I Remember Chirpy

Not a bad year on balance, though slow to start.

JVC's New York jazz festival disappointed, and Carnegie Hall's dismantling of the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band underscored the malaise triggered by a widespread capitulation to jazz lite, jazz pop and jazz not at all.

A California judge evoked a medieval disdain for musical improvisation in deciding against James Newton's suit regarding the Beastie Boys' theft of his music (they call it sampling, as in, "Sure, Mr. Dillinger, you can sample our money, just don't shoot")-more on that next time.

For laughs, there was Kenny G's Kiplingesque explanation of how Charlie Parker got his nickname. Unlike JazzTimes' Norah Jones press conference, this really did happen, during an interview conducted by a straight-faced Ted Panken for Barnes & Noble's online CD site.

Kenny G: "Nobody played faster and more clean than him. Except that there was another saxophone player named Sonny Stitt. He was actually an almost exact duplicate [of] Charlie Parker, except he played it even cleaner. Charlie Parker would squeak a lot, and that's why they called him Bird, because his reed would chirp."

Panken: "You think that's why they called him Bird? That's interesting."

Kenny G: "That is why they called him Bird. That was the deal. He played so fast, and his reed would chirp because it...I don't know, it just couldn't take the speed of his fingers. But Sonny Stitt used to do it without the chirping thing, and played beautiful. But I don't think he ever got the same accolades that Charlie Parker did, mainly because Charlie Parker was the first one."

The origin of Kenny's G is likewise subject to theories: that he only plays in the key of G, that he is the lost son of Matthew Gee, that he has a G-spot, that he was conceived in a Petrie dish from genomes, that when told a farcical story he nods his head and murmurs, "Geeeeee." The truth may never be known.

On the brighter side, New York suffered no musical drought. I think especially of magnificent performances by Cecil Taylor and Sonny Rollins-the former twice, solo and trio in February at Lincoln Center, and with a large orchestra in June at the Knitting Factory; the latter leading his sextet in September at B.B. King's. The future looked rosy when Verizon sponsored a week of solo piano at Jazz Standard, and Ethan Iverson, Vijay Iyer, Matthew Shipp and Jason Moran indicated how much new information they bring to bear on a music that won't stand still.

There were memorable records. Given the lead time of monthly magazines, this assessment was writ before Halloween. So I proffer a nine-best list (they are in no particular order); you add the 10th.

Jason Moran, Modernistic (Blue Note). Solo piano with overdubs, prepared tapes, a toy keyboard and a repertory that ranges from James P. Johnson to Muhal Richard Abrams, played with a daring blend of gravity and irreverence, including very impressive originals.

Cecil Taylor, The Willisau Concert (Intakt). More solo piano, and from the top of this 68-minute fantasia (including three minute-plus encores), you know you are in the hands of an electrifying composer-improviser at the summit of his powers.

David S. Ware, Freedom Suite (Aum Fidelity). At slightly more than double the length of Rollins' 1958 trio opus, Ware has reconceived the piece for quartet, expanding its themes into the four movements of an LP-length suite that suits and challenges his cohort.

Dave Holland, What Goes Around (ECM). The bassist's orchestra is built on the nucleus of his quintet, yet the writing is so radiant you'd think he spent a lifetime mastering the idiom.

Arthur Blythe, Focus (Savant). With uncannily empathic support from tuba, vibes and drums, the altoist delivers his most riveting session in over a decade, his own tunes sounding as classic as his takes on Monk and Ellington.

Ruby Braff, Variety Is the Spice of Braff (Arbors). The dapper trumpeter's big band and quartet settings inspire him; if you hate jazz and strings, three arrangements by Tommy Newsom may change your mind.

Roscoe Mitchell, Song for My Sister (Pi). Cradled by a double rhythm section in a program that includes alluring hard bop, glacial chamber pieces and succinct blasts, Mitchell prevails as multi-instrumentalist and composer.

Matthew Shipp, Songs (Splasc[h]). More solo piano, as at long last Shipp explores nine tunes you know and love, almost always with strict fidelity before slicing them open to find unexpected treasure.

Fieldwork, Your Life Flashes (Pi). Vijay Iyer wrote most of the music for a trio-piano, saxophone, drums-that embodies tour de force interaction, no one laying out for longer than a few measures.

R.I.P.: Lionel Hampton, Ray Brown, Rosemary Clooney, Peggy Lee, Nick Brignola, Wendell Marshall, Ellis Larkins, Peter Kowald, Dodo Marmarosa, Jimmy Maxwell, Idrees Sulieman, Shirley Scott, John Patton, Oliver Jackson, John S. Wilson, Sir Roland Hanna, et al.

Originally published in January/February 2003

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