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The Year ’04 in Review: Top 50 CDs

Don Byron
Don Byron
Maria Schneider
Don Byron
Andy Bey
Branford Marsalis
Dave Douglas
Von Freeman
Dizzy Reece

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.

Don Byron


(Blue Note)

What we said: Clarinetist Don Byron’s tribute to a 1946 recording by a Lester Young bass-less trio with Nat Cole and Buddy Rich more than works-it is outrageous and sublime….Jason Moran’s powerful piano injects constant surprise and ideational density into the group improvisations, while drummer Jack DeJohnette, with his crashing strategic eruptions and running side commentaries, always instigates….As for Byron, he plays with a wild abandon made meaningful by the clarity of his overarching purpose. He is after not the literal language but the spirit of the Young trio: “very joyous sounding, but also cerebral.” Performances begin with embedded vintage material associated with Young like “Somebody Loves Me” (in two epic takes) and “I’ve Found a New Baby,” and escalate into maelstroms of ecstasy and analysis….With Ivey-Divey, Don Byron has finally made a major album.

-Thomas Conrad, Oct 2004

What we say: Digging up one of Pres’ dusty grooves for inspiration has served Byron well-but who knew that the resulting CD, as high-minded as it is engaging, would be so great that it would be named JazzTimes’ album of the year? Byron’s Ivey-Divey sounds simultaneously classic and modern, cool and urgent, experimental and swinging-and Byron did it with a clarinet, raising the neglected instrument to the top of the heap. Somewhere, Benny Goodman is smiling (Lester Young, too)….74

Andy Bey

American Song


What we said: Andy Bey ranks right alongside Mark Murphy as one of the two or three greatest male standard-bearers on the planet….Bey simply gets better with age….Throughout American Song, as he gently meanders through such masterpieces as “Angel Eyes,” “Lush Life,” “Midnight Sun,” “Prelude to a Kiss” and “Lonely Town,” a sense of mystical reverence emerges….Immerse yourself in the burning yearning of his “Speak Low,” the mellow worldliness of his “Satin Doll” or the winsome lilt of his “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” and you’ll appreciate precisely what a half-century of uncompromising genius can reap.

-Christopher Loudon, May 2004

What we say: We thought we were exhausted on singers doing the standards, too, but oft-overlooked singer-pianist Bey made these songs irresistible again, thanks in part to sophisticated arrangements by Herb Jordan and Geri Allen. Props to Savoy for giving Bey the platform, promotion and top-notch production to create such a timeless CD….63

Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette

The Out-of-Towners

(ECM )

What we said: After 21 years and 18 albums, it is reasonable to wonder when the members of this extraordinary ensemble will exhaust one another or their chosen genre of the Great American Songbook. The answer is: not yet….On this live recording, the trio sounds totally engaged in the pursuit of fresh discoveries, electric with the kind of creative energy that levitates all three off their stools….The first principle of Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette is to swing their butts off-their more famous proclivity for rarefied improvisational lyricism notwithstanding….When Jarrett airs out Cole Porter’s “I Love You,” the exhilaration comes partly from how spontaneous, subjective digressions are thrown off in profligate extravagance, but even more from how they always return seamlessly to the song.

-Thomas Conrad, Nov. 2004

What we say: They were on this list last year for Up For It, they’ll be here a year from now for their next one, such is the critical acclaim and overwhelming talent of this trio. Though we still can’t stand Jarrett’s grunting-who does?-no one gets tired of hearing this band swing old tunes into something brand-new….55

Branford Marsalis


(Marsalis Music )

What we said: Recorded at the Tarrytown Music Hall in upstate New York, Eternal is an exquisite and fully realized album. Marsalis plays with unprecedented warmth, whether issuing despairing tenor cries or wistfully dialoguing with bassist Eric Revis….It’s an album that sounds familiar at once, yet deepens in meaning with repeated listening. With one song apiece from the members of the band, and no glaringly obvious standard songbook selections, it occupies a singular space….The album’s centerpiece is a sense of humanity Marsalis attributes to A Love Supreme; the quality that transcends whatever else may be in the air. And while he may take pains not to emphasize it, Marsalis reveals a personal side of that humanity by concluding the album with a sinuous original composition dedicated to his wife, akin in its meditative intensity to the final movement of Coltrane’s suite.

-Nate Chinen, Nov. 2004

What we say: If there’s something to be learned from this quartet (and Jarrett’s trio, for that matter), it’s that keeping a band together for a while pays handsome dividends. On this moving ballads record the musicians breathe as one, and Marsalis solidifies his position as leader of one of the best working groups in jazz….53

Dave Douglas

Strange Liberation

(Bluebird )

What we said: From the opening track, the sound freezes you right in your chair…It is collectively, dramatically assertive….Douglas commands a wide variety of tones and gives the impression that he can do anything he wants with his instrument. But his focus is always the evolving ensemble, clarified through the lenses of his own provocative compositions. Douglas plays lines so free they feel abstract until they cohere into fresh form. Just as often he commingles, submerges, reappears….This music is conducted from the musicians to the listener, directly….Strange Liberation possesses, in spades, that quality of immediacy essential to jazz. That quality originates not from the assumption that the notes have never been played before but from a sense that the music is coming into being, in real time, as urgent creative impulses.

