2009: Derek Taylor
Rather than harping again on the frustrations of formulating a Year-End list prior to actual year’s end, I’ll just get right to rolling out my favorites. There’s a lot to be thankful for this year, jazz and otherwise even if music in tangible discrete containers is all but hanging on by a thread. Thanks for reading and here’s a triple Booker’s bourbon raised to a healthy and fulfilling 2010 for you and yours…
Dennis Gonzalez has cultivated a cottage industry for himself combining old-fashioned gumption and new-fashioned technology. As a congenial fixture on several jazz chat boards, he’s networked his fruitful partnerships into steady gigs that regularly take him outside his corner of the country. He also has the admirable habit of seeking out aging veterans as collaborators. This year was a particularly prolific one with, by my count, five releases on four labels: A Matter of Blood (with pianist Curtis Clark, Reggie Workman and Michael T.A. Thompson) and Renegade Spirits (with sons Aaron and Stefan, Tim Green & Don Moye) on Furthermore; Scapegrace (with Portuguese pianist João Paulo) on Clean Feed; Songs of Early Autumn (with the Joe Morris trio, including Timo Shanko and Luther Gray) on NoBusiness, and The Great Bydgoszcz Concert (again with sons in the collective Yells at Eels and joined by Portuguese saxophonist Rodrigo Amado) on Ayler. All are well worth hearing, but my pick is probably the first.
Combing over the release schedule for the Lisbon-based label Clean Feed, the query comes to mind: “What recession?” Thirty-one titles in 2009 have to approach some kind of record for fecundity. Add to that streamlining in packaging and advances in art design and the accomplishment registers as even more amazing. Some critics have complained about quality control, but I found each and every release that hit my ears at the very least enjoyable and quite often much moreso. My picks out of ’09 bumper crop include: bass clarinetist Jason Stein’s Locksmith Isidore – Three Less Than Between, the Magnus Broo/Sten Sandell-led ensemble God Forgottens – Never Forgotten Always Remembered, drummer Harris Eisenstadt’s Canada Day, Alberto Pinton and Jonas Kullhammar’s Chant, particularly for its testosterone-driven baritone fisticuffs, and trombonist Samuel Blaser’s Pieces of Old Sky.
Luke Kaven’s Smalls Records imprint found the resources to release another half dozen titles in ’09, but a recent disheartening communiqué on his website suggests that the end might be nigh. Standouts for me this year were vibraphone doyen-turned sea captain Teddy Charles’ Dances with Bulls and a sophomore release by expatriate altoist Zaid Nasser, Off Minor. The Charles set finds the spry veteran in fine form fronting an ensemble with Chris Byars. Nasser blows his angular, tart-toned magic in the company of the Smalls house trio headed by pianist Sacha Perry. Both discs stress the blow to creative jazz that a Smalls shuttering would mean.
Cheesy album title, to be sure, but a youngblood tenor tandem that instantly clicked with me nonetheless. I’ve been shouting Riley’s strengths shamelessly for the past couple year, and yet he’s still inexplicably absent from nearly all year-end lists (what gives!). Able-horned Ambrose wasn’t my first choice for a match-up (that goes to Stephen Gauci), but the teaming makes sense given that they’re label mates and both live and breath the lineage of their instrument. A second volume is tantalizingly set for an early 2010 release along with another session by Riley called El Gaucho (no doubt featuring Wayne Shorter’s tune in its set list). I’m counting down the days ‘til the street dates on both.
Nearing a half-century on the scene, Peter Brötzmann is a constant to be counted on. He still tours like a man half is age, taking the travails attendant with a creative musician’s life with a mix of stoic pragmatism and disarming good humor. The unreleased recordings from his globe-spanning travels could fill a vault and fortunately for listeners another handful spilled out this year. Highlights to my ears included the double-disc studio/concert set by the reeds-only trio Sonore, Call Before You Dig; the solo recital Lost and Found on FMP, and the inspired conclave with Yemeni musicians that yielded A Night in Sana’a. I haven’t yet heard, but am itching to get my mitts on, The Damage is Done (Not Two), which documents two 2008 sets by his mighty collaborative quartet with Joe McPhee, Kent Kessler and Michael Zerang from the Crakow club Alchemia.
Another survivor who continues to thrive, Von Freeman is Chicago jazz incarnate. Leave it to his old friend Chuck Nessa (a legend in his own right) to steward his best release in years, an air shot from the 2002 Jazz Fest Berlin that features him in unfettered form with guitar in place of piano as chordal instrument. Killer versions of “Darn That Dream” and “Summertime” scroll out in closely mic’d sound that captures all the fine-grained striations the tenorist’s tone. Critic/saxophonist Chris Kelsey summed up his take on this set by placing Vonski on par with Sonny Rollins. I’d go one better by giving the octogenarian Chicagoan the unequivocal edge.
Few are the musicians that successfully couple staggering skill with a fully-uncorked imagination. Involve a solo setting in the equation, and the challenge becomes even more formidable. Error into the pedantically academic or worse, the introspectively indulgent occurs all too often. Evans faces down these obstacles with a steely command of his trumpet that never abdicates humor or audience awareness. Extended techniques arise in abundance and the passive listener is soon lost, but for those who pay attention, it’s a wild and wildly satisfying ride. The experience is doubly awesome when one recalls this is the same guy running down Freddie Hubbard-on-blotter-acid bop runs in the freewheeling ensemble Mostly Other People Do the Killing or matching Evan Parker for microtonal precision in a handful of top flight free improv aggregations. This decade has been a terrific one for improvised trumpet, a former dearth in younger players being filled with the likes of Nate Wooley, Taylor Ho Bynum, Magnus Broo and others. Evans just might be the pick of that crackerjack litter.
