Fantasy) Dexter Gordon was a pioneer, the tenor saxophonist who combined the sonorous cadences of Coleman Hawkins, the fleet lyricism of Lester Young, and the harmonic acrobatics of Charlie Parker. Every tenor giant in his wake—Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, especially—followed the path he carved. Yet 14 years after his death at age 67, Long Tall Dexter is nearly forgotten. He’s best known for his starring turn in the film Round Midnight, where his acting was stellar but his playing so-so (he wasn’t well during the shoot). So, this 11-CD box-set is more than welcome. Dexter could blow chorus after chorus without repetition. He first drew fame for his tenor duels, which he nearly always won, but sustained the applause for his way with ballads: his molasses tone and breezy phrasings, but more still his insistent focus on the form and romance of the song.

Don Pullen, Mosaic Select (Mosaic) There was no pianist like Don Pullen, who died of cancer in 1995 at age 50. His left hand hammered out strong block chords, while his right hand (and sometimes elbow) zipped across the keyboard with a frenzied speed that somehow managed, amid the blur, a laser precision and an infectious lyricism. This three-CD box-set contains two albums by the Don Pullen-George Adams Quartet—which grew out of Charles Mingus’ last band and created the most sizzling jazz of the 1970s—and two albums by Pullen’s head-reeling trio of the early ‘90s. They combine the pulsing swirl of avant-garde with the dancing joy of R&B. They’ve long been out of print, and it’s a thrill to have them back.