Any jazz fan comes to learn that sidemen are the soul and guts of the music: indispensable even when their presence is obscured. And there are rewards inherent in the act of accompaniment, despite the thankless portrait painted in Side Man, the wrenching Warren Leight play. Melodrama aside, it’s not often that sidemen get singled out for their work, which is why this list seemed like a fine idea. Before the year-end roundup effort chugs into gear, here’s a list of 10 laudable sideman performances from 2006.
Richard Bona: Mike Stern, Who Let the Cats Out? (Heads Up) – The rapport between Bona and Stern is well documented-I’ll refer you to the July/August issue of JazzTimes, which featured the pair on the cover-and it has recently produced some fine moments on both artists’ albums. Bona’s contribution to this release, on fretless electric bass and wordless falsetto vocals, marks the finest of those moments. His multi-tracked effort on “Language” is a particular highlight, precisely for sounding like something that neither artist would have done without the other. Whether you choose to call it fusion, pop, global jazz or just music, there’s no mistaking what Bona brings to the table.
Øyvind Brække: The Source, The Source (ECM) – It may be a stretch to call Brække a sideman here, given that this Norwegian quartet is a collective, with saxophonist Trygve Seim, bassist Mats Eilertsen and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen exerting equal pull. But I was struck most by Brække, both in terms of his trombone playing, which suggests Albert Mangelsdorff as often as it does George Lewis (not too often, but enough to warrant parenthetical comment); and his compositions, which serve as an elastic framework for the album (he penned nine out of 13 tracks). Brække’s presence doesn’t announce itself as much as any of the other performances on this list, but that’s fitting on an album that makes its point in hushed and confidential tones.
Paul Motian: Frank Kimbrough, Play (Palmetto) – You’d be right to call this on the grounds of an unfair advantage. Pianist Frank Kimbrough had always wanted to record an album with Paul Motian, the Zen-like drummer and composer, so Motian is a sideman here only in the same way that Jack Nicholson is a supporting actor in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. Whatever: The results are sensitive and deep, especially when the trio interprets Motian’s classic abstract composition “Conception Vessel.” Kimbrough’s passionate attunement to the Motian mystique bears serious rewards.
Nicholas Payton: SFJAZZ Collective, SFJAZZ Collective 2 (Nonesuch) – It’s a collective, sure, but given the spokesman role of saxophonist Joshua Redman, let’s say Payton is something other than the leader. His trumpet playing is a bright highlight of this Coltrane-themed live album, especially as he tears through a deftly rearranged “Moment’s Notice” and simmers smartly on “Crescent.” Then there’s his ambitious original, “Scrambled Eggs,” which shows that he’s pushing himself as a composer.
Jorge Rossy: Brad Mehldau, House on Hill (Nonesuch) – The end of Rossy’s decade-long tenure in the Brad Mehldau Trio was bittersweet: The band had already reached a state of fulfillment, and in some ways Jeff Ballard’s arrival as drummer signaled a welcome change. But this album, recorded during the same sessions that produced Mehldau’s 2004 Warner Bros. swansong Anything Goes, serves as an elegant coda to the Rossy era. The drumming, though whispery and ethereal, generates an effortless momentum. And Mehldau’s composing, perfectly attuned to Rossy’s percussive style, underscores how deep the bond between these musicians had grown over the years.
Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Ignacio Berroa, Codes (Blue Note) – It’s not just that Rubalcaba and Berroa often work together with the roles reversed. The former’s pianistic effort on this album is critical, whether he’s comping or taking one of several well-balanced solos. It’s no slight to Berroa’s leadership that you might, upon hearing Codes, assume that it’s not a drummer’s record.
Bobo Stenson: Thomas Strønen, Parish (ECM) – The Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson is the older eminence of this session, and his role often seems central: shaping the flow of improvisation, stirring the embers of quiet meditation. His is a deeply self-assured performance, indicative of experience as well as intellect and intuition. It’s one of the reasons why this acoustic effort by Strønen-the sharp young Norwegian drummer otherwise known for his work with the bands Supersilent and Food-conveys a sense of depth.
Marcus Strickland: Michael Carvin, Marsalis Music Honors Michael Carvin (Marsalis Music) – Tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland has had a good year, self-releasing an impressive double album (Twi-Life, on Strick Music) and backing everyone from trumpeter-composer Dave Douglas to drumming legend Roy Haynes. His work with a less familiar drummer, Carvin, is worth applauding: Strickland carries the melodic lead on this album with poise, on a brisk “I’ll Remember April” as well as a contemplative “You Go to My Head.”
Mark Turner: Billy Hart, Quartet (HighNote) – One of the joys of this album is hearing Ethan Iverson prestidigitate on straightahead fare, outside the rugged ecosystem of the Bad Plus. Another of them is Turner, whose work on tenor is simply magnificent on “Moment’s Notice” (there’s that tune again) and Hart’s original ballad “Irah,” among other tracks. Given Turner’s professed ambivalence about bandleading-there’s a reason you haven’t seen a sole release under his name in five years-this may be the best way to hear him. It helps that Hart is his kind of drummer: authoritative, loosely propulsive and possessed of an enormous pair of ears (with a brain to match).
Cuong Vu: Myra Melford Be Bread, The Image of Your Body (Cryptogramophone) – There’s so much useable steam coming from the sidemen on this album-guitarist Brandon Ross and bassist Stomu Takeishi deserve props as well-but trumpeter Cuong Vu stands out. His holistic, sound-oriented approach to the horn is a big factor on the opening track, “Equal Grace,” and he stamps his imprint on an aggressive charger, “Fear Slips Behind.” This album is most noteworthy for Melford’s pianism and composition, but Vu’s presence, even on just half of the tunes, provides a boost.