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Year in Review: Highs & Lows

Herbie Hancock
New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina
Dizzy Gillespie's custom Martin trumpet
Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Nnenna Freelon with several young students of the Ho Chi Minh City conservatory of music.
Michael Brecker
Michael Brecker
Madeleine Peyroux
Jamie Cullum
A young Washingtonian gets down to Chuck Brown at the first Duke Ellington Jazz Festival.
"Giant Steps" goes graphic by Michal Levy
Ramsey Lewis
Dianne Reeves
Robert Glasper
Producer Michael Cuscuna, Andrew Hill and Blue Note's Bruce Lundvall
Ray Charles "The Complete Atlantic Recordings" boxset
Chris Botti
Jonathan Butler

After the Storm

Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans Catastrophe

Jazz’s tragedy was America’s tragedy this year, and hindsight has produced no shortage of scrutiny and analysis. But while the crisis of New Orleans was nightmarish to the core, some observers have detected an upside. Institutionalized racism, bureaucratic ineptitude, political corruption–these were things that needed to be dredged up and exposed. And the musicians of New Orleans rose powerfully to the occasion, illustrating the wonder and beauty of jazz’s native culture. Harry Connick Jr. mobilized an NBC telethon that featured music from Wynton Marsalis and Aaron Neville (and unscripted commentary from rapper Kanye West). Marsalis organized the landmark “Higher Ground” concert at Frederick P. Rose Hall, at which Herbie Hancock actually played “Eye of the Hurricane.” Months afterward, the music continues to reverberate: Blue Note issued a disc of highlights from Higher Ground, as well as a topical EP from Dr. John, Sippiana Hericane. Dr. John can also be heard on Tab Benoit’s Voice of the Wetlands (Rykodisc), quite possibly the most poignant album of the bunch. Recorded early in 2005, it now feels eerily prescient, especially on an opening “Bayou Breeze,” with its refrain: “Don’t let the water / Wash us away.” As usual, music gives voice to the struggle–but it also provides the illumination that serves as New Orleans’ brightest beacon of hope.

-Nate Chinen

New Orleans regroups after Katrina

It was a miracle that I could pull a band together like this at this time,” exclaimed David Torkanowsky. In early November at Snug Harbor, New Orleans’ premier modern jazz club, the highly versatile pianist led an all-star group that included saxophone monster Ed Petersen, renowned slap-bass specialist Roland Guerin and hometown phenom drummer Shannon Powell. All this just over two months after hurricane Katrina devastated the city, scattering local musicians throughout the country. Assembling such a lineup of artists–all leaders in their own right–spoke of the continued strength of the city’s jazz scene.

A healthy and very appreciative crowd filled Snug’s back room for sets that moved from an impassioned performance of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” to a classic rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “New Orleans.” With the bar, restaurant and other Frenchmen Street nightspots buzzing, it was difficult to tell that all was not well with this part of the world. Even parking places were at a premium.

The night and others like it stand as greatly welcome illusions, though they ultimately remain confusing. While an immediate scene may feel warmly familiar, the turmoil and tragedies of the storm’s wrath are not far from mind. We were reminded of our losses again when Tork described Powell’s drumming as coming directly from the ancestors. “If you need a reason for this town to be restored, you just heard it,” declared the pianist of Powell’s old-school finesse during “I’ll Fly Away.”

“This little block right here is amazing,” said University of New Orleans professor and Chicago transplant Petersen. “It’s a beautiful thing that there are some gigs for some people, but unfortunately so many people have left and never plan to come back. That’s the really bad part. Fortunately, as of this time I have a day gig and hopefully that will continue–we’ve been assured that it will, at least for the full-time people. But there have been so many budget cuts and the state’s running out of money. It’s kind of scary. I can’t imagine trying to survive in this town just as a musician. There’s the catastrophe, and then the ongoing catastrophe.”

While Petersen can see the benefit of folks around the country getting a taste of the New Orleans sound via the musicians who have landed in spots like Portland, Ore., and Atlanta, he’s concerned about the homogenization of the town’s music and culture.

