I missed Sonny Rollins at Carnegie Hall. Likewise John McLaughlin with his new fusion band, and the Keith Jarrett Trio in their latest New York appearance, and Branford Marsalis in his Jazz at Lincoln Center tribute to Gil Evans. I couldn’t make it to the 50th anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival, or to Duke University for the premiere of Jason Moran’s In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall, 1959. A critic can’t be everywhere at once.
But he can try, and try I did. Along the way I heard a wealth of stuff that bolstered my view of jazz as a robust and still-evolving art. Even with some difficult losses this year-ranging from Michael Brecker, the beloved tenor saxophonist, to Tonic, the Lower East Side club-our scene has held up, even managed to flourish. Consider the impressively self-assured debut recordings issued this year, including Kendrick Scott’s The Source (World Culture), Antonio Sanchez’s Migration (Cam Jazz), Tyshawn Sorey’s That/Not (Firehouse 12) and the self-released efforts Tintal Drumset Solo (by Dan Weiss) and Brooklyn Qawwali Party (via a band led by Brook Martinez). And those are just albums by drummers; don’t even get me started on guitarists.
The year’s live highlights were exceedingly diverse. There were poignant and well-programmed memorial concerts for Brecker, Alice Coltrane and Max Roach. There was the engrossing depth of this year’s Vision Festival, which included a powerful new piece by Bill Dixon. There was a rare Village Vanguard engagement by Martial Solal, in wry solo piano mode. And perhaps most inspiring, there were the semifinals at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in Los Angeles, where Ambrose Akinmusire prevailed over a strong crop of fellow trumpeters, each of whom played with conviction.
What follows is my fourth annual roundup of standout gigs, and as always it should be received with the understanding that there were dozens more. I’m almost willing to bet that Sonny Rollins would be on it, had I not been out of the country during his landmark Carnegie stand. A couple of months later, Rollins happened to be on my plane to Barcelona, where he was booked to play a Barcelona Jazz Festival concert at the splendidly surreal Palau de la Música. That gig doesn’t appear below, but let’s give it an honorable mention: I’ll never forget the sight of Sonny nearly bounding onstage, as the audience filled the hall with their raucous applause.
Jason Moran and the Bandwagon, Birdland, Jan. 11: This late set capped a long day at the International Association for Jazz Education Conference, and it could have faded into the blur. But Moran’s dynamic pianism, and the slashing propulsion of drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Tarus Mateen, delivered a clear and memorable jolt.
Marilyn Crispell Trio, Village Vanguard, Feb. 27: Drawing only in part from Storyteller (ECM, 2004), pianist Marilyn Crispell made an auspicious Vanguard debut with Mark Helias on bass and Paul Motian on drums. The week’s first set, especially, was a shape-shifting marvel of tensions and resolutions.
Steve Kuhn Trio, Birdland, March 15: Briskness and ebullience were the chief characteristics of this rewarding run, which had Kuhn, on piano, regrouping with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Al Foster. As on the worthy document Live at Birdland (Blue Note), they struck a sparkling interplay.
Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau, McCallum Theatre, Palm Desert, Calif., March 22: Eclipsing a later stand at Carnegie Hall, this concert found Mehldau’s piano and Metheny’s guitar deeply in sync, and the rhythm section-Larry Grenadier on bass, Jeff Ballard on drums-in a state of perpetual arrival.
Andrew Hill Trio, Trinity Church, NYC, March 29: The somber euphony of Andrew Hill’s chords here was breathtaking, and so was the sensitivity of bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson. Within little more than a month, Hill would be gone, but his final performance (archived at trinitywallstreet.org) would still be with us.
Niño Josele, Village Vanguard, May 22: Bill Evans resurfaced at the Vanguard through the novel ministrations of this flamenco guitarist, who was supporting an album called Paz (Norte/Calle 54). Bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez compounded the magical air.
Sam Rivers Trio, Miller Theater at Columbia University, NYC, May 25: Two words: Dave Holland. His open-form bass playing, in this rare reunion with multi-reedist Sam Rivers and drummer Barry Altschul, was an absolute thrill. Ditto the casual cohesion of the trio, and the inexhaustible creativity of Rivers, then 83. Repeat booking, please.
Guillermo Klein y Los Guachos, Village Vanguard, June 14: Klein, the composer-bandleader whose career triangulates Buenos Aires, Barcelona and New York, led his signature ensemble with otherworldly poise. And when he sang at the piano, in a hushed and confidential tone, the room shifted on its axis.
Gary Peacock, Paul Bley, Paul Motian, Birdland, Aug. 22: Another late set, another bout with exhaustion, another heady triumph. Bley often set the tone from the piano, but Peacock (on bass) and Motian (on drums) exerted no less pull. The results covered a broader range than on their stunning album Not Two, Not One (ECM, 1999), but with just as much atmospheric mystery.
Maria Schneider Orchestra, Jazz Standard, Nov. 20: Drawing from this year’s exquisite Sky Blue (ArtistShare), Schneider and her ensemble played an arresting first set, with strong solos from tenor saxophonists Chris Cheek (making his first appearance as a sub) and Donny McCaslin (filling his usual role with gusto). Simply gorgeous.