-Thomas Conrad, April 2004

What we say: If the conspiracy theorists who assert that Douglas gets his accolades due to skin color still think that’s the case after hearing this sharp nod to electric-tinged jazz, with Bill Frisell at the band’s front and center, then we’re pretty sure that those agenda-toting dopes are straight-up deaf. Ugly, too….48

Saxophone Summit

Gathering of Spirits

(Telarc )

What we said: I can’t remember the last time I heard an album featuring multiple saxophonists with such

distinctive, individualized approaches-Charlie Parker, Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter on an early ’50s Norman Granz-produced session, perhaps? The virtues of originality are on full display-Joe Lovano’s wooly-toned, Cy Twombly-esque linearity; Michael Brecker’s immaculately shaped melodies, moving in-and-out of time (and the changes) as naturally as breathing; Dave Liebman’s stream-of-consciousness flurries delivered with incorrigible intensity. This album is ridiculously good.

-Chris Kelsey, Oct. 2004

What we say: Toes tend to get stepped on during supergroup efforts like this, but these big guns put their egos in check and rose together to such a high level that-well, it’s like Chris Kelsey said: ridiculously good….47

Geri Allen

The Life of a Song

(Telarc )

What we said: Pianist Geri Allen’s first release in six years nicely spotlights her compositional excellence and mature playing….Rather than just zipping through progressions or spewing out rapid-fire notes, Allen presents delicate, fleeting lines and light, soothing refrains….She’ll also shift into an aggressive Afro-Latin mode or deliver sharp, rhythmically daring gospel-influenced phrases….Bassist Dave Holland’s booming solos and often-stunning accompaniment are augmented by Jack DeJohnette’s nimble drumming and expertly varied patterns and textures….Allen’s excellence in establishing a composition’s mood and developing the piece to its fruition is spectacular….Although her versions of standards are marvelously performed, it is her fresh, distinctive originals that distinguish The Life of a Song. Ron Wynn, Sept. 2004

What we say: If six years is what it takes for Geri Allen to conceive brilliant pieces like these, so be it, but we’d love to hear the follow-up sooner than that. Listen, Geri, we know you’re a great mom, but hand the kids off to Papa Wallace, and get to writing! ….47

Von Freeman

The Great Divide

(Premonition )

What we said: Von Freeman is representative of a rapidly depleting national resource, not only because he is a direct living connection to Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Lester Young, but also because he possesses two precious attributes: individuality and style. For most jazz players, notes are dots that are connected, often skillfully and creatively, to get from point A to point B. When perpetrated by Von Freeman, notes are meaningful, considered, consciously placed separate events, nuanced and inflected into expressive gestures of communication….A program of profound, convoluted, soul-baring ballads, startling one-chord modal abstractions, pedal-to-the-metal races across “I Got Rhythm” changes and deep, slow blues, The Great Divide is one of Freeman’s strongest albums ever.

-Thomas Conrad, Nov. 2004

What we say: Amazingly weaving together the lyricism of the great swing-era saxophonists with the edgy avant-isms of the AACM set, Freeman speaks his own language through the tenor-one that sounds like a summation of jazz history on this CD….45

Bill Frisell


(Nonesuch )

What we said: This collaboration between Bill Frisell and Hal Willner, the producer, turntablist and Saturday Night Live music supervisor, yields intriguing but mixed results. That Frisell should choose to put his postmodern country twang through a hip-hop filter isn’t surprising-he’s been a combiner of sounds and idioms from the beginning. But his is not a predictable mind, and Unspeakable is not a shallow hop onto the sampling bandwagon….It’s an arty mix of the organic and the synthetic, with Frisell’s slippery clean tones and distorted growls and cries in the middle. Without fail, the grooves of Unspeakable are infectious. As a compositional whole, though, the album doesn’t always hold one’s attention.

-David Adler, Feb. 2005

What we say: Like Adler, we’re not quite sold on Unspeakable, but what do we know? The fact is many of the critics had no problem falling into Frisell’s new groove and riding it to the end….43

The Bad Plus



What we said: What’s in evidence on Give is an enormous degree of artistic integrity, superb musicianship and an intriguing penchant for deconstructing odd pop tunes. Give continues the band’s rambunctious program of skull-cracking sonic assaults, off-kilter merriment and implausible emotional sweep. Returning producer Tchad Blake brings a vivacious, richly detailed sheen to the production table, while the band again delivers uncanny, infectious and daring reconstructions of pop songs by Black Sabbath and the Pixies as well as delightful originals….Listen to Give with honest and open ears to really enjoy the Bad Plus’ fascinatingly grungy and ingenious makeover of the classic piano trio.

-John Murph, April 2004

What we say: Even if Give’s not as memorable as its predecessor, the smash These Are the Vistas, the formula is similar: pop-tune covers and striking originals, plus hard-hitting beats and unconventional production (for jazz, anyway). But you can’t fault them for relying on a recipe that produces one of the biggest and baddest jazz sounds ever put to tape….41

Maria Schneider

Concert in the Garden


What we said: Maria Schneider’s new album is more ambitious, more tilted toward the classical side of Schneider’s jazz/classical balance, and more influenced by Spanish, flamenco and Brazilian forms than any of her previous works. Because Schneider’s music is so subtly shaded, longer pieces are challenged to sustain narrative interest and urgency over time. The 12-minute opening title track is not entirely successful in this regard….But the other two works, “Three Romances” and “Buleria, Solea y Rumba,” are revelatory in their complete realization….Maria Schneider expects her audience to be able to concentrate, to follow her intricate, finely woven designs, defined through small details and slight shifts of color. For the listener, the rewards of this attention are the epiphany of perceiving complex diverse elements that cohere into a single arc, a whole-and the experience of being authentically moved by understated emotion.

-Thomas Conrad, Oct. 2004

What we say: It’s one thing to raise money to record and release, say, a quartet album on your own. Schneider managed to get enough cash to make an orchestral jazz record, soliciting funds from her fans through the innovative For that, as much for her intelligent music, Schneider is a pioneer…..41

Originally Published