As was the case with my best-of-2007 list of new rock, pop, and soul releases, most things on this list are on independent labels. Sadly, though, that's because the major labels (aside from Universal-distributed ECM) just don't bother with jazz's low-selling artists anymore. Even Blue Note is more interested in chasing the adult contemporary market in the wake of their success with Norah Jones, though their reissues are still a great boon. But in terms of musical quality (as opposed to sales numbers and promotion), does it make any difference whether a Dave Douglas album is released on RCA or on his own Greenleaf imprint? As long as we get it...Matthew Shipp: Piano Vortex (Thirsty Ear) I'm not quite ready to call Shipp the best pianist around, not with Cecil Taylor and McCoy Tyner still active and inspired, but I do look forward with greater eagerness to hearing each new step in his brilliant development. Steve Dalachinsky's CultureCatch review of the latest installment is here.
Dave Douglas Quintet: Live at the Jazz Standard (Greenleaf/Koch) Back in December 2006, trumpeter Douglas and his fusion quintet played a week at the titular Manhattan venue and put all the shows online for download. This two-disc set skims the cream off the top of that abundance of riches while focusing on new material (only two pieces had previously been released on record). The quintet here is Douglas's fusion band: Uri Caine on keyboards, new tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, acoustic bassist James Genus, and drummer Clarence Penn. Miles comparisons are inevitable but hardly tell the whole story, especially when a bunch of the tracks were inspired by Don Cherry and when Douglas is on cornet instead of trumpet. This is truly a group that has constructed its own personality, and its many facets are well displayed here.
David S. Ware Quartet: Renunciation (AUM Fidelity) Documenting the last U.S. concert of tenor titan Ware's long-lived quartet with pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker, and a string of drummers ending with Guillermo E. Brown, this is a triumphant close to a 17-year-plus run. After a period in which, compared to his youthful fire, Ware's playing had mellowed a bit, his old derring-do returns in a blaze of improvisational glory. Shipp, practically as important a member of the group as the leader, also exhibits great drive and imagination, as do Parker and Brown. And as anyone who's ever heard a show in the massively reverberant Angel Orensanz Center could testify, this recording sounds better than being there.
McCoy Tyner: Quartet (McCoy Tyner Music/Half Note) I've long said that tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano plays best on other people's gigs, and here's yet another example. (Yes, Lovano's own albums are fine, but as a leader he rarely lets it all hang out the way he does as a sideman.) McCoy Tyner plays his best almost every time out -- I've only ever heard one sub-par album from him -- and by this point, in the fifth decade of his sterling career, has a superb compositional catalog to draw on in concert. With bassist Christian McBride and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts (on his best behavior) rounding out the band, this date is by turns fiery and magisterial in its improvisational brilliance and motivic power, with Tyner still at the top of his game. Even if you've already got a couple dozen McCoy Tyner albums, pick this one up -- you can never have too many.
Paul Motian/Bill Frisell/Joe Lovano: Time and Time Again (ECM) I have five of this group's CDs now, and this is the most low-key, but repeated listening showed its subtle approach has staying power. Despite the greater fame of guitarist Frisell and saxophonist Lovano, drummer Motian remains the leader, as he was when the group formed two decades ago before the relative youngsters were well known. Whether there is a connection to that fact or not, the work Frisell and Lovano have done with him in recent years has outstripped their fine work as leaders by being more spontaneous, probing, and adventurous, particularly Motian's piece "In Remembrance of Things Past," on which Lovano deploys some emotive quiet altissimo. As usual, a Thelonious Monk tune inspires them to witty heights; this time out it's "Light Blue."
Andy Bey: Ain't Necessarily So (12th Street) For a while now, Andy Bey has been arguably the best living male jazz singer. He has exquisite control over the wide variety of tones he can produce with his rich and powerful baritone and supernal falsetto, his vibrato is deployed tastefully, his diction is exemplary without being over-pronounced or fussy, his voice is amazingly agile (check out his take on the always tricky Ellington chestnut "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart"), and he finds new ways to sing standards without ever slipping into eccentricity or mannerism. Add in his fine piano playing and, for this 1997 comeback stand at NYC club Birdland issued here for the first time, the attentive, sensitive, and responsive rhythm tandem of bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington -- no relation (Vito Lesczak replaces KW on two tracks) -- and it's as good an introduction to Bey's artistry as one could ask, a canny veteran singer still in his prime.
Muhal Richard Abrams: Vision Towards Essence (Pi) Recorded in concert at the Guelph Jazz Festival on September 11, 1998, this nearly hour-long set of three solo free improvisations is the sort of wild and wooly spontaneity that jazz conservatives probably don't even consider jazz. (It swings only occasionally, and references the blues only intermittently). But for a single player creating thrilling beauty on the spur of the moment, you couldn't do better last year. Shifting between motivic and gestural material, shooting off some surprisingly virtuoso runs but sometimes reducing the music to sonic bare minimums, Abrams is by turns ruminative, witty, mysterious, impish, profound, and rollicking.
