Best beyond “jazz” CDs of 2009

My 10 top CDs of 2009 blow past conventions to enrich jazz, blues, new and unusual music. They’re chosen from almost 1000 I received for review — an abundance of fine releases since November 2008, the full year following Barack Obama’s election to president.

Maybe it’s coincidence that fresh thinking, spirited energy and practical creativity runs high  at this moment in history — or maybe it’s that 2009’s challenges require musicians like everyone else to find new answers to the tough questions: how to find joy amid gloom, work to harmonize and stand independently, keep the beat and take time out, too. The following CDs (most also available as MP3 downloads), are pleasures from the past 12 months I recommend for their surprises and soulfulness. Listed in no particular order — 

Henry Threadgill Zooid, This Brings Us To, Vol. 1 (Pi) — At age 65, Threadgill’s alto sax, bass flute and compositions are ever-more tart, urgent and exotic.In his first album in eight years, pitch intervals are cast as units sort of like single notes in serialism —  but you needn’t know that to be swept up by the dense, swift and wondrously shape-shifting soundscape he casts with guitarist Liberty Ellman, tubaist Jose Davila, fretless acoustic bass guitarist Stomu Takehishi and drummer Elliott Kavee. 

The Thirteenth Assembly (Bynum, Fujiwara, Halvorson, Pavone), (un)sentimental (Important Records) Chamber music for moderns — a cornetist, drummer, guitarist and violaist walk the lines between structure and improv, sensitivity and humor, questions and suggestions, inherent references to the past and unpretentious confidence they’re in the right place for music now.
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Infermal Machines (New Amsterdam Records) Recasting the “jazz” orchestra with an ear hip to a spectrum of contemporary composition but most of all sound itself, Argue diplays a nervy ethos by conducting 18 not-very-well-known but gutsy instrumentalists through arresting themes, solid rhythms and energized solos. This is Brooklyn offline, ironic but earnest, and has drawn a following among listeners in their late 20s-early 30s.
Charles Tolliver Big Band, Emperor March (Half Note) Steeped in a powerhouse mid ’60s aesthetic, trumpeter Tolliver writes for and leads an orchestra of veteran players that’s bold, blustery, stately and grand, representing today’s tradition-anchored mainstream without apology or compromise, swinging hard.
Steve Lehman Octet, Travail, Transformation, and Flow (Pi) A rewarding leap forward — altoist Lehman bases his music on a Messiaen-influenced theory called “spectralism,” exploiting the harmonic series for a sound pallet that gleams and penetrates akin to Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, with strong solos — the whole driven by inspired, rugged drummer Tyshawn Sorey.
Bela Fleck, Throw Down Your Heart, Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 3: Africa Sessions (Rounder) America’s determinedly up-to-date banjo player unveils previously untapped depths of collaborative generosity in league with Africans from across the continent whom he’d never met before. Warm, fun, an unexpected triumph — musical globalism that works for everyone.
Kurt Elling, Dedicated to You (Concord). Vocalist Elling and his brilliant, underacclaimed pianist Laurence Hobgood do the unlikely: revisit the classic one-time-only meeting of crooner Johnny Hartman and tenor saxist John Coltrane (evoked here by Ernie Watts) for a tribute just as sterling. Kurt is in commanding voice, but so debonair he’s never bombastic; Hobgood’s immaculate combo arrangements are enhanced by the ETHEL String Quartet – and  the in-concert presence (recorded at the Allen Room of Jazz at Lincoln Center) is amazing.
Keith Jarrett, Paris/London: Testament (ECM). Jarrett breaks into new regions of improvised solo pianism in concerts recorded around Christmas 2008, following the breakup of his second marriage. Always spontaneous, perhaps the vulnerability he details in liner notes allowed him to delve into new complexities, expand his scope. However it happened, the results are beautiful.  
Indigo Trio (Mitchell-Bankhead-Drake), Anaya (Rogue Art) Chicagoans Nicole Mitchell (flute), Harrison Bankhead (bass) and Hamid Drake (drums), have a great thing going, as documented by a French label that’s building an impressive catalog. Mitchell is at her best coming up with a continuous flow of immediate melody that incorporates extended techniques naturally in the course of sweet song, and the trio’s momentum is fluid, unflagging.
Allen Toussaint, The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch) A touch-perfect meditation on New Orleans’ century’s musical legacy, produced by Joe Henry, with mix-and-match guests including Marc Ribot, Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Nicholas Payton joining pianist Toussaint, the man behind dozens of Crescent City hits since the ’50s. Soulful and not unfunky elegance graces the album, which finds enduring relevance (not least of all as memories) in Jelly Roll’s “Winin’ Boy Blues,” Armstrong’s “West End Blues,” the ancient “St. James Infirmary.”
Digital Primitives, Hum Crackle and Pop (Hopscotch). Uninhibited, irrepressible, playful grit by reedist Assif Tsahar, Cooper-Moore on twinger, diddley-bow, flute, et al and percussionist Chad Taylor. They seem to have just invented music, just for the fun of it, and if this album has a couple dud tracks it’s also unusually exuberant, unafraid of noise.
More than honorable mentions: 
Blues albums of the year include Zora Young, The French Connection (Delmark) Big Mama vocals on blues standards, gospel and some smart ringers (by Dylan and Presley) with great support from a French (!) band and her musical partner Bobby Dirninger; and Charles Wilson, Troubled Child (Severn), a bruised but unbowed macho man of the old school Chicago-Memphis-Motown revue style.

