Today was my turn at bat for a "top 10" in D-Out's We Love the 90s week, and I'm thrilled to appear there with the likes of Taylor Ho Bynum and Nate Chinen. I didn't even think of it, but the title (the first track on "Too Much Sugar"... see below) seems a very apt descriptor of the time. Don't all the problems, compared to now, seem like cute little monsters, compared to the vicious ogres we deal with now? Whitewater/Lewinski vs. Iraq/Katrina. The rise of J@LC vs. the collapse of the jazz economy, club and album. Culture wars vs. real wars.
First, two brief disclaimers that I gave Chilly and Drew, when they asked me to send a list. I went through my own record collection and found forty CDs that could've easily been on the list- the fifteen or so I sent were just the way I felt that day. And I didn't send them in any particular order- while This Land is probably my favorite, how do you compare it to Shirley Horn, or Steve Coleman? I don't. So here is a little more about these for those who don't know, and a few more for you list-o-philes out there. (This post will be updated several times, mostly for links, so I apologize to you rss feed people. But I wanted to strike while the iron's hot)
I'm probably more passionate about the "overlooked" list than I am about the top ten. Nguyen Le is SUCH a good guitar player and intersting composer, James Carney is SUCH a badass writer, and Circa is SUCH a great concept album. I should devote a whole post just to them. Hell, I will, and add a few to it. In the meantime...
Steve Coleman- The Sonic Language of Myth (Warner?) (some of the tracks are available free through Steve's website) In the early 1990s, Steve Coleman began to take regular trips to Cuba to study the music and culture there, particularly with the group AfroCuba, who plays a brand of traditional music that is probably closest to what came over with African slaves of any music made in this hemisphere. The “results” of his trips clearly affect his music of this period, overtly on the 2-disc set “Genesis/Opening of the Way“, but also on the other Warner recordings of this period.
I have to say I prefer the Coleman records of this period- starting with “Tao of Mad Phat”, and ending with this one- to anything he's done before or since. Before, the music, while brilliant and difficult, is very rigid and hard to approach as a listener, even for me, a big fan. After, with Steve working almost exclusively with a younger generation of players, the music again gets a little less organic, too often again favoring structure over expressiveness. Here Steve works with a nice mix of peers, elders and students, who bring an exciting blend of energy, curiosity and confidence to the music. (full disclosure: several Eastman colleagues, including Ralph Alessi, Shane Endsley and Tim Albright, appear on this disc) The rhythm section of first Reggie Washington and Gene Lake, then here Anthony Tidd and Sean Rickman are certainly as precise as the early M-Base anchors, but more fluid inside the grooves.
Bill Frisell- This Land (Elektra) One of my favorite records of all time, actually. This album in many ways marks the best blend on recording of Frisell's two worlds: the cutting-edge jazz that made his mark on the music scene, first with ECM then with the great trio + 1 of Frisell, Kermit Driscoll, Joey Baron, and cellist Hank Roberts, then the post-Americana which brought him a larger audience, presaged on “Have a Little Faith”, and full blown on “Nashville” and “http://www.amazon.com/Gone-Just-Like-Train-Frisell/dp/B000005J57/ref=pd_sim_m_2/105-6055534-1389234?ie=UTF8&qid=1180280682&sr=1-1”. Many of the tunes here are folky and hummable, but the improvising and the energy of the band- featuring the trio plus Don Byron, the criminally underrated Billy Drews and Curtis Fowlkes- is as nutty and downtowny as anything of this era. My favorite tune here is a frenetic, bouncy take on the twisted blues “Resistor”, with Byron and Drewes' amazing star turns.
Henry Threadgill- “Too Much Sugar for a Dime”
Ornette Coleman's Sound Museum sets- “Hidden Man” and “Three Women”
I hope that a lot of words will be posted about these two, so I won't say much yet. Plus, there's an MP3 posted today so you can judge for yourself. “Too Much Sugar” is my favorite Threadgill album, a great band playing amazing tunes. Geri Allen's playing with Ornette is amazing- after being introduced to her through her post-bop Blue Note records, her comfort in this music was a revelation. For me, a better and deeper listen than the much-hyped “Tone Dialing” that preceded it.
Motian/Lovano/Frisell- “You Took the Words Right Out of My Heart- Live at the Village Vanguard” (Verve/JMT) (Note, I sent the wrong title in my list to D-Out. This is the one I meant.) When I was studying with Ralph Alessi at Eastman, he called this “the best band in jazz right now, period” Listening to this album, you're hard pressed to argue. These three musicians have been playing together for twenty-plus years at the time of this record, and their comfort with each other and enduring experimental spirit shines through on this live set. I chose this set over all their great 90's records (The album “Trioism”, with special guest Dewey Redman, is also a must-have from this era), for Frisell's wild, bendy looping feedback-y solos throughout, and for their gorgeous rendition of the title song, a too-obscure standard that Monk recorded solo on his San Francisco solo set. (You know that one, right? Oh, you have to hear that one...)
Wayne Shorter- “High Life” (Verve) This album, the week before its release, was the subject of a screed by New York Times then jazz critic Peter Watrous called “A Jazz Generation and the Miles Davis Curse” (I finally found the article! Now I can get my back up on cue!) I still get angry thinking about it, especially after hearing this album, to my mind one of Shorter's crowning achievements. The album is an intricate set of orchestral compositions, using a chamber orchestra augmented by several synths, and Shorter himself. The pieces are fascinating in and of themselves- he turns his Blakey-era tune “Children of the Night” into an extended ten minute overture. (I wrote a paper about the transformation in grad school- the inventiveness and technique he displays still blow me away) Shorter's careful, perfect solos on tenor and soprano are the icing on the cake.
