Critics Picks: Top 50 New Albums and Top 10 Historical Releases

We compiled our top 50 new releases and top 10 historical/reissue recordings of 2009 from year-end lists by our critics. To see each voter’s ballot, go to this page. Only CDs and box sets released between Nov. 1, 2008, and Oct. 31, 2009 were eligible. Some releases may have slipped through the cracks, however, as release dates shifted or weren’t available.

Original blurbs by Evan Haga and Jeff Tamarkin. Review excerpts by Thomas Conrad, Steve Greenlee, Christopher Loudon, Bill Milkowski, Mike Shanley, George Varga, Michael J. West and Josef Woodard.

Top 50 New Releases

1. Joe Lovano Us Five

Folk Art (Blue Note)

In his 57th year, the saxophonist, composer and bandleader Joe Lovano is something of a jazz absolute: consistent in quality but traversing schools, styles and formats in a way that argues the music has somewhere to go without accommodating pop. His 2009 Blue Note release, Folk Art, recorded with a new group he calls Us Five, only reinforces his reputation as the consummate jazzman, an explorer and historian in equal doses. Folk Art is centered in postbop but plays in and around the avant-garde, and it features elements that, on paper, might seem gimmicky, but in Lovano’s hands foster thrilling music.

A cross-generational quintet, Us Five features two drummers, Otis Brown II and Francisco Mela, and Lovano uses them to ramp up the intensity as well as multiply the options for exchange. (“It’s as if there are 20 different bands,” he told JT‘s Geoffrey Himes.) Then there’s Lovano’s arsenal of texturally brazen woodwind oddities, including the taragato and aulochrome, and the fact that Folk Art is his first album featuring his original compositions exclusively. Those tunes, alternately burning (“Powerhouse”), loping (“Folk Art”), tender (“Song for Judi”) and askew (the Ornette homage “Ettenro”), brilliantly underscore the group’s sensibility-one of dynamic interaction and aesthetic versatility. E.H.


2. Vijay Iyer

Historicity (ACT)

The evolution of one of contemporary jazz piano’s most inventive artists continues on a set that meshes intellect with humor, syncopation with solace, and smart originals with wild covers ranging from Leonard Bernstein to M.I.A. J.T.

3. Miguel Zenón

Esta Plena (Marsalis)

Zenón has constructed a compelling merger of his jazz persona and the folkloric plena music of his native Puerto Rico, both in composition and performance, via the blending of bands from each tradition. J.W.

4. Henry Threadgill Zooid

This Brings Us To, Vol. 1 (Pi)

Demanding yet strangely accessible, Threadgill’s latest collection of prickly groove music and algebraic improvisation receives crucial input from guitarist Liberty Ellman. E.H.

5. Allen Toussaint

The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch)

The concept itself is audacious: Take one of New Orleans’ most prolific hit-making songwriters and have him do an instrumental album of early jazz offerings, surrounded by players like Marc Ribot, Don Byron and Nicholas Payton. B.M.

6. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society

Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam)

With their haunting compositions and imaginative experiments, Argue’s Secret Society might do for jazz what Radiohead did for rock-and poach some of its audience, too. M.W.

7. Gary Burton/Pat Metheny/Steve Swallow/Antonio Sanchez

Quartet Live! (Concord)

The unusually empathetic playing and listening by each player yields impeccably nuanced musicianship, as the group mixes fetching originals by Burton, Metheny and Swallow with classics by Ellington, Carla Bley and Chick Corea. G.V.

8. Gretchen Parlato

In a Dream (ObliqSound)

Following in the delicate footsteps of her 2005 eponymous debut EP, Parlato’s In a Dream seems wholly crafted of sweet reveries. She has found an ideal mate for this spirited journey in guitarist and supporting vocalist Lionel Loueke. C.L.

9. Branford Marsalis Quartet

Metamorphosen (Marsalis)

There may be no better introduction on record to what makes this group one of the finest in jazz at the moment. The sense of ensemble interchange, especially between Marsalis and Watts, has been polished and continually re-fired over many years together. J.W.

10. Jeff “Tain” Watts

Watts (Dark Key)

It’s been 18 years since Watts’ recording debut as a leader, and his growth and confidence, both as a drummer and a composer, are palpable. His propulsive playing, much like his writing, strikes a fine balance between being brawny and brainy, playful and poignant. G.V.

11. Steve Lehman

Travail, Transformation, and Flow (Pi)

Lehman wrote his new album by utilizing spectral harmony, but this isn’t just music for academics. The sometimes taut quality of the writing inspires exciting solos from Lehman, tenor saxophonist Mark Shim and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson. M.S.

12. Keith Jarrett

Paris/London-Testament (ECM)

To compare the fearless searches and naked commitments of Jarrett’s solo piano concerts to most standard piano jazz is like comparing the full turbulence of actual life to a selective memory of it. T.C.