Harris Eisenstadt: The All Seeing Eye + Octets (Poo-Bah) Half a tribute to a classic Wayne Shorter album, half a condensation of two Eisenstadt large-ensemble suites, this is a Janus-like disc that looks backwards and forwards. The decision to change the instrumentation on the Shorter-penned tracks (four by Wayne, one by Alan) from trumpet/trombone/alto sax/tenor sax/piano/bass/drums to trumpet/two clarinets (doubling bass clarinets)/bassoon/vibes/bass/drums not only avoids direct comparisons to Wayne's solos, it gives the pieces an attractive chamber-music quality with interesting timbres, though without sacrificing spontaneity. Carla Bley's arrangements for Gary Burton come to mind, both because of Chris Dingman on vibraphone and because of the pointillist arrangements. The chamber-music feeling is even stronger on Eisenstad's compositions, but again there remains plenty of jazz feeling.
Michael Blake Sextet: Amor de Cosmos (Songlines) A Canadian who's now based in New York, Blake drew on Canadian history and childhood memories to inspire much of this album. Nonetheless, some tracks on which Chris Gestrin plays electric piano suggest Silent Way-era Miles Davis thanks to the Fender Rhodes timbre and Brad Turner's velvety trumpet tone. That said, plenty of others do not. (I may be the only person reminded of Giovanni Tommaso's composing style on highly tuneful "The Wash Away," further distinguished by its odd meter.) Nor should Blake's superb band (including, to excellent effect, Sal Ferreras on marimba) distract from how distinctive and talented a tenor and soprano saxophonist he is; the eerie "The Hunt" with its ghostly alternate-fingering timbres (over piano/bass rumblings) is especially noteworthy.
Dave Burrell: Momentum (High Two) This veteran pianist, in his fifth decade of recording, continues his comeback with the aptly titled Momentum, another superb trio album. His Monkishly spare and angular style, with never a superfluous note, is equally well suited to the more modern, dissonant tracks and the playful throwback tracks. Teaming with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Guillermo E. Brown (the latter gets spotlight time on "4:30 to Atlanta"), Burrell is both stimulating and enjoyable, serious and fun. (Actually this was a very late 2006 release.)
Historical: Andrew Hill: Compulsion (Blue Note) I'm not saying this October 3, 1965 session is necessarily better than the Mingus that follows, but I love it more and it fills a bigger discographical gap. For one thing, look at the reed half of the frontline of Freddie Hubbard (trumpet, flugelhorn) and John Gilmore (tenor sax and bass clarinet). Gilmore gigs away from the Sun Ra Arkestra are scarce and to be cherished. (The rest of the band -- drummer Joe Chambers plus two percussionists; bassist Cecil McBee plus, on one track, bassist Richard Davis -- is also impressive.) For another, this is one of the freer outings of Hill's wonderful career, showing a looser side of him than we usually got.
Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy: Cornell 1964 (Blue Note) This storied group's concerts have been well documented. However, this two-CD set of a never-before-released gig is the best I've heard -- which with a band of Mingus, Dolphy, trumpeter Johnny Coles, tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, pianist Jaki Byard, and drummer Dannie Richmond is really saying something. The 31-minute "Meditation" is searingly intense emotionally.
Soft Machine: Third (Sony BMG) Reissued in the U.K., this is well worth tracking down. The original album (issued in June 1970) found the band finally crossing the line (on album, that is) from psychedelic prog-rock into fusion, albeit a peculiarly English flavor of jazz/rock suggestive of a mash-up of King Crimson and Miles Davis's Bitches Brew band. Making this reissue more valuable is a newly added second disc containing an August 13, 1970 concert at the Royal Albert Hall, recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio Three. This live material has been issued before, not always legitimately; it's good to have it again, in good sound from an impeccable source.
Bennie Maupin: Jewel in the Lotus (ECM) I swear I'm going to start promoting the genre tag "freak-jazz" just to see if it will attract the attention of the increasing numbers of psychedelia explorers/excavators. Maybe then albums such as this 1974 release (receiving its first CD issue) will get the respect that jazz purists have long denied them. Maupin is best known for contributing bass clarinet to Miles Davis's Bitches Brew and Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi, Sextant, and Head Hunters albums, and has had a long (though not prolific) career that continues to the present day. Here on his first release as a leader, playing saxes, clarinets, flute, and glockenspiel plus a vocal, he is joined by Herbie on acoustic and electric piano, bassist Buster Williams, and drummers Frederick Waits, Billy Hart, and Bill Summers, with underrated trumpeter Charles Sullivan added on two tracks. What they play sounds neither like Miles nor Headhunters, instead mixing freer, more avant-garde improvising with spacier, more spiritual settings and some deep but freaky grooves as glinting inspirations flit in and out of shadows. Hard to pin down, but quite evocative. - Steve Holtje Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who has twice as many CDs in his apartment as are in Sound Fix, the Williamsburg record store he works at. He has been informed by his wife that endless shelves displaying CD spines don't qualify as esthetically pleasing home decoration; thus, one of his New Year's resolutions involves removing all CD shelves from the bedroom.