January/February 2004

Top 50 CDs of 2003

We had our voters-critics and industry folk-rank their favorite CDs in order, and the No. 1 disc received 10 points, the No. 2 disc received 9 points and so on. The total points for each CD are listed after each review. A tight vote, to be sure, but thankfully we're not in Florida.

Wayne Shorter
Alegria (Verve)

Wayne Shorter
By Thomas Dorn
Dave Holland
By Laurence Labat
Jason Moran
By Paul Brown
The Bad Plus
By Chris Floyd
Dianne Reeves
By Clay Patrick McBride
Branford Marsalis
By Drew Carolan
Miles Davis
By Tom Terrell
Count Basie
By Courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection
Gerry Mulligan
By Burt Goldblatt

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What we said: Wayne Shorter's musical literacy is so sophisticated that he sounds entirely at home as he moves from 1930s flamenco tunes ("Vendiendo Alegría") to a medieval Christmas carol ("12th Century Carol") to Celtic folk songs ("She Moves Through the Fair") to pieces from his own 1960s portfolio ("Orbits," "Capricorn II") that he blows up and reassembles. He utilizes an ensemble at times as large as 20 pieces to create dramatically variegated, through-composed contexts for his own adventurous forays on both tenor and soprano. There are lilting, suave meters, and contrapuntal intricacies, and pieces that drive hard with dense African energies....He plays brilliantly: his pure, luminous soprano wheeling and soaring with or against the full ensemble; his tenor lines more like broken brush strokes and suggestive spare gestures....Alegria, in the scope of its ambition and the virtuosity of its execution, is a genuine advance upon the widely praised Footprints-Live!....I believe that Alegria will win as many awards as Footprints-Live!, and it will deserve them. TOM CONRAD, May 2003

What we say: Psychic Conrad called the album of the year back in May. Tom, have you ever thought about getting a job as a full-time prognosticator? We could use some help with our football bets....105

Dave Holland
Extended Play (ECM)

What we said: Great club recordings are as dependent upon the inspiring nappy edge or possible flub for their magic as they are on a well-executed game plan. On Extended Play, Holland and his cohorts let the listener hear them sweat as they take real risks, but they never slacken, let alone stumble....The consistently sterling level Holland's quintet sustains is not the result of the clever cherry picking of a four-night stand. It is simply a benefit of longevity that eludes most jazz units....Extended Play does everything a club recording should do in impeccable fashion, as it confirms what you know and dig about Dave Holland's Quintet as well as provides some new insights into its underlying forces. BILL SHOEMAKER, Nov. 2003

What we say: Holland came in second behind Shorter last year as well-but this year it was by the slightest of margins. There are no losers, however, if you buy both of their CDs, and it's almost certain that Holland and his band will post here next year. Perhaps then they will become the brides they've always dreamed of being....104

Jason Moran
The Bandwagon (Blue Note)

What we said: The Bandwagon begins its live sets with a prerecorded collage of sampled sounds. A Béla Bartók chorus collides with a Robert Johnson blues, which in turn leads to spoken-word fragments by, among others, the actor John Gielgud and Minister Elijah Muhammad....For licensing reasons, this intro was cut short for the The Bandwagon CD. But Moran exercised similar impulses elsewhere on the date. "Ringing My Phone (Straight Outta Istanbul)" features a sampled phone conversation between two women in Turkish. What's remarkable about the performance is the fact that Moran uses the material not as an accent or supplement, but rather as a compositional blueprint: the trio matches the cadence and tonality of the conversation, essentially note for note. The resulting tune is serpentine and syntactically complex-but somehow free flowing and organic, tied as it is to human speech....The songs are literally exercises in translation, across languages, media and cultures. NATE CHINEN, Sept. 2003

What we say: The most exciting trio in jazz? We think so, and this CD proves it-even despite the so-so recording quality....54

Andrew Hill
Passing Ships
(Blue Note)

What we said: In the past three years composer and pianist Andrew Hill made two new records for Palmetto-2000's Dusk and 2002's A Beautiful Day-that were among the most highly regarded of their respective years. With the first release of this 1969 recording, Passing Ships, Hill has accomplished the same thing in 2003 without even having to book rehearsals....No Andrew Hill fan can be without this release, which stands in comparison to his greatest work. DUCK BAKER, Jan./Feb. 2004

What we say: First, run out and buy this CD. Then turn to page 113 for more of this review....52