Maria Schneider- “Evanessence”. I'll leave it to the likes of Darcy to tackle this one. It blew everyone's mind when it came out, and made Maria The “it” jazz composer of the '90s (and now, for that matter) and made a whole lot more of us want to write for big band. (It's $85 on Amazon, or you can buy it direct from her with lots of extra goodies, hence the different link. Always support the artist, please...)
Dave Douglas- “In Our Lifetime” Dave's first sextet tribute album, this one spotlighting the brilliant and too often overlooked Booker Little. The writing on this record struck me from the first listen- the way Dave can shift moods, tempos, instrumentations and soloists without ever losing the direction of the tune. It's big, ambitious, intricate and challenging to player and listener alike, but never seems the least bit forced. And James Genus and Joey Baron is a Rolls Royce rhythm section, one I'd give a limb for.
Hal Willner- “Weird Nightmare- Meditations on Mingus” - Mingus tunes + the mainstays of the downtown NYC scene (Frisell, Cohen, Baron, etc) ] + left of center pop stars (Elvis Costello, Henry Rollins, Chuck D) + Harry Parch instruments, the first time they'd been used for anything other than Harry Parch's music. Gee, what could possibly go wrong? Actually, nothing; this is a brilliant record, one that manages to capture the intricacies, energy and brilliance of Mingus without reverting to a canonical approach. In some ways, it's a wonderful (if much more fractured) bookend to Joni Mitchell's attempt at the same, “Mingus”, almost twenty years prior (here Sue Mingus, not Charles, was the collaborator). Willner's intelligence, vision and irreverence shine through on the best tribute album of the 90s. And there were many good, vibrant ones- the aforementioned Douglas album and the two to follow it, Stargazer and Soul on Soul, Joe Henderson's beautiful run of tributes, “So Near, So Far (musings for Miles)”, "Lush Life" and the Jobim Tribute. (On the flipside, this is a steal for $11 at Amazon.)
Myra Melford- “Above Blue” This was her second album with a quintet featring Michael Sarin, Eric Friedlander, Dave Douglas and Chris Speed. I love the way the album balances form and free blowing, discipline and wildness. As someone who was just starting to deal with the idea of composting rather than simply tune writing and arranging, this, along with Maria and Dave's recordings, were huge inspirations. Myra's own playing here is focused and tremendously powerful- she combines the two-fisted power of blues piano with a huge harmonic vocabulary and a left-of center bent.
Briefly, a few notes on the "almost" list:
Henderson- "So Near, So Far (Musings for Miles)"- the best of his really good run of Verve Albums in the 90s. And such a great cross-section of Miles tunes, from the bebop "Milestones" to "Side Car".
Horn- "Here's to Life" I want to arrange like Johnny Mercer. And play piano and phrase like Shirley. A couple of the tunes are a little syrupy, and I would have prefered Miles as soloist (as was planned before his death) to Wynton, but hey, that's nitpicking.
Getz/Barron- "People Time" I'm of the opinion that Getz did his best work in his last ten (sober) years- all the Verve stuff. One wished this hadn't been his last album, but it's a great sendoff.
Previte- "Weather Clear, Track Fast"- this band (Previte, Byron, Robin Eubanks, Anthony Davis, etc.) made two albums, both fantastic. Bobby Previte the composer is underappreciated, and I wish he'd gone farther with the ideas this band explores a little. And as a player, he's a tighter, more manic Joey Baron (okay, that shortchanges both of them, but it gives you an idea), which is a lot of fun.
Others that made the top 40 CDs. On a different day, any of these could've made the cut:
Geri Allen- "The Nurturer"
Jane Ira Bloom- "The Nearness" (w/Kenny Wheeler)
Clusone Trio- "I Am an Indian"
Dave Douglas: "Charms of the Night Sky", "Convergence"
Kenny Garrett: "Black Hope" (I've seen both this and "Pursuance", his Coltrane tribute, on lists. While the fusion tracks on this are cheesy, Joe Henderson plays his ass off, as do both Kennys, Garrett and the late Kirkland. This completely changed the way I played saxophone, which at the time was a really good thing.)
Charlie Haden "Dream Keeper" (this really should've been on the top ten, I just forgot. I talked a little about this album here.)
Fred Hersch "Let Yourself Go"
Bill Frisell- "Quartet"
Joe Lovano- "Universal Language"
Abbey Lincoln- "World's falling Down", "You've Got to Pay the Band" (w/Getz)
Ron Miles: "Woman's Day" (featuring Bill Frisell)
Joni Mitchell "Taming the Tiger" (not jazz, you say? Listen to Wayne and Blade here.)
Danielo Perez- "The Journey" (Danielo records are like Star Trek movies, every other one is great)
Kenny Wheeler- "Music for Large and Small Ensembles" (this was on the 73-90 list too, which was probably why I passed it over. A great, great album.)
Wheeler/Konitz/Frisell/Holland- "Angel Song"
Cassandra Wilson- "Blue Light'Til Dawn"
A list that strays beyond jazz records would include:
Solas (self titled)
Caetano Veloso- "Livro"
Jennifer Kimball- "Veering from the Wave"
Sting "Soul Cages" (to my mind, his least commercial and most musically successful album. Dig Kenny Kirkland on organ)
The Roots- "Things Fall Apart"
Radiohead- "Kid A" (duh!)
D'Angelo- "Brown Sugar"
Meshell N'Degeocello- "Peace Beyond Passion"
Prince- "The Gold Experience" (not the best Prince by any means, but the best of the '90s)
more to come... Oh, yeah, I made a record in the '90s too, my first. Even I'll say it's not top 10 material, but I still like it.