We asked people who work in jazz-critics, radio people and the like-to list for us, in 150 words (give or take), their highs and lows of 2003.
After an extensive and expensive renovation, the Louis Armstrong House is now open to the public. The jazz world’s Graceland is just one more reason to visit New York City’s most diverse borough. Remember to stop by the Lemon Ice King afterward.
Norah Jones swept the Grammy Awards with a debut album that some called jazz. Whatever you think of the record, she now has scads of fans singing Hoagy Carmichael-which is very cool.
Just wait until she records a songbook album.
Columbia finally got around to reissuing Miles Davis at the Blackhawk. This band sometimes gets overlooked and my LPs always sounded like hell. The new set clears up the latter and hopefully, with time, the former as well. -Matt Abramovitz
Worst moment: The Crouch Affair. But also Daniel King’s article about it in the Village Voice, in which he lavished praise on Amiri Baraka without acknowledging the poet/critic’s anti-Semitism. (And King’s topic, mind you, was racism and the media.)
Best moments: Ornette Coleman’s JVC Festival concert at Carnegie Hall; the return of Henry Grimes and the Charles Tolliver Big Band; Sunnyside’s Owl reissues. Healthiest industry development: The major-label signing of the Bad Plus. OK, some of the praise was overheated. But detractors, in their haste to dismiss Sony PR, denied this compelling trio a fair listen. -David Adler
Best moments: Wayne Shorter, Roy Haynes, Sonny Rollins, Elvin Jones, Ornette Coleman, Martial Solal and the rest of the jazz giants still out there showing the young whippersnappers how it’s done. Worst moments: National Public Radio’s drastic cuts in its jazz programming. -Larry Appelbaum
Race is and always will be a factor in jazz, jazz business and jazz journalism. But how about a moratorium on playing the race card and fostering conspiracy theories? If funk and fusion feel good, do it: Christian McBride, Roy Hargrove and Nicholas Payton did right by the genre(s). Old dogs, new/old tricks: Pat Metheny, with Christian McBride and Antonio Sanchez, reworked Group tunes, swung standards and got experimental and noisy; Herbie Hancock went electronics-free with Scott Colley, Terri Lyne Carrington and others. New dogs, old/new tricks: The Bad Plus, an inspired mix of Keith Jarrett and unplugged MMW, played jazz loud and acoustic. Daringly original? Not yet, but just you wait. Festival highlights: Vienne-the Dave Holland Big Band, Brad Mehldau, Tord Gustavsen, and Bill Laswell’s worldbeat/electrojazz/trance thing. Montreux-Richard Galliano’s accordion/piano/ bass/strings group and Jacky Terrasson. French Quarter Festival, New Orleans (like Jazz Fest, minus the insane crowding): Irvin Mayfield, Papa Grows Funk, Bonerama, Jon Cleary, Theresa Andersson, and Michael Ray and the Cosmic Krewe.
Duane digs ’em: Allman Brothers family prodigy Derek Trucks worked magic with slide guitar, and gospel-bred soul stirrer Robert Randolph did the same on pedal steel. -Philip Booth
More than most, this was a year of organic hybrids. Roy Hargrove expertly harnessed urban soul, while the Bad Plus apprehended alternative rock. Jason Moran, Dave Douglas, John Patitucci and Vijay Iyer each delivered projects of ambitious scope and amalgamated style (and at least one can’t-miss disc apiece). Vocalists Cassandra Wilson and Luciana Souza weighed in, too, with releases so thoughtfully balanced as to seem effortless in their grace. And remarkably, none of these genre-blending experiments seemed motivated by market considerations (although, in this slash-and-burn era, the idea surely surfaced). No, the above and many other artists were simply and sincerely articulating their musical breadth. And in this, they were perhaps spiritually led by two venerable elders: Wayne Shorter and Ornette Coleman, each one a master who not only had a banner year, but also seems poised to charge inward and onward, wherever that may lead. -Nate Chinen
The worst in jazz in 2003 was encapsulated by what Larry Appelbaum wrote in his Before & After feature in the November 2003 issue of JazzTimes: “Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts may be the last straight-ahead jazz musician still recording for Columbia.” That it should come to this in 2003 for the label of Ellington and Miles and Monk and Mingus and Wynton et al. symbolizes the depressed state of the major label jazz-record industry. The best in jazz in 2003 is the fact that the art form is being kept energetic and viable by the courageous and creative spirits who run the independent labels. Small independents like Fresh Sound New Talent and Palmetto and MaxJazz and Groove Note and Reade Street and Sirocco and several dozen others are the true keepers of the flame. -Thomas Conrad
