There's a lot of bias at work in this list. That's true of everyone's year-end lists, but I'm being upfront about it. For instance, there are three solo piano albums here. And, of course, I'm emphasizing jazz quite a lot it's all jazz until the last two items, though arguably Arrington de Dionyso is better categorized as "Avant-garde Improvisation." The way this list is set up, it looks like my favorite folk album (entirely instrumental) and my favorite world music album (as sophisticated and complex as anything in any other category this year) are afterthoughts, but nothing could be further from the truth.
First, the truly new stuff.
This album was a bit disconcerting at first: Jarrett's solo improvisations are no longer the lengthy (as in 20, or 40, or even 60 minutes), uninterrupted free-form excursions familiar from so many great albums, especially the classic Koln Concert. There are 15 tracks on this two-CD set, ranging from 3:03 to 9:18 in timing -- and after every single one, the audience claps ecstatically, whoops and hollers uproariously, and just plain utterly disrupts the mood. But what the hell: If I'd been there I'd have been doing it too, because this is an exceptionally good solo piano recital. Jarrett's never been one to fit into neat categories, but here the amount of sonic territory covered is stunning; some of the pieces early in the program sound more like avant-garde classical compositions than jazz improvisations. There are many moments of transcendence, including the closing encore, a rhapsodic reading of the Vincent Youmans/Harold Adamson/Mack Gordon standard "Time on My Hands." Everything else he played that night of September 26, 2005 was original -- and how! 2. Matthew Shipp: One (Thirsty Ear Blue Series)
Shipp, my favorite jazz pianist under the age of 50, made just his fourth solo acoustic album. His distinctive personal style continues to shift and evolve; here he often pares back the density and at times gives his music a more composed feel. Sometimes modal, sometimes "outside," his improvisations unfold organically, sometimes lyrical, more often probing and spiky.
A solo saxophone concert of kaleidoscopic variety and emotional profundity. Flaherty, a rising legend on the free-improv scene, reins in his wild style ever so slightly this time out, but quieter doesn't mean less intense -- quite the opposite. The more closely one listens to this, the more one gets out of its infinite shadings of timbre. Totally free playing conceived in the moment that yields a timeless accomplishment.
Guitarist/vocalist James "Blood" Ulmer teams for the third time on record with electric violinist Charles Burnham and drummer Warren Benbow in the group that best combines Ulmer's free jazz and blues leanings (along with rock and funk). Ulmer's drawling, Hendrixian singing and imaginative harmolodic playing -- he's one of the most distinctive guitar stylists alive-- are complemented by Burnham's elastic, microtonal fiddling and Benbow's unique combination of fife-and-drum rhythms and funk grooves. Ulmer reimagines some of his best material, which sounds as good as ever in this context, and adds some new classics to his repertoire.
Hill, long a cult favorite, returns to Blue Note for the third time in his lengthy career, reunites with trumpeter Charles Tolliver (who's also making an inspired comeback on Blue Note), and makes another knotty, deeply involving album. Greg Tardy (tenor sax, clarinet, bass clarinet) is crucially versatile; bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson -- Hill's regular rhythm team lately -- are sensitively responsive; the leader proves again that a pianist doesn't need flashy technique to make startling, engrossing music.
6. Arrington de Dionyso: Breath of Fire (K)
ADD steps outside his project Old Time Relijun for an album of solo bass clarinet and throat singing. If that seems like a dry, abstract exercise, think again. His deployment of darkly glinting timbres is positively riveting, and switching between playing and singing automatically provides variety. One of the intriguing things about the juxtaposition of his playing and singing is how similar they are.
Lots of jazz critics are calling this 2005 concert recording the best jazz album of the year. They must just have really missed Coleman, who hadn't made a record for ten years. But if Ornette had used a better drummer than his son Denardo, it could have been #1 (DC has finally gotten his technique up to a minimally acceptable level, but his musicality is still negligible and his time is still sloppy). No complaints about the two-bass tandem of Greg Cohen and Tony Falanga, one bowing and one plucking. Except for the closing "Song X," all the compositions are new, though certainly some of the riffs sound familiar. Coleman's alto playing remains a natural wonder, one of the most distinctive and moving sounds in jazz. Furthermore, his trumpet and violin playing have improved to the point that he's not just getting by on innate musicality, with his fiddling in particular now surprisingly fluid (though most fans will be happy to hear that most of the time he's on alto). His improvisatory imagination remains marvelous. So, though not quite the unmitigated triumph some have proclaimed it, this is still an extremely welcome return.