Reissues and historical releases: Eddie Harris/Ellis Marsalis, Homecoming (ELM). Peacefully resolute and yet still probing duets by the secretly serious saxophonist and pianist who sired Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason while sustaining a distinguished career of his own. Freddie Hubbard, Without A Song: Live in Europe 1969 (Blue Note). The trumpeter at age 31, post Blakey, Coltrane, Ornette, Dolphy, Hancock, Shorter, Hill but pre CTI, cutting loose on standards with solid support and as much lip as he’d ever have.
Further abroad: Fula Flute, Mansa America (Completely Nuts), West African Bailo Bah and French Canadian Sylvain Leroux twine tambin flutes with balafon, kora, berimbau, hand drums; steady acoustic modal groove and lots of internal activity, too. 
Formalist composer: Elliot Carter: Nonesuch RetrospectiveHonoring intellectual rigor and rhythmic complexity out of Western classical spheres.

Charmer: Lisa Hearns, I’ve Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good — Perking up of what’s become routine, her clean, honest voice refreshes American Songbook favorites. 
Also much enjoyed: bassist John Hebert‘s uncategorizable Byzantine Monkey; tenor saxist J.D. Allen Trio, Shine!; British sax iconoclast Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, The Moment’s Energy; rather different pianist Connie Crothers’ Quartet, Music is a Place; AACM drummer Thurman Barker, Rediscovered; electric guitarist Rez Abassi, Things to Come with South Asian-American compatriots Mahanthappa, Iyer, et al; urbane-folky/worldly multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter John Kruth’s Tribecistan, Strange Cousin; drummer Jeff Watts,on an eponymous CD, pounds it out with Branford Marsalis, Terrence Blanchard and Christian McBride; drummer Jack DeJohnette, pianist Danilo Perez and bassist John Patitucci interact throughout Music We Are; French flutist Michel Edelin‘s trio plus Steve Lehman (see above) Kuntu; Roswell Rudd, Trombone Tribe; guitarist Duck Baker, The Roots & Branches of American Music), Joel Harrison’s Urban Myths, Nels Cline, Farid Haque Flat Planet, Joshua Redman‘s Compass, the Bad Plus For All I Care; Scott Lafaro, Pieces of Jade, Gato Barbieri In Search of Mystery, Don Cherry, Live at the Cafe Montmarte, Vol. 3 . . .
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  1. Michael J. West says

    Suddenly feeling very self-conscious about my very conventional choice, but Ramsey Lewis’ Songs from the Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey was the most wonderful album I heard this year. I’ve tried every which way to describe it here; suffice to say that I never appreciated Ramsey’s gift for lyrical, tender composition or his chops for purebred jazz (though ever mindful of contemporary ideas). My heart is buoyed just thinking about it.

  2. says

    Glad you came around on Zooid. I had the same thought about it: swingin’ funky serialism…
    Here’s a few that may have just missed the deadline:
    David Murray, The Devil Tried to Kill Me
    Darius Jones Trio: Man’ish Boy
    Han Bennink: Parken
    invenio ergo/sum (Eddie Prevost, Ross Lambert, Seymour Wright)
    Evan Parker, House Full of Floors
    All of these show a new degree of soul shining through artists often accused of harsh academicism. And Darius Jones, who I first saw play with William Hooker, is a new master (Cooper-Moore features on the album). Doesn’t sound like anybody but clearly has digested Coltrane & E. Parker.

  3. chris says

    Great list, very balanced and well rounded. I try not to take these things personally but it’s great to see the Threadgill and the Lehman albums in particular getting some end of year love. Now if only Liberty Ellman would follow up Ophiuchus Butterfly…

  4. says

    Really nice blog and list of CDs. I used to lead a New York based band called the NY HardBop Quintet. My latest trio CD is out coming out shortly on the TCB label.

  5. says

    Greetings Howard. Thank you for your appreciation of our Mansa America cd. It is an honor for us to be selected to stand among such illustrious company. Best wishes from Fula Flute.

  6. says

    Further abroad: Fula Flute, Mansa America (Completely Nuts), West African Bailo Bah and French Canadian Sylvain Leroux twine tambin flutes with balafon, kora, berimbau, hand drums; steady acoustic modal groove and lots of internal activity, too.

  7. says

    Greetings Howard. Thank you for your appreciation of our Mansa America cd. It is an honor for us to be selected to stand among such illustrious company. Best wishes from Fula Flute.