Two releases showed up this year from cellist Tomas Ulrich’s Cargo Cult, both self-titled, both on Cadence Family imprints, which can make for some confusion. I was guilty of sleeping on the first, which, it turns out, was the trio’s demo, but when the second crossed my desk, I took notice. Ulrich’s been a regular in the labels’ stables, logging several dozen sessions over the past decade plus. Good as some of those records have been, these two are something special. The music moves from spooky, spidery dirges ripe for vocal accompaniment by Tom Wait’s carnival barker persona to some of the most dulcet and lyrical chamber interplay of recent vintage that I can recall. Rolf Strum’s adroit fretwork, bowing heavily in the direction of Frisell in its curious balance of creaky skronk and pastoral delicacy, is key to the concept but the close braiding of Ulrich (often bowed) and bassist Michael Bisio (usually plucked) is frequently just as integral to the outcome.
Last in Concord’s trifecta of boxes that replace the antique 16-disc behemoth covering Coltrane’s voluminous Prestige run, there was a bit of a question whether it would ever see the shelves, what with the ever rising tide toward digital downloads. While not quite as uniformly satisfying as the first set (which focused on Trane’s sides as a leader for the label), it’s still a fascinating listen for the window it opens into a time prior to the saxophonist’s ascendancy to top-echelon jazz icon, when he was gigging for sideman wages and playing the sponge on the bandstand and in the studio. Sound and packaging upgrades make it a no-brainer for those coming to the material fresh, but those in possession of the old box might consider giving it a gander, too, especially considering that the first two volumes are now widely available at remaindered prices. Also of note from Concord, The Classic Prestige Sessions of Miles Davis & Sonny Rollins, 1951-1956, a two-disc set that distills the dates the two shared into a handy package ideal for road trip listening.
I’m still digesting this one, piecing together a formal review that will hopefully appear early in the New Year, but on historical grounds alone it merits inclusion on this list. Enigmatic altoist Jemeel Moondoc’s been mostly off the scene for the past decade or so, excluding a few furtive returns, and his particular brand of melodic freebop has been sorely missed. He’s the sort to wear his heart on his horn, shrugging away from virtuosity in favor of emotive intimacy and release. This sumptuous box from the Lithuanian label documents one of his earliest bands, in the company of familiar faces like William Parker, Roy Campbell and Rashid Baker before they were household names in free-jazz fandom. Two classic Muntu LPs and a previously-unreleased concert from Ali’s Alley (drummer Rashied Ali’s Lower East Side loft jazz joint) make for slightly lean package, and the music has its share of minor sonic blemishes, but on the flip, there’s a 115-page book of essays that paint the scene as it was in decorous detail. Moondoc is much in need of a career resurgence, and this labor of love will hopefully motivate another comeback.
As codified country scoundrels go, Johnny Paycheck definitely belongs in the pantheon. This collection from Omni (specialists in the weirder backwaters of folk and country) cherry picks from his most creative period, when he was waxing tracks for the Little Darlin’ imprint at the cusp of the 1960s. Stylistically, he’s a close cousin to Porter Wagoner in his ability to plumb the depths of amorality and depravity while putting a pop-friendly production sheen on the whole sordid business. Songs like “(Pardon Me) I’ve Got Someone to Kill,” “It Won’t Be Long (And I’ll Be Hating You)” and “The Pint of No Return” pretty much summarize his worldview while providing great sardonic fun in the bargain. An added bonus is that the set doesn’t overlap that much with the handful of Little Darlin’ comps already on the market. Also worthwhile is Plantation Gold, an exhaustive collection that scrapes the odd underbelly of Nashville encompassed by impresario Shelby S. Singleton’s Plantation label. Electric sitar-fueled Honky Tonk and the surprisingly effective parody “Hello, I’m Johnny Credit” are just a few of the memorable detours taken and I’ve found this one another ideal soundtrack for late-night trips on rural roads.
Tompkins Square hit it out of the park with this three-disc compilation spanning 60-plus years of music. Any self-respecting fan of vintage gospel will likely have at least a few of the cuts on other sources, but as a one-stop gathering, it’s still damn impressive in its scope. “I Got Two Wings” on the always-worth-the-wait Case Quarter label posits a sharper thematic focus, zeroing in on the sanctified frenzy of Elder Utah Smith’s extant sides and those of his peers. The lavish booklet recounting his career in photos and prose complements the music like a pulpit to preacher. Dust-to-Digital’s Take Me to Water is excellent, too, though I have to admit not returning to it much since first immersing myself in its contents to write a review.
Once again the apex of my concert-going year, though a solo acoustic theater set by Kris Kristofferson came in a damn close second. Sadly, a switch to an urban venue and an even more sprawling schedule did little to shore up the monetary sieve that seems to the Fest’s lot. When the dust had cleared, Chris Johnson, the organizer, had taken it on the financial chin again, but not before bringing some of the finest ‘outsider’ blues to the revolving Midwestern audience. Highlights for me were Mark Porkchop Holder, formerly of the Black Diamond Heavies, whose Bukka White-collides-with-Fred McDowell slide guitar put everyone in a gloriously anachronistic groove, and the happily-unhinged Trainreck, a Texan duo of the Reverend KM Williams and Washboard Jackson who put the “sanctify” in lo-fi during a closing Gospel Blues Brunch jam. Johnson’s gearing up for a scaled-down winter version of the Fest next month, proving in his indefatigable person that the blues won’t never die.
And 25 more for good measure…
By Derek Taylor