Art Ensemble of Chicago
Tribute to Lester

What we said: The trumpeter's absence is sharply felt on Tribute to Lester, particularly on Lester Bowie's jazz-savvy "Zero," which he recorded with the AEC and the Leaders. Even during Roscoe Mitchell's piquant alto solo there's a nagging sense that a channel has dropped off and Bowie will bleat his way in at any moment. The same goes for the reprise of Favors' loping "Tutankhamun," which dates from the AEC's early Nessa sessions. Still, the trio is able to sustain compelling levels of energy, as is the case with "As Clear as the Sun"-which reiterates Mitchell's status as a pioneering soprano stylist-and vivid, morphing palettes of percussion colors. Additionally, the AEC's ability to completely surprise the listener remains very much intact, the case in point being Mitchell's "Suite for Lester"; though it is rooted in Mitchell's explorations of baroque music, it nevertheless has a dry comedic undercurrent that, in concert, Bowie could use to trigger a house full of laughter just by raising his eyebrows. BILL SHOEMAKER, Nov. 2003

What we say: With this album and the The Meeting (Pi), also voted into our top 50 of 2003, the previously quiet AEC roared back onto the scene with a double dose of greatness....39

The Bad Plus
These Are the Vistas

What we said: To many in the jazz-aware public, the Bad Plus arrives as a bolt out of the blue-galvanic, improbable, discrete, unforeseen.... Pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King have blazed a new trail for the piano trio-or, more modestly, they've diverged from the beaten path and ranged freely on common ground....Collectively the musicians inhabit an impressively elastic dynamic, forged of quick reflexes and dramatic flair....Vistas includes the group's darkly roiling "Smells Like Teen Spirit," along with its frenetic take on "Heart of Glass," by Blondie. Irreverence or no, both are jazz interpretations in the time-honored tradition...But some of the high points on Vistas convey a burnished neoclassical romanticism....The album's tour de force, "Silence Is the Question," works a small motif through successively more imploring conjugations, culminating in a riot of colors. If the Bad Plus has an effect on the greater landscape of jazz, it will be through such ecstatic vistas as these. NATE CHINEN, March 2003

What we say: The race-baiters had a field day with this band. Overlooking the Bad Plus' great music and instead concentrating on their skin color-pasty white-while wondering how this group made such a buzz made some folks seem exactly like the supposed racists they were attacking. Here's a novel idea: Listen to the Bad Plus' music-with your eyes closed....37

Dianne Reeves
A Little Moonlight
(Blue Note)

What we said: If there were any lingering doubts that Dianne Reeves isn't a first-rate jazz singer, A Little Moonlight should dispel them forever. Reeves has proven herself a topflight vocalist in every category. She can certainly swing and sing the blues with credibility and conviction. Her delivery, phrasing and enunciation are excellent, and most important she's a wonderful storyteller and communicator. Despite doing several numbers on her newest release that merit the "shopworn" tag, Reeves truly does find ways to make them at least sound contemporary....It also helps that she has an ace producer in Arif Mardin and a band committed to helping her fully execute the song....A Little Moonlight is another addition to Dianne Reeves' glittering legacy. RON WYNN, Sept. 2003

What we say: This is Reeves' best CD, hands down, and she and her band are in top form. Even if you are ambivalent about vocal-jazz albums, A Little Moonlight will win you over....35

Vijay Iyer
Blood Sutra (Artists House)

What we said: Vijay Iyer's ascendancy in the new avant-garde has been fairly meteoric, although that's not to say that it came without warning or cause. The pianist-composer's résumé is heavy with credentials: a combined Ph.D. in music and cognitive science, an M.A. in physics and apprenticeships with the likes of Steve Coleman and Roscoe Mitchell....Blood Sutra features Iyer's regular compatriots, and the cohesive group's ethos is at once reflective and kinetic, conveying obvious affinities with Steve Coleman's M-BASE collective. But there's something utterly distinct about Iyer's approach. His piano playing can be broad and onsweeping or minutely detailed, but the primary constant is the suppleness of his touch and the liquid warmth of his tone. The ensemble's rhythmic patterns don't seem imposed or dictated so much as issued effortlessly from a center, like the concentric ripples on a pond....This is exciting and eminently listenable stuff, intuitive in bearing and dynamic in execution....An essential for adventurous listeners, Blood Sutra could also serve as an ideal introduction to Iyer's burgeoning oeuvre. NATE CHINEN, Nov. 2003

What we say: Dr. Iyer is too damn smart. He's also too damn good to be unnoticed, which is why his two CDs in 2003 (In What Language? is the other) managed to crack our top 50 despite being released on tiny indie labels. Genius cannot be ignored....30

Keith Jarrett
Up for It (ECM)

