The Best Jazz Albums of 2007

More of the best Jazz recordings from this year. This list from Slate.com

I’m only posting Jazz and Latin music related lists for the most part, due to time and interest considerations. I did not listen to a whole lot of pop music this year. My year was spent listening to alot of Jazz and Latin music as always but also to African music. I’ll be discussing what I did listen to and liked in the next week or two.

The Best Jazz Albums of 2007
By Fred Kaplan

It’s been a good year for jazz. No single new recording stands out, as Ornette Coleman’s Sound Grammar did in 2006, but many albums more than satisfy.

Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy, Cornell 1964(Blue Note). The clear winner is this live two-disc concert from long-lost tapes of Mingus’ most boisterous band in its merriest mood. Regarded as a run-through of the (now-legendary) Town Hall concert a few weeks hence, and the European tour that followed, the session has its wayward moments, but it’s jammed with zest and virtuosity. It starts with a head-spinning Jaki Byard piano solo on “ATFW You” (the initials standing for Art Tatum/Fats Waller), segues to Mingus plucking a soulful bass solo on “Sophisticated Lady,” then moves into a string of original tunes—Mingus classics (“Faubus Fables,” “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk,” “So Long, Eric”), some of them played for the first time in public here. Horn solos by Eric Dolphy, Clifford Jordan, and Johnny Coles sizzle throughout. Drummer Danny Richmond plays near his peak, too. The discs aren’t as revelatory as Monk and Coltrane’s unearthed Carnegie Hall tapes of 1957, which topped this list (and many others) in 2005, but they’ll do. (Better still, in some ways, is the “Jazz Icons” DVD, Charles Mingus: Live in ’64, which lets you watch this same band, playing the same music, much of it a bit more tightly, a few weeks later in Europe.)

Maria Schneider Orchestra, Sky Blue (ArtistShare). It’s remarkable that composer-conductor Maria Schneider’s 17-to-20-piece jazz orchestra is still going after 15 years, with most of the original members intact. It’s amazing that they keep getting better. Schneider’s compositions, once embedded in the Gil Evans school of Medialush stacked harmonies, have stretched into rich, melodic lines and exotic (usually Latin-tinged) rhythms. The band members, always skilled, have developed into exuberant soloists. Sky Blue is her most ambitious work: a testament to love, loss, memory, friendship, and the joys of birding (she has her quirks). She writes gorgeous ballads and snappy upbeat numbers, without dipping into sentimentalism or pop banality. The band is whip tight. The sound quality, by engineer Joe Ferla, is stunning and lifelike: dynamic, warm, and vivid. (Available only from Schneider’s or ArtistShare’s Web site.)

Erik Friedlander, Block Ice & Propane (SkipStone Records). Best known as the cellist in John Zorn’s various Masada string ensembles, Erik Friedlander is the son of the great photographer Lee Friedlander. When Erik was a kid, the family would spend the summers in a pickup truck with a built-in cabin on top, driving across the country to sites where Lee would take pictures. This CD—subtitled “Taking Trips to America: Compositions and Improvisations for Solo Cello”—is a musical remembrance of the feeling of those voyages: haunting, lulling, adventurous, and disorientingly magical. Friedlander combines a modern classicist’s sense of harmony—Copland’s open chords, but also Crumb’s gnarly grit—with rhythmic nods toward early folk and blues. Is it jazz? I’ll leave that to the philosophers. It’s great music by a great jazz musician; that should be enough.

Anat Cohen, Poetica (Anzic). Anat Cohen—still in her 20s, Israeli born-and-bred, Berklee-trained, Manhattan-honed—is a fresh breeze on the jazz scene, a clarinetist who plays with high spirits, a silky tone, and a hard-polished edge. Her music reflects her multiple influences: folk, klezmer, Brazilian choro, a whiff of Dixie, as well as modern jazz. Poetica, put out on her own label (a real commercial venture, not a home-brewed knockoff), features spirited originals, a Jacques Brel tune, and a cover of Coltrane’s “Lonnie’s Lament” (with string quartet) that’s as stirring as any out there.

Carla Bley, The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu (ECM). Pianist-composer Carla Bley’s small-group sessions have an eccentric charm, but there’s something deeper going on here. The tunes, all written by Bley, are near-minimalist progressions—a scale inversion, a few chords, a bass line, a melody. Yet she arranges these strands in some magical equipoise, like a Calder mobile. The album features her quartet, called the Lost Chords, joined by Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu (hence the oddball title), whose plangent tone is reminiscent of Miles Davis’ early balladeering. The disc is at once taut and rambling, bittersweet and lyrical.

Paul Bley, Solo in Mondsee (ECM). Carla Bley’s ex-husband and, much more than that, a jazz pianist’s pianist for the past half-century, Paul Bley plays with a stark romanticism—rhapsodic flourishes and heavy use of the sustain pedal, but tempered by staggered rhythms and slightly dissonant harmonies. These 10 numbers, improvised etudes, were recorded in a nicely resonant studio in Mondsee, Austria. At first, they’re catchy; on repeated listening, each one opens new doors and takes you in more deeply.

Herbie Hancock, River: The Joni Letters
(Verve). I’ve often wondered why more jazz musicians don’t riff on Joni Mitchell songs. They’re rhythmically complex and harmonically open—plenty of room for improvisation. Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter played backup on her jazz-cadenced albums of the late ’70s (Mingus, Hejira). Now they lead a tribute album, featuring some of her best tunes, joined on six of the 10 tracks by various singers—including Norah Jones, Tina Turner (both surprisingly apt), and Joni herself, who saunters through “Tea Leaf Prophecy” with the cool aplomb of a “real” jazz crooner. Hancock coaxes aptly moody tone clusters from the piano; Shorter wails simpatico; and Dave Holland fills in the spaces on bass. A rare album that truly fuses pop and jazz without pandering to either.

Paul Motian, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano, Time and Time Again (ECM). This is an irresistibly odd trio—Motian slapping his brushes on snare and hi-hat, seemingly out of rhythm but in fact closing in on it with precision; Frisell picking Twin Peaks intervals with the slightest wah-wah; Lovano blowing the blues on tenor just a little bit out of the bar—yet it works, it delights, it sometimes rivets. The album is not quite as mesmerizing as last year’s trio disc with Motian, Frisell, and bassist Ron Carter, but it’s vital stuff, and there’s nothing else like it.

Joe Lovano & Hank Jones, Kids: Live at Dizzy’s Coca-Cola
(Blue Note). Here’s Lovano in a more cruising-bop mode, playing duets with Hank Jones, who was 88 years old when these sessions were set down and who still navigates the piano with dexterity, grace, and hard rhythm. They play mainly standards; they always delight and sometimes startle.

Kendra Shank, A Spirit Free: Abbey Lincoln Songbook
(Challenge). Abbey Lincoln’s songs are tough nuts for any singer; they move through uneven intervals, abruptly change keys, and sport lyrics that border on the banal unless they’re sung with real conviction. Kendra Shank sings 11 of her songs with nearly as much soulful wisdom as the composer does—and in better tune and rhythm. Her rhythm section, especially pianist Frank Kimbraugh (a longtime accompanist who also plays in Maria Schneider’s orchestra), provides just enough support. It’s an enchanting collection.

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