8. Bennie Maupin Ensemble: Penumbra (Cryptogramophone)
This is just the fifth album by another bass clarinetist, familiar from his contributions to Miles Davis's Bitches Brew and his membership in Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi band. Maupin also plays tenor and soprano saxophones and flute, and varies musical styles and backing instrumentation here as well. Some arrangements are thickly textured and funky; at other times he goes solo. Sometimes he's in a free-improv bag, at other times grooving. No matter which context he picks, he's masterful.
9. Ran Blake: All That Is Tied (Tompkins Square)
"Unique" is an overused term, but Blake fully merits it: nobody else plays piano like him. He had long concentrated on solo playing, but over the past decade had ramped up his collaborations. Going it alone again on this album, his playing has a bit more bite than usual but is still full of quietly concentrated beauty, film-noir shadows, and a vein of quirkily expressed soul.
A pianist and a guitarist, both known for beautiful ballad playing, get together for an album of mostly duos (Mehldau's rhythm section of bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard join on a few tracks). Surprisingly, it's intense! For instance, on Mehldau's "Annie's Bittersweet Cake," the two players get into a deep groove that's reminiscent of one of those soulful vamps Keith Jarrett known for. The high levels of inspiration, imagination, and collaboration are captivating; every moment contains a new and thrilling felicity of some sort. (You can read my full review of this album here.) 11. Lee Konitz New Nonet: s/t (OmniTone)
In a recording career that's hitting the sixty-year mark in 2007, Lee Konitz has maintained his originality in every context. The nonet has always been one of his most special settings as both alto saxophonist and composer, and its return for the 2005 concerts that gave birth to this release -- this version distinguished by bass clarinet and cello -- was a musical blessing. Thanks go to Ohad Talmor, musical director this time out, whose arrangements allow Konitz and the other players (including Talmor himself on tenor) to shine. Solos over a rhythm section are one thing; solos backed by scintillating horn tracks have carried a special kick ever since the big bands (some of which were this size, actually) of the 1920s and '30s, and so it is on this kaleidoscopic disc. Konitz's other 2006 CD on OmniTone, Inventions, which Talmor arranged for the two of them plus string quartet, is also quite enjoyable. Cool jazz lives!
12. Odean Pope Saxophone Choir: Locked & Loaded: Live at the Blue Note (Half Note)
All the albums of the Saxophone Choir are special. Partly this is because Pope himself is heard so rarely (there's an injustice that needs to be righted), but it's especially due to the wonderfully rich sound of his arrangements for nine saxes plus rhythm section. Pope's a good composer for any context, and this disc revives some of his best pieces (he also arranges the John Coltrane tunes "Central Park West" and "Coltrane Time" to good effect). The "hook" for the run of concerts from which this release draws was the addition of all-star soloists Michael Brecker, James Carter, and Joe Lovano, though I'd like it even better if regular member Elliott Levin, one of the three or four best saxophonists in Philadelphia and usually one of the solo stars of this aggregation, hadn't been shunted aside on this program to make room for the bigger names. That complaint aside, this is an album that's both luscious and exciting.
Motian always brings out the best in his old sideman Frisell (or maybe I just enjoy Frisell the most in a jazz context!), with the tunes of Thelonious Monk as usual inspiring some of their most imaginative playing. Most of the time they team with tenorman Joe Lovano, but this time out it's a more traditionally instrumented trio with bassist Ron Carter. Frisell's Americana side isn't neglected here, though, with beautiful covers of Jimmie Davis's "You Are My Sunshine," the traditional folk song "Pretty Polly," and Hank Williams Sr.'s "I'm So Lonesome, I Could Cry." And now the historical end of the spectrum: reissues and first issues of vintage materials.
Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Brotherman in the Fatherland (Hyena)
Any new Kirk is welcome, but it's downright startling at this late date, with so much already released, to get a new concert recording (1972) this spectacular. For displaying Kirk's uncanny musical alchemy (he can turn commercial dross into jazz gold), his ability to play so far out yet communicate so directly and accessibly, and his unfailing musicality no matter what weird instrument (nose flute, anyone?) his fancy prompts him to pull out of his arsenal, this ranks as one of the best introductions to the very special aura of this beloved iconoclast. And, oh yeah, in case you haven't heard, he can play three saxophones at once and it doesnâ€™t sound at all like a gimmick. Prepare to have your mind blown.
Rufus Harley: Re-Creation of the Gods (Transparency)
The best psych-soul-jazz bagpipes release ever. Oh yeah, the only one ever. If anyone was ever one of a kind, it was the late, great Rufus Harley. (You can read my look at Harley's career and review of this 1972 album here.) The Khan Jamal Creative Arts Ensemble: Drumdance to the Motherland (Eremite)
Another reissue of psych-jazz from Philly in 1972, this time on the spacier, freer tip. Jamal plays vibraphone and marimba (plus a bit of clarinet, according to the credits), electric guitar, bass, and two drummers add their own special and surprising sonic colors (with the soundman a creative partner through his application of reverb), and everyone takes a trip that wends through both Africa and the cosmos.
Yes, this is a rather rough document with a workshop approach -- it takes the band three tries to get one piece right. But to have such a great rarity (self-released by Mingus at the time in very small numbers and out of print for decades, this is its first reissue and thus its first appearance on CD) finally available again is of historical importance, and most music fans have the technology to construct their own program from this album, omitting the breakdowns and speeches, after which there's still an hour and a half of good music. Personally, I'm overjoyed that thanks to this album there's more of trumpeter Hobart Dotson's playing available -- he's worth the price of admission by himself.
Frank Wright: Unity (ESP)
Legendary 1960s anything-goes label ESP has returned, bringing some unreleased goodies, including this powerful blast of high-energy free jazz sax blowing from 1974. Wright is joined by his group of the time, pianist Bobby Few, bassist Alan Silva, and drummer Muhammad Ali, in a concert consisting of an hour-long improvisation of unfaltering inspiration.
This seminal fusion group's ever-changing evolution over its fifteen-year history is well summarized on three CDs, with the band's best albums -- which many fans will of course already own -- not over-represented, and with a few previously unreleased versions spicing things up. Co-leaders Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter were already two of the greats in the jazz pantheon when they started the band in 1970; some of the many brilliant compositions showcased here have become new jazz standards. The DVD of a well-filmed and musically thrilling 1978 concert of their best lineup, with Jaco Pastorius and Peter Erskine, will attract even fans who already own all the WR albums. A folk highlight.
James Blackshaw: O True Believers (Important)
This twenty-three-year-old English guitarist is a 12-string virtuoso often spins out three lines at once (melody, counterpoint, bass) while giving each a distinctive color -- he's like a one-man trio. That might sound like it's complex, abstract, and overly busy, but nothing could be further from the truth: this is gentle, meditative music, harking back to Sandy Bull's raga-influenced, droning style, but minus all the rock influences. On this album Blackshaw overdubs tamboura, harmonium, cymbala (an Eastern European psaltery), and some twinkling percussion ("The Elk with Jade Eyes" is even guitarless for awhile). Absolutely beautiful music. Finally, this anomaly from Brazil.
I suppose there may be precedents for a three-act operetta in Portuguese, in the Tropicalia style of '70s Brazilian progressive music. Just don't ask me what they are, especially when we get to the parts where a man has sex with a donkey in Scene 2 ("Stupid Boy") and a woman's explosively loud orgasm at the U.N. is heard in Scene 5 ("Vibrations of Flesh"). The point of it all is how messed up gender relations have become, and how society devalues women, but the storyline is so fantastical, and the lyrics so poetic, that what would be an unbearable hectoring lecture in most artists' hands is instead a fascinating -- and, in purely musical terms, thoroughly satisfying -- listening adventure. And if anyway cares about my favorite rock of the year, read about it here. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer. His personal highlights in 2006 were getting married in Japan and then writing and recording his original soundtrack to Bystander, a documentary film by John Reilly.