The most inspiring story of this year was the reemergence of bassist Henry Grimes. He was once in demand after having played with everyone from Benny Goodman to Albert Ayler. After more than 30 years of being “disappeared,” Grimes made it back into the world, and the jazz world, thanks to the help of a diligent jazz fan/social worker, Marshall Marrote. Grimes is once again active in music and has been able to put his past life of homelessness and his mental-health issues in a proper and healthy perspective that has allowed a remarkable comeback, both musically and emotionally. Too often the jazz life offers more victims than survivors, and Henry Grimes’ life is a rare story of the latter. Ray Barretto continues a streak of stellar jazz-Latin (his term) with his latest, Homage to Art Blakey. His fluency in both Afro-Cuban and American popular music contribute to a singular and distinct expression of his love for jazz. Viva Ray Barretto! There were also fabulous recordings by artists deserving much wider recognition, such as John Santos and the Machete Ensemble: they continue to take Afro-Caribbean music to places it has never been before. Trumpeter/percussionist Jerry Gonzalez reinvented himself as a flamenco pirate who sounds as if he has been hanging out in gypsy camps with the souls of great bebop trumpet players from the past. And Poncho Sanchez picked up where Mongo left off with Afro-Cuban meets soul music. There is much more to Sanchez’s music than meets the ear: listen closely and you can hear two threads of the African diaspora come together in these grooves. These were just the some of the highlights. It’s hard to understand why jazz recordings are such a small percentage of the record business when there is so much great music out there. -Felix Contreras
Most unusual concert moment of the year: The Donald Harrison Quintet’s drum rotation at the Berkshire Jazz Festival in Great Barrington, Mass., last July 25. The band got off to a late start because nobody could find drummer John Lamkin, who’d arrived in town the night before and was staying with some of the festival staff. So Harrison, who’d played drums as a kid and studied through observation as one of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, played drums for the first third of his set. Then Steve Johns, who was working with Jimmy Heath later in the day, sat in for the middle third so Harrison could move up to the front line with his nephew, trumpeter Christian Scott. Lamkin showed up for the final 20 minutes, the final two tunes. He’d locked his keys in his car. There’s a drummer joke in here somewhere-or one soon to be under construction. -Ken Franckling
One of my best musical experiences of the past year has to include the coming together at Alice Tully Hall of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the Igor Butman Big Band. The performances by each band individually, and particularly when they merged, were a success from all standpoints. The first of two concerts was so good that I went back two nights later for the second one and heard new selections but also different takes on some of the repeated numbers. A great international event. Other high spots were Hank Jones’ 85th birthday celebration at the Blue Note; the tribute to Clark Terry at the Cape May Jazz Festival; ditto the one for Frank Wess and Joe Wilder at the JVC/NY Festival; Scott Hamilton and Harry Allen’s two-tenor group at the Vanguard; Gerald Wilson’s New York band at Birdland; and the amazing, mixed media presentation Frank Sinatra: His Voice, His World, His Way with John Pizzarelli as an incomparable compere at Radio City Music Hall. There were deaths to mourn, but Benny Carter’s passing was also a chance to celebrate a man who gave so much and will be with us till the end of time. -Ira Gitler
The three best jazz records of the year proved once again that jazz improvisation could be based on other things besides show tunes and bebop standards. Carla Bley’s Looking for America used patriotic tunes as the basis for Latin big-band arrangements and, without needing lyrics, created the most telling commentary on the post-9/11 world. With her mix of anger and affection, Bley reminded us that patriotism is not, despite the right’s insistence, as simple and shallow as an adolescent crush; it’s as complicated as marriage. Jason Moran’s The Bandwagon bases its variations on samples of spoken speech, finding a new musical vocabulary in the subtle inflections of conversation. And Matthew Shipp’s Equilibrium proves that it is possible, despite many disastrous attempts by others, to make jazz out of hip-hop materials. The pianist does it by making the hip-hop groove not the dominant rhythm but one of several polyrhythms that push and pull at each other like the best jazz. -Geoffrey Himes
Intrepid searches through this aging mind couldn’t turn up a truly worst moment from ’03. One is always tempted to cite notable passings-the loss of Benny Carter for example. But Benny lived to a ripe old age, and remember that delicious moment in his documentary when he was tooling around L.A. in his Rolls? Last year’s worst, the decimation of NPR’s cultural programming, has a curious postscript: Joan Kroc’s record $200 million donation to NPR. What’ll be their excuse now? Best: Jack DeJohnette’s sublime Invitation Series at the Montreal Jazz Festival; his interplay with kora master Foday Musa Suso was especially magical. And the National Endowment for the Arts’ move to significantly raise the bar for its laudable American Jazz Masters program, this country’s maximum jazz award, including a monetary raise to $25,000 per Master. Another enhancement: a touring program for the Masters. -Willard Jenkins
