Ten Really Worth-Listening-To 2001 Albums

Ten Really Worth-Listening-To 2001 Albums, For Folks Who Are Interested in Jazz and What it Could Be

by Frank J. Oteri
copyright © 2002, Frank J. Oteri

It's taken me until the first week of the second month of 2002 to feel distance enough from 2001 to try to contribute something here, and I'm still not sure that there's enough distance -- So, mea culpa, this is not a '"Ten Best Jazz Albums of 2001." I'm not sure I believe in such things anyway. I know I don't believe in "Bests," and I'm still not sure I even know what jazz is, which is why it's so interesting to me. Let's call it, then, "Ten Really-Worth-Listening-To 2001 Albums For Folks Who Are Interested in Jazz and What It Could Be." Actually, there are 11 albums here, but no matter, I know there are many others that I still haven't listened to yet. After all, it's only the first week of the second month after. Here goes:

Dave Douglas, Witness -- BMG Bluebird 63763
For fans of Dave Douglas, knowing that every album packs a few surprises is no surprise. But the real surprise is that such a new musical statement has the imprimateur of a major label at a time when adventurousness often seems not just ignored, but frequently discouraged by majors. The miracle of this trumpeter who can simultaneous add new ideas to seemingly-mainstream sound models (as he did so effectively on his BMG debut tribute album to the late great Mary Lou Williams, or who, as here, can make the freest of jazz experimentation come across as direct in-the-pocket straight-ahead expression in original compositions that take on the now-totally entrenched right-wingers of the United States, inspired by enlightened Middle Easterners like Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz and Edward Said. My favorite track, "Kidnapping Kissinger," takes on so many new layers of meaning in the post-September 11 universe already understood on this album recorded in December 2000 which I first became aware of from an advance press CD in August, forcing it to the top of this "not best of" list.

Don Byron, You Are #6, Blue Note 32231
Byron has referred to his Six Musicians band as his favorite performing aggregate and it's easy to hear why on the reformed band's second recorded outing which blurs the lines between jazz in all its historical incarnations, salsa, calypso, retro lounge and today's sample-based music. Byron's spiky angularisms, both in the harmonies of his charts and the melodies he weaves over them, are always tempered by his absolute irresistible personal immediacy allowing him to constantly get away with completely new twists and turn that sound tried and true. Even the names of his tunes, which include "Dub-Ya" and the title track's homage to the 1967 television masterpiece The Prisoner, convey a testament that is simultaneously totally of our time yet timeless.

Ted Nash, Sidewalk Meeting, Arabesque Jazz 0156
I loved Rhyme and Reason, Jazz Composers Collective co-conspirator Ted Nash's debut as a leader, also on Arabesque, which to my ears is one of the most convincing combinations of classical string quartet with jazz quartet I've ever heard, both live and in the studio, well worthy of company kept with Max Roach, Don Ellis and McCoy Tyner. How to follow it up? Well, with something that sits on a shelf all alone! A groovin' collection scored for violin, accordion, tuba/trombone, drums, and his multi-reeded self that is also just as exciting on disc as it was live including a version of Debussy's Premiere Rhapsodie transformed beyond Gil Evans's wildest imagination and a Monk "Bemsha Swing," that like so few Monk covers, swings. Plus, it's a particularly brilliant showcase for the plunger-bone antics of Wycliffe Gordon who, in his bizarre post-modern guise here, has never sounded wilder, deeper and happier. Fellow JJA mastermind Ben Allison's 2001 disc Riding the Nuclear Tiger (Palmetto 2067) is also a performance and composition tour-de-force, but I'm really trying to keep to this 10 thing here.

Henry Threadgill: Everybody's Mouth a Book (PI 01), Up Popped Two Lips (PI 02)
I can't decide which of these simultaneously-released Threadgill explorations is better and I don't want too. Why should I? Why should you? They are flip-sides of an extremely valuable musical coin, a Janus-faced magnum opus where both halves further elucidate each other. Lips features Threadgill's truly eclectic band Zooid which blends alto and flute with acoustic guitar, oud, tuba, cello and drums to create subtle musical crystals while Mouth uses the timbral palette akin to '70s King Crimson for truly 21st century schizoid music.

Marilyn Crispell, Amaryllis, ECM 1742
Perhaps the biggest "jazz" listening surprise of last year for me was hearing the queen of frenetic free jazz piano in this luscious, subdued trio setting with greats Gary Peacock and Paul Motian. In its instant accessibily, it might be Crispell's most radical musical statement to date. For just as Roscoe Mitchell's 1999's Nine to Get Ready, also on ECM, revealed one of free jazz's most cerebral heavyweights to also be a heart-melter, Amaryllis's post-avant-garde grace also exudes a remarkable aura of comfort at arriving.

Jerome Cooper, From There to Hear, Mutable Music 17506
A great disc from a great new independent label willing to take risks with every single venture. This collection of live recordings from one of today's master percussionist demonstrates the vitality of a great pointillistic melodist. Check out his unique take on "My Funny Valentine."

David S. Ware, corridors & parallels, Aum Fidelity 019
In what is truly 21st century jazz, trippy tenor sax man David S. Ware fronts a Quartet with long-term partners-in-crime Matthew Shipp, now on science-fiction synthesizer and William Parker on extended-technique bass, plus drummer Guillermo E. Brown, who has proven to be a worthy successor to the great Susie Ibarra, on cosmic percussion. Another boundary stretcher from a man who has opened for the alt-rock band Sonic Youth and who did for "The Way We Were" what Coltrane once did for "My Favorite Things," Ware's latest musical adventures range far and wide on this beautifully-packaged album released by vanguard underground label devoted to the best in new improvised music.

Fred Hersch, Songs Without Words, Nonesuch 79612-2
Illuminating renderings of songs by Cole Porter fill up an entire CD in this valedictory 3-CD compendium of performances by pianist Fred Hersch in his greatest release on Nonesuch to date, but the real treasure here is a disc devoted exclusively to Hersch's own originals which reveal him to be as subtle and probing a composer as he is an interpreter. Now, if only someone would issue a live recording of Hersch's fantastic trio!

Aaron Parks, The Wizard, Keynote Records
Last year, at the JJA Awards, someone handed me this CD and it eventually made it into my CD player. While in a completely different playing field than the surprise-hewn cast of characters that have populated this here list, Parks is a surprise for a different reason. At the time of this recording, the third under his name thus far, he was only 16 years old and already demonstrates conviction and assurance as a pianist, composer and band-leader of a classic hard bop quintet. If, while still in his teens, he has already absorbed and become fluent in the language of the tradition, what will happen once he starts inventing his own pronouns and adverbs?

Bobby Previte, The 23 Constellations of Joan Miro, Tzadik 7072
Is it jazz? Probably not, but Bobby Previte is one of the great jazz musicians of our time and anyone who cares about this music and what it will be in the future ought to be blown away by this polymorphous drummer's unique take on one of the 20th century's greatest painters through his own great 21st century chamber music. And, with a booklet reproducing in color all of the 22 paintings inspiring Previte, it is a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. Having only heard this CD a couple of weeks ago justifies my waiting until this late date to compile this still horribly incomplete list which I know is missing a lot of great 2001 albums I still haven't caught up with yet. So enough of this, I've got to go hear more records; you should too!

JJA member Frank J. Oteri is a New York-based composer, a Board member of the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA), and the Editor of NewMusicBox, the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award-winning Web magazine from the American Music Center (www.newmusicbox.org).

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