“There’s a certain essence of being in one place–a collective shared experience with unique ways of talking, ways of playing music, ways of cooking. I’m a New Orleans musician in that I live here, but I’ll never know the deep-down, secret inside stuff the way Shannon does. Back before there were all sorts of communications all over the world, all sorts of beautiful indigenous music developed. If we’re making a world where all the music sounds the same, I don’t think that’s such a great thing.”

Even now, on almost any given night, New Orleans still blows away most cities (aside from much bigger places like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles) in its musical offerings. While Torkanowsky and friends tore up Snug Harbor, bassist George French of the historic musical French family and jazz-wise diva Germaine Bazzle held court at Donna’s. Several weeks later, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, whose father drowned during Katrina, headed a series of events with his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, an ensemble that boasts strictly local talent. Seeing them all, it seemed that that everyone had returned home. But, unfortunately, it was that illusion again. While giving welcoming hugs, too often we learned that the visit was temporary; many were just in for some gigs or to work on their houses. Even Powell, whose Treme home survived the storm and where his family remains, was leaving after Thanksgiving for a regular gig in Toronto.

Many musical functions–club dates, festival, second-line parades–have taken place since Katrina. Each has acted as a great reunion as the New Orleans’ musical community celebrates homecomings. As time goes on, however, it becomes increasingly apparent that big holes exist on bandstands and in the audience created by those who have moved to other environs. We miss hearing and seeing bassist Bill Huntington, who for decades laid down the bottom with pianist Ellis Marsalis. Tuesday nights aren’t the same without trumpeter Maurice Brown heating things up. Jazz enthusiast and radio station WWOZ programmer Michael Gourrier was a fixture on the scene, but now he’ll be digging the music elsewhere.

Those musicians, like trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, who are determined to return home will eventually fill some of the holes.

“The whole family is coming back,” said Ruffins who has been based in Houston since the evacuation. “Oh, yeah, I don’t have a choice. I have the urge to get that feeling back–I miss it so much. That’s all we talk about when we’re on the phone–my mom, my dad, my aunty. But in reality, it’s going to be a while because of the homes. New Orleans is a mess–dark neighborhoods for miles.”

We worried about the fate of the social aid and pleasure clubs’ Sunday afternoon second-line parades with the organizations’ memberships so depleted. This centuries-old tradition stood as a cultural link between generations of brass-band musicians as well as providing income.

“The biggest thing I hate to see is that the second lines–the social aid and pleasure clubs and the Mardi Gras Indians–are going to loose their population,” lamented trumpeter James Andrews, who returned in early November. “The poorer the people, the less likely they’re coming back. They can’t afford to come back. The people are the ticket; the real population of New Orleans makes the culture and it takes everybody to participate in our culture to make the music bloom and blossom.”

Despite these gray days, jazz continues to flourish in New Orleans. It has to; it is not simply music here. It is a vital, daily part of life.

-Geraldine Wyckoff

Jazz Goes on the Block

Charlie Parker’s King Super 20 alto saxophone, Wes Montgomery’s Gibson L5 guitar, Dizzy Gillespie’s custom Martin trumpet and Benny Goodman’s Selmer clarinet were all promised to the highest bidders by Guernsey’s Auction House in February. Private collectors scooped up much of the bounty, but not before a weekend-long public display in the foyer of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall. Perusing this exhibition was a surreal experience: it was easy to get absorbed in, say, John Coltrane’s original manuscript for A Love Supreme (“Buy reeds in San Francisco” reads a note in one margin), but hard to shake the feeling that the extraordinary collection was about to be scattered to the winds. Many of the purchases benefited the estates of musicians, always a good thing, and it’s likely that most of the winning bidders will carefully preserve their acquisitions. But imagine if a nonprofit institution had the resources to buy the stuff and keep it on public display. Hell, even a crass for-profit venture would be worth it if it meant being able to gaze longingly at Elvin Jones’ cymbals a while longer. Do you hear me, Bill Gates? Aren’t you dying to open a Hard-Bop Cafe?