13. Bill Frisell

Disfarmer (Nonesuch )

This highly personal response to the work of an “outsider artist” is one of Frisell’s most accessible albums, perhaps because the haunting sonorities of rural America are universal in their longing and loneliness. T.C.

14. Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette

Yesterdays (ECM)

The creative consistency and scale of Jarrett’s discography with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette is unprecedented among piano trios in the history of jazz. Yesterdays is characterized by extremes of dynamic and emotional range. T.C.

15. The Monterey Quartet

Live at the 2007 Monterey Jazz Festival (MJF)

Built around bassist Dave Holland, two recent collaborators (drummer Eric Harland and saxophonist Chris Potter) and the Cuban-born pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the quartet’s rare gig coheres like of a band that’s been road-tested. J.T.

16. Dave Douglas

Spirit Moves (Green Leaf)

17. Chris Potter Underground

Ultrahang (ArtistShare)

18. James Moody

4A (IPO)

19. James Carter/John Medeski/Christian McBride/Adam Rogers/Joey Baron

Heaven on Earth (Half Note)

20. Charles Tolliver Big Band

Emperor March (Half Note)

21. Steve Kuhn

Mostly Coltrane (ECM)

22. Fly

Sky & Country (ECM)

23. Joshua Redman

Compass (Nonesuch)

24. Ravi Coltrane

Blending Times (Savoy)

25. Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition

Apti (Innova)

26. Robert Glasper

Double Booked (Blue Note)

27. Dee Alexander

Wild Is the Wind (Blujazz )

28. Arve Henriksen

Cartography (ECM)

29. Roy Hargrove Big Band

Emergence (Emarcy)

30. Jim Hall & Bill Frisell

Hemispheres (ArtistShare)

31. Matt Wilson Quartet

That’s Gonna Leave a Mark (Palmetto)

32. Melody Gardot

My One and Only Thrill (Verve)

33. John Patitucci Trio

Remembrance (Concord)

34. SFJAZZ Collective

Live 2009: The Works of McCoy Tyner (SFJAZZ )

35. Martial Solal

Live at the Village Vanguard (Cam Jazz)

36. Darius Jones Trio

Man’ish Boy (AUM Fidelity)

37. Enrico Rava

New York Days (ECM)

38. Jan Garbarek Group

Dresden: In Concert (ECM)

39. Jackie Ryan

Doozy (Open Art)

40. Linda Oh Trio

Entry (Linda Oh)

41. Kurt Elling

Dedicated to You (Concord)

42. Stefon Harris and Blackout

Urbanus (Concord)

43. John Scofield

Piety Street (Emarcy)

44. Seamus Blake

Live in Italy (Jazz Eyes)

45. Gerald Wilson Orchestra

Detroit (Mack Avenue)

46. Joe Locke-David Hazeltine Quartet

Mutual Admiration Society 2 (Sharp Nine)

47. The Manhattan Transfer

The Chick Corea Songbook (Four Quarters)

48. Stanley Clarke Trio with Lenny White & Hiromi

Jazz in the Garden (Heads Up)

49. J.D. Allen Trio

Shine! (Sunnyside)

50. Chick Corea/John McLaughlin

Five Peace Band Live (Concord)

Top 10 Historical/Reissues

1. Freddie Hubbard

Without a Song (Live in Europe, 1969)

(Blue Note)

On these nights in England and Germany in 1969, Hubbard blew higher and faster and louder than anyone had heard since Louis Armstrong toured those countries in his prime. B.M.

2. John Coltrane

Side Steps (Prestige)

During the mid-’50s, Trane often served as a sideman, adding licks to recordings by Red Garland, Gene Ammons, Mal Waldron and even Sonny Rollins. His distinctive style is already in place on the five discs comprising this box set. J.T.

3. Lucky Thompson

New York City, 1964-65 (Uptown )

Hot on the heels of his celebrated Lucky Strikes album, the underrated tenor/soprano saxophonist tore it up at two NYC gigs a year apart, in both octet and quartet configurations. J.T.

4. Tony Bennett/Bill Evans

The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings (Fantasy/Concord)

Considered by many the perfect jazz-pop amalgam, this mid-’70s collaboration retains all of its sparkle today. A second disc of alternate takes illustrates the creative process at work and offers new perspectives on the session. J.T.

5. Codona

The Codona Trilogy (ECM)

Roughly three decades later, listening to the collected music of Codona gives a strong impression that the group was much less a novel footnote in the annals of world-inspired jazz than it was an important creative statement. J.W.

6. Scott LaFaro,

Pieces of Jade (Resonance)

7. Ella Fitzgerald

Twelve Nights In Hollywood (Verve Select)

8. Art Pepper

The Art History Project: Unreleased Art IV (Widow’s Taste)

9. Duke Ellington

The Great Concerts (London & New York 1963-1964)(Musicmasters/Nimbus)

10. Miles Davis

Sketches of Spain (50th Anniversary Enhanced Edition) (Sony Legacy)