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Economist: Best Jazz of 2004

Discussion in 'BBS Hangout' started by basso, Dec 17, 2004.

  1. basso

    basso Contributing Member
    Supporting Member

    May 20, 2002
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    Whaddaya think, Manny?


    A round-up of jazz CDs

    The shape of jazz just come
    Dec 16th 2004
    From The Economist print edition

    Our pick of the best, including music by Abdullah Ibrahim

    TO JUDGE by the pop charts and the pop-music pundits, jazz is enjoying one of its periodic revivals. Bored with bionic dance routines and mindless lyrics, a young public of CD buyers is turning in droves to the charms of classic standards, these delivered by photogenic young vocalists with the backing of smooth and swinging rhythm sections.

    Jazz commentators, however, being altogether a fussier bunch, beg to differ. To them, the fashion for quasi-jazz vocals is a mere caprice in the sated world of pop and has nothing to do with the true jazz virtues of spontaneity, commitment and hard-won instrumental mastery. But then those same commentators find it impossible to agree over which artists in the fractious world of hardcore jazz best embody the music's lofty ideals. Or, indeed, to agree over what exactly those ideals are.

    Wynton Marsalis, a trumpeter from a New Orleans family of prodigious musical talent, offers a case in point. As head of the stunning new jazz project at New York's Lincoln Centre, Mr Marsalis is a powerful spokesman for the great American jazz tradition. His CD “The Magic Hour” (issued on the Blue Note label) puts his preaching into virtuoso practice.

    Mr Marsalis, quartet and guests perform a varied programme of original compositions, the kind of infectious tunes, rhythms and improvisations that have epitomised jazz for much of its history. Yet while some critics praise Mr Marsalis's achievement, others reject it as too self-consciously rooted in the past. “Déjà vu jazz” it is sometimes called, lacking the music's essential creative spark.

    For these listeners, the jazz cause is better served by the likes of Django Bates, a free-spirited English pianist and composer. His CD “You Live and Learn...(Apparently)” (Lost Marble) is a gleeful array of whimsical attitudes and idioms. All things by turns and nothing long, Mr Bates delights in a welter of reference—jazz licks intersected by rap, synthesizer, string quartet, surreal vocals—the overall sense is that anything can and should happen. For Mr Bates, improvisation exists to subvert expectation, a view that stimulates or irritates according to your frame of mind. The recording's overall mood, recalling the manic days of the 1960s, is something like a hyperactive Beatles album, an impression heightened by liner notes with a comic-strip layout and larky photographs.

    The idea of jazz as subversion is particularly European—and in the former Soviet Union, jazz was even used as a direct assault on the system. Yet some Americans have practised subversion as well, including Uri Caine, a pianist known for reshaping classical masterworks in his own ebullient way. A recent project of Mr Caine's in this vein reworked Beethoven's “Diabelli Variations”. This was done not to mock but to pay homage, and is full of wit and daring. His latest CD, “Live at the Village Vanguard” (Winter & Winter), proves that Mr Caine can bring those same qualities to a conventional jazz format, the piano trio, in a fresh, hard-swinging set of standards and originals.

    All critics agree about an abundance of fine pianists in jazz these days. Of these, Brad Mehldau is often described as the best of his generation and has won a devoted following for a magisterial touch and eclectic programming. His “Live in Tokyo” (Nonesuch) is a showcase for his singular talent, this time as a solo recital. Mr Mehldau is steeped in the classical repertoire of jazz, and he reveals new colours and complexities in works by that genius Thelonious Monk, George Gershwin and even Radiohead, a pop group. He combines magnificent technique with a jazzman's thirst for adventure.

    Among improvisers, it is hard to think of anyone more distinctive than Jan Garbarek, a Norwegian saxophonist who has permanently expanded the scope of jazz to include Nordic traditions. His moody themes have less to do with blues and swing than with mesmerising soundscapes that paint the northern lights and rock-bound coasts. “In Praise of Dreams” (ECM) is a rich, evocative mix, unusual for Mr Garbarek, of saxophones and synthesizer, plus viola and soft pulsing drums. Music to chill out by.

    Unusual combinations of colour and effect were Duke Ellington's speciality. This year one of his most remarkable achievements, recorded in the 1950s, was re-released. While “Ellington Uptown” (Columbia/Legacy) features witty reworkings of ducal hits—“Take the ‘A' Train” with a bebop vocal, “Perdido” with a boogie beat—its crowning glory is “A Tone Parallel to Harlem”, Ellington's concert-length homage to his stamping ground. After a half-century, this remains a thrilling piece, and runs the scale of emotions from reverence to exaltation, all brilliantly executed by Ellington's elite corps of soloists.

    Ellington was not only a master composer and leader, but also a tireless talent-spotter. One of his most impressive protégés is Abdullah Ibrahim, the South African pianist who used to be known as Dollar Brand.

    Though inspired by Ellington's sumptuous harmonies, Mr Ibrahim's palette is very much his own, marked out by the exuberant, chant-like vigour of his native land. Such originals as “Ancient Cape” and “African Market Place” convey a deep communal energy, and his “A Celebration” (Enja), a compilation in honour of his 70th birthday, is aptly named. In various instrumental combinations, the CD features Mr Ibrahim on vocals, saxophone and bamboo flute as well as piano. However, a hip-hop remix of an Ibrahim piece is ill-judged.

    Seventy was once thought improbably old for a jazz musician, but now many players carry on far beyond that. Dave Brubeck, who was a controversial pianist in the 1950s and 1960s for his experiments with counterpoint and asymmetrical rhythms, turns 85 next year, and his CD “Private Brubeck Remembers” (Telarc) shows him in fine fettle, still full of creativity. Though this recording is made up of tunes from the time of his military service during the second world war, it is no mere nostalgic exercise, but rather a solo recital of subtle pleasure, humour and quiet profundity. Jazz can still be the sound of surprise even when its materials are familiar.

    Or even when they are trivial. For a stocking filler this Christmas, you might consider the latest volume in a survey of the works of Louis Armstrong on the Naxos label. “Satchel Mouth Swing” chronicles Armstrong's big-band work in 1936-38. In the past, this period of his work has often been dismissed as mere entertainment. Yet the sheer creative verve with which Armstrong elevates even silly songs to artistic distinction is a lesson in the spontaneous magic of jazz.
  2. Manny Ramirez

    Manny Ramirez The Music Man

    Jul 31, 2001
    Likes Received:
    Thanks for the article, basso!

    I am not really into jazz that is released today as I only have like 2 really new albums in "Alegria" by Wayne Shorter and "Tricycles" by Larry Coryell.

    I am still trying to get every Miles Davis CD ever released as well as fusion stuff from the '70s (just ordered "Spectrum" by Billy Cobham today) plus more old RVG editions (currently listening to "Song for my Father" right now and earlier today listened to one of your favorites in "Cool Struttin'").

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