-Nate Chinen


Peyroux Perdue

It was deja vu all over again in London this past August when, for the second time in her stop-start career, vocalist Madeleine Peyroux decided to pull a vanishing act. Back in 1996, after the launch of her much-lauded debut disc, Dreamland, the Georgia-born singer dropped out of sight, opting to spend seven years busking on the streets of Paris. Returning to the recording studio in 2004, Peyroux earned heightened critical praise for her long, long overdue follow-up disc, Careless Love. Then, smack dab in the middle of a massive U.K. promotional campaign, she disappeared. So concerned were the folks at Universal Music, they hired a private detective to investigate. Seems Peyroux was simply being a little careless about her obligations. Blithely deciding she’d had enough of the publicity grind, she’d done a runner. Red-faced Universal rep Bill Holland soon after reported to friends and fans concerned for Peyroux’s welfare that the label had “tracked her down very quickly. Much to our embarrassment she was with her manager in New York.” He also claimed Peyroux requested, with Garbo-esque insistence, that “everyone go away and leave her alone.” Peyroux’s manager, Cynthia Herbst, subsequently demanded an apology from the record label, stating, “This has all been lies. Madeleine is feeling very disappointed that anybody at Universal would do this. We’re not going to the battleground, but we’re taking the high ground.” A month or so after the brouhaha, Peyroux embarked on a multi-continent tour and has, it seems, been showing up at every stop.

-Christopher Loudon

Brecker’s Illness

One of the great tragedies of 2005 was Michael Brecker’s life-and-death struggle with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a pre-leukemic bone marrow disorder. Symptoms of the rare illness didn’t begin to appear until September 2004, according to Randy Brecker, the trumpet-playing half of the popular Brecker Brothers. Michael’s condition continued to deteriorate rapidly so that by spring of 2005 he was forced to cancel summer tours with both Steps Ahead and the acclaimed Saxophone Summit featuring fellow tenor players Joe Lovano and Dave Liebman. Instead, he spent seven weeks during the summer of 2005 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York undergoing chemotherapy to combat his illness. When it was determined that only a stem-cell and bone-marrow transplant could save his life, a worldwide search began for a donor with a similar genetic background. E-mail appeals went out over the Internet and tables were set up at the Newport and Red Sea (in Eilat, Israel) jazz festivals, where festivalgoers could be tested as possible donors. Since no donor has been found, in November 2005 Michael received a haploidentical transplant with donations from his daughter Jess; it’s not an ideal solution, and many complications can occur, but brother Randy says Michael is “very optimistic.” Meanwhile, the Brecker Brothers’ Some Skunk Funk (documenting a November 2003 concert in Koln, Germany, with the WDR Big Band, conducted by Vince Mendoza) is due for a January release on BHM.

-Bill Milkowski

Two Jamies Cookin’

Say what you will about English food, but two of Britain’s best–culinary showman Jamie Oliver working his rascally brand of magic in the kitchen and jazz wunderkind Jamie Cullum (whose Catching Tales was a big hit in ’05) doing likewise on keyboard and vocals–joined forces to cook up a mighty tasty evening of fundraising on December 6. Billed as Jamie’s Big Night, the event was presented at the HAC (Honourable Artillery Company headquarters), adjacent to central London’s Finsbury Square. Proceeds from the SRO dinner and show–for which tickets, priced at a hefty 500 pounds each, sold out more than a month in advance–were divided between a local children’s charity and the Fifteen Foundation, established by Oliver to help disadvantaged youth train for careers in the restaurant business.

-Christopher Loudon

The Crooner Boom

Don’t get me wrong: Rod Stewart has as much right to the “Great American Songbook” as the next guy. And Carly Simon can do all she wants with the moon in June. But a word to any would-be crooners who might be reading JT: It’s not as easy as it looks. Just ask one of the finest singers in the world, Renee Fleming–whose Haunted Heart (Decca), with Bill Frisell, sounds haunted enough but hardly effortless. Don’t even bother asking Regis Philbin, Tony Danza or poor Frank Sinatra Jr.

-Nate Chinen

Jazz Ambassadors

The U.S. Department of State had Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Nnenna Freelon and the eight young musicians from the Thelonious Monk Institute tour Vietnam in as guests to commemorate the 10th anniversary of normalization of U.S.-Vietnam diplomatic relations. In early fall, with the help of American Voices, jazz artists Mike Del Ferro, John Ferguson and Coco York played in Afghanistan–the first time in 30 years Americans have played jazz in the country. Meanwhile, Dubai held its fourth annual jazz fest. We should drop the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra into the middle of Baghdad. The whole mess would be cleaned up in 32 bars.