What we said: Up for It marks the 20th anniversary of Keith Jarrett's "Standards Trio," with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette.... Recorded live in Juan-les-Pins, Up for It also signals a return to the Great American Songbook, after two recordings that were completely improvised, Inside Out and Always Let Me Go. In Jarrett's hands, completely improvised albums and albums of standards are not deeply dissimilar....This CD feels different from the other standards albums. Jarrett does not push these songs as hard; Peacock and DeJohnette take fewer solos; the tempos are mostly medium....Up for It lacks the passionate creativity (and the sonic quality) of the best albums in this trio's ECM portfolio. But it is an honest, small, unique installment in one of the distinguished bodies of recorded work in the history of jazz. THOMAS CONRAD, July/Aug. 2003

What we say: The fact that three supremely talented players, with egos to match, could find so much common ground for so long is testament to their significance-and the power of their great music.....28

Branford Marsalis
Romare Bearden Revealed (Marsalis Music)

What we said: This is both a celebration of an incredible artistic genius, Romare Bearden, and a marvelous salute to African-American musical heritage and tradition. It's also another indication that Marsalis was right to desert the corporate wars and go the independent route. This disc's nine cuts have a joyous, emphatic quality that was seldom approached on Marsalis' final Columbia releases. Marsalis' playing reflects the passion and confidence of an improviser thoroughly immersed in each composition....The entire disc not only honors the giants of African-American culture, it spotlights a current jazz master who's now playing better than ever. RON WYNN, Dec. 2003

What we say: Branford has always been among the baddest saxophonists out there, but who would have thought that a quickly constructed tribute disc to a painter would be among his most exciting albums....24

Matthew Shipp
(Thirsty Ear) 23

Nguyen Le
Purple: Celebrating Jimi Hendrix
(Act) 22

Boz Scaggs
But Beautiful
(Gray Cat) 20

Ron Miles
Laughing Barrel
(Sterling Circle) 20

Seven Days of Falling
(Act) 20

Toshiko Akiyoshi
Hiroshima: Rising From the Abyss
(True Life) 21

Tord Gustavsen
Changing Places
(ECM) 18

Roy Haynes
Love Letters
(88's/Columbia) 18

Carla Bley
Looking for America
(Watt/ECM) 18

Steve Coleman
On the Rising of the 64 Paths
(Label Bleu) 18

Fred Hersch
Live at the Village Vanguard
(Palmetto) 18

Jean-Michel Pilc
Cardinal Points
(Dreyfus) 17

Regina Carter
Paganini: After a Dream
(Verve) 17

McCoy Tyner
Land of Giants
(Telarc) 17

Tim Berne
The Sublime And.
(Thirsty Ear) 16

Luciana Souza
North and South
(Sunnyside) 16

Kurt Elling
Man in the Air
(Blue Note) 15

Greg Osby
St. Louis Shoes
(Blue Note) 15

Matt Wilson
(Palmetto) 15

Joel Harrison
Free Country
(ACT) 14

Joe Lovano
On This Day at the Vanguard
(Blue Note) 14

Cassandra Wilson
(Blue Note) 14

Elio Villafranca
(Pimienta) 14

David Sanborn
(Verve) 14

David Murray
Now Is Another Time
(Justin Time) 14

Pat Metheny
One Quiet Night
(Warner Bros.) 14

Jane Ira Bloom
Chasing Paint
(Arabesque) 14

Dave Douglas
Freak In
(Bluebird) 14

Thelonious Monk
Monk in Paris:
Live at the Olympia
(Thelonious) 14

Marty Ehrlich
Line on Love
(Palmetto) 13

Vijay Iyer &
Mike Ladd
In What Language?
(Pi) 13

Vandermark 5
Airports for Light
(Atavistic) 12

Jaco Pastorius Big Band
Word of Mouth Revisited
(Heads Up) 12

Kurt Rosenwinkel
(Verve) 12

Ben Perowsky
Camp Songs
(Tzadik) 12

Elvis Costello
(Deutsche Grammophon) 12

Stefon Harris
The Grand Unification Theory
(Blue Note) 12

Gilad Atzmon
(Justin Time/Enja) 12

Clark Terry & Max Roach
(88's/Columbia) 11

Charles Davis
Blue Gardenia
(Reade Street) 11

Reissues of the Year

Miles Davis
The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions
(Columbia/Legacy) 17

Count Basie
America's Number 1 Band: The Columbia Years
(Columbia/Legacy) 17

Miles Davis
In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk, Complete
(Columbia/Legacy) 12

Randy Weston
Mosaic Select
(Mosaic) 8

The Complete Verve
Gerry Mulligan Concert Band Sessions
(Mosaic) 8

Sam Rivers
Fuchsia Swing Song
(Blue Note) 7

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