Ron’s Top 10 CD Picks of 2008
This yet another live recording at the venerated Village Vanguard by Brad’s trio with Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard (who replaced Jorge Rossy, now a pianist!). In a span of a dozen years, Brad Mehldau has created the second most recognizable and compelling jazz piano trio extant. I was not a big Ballard fan until now. He plays with more drive than Jorge, but he remains sensitive, has great dynamic range, and listens and reacts splendidly. What makes this trio great is the ability to mine and freshly interpret standards and additionally to explore the less conventional compositions of Radiohead and Nick Drake, even The Beatles, not staples in most jazz musicians’ repertoires. Add to this, Mehldau’s originals and you have a very diverse and exhilarating musical program.
The recording hardly does justice to the trio’s in-concert tour performances that supported the release, where each tune lasted about 20 minutes. That said, this is still an exciting album featuring Pat’s trio with nonpareil bassist Christian McBride and drummer Antonio Sanchez (who is jaw-dropping in person, at least for drummers). As expected with Metheny, the original material is “pleasurable” but not exceptionally inspiring. There is Latin flavoring throughout and more syncopation than when Bill Stewart was the trio drummer. Some hate Pat’s guitar synthesizer, but I like the effect if used judiciously. The CD spares you the sight of a guitar tech switching Pat’s instruments 30 times a show, but a DVD of this band would be even better.
The quartet is drummer Adam Nussbaum’s baby. He has chosen three of his favorite players and long-time associates to create a comfortable, swinging band. The CD is new and the first recorded effort by Nuttree. A successful European tour supported the release. Mature, but underrated tenor player Jerry Bergonzi interfaces well with guitar giant John Abercrombie, who has always been creative playing standards as if they were his own compositions. He is never derivative. Organist Gary Versace has an extraordinary touch, much like a pianist, but his use of pedals is just perfect. Nussbaum is a flawless jazz drummer. He plays the music without grandstanding, but still plays with authority and finesse.
4. Andreas Oberg – My Favorite Guitars (Resonance)
A tennis prodigy in his youth in Sweden, Oberg had to make a difficult decision to give up competitive athletics to be a musician. By 18, he was a regular on the Swedish music scene, playing in several genres with virtuosic technique. This is homage to six of his guitar heroes (Django, George Benson, a couple of Pats, etc). Oberg is a new voice on guitar and not immediately recognizable, but his talent is obvious. He is only 30 and really just starting to bloom. Romanian pianist Marian Petrescu, “the Horowitz of jazz piano,” (no, that not my designation) obviously is inspired by Oscar Peterson, but he restrains himself here and plays great. Bassist Harish Raghavan is young, but very solid. Drummer Vic Stevens is a veteran, but oddly quiet on the recording front. He plays very well enough. Funny business, jazz is. This is a good record.
5. Aaron Parks – Invisible Cinema (Blue Note)
The 25-year-old pianist makes his solo debut in this magnificently constructed and sophisticated recording that has a thread running through it, tying the 10 tracks together in a compelling suite of elegant compositions often in challenging forms and feel. Parks is a cerebral, technically superb player. There is a some Brad Mehldau flavor in his playing, but not so that you will misidentify him as Brad. His own unmistakable voice will come soon, it seems. Kudos to bassist Mark Penman and drummer Eric Harland for holding this all so tightly together. Harland’s drumming is crisp and certain. Guitarist Mike Moreno fits beautifully into the mix. He is less dominant than Kurt Rosenwinkel with whom Parks frequently plays, but fascinating nonetheless.
Two venerable jazz musicians, both NEA Jazz Masters, get together and play jazz standards. What can be better than that? James Moody still plays with that warm, full tone that made him famous more than 60 years ago. Nothing fancy, mind you, just jazz. The same is true of pianist Hank Jones, the eldest and surviving sibling of the famous Jones family (trumpeter Thad and drummer Elvin). He is 90 and going strong playing beautiful melodies. They are artfully accompanied by bassist Todd Coolman and drummer Adam Nussbaum in making music that is not particularly challenging or edgy, but instead it is merely pleasurable. How refreshing.
The single most innovative and influential guitarist on the jazz scene is not Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell or John Scofield; it clearly is Kurt Rosenwinkel, who apprenticed with Gary Burton then Paul Motian before going on his own. This band is superb with joined-at-the-hip tenor saxophonist, Mark Turner, Aaron Goldberg, Joe Martin and Eric Harland. Rosenwinkel’s technique is prodigious, his groove ferocious and his tone compelling, sonorous and warm. The tunes are challenging, marked by a kinetic lyricism. All the music is original, sometimes chops-busting and always emotional and exploratory.
Veteran tenor saxophonist, a fixture on the scene for only 10 years, despite his maturity, is one of the finest pure players out there. Every recording he releases is memorable and brilliantly conceived, particularly his 12 years on Blue Note (see Quartets, Rush Hour, Celebrating Sinatra and 52nd Street Themes), his collaborations (such as Scofield, Dave Holland, and Al Foster, Michael Brecker and Dave Liebman; Bill Frisell and Paul Motian; Jim Hall; Hank Jones, etc) brilliant. Enter Symphonica, recorded with Cologne, Germany’s WDR Radio Big Band and Orchestra, with lush arrangements by Mike Abene, who now leads the WDR band. Lovano does the heavy solo lifting, but altoist Karolina Strassmayer is a bright light doing chase choruses with the leader on “Alexander the Great,” a burner. This is another beauty.
9. Lee Konitz & Minsarah – Deep Lee (Enja)
It is remarkable that alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, now 81 and still vibrant, has always been doing it his way. First heard “widely” while taking an original path (read: not coming out of Charlie Parker) with fellow renegade, pianist Lennie Tristano, Konitz still was in that Miles Davis band that recorded the seminal Birth of the Cool record in 1949, when bebop was pretty hot and the cool school did not yet exist – at least for most. With his dry tone and unorthodox chromaticism, syncopation, Konitz was coherent and melodic, a consummate storyteller. Now, Konitz, the master, meets Minsarah, a trio of young international players who are just as adventurous and cerebral as their mentor. German pianist Florian Weber, Israeli drummer Ziv Ravitz, and American bassist Jeff Denson are not well known yet, but will be, especially Weber, who is dynamic and inventive with a classical player’s technique.
10. Javon Jackson – Once Upon A Melody (Palmetto)
A graduate of the Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers Academy For Great Players You Haven’t Heard of Yet, Javon Jackson has done nicely with his solo career. A strong post-bop improviser with a robust tone and a melodic approach taken from Wayne Shorter, Jackson has nodded to Wayne, McCoy Tyner, Ramsey Lewis in this quartet session with his touring band with pianist Eric Reed, drummer Billy Drummond, both known to South Florida JAZZ, and bassist Corcoran Holt. There is never a shortage of power bassists, it seems. A couple of familiar tunes are interspersed with great jazz tunes, all favorites of the leader, potentially a problem if too familiar; but there is no staleness with this outing. Everything is fresh sounding and vibrant so that this tribute album replicates the approach of his live performances, and we have seen him three times in concert for SFJ. Javon is terrific and so is this CD.