-Christopher Porter


New York’s Club Scene Evolves

There’s always something cooking on the New York club scene, but this year seemed especially momentous. The Village Vanguard marked its 70th anniversary in February with a week’s worth of one-nighters, nary an empty seat and some well-deserved accolades for owner Lorraine Gordon. Just a few weeks later, Mitch Borden started booking jazz down the street at Smalls again, ending a nearly two-year hiatus. (There’s a bar and a drink minimum now, but with Omer Avital and Jason Lindner reclaiming the space, it almost feels like the late-’90s again. And as a bonus, Borden still books the nearby Fat Cat.) Another milestone of sorts took place in September, when the Jazz Gallery marked its first decade of operation; an anniversary concert series continued through the fall. And in the far East Village, John Zorn opened the Stone, a haven for experimentalism with high principles. Too bad the same couldn’t be said for Howard Stein, who wins the Unscrupulous Club Proprietor of the Year award for pulling the plug on cabaret programming at Le Jazz au Bar just a handful of hours before the start of a Kitty Margolis engagement.

-Nate Chinen

Show Me the Money

Indie jazz label Mack Avenue Records gave $250,000 in sponsorship money this year to save the Detroit Jazz Festival when its previous sponsor, Ford, pulled out. Perhaps some major labels will emulate this display of generosity?

-George Varga

Northern Lights

The Vancouver Jazz Festival had a banner year in 2005, with a record attendance of 510,000 (up from 460,000 in 2004). More impressive still was the eclectic array of artists from around the world, and across the jazz spectrum, from hometown favorite Diana Krall to Terence Blanchard, George Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell and an ultra-rare appearance by England’s 25-piece Dedication Orchestra, featuring South African drum legend Louis Moholo, saxophonist Evan Parker and vocal marvels Phil Minton. One can only wish a major U.S. jazz festival would be savvy enough to showcase such an edgy ensemble, along with artists as varied as Mark Dresser, Miya Masaoka, Mark Helias, South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Mexico’s Lila Downs and Brooklyn’s Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.

-George Varga

Visual jazz

DVD Dos & Don’ts

2005 marked the arrival of the jazz DVD as a category. So far there have been silly ones (Eric Lewis’ Hopscotch on Fortress), raw ones (Ari Hoenig’s Kinetic Hues on Smalls), unnecessary ones (Grant Geissman’s There and Back Again on Aix), Zen-like camera-accidentally-left-on ones (The Sound of New York Jazz Underground on Fresh Sound New Talent), wretched excess ones (Chick Corea’s 10-DVD set, Rendezvous in New York on Image Entertainment) and very cool ones (Branford Marsalis’ late 2004 release Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” in Amsterdam on Marsalis Music). The entertainment potential of the audio/video format is vast, including Dolby or DTS surround sound, and its future in jazz is exciting. But it would be awful if jazz, like rock, became dependent on that other, shorter audio/video format, the “music video.”

-Thomas Conrad

From up-and-comers to heavy hitters, seemingly everyone put out concert DVDs this year. This is good news all around for artists and fans alike. But as was the case with the advent of the compact disc, there are still a few lessons to be learned about the medium. For instance, Chick Corea’s Rendezvous in New York (Image) was almost certainly the DVD event of the year, but why restrict its release to a whopping 10-disc box? Surely there are those who would plunk down for an affordable single DVD documenting the Three Quartets band, and could do without, say, the tete-a-tete with Bobby McFerrin. And attention, musicians: Just as on a CD, production values matter! Pianist Eric Lewis did himself no favors by releasing Hopscotch (Fortress), which included a torturously cheesy segment from the BET Jazz show Live From the Club at Blue Palm.

-Nate Chinen

Grammy No-Show

Jazz was once again musica non grata on the annual Grammy Awards telecast. The invitation-only, Grammy week “Salute to Jazz” dinner concert is welcome, certainly. But NARAS continues to pay scant attention to jazz, unless having Chick Corea sit in with the Foo Fighters at the 2004 Grammys was supposed to mean something more than tokenism.

-George Vargas

Good Night, Indeed

The striking George Clooney period piece Good Night, and Good Luck gave the biggest showcase to mainstream jazz of any feature film in recent memory. Dianne Reeves led the sparkling soundtrack, which was seamlessly–and very effectively–integrated into the footage as an integral mood setter-cum-musical-Greek-chorus.

-George Varga

Legends of Tubin’

In June the Legends of Jazz pilot aired on PBS, previewing the first national jazz series on network TV in 40 years. Let’s hope it continues, though. The oft-delayed series, which was to originally debut in 2004, then was bumped to 2005, and now to 2006, with a tentative launch in April.

-George Varga

Capital Jazz

The Washington, D.C., area, where JazzTimes is located, has had a hit-and-miss jazz scene for several years now, but 2005 swung hard toward the hit rather than miss. In addition to the ongoing bookings of national acts at places like Blues Alley, Twins, the Kennedy Center, Strathmore, the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center and others, the area now boasts four jazz festivals that book artists from beyond the Beltway: the smooth-loving Capital Jazz Fest, the straightahead Rosslyn Jazz Festival, the eclectic and ambitious Duke Ellington Jazz Festival (it was an unforgettable sight to see Wayne Shorter, the Rebirth Brass Band and D.C.’s own Chuck Brown playing in front of the Washington Monument as day turned to night) and the Silver Spring Jazz Festival, with headliner Wynton Marsalis, which occurred right in this mag’s “backyard.” (Props, too, to the Takoma Park JazzFest, which features local musicians.) Plus, Transparent Productions, a nonprofit group that brings avant-garde musicians to the D.C. area for concerts, continues to thrive. And just up the road in Baltimore is the equally experimental Red Room and its High Zero Festival as well as An die Musik, a little club located in a 1920s townhouse, which presents an amazing array of jazz, classical and world-music concerts. The building also features a record store and a wine bar that exhibits works by local artists, making An die Musik a model for any entrepreneur who wants to try and perk up his or her jazz scene.

-Christopher Porter

‘Giant Steps’ Goes Graphic

John Coltrane got a lot of props this year, some from unlikely places. One of the most unusual came in the form of a digitally animated video clip coordinated to the solo from “Giant Steps.” Created by Michal Levy as a graduation project for the Visual Communication Department of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Israel, the movie underscores the architectural qualities of Coltrane’s famous solo. But the rigors take a backseat to the whimsy, which is why you’ll see this and be wowed–as much by Coltrane’s brilliance as by Levy’s efforts. (See

-Nate Chinen


Ethio-Jazz Arrives

It’s been around for years, but the moody jazz-funk hybrid created by vibraphonist and bandleader Mulatu Astatke got a huge boost this year, thanks to its ubiquity in the Jim Jarmusch film Broken Flowers. Astatke, whose music is featured on the popular fourth volume of the Ethiopiques series, even went on a Northeast tour this fall, with the Boston-based Either/Orchestra. If you missed them, don’t worry: you can check out their collaboration on a new live album, Ethiopiques, Vol. 20: Either/Orchestra Live in Addis (Buda Musique).

-Nate Chinen

The ArtistShare Boom

After Maria Schneider won a Grammy last year for an album released through ArtistShare, the company’s model of “participant subscribers” and Internet distribution turned a lot of heads in the jazz world. In 2005, those seeds bore much fruit: ArtistShare helped usher in some serious projects this year, including albums by Jim Hall, Ingrid Jensen, Billy Childs and Cuong Vu. Is this the future of the industry? Hey, if even comedian Rick Moranis is on board–dig his album The Agoraphobic Cowboy–you know something’s afoot. But seriously, independence has never seemed more attractive, even for those outside the ArtistShare nexus–just ask Branford Marsalis, Dave Holland or Dave Douglas, each of whom put out buzz-worthy albums on their very own labels this year.

-Nate Chinen

It’s a Start

Blue Note Records signed Texas-bred, New York-based pianist Robert Glasper and released his impressive sophomore album, Canvas, making him the first new (never mind young) jazz artist signed to any major U.S. label in the past five years. Teen jazz-piano wiz Eldar also released his self-titled major label debut this year, but it was on Sony Classical–not quite a jazz label.