Best jazz development: Drummer Dee Pop’s Sunday night “Freestyle Events: Hardcore Jazz & Avant Musics Series” at CBGB’s Lounge in NYC. The excellent long-running series presents New York City’s best free-jazz talent in a relaxed, welcoming environment, helping plug the hole left by the Knitting Factory’s decline as a jazz venue. Worst jazz development: The transformation of NYC’s Knitting Factory from a progressive jazz hot spot to second-rate punk-rock club. New York jazz musicians had their differences with club founder Michael Dorf, but when he left, he took the good vibe with him. New York’s free-jazz community is the worse for the loss. -Chris Kelsey
Dubious moment: Hate him or merely dislike him intensely, Stanley Crouch showed “balls of steel” in addressing his many critics at the Jazz Journalists Association Awards banquet with a solo drum performance in the tradition of his idol Max Roach. While Stanley was no Max, he demonstrated that he does indeed know the rudiments. Whether or not his drumnistic declaration diluted the lingering bad taste left by his vitriolic JazzTimes column, however, remains to be seen. Outstanding Moment: Tap master Savion Glover exploding with inspired, fleet-footed virtuosity in his remarkable collaboration with Wayne Shorter and orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Hilarious Moment: Village Vanguard madame Lorraine Gordon shushing a rowdy college crowd at a Bad Plus performance after a particularly raucous reaction to the trio’s take on Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” -Bill Milkowski
The best moments in 2003 were to be had in April at the Vossa Jazz Festival in Norway. Their inspired musical menu included the Italian Instabile Orchestra and Pierre Dørge’s big band, the elegant Tord Gustavsen Trio performing music from their impressive ECM release Changing Places plus the best live act in jazz today by a country mile, Jaga Jazzist. Of the new acts to come to the fore, the Bad Plus have created their own space; their set at the Tampere Jazz Festival in Finland in November was wicked. They, like all the bands mentioned here, have a group sound, so important in an age where the mindless pursuit of virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake is producing less and less jazz of lasting value. Notable highlight was the Esbjörn Svensson Trio’s win at the BBC Jazz Awards-their performance there was a gem. -Stuart Nicholson
Plus was ending Stanley Crouch’s column. Minus was the continuance of the imaginary nexus between human creativity and madness of any sort. Yeah for the Smithsonian’s book Latin Jazz! Bravo for all things klezmer! Olé for Jerry González’s Iberian resurgence-screw his politics though and for Don Rayno’s research on Paul Whiteman. Jazz beware: Norwegians, Argentineans, Eastern Europeans and the Trashcanistans are coming! -Javier Quinones
Best moments: Those in which young players and singers stopped imitating their models and discovered themselves, and those in which established players decided to control their own recording destinies. Impressive live performances: Jim Hall Trio with Scott Colley and Lewis Nash at the Village Vanguard; Allen Broadbent Trio with Putter Smith and Kendall Kaye at Spazio, Los Angeles. Impressive new artists: Jeremy Pelt, Dawn Clement, Eldar Djangirov. Worst moments: Those in which the inexorable consolidation and monetization of the jazz establishment made it increasingly unlikely that most of those who had their best moments could escape the sucking maw of homogenizing commercialization. -Doug Ramsey
At the Los Cabos Jazz Festival in July, George Duke played a smoking set of his funk hits with a generous helping of ’70s-styled jazz-rock fusion. Afterward, I commented to George on the growing number of new and reissued fusion albums coming out, and asked when did he start playing fusion again. The jovial keyboardist laughed and said, “I never stopped.” That was a defining moment for me in a year where ’70s heroes Randy Brecker, Brian Auger and Allan Holdsworth plus youngsters like Nicholas Payton and Christian McBride released quality electric improvised music and made purists wince-just like in the good old days. Neo-classicism, Hammond B3 acid jazz and now 21st-century fusion proves that if you stay with a jazz style long enough, it will come back. -Mark Ruffin
For me, the most significant achievement in jazz in 2003 was Brandon Evans’ diligent and thorough documentation of the masterful Sonny Simmons in the forms of a full-length DVD documentary, The Multiple X-Rated Truth, and a CD of alto saxophone solos, Out Into the Andromeda, both released on the sadly defunct Parallactic label. Simmons has released a fair amount of worthy music since his comeback in the early ’90s, but Andromeda is his first solo recital ever on disc, and it is stunning. The DVD, which contains reminiscences of both the bountiful and the penniless moments of Simmons’ career and some appropriately intense live footage, is also essential. -Hank Schteamer
Best moment was hearing E.S.T. (the Esbjörn Svensson Trio) at Cheltenham Jazz Festival give one of the most graceful and perfectly balanced sets in recent memory. It was also heartwarming to see last year’s Montreux saxophone competition winner Soweto Kinch justify the judges’ faith in him with a scorching set at this year’s festival that was a hard act to follow for Cassandra Wilson. Worst moment was the news that London’s Vortex Club is definitely going to close, robbing the capital of “London’s Listening Club” where some great music has been made by everyone from Kenny Wheeler and Norma Winstone to Dave Douglas and Ellery Eskelin. -Alyn Shipton
Leaving all the label maneuvers and download issues aside and focusing on the music, the most intriguing smooth jazz releases this year centered on the old, David Sanborn, and the new, Mindi Abair. Sanborn is the most-imitated saxophonist in the genre, and his Timeagain (Verve) is a template for smooth saxers: catchy tunes with inspired playing not afraid to borrow from its mainstream jazz brothers. Sexy saxist Abair’s It Just Happens That Way (GRP) lived up to hype-it’s the rare CD with all killer, no filler. The most delightful charted song in smooth jazz this year came from old friend Mick Hucknall-from Simply Red. His “Sunrise” single-a reworking of Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” with new lyrics-brightened the airwaves and proved that, yes, new vocal tracks can score on the smooth charts. -Brian Soergel
2003 will go down as the year that the next big thing in recorded music came in. Decrying the drop in CD sales, the RIAA filed civil copyright infringement lawsuits against folks using file sharing programs. The fact that blank CD-Rs far outsold recorded CDs this year shows that the pirating of music downloads maybe irreversible. The most popular download service was introduced by Apple with iTunes at the beginning of the year. In September the San Diego-based Music Match Downloads service began offering 99-cent downloads with full albums starting at $9.99. And even Napster went legal in late October with Napster 2.0! How all this will impact jazz remains to be seen. Surveying these digital jukeboxes, some jazz is offered but it’s largely by major-label artists. Given the indie status of most jazz record labels and artists, who gets access to these services and who doesn’t certainly is an issue. -Jesse ‘Chuy’ Varela
Mix Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” with a stutter-step version of the “Hokey-Pokey” and you’ll have an approximation of jazz’s dizzyingly forward and backward motion in 2003. As clubs coast to coast struggled to stay alive, two major new arts venues opened-the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles-and both featured promising inaugural seasons of jazz programming. Likewise, in the same year that the New York-based Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra bid its farewell, the James Newton-led Luckman Jazz Orchestra spread its wings in Los Angeles with inspiring results. Norah Jones’ Grammy Awards sweep was at least an indirect victory for jazz-informed sensibilities. Not so, the release of leaden “standards” albums by such blithely jazz-free pop vocalists as Cyndi Lauper and Michael Bolton, each eager (make that desperate) to emulate the commercial success of the ever-swingin’ Rod Stewart. Where’s Pat Boone when you really need him? -George Varga
It is great to see septuagenarian Charles Davis, a saxophonist who has toiled in near anonymity for 50 years, finally receiving well-deserved notice with the critical acclaim of his recent CD, Blue Gardenia. Not one to draw attention to himself, Davis’ album isn’t clamorous; it’s spare, haunting and lyrical. The CD, which includes Cedar Walton, Peter Washington and Joe Farnsworth, is the debut of Reade Street Records. Randy Knaflic started the label to produce Davis, and we hope to see more from Reade Street and the quiet elegance of its first release. Elegance indeed needs more spokesmen, and that was underlined this year with the death of one its greatest, altoist Benny Carter. -Jeff Waggoner
This year’s eventfulness factor pales next to the big tragedies of 2001-Bush’s taking of the White House, 9/11 and Ken Burns’ Jazz. Sufficient doses of entropy and energy kept jazz on alert and in forward motion, including the welcome Grammy sweep of Norah Jones (never mind that jazz only spices her savory stew). Lincoln Center lurched evermore toward institutional fortitude and hipness, Keith Jarrett and Dave Holland’s bands played like a deep wind and many musicians have braved the elusive electro-acoustic hybrid, including Chris Potter, Joshua Redman and Matthew Shipp. Schools keep cranking out scores of proficient blowers, and sales are slightly rosier. It’s still huffing along in the margins of mass culture, but jazz is making its imperturbable way and living up to its rep as the Great American Music. -Josef Woodard
The resurgence of interest in jazz vocals and pre-rock standards ranks as my choice for both the best and worst happening of the year. It’s a best in that any trend putting the spotlight back on lyric interpretation, thematic depth, vocal style and singing subtlety deserves praise. It also merits a worst mention because it triggered a flood of records from individuals whose styles were ill-suited for the idiom, and whose albums seemed oblivious to the differences and techniques involved in singing jazz as opposed to rock, pop or soul. This resulted in the spectacle of truly outstanding vocalists making substandard, forgettable jazz albums. A close second for best moment was the return to prominence of combo sessions and soul-jazz. Whether the discs came from severely underappreciated players like organist Dr. Lonnie Smith or such current players as saxophonists Javon Jackson and Ron Blake, these records showed groove jazz need not be a code word for diluted R&B or faceless urban fodder. -Ron Wynn