-George Varga

Jazz Music Today, Today

It took four years, but in 2005 Winter & Winter finished reissuing the entire JMT (Jazz Music Today) catalog. Stefan Winter’s first label released 81 albums between 1985 and 1995, beginning with Steve Coleman’s Motherland Pulse and ending with Tim Berne and Bloodcount’s Memory Select: The Paris Concert III. Second-to-last was the Motian/Lovano/Frisell gem At the Village Vanguard. Number 74 was the heretofore hard-to-find Toys, by piano maverick Uri Caine. All of this music, and more by Gary Thomas, Cassandra Wilson, Marc Johnson and many others, is available again, this time in handsome but deliberately generic black-and-red packaging. Stack a few together and they’re akin to bound volumes in a library. But tucked inside each item is Stephen Byram’s original album art, reproduced on textured paper. The JMT series may be finished, but reexamining all this pathbreaking work should keep us busy for a while.

-David Adler

The Andrew Hill Explosion

Remember Dom DeLuise cavorting in his “treasure bath” in Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part One? At the end of 2005 we can all recline in a treasure bath of recordings by pianist and composer Andrew Hill. Nearing 70 and struggling with cancer, Hill is an unassuming but undisputed genius of the music. With the 2005 release of his three-disc Mosaic Select box set, featuring music from five lost sessions made between 1967 and 1970, Hill’s entire Blue Note catalog has been put out on CD. Actually, it’s still growing: Hill has joined the Blue Note roster for a third time (he did so for a two-album stint back in 1989). The result is a brilliant new quintet album called Time Lines, which comes out February 22. Blue Note also continues to roll out the single-disc ’60s reissues, most recently Andrew!!! and Smokestack, which follow the extraordinary vault discoveries Passing Ships and Dance With Death from 2003 and 2004, respectively.

Meanwhile, 441/Test of Time also added to the treasure bath in 2005 with three vital mid-1970s Andrew Hill reissues: Nefertiti (trio), Blue Black (quartet) and Hommage (solo piano). These 441 discs, less visible than the Blue Notes, may represent the least appreciated period of an already underappreciated career. But with this amount of music before the public, Hill is an obscurity no longer.

-David Adler

Cellar Door Closed, Open, Closed, Open?

After a deluge of pre-release hype, followed by major coverage in all the jazz magazines (including a big spread in the October 2005 issue of JazzTimes), the Miles Davis estate essentially pulled the plug on the release of the eagerly anticipated The Cellar Door Sessions, 1970 (Columbia/Legacy), a mammoth six-CD box set documenting four electrifying nights in December of that year at the intimate Cellar Door nightclub in Washington, D.C. Originally scheduled for a September 2005 release date, the project fell into a black hole when Davis estate executor Vince Wilburn (Miles’ nephew and a drummer in one of Davis’ latter-day bands) objected to the listing of keyboardist Adam Holzman (a former bandmate of Wilburn’s in Miles’ group during the mid ’80s) and Bob Belden as coproducers of the project. As one angry insider in the Davis camp put it, “Nobody produced that music but Miles Davis!” With threats of lawsuits pending, Sony higher-ups were able to strike a compromise with the estate by placing tiny stickers on all 20,000 copies of the box set, effectively demoting Holzman and Belden to “compilers” of the project. Says Holzman, “If it gets nominated for a Grammy Award, Bob and I won’t be eligible because technically we’re not producers anymore.” Adds Belden, “I formally requested that they use the weakest glue possible so that the stickers will eventually fall off and people can see what we really did on this project.” The box set was rescheduled for a December 27, 2005, release–supposedly.

-Bill Milkowski

Boxing Deluxe

The tweaked-out box sets don’t roll in here like they used to, but special mention must be made of a few that went beyond the disc-and-booklet formula (no offense, Mosaic; we got nothing but love for you).

First up is Jelly Roll Morton’s The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Loman (Rounder), packaged like a small piano and stuffed with Lomax’s book Mister Jelly Roll, a large 80-page booklet and eight CDs.

Second is Verve’s Jazz in Paris series: four three-CD collections that trace the history of jazz in the City of Lights. These gems were imported from the French division of Universal, who did a bang-up job with the packaging: each set is housed in 10-inch-record-style boxes, complete with a richly detailed 60-page booklet. (Goes very nicely with another Verve import from France: the 15-CD Free America series documenting avant-garde jazz during the late ’60s and early ’70s.

But the creme de la creme of box sets in 2005 has to be Ray Charles’ The Complete Atlantic Recordings. The collection looks like 1950s portable record player, and when you open the suitcase you see a plastic mold of a tone arm, vinyl disc, etc. Under that is a big linen-bound booklet with essays and rare photos galore, and then there’s the music: seven CDs of stunning music plus a DVD featuring Charles live at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival. Genius, indeed.

-Christopher Porter


Chris Botti Swings, Hits Homer (Again)

In 2004, trumpeter Chris Botti released his swing-and-strings album When I Fall in Love (Columbia), which found tremendous crossover success with more than 500,000 copies sold. (A brief romance with Today Show queen Katie Couric also helped Botti’s name reach a few more folks.)

In October 2005, Botti followed up his 2004 smash with To Love Again: The Duets (Columbia)–which sold 43,853 copies in its first week of release alone, debuting at No. 18 on Billboard’s Top 200, putting it ahead of new music by Green Day, Gretchen Wilson and Twista. The album retained the strings, but whereas When I Fall In Love featured just two vocal tracks, To Love Again features nine, including appearances by Botti buddy Sting and even Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler.

Proving he was really part of the big leagues, Botti performed “God Bless America” after the seventh-inning stretch of game one of the World Series at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago. The performance took some of the sting off Botti’s disappointment from missing a chance to perform the same song during the 2004 World Series: Botti was scheduled for game five, but those darn Boston Red Sox won the series in four straight.

Botti’s only ding in 2005 wasn’t his fault. In November, To Love Again was one of several CDs recalled by Sony BMG Music after a blogger revealed that anti-piracy software installed on them could leave listeners vulnerable to viruses and hackers when played on Windows PCs.

-Brian Soergel

Chillout’s Fiery Death

Late in 2004, smooth-jazz station WQCD in New York made a bold move by deciding to chill out and rebrand itself as New York Chill. It mandated that 30 percent of its playlist should consist of the sort of chill music popularized by the likes of Tosca, Thievery Corporation, Zero 7 and others. “The smooth-jazz format is aging,” WQCD program director Blake Lawrence told Entertainment Weekly. “It’s gonna die out as its audience gets older.”

But they’re not dead yet. In the summer of 2005, WQCD dropped the chill mandate after dismal ratings.

One possible reason for the chill bust is that smooth-jazz radio has a large African-American listener base, which may have been turned off by the music’s techno feel. “For smooth-jazz stations in general, and for those with a sizeable African-American listenership in particular, the move should be to incorporate chill as a verb, rather than an adjective,” says Rafe Gomez of the nationally syndicated radio program The Groove Boutique. “Chill tracks that are presented need to incorporate the melodic and structural elements that attract the smooth-jazz audience. They need to be more song-oriented than groove-oriented.”

Paul Goldstein, programming vice-president of KTWV, the Wave, in Los Angeles, agrees. “Usually the ingredients of chill songs don’t include the elements that are essential to appeal to a mass audience,” he says. “The most important of those ingredients is a compelling, timeless melody. Without them, chill as a genre won’t appeal to a mass audience.”

-Brian Soergel

Uptown Top Smooth Ranking

Unlike so many smooth-jazz CDs, which usually feature a single that’s killer and a whole lot of filler, keyboardist Brian Culbertson’s It’s on Tonight (GRP) and guitarist Jonathan Butler’s Jonathan (Rendezvous) were essential listens from start to finish.

Culbertson’s album was all about…well…getting it on–tonight. After the upbeat “Let’s Get Started,” Culbertson chilled out with carnal delights like “Hookin’ Up,” “The Way You Feel” and “Wear It Out.” Even better, Culbertson’s best and most mature CD yet offered oodles of hooks and grand, cinematic passages.

Butler’s CD explored tropical themes and played to his strengths: sweet acoustic picking, vocalese and the overall vibe of a sunny carnival somewhere south of the equator. The album highlights include a knockout version of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” the sweet “Baby Love” and “Spirit of Our Nation,” an ode to Butler’s native South Africa that showcases the lead vocals of his daughter Jodie.

-Brian